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by Joseph Parker
Almighty God, thou art always thinking of us: all things are for our sake. Thy providence is the proof of thy redemption; they are one and the same great thought of love. Thou didst make man in thine own image and likeness, and thou art continuing so to make him; and thy great labour shall not cease until the similitude be perfected. This is thy work amongst us. We weary thee, and try thee, and bring the warm tears to thine eyes because of perverseness and self-will; but thou dost not release thyself from the great task: the purpose of God standeth sure; it is an eternal thought; thou wilt not be wearied out. Yea, thou hast burned the world, or drowned it with great tempests of water; yet thou hast preserved a root, a germ, so that thy process may go on and thy will may be made known; and, behold, who can set himself so much against the purpose of heaven as finally to destroy the decree of the Almighty? It is thine to work through all the ages. Eternity is thine. We know nothing of duration: we are a wind that cometh for a little time and bloweth away into forgetfulness; we are a light quickly blown out; we are a fading flower; there is none that abideth: but the throne of the glorious God is for ever. We rejoice in this thought: it makes us steadfast and calm in the midst of storms and threats that would render our lives intolerable. Things are shaken that are meant to be shaken, that those things which cannot be shaken may reveal their solidity the more. We rest in God; we would be one with God; we would know no will but thine; and thus ordering our life according to the music of thy commands, thy statutes shall become songs, and the darkest night but a time to sing in most loudly, sweetly, tenderly. We give one another to thee in continual prayer. To be in God is to be in one another; to be in Christ Jesus the Lord is to have fellowship of soul one with another and to enter into the preliminary joy of blessed heaven. We come to the Cross of Christ; we glory in that alone. We do not comprehend all its mystery: we cannot tell why the blood is so red, why it was poured out from an innocent, holy heart; we can say nothing in words of all the great emotion which moves our hearts, but we believe that is thy revelation, thy way of saving the world; Lord, we believe, help thou our unbelief! We are the better for this look towards the Cross. It is a look away from ourselves, away into eternity and heaven and mystery divine. We rejoice that thou hast appointed times when we may specially commune with thee, in open terms, in a common language, when the old, and the young, and the easy, and the suffering may all commune in open fellowship under the open sky of heaven, praising God with a common voice and with a loud song. We own our sinfulness, but we own thy might to destroy it. Thou wilt not forsake thine own seed, the work of thine own hands, the heart in which the Son of God is born. Reveal thy Son within us day by day. May we see his beauty, may we feel his touch, may we be assured of his love, and may we live and move in his eternal strength. Help us to live this little life wisely and well; may we not invent methods of our own whereby to make our life better, but, reading thy law, meditating on thy truth, we shall be enabled to deal wisely, to subdue every enemy and opposition, and to enter into the prepared rest. Hear us in these things, and let thy love be continued toward us as thou dost continue the light of the sun to warm and cheer the earth. Leave none unblessed! May the worst heart lift itself up in new strength; may the soul in which there has been desolation like the darkness of night know that the light of hope is shining upon it, and that the music of heavenly welcomes is addressed to its despair. Spoil every evil plan; thwart every mischievous purpose; sweeten every sour disposition, and make straight the will that is perverse. May we now enter into an oath of consecration, a solemn, noble vow to be better, to do better, to work more diligently, and construe each other's action more charitably, and all this in Christ, and by Christ, without whom we can do nothing. Continue thy pity toward us, for we are not yet strong enough to do without it: we still come to thy compassionate side; we dare not face thy righteousness, or challenge the burning light of thine honour and thy law, but we may come and say, at the Cross, and through its power, God be merciful to me a sinner! Amen.
WE have now reached a point in our Biblical studies from which we can look back to see the general line of thought which the inspired writers have pursued. As this is distinctively the People's Bible, we are entitled to ask questions respecting what may be termed the people's religion, by which is meant such a religion as would be understood by the mind of the common people who have not received specific or professional training either in theology or philosophy. Given the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua in order to discover what impression the popular mind would receive from reading them; this is our problem, and at this point we are prepared to make at least a tentative reply.
We must always distinguish between the people as a whole and those specially gifted individuals who have achieved great influence and renown as powerful thinkers. We may judge either by the many or by the few; and in a case such as is now before us we are certainly entitled to judge by the many, asking ourselves the question, How will this or that doctrine or revelation strike the average mind? Unless we keep in view this broad distinction as between the many and the few, we shall do injustice to both. Judging by the many, we might be inclined to view with contempt, certainly with disesteem, the few who are supposed to plume themselves on great gifts, and claim to be the leaders of the world. Nothing would be easier than for the multitude to scorn the little clique or sect or faction claiming to be all but inspired, and asserting some kind of right to rule the general thinking of mankind. The common people might ask whether it is more probable that a thousand men should be right than that one man should be right when he differs from them. A good deal of supposed eminence might also be traced to vanity, or set down to some inferior motive. On the other hand, it is just as possible to do injustice to the many by unduly magnifying the gifts and rights of the few. Was the revelation of God made to mankind, or was it made only to a man here and there of superior intellectual capacity and force? Is the Bible intended to be the Book of the People, or is it meant that it should come to the people only through the interpretation of priests, ministers, or scholars? Is there not a spirit in man, and doth not the inspiration of the Almighty give him understanding? Did not the common people hear Jesus Christ "gladly"? Are we not distinctly told again and again that many sacred mysteries are hidden from the wise and prudent, and revealed unto babes? Does not the whole tone of the Bible sanction the thought that the revelation made by God to man respecting the salvation of the race is made to the humble, contrite, penitent, unassuming, and is withheld from the princes of this world? It should be remembered on all sides of an argument of this kind that some men have what may be termed a theological faculty or genius: they have insight, a kind of prevision, a comprehensive glance as to power of grouping details and setting facts and doctrines in their true perspective: they may be emphatically termed theologians, and ought to be duly respected as such; but it is perfectly evident that Christianity cannot come through merely scientific theology, otherwise the great common world would never receive the blessings of the Gospel, or if it did receive them it would be with such a sense of obligation to learned and gifted men as to constitute those men into a kind of priesthood, and offer to them, more or less consciously, a tribute scarcely distinguishable from idolatry. The theologian has a distinct function and position of his own; keeping himself strictly to that function and position, he is to be consulted with the hope of spiritual advantage on the part of the inquirer; but it must never be understood that the Gospel intended for the salvation of the whole world is entrusted solely to the custody of men of letters, men of metaphysical genius, or men of piercing insight, and can only be received through their mediation or instrumentality. Between the theologian and the Christian the widest possible contrast must be established: a man may be a profoundly scientific theologian, and yet know nothing about the Spirit of Christ; on the other hand, a man may be imbued with the very Spirit of the Lord, and yet be totally unacquainted with the methods and results of distinctively scientific theology. We cannot be too careful in protesting against the erection of preaching into some kind of mere profession. It is in this way that priesthoods are formed, and that all kinds of spiritual tyranny are established. The people must never hold the idea that the Bible can only be understood by a certain kind of men to whom exceptional privileges have been granted. We must insist that the Bible is the people's book, that it can be understood by the people, that there is nothing in it necessary to salvation which people cannot find out for themselves, without the help of priest or preacher. This is true liberty of conscience, and this is the proper exercise of the right of private judgment. When questions of history, archaeology, letters, ancient civilisations, or any species of criticism come up, then the assistance of learned and competent men is indispensable: but so long as the question relates to the method of reconciliation with God, and the building up of spiritual and beneficent character, the people must discuss and settle the whole matter without what may be termed, inoffensively, professional intervention. There is in human nature a strong tendency towards priesthood, professionalism, or official superiority. This tendency is to be resisted as if it were one of the most subtle and persistent temptations. The most eminent professor of Biblical learning would do well sometimes to sit at the feet of the humblest disciple. He would be all the better if he could hear some broken-hearted man read the Bible to him morning by morning. The great passages of the Bible are to be read through the tears of sorrow. Learning of a verbal kind can do only the very meanest sort of work in the house of God; a needful work no doubt, a work by no means to be contemned when limited to its proper scope and uses, but the spirit of the Bible is in the heart of the people, and by that heart alone can that spirit be fully and influentially revealed.
Looking back upon the course we have traversed, what would be the people's idea respecting the God of the Bible? The metaphysician might begin by some analysis of the elements or attributes of Godhead, but we are not now asking what the metaphysician would do, but rather what would be the impression of the people regarding the God of the Pentateuch? There are two distinct ways of entering upon the question of the existence and sovereignty of God. The metaphysician has one way, and the non-metaphysician has a way quite different. We have now to do with the non-metaphysician the plain, common, average mind of the world. Let that mind carefully go through the Pentateuch, and through such portion of history as is set forth in the Book of Joshua, and its impression must be that, according to the teaching of the Bible, God is great, good, mysterious in character, inscrutable in purpose, but always revealing himself in great acts of moral correction and beneficence. The ordinary reader might not be able to define with anything like exhaustiveness such terms as Omnipotence, Eternal, Jehovah, and yet the inability to give such definition would not prevent the mind entertaining the sublimest thoughts of God's nature, attributes, and government. We may have carried this matter of definition too far. In all religious thinking there is a point at which analysis must stop, and man must simply begin to pray and to wait patiently upon God. To this of course it will be replied that the people will insist upon saying, What have we to believe respecting God? Who is God? But this reply itself needs correction. The answer is both Yes and No. How are such matters settled in practical life? You may as well say that before a man who is hungry can accept bread he is bound to ask certain difficult questions respecting bread, as, for example, by what process did it grow, what chemical forces operated in the production of bread, what is the relation of the earth to the sun, of light to water, and what is the secret or mystery of germination? Now whilst it might be most interesting to answer all these questions, the answer to them is not at all necessary to the appropriation of the bread which is offered. There is no violence in the suggestion that he who accepts bread without inquiring into all the chemical or other questions which relate to the mystery of germination or growth, acts upon faith rather than upon reason; his reason is not at all satisfied simply because he knows nothing whatever regarding the processes which took place in the production of bread. Nor is the analogy to be thrown out simply because it does not cover the whole ground; it covers ground enough for our immediate purpose, when it shows that in practical matters men are content to act in a practical way. We contend that there is no matter more practical than the moral settlement of the mind, the purification of motive, the acceptance of divine blessings, ending in reconciliation with God, a beneficent life, and sure hope of heaven. We must insist that these questions are themselves practical; for, the moment we allow them to be taken out of practical relations, they become merely speculative, and can only be treated as so many high conjectures to which there is no definite answer. The people cannot read the portion of Scripture through which we have come without feeling that the existence of God is everywhere recognised; is, indeed, assumed as the one all-ruling fact of the history; is not brought up for discussion or consideration, but is set down as the unit without which all processes of calculation would be simply impossible. The mind, therefore, might accept God as the Bible accepts him. He is there assumed, taken for granted; not a step is taken except under the distinct conviction and happy consciousness of the presence and rule of God in human life. Because we begin at this point it does not follow that we may end there. Experience itself will become a means of education, and as we proceed in our spiritual reading and Christian education we may be able to form higher and clearer conceptions of the divine existence and character, and so may be enabled to create a kind of theology of our own. But the point to be observed is that all this is after-growth, and is not at all necessary to the formation of a really religious character. Because metaphysical questions can be asked, it does not follow that it is necessary to answer them. There is no mental exercise that does not admit of severe metaphysical cross-examination. If we did not act in common life until we were able to answer all the metaphysical questions that could be raised concerning it, we should never act at all. What is will? What is the origin of ideas? What is the scope of volition? What is the final meaning of responsibility? What is the exact moral relation of one man to another? All these questions, and many more, instantly present themselves when any undertaking is proposed, and if we were not to move until they were finally settled, we should never move at all. The suggestion, therefore, that men will ask certain questions respecting God, and that we ought to be prepared to answer them, falls to the ground, if there is any force in analogy. We must ask men to be as reasonable in the higher things of life as in the lower, and to adopt certain working principles in order to find the way even to their prior or ulterior intent and purpose. In adopting this course of inquiry and reasoning, the mind will be strongly supported by reflecting upon the kind of character which is thereby produced. Accepting God, that is to say, the fact of his existence, the certainty of his government, and the reality of his judgment of human conduct, what is the kind of character produced by this recognition? We contend that the kind of character so produced is of the highest quality, ennobled by veneration, purified at the very fountain of its motive, and ruled by considerations which involve the claims, rights, and highest interests of other men. If a non-metaphysical acceptance of God ended in looseness or frivolity of character, such an ending would be a powerful answer to the argumentative contention; but when facts all tend the other way namely, to show that even where there is no metaphysical genius there may be thorough acceptance of the idea of the divine personality and rule, and profoundly religious character and feeling the whole aspect of the argument is changed. Now up to this point in the Bible we have not had to deal with metaphysicians, philosophers, theologians, as these terms are now understood, but we have had to deal with many noble and righteous men, whose examples may be safely held up for imitation in all lands and all ages. They lived in God; they moved and had their being in him; some of them "walked with God," and some of them were hardly distinguishable from the very purest examples of piety which even Christian history affords. The people, then, may well come to the conclusion that in the portion of the Bible which we now close, there is certainly the revelation of a creating, sustaining, and directing God mighty, merciful, good, and gracious; having sympathy with men, pitying their infirmities, burning with anger against their sins, and yet in the very midst of his moral indignation seeking their redemption and restoration.
What would be the idea of the people with regard to the Providence which is revealed in the Bible up to this point? We need not enter upon minute questions regarding government, relationships between the Governor and the governed, as involving nice questions of moral obligation; we have simply to ask, What would be the impression produced upon the ordinary mind by the perusal of so much of the Scriptures as we have now studied? Is there anything like shape or form in all the history that has passed before us? Is there anywhere a disclosure of a distinct purpose in divine rule? Have things but moved from one chaos to another, aggravating the tumult and confusion as they have passed from phase to phase? Has there been at all events the recognition of a Power which could raise up and put down; which could punish sin and reward righteousness; which could bind kings and princes and give authority to those who were previously without name? Is there anywhere in all this portion of Scripture a sense of centralisation, supremacy, authority? Is there at least the shadow of a throne, high and mighty, above all the affairs of men? I cannot but feel, in coming along all this open Biblical road, that everywhere we have been confronted by the gracious presence of an overruling Providence. The pages have been full of happy inspiration. True, we have had mystery upon mystery, one darkening upon the other like sevenfold night, but again and again we have had occasion to exclaim, Though "clouds and darkness are round about him, righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne." Curiously enough, we have seen deliverance come both unexpectedly and suddenly, but with a certainty which no human power could set aside. At the very point where we expected evil to triumph permanently, we have seen the light strike the evil one, and day displace all the horrors of night. We hold these to be simple matters of fact. They have ample correspondence and confirmation in our own consciousness and experience. We cannot account for these things; all things seem to be entangled one within the other, and hope of reconciliation or harmony there appears to be none; the enemy is at the very door, and the hour of destruction has already come: yet in a moment deliverance has been wrought, and that which was dark and frowning has become bright, smiling, and hopeful. The common people can understand these things when they cannot enter into the mysteries of government, rulership, and moral relations of developing and sometimes apparently contending degrees. The thing to be kept in mind is what the people as such can understand, and never to tempt them away into fields of mere speculation and conjecture, where, because of want of adequate mental training, they would be sure to fall into deeper and deeper confusion. The people as such must be encouraged to stand upon solid ground, upon the facts which they themselves have known, seen, and handled; and how tempting soever it may be to proceed from these solid rocks into the upper air of question-asking and speculation, the people must be exhorted to stand within the lines which they themselves have proved, for only within those limits have they adequate answer to the assaults of the enemy. Some men may pass beyond those lines. Here it is that we must always make room for the highly-qualified theologian or metaphysician. He is of unspeakable use, as we have again and again allowed, so long as he keeps within his proper sphere, but he must not sneer at the common people because they cannot philosophise, neither must the common people sneer at him because he sees higher heights than they themselves have yet beheld. The common man and the uncommon thinker belong to one another, are mutually complementary, and therefore they must hold one another in mutual honour.
Another interesting inquiry would relate to the conception of the common people as to the matter of Inspiration, so far as our studies have proceeded. Theories of inspiration have always been rife enough in the Church. Our contention is that the people as such really cannot settle questions of inspiration, nor ought they to attempt their consideration. Not only are the people unable to settle the great question of inspiration, but even the most learned and gifted professors and teachers have not come to common ground on the question themselves. What the common people can do with regard to the matter of inspiration is to discover the moral tone and purpose of the Book which claims to be inspired. They can put to themselves the great question, What is the moral teaching of this book? What kind of character is this book designed to create and foster? What is the quality of the righteousness on which this book insists? Is this a book which is satisfied with expediency, training, compromise, or being right on the whole or in general? He would be an unwise teacher who denied that there are difficulties in the Pentateuch which even scholars cannot settle. Let us allow that there are discrepancies as to dates and events in the Pentateuch and in the historical books; let us admit that there are many questions on which no light can be thrown; it would be most unwise to rest the question of inspiration or non-inspiration upon such circumstances. The importance of these questions is not for a moment to be denied, but they are not to be regarded as taking rank with the highest moral inquiry and purpose on the part of the book. The heart can always tell what words are inspired when they address themselves to the moral nature. There is not a soul that would not revolt at the idea that a command to do wrong was inspired. Not a man would rise to uphold commandments contrary in spirit to the ten which constitute the law. Were a man to arise and say, The eighth commandment ought to be read, "Thou shalt steal," he would instantly be put down by the common voice of civilised humanity; it would be felt that such a doctrine aimed at the very constitution of life in all its social and dependent relations. Now whilst there are definite lines upon which the inspiration of the Bible can be tested, it may be quite enough for the common people that is, for the people as a whole to rest upon those lines, and not to trouble themselves with the remoter questions which even the most learned men cannot adjust. No fault need be found with the teachers who insist that the word of God is to be found in the Bible, as against the theory that the Bible is itself the word of God. Considerable controversy has arisen respecting this distinction. Let us understand what it is: one teacher says the Bible is the word of God; another teacher says the word of God is to be found in the Bible. In the first case the man undertakes to uphold the doctrine of what is termed plenary or verbal inspiration: he will have it that every letter is inspired, that every word is sacred; in short, that there is nothing whatever, from the beginning of the Bible to the end, that is not immediately and absolutely inspired and directed by God. The other teacher maintains that this is by no means the case, and that it is not necessary that it should be the case in order to prove that the Bible is a divine revelation: he insists that the moral character of the Bible is the best proof of its being inspired; he looks upon all matters of astronomy, geology, military history, local movement, popular rumour, as being merely literary, and as being strictly in accordance with the knowledge and temper of the times; in all these departments he is prepared to find literal discrepancy, or to be confronted with considerable difficulty of many kinds; but he contends that, apart altogether from these incidents and details, there is in the Bible an authoritative revelation of righteousness, truth, and peace to the whole world. The inspiration, therefore, for which the second teacher would contend may be termed moral as apart from literal inspiration: he maintains that there is no difficulty whatever in ascertaining the real moral character of the book, and upon that real moral character he establishes his claim that the Bible is inspired and has become possible as a book only because of direct divine intervention. It is not in our power to settle these contending claims. But what is there to find fault with in the claim of the man who insists that from beginning to end the God of the Bible requires of man that he walk justly, love mercy, and put his daily trust in God, looking to none other for direction, instruction, and judgment? We continually insist that even in the parables of Christ the local incident or colouring is not to be regarded as part and parcel of the parable: in effect we contend that the truth is within the parable; in other words, that the parable is within the parable, and that we must reach the kernel if we would understand the speaker's meaning. The teachers to whom reference is now made make the same contention with regard to the Bible: they say that the Bible is within the Bible: they say that the Bible contains incident, colouring, and detail of many kinds which really have no essential or vital bearing upon the supreme purpose of the book itself: they are thus enabled further to maintain that whatever may be said regarding the merely external circumstances associated with the development of the Bible, its central purpose remains inviolate and inviolable: from their point of view the Bible contains the very law of God, respecting which there can be no dispute, as to its sublime morality or profound and glorious character. Probably the common people would be prepared to adopt this view without saying anything at all respecting the other, simply because they are not qualified to discuss the other with adequate information and ability. A great point, however, is gained when any man is drawn to confess that the Bible contains and reveals the whole counsel of God regarding human character and human responsibility. It is of infinitely greater importance to establish this doctrine than to establish any other within the whole sphere covered by the term Inspiration. The one sphere does not indeed necessarily exclude the other, nor does the one sphere necessarily include the other. A man may be perfectly orthodox, and say that he is altogether unable to settle the contentions of doctors and critics regarding inspiration, but for himself he has come to the conclusion that, however much may be taken out of the Bible, its moral integrity is left unimpaired, it enshrines the very wisdom of God, and reveals the only conditions upon which man can walk acceptably with his Maker.
On these three questions of Godhead, Providence, and Inspiration, the people may up to this point be able to form distinct and profitable opinions for themselves. My exhortation must continually be, Prove all things; never allow the priest to dispossess you of your right of private judgment; read the book thoroughly from end to end, and believe that Almighty God never sent a message to the human race which could be understood only by a portion of that race that whatever the great Father of us all has sent to the human family he has sent in language which cannot be misunderstood except by the perversity and selfishness of man. Wherever we come upon any mystery which is intended to interfere with the development of moral character, we may be sure that that mystery is an invention of priestcraft, and ought to be blown away with indignation and horror. Great and awful mysteries of another kind there must always be. Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection? Who can lay a line upon Eternity and say, This is the measure thereof, and such and such number of days exhaust the meaning of eternal duration? Again and again we must stand back in wonder and awe, not knowing where we are or what events are challenging our imagination. But apart from all these mysteries, speculations, conjectures, hypotheses, there are great solid rocks of history, fact, experience, upon which all men can stand, and where they can wait as in a sanctuary for the further revelation of God's kingdom. How foolish would that man be regarded in common life who would not build upon a rock because other men have attempted to build upon a quaking bog! Look at your own life, its form, its progress, its gradual uplifting and purification, and say if within that boundary you have not encouragement enough to pray and hope and serve to the end. Religion without mystery would be incomplete religion, and would soon become the merest amusement of frivolous minds. All through the line we have traversed God has kept certain reasons to himself without the faintest hint of revelation. He did not explain to Adam why one tree was forbidden. He did not tell why one sacrifice was accepted and another rejected. In the wilderness he gave symbols which never fully conveyed the meaning of the thing signified. Even when he communed with man it was through the medium of a chosen servant, and not promiscuously to the multitude. But whilst there have been inscrutable mysteries, have there not also been countless mercies? To the mercies we must recur with thankful hearts when the mysteries dazzle and bewilder our helpless Reason. The beasts of the field shall teach us. The rocks shall be full of suggestion. The stars shall shed down their gospel of light. Our own home-life shall witness gratefully to the goodness of God. Thus, whilst the mysteries hide themselves in light unapproachable, the mercies shall sing to us by day and night, and be unto us as glad promises of still better things to come.
*This material appeared at the end of Joshua in the printed edition.
the Fifth Week after Epiphany