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We have here two words of permanent significance, the confusion of which would lead to all kinds of spiritual disaster. These words are "secret" and "revealed." It is something to know that this distinction was so early made in human thinking. The distinction, in fact, can be found in the communications which passed between God and man in the garden of Eden itself. The simple law is that some "things" belong unto the Lord our God; we have nothing to do with them; we are not concerned in their investigation or adjustment; other things belong to us and to our children, and our definite duty and relation to these is to see that they are realised in all their meaning and purpose.
Things that are secret and revealed occupy, from one point of view, distinctly different spheres, yet from another point of view it is obvious that the secret and the revealed are at some points vitally related. One would say that nature is a full revelation; that the heavens and the earth are books wide open; and that there can be no law of trespass in the outer creation. But this is not the case. We find that even nature has her mysterious or secret things, and that many a door is marked "private," and that phenomena only, and not essences, are open to the investigation of human science: there is a law of secrecy even in the apparently open and unwatched fields of nature. In other words, there is a point of unknowableness in the construction of a grass-blade as certainly as in the creation of a human mind. Inquiry is circumscribed. There is a limit to the "ask, seek, knock" of all investigation. Emphatic importance attaches to this fact. We imagine that prayer and spiritual benefits, exclusively so designated, are alone comprehended under the statement "ask, and it shall be given you;" whereas experience shows that that simple law is at the very root and core of every kind of progress. "Ask, and it shall be given you" is as truly a canon in science as it is a law in religion. It is written alike in the Bible of nature and the Bible of the Gospel. It is inscribed as distinctly on the heaven and the earth as on the solemn temple and the Mosaic altar. And so indeed with many other of the laws of the Holy Book. When the ages shall give birth to the seer who shall have in all its fulness and vigour the faculty of interpretation, he will teach men that science and gospel stand on the same basis, and that the one serveth the other as the younger the firstborn.
Here is a man who is learned in the writing of the stars. The heavens are the broad pages, and the worlds are the words, and systems are the sentences which he attempts to make out. Many a brilliant paragraph he succeeds in interpreting, at least to some extent But how did he attain his wisdom? Simply by the old Gospel plan "ask, seek, knock;" by patience often severely tried; by labour that brought sore weariness; by perseverance often toilsome, this is the way by which men acquire wisdom of all kinds. What is called cant in religion is called philosophy in science. Every time the astronomer turns an inquiring eye to the stars he actually stands in the attitude of mute prayer. Every turn of the telescope really represents the action of asking, seeking, knocking. Every conclusion arrived at as the result of investigation seriously conducted may in some sort be described as an answered prayer. The difficulty which the Christian teacher has to contend with is that men willingly acknowledge that they are studying, botanising, anatomising, and the like; but they will not carry up their action to the term which comprehensively expresses the whole method and purpose of the inquiry: that term is Prayer, the highest asking, the most reverent solicitude, the most persistent, and the most rational application of human powers. We could not read a line upon the face of nature if an unseen hand did not hold the light for us. We could not read the book of the stars if that unseen hand did not turn over the pages.
The practical point to be kept in view is that although God encourages man to ask, seek, and knock; though he has made man an inquisitive and a progressive being; though he has endowed man with faculties, instincts, capacities that yearn to transcend the limits which humiliate him, yet human ambition is to be regulated by divine law, and man is to keep within prescribed boundaries and avoid the iniquity of trespass. This is so in nature, and it is so in what we have come to understand by the term Providence. No man can find out the work that God doeth from the beginning to the end. We cannot see how God interposes in every combination and adjusts the place of every detail in life. We see something of God in the vastness of the heavens, but are baffled by the minuteness which makes the dewdrop as perfect a sphere as the greatest planet that burns in unknown heights. The Bible teaches that in the every-day affairs of life God is constantly interposing. He hath compassed us behind and before, and laid his hand upon us. There is not a word on our tongue, there is not a thought in our heart, that is not known altogether to God. This is the Bible theory of human life; our inquiry is into the reality of that theory, a question which cannot be determined by words, but which can only be concluded by a careful study of individual and general human experience. Wonderful are the hidings of the divine purpose! We lay our plan, we boldly predict a bright future, we see everything exactly as we would wish it to be, and our imagination is that all we have to do is to advance and enjoy the gracious result; yet we know that in the midst of our dreams an invisible hand has overturned our glittering temple and ploughed up its deep foundation. In walking down the highway we have unwittingly changed sides; we knocked at the wrong door when in quest of a friend; in sorting our correspondence for the post we have mismatched some of the letters and envelopes; or we had set our heart on a certain journey and had made much preparation for it, but on the appointed morning we were arrested by severe affliction, personal or relative. We could not understand these things at the time. Some of them appeared to be of no consequence. But time disclosed a wonderful purpose, even in things which were so small as to be made no account of. We were amazed that events so trivial could have concealed purposes so great, and that afflictions so unexpected and so cruel should have lain at the very threshold of the kingdom of God. But the divine Worker disdains nothing. He holds everything in high value. He will have the fragments gathered up that nothing may be lost. An atom may be necessary to the completion of a temple. As out of so common a thing as the dust of the earth God fashioned man, so out of the ordinary trifles of life he builds the greatest realities of the future. That we cannot understand these things is no argument against the certainty of their existence and action. We have to understand God as much as God intended us to understand, and leave the rest. What do you do when in reading the great books of ancient religious authors you meet with passages written in an unknown tongue? Paragraph after paragraph you read with all possible fluency, instantly apprehending the author's purpose; but suddenly the writer throws before you a paragraph written in Greek or in Latin, or in some language you have not learned; what then? If you are absorbed by the book you will eagerly look out for the next paragraph in English, and continue your pursuit of the leading thought. Do likewise with God's book of providence. Much of it is written, as it were, in our own tongue; read that, master its deep meaning, and leave the passages written in an unknown language until you are farther advanced in the literature of life until you are older and better scholars in God's first school. The day of interpretation will assuredly come. A beam of light will pierce the mystery. Meanwhile, there should be sweet rest in the reflection that "secret things belong unto the Lord our God."
The Christian admitting all this, and even contending for it as a necessity of Christian philosophy and life, turns with still higher wonder and reverence towards a scene which compels him to exclaim, "Great is the mystery of godliness!" All the mysteries of nature and providence are but as the riddles of childhood compared with the problem of the Atonement The Cross is the meeting-place of the highest intelligences. "Which things the angels desire to look into." Pilate's superscription in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin we can decipher; but the writing of that other hand the hand that wrote on Belshazzar's proud walls that hand, so awfully distinct, yet so rapid, so delicate, as to be "something between a thought and a thing" the writing of that other hand we cannot read in all the depth and scope of its meaning. The oldest wisdom looks on and wonders, wrinkled sages can but sigh in amazement; and angels make no progress in that infinite study. Yet we are not to turn away from the Cross as from a mystery that has no aspect of a practical kind. There are revealed things even in the Cross of Christ. We have not so much to do with the top of the ladder which is lost in the brightness of heaven as with the foot of it which resteth on the earth; nor have we so much to do with the bright angels who throng that ladder as with the messages of mercy and hymns of hope which they bring to our attention. Fool is he who in running from a town in flames will not cross the river until he speculates concerning the architect of the bridge and makes inquiry into the origin and date of its building. The illustration may be applied to the sinner who wishes to escape from his sin. His first business is to reduce to practice what little he does understand, to manifest a disposition to accept all the arrangements of divine wisdom, and in childlike trust to give himself up to God. The Cross has a side that is "secret," and a side that is "revealed" a side that shines towards God and a side that shines towards a sinning world. The Cross may be so treated as to be ah overwhelming and discouraging mystery; or it may be so treated as to show the infinite love, and mercy, and righteousness of God in the great endeavour to rescue men from wickedness and restore them to the image and favour of God.
