The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.Minor Legislation
We have just heard the ten words. They deafened us For a time we could not sufficiently discriminate between the accompaniments and the words themselves, for they were all blended in a most majestic and solemn music. Immediately following the ten words we find the almost endless details relating to human conduct and society which fill these chapters. The details are called "judgments," and they were spoken by the Lord whose voice was heard in the great thunders of Sinai. It is the same Lord; but how different is the voice! What a quiet tone pervades the utterance of the judgments! Was it really so quiet? or quiet only by contrast? What voice would not seem to be quietness itself after the reverberations of the thunder that shook the mount of God? In the one case, we have what we may term a very agony of legislation; in the second, a tranquil conversation or a private instruction. The figure which suggests itself instantly to the mind upon reading the twentieth chapter of Exodus and those chapters immediately following, is the figure of a torrent succeeded by a river. In the commandments we have a cataract rushing with infinite force; in the judgments we have that same cataract softened and quieted down into deep fluent water. If in the commandments, distinctively so called, we see the Sovereignty and Majesty of God, in the judgments we see the Fatherhood and gentleness of the Lord. In the commandments he stands far away from us, and drops upon the staggering earth syllables of lightning that make men afraid,—hence the people said unto Moses, "Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us lest we die."
Some voices need to be accommodated to the hearing that is infirm. The great thunder cannot be borne seven days a week. To hear it now and again is a sacred and memorable event; but we were not made—so frail are we—constantly to be addressed by thunder and tempest. As if God had heard the request, he gave Moses the instruction which fills these two chapters. The tone of this minor legislation, if it may be so called, is full of Divine care for Divine work. The provisions of this code relate specifically to life. They are, as it were, commandments which God addresses to himself and which he then remits to the people. He will take care of everything he has made; nothing escapes his attention. He did not make the eye for nothing, or the ear as an exercise of his power for the gratification of his vanity. Every hair of the head is claimed by him who made it. "If a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake." We can trust this legislator,—he cares for the serving man, for the serving woman. What price does he put upon the smitten and perished eye? Liberty! In truth, he values his creatures highly. Not one day's rest, not one week's remission from labour, not one year's holiday; but—liberty! "And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth, he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake." What a singular balance! In the one scale a tooth, wickedly struck out, cruelly injured; in the other scale—liberty! Surely, the injured man has in some sense the best of it. Yet only in a local and narrow way: for truly interpreted, nothing can compare in value with anything the Lord God has made. The Maker charges highly for all his works. You must not trifle with your own eye, with your own tooth, with your own fingers,—they are God's. "Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?" Are you still under the narrow baptism that teaches that a man's eye is his own, or his tooth, or his hand, or his ear? Into what baptism have you been baptised? Not into the baptism of Christ, if you are trusting to these base sophisms. "Whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord." We have nothing that we have not received. We are not our own; we are bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body, which is Christ's. Whilst men are careless about the body, they cannot be careful about the soul. You cannot be careful about one part of God's work and careless about another. A great argument sets in here. We must watch its majestic construction and prepare for its gracious and solemn application. In these two chapters everything goes down before manhood. The master has a writing by which he claims some property in the servant, but that covenant goes down before the manhood of the person who is held in temporary servitude. Man first, institutions next. "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." Nothing you can build up around man is so precious as the man himself. This is the central truth of Divine revelation. In fact this explains everything which makes up the mystery and the singular characteristic of the Bible. Philosophers endeavour to render in some brief and memorable formula the result of all investigations,—here is one which will serve our purpose in the meantime. The value which God sets upon man is the key-thought of the Scriptures. He begins now with some solicitude about the eye, and the tooth, and the limb,—by-and-by, who can tell what he will say? These are but alphabetic signs,—symbols, suggestions,—who knows what literature he will work out of these few initial signs? We must watch critically and religiously the outgoing and whole issue of these, comparatively speaking, insignificant and trivial beginnings. There is nothing trivial in heaven. All little laws are ruled by laws greater than themselves. This also is a principle in the Biblical philosophy,—if we neglect it we shall come speedily and hopelessly into great moral confusion. You may be narrowly right and broadly wrong. You may be operating by a little and temporary law at the expense of an eternal and irreversible statute or judgment Divine. Said the tempter to Christ, "All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me." It is right to have the "things"; there is nothing whatsoever wrong in the temporary proprietorship of the things of earth and time. The law quoted—"All these things will I give thee"—is right enough within given limits. What is the greater law that over-reaches this,—swallows it up? That greater law is,—"Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God." All gifts, all possessions, all rights, interests, institutions, expedients, understandings, covenants, must be held in obedience to that sovereign and all-absorbing law.
The Divine care of the body is the beginning of a still wider and grander care. In the Old Testament the Lord could only begin with the body; any other speech would have been out of time, and, being out of season, would not have been understood. Its utterance would have created a perplexing mystery in the mind of man, and therefore would have led to all manner of misconception and misadventure. So the Lord begins by promising men land, and if the term land is not enough, he adds, the land is "flowing with milk and honey." The ancient man heard these words and understood them. Had he been promised a new realm of thought, a new imagination, a higher universe of dreams, he would not have understood the appeal. God promised his ancient ones length of days,—the only promise of the kind they could have understood. The world was not then prepared for the great word Immortality,—Eternal Life. So the Lord must begin according to the infancy of his pupils. They were but children; they would be pleased with milk and honey, and broad lands, long—long life. That was not the Divine meaning. The Lord could only rest for a moment in such a tabernacle as that. He never puts up a tabernacle without meaning a temple; he never offers land without meaning heaven, or length of days without meaning immortality. Blessed are they who have the inner eyes to see, in the little covenant written with ink, the beginning of a greater covenant which cannot be written, for no sea could hold ink enough nor would the firmament be broad enough to write the amazing stipulation.
If we could read these judgments regarding the body and society aright, we should feel that the Legislator must go farther into spiritual regions and into the most profoundly solemn religious issues. Reading along this line, given in these chapters, we become prepared for further communication. There is a spirit in man, and that spirit says we cannot rest in such judgments as these; we feel that these judgments must of necessity he but beginnings. The Atonement is in the very protoplasm of things; the Cross is in creation. We have too sharply and narrowly cut things into pieces as if they were not related to one another. Hear, oh Israel! the Lord our God is one Lord, and the law is one, and creation is one, and the ox, and the ass, and the bird, and the dog, and the wolf, and the worm,—all these are parts of an infinite quantity. The Atonement is not an after-thought, an arrangement which the infinite Mind made to meet a temporary necessity. This is the meaning of "foreknowledge," and "predestination," and "election," and all the words which to some minds have been so grim and terrible. The very first thing that God did contains in suggestion and possibility everything he can ever do. Could we seize that thought we should be at rest! God can do but one thing. Had we the eyes to see and the ears to hear things innermost and eternal, we should know that God's first word was also his last. "I am Alpha and Omega." When God said, "Let there be light," he said all he has ever said or can ever say! The rest is detail; the rest is explanation given to infantile and backward minds. Constituted as we are, we require bulk as well as quality. God must not be too concise for our dense minds: he must put his word into a thousand shapes and utter it in a thousand tones before some of us can begin to understand that he has actually spoken at all. How lost we have become in the bulk,—in the quantitive department of revelation, not knowing that when God said, in the first chapter of Genesis, "Let there be light," he had no more to say. Everything is in light. It chases the darkness, it shows things as they are, it develops capacities and completes actions and uses; it is the revealer, it is as the Spirit of God amongst us. Men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. When light comes and the darkness flees away, we shall be in God's bright heaven.
There is an undoubted law of evolution in what may be called the Bible view of Providence. Find out that God cares for any one thing he has made, and all the rest of his Fatherhood is involved in that one act. Such is the argument of Jesus Christ; he said: "God cares for oxen." That involves the whole evolution of the Fatherhood. Said Christ: "Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without your Father,"—if so the Atonement is there; the whole mystery of the Cross is in that vigilance of God. Said the Saviour: "The very hairs of your head are all numbered,"—if so, the Atonement is the culmination of that elementary principle,—care, ministry on the part of God. Grand is the view of evolution from a scientific point. It is a noble and majestic thought. Say that God created molecule or germ, requiring the most powerful microscope which man can construct or detect; or say that it is too minute to be brought within the power of any microscope yet constructed; say that out of that all the rest came by persistence of force—by what law you please—it fills the mind with a nobler wonder, it constrains from the enlightened soul a higher yet profounder adoration. You but increase the mystery of the Godhead and the majesty of his government.
It is so with the great question of Providence, law, and care for man. Given, that God cares for the least thing he ever made—that he asks for it, claims it—and you have in that assumption all the sphering out of ministries of care, and watchfulness, and love; yea, in God's claiming any leaf of the forest he ever made, any insect of the air he ever created, or brought into being by processes we cannot describe—having assumed that, you have involved in that assumption Atonement, Providence, Resurrection—all the mysteries of the gospel. God does not stop at points. The Lord's system of things is not incoherent and unrelated. The mystery is beyond all words. Yet when we say—"God over all, blessed for evermore," we use a form of expression which relieves the heart which is burdened with holy gratitude. Man is puzzled by details yet man will persist in plunging into the very middle of the Bible as if he could read it in that way. Man seems but in rare instances to have the power of setting himself right back at a proper point of view and seeing the movement of God, so far as the human family is concerned, in its totality.
So we read the commandments one by one, and ask if we have obeyed this or that. We have just seen men priding themselves upon pet virtues and upon special commandments which have never been violated; we have endeavoured to expose that sophism. The commandments are one; if we have broken one, we have broken all. Thus condensed may all things be, yet out of that condensation may all things rise as universes out of molecules, constellations out of quantities too small for microscopic recognition. This is the abbreviation of the judgment; this is bringing things back to the single point by which everything must be criticised and determined. We cannot be profound scholars in this book if we are reading it verse by verse, if we are building our life upon chapters and verses. The very breaking up of the Bible into this form is only for preliminary and infantile purposes. The Bible is one,—a line, a flash of light, a tone, a spirit; it is not to be quoted in the last result; it is to be breathed; it is to be lived. Oppose the Bible! They do so who do not know it. Revelation is the indestructible fact, could we but come into the sanctuary of things and weigh them with the golden balances of the Divine appointment. Follow not those who, having found isolated texts or curious discrepancies, suppose that they are in a position to assail the citadel of revelation and overthrow the temple of faith,—blind leaders of the blind! "they will fall into the ditch"!
How bold a book is the Bible! What other book cares thus for man? God always looks after his child. He will have such arrangements made as never to allow the supreme value of man as a Divine creation to be ignored. Given that sublime conviction and acknowledgment, then you may have your temporary arrangements of high—low, employer—employed, master—servant, and the like. But all these little laws, necessary for a society in a process of education, must submit themselves for periodical criticism and judgment to the supreme law. One is your Master, One is your Judge. What book, let us ask again and again, cares so much for man as the Bible does?—Not one. Keep it in your families,—it will keep the father in his place, and the child in his place, and give a blessing to each. Keep it in your politics,—it will teach men to do unto others as they would have others to do unto them. Keep it in your business,—it will burn your false measuring rod and destroy your unequal balances, and be just to persons on both sides of the commercial counter. Hold up the Bible; read it in the right tone; distribute the emphases with the inspiration wrought in the soul by the Holy Ghost; let the Bible itself in its own language, in its own way, in its own spirit, be heard, circulated, understood; and even yet we may rescue it from the hands of the conjuror, tear it away from the hands of the priest, and make it God's own word to God's own children.
Amongst these bye-laws there are some sayings which may be considered hard, and on reading them we may ask in almost plaintive and despairing tones, "Who is sufficient for these things?" There are also some out-of-the-way responsibilities, which only Divine wisdom and justice could in the then state of society have imposed. We must not permit ourselves to lose the religious philosophy and the religious beneficence of the Mosaic legislation by going back upon it with our Christian instincts and culture. We must forget all we have ever learned in the Christian school, and think ourselves back into the comparative barbarism of the age. Then we shall see a light above the brightness of the sun, and feel round about us an influence which cannot be satisfactorily explained without taking into account the possibility of supernatural existence and Divine sovereignty. We shall lose the whole meaning of ancient writings, so far as their religious philosophy is concerned, if we compare them to their disadvantage with Christian standards and the advanced civilisation of the day in which we live. Critically examined, fibre by fibre as it were, this is not crude legislation; there is nothing rough and ready in this distribution of offices, duties, and obligations. This legislation is, on the contrary, highly spiritual in its assumptions, and full of sublime tribute to the nature which is addressed. The dignity of law pre-supposes the dignity of man. Little laws for little creatures, great laws for great beings—that is the philosophy of the Bible system. Looked at, therefore, narrowly and critically, we shall find that, however crude in appearance may be some of these bye-laws, the substance under them, and of which they may be said to be the mere phenomena, is a holy quantity, a Divine substratum, nothing less than God, the Eternal Creator and Sovereign.
Without attempting to go through all the bye-laws, we can touch them here and there with sufficient distinctness and sympathy to understand the whole scheme of which some parts are here quoted.
"And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed: if he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed" (Exodus 21:18-19).
Are our little personal strifes noted in heaven? The answer is: Yes, every one of them. But can men strive together? Properly looked at, that would seem to be the harder question of the two. Coming suddenly upon a line of this kind, we should exclaim, in surprise, "The assumption is impossible. We must begin our criticism of a statement of this kind by rejecting its probability, and, that being done, there is no case left. How can men strive together? Men are brothers, men are rational creatures, men recognise one another's rights, and interests, and welfare; society is not a competition, but a fraternal and sacred emulation; therefore, the assumption that men can strive together is a false one, and, the foundation being false, the whole edifice totters down." That would be fine theory, that would be sweet poetry, it might almost be thrown into rhyme, but there are the facts staring us in the face. What are those facts? That all life is a strife, that every man in some way or degree, or at some time, begrudges the room which every other man takes up. The tragedy of Cain and Abel has never ceased, and can never cease until we become children of the Second Adam. Great degrees of modification may, of course, take effect. The vulgarity of smiting may be left to those who are in a low state of life—who are, in fact, in barbarous conditions; but they who smite with the fist are not the cruellest of men. There is a refined smiting—a daily, bitter, malignant opposition; there is a process of mutual undermining, or outreaching, or outrunning, in the very spirit of which is found the purpose of murder. But mark how beneficence enters into the arrangement here laid down. Not only is the man who smote his brother to pay for the loss of his brother's time; that would be a mere cash transaction. There are men ready enough to buy themselves out of any obligation; a handful of gold is nothing. Their language is, "Take it, and let us be free." That would be poor legislation in some cases, though heavy enough in others. To some men money has no meaning; they have outlived all its influences; they are so rich that they can bribe and pay, and secure silence or liberty by a mere outputting of the hand. But the beneficence is in the next clause, "and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed." The man must be made as good as he was before, therefore he must be inquired about; he must be taken an interest in; he must become a quantity in the life of the man who injured him, and, however impatient the man who inflicted the injury may become under such chafing, the impatience itself may be turned to good account. Some men can be taught philanthropy by only such rough and urgent schoolmasters.
"If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit. But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death" (Exodus 21:28-29).
In the one case provision is made against what we term an accident, and accidents are treated within their own narrow limits; but from accident we pass to purpose. The ox was "wont to push with his horn in time past,"—the ox was known to the owner to be an unmanageable ox; notice had been given to the owner of the temper of the ox; the ox, in short, had won for itself a bad character and reputation. If the owner allowed such an ox to go where danger and injury were possible, the owner was not released on the plea that an accident had occurred: he was held guilty of manslaughter. Is that ox still living? Yes. Is it possible that there are men to day who have oxen "wont to push with their horns," and who have killed ten thousand men, and are yet permitted to live and carry on this work of devastation? Do not fritter away the meaning of the injunction by fixing on the literal term, ox. The meaning is not to be confined within any one definition; the great solemn meaning is this: If your trade, occupation, method of life, is inflicting injury anywhere, and you have been made aware of it, you are responsible for the injury that has been done, and you cannot throw off that responsibility. It was not the ox that did it, it was the owner of the ox. Guilt comes home to man. How stands the case? Each must answer for himself. The case applies to ministers of the Gospel, and teachers of every kind of doctrine. If a man preach any doctrine that poisons the life of the hearer, that degrades his best ambition, that narrows and diminishes his life's quantity, that fills him with discontent, peevishness, distrust, and jealousy; and if that preacher has been made aware of the effects of his doctrine, he is responsible for all the heart-ache, for all the up-breaking of life, for all the poisoning of health, and, at the last, hell will be too good a lot for so huge a murderer. The same applies to all men who lecture upon platforms, or who issue vicious books or other literature from the press. Whoever is guilty of the propagation of ideas that injure life, that impair its majesty, and that crush its best endeavours, is a murderer, and he must be held liable for the consequences of his deed. I fix the charge thus particularly upon those who are in the spiritual and intellectual function, that I may the more broadly and pungently suggest the lesson to every man in every other sphere and line of life that he may apply the doctrine to himself. This is the Divine doctrine: it is the rational doctrine, it is the right doctrine. There is nothing so supernatural about this as to cause us to resent it on the ground of its being supermundane, too lofty for us to realise. Reason is satisfied; conscience says "Amen"; the just heart rises up and says, "The judgment is true and righteous; let it stand." But what a revolution would be created in all teaching, in all commerce, in all social relations, if this one bye-law, respecting the "ox wont to push with his horn," were carried out this day!
"If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep" (Exodus 22:1).
That is the only way of getting at a thief. You cannot reason with him. He dismissed his reason before he committed his felony. He had first to strangle his reason; he committed murder in the sanctuary of his soul before he committed theft in the fields of his neighbour. What then is to be done with him? He must be made to feel the folly of theft; he must be made to feel that theft is a bad investment; he must be made to feel that he has played the fool even in the excess of his cleverness. The thief would be made to know what dishonesty is, when for the one ox he must pay five in its place. He could have evaded an argument; he could have doubled upon a covenant, and have quibbled about the ambiguity of its terms; but he could not shuffle out of this four-square arithmetical arrangement. Five oxen for an ox, four sheep for a sheep; and by the time the thief had played at that game two or three days, he would have put on the garb, at least, of an honest man!
"If fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed therewith; he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution" (Exodus 22:6).
This is right. The Bible really builds upon granite bases; there is nothing merely fanciful in this legislation. This is sound common-sense, and common-sense in the long run wins the esteem and confidence of the world. No man may trifle with bread. Bad enough to burn down any kind of property; but to consume stacks of corn is to commit murder with both hands; to light the standing corn when it waves in the fields is to thrust a knife, not into one heart, but into the very life of society. How can restitution be made? It cannot be made. You cannot replace corn; money bears no relation to corn; corn is not an arithmetical quantity. Destroyed bread is destroyed life. Who destroys bread? He who makes poison of it; he who turns it into a drink that takes away the reason and deposes the conscience of men. He who holds back the bread-stuff until the time of famine that he may increase his own riches by an enhanced market value is not a political economist, unless, under such circumstances, a political economist is a heartless murderer. And if it is wicked to set fire to corn, is it a light or frivolous matter to set fire to convictions, faiths—the bread-stuff of the soul? Is he guiltless who takes away the bread of life, the bread sent down from heaven? Is he a pardonable incendiary who burns down the altar which was a stairway to the light, or reduces to ashes the Church which was a refuge in the day of storm?
"If thou meet thine enemy's ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again. If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, thou shalt surely help with him" (Exodus 23:4-5).
Man never imposed that law. That is not a trick of human wisdom. It is too profound, too exacting, too full of implications of the noblest kind to have been invented by human nature. Who would not take vengeance upon his enemy's ox? Who would not hamstring the bullock? Who would not be pleased to see his enemy's ox going astray, running furiously mayhap along the wrong road? Who would not felicitate himself on such an occurrence, and think with cruel gladness about his enemy's disappointment and loss? But the other picture is more vivid still: "If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden.". The enemy himself would be present personally or representatively, because the ass is not unburdened but burdened; he is, therefore, upon an appointed road and journey. Who would not rather taunt his enemy with the petty disaster and tell him to send for his friends to help him, and not to his hated and hating ones? "Who is sufficient for these things?"
But this is Judaism? It is humanism. But this old law is abolished? No, never can be abolished. It is one of the very laws which Jesus Christ came to "fulfil." Who can do it? To help the cause of a friend would be a pleasure, but to lift up the burden from the back of the ass of an enemy tears us in pieces: tests our quality. Nor can we do it in a mere law-keeping spirit. We know that to keep this law we must be above the law; grace must have begun its redeeming and inspiring ministry in our hearts before we can keep this law in the perfectness of its meaning. We have all opportunities of doing honour to this law. Our enemies need help to day. The man who spoke basely about us may need bread at our hand at this moment; his trade is in a bad way, though a good trade in itself. We could bring custom to his hand, and help him out of his embarrassments. If we hesitate to do so we must no longer bear the Christian name. Do release Jesus Christ from the responsibility involved in such reluctance, or in such disobedience. First let him go! We cannot love Christ and hate an enemy.
But is not sentiment now supplanting law? Have we not left the marble halls of justice, and entered a chamber decked with coverings of tapestry? Certainly not. Read on:—
"Neither shalt thou countenance a poor man in his cause" (Exodus 23:3).
There is no mere sentiment in that. The meaning is: A man is not to be excused because he is poor. The effect of the law is, that a man is not to be treated with mere pity on the ground of his poverty; the judge is not to say—"If you had been a rich man you would have been punished, but being a poor man we take pity upon you." When a man stands before the law, he stands neither rich nor poor; he stands as one who appeals to the law of right; he is there as a criminal: let him prove his innocence. So the Bible is not softly sentimental. It has not one law for the great, and another for the small, one ordinance for the rich, and another for the poor; it is exceeding broad, it is impartial, it has in it the elements and the guarantees of complete security.
And is it all law—hard, iron, pitiless law? Is all life reduced to a schedule of regulations—an infinite placard of times, seasons, appointments of a merely hireling kind, so much equivalent for so much labour? Read on:—
"Three times thou shalt keep a feast unto me in the year. Thou shalt keep the feast of unleavened bread (thou shalt eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded thee, in the time appointed of the month Abib; for in it thou earnest out from Egypt: and none shall appear before me empty): and the feast of harvest, the firstfruits of thy labours, which thou hast sown in thy field: and the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field" (Exodus 23:14-16).
There is to be feasting as well as law-keeping; there is to be a recognition of the Lawgiver as well as a continual attempt to obey the letter of the law. There was to be a feast of memory—the liberation from Egypt—there was to be a feast of firstfruits, and there was to be a feast of ingathering. When men put the sickle into the wheatfield there was to be a feast unto the Lord. Fifty days were supposed to elapse between the putting in of the sickle and the full ingathering of the harvest. At the end of the fifty days, there was to be a feast of ingathering, a looking up into heaven, a recognition of the Divine and supernatural element in life. They whose faces had been towards the earth, and whose hands had been put out in daily labour, were to look up to heaven and stretch out the hands to the skies, and to say by attitude and by voice, "We are not the hirelings of men: we are the servants of the living God." We need these festivals; we need the holy day; we are better for touching one another in Christian companionship and worship. We ought to be the more righteous, the more lofty, for spending one hour in the house consecrated to Jehovah's praise. We cannot keep the law in all the fulness of Christian obedience until we have been with Christ, and learned of him. It is not our enemy's ox that is in distress, but our enemy himself. We are not called upon to study the mere framework of regulated society, and to attend to enactments and stipulations which will keep that society in skeleton-outline together; we have not come into a political society, but into a Christian brotherhood. We are not to be kept back from smiting only—that we have outlived long ago—but we have to come into the spirit of forgiveness, largest pardon, multiplied, heaped up, forgiveness and pardon—yea, here we may resort to all tautology of expression, if in the infinite redundance of our speech we do but give some feeble hint of the passion of love that has been created in our hearts by the Spirit of the Cross of Christ.
Thus the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ, and Christ came not to abolish the law, even about ox, and ass, and theft, and burning of standing corn, but to fulfil it, to glorify it, to carry it up to higher meaning, and thus to consolidate the New Society—his Church—and make it infinitely precious and secure.
We look with some curiosity upon all these endless laws and exactions, and think ourselves well quit of a mechanism so detailed and vexatious. Herein we rejoice before the time. We are not quit of one of them. Is not our life also set in a marvellous network of law? If all the laws which are continually operating upon us and impoverishing us by their taxation could be set down in a book, we should marvel with exceeding astonishment at the mechanism under which our own boasted liberty is breathing. We call ourselves free, and rejoice that all the exactions of the past are done away, and that now it lies very much with our own will to say when life's work shall begin and end and of what it shall exactly consist. We enjoy no such liberty. We cannot put our foot down upon any point of the earth that is not throbbing with the energy of law. Not a hand can be put out that is not entangled in the meshes of never-ceasing ordinances of life and nature. Cause and effect proceed eternally. The seedtime and the harvest are still linked by bonds that cannot be sundered. The evil-doer finds a thorn in his pillow every night. The oppressor is made to feel that he himself is under domination. Every morning has its duty, every night its sacrifice; the whole year round is but one unceasing opportunity for self-expenditure and self-control. Our liberty consists in our being able to do all the law requires with a steadier hand and a loftier purpose. The law itself is not susponded. Not one moment less of time does God demand; not one penny less of gold, not one thought less of spiritual consecration and intensity of mind; only by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we have come to such complete devotion of soul that what aforetime was grievous is now pleasant, and what at the beginning was almost impossible has now become the chief delight of life. Never suppose that law has been lessened in its force or in its details; the effort is wholly on the other side, that we ourselves have been blessed with greater power and have been brought into sweet consent with the Divine purpose.
We cannot read the book of Exodus without being struck by the number of things which we are not to do. These detailed and emphatic prohibitions we may regard under the name of negative commandments. We are not left to ourselves in any instance to determine a case of doubt; from beginning to end the Divine voice is clear, and direct, and final in its tone. These negative commandments are interesting upon every ground; but perhaps especially so as revealing human nature to itself. When we hear a command to do, or not to do, we hear in that command a voice which startles us into a new consciousness of our own nature and quality. To be told not to do certain things is now considered equivalent to a kind of affront—assuming it possible that we could do such things as are thus forbidden. We are annoyed, we are excited in a hostile way, at the very thought of it being supposed that we could have done these things which a high legislation attempts elaborately and penally to forbid. We must, however, think ourselves back to the time of day at which all these negative and positive commandments were given. We do not find them in the New Testament, because it is there assumed that we have attained that moral sensitiveness and that spiritual responsiveness which render it entirely unnecessary that we, with many centuries of civilisation culminating in our experience and history, should be forbidden to do certain things.
Take some instances, and use them especially as showing what human nature is apart from Divine direction and continual and gracious supervision.
Who, for example, would imagine that such a commandment as this could be given to any people who profess to know anything about the true God?
"Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him" (Exodus 22:21).
Is it possible to vex a stranger? Does not the very fact of his being a stranger entitle him to generous hospitality? to a kind construction of his mistakes? Ought we not to be ready to turn his ignorance into wisdom and his inexperience to certainty of knowledge? Yet is it not true that man can vex a brother man who is a stranger and oppress him? Is it not done every day? Is it not one of the tricks by which we live? Do we not pride ourselves upon being too quick for the stranger, or knowing more than he knows? and do we not turn our knowledge to our own advantage and to his personal loss? Why, in this command from Heaven, we have the beginning of the great Gospel of Christ. To God there are no strangers. And to ourselves there would have been no strangers had we been faithful to God. Why all this strangeness? Simply because we have become estranged from the Father of us all. The strangeness began between man and God, not between man and man, and not until we are right with God can we be right with one another. We may make arrangements for momentary convenience; we may consult public sentiment and study the bearing and influence of public doubts in relation to one another; but we cannot be as one heart, and one soul, until we are one with God through Jesus Christ his Son. You cannot permanently tinker the world; there is no rent in it that can be filled up with material at man's command. The disease is desperate, vital, and only God, the Physician that is in Gilead, can find the healing for the disease infinite and unspeakable. But the command is a looking-glass. A man looking into it may see himself, see what he would do under given circumstances. The assumptions of the text are impeachments; put those impeachments into words, and how stands the great accusation? Thus: you would vex a stranger if you could; you would oppress a stranger if you could do so with impunity. You perhaps think you would not, but the deepest reading of human nature gives this as a result of the study of the human constitution that none can be so savage as man; there is not a beast in the field or in the forest that can equal man in cruelty. We talk about savage beasts and cruel and fierce creatures made to devour one another; but there is no cruelty so terrible, so unsparing, so pitiless, as the cruelty of the human heart. That is the accusation; we must leave the proof to human consciousness and to human history. We understand how men revolt from the suggestion, and how they cover up their passions by paying compliments to own their tenderness and sensibility; but the mischief is—the subtle and tremendous mischief is—that our very tenderness may be a calculation, our very tears may be shed as an investment for our own benefit. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked."
Akin to this commandment there is another. The tender words are these:—
"Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child" (Exodus 22:22).
This is the Gospel of Christ in the book of Exodus. This is God the Father. There is a majestic solemnity in his voice that is full of ineffable tenderness. This is the Father of all. Would men afflict the widow, or the fatherless child? The answer must be frank and direct, and that answer will be in the affirmative. Who speaks for the widow?—God; and the orphan?—God. Then be cheerful, take heart again; the Orator who speaks for you is God. There are no fatherless children in the deepest sense of that term. As for the fathers we have had after the flesh, they themselves were children, as were their fathers and all their ancestors. There is only one Father. Let us take hold of hands and make a great ring round the family centre and say—holding each tremulously, lusty manhood, thriving childhood—timidly and lispingly,—"Our Father which art in heaven." Given the time when men shall say so with a sound heart, with an undivided mind, with a loyal and constant affection, and then find the angel who can tell where earth ends and heaven begins. Wondrous it is—yea, more and more so—that there should be found any friendless people, poor lonely destitute people, who do not love the Bible. Find me in it one text that does not warn the rich man to take care, for he is standing upon a very slippery place, and when he does slip he plunges a long way down. Find one text in all the glowing volume that rebukes the poor, that is hard with the struggling, that smites the penitent man in the face, that forbids a little child to trouble the Jehovah of the universe. Weakness, poverty, helplessness, homelessness, disease, pain, hunger, thirst—these are thy clients, thou Servant of us all.
Changing the place altogether, you will find another commandment of a tone somewhat startling and surprising.
"Thou shalt not revile the gods... of thy people" (Exodus 22:28).
This is a passage difficult to understand and impossible fully to explain. In other places, we find idols broken, temples erected to forbidden names thrown down, as by great thunders, and lightnings, and strong winds blowing contempt from eternity upon the petty creations of the debased religious imagination. Yet consistently with all this there is to be no reviling of gods. This is a subtle lesson. Mock no man's religion—point out the inadequacy of it, show the vanity of the small idolatrous form, remark with pungency, if you please, upon its grotesqueness and its helplessness; but confine your remarks to the visible thing. That can be treated in this way with obvious reasonableness; but the religious instinct lies deeper than you have yet realised if you have been confining your attention to the mere forms of idol worship. The religion is beyond the idol,—above it, below it, away from it. The idol itself is a mere symbol to typify the inexpressible infinite. You do not convert men by mocking their convictions, by reviling them on account of their mistakes. Do what you please with the opprobrious idol—lift it up to prove how little it is in weight; set it down to show how helpless it is in your hand; throw it over to show that it cannot defend itself; but you have not treated the whole case in its entire scope and reality by thus treating the merely visible form of a religious conviction. Men may be mistaken in their convictions of a religious kind; show them the truth; live the truth; illustrate the possibility of living perfect, lofty, noble lives; create a religious wonder in the observer of your life as to the range of motive by which your conduct is mellowed and impelled; so live that you cannot be accounted for, except on the basis that you are living, moving, and having your being in God. Thus, and not by fluent mockery will men be drawn from their own mistakes to partake of the convictions which are as rational as they are beneficent. There is no poor suppliant crying to idols and praying to the empty and mocking wind that does not prove by that very act the mysterious, the Divine origin of the heart that can thus make such egregious mistakes. They are the mistakes of a Divine creation: they are not the petty mistakes of human ignorance. In the plunge of idolatry there is the apostacy of one almost God. It is a rush into a darkness from which any mere beast would flee in terror. Do not mock conviction; do not revile mistakenness of apprehension. Do what you please with the mere idol and with the transient ceremony; be even angry with these,—yea, destructively angry,—but find out in them an instinct, an emotion, a mystery to which you must address yourselves, not in the language of taunt, but in the language of sympathy, with a burning desire to redeem from prostitution an instinct which makes humanity.
"Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" (Exodus 23:2).
Can a multitude do evil? One soul may stray, but can a whole multitude go away from the light and make itself houses in forbidden places? Can the majority be wrong? There is a sense in which the majority is at this moment against Christ. I would not count it so; rather would I see Christ in many disguises; but I should know it to be the very Christ, whatever the disguise which concealed the dignity. Christ has been with men when men did not know it; their eyes have been holden that they should not see him; he has revealed himself to men under many concealments of a strange kind. There is more Christ in the world than we possibly may suppose. God is infinite; God fills all space, and yet takes up no room; God mingles with thinking, civilisation, action, and yet the human factors in all the mysterious action may be unaware of the Divine presence and impulse; but there has been an unveiling, a sudden revelation of the reality of the case. We are waiting for that millennial disclosure. What if some day God shall look right in the face of the very people who have been doubting or denying any relation to him, and should thus convince them that all the time they have had nothing that they have not received from himself? and what if they should also be surprised by the recollection of a warmth of the heart, a glow of the soul, they had never felt before, and should find in that fire the presence of the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob? God may be working in you without your knowing his name, or without your being at present able to trace the Divine action, as distinctly separate from human thinking. We are waiting for the day of revelation, the morning of surprise, when we shall stand before God, saying, "Lo! thou wast with us and we knew it not. How solemn is every place which thou hast made!" But when the multitude does evil, we are not to follow it; we must stand still and protest against the evil; in other words, we must see the evil and not the multitude. Always put the emphasis upon the right word, in order to encourage yourself in good action and in straightforward conduct. The emphasis is not altogether upon the word multitude, it is upon the word evil; and we ought to ask God to be enabled so to pronounce the word evil as to feel revolt from everything which it implies and suggests.
Looking at these negative commandments, are we not surprised at the wonderful knowledge of human nature which they reveal? We cannot get away from them; we cannot plant ourselves right in front of them and say, "This is a misinterpretation of human nature." We cannot return the dreadful look of the eyes that shine out of this revelation; we feel that we are in the hands of a Legislator who knows us altogether, and who speaks to us not according to transient and accidental phases of human nature but in the totality of our being. This is the strength of the Bible, this is the vindication of the commandments: that they root themselves in our constitution, that they know us, and that we can only escape their pressure by telling lies to our own souls. Herein is the inspiration of the Book. Its portraiture of man is a portraiture without a blemish or a flaw. He who drew man so completely in every lineament of his image, in every emotion and sensibility of his nature, must have made the man whose portrait he has delineated.
These commandments also show the true relation of God to the human race. He is the Ruler. He enjoins, he forbids; he never comes with apology from the skies, or palliation of sternness, but with the majesty of right. Yet there is one little word in the midst of all these commandments full of sweetest gospel—a word that might have been found in one of the four Evangelists and that might have formed the text of every sermon preached by Apostolic wisdom and eloquence. The sentence you find in the twenty-second chapter and the twenty-seventh verse: "For I am gracious"—a word we cannot do without We cannot explain it, yet we feel that it fills all space in human necessity and consciousness which no other word can fill. This is the defence of the commandments: that they are not arbitrary expressions of mere sovereignty of will and position in the universe, but that they, though commandments, are expressions of grace, mercy, pity, love. The very Spirit of the Cross is in the commandment. Sinai is but one phase of Calvary.
We try to evade many of these commandments on the plea that they were not addressed to us. It is a hollow plea; it is in fact a lie. We turn away from the commandments, saying, with an explanatory gesture, that we are not Jews. We are, if we are in Christ; if we have any love for Christ; if we feel that we must follow in some fashion the way and method of the Son of God. The Christian is a Jew plus. Christianity is the fruition of Judaism. The blood of the One Priest that abideth for ever and hath an unchangeable priesthood gathers up in its redness all the meaner blood which typified and prophesied its shedding. As well may the oak say "I am not an acorn" as Christianity say "I am not Judaism." We cannot have the two Testaments torn asunder as though they had no relation one to the other. The New Testament would have been impossible but for the Old Testament. The song uttered in heaven is the song of Moses and the Lamb. "The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Yet Jesus Christ said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." If he did not recite these negative commandments, it was because he came to put within us a Spirit, a Paraclete, that should abide for ever, whose presence was a law, whose operation in the soul was a daily instruction in righteousness and wisdom, in love and pureness, in which he may stand above the commandments and treat them as an obsolete letter—who has entered into the Spirit of Christ, and who is breathing in his daily life the obedience to which earlier men had to struggle through many an effort, and in struggling towards which they effected many a mournful failure. God never tells us to trust our moral instinct; God never assumed that the child could find its own way through a universe which it had darkened by its sin. He wrote down every line, made it complete; he wrote a detailed and complete specification of duty, service, action, and worship; if any of us have outlived the mere letter and need it no more, praised be God for a spiritual education which has delivered us from the bondage of the letter and led us into a nobler bondage of the heart, a sweet servitude of the soul, a glorious slavery, a glorious liberty.