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In order to see the full beauty and meaning of this charge we must read the words which lead up to it. Arrangements are being made in view of possible battle. It is well in life always to be prepared for war even whilst we are praying for peace. The question might arise in the minds of the children of Israel, What shall we do in the day of battle? Instructions having distinct reference to that inquiry are given in this chapter.
"When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them: for the Lord thy God is with thee, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt" ( Deu 20:1 ).
There is an exhortation: "Be not afraid of them." Following the exhortation is the reason upon which it is founded: "For the Lord thy God is with thee." No matter what the number of the enemy; it is of no consequence how many horses he has, and how their necks are clothed with thunder: there is One who maketh the mountains smoke before him; thy God is the Almighty and Eternal God, and he will see that the battle ends on the side of right. This verse calls us to take the religious view of every engagement in life. We must be sure that we start aright, that is to say, that our cause is good at the core just, wise, reasonable, and generous. The cause being right, everything in the universe that is right is of necessity on its side: the stars of heaven fight for righteousness. Whatever may be the nature of accidental or temporary circumstances, the issue is perfectly certain: he shall come and reign, whose right it is. Ever the right comes uppermost. Acting upon this conviction, how calm is the man whose conscience approves him! He knows that the waves can only come to a certain line; he says, "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?" "The Lord reigneth;" the God of heaven is the God who battles on the side of right. This exhortation does not apply only to national wars, but to all the controversies which constitute the action and the tragedy of life. Every man is called to battle in some way, at some place, at some time. Life itself is a battle: we wrestle not against flesh and blood, it may be, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world the invisible host banded in a common oath to destroy the kingdom of truth. "Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." This is the foundation upon which all further instruction given in this chapter is based. The battle puts our religion to the test: we do not know whether we are religious or not, in the profound sense of the term, until we come to battle. It is easy to sing at midsummer, when all visible nature challenges us in gracious tones to lift up our voice in solemn praise. There is no strain upon a man to thank God when he sits under his own blossoming trees and hears the birds trilling their incoherent hymn. That is not piety: it is selfishness of the vilest kind the selfishness which electroplates itself with piety: the mean, personal consideration which cloaks itself with a sentiment thin as a morning cloud. See what men are when they are under stress when the storm pours upon the roof, when the enemy thunders at the door, when death takes away the delight of the eyes, when every room in the house is a sick-chamber, when business is unprosperous, and all things seem to conspire in a desperate confederacy against the progress of life; it is then we know whether our religion is solid, healthy, rational, and built upon eternal foundations.
The officers were commanded to order off certain people:
"What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it" ( Deu 20:5 ).
"And what man is he that hath planted a vineyard, and hath not yet eaten of it? let him also go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man eat of it" ( Deu 20:6 ).
"And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her" ( Deu 20:7 ).
Having ordered off all these people, the officers proceeded still further to weed the army:
"What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart" ( Deu 20:8 ).
The army might thus be greatly reduced; we must remember, however, that reduction may mean increase. We do not conquer by number but by quality. One hero is worth ten thousand cowards. Caesar is in himself more than all his legions. Quality counts for everything in the greatest battles and the most strenuous moments of life. Given the right quality, and the issue is certain. Quality never gives in: quality is never beaten; quality flutters a challenge in its dying moments, and seems to say, I will rise again and continue the fight from the other side. So the army was reduced, and yet the army was increased in the very process of reduction. To-day the great speech is made over again: "What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart."
We cannot deny the fact that most Christian professors are fainthearted; they are not heroic souls. The great proportion of Christian professors are people who are "not well." The number of invalids in the Church would surprise the imagination of the most audacious dreamer. This is not a world for the fainthearted it is a world of strife, wear and tear, conflict, tumult, trial by fire, and temptation by the chief intellect of hell; it is a rough world; it has well been described as being out of joint. Those who would take hold of the world aright must be inured to hardship: they must "endure hardship as good soldiers of Christ." We are not speaking of the weak, but of the fainthearted; not of men inflicted with an infirmity, but of hearts that have lost if ever they had the heroic nerve. The Church is now the most timid of all influences in the world. Granting that there are sections of the great Christian Church marked by marvellous energy for which we thank God yet, speaking of the Church as a whole, it is suffering from faintheartedness, timidity, fear: that spirit which cannot live in the society of love, that gruesome, dark-faced thing that dare not look at love: for love would slay it with light. What is the explanation of faintheartedness? Want of conviction. Given a convinced Church, and a heroic Church is the consequence; given a Church uncertain, unconvinced, and you have a Church that any atmosphere can affect and any charlatan can impose upon. We must, therefore, return to foundations, to central principles, to primary realities; and having made sure of these the rest will arrange itself. Where is conviction? There may be a good deal of concession: there may be a strong indisposition to object to, or to deny, or to bring into discredit, theological problems and religious usages, but what is needed is something more: clear, well-reasoned, strongly-grounded conviction; and where this rules the mind every faculty is called into service, and the battle of life is conducted with heroic decision and chivalrous self-forgetfulness.
It was well understood in Israel that the fainthearted man does more harm than he supposes he does. It is the same all the world over and all time through. The timid man says, I will sit behind. Does his retirement behind mean simply one man has gone from the front? It means infinitely more: it is a loss of influence, a loss of sympathy, a loss of leadership. A Christian professor is not at liberty to say he will abide in the shade: he will allow the claims of others: any place, how obscure soever, will do for him. Have no patience with men who tell such lies! They have no right to be behind: their mission should be to find the best place, and to wake up every energy to stir up the gift that is in them; and every man should feel that the battle depends upon him. The discouraging influence of faintheartedness it is impossible to describe in words. Better have a congregation of six souls of light, and fire, and love, than have a great crowd without conviction, easy-going, flaccid in sentiment and thought, without central realities and foundations that can be relied upon. "What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go" he is not a loss: his going is the gain of all who are left behind: he made other people cold, he discouraged the young, he threw a gloom and a frown upon all that was proceeding in the Church: he disliked passion and music and beauty and brightness; no genial word ever came out of his lips; his hands never grasped the hand of soldier with heroic firmness; he must go, and we will send no blessing after him, for he would have no capacity to receive it. The great work of weeding the Church army must be carried out. It must be carried out in the ministry. There are men, unquestionably, in every ministry who have no right to be there respectable, pedantic, literal, self-considering, afraid of giving offence, so prudent as to be imprudent, so wise as to become foolish. The ministry must be rid of them: they are not created in heaven, and they have no right to be in this position upon earth. So with all ranks, classes, and stations in the Church. The one man we must get rid of is the fainthearted man the timid, cowering, self-considering professor, who is thankful when all is over without any accident having occurred, a fear-ridden soul, a fear-darkened mind; he must be exhorted unhappily for his destination to return to his own house, probably because no other house would receive him. Let him go: the pulpit will be the better for his absence, the Church will be the warmer for his retirement, the young will then lift up their voices and be glad. Who has not seen the saddest of all pictures a child beginning to dance and sing the moment the father has left the house? That is a scene to make the soul sad. The child should never dance and sing so much as when his father comes back: and the father should dance and sing with the child, and be the child, and thus gladness should sound in every room of the house.
How marvellously faintheartedness shows itself! In one case it is fear of heresy. We hear of certain young people throwing off old habits and ways, and thereupon we become fainthearted, forgetting that there is a time in life when cleverness is the little imp that tempts men to their own destruction, forgetting that there is a very critical period in life when the boy is too tall for a jacket and too young for a coat! We should bring into our view all the intermediate periods of life, and all transitional processes, assured that outside the Church there is nothing but a mighty famine, swine-feeding, and the bitterness of soul will send the young wanderer back again. In another case it is fear of criticism. What will the people next door say? What will the adjoining Church think? What will other men declare their judgment? The false and cowardly speech runs thus: I have no wish myself about the matter: personally I should say nothing to obstruct the suggestion; but I am afraid it will be misunderstood, and that others will form an improper or inaccurate opinion about it. A man talking so representing other people! A man assuming a penetration like that ought to have had a courage equal to his genius. In another case it is fear of sensation. Our ministry has been wrecked in many instances by cold-hearted and mean-spirited men who ought never to have had the influence associated with official promotion. We must not advertise, because some people might misunderstand it; we must not have too much music, because there are persons unable to follow the mystery of praise; we must not have anything unusual. To have such fainthearted men in the Church is the bitterest trial that Christ has now to undergo. As for his enemies, he will rule them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel; but the fainthearted and the timid those who have no conviction or daring or chivalry they wear out the life of the true minister, and they curse the home where they live. There is another faintness which is rather to the credit of the man who experiences it a faintness arising from great service, long-continued effort, and noble sacrificial consecration. When a man pours out his life for the cause he may well be faint now and then. A beautiful sentiment in Scripture describes his condition: "faint, yet pursuing" putting out the arm in the right direction, looking along the right road, and saying in mute eloquence, Give me breathing time, and I will join you again; let me rest awhile; do not take my sword away: in a day or two at most I will be at the front of the fight. That is a faintness which may be the beginning of great strength. So God is gracious to us: having no sympathy with timidity and fear and cowardliness, he has infinite compassion upon those who, having worn themselves out in service, need space and time for breathing. This exhortation comes back in a great trumpet-blast: "What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? let him go and return into his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart." It is difficult to stand against discouragement: it is awfully, awfully hard to keep warm in the presence of an iceberg. Not only is the man himself a coward: he is making cowards of others. So with regard to the pulpit and to every department of Christian service, this word must sound out more and more clearly: if any man wants money, let him go and return unto his house; if any man wants ease; if any man would be exempt from criticism and hardship; if any man is seeking to abound with the decaying and withering tributes of life; if any man is ambitious for mere applause, let him go and return unto his own house. Christ can do without him: he is hindered by him.
Almighty God, thou spreadest our table in the sight of our enemies; our cup runneth over; goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life. When we went into a far country and there felt the pains of hunger, we were moved to return again, saying, In our Father's house there is bread enough and to spare. Lord, evermore give us this bread! This is the true bread that cometh down from heaven, of which, if a man eat, he shall hunger no more. Lord, evermore give us this bread! We have thought to satisfy ourselves with the stones of the field, and, behold, we have become more and more an hungered. Give us the true bread which cometh down from heaven. May we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus Christ thy Son, and thus have life abiding in us, even eternal life. We have followed the way of evil, and have been stung by disappointments beyond all number; but now we return to our Father's house, where the feast is spread, where hospitality is offered to the poorest and the meanest; and we would sit down here at thy bidding, King of the feast, Master of assemblies, and eat and drink abundantly of the wisdom and grace and love of the Triune God. We have longed for this mystery: we have become weary with things we can handle and understand and measure and set back in our contempt: we have longed for the tabernacle in the wilderness, for the shekinah-cloud, for the trumpet of convocation, for the descending Deity. Having come into thine house, may we enter into the mystery of its grandeur and the deeper mystery of its peace; here may we enjoy conscious pardon through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ: may we arise from this attitude of prostration into a pasture of triumph, release, joy, through the Holy Ghost, and go out to do life's duty with new strength, new hope, immortal courage. We are in the Lord's banqueting-house; we are not in the wilderness, we are not in stony places, we are not exiles; but, through the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of man, Son of God, we are children at home. Let our hearts be glad and let our eyes lift themselves up to the heavens, and see how much there is yet to begin, and what spaces have to be covered, and what possible services may have to be rendered. Thus may we bring the power of an endless life to bear upon the concerns, the burdens, the pains of the passing hour. Speak comfortably to those whose hearts are sore with a bitterness they cannot explain, and come thou, as thou only canst come, to hearts that are bowed down in self-distrust, in utter penitence and contrition, and are crying for the rest that can only come through pardon. Send messages, sweet singing gospels, to our loved ones at home, whether well or ill, but with special tenderness to those who are shutup in the chamber where they must soon die. The Lord comfort those who are weak, and when heart and flesh do fail be thou more than ever to the faith that has hung upon thee in simple love. Double the joy of those who are drinking deep of gladness today, but chasten their delight lest they become presumptuous and forget God. Lead, kindly Light go before us, Spirit of Peace, make us quiet with thine own security, make us strong with thine own power. Amen.
Cutting Down Fruit-trees
It will be observed that this instruction is given to the Jews in the event of their going to war against any city. No question of mere horticulture arises in connection with this injunction. It is wantonness that is forbidden; it is not art that is decried. Trees that did not bear fruit were of course available for war, but trees that could be used for purposes of sustaining human life were to be regarded as in a sense sacred and inviolable.
A prohibition of this kind is charged with lofty moral significance. When men go to war they are in hot blood; everything seems to go down before the determination to repulse the enemy and establish a great victory. But here men in their keenest excitement are to discriminate between one thing and another, and are not to permit themselves to turn the exigencies of war into an excuse for wantonness or for the destruction of property that bears an intimate relation to human sustenance. It would be easy in times of calmness to admire and preserve beautiful fruit-trees, but imagine an army of soldiers rushing up to an orchard, and standing still before it as if they had suddenly come upon an altar a god! surely that were a severe trial of human patience. If one of the trees could have been cut down the victory might have been won, or certainly the enemy might have been baffled; but even under such circumstances law was to be religiously respected. Dropping all that is merely incidental in the instruction, the moral appeal to ourselves is perfect in completeness and dignity. Civilisation has turned human life into a daily war. We live in the midst of contentions, rivalries, oppositions, and fierce conflicts of every kind, and God puts down his law in the very midst of our life and calls upon us to regulate everything by its sacredness. God has not left human life in a state of chaos; his boundaries are round about it; his written and unwritten laws constitute its restraints, its rewards and its penalties; and even war in its most violent form is not to blind our eyes to the claims of God. Men say that all is fair in love and war, but this proverbial morality has no sanction in holy scripture. We are too apt to plead the exigency of circumstances in extenuation of acts that would not have otherwise been committed. It is evident that there are points in life at which circumstances must triumph or law must be maintained. Thus an appeal is made to reason and conscience in nearly every day. When the human or the divine must go down, the Christian ought to have no hesitation as to his choice.
Victories may be bought at too high a price. He who gives fruit-bearing trees in exchange for his triumphs may be said to have paid his soul for the prizes of this world. "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" What is a warrior profited if he gain the province, and cut down every fruit-tree, and burn up every harvest-field, and dry all the wells and fountains of the land? Thus again and again comes upon us the certainty of the law that a man may purchase even his victories at too high a price. This applies to all kinds of victories, victories, for example, which relate to property, influence, social position, and all the vanities of life. This is the danger which Christ was constantly pointing out. "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" "Fear him who hath power to destroy both body and soul in hell." "A man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth." A wonderful foresight is discovered in the injunction of the text. The speaker is endeavouring to show that the present victory may be overborne by future suffering. We shall require the fruit-trees after the victory has been established: but if we have cut down the fruit-trees to achieve the victory, where then is our reward and what is its value? We may get our own way in life, but we may have burnt down all life's fruitful orchards in gaining the worthless prize. A whole philosophy of life is involved in this text. The fruit-tree is symbolical and not literal. God sometimes gives men the desire of their hearts, and sends leanness into their souls. What if a man shall come back from the field of learning, having won his honours, if, in doing so, he has lost his health? What if a tradesman, at the end_ of a long period of service, should retire with a whole bankful of money, but have lost his power of enjoying the beauties of nature or the comforts of social life? "A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked." Were it possible for a man to adorn his house with all the riches of sculpture and painting, what would he be profited if, in the process of bringing all these treasures together, he should have lost his sight? Which is the more valuable possession, a picture which cannot be seen, or eyes which may for ever satisfy themselves upon the beauties and glories of nature? Many men override this law, and insist upon having the pleasure whatever may be the price that is paid for it. An account is steadfastly kept against them, and one day they must discharge it, or be thrust into prison until they have paid the uttermost farthing. The young life, boastful of its energy, insists upon having its pleasures, cost what they may, and the old man is left to ruminate that in his youth he won his victories by cutting down his fruit-trees.
