The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,The Drowning of Pharaoh
"What, still talking about miracles? We thought that faith in miracles had been given up long ago by intelligent men." Some such expression as this would not be unnatural from certain quarters. The answer is that "intelligent men" are just beginning to believe in miracles. They are nearly always the last men to come round to great conceptions and noble spiritual realisations. But even "intelligent men" are stirring themselves with somewhat of reluctance in the direction which we should term spiritual and evangelical. All the greatest books that are being written to-day, upon what would once have been called the hostile side, force upon their readers the consciousness of a hunger which nothing in time or space can satisfy—a voracity of the soul. We may be more or less sated after having read arguments upon which we have been nourished for a lifetime, but we are pinched with gnawing and agonising hunger after perusing the pages which were intended to tell us all that can be told. Did the miracles as here reported actually occur? Why not? You can only be puzzled by a miracle when you are puzzled by a God. If your conception of God were like mine, no miracle that ever was reported could touch the region of impossibility. No wonder men are troubled, even to perplexity and sore distress of heart, by so-called miracles, when they have not acquainted themselves deeply with the power and spirit and purpose of God. The study is begun at the wrong point. To me it is easier to believe that the miracles occurred than that they could not have occurred. The difficulty from my point of view is wholly on the other side. Whether they did historically occur or not is not the immediate question. To me, I repeat, it is easier, with my conception of God, to believe that the miracles could have occurred than that it was impossible for them to occur. Everything turns upon our conception of the Worker of the miracles. We do not begin at the miracle itself. We begin with the Teacher, the Worker, the realised Jehovah, or the incarnate Logos. Having first entered into fellowship, we next pass into faith. Knowing by the penetration and sympathy of love what the spirit of the Worker is, we have no difficulty. We pass with him into all his action, and when the action is mightiest our rest is deepest, because the proportion between the Worker and the work impresses the mind with a sense of infinite harmony. The greater the miracle the easier to believe in it. The greatest miracle must be infinitely less than the Worker who accomplished it. If ever faith falters it must be because the miracle is too small. The great miracle challenges our best self like the trumpet of resurrection; as the miracle increases in volume and grandeur, in pomp and nobleness, something within us hitherto unknown rises and claims kinship with the Worker of that stupendous wonder. This was curiously illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ. When the people fell into unbelief it was because the miracle was of what may be termed a commonplace character,—that is to say, some possible explanation of jugglery might in some degree account for it To open the eyes of the blind might be some trick of magic; but the man himself stood up and said,—"Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind." He seized the true emphasis and meaning of the action. To open the eyes of the blind might be accounted for by some species of cleverness or legerdemain; but, says the man: "I was born blind; I believe this miracle, not because it is little but because it is great." Thus man is made to know subtly and profoundly that he was created in the image and likeness of God, and when God is, so to say, most God, man realises his human grandeur as he can realise it under no other circumstances. To heal the bruised or broken joint might be some successful trick in occult surgery; there might be pretence about it. We allow a miracle of that kind to pass under our review without being deeply moved by it,—it comes not up to the level of our truest grandeur; but when a dead man is raised—one who has been four days in the grave—when he comes forth, a new feeling seizes the mind, and because the miracle enlarges and ennobles itself, we rise with corresponding and harmonious dignity of conception and sympathy. It is only, therefore, where the miracle is supposedly little or imitable, or commonplace, that faith hardly cares to stoop to take up a trifle so insignificant. The soul of man being really roused, and burning through and through with a celestial fire, asks for infinite miracles,—asks for God. Grow in grace, and you will take up all the minor miracles as very little things, and yearn in sweet and ardent prayer for the greatest of all miracles—the conscious presence of the Living God.
But there is another mode of treatment which we have not in these pastoral studies hesitated to adopt, which will enable us to seize the supernatural element with a firmer hand.
Let us in the first instance always inquire into the moral doctrine of these unusual events: asking what is the underlying truth, what the spiritual and moral meaning the narration of the exciting incidents is intended to convey to us. Having discovered the intent of the writer we shall have no difficulty about the romantic or amazing incidents. This is what we do with a parable, and a parable is a miracle in imagination. The great miracle has about it the touch and the mystery of the marvellous. It is not an off-hand thought It is reason at its best; or, to speak figuratively, it is reason on wings,—no longer walking on the narrow earth but flying in the unmeasured heaven. We do not force a parable into literal meanings at every point; we ask, What is its central intent or meaning? and having seized that we treat all the outward and literal as decorative, suggestive, or merely incidentally helpful; but we do not risk the truth because of the peculiarity of the medium of its conveyance.
"And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:
"He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people" (Exodus 13:21-22).
What is the great doctrine of that expression?
This:—The consciousness of the Divine presence is in proportion to the circumstances in which we are placed. In other words, our circumstances determine our consciousness of the Divine nearness. Sometimes life is all day—almost a summer day with great spans of blue sky overhead, and where the clouds gather they gather in beautiful whiteness, as of purity akin to the holiness of the inner and upper cities of the universe. Then what do we want with fiery displays of God?—they would be out of keeping, out of reason and out of proportion. There are days that are themselves so bright, so hospitable, so long ending, and so poetic in all their breezes, and suggestions, and ministries that we seem not to want any dogmatic teaching about the personality and nearness of God. All beauty represents him. Any more emphatic demonstration would be out of harmony with the splendid serenity of the occasion. Then there are periods in life all night, all darkness, all storm or weariness. We cannot say where the door of liberty is, nor dare we step out lest we fall over a precipice; all is dark, all is trouble; friends are as absent as if they were dead, and all the sanctuaries to which we have hitherto resorted are concealed by the infinite darkness. What do we want then? A bird to sing to us? That would be helpful. A little tiny voice to break the troubled silence? That would not be amiss. But what do we really want? A column of fire, a pillar of glory, an emphatic incarnation and vision of Providence; and the soul gets both these manifestations of God according to the circumstances under which the soul is living. Take it, therefore, simply as an analogy, and then it is a rational analogy; it is true to every man's experience. And if the pillar of cloud and fire should drop off, there will remain the eternal truth, that according to the soul's circumstances is the Divine revelation of itself. Where the visible is enough why add more? A man should not want much theology of a formal sort on a bright summer day. Some little tuft of cloud will represent the Infinite. Some almost invisible wing in the air—more a thought than a thing—hardly to be identified by the bodily eye, will symbolise the all-embracing power and the all-brooding love. Then at night we want what is called dogmatic teaching, broad emphasis, piercing declaration, vividness that cannot be mistaken, God almost within the clasping of the poor arms, God almost in sight of the eyes of the body. Thus God deals with us. This is true to our history. The mere cloud may go, the pillar of fire may be accepted as figurative; but the eternal truth that God comes to us in different ways under different circumstances—now as a cloud, now as a fire, now as a judgment, now as without mercy, now a roaring tempest, now a still small voice,—is a truth that remains whatever havoc may be wrought amid the mere figurativeness by which that truth is symbolised.
Then the cloud went behind the Israelites and separated between the camp of the chosen people and the camp of the Egyptians. That is occurring every day. Our circumstances have different readings from different points of view. It is possible for a life to be so lived that the enemy shall be afraid of it. The enemy shall say, "I do not understand this people; there is a mystery about them, say what you please, criticise them night and day with all possible sharpness and severity; there is a magic ring around them; there are circumstances attendant upon them which are the more perplexing in that they sometimes seem to be disasters: now we say, 'Everything is against them,' and presently the very things we thought to be against them turn out rather to the furtherance of their purposes." This is a mystery; and thus the Divine Providence turns a different view upon the Church and the world, the son and the alien, the family and the rebel-camp. So long, therefore, as these central truths can be attested and positively verified, why should we fritter away a splendid occasion by a petty criticism of mere figure, and robe, and parabolic symbol and representation? Thus, take it from the literal side, take it from the imaginative and parabolical, my faith has no difficulty whatever with the miracles, except when they are small. It rises to their majesty. The greater they arc the more will every Nicodemus be compelled even at night time to steal out and say to the Worker, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." Mark how Nicodemus fixed upon the quality of the miracles—the miracles that separated themselves from the magician's wonders of heathen or cultivated lands.
"And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken, us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness" (Exodus 14:11-12).
That is a miracle in very deed! That is the marvel that astounds the reason, the heart, the imagination, and the conscience. That is the miracle which grieves Heaven. "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." That is the upsetting of the law of continuity. That is the violation of things permanent. That is an ugly and wicked twist in the movement of the law which you call "the persistence of force." After all they had seen,—after all the miracles of love, and grace, and deliverance, and comfort,—after all they had known of the government of God,—they turned round with so base a falseness and smote, as with darts seven times whetted, the heart of Moses their leader. That is the impossible miracle. How mean we are and paltry in our judgment and in thinking that the dividing of a sea or the breaking up of a firmament is the impossible thing, when every day we are working in our own degree and region moral miracles that make the breaking up and reconstruction of the universe mere child's fancy and child's play. Why do we not fix our attention upon moral incongruities,—violations of moral law, rebellion against natural instinct? He who smites his father or his mother violates every law of nature with a more forceful and violent hand than the God who interferes or intervenes in his own infinite machine—the universe—to do what pleaseth him for the good of his creatures. We like little intellectual puzzles;—we flee away because "conscience makes cowards of us all," from the violations of moral law of which we are guilty. We love to speak of "continuity,"—it costs us nothing; it does not wring the conscience, it does not set up a bar of judgment in the life; it has a bold resonance which we can utter without moral expense or agony; therefore we play upon it; it delights our intellectual vanity. When we come to ourselves we shall know that we have sinned against Heaven and against ourselves and are no more worthy to be called children. In the sublime agony we shall forget all physical miracles in the stupendous wonder that we have grieved the Father's heart.
"And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters Were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left" (Exodus 14:22).
Did they really do this? Why not? Suppose we set aside the miraculous incident for a moment and ask: What does the writer mean to convey by this high imagining? He means to convey this lesson, namely, that a way was found where a way was supposed to be impossible. Is that his meaning? Yes. If that is so, the doctrine is verifying and illustrating itself every day in the history of every man. This then is the true miracle:—that when our poor life has been driven up to a point from which there seemed to be no escape, God has shown an opening in the rock, or a way through the deep; and we who expected to perish because the way was ended have been enabled to enter upon larger liberties. Who will swear to that? I will. Ten thousand times ten thousand witnesses will avouch it. There will be no halting in that oath; and if you represent to us these deliverances as the breaking up of mountains, the dividing of seas, the cleaving in twain of deep and rapid-flowing rivers, we will say, "Pile up the parables, stir your imagination to some nobler figurativeness, for you can never by symbol, or dream, or romantic art, represent the whole truth which we have realised as to the delivering, protecting, preserving, redeeming providence of God."
Instead, therefore, of joining the unbelievers who waste life in trying to show that Almightiness cannot be Almighty, I prefer to begin the study from the other end and to say,—"Even if this be a figure, it is a happy one, for I have been in circumstances just of this very kind: the enemy behind me, the foe almost with his hand upon my weary back, and no way out of the difficulty has presented itself, and yet suddenly my extremity became God's opportunity, and at a bound I was beyond the reach of the destroyer." We want personal testimony about matters of this kind. We want such incidents proved by modern consciousness and present-day facts. That can be done,—and is being done. When the Church rises as one man and repeats the challenge of the psalmist—"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul"—the critic will first have to prove us false in our character and in our spirit before he can prove us false in our theology and our worship. Do not find fault with the manner in which the truth itself is presented. To find fault with the mere manner of conveying the truth is foolish, is unjust. We should seek the truth, realise it, own it, and abide by it.
Leaving the merely miraculous line, these incidents show us human life in a state of panic and distress.
"When Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord" (Exodus 14:10).
How soon we are driven into a panic! In the very midst of our prayers we are startled into atheism. A sudden fear shoots through the soul, sometimes in the very act of intercession, and petrifies the holy aspiration, so that we rise from the altar worse than when we bended down before its sacred stones. The incidents show us human nature in a spirit of rebellion and ingratitude. "And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?" How we are like staves that break in the hands of those who use them! There is but a step between the truest friendship and the bitterest enmity. The brother who adores you to-day will hate you tomorrow, if you cross his will or stain his pride. Here is human life in a condition of utter helplessness.
"Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord" (Exodus 14:13).
These are noble times—times when we have to be everything by being nothing; days when our poor arms have to fall down at our sides unable to do the very simplest thing in the way of self-deliverance or self-extrication from difficulty. This threefold condition was the state of the world prior to the birth of Christ. The world was in a state of panic and distress; the spirit of rebellion and ingratitude urged itself against the heavens, it had exhausted every possible means of self-deliverance and self-pro-gress, and could go no further. It had begun a circular movement, and in its helpless rotation was dying of monotony. Suddenly there was a voice heard:—"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men." History took a new turn from that day. Account for it as you please—again resent the miraculous and supernatural element,—there is the fact, that to-day men will do more for Jesus Christ than for any other leader. The men who know him best love him most, and have entered most profoundly into his spirit. Paul was not a weak man,—Paul could take hold of an argument by both hands and weigh it, measure it, test it; Paul was a man who is proved by his mere style of writing and of speech to have been a man of great intellectual capacity as well as of fine moral quality,—a philosopher, a reasoner, a critic,—a man of most penetrating intellect and of ample judgment; and he, having approached this great miracle from the hostile side, left it at last, when he was old, bruised, stripped, almost dead, saying—"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." It was a philosopher who said, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." It was a critic who said, "I am crucified with Christ." It was an aristocrat of the highest Pharisaic blood who gathered together all pedigrees and genealogies and prides of families and said, "I do count them but dung, that I may win Christ." The Man who made such an impression on such a mind was himself a greater miracle than any wonder or sign which he performed before the imagination, the curiosity, or the unbelief of his contemporaries. Now unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, unto him be glory and dominion and all majesty day without end. Amen.
And when Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the LORD.Old Enemies Pursuing
Some resemblances between the condition of the children of Israel in Egypt, in their flight from the tyranny of Pharaoh, and the condition of man in sin and his escape from the tyranny of the devil are obviously suggested. The state of Israel in Egypt was one of the severest depression. At every point the Israelites were overborne; their manhood was insulted; they had no rights, privileges or claims. Their time was not their own. If ever they looked up complainingly into the face of the taskmaster, their answer was another stroke of the lash. The light of their best nature was put out, and they were treated simply as beasts of burden. The political condition of Israel in Egypt in these particulars very fitly resembles the spiritual condition of man in a state of sin. However loud may be his boasting, he is a slave; however much he may think he has liberty which he can enjoy as he pleases, he can only go the length of a chain. Sin is slavery; sin is continual oppression. No man who has tasted of the bitterness of sin will contradict the statement, that a state of sin is a state of exhausted manhood. All that is noble, true, pure, and beautiful has been expelled from the nature; and there is nothing left behind but great gaps, blanks and voids, which the world cannot fill, and what hopes remain are only turned to the bitterness of disappointment and mortification. The enemy of Israel was powerful. Pharaoh had everything at his command; a nod was law; the lifting of a finger was equal to the extension of a sceptre; whenever Israel threatened to become rebellious he could bring forces to bear upon the rising that could soon crush it. He was powerful, they were weak; he was on the throne, they were under his feet— and Pharaoh's feet were heavy! The spiritual condition of mankind in a state of sin is precisely the same. The enemy of man is powerful. When he is described by earthly figures, those figures themselves are terrible. He is a roaring lion going about seeking whom he may devour; he is a prince; he is the prince of the power of the air; he has all but unlimited resources; his hand is heavy and cruel, his arm is long, and we have no power to break it; he is subtle; he comes to us in a thousand ways we do not dream of; he comes to us along the streaming of music; he looks at us through the beauty of pictures; he meets us on the highway, smiles himself into our confidence, entangles us in many peculiar combinations. And when we say, "Now we shall be free," he says, "Will you?" No man who has lived deeply, who understands life, who has seen below the outside of things, but knows that sin gets a daily increasing power over him. The habit which to-day we can snap because it is but half-formed, will, in the course of a few weeks, become so strong as to mock all our strength. The young man says that he knows when to turn back. He may be perfectly sincere in saying that he has that good knowledge,—but is his power equal to his information? He says, "I will go down this way a certain distance; I will drink so much worldly pleasure; I shall sit so long at the devil's table; I shall just peep in behind the curtain which conceals hell; and then I will come back again after I have formed some idea of the reality of things in that direction." His purpose is very good; he fully intends to do what he says, but the footprints which he made on the road are rubbed out, and he has not gone down the road a mile before he loses all his bearings; he knows not which is east, west, north, south; going back and going forward are the same thing; he is locked up in the most terrible of jails—the prison of darkness! I point out these things with this care, not to wound or shock anyone's sensibilities or tastes, but to show who it is that has the sinner under his foot, and whose hand it is that strikes at everything good, and true, and beautiful in human nature. The enemy of man is powerful.
Israel escaped from the hand of Pharaoh. By a strong and mighty deliverance Israel was brought out from Egypt The Israelites had gone along the road of promise and liberty so far, but they turned round to look back, and behold, the Egyptians were after them! The Israelites had said, "Now we have escaped at last"; and behold the breath of the destroyer was breathed upon their necks! That is precisely the case with redeemed and liberated man in a spiritual sense. Upon this point I would speak with a good deal of remonstrance in one direction and hopefulness in another. With a good deal of remonstrance thus:
Here is a man who professes to have been redeemed from sin, and who has taken upon himself the Christian profession, and there is one who is watching him at a little distance who is expecting that the man will instantly step out of Egypt right into Canaan; and because the man is weak and worn, and less than half himself, some cruel word is used when he stumbles or falters a little! Is that right? Is that decent? Look at the man's condition, as typified by the circumstances. Israel in Egypt bowed down,—the hand of cruel tyranny upon his neck,—the lash of cruel oppression cutting his back to the bone. He has only been liberated a day. Do you expect him to stand erect, as if he had been a man for half a century? This is precisely what so many persons do in interpreting moral character and spiritual profession. Let me suppose that, at the age of forty, you have been saved from your sin; you have lifted up your face towards the light; you have taken the solemn pledge in the name and strength of God to be good and to do good. But your forty years' history is behind you,—forty years of moral exhaustion, forty years of spiritual tyranny; and because you cannot step right out of Egypt into Paradise you will find some persons who will mock you, and will say, "Ha, ha! Is this your piety? I thought you had become a Christian now. Is this your Christianity?" The mocker is never wanting in the good man's path. Those who have the cruel gift of taunting are never wanting to mock men who would live well, who would go in the right direction, and hold their worn faces and their streaming eyes towards the light of God.
I would speak hopefully. I would remind you that you cannot expect to escape from all your old associations in a moment. I would speak hopefully, because I know some of you have been distressed by the uprising of forces in your heart which you thought had been settled and quenched for ever. A man cannot throw off his old past as he can throw off an old garment; he cannot strip himself and throw the old slave into the fire, and say, "Now I will begin at this point, and never have any connection with the past." Old slaveries, old tyrannies, old recollections, and habits, and companionships, will assert themselves in one way or another. It is more than a step from hell to heaven. You are now a professor of Christianity. Let me suppose you are sincere in your profession. You are ardent in your pursuit of Christian knowledge, you omit no opportunity of improving your spiritual faculties, you pray, you search the Scriptures, you attend helpful ministries; and yet you say, just when you think you are becoming safe and can take a little rest, and enjoy somewhat of the beauty and prospect of the scene,—just then the old devil, that you had supposed to be dead, turns over in your heart! It is not unnatural, it is not some strange thing that has happened to you. It is a long way from evil to goodness, from darkness to light, from the depths of sin to the highest attainments of grace! There will be many a struggle, many a reappearance of your old self; your old self will become a thousand ghosts, and they will frighten you. It is so with us all. We think now, after this lesson or that prayer, or some well-accepted appointments of God, that at last we have attained, and are something like already perfect; and suddenly an unexpected event occurs, and, to our own surprise, we find that, notwithstanding our hope of rest, we are in some respects as weak and as bad as ever we we're—I am. I am no separated priest; but a man, a fellow-sufferer. I know this, and my heart cries over it bitterly; because it seems as though one never could be at rest, and never could say that we are complete and beyond the region of fear. In some directions we are so happy, so buoyant, so full of glad expectancy, and softened and chastened by the most hallowed influences, and yet in a moment we slip right down, back again into the old Egypt, where our condemnation was written in the dust, and the air was filled with the voice of our torment.
And there are persons who mock us! When a Christian man makes any slip at all, you know how bitter is the taunt that is levelled against him, as though he ought to have stepped clear out of Egypt right up to the throne of God,—as though there had been no wilderness, and no Red Sea, and no long wandering, and no daily severe discipline. Let us be gentle with one another. We were in Egypt but yesterday, and the enemy will not let us go easily. The devil does not say, "You are going, are you? Yes; well, good-bye." No, no. Just as a man is going into heaven lie makes a dash at the skirts of his garments; he fights battles in the chamber of death; he troubles the last hours of the saint, and it is not until heaven's door shuts upon the redeemed man that the devil gives up the pursuit with a sob of disappointment, and falls back to be the severer with those who are yet upon the earth!
There was an omnipotent and gracious Redeemer in the case of Israel; so there is in the case of redeemed men. We are not saved by sheer power. Power in itself considered is a terror; it is something very awful and unapproachable. But power in the hands of mercy becomes redemption. The Redeemer of Israel was not only powerful but gracious. The Israelites upon this occasion were sore afraid, they lifted up their eyes and they cried unto the Lord. They were weak; they had no strength left in them; and as for weapons of war, what had they? or if they had them, how could they use them with any successful effect when they had been so long trampled upon and unmanned and disquieted? There they were; and Egypt, mighty in her pride and cruel in her wrath, was upon their track. Egypt never knew the mystery of mercy. What was to be done then? The word reads so sweetly, the word is this: "Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord." Precisely the gospel that was adapted to their weak condition. If the command had been, "Rouse you; fight!" it would have been like asking dead men to light those who were in the very bloom and pride of their strength. But the command is, "Stand still." The adaptation of God's message to our condition is so perfect, so gracious, so sufficient. When we are weak and cannot fight he says, "Stand still, and I will fight for you." When we have our energies in all their completeness, he says, "Rise! fight!" He meets us according to the condition that we are in. The Lord shall fight for you and ye shall hold your peace.
The Egyptians were to be seen that day for the last time. "The Egyptians whom ye have seen to-day, ye shall see them again no more for ever." How so? "Because the Lord will fight for you." When God shuts his hand he crushes Egypt. There will be no stir, or tumult, or great ado; the lifting up of his hand is destruction; the outlook of his eye annihilation; the breath of his nostrils is a wind that carries with it desolation and death, when he is so pleased. Here a little mistake was made by the great leader of Israel. I am so thankful when men like Moses stumble, because their stumbling gives inferior men hope and heart. Moses began to make it too much a question of prayer; he began to talk to the Lord as if it were a great case of grief and despondency, as if all difficulties had culminated in one terrific crisis. The Lord said unto him, "Moses, do not pray at all." He told them to do just as they were doing when they saw the Egyptians coming after them, namely, to go on.
Consider the circumstances. Israel was going on. Israel turned round and saw the Egyptians; and Israel was full of weakness, and trembling, and despair; and Moses spake unto the Lord. And the Lord said unto Moses, "Go on as if this thing had not happened; do not take it into your calculations at all; leave the Egyptians in my hands; there is a time to pray, but not now; only lift up thy rod, and stretch thy hand over the sea, and divide it, and behold I will get me honour upon Pharaoh and upon all his host, upon his chariots, and upon his horsemen." "All!" with holy, mighty scorn, he named them, and they seemed to perish whilst he enumerated them! Mighty in their degree, but when compared with Jehovah but so many insects fluttering in the air—a breath being able to destroy them.
Then occurred this beautiful incident. The angel of the Lord, which went before the camp of Israel all the journey long up to this hour, removed and went behind them. The angel of the Lord could do as he pleased. God is not the victim of law. God is the Lawgiver. Life is above law. For ages he has been yonder, in the front; when it pleaseth him he can turn round and be at the rear of things. He has a right to every chamber in his own house; he built it; he has the key of every room, he can enter when he pleases. On this occasion it pleased him to reverse the order of things, and from the van he came to the rear. So beautiful are his adaptations! He said to Israel, in effect and substance, "Are the Egyptians behind thee, O Israel? Then I will come behind thee." "But the Egyptians are so very near to us, Lord!" "I can come between you and them, how near soever they be; I made all spaces, and have them all under my control, and though the Egyptians were just upon thy neck I could come in between you,—I will go behind." And Israel sang a song unto the Lord: "Thou hast beset us behind and before, and laid thine hand upon us." There are men who tell us that God must move in this direction and must move in that; they have been looking into affairs, they have been adding things up, and they have been drawing their conclusions, and the conclusion of the thing is this—that we are prisoners in the great jail of law. I am not. I am a prisoner of God's love; I am shut up in the great sanctuary of his heart. I believe he is greater than aught he has made; that the Lawgiver is greater than the law, and that he who established the universe has the key of its secret in his own heart. I teach this gracious truth because I have lived it; I have known its completeness, its excellence, and its redeeming power. God can be at one point to-day and at another tomorrow. He can be before them in this case, behind them in that; he determines all things by a sovereignty we cannot control. His sovereignty is his grace, at its highest point. The supremacy of love is the sovereignty of God. I will trust myself with the Most High, I will cast myself solely upon him, I will call him my Father and my King!
We are, then, in the wilderness; we have had long and bitter experience of sin, and that experience has made us very weak, we have been under a most powerful and oppressive enemy; he has never spared us, he has been severe with us; he has taken away from us all that made life strong and desirable and useful, and we have been redeemed by a gracious and omnipotent Redeemer; and still the great enemy has pursued us, as though he never, never would give us up whilst there seemed, even to himself, to his infernal hope, the slightest possible chance of recapturing us, and locking us up in his great prison-house. This is our condition; we are still in the wilderness; old associations still remind us of their existence, evil memories still trouble our recollection, ghosts and spectres of the past come to terrify us, even when we sit down at the board of Sacrament, and when we repeat the oath of Christian love at the Cross. But our Redeemer is sufficient; he says to us in the time of despair, "I will come behind thee." When we are just giving up, and asking, "Who is sufficient for these things?" he says to us, in his own sweet voice, "My grace is sufficient for thee; thy shoes shall be iron and brass, and as thy days so shall thy strength be; no weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper. Hast thou not known, hast thou not heard, hath it not been told thee from the beginning, that the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?" "He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall; but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint" They shall be troubled on every side, but not distressed; cast down, but not destroyed; persecuted, but still there shall be room enough left for the triumphing of the grace of God. Sirs, your redemption is not of your own skill, energy, or wit. "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help." When there was no eye to pity and no arm to save, his own eye pitied, and his own arm brought salvation. And I am persuaded that he who hath begun this good work will continue it even unto the end.
Let us hope in this. Are you persecuting anybody? Are you pursuing any one who has escaped the clutches of your evil influence? Know this, that if their hearts be set on God, you cannot get at them. "Cannot get at them?" No. "But they are now within sight." But God could blind you, if you were within an inch of them. "Not get at them? Why, I can almost touch them now." Yes, you can almost do it, but your "almost" is to God as wide as infinitude. Are you pursued? Do you say you cannot get away from old influences, companions, associations, and conditions? Not all at once, but little by little. If you be in God and love his truth, the pursuit of the enemy will bring salvation nearer to you; if you cast your heart's poor weakness and distrust entirely upon his keeping,—then, nor mountain nor sea shall keep the pilgrim back from the Canaan of God!
And Israel saw that great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians: and the people feared the LORD, and believed the LORD, and his servant Moses.Redeeming Points
In the book of Exodus we have an account of the character of the people delivered by the power of Jehovah and guided and directed by the statesmanship of Moses. Sometimes in reading the history we think there never were such rebellious and stiff-necked people in all human history. Moses is often angry with them; the Lord himself often burns with indignation against them; sometimes, as cool and impartial readers, we feel the spirit of anger rising within us as we contemplate the selfishness, the waywardness, and the impracticableness of the children of Israel. We feel that they were altogether undeserving the grace, the compassion, the patient love which marked the Divine administration of their affairs. The spirit of impatience rises within us and we say, "Why does not God bury this stiff-necked and hard-hearted race in the wilderness and trouble himself no longer about people who receive his mercies without gratitude, and who seeing his hand mistake it for a shadow or for some common figure? Why does the great heart weary itself with a race not worth saving?" Sometimes the Lord does come nigh to the act of utter destruction: and it seems as if justice were about to be consummated and every instinct within us to be satisfied by the vindication of a power always defied and a beneficence never understood.
Give yourselves a little time to discover if you can the redeeming points even in so ungracious and so unlovable a history. It will indeed be a religious exercise, full of the spirit of edification and comfort, to seek some little sparkles of gold in this infinite mass of worthlessness. It will be quite worth a Sabbath day's journey to find two little grains of wheat in all this wilderness of chaff. Surely this is the very spirit of compassion and love, this is the very poetry and music of God's administration, that he is always looking for the redeeming points in every human character. Allowing that the mass of the history is against the people: still there cannot be any escape from that conclusion. If it were a question of putting vice into one scale and virtue into the other, and a mere rough exercise in avoirdupois-weighing, the Israelites could not stand for one moment. To find out the secret of patience, to begin to see how it is that God spares any man, surely is a religious quest in the pursuit of which we may expect to find, and almost to see face to face, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Moses, having come from the Divine presence:
"called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Exodus 19:7-8).
That was an outburst of religious emotion; that exclamation showed that the heart was not all dead through and through. That one sentence might be remembered amidst many a hurricane of opposition and many a tumult of ungrateful and irrational rebellion. We understand this emotion perfectly. There have been times in our most callous lives when we have caught ourselves singing some great psalm of adoration, some sweet hymn holding in it the spirit of testimony and pledge and holy oath. It would seem as if God set down one such moment as a great period in our lives—as if under the pressure of his infinite mercy he magnified the one declaration which took but a moment to utter into a testimony filling up the space of half a lifetime. It is long before God can forget some prayers. Does it not seem as if the Lord rather rested upon certain sweet words of love we spoke to him even long ago, than as if he had taken a reproach out of our mouth at the moment and fastened his judgment upon the severe and ungrateful word? Is it not within the Almighty love to beat out some little piece of gold into a covering for a long life? It is not his delight to remember sins or to speak about the iniquities which have grieved his heart, or to dig graves in the wilderness for the rebellious who have misunderstood his purpose and his government. "His mercy endureth for ever," and if we have ever spoken one true prayer to heaven, it rings, and resounds, and vibrates, and throbs again like music he will never willingly silence It would seem as if one little prayer might quench the memory of ten thousand blasphemies. "And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Here you find a religious responsiveness which ought to mark the history of the Church and the history of the individual as well.
"The people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses" (Exodus 14:31).
Every good thing is set down. The Lord is not unrighteous to forget your work of faith. We wonder sometimes in our ignorance whether any little sign of good that has been in the heart is not written most legibly in heaven; and all things unlovely, undivine, so written that none but God can decipher the evil record. It would be like our Father to write our moral virtues in great lustrous characters and all the story of our sin and shame so that no angel could read a word of it. This is the way of love. How much we talk about the little deed of kindness when we want to save some character from fatal judgment, from social separation, and from all the penalties of evil behaviour! There is no monotony in the recital; love invents new phrases, new distributions of emphasis, wondrous variations of music, and so keeps on telling the little tale of the flower that was given, of the smile that was indicative of pleasure, of the hand that was put out in fellowship and pledge of amity. Again and again the story so short is made into quite a long narrative by the imagination of love, by the marvellous language which is committed to the custody of the heart. It is God's way. If we give him a cup of cold water, he will tell all the angels about it; if we lend him one poorest thing he seems to need, he will write it so that the record can be read from one end of the earth to the other; if we give him some testimony of love,—say one little box of spikenard,—he will have the story of the oblation told wheresoever his gospel is preached. Yes, he will tell about the gift when he will hide the sin; he will have all his preachers relate the story of the penitence in such glowing terms that the sin shall fall into invisible perspective. God is looking for good; God is looking for excellences, not for faults. Could we but show him one little point of excellence, it should go far to redeem from needful and righteous judgment and penalty a lifetime of evil-doing.
"The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work" (Exodus 36:5)
There is a redeeming point. The spirit of willingness is in the people. They have a good season now; they are in their best moods at this time; they are most generous; they come forward in their very best force and look quite godly in their daily devotion and service to the tabernacle. Surely in the worst character there are some little faint lines of good! Why do we not imitate God and make the most of these? We are so prone to the other kind of criticism: it seems to be in our very heart of hearts to find fault; to point out defections; to write down a whole record and catalogue of infirmities and mishaps, and to hold up the writing as a proof of our own respectability. God never does so; he is righteous on the one side and on the other; he never connives at sin; he never compromises with evil; he never fails to discriminate between good and bad, light and darkness, the right hand and the left; but when he does come upon some little streak of excellence, some faint mark of a better life he seems to multiply it by his own holiness, and to be filled with a new joy because of pearls of virtue which he has found in a rebellious race. Character is not a simple line beginning at one point and ending at another, drawn by the pencil of a child and measurable by the eye of every observer. Character is a mystery; we must not attempt to judge character. "Judge not, that ye be not judged." "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." The Pharisees dragged up those whom they found doing wrong, but their doing so was never sanctioned by the Master; in all their attempts at judgment they were judged; whenever they displayed their virtue he burnt up the rag and left them to carry the cinders away. This should lead us to much seriousness in estimating character, and should keep us from uncharitableness; but at the same time it should encourage our own souls in the pursuit and quest of things heavenly. We do not know the meaning of all we feel and do. Let me suppose that some man is not regarded by others as religious and spiritual; let it be my business as a Christian shepherd to find out some point in that character upon which I can found an argument and base an appeal. I may find it sometimes in one great hot tear; the man would not have allowed me to see that tear on any account if he could have helped it, but I did see it, and having seen it I have hope of his soul. He is not damned yet. I may notice it in a half-intention to write to the wronged ones at home. The young man has taken up his pen and begun to address the old parents whose hearts he has withered. When I observe him in the act of dipping his pen, I say, "He was dead and is alive again"; and though he should lay down the pen without writing the letter of penitence, I have hope in him: he may yet write it and make the confession and seek the absolution of hearts that are dying to forgive him. Do not tell me of the spendthrift's course, do not heap up the accusation—any hireling can be bribed to make out the black catalogue; be it ours to see the first heavenward motion, to hear the first Godward sigh, and to make the most of these signs of return and submission. Good and bad do live together in every character. I never met a human creature that was all bad: I have been surprised rather to see in the most unexpected places beautiful little flowers never planted by the hand of man. All flowers are not found in gardens, hedged and walled in, and cultured at so much a day; many a flower we see was never planted by the human gardener. In every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of Heaven. At the risk of incurring the unkind judgment of some in that I may be ministering to your vanity—how they mistake the case who reason so!—I will venture to say that in every one, however unrecognised by the constables of the Church or by the priests of the altar, there are signs that they are not forsaken of God.
Now comes the thought for which I have no language adequate in copiousness or fit in delicateness. It would seem as if the little good outweighed the evil. God does not decide by majorities. There is not a more vulgar standard of right and wrong than so-called majorities; it is an evil form of judgment wholly—useful for temporary purposes, but of no use whatever in moral judgment. The majority in a man's own heart is overwhelming. If each action were a vote, and if hands were held up for evil, a forest of ten thousand might instantly spring up; and then if we called for the vote expressive of religious desire, there might be one trembling hand half extended. Who counts?—God. What says he? How rules he from his throne? It will be like him to say, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." If he could find out in our life that we once dropped on one knee, and began a prayer, there is no telling what may be done by his love in multiplying the act into an eternal obeisance and regarding the unfinished prayer as an eternal supplication. This is how the judgment will go. God has not forsaken us. To open his book with any desire to find in it reading for the soul is a proof that we are not abandoned of our Father; to go into the sanctuary even with some trouble of mind or reluctance of will—to be there is a sign that we are not yet cast out into the darkness infinite.
Yet even here the stern lesson stands straight up and demands to be heard—namely:—If any man can be satisfied with the little that he has, he has not the little on which he bases his satisfaction. It is not our business to magnify the little; we do well to fix our mind for long stretches of time upon the evil, and the wrong, and the foul, and the base. It is not for us to seek self-satisfaction; our place is in the dust; our cry should be "Unclean! unprofitable!"—a cry for mercy. It is God's place to find anything in us on which he can base hope for our future, or found a claim for the still further surrender of our hostile but still human hearts.