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The Method of Providence
We must never forget that all these instructions were given in a mountain and were to be carried out in a wilderness. These circumstances turn their execution into a Divine miracle. In the interpretation of the sacred record, bear in mind the circumstances. If you lose sight of the wilderness, you will not see the tabernacle; yea, though its glory a tender glory of beauty may gleam upon you and excite your imagination. If you detach the tabernacle from the sandy and dreary wilderness, you will fail to see all the mystery of light. The things belong to one another for instructive purposes. We do not let God have a fair place for building. We have turned the whole earth into wilderness, so that if he would build at all he must build under circumstances which act as a definite foil to every touch of beauty and every line of light Yet God will build in the wilderness as if it were a heaven. He will not be discouraged by the stones, the sands, the bleak surroundings. We could not work under such conditions; we should complain of the environment, asking with bitterness of tone, "Who can work in a place so dreary? and what is the reward for putting up in the wilderness a thing fit for the streets of the golden Jerusalem?" God builds everything with an eye to beauty. When he rounded off the earth and sent it flying in its appointed circuit, he blessed the little thing as a man might bless his child, and said with infinite pathos, "It is very good." Now that he comes to build upon it, we have spoiled it altogether, and if he were less than God he could not lay one stone upon another on a foundation so debased and spoiled as is now the earth under our devastating and unsparing hand. Behold, as otherwhere and everywhere, the tender goodness of God! He lets down his best things upon the earth as if it were a fit receiving-house, "He spared not his own Son." Having sent down law and priesthood, tabernacle, and ark, and prophet, and a long line of angel-visitants with messages struck in every key of eloquence, last of all he sent his Son. So there must be something in this little night-world we have never seen; there must be in the substance of things verily a mystery which, whilst it is acknowledged by philosophy, is known and esteemed infinitely by its Creator. The philosophers are quite right when they cannot see in what they term "phenomena" any reason for the wondrous revelation of Christ as the heart and image of God. There is nothing in phenomena worthy of the Cross, or fully explanatory of it; but God sees the heart of things, the innermost enfoldment, the sanctum sanctorum , that entity, that pulse, which is hidden from every created eye. Instead, therefore, of finding the revelation of the Gospel to be in excess of the phenomena, I will go further and say that God must find his own balance; he must put in the one scale what is equal to the other, and doing so, he does not degrade himself he lifts up the work of his hands and the purpose of his heart.
God would have everything built beautifully. What an image of beauty have we seen this tabernacle to be through and through, flushed with colours we have never seen, and bright with lights that could not show themselves fully in the murkiness of this air! He would make us more beautiful than our dwelling-place. He would not have the house more valuable than the tenant. He did not mean the worshipper to be less than the tabernacle which he set up for worship. Are we living the beautiful life the life solemn with sweet harmonies, broad in its generous purpose, noble in the sublimity of its prayer, like God in the perpetual sacrifice of its life? To answer such questions in the affirmative, or in any tone hinting positiveness, is to be building a life which will outshine the tabernacle, though it were outlined by the very finger of God.
Not only will God build everything beautifully; his purpose is to have everything built for religious uses. He will not have mere beauty of form, for in the creation of form he may perpetrate an irony that would distress his own heart. His meaning is that the form shall help the thought, that images appealing to the eye shall also touch the imagination and graciously affect the whole spirit, and subdue into tender obedience and worship the soul and heart of man. What can be more ironical and therefore to the spiritual mind more distressful than for the stone church to be more beautiful than the living temple? an organ out-singing the human voice? some spectacle appealing to the fleshly eye grander than the invisible revelation, seeking the attention of the inward vision of the soul? We are the worse for the beauty that is round about us if not the better. We cannot live under beautiful environments and circumstances without being debased by them, except we rise to their appeal and put all meaner things under our feet. It is a sad thing to become familiar with beauty, so familiar with it as not really to see its charm. It is an awful thing to have heard the Gospel so often as to feel weary under the appeal of its gracious thunder or its melting tenderness. We must watch our senses: they will victimise us if we do not; we shall be brought into a state of contemptuousness where we ought to be in a condition of worship. God, then, docs not build for mere beauty of form: he always seeks to help the worshipper. He builds altars. Whatever he touches he sanctifies. How possible it is to be living amongst beauty of landscape, of art, and beauty of every imaginable kind, and yet for the soul to sink into unresponsiveness, not seeing "sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, good in everything." That is irony; that is the contradiction which makes fools of men, a depth below even moral degradation, for in moral degradation there may yet remain a kind of intellectual flicker, a species of intellectual majesty; but in the other condition the whole nature is depleted, debased, diabolised. God does not build for the gratification of taste, otherwise he would subserve the interests of mere vanity. There are some who are still worshippers of the goddess they call Taste. Be it that a thing is in what they call taste, and they are satisfied. They will not ask whether the child is living or dead, if the form is preserved in beauty of outline. Taste has its right place.
The tabernacle as a work of art is never to be held in contempt; but we miss its meaning; all its Divine poetry is lost upon us, so long as we can merely admire it. To admire under such circumstances is to insult. The true admiration is worship; the true applause is forgetfulness of the thing itself, complete absorption in the thought it can but dimly express. When our souls are on fire, when our blood is aflame with the true zeal, our senses will be ordered back that our spirit may go forward and turn the wilderness into heaven and common bread into a type of the Lord's body.
God will not have the building put up as an expression of mere sentiment: otherwise, he would be assisting the cause of idolatry. Nothing will satisfy him but a recognition of the supreme purpose. What is the tabernacle for? for worship. What is the meaning of it? it is a gate opening upon heaven. Why was it set up? to lift us nearer God. If we fail to seize these purposes, if we fail of magnifying and glorifying them so as to ennoble our own life in the process, we have never seen the tabernacle. We have seen the thing which an artificer might have made a toy fit for a bazaar, but not the Church of God, the holy place, the Divine tabernacle let down amongst the dwellings of men. Herein is it for ever true that we may have a Bible but no revelation; a sermon but no Gospel; we may be in the church, yet not in the sanctuary; we may admire beauty, and yet live the life of the drunkard and the debauchee.
In all his building and God is always building he qualifies every man for a particular work in connection with the edifice. Verily, God leaves nothing to Moses! When Moses goes down from this mountain, he will go as an errand-bearer, a messenger; he will simply go to carry out instructions. Nothing has been left to his own invention; he will represent God. That is the true picture of all things. We have nothing to say, if we are true teachers, but what we have been told to say. God will tell every man the message which he wishes to have repeated, and every man will tell it in his own voice and in his own individuality of tone; but the message is God's, or it is not a message at all. No man has any right, in this kind of work, to address any other man except that right is founded upon his inspiration. There is no impertinence more intolerable than for any man to stand up and tell his fellow-men to be good, to repent, if so be he is delivering something which he attributes to the heat and zeal of his own imagination. The culmination of impertinence is in what is called the pulpit if any man shall stand up, and of his own morality tell other men to repent. The utterance must be Divine! it cannot be tolerated in the man, for we are so constituted that human nature would charge upon the man his own action as a contradiction of his speech, and would order him out to reconcile himself with himself before he found fault with the policy of the world. But when the preacher knows that he is preaching to himself, that he is putting into human utterance what he believes to be a Divine message, then though his life be before him as a mocking contradiction, calling him liar when he prays, and hypocrite when he preaches, he knows that he has not gone a warfare at his own charges, and that he is but the medium on which the infinite thought breaks into human speech. Not that the man will rest content with this. Whilst part of his supreme comfort may come to him along such lines, it will ever be his careful business with an industry that knows no relaxation to make his life equal to his speech. The point is that no teacher Moses, Aaron, Isaiah, Paul must stand up of his own motion to tell men to be better. Every man must speak that appealing word as the result of Divine inspiration and constraint. God qualifies every man for the work which he has to do. Aaron was not Moses, Bezaleel was not Aaron. Each had his own place, his own mission, his own work; each was Divinely chosen. When Bezaleel lifted the chisel he was performing a Divine purpose as much so as was Aaron when he went forth with his garment distinguished by all colours of beauty and eloquent with the chime of golden bells. The one man wants the other man. The work stands still till that other man comes in. Moses, Aaron, and the sons of Aaron, and the seventy elders of Israel, are all standing still till the man with the chisel comes in; looking round upon their incomplete number, they say, "There is some man wanting." That is the true ideal of unity. Division of labour is necessary to the very bond of unity. Each man must feel that he is Divinely called and inspired to do a particular work, and he must feel that the Church cannot move in its completeness until he is in it. Then the shepherd shall be as the king, the nurse shall be almost a mother, the lighter of the lamp shall have a distinct position as if he were in the family of Aaron, and the humblest toiler in the vineyard will erect himself in the solemn eventide and bless God that he has had some share in the day's varied toil. Who has courage to read the following words aright, and to apply them to the practical history of mankind?
"And I have filled him (Bezaleel) with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship" ( Exo 31:3-5 ).
Who can read these words as they ought to be read? How it makes ministers of God by the thousand! We have thought that Aaron was a religious man because of his clothing and because of many peculiarities which separated him from other men; but the Lord distinctly claims the artificer as another kind of Aaron. He will undertake to show a man how to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting stones, and in carving timber, and in all manner of workmanship. Who divides life into sacred and profane? Who introduces the element of meanness into human occupation and service? God claims all things for himself. When he hears man speak and woman sing, he says perhaps with a father's pride (we use human terms to express human thoughts) "Who hath made man's mouth? Have not I, the Lord?" When he sees the sculptor making a rock into an image of Moses, may he not say, "Who hath made man's hand, and given movement to his fingers and wrist? Have not I, the Lord"? Who will say that the preacher is a religious man, but the artificer is a secular worker? Who will say that one man is inspired, and another man found out his own way for himself? If he found a low way, a mean or shallow way, a way without perspective, and suggestion, and apocalyptic outlook and issue, verily he found it out for himself. But let us claim all true workers as inspired men. We know that there is an inspired art. The world knows it; instinctively, unconsciously, the world uncovers before it.
There is an inspired poetry, make it of what measure you will. The great common heart knows it, says, "That is the true verse; how it rises, falls, plashes like a fountain, flows like a stream, breathes like a summer wind, speaks the thoughts we have long understood, but could never articulate!" The great human heart says, "That is the voice Divine; that is the appeal of Heaven." Why should we say that inspiration is not given to all true workers, whether in gold or in thought, whether in song or in prayer, whether in the type or in the magic eloquence of the burning tongue? Let us enlarge life, and enlarge Providence, rather than contract it, and not, whilst praying to a God in the heavens, have no God in the heart. You would work better if you realised that God is the Teacher of the fingers, and the Guide of the hand. All service would look tenderer to you, richer and larger, if you could say when it is done, "This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, who is wonderful and glorious in wisdom and in power." A new solemnity gathers around me as I think on these things. The universe is steadier. The whole temple is lifted up to higher grandeur. Nature becomes a sublime totality. Prayer is clothed with broader meaning. Labour is churched and glorified. Art turns its chiselled and flushed features towards its native heaven. Sin acquires a deadlier blackness, and begs to be hidden in some deepening hell. Through all cloud and noise, all rush and strife, God's great trumpet clears a way for the commandments which represent his righteousness, and for the statutes which are to become songs in the house of human pilgrimage. Realise the unity of things. See the structural completeness of the whole idea of the universe and of life. Verily, "the tabernacle of God is with men upon the earth," and from the weariest wilderness of sand there is a straight path to the city whose streets are gold.
The Tables of Testimony
Those two tables are two revelations; first, a revelation of man; and second, a revelation of God. In this light we may profitably read the commandments, gathering from them lessons and suggestions of the most far-reaching and useful kind. Given the Ten Commandments and all the other laws relating to them, and we can have no difficulty in finding out the quality of the life to which the commandments were addressed. The statute book of a people is, in one important sense, the history of a nation. He who reads our laws reads our lives. God has written upon these two tables the history, up to that time, of the human heart. Changing the figure, are not the two stones two mirrors, in which men may see what they have done? The commandments gather up the book of Genesis, and express it in terse lines. It would seem as if the book of Genesis ought to run straight up to the twentieth chapter of Exodus, that it might complete itself. Genesis may be described as covering an experimental period of time. Men were then without written law. Nature was, to a large extent, left to work out its own instinct and its own will. The Genesis which gives us physical beauty also gives us moral ruin. The book of Genesis cannot end in itself. God would not cut us off at the end of Genesis. He would by so doing seem to cut off his own sovereignty, his own purpose, his own fatherhood. After every one of the commandments not only the Ten Commandments, but all the other laws God could have given a living illustration of his meaning, quoted from the book of Genesis. The commandments are not abstractions, they are concrete instances; the commandments are not metaphysical moralities, they express the disasters and the catastrophes which have been accomplished in human life. For this reason, let it be repeated, the two tables of stone, written by the finger of God, constitute the Divine revelation of human nature. Let us familiarise ourselves with this idea, and feel its rational force.
" Thou shall have no other gods before me." What an extraordinary suggestion! How impossible from what the philosophers would call an a priori point of view! Such an idea would never enter the human mind! So we might imperfectly and vainly reason. We would not, indeed, credit the human imagination with audacity enough to attempt to create other gods. Human imagination would rather turn in some other direction would endeavour to flee away from the whole conception and discipline of the Divine idea, and constitute powers and realms altogether distant from the Divine throne. It required the Divine mind itself to see the possibility of this tremendous apostacy. Strange to say, the very first temptation that assailed mankind, so far as we are enlightened by the book of Genesis, was a temptation in this very direction. In effect it was: "Be gods yourselves; you have the fanciful notion that there is one God who has right of control over you, who may call you nightly to his bar, and audit the day's moral accounts; nothing can be more preposterous; eat of this lovely tree, and the film will fall from your eyes, and a new stature and sense of dignity will be given to the soul, and ye shall be as gods." The temptation was worthy of the man. We sometimes have tributes paid to our dignity from unexpected sources. To have tempted the man back into some anterior point in his development (assuming the theory of development to be true) might have been resented, but to tempt him to fall upwards was a temptation worthy of the subtlest of tempters, and worthy to be addressed to a child of the Divine creation. See, therefore, in the very first instance, how God could have quoted a concrete case in illustration of the opening commandment.
" Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image " for the purposes of worship. Again we say the idea is impossible. It does not fit into the structure of things with any sense of propriety. A man will never be so little of a man as to make an image and fall down before it. But in the book of Genesis you find images in plenty. This very thing which we now consider to be an impossibility has been a solemn and humiliating fact in the history of the first families of the race. Rachel knew where Laban's gods were, and she stole them. So wonderful a thing is human piety: when perverted it will even steal a god.
" Honour thy father and thy mother? Could a concrete instance be put after that commandment? We have seen that when Esau married into Canaanitish relations he did that which was "a grief of mind unto Isaac and to Rebekah." Parental feeling was ignored; parental rights were scorned; parental sympathies were violated and dishonoured.
" Thou shalt not kill" a metaphysical impossibility, but an actual fact. From the opening of the book of Genesis to the end, Cain has been, in himself or in his progeny, a dominating figure.
" Thou shalt not commit adultery." The book of Genesis contains more terrible statements about that crime than about any other, having in it chapters which no man may read aloud.
" Thou shalt not steal" If Esau has violated one of the commandments, and is quoted as a historical instance: Jacob has violated another, and may be set up in the gallery evermore.
Thus the commandments are not metaphysical subtleties; are not fanciful suppositions in the Divine mind; are not merely ethical theories; they are one by one expressions of what man himself has done. The Ten Commandments are not ten mysteries. The Ten Commandments do not show that virtue is divisible into ten problems; but they show that vice has discovered ten ways of breaking through the golden circle of obedience. We know the commandments. Were no names mentioned; were the two tables of stone trumpeted by an angel from the radiant cloud, we should say at once, "These words are known down here, they need no exposition; we ourselves are living illustrations of every one of them." This being the case, what a tremendous hold the Bible gets upon every man! It speaks to something in the man; it secures the consent of the conscience of every man. The inward witness does not say, "Such commandments presuppose impossibilities on the part of those to whom they are addressed"; the answer is, "We have broken these laws one by one; we have wanted other gods; we have thought that a carved image might serve instead of a living Judge; fathers and mothers we have killed as soldiers kill one another on the battlefield; we have killed, committed adultery, stolen, broken holy days, violated sacred places; the angel is not speaking through his great trumpet of thunder to populations a whole universe distant from us, he has studied our history, and he is addressing himself to our iniquities."
The commandments are also on the other side quite as distinctly revelations of God. Let us consider an inquiry to this effect: looking at the commandments, what should we infer as to the character of God? For the purposes of this study we are supposing that we have only the commandments as an indication of the moral quality of the Legislator. With the two tables of stone before us, written in a language we can understand, what should we say is the character of the Legislator? Do we not see a wonderful care for mankind? Is there not an undertone of affectionateness in all the majestic speech? Are there not some tears amid all this awful storm? Was not the tempest devised as an accompaniment to hide the grief? Now that we are more carefully learned in all the wisdom of the heavenly kingdom may we not. descry a broken heart where we once only thought of an indignant Jehovah? This is the true care for man to care for his character, to care for his soul, to be vigilant respecting all the finer elements and qualities of his nature. To dress the body may be but to perpetrate an irony. To care for the child's physical constitution may be but a cruel sin, but to care for his moral quality, for his temper, his instincts, his soul-forces; to devote attention to his mind, to his motives, to the very springs and first motions of his life that is care, a care, indeed, not inconsistent with solicitude regarding matters physical and circumstances of an outward kind; but this is seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To clothe the child, so far as it is possible, with the garment of a pure character; to make the young soul heroic in all purpose and endeavour; to lead the heart to the mystery of sacrifice, and to make the innermost tenant of the human being ashamed of sin, afraid of it, regarding it as hateful that is to show true care, true appreciation of human nature. This is what God does here. He is building up an interior heart. He is moulding an innermost life; as for clothing, decoration, circumstance, outward importance these are fading flowers. God cannot rest until he has made the heart right and purified the fountain of the life.
Can we fail to see a gracious condescension to the moral capacity of mankind? The Lord is pleased to speak of himself as a "jealous God." Does he mean that? Not as we mean it. This word has sometimes shocked us. It was not spoken to us. God has always spoken to the race in the language of its own day. This is the only speech that could have been understood at the time at which it was spoken. This explains many a difficulty in the earlier books of Scripture. Why persist in taking our modern education back to earlier barbarities? In this way we defraud ourselves of the richest teaching of history, and bring upon the mind a sense of confusion which interferes with the unity of worship and the completeness of sacrifice. You use to children words you will not use to them when they are fully grown men and women. You must avail yourselves of an emphasis which would be out of place in speech addressed to equals, or to those who have made considerable advance in intellectual culture. The Divine meaning could only have been expressed in the words which God used at the time. The word is not the meaning, the meaning is in the word; as the body is not the man, the man is in the body. History sheds off the body and reveals the spirit. This is the law of spiritual progress, and this is one of the innermost secrets of spiritual insight.
Can we once more fail to see how gradually men have been trained to moral pureness and dignity? The commandments are in a certain sense very rude words. They would be resented if addressed to us personally in some of their details. What man of this century, having passed through the process of Christian culture, could have addressed to him seriously the commandment, " Thou shalt not kill"? The man might be offended; he would suppose he was altogether unknown to the person who thus rudely addressed him, seeing that manslaughter or homicide never came within the imagination, which would have been debased or inflamed into delirium if it could have contemplated the shedding of human blood. We must begin the education of people where they themselves are. Education always goes down to the pupil, and thus lifts the pupil to its own level. It is one of the finest proofs of the gradual revelation of the Divine kingdom that from the first to the last the law pursues an ascending and widening line. How subtly the last commandment seems to link itself on to a higher kingdom. Is it not so in all development, that there is something of feature or nexus , something of subtle indication or fleshly possession, meaning that one kingdom has culminated, and another is just about to come down to earth? That nexus you do not find in " Thou shalt not kill" " Thou shalt not commit adultery" "Thou shalt not steal" These are what we should now term broad vulgarities; but the connecting link or tentacle, just hooking itself on to something almost invisible, is to be found in the last commandment, " Thou shalt not covet" That is the most spiritual word we have yet heard in all the commandments addressed to us in our social relations. The legislator is now giving us to understand that we have a spirit. He is about to prepare the way for some nobler kingdom, and truth, and thought, and relation. Thus by throwing new words into a language God prepares the way for new thoughts that are quickly to follow from heaven. God does not make great gaps which it is impossible either to leap or to bridge over; but by turning common language into uncommon uses, by striking points of departure, by the change of one hue of language, he prepares the way for the next higher kingdom, the next brighter revelation. Now that he has come so far as covetousness, he will, by-and-by, come right into the very centre of the heart and tell us that we are no longer in the infantile school, needing rude instruction about killing and stealing and other iniquities, but must have the heart cleansed, for out of the human heart proceed all those things which offend the heart of God.
Why go back to these old times? Because we want to be like those teachers who are worshipped for their comprehensiveness and their philosophical temper. The preacher can go back as well as the annalist. When a political historian spends days, and weeks, and months, in the Record Office and in the literary recesses of the British Museum, and then comes forth with his history, we call him a philosophical historian. When he enriches his pages with innumerable references to volumes we never heard of, giving page, chapter, section, and line, we call him a trust-worthy historian. When the social annalist would show his country what the course of his country has been, the farther he can go back into archaic times the more he is respected by modern critics. But when a preacher goes back to Genesis, he is supposed to have gone out of the times, and to have connected himself with forces, and ministries, and institutions which have fallen into desuetude. We protest against such partial criticism. There is a philosophy of religious inquiry as well as a philosophy of political investigation, and we insist upon having the Book of God read as a whole. That is our purpose for going back to its opening pages and to its earliest characters. The book is one. It never goes back or overlaps itself in a backward direction, but from first to last it maintains a line of progress and asserts a vertebral unity which constitutes an unassailable argument for its Divine origin. The books of Scripture must not be broken off one from the other as if they were separated and unrelated stones in a heap. If you take a book out of the Bible you take a stone out of a temple, a star out of a constellation, a felony that cannot be permitted. So we must not be deterred from going into our records and our museums, and searching into roots, and origins, and beginnings. We, too, must be prayerfully philosophical and rationalistic, turning over page by page, and turning over every page, fearing nothing that comes up; taking it in chronological sequence, and persevering through all rocky places, and dangerous paths, and mountainous districts on and on, until we come to the trumpets and vials, and thunders, and songs and hallelujahs of the Apocalypse; and having come into these completions we shall know the meaning of the last sweet word for when all the thunders have died away, when the storm has spent itself on the affrighted hills, there comes this still small voice "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen."
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 31". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29