Behold, the ark of the covenant of the LORD of all the earth passes over before you into Jordan.
The lessons of importance are not exhausted in those already suggested in this passage of the Jordan. A deed so great, so solemn, so vast in its results, has many sides, and many subordinate points of interest. I gather up in this second homily a few of those points of interest and instruction. And first observe -
I. THE SIGN OF GOD'S PRESENCE WITH ISRAEL IS TEMPORARY, BUT THE PRESENCE ITSELF IS PERMANENT. This lesson arises at once from the fact that the pillar of cloud which hitherto had led them does not precede them now. To its guidance hitherto they had marched, and under its shadow rested. And the sign of God's presence had been a sweet assurance and a constant augury of success. Now it disappears altogether from the history of Israel. They will cross Jordan under the guidance of the ark, and of that alone. God's presence remains with them, but the sign of it is withdrawn. There were doubtless many who regarded such a loss as an omen of sinister significance; and many who, mixing devotion and superstition, would deplore that when the great crisis of the enterprise was come, their usual assurance of God's presence failed them. But there were some that had looked net to but through the sign, and built their hopes on the living God. And they, Joshua leading them, trusting in the love and faithfulness which they felt must be His character, were ready to venture without their sign. And venturing, they found God there, though the cloud of His presence had been withdrawn, and they got a notable lesson in walking by faith rather than by sight. We need few lessons more than this: That God's presence or absence is not to be concluded from the presence or absence of the sign of it. We are all Jewish enough to "require a sign." We want some assurance of acceptance over and beyond what gospel words convey. We want some "leading of Providence" in addition to the sense of duty before we feel comfortable in starting on any course. Raptures, mystic whisperings of God's consolation, special experiences not granted to others - these are apt in the regard of all of us to assume too much importance. We are apt to make the same mistake concerning these which some in Israel doubtless made concerning the pillar of cloud and fire; namely, to imagine them a special crown, a testimony to our unusual sanctity, instead of a gracious condescension to our weaknesses and to the fears which mark our setting out on a pilgrimage. Just escaping from slavery, Israel needed signs; now, maturer in experience and stronger in faith, the signs are no longer needed. Probably. in all cases it will be found that signs belong to the earlier stages of the experience either of the community or the individual. When experience and faith are strong, they are withdrawn. Put not a dark construction on any mere want of signs, for while the sign of the presence is temporary, the presence itself is permanent with all God's people. Growing out of this a second lesson suggests itself, viz.:
II. THEY ARE WELL LED WHO ARE ARK LED. Israel no longer had the pillar of cloud and fire, but they had the ark of God, and, as the event proved, the ark led them just as wisely as the pillar; and in following it they found just the same help of miraculous power. What was this ark of the covenant? A wonderful piece of sacred symbolism. Over it - in fact, forming the lid of it - was what was named the mercy seat, God's earthly throne. Within it were the ten commandments, written on two tables of stone. This combination of symbols of law and mercy belonged to no religion but that of Israel. The gods of other nations required but little duty, and were hardly expected to show mercy. But the symbolism of the ark and the whole Mosaic economy projected these thoughts before the minds of Israel: The true God is a God of mercy. But at the same time He insists on duty. The ark proclaimed Him the God of mercy and of law; of gracious promise, of ennobling precept; delivering men by the grace He gave, dignifying them by the duty He exacted. This was the God of Israel. And now, in lieu of signs, the symbol of mercy and of duty was to lead the way. Not eagles, symbols of victorious power, but tables of stone led them, and "marshalled them the way that they were going." And their successful following of this lead suggests that when any one marches to the lead of the ten commandments, or of the promises of God, he is as well led and as grandly succoured as when some cloudy pillar moves before him. There is importance in this. Often our signs are withdrawn; as with the community of Israel so with us, it is probably the case that signs grow fewer and that special experiences grow more rare as character matures. Then comes a time, more or less clearly definite, when, instead of mysterious movings felt to be Divine, the guidance of the Lord is given, through a testimony of mercy and of duty. Before you goes the symbol of heavenly love and of earthly duty. And you have to march, coldly as it may seem, to the lead of tables of stone and verbal assurances only of God's care. Murmur not at this; a hope and a duty are guides sublime. The ark is just as good as the cloud. If you had the choice of an enlightened conscience or a special angel to be your guide, you would do wisely to choose the conscience in preference to the angel. You may mistake the reading of your signs - you rarely will your duty. Next to His redeeming grace, the richest mercy He gives us is a "word behind us," or within us, "saying, this is the way, walk ye in it." And the grandest spirits of mankind - in their pilgrimage from victory to victory - have marched under the lead of nothing grander than some ark, something that whispered hope and demanded duty. Thus led, did Israel lose? Nay, as before the cloudy pillar the sea divided, so before the sacred ark did Jordan. If you have something like what the ark embodied - a promise and a precept - ask no more; where the tables of the covenant lead you, there follow. Few get more, and none get anything better, than these. God guides through enlightenment of conscience, or Bible precept, or the devout example which you instinctively perceive is a pattern to be followed. Seek not any sign; God's presence will ever be with all those that keep His precepts. If the ark of God, as replacing the pillar of cloud, has such suggestions, observe thirdly -
III. GOD'S HYDRAULICS ARE NEVER FAULTY. In the West of England just now there is considerable discussion about" dockising" the river Avon, i.e., so throwing a dam across the mouth that all the river up to Bristol would be converted into one huge dock. And in the discussion the strength of such a dam, its cost, its leakage, the right place for it, how to provide for the outlet of all water above a certain level, are canvassed by all. Here we have the "dockising" for a day or two of the river Jordan, a very much larger river than the Avon, one whose very name suggests the swiftness of its current. And the dam that effects this great collection of the waters is "the ark of God," set down in the midst of the Jordan bed, with the priests grouped on either side. How would the philosophers of that day criticise that dam, and express with assumed anxiety their fears that the law of gravitation and the law that governs the flow of liquids would prove too much for the legs of the priests, and even for the weight of the tables of stone. But whatever fear might be entertained by the people before the ark entered Jordan, and whatever misgivings by the priests when they were standing in its pebbly bed, there was a power which operated from that ark which dammed the fiver as no engineer could have done it. So that instead of reading of struggling with the water, of multitudes carried down the stream, of hairbreadth escapes, of multitudes left behind, all got safely across. And here, I think, we have a specimen of what is everywhere to be seen; the efficiency of spiritual barriers against all assailing forces. We see them on all hands; we dread lest they be overborne by some strong current bearing down against them. But lo! they stand against all force that threatens them. God's truth is such a barrier. With error like a huge river rushing down upon it, it seems as slender and insufficient as was the barrier of the ark. Science is so arrogant and captious, chronology so sure, metaphysics so disputatious, error so agreeable to the natural man, that it seems as if there could be no standing. But the Jordan of all the philosophies and all the heresies threaten in vain, and God's ark of truth is sufficient to withstand them. God's grace in the heart is such a dam; nothing seemingly more feeble, nothing really more strong, against the swelling tides of inward corruption and outward temptation that assail the character. Sometimes prayer shields a distant boy, an erring friend, and protects them with a guard as really omnipotent as it appears feeble. Judge not by the outward appearance. The clock is not about to go backward, nor error usurp the place of truth. Don't tremble for the ark of God, as did Eli. Whatever God wants guarded, it is omnipotent to guard. So that, amongst other lessons, this sweet one comes to us that we are guarded better than we think. And what seems God's weakness is mightier than the strongest strength which can come against us. - G.
Parallel VersesKJV: Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passeth over before you into Jordan.