And her two sons; of which the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land:
'The name of the one [of Moses' sons] was Gershom ... and the name of the other was Eliezer....' -- EXODUS xviii.3, 4.
In old times parents often used to give expression to their hopes or their emotions in the names of their children. Very clearly that was the case in Moses' naming of his two sons, who seem to have been the whole of his family. The significance of each name is appended to it in the text. The explanation of the first is, 'For he said, I have been an alien in a strange land'; and that of the second, 'For the God of my fathers, said he, was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.' These two names give us a pathetic glimpse of the feelings with which Moses began his exile, and of the better thoughts into which these gradually cleared. The first child's name expresses his father's discontent, and suggests the bitter contrast between Sinai and Egypt; the court and the sheepfold; the gloomy, verdureless, gaunt peaks of Sinai, blazing in the fierce sunshine, and the cool, luscious vegetation of Goshen, the land for cattle. The exile felt himself all out of joint with his surroundings, and so he called the little child that came to him 'Gershom,' which, according to one explanation, means 'banishment,' and, according to another (a kind of punning etymology), means 'a stranger here'; in the other case expressing the same sense of homelessness and want of harmony with his surroundings. But as the years went on, Moses began to acclimatise himself, and to become more reconciled to his position and to see things more as they really were. So, when the second child is born, all his murmuring has been hushed, and he looks beyond circumstances, and lays his hand upon God. 'And the name of the second was Eliezer, for, he said, the God of my fathers was my help.'
Now, there are the two main streams of thought that filled these forty years; and it was worth while to put Moses into the desert for all that time, and to break off the purposes and hopes of his life sharp and short, and to condemn him to comparative idleness, or work that was all unfitted to bring out his special powers, for that huge scantling out of his life, one-third of the whole of it, in order that there might be burnt into him, not either of these two thoughts separately, but the two of them in their blessed conjunction; 'I am a stranger here'; 'God is my Help.' And so these are the thoughts which, in like juxtaposition, ought to be ours; and in higher fashion with regard to the former of them than was experienced by Moses. Let me say a word or two about each of these two things. Let us think of the strangers, and of the divine helper that is with the strangers.
I. 'A stranger here.'
Now, that is true, in the deepest sense, about all men; for the one thing that makes the difference between the man and the beast is that the beast is perfectly at home in his surroundings, and gets all that he needs out of them, and finds in them a field for all that he can do, and is fully developed to the very highest point of his capacity by what people nowadays call the 'environment' in which he is put. But the very opposite is the case in regard to us men. 'Foxes have holes,' and they are quite comfortable there; 'and the birds of the air have roosting-places,' and tuck their heads under their wings and go to sleep without a care and without a consciousness. 'But the Son of man,' the ideal Humanity as well as the realised ideal in the person of Jesus Christ, 'hath not where to lay His head.' No; because He is so 'much better than they.' Their immunity from care is not a prerogative -- it is an inferiority. We are plunged into the midst of a scene of things which obviously does not match our capacities. There is a great deal more in every man than can ever find a field of expression, of work, or of satisfaction in anything beneath the stars. And no man that understands, even superficially, his own character, his own requirements, can fail to feel in his sane and quiet moments, when the rush of temptation and the illusions of this fleeting life have lost their grip upon him: 'This is not the place that can bring out all that is in me, or that can yield me all that I desire.' Our capacities transcend the present, and the experiences of the present are all unintelligible, unless the true end of every human life is not here at all, but in another region, for which these experiences are fitting us.
But, then, the temptations of life, the strong appeals of flesh and sense, the duties which in their proper place are lofty and elevating and refining, and put out of their place, are contemptible and degrading, all come in to make it hard for any of us to keep clearly before us what our consciousness tells us when it is strongly appealed to, that we are strangers and sojourners here and that this is not 'our rest, because it is polluted.' Therefore it comes to be the great glory and blessedness of the Christian Revelation that it obviously shifts the centre for us, and makes that future, and not this present, the aim for which, and in the pursuit of which, we are to live. So, Christian people, in a far higher sense than Moses, who only felt himself 'a stranger there,' because he did not like Midian as well as Egypt, have to say, 'We are strangers here'; and the very aim, in one aspect, of our Christian discipline of ourselves is that we shall keep vivid, in the face of all the temptations to forget it, this consciousness of being away from our true home.
One means of doing that is to think rather oftener than the most of us do, about our true home. You have heard, I dare say, of half- reclaimed gipsies, who for a while have been coaxed out of the free life of the woods and the moors, and have gone into settled homes. After a while there has come over them a rush of feeling, a remembrance of how blessed it used to be out in the open and away from the squalor and filth where men 'sit and hear each other groan' and they have flung off 'as if they were fetters' the trappings of 'civilisation,' and gone back to liberty. That is what we ought to do -- not going back from the higher to the lower, but smitten with what the Germans call the heimweh, the home-sickness, that makes us feel that we must get clearer sight of that land to which we truly belong.
Do you think about it, do you feel that where Jesus Christ is, is your home? I have no doubt that most of you have, or have had, dear ones here on earth about whom you could say that, 'Where my husband, my wife is; where my beloved is, or my children are, that is my home, wherever my abode may be.' Are you, Christian people, saying the same thing about heaven and Jesus Christ? Do you feel that you are strangers here, not only because you, reflecting upon your character and capacities and on human life, see that all these require another life for their explanation and development, but because your hearts are knit to Him, and 'where your treasure is there your heart is also'; and where your heart is there you are? We go home when we come into communion with Jesus Christ. Do you ever, in the course of the rush of your daily work, think about the calm city beyond the sea, and about its King, and that you belong to it? 'Our citizenship is in heaven' and here we are strangers.
II. Now let me say a word about the other child's name.
'God is Helper.' We do not know what interval of time elapsed between the birth of these two children. There are some indications that the second of them was in years very much the junior. Perhaps the transition from the mood represented in the one name to that represented in the other, was a long and slow process. But be that as it may, note the connection between these two names. You can never say 'We are strangers here' without feeling a little prick of pain, unless you say too 'God is my Helper.' There is a beautiful variation of the former word which will occur to many of you, I have no doubt, in one of the old psalms: 'I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as were all my fathers.' There is the secret that takes away all the mourning, all the possible discomfort and pain, out of the thought: 'Here we have no continuing city,' and makes it all blessed. It does not matter whether we are in a foreign land or no, if we have that Companion with us. His presence will make blessedness in Midian, or in Thebes. It does not matter whether it is Goshen or the wilderness, if the Lord is by our side. So sweetness is breathed into the thought, and bitterness is sucked out of it, when the name of the second child is braided into the name of the first; and we can contemplate quietly all else of tragic and limiting and sad that is involved in the thought that we are sojourners and pilgrims, when we say 'Yes! we are; but the Lord is my Helper.'
Then, on the other hand, we shall never say and feel 'the Lord is my Helper,' as we ought to do, until we have got deep in our hearts, and settled in our consciousness, the other conviction that we are strangers here. It is only when we realise that there is no other permanence for us that we put out our hands and grasp at the Eternal, in order not to be swept away upon the dark waves of the rushing stream of Time. It is only when all other props are stricken from us that we rest our whole weight upon that one strong central pillar, which can never be moved. Learn that God helps, for that makes it possible to say 'I am a stranger,' and not to weep. Learn that you are strangers, for that stimulates to take God for out help. Just as when the floods are out, men are driven to the highest ground to save their lives; so when the billows of the waters of time are seen to be rolling over all creatural things, we take our flight to the Rock of Ages. Put the two together, and they fit one another and strengthen us.
This second conviction was the illuminating light upon a perplexed and problematic past. Moses, when he fled from Egypt, thought that his life's work was rent in twain. He had believed that his brethren would have seen that it was God's purpose to use him as the deliverer. For the sake of being such, he had surrendered the court and its delights. But on his young ambition and innocent enthusiasm there came this douche of cold water, which lasted for forty years, and sent him away into the wilderness, to be a shepherd under an Arab sheikh, with nothing to look forward to. At first he said, 'This is not what I was meant for; I am out of my element here.' But before the forty years were over he said, 'The God of my father was my help, and He delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.' What had looked a disaster turned out to be a deliverance, a manifestation of divine help, and not a hindrance. He had got far enough away from that past to look at it sanely, that is to say gratefully. So we, when we get far enough away from our sorrows, can look back at them, sometimes even here on earth, and say, 'The mercy of the Lord compassed me about.' Here is the key that unlocks all the perplexities of providence, 'The Lord was my Helper.'
And that conviction will steady and uphold a man in a present, however dark. It was no small exercise of his faith and patience that the great lawgiver should for so many years have such unworthy work to do as he had in Midian. But even then he gathered into his heart this confidence, and brought summer about him into the mid- winter of his life, and light into the midst of darkness; 'for he said' -- even then, when there was no work for him to do that seemed much to need a divine help -- 'the Lord is my Helper.'
And so, however dark may be our present moment, and however obscure or repulsive our own tasks, let us fall back upon that old word, 'Thou hast been my Help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.'
When Moses named his boy, his gratitude was allied with faith in favours to come; and when he said 'was,' he meant also 'will be.' And he was right. He dreamt very little of what was coming, but this confidence that was expressed in his second child's name was warranted by that great future that lay before him, though he did not know it. When the pinch came his confidence faltered. It was easy to say 'The Lord is my Helper,' when there was nothing very special for which God's help was needed, and nothing harder to do than to look after a few sheep in the wilderness. But when God said to him, 'Go and stand before Pharaoh,' Moses for the moment forgot all about God's being his helper, and was full of all manner of cowardly excuses, which, like the excuses of a great many more of us for not doing our plain duty, took the shape of a very engaging modesty and diffidence as to his capacities. But God said to him, 'Surely I will be with thee.' He gave him back 'Eliezer' in a little different form. 'You used to say that I was your helper. What has become of your faith now? Has it all evaporated when the trial comes? Surely I will be with thee.' If we will set ourselves to our tasks, not doubting God's help, we shall have occasion in the event to be sure that God did help us.
So, brethren, let us cherish these two thoughts, and never keep them apart, and God will be, as our good old hymn has it --
'Our help while troubles last,
And our eternal home.'
Parallel VersesKJV: And her two sons; of which the name of the one was Gershom; for he said, I have been an alien in a strange land: