For our God is a consuming fire.
The use of the element of fire as a symbol for the Supreme Being is familiar enough. Ancient marriage-rites involved the use of fire as a sign of that divinity in whose presence the marriage was performed, and who was invoked as a witness of the unbroken pledge taken by those entering into the sacred bond of wedlock. In India a fire is kindled of some sacred wood. The mango-tree is often used for this purpose. The fire is lighted in the middle of the room; the young people sit on stools. The Brahmin commences an incantation. Then they arise and walk round the fire three times. "Fire is the witness of their covenant, and, if they break it, fire will be their destruction." "Call your son," says the father of the bride according to an ancient story, "call your son, that I may give him to my daughter in the presence of the god of fire, that he may be the witness." Then "Usteyar gave his daughter Verunte in marriage, the fire being the witness." Who can fail in this to see a reflection of the story of the burning lamp and the smoking furnace in the vision of Abraham? It is not wonderful that the worship of fire should have been one of the forms of idolatry by which men corrupted the true idea of the ever-blessed God. The rising sun in his morning splendours, the strength of that luminary in noonday brightness, the glory of the setting sun, the moon in her beauty walking through the palaces of the heavens, the countless stars shining in the glories of the nightly firmament, what more striking images of God, if man must employ such!
1. In the first place, there is the idea of purity, which belongs as an essential quality to the element itself. It is not possible to conceive of a flame as impure. And such flame is incorruptible too. Water and air, both also symbols of purity, may be tainted and befouled. But the flame, when still flame, compels whatever it may touch, and changes it into itself, into its own purity and freedom from defilement. Fire is the final, the only perfect purgation, because it is itself the only absolutely pure element. Who can tell the purity of God whose symbol is a flame? No word of ours can add to that simple idea.
2. Fire is a defence, a means of protection, and to symbolise the strong refuges of God's people is thus often used. The fire descending and consuming the offering was a gracious and encouraging sign of acceptance and favour. The chariots and horsemen of fire proved to be the defence and guard of the man of God. The pillar of fire that the people saw rising above the encampment at night and towering into the heaven, was their cheer, their protection in the wandering of the wilderness. What comfort does the bivouacing party not take in the fire that is kindled among the tents; and as it throws its strange and fantastic illumination upon the scene around, how the forest darkness is illumined or the solitude of the plain cheered by a sort of companionship of light! when the travellers in lonely places, where only the stealthy footfall of the beast of prey upon the crisp leaves, or the crackling boughs and branches fallen from the overhanging trees, breaks the solemn silence, light up their fires and make a line of blazing points around their halting-place, they know that they can sleep securely, and their beasts of burden are safe from the sudden spring of the tiger, the cruel teeth of the hungry lion. So is our God the comfort and the defence of His people. In the lonely ways of life He lights their path, and casts a gleam of comfort upon their desolate spirits. The world were very cold and very dark without our God. The vast spaces of the universe would stretch around us into illimitable distance, and nothing could issue thence to press upon our souls but the forces of death and destruction, ruin and despair. But let the soul feel that God is there, and then the whole is enlightened by a Father's presence, and every force in nature becomes a ministry of love. What a refuge and a defence is God with His people! Around us prowl the enemies of the soul. The roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, is near, but we are centred within the love of God, and he dares not rush upon that consuming fire within which we are safe.
3. But the energy of fire is not only repellent; it also is communicative. Air may wear down a substance presented to it and reduce it to dust, water may dissolve and change the form of that upon which it acts; but fire seizes an object, separates its particles, kindles them to burning, and then compels them to burn up in the flame of its own consuming. Fire kindles, fire sets on fire. These symbols of the Divine Being suggest this comunicableness of the Divine nature and activity which is the very basis of our religious, our Divine life. That old legend of Prometheus, told by Apollodorus, how he made the first man and woman out of clay, and animated them by the fire which he stole from heaven, is only the grotesque and paganised version of the deep truth of the life of God within the soul of man that the Scriptures reveal and illustrate. It is fire that gives life. It is the burning rays of the sun that vitalise and inspire all the dead matter of the earth, and cover this world with the beauty and movement, the varied forms and colours and activities of plant and flower, bird and beast. Man's life is but fire, and we get it from the central fire of the universe. And so of the higher life, the life of faith, of love, of holy character. This is gained from God. He who finds Jesus Christ, there finds God; and God in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit, who comes through Christ, kindles the flame of a Divine life within his heart.
4. The passage from this thought to that of the purifying power of fire is not difficult or forced. Some have seen only this in the word. We think that would be too much. To limit the extent of the application so as not to see this, however, would be as completely to miss its significance. When the new life began, how much of earth mingled with its heavenly constituents! There was selfishness, and greed, and passion, and sloth. There was pride, and envy, and hard-heartedness, and love of the world. There was slackness and doubting, and infidelity and neglect. There was ingratitude and insensibility, blindness to the show of God's face, and deafness to the sound of God's voice. But slowly the burning flame of the Divine nature has purged the evil. "A consuming fire! " A deeper, darker mystery still lies behind it all. Did the exhortation suggest us grace and piety, it also, in language unmistakable, bids us entertain a becoming and a godly fear. We have no desire to hide, we dare not hide, the solemn and the awful truth. That Divine nature, a burning fire, is a refuge, a defence, a quickening, purifying force; but be not deceived, it is also a destroying element. Material fire is purging to one thing when it is destructive of another. The fine gold it refines; the dross, the baser substance, it consumes, it destroys. And that Divine life which cleanses and renews, and purifies the faithful, the penitent, the obedient, becomes a burning indignation, a ceaseless and consuming fire against the soul that renders not its due honour and makes not its life its own.
(L. D. Bevan, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For our God is a consuming fire.