The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,Pleasant Ministries
The principal Jewish festivals were, the Feast of Passover or unleavened bread; the Feast of Pentecost; the Feast of Weeks or of the harvest, or of the day on which were offered the loaves made of the new wheat; the Feast of Trumpets, called by the Jews New Year; and the Day of Atonement, or the Great Sabbath; the Feast of Tabernacles or the Ingathering of the Harvest. Owing to the difficulty of travelling no festival was appointed for winter; there was one in the spring, one in the summer, and four were appointed for the autumn. The feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles were called pilgrimage festivals, and were of a doubly joyful character, commemorative of national events and relating to the blessings of the seasons and the land. Besides the great annual feasts there were more occasional festivals, as, e.g., the weekly Sabbath, the feast of the new moon, the Sabbath year, and the year of Jubilee. With these festivals in their local setting we have nothing to do; our business is with the perpetual truth which glows in the terms, "And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord." What a change in his great ministry! Never was man charged with the delivering of so many disciplinary and legal words. It is time that he had something to say with easier music in it, conveying a pleasanter appeal to the imagination and the whole attention of Israel. It was a new mission. The lips of Moses must have grown hard in the delivery of hard speeches. It was his business always to deliver law, to recall to duty, to suppress revolution, to command and overawe the people whose fortunes he humanly led. What wonder if the people dreaded his appearance? That appearance might have been equal to a new Sinai, a new Decalogue,—a harder speech of law and duty and servitude. It was a pleasant thing for Moses, too, this change in the tone of his ministry; he is now speaking of feasts, of festivals,—times of solemn rejoicing,—yea, some of the very feasts which were instituted were designated by names the roots of which signified to dance and be glad with great joy. An awful fate for any man to be merely the legal prophet of his age! A most burdensome mission always to be called upon to rebuke and chastise, to suppress, and to put men down to their proper level, and call them up to their proper obedience! Thus the Lord varies the ministry of his servants. He says, There will be no utterance of new law to-day, but this very day shall be a day of feasting and music and dancing; he will have a home in the wilderness—a glad, warm, happy home all troublesome memories shall be dismissed and one overmastering joy shall rule this festal day. That is the speech he has been longing to make; but we would not let him. He never wanted to make any other speech; we ourselves forced the hard terms from his reluctant lips. A complete ministry is terrible and gracious. It is terrible by the necessities of the case. Consider the nature with which the ministry of heaven has to deal: "there is none righteous, no not one"; we have turned aside from the right way and are far from the centres of light and rest and peace; sometimes nothing will reach us but fear, terror, awful denunciation of anger, and judgment. Our mother tongue would be deficient of one instrument which alone can touch some men, were we to remove from that sweetest tongue the word "perdition," or the word "hell." We do not want it: we avoid it when we can; we would not set it in our eloquence, or weave it into our music, or use it upon any occasion if we could possibly do without it; it is a word which is used in reply to infinite provocation; he who has pleasure in the use of it knows not its meaning; he who declines its use altogether knows not the mystery of the nature which he has undertaken to reclaim and educate. Paul said, "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." The apostle used terror as an instrument of persuasion: not to keep men away from God, but to draw them near to the Father. That is the right use of all solemn terms and fearful judgments, all burning fires, all unutterable and infinite threatenings,—namely, to bring men to consideration, to penitence, to newness of mind. But the ministry is also gentle: there is no gentleness like it. The true ministry of Christ is marked by surpassing and ineffable grace: its eyes are full of tears; its great trumpet-tones are broken down by greater sobs; it pities the weak; it speaks a word of hope to the fallen; it tells the farthest off that there is time for him to get home before the nightfall, or if he be overtaken with the darkness the light will be in the house he has abandoned; it pleads with men; it beseeches men to be reconciled to God; it writes its promises in syllables of stars; it punctuates its speech with fragrant flowers; it breaks down into the omnipotence of weakness by clinging to the sinner when all men have abandoned him in despair. We must establish a whole ministry. The mountain must have two sides: the side where the darkness lingers; the side where the light plays and dances in many a symbolism. This is human life. The two sides must go together. When the ministry thunders its law, it must be upheld; when it breaks down in tears over the Jerusalem that has rejected it, it must be regarded as the very heart of God.
Notice the time when the feasts were spoken of. Let us regard the very position of the text as instructive. We have now read up to it; beginning with the bondage in Egypt, dwelling tearfully and sympathetically upon that pagan servitude,—watching the children of Israel led forth by a mighty hand, we have noted the discipline which afflicted them educationally; by this time we have become familiar with their hardships,—now it is a welcome relief to the reader to come upon festival, dancing, joy, delight,—one touch of heaven in a very wilderness of desolation. This is the day we have longed for. There was a hope hidden in our hearts that, by-and-by, golden gates would swing back upon happy places and offer us the liberty of heaven. We have come to that Sabbatic time; now we are in times of jubilee and Sabbath, release, pardon, rapture,—praising God all the time, having found a temple without a roof, a sanctuary without a wall,—an infinite liberty vast as the Being which it adores. This is a picture of life wisely ordered. It is a pity when any life begins with the feast. It is sad to see pampered children. What can make the wise man's heart sorer than to see children whose every want is anticipated, who have no burdens to carry, no darkness to fear, no enemy to grapple with? It makes the spirit sad! The student of history knows what a fate awaits those fair children—those sweet little ones. Every life must have its battlefield. The devil never allowed any soul to pass through without having to fight every inch of the way. Blessed are they who had their bondage first—their hard toil in the first years of life, when they went home to a fireless grate, and sat down in the very midst of desolation; when every wind was a ghostly threat; when the morning brought but a variety of darkness; when the night came with new terrors and alarms. Blessed are they who fought early and got the battle over soon; they had a hard struggle: they were struck on one side of the head and on the other, and thrown down by invisible hands, but they dashed the tears away, or burned them in the fire of new courage, and stood up again like men. "It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth." A terrible indictment is being written against people who imagine they can invert the purpose of Providence and rule life by new tricks in confectionery and pampering. Who are the strong men in the city, in the marketplace, in any department and sphere of life? The men who carry scars and wound-marks—signatures of early battle, medals which testify that they met the foe and flung him in mortal wrestling. Who are the weak and the frail and the useless—those who are but shells painted in colours that will not stand the wear and tear of life? To that inquiry no answer in words need be given. God's plan is to train us for the feast Who enjoys the feast? Not the sated appetite, not the cloyed palate; but the labourer from the field; the soldier who unbuckles his military robe and throws down his weapons with a soldier's heartiness; the man who has been out in the long wet night; the traveller who has just come to the summit of the hill; the pilgrim who brings with him all the fresh wind, the keen air of night, and the toil of a long ascent. Set down these men, and their very look is a benediction, their very way of eating is itself a religious expres?ion. This feast has been in the divine view from the very beginning: God has always meant hope, feasting, dancing, joy, liberty. Let us repeat, for our soul's profit, that all things contrary to these have been of our own invention, or have been necessitated by our evil behaviour. "God... made man upright; but" men "have sought out many inventions." Let us leave ourselves in the divine hands; at the last, gathered around the table of God, spread by his hands, every guest shall say, "Thou hast kept the good wine until now."
Notice whose feasts they were, and how joy is ennobled by solemnity. "And Moses declared unto the children of Israel the feasts of the Lord." They were not fools' revels; they were not inventions even of Moses and Aaron; they were as certainly divine creations as were the stars that glittered above. The highest joy is always touched with melancholy. It has been said that laughter and tears lie close together; singular is that, but most true to our own consciousness and experience. We sigh at the wedding. There is so much joy and gracious hilarity, that he is supposed to be criminal to the genius of the occasion who utters one word of gloom; but the hearing ear has detected, in father or mother or friend, the sigh that meant it all. At the funeral we quote words that should make the face one broad and gracious smile; we feast at the grave side: the promises never eat so well, with so keen a relish on the part of the eater, as when the soul really feels its need of divine sustenance and inspiration. Did the Lord make feasts? He may have done so. Is "feasts" not a word too frivolous to associate with the name of the Lord? No. If we are to judge by analogy,—No. The God of flowers may be the God of feasts. We know the flowers are his; we know that no Solomon has ever arrayed himself in equal beauty; he who made those flowers must have made a feast somewhere, a feast of reason, a feast for the soul, a luxury for the inner taste, an appeal to the larger appetency. He who made the birds may surely be the God of the soul's music. The birds sing so blithely, without one touch of vanity; so purely, so independently, without pedantry, without sign or hint of human education; the God who set their little throats in tune may surely be the God of all pure music,—the mother's broad laugh over her little one, the father's tender voice in the presence of distress and need; and he who made the birds' throat may have put it into the mind of man to make the trumpet, and the cornet, and the flute, and the harp, and the sackbut, and the psaltery; they may be his judging by the happy analogies of nature. He who made summer, may have made heaven! There is but a step between them. When Summer is at her best, what wonder if she should think herself sister of the blue heavens? She is certainly lovely, nothing wanting in the completeness of her beauty: here so lofty and stately, there so pendent and graceful, yonder so fragrant and odorous as if with messages from paradise, and otherwhere so blithe and warm and gentle, climbing up in woodbine to the sick child's little chamber, and uttering messages of hope to the mother's heart, bidding all invalids come out and enjoy the feast Whoever made that summer must have made a heaven; standing in the summer meads, walking through the summer gardens, loitering by summer streams, watching summer heavens, it is easy to sing—
The gospel is a feast. Jesus Christ makes his kings spread feasts and issue large invitations, and when the mighty and the proud and the grand will not come, he sends men out into the highways and the hedges to bring in the traveller, the beggar, the homeless one. To Christ's feast all are invited; no exception can be made. Yet there are exceptions: the Pharisee, the self-righteous man, the critic of other people, is forbidden; Christ will have no cold souls at his banqueting-board—none there who imagines he is conferring patronage upon God. Man cannot patronise the Church. The Church may have so debased herself as to accept patronage; but therein she has been disloyal to the divine call. Ho, every one that thirsteth,—whosoever will, let him come; the Spirit and the Bride say, Come; let him that heareth say, Come. The great invitation is issued from end to end of the Gospel message, and if we turn to it a deaf ear, the result is hunger, pining, wasting,—death! This feast never cloys. All other feasts bring their own ending; even the glutton says, with a porcine voice, "No more"; the voluptuary and the sensualist withdraw themselves from the feast by which they have been sated; but in the feast of wisdom, in the banquet of grace, there is no satiety. "Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice? She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths. She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors. Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man. O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart. Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things." "Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: she hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table. She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city, Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled."
A gracious voice! a glad, grand gospel! If hitherto ye have been living amid the sounding of law, the utterance of decree,—if, up to this moment, ye have been trembling under the sight of the rod and in the presence of gleaming judgment, know ye that now the feast of the Lord is declared, and whoso is shut out is self-excluded!