The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,Benediction
We have need of some such message as this; we needed a Sabbath day in the weary week of detail and mechanical arrangement and service of the hand through which we have been steadily passing. We know the Sabbath when it comes; we feel the Sabbatic air of this tender benediction. We dare not trifle with these words, were they anonymous; had we found them in some out-of-the-way place, when our hearts were weary and our eyes were red with tears, we should have blessed the unknown writer of music so sweet and tender. In some high mood of strength and passion we might not have heeded the words; but with a broken spirit, strength nearly exhausted, hope just expiring, the clouds closing thickly upon life, we should have pressed the writing to our lips and kissed back our thanks for the blessing which it brought. This is how the Bible appeals to us; it waits for our moods; it does not force food upon the sated appetite; it keeps back the bread until the hunger claims it, and then its hospitality is as great as our necessity. Reading the sweet passage, we seem to have come into a new clime. Now and again in the Old Testament there are surprises of beauty; there are words of gentleness in it not touched in their exquisite sublimity by anything in the New Covenant. Would you cull and gather into floral groups, sweet words, tender expressions, gracious solaces, syllables that find their way into the heart's night and bitterness? For this you must go to the Old Testament. The Hebrew tongue was made for comfort, for a great redundance of solace; there is wine in the grape of every syllable; he who presses most in the agony of his need will drink most abundantly and most refreshingly of the wine of God's love. It is right that the Old Testament should have its supremacies; it should not always be a cumbrous ritual, an intricate and expensive mechanism; now and again, it should, so to say, overtop even the New Testament, and claim to be the inspired Book of God, by the way in which it speaks to the heart's wounds and all the agonies of human life. We have waited for this blessing; we felt there was something coming to us when we saw God marking out the land, laying down the plan of the hedges, fixing the gates and swinging them on golden hinges; when we noted what we may call his anxiety that the garden should be properly laid out according to the best geometry, we said in our hearts,—he means to grow sweet fruit here; all these pains and cares about hedges, and gates, and paths, and positions must be interpreted into the purpose to grow such fruit on this soil as never grew beyond the lines of paradise. So the very detail has been to us prophetic; the mechanism has had a flush about it which told that love was not very far away. We come fully into the sanctuary at this moment: here is "blessing," "keeping," "shining,"—the uplifting upon our poor life of all heaven's glad morning. We expected it; when we saw God troubled, if we may so say, with such anxiety about the frame, the shape, the overlaying with gold, the loops by which it was to be hung, we said in our hearts, he means to put into this frame such a picture as there is not to be found outside the galleries of heaven. Here is the picture: a picture of benediction, and joyousness chastened into peace; say if on all the walls of the world there gleams a picture charged with such suggestion of colour, such vitality, such expressiveness, such mute eloquence. The heart knows when the Bible is completed; the spirit that is in man—part of the Spirit of God—knows when to say, with grateful content, "It is finished." This is the end at the very beginning; much history has yet to be evolved, worked out in intricate detail revealed in perplexing contradiction, made evident by agonising tragedy; but when the tumultuous music has ceased, it will express itself in this very benediction. In God, in heaven, in all the solemn eternity, there is no word greater than peace. It was Christ's gift; it is a peace which "passeth all understanding"; it seizes for its explanation all figures that suggest light, beauty, comfort, strength, security, completeness; it is not a single element, it is the combination of all forces, their final and infinite reconciliation.
This is the Lord's prayer. We have by some means, not always easy of explanation, fixed upon another formula and clothed it with the dignity of being the Lord's prayer. The Lord's prayer occurs early in the Lord's Book. This is not a human invention; we do not read that Aaron spake unto Moses saying, I have conceived a formula of benediction which will please the hosts of Israel. It is the Lord himself who brings this flower out of the upper paradise; it is the Lord's own dear self that brings this bar of music from heaven's infinite anthem. This is the Lord's doing, outshining the sun, outvaluing the gold of the tabernacle, and coming into the heart with a sanctity that turns the whole life into one long Sabbath day.
Being the Lord's prayer, it is a complete prayer. God works by the circle; he is not satisfied with the abrupt straight line, or even with its endless monotony. He completes in geometric as in moral beauty what is needed for the comfort and inspiration of human life. "The Lord bless thee." Explain the word bless. You cannot; it explains itself. It will not condescend to be broken up into words capable of being totalised into its exact value; it floats about the life like a perfume; it touches the weak, weary life like a great soft hand, lifting it up into new strength; it whispers its messages into the soul's ear when other voices could not reach the attention of the spirit. A child knows what the word bless means, in effect, though it cannot explain the term: in other words, it knows the touch of love, it knows the coo of pleasure that enters into the congratulatory or encouraging tone. There is a masonry of hearts; there is a "touch of nature." Who does not know when the voice is charged with gospel, and when it is choked with thunder and judgment? Magnify the word bless: it will stretch over the whole firmament; gather around it all jewels symbolic, suggestive, invaluable, and it can wear them all, and call them trifles when compared with its own sublimity: they sit well upon it, for nothing can overpower that word by external decoration. "The Lord... keep thee,"—another word of one syllable. "Keep thee,"—what means the expression?—gather thee to his heart, put his arms around thee, keep the gate of thy city, watch the fountain of thy pleasure, take care of thee altogether, watch thy downsitting, thine uprising, thine outgoing, thine incoming, as if these were matters of profound concern to his heart. Surely this is the New Testament in the Old? The very Christ of God, when he cometh, can have no speech to make deeper than this. History has verified this forecast, for when he came the song was, "Peace on earth," and when he left the valediction was, "Peace, I leave with you."
This is an answer to prayer. Being a prayer inspired, it is answered by the very fact of its inspiration. God never teaches a prayer that he may deny its petition. All true prayer is its own answer. Therein profound mistakes have been made, and angry and useless controversies have raged amongst men. We do not wait for answers: we at once receive them, as Daniel did, "while we are yet speaking." True, we offer many words that are not prayers, and for answers to such clamour we may have long to wait, for God has no purpose of replying to them. Other prayers are refreshing to the intellect, stirring to the best ambitions of the soul, satisfactory to many of the instincts and impulses of life; but they begin and end within the suppliant himself. True prayer is answered before it is uttered. True prayer is the Lord's prayer, and the Lord answers none but himself: herein is that saying true—"God cannot deny himself." If we will pray our own prayers, we must be content without divine replies; if we will wait for the prayer, we shall never have to wait for the answer. The Lord's prayer is a simple and loving desire to be lost in the Lord's will. We do not pray for fine weather for harvesting—nor for fine weather for the voyage—in any sense that interposes our supposed goodness between heaven and earth, as if we were more careful about the harvest than God is, or as if we cared more for the voyager's life than does the Creator of that life and the Redeemer of it. Even such prayers as these—for bright sunshine, for south-west winds to dry the ripening corn,—we conclude with this part of the Lord's prayer,—"Nevertheless not our will, but thine, be done." No man learns that prayer on the first day of his regeneration, or in the early experiences of his life. Every man must pass through a period of impulse, impatience, vehement desire for some decision which he supposes will bring tranquillity; but after long travail, after a million disappointments have stung the soul, after experiences whose dominating colour is the blackness of utter night, after one hour in sad Gethsemane,—then a man prays and gets answers to prayer. As soon as we can say, "Not my will but thine be done"—doubling up our strength in humiliation and weakness—an angel will appear, strengthening us, and setting us up in the posture of dignity and in the attitude of conquest. Still, do not stop the flow of other speech; it does us good to talk up to heaven, to say what our requests are, to name them one by one; and that will become prayer if finished properly; in itself it is mere clamour—a noise of words with irreligious and ineffective fluency; but when ended with "Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done"—through that exclamation comes the Divine benediction.
This is a prayer that suits all life. The universality of doctrines proves their inspiration. We cannot have a local gospel; we could not tolerate a book that could only be translated into one language. Ritual, tabernacles, colours, jewellery for the inner place of the sanctuary, and priestly robings,—all must fall off as local and temporary, and, by so much, worthless. But here is a benediction that can go all the world over and fill the ages with its tenderness, and can give all the time without being itself impoverished. Every heart may utter it. "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee,"—why it is the music of farewells to-day. Did ever parent send the child out from home without saying, if not in words, yet in feeling, "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee"? Did ever friend speak to friend, ailing and sick unto death, at night time, without saying, "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: the Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee... and give thee peace"? Amend the terms! you who are gifted in speech, you who have learning in the use of phrases,—amend these sentences, displace them by purer music! To that challenge there can be no reply. This is refined gold: all other speech is gilded; this is the pure lily: all competing flowers are made of pliable wax. This is the speech of God; every letter may conclude with it; every day may begin with it; every night may be sanctified by it. Grammatical difficulty there is none; criticism has no place here; the rudest soul is at least silent in the presence of this holy image, and the most stubborn unbeliever almost wishes the words might speak to his own weariness.
This is a mysterious prayer. The sacred Name occurs three times. Without being unduly anxious to found any doctrine upon the threefold repetition of the sacred designation, is there not a suggestion here of the Great Tri-Unity? Are not all the Christian benedictions founded upon these three lines? Do we not invoke the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, in our own words of blessing when we close the day spent at the sanctuary? Do not seek texts, or force passages of Scripture beyond the lines and boundaries intended by the Holy Spirit; yet do not shrink from finding suggestion where you can find it rationally, obviously, without straining—where the suggestion comes to you, rather than you carry some stern dogma to the words themselves. Is not all blessing threefold? Is there not some kind of even rhetorical magic in the number three?—an odd number; yet does it not come with evenness of rhythm, when rightly applied in human speech? Does it not fall into unity, as drops plash into the river as if they belonged to that flowing stream? Has not the Father a blessing of his own, and Christ a tender word that none but he can speak, and the Holy Spirit a breathing more eloquent than articulate language?
But the light suggests the shade: Is there an unblest life? Is it possible that there can be humanity without the divine dew resting upon it? Not in the purpose of God. "God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him." But the possibility is that a man may exclude himself from the blessing, and live an unblest life. It is possible to outlive even the blessing of human love—possible so to vitiate all purity, desecrate all sanctity, violate every obligation, as that our steadiest friend is kept back by an intelligent reluctance from breathing any blessing on our name. Who will live the unblest life? None need do so. Let every one say,—Bless me, even me also, O my Father. Let the man farthest away say,—I will arise, and go to my Father,—and his first returning step means benediction, release from the past, an unburdening of the soul, an adoption into the redeemed and sanctified family. Let all hearts seek a blessing; let every man say,—Unless thy blessing go with me, carry me not up hence; give me God's blessing, and my poorest day in the marketplace will make me rich in heart at least; and my most successful day on the battlefield of life, in the controversies of time, in the competitions of commerce, in the rivalries of literature, will be made the richer by an incalculable addition; let me live the life of the righteous, then shall I die the death of the righteous, and my last end shall be the beginning of my immortal youth.