And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, What mean you by this service?
I. IT WAS A QUESTION TO BE EXPECTED. The service was one to provoke curiosity. It was not some daily action of the household, of which the children learned the meaning and purpose almost unconsciously. The grinding of the corn, the kneading of the dough, in a very short time explained themselves. But when as the beginning of the year drew round, it brought with it these special observances, the slaying and eating of the lamb and the seven days of unleavened bread, there was everything to make a child ask, "What is this being done for?" God makes one thing to fit into another. He institutes services of such a kind, with such elements of novelty and impressiveness in them, that the children make it easier for them to be instructed in the things that belong to his will. And what was true concerning this passover service, is also true, more or less, concerning all that is revealed in the Scriptures. The great facts of Divine revelation are such as to provoke curiosity, even in a child's mind. If it be true that the Scriptures are given to guide us all the way through life, then what is more reasonable to expect than that God will have placed much in them to stir up attention and inquiry from those who are just at the beginning of life?
II. HENCE THIS WAS A QUESTION TO BE ENCOURAGED. Every advantage was to be taken of childish curiosity. Inquisitive children are often reckoned a nuisance, and told to be quiet; yet such a policy as this, though it may save trouble in the present, may lead to a great deal more trouble in the future. A stupid child who never asks questions, is to be reckoned an object of pity and a source of peril. God has always in mind how to make each generation better instructed than the one going before; more obedient to him, and more serviceable for his purposes. The temptation of the grown people in Israel was to undervalue what was going on in the minds of their children. Remember how Mary and Joseph suffered through their want of forethought on this point. The God who watches human beings all the way from the cradle to the grave knows well how children, even very little children, have their own thoughts about things; and he wanted the people to give them every encouragement and information. One question wisely answered leads to the asking of other questions. Thus, by the continuance of an inquiring mood in the mind, and thus only, is profitable information to be given. Information is not to be poured into the mind as into a bucket; it must be taken as food, with appetite, and digestive and assimilating power. Thus if the question were not asked, if, while the passover preparations were being made, a child stood by in stolid unconcern, or ran away heedlessly to play, such conduct would fill a wise parent with solicitude. He would look upon it as being even more serious than a failure of physical health. He would do all he could by timely suggestions to bring the question forth. Ingenuity and patience may do much to bring curiosity into action, and if the question were not asked it would have to be assumed. The narrative of the passover was a most important one for every Israelite child to hear and remember; and if only the narrative was begun, it might soon excite the requisite and much desired interest.
III. IT WAS A QUESTION WHICH GAVE GREAT SCOPE FOR USEFULNESS TO THE CHILDREN IN THE ANSWERING OF IT. God, indeed, directs how it is to be answered; but of course, it is not meant that there was to be a formal, parrot-like confinement to these words. What, for instance, could be more gratifying to the children, who in after times asked this question, than to begin by pointing out to them, how God himself expected them to ask this question? Then the words he had directed Moses to provide for an answer, might be repeated. But it would have been a poor spiritless answer, unpleasing to God, and profitless to the children, if it had stopped with the bare utterance of the words in ver. 27. There was room for much to be said, that would very peculiarly impress the mind of a thoughtful child. It might be reminded that whereas, now, little children were born in the freedom of Canaan, some among their forefathers had been born in the bondage of Egypt. It might be told of that Pharaoh who had threatened the men* children with destruction. In particular, the story of the infant Moses might be told. So now, in those parts of the world where the idols are abolished, and former idolaters are gathered round the throne of grace for Christian worship, an opportunity is given for explaining to the children, in how much better a state, and with how much better surroundings they are brought up. "What mean ye by this service?' was a question which could be answered in form, and yet with such absence of heart, as utterly to chill and thwart the eager inquirer. Whereas, if it were only answered with evident care, with amplitude of detail, with loving desire to interest and satisfy, then the child thus favoured, would be laid under great obligations to be thankful in feeling, and devoted in service. A question of this sort gave great opportunity. Happy those who could seize the opportunity at once, and use it to the full.
IV. IT WAS A QUESTION WHICH CAME TO CALL EVERY ISRAELITE, AT THE ANNUAL OBSERVANCE OF THE PASSOVER, TO A CAREFUL CONSIDERATION OF HIS OWN FEELINGS WITH RESPECT TO IT. It was a question which helped to guard against formality. A little child may render a great service, without knowing it, even to a grown man. God can send the little ones, to test, to rebuke, to warn, to stir out of lethargy. "What mean ye by this service?" How is the Israelite of the grown generation to answer this question? He may tell the child what the service is intended for, the historical facts out of which it arose, and the Divine appointments concerning it; but after all, this is no real answer to the question. It may be an answer to satisfy the inquiring child, and yet leave the person who has to give it, with a barbed arrow in his memory and conscience. Notice the precise terms of the question. What mean ye by this service? How should the child ask in any other terms? It looks and sees the parents doing something new and strange; and to them it naturally looks for explanation and guidance. The question is not simply, "Why is this thing being done?' but "Why are you doing it, and what do you mean by it?" It became only too possible in the lapse of ages, to go through this service in a cold, mechanical, utterly unprofitable way. Not so, we may be sure, was it observed the first time in Egypt, on the night of deliverance. Then all was excitement, novelty, and overflowing emotion. Be it ours, in considering all outward and visible acts in connection with religion, all symbolic and commemorative institutions, to ask ourselves in great closeness and candour of personal self-application, "What mean we by this service?' Do we mean anything at all, and if so, what is it that we mean? To answer this is not easy: it is not meant to be easy. Perhaps one great reason why there are such marked and unabated differences of opinion with respect to Baptism and the Lord's Supper is, that we have never sufficiently considered the question, "What mean ye by these services?' It is hard work to be quit of mere superstition, mere clinging to outward observances as matters of custom, tradition, and respectability. It is very certain that to this question of the children, put in all its particular emphasis, only too many fathers in Israel would have been forced to reply, "We do this thing because our fathers did it." Remember that forms are, in themselves, nothing to the invisible, spiritual God. Their value is as containing, protecting and expressing what we have to present. That which pleased Jehovah and profited Israel was not the outward passover service, but the intelligence, the perceptions, the gratitude, the aspirations, and the hopes that lay behind it. - Y.
Parallel VersesKJV: And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service?