We have come to associate secrecy with selfishness, yet all nature proves that in divine administration secrecy and benevolence may co-exist. As rapidly as we are pointed to the mystery we should direct our eyes to the fatherhood. Do men say that God keeps to himself the mystery of the sun? Our answer should be that he turns upon us the full revelation of the light. Does God keep to himself the secret of germination? On the other hand, he gives us the revelation of golden harvests; the spring kept the secret in her heart, but autumn has filled our barns with plenty. Thus, enough is kept back to prove the power, and enough is given to establish the mercy. It is not only right, it is necessary that the father should know more than the child. Is the father less a father because of his superior knowledge? Is not his very superiority of knowledge one of his highest qualifications for discharging his duty as a father? Mystery is the seal of the infinite, yet benevolence is perpetually present in the providence which guides human life. You have seen a blind man led along the highway by a little child, to whose young bright eyes he commits himself in faith and hope. Man is that poor blind wanderer through the way of God's mysteries, and that little guide represents the benevolence, the mercy, the tenderness, with which God leads us from day to day and will lead us until the time of the larger revelation. The commonest mercy of the daytime flames up into a fire column that lights men through the gloom and trouble of the night. We must not look at the mystery and forget the benevolence. The very wealth of God makes us covetous. Does poverty provoke envy? We look not so much at what God has given as at what he might have given. We read the love through the mystery, rather than the mystery through the love. Men like to penetrate into the hidden. They flatter it, they exalt it, they say it is given for good, and pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise; and having wrought themselves up into this delusive appreciation of its value, they put forth the thievish hand, and the fancied blessing turns to a scorpion's sting. We are not to anticipate our course of study: the volumes will be handed to us one by one. Let us understand what we now can, and in doing so let us increase in knowledge; understand that in all the wastes of folly there could be no greater fool than he who will not believe his father's telegram because he cannot understand the mystery of the telegraph.
The sense in which things revealed belong unto us is distinctly specified in the text "that we may do all the words of this law." We know revelation by a power which is within ourselves. There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth us understanding. Whether that power has been correctly designated by the expression "verifying faculty" or not, there it is, constantly operating within us, and constantly confirming or disputing our conclusions. That power does not affect to deal with the incident, the colour, and the local or transient detail to be found in a book: it deals with great moral disclosures, and supreme moral appeals, and profound moral obligations. Looking in this direction, the inward light is an unfailing guide, the verifying faculty never fails to cry out, This is the very truth of God: this is the very beginning of heaven. Observe the expression "all the words of this law." We are not called upon to consider the words of a speculation, or a theory, or a new suggestion regarding the constitution and destiny of things. God puts himself before us distinctly as Lawgiver. All the moral institutes issue from God's wisdom. All that man lays down as law is, so far as it is right, but a modification or interpretation of God's own word of government. The heavens and the earth are full of proofs as to the omnipotence of the Creator, but in such a word as "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" we may find a profounder testimony to Christ's Godhead than in all the wonders of creation. Here is a moral mystery only to be interpreted by moral obedience. This doctrine is only attainable through doing the will; blessed be God, through doing the will we do come into the full appreciation of this religious mystery, and are enabled from that point of progress to advance to immeasurably greater distances in the upward way. To have lost our identity in the interests of others, and for their real good, is to have begun to realise the mystery of divine love.
The law is to be translated into action: "That we may do all the words." A very beautiful picture thus appeals to the attention. A word is to become a deed: a thought is to be embodied in expressive action; and between the word and the deed, the thought and the action, there is to be obvious and undeniable consistency. Religion has, indeed, its contemplative side, but it has also its practical side of action. The architect draws his plans not that they may be exhibited as pictures but that they may be built up into visible and useful edifices. If the builder has taken the architect's plans, framed them in gold, and hung them up in the best room of his house, he has not honoured the plans but dishonoured them: the architect will presently come and ask for the mansion, and he will not be satisfied to be told that instead of the mansion having been built the plans have been carefully framed and exhibited only to admiring eyes. But have we not framed the law of God and made a picture of it and worshipped the letter with a species of idolatry? What have we done with the Bible? We have published it in letters of gold; we have bound it in richest morocco; genius, art, taste, have conspired to beautify and adorn and decorate the sacred book; but where is the mansion of a noble, holy, and useful life? We received the law that we might "do" it; if we have failed in the doing our admiration is hypocrisy and our loudest applause is but our loudest lie.
We are not only called to obedience, we are called to hope. We shall make some conquest yet even in spheres which at present are absolutely mysterious. At present we know in part, and prophesy in part, because we see through a glass darkly. What thou knowest not now thou shalt know hereafter. We have a hope which is as an anchor of the soul both sure and steadfast, a hope which entereth into that within the veil, and we are confident that one day we shall know even as also we are known. They will know most of the mystery who have done most of the law. If we are waiting for the solution of the mystery before we begin obedience to the law, the mystery will never be revealed to us other than in clouds and storms of judgment. We walk by faith, not by sight. Jesus said unto one of his disciples, "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." This is the Christian's law of action. He acknowledges the mystery; he has no reply whatever to many an enigma; but he is sure that in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, he is preparing himself for those great revelations which are promised to faith, obedience, and love.
One of the most sad and saddening aspects of modern life is the lack of a humble acknowledgment of the limitation of human powers. There has been engendered a pride and even arrogance of thought which knows not how to veil its face in the presence of the infinite God, and of Truth which is as infinite as he. There is an audacity of speculation which will acknowledge no mystery, and which rejects all that transcends the limits of reason.
And especially is this the case in those departments of truth which relate to the moral and spiritual government of God. Concerning the material world there is no such presumptuous daring. Men feel that as yet of this they know but in part and in small part. No man of science will step forth and profess a universal acquaintance with the universe. He would be regarded as a laughing-stock. He might as soon pretend that he can hold the waters in the hollow of his hand, or that he can mete out heaven with a span, or comprehend the dust of the earth in a measure, or weigh the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance. Slowly and patiently do men of science work, winning now the knowledge of one fact, and then another, but feeling as Newton felt when he had achieved even his noblest discoveries, that they have but picked up a shell or a pebble on the great shore of truth, while the vast ocean lies yet undiscovered before them. The map of science is filled in here and there, but over the greatest portion of it is written the words "unknown land." Year by year a little more is filled in, and yet a little more, but when shall the whole be defined, and when shall the map itself be large enough to include the whole material creation which stretches illimitably around us on every hand? There is no discovery that has yet been made, which has not immediately suggested new mysteries, and the wisest men are those who feel that the disproportion seems ever growing between the limits of the human mind, and the boundlessness of the creation which it seeks to explore.
Enoch Mellor, D.D.
Almighty God, thou abidest for ever though thy servants are cut off in the midst of their days. We are as a shadow, and there is none continuing; but thou remainest the same, and thy years fail not. One generation goeth, and another generation cometh; but the Lord abideth evermore. Thou art the living Sovereign, thou art the living Redeemer, and thy mercy, like thyself, endureth for ever. We have heard of thy mercy all the ages through, since thou didst put skins of beasts upon the shoulders of those who fell in the garden. Thy promise has always been singing in mid-air, cheering the heart and touching the imagination of the world; and, behold, we have seen thy promise fulfilled: it is no longer a promise, it is a reality, for Jesus Christ hath come into the world to save sinners. May we believe in him that we may rejoice in him, and rejoicing in him may serve him with both hands earnestly, knowing no joy but in his approbation, and expecting no heaven that is not involved in his blessing. Few and evil are our days upon the earth: our days are as a post or as a weaver's shuttle flying to and fro; we are driven before the wind; we are consumed by the moth; all things press against us destructively. Yet have we hope that cannot be extinguished confidence in immortality: if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens; now we see beyond the night-line: now the cloud is but a door which will presently open, and through the opening gloom we shall see the ineffable glory of heaven. We have learned all this in Jesus Christ thy Son; he is our Teacher and our proof; we witness to him: we have sat beside him and heard the gracious words which proceed out of his mouth, and our souls are glad; we have entered into a great inheritance: we are rich in faith: we can be poor no more; we shall see our Redeemer face to face, and bless him even for the trials of the road. Keep us steadfast in the love of the truth: may we abide in the Vine and bring forth much fruit; may our love be in Christ and for Christ and towards Christ a bloom for ever seeking the sun. For all thy care we bless thee; for the guiding of thine eye we magnify thee. We owe all we are and have to thee: by the grace of God we are what we are. Hear our hallelujah; receive the hosanna of our grateful hearts; and help us to live all our prayers. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Deuteronomy 29". The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the First Week of Advent