(1, 2) There is a certain grandeur of fearlessness and ruthlessness in the message of Jezebel, which marks her character throughout, and places it in striking contrast with the vacillating impressibility of Ahab, whom she treats with natural scorn. (See .) Ahab, as before, remains passive; he has no courage, perhaps no wish, to attack Elijah, before whom he had quailed; but he cares not, or dares not, to restrain Jezebel. She disdains to strike secretly and without warning: in fact, her message seems intended to give the opportunity for a flight, which might degrade Elijah in the eyes of the people. We note that the prophet (see 1 Kings 18:46) had not ventured to enter Jezreel till he should know how his deadly foe would receive the news of the great day at Carmel.
(3) He arose, and went for his life.—The sudden reaction of disappointment and despondency, strange as it seems to superficial observation, is eminently characteristic of an impulsive and vehement nature. His blow had been struck, as he thought, triumphantly. Now the power of cool unrelenting antagonism makes itself felt, unshaken and only embittered by all that had passed. On Ahab and the people he knows that he cannot rely; so once more he flees for his life.
Beer-sheba. (See Genesis 21:14; Genesis 21:33; Genesis 22:19; Genesis 28:10; Genesis 46:1, &c.)—This frontier town of Palestine to the south is little mentioned after the patriarchal time. The note that “it belonged to Judah” is, perhaps, significant. Judah was now in half-dependent alliance with Israel; even under Jehoshaphat, Elijah might not be safe there, though his servant—traditionally the son of the widow of Zarephath—might stay without danger.
(4) Juniper tree.—A sort of broom, found abundantly in the desert. It has been noted that its roots were much prized for charcoal, the “coal” of 1 Kings 19:6.
I am not better than my fathers.—The exclamation is characteristic. Evidently he had hoped that he himself was “better than his fathers” as a servant of God—singled out beyond all those that went before him, to be the victorious champion of a great crisis, “he, and he alone” (1 Kings 18:22; 1 Kings 19:10-14). Now he thinks his hope vain, and sees no reason why he should succeed when all who went before have failed. Why, he asks, should he live when the rest of the prophets have died?
(5)An angel touched him.—The word may signify simply “a messenger,” human or super-human; but the context suggests a miraculous ministration of some unearthly food. It is notable that, except as ministers of God in the physical sphere (as in 2 Samuel 24:16-17; 2 Kings 19:35), the angels, whose appearances are so often recorded in earlier days, hardly appear during the prophetic period, as though the place of their spiritual ministry, as messengers of God, to the people had been supplied by the prophetic mission. Here, and in 2 Kings 6:17, the angel is but auxiliary to the prophet, simply ministering to him in time of danger and distress, as the angel of the Agony to the Prophet of prophets.
(6) And laid him down.—There is a pathetic touch in the description of the prophet, wearied and disheartened, as caring not to eat sufficiently, and glad, after a morsel eaten, to forget himself again in sleep.
(8) Forty days and forty nights.—Unless this time includes, as has been supposed by some, the whole journey to and from Horeb, and the sojourn there, it is far in excess of what would be recorded for a journey of some two hundred miles. It may, therefore, be thought to imply an interval of retirement for rest and solitary meditation, like the sojourn of Moses in Horeb, and the sojourn of our Lord in the wilderness (Exodus 24:18; Matthew 4:2) during which the spirit of the prophet might be calmed from the alternations of triumph and despondency, to receive the spiritual lesson which awaited him. During all that time he went “in the strength” of the Divine food, that he might know that “man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).
(9) A cave.—This is properly, “the cave”—perhaps a reference to some cave already well known, as connected with the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, or perhaps only an anticipatory reference to the cave which Elijah’s sojourn was to make famous.
The word of the Lord came to him.—The connection suggests that this message came to him in vision or dream at night. The LXX. implies this distinctly by inserting in 1 Kings 19:11 the word “to-morrow,” which is also found in the rather vague and prosaic paraphrase of the passage in Josephus. What Elijah replies in imagination in the vision, he repeats next day in actual words.
(10) And he said.—The reply to the implied reproof is one of impatient self-exculpation and even remonstrance. He himself (it says) had been very jealous for the Lord; yet the Lord had not been jealous for Himself, suffering this open rebellion of the people, the slaughter of His prophets, the persecution to death of the one solitary champion left. What use is there in further striving, if he is left unsupported and alone? The complaint is like that of Isaiah (Isaiah 64:1), “O that thou wouldest rend the heavens and come down!” The zeal for God’s glory, as imperilled by His long-suffering, is like that of Jonah (Jonah 4:1-3); the impatience of the mysterious permission of evil, like that rebuked in the celebrated story of Abraham and the Fire-worshipper. In the Elias of the New Testament there is something of the same despondent impatience shown in the message from prison to our Lord: “Art Thou He that should come, or look we for another?”
(11) And, behold.—In the LXX., the whole of this verse, couched in the future, is made part of the “word of the Lord.” But our version is probably correct.
The whole of the vision, which is left to speak for itself, without any explanation or even allusion in the subsequent message to Elijah, is best understood by comparison with two former manifestations at Horeb, to the people and to Moses (Exodus 19:16-18; Exodus 34:5-8). To the people the Lord had then, been manifested in the signs of visible power, the whirlwind, the earthquake, and the fire—first, because these were the natural clothing of the terrors of the Law, which is the will of God visibly enforced; next, because for such visible manifestations of God, and perhaps for these alone, the hearts of Israel were then prepared. To Moses, in answer to his craving for the impossible vision of the glory of the Lord face to face, the manifestation granted was not of the Divine majesty, but of the “Name of the Lord,” “the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in goodness and truth;” for this higher conception of the majesty of God, as shown in righteousness and mercy, Moses, as being the greatest of prophets, could well understand. The vision of Elijah stands out in contrast with the one and in harmony with the other. It disclaims the visible manifestation in power and vengeance, for which he had by implication craved; it implies in “the still small voice”—“the voice (as the LXX. has it) of a light breath”—a manifestation like that expressed plainly to Moses, of the higher power of the Spirit, penetrating to the inmost soul, which the terrors of external power cannot reach. The lesson is simply, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). The prophet so far reads it that he acknowledges, by veiled face of reverence, the presence of the Lord in “the still small voice,” yet, with singular truth to nature, he is recorded as repeating, perhaps mechanically, his old complaint.
A Still Small Voice
And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.—1 Kings 19:11-12.
1. This is, perhaps, the most forcible example of moral and spiritual teaching in a dramatic form in the whole range of Holy Scripture. And when it is regarded in the light of the mental condition of the prophet to whom it was granted, its force is still more evident. Elijah—the prophet of fire—a man of highly-strung emotional nature, a man who sometimes rose very high, but, like all such men, sometimes sank very low, had been marvellously elated by the great scene on Carmel. He imagined that by that one decisive stroke the idolatry of Baal had been completely overthrown, and that Jehovah would now reign supreme in the hearts of the people. His spirits had risen as high as the great mountain on which that memorable decision had been effected. But the excitement wore away, and he saw, as so many besides him have seen, that no great spiritual reformation is wrought by one stroke, however decisive. He saw, that the people still lusted after Baal, that the powers of the nation were still upon the side of idolatry, so that he seemed alone and solitary—the prophet of the Lord. Thus he fell from the clear and bracing air of the mountain to the enervating atmosphere of the valley below. The reaction which follows excitement came, and the prophet who, in solitary grandeur, could stand confident and fearless before the thousand priests of Baal, before the fierce oath of a vindictive woman fled to the desert, where his only wish was to die, because he was no better than his fathers. With nerves unstrung by excitement, with the reaction producing despondency in his heart, with a sense of loneliness which made life seem a burden, and death a happy door of release, he plunged still farther into the desert, and came even to Horeb, the Mount of God.
2. Perhaps no spot on earth is more associated with the manifested presence of God than that sacred mount. There the bush burned with fire; there the Law was given; there Moses spent forty days and nights alone with God. It was a natural instinct that led the prophet thither, and all the world could not have furnished a more appropriate school. Natural scenery and holy associations lent all their powers to impress and elevate the soul.
We know the scenery. Beneath Elijah’s eyes, as he stood at the entrance of the cave, lay the vast desert, a rough and stony plain, with dry and infrequent herbage. Infinite silence, infinite awe, as of the presence of an eternal God, encompassed him. Near at hand were the great mountain walls of red granite, deep-hewn valleys below splintered gorges; and above, the naked peaks piercing the heaven, in which the stars burned in depths even more vocal of infinitude than the desert. Tradition still points out, as tradition chose, the small and lonely valley, the upland level under the summit, where Elijah rested. One cypress tree stands now in its midst, and a well and tank are open near the ruined chapel which covers the rock in which the cave was set. It is one of the most silent places in the world, as hidden as it is silent. The granite cliffs lap it round on all sides but one, that side where Elijah stood, when, in the dawn, he came forth to hear the voice of God.
3. Elijah is in great despondency. It is amazing through what apparently inconsistent moods the same man can pass in a very short time. We go back but a little way to his experience upon Carmel, when the same Elijah moved about in majestic confidence, inspired by unclouded hope. He seemed to realize the immediateness of the Almighty, and he revelled in the fulness of his resources. And now all this bounding assurance passes away; the heavens appear to be emptied; the earth is deserted; and the prophet is languishing in this melancholy recital, “I, even I only, am left!” The once triumphant spokesman of the Lord has temporarily lost his exuberant faith, and is sunk in dark despair.
There is something in human nature which makes us feel more akin to men who occasionally suffer defeat. If Elijah’s pilgrimage along the way of life had been a series of unfailing triumphs, and if the cloud of uncertainty had never gathered about his heart, he might have seemed like a man of an alien race, having little or no kinship with the sons and daughters of despondency and grief. When the Apostle Peter is very bold, daring even death in the presence of the great ones of the earth, he appears very remote to the child of hesitancy and doubt; but in the hour of Peter’s weakness, when he shrinks from the foes that beset him, he becomes one of the common crowd. His impulsiveness makes even his martyrdom human. St. Paul’s feelings of wretchedness lend humanness even to his ecstasies, and his unspeakable revelations do not lie in lands too remote.
But, in spite of all this, the pity of the prophet’s defeat! He knew the strength of his God, he had experienced the softened light of His guidance, he had had proofs innumerable of His providential care, he had “tasted that the Lord is gracious,” and yet here he is, in a season of peculiar crisis, throwing up his ministry, and lying down with a desire to die!
4. What is the secret of his despondency? He has been counting heads. He has become the victim of the apparent. “They have thrown down thine altars, slain thy prophets!” The antagonisms are overwhelming! “I, even I only, am left!” The enemy, who flaunted his greatness, seemed the greatest power on the field.
Has there never been a time in our experience when we have grown baffled and weary with the greatness of our tasks and the smallness of our success with them? Have we never felt that we craved something besides the feeling that what we were doing was worth doing and that we would prevail in the end? Have we never had our hours of deep discouragement—yes, and our seasons of defeat—in which we questioned with ourselves whether what we were doing was worth doing after all? Like Elijah, perhaps, we played the man, and did it well. We confounded King Ahab in the full consciousness of rectitude and sincerity of purpose. We even had our Mount Carmel, our dramatic stand for righteousness, and our hard-won, stormy triumph. We fixed our eye upon a certain goal and got there. We gained our point in some fiercely contested conflict of interests in which we managed to see justice done. We unmasked some piece of cruel humbug or put to silence some clamorous evil. We put our whole soul into the cause, whatever it was, which we felt to be ours, and our very intensity and self-forgetful zeal gained us a temporary victory. Then followed the hour of disillusionment. No sooner did we drive an evil out by one door than it returned by another. The victory we thought was going to do everything turned out to have done nothing; things were no better than they were before—worse, perhaps.
If things are so with us we are just in Elijah’s position, and God’s message to His prophet these hundreds of years ago is just as really His message to us to-day. Like Elijah we look too much to externals, dwell too much upon the circumference and too little at the centre of things. In proportion to our eagerness and self-devotion is our tendency to exaggerate our own importance to the cause of God and to waste time in looking for visible results of our activity. We have lost our true perspective by over-absorption in the immediate and the near outside the soul. We have, in fact, lost God. How shall we find Him again? The text tells us how God revealed Himself to Elijah.
Where God is not
“A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.”
i. God does not always reveal Himself in Nature
The first point we would make is that God did not manifest Himself to Elijah at this time in the forces of Nature.
1. A fierce storm burst upon that wild spot, a fearful hurricane swept across the sky. As the black clouds of tempest rolled up from the sea, “a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord.” The prophet stood amid all the horrors and wild disorder of a tropical storm. What could it mean? As the fierce tempest raged about the granite rocks and mountain peaks of that savage desert, and the massive fragments of stone were hurled down the heights to the plain below, and all nature seemed turbulent amid the rush and fury of the storm, how the heart of Elijah would burn with exultation to find his own wild spirit reflected in that tumultuous scene. The violent commotion and the passion of that whirlwind were a true image of himself. Could it be that God had mantled Himself in this form of terror? Was it indeed true that the vehemence of the Lord confirmed and crowned the vehemence of the man? Did the turbulence and passion of the human spirit find their counterpart in Him? The prophet’s heart beat wildly at the very thought—O that God were such a one as he himself? “But the Lord was not in the wind.” No! although it was a speaking symbol of the resistless power which he always delighted to associate with God, and had seen manifested in more than one memorable episode of his life.
“And after the wind an earthquake.” The whole earth appeared convulsed as in terror. Solid mountains shook, and great rocks were split and sundered by the fierce upheaval. Deep chasms were opened where before had been nought but massive stone. “Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel.” Once more the prophet saw an image of himself, saw his own convulsive nature mirrored in that scene of tumult and agitation. Would God reveal Himself now? Was it possible that God could be imaged in that wild disturbance? The prophet waited with anxious heart to know. He looked, and looked again, but saw not in the convulsion the presence of God. That was simply an image of himself. “But the Lord,” he was again conscious, “was not in the earthquake,” though it pictured vividly the tremendous upheaval by which he longed to cast down the altars of Baal and to destroy his priests, possible (he well knew) to the might of Jehovah, who again and again had overwhelmed His enemies in Israel’s past.
“And after the earthquake a fire.” Suddenly that wilderness of granite peaks was lighted up with the blinding glare of tropic lightning. So swift and fierce were the streams of fire that flashed across the sky that the whole earth appeared bathed in glorious light, and the heavens one mass of flame. Was this the symbol of God’s glory? The prophet felt perhaps that here was the reflection of his truest self. Surely at last God was about to make Himself known. But no. Once more it was borne in upon him that “the Lord was not in the fire,” though to the stern eye of the prophet it was eloquent of the fierce vengeance which he had again and again in his despair invoked from heaven upon the sins of Jezebel and her godless court.
2. Does the writer of this story deny that, to those who had the prophetic gift of interpreting nature, there were special messages from heaven in the storm and the earthquake? By no means. At another time Jehovah might have spoken to Elijah, as He spoke to Job out of the tempest; but upon this occasion the prophet was to be shown that the highest revelations were to be expected, not in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary, not in the most awful, but in the gentlest and most familiar, manifestations of God in nature.
With kindlier mien, one said, “Go forth unto the fields,
For there, and in the woods, are balms that Nature freely yields;
Let Nature take thee to her heart! she hath a bounteous breast
That yearns o’er all her sorrowing sons, and she will give thee rest.”
But Nature on the spirit-sick as on the spirit-free
Smiled, like a fair unloving face too bright for sympathy;
Sweet, ever sweet, are whispering leaves, are waters in their flow,
But never on them breathed a tone to comfort human woe!
Small solace for the deer that hath the arrow in its side,—
And only seeks the woods to die,—that o’er his dappled hide
Spread purple blooms of bedded heath, and ferny branchings tall—
A deadly hurt must have strong cure, or it hath none at all;
And the old warfare from within that had gone on so long,
The wasting of the inner strife, the sting of outward wrong,
Went with me o’er the breezy hill, went with me up the glade—
I found not God among the trees, and yet I was afraid!
I mused, and fire that smouldered long within my breast brake free,
I said, “O God, Thy works are good, and yet they are not Thee;
Still greater to the sense is that which breathes through every part,
Still sweeter to the heart than all is He who made the heart!
I will seek Thee, not Thine, O Lord! for (now I mind me) still
Thou sendest us for soothing not to fountain, nor to hill;
Yet is there comfort in the fields if we walk in them with Thee,
Who saidest, ‘Come, ye burdened ones, ye weary, unto Me.’”1 [Note: Dora Greenwell.]
3. God ignored the old means of manifestation because of the present needs of His prophet. Elijah had read into the Divine character the swift impatience of his own angry heart. He was not one of those who find it easy to live quietly. Born a Gileadite, he retained to the end much of the restlessness of the Bedouin. Headlong, impetuous, and swift to strike where it seemed that a blow was the shortest way to attain his purpose, he could confront a whole college of idolatrous priests and enjoy the combat. There is a kind of stern joy in the truculent irony of his taunts on Carmel which shows how much to his liking was the contest in which he was engaged. As the storm raged over Horeb his fierce nature would recognize a brother in the wild wind; the shocks of earthquake found an echo in the depths of his tumultuous spirit; the flashing lightning reflected the swift movements of his own fiery passions. He would be quick to see the hand of God in a national catastrophe; but not until it had been specially shown to him could he find the evidence of higher working when things had settled down into common channels. He would always choose the short cut to success, and he thought God must do so too. Like the Baptist in the dungeon of Machaerus, when the immediate developments that he expected did not follow, he found himself in anguish of soul, doubting whether he was not altogether mistaken, and for the time being he was crushed under a burden which he could not sustain. Men of this type make splendid reformers, and they are the born pioneers of any new movement for God and righteousness. But they are generally too summary in their verdicts to be good judges of the Divine dealings with men as a whole. Sooner or later they fall into the mistake that things are not moving fast enough.
Savonarola, whose burning utterances from the pulpit of the Duomo flashed like the sword of God of which he spoke into the guilty heart of fifteenth-century Florence, went far beyond the guidance of the Spirit within him, when he assumed to know that only through a storm of vengeance would the Church be purged of its abuses, and the clergy be restored from licentiousness and formalism to the spirituality which he felt was their supreme need. The needed renewal came to Europe; but it came rather through the spiritual awakening of the Reformation than through any vast temporal judgments upon the Papacy, and the brave monk died in no small measure a martyr to his own mistakes. The tempestuous spirit of Luther needed to be balanced by the saner and more sympathetic insight of Melanchthon. In the work of the Apostles the strenuous energy of St. Peter had to be tempered by the spirituality of St. John 1 [Note: F. B. Macnutt.]
ii. God does not reveal Himself in Nature finally
The second point we would make is that God does not manifest Himself to us finally or in His fulness in Nature, or in the forces which in our text are mirrored by Nature.
The world cannot be exhausted by physical explanations: and so the savage who worships the forces of nature, and the scientist who declares them to be the ultimate source of all things, are equally and very similarly in the wrong. God is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. These are only the fringe of His garment, the shadow of His inner glory. God is a Spirit, and is known through the vocal silence of spiritual fellowship.
How often in the midst of the sublimities of nature, a spectator, gazing upon some high mountain-range, has been fain to cry out, “What an aid to devotion! what a ladder up to Heaven!” Who has not exclaimed, when the thunder-cloud has rolled its awful peal, “Surely this is the voice of God!” And yet it is to be questioned whether any man was ever drawn to God by the contemplation of the glory of creation alone: or, whether any man ever received, indeed, his call to grace, in the summons of the storm. Men have lived their threescore years and ten in all the intimacy of nature’s most eloquent works, and from the cradle to the grave, they have not found God, for He is not in the wind; and He is not in the earthquake; and He is not in the fire; but He is in the still small voice.
1. “The Lord was not in the wind.” Strong religious impulse may be more than half physical,—a matter of temperament, of constitution. Earthly passion, in some natures, may take this form; the language, the intended and professed objects, may be of heaven, and the spirit of earth. Even though mountains of opposition are rent by it, and rocks of prejudice are broken in pieces, and changes are brought about which fill the thoughts of men and live in history, it may yet be that the agency which effects all this is itself destitute of anything properly Divine; “the Lord was not in the wind.”
2. “The Lord was not in the earthquake.” Spasmodic terror may be only terror. The thought, or sight, or immediate apprehension of death, may convulse, to its very depths, the human soul. But mere agitation may be only desperate; “the fear of the Lord,” as distinct from the fear of anything else, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Whether the Lord is or is not in the great earthquakes of the soul depends, generally speaking, upon the soul’s previous relations with Him.
3. “The Lord was not in the fire.” He was in the burning bush; He was in the fiery tongues of Pentecost; but He was not in the fire which played around Elijah on Horeb. Religious passion carried to the highest pitch of enthusiasm is a great agency in human life; but it may be too inconsiderate, too truculent, too entirely lacking in tenderness and charity, to be in any sense Divine. Christendom has been the scene of the most Divine enthusiasm of which the soul of man has ever had experience; but it has also been ablaze with fires (and they are not altogether extinct in our day and country) of which it may certainly be said that the Lord is not in them.
In our religious experience we are too apt to rely upon carnal force and energy. We are hopeful if we can make a noise, and create excitement, stir, and agitation. The heaving of the masses under newly invented excitements we are too apt to identify with the power of God. “At least we must have an eloquent preacher,” we say,—“one who can plead with choice picked words, a master of the art of oratory.” Yet God does not always choose this form of power, for still He will not have our faith to stand in the wisdom of words, but He will have us to learn this lesson, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts.” Crash after crash the orator’s passages succeed each other. What a tremendous passage! The hearers must surely be impressed. Wind! And the Lord is not in it. And now everything seems to shake, while, like a second John the Baptist, the minister proclaims woe and terror, and pronounces the curse of God upon a generation of vipers! Will not this break hard hearts? No. Nothing is accomplished. It is an earthquake; but the Lord is not in the earthquake. Another form of force remains. Here comes one who pleads with vehemence; all on fire, he flashes and flames. Look at the coruscations of his sensational metaphors and anecdotes. Yes, fire (might we not say fireworks?); and yet the Lord does not work by such fire. The Lord is not in the fire. The furious energy of unbridled fanaticism the Lord does not use. God is not there. The hallowed mind—the prayerful frame—the Spirit—they are all absent there. There was the wind, but “the Lord was not in the wind”; there was the earthquake, but “the Lord was not in the earthquake”; there was the fire, but “the Lord was not in the fire.” “The still small voice” did not speak. Souls go away admiring—excited—agitated; but there has been no intercourse with God.
Some great and overwhelming catastrophe has occurred, some judgment has broken over our heads, the sudden stroke of death has made its awful appeal; and one with whom we have long been familiar has been hurried, in a moment, to his grave; and the wisdom of man begins to argue—“Surely, now, there will be a revival. The Lord will be recognized here. Surely, in so loud a sign, hearts that never prayed before, will hear their Maker’s bidding, and will lift up to Him a repentant cry.” While we look for it, the solemn event passes by, and it is all forgotten. “The still small voice” has not been heard. The wind and the earthquake and the fire have been only like a pageant when it is past.
iii. Nature is often a Preparation for the Voice of God
The Lord was not in the hurricane; the Lord was not in the earthquake, the Lord was not in the fire: but the wind, the earthquake, the fire went before the Lord. And so our third point is that the wind, the earthquake, and the fire may be a preparation for the still small voice.
1. It very often pleases God to make use of external displays of His power to make way for the working of His grace; only, we say, He is jealous to show that these external circumstances are never themselves the grace. Let us not despise them. The most earnest sermon that was ever preached, cannot convert; but, if God pleases, it can awaken the slumbering feelings in a man’s heart. The grandeur of the most awful scenery can never declare the Gospel to the beholder; but it may humble him into a deep sense of his own insignificance. We would not underrate the wild prelude that ushers in the harmony. God delights to write out His love in the background of His terrors.
2. We see this clearly in the case of Israel at this time. Before Elijah left the land of Israel manifestations of God’s power had been given fitted to awe the minds of men, but these were the mere forerunners of His kingdom of grace, and of its great power—the word of life; and because they had not done what the word of God alone can do, Elijah fled. Elijah, to whom the word of the Lord was committed, fled, instead of carrying that word forth among the people.
And not only had he overlooked the power of God’s word, but he had overlooked also the favourable circumstances which had occurred for its going forth in might. The Lord is not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the devouring fire; yet these may and do prepare the way for His still small voice. These awe men’s minds and make them attentive to the voice of God. It was thus God had roused the attention of Israel in that very wilderness to which Elijah had fled. He first impressed the minds of the people with a deep sense of His majesty, and then He spake to them. He made the earth to tremble, and the mountain to quake, and the thunder to roll, and then He spake to the awestruck tribes the words of His law. It was thus He had dealt with His servant Job. Provoked by the miserable comforters who had gathered round him, Job had spoken unadvisedly with his lips, and had been ready to justify himself, when suddenly the sky darkened and the lightnings began to flash from cloud to cloud, and the tempest came sweeping around them; and out of the whirlwind God called to Job and spake to him, and reproved him for darkening counsel by words without knowledge; and “Job answered the Lord, and said, Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.” Thus humbled he waited for the voice of God, the still small voice. It came, and he was enlightened and comforted. It was thus God dealt with Isaiah. He saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and lifted up, and he cried, “Woe is me! for I am undone; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”; and then he heard the voice of the Lord, the still small voice, and gave ear to it. It was thus the Lord dealt with Saul of Tarsus. On his way to Damascus he was overwhelmed by the glory which shone around him, and fell to the earth, and then a voice spake to him—the still small voice of the Lord of glory. All these had a manifestation of the power and majesty of the Lord preparatory to the coming of the still small voice; and when their minds were awed and they were attentive to hear, the word of the Lord came.
Now, before Elijah fled from the land of Israel, God had been rousing the nation and impressing their minds. The prophets of Baal had been confounded and then cut off; the land had been afflicted, grievously afflicted, and then delivered; and surely the minds of many must have been opened to conviction; but the means of conviction did not come to them, for the prophet fled. The still small voice came not.
3. We know it in our own experience. There are times when we need, as Elijah needed, the rebuke of the storm, the terror of the earthquake, the purification of the fire, that, by having implanted within us the hardy virtues that outbrave the tempest, we may be fitted for the still small voice of God. Robertson puts it thus: “The storm struggle must precede the still small voice. There are hearts which must be broken with disappointment before they can rise into hope. Blessed is the man who, when the tempest has spent its fury, recognizes his Father’s voice in its undertone, and bares his head and bows his knee, as Elijah did.” To such spirits it seems as if God had said, In the still sunshine and ordinary ways of life you cannot meet Me; but, like Job in the desolation of the tempest, you shall see My form and hear My voice, and know that your Redeemer liveth.
’Tis not the whirlwind, o’er our fair fields sweeping
That speaks God’s present wrath:
This is but nature’s course, for all men keeping
One indiscriminate path.
Nor yet the earthquake, firm foundations shaking
Of houses long since built:
This is but fortune’s chance, its havoc making,
Without affixing guilt.
Nor yet the fire, whate’er is near confounding
In blind remorseless flame:
This is but man’s fierce ire, which all surrounding
Treats, good or bad, the same.
It is the still small voice within which speaketh,
When guilt’s fierce gust is done,
That tells the doom God’s righteous anger wreaketh,
Yet tells, that we may shun.
O gentle Lord, who like a friend reprovest,
Tender not less than true;
Thou our hard hearts by whispered warnings movest,
Their erring ways to rue.
Thou, whose pure eye like lightning might consume him,
On man with pity look’st;
Thou who to fire, storm, earthquake, well might’st doom him,
With still small voice rebuk’James 1 [Note: Lord Kinloch.]
Where God is
“And after the fire a still small voice.”
The terrible vision of the storm has passed. The blast of the tempest is stilled. To the convulsions of the earthquake succeeds the calm, to the terrifying glare of the lightning the pure and fresh brightness of day. Heaven reappears—the heaven of the East, with its transparent and deep azure; nature seems born again more beautiful and serene, and from the valleys there rises to the top of Horeb, and the cave where Elijah had sheltered himself, a sweet and gentle sound—the harmonious voice of nature opened up afresh under the breath of God. Elijah goes forth from his retreat. An inexpressible emotion seizes his soul, which the terror had thrown into confusion; an ineffable feeling of peace, of freshness, and of joy penetrates it. Neither the voice of the tempest nor the convulsions of nature had roused him to that point. In that sweet and gentle sound he recognizes the presence of God, and, covering his head with his mantle, he bows himself and adores.
Elijah had shared in the outward manifestations of Divine favour which appear to mark the Old Dispensation—the fire on Carmel, the storm from the Mediterranean, the avenging sword on the banks of the Kishon. These signs had failed; and he was now told that in these signs, in the highest sense, God was not; not in these, but in the still small gentle whisper of conscience and solitude was the surest token that God was near to him. Not in his own mission, grand and gigantic as it was, would after-ages so clearly discern the Divine inspiration, as in the still small voice of justice and truth that breathed through the writings of the later Prophets, for whom he only prepared the way—Hosea, Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah. Not in the vengeance which through Hazael and Jehu was to sweep away the house of Omri, so much as in the discerning Love which was to spare the seven thousand; not in the strong east wind that parted the Red Sea, or the fire that swept the top of Sinai, or the earthquake that shook down the walls of Jericho, would God be brought so near to man, as in the still small voice of the child of Bethlehem, as in the ministrations of Him whose cry was not heard in the streets, in the awful stillness of the Cross, in the never-failing order of Providence, in the silent insensible influence of the good deeds and good words of God and of man. Elijah, the furthest removed of all the prophets from the evangelical spirit and character, has yet enshrined in the heart of his story the most forcible of protests against the hardness of Judaism, the noblest anticipation of the breadth and depth of Christianity.1 [Note: A. P. Stanley.]
However the rendering may be altered—into “a gentle murmuring sound” or, as in the R.V. margin, “a sound of gentle stillness”—no expression is more full of the awe and mystery of the original than the phrase “a still small voice.” It was God’s whisper to Elijah’s soul. Was it articulate or not? Was it accompanied by an outward rustling, as Cheyne thinks? We do not know. All that is of consequence is that in it Elijah recognized the presence of God and came forth to worship.
Why seek ye for Jehovah
’Mid Sinai’s awful smoke?
The burning bush now shelters
A sparrow’s humble folk;
The curve of God’s sweet heaven
Is the curve of the leaf of oak;
The Voice that stilled the tempest
To the little children spoke,—
The bread of life eternal
Is the bread He blessed and broke.
“A still small voice.” That was how God manifested Himself to Elijah and how He delights to manifest Himself to us. Looking at the words more closely we see—
i. That God is most really in the gentlest things—in that which is still.
ii. That God is not in the agencies that seem the mightiest—He prefers to manifest Himself in that which is small.
iii. That God manifests Himself as a Voice.
It is difficult to realize that in the hush which followed the fire, the earthquake, the wind, God really was. But if there is any meaning in this story, it is that the silence was more really Divine than the noise, the flash, and the trembling which went before. And one of the hardest lessons we have to learn is that God is in the quiet, the gentle influences which are ever around us, working upon us as the atmosphere does, without any visible or audible token of its presence. We must seek to discern God in the quiet and the gentle. It is perhaps because we fail to discern Him there that He comes sometimes in the tempest. We do not find Him in health, and so He comes in sickness. We do not find Him in prosperity, and so He comes in adversity. We do not find Him in the stillness, and so He is compelled to come in the storm. But He would rather take the gentle way.
Are there not, then, two musics unto men?—
One loud and bold and coarse,
And overpowering still perforce
All tone and tune beside;
Yet in despite its pride
Only of fumes of foolish fancy bred,
And sounding solely in the sounding head;
The other soft and low,
Stealing whence we do not know,
Painfully heard, and easily forgot,
With pauses oft and many a silence strange
(And silent oft it seems, when silent it is not),
Revivals too of unexpected change:
Haply thou think’st ’twill never be begun,
Or that ’t has come, and been, and past away:
Yet turn to other none,—
Turn not, oh, turn not thou!
But listen, listen, listen,—if haply be heard it may;
Listen, listen, listen,—is it not sounding now?1 [Note: Clough.]
1. In quietness there is power.—This is a truth which in these days we are very apt to forget. We have fallen upon a generation of fuss, and bustle, and trumpet-blowing, and advertising. It would almost seem as if many of us believed that we were to take the world by storm. We get up excitements in mass-meetings, and pass resolutions, and listen to eloquent orators, and make thundering plaudits, as if these alone were to win the day. We have more faith in the whirlwind and the earthquake than in the still small voice; and we mistake a momentary out-flashing of enthusiasm for the celebration of a final triumph. The sensational is everywhere in the ascendant. We see it in the extravagance of dress that seeks to call attention to itself; we see it in the domain of literature, in the highly coloured and hotly seasoned romances; we see it in feverish speculations. Surely there is something in this vision for our sensation-loving life. It were well that we had less faith in noise, and more in that which is the most God-like thing on earth, namely, a character moulded after the example of Christ, and created and sustained by the agency of the Holy Ghost. It were well that the voices among us were less loud, and the deeds were more pronounced. Life is more potent than words; and character, though quiet, is more influential in the long-run than any immediate sensation that flares up and crackles like a blaze of thorns.
God’s greatest works are carried on in silence. All noiselessly the planets move in their orbits; “there is no speech nor language; their voice cannot be heard” as they sweep on through their appointed paths in space. No sound attends the crystallization of the dewdrops on the myriad blades of grass in the summer evenings; and while the crops are growing in the fields, so profound sometimes is the stillness that all nature seems asleep. What greater revolution can there be than that which recurs at every morning’s dawn when night quits her “ebon throne” and resigns her empire to the king of day? Yet how quietly it is accomplished! There is first a streak of light along the edge of the eastern horizon, so faint that you wonder whether it has not shot out from that brilliant star; then a few stray gleams of glory, as if the northern aurora had flitted to another quarter of the heavens; then a flush of ruddy beauty before which the stars begin to pale; and as we watch how one by one these faithful sentinels put out their lamps, the sun himself appears, and becomes the undisputed monarch of the heavens. But it is all so silent that the sleeper is not awakened on his couch, and the pale, sick one who has been longing for the morning knows not it is there until through the shadowed casement it looks in upon him with its benignant smile.1 [Note: W. M. Taylor.]
I look upon my study walls and see Munkacsy’s great picture, “Christ before Pilate.” There is a vast, howling mob, the very incarnation of brutal and irresistible force. It seems as though the violent crowd can carry all before it. Standing before the surging, shouting throng is the meek figure of the Master! It seems as though one hand out of the violent mob could crush Him like a moth! And yet we now know that in that silent figure there dwelt the secret of Almightiness, and the Lord was not in the mob.2 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
The quietest room in a Lancashire cotton mill is the engine-room. It is significantly called “the power-room” of the mill. But from that quietest room emerges all the force which speeds the busy looms in their process of production. Let the engine be neglected, let countless looms be added without proportional increase of power, and the mill breaks down. We have been neglecting our quietest room, our power-room; we have been adding to the strain without multiplying the force, and the effects are seen in weariness, joylessness, and ineffectiveness. We must not work less, but we must pray more. We cannot minimize our activities; but we must sustain them with those more adequate supplies of grace that come in answer to common prayer.1 [Note: Charles A. Berry, Life, 266.]
2. In the quietest force—love—there is most power.—You have heard of the old fable which tells how the sun and the wind strove with each other, which of them should first make the traveller divest himself of his cloak. The more fiercely the wind blew, the more firmly the wayfaring man gathered his outer garment about him. But when the sun shone warmly upon him he speedily threw the weighty covering from his shoulders. So antagonism creates antagonism. If you attempt to drag me by force, it is in my nature to resist you, and I will pull against you with all my might; but if you try to attract me by kindness, it is equally in my nature to yield to its influence, and I will follow you of my own free will. What the hammer will not weld together without fiery heat and prolonged labour, the magnet will bring together and hold together in a moment. So in dealing with men, the mightiest influence is love.
I was a lad of fifteen years at the time, an unindentured apprentice on board a large sailing ship which was homeward bound with a cargo of grain from Tacoma, Puget Sound. Not far south of San Francisco we encountered a violent storm which continued without abatement for nearly forty-eight hours. The severe buffeting to which the ship was subjected by the great seas caused the cargo to shift, and the vessel lay with her starboard rail completely submerged. To make matters worse, a spare spar had burst from its fastenings, and to the roar of the elements was added at frequent intervals the thud, thud, of this spar as the sea dashed it like a battering ram against the deck. Our situation was one of extreme peril, and little hope was entertained by captain or crew that the vessel would weather the storm.
In the midst of the storm I felt the awe which the play of destructive forces can inspire. As I considered our danger, these same forces stirred my heart with fear. Loud and terrible, however, as were the voices which spoke to me, their message did not go deep enough to abide. The impression made on me by this dread experience, though it seemed at the time to be very great, proved to be altogether transient. In a comparatively few hours the storm was by God’s mercy stilled, and the ship steered a course for San Francisco. The sense of danger then began to yield to a feeling of security, and my own conduct, as that of the crew generally, was characterized by levity itself. Before the anchor was cast in the beautiful harbour of San Francisco, the storm and danger were only a memory. The solemn experience had left no other sign.
Very different in its effect was the experience of my first hours at home, where I arrived about seven months later. I had deserted my vessel in Frisco, and my relatives did not know where I was or how I had been conducting myself. When I stood before them empty-handed, their fears that all had not been right were quickened; yet only words of welcome were spoken. Their looks, however, and their voices, had something in them that appealed powerfully to all that was best in me. Their entire attitude had the permanently arresting quality of the “still, small voice.” It was love patiently and, as far as possible, cheerfully shouldering the burden of my folly. That experience is more than a memory. The impression it made was deep and abiding. It has long been my conviction that that was the turning-point in my spiritual history. Then was begun in me a work of whose significance I was at the time unconscious; a work which is largely the cause of my being a Christian minister to-day; a work which, by God’s grace, shall not stop, even for death.1 [Note: John M‘Neil (Airdrie).]
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall,
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!1 [Note: J. G. Whittier.]
The significance of the symbolism portrayed before the despondent prophet was surely that, while comparative impotence may roar in the guise of tempest and fire, Almightiness may move in whispers. Feebleness hides in the apparently overwhelming; Almightiness hides in apparent impotence. God was in the weak thing! Elijah left the mount with his conceptions entirely changed.
1. And so we see that we must look for God in the everyday occurrences. We should all like to be spoken to by a prodigy. But the Lord does not often do that. He is too great to do that. It belongs to everything that is really great to act simply. The infinite God does all His works in the simplest manner possible. And the Lord does everything in a way to show His own power. If the machinery were great, the mover might be little.
There is in many minds something which makes them crave for proofs of the presence and power of God in remarkable interruptions of nature and providence rather than in their orderly course. It is a perversion of the truth. If a miracle is sublime, how much more sublime is the unity and greatness of the order which it seems, on some singular occasion, to interrupt. The mind which has learned to see God in the daily course of nature and providence comes nearer to the happy truth than that to which this order is meaningless, and which cries out to Him to raise up His power and come and declare His presence by miraculous wonders. Is it not better for us to learn that God is near in the daily exhibitions of His goodness than to look for Him only in those rare events in which we try to persuade ourselves that He has worked a miracle in answer to our cry? For one miraculous we enjoy a thousand customary gifts of grace and kindness. Happy are we if in our deep hearts we consent that this is so, and that this is best.1 [Note: G. R. Wynne.]
2. We must not undervalue agencies because they seem to be insignificant. It was said of the Lord Himself, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” and the first apostles were despised as “unlearned and ignorant men.” Yet though God used only “the weak things of the world,” He did confound with them “the things which are mighty.” The big trees in California have sprung from seeds each of which is no larger than a grain of wheat; and the river which at its source is a tiny tinkling rill over which a child may stride, is at its mouth broad enough and deep enough to bear a navy on its bosom.
It used to be thought that the upheaval of the continents and the rearing of the great mountains was due to cataclysms and conflagrations and vast explosions of volcanic force. It has long been known that they are due, on the contrary, to the inconceivably slow modifications produced by the most insignificant causes. It is the age-long accumulation of mica-flakes that has built up the mighty bastions of the Alps. It is the toil of the ephemeral coral insect that has reared whole leagues of the American Continent and filled the Pacific Ocean with those unnumbered isles
Which, like to rich and various gems, inlay
The unadorned bosom of the deep.
It is the slow silting up of the rivers that has created vast deltas for the home of man. It has required the calcareous deposit of millions of animalculæ to produce even one inch of the white cliffs along the shores.2 [Note: F. W. Farrar.]
Some time ago I was in Stirling Castle, and the guide pointed out to me the field of Bannockburn, and revelled in his description of the bloody fray. I turned from the contemplation of material strife and I saw John Knox’s pulpit! I allowed the two symbols to confront each other, and they enshrined for me the teaching given to Elijah in the days of old. The ghostly power suggested by the pulpit was of infinitely greater import than the carnal power suggested by the battlefield. I remember one day passing along the road, by the far-stretching works of Messrs. Armstrong, that vast manufactory of destructive armaments. I was almost awed by the massiveness of the equipment and by the terrific issues of their work. Near by I saw a little Methodist Chapel; it could have been put in a small corner of Armstrong’s works, but it became to me the symbol of the enduring and the eternal. The ghostly breathing was in the plain little edifice, and the creations of its ministries will be found when the bristling armaments have crumbled into dust.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
All through the ages God has manifested Himself as a Voice, as the voice of conscience in the hearts of men. He has left no man utterly without guidance. Often, however, the voice is almost silent, because dulled by its faulty medium, man. But to-day we are not dependent on the voice of conscience alone.
1. There is the voice of the human Jesus. Was not Jesus God’s “still small voice” when in His human garb He walked the plains of Galilee, and declared His Father’s glory and His Father’s will? The bruised reed He never broke; the smoking flax He never quenched. He did not strive, nor cry, nor lift up His voice in the street. Despised in His littleness, that “voice” was, nevertheless, the great power of Jehovah; and, calm as were those loving lips, they uttered the mandates that all worlds obeyed. Evil spirits cowered at His presence; sickness, and sorrow, and death fled before Him. Against the dark background of the penal law, He declared the Gospel’s peace. And when, on the Mount of Beatitudes, that “voice,” long silent, began, in its own gentleness, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Sinai’s trumpet grew silent! And when He stood, and called so lovingly, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”—who remembered, then, any more, the blackness, and the darkness, and the tempest? And when, at last, His dying lips spoke those words of Godhead, “It is finished,” did not every adoring angel, as he stooped to the sound, confess that all the displays that had been made of God, in His own universe, were in magnificence as nought to that one “still small voice” of Calvary?
If we ask what gives us assurance of the truth and justice of God, the answer is, the life and death of Christ, who is the Son of God, and the Revelation of God. We know what He Himself has told us of God, and we cannot conceive perfect goodness separate from perfect truth; nay, this goodness itself is the only conception we can form of God, if we confess what the mere immensity of the material world tends to suggest—that the Almighty is not a natural or even a supernatural power, but a Being of whom the reason and conscience of man have a truer conception than imagination in its highest flights. He is not in the storm, nor in the thunder, nor in the earthquake, but “in the still small voice.” And this image of God as He reveals Himself in the heart of man is “Christ in us, the hope of glory”; Christ as He once was upon earth in His sufferings rather than His miracles—the image of goodness and truth and peace and love.1 [Note: B. Jowett.]
2. There is the voice of the risen Lord.
(1) This voice draws. Other religions have books: Muhammadanism has a book, and a grand old book it is, called the Koran. Some of its stories are almost equal in beauty to the stories of the Book of Genesis. But Muhammadanism has no voice. Muhammad is dead, and his voice is silent in the tomb. Hinduism has books, and interesting books they are, called the Veda and Shaster. They are full of hymns and precepts. Some of them are almost equal in purity and spirituality to some of the Old Testament Psalms and Proverbs. But Hinduism has no voice. The great prophets of Hinduism who thought out the books are dead, and their voices are heard no more. Christianity also has a book. It is more beautiful than the Veda or Shaster. But the book of Christianity is also a voice. The Prophet of Christianity is not dead. Christ is alive, and fills all the words of the Bible with a living voice. He speaks again, through His Spirit, the very words which He spoke when on earth. Herein is the great difference between the Bible and every other book. Other books contain the thoughts of their authors at a particular period in their life, but they may have changed their opinions after writing them, or they may have died. Their voices cannot speak the very words they have written. We read Shakespeare and Milton, but we do not hear them. We hear Christ; His opinions are unchangeable, and He is ever living. He speaks the sweet words of mercy to every generation.
When I have seen an idol arrayed in traditionary terrors, and magnificently paraded through the streets of a large native town, and in the night too; and when ten thousand human beings have pressed near to worship amid the gleaming of innumerable torches of coloured light, and rockets and candles of every device shooting up into the air; and when the priests have sung in solemn cadence, and the multitudes have shouted their acclamations, I have caught the prevailing awe. With all my better knowledge I could not resist the terror and beauty of the spectacle. But the Lord was not there. The multitudes returned to their homes with an intoxicated sense and a fevered imagination; yet with no silent voice to instruct and win them to God. But I have taken one of those Hindus whom the wind and the earthquake and the fire had dazzled, but not changed; I have drawn him away from the three signs and invited him to wait with me for the fourth; and while we listened, a still small voice spoke in our hearts; and when he heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and cried, “What must I do to be saved?” And the effect of that voice was a new heart and a new life. It was the silent winning of Calvary, and not the fiery testimony of Carmel: it was not Moses or Elijah thundering forth the Law upon the senses, but Jesus breathing truth and grace into the soul.1 [Note: E. E. Jenkins.]
(2) It is a voice which guides. There was and still is in the soul of every man who has not by long-continued sin succeeded in stifling it that which the early Friends called the “Light Within,” or the “Divine Seed”; that which we in our generation, by a mode of expression which comes more naturally to us, call the Voice of the Lord speaking to the soul of man. “Do you mean the conscience?” is a question which is often asked when we plead for the continued existence of this Divine gift. Yes, the conscience, which has certainly had a mighty part to play in the drama of the re-making of man; but also something much more than the conscience; the existence in man of a hearing ear, which has often enabled him to distinguish which of two modes of action, neither in itself wrong, it is his Lord’s will that he should choose; in short, that which our forefathers so often spoke of as “the perceptible guidance of the Holy Spirit.”2 [Note: T. Hodgkin, Human Progress and the Inward Light, 28.]
I hear it often in the dark,
I hear it in the light,—
Where is the voice that comes to me
With such a quiet might?
It seems but echo to my thought,
And yet beyond the stars!
It seems a heart-beat in a hush,
And yet the planet jars!
Oh, may it be that far within
My inmost soul there lies
A spirit-sky, that opens with
Those voices of surprise.
Thy heaven is mine—my very soul!
Thy words are sweet and strong;
They fill my inward silences
With music and with song.
They send me challenges to right,
And loud rebuke my ill;
They ring my bells of victory;
They breathe my “Peace, be still!”
They ever seem to say: “My child,
Why seek me so all day?
Now journey inward to thyself,
And listen by the way.”1 [Note: W. C. Gannett.]
That individual and immediate guidance, in which we recognize that “the finger of God is come unto us” seems to come in, as it were, to complete and perfect the work rough-hewn by morality and conscience. We may liken the laws of our country to the cliffs of our island, over which we rarely feel ourselves in any danger of falling; the moral standard of our social circle to the beaten highway road which we can hardly miss. Our own conscience would then be represented by a fence, by which some parts of the country are enclosed for each one, the road itself at times being barred or narrowed. And that Divine guidance of which I am speaking could be typified only by the pressure of a hand upon ours, leading us gently to step to the right or the left, in a manner intended for and understood by ourselves alone.2 [Note: Caroline Stephen, Quaker Strongholds.]
When we have crossed to the other side of the gulf that separates the seen from the unseen we shall find that nothing has ever mattered except faithfulness to that voice. Place does not matter—one might gain all the glory of the world and yet be a stranger to one’s own soul; fame and station count for nothing in that mysterious beyond towards which we are all hastening; the only possession we can carry there is what we are. Can we not live now as though our hearts were set only upon eternal values? Can we not do with our lives now what we would do if we knew for certain that nothing shall live but love? Can we not gaze calmly at the destructive effect of earthquake, wind, and fire, when we know that the still, small voice is whispering, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? Above all, we shall not be tempted to think that success or failure depends in the least upon what the world can see.1 [Note: R. J. Campbell.]
Loud mockers in the roaring street
Say Christ is crucified again:
Twice pierced His gospel-bearing feet,
Twice broken His great heart in vain.
I hear, and to myself I smile,
For Christ talks with me all the while.
No more unto the stubborn heart
With gentle knocking shall He plead,
No more the mystic pity start,
For Christ twice dead is dead indeed.
So in the street I hear men say,
Yet Christ is with me all the day.
Banks (L. A.), Thirty-One Revival Sermons, 87.
Bersier (E.), Sermons, 2nd Ser., 244.
Bersier (E.), in The Foreign Protestant Pulpit, 1st Ser., 285.
Blackwood (A.), Conference Memories, 179.
Brooke (S. A.), The Old Testament and Modern Life, 285.
Butler (H. M.), University and other Sermons, 342.
Campbell (L.), The Christian Ideal, 18.
Campbell (R. J.), Thursday Mornings at the City Temple, 59.
Cheyne (T. K.), The Hallowing of Criticism, 123.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, 6th Ser., 334,
Davies (T.), Sermons and Homiletical Expositions, 2nd Ser., 23.
Fletcher (R. J.), The Old Law and the New Age, 129.
Fotheringham (D. R.), The Writing on the Sky, 108.
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, 1st Ser., 179.
Jenkins (E. E.), Sermons, 218.
Macnutt (F. B.), The Riches of Christ, 116.
Moore (E. W.), The Spirit’s Seal, 146.
Newman (J. H.), Sermons on Subjects of the Day, 367.
Nicholson (M.), Redeeming the Time, 198.
Rankin (J.), Character Studies in the Old Testament, 214.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxviii. (1882), No. 1668; lv. (1909), No. 3171.
Taylor (W. M.), Contrary Winds, 107.
Thomas (J.), Sermons (Myrtle Street Pulpit), ii. 192.
Wise (I. M.), in American Jewish Pulpit, 127.
Wright (D.), The Power of an Endless Life, 60.
Wynne (G. R.), In Quietness and Confidence, 95.
Christian Age, xlii. 178 (La Bach).
Christian World Pulpit, ii. 122 (Macnaught); viii. 362 (Bainton); xx. 314 (Mursell); xxxii. 174 (Horder); xl. 374 (Williams).
Church of England Pulpit, lxii. 445 (Fotheringham); lxiii. 124 (Cooper).
Church Pulpit Year Book, ii. (1905) 223 (Vaughan).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Lenten Season, v. 81 (Mackay); Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, xi. 304 (Vaughan).
Clergyman’s Magazine, New Ser., i. 312 (Proctor); 3rd Ser., iv. 88 (Youard).
Examiner, 30th March 1905 (Jowett).
And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?—2 Kings 5:13.
1. The history of Naaman, though it fills only one chapter of the Bible, has much that makes it peculiarly attractive. He possessed nearly every requisite to worldly success and the full gratification of the highest ambition. He had the genius of a great commander; under his leadership the armies of Syria had won great victories. Besides this gift of leadership, he had the personal courage and the heroic daring of a popular hero admired and extolled as “a mighty man of valour.” Because of his great services to the State he enjoyed to an unusual degree the favour and confidence of his king, who lavished upon him the rich gifts and great offices which monarchs confer upon their favourites.
Tradition says that it was Naaman whose hand shot the arrow that smote between the joints of Ahab’s armour, so that he fell down dead in his chariot. Such a man as sometimes comes to the front in the desperate needs of a nation—daring, wise, splendid in heroism, seeing the thing to be done and doing it swiftly and well: his name an inspiration to his forces, and a terror to his foes—how much can such a one do, carrying in his hands the destinies of nations. Here is greatness: great in himself, great in his position, great in his possessions, great in his achievements, great in his authority: no element of greatness is lacking.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
2. But Naaman was a leper.
We can scarcely imagine the greatness of this calamity,—the anguish that overwhelmed his proud spirit, the sorrow that pervaded his house. “The basest slave in Syria,” says Bishop Hall, “would not change skins with him, if he might have his honour to boot. Thus hath the wise God thought wise to sauce the valour, dignity, renown, victories of the famous general of the Syrians.” No wonder that the little slave girl who attended upon his wife was touched with pity, and, remembering the miraculous power of the great prophet of her country, said to her mistress, “Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria!”
Leprosy was feared and fled from in Israel as the stroke of God. Leprosy was the most fearful and the most hateful disease known to man. Leprosy was so loathsome, and so utterly incurable and deadly, that it was not looked on as an ordinary disease at all, but rather as a special creation in His anger, and a direct curse of God, both to punish sin, and, at the same time, to teach His people something of what an accursed thing sin really is; till the whole nature of leprosy and all the laws laid down for its treatment, and the miraculous nature of its so seldom cure, all combined to work into the imagination, and into the conscience, and into the heart, and into the ritual, and into the literature of Israel, some of her deepest lessons about the terrible nature and the only proper treatment of sin.1 [Note: A. Whyte.]
3. At this distance we may pass lightly over his misfortune and think of his character, which still lives before us in that page, so fiery and generous, so proudly sensitive, and yet so responsive to the voice of reason, till, as we dwell on this, we feel a touching appropriateness in the blessing which he receives, when his flesh comes again like the flesh of a little child. And have we not also felt the impressive contrast of worldly and spiritual grandeur, of that which fills the imagination and that which commands the soul, when the great captain comes with his chariot and his horses and stands before the door of a plain man’s dwelling, and the prophet without moving from his seat sends forth his message by another?
It was then that Naaman learned a lesson which many an ingenuous heart like his has learned through suffering, though some pass through life without learning it—that the truest blessings, the truest gifts, are often those which we are tempted to despise as common. It is a lesson which only experience can teach to those who need it, and yet it is not in vain to repeat it often in a time when it is much forgotten, and when the marvellous, the exciting, the new and striking, are taking the place of the wise and just and true.
Men have been saved from ruin by a grasp of the hand, a kind word, a generous deed. A bunch of flowers in a dingy and dirty tenement has started thoughts and memories that have meant the resurrection of a soul. A tear, a smile, have done for some spirits in the prisons of sorrow or sin what all the wealth of the Indies could never do. So possible is it to pack untold wealth into such small bulk. A ray of sunshine from some bright life will work a rainbow upon the tears of some forlorn sufferer. The best gifts are, after all, the easiest given.1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne, in Youth and Life, 68.]
I have sometimes thought that there seems to be a peculiar potency in the smaller gifts, representing, as they often do, the greatest, most devoted sacrifice. Could we trace the intricate crossings of the lines of influence in the web of life, we would be awed many times at the potency of the giving that is small in amount but tinted red with the life-blood of sacrifice.2 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 180.]
A chance remark, or a song’s refrain,
And life is never the same again!
A glimpse of a face in a crowded street,
And afterwards life is incomplete.
A friendly smile, and love’s embering spark
Leaps into flame, and illumines the dark;
A whispered “Be brave” to our fellow-men,
And they pick up the thread of hope again.
Thus never an act, or word, or thought,
But that with unguessed importance is fraught;
For small things build up eternity,
And blazon the way for a destiny.
The directions given by the prophet were plain and specific. “Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.” Could anything be more explicit? One would have thought that Naaman would have been glad to have had a certain cure promised him on such easy conditions. But no. His pride had been humbled; the prophet had not shown him proper respect; he had proposed a condition which was ridiculous on the face of it. If the prophet had nothing better for him, he might as well turn home at once.
The directions as to salvation are clear as day. He that runs may read them. “Believe and live.” “Repent, and your sins shall be blotted out.” The blessing is assured the moment the condition is fulfilled; yet many hesitate. They say: “That is too easy a way; there is surely something more to do.” But that is God’s way, and God’s way is the right way.
On the West Coast I stood one day on the cliffs whilst a man pointed out a reef of rocks about which the wild seas foamed, and told me of an Austrian barque that in some fierce storm had struck upon the rocks, indeed was flung up on them by some huge sea. The rocket apparatus was on the spot and fired the rocket right over the ship, so that the rope was made fast in the rigging. Instantly every sailor on the ship rushed below, and not a man was to be seen. There was the rope attached, and there hung the board in half-a-dozen languages directing as to its use. They knew that the seas would rend the ship to pieces very soon and all must perish. At last this man could stand it no longer, and getting into the buoy he went down to the ship, and in at the forecastle he flung the painted board. A score of frightened faces looked up in terror at him. They took the board and read it; hastily they explained it to one another, and crept forth wondering. Then one, then another, availed himself of the apparatus, until all were safely on shore; and, overwhelmed with gratitude, they fell on the necks of their deliverers and wept and kissed them in their great joy. “We thought you wanted to shoot and kill us,” they explained in their broken English.1 [Note: M. G. Pearse.]
1. Naaman was angry with the Prophet.—Why did not Elisha come out? Was it because he wanted to humble Naaman? Such might be the way of men, but the way of God, and of God’s servants, is not so cold, so calculated, so pitiless, or the Gospel had been long ago undone. Elisha had no power to heal the leprosy. He had no power to come out and wave his hand over the spot and recover the leper. We see how, in the case of the dead child, “he went in, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the Lord,” his heart all pity, his soul all open to the whisper of God’s voice, and the whole man ready to hear and obey the revelation of His will. No; it is no cold and haughty prophet that we see within that lowly dwelling seeking to humble Naaman. It is one whose heart is filled with pity for a case that is pitiable indeed; a great man by whom the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria, but a leper. And in his pity Elisha sees not the horses and chariots and gifts, but the leper.
Pride, arrogance, conceit, and self-will stand in the way of men’s receiving God’s blessing. Naaman’s conduct was typical. Every day men are betrayed by these malign influences into hasty acts and foolish courses, by reason of which they fail to benefit from God’s loving-kindness and gracious purpose to do them good. Happy are they who have wise and faithful counsellors in their mothers, wives, children, friends or servants, to suggest better second thoughts and persuade them to heed these and to act sanely, instead of insanely as anger prompts! One act of folly done in a hasty moment may work irreparable mischief, may frustrate God’s gracious purpose of mercy, and destroy all chance of fulfilling hopes ardently cherished, to accomplish which we and those who love us have made great endeavours and sacrifices.
2. Naaman was angry at the Message.—Not only was Naaman angry at what he considered the want of respect shown by the prophet, but he was also angry at the message. Wash and be clean! It seemed to make so light of his sickness.
(1) He wanted something else. He had been thinking the matter over in his own mind, and had pictured to himself what the prophet would do. He said, “Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and recover the leper.” And when at last the command came he was displeased, because it was not what he had expected.
It is so common a failing this of Naaman. Instead of subscribing to God, we prescribe to Him. We say, “I thought God would act in this way”; but God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways.
(2) Naaman thought the task too mean, too poor, too unimportant. He failed to recognize that nothing can be unimportant that God’s Providence has assigned. Human Nature which is capable of much grandeur of achievement in great things, in special things, often breaks down in the presence of small things. So it was with Naaman. Most assuredly Naaman would have done any difficult task that had been imposed upon him; but he found it hard to do a very simple thing. He stumbled at the simplicity of the prophet’s method of cure, just as many stumble at the simplicity of the Gospel.
We all want to do some great thing—to do what prophets, saints, heroes, and martyrs have done. But the small thing, the commonplace thing, the little trivial duty, the thing that has to be done out of everybody’s sight—in the routine of business, home, or school—that seems poor work to do for God. But it is what He wants us to do. We all want to do some great thing. But God wants only a few of us to do the great, extraordinary things. He wants most of us to do the common things of life—the ordinary work of the world—and it is in these common things that we so often fail. Poor Naaman would not have minded doing some great thing, but his soul rebelled at the thought of the trivial task seven times repeated.
God may have great things for us to do; He certainly has small. And in the small He gives us the opportunity to prove the sincerity of our desire to serve Him in what is greater. We must not deceive ourselves with good intentions, or by dreaming that we should act nobly on the larger stage, when it is only too evident that we do not think it worth while to take trouble over the little things, which we wrongly conceive to be beneath our notice. John Eliot, the missionary, was found, on the day of his death, in his eighty-sixth year, teaching the Indian alphabet to a child. When asked why he did it, he replied: “I have prayed God to make me useful in my sphere, and now that I can no longer preach, He leaves me strength to teach this poor child.” “If,” said John Newton, the City Rector, “as I go home a child has dropped a halfpenny, and by giving it another I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad, indeed, to do greater things, but I will not neglect this.”1 [Note: A. W. Robinson, The Voice of Joy and Health, 167.]
There are no little things on earth,
There’s nought beneath the Christian’s care,
No virtuous deeds of little worth;
The flower, upon the mountain bare,
Where never came admiring eye,
The Lord has carved as curiously,
Has stained it with as gorgeous dye,
As though a thousand looks were there.
Deem not the simple charms, that dwell
In gentle tone and smiling face,
The courtesy, that flings a spell
Of winning love and quiet grace
O’er common deeds in silence wrought,
Beneath the Christian’s careful thought;
Another love our Lord has taught,
Adorning many a secret place.
Upon the lonely mountain height
He bids His fair young blossoms swell,
For fragrance all and beauty bright
Forth bursting from each dark green shell;
And shall no flowers of courtesie
Within our lowly hamlets be,
To brighten with their fragrance free
The homes where poor men dwell?
Oh! yes, the temple stones of old
Admiring glances ever drew,
All fair and beauteous to behold,
Ranged in their polished order due;
And lovely deeds beseem us all,
The stones in Christ’s own temple wall,
And nought is trivial, nought is small,
That we, for His great Name, can do.1 [Note: Cecil Frances Alexander.]
A man may easily be forgiven for not doing this or that incidental act of charity, especially when the question is as genuinely difficult and dubious as is the case of mendicity. But there is something quite pestilently Pecksniffian about shrinking from a hard task on the plea that it is not hard enough. If a man will really try talking to the ten beggars who come to his door, he will soon find out whether it is really so much easier than the labour of writing a cheque for a hospital.2 [Note: G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.]
Was not the saintly Keble absolutely right when he wrote thus to a friend who had asked counsel on a point of conduct which had perplexed him? “Almost every time I look into the New Testament I feel convinced that the more quietly and calmly one sets about one’s duty, the less one breaks through established customs, always supposing them innocent in themselves, the more nearly does one act according to the great Exemplar there proposed.1 [Note: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, xii.]
What is a great deed? I saw one recorded the other day in half a dozen simple lines—a deed of heroism performed on the sea by a young fisherman. A fishing boat, named the Truelight, containing a father and four sons, was caught in a gale, foundered and sank. Three of the sons were dragged down with it, and instantly drowned. The fourth swam to a floating oar, and was about to seize it, when he observed his father already clinging to it. Well he knew it could not support them both, so he simply said: “Weel, weel, father, I maun just awa’,” and he sank to rise no more.2 [Note: D. Watson, In Life’s School, 151.]
1. It was well for Naaman that he had faithful and prudent servants, who, without in the least degree trenching upon the respect due from them to him, were yet able and willing to remonstrate affectionately with him, and to show him the unreasonableness of his conduct. Second thoughts came to him; and with an angry man, second thoughts are always best. He listened to reason, and agreed to make the experiment. Perhaps he had no very great heart in the matter; but his case was hopeless, and he at least could be no worse off for trying the prophet’s prescription. So he went down to Jordan and dipped in its waters once, twice, thrice, four times, five times, six times, and still no change. He dipped for the seventh time, and lo! a miracle. His leprosy was gone in an instant, “and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child.”
2. It was when the will of Naaman was surrendered and the act of obedience completed that the change was wrought. It is in the act of obedience that the Divine blessing always comes. When Jesus bade the ten lepers who came to Him for healing go and show themselves to the priests, it is said that “it came to pass, that, as they went, they were cleansed.” The cure was wrought when faith was translated into obedience. It is here that multitudes fail. They expect the result of obedience before obedience is rendered. They expect to feel the thrill of new life before they have done the bidding of Christ. To obey is to enjoy.
Obedience through strict conformity to God’s thought and purpose, as these may be revealed to us, is the ordinary channel through which His benefits flow to us. This is a universal rule operative in every realm of human interest. The laws of life must be obeyed, if we would possess health; the laws of the natural world, if we would harness its mighty forces to enterprises for human welfare; the law of justice, if in our social life and our relations to one another we would fully realize the blessings of Christian civilization; the law of faith, if we would find joy and peace in believing; the rule of humble submission to God’s truth—whatever it may demand of us and whithersoever it may lead us—if His will is to be done on earth as it is done in heaven, and the gladness of heaven irradiate our earthly existence in its wide range of experience and duties.
Mr. Gladstone, in a letter which his biographer tells us sets out the great work of religion as he conceived it, writes:—
“There is a beautiful little sentence in the works of Charles Lamb concerning one who had been afflicted. ‘He gave his heart to the Purifier, and his will to the Sovereign Will of the Universe.’ But there is a speech in the third canto of the Paradiso, spoken by a certain Piccardo, which is a rare gem. I will quote only the lines—
In His Will is our peace. To us all things
By Him created, or by Nature made,
As to a central Sea, self-motion brings.
The words are few and simple, and yet they appear to me to have an inexpressible majesty of truth about them, to be almost as if they were spoken by the very mouth of God. It so happened (unless my memory deceives me) I first read that speech on a morning early in the year 1836 which was one of trial. I was profoundly impressed and powerfully sustained, almost absorbed by the words. They cannot be too deeply engraven upon the heart. In short, what we all want is that they should come to us not as an admonition from without, but as an instinct from within.… The first state which we are to contemplate with hope and to seek by discipline is that in which our will should be one with the will of God; not merely shall submit to it, not merely follow after it, but live and move with it, even as the pulse of the blood in the extremities acts with the central movement of the heart.”
A woman’s position is one of subjection, mythically described as a curse in the Book of Genesis. “Well, but I ween that all curses are blessings in disguise. Labour among thorns and thistles—man’s best health. Woman’s subjection? What say you to His? “Obedient,” a “servant”; wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him. Methinks a thoughtful, high-minded Woman would scarcely feel degraded by a lot which assimilates her to the divinest Man: “He came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” I have always conceived that you had learned to count that ministry the sublimest life which the world has seen and its humiliation and subjection precisely the features which were most divine. The Greeks at Corinth wanted that part to be left out, and it was exactly that part which St. Paul would not leave out—Jesus Christ, but Jesus Christ crucified. Trust me, a noble woman laying on herself the duties of her sex, while fit for higher things—the world has nothing to show more like the Son of Man than that. Do you remember Wordsworth’s beautiful lines to Milton?—
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life’s common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.1 [Note: F. W. Robertson, in Life and Letters, 208.]
3. It is well at times to shift the emphasis from faith to obedience. St. Paul preached “for obedience to the faith.” Christ is “the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him.” Christians purify their souls “in obeying the truth.” Men are lost because they “obey not the gospel of Christ.” The Gospel is not only something to be believed, it is something to be obeyed. Let no one wait for feeling. Obey, and feeling will come. Wash in the blood of Jesus, and the leprosy of sin will instantly pass away. Fill up the measure of your obedience, and the life and joy of heaven will come into your heart.
When once thou art well grounded in this Inward Worship thou wilt have learnt to live in God above Time and Place. For every day will be a Sunday to thee, and wherever thou goest thou wilt have a Priest, a Church, and an Altar along with thee. For when God has all that He should have of thy Heart, when renouncing the Will, Judgment, Tempers, and Inclinations of thy old Man, thou art wholly given up to the obedience of the Light and Spirit of God within thee, to will only His will, to love only in His love, to be wise only in His wisdom; then it is that everything thou doest is as a Song of Praise, and the common Business of thy Life is a conforming to God’s Will on Earth, as Angels do in Heaven.1 [Note: William Law.]
4. He who, like Naaman, has been brought to try the Divine remedy, has proved its perfect efficacy. He has found that the cleansing fountain of Jesus’ blood has done more than merely purge away his sins. Naaman was not merely cleansed, but made “as a little child”; a new-born life, so to speak, was given him. And so with the sinner washed in the blood of Christ. He gets more than cleansing, he has a new life imparted to him, and that is life in resurrection, for he is made a partaker of the life of his risen Lord.
“How,” asks the disciple in Jacob Behmen’s Supersensual Life, “How shall I be able to subsist in all this anxiety and tribulation so as not to lose the eternal peace?” And the Master answers: “If thou dost once every hour throw thyself by faith beyond all creatures into the abysmal mercy of God, into the sufferings of our Lord, and into the fellowship of His intercession, and yieldest thyself fully and absolutely thereunto, then thou shalt receive grace from above to rule over death and the devil, and to subdue hell and the world under thee. And, then, thou mayest not only endure in all manner of temptation, but be actually the better and the brighter because of thy temptations.”
The Visible and the Invisible
Austin (G. B.), The Beauty of Goodness, 14.
Banks (L. A.), Thirty-One Revival Sermons, 225.
Bramston (J. T.), Fratribus, 1.
Brooks (P.), Christ the Life and Light, 190.
Brooks (P.), New Starts in Life, 51.
Burrell (D. J.), A Quiver of Arrows, 72.
Darlow (T. H.), The Upward Calling, 96.
Foxell (W. J.), God’s Garden, 51.
Greenhough (J. G.), Half-Hours in God’s Older Picture Gallery, 175.
Huntington (F. D.), Christ in the Christian Year, ii. 64.
Husband (E.), in Church Sermons, No. 32.
Hutchings (W. H.), Sermon-Sketches, ii. 249.
Momerie (A. W.), The Origin of Evil, 248.
Morrison (G. H.), Flood-Tide, 64.
Parker (J.), Studies in Texts, v. 148.
Peabody (F. G.), Mornings in the College Chapel, i. 212.
Skrine (J. H.), The Heart’s Counsel, 125.
Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 195.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xxxvii. (1891), No. 2215; liv. (1908), No. 3117.
Stalker (J.), The New Song, 75.
Wilberforce (B.), Following on to Know the Lord, 143.
Woolsey (T. D.), The Religion of the Present and of the Future, 129.
Christian Age, xxvi. 323 (Talmage); xxxii. 324 (Talmage); xlii. 226 (Jubb); liii. 98 (Huntington).
Christian World Pulpit, xxxix. 227 (Medley); xlix. 216 (Berry); lxii. 134 (Gorman); lxv. 387 (Gray); lxviii. 305 (Sinclair), 309 (Potter).
Church of England Pulpit, lxi. 569 (Yarde-Buller).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, xi. 472 (Liddon), 476 (Brent), 478 (Woolsey).
Clergyman’s Magazine, ix. 84 (Bardsley).
The Visible and the Invisible
And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.—2 Kings 6:17.
1. It is an old Hebrew story. Do we not hear it said sometimes that we ought to let the sins and virtues of the Israelites go, and talk to the present century about its own affairs? But what we want is not to let the wonderful history of that ancient people go, but rather to study it far more deeply and wisely. We want to save our present life from being a poor extemporized thing by seeing how God was teaching lessons for this age of ours, and for every age, centuries ago. Never was there a history in which God’s working was so manifest; never was there a nation whose evil and whose good were so suggestive. We cannot know how much tamer these halls of our common humanity would seem if they no longer felt the tread and echoed to the voices of the giants of the Old Testament—Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Elisha.
2. “And Elisha.” Let us recall the facts which led up to the situation depicted in our text. The king of Syria was making war upon Israel, and the prophet Elisha knew and exposed his plans. The king sent out to capture and destroy the troublesome prophet. He sent a whole army, “horses, and chariots, and a great host: and they came by night, and compassed the city about. And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host with horses and chariots was round about the city.” The great host shows the terror which Elisha had inspired, and the importance attached to getting possession of him. It is an odd instance of the inconsistency of the Syrian king that it never occurs to him that Elisha, who knew all his schemes, might know this one too, or that horses and chariots were of little use against a man who had Heaven to back him. “His servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do? And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.”
1. “Open his eyes, that he may see.” Was the young man asleep, then, or was he blind? Not the least, in the sense usually attached to those terms. This young man was as wide-awake as most of us; his eyes were as bright and as quick, as clear and far-seeing as those of a sailor at the mast-head. He had only just run in breathless to tell Elisha what he had seen—a mighty army with glittering swords, prancing steeds, and chariots well manned with soldiers, their breastplates reflecting the sheen of the sunlight. Oh yes, he could see well enough as far as the physical organ of sight is concerned, and yet he was dark with a blindness which defies the skill of the ophthalmist—brain-blindness, heart-blindness, soul-blindness, a blindness which enables a man to see only the material husks of things, and to believe that they are all; a blindness which discerns nothing of the spiritual presences and the spiritual significances with which God’s world is full.
2. And how insistent the visible is. Our seen surroundings are so palpable and so evident. They press in upon the spirit, and, by their strong insistence, claim to be recognized. Day by day every man works out his destiny under their influence and power. And many of them are hurtful to the spirit and harmful to the life. There is the glitter of the recent light which extinguishes for us the patient shining of the deathless stars. There is the false standard of life which does so much to make us forget life’s highest greatness. The voices, clamant, and even strident, which fill the ears with their Babel, are all about us. These things are the setting of the lives of us all.
Ruskin’s strength lay in his intense perception of what was there; but he was a moralist and not a poet; he had little sense of symbols, he had little touch of music in his composition. He saw the light on things so clearly that he did not see the hidden light that falls through things. “I was only interested,” he wrote, “by things near me, or at least clearly visible and present.” He paid a heavy penalty for this in his days of later darkness; but in those early days, the rapture of light and colour and form so filled his heart and mind that he did not see those further secrets which can only be guessed at and perceived, hardly shared or uttered, but the truth of which, if a man has once tasted them, has a sacredness that is beyond all words.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, Ruskin: A Study in Personality, 28.]
3. If we see only these things, what is the natural result? It is fear. Fear darkening to bewildered helplessness is reasonable to men who see only the material and visible dangers and enemies that beset them. The wonder is, not that we should sometimes be afraid, but that we should ever be free from fear, if we look only at visible facts. Worse foes ring us round than those whose armour glittered in the morning sunshine at Dothan, and we are as helpless to cope with them as that frightened youth was. Any man who calmly reflects on the possibilities and certainties of his life will find abundant reason for a sinking heart. So much that is dreadful and sad may come, and so much must come, that the boldest may well shrink, and the most resourceful cry, “Alas, how shall we do?”
Moses looked with his eyes and saw Israel enslaved. He saw his people downtrodden and oppressed, poor and despised, smitten and apparently hopeless. An ordinary man would have despaired. He would have said, “Nothing can be done with these dumb slaves,” but Moses looked beyond the visible and saw Israel emancipated. He saw the light of Canaan on the far horizon. The vision stiffened his courage. He broke through conventionalism, threw down worldly ambition, walked out of the palace, and, setting his face towards the desert, began forty years of stern preparation for real leadership.
On one occasion M. Coillard started on a peace mission to a neighbouring tribe of Zulus. The party consisted of himself and Nathanael Makotoko with their respective followers. Makotoko “was M. Coillard’s devoted friend and disciple, but not yet a Christian, and he was intensely superstitious. It was mid-winter; they had to travel as much as possible by night, to avoid being seen by the enemy; the Drakensberge were covered with snow; they had not enough to eat or to cover themselves, and the fearful cold reduced their spirits to the lowest ebb. To their dismay, the very first evening they met an ant-eater, or aardvark, a creature which very rarely shows itself by day, and which the Basutos regard as an infallible herald of misfortune. All, including the ambassador himself—Makotoko—wanted to turn back at once, but M. Coillard would not allow them, reminding them that, as messengers of peace, they had a Divine escort. The Basutos, however, saw no chariots of fire, and as they met with many adventures, they exclaimed in chorus at every critical moment: ‘The ant-eater, Moruti, the ant-eater, you see!’”1 [Note: Coillard of the Zambesi, 127.]
Anoint my eyes that I may see
Through all this sad obscurity,
This worldly mist that dims my sight,
These crowding clouds that hide the light.
Full vision, as perhaps have they
Who walk beyond the boundary way,
I do not seek, I do not ask,
But only this,—that through the mask,
Which centuries of soil and sin
Have fashioned for us, I may win
A clearer sight to show me where
Truth walks with faith divine and fair.2 [Note: Norah Perry.]
Elisha fell upon his knees and prayed, “Lord, open his eyes, that he may see.” It is quite clear, then, that this keen-sighted young man did not see everything. Had there been nothing more to see, Elisha’s prayer would have been mockery. The prophet’s eyesight was no better than his servant’s, and both looked out on the same hills and downs. But there were wonders there for the prophet that the prophet’s servant had quite failed to find. And the distinguishing element was God.
It is the Unknown Quantity that troubles men, and gives them to feel that after they have completed their arithmetic their conclusion is wrong. Christ tells us of the rich man who made a map of his estate, and drew it in beautiful and vivid and graphic lines, and had interesting plans for new barns and great storehouses; and when it was all done, he said: “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” But—then that Unknown Voice was heard—“but God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee.” The one thing that knocked all his plans into confusion was the Forgotten Factor.1 [Note: L. A. Banks.]
Let us look first at Christ invisible to our natural sight, and second at Christ invisible to our spiritual sight.
1. Christ Invisible our Glory.—Religion is nothing, if not an appeal to the invisible. It is based on the conviction of invisible spirit, and implies spiritual converse and communion. The untutored pagan associates with his idol or image some hidden being or power; and while this does not prevent the materializing of religion, it raises it above mere fetishism or materialism. And for us the conception of the invisibleness of our Saviour is a very real help to spirituality.
(1) Christ invisible is a standing protest against a materializing conception of human nature. Man will worship; but for him to worship at the shrine of the visible and material alone would be to enter into the spirit of the beast that goeth downward. Men take after what they worship, and are moulded upon their conceptions of the God they serve. For it is just “as He is, so are we in this world.” And the converse also holds good—“as we ourselves are, so will we fashion the object we worship.” Low conceptions here mean low conceptions of ourselves, of our nature, our life, and the nature, life, and claims of others.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.1 [Note: Wordsworth.]
(2) The conception of a Christ invisible is a standing protest against mere materializing of worship and religious ordinances. We have a twofold nature indeed, and both sides of it must engage in and be served and suited by worship. While we are “in the body” we need outward help to worship, yet “bodily service” profiteth little, and may be easily divorced from a worship in spirit. We have ever to guard against turning God’s worship into a formality or parade of mere ritual and ceremonial observance. Religion, to be of any vital worth, must have a truly spiritual principle at its centre, so as to maintain a solid core of vital heat.
(3) Christ’s invisibleness is a standing protest against a materializing estimate of His own life upon earth. The most materialistic view of that earthly life is to regard it as something detached from the ever-abiding life of His which is set forth in His own great word, “Lo, I am with you alway.” Christ invisible is the assurance to us of His abiding life and action, still as real and true as any life and action of His on earth, when He walked on it in bodily form centuries ago. Christ invisible attests the ever-living, the ever-present, the ever-operative Lord and Redeemer.
2. Christ Invisible our Shame.—It has been said that classification of men in respect of religion will have to be changed, that no longer shall we divide them into Catholic and Protestant, Churchmen and Dissenters, Presbyterian and Methodist, but into men who see Christ and men who do not.
I go to some respectable pew-holder in my church and I say to him, “My friend, do you believe in God?” Affrighted and indignant he turns round on me and asks, “What do you take me for? A pagan? An atheist? Of course I believe in God.” And then my doubt as to his belief in God deepens, for when a man answering such a question can say that he believes as a matter of course, I begin to doubt whether he has ever gone through the Gethsemanes of brain-sweat and heart-sweat essential to the mastery of that truth which is not a matter of course, which has to be worked for, wrestled for, prayed for, waited for, suffered for, by some of us through long years of varied agony of mind and of flesh. But I say to my friend, “Tell me something of this God in whom you believe.” And immediately he goes back, guided by the information of the Bible, and he describes to me the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God of David and Isaiah, the God revealed in Christ, the God who inspired the apostolic age. And I then ask him, “What more?” and he turns right round from the far past to the far future, and he tells me of God who, somewhere and some when, when the shadows of all have been dissipated and the sins of all have been washed out, will then live and walk in the midst of His people, a reconciled and recognized Father and Friend. But when I push the inquiry, “What about London to-day, what about our life to-day, our problems, our burdens, our necessities?” then it seems to me that there is for him just one vast arch from the far past to the far future, and that under that arch there is an infinite void in which there is no God. There are plenty of men who believe in God who do not see Him, do not know Him, do not feel His living contact, do not respond with the glow and gladness of their whole being to His close and intimate and redeeming relations.1 [Note: C. A. Berry.]
O distant Christ! the crowded, darkening years
Drift slow between Thy gracious face and me;
My hungry heart leans back to look for Thee,
But finds the way set thick with doubts and fears.
My groping hands would touch Thy garment’s hem,
Would find some token Thou art walking near;
Instead they clasp but empty darkness drear,
And no diviner hands reach out to them!
Sometimes my listening soul, with bated breath,
Stands still to catch a footfall by my side,
Lest, haply, my earth-blinded eyes but hide
Thy stately figure, leading Life and Death;
My straining eyes, O Christ, but long to mark
A shadow of Thy presence, dim and sweet,
Or far-off light to guide my wandering feet,
Or hope for hands prayer-beating ’gainst the dark.
O Thou! unseen by me, that like a child
Tries in the night to find its mother’s heart,
And weeping, wanders only more apart,
Not knowing in the darkness that she smiled—
Thou, all unseen, dost hear my tired cry,
As I, in darkness of a half belief,
Grope for Thy heart, in love and doubt and grief:
O Lord! speak soon to me—“Lo, here am I.”1 [Note: Margaret Wade Deland.]
The Invisible Visible
“The Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”
There are some spheres where the holden eyes are blessed. We do not forget that it is the great compassion of God that keeps us half-blind from the cradle to the grave. They darken the bird’s cage, they tell us, when they teach it to sing; and unless the covering hand of the Almighty darkened the windows here, we should never sing, and never be strong at all. It is God’s mercy that I do not see the future. It was God’s grace that the mother’s eyes were sealed, when long years ago she crooned her babe to sleep; and her heart was radiant, and she dreamed her dreams—and where is her wandering boy to-night? If we had known, if we had seen, could we have stood it? It was compassion that hung that curtain on to-morrow. Do not forget that. Do not be blind to the untold blessings of our blindness. But we are not pleading for vision for to-morrow. We are pleading for the recognition of the Spiritual, and for its recognition to-day. It is to-day that there are horses and chariots round us. It is to-day that there are promises and helps for us. It is to-day that Christ stands at the door and knocks. “Lord, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man” there at once.
1. The Spiritual vision does not come to all. Why? we ask. And the answer seems to be that they have not fulfilled the conditions.
(1) The first is being in the right place. Elisha was in a great difficulty, in a very strait place, but he was where it was right for him to be. When St. Paul was in his dark prison at Rome the Lord stood by him and strengthened him; when our Saviour bore His cruel agony in Gethsemane, an angel from heaven came to strengthen Him. When John Bunyan was thrust into the dismal prison on Bedford Bridge, we know what bright visions he saw, and how his dark cell was made glorious as he dreamed his wonderful dreams. Yes, but the secret of their strength was that they all were where God would have them be.
There are open hours
When the God’s will sallies free,
And the dull idiot might see
The flowing fortunes of a thousand years;—
Sudden, at unawares,
Self-moved, fly-to the doors,
Nor sword of angels could reveal
What they conceal.1 [Note: Emerson.]
(2) The second condition is prayer. It may be the prayer of another for us. “Elisha prayed and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.” He prayed God to grant the youth the same open eyes, the same spiritual vision as he himself enjoyed. But we may be our own prophet, and pray this prayer for the opened eye ourselves—“Lord, that I may receive my sight.”
(3) Purity is of course essential, and if evil thoughts have blurred the vision, these must be got rid of. Direct attack will not expel them; often the very effort and attention employed in combating them seem to increase their vividness. But the occupation of the mind with healthy interests will drive them out to make room for better company. And the vision is nearer to those who live keenly, with delight in the wholesome things that work and play offer them, than to those who stand aloof and seek for light by ascetic withdrawal.
Of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Galahad was the one whose strength was as the strength of ten because his heart was pure. And while all the knights sought to see the Holy Grail, it was to this pure-hearted knight that the Vision was first given.
As thou art is the vision, not for these.
(4) Peace also is essential. Sometimes, indeed, the vision flashes upon the battlefield, but that is an act of God for which we can make little arrangement. But when life is crowded with work and worry it is sometimes possible to “have courage to rest,” and it is not only the pure heart that sees God, but also the quiet heart.
Peace is, indeed, a priceless gift to the aged saints of God; it is infinitely precious to those who are called to face Death—and which of us is not called to face Death? I have seen it shining in the glad eyes of a friend who was about to undergo a very dangerous operation. She had no thought of fear, knowing that whether she lived or died she was absolutely safe in God’s care. And I saw it again, a few days later, when she greeted me with a beautiful smile. She knew, and her doctor and nurses knew, that it was worth a great deal to her—as a help towards recovery—to have her head (which appeared to be supported only by a tiny hospital pillow, about an inch thick) really “leaning back on Jesus’ breast.”1 [Note: D. Farncomb, The Vision of His Face, 135.]
(5) And patience is often demanded if we would see—the patient attendance upon that which is fine and good. For a time Christ may seem uninteresting and His ideals dull; but in reality they are the very splendour of God, and the soul that seeks shall find. There are stars so distant that no eye can see them, yet the photographic telescope, pointed steadily to their field of darkness where they hide, receives their infinitesimal shafts of light, and their images are seen upon the plate. So, though the night be dark, the soul that turns away from lower things and resolutely points toward Christ, will yet see the image of the King in His beauty, and behold a land that is very far off.
Lay thine uphill shoulder to the wheel,
And climb the Mount of Blessing, whence, if thou
Look higher, then—perchance—thou mayest—beyond
A hundred ever-rising mountain lines,
And past the range of Night and Shadow—see
The high-heaven dawn of more than mortal day
Strike on the Mount of Vision!
So, farewell.1 [Note: Tennyson, The Ancient Sage.]
2. The Vision.—“The mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” The chariots of fire, indeed, and horses of fire, were, in one sense, unreal; that is, they were not of flesh, nor obvious to human sense: they were unearthly powers, who assumed a form by which they could make an impression of truth on the distrustful fleshly mind of the prophet’s servant. There were no chariots there, nor horses; but there were spiritual hosts, who showed themselves before the imagination of the young man to be more than a match for the army of besiegers. Thus a great truth from heaven, a reality as lasting and as wide as the universe, was taught him—that, beyond our eyes and ears, a majestic, spiritual world is moving on in silence; that an unseen God has infinite, unseen resources; that the causes and issue of things lie outside the horizon of the senses; that immense agencies may be at work in all stillness and without the slightest show, of which the worldly mind does not so much as dream.
The teeming air and prodigal,
Which droops its azure over all,
Is full of immortalities
That look on us with unseen eyes.2 [Note: Philip P. Cooke.]
(1) When we speak of our unseen spiritual helpers we go with timid feet, not sure of the ground we walk on and yet sure that there is ground, and irresistibly impelled to feel for it and find it. We cannot separate ourselves from the great human conviction that beside the supreme personal life of God, which is the source of all existence, there are other spiritual beings, of many varying orders, who do His will, who help His children, and are the emanations of His life in other worlds, as man is here in this grosser world of flesh and blood. The Divine existence multiplies itself. The company of spiritual beings who surround Him with their loyalty and love, the angels in countless orders sweeping upward, from the ministers of man’s lower wants up to those who stand nearest to the throne—all these in some belief or other have been included in the faith of every race of men, of almost every man, who has come to the knowledge of a spiritual world and trusted in a God.
There is nothing clearer or more striking in the Bible than the calm, familiar way with which, from end to end, it assumes the present existence of a world of spiritual beings always close to and acting on this world of flesh and blood. It does not belong to any one part of the Bible. It runs throughout its whole vast range. From creation to judgment, the spiritual beings are for ever present. They act as truly in the drama as the men and women who with their unmistakable humanity walk the sacred stage in the successive scenes. There is nothing of hesitation about the Bible’s treatment of the spiritual world. There is no reserve, no vagueness which would leave a chance for the whole system to be explained away into dreams and metaphors. The spiritual world with all its multitudinous existence is just as real as the crowded cities, and the fragrant fields and the loud battlegrounds of the visible and palpable Judea in which the writers of the sacred books were living. You take away the unseen world with all its unseen actors from the story, and you have not merely made the Bible like other books, you have set it below other books; for you have taken the colour out of all its life, the motive out of all its action.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
It lies around us like a cloud,—
A world we do not see;
Yet the sweet closing of an eye
May bring us there to be.
Its gentle breezes fan our cheek;
Amid our worldly cares,
Its gentle voices whisper love,
And mingle with our prayers.
Sweet hearts around us throb and beat,
Sweet helping hands are stirred,
And palpitates the veil between
With breathings almost heard.
The silence, awful, sweet, and calm,
They have no power to break;
For mortal words are not for them;
To utter or partake.
So thin, so soft, so sweet, they glide,
So near to press they seem,
They lull us gently to our rest,
And melt into our dream.
And in the hush of rest they bring
’Tis easy now to see
How lovely and how sweet a pass
The hour of death may be;—
To close the eye and close the ear,
Wrapped in a trance of bliss,
And gently dream in loving arms,
To swoon to that—from this,—
Scarce knowing if we wake or sleep,
Scarce asking where we are,
To feel all evil sink away,
All sorrow and all care.
Sweet souls around us! watch us still;
Press nearer to our side;
Into our thoughts, into our prayers,
With gentle helpings glide.
Let death between us be as naught,
A dried and vanished stream:
Your joy be the reality,
Our suffering life the dream.1 [Note: Harriet Beecher Stowe.]
(2) But the Bible goes farther. It not merely believes in and everywhere assumes the existence of spiritual beings; it also believes that to certain conditions, even of our fleshly humanity, these beings become visible. There is an opening of the eyes that lets us see what is going on in this finer purer region round about us all the time. Is not this the idea of life that the Bible gives us, as if we were blind men walking in the midst of a great city, hearing its noise, feeling its jostling, and now and then in some peculiar moments of our life opening our eyes, catching one sudden flash of the movement that is going on around us and then shutting them again and taking the moment’s sight back with us into the darkness, to ponder over and too often, by and by, to come to doubt whether we really saw it? So here and there an eye is opened; and to that keener sense it is recorded that spiritual beings made themselves visible, as if it were no stranger a thing than for the opened eye of the flesh to see the sparkling splendour of the Temple and the Mount of Olives and the high priest walking down the street, and all the familiar scenery of Jerusalem. The Hebrew maiden goes about her pure and simple life in Nazareth, and she opens her eyes and sees the messenger who hails her as the highly favoured of her Lord; the shepherds are watching in the fields, and suddenly they see the angels as truly and as clearly as they see the stars. The women go to the sepulchre, and there sit the ministers beside the place where Jesus lay. St. Paul rides towards Damascus, and lo! he has fallen from his horse and hears a voice which is intelligible to him alone. What shall we say? There is no doubt of what the Bible teaches, and it is what the human heart, taught by God through its own deepest instincts, has always guessed at and believed—that this world of fleshly life is not all, that everywhere there is a realm of spiritual life close to us, and that there is an inner sense to which, when it is awakened, these spiritual beings have often been actually visible and have given words of cheer and guidance and encouragement to toiling and discouraged men.
“Tell me something of your Sunday night’s sermon on ‘The Angel and the Ass,’” I said to him when we had settled ourselves down in his study on the Thursday before his death. I had heard many references to that sermon, and to the profound impression it had produced. Berry fenced a little, but at last began. I shall never forget that half-hour. He was as interested in the theme (and what wonder!) and grew almost as earnest as he had been in the pulpit on the Sunday evening. The drift of his thought, as well as I can recall it, was that we are all too prone to regard the lower rather than the higher ministries that help our life on earth—to have eyes for the ass but none for the angel, and that it is only when our eyes are open to see the angel that the best of God can reach us. I can see him now—the fine expressive face illumined with the light of a wondrous tenderness that shone in those clear, beautiful eyes as he quoted one of his illustrations. “Three months ago, when I was lying a poor, helpless, pain-racked man yonder in Southport, a letter reached me from a friend, a letter full of sympathy and concern and genuine affection. But in the letter was this sentence: ‘If any one tells you, as plenty of people are sure to have done, that God has sent you this suffering, don‘t believe him. God never sends suffering, not even to sweeten and strengthen men, although He does strengthen them in spite of the suffering. Believe me, dear friend, your sufferings were sent by the devil; he is the sole author of pain. The devil owes you many a grudge for the hard blows you have given him in Wolverhampton and elsewhere, and now he is going to stop you if he can. Don’t blame God for this, but pray to Him to put down Satan under your feet.’ ‘Ah!’ said Berry, ‘I thank my friend with all my heart. I know well he meant to comfort me. But,’ and, as he leaned towards me, the look on his face was that of a man who had seen God, and learned His secret, ‘I am not going to let him rob me of my angel.’”1 [Note: J. S. Drummond, Charles A. Berry, 208.]
(3) This generation is very fond of quoting the text, “no man hath seen God at any time,” and adds, “nor can see Him.” It is a pity that they do not rather go on with the quotation itself and say,” the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” Jesus Christ is the Revealer. The irradiation of His brightness, “and the express image of his person,” is that Divine man, God manifest in the flesh. The knowledge of God which we have in Jesus Christ is real, as sight is real. It is not complete, but it is genuine knowledge. We know the best of God, if we may use such a phrase, when we know what we know in Christ, that He is a loving and a righteous will; when we can say of Him, “He is love,” in no metaphor but in simple reality; and His will towards all righteousness, and towards all blessing, anything that heaven has to teach us about God afterwards is less than that. We see Him in the reality of a genuine, central, though by no means complete, knowledge.
Jesus brought the righteousness of God and made it manifest, a clear fact where all men could read it. He laid it like a new silver light across the murky surfaces that we are all familiar with. He made the lives of fishermen and publicans the scaffolding on which He hung its exhibition. And so, too, He made the purposes of God the great important lines along which all existence ran. He let us see that the course of the great nations and the current of quiet lives were all running the way that one supreme and omnipresent will had chosen. And of the love of God, what shall we say? He wove its records everywhere. He spun it in the colour of the lily and made us hear it in the noiseless fall of the sparrow. He made all sorrow and all joy its ministers. And then at last He hung it on a cross so high that no pride could tower so high as to overlook it, so low that the most abject humility could not fall so low as not to be within its light. This is what Jesus did. He did not bring God into the world. God forbid that we should think that! God had never been out of the world He made and loved. He touched the world with His life and made it everywhere a luminous utterance of God. And then, what else? He opened the blind eyes of every man who would become His servant, and bid him see. He regenerated man. He brought him back, that is, into the first condition, lost so long, in which his eyes were open and he could see the God who was everywhere. “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” He redeemed man. He brought him back into the Eden of the perfect reconciliation. Once more he might see God. No longer with the eyes of sense but all the more clearly to the inner vision of the renewed obedient soul, the Lord God walked with man among the trees of the garden of the Christian life.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
Because mine eyes can never have their fill
Of looking at my lady’s lovely face,
I will so fix my gaze
That I may become blessed, beholding her.
Even as an angel up at his great height
Standing amid the light,
Becometh blessed by only seeing God.2 [Note: Dante, Canzoniere ix., tr. by D. G. Rossetti.]
The Visible Invisible
1. “The young man saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire.” We hear no more of the Syrian host. It was blotted out by God’s host.
Have you ever held in your hand one of those puzzle cards which has something clearly evident upon its surface, but which requires you to find something in it that is not so evident? I had one of these cards sent to me; it had printed on it the sketch of a garden, and underneath this printed matter the words, “Here is a garden, but where is the gardener?” I took that card, and I held it right way up and wrong way up, and edgeways and lengthways, and upside down, and I would have turned it inside out if I could, but I could not find that gardener, and was just about to give up the task when suddenly by some accident I got the right angle and saw his features begin to form until, whereas before I could not see anything but the garden, now I could see nothing but the gardener; he filled the whole card and dispelled his garden.1 [Note: C. A. Berry.]
God has taught the human heart to idealize. For nothing can exceed or equal the power of love to see the ideal, and be gripped and swayed by it. The neighbour sees a freckled-faced, short-nosed boy, but the mother sees only a face of beauty, and out of its eye looks a man who is going to help to shape and may be shake the world. The inspector at Ellis Island sees only a couple of bundles being tugged and lugged along by some skirts and a bright-coloured shawl, but the young husband impatiently waiting at the gate, whose hard-earned savings have brought her over, sees the winsome maiden whose face still holds him in thrall.2 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 17.]
2. The Syrian host was still there, but God’s host was between. So is it that the army of God camps between the trusting soul and its enemies. We have seen the armies of sorrow encamp around a good man. One after another, as in the case of Job, messages of bereavement have come to his sorrowing ears, and we have looked to see how he would take it. We have wondered if he would be able to bear up under it, or whether his heart would grow hard and bitter, and sorrow would capture his soul and break down his faith. But as the hosts of sorrow gathered about his head, we have rejoiced to see that his faith grew stronger and his eye grew brighter with the hope of heaven. His countenance became more mellow and tender and sympathetic; it glowed with “a light that never was on sea or land,” and he seemed to have a glimpse of that city which Abraham beheld, “whose builder and maker is God.” What is the secret of it? Inside the army of sorrows that encompassed him were encamped the angels of God.
I have seen a man who has been rescued from terrible sins and cruel appetites beset by a legion of devilish lusts and temptations that clamoured for his soul, and I have wondered if he would be able to beat them down and go on his way with steady step towards heaven. And I have rejoiced as I have watched and witnessed that, despite all the howling and barking of the wolves of temptation, the man grew stronger, his face firmer, his eyes shone with a loftier courage, and his brow was glorified with higher ideals. Then I knew that the secret of it was that between him and the howling pack of devilish temptations were encamped the hosts of God’s angels.1 [Note: L. A. Banks.]
3. And now there is no room for fear, for the presence of the horses and chariots of fire means two things.
(1) It means first of all that as long as a child of God is on the path of duty, and until that duty has been fulfilled, he is inviolable and invulnerable. He shall tread upon the lion and adder; the young lion and the dragon shall he trample under his feet. He shall take up the serpent in his hands; and if he drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt him. He shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flieth by day; of the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor of the demon that destroyeth in the noonday. A thousand shall fall at his right hand, and ten thousand beside him; but it shall not come nigh him. The histories and the legends of numberless marvellous deliverances all confirm the truth that, when a man fears the Lord, He will keep him in all his ways, and give His angels charge over him, lest at any time he dash his foot against a stone. God will not permit any mortal force, or any combination of forces, to hinder the accomplishment of the task entrusted to His servant. It is the sense of this truth that, under circumstances however menacing, should enable us to bate no jot of heart or hope, but still bear up, and steer onward. It is this conviction that has nerved men to face insuperable difficulties, and achieve impossible and unhoped-for ends. It works in the spirit of the cry, “Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain!” It inspires the faith as a grain of mustard seed which is able to say to this mountain, “Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea,”—and it shall obey. It stands unmoved upon the pinnacle of the Temple, whereon it has been placed, while the enemy and tempter, smitten by amazement, falls. This is one lesson conveyed in the words of Christ when the Pharisees told Him that Herod desired to kill Him. He knew that Herod could not kill Him till He had done His Father’s will and finished His work. “Go ye,” He said, “and tell that fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following.”
India was still heaving with the ground-swell of the terrible mutiny of 1857 when the wife of Sir John Lawrence was called home to her children in England, and had to leave her husband, who would not quit his post, surrounded by the smouldering embers which might at any moment rekindle into flame, and worn to exhaustion with the anxiety and labour which did so much for the preservation of the Indian empire. She thus writes, “When the last morning of separation, 6th January 1858, arrived, we had our usual Bible reading, and I can never think of the 27th Psalm, which was the portion we then read together, without recalling that sad time” … “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?… For in the time of trouble he shall hide me in his pavilion.”1 [Note: Archibald Alexander.]
(2) But had all this been otherwise—had the child of God perished, as has been the common lot of God’s prophets and heroes—he would not therefore have felt himself mocked by these exceeding great and precious promises. The chariots and horses of fire are still there, and are there to work a deliverance still greater and more eternal. Their office is not to deliver the perishing body, but to carry into God’s glory the immortal soul. This is indicated in the death-scene of Elijah. This was the vision of the dying Stephen. This was what Christian legend meant when it embellished with beautiful incidents such scenes as the death of Polycarp. This was what led Bunyan to write, when he described the death of Christian, that “all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”
The ship may sink,
And I may drink
A hasty death in the bitter sea;
But all that I leave
In the ocean-grave
Can be slipped and spared, and no loss to me.
What care I,
Though falls the sky,
And the shrivelling earth to a cinder turn?
No fires of doom
Can ever consume
What never was made nor meant to burn.
Let go the breath
There is no death
To the living soul, nor loss, nor harm.
Not of the clod
Is the life of God;
Let it mount, as it will, from form to form.1 [Note: Charles Gordon Ames.]
Campbell (J. M.), Bible Questions, 230.
Campbell (L.), The Christian Ideal, 98.
Campbell (R. J.), Sermons addressed to Individuals, 107.
Currier (A. H.), in Sermons by the Monday Club, 29th Ser., 310
Gosse (P. H.), Rivers of the Bible, 216.
Horwill (H. W.), The Old Gospel in the New Era, 68.
Moody (D. L.), New Sermons, Addresses, and Prayers, 327.
Pearse (M. G.), Naaman the Syrian, 1.
Riach (W. L.), Naaman, 69.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xv. (1869), No. 893.
Vaughan (C. J.), Lessons of Life and Godliness, 205.
Whyte (A.), Bible Characters, iii. 109.
Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 125.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity, xi. 447 (Vaughan), 449 (Perry).
(15) Go, return.—The charge conveys indirectly a double rebuke. His cry of disappointment, “Lord . . . I am not better than my fathers,” implying that he stood out beyond all others, to meet the stern requirements of the time, is met by the charge to delegate the task of vengeance for God to others; the complaint, “I, even I alone, am left,” by the revelation of the faithful remnant—the seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal—unknown to him, perhaps to one another, but known and loved by God.
(16) And Jehu.—Of this charge Elijah fulfilled in person but one part, in the call of Elisha: for the fulfilment of the other two parts, see 2 Kings 8:8-13; 2 Kings 9:1-6. This apparently imperfect correspondence of the event to the charge, is a strong indication of the historical character of the narrative.
The history, indeed, records no actual anointing of Elisha; and it is remarkable that in no other place is any such anointing of a prophet referred to, unless Psalms 105:15 be an exception. The anointing, signifying the gift of grace, was first instituted for the priests (Exodus 40:15; Numbers 3:3); next it was extended to the royal office, and became, in common parlance, especially attached to it. The prophetic office, as the third great representative of the power of Jehovah, might well be hallowed by the same ordinance, especially as the prophets dispensed it to the kings; but, whether the prophets were always consecrated with the sacred oil, or whether, as in the Prophet of prophets, the “anointing with the Holy Ghost and with power” sometimes superseded the outward sign, we do not know. Abelmeholah (“the meadow of the dance,” see 1 Kings 4:12) lay in the rich country near the Jordan valley and the plain of Esdraelon; it was therefore on Elijah’s way.
(17) Him that escapeth the sword of Hazael.—The vengeance wrought by Hazael and Jehu on the faithlessness of Israel speaks for itself; it is marked in bloody letters on the history (2 Kings 10). But Elisha’s mission was obviously not one of such vengeance. He had to destroy enmity, but not to slay the enemies of God. The difficulty, such as it is, is one of the many marks of historic accuracy in the whole passage. Probably Elisha’s mission is here described in the terms in which Elijah would best understand it. His spirit was for war; he could hardly have conceived how the completion of his mission was to be wrought out by the weapons of peace in the hand of his successor. (Comp. 2 Corinthians 10:3-6.)
(18) I have left.—It should be “I leave, or “will leave,” through all this vengeance, the seven thousand faithful; like the faithful remnant sealed in the visions of Ezekiel and St. John in the day of God’s judgment (Ezekiel 9:4-6; Revelation 7:3-8).
Kissed him.—(See Job 31:26-27; Hosea 13:2.) The passage is vividly descriptive of the worshipper on the first approach bowing the knee, on nearer access kissing the image, or the altar, or the threshold of the temple.
(19) Twelve yoke of oxen, or (as Ewald renders it) of land, indicate some wealth in Elisha’s family, which he has to leave to follow the wandering life of Elijah. The character and mission of Elisha will appear hereafter: but the contrast between the prophets is marked in the difference of their home and origin; even the quiet simplicity of Elisha’s call stands contrasted with the sudden, mysterious appearance of Elijah.
Cast his mantle—i.e., the rough hair-mantle characteristic of the ascetic recluse. The act is said to have been a part of the form of adoption of a child; hence its spiritual significance here, which, after a moment’s bewilderment, Elisha seems to read.
(20) Let me, I pray thee.—It is impossible not to compare this with the similar request made to our Lord (Luke 9:61-62) by one who declared readiness to follow Him. The comparison suggests that the answer of Elijah is one of half-ironical rebuke of what seemed hesitation—“Go back, if thou wilt; what have I done to constrain thee?” In both cases we have the stern but necessary rejection of half-hearted service, even if the heart be distracted by the most natural and sacred love. But Elijah sees that Elisha means simply farewell, and he apparently waits till it is over.
(21) And he returned.—Like Matthew in Luke 9:27-29, Elisha, probably after sacrifice, makes a feast of farewell to his home, and of homage to his new master. The hasty preparation is made by the use of the wooden implements for fuel, as in the sacrifice at the threshing-floor of Araunah (2 Samuel 24:22). Henceforth from a master he became a servant, ministering to Elijah, and willing to be known, even when he became himself the prophet of God, as “he that poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11).
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Kings 19". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany