You led them with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, to light for them the way which they should travel.
tabernacles, Ezra and eight Levites led the whole assembly in a reverent address and appeal to God. It is thought by some that the record of it in this chapter (vers. 6-38) is the exact copy of it as then written down for the use of the Levites; or it may be the leading topics of it as afterwards recollected and recorded. We have seen that confession of sin is the groundwork and substance of it. But it includes adoration and thanksgiving, for the grateful recital of the excellences of God's character and the graciousness of his dealings would be the very thing to deepen and to quicken penitence for their sin. A realisation of God's holiness and a remembrance of his kindness are inseparably connected with the sense of our own guilt. This recital of the goodness of God, both general and particular, contains reference to -
1. The essential greatness of God: as the one Lord; Creator and Preserver of men; Maker of heaven, "with all their host;"... whom "the host of heaven worshippeth" (ver. 6).
2. His distinguishing goodness to Israel: choosing Abraham (ver. 7), working great wonders on behalf of the race (vers. 10, 11), giving them a day of rest and a human leader (ver. 14), establishing and enriching them in the land of promise (vers. 22-25).
3. His miraculous and his abiding care for their wants: giving them "bread from heaven for their hunger," and bringing forth water for them out of the rock for their thirst (ver. 15); forty years sustaining them in the wilderness (ver. 21).
4. His faithfulness: "performing his words, for he is righteous" (ver. 8).
5. His pitifulness, and mercy, and patience: seeing their affliction and hearing their cry (ver. 9); "ready to pardon, slow to anger, and of great kindness" (ver. 17); "many times delivering them" in answer to their cry (ver. 28); "not utterly consuming nor forsaking them" (ver. 31).
6. His guidance and teaching: giving the cloudy pillar and the pillar of fire (ver. 12); speaking to them from heaven and giving them judgments and true laws, etc. (ver. 13), and his "good Spirit to instruct them" (ver. 20).
7. His chastening love (vers. 28-30). Let us consider -
I. THE ABUNDANT GROUND FOR GRATITUDE ON THE PART OF EVERY ONE OF US. We worship and bless God as
(1) our Creator: "it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves;" it is he who breathed into us "the breath of life," and made us "living souls;" as
(2) our Divine Preserver and Sustainer, whose visitation has preserved our spirit; as
(3) One who has shown many peculiar and especial favours to us which he has not bestowed on others; as
(4) One who has been opening his band and satisfying our daily want - "daily loading us with benefits;" as
(5) One who has been faithful in all his dealings with us; who
(6) has borne much and long with our waywardness, our fruitlessness, our imperfection; as
(7) One who has been guiding us continually, "ordering our steps," leading us by a way we knew not, by a right and a wise way;
(8) teaching us his holy will, acting on us by his "good Spirit," and
(9) blessing us by that which we may have least appreciated, but which has been the truest instance of his love - by chastening us, correcting us, "leading us into the wilderness, humbling us," weakening us, impoverishing us, taking from us the "light of our eyes," "breaking our schemes of earthly joy," that we might return unto him, to find our rest in his love, our portion in his service.
II. GOOD REASONS WHY WE, AS ERRING BUT ENDEAVOURING SOULS, SHOULD RECALL AND RECOUNT IT. There are four very strong reasons why, in the presence of God and of one another, we should recall his past loving-kindness and his everlasting goodness.
1. It is in accordance with his will, and will give pleasure to him when we do so reverently and gratefully.
2. It will deepen our sense of sin; for we shall feel that it is against all this goodness and mercy we have rebelled.
3. It will give spirituality and intensity to the voice of our praise. Such recollections will constrain us to "make melody in our heart" when we make music with our voice.
4. It will give depth to our abiding gratitude - that sense of unbounded indebtedness which we carry with us from the sanctuary, and hold in our hearts everywhere. - C.
Moreover Thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar.
I. THAT MAN'S LIFE ON EARTH IS A DIVINELY-CONDUCTED DISCIPLINE. The Israelites emerged from Egypt a huge bee-swarm of humanity making for another hive. From the dark superstitions of life and the coarse immoralities of antiquity they went into the wilderness to learn the rudiments of life. Outside the sphere of man's natural resources Israel had to learn faith in the supernatural environment of man, Their wilderness journey was the drill of a nation destined to be the vehicle of Divine revelation to a world. Our life on earth is mainly a prolonged and various discipline, and its significance lies in the finally resulting manhood. The main matter is not how long it takes us to cross this strip of earth, or how much we have while we travel, but what the journey makes of us as regards the naked, moral character of us all. Very suggestive, if you will ponder, is Israel's inability to comprehend the meaning of a great deal of their march. Why they should lie still, and why move, were not always plain. We cannot readily comprehend the zigzag ways of life. Looking at our things, and not at our soul, we sometimes seem to be moving in a very resultless way — marking time rather than marching. Said a good and active man whose work is his life, "By this sickness I have lost a month." How so? Through every day of his life henceforth he will carry a reverent thoughtfulness of God, and in all his character there will be the tinge of a mellow tenderness, the results of that "lost month's" meditative realisations. Was the month lost, then? God leads and leaves us not where we would like to be, but where we have need to be. There is wisdom in every stage of life's march and countermarch. Life's roughest mile is "ordered of the Lord," and its darkest place is illuminated by the pillar of fire. It is wisdom to store the lessons of experience. Child-like, we forget the back lessons. The teachings of sorrow's school are forgotten in the playground of our joyfulness.
II. THAT THROUGHOUT OUR LIFE-JOURNEY WE FOLLOW A GOD WE NEVER SEE. That fire-bordered cloud was not God. The cathedral window ablaze with its mingled glories hides the sun, while it is at the same time a many-coloured witness of his living radiance. Life leaves room for doubt, and gives worldliness its chance. Herein lies much of our probation. Those tokens of God which are evidence of things not seen are frequently familiarised into comparative powerlessness over the soul.
1. Some of the Israelites sinned under the very shadow of the pillar of fire. The sentiments of reverence and wonder are in danger of exile from the mind.
2. Nature, with its transformations of the seasons.
3. The Sabbath.
4. The house of God.
5. "Prayer; our prayers may become like the winding of our watches — acts we do, scarcely sure whether they are done or not. We often see most of God' in the night of experience.
III. THAT PROTECTION WHICH GOD'S PRESENCE INSURES TO THOSE THAT FOLLOW HIM. Over the sleeping camp the cloud lay like a golden warrior-shield. Yet how slowly was Israel trained to courage! Every new danger created a coward hubbub in the camp. Their foes could do them no harm; but their imaginations were terrible to them as an army with banners. Their minds were made nervous by their own delusions. The Parisians have exhibited what they call a "Panorama of the War." Climbing what appears to be a kind of tower, you seem to see the country around Paris alive with the grim activities of war. Nearest the spectator are placed real cannon and the like, and these shade off into painted forms beyond so perfectly as to produce an illusion like that of the painter who attracted the quick-eyed birds to his painted grapes. The illusion is wonderful, and you can all but smell the gunpowder. But there is no movement — the soldiers are still as stones, the bursting shell remains in the act of explosion, and the flame-flash continues from the cannon-mouth. That breaks the spell. It is but picture, after all. Thus we go at times up the tower of apprehension, and see besieging armies of trouble. Near to us are some real objects of fear, and from them we go on to paint a long perspective of morbid fancies, until life seems ringed round with innumerable foes. After awhile we find it is mostly picture — "the very painting of our fear." Let the chief anxiety of all be to follow the great Leader of life's pilgrimage.
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