The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,The Ark of the Testimony:
The Transient Symbol of an Eternal Truth
This twenty-fifth chapter supplies minute information as to the construction and contents of the ark. The children of Israel had but recently received the formal law through the ministry of Moses. Up to this time they had worshipped under the open sky, and all the host of heaven had seen the manner of their life. In this chapter it is proposed to have an enclosure, a tabernacle, a place screened and roofed, how unsubstantially soever, which was to be known distinctively as the house of God. This proposition was, indeed, the commandment of God himself: "And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel that they bring me an offering: of every man that giveth it willingly with his heart, ye shall take my offering, and let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them." But was not this a movement towards limitation, instead of a progress outward and onward towards wider spaces, even towards infinitude itself? How if the Divine message had read thus: "Speak unto the children of Israel that I am about to enlarge the sphere within which their life has heretofore been confined; they shall now see the higher and larger stars, and an ampler horizon shall gladden and satisfy their vision"? Instead of this, God proposes the erection of a small house, by which he would seem to shut out all the beauty and most of the light For the moment, at least, we are disappointed; expansion, not contraction, would have seemed more like the way of God. But think awhile, lest we mistake proportions and meanings which lie out of sight What we call Infinitude—the quality which overflows and confounds our imagination—must contract itself, so to speak, if we are to get sight of it; and in this sense the building of the small house, called the Tabernacle, was not a movement towards limitation, but towards concentration, and intensity, and tender nearness. A man may have all the earth round about him, and yet have nowhere to lay his head; plenty of space, but no home; a universe, but no Sanctuary; infinitude to roam through, but no Father to speak to, and no Heart to rest in. All great love has to make boundaries for itself; to put itself into little homely acts, and to use words which simple souls can understand. The mother who would die to save her child has to put her great love into a picture, a toy, a babble better than all eloquence. The great ALL must break itself up into the available Some. It was but small consolation to the petulant man in the parable to be told, "All that I have is thine"; he wanted some of it to be going on with,—"a kid, that I might make merry with my friends." So, even in our common life, we get hints of things that are going on above.
This tabernacle was built for the reception of the ark. A wonderful tabernacle it was, as one glance at the specification will show—"Gold, silver, brass, blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen; goats' hair and rams' skins dyed red; oil for the light; spices for anointing oil, and for sweet incense; tables overlaid with pure gold, dishes, spoons, covers, all of pure gold." So God's house was no poor hut run up in an hour or two; but so delicate in its richness and beauty as to be more a thought than a thing. It was no creation of human fancy. Moses was no more left to settle the plan and the furniture than Noah was left to settle the colours of the rainbow. There was not a ring, a knob, a loop, a socket, a coupling, or a pin, which God did not specifically design. It was the same when he made the larger house which we call Nature: there was none with him when he laid the foundations of the earth, and when he made a tabernacle for the sun he was alone. It is wonderful, indeed, how little there is of man's own doing anywhere. He has undoubtedly hammered a few things into shape, and brought together a few walls and roofs which he calls cities; but he borrows the foundation from God, and the rivers are not his own, nor is the light other than a visitor sent from God. It is pitiful to see man's work exactly as it is; pitiful to see the shortness of his ladders and what trouble he has to set them up; and it sometimes makes one cry bitterly to watch him falling off the very summit of his victories into the dust out of which he came. He cannot bind the unicorn with his hand in the furrow, nor doth the eagle mount up at his command. He is a servant. Let him know his place and keep it. Take your counsel from God, and ever listen for the voice which says—"And look that thou make it after the pattern which was showed thee in the mount,"—the mount of Suggestion, where we may see in forecast, in gilded and wreathen clouds, what God would have us build for his glory and our own comfort.
As God made a tabernacle for the sun, so he made a tabernacle for the ark, out of which streams a light above the brightness of the sun. The ark of the covenant was a box or chest, say fifty-four inches long, thirty inches broad, and thirty inches high. This box, made of choice wood, was overlaid with pure gold. The lid which covered the box was called the Mercy Seat Observe that particularly. Over the lid, or mercy seat, were two golden cherubs, one at either end, facing each other and covering it with their expanded wings. God promised to meet Moses at the mercy seat: "There will I meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony,"—a promise which explains the words of the Psalmist, "Thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth"; a tender reference to the olden time, a memory of childhood, full of pathetic meaning and tender retrospect. Within the box were placed the two tables of stone on which the ten commandments were written by the finger of God: "I will write on the tables the words that were written in the first tables which thou brakest, and thou shalt put them in the ark." Thus furnished, the ark was deposited in the inner place, in the holy of holies; indeed, in the first Book of Chronicles, the holy of holies is called "the house of the mercy seat." So much, then, as a help towards an outward view of the ark of the testimony. A box; a box made of choice wood and covered with pure gold; a box set away in a holy and well-guarded place;—plain enough, so far, yet around this box there shall gather meanings deep as the springs of life, and histories full of uproar, and tragedy, and progress; and in the end the ark of wood shall be lost, but the Law and the Mercy which it enshrined or symbolised shall be felt to be in a still holier place and in a more enduring sanctuary. Thus, the corruptible shall put on incorruption. "And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament." What we call History—the shallow and insecure vessel which holds the dregs, but allows the aroma to escape—says that the ark was destroyed when the Babylonians set fire to the temple, and declares as a certainty that the ark was not contained in the second temple. Perhaps not We need not be curious about the merely material ark. It descended, in idea and purpose, out of heaven from God, and it was seen amid "lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail," in the temple not made with hands,—uncontaminated by the earth which it had blessed, and unchanged in meaning by all the mutations and dangers of its eventful history.
The ark may be taken as symbolical of the Divine presence, or the Divine plan in human life. It was a visible form of an invisible power. Again and again in private and public history we come upon a peculiar and almost unthinkable Something which focalises and rules all minor administrations; a subtle something, which makes superstition tremble, and constrains religion to pray; now a hand upon the wall, now as the spell of a dream, a benediction of heavenly sweetness, a judgment pure and terrible as fire;—Something which analysis cannot exhaust, and which scepticism cannot deny. In the ark, for example, you find law. See, too, the peculiar place occupied by law: the ark is in the tabernacle; not only in the tabernacle, but in the most sacred part of that sacred place; not only in the holiest part of the holy house, but actually in the midst of the ark is found the immutable law of God. Thus we have law at the very centre and heart of things! Not an occasional flash, but a steady, ever-abiding, all-controlling force. Under all surfaces, far below all coverlets woven and arranged by skill of man, deeper than all foam, and tumult, and revolution, is to be found righteous and inexorable law! Some call it fate; some, "a divinity that shapes our ends"; some, "God over all, blessed for evermore." But there it is! Creation is held fast together at all points by the grip of law. Not a pebble slips off the edge of the world; not a bird wanders away to another star, though it be the nearest light; no drop of dew trickles into forbidden places; and as for men, in their maddest ambitions they do but strike the bars of their prison, and awake by their frantic impotence the remonstrance, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?" Sometimes, indeed, the excellency of the wicked has mounted to the heavens and his head has reached unto the clouds; yet out of this hidden ark there has come a voice of doom—"Though they dig into hell, thence shall mine hand take them; though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down." Nor is this a boast which cannot be tested. All history confirms it. To deny the operation of this mysterious and sovereign law is to take away the key without which history is an impenetrable and confounding enigma. Human history is the visible side of Divine revelation. You have law at the centre; and you must obey that law in all material things, even though you resist or despise its spiritual demands. You may have an atheistic character, but you shall not have an atheistic wall; though the bricks and the stones be banded with iron and cemented with molten lead, yet will they be thrown down if you mock the law which holds up the older masonry of the universe. In this matter, as in all others, peace can only come by righteousness. That which is at the heart of things is right: not something fickle, eccentric, tantalising; but law, righteousness, GOD!
But, happily, the ark represents something more than law; and every reflective man will acknowledge that in the system within which we live, there is a mystery for which some gentler name than law must be found. The lid of the ark was the seat of mercy. It signified propitiation, favour, mediation, ground and medium of communion with God. Study that tender symbol a moment, if you please. Law, in coming up from the centre, comes through the lid or covering of mercy; it is, so to speak, attempered, or it would come like a sword, or a fire, or a judgment terrible in righteousness. On the other hand, starting the movement from the outside, in our appeal to law we go through the medium of mercy. We do not, dare not, challenge the law in its own name or on its own merits. "By the deeds of the law shall no flesh living be justified." Our approach is through mercy, and our daily prayer is, "God be merciful to me a sinner." It is most instructive to mark how a life founded as ours is on law, is continually proving the presence of something other and sweeter than law; and it is humiliating to find how easily we exaggerate that tenderer quality, so as to delude ourselves into the belief that law is secondary and impotent. See how law is made almost gracious. Take, as an illustration, the law of hunger,—how terrible, how urgent, how inexorable is that law; how soon it assails the life with consuming fire! Yet God has made our food more than a mere satisfaction of hunger: he has provided things savoury and dainty in pasture and vineyard, so that hunger brings with it enjoyment and even religious gladness. That which would burn us with unquenchable fire, is attempered, and softened, and turned into an occasion and process of enjoyment Yet how true it is that this very attempering and softening of law brings with it temptation and peril! Hence, appetite conquers reason, and the tender mercy of God becomes an occasion of licentiousness and aggravated sin. Take any law of your own nature; see how severe and terrible it is in itself; observe how it is graded and modified, so as to become, not tolerable merely, but enjoyable in its operation; and then say whether we have not every one of us made the goodness of God an excuse for trespass and indulgence.
Thus, then, the ark is symbolical of something we ourselves have known in life, apart from specific religious teaching,—something of law, and something of mercy; a power of condemnation, and a power of recovery and healing; a severity very terrible, and a goodness that yearns over our life and offers us redemption. Whether we accept the Biblical names and interpretations of these forces, or laws, or phenomena, there they are, as broad and vivid facts in our daily life; and no sophistry of reasoning, or perversion of fancy, can get rid of their solemn and pathetic operations. The severe winter and the gentle summer; the stormy wind and the still small voice; the bitter pool and the tree which sweetens it; the dark fear and the sunny hope; the herb that stings and the herb that heals,—these things, known to our senses, strewn all over our life as lessons we ought to learn, show us that this ark, even if only a creation of fancy, symbolises with startling clearness the reality, the grandeur, and the sweetness of life as we know it. This, indeed, is the peculiar glory of the Bible, namely, its marvellous forecast of things that have turned out to be, and its felicitous representations of the times that were to come upon the world. He would be a churl only, and an unjust man, who would deny at least this literary tribute to the dreamers and seers of the Bible.
In noticing a few remarkable points in the history of the ark, we shall be more careful about the spiritual teaching than about the mere chronology of that history, and thus we shall secure closer continuity of doctrine and illustration. As our song is to be of mercy and judgment, it will be grateful to us first to see how the mercy of the Lord was revealed amongst his people. Thus:—"And the Israelites departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting-place for them.... And it came to pass when the ark set forward that Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee: and when it rested he said, Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel." And again, though Moses died, yet the ark remained a symbol of mercy in the days of Joshua:—"The officers commanded the people, saying, When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, then ye shall remove from your place and go after it; yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure; come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go; for ye have not passed this way heretofore."
Thus the law of human movement is turned into a tender and minute direction by God's condescension. Unquestionably there is a law of movement. We must go forward. How? Into darkness? Into danger? Into thickening mysteries that bring with them sevenfold darkness, and trouble that makes the soul afraid? No; we are offered guidance, defence, and rest! "The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord"; "Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way." The journey was only three days long, yet it must not be taken without the foregoing ark. The people had not gone a certain road before, and therefore they must be accompanied by the sacred symbol of the Divine presence. A flood was ahead of them ("for Jordan overfloweth all his banks all the time of harvest"), and therefore the mercy of the Lord must prevent and defend and mightily save his chosen; so "the waters of Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord." A wonderful hint this of the place of what is called Providence, in nature. The ark clears a space for itself everywhere. Strange roads become as familiar scenes, and threatening waters are dried up in the channels they have proudly overflowed. Why should we doubt the mere letter when the spirit of such miracles is attested by evidence so accessible and incontrovertible? Christian missions alone furnish a history radiant with this selfsame miracle. Foreign lands have become sweet homes under the benediction of the sacred ark, and hearts that overflowed with contempt and rage have opened themselves in wondrous submission and love to welcome the Lord and his hosts. The same miracle has turned our own life into a marvel and a joy, times without number. Have we not been called to unknown places, and thrown into combinations which have baffled us by their intricacy, and forced into roads which seem to end in darkness? What of the days when we were poor and friendless? What of the first gate ajar that tempted our feet into new pastures? What of the first great sorrow that threatened to swallow us up and to destroy our life as with a flood? Did we not then hear a voice which said, "Ye have not passed this way heretofore"? In proportion as we have been in difficulty and distress, in peril and loneliness, and have seen the delivering hand of God, do we read the record of these old miracles as a familiar language,—not the less real and spiritually true because of figures and symbols which to the unsympathetic mind are mere creations of poetry. We ourselves have seen visions, and have felt raptures, which poetry alone could hope to express even in dim and imperfect outline. So much for what has been already known. Ahead of us rolls the overflowing river. "What wilt thou do in the swellings of Jordan?" Arise, O Lord, thou and the ark of thy strength, and the waters that I fear shall flee away, and the floods of Jordan shall be as heaps on either side of thy redeemed and rejoicing servant.
At this point of the history we touch the ark of the covenant with sympathy deep and tender. We ourselves have seen, felt, known, and handled this ark of God. Now and again we have in impious venturesomeness gone forward without it; and what has come of our self-confidence? The imaginary rocks have been as bogs under our feet, and our best devices have lured us into peril. The river has not parted before us, nor has a way been found for us in the desert. On the other hand, we have awaited the rising of the ark; and have followed as it led; and what has been the result? Progress, safety, rest; mountains have been thrown down, and fierce countenances have softened into friendliness and welcomes; we have entered upon a way where no lion lay in wait, nor any ravenous beast could be found,—the way of the Lord's redeemed upward without steepness, with heaven shining at its end. Well may we say, therefore, that the ark has not been lost: "In the temple of God is the ark of his testament." The wood and the gold have perished, but mercy and judgment still rule us from the heavens. "Lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail," still have their place in this earthly life; but in God's temple is seen the "ark of his testament."
As we have thus seen the goodness of the Lord, we may now behold also his severity, as shown here and there in the history of the ark.
(1) Remember the account of the fall of Jericho, and how usual it is to represent the overthrow of the city as almost due (such is the popular impression) to the blast of "seven trumpets of rams' horns." Out of this circumstance has come much teaching about the possible success of improbable instruments and agencies, as if it were only necessary to have a ram's horn in order to do great wonders in the wars of the Lord. The ark of the testimony was at the taking of Jericho, and must be at the taking of every stronghold. "And Joshua the son of Nun called the priests, and said unto them, Take up the ark of the covenant, and let seven priests bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark of the Lord." "And the ark of the covenant of the Lord followed the priests." "And the rearward came after the ark." "So the ark of the Lord compassed the city." It was not the tramp of priests, or the blast of rude horns, but the ark of the Lord, that brought down the strong wall. It is not our officialism, our music, or our noise, but the name of Christ—the true ark of the covenant—that must bring down the pride of heathenism and all the ramparts of ungodliness. "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness." "Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth."
(2) Recall a second instance. Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer; and the Philistines pitched in Aphek; and Israel was smitten before the Philistines, and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men. In dismay, Israel sent to Shiloh for the ark of the covenant, saying, "When it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies." So the ark was brought; and when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again. And the Philistines were afraid, and said, "God is come into the camp." But the Philistines conquered Israel, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark itself fell into the hand of the enemy; and the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod, and set it in the house of Dagon their god. Israel sent for the ark in extremity, as many a man sends for God in the hour of fear and mortal distress; but the ark would not become the mere convenience of capricious and disheartened men. If we stopped here, mistaking, as hurried readers are apt to do, a semicolon for a period, we should say that the ark was worsted, and that Dagon had triumphed over Jehovah. But, lo, the strong god of Philistia was found in the early morning "fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord"! It was but an accident, mayhap, so Dagon must be lifted up and set in his place again; but the second morning found Dagon in still sadder plight, for his head and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold, and only the stump of Dagon was left to him. Many warriors have taken Christ captive; but he has troubled them until they have cried with the Philistines, "What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place." Some victories are the profoundest defeats which any cause can sustain. When Christ and Dagon are brought into close quarters, it is Dagon that dies! A man of Benjamin rent his clothes when the ark was taken; when Eli heard that the ark had been borne away, he fell backward and died; and the wife of Phinehas called her son Ichabod, saying, "The glory is departed from Israel, for the ark of God is taken!" Such is our shortsightedness in looking upon the ways of the Lord. Unchristian men do not know what to make of Christ, even when they suppose themselves to have taken him prisoner in some fierce war of words. They seize him as their prey; they condemn him to exile or death; yet there is something about his name that troubles them, and there is a fire in his words which gives them pain. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God," said the falling Dagon. "God is a consuming fire," say all they who intrude upon his throne. How to get rid of Christ—the living Ark—was the urgent question of his enemies! They besought him that he would depart out of their coasts. "Away with him! crucify him!" was the indignant cry. He was slain, yet he is found in heaven; as the symbolic ark was burned by Nebuchadnezzar, yet seen in the temple of God. In the kingdom of God, Destruction is an accident, Ascension is a law. Weep not for the ark, weep for yourselves. "Behold, the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt; and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall melt in the midst of it." "Bel boweth down, Nebo stoopeth; they stoop, they bow down together," for the hand of the Lord is heavy upon them.
(3) A third instance will confirm what has been said about the severity of God. At the bidding of the priests and the diviners, the Philistines sent away the ark, upon a new cart, drawn by two milch kine on which there had come no yoke, and by the side of the ark they put jewels of gold as a trespass offering. Even then the Philistines were not sure whether it was "a chance that happened" to them, or a judgment direct from Heaven. They set a test that they might know this, and the test showed that God had been amongst them of a truth. When the ark came to Bethshemesh, the people were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley, and when they saw the ark they rejoiced with exceeding joy. But, alas, the men of Bethshemesh looked into the ark of the Lord; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he slew of them a great multitude. Is the Lord ever patient with our foolish curiosity? Can any man see God and live? It is precisely here that so many men are slain to-day. We go too near the sun, and we are blinded by the glory we would analyse. God will not submit himself to our examinations; hence we find thousands of dead critics where there ought to have been a living Church countless as the stars in number! Let there be a space between us and the ark—"about two thousand cubits by measure"—for "God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him."
(4) An incident not remotely related to this scene at Bethshemesh occurred when, at the instance of David, all Israel went up to Kirjath-jearim, which belonged to Judah, "to bring up thence the ark of God the Lord." The bringing up of the ark was again the occasion of great joy. The people had not inquired at it in the days of Saul. David's proposition, therefore, revived an ancient and precious memory, and gathered, as by the call of a battle-trumpet, "all Israel, from Shihor of Egypt even unto the entering of Hemath." As the ark was borne away, "David and all Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with harps, and with psalteries, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets." At one point of the journey the oxen stumbled, and to save the ark from apparent danger, Uzza put forth his hand to keep it in its place. But the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzza, and he smote him, and there he died before God. Will man attempt to eke out the failing strength of Omnipotence? Doth it become us to watch the stars lest they fall, or to open the clouds at dawn lest the sun should miss his way? Shall we appoint ourselves the special guardians of the truth, and surround it with our defences, lest God should have no foothold on his own earth? God is not to be worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything,—"I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds; for every beast of the forest is mine and the cattle upon a thousand hills." "If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof." We have written books, and endowed communities, and passed Acts of Parliament, to keep steady the ark of God. Can we wonder that there are so many dead men, who have a name, indeed, to live, but in reality are plucked up by the roots? Sympathy without meddlesomeness, reverence without self-exaggeration, willingness to help without obtrusion of service,—Lord, with this spirit baptize us every one in the pitifulness of thy great mercy!
Coming to still more closely practical applications. Here and there in the course of the study we have indicated one or two modern bearings of the subject, which admit of obvious amplification. Let us look at one or two others.
The Israelites had a visible symbol of the Divine presence so long as they retained the ark in their midst. It was something to look at,—something for the heart to stay itself upon in the time of fear and trouble. But look at our own case. Are we not left without a centre that can be seen, and without a locality sanctified above all other places? We are truly in a great wilderness, but to what shrine can we point men when they mock our faith, and foretell a disastrous end to our pilgrimage? Sometimes, indeed, we find our hearts in a mood of intense longing for the days that are gone; they live backward through the many and cloudy yesterdays until they come upon the exciting times when God spake, as it were, face to face with his loved ones; when the guiding pillar went before the host day and night; when the ark was the signal of movement and the pledge of security; when the "fourth like unto the Son of man" walked in the burning fiery furnace with the faithful, and when the Son of God took little children in his arms and blessed them. To have lived then! To have had the eye filled with his beauty and the ear satisfied with the music of his sweet voice! To have touched the hem of his garment, to have stood within his shadow, to have plucked and kept for ever some poor flower of the meadow pressed by his feet,—to have seen something that was his! So yearns the heart in tender wish and sad regret. And to the world we seem to have nothing. The rain is not ours, for it falleth on the just and on the unjust; the sun is not ours, for it shineth on the evil and on the good. We look into the great voids of space, but no image makes us glad. And there is no rod in our hand with which we can make scoffers afraid because of the wonders of the Lord. Have we not, then, fallen on mean times,—all poetry dead and gone, all music hushed for ever? To such questionings the Scriptures give a distinct reply. They tell us that ours are the brightest and noblest of all the days of time! "If the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, which glory was to be done away, how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be rather glorious? For if that which was done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious." But the natural man seeth not this glory, neither can he know it, for it is spiritually discerned. "And it shall come to pass, when ye be multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, saith the Lord, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the Lord: neither shall it come to mind; neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more." Herein is that saying true, "The hour cometh, and now is, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father." The local has become the universal, and all things are inscribed—"Holy unto the Lord."
That law and mercy are still at the heart of things is a truth which is acknowledged in some form even by others than Christian believers; but by Christian believers it ought to be ardently and gratefully maintained as at once the glory and the security of life.
We know that there is law,—a law of continuity, for all things remain from one generation to another,—the stars do not burn themselves out with all their shining, nor is the sea dried up by the fire of the sun; a law of development, for life changes, improves, and matures itself, subtly but certainly; a law of trespass, for who can take fire into his bosom and not be burned, or trifle with poison and save his life? We know that there is law round about us, and high above us. What is it that causes ambition to break its billows into harmless foam upon the eternal rocks of Truth and Right? What is it that drives the diviners mad when they seek to misread the writing or forge the signature of God? What is it that throws down the half-built tower, whose summits were to have reached the stars? We are shut in, watched, ruled; and yet we see no Hand moving amongst our affairs. We make our plans, and our programmes read like music; but lo, we never enter the City that lured us, or get near the Tree whose fruit was to have made us wise. Wickedness swells with rage, and comes against the righteous in the fury of its strength; and lo, it staggers, and moans, and dies. The winds blow high and the clouds shut out the light, yet no star is lost, nor is any planet-ship wrecked in the wild storm. If we should fear that some loss may have happened in that upper sea, all the stars quiet us with the words, "Do thyself no harm, we are all here." There must be some meaning in all this,—in this infinite order, this calm profound which underlies the storm, this vengeance that consumes, this life that cannot die! What is the secret? Can any man name the spell, so baleful yet so gentle? Do not mock us with a word that we shall instantly feel to be hollow and untrue. Speak to us a word that shall, at all events, have a sound of reality in it,—mysterious as if it came up from Eternity, sympathetic as if it issued from a Heart of love. "But the temple of God was opened in heaven, and THERE WAS SEEN IN HIS TEMPLE THE ARK OF HIS TESTAMENT."
We know that there is mercy;—mercy in the very "process of the suns," for time turns many a bitter pain into a hallowed recollection, and wounds thought to be incurable have been staunched and healed,—mercy in the gifts of nature, for in bread there is sweetness, and the meadow and the garden are full of pleasantness,—mercy in social life, for sympathy puts our misery to sleep, and friendship revives our drooping strength,—mercy in returning slumber, and mercy in the peacefulness of our awaking;—minor mercies, all of them, leading, star-like, to a larger love,—leading to Bethlehem, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha, and there merging their secondary rays in the ineffable light, the infinite glory out of which they came. "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed." "According to his mercy hath he saved us." There are times in our life when the memory of sin is so vivid, and its burden so grievous, that one cry only can express our necessity and our pain, our self-helplessness and our hope—"God be merciful to me a sinner "; "Have mercy upon me, O Lord, according to thy lovingkindness, according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions." It is at such times that we feel the power of words like these, "The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin"; "There is a fountain opened in the house of David for sin and for uncleanness." All the other mercies that have been softening and beautifying our life, say to us in pleading tones, "If we have thus quieted your fears, and set a lamp for you in the time of darkness; if we have found for you unexpected help, and surprised you with unlooked-for gladness, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God:" If you would see Mercy written in largest letters, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world"; if you would see Mercy in its sublimest attitude, look upon the uplifted dying Son of God; if you would hear Mercy's sweetest, gentlest tone, hear it as Jesus says, "Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." What is the meaning of all the mercy which comes down upon our weary life? Is it a transient shower? Are the influences that quicken and bless us merely fugitive and accidental? Was the Cross the culmination of a rude tragedy? What does Mercy mean? Is it a mere sentiment? Is it a momentary suspension of discipline? Or is it Law in its highest mood? Is it Righteousness weeping? Is it Majesty bowing down from the heavens that it may find the lost? Hear the answer which alone satisfies the judgment and the heart—"The temple of God was opened in heaven, and THERE WAS SEEN IN HIS TEMPLE THE ARK OF HIS TESTAMENT."
And yet we are not left without a visible sign of God's presence. So long as we have the Bible we have the Ark of the Covenant. The most terrible yet the most gentle of all books is the Bible! Law is in it, and Mercy. It plagues the house, or blesses it, as the house of Obed-edom was blessed when he received the ark of the Lord into his dwelling. It throws down the Dagon of false worship, of dishonest trade, of false appearances. Yet how it overflows with mercy, and promise, and hope! It is like a river the streams whereof make glad the city of God. It is quiet as a green pasture in the summer noon. It is as a gentle rain on the tender herb, and as showers of blessing on the fainting field. Yet what a sword it is, and how like a fire it burns! Let the bad man look into it for a text with which to sanctify his meanness or falsehood, and it will scorch him with intolerable heat! Let the penitent look into it that he may know how to return unto the Lord, and it will glow with welcomes and benedictions! Let a man fall upon it, and he will be broken; let it fall upon a man, and it will grind him to powder! Verily this book is the Ark of the Testimony. The Babylonian may burn the book, but he cannot destroy the Revelation. The infidel may take the book in some controversial war, but it will trouble him until it be released and sent away in honour. Like the Son of man, it is here, yet it is in heaven. It fears not them that kill the body. Fire will not consume it, nor will the sea hold it in prison. Its name is Wonderful, and the government is on its shoulder. "The temple of God was opened in heaven, and in his temple was seen the ark of his testament."
The two chief objects within the Court were the Brazen Altar and the Tabernacle. Sacrificial worship was old, but the local Sanctuary was quite new. The Tabernacle is most frequently called the Tabernacle of the Congregation. A better rendering is supposed to be, "The Tent of Meeting." The Tabernacle was also called "The Tent of the Testimony," in allusion to the fact that it was the depositary of the Tables of the Law. The highest meaning of the structure was expressed by the Ark, which symbolised the constant presence of Jehovah. The Speaker's Commentary says: "We may regard the sacred contents of the Tabernacle as figuring what was peculiar to the Covenant of which Moses was the Mediator, the closer union of God with Israel, and their consequent election as 'a kingdom of priests, an holy nation': while the Brazen Altar in the Court not only bore witness for the old sacrificial worship by which the Patriarchs had drawn nigh to God, but formed an essential part of the Sanctuary, signifying by its now more fully developed system of sacrifices in connection with the Tabernacle those ideas of Sin and Atonement which were first distinctly brought out by the revelation of the Law and the sanctification of the nation." In the Ark there was no image or symbol of God. The Ark of the Covenant was never carried in a ceremonial procession. In all important particulars it differed from Egyptian shrines. When the Tabernacle was pitched the Ark was kept in solemn darkness. The staves were to remain always in the rings, whether the Ark was in motion or at rest, that there might never at any time be a necessity for touching the Ark itself or even the rings (2Samuel 6:6-7). "The cherubims were not to be detached images, made separately and then fastened to the mercy seat, but to be formed out of the same mass of gold with the mercy seat, and so to be part and parcel of it" The Holy of Holies was a square of fifteen feet, and the Holy place an oblong thirty feet by fifteen. So far as known, "horns" were peculiar to Israelite altars.
The specification for the building of the tabernacle purports to be Divinely dictated. We can form some idea of the validity of such a claim, for we have the test of creation by which to try it. We can soon find out discrepancies, and say whether this is God's work or an artificer's. A revelation which bounds itself by the narrow limits of an architect's instruction admits of very close inquiry. Creation is too vast for criticism, but a tabernacle invites it. Let us, then, see how the case stands,—whether God is equal to himself, whether the God of the opening chapters of Genesis is the God of the mount upon which, according to this claim, the tabernacle was Divinely outlined in expressive cloud. Note, at the very outset, that the account of making the tabernacle occupies far more space than the history of the creation of the heavens and the earth. We soon read through what is given of the history of creation, but how long we have had to travel through this region of architectural cloud. It seemed as if the story would never end. This is a remarkable corroboration of the authenticity of both accounts. A long account of creation would have been impossible, presuming the creation to be the embodiment and form of the Divine word executed without human assistance. That account could not have been long. When there is nothing, so to say, between God's word and God's deed, there is no history that can be recorded. The history must write itself in the infinite unfoldment of those germs, or of that germ with which creation began. A short account of the tabernacle would have been impossible, presuming that all the skins, colours, spices, rings, staves, figures, dishes, spoons, bowls, candlesticks, knobs, flowers, lamps, snuffers, and curtains, were Divinely described; that every tache, loop, hook, tenon, and socket was on a Divine plan, and that human ingenuity had nothing whatever to do with a structure which in its exquisite fashioning was more a thought than a thing. So far, the God of Genesis is the God of Exodus: a subtle and massive harmony unites the accounts, and a common signature authenticates the marvellous relation. When God said, "Let there be light," he spake, and it was done. There is no history to write, the light is its own history. Men are reading it still, and still the reading comes in larger letters, in more luminous illustration. When God prescribed lamps for the tabernacle he had to detail the form of the candlesticks, and to prescribe pure olive oil, that the lamp might always burn. You require more space in which to relate the making of a lamp than in which to tell of the creation of the light; you spend more time in instructing a little child than in giving commands to an army. God challenged Job along this very line. Said he, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" There was no Job between the Creator and the creation; no Moses writing swiftly words Divine that had to be embodied at the foot of the hill. "Where is the way where light dwelleth; and as for darkness, which is the place thereof?" Mark well, therefore, the contrast of the accounts, and the obvious reason for the amazing difference.
The next point of observation relates to the completeness of the specification as corresponding with the completeness of creation. Lay the finger upon one halting line and prove that the Divine Architect was weak in thought or utterance at this point or at that. Find a gap in the statement and say, "He forgot at this point a small loop, or tache, or ouche, and I, his listener, Moses, must fill in what he left out." We do not know the meaning of great Gospel words until we read our way up to them through all the introduction of the initial covenants. We read backwards, and thus read ourselves out at the lower end of things, instead of reading in the order of the Divine evolution and progress, upward from height to height, until speech becomes useless, and silence must be called in to complete the ineffable eloquence. Could there have been more care in the construction of a heaven than is shown, even upon the page, without going into the question of inspiration, in the building of a tabernacle? Is it not also the same in such little parts of creation as are known to us? There is everywhere a wonderful completeness of purpose. God has set in his creation working forces, daily ministries. Nature is never done. When she sleeps she moves; she travels night and day; her force is in very deed persistent. So we might, by a narrow criticism, charge nature here and there with want of completeness; but it would be as unjust to seize the blade from the ear, and, plucking these, say, "Here we have sign and proof of incompleteness." We protest against that cruelty and simple injustice. There may be a completeness of purpose when there has not yet been time for a completeness of execution. But in the purpose of this greater tabernacle—creation—there is the same completeness that there is in the specification of this beauteous house which the Lord appointed to be built in the grim wilderness.
Consider, too, that the temporary character of the tabernacle was no excuse for inferior work. The tabernacle, as such, would be but for a brief time. Why not hasten its construction—invent some rough thing that would do for the immediate occasion? Why, were it made to be taken up to heaven for the service of the angels it could not be wrought out with a tenderer delicacy, with a minuter diligence, as to detail and beauty. But to God everything is temporary. The creation is but for a day. It is we who are confused by distinction as between time and eternity. There is no time to God; there is no eternity to God. Eternity can be spelled; eternity can in some dumb way be imagined and symbolised in innumerable ciphers multiplied innumerable times by themselves till the mind thinks it can begin eternity. To God there is no such reasoning. When, therefore, we speak of lavishing such care upon a tabernacle, we mistake the infinity and beneficence of God. It is like him to bestow as great care upon the ephemera that die in the sunbeam as upon the seraphim that have burned these countless ages beside the eternal throne. We must not allow our ignorance, incompleteness, and confusedness of mind to interfere with the interpretation of these ineffable mysteries. But the tabernacle was built for eternity. So again and again we stumble, like those who are blind, who are vainly trying to pick their way through stony and dangerous places. The tabernacle was eternity let down—an incarnation, so to say, of eternity, as a man shall one day be an incarnation of God. We mistake the occasion utterly. We fall out of the pomp of its music and the grandeur of its majesty by looking at the thing, and supposing that the merely visible object, how lustrous and tender in beauty soever, is the tabernacle. The tabernacle is within the tabernacle, the Bible is within the Bible, the man is within the man. The tabernacle in the wilderness represented eternal thoughts, eternal purposes of love. Everything is built for eternity: every insect, every dog, every leaf—so frail, withering in its blooming. God builds for eternity in the thought, and in the connection, and in the relation of the thing which is builded. See how profound our iniquity in committing murder anywhere. "Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal." It is one life, one property, a sublime unity of idea, and thought, and purpose. Do not segregate your life, or universe, and attempt a classification which will only separate into unholy solitude what was meant by the Divine mind to cohere in indivisible unity. We were built for eternity. Can God build for less time? Nothing is lost. The greatest of economists is God. "The very hairs of your head are all numbered "; "Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without your Father." When we speak about the temporary, we know not what we say; or we justly use that word, for the sake of convenience, as expressive of uses which themselves perish in their own action. But, profoundly and vitally viewed, even affliction is part of heaven; our sorrows are the beginning, if rightly accepted and sanctified, of our supremest bliss.
Mark, too, how wonderfully the tabernacle and the human frame correspond in perfection of detail and sublimity of purpose. It is not difficult to believe that he who made the tabernacle made Adam. The tabernacle grows before our eyes and Adam is growing still. The life which God is making is Man. Do not impoverish the mind and deplete the heart of all Divine elements and suggestions by supposing that God is a toymaker. God's purpose is one, and he is still engaged in fashioning man in his own image and likeness, and he will complete the duplicate. We must not fix our mind upon our mutilated selves, and, by finding disease, and malformation, and infirmity, and incongruity, charge the Maker with these misadventures. We must judge the Divine purpose in the one case with the Divine purpose in the other. I am aware that there are a few men who have—from my point of view blasphemously—charged the Divine work, as we regard it, in creation with imperfection. There have not been wanting daring men, having great courage on paper and great dauntless-ness in privacy and concealment, and who have lived themselves into a well-remunerated, respectable obscurity, who have said that the human eye is not ideally perfect. So we do not speak in ignorance of the cross-line of thinking which seeks to interrupt the progress of Christian science and philosophy. Is there not a lamp also within the human tabernacle—a lamp that burns always, a lamp we did not light, a lamp trimmed by the hand Divine, a lamp of reason, a lamp of conscience, a lamp that sheds its light when the darkness without us is gathered up into one intense and all-obstructing night? and are there not parables in nature which help us to believe that this lamp, though it apparently flicker—yea, though it apparently vanish—shall yet throw radiance upon heavenly scenes, and burn synchronously with the glory of God's own life? You say, "Look at old age and observe how the mind seems to waver, and halt, and become dim and paralysed, and how it seems to expire like a spark." No, as well say, "Look at the weary man at night-time, his eyelids heavy, his memory confused, his faculties apparently paralysed, or wholly reluctant to respond to every appeal addressed to them; behold how the body outlives and outweighs the boasted mind." No, let him sleep; in the morning he will be young again. Sleep has its ministry as well as wakefulness. God giveth his beloved sleep. So we may "by many a natural parable find no difficulty in working ourselves up to contemplations that fill us with ecstasy, religious and sublime, as we call ourselves "heirs of immortality."
Did not Moses make the tabernacle? Yes; but who made Moses? That is the question which has never yet been answered. Change the terms as you please, that inquiry always starts up as the unanswerable demand. Your hand carved the marble, but who carved the hand? Singular, if the marble was carved, but the hand carved itself. Your tongue uttered the eloquence, but who made man's mouth? Who set within him a fountain of speech? Your mind planned the cathedral, but who planned the mind? It would have been more difficult to believe—infinitely more difficult to believe—that the mind made itself than that the cathedral fashioned its own symmetry and roofed in its own inner music and meaning.
Thus perusing the specification for the building of the tabernacle, and reading the account of the creation of the heavens, and of the earth, and of man, I find between them a congruity self-confirming, and filled with infinite comfort to the heart that yearns studiously over the inspired page in hope of finding the footprints of God. The living Christian Church is more marvellous than the tabernacle in this wilderness. The tabernacle was part of a development; the tabernacle was only one point in the history. We must judge things by their final purpose, their theological aspect and philosophy. What is the meaning of the tabernacle?—the temple. What is the meaning of the temple?—the living Church. So we find rude altars thrown together by careless hands, symbolising worship addressed to the heavens; then the tabernacle; then the temple; then the living fellowship. Know ye not that ye are the temples of the Holy Ghost? Know ye not that there is a foundation laid in Zion, a corner stone, elect, precious; and that we are built upon it, living stones; and that God is shaping the tabernacle of humanity as he shaped the tabernacle in the wilderness? Know ye not that we are builded together a holy house unto the Lord? Arrest not, even in theory, the Divine progress. The line from the beginning up till now has taken one grand course. Nothing has strayed away and left the Divine sovereignty. The wrath of man is still in the Divine leash, and hell is no independent colony of the universe. There is one throne, one crown; one increasing purpose runs through all we know. We wait patiently for the Lord, and when he says from his throne what Christ said from the cross, "It is finished," then we may be invited to say, in the terms which God himself used when he viewed creation,—"Behold, it is very good."