"Oh to have watched thee through the vineyards wander, Pluck the ripe ears, and into evening roam! --
Home-Life -- Preparing for his Life-Work -- The Vow of Separation -- A Child of the Desert
Zacharias and Elisabeth had probably almost ceased to pray for a child, or to urge the matter. It seemed useless to pray further. There had been no heaven-sent sign to assure them that there was any likelihood of their prayer being answered, and nature seemed to utter a final No; when suddenly the angel of God broke into the commonplace of their life, like a meteorite into the unrippled water of a mountain-sheltered lake, bringing the assurance that there was no need for fear, and the announcement that their prayer was heard. It must have been like hearing news that a ship, long overdue and almost despaired of, has suddenly made harbour.
It is not impossible that prayers that we have ceased to pray, and are in despair about, will yet return to us with the words, Thy supplication is heard, endorsed on them in our Father's handwriting. Not infrequently dividends are paid on investments which we have given up as valueless. Fruit that mellows longest in the sun is ripest. Such things may transcend altogether our philosophy of prayer; but we are prepared for this, since God is accustomed to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.
On his arrival in his home, the aged priest, by means of the writing-table afterwards referred to, informed his wife, who apparently had not accompanied him, of all that had happened, even to the name which the child was to bear, She, at least, seems to have found no difficulty in accepting the divine assurance, and during her five months of seclusion she nursed great and mighty thoughts in her heart, in the belief and prayer that her child would become all that his name is supposed to signify, the gift of Jehovah. It was Elisabeth also who recognised in Mary the mother of her Lord, greeted her as blessed among women, and assured her that there would be for her a fulfilment of the things which had been promised her.
Month succeeded month, but Zacharias neither heard nor spoke. His friends had to make signs to him, for unbelief has the effect of shutting man out of the enjoyment of life, and hindering his usefulness. How different this time of waiting from the blessedness it brought to his wife's young relative, who believed the heavenly messenger. He was evidently a good man, and well versed in the history of his people. His soul, as we learn from his song, was full of noble pride in the great and glorious past. He could believe that when Abraham and Sarah were past age, a child was born to them, who filled their tent with his merry prattle and laughter; but he could not believe that such a blessing could fall to his lot. And is not that the point where our faith staggers still? We can believe in the wonder-working power of God on the distant horizon of the past, or on the equally distant horizon of the future; but that He should have a definite and particular care for our life, that our prayers should touch Him, that He should give us the desire of our heart -- this staggers us, and we feel it is too good to be true.
During the whole period that the stricken but expectant priest spent in his living tomb, shut off from communication with the outer world, his spirit was becoming charged with holy emotion, that waited for the first opportunity of expression. Such an opportunity came at length. His lowly dwelling was one day crowded with an eager and enthusiastic throng of relatives and friends. They had gathered to congratulate the aged pair, to perform the initial rite of Judaism, and to name the infant boy that lay in his mother's arms. Ah, what joy was hers when they came to "magnify the Lord's mercy towards her, and to rejoice with her"! As the people passed in and out, there was a new glow in the brilliant eastern sunlight, a new glory on the familiar hills.
In their perplexity at the mother's insistence that the babe's name should be John -- none of his kindred being known by that name -- they appealed to his father, who with trembling hand inscribed on the wax of the writing tablet the verdict, "His name is John." So soon as he had broken the iron fetter of unbelief in thus acknowledging the fulfilment of the angel's words, "his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, blessing God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them." All these sayings quickly became the staple theme of conversation throughout all the hill-country of Judaea; and wherever they came, they excited the profoundest expectation. People laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What, then, shall this child be?"
"And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit." "And the hand of the Lord was with him."
There were several remarkable formative influences operating on this young life.
I. THE SCHOOL OF HOME. -- His father was a priest. John's earliest memories would register the frequent absence of his father in the fulfilment of his course; and, on his return, with what eagerness would the boy drink in a recital of all that had transpired in the Holy City! We can imagine how the three would sit together beneath their trellised vine, in the soft light of the fading sunset, and talk of Zion, their chief joy. No wonder that in after days, as he looked on Jesus as He walked, he pointed to Him and said, "Behold the Lamb of God"; for, from the earliest, his young mind had been saturated with thoughts of sacrifice.
When old enough his parents would take him with them to one of the great festivals, where, amid the thronging crowds, his boyish eyes opened for the first time upon the stately Temple, the order and vestments of the priests, the solemn pomp of the Levitical ceremonial. The young heart dilated and expanded with wonder and pride; but how little he realized that his ministry would be the first step to its entire subversal.
He would be also taught carefully in the Holy Scriptures. Like the young Timothy, he would know them from early childhood. The song of Zacharias reveals a vivid and realistic familiarity with the prophecies and phraseology of the Scriptures; and as the happy parents recited them to his infant mind, they would stay to emphasize them with impressive personal references. What would we not have given to hear Zacharias quote Isaiah xl. or Malachi iii., and turn to the lad at his knee, saying -- "These words refer to thee". --
"Yea, and thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Most High; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways."
Would not the aged priest speak to his son in thoughts and words like those with which his song is so replete; might he not speak to him in some such way as this: "My boy, God has fulfilled his holy covenant, the oath which He sware unto Abraham, our father; because of the tender mercy of our God, the Dayspring from on high has visited us, to shine upon them that sit in darkness, and to guide our feet into the way of peace." Then he would proceed to tell him the marvellous story of his Kinsman's birth in Bethlehem, and of his growing grace in Nazareth. "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel," the old man said; "for He hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as He spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began." Next the father would tell as much of the story of Herod's crimes, and of his oppressive rule, as the lad could understand; and explain how there would soon be "salvation from their enemies, and from the hand of all that hated them." And his young soul would be thrilled by the hopes which were bursting in the bud, and so near breaking into flower.
Sometimes when they were abroad together in the early dawn, and saw the first peep of day, the father would say: "John, do you see that light breaking over the hills? What that day-spring is to the world, Jesus, thy cousin at Nazareth, will be to the darkness of sin." Then, turning to the morning star, shining in the path of the dawn, and paling as they gazed, he would say: "See thy destiny, my son: I am an old man, and shall not live to see thee in thy meridian strength; but thou shalt shine for only a brief space, and then decrease, whilst He shall increase from the faint flush of day-spring to the perfect day." And might not the child reply, with a flash of intelligent appreciation? -- "Yes, father, I understand; but I shall be satisfied if only I have prepared the way of the Lord."
There were also the associations of the surrounding country. The story of Abraham would often be recited in the proximity of Machpelah's sacred cave. The career of David could not be unfamiliar to a youth who was within easy reach of the haunts of the shepherd-psalmist. And the story of the Maccabees would stir his soul, as his parents recounted the exploits of Judas and his brethren, in which the ancient Hebrew faith and prowess had revived in one last glorious outburst.
How ineffaceable are the impressions of the Home! What the father is when he comes back at night from his toils, and what the mother is all day; what may be the staple of conversation in the home: whether the father is willing to be the companion of his child, answering his questions, and superintending the gradual unfolding of his mind; how often the Bible is opened and explained; how the weekly rest-day is spent; the attitude of the home towards strong drink in every shape and form, and all else that might injure the young life, as gas does plants -- all these are vital to the right nurture and direction of boys and girls who can only wax strong in spirit when all early influences combine in the same direction.
II. THERE WAS THE SCHOOL OF HIS NAZARITE-VOW. -- The angel, who announced his birth, foretold that he should drink neither wine nor strong drink from his birth, but that he should be filled with the Holy Spirit. "John," said our Lord, "came neither eating nor drinking." This abstinence from all stimulants was a distinct sign of the Nazarite, together with the unshorn locks, and the care with which he abstained from contact with death. In some cases, the vow of the Nazarite might be taken for a time, or, as in the case of Samson, Samuel, and John, it might be for life. But, whether for shorter or longer, the Nazarite held himself as peculiarly given up to the service of God, pliant to the least indication of his will, quick to catch the smallest whisper of his voice, and mighty in his strength.
"Mother, why do I wear my hair so long? You never cut it, as the mothers of other boys do."
"No, my son," was the proud and glad reply; "you must never cut it as long as you live: you are a Nazarite."
"Mother, why may I not taste the grapes? The boys say they are so nice and sweet. May I not, next vintage?"
"No, never," his mother would reply; "you must never touch the fruit of the vine: you are a Nazarite."
If, as they walked along the public way, they saw a bone left by some hungry dog, or a little bird fallen to the earth to die, and the boy would approach to touch either, the mother would call him back to her side, saying, "Thou must never touch a dead thing. If thy father were to die, or I, beside thee, thou must not move us from the spot, but call for help. Remember always that thou art separated unto God; his vows are upon thee, and thou must let nothing, either in symbol or reality, steal away his power from thy young heart and life."
The effect of this would be excellent. It would give a direction and purpose to the lad's thoughts and anticipations. He realized that he was set apart for a great mission in life. The brook heard the call of the sea. Besides which, he would acquire self-restraint, self-mastery.
What is it to be "strong in spirit"? The man who carries everything before him with the impetuous rush of his nature, before whose outbursts men tremble, and who insists in all things on asserting his wild, masterful will -- is he the strong man? Nay! most evidently he must be classed among the weaklings. The strength of a man is in proportion to the feelings which he curbs and subdues, and not which subdue him. The man who receives a flagrant insult, and answers quietly; the man who bears a hopeless daily trial, and remains silent; the man who with strong passions remains chaste, or with a quick sense of injustice can refrain himself and remain calm -- these are strong men; and John waxed strong, because, from the earliest dawn of thought, he was taught the necessity of refusing things which in themselves might have been permissible, but for him were impossible.
On each of us rests the vow of separation by right of our union with the Son of God, who was holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. Remember how He went without the camp, bearing our reproach; how they cast Him forth to the death of the cross; and how He awaits us on the Easter side of death -- and surely we can find no pleasure in the world where He found no place. His death has made a lasting break between his followers and the rest of men. They are crucified to the world, and the world to them. Let us not taste of the intoxicating joys in which the children of the present age indulge; let us allow no Delilah passion to pass her scissors over our locks; and let us be very careful not to receive contamination; to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but to come out and be separate, not touching the unclean thing.
But while we put away all that injures our own life or the lives of others, let us be very careful to discriminate, to draw the line where God would have it drawn, exaggerating and extenuating nothing. It is important to remember that while the motto of the old covenant was Exclusion, even of innocent and natural things, that of the new is Inclusion. Moses, under the old, forbade the Jews having horses; but Zechariah said that in the new they might own horses, only "Holiness to the Lord" must be engraven on the bells of their harness. Christ has come to sanctify all life. Whether we eat, or drink, or whatever we do, we are to do all to his glory. Disciples are not to be taken out of the world, but kept from its evil. "Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God, and prayer." Natural instincts are not to be crushed, but transfigured.
This is the great contrast between the Baptist and the Son of Man. The Nazarite would have felt it a sin against the law of his vocation and office to touch anything pertaining to the vine. Christ began his signs by changing water into wine, though of an innocuous kind, for the peasants' wedding at Cana of Galilee. John would have lost all sanctity had he touched the bodies of the dead, or the flesh of a leper. Christ would touch a bier, pass his hands over the seared flesh of the leper, and stand sympathetically beside the grave of his friend. Thus we catch a glimpse of our Lord's meaning when He affirms that, though John was the greatest of women born, yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
III. THERE WAS THE SCHOOL OF THE DESERT. -- "The child was in the deserts till the day of his showing unto Israel." Probably Zacharias, and Elisabeth also, died when John was quite young. But the boy had grown into adolescence, was able to care for himself, and "the hand of the Lord was with him."
Beneath the guidance and impulse of that hand he tore himself from the little home where he had first seen the tender light of day, and spent happy years, to go forth from the ordinary haunts of men, perhaps hardly knowing whither. There was a wild restlessness in his soul. A young man, pleading the other day with his father to be allowed to emigrate to the West, urged that whereas there are inches here there are acres there; and something of this kind may have been in the heart of John. He desired to free himself from the conventionalities and restraints of the society amid which he had been brought up, that he might develop after his own fashion, with no laws but those he received from heaven.
Fatherless, motherless, brotherless, sisterless -- a lone man, he passed forth into the great and terrible wilderness of Judaea, which is so desolate that the Jews called it the abomination of desolation. Travellers who have passed over and through it say that it is destitute of all animal life, save a chance vulture or fox. For the most part, it is a waste of sand, swept by wild winds. When Jesus was there some two or three years after, He found nothing to eat; the stones around mocked his hunger; and there was no company save that of the wild beasts.
In this great and terrible wilderness, John supported himself by eating locusts -- the literal insect, which is still greatly esteemed by the natives -- and wild honey, which abounded in the crevices of the rocks; while for clothing he was content with a coat of coarse camel's hair, such as the Arab women make still; and a girdle of skin about his loins. A cave, like that in which David and his men often found refuge, sufficed him for a home, and the water of the streams that hurried to the Dead Sea, for his beverage.
Can we wonder that under such a regimen he grew strong? We become weak by continual contact with our fellows. We sink to their level, we accommodate ourselves to their fashions and whims; we limit the natural developments of character on God's plan; we take on the colour of the bottom on which we lie. But in loneliness and solitude, wherein we meet God, we become strong. God's strong men are rarely clothed in soft raiment, or found in kings' courts. Obadiah, who stood in awe of Ahab, was a very different man from Elijah, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, and stood before the Lord.
Yes, and there is a source of strength beside. He who is filled and taught, as John was, by the Spirit, is strengthened by might in the inner man. All things are possible to him that believes. Simon Bar-Jona becomes Peter when he touches the Christ. The youths faint and are weary, and the young men utterly fall; but they that wait on the Lord renew their strength: they who know God are strong and do exploits.