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"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"One plague more." Exodus 11:1 .
God always teaches by repetition. One plague might have been forgotten, and another and another might have gone into oblivion. God must so assail our lives that we can never forget the tremendous onslaught. God has to work a memory of recompense and judgment in the life of men. Nothing so easy to forget as judgment when it is overpast. So God works with repetition and severity of scourge, so that often when the pain has departed the mark of the chastisement may remain. God can always send one plague more. The worst has never come. Jesus Christ said: Go thy way and sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee! God has never dealt this heaviest stroke; the most terrible of his scourges has yet to be inflicted. God is a consuming fire; not only a thread of fire, or a string of flame, or a spark of heat, but a fire that can destroy both body and soul. All these plagues show the greatness of the sinner as well as the resources of God. God does not deal thus with beasts. It is worth while saving man even by judgment. God will spare nothing that can be turned in the direction of reclaiming and restoring his lost image. We see as much what estimate God sets upon the value of human nature by the fear which he excites as by the hope which he inspires.
The Plagues of Egypt
The river was turned into blood, frogs came up upon the land of Egypt abundantly, and lice and flies; beasts were destroyed, locusts covered the whole land; darkness that might be felt filled the earth, and in one awful night the firstborn died, "from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts." And in that night of agony there "was a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt, such as there was none like it, nor shall be like any more." Some things can only be done once; some things do not permit repetition. The magicians of Egypt could do, apparently at least, or in some measure, what Moses and Aaron did in the way of miracles: they were skilled men, abundantly clever in conjuring and all manner of dexterity. The Lord seemed to take delight in developing their power so far as it would go: but there came a time when it broke down. Do not suppose that the whole race can be run by any competitor of God. For a mile you might outrun the wind, but the wind will conquer you: for a mile you might run faster than the lightning locomotive, but only for a little time. There came a day, we read, when "the magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils; for the boil was upon the magicians, and upon all the Egyptians." When the sting was in themselves they felt themselves to be but men.
Let us look at these plagues from Pharaoh's side and from the Divine side, and learn the modern and immediate uses of these tremendous judgments.
There is a period in life when we can only see sin in the light of its punishments, that, indeed, is not to see sin at all, but that is the chronic sophism with which all high spiritual teaching has to contend, and to contend almost impotently, because of the deceitfulness of the heart. When we are in the right mind we shall not need to see hell in order to know what sin really is: we shall know it afar off, before it has shaped itself into overt evil behaviour. We should hate it as a spiritual possibility, if no stain had ever been made upon the snow of the universe. We should be so quick of spiritual imagination as to know what the sin would be not a measurable taint to be reckoned up and named in plain inches. We should feel so sympathetically with the spirit and holiness of God as to see how one, so-called, little lie would darken creation and put out the very lamps of heaven and make it impossible for God to live. How far from that state are we? We have become so familiar with sin as to have broken it up into the plural number, and now we speak of sin as sins, and, once having given way to the pluralising of the word, we have missed all its gravity and all its terribleness. To speak in the plural number is to bring sin within the region of statistics. We now classify sin, distributing it into schedules and publishing what is done in separate lines; and thus we come to construct a comparative morality. When we see the punishment of sin, we think we see what sin itself really is. We must rid the mind of that most mischievous misconception. We do not see sin from any penalty that has yet fallen upon it When Adam died, we did not see what Adam had really done. He had made the universe impossible; he had taken away for ever the happiness of God; he had made heaven an impossibility unless there could be found in the Divine nature itself some answer profound enough, beneficent enough, to undo in some mysterious and wordless way the tremendous and infinite catastrophe. No wonder we take light and frivolous views of human conduct, when we have turned sin into sins, because that is the first step of a process which means a comparison of one sin with another: the weighing of one sin against another, and the distribution of sins into venial and mortal. These are the clevernesses of men, the refinements of human deceit, not permissions which have been granted by any charter Divine, thus to trifle with law and consequence. Many would be struck by the plague who would not be impressed by the hardness of heart which it was intended to chasten, hence you will hear more criticism about the miracle of the plague, than about the infinitely greater miracle of human obduracy. We miss the point: we wonder about the river turned into blood, and wonder not about the heart turned into stone.
Immediately following this line of remark comes the solemn doctrine that suffering is often mistaken for penitence. The two things go inseparably together. When we think of punishment instead of thinking of sin, we are very likely to think that suffering is the equivalent of contrition. We say "the poor man seemed to be suffering intensely." So he may have been; but there may have been no contrition in his heart. It was a physical or mechanical suffering, not a moral pain; a spiritual agony, a revulsion of the soul against the terribleness of sin. Such ideas, perhaps, never occurred to the offender, but when the darkness turns creation into night, when he goes out for water, and is forced to drink blood, when he cannot put down his foot because of the abundance of the insects which cover the ground, then he begins to whimper, and to cry, and to say that things are going hard with him; and when we see him with bent head and eyes all tears, we say pensively "the poor creature did seem to be suffering so much." So he was; but the suffering was in the wrong place. He cried out because of fear; he cried because he was a coward, not because he was a sinner. A man has done something in society which he ought not to have done: he is brought before the judge and condemned to imprisonment and servitude. The circumstances being wholly unfamiliar, the man is cowed by them, the days are long, the nights are burdens, the whole time is charged with intensest suffering; so the man breaks down and is sorry for what he has done. That is a mistake. No man can be made sorry by punishment, except in the narrowest and most trifling degree. We do not begin to be sorry until we feel that one false word, one wrong deed, has spoiled the universe, and grieved the Spirit of the living God, no matter what the weight is upon our heads, or the laceration upon our backs no matter how we are overwhelmed by mere Buffering. We must distinguish between the coward and the sinner, the sinner that cries out and the soul that would repeat the offence if the punishment could be escaped. Until we get down to these vital lines we never can begin our first lesson in gospel theology. How easy it is to mistake mercy for weakness! This was Pharaoh's mistake. The moment the Lord lifted his heavy hand from the Egyptian king, Pharaoh began to forget his oath, and vow, and promise, and to harden his heart, saying, in effect, "He can do no more; the God of the Israelites has exhausted himself; now that he has removed his hand he has confessed his weakness rather than demonstrated his pity." We are committing the same mistake every day: whilst the plague is in the house we are ready to do anything to get rid of it! we will say prayers morning, noon and night, and send for the holy man who has been anointed as God's minister, and will read nothing but solid and most impressive books, listen to no frivolous conversation, and touch nothing that could dissipate or enfeeble the mind. How long will the plague be removed before the elasticity will return to the man and the old self reassert its sovereignty? Not a day need pass. We begin to feel that the worst is past: we say it is darkest before it is dawn, "hope springs eternal in the human breast"; and so easily do we fall back into the old swing between self-indulgence and nominal homage to God. We think we have felt all the Lord can do, and we say, "His sword is no longer; it cannot reach us now that we have removed away this little distance from its range; now and here we may do what we please, and judgment cannot fall upon us." Thus we play old Pharaoh's part day by day. He is a mirror in which we may see ourselves. There is nothing mysterious in this part of the solemn reading. However we may endeavour to escape from the line when it becomes supernatural or romantic, we are brought swiftly and surely back to it when we see these repetitions of obduracy and these renewed challenges of Divine anger and judgment.
How wonderful, too, does self-interest extinguish the sense of justice! Pharaoh will not let Israel go. He is turning away so much property, he is giving up so many opportunities of enhancing his royal dignity, or his imperial wealth. He will let them go; then he will not; he will relax his grasp a little; then he will tighten it, and make it doubly sure. What is it that is in the man, thus making him halt, hesitate, and balance himself as between duty and not duty? It is the fiend that still reigns in human thought its name is Self-interest, or Self-consideration that will make any man, king or peasant, a thief; in fact, wherever it exists it is of necessity thievish. Self-interest never considers another man's rights. It rises early in the morning to outwit that other man; when he turns round it will encroach upon his rights if it can. It will bend in the attitude of homage and prayer, and all the time be using that posture for the promotion of its own purposes. This illustration need not take us back to ancient Egypt. We know it, we represent it, we attest it by every oath possible to earnestness. We assure ourselves of the evil sovereignty of this principle of self-interest. It is in every one of us; it cannot be got out of us here and now. Whether it must be burned out of us by fire, drained out of us by blood, are questions we may ask: but it will never be argued away. Eloquence will spend its persuasion in vain upon it, and music will lull it to that kind of sleep which will but recruit its strength.
Looking at the Divine side of these plagues we notice the variety of the Divine resources. What we have here are mere examples of what might have been. God has but to look, and the miracle is done. His chariots are twenty thousand. He can touch us at countless points. The same variety is seen to-day. We are afflicted in innumerable ways. Every man has his own peculiar plague. There may be a common likeness amongst the plagues, but every man has his own accent of sorrow, his own particular point where things beat upon him as a blow might beat with cruel repercussion upon a wound. Why throw all these plagues away from us, as teachers and counsellors, because in their little narrowness they are said to have occurred thousands of years ago? They are occurring to-day; they are occurring in our houses, or in the secrecy of our hearts. Many a man is drinking blood when he seems to be drinking water. Many a man has countless plagues of frogs, or lice, or flies, within his soul, stinging him, annoying him, hampering him; keeping him back from the way which he would pursue. Horrible times his soul has by itself, nights of darkness that may be felt; losses compared with which the loss of the firstborn is but a gain. If we dwell upon the mere letter, we shall begin to ask questions of curiosity, and wonder how this could be, or that could be; but, looking at the broad solemnity of the case, human life is now attesting the variety of the Divine justice, the infinity of the penalties of God.
We here see how necessary it was for God to reveal the heart to itself. That is one of the mysteries of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Men would never have known that they could have murdered God, if Christ had not been born into the world. Prophets they killed by the score. Angelic men of radiant face and eloquent tongue they had banished without compunction; and last of all, God said "I will send my Son." The treatment of the Son of God revealed the human heart to itself. We do not know what we are unless we look at what is done, not by ourselves only, but by the sum-total of humanity. But who can preach with discrimination severe and just enough on this appalling theme? No man can separate himself from the race and claim to be a little whiter in morality than some other man. That is self-interest again; that is the self-element asserting itself over the generic and total quantity called human nature. When a man committed murder, you committed it. There is a narrow sense in which that is not true, but if you could see yourself in all the possibilities of yourself, you would see that you committed the awful crime. It is necessary that we should shudder at it; it is even necessary that we should punish it; but in doing so we should not forget to ask ourselves the solemn question: were we in the same circumstances, what should we have done? We are not made of different clay, of different sorts of flesh and blood: "God hath made of one blood, all nations of men." That being the case, there is but one heart, one human nature, and in the profoundest conception of this mystery we must look to what has been done by the whole race, if we would know what it is possible to the purest and whitest soul amongst us to do. Be afraid of any criticism that would withdraw you from these broader contemplations, and fix your attention strongly upon little moralities, and cherished virtues, which you set up in protest against being numbered with the totality of mankind.
Here we see the uselessness of punishment. If punishment could have saved the world, Christ need never have come. The world had been drowned, and yet it came up with a bolder hand to repeat its boldest iniquities. Cities had been burned, yet the sulphur had hardly emitted its last fume before the sinner returned to play the devil again. We speak of the reality of these plagues, the reality of the Divine judgments; we begin to wonder whether such and such things did really happen. What do you mean by really? What, is reality? It would be impossible for me to believe that the plagues ever took place in Egypt after this fashion and on this scale, if I had not a witness in my own heart and life that it was quite possible for them so to be manifested and realised. What a man sees in delirium tremens is real. It is the only reality. The sober, cool mind could never see these things; it is only the mind in a given condition of wreck and debasement that can grasp these awful realities. When the suffering man sees the curtain removed and grim death looking at him, it is real. Tell him that it is some phantom of the brain; reason with him about it, and he tells you he saw it, and your reasoning is like sprinkling water upon Etna or Vesuvius, when the mountain is ablaze. When the delirious brain sees the whole bed become a nest of intertangled serpents with gleaming eyes and darting fangs and approaching cruelty, it is real. Nothing ever can upon earth be so real. After that, facts become dramatic incidents, and things that can be touched, seen with the bodily eyes, are but theatrical commonplaces. We see with the inner eyes; we see with the soul's vision. In some moments God connects us with the eternities, and if we shrink back from them, he is the false teacher who tells us that our experiences are not real. The man who speaks so is a narrow teacher; he is limited within arbitrary lines; he does not touch the agony and the Divinity of things.
So, allowing all that may be called romantic, supernatural, to fall off from this story of the plagues, there remains all that God wanted to remain three things: first, the assertion of the Divine right in life. God cannot be turned out of his own creation: he must assert his claim, and urge it, and redeem it. The second thing that remains is the incontestable fact of human opposition to Divine voices. Divine voices call to right, to purity, to nobleness, to love, to brotherhood; and every day we resist these voices, and assert rebellious claims. The third thing that remains is the inevitable issue. We cannot fight God and win. "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." Why smite with feeble fist the infinite granite of the infinite strength? who will lose? The certain result will be the overthrow of the sinner: the drowning of every Pharaoh who hardens himself against the Divine will and voice. Stripped, therefore, of everything of the nature of romance if you will import that word into criticism so solemn there remains the threefold fact that God has rights amongst us; that man resists those rights; that the battle comes, and the battle ends in but one way "The Lord reigneth."
Now that I come to think of it, have not all these plagues followed my own obstinacy and hardness of heart in relation to things Divine? We speak of the plagues of Egypt as though they began and ended in that distant land, and we regard them now as part of an exciting historical romance. I will think otherwise of them. The local incident and the local colour may be dispensed with, but the supreme fact in my own consciousness is that God always follows my obstinacy with plagues. The plagues he can indeed vary, because his understanding is infinite and his resources are without bound. What is the meaning of the sleeplessness which has turned night into a longer day? What is the true interpretation of the diseases which have enfeebled my bodily strength? What is the meaning of the graves which I have dug one after another for the burial of wife, and child, and friend? What is the interpretation of every loss which has befallen my possessions? It is easy to call all these things by ordinary names and reckon them as part of the common lot of man, and so miss all their meaning and all their sacred pith. It is better for my soul's health that I should regard all these circumstances as having a distinct religious application. I need not amaze my judgment or bewilder my conscience by inventing new romantic names or starting new casuistical difficulties. It will sober and elevate me to regard all the visitations which have caused my life its keenest pains as ministries originated and directed by Heaven's beneficent wisdom. By consideration of the case in suitable temper I am able to drive away the plague which has been a burden to my life. Even now I may pray unto the Lord, and seek deliverance from the dangers which threaten my life on every hand. Dangers are rightly used when they move us to bolder prayer; losses are turned into gains when they lift our lives in an upward direction; disease is the beginning of health when it leads the sufferer to the Father's house. Pharaoh had his plagues, many and awful; and every life has its penal or chastening visitations which for the present are full of agony and bitterness, but which may be so used as to become the beginning of new liberties and brighter joys.
"We remained two months at Khartoum. During this time we were subjected to intense heat and constant dust-storms, attended with a general plague of boils. Verily, the plagues of Egypt remain to this day in the Soudan. On the 26th June (1865) we had the most extraordinary dust-storm that had ever been seen by the inhabitants. I was sitting in the courtyard of my agent's house at about half-past four p.m.; there was no wind, and the sun was as bright as usual in this cloudless sky, when suddenly a gloom was cast over all, a dull yellow glare pervaded the atmosphere. Knowing that this effect portended a dust-storm, and that the present calm would be followed by a hurricane of wind, I rose to go home, intending to secure the shutters. Hardly had I risen when I saw approaching, from the south-west apparently, a solid range of immense brown mountains, high in air. So rapid was the passage of this extraordinary phenomenon, that in a few minutes we were in actual pitchy darkness. At first there was no wind, and the peculiar calm gave an oppressive character to the event. We were in a 'darkness that might be felt. Suddenly the wind arrived, but not with the violence that I had expected There were two persons with me, Michael Latfalla, my agent, and Monsieur Lombrosio. So intense was the darkness, that we tried to distinguish our hands placed close before our eyes; not even an outline could be seen. This lasted for upwards of twenty minutes: it then rapidly passed away, and the sun shone as before; but we had fell the darkness that Moses had inflicted upon the Egyptians." Sir S. Baker.
1. And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying,
2. This month (the Hebrews had formerly begun the year at or near the autumnal equinox. The Egyptians began the year in June; the Babylonians at the vernal equinox) shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.
3. Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month (thus allowing ample time for the examination of the animal) they shall take to them every man a lamb (all Israelites are supposed to possess a lamb, or to be able to purchase one), according to the house of their fathers (rather, for the house of their fathers), a lamb for an house;
4. And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb (ten was the least number regarded as sufficient; twenty not considered too many).
5. Your lamb shall be without blemish (the teaching of natural piety); a male of the first year (that is, not above a year old); ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats:
6. And ye shall keep it up (separate it from the flock and have it in special custody for four days) until the fourteenth day of the same month (the day of the full moon); and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening.
7. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it (with a bunch of hyssop, a plant supposed to have purifying properties) on the two side posts and on the upper door post (the latticed window above the door) of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.
8. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs (signifying the putting away of all defilement and corruption) they shall eat it.
9. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance (inside) thereof.
10. And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning (thus avoiding both profanation and superstition); and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire.
11. And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord's passover (the word is here used for the first time).
12. For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt, I will execute judgment: I am the Lord ( Jehovah ).
13. And the blood shall be to you for a token (a token to me on your behalf) upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.
14. And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever (the Passover is continued in the Eucharist).
15. Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses (leaven was typical of corruption): for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel.
16. And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation (a general gathering of the people to the door of the sanctuary for sacrifice, worship, and perhaps instruction), and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only may be done of you.
17. And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt: therefore shall ye observe this day in your generations by an ordinance for ever.
18. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even (the even on which the fourteenth day closed), ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.
19. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses: for whosoever eateth that which is leavened, even that soul shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he be a stranger (a foreigner in blood), or born in the land (of Canaan).
20. Ye shall eat nothing leavened; in all your habitations shall ye eat unleavened bread.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 11". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30