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Moses In the Mount
This account would seem to be supernatural and miraculous. What is supernatural? What is miraculous? We are fond of using these great words, but it is one thing to employ them and another rightly to measure and apply their meaning. What is miraculous to one man is commonplace to another. We should not be astounded by the miracles if we had correlative faith. The surprise of the disciples at the miracles did not throw any doubt upon the miracles themselves, but showed only too plainly the want of faith on the part of the observers. "How is it," said the Master, "that ye have no faith?" If we had faith there would be no miracles in the present narrow conception of that term; all our course would be lifted to a new level. Our wonder is the measure of our ignorance; our scepticism expresses the lack in our hearts of that wondrous power of interpretation and assimilation which is known by the name of faith. What is supernatural? and to whom is it supernatural? What is the standard? By what scales do you weigh things? We do not all stand upon one mental level. We must, therefore, go into individuality of heart, mind, attribute, and general condition, before we can understand the particular uses of so marvellous a term. What is supernatural to one man would seem to be the natural climate of another man's soul. When we read the large words of advanced philosophy, when these words are brought under the attention of a great variety of persons, to some they will appear to be almost supernatural. They are so odd, so wholly unknown; they bear upon their faces lineaments not strange only but almost repellent; their image awakens no recognition in the consciousness of the reader; they are words that might be dismissed without the consciousness of loss. But to another kind of reader the words are friends, the longest of them is short, the most out-of-the-way term is a well-known companion in many a long day and night's study. So when we come upon incidents in the Scriptures which appear to be uncommon to a degree involving what is generally known as the supernatural and the miraculous, we ought to find out the quality of the reader before we determine the quality of that which is read. All men do not read the Bible with the same eyes. Some men can read the Bible through at one perusal: they eat and drink abundantly at God's table, and the festival never sates the appetite, but rather whets it and makes it long for further revelation and satisfaction. Other men cannot read the Bible at all. The very first verse is a gate they cannot open: they are puzzled, bewildered, discouraged: in them is no answering spirit; when the Bible and they meet, a process of indignation seems to be instantly set up. Beware, therefore, of the indiscriminate and lavish use of such terms as supernatural, miraculous, transcendental, and fall back upon the mystery of your own constitution as explaining a good many of the difficulties which rise like mountains in your way. If ye had faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye would say to these mountains "Begone!" and they would vanish, like mist in the dissolving sun. But we must, in the spirit of decency and justice, protest against a man bringing his no-faith as the standard and measure of Divine revelation. The more spiritual we are, the less we shall be affrighted by the supernatural; the more carnal we are loving the dust and living in it the more we shall be alarmed by what is termed the miraculous element in the Bible. Sometimes by our criticism we rebuke ourselves it may be unconsciously, but not the less severely. It is the reader who has fallen from the upper level; the Divine revelation has never lost its line. Suppose we regard this marvellous incident as setting forth the possibility and blessedness of rapturous communion with God, we lose nothing of the moral grandeur and scenic majesty of the occasion. Even as a historical record it may only transcend reason as poetry transcends arithmetic. If you take away the poetry of life, you take away the vowels from the alphabet. What is left when you have taken away the few from the many, the speakers from the dumb? You have a cluster of consonants, but no language. The consonants are dumb, the consonants cannot utter a tone, the consonants wait until the vowels breathe into them the breath of life. It is the same with the Bible and the spiritual element. It is no Bible when the supernatural element, so called, is removed. Take out the spiritual, and the Bible is but a framework of consonants; insert the spiritual, and the Bible becomes a revelation. Many of us are waiting for the vowels. We feel as if we had something to say, but could only set the lips in a certain attitude, but utter no articulate speech. We have much because the consonants are more in number than the vowels. We have thought that bulk was wealth; we have said that it is more important to have many than to have few. Therein we have made a foolish speech. We must have both consonants and vowels if we are to have language, song, true music. So the spiritual or miraculous element plays the part of the vowels in this wondrous Book of God.
But Moses was called to solitary vision and communion of a spiritual kind. So he was. We need not stumble at that. "Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders" were not called to the same summit as Moses. Quite true. This is happening every day. The peaks of the mountain are less populated than the base. We must not deny the mountain because we have never climbed it. More persons have admired the Matterhorn than have stood upon its pinnacles. It is always the one man who sees first, hears most clearly, and is gifted with special utterance. It is so in all departments and ranges of life. Each of us has some prince who leads our thought ay, and who gives speech to our heart's dumb desire. The hireling waits for the clock; the poet longs for the dawn. Dawn! what language is that? Not a hireling's. Say "bell," say "clock," "hour," and you speak the hireling's measurable terms. But what is the "dawn"? Who made that sweet, liquid, tender word, without one line of hardness in it, requiring a woman's softness of heart and speech to utter it as it ought to be spoken? Many a man has risen in the morning who has never seen the dawn. Others have gone up into the dawn, and have seen much and pledged the soul in many a holy oath and covenant before coming down into the marketplace to do life's rough day's work. The prophet is always alone. You cannot pluralise him. When he is near you, he is not one of you. The prophet is always mad. When a man is solitary in scientific investigation, when he is far ahead of "Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders," we call him a philosopher; when the daring traveller goes out alone over sea and land and finds a river, a hill, a village, a colony, that no man of his country or speech ever saw before, we call him a discoverer; when a man ascends the hills of religious contemplation and communion and is shut up with God forty days and forty nights, not knowing the pain of hunger or the silence of solitude, we call him an enthusiast, a fanatic, a dreamer. Thus we distribute our tinsel honours! There will be a better judgment some day, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. He will be most philosopher who has prayed most, most a discoverer who has brought to bear upon the inspired record the keenest insight and quickest sympathy; he shall be a prince who has had power with God. We must not judge the acquisitions of others by the meanness of our own spiritual results. Do not blame Moses for the rapture, let us blame ourselves for the want of it.
We need not stumble even at the tenth verse, which reads thus: "And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness." The soul has eyes. There are hours not related to the clock; there are birthdays for which the calendar provides no line of registry. How natural is this endeavour to make the conception plain by a visible picture, and how visible pictures are lifted up to new meanings and clothed with new solemnities by such sacred uses. There have been times, even in our cold experience, when nature has had to be called in to help the expression of the soul's delight. We too have made comparisons; we too have been inventors of parables, sometimes roughly outlined, but still having jewels in their meaning, even "sapphire stones "and the "body of heaven." We have compared our supreme love to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariot; we have chosen the apple-tree amongst the trees of the wood, and have said that best images our soul's one Love, and he in his turn looking round has seen a lily among the thorns and said, "That sweet lily represents my chosen one." Every heart has its own image, or parable, or symbol, by which it sets forth to itself the best aspect of its supreme delight. When we want to represent God, and our view of him, how naturally we turn to the heavens. No earthly object will suffice. There burns in us a sacred contempt for all things measurable. We want all the broad brilliance of noonday, all the tender glory of the midnight, all the pomp of the summer sky. There is verily a natural religion; it is a poor deity that can be set forth in clay, and iron, and carved stone. Find any race that has lifted up its religious conceptions so as to require for their imaging all heaven, and surely you have found a race that may at any moment alight upon the true God. What Ezekiel saw was as the appearance of the likeness of a throne. John said that the face he saw was like a jasper and a sardine stone, and the rainbow which gave tenderness to the throne was in sight like unto an emerald. When Jesus was transfigured, his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. Do not take these as equivalents, but as hints, some idea of the majesty which must have beamed upon the eyes of worship as they gazed with religious awe upon sights for which there is no language. It does us good to be wrought into passions which transcend all adequate speech, yes, it does the soul good to pray itself into silence. We may have clear vision of God to such an extent as to have every word taken away from our use and be left dumb in the eloquence of silence.
Nor need we stumble at the twelfth verse, where the law is promised and where the written commandments were given. When we are most religious we are most inclined to proclaim the law. It is a poor rapture that does not come down upon legislation with a new force, a firmer grip, and a deeper conception of its moral solemnity. Know whether you have been with God upon the mount by knowing how much law you have brought back with you; and when you would read the law, read it after you have been long days and nights with the Lawgiver. Then there will be no harshness in the tone, nothing terrific, repellent, unsympathetic, but the laws, the commandments, the stern words will be uttered with a suppressed power equal to tenderness, with an awe equivalent to an interpretation, with a quiet solemnity that will have in it none of the sophism or violence of threatening. The commandments have not been rightly read: they have been pronounced in a judicial tone. How much better to speak them in tender whispers. Thou shalt not have any God before the true Jehovah, I have seen him. Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother, for God is both, and I have been a long time with the Father and have studied and felt his motherliness. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not kill. All these things grieve him, are opposed to him excite not the petty anger of vindictiveness but the ineffable grief of wounded holiness. Thou shalt not thou must not In the name of righteousness, holiness, tenderness, beauty, harmony, music, truth, do not on the one hand, and do on the other.
Moses was absorbed in holy vision. The visible is not always the most real may we say that the visible is sometimes not real at all? We must be in certain mental moods before we can understand that speech. People speak about believing their eyes. I know not of less credible witnesses than our eyes! Discredit them and distrust them at once. You will be duped by many a sophism if you trust to your eye for sight. The eyes are within faculties spiritual, themselves unseen but always seeing. We ourselves have been so transported with sacred rapture or have been so absorbed in deep thought as not to have known where we were, by what circumstances we were environed. Speak of environment! it has a thousand times been burst asunder or transcended by consciousness for which there is no adequate name. These give us hints of the sublime future of disembodiment We shall be clothed upon with our house from heaven. The leaden flesh that keeps us tethered to one place shall go back to the dust whence it came, and the spirit-winged fire shall go back to the God who gave it. We shall not always be slaves, or prisoners, bound to particular places and fastened down by particular chains.
These absorptions, raptures, supernatural communions, if you so please to term them, give us hints of jubilee, festival, immortality. Do not dissipate their meaning by a superficial criticism of the letter, but magnify and glorify their meaning by giving to them all the sympathy and adoration of the spirit From the level of every life there is a way up to the mount of God.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 24". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29