Two views may be taken of the circumstances and objects by which we are surrounded; the one is the highest view of their possible uses, and the other the low view which contents itself with immediate advantages. The wood of the fruit-tree might be as useful as any other wood for keeping back an enemy or serving as a defence; but the fruit-tree was never meant for that purpose, and to apply it in that direction is to oppose the intention of God. We are to look at the highest uses of all things a fruit-tree for fruit; a flower for beauty; a bird for music; a rock for building. It is not enough that things be put to some use, we must endeavour to discover the particular use which God intended them to serve, and the adoption of that use alone will bring us into harmony with the divine will. Music was never intended to celebrate evil or give notoriety to things that are unholy, or purposes that are morally mischievous. Music can be used for these purposes, but the use of it in this direction is a profanation. Eloquence was never intended to advocate unrighteous claims or dishonourable causes; eloquence can bring together all its words and sentences and thunders even for this base purpose, and in the choicest language may defend the foulest criminal: but this was not the original purpose of eloquence; man's tongue was not made that the interests of falsehood might be subserved, or that vice might outwit virtue in some display of wordy skill. Eloquence was meant to expound truth, equity, law; it was intended to be a tongue for the dumb, and to speak boldly for those who could not speak for themselves in all righteous causes and claims. So, as a fruit-tree might have been used for military purposes, but was yet forbidden to be so used, many human faculties, if not all, might be turned to inferior or even forbidden uses, but the mere fact that they could be so perverted is no justification of the perversion. In all things respect the highest purpose, the chief intent, the manifest destiny, and, working along that high line of appointment and ordination, the issue must be one of contentment and harmony. A man may be able to clean a boot, but if he be also able to paint a picture the time which is spent upon the inferior service may be time wasted. He may be able to carve a face upon a cherry-stone, but if he can also teach a child, all his carving, however exquisite, is but a proof of his perverseness. The question we ought to put to ourselves constantly is, What is the highest purpose of my being? What is the real intent of my creation? Can I do some larger and nobler thing than that which now absorbs my energies? Unless we study such questions as these, and answer them righteously, we shall certainly be cutting down fruit-trees to help us to gain temporary triumphs. A man has a brook to cross and is unable to cross it without assistance; he can cut. down a fruit-tree which will form a bridge, or he can pull up a gate-post which would serve exactly the same purpose; is he at liberty to desecrate a fruit-tree when he might have crossed the stream by other means, involving no act of wantonness, and inflicting upon society no sense of loss? No man is at liberty to beg for bread so long as he can work for it. He must turn himself to the highest advantage, that is to say, realise the very purpose of God in his creation and fulfil all its obligations. A man has the power to hide his talent, but not the right. This is a distinction which is not always made with sufficient clearness. Power and right are not coequal terms. We have the power to cut down fruit-trees, but not the right; we have the power to mislead the blind, but not the right; we have the power to prostitute our talents, but not the right. The right is often the more difficult course as to its process, but the difficulty of the process is forgotten in the heaven of its issue. To have the power of cutting down fruit-trees is to have the power of inflicting great mischief upon society. A man may show great power in cutting down a fruit-tree, but he may show still greater power in refusing to do so. The first power is merely physical, the second power is of the nature of God's omnipotence. Forbearance is often the last point of power. We may have power to starve an enemy, or injure an opponent, or lead away business from a rival, or turn aside the current which would fertilise the garden of an antagonist; all these things we might do at great cost, and show great expertness and ability in bringing about our purposes: we forget that we should show a more distinguished power in abstaining from every one of these wicked things. To love an enemy is to show greater strength than could possibly be shown by burning up himself and his house, and leaving nothing behind but the smoking ashes. This is a great spiritual mystery, and seems indeed to have in it all the elements of a palpable contradiction, and is not to be understood or realised in all its gracious possibilities but by long-continued practice in obedience to the divine will. Such issues as these often come upon the mind with the surprise of a revelation.
There are times when even fruit-trees are to be cut down. Perhaps this is hardly clear on the first putting of it. The meaning is that a fruit-tree may cease to be a fruit-tree. When Jesus came to the fig-tree and found on it nothing but leaves, he doomed it to perpetual barrenness, and it withered away. Even the husbandman pleaded that if the fruit-tree did not bear fruit after one more trial it should be cut down as a cumberer of the ground. Fruit-trees are not to be kept in the ground simply because in years long past they did bear fruit. Trees are only available according to the fruit which they bear today. "Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit." Christians themselves are only to be tolerated as such in proportion to the fruit which they bear. Profession often aggravates disappointment. Ornamental churches, ministries, and institutions generally, how bold and loud soever their professions, must perish under the condemnation of the society they have mocked by their false appearances. A tremendous possibility must not be overlooked here: it is possible to bring forth evil fruit. The question, therefore, is not, Are we bearing fruit? but, Are we bearing good fruit? The Christian can have no difficulty as to the kind of fruit which he is expected to bring forth. He is to be as a branch in the Living Vine. "From me is thy fruit found." "Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." "Little children, abide in him; that, when he shall appear, we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before him at his coming." There is to be a judgment of trees. "Now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees." Here again we are brought into close proximity with our own text, for in Deuteronomy 20:20 , we read: "Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down." There must be no mistake about the fruit. Leaves are not enough. Shapeliness is not enough. Abundance of wood is not enough: "That which heareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned."
Almighty God, our hands are withered; bid us now stretch them forth. Thou art the Healer, O Christ of God! Thou dost live to heal; thou hast no pleasure in disease, or death, or the grave: thy joy is in health and life and heaven. May we rise into the spirit of thy joy, and respond to all the ministries thou hast set in motion for the preservation of the soul's health and the opening out of great views concerning the soul's destiny. We bless thee for thine house, its comfort, its security, its peace; it is a place of calm: the storm is outside: the high wind blows over the roof but does not come within. Thou hast hidden thy people as in the cleft of a rock until the calamity be overpast, and thou hast spoken comfortably unto them and assured them of deliverance and liberty. We bless thee for thy Book; it is in our native tongue: we understand most of it; when we most need it, it is most to us so comforting in sorrow, so inspiring in dejection, and so enriching when the mind realises its true capacity. May we read thy Book with attentive eyes, with hearts eager to learn the meaning of the message; and may we retire from our perusal of holy pages stronger, purer, wiser, more resolute in the cause of good, and more resigned to all the mysteries of thy rule. Thou hast a word for every one: the old man trembling on his staff and looking into his grave; the little child to whom life is a cloud full of stars, or a night full of voices, or a day bright with hope; send a message to each of us: let each feel that this is the Father's house, and as for bread, there is enough and to spare. Dry our tears; lift our burdens awhile that we may recover breath and strength; attemper the wind to the shorn lamb; speak to those who have little, and who live in backward places and positions, in the shadow and in the cold, and so reveal thyself to them that the spirit may triumph over the flesh, and that even in unexpected places there may be a sense of thy presence. The Lord grant unto us light, peace, pardon, comfort, all we need, to do the remainder of this day's work with both hands, and to enter on to-morrow's labour with Christian hope.
We pray at the Cross: we name the Name that is above every name; we cannot understand the mystery which it represents, but we feel its redeeming love. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 20". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent