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This is the first remarkable thing in the opening chapter of the fifth book of Moses. God knows, then, how long we have been here or there. Our downsitting and our uprising, our going out and our coming in, are of consequence to him who made us. He keeps the time: he knows when we have been "long enough" in one place. He does not always consult us, saying, in terms of affectionate inquiry, Would you desire to tarry longer here? would it suit you to remain another year? Sometimes God seems to come down upon our life with a precision and an imperativeness which make us feel how little, after all, we have to do with what we call our own concerns. A blessed life, surely, and most sweet, and altogether tender and restful, is it when we wait patiently upon God and tarry until we receive his reply, and then go out and do his bidding with both hands and with the unbroken consent of the entire mind. From the way in which he speaks to us, God seems to take it for granted that no question will arise upon his instructions. Surely in the very method of approaching us, a tribute is paid to our noblest qualities. The Lord comes with an instruction as if we had been waiting for it; he tells us when to move and when to rest, as if our eyes were continually directed unto him in attitude of attention and expectation; his speeches are answers, not to questions but to prayers; his commands are not merely edicts, but translations of the spirit which he assumes to be in us. Infinite is the wisdom of God.
"Ye have dwelt long enough in this mount." We may get tired even of mountains. Wherever we live, we need change. The first happy impulse often commits itself to the doctrine that we could live here or there alway. God does not take us at our word, because he knows that our word is but a speech of ignorance or of impulse: it does but give utterance to the emotion of the moment; so, he allows our little speech to plash round about our life as if it were a river of his own creating; but we soon see how it is dried up by the sun, and we are left in a thirsty and barren place. Expect the answer from Heaven when you are in wonder as to your residence and pilgrimage, or action of any kind. There need not be any communication of audible speech between your soul and God: the communication will be in the spirit in its profound and loving obedience, and in its positive readiness to give up mountain and castle, and palace and crown, without one moment's querulousness, or suggestion that another day would be another day of good fortune. That is the attitude of the pious spirit the heart that is really healthy towards God, the soul that has in it constancy and loyalty without speck or flaw.
We are ordered down off the mountain. Soon after we have said, It is good to be here, the Leader proposes that we should go down again. He will not have any heaven built upon earth; he will never allow us to build permanently upon foundations that are themselves transitory. Who can build straightly upon a crooked foundation? Who can build for ever upon a basis that may succumb in a moment? Who would rear a supposedly eternal palace upon foundations that are doomed to be burned? So, we are told to descend the mountain, though the sky be at its bluest, and though the air be full of health, and though our vision and our general senses be so quickened that we can almost detect the presence of spirits and angels. There are many mountains to come down mountains of supposed strength, when the very robustest man must lie down and say: I am very weary, tired to exhaustion; mountains of prosperity, when Crœsus himself must come down saying: I am a poor man; let the meanest slave serve me, for I cannot longer serve myself. Then there is the coming down that is inevitable the time when God says to every one of us: You have been long enough on the mountain of time: pass through the grave to the hills of heaven, the great mountains of eternity. Sometimes, we think we have been too long on the mountain, and wonder when he will come, whose right it is to bring the sheep into the fold; we say in our peevishness not always impious, but rather an expression of weakness: Surely we have been forgotten: by this time we ought to have been with the blessed ones; the night is coming on quickly, and we shall be drenched with dews. So long are some men kept outside, on the very top of the hill, where very little grass grows, bare, rocky places. But God cannot forget: we must rest in his memory; he puts himself even before a mother who may forget her sucking child, but he has pledged himself never to forget his redeemed Church.
But, having ordered his people away from the mountain, where can they take up their abode? We find the answer in the seventh verse. God has many localities at his command, so he disperses the people, setting them "in the plain," "in the hills," "in the vale," "by the sea side," and "unto the great river, the river Euphrates." What space God has! "In my Father's house are many mansions," in my Father's house are many localities. Do not say God has done with you because he has driven you from one pulpit, one church, one business, one very happy engagement in life, where you were making honest bread, and where you could sleep the night through untroubled by a single bitter memory. God has places enough for us all. We did think it hard when that last door was shut as if in our very face: when we turned away that day our faces were pictured all over with sorrow and grief and disappointment: agony was written upon the countenance; we went home saying: The end has come, the cloud has gathered: there is no more hope; and, behold, whilst we talked thus atheistically and foolishly, the cloud opened, and we caught such glimpses of morning as our weary eyes had never caught before. The old mount had become a kind of home to us: we knew the short ways up the mountain: we knew the long, grassy slopes that led to the summit; we had some little property on the very top; we had begun, before getting full orders about anything, to lay just two or three courses which we meant to raise into a tabernacle; we did stand upon the mount, and, looking upon those who dwelt in the plain, said we would not live down there: we would always live up among the blue skies, the white clouds, and at the very gate of morning. So, it was hard to leave the old homestead: that morning we drained the cup of bitterness, and, when half-way down the hill, oh what a look we gave at the summit we should never re-ascend! the old business, the old pulpit, the old happy relations in life, the mountain that had become a sweet home to us, and on whose steeps there was not one weary league. It did cost us much to leave the sweet place, haunted by ten thousand tender memories, and blessed by the recollection of many an answered prayer. But God has more places: instead of mountains, hills little mountains; not the great bulging mountains that seem to vie with heaven itself in majesty: still, little mountains undulating mounds having green valleys on their tops which are still valleys in highlands, then plains, vales, sea-side, rivers. Who would not see all God's places? Is it not wiser to take the longer lines, and to say to the heavenly One: Show us all the inheritance of thy power, and lead us hither and thither as thou wilt: it is thy world, how green in the springtime! how rich in blossom! how richer still in fruits! If thou wilt lead us, the vale shall be as the mountain, and the mountain shall be as the plain; and the sea shall be without a storm, and the river shall flow like a gospel of refreshment and hospitality. Why do we choose our own places? Did ever man dispute the divine sovereignty without regretting his encounter with the Eternal will? Why have any will? Were we serving wooden gods, mechanical deities, divinities of our own creation or invention, we might dispute with them, point out what possibly they may have overlooked, suggest happier expressions, and draw bolder programmes; but if God is the only-wise, if God is love, if God is light, if God died for us in the person of his Son, why not say: Not my will, but thine, be done: take me to the mountain or the plain, the hills or the vale, the sea-side or the river; the taking itself shall be as a vision of heaven?
Happy days were those of Deuteronomy! God the Lawgiver, Instructor, Guide; Israel receiving the speeches of heaven, and instantly striking the tent, and marching gladly, with hymns of thankfulness, to the music of the divine movement. Was this the case? We find the exact contrary was the reality. When men brought back "the fruit of the land," which they had been sent to search out, "and brought it down unto us, and brought us word again, and said, It is a good land which the Lord our God doth give us. Notwithstanding " These are the words we read in the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth verses. What is their meaning? Evidently, that eye-witnesses were disbelieved. Caleb's word went for nothing; Joshua's testimony was ignored. That is precisely what we are doing today; that is literally what is being done with regard to Christian testimony in our own generation. What are Christian speakers saying? They are saying that they themselves have tasted, and handled, and felt the good word of life; and we give them the lie. Do not be hard upon ancient Israel, for, if inclined to a temper of severity, we may well inflict upon ourselves the severest chastisement. Do Christian speakers draw pictures, and appeal to the imagination, and suggest material for happy dreams? If so, then we commit no breach of decency or courtesy in subjecting their testimony to close cross-examination; but when men say, each for himself, I was blind, but now I see; I was cruel, but now I am kind; I was a devotee of all evil and wrong, of every form of corruption and mischief, but, by the grace of God, I love truth and light, and grace and beauty; if the living men themselves are there not the words, not the logic, not the argument, not the rhetoric, but the men we must first destroy their character before we can touch their testimony. This, then, puts the whole controversy in a very serious light. Christianity has not only sent messages to us, but messengers not messengers who can repeat sentences, but messengers who incarnate the doctrine they preach, or they have forced themselves into a service for which they have no qualification. Let the life speak: let the sweet temper be its own argument; let the invincible charity bear down with celestial strength the bitter opposition. "Charity suffereth long, and is kind;" it "beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth." Were this controversy an antagonism between two hostile camps of words, then let his be the palm who wins it: let cleverness enjoy the prize, and let the wordiest speaker have the triumph due to his efforts. But it is not so: this is a matter of life and death, of reality or of unreality. The Christian speaker is not an argument only, but an incarnation; and before we can impugn his message, we must assail the character which he declares that message to have wrought in his own case. Good Christians would be good servants: splendid lives would be splendid works; yet Caleb and Joshua were disbelieved. Eye-witnesses go for nothing in the pressure of an inveterate and unreasoning prejudice. Christ himself was disbelieved: he was "despised and rejected of men." Purity is a noble argument, but not one that inevitably secures victory and triumph: otherwise, the Son of God himself would but have required to show his life in order to win and subdue the ages.
What did Israel say? Notwithstanding the beautiful messages and the cordial welcomes, they went into their "tents, and said, Because the Lord hated us, he hath brought us forth out of the land of Egypt" ( Deu 1:27 ). That is human nature. Do not suppose that human nature is incapable of baseness so complete. Whatever can be imagined can be done. The fiction is often the larger truth. We say, on reading sundry books, These are inventions. So they are; but inventions are possibilities: inventions may be the larger facts. We must see in others where we are ourselves. We cannot separate ourselves from others, saying, We should not have done so. Said a lady in the hearing of Thomas Carlyle, "Do you think, sir, that we should now act towards Jesus Christ as the Jews acted in their day? We should receive him with love and enthusiasm." "No, madam," was the answer, "if he came a rich man, without touching any of our prejudices or habits or customs, I might receive a card from you to be at your house at a given hour, and on the back of it might be written, 'To meet the Saviour;' but if he came back as he first came the same poor man, the denouncer of all Pharisaism and evil, you would say, 'Send him to Newgate, and hang him!'" Certainly. It was human nature that did it not the Jews. The Jews acted but incidentally: the Jews happened to furnish the historical point which gave vividness to the tragedy; but when the Cross was set up, it was human nature that crushed it into the rock: when Christ was jeered, it was the civillest of genteel persons that mocked him to his face: when he was in agony, it was the purest unchristian civilisation that added bitterness to his cup. We must not allow ourselves to imagine that the Jews disbelieved Jesus, and that if he came now we should welcome him. No: the human heart can never welcome Christ: 'No man an come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him." It is a mystery: we cannot explain the profound enigma; but the human heart never had anything for Christ but a Cross; and from the Cross the miracle must be wrought which constrains human nature to crown him with many crowns. We may disbelieve Caleb and Joshua, we may turn our back upon Moses and Aaron, we may even bring ourselves under the awful denunciation of the thirty-second verse, in which we read "Yet in this thing ye did not believe the Lord your God." Now, seeing that we must live by belief, who are we going to believe? We cannot get away from this faith-life. Who is to be leader? Say some, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord;" others, "The God that answereth by fire, let him be God." Set up what standard you will, fix the terms of your own appeal; but Christian men will never hesitate to stand forward and say: Christ is my Lord and my God; I cannot reach the sublimity of his holiness, but I can aim in that direction; I cannot overtake my own prayers, but I can hold my face towards the rising of the sun; I count not myself to have apprehended, but this one thing I do I press I press! The attitude is Christian, the attitude is an argument, the attitude imposes a solemn and incommunicable responsibility.
There are some things that are never to be forgotten in life. There are troubles whose shadow is as long as life's whole day. The troubles are past, but the shadow is still there; the victory is won, but the battle seems still to be booming in the ear. We are miles and miles away from the desert yea, half a continent and more but who can ever forget "all that great and terrible wilderness"? Yet life would be poor without it. The memory of that wilderness chastens our joy, touches our prayer into a more solemn and tender music, and makes us more valiant, because more hopeful, in reference to all the future. There cannot be two such wildernesses in the whole universe. If there were another like it, it would not be equal to it, because our experience in the first would enable us to go through the second with a firmer step and a more cheerful courage. We are the better for the wildernesses of life, and we cannot escape them. No evasion is possible here. Apparent evasions have been accomplished, but they have been apparent only. You cannot get your children through life without passing through the wilderness at some time and in some way; and you are foolish when you think you can pay for their passage by some other and happier road. There is only one road rough, cavernous, uphill, where the wind has full scope for its roar and cold assault; and we are the better for passing through it patiently, steadily, and religiously. I know it may seem hard to you that that dear little boy should have to go through the wilderness; but he must go. I know how you take him into your arms and say that you have had to suffer and he shall not but you cannot help it; and if you postpone his suffering too long, he will suffer the more for the postponement. There is a chronology of discipline; there is a time-bill written in heaven, and hung down from the skies, by which all chastisement is administered, all discipline is undergone, all burdens are imposed, and all strength is given. It is folly, it is cruelty, to suppose that you can find out some road in which there is no wilderness some method of education in which there is no chastisement. Oh, that great and terrible wilderness! It comes after us now like a ghost; it darkens upon our vision in the dream-time; we repeat the journey in the night season, and feel all the sleet and cold, all the dreariness and helplessness of the old experience. How many a joy we have forgotten, how many a glad laugh has left no memory behind it, how many a salutation has been but a beating of the air and an instant descent into oblivion; but we cannot play with "that great and terrible wilderness." The very pronouncement of the words makes us cold. It was "great," it was "terrible," it was a "wilderness." But, rightly trodden, its barren sand made us men; taken in the right spirit, we thought we saw in it the beginning of the garden of God.
Every man does not pass through exactly the same wilderness; it is not needful that he should do so in order to confirm this doctrine viz., that in all lives there are great dreary spaces that we would gladly jump great and terrible wildernesses that we approach with fear and traverse almost with despair.
There was that great business wilderness that you passed through when all was loss and no profit; when your friends forgot you, or when their smile was not followed by any substantial blessing; when you dare not tell the tale to your wife at night, because you had no wish to make her cry and bear a heavier burden. You were not dishonest, nor deceptive; you were not guilty of a culpable secretiveness in keeping the state of affairs from her; you wanted to tread the winepress alone. You said it would be better to-morrow, and then you would tell her all about it. You listened to her laugh and said, "Poor thing! did she but know how near the bankruptcy court is that laugh would be choked in her young throat." But you would not tell you were passing through a great and terrible wilderness. I am not prepared to blame men who wish to keep the length and the terribleness of the desert as secrets in their own hearts; that secretiveness may be born of love and tender sympathy and real manliness. You remember the time when you had no night, if night be time for sleep; when you had no day, if day be time for joy and triumph. You remember the time when you dare hardly look into your own books, they were such blanks. You have not forgotten your old companions Poverty that walked on the right hand, and Friendlessness that walked on the left. It was a great and terrible wilderness. If you could have talked of it as a wilderness, you might have found some garden patches in it, but you dare not tell exactly where you were everything was so dark, so hard, so sterile; no hint of green thing, no sound of bird-music, no glint of subtle and unexpected light. The wilderness was great and terrible; but it is past. You are in fairer lands now; your property is accumulating, your speculations are paying, your adventures are crowned with success. Do not forget the wilderness: other men are in it. The man sitting next to you now, with an apparently jocund face and bright eye, is in the very middle of the wilderness which you have escaped. "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ;" bear them prayerfully, sympathetically. It is not needful that you should know them in name and detail, in date and actual locality; you must fall back on the solemn and perpetual facts of human history, and always consider that your comrades, friends, companions, neighbours, are undergoing chastisements and bearing burdens the very memory of which is no small part of your own individual training and spiritual education. Let prayer be made for all men. Never offer a prayer without thinking of the heavy-laden, the broken-hearted, the wounded spirit, the tired wayfarer.
Yours, on the other hand, was no business trouble, it was a long and painful affliction the more painful because of a conscious strength that could not assert itself. Oh, that is pain! to know that you have great strength and yet to be pinned down, as it were, at one point. It is humiliating, it makes one impatient. We could sometimes almost tear the pinned filament away and claim opportunity for the exercise of our conscious power. To stop there and to say: "It is right that I should so suffer, be so mocked; Father in heaven, not my will, but thine be done" that is the last accomplishment of our spiritual culture. When we can say so, we are on the very last page of Heaven's first lesson-book, and will soon be ready to begin the second volume in the ampler and clearer light. You remember the affliction when everybody in the house was quiet; when no one could commence anything new, when to-morrow was to be a revelation of some sorer trouble, some deeper darkness, some heavier burden; when you thought about yourself as about a life that was run out; when you said by that curious euphemy by which we deceive ourselves "If anything should happen to me." It is so that men speak about their own mortality; you remember the time when there were no joyful words in the speech of the house, when the morning was as night, and the night was sevenfold in darkness that was "a great and terrible wilderness." The poor reason was reeling, the light was going out, the burden was increasing, because the spirit was chastened. It was a "great and terrible wilderness."
But yours was neither business nor affliction, it was a wilderness of temptation. You fought with beasts at Ephesus, you fought with yourself seven days a week, it was the hour and power of darkness, the hours were crowded and huddled into one rough midnight. You were without strength; it was the day of helplessness. You were mocked and haunted by invisible and impalpable powers. If they had been flesh and blood you could have struck them, and that would have been some relief; but we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. Oh! could we but see our enemies, we might take measure of them; we could fasten our eye upon their eye, and anticipate their purpose by a steady glance studious of their intentions. But we do not see the enemy he is on the right hand and on the left, behind, in front, and everywhere a ubiquitous foe. Like the wind we cannot seize him, like the darkness we cannot measure him, like our own life, feeling it everywhere, but unable to place it in any one exclusive locality. We cannot corner those spiritual foes, they never sleep, they give no notice of their approach, they have no Sabbath day in their long week, when they say "We must give the hunted foe or prey a rest." Just now it is a "great and terrible wilderness." Recognise it as such, lay your account with it, and study the divine intention in its presence, and in its awful shadow.
What are the thoughts that such a review should excite? Can we look back upon that way, through all the great and terrible wilderness, without remembering the divine help which we received? God was God in the wilderness; God came walking upon the wings of the wind, and flying upon the pinions of the storm; God looked at us through the darkness, and there was no blaze of anger in his eye. Who can forget the touch that came upon our burning brow in the night-time? Who can forget the ever-branching tree, just by the side of the bitter pool? Who can forget the clump of palm trees where no palm trees were expected? Who can cease to remember the voice of leadership the strong, authoritative man who came amongst us like a revelation from God, and spoke broad words in broad tones, and was a tower of strength to us in the time of our weakness, and wonder, and fear the sympathetic pastor, the mighty preacher, the kind friend, the one who understood us wholly through and through? I know of no wilderness in which there were not mitigations of its dreariness and solitude; yet we could not map these out and say they will never occur today, and to-morrow, and a week hence, and in a year's time. Our blessings also come suddenly, unexpectedly, and, it may be, according to our reckoning, irregularly. But the "great and terrible wilderness" was the place where our great prayers were prayed. The darkness inspires an eloquence of its own; sense of loneliness makes a dumb man eloquent in intercession. You do not know what you said in that long night of wilderness and solitude; the words were taken down; if you could read them now, you would be surprised at their depth, richness, and unction. You owe your very life to the darkness which made you afraid.
Then, is there no divine purpose, the recollection of which may sustain us in traversing wildernesses and lonely deserts? Who made the world? Is the world a fatherless thing, an unmade world, a self-rounded thing that may split up at any moment, or is there method in it? Is there a God above it? Is there a throne anywhere? And the King, is he but a name or an echo? I see purpose in my life; I see it now "Thou hast done all things well." I did not think so at the time; I should have made the wilderness a mile shorter, but it was on the last mile that I saw the brightest angel. I would have come to honour and renown sooner; but I see now that the very movements were ticked off, and that a moment earlier would have been a mistake. "I would have come," says another Christian man, "to a sense of competency, and comfort, and household security ten years ago; but in my soul I see that ten years ago I could not have borne what I now carry gracefully." Thou hast done all things well. I would not have had seven graves in the cemetery, nor two, nor one; but I see now that I am the richer for the seven; I would not now have it otherwise. They are my best estate; I have property in them; I grow my choicest flowers there; there I meet with the angels that understand me. There is a method in all this: I will accept it; I will bow down before it; I will kiss the rod that lacerated me to the bone: it was in my Father's hand.
Then, is there to be no human gratitude springing out of all this? Is ours to be a false life an unsympathetic existence? Ought there not to be a new power in the hand-grip? Ought not my hand to get round yours with a more cunning and expressive masonry, because of the wilderness through which I have passed and the sorrows which I have undergone, and which are now just beginning to fall upon you? You can never be wrong in regarding human life as having in it great gaps, great deserts, great and terrible wounds. The preacher should never forget this. When an assembly comes together, it does not convene as an assembly of philosophers and high thinkers and men who are thirsting for some special intellectual gratification. I care not where the assembly is, it is an assembly of broken hearts, burdened lives, blinded eyes, sorrow-laden souls. I will undertake, that he who speaks of God's infinity, eternity, spiritual majesty, deific magnificence and grandeur shall not touch one heart as compared with the man who speaks of fatherhood, pity, condescension, need of help, need of grace. He who so speaks to Heaven will take up a thousand hearts with him, and in his one voice there will throb the necessity of a multitude of souls. As we have received help of God, let us give help to others. If our help sometimes be imposed upon, no matter. I do not want the sagacity which never makes a mistake; I want the sympathy, the great motherly love that tells a prodigal that he is almost an angel. That will do more good in the world than your sharp criticism, your discriminating and penetrating judgment, that knows exactly who is good and who is bad. That is not my business; I have but one hand in this matter, and that is the right hand the giving hand, the writing hand, the helping hand, the working hand, the sheltering and protecting hand. He only must have two hands who can discriminate with infinite penetration and justness between the good and the bad. We do not all come through the wilderness with equal strength. Some are far behind, they were very weak; they got sore tired; they said, "Comrade, how far is it now?" And all we could say was, "It is not so far today as it was yesterday." Do not count the miles, take the steps; do not say you have to travel fifty miles, but say you have to take the next step, and grace shall be equal to thy day. "My grace is sufficient for thee." And at the last he will say, "Thy shoes were iron and brass; and as thy day, so thy strength was." And we shall reply, "Even so, my garments were not worn, my shoes bore no travel stains, the mystery of endurance was equal to the mystery of trial; so, God be thanked for the great and terrible wilderness!"
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Yet in this thing ye did not believe the Lord your God." Deu 1:32
Note the possibility of partial faith. There may be very considerable credence in divine promises, yet there may be one weak point. In this as in other respects the law holds good: he that offends in one point offends in all. Faith is no stronger than its weakest point. We must not expect to realise divine blessings if we bring a crippled faith to the exercise. It is sometimes supposed that faith is one act, and that as such it is either strong or weak. All consciousness and all spiritual history distinctly disprove this theory. We may have a general faith in the inspiration of the Scriptures, and yet encounter with strong doubt some particular injunction or promise which appeals to our self-sacrifice. We may believe in other men praying and have doubts about our own prayers. We may have general faith in Christian doctrine and yet be lacking in the particular faith which applies that doctrine to actual life. We should examine the whole line of faith day by day to see which points are weak and to amend them accordingly. What if we believe God and do not practise godliness? Where is faith then?
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Your little ones... shall go in thither." Deu 1:39
God's purposes are not to be broken off. Wherever they appear to be broken off it is only in detail and momentarily: the great line still stretches onward towards the completion of the eternal decree. It is not in the power of man to frustrate the purposes of heaven. Why do the heathen rage? The generations are one as to the divine intention, though multitudinous in their particular details; the divine thought, therefore, cannot be judged here and now or at any particular break in history, it must be judged when all is completed and sealed. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. Those who are little now may be great hereafter, The little are not condemned because of the sins of their ancestors. Our fathers have failed, but that is no reason why we should not succeed. God's regard is continually fixed upon character, and never upon mere personality. Heaven is for the good and for none else, so all wealth, power, fame go for nothing in view of that grand realisation. There is always a promise laid up for humanity. Better things are yet to grow upon the earth, and fairer lights are yet to shine on human history. The future has a continual influence upon the present. Posterity ought to do something for contemporaries, where the mind is alive to the influence of actions and the certainty of harvest coming after seedtime.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany