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THE SAD HISTORY OF SIN CONTINUED.—Judges 4:1-11
CRITICAL NOTES.— Judges 4:1. And the children of Israel again did evil, etc.] They “continued to do evil.” After all the solemn and affecting dealing God had had with them, no practical lessons were learned. They are as stubborn as ever in resisting Jehovah and going after idols. There is a causal connection supposed between the death of Ehud and the renewed rebellion of the people against their God. When the hand that held it back is removed, the needle of the heart turns to the old pole of idol-worship. This implies that Ehud, while he lived, was a power in the land, and had long been successful in stemming the torrent of evil, If so, this is very unlike the character of a man who could commit an atrocious murder, as so many commentators suppose he did on Eglon. Shamgar is not mentioned, because his date was subsequent to this. Also, he did not deliver from a long subjugation of the land by an enemy, when the people had been for a series of years in bondage. Rather, his work was to turn back the first wave of oppression, and prevent it happening at all. Though a new generation had sprung up, the identity of the people as a whole is still assumed; and so it ever is.
Judges 4:2. And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin, etc.] He gave them up helplessly into his power, leaving him to do with them as if they were his own property (see Notes on Judges 3:8). Considerably more than a century and a half before this period, we hear of another Jabin, king of Hazor, whom Joshua defeated, destroyed all his people, and burnt his city with fire (see Joshua 11:1; Joshua 11:8-11). But the name Jabin was probably the hereditary and official title of the kings of Hazor. It means “the discerning,” or “the wise—the intelligent” (Speaker’s Com.). “Hazor” means fort, or castle, The Hebrew word means anything enclosed; but in the kindred Semitic languages, the root means to wall round—to besiege. It was a common name. In our own language, the name Chester is similarly common, as in Gloucester, Leicester, Cirencester, etc. Its position seems to have been near the Lake Merom, and was within the territory assigned to the tribe of Napthali, though there is great difference of opinion as to its precise site. It was a strong fortress both by nature and art, and standing as it did on a hill surrounded by a plain, it was specially suitable as a stronghold for a people whose main reliance was upon horses and chariots. Hazor had now been rebuilt, and become again the head of the northern Canaanitish nations. The other cities had also long recovered their old strength. But Hazor was the chief city in northern Palestine. Jabin appears to have been hoping that some happy accident would one day put it in his power to win back the territories of which his predecessors had been dispossessed by Joshua. Sisera (“meditation”) was his commander-in-chief—a name long a great terror to Israel (1 Samuel 12:9; Psalms 83:9).
 The name Sisera occurs among the Nethinim, or servants of the temple, who returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel (Ezra 2:53); also in Nehemiah 7:54-55, it is associated with the name Harsha, as if connected with Harosheth.
“Harosheth of the nations” (Joshua 12:23). This word nations has been taken to mean a collection of peoples of various nationalities fused into one state, as the kingdom of Mercia was in early English history. “Harosheth” signifies arsenal or workmanship—cutting and carving, whether in stone or wood (Exodus 31:5), and so might be applied to the place where such works are carried on. The conjecture is, that this being a great timber district, rich in cedars and fir trees, and near Great Zidon (Joshua 11:8), Jabin kept a large number of oppressed Israelites at work in hewing and preparing it at Harosheth for transport to Zidon; and that these wood cutters, armed with axes and hatchets, formed the soldiers of Barak’s army.
Judges 4:3. Cried unto the Lord, etc.] (See Notes on Judges 3:9), comp. Joshua 17:16. The chariots of iron were a very formidable arm of fighting in those days. Mightily] or with crushing force (1 Samuel 2:16). The same as tyrannically. The word לָחַץ is the same with that used in Exodus 3:9, meaning oppressed cruelly. Their task work in hewing timber was like that of their ancestors in making bricks.
Judges 4:4. Deborah, a prophetess, judged Israel, etc.] Deborah, a prophetic woman. She was a prophetess, like Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). This character which she had was the reason for her taking the lead in this emergency. The prophetic state was more than a Divine ecstasy, a high poetic enthusiasm under the influence of which the praises of God are spoken (Cassel). It was a being made the organ of communicating the Divine will to men—a spokesman for God. She was commissioned to act both as judge and as prophetess. The name Deborah signifies “a bee;” and she is described as a burning woman—“the wife or a woman of Lapidoth,” torches—a woman of a torch-like spirit. She was a person of fire-bearing character and intense enthusiasm. Some say she was the wife of Barak, which signifies lightning. [Edersheim.] “She was a honey bee to her friends, but a stinging bee to her enemies.” [Fausset.]
Judges 4:5. She dwelt under the palm-tree of Deborah, etc.] She sat in judgment (Psalms 9:4) under the Deborah palm—so called because Rebekah’s nurse was here buried (Genesis 35:8) in Mount Ephraim, between Ramah and Bethel. Ramah was built on a round hill, five miles east of Gibeon; and a little to the north of it, in the deep hot valley between Ramah and Bethel, was the palm-tree of Deborah. The ordinary place for giving judgment was the gate (Ruth 4:1-2), but this retired spot was suitable to the unsettled times.
Judges 4:6. Barak, the son of Abinoam, of Kedesh-Naphtali.] Barak signifies lightning, an appropriate name for a warrior; and there was more in names in those days than there is now. Some call him the Boanerges of the Old Testament; but that is too much, for it required not a little rousing to bring him up to the high mark of the character known by that name. Kedesh was a Levitical city of refuge assigned to the Gershon division. It stood on a high ridge jutting out from the hills, at the western edge of Lake Huleh, the marshy basin through which the Jordan passes into the sea of Merom. It was in Naphtali (Joshua 19:37). The Lord God of Israel.] The name of the God who made a covenant with Abraham and his Seed, and who brought up Israel with high hand out of Egypt. Go and draw toward Mount Tabor, etc.] Draw מְשַׁבְתָּ. This is rendered very differently by commentators. Some—Approach to. But the preposition is in or upon. Others—Draw out or prolong. As sound of trumpet would do, when the people were summoned to come forward to Mount Tabor, just as the people were required to meet Ehud at Mount Ephraim. Others make it—draw out, or extend, the military force to be employed. Others regard it as a command to enlist or draft all the willing among the people, or persuade the people by attractive methods. Keil renders it—proceed one after another in a long-drawn train (Judges 20:37; Exodus 12:21)—referring to the captain, and the warriors drawing after him. This is near it. But Lias expresses it better—“Draw out upon Mount Tabor.” We understand that Mount Tabor was the point of rendezvous toward which Barak was to lead his troops gradually, until Jehovah had led Sisera with his host to the brook Kishon. Yet more precisely the meaning seems to be—draw in small detachments, one after another, men willing to fight for their country, until 10,000 are assembled, as rapidly as can be done, when all Israel is scattered, and as secretly as can be done, that Sisera may not prevent their assembling. Draw to Tabor, not to Kedesh, for that town is too near Hazor, and besides the mountain named is a better centre for a rendezvous, being considerably farther south. Mount Tabor]—now called Jebel et Tur—rises on the east from the plain of Esdraelon, where Sisera’s chariots would be assembled, and was a convenient rallying point for all in Napthali and Zebulon on the north, and for Issachar and Manasseh on the south. It stands by itself on the plain, a truncated cone of limestone, with flat top, an area of a quarter of a mile in length, and half that in breadth. Round the circumference are the ruins of a thick wall of masonry, and there are the foundations of private dwellings within. The height is estimated from 1000 to 3000 feet, and it requires an hour to ascend it. The sides to the very top are covered with verdure and clumps of trees, oaks, olives, and sycamores, with many plants and flowers. It overtops all the neighbouring hills (Jeremiah 46:18), and commands a magnificent view of Northern Palestine, especially to the west. It may have been the Mount of Transfiguration, as the reasoning to the contrary consists quite as much of strong assertion as of clear evidence.
Judges 4:7. And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon, Sisera, etc.] Speaking in the Spirit she says, I will draw—meaning God will draw Sisera to Kishon. This word signifies bent like a bow, and is so called from its winding course. It was a sort of winter torrent [Lias] like Kedron (John 18:1). It is perennial for eight miles, fed from sources along the whole plain of Jezreel. It takes its rise near Mounts Tabor and Gilboa. Though dry in summer, a rushing stream pours down in it in winter. In the valley on both sides of this river, or brook, called the plain of Jezreel, the greatest battles have been fought for the possession of Palestine, from time immemorial down to recent times. Thither God was now drawing Sisera and his host as “the sheaves into the floor, that the daughter of Zion might arise and thresh” (Micah 4:12-13). This was typical of the drawing of the forces of Antichrist to their place of doom (Revelation 16:14; Revelation 16:16; Revelation 19:19-20). God draws His people to their salvation (Judges 4:6; John 6:44) and the ungodly to their destruction (1 Kings 22:19-23).
Judges 4:8. If thou wilt go with me then I will go, etc.] These words spoken to a woman are not very like a Boanerges. Barak’s faith was manifestly weak, like Gideon (Judges 6:15; Judges 6:36), and Moses (Exodus 4:10; Exodus 4:13), and Peter (Matthew 14:30-31), showing that the best of men are but men at the best. God’s command and promise ought to have been enough (Judges 4:6-7). Yet God has not left His name out of the list of faith, any more than that of Samson (Hebrews 11:32-34). To show that God has regard to faith, even when it is only like a grain of mustard seed. Yet we must not underrate Barak. He did not look on Deborah so much as a woman, as on one who had the Spirit of God. And this, be it man or woman, meant an all-conquering strength. It did however look a little like the superstitious feeling of the Israelites, when they thought themselves safer by taking the ark into the field, than by simply trusting in the promise of help assured by their God on their obedience (1 Samuel 4:3-5). Some class Barak as an illustration of the phrase, “out of weakness made strong” (Hebrews 11:34). He needed some visible presence to strengthen his faith in the invisible power. We too often need something of sight to help our weak faith—the touch of our Father’s hand in the dark, to show that He is with us. But God had compassion on his imperfect faith, and accepted him, seeing “the root of the matter was in him.” Ten thousand men, and these undisciplined, was after all but a feeble wand to be used against a mighty host like that commanded by Sisera. It was like “the worm Jacob employed to thresh the mountains.” But all the battles of God’s cause are battles of faith—not however to the exclusion of the use of rational means, within the limits prescribed by God’s Providence. Trapp says, the soldiers’ motto should be, Neque timidè, neque temerè.
Judges 4:9. Into the hand of a woman.] This was Jael, though Barak might suppose it was Deborah herself. The honour was certainly denied to Barak. Deborah appears to have been a remarkable character, full of the true fire of enthusiasm, and just the very person to stir the embers of a dying faith among the people. It is wonderful sometimes how a whole nation will instinctively follow a single bold flashing spirit, with resolute purpose, and mind fully made up, pursuing what seems to it the Divine path of duty. Her influence arose not from her social status, though that was considerable, if we are to believe the Chaldee paraphrast, who tells us that she possessed palm-trees in Jericho, parks (or paradises) in Ramah, and productive olives in the vailey, a house of irrigation in Bethel and white dust in the king’s mount. But her peerless distinction was that the Spirit of the Lord spake by her. The people believed that she was the organ of Divine communications. Hence her power to lift the whole nation from a state of languid despondency to the elevation of the assurance of hope, by the nature of the communications which she made. A bright face, kindled up with intelligence, from which doubt has fled, where resolution, zeal, and ardour reign, where the spirit triumphs over the flesh, and where man seems transformed into an angel of the Lord, could not fail to inspire men as with life from the dead. And so from the moment that Deborah announces the Divine purpose to emancipate the people, and Barak accepts of the office of leader, all things flow naturally and rapidly on to success.
Judges 4:10. Barak called Zebulon and Naphtali to Kedesh.] These were the tribes that chiefly furnished the supplies of troops (Judges 4:6), though not exclusively. Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh, and Issachar sent valuable help (Judges 5:14-15). And some other tribes are spoken of reprovingly, if not upbraidingly, because they failed to show their practical sympathy (Judges 5:16-17). For this oppression affected the whole land, and that most grievously, though the northern parts in a greater degree. To Kedesh the prophetess accompanies Barak. Notwithstanding the distance in the extreme north, and the dangers of travelling in such times, she hesitates not for a moment. When God’s work has to be done, all other considerations must give way. She herself acts on the firm belief of her own words, and wherever she goes she becomes a revival power. The leaders of the people, or heads of households, assemble to Barak in his home at Kedesh. Not the whole people. But those leaders would receive their instructions from Deborah and Barak together, and then return to their respective circles to collect their people. Fired with the idea that the hour of deliverance was come, the men of Israel collect, descending on all sides from their mountains like the Swiss against the Austrians, and proceed to Mount Tabor, Barak going before, and ten thousand following in his train; or as some render it on foot, implying that they were all infantry, and neither chariots nor cavalry.
Judges 4:11. Now Heber the Kenite … had severed himself, etc.] The interesting notices given of this family (the Kenites) arise first from their connection with Moses, and afterwards from the principal branch of them casting in their lot with the people of God. The father was “Reuel,” or “Raguel” (Exodus 2:18; Numbers 10:29), the priest of Midian (Exodus 2:16; also Judges 18:1; some say the word means prince). “Jethro” was still another name which he had, as in Exodus 18:0 passim. [Some would prefer to say that Renel was the father, and Jethro and Hobab were the two sons—in this case translating the word chotheen to mean brother-in-law in Exodus 18:0, for in such a case Jethro would be the brother of Zipporah, and therefore brother-in-law to Moses. But we prefer to regard all the three names, Reuel, Raguel, and Jethro, as simply different names for the same person.] Hobab was his son, and therefore brother-in-law to Moses. Thus the word ought to be rendered here. Moses seems to have been successful in making Jethro a decided fearer of the God of Israel (see Exodus 18:8-11). And when he got the opportunity he used his most earnest entreaties with Hobab, his brother-in-law. Though at first unsuccessful (Numbers 10:29-30, etc.), he would appear in the end to have won him fairly over. For we find in Judges 1:16 allusion made to the family name among the children of Israel—the children of the Kenite, who seemed at first to have settled in the city of palm trees, finding it not suitable apparently for their flocks, they went up to the wilderness, or open pasture lands of the tribe of Judah. And now here again is another change. From some cause there was a split among the descendants of Hobab, and Heber, an influential member of the circle, left the others in Judah, and found his way north as far as Kedesh. Whether it was that the Kenites were degenerating into idol-worship like the Israelites generally, among whom they dwelt, and that Heber was a fast worshipper of the God of Israel, we cannot tell for certain. But the separation was permanent. He still lived in tents; the desert life was not forgotten, and the spot he chose for his rest was the oak forest of Zaanannim, near Kedesh.
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 4:1-11
FRESH PROVOCATION; RENEWED BONDAGE; RESORT ANEW TO PRAYER; DELIVERANCE AGAIN PROVIDED
It ought never to be forgotten by the thoughtful readers of this Book that one leading purpose in view is to put the human heart fairly to the test. Under the most favourable circumstances, it is left to itself to decide whether, without any driving or special pressure of any kind, it would be disposed of itself to choose the service of the only living and true God, and keep vows of fidelity to Him which it had solemnly made. There is no Joshua nor Moses now alive to guide this people. They are left purposely without any man in the position of having to decide for them. Their decision must be entirely their own, and it must be made in such a way as to be a fair index of the state of their hearts. The experiment goes on throughout the whole Book, and though it is continued for upwards of 400 years, it is one long continued series of failures to keep their allegiance to their God. At the close, it might be written down, fully tried and found wanting. This Book of Judges is of far higher use than ordinary histories. It is a sacred history—the history of men as before God, and under very special moral and spiritual dealing. It is the history of the Church of God, or of the cause of God in the world, so that sins committed have a deeper aggravation, afflictions sent have a deeper and more significant meaning, and deliverances accomplished have a more sacred character. But first of all, the object is to bring out men’s characters before God, and that we should specially keep in view as we proceed to gather up the instruction of chapter 4.
I. Fresh provocation. “They did (the) evil again in the sight of the Lord,” etc. This comes in like a melancholy dirge from the tombs, indicating the hopeless condition of those who are “dead in trespasses and sins.” We hear it as a moan from captives that are helplessly bound. “Ichabod” is indelibly marked both at the top and bottom of the page, and all through. “The plague of the heart” continues. “The whole head is sick and the whole heart faint,” etc. The leprosy is in the blood. (See on Judges 3:7; Judges 3:12.) “When Ehud was dead,” rather, and Ehud was dead. Not that their apostasy broke out immediately after he had died; but when it did break out, there was no Ehud to stem the torrent.
How brief is the notice given of the people’s sin! A single line suffices for that—two verses tell the story of their suffering which lasted for twenty years, and with the weight of a tyrant’s rod all the time. But the whole chapter, or twenty-one verses are occupied with the account of the Divine deliverance. Why is this? Is it
(1) Because man’s work is so bad that it will not bear to be repeated, or dwelt upon, and the sooner it is forgotten the better, or is it
(2) Because God in mercy to His people would say as little about their backslidings as possible. Faithfully He points out that there is something decidedly wrong, but He has no pleasure in dwelling upon it. His “charity thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity.” The statement is made to justify Him in sending His judgments, not to gratify any possible delight He could take in spreading out their sins before His face. Or is it
(3) Because the simple fact that they had cast off their God, without any amplification of details, was quite enough to kindle the Divine anger, and lead to deplorable results—whatever the reason may be, the fact is patent throughout this book, that the sins of the people are told in a line or two, while the story of God’s mercy in delivering them from the consequences of their sins goes down all over the page.
Their sinning against God afresh after so much chastisement shows:—
1. The ineradicable nature of sin. No number of stripes seems to have any effect in curing this terrible evil. Though it has been burned into them that “the way of transgressors is hard,” so soon as they are left to themselves they again begin to transgress. Sin is like some of those strong chemical liquids, of which when a drop falls on the cloth, it is impossible with ever so much washing to take out the stain. “Though thou wash thee with nitre and take thee much soap, yet is thine iniquity marked before Me, saith the Lord God. This people had unmistakable evidence of the fearful calamities that must accompany or come in the track of sin. Two black clouds had already darkened their sky, the bursting of which it might have been supposed would never have been forgotten. Either of these tempests, but for the interposition of the Divine mercy, out of ordinary course, might have blotted them out of existence as a nation, or reduced them to the level of a second Egyptian bondage. They were placed entirely at the mercy of those whose tenderest mercies are cruel. They had experience of the cold, hard fact; that “the worst enemy of man is man.” And yet we find them here running down the hill to ruin as before. There is no change in the stubborn tendency to go astray from God. Though they have already tumbled twice over the precipice and been dashed among the rocks, through their obstinately taking the wrong course, being saved only by the outstretching of the gracious hand of their God, they yet, after all, now rush on blindfolded in the old track. Well might the prophet of many tears exclaim, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots,” etc.
2. The special force of evil in an easily-besetting sin. Idolatry was, for the Israelite, an easily-besetting sin, mainly for two reasons:
(1) Because of the strong native tendency of the human heart to go away from God, and give its love and allegiance to other objects, which also must, in some sense, be gods; for the human heart cannot want a god of some kind; and
(2) Because the stream of custom over the whole world was always flowing in that direction. It was a kind of spiritual aneurism in the system, an evil tumour which draws into it the arterial blood, we might say, the very life-blood, defying all art or skill of man to effect a cure. It seems as if the whole strength of corruption in a man’s nature were gathered up in his easily besetting sin, so that to do battle with it is to assail the very fortress of depravity and not merely an outpost. The whole garrison of evil in the heart fights at this point. The word used in the original is very forcible (Hebrews 12:1)—εὺπερίστατον—the sin which well surrounds us—i.e., easily, or strongly surrounds, which besets or encircles us like the folds of a serpent, a veritable boa-constrictor, that which encircles and holds us fast, which keeps us as prisoners. All sin does so, more or less, but none grasps so tight as that to which we are peculiarly prone or liable, whether constitutionally, from long indulgence, or strong temptations. Victory over an easily besetting sin means victory over the whole strength of evil in the heart.
3. A specific for the cure of sin must be something out of ordinary course. Nothing within the limits of ordinary motives will effectually turn a man aside from his idols, and permanently stem all the outflow of evil from the bitter spring. The strength of the passion, or evil tendency of the nature, always overmasters the force of reason. “I see the good; I follow the evil,” is the candid confession even of the heathen heart. While the Christian, conscious far more clearly of the strength of evil within him, cries out, “O, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” etc. The headstrong tendency of sin in the heart has all the force of an ungovernable passion, or of a blind infatuation. Happy is the man who is candid enough to admit the cancerous nature of his heart malady, and who with that conviction applies in good earnest to the One Physician who is able to effect a cure. “Create in me a clean heart” is the only prayer that will do; and Psalms 51:0 throughout is the best prescription to meet the case.
The whole history of ancient Israel, especially as recorded in this Book of Judges, is a luminous commentary on the truth and force of the paragraph in Romans 7:14-25. The law of God presents duty clearly; men’s hearts and consciences assent to its excellence, but, notwithstanding of this, the evil principles in the heart remain in full force, and there is still a persistence in going astray from God. The mere strength of reason for the performance of a certain duty, or the avoidance of a certain sin, will not take away the disobedient spirit of the unrenewed heart. “The law in my members—in my flesh, the unsanctified nature—brings me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members,” i.e. to itself. That law of sin is always in operation, and can only be counteracted and fairly overcome by the fixed and permanent operation in the soul of another law—“the law of the spirit of life by Christ Jesus.” [See Hodge on Romans 7:0 throughout.] One thing is abundantly proved by every page of this book—that the authoritative declaration that a thing must not be done, does not destroy the inclination to do it. It follows that if sin is to be effectually cured in the heart and life, a man must be “created anew in Christ Jesus unto good works.” (See Ezekiel 36:25-27; Ephesians 4:23; 2 Corinthians 5:17.) [See other remarks on Judges 3:7; Judges 3:12.]
II. Bondage renewed (Judges 4:2-3).—“The Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin, etc.—twenty years he mightily oppressed them.”
1. The calamity did not come unsent. It was not “a chance that happened to them.” They first sold themselves to do wickedly before the Lord, and in due time He sold them into the hands of the spoiler. Their long season of prosperity instead of confirming them in their attachment to their own God, only led them to forget Him and to walk after their own wicked ways, from which they had never been really weaned. “The prosperity of fools destroyeth them.” Henry remarks, “they alienated themselves from God, as if they were none of His; and then God on His part alienated them as none of His. They that throw themselves out of God’s service, throw themselves out of God’s protection. What has my beloved to do in my house, when she has thus played the harlot?”
Men are slow to regard their afflictions in life—their disappointments, their hard lot, their bitter experiences, and their dark skies, as having anything to do with the ungodly life they lead—their practical forgetfulness of God, and setting aside His law as the rule of life. It seems not to occur to them that the God before whom they lead their life, is greatly offended with this neglect of His claims and despising of His commandments, as if a creature would dare to assert that it was not His property, and owed Him no allegiance and even no attention. For this practical forgetting of God, and neglect of their duties to Him, He sends one arrow of adversity after another to awaken their attention to His voice. But they are slow to understand. They “hear not the rod” neither do they know Him who appointed it. (Jeremiah 8:7). God said of His ancient people “they are sottish children (thick headed) and they have no understanding.” Even when God dealt in great mercy with them, “taking them by the arms, they knew not that He healed them.” Christ says of foolish Jerusalem, “thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.”
No affliction comes unsent. There is indeed no audible voice telling in articulate tones, why this and the other bitter dispensation of God’s providence is appointed. Also, some time generally elapses between the commission of sin and the sorrow which comes after it, just as some time elapses between the moment when we see a gun fired at a considerable distance from us, before we hear the report of the firing. God is not quick to use the rod, for He takes no pleasure in the work of inflicting punishment. This men mistake to mean, that there is no causal connection between their sin and their misery. Yet not more certain is the law by which a man reaps of the same kind that he sows, than is the arrangement by which misery in some form will either accompany or flow from sin. It is fundamental to say “The wages of sin is death.” God, however, does not tell it with articulate voice. Everything in His dealings with us must go by faith. Hence He acts. Just as Jesus did not answer John’s question directly, but bade His disciples go and tell him what things they had seen Him do, so God acts in a certain way in His providence, and bids us look on and consider—“Whoso is wise and observeth these things, he shall understand”—the meaning and purport of God’s providence in dealing with sinners and sin.
2. Sin brings sorrow. The character of God as Moral Governor of the world requires this: To sin. He is irreconcilably opposed; and towards those who commit it, His frown must, in the events of His Providence, be sooner or later manifested. Well is it for a man who has been leading an ungodly life, if God should show His frown now, while yet his course of sin may be arrested, and his guilt taken away, ere it be too late. For there is such a thing as being allowed to sleep in sin till the hour for repentance has passed, and there is no possibility of escaping the terrible condemnation of the finally impenitent. Sorrows sent now, though severe and even rigorous in character, may, if improved as warning bells, lead us to lay hold of the great refuge from eternal sorrows (1 Corinthians 11:32).
These Israelites found that the “pleasures of sin” soon turned to gall and wormwood. “What better were they,” says Bp. Hall, “to have killed Eglon, king of Moab, if the idolatry of Moab was now killing them? The sin of Moab was a worse tyrant than Eglon. Israel is for every market. They sold themselves to idolatry; God sells them to the Canaanites. It is no marvel they become slaves, if they will be idolaters. After their longest peace they have now their sorest bondage. The longer the reckoning is deferred, the greater is the amount.”
3. The Divine mercy is seen in severely chastising but not destroying. God might have said: “Thy bruise is incurable, thy wound is very grievous. I will, therefore, give thee as fuel for the burning, and raise up to myself another people, true to Me in heart, and that will better show forth my praise.” He had already twice delivered them from the terrible consequences of their apostasies, and said, “Behold thou art made whole. Go, and sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon thee.” And now their sin was greatly more aggravated than before. “The waters which were at first to the ankles, were now to the loins.” And there seemed to be no appearance of any abatement. Might we not expect that the voice would come forth from “the Judge of all the earth” saying, I will utterly destroy, and make a full end of a people so incorrigible and rebellious? Men are disposed to act thus in similar circumstances. They are impatient, and would cut the knot, when they cannot easily untie it. They will not stand parleying long with perverse natures, but tell them flatly you must comply with the terms, or be shut out from our fellowship for ever. “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king?” So of Shimei. “Let me, I pray thee, smite thine enemy with the spear to the earth at once, and I will not smite him the second time.” So of king Saul. “When Herod saw that he was mocked of the wise men, he was exceeding wroth, and sent forth and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem.” Thus it ever is with the wrath of men when excited; it goes forth to an extreme result (2 Samuel 3:9; 1 Samuel 25:22; Jeremiah 40:15, etc., etc.)
But when God is provoked to anger by the sins of His people, how different His tone! “I will correct; but I will not destroy. I will correct in measure;—not without limit. I will not leave thee unpunished, but I will not make a full end.” The stripes are never given at random, but according to rule, and a careful account is kept both of their number, and their severity—not a stroke too many, and no suffering inflicted beyond what the person is able to bear. Even when God goes so far as to give His people “tears to drink in great measure like water,” it is still in measure (Psalms 80:5; Jeremiah 46:28).
God was now greatly provoked with the repeated and high handed sins of His people, and for twenty long years He gave them into the hands of a relentless and revengeful enemy, who might in one fourth part of that time have destroyed Israel utterly as Israel of old time destroyed the Canaanites. But their God would not allow it, though no doubt it was in the hearts of these Canaanites to make the attempt. But their lives were made bitter with hard bondage in being set to act as hewers of wood, and do all sorts of drudgery work. They also had the sting in their hearts, that all this oppression was exercised by outcasts and aliens, who were trampled on by their fathers, as the refuse of the earth—a people not fit to live.
The truth always comes out, that however severely they were punished, they were never made a full end of. He watches over them in the furnace, and allows not the fire to consume them. “When they walk through the fire they are not burned, neither does the flame kindle on them.” When His own image is seen in the heated metal, instantly He abstracts it from the fire. He is jealous lest His people should receive one stroke of the rod too many (Zechariah 1:14-15), and is angry with those who would dare to go one step beyond their commission (Isaiah 40:2). (See Psalms 89:33-34; Jeremiah 4:27; Jeremiah 5:10; Jeremiah 5:18; Jeremiah 30:11; Amos 9:9; Jeremiah 33:24-26.)
[Remarks on the character of God’s judgment, their severity, the spirit in which they are inflicted, and the ends to be gained on pp. 114–119.]
COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS.—Judges 4:1-3
TRUE RELIGION REQUIRES AN UNDIVIDED HEART
When a man professes solemnly and with tears that he deeply regrets having committed some error of conduct, on which those who have to do with him agree to pass over his offence and to continue friendship as before—and when after a time, during which he enjoys peace and prosperity, he again commits the same error and that more deeply than before, and even repeats this process several times of sinning and confessing, we begin to question his sincerity and to believe that his heart was not in his confession of wrong-doing, and his purpose of amendment, but that he was merely resorting to shifts to get quit of a difficulty. Thus we naturally judge of these Israelites:
“For though their words were good, their heart
With Him was not sincere;
Unstedfast and perfidious
They in His cov’nant were.”
In all true religion there must be an undivided heart. “We naturally love an easy Christianity. We dislike collisions, and we fear extremes. When the world presents its claims alongside those of Christ, we are in danger of halting between two opinions. Such an attitude is full of peril. Nothing is more offensive to Christ than lukewarmness in His service.
“We must serve Christ with all our hearts, if we are to serve Him at all. No reserve or compromise, or half-heartedness, is for a moment to be allowed. Our mind must be made up. ‘The eye must be single.’ One master-motive—the love of Christ. One mighty aim—to glorify God in the Gospel of His Son. All other objects and aims must give way before this. Its language is ‘this one thing I do!’ Such were the hearts of Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Paul—of Luther and Latimer. Though they erred in some things they had this peculiarity—they had single hearts—they were men of one thing. Such a man does good by wholesale. He is like a lighthouse in the midst of a dark world. He reflects light on hundreds of whom he knows nothing. His Master is seen in every department of his behaviour. And he might appropriate to himself the language: ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ All see the bias of His character, and are obliged to confess that his religion is a real and influential thing. Without this decision a man has no true comfort in his religion; he has as much as to make him miserable, by allowing two opposite camps to have a place in his heart. But with it, he has a joy and peace, to which others never attain. His face is toward the sun, and his heart is seldom cold.
“We must not be satisfied with religious reformation without heart conversion. To lay aside open sin is nothing unless grace reigns in our hearts. The formal trappings will not do without the power of practical godliness experienced in the inner man.”
TO BEGIN THE RELIGIOUS LIFE EASIER THAN TO GO ON
While the sun shone brightly on the faces of the vast multitude whom Joshua addressed for the last time, and all nature seemed in cheerful mood; while, too, all the Divine words of the sacred past were now changed into the living facts of the present, and they could read as matter of history that which was at first hard to believe even as Divine Prophecy—it was easy to subscribe with the hand and to say, “This God shall be our God for ever and ever!” No cross was in sight. No voice was heard breaking the stillness of that lovely morning, with the faithful words, “If a man will come after Me let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” But when a little time passes on, and the clouds gather, and the winds begin to moan, and the weather becomes foul, what a melting away of resolutions so chivalrously made! “From that time many went back, and walked no more with Jesus.”
It is not the beginning but the continuing of the religious profession that is the true grace. “If ye continue in my word,” says the Saviour, “then are ye my disciples indeed.” Many, under the influence of temporary excitement, enrol themselves as Christians without considering what they are doing. To begin the religious life is comparatively easy. Mixed motives aid us. The love of novelty, the praise of well-meaning professors around us, the secret self-satisfaction of feeling “how good I am,” and the general excitement attending a new position. Lifted up by the wave the man begins the race, lays aside some bad habits, takes up some good ones, has many comfortable frames and feelings, and gets on swimmingly for a time.
But when the newness of the position is past and gone, when the freshness of his feelings is rubbed off and lost, when the world and the devil begin to pull hard at him, when the weakness of his own heart begins to appear—then it is that he finds out the real difficulties of Christianity. Then he finds that to begin is one thing, and to go on is another. Yes. “Patient continuance in well-doing” is the only sure evidence of grace. It is not he that runs fast at first, or runs furiously, but he that keeps up his speed, who runs so as to obtain. By all means make much of conversion. But let us not be too sure that it is conversion, till Time has set its seal upon it.
Time and wear test metals and prove whether they are solid or plated. So Time and Wear are the surest tests of a man’s religion. Where there is spiritual life there will be continuance and steady perseverance. It is the man who goes on as well as begins that is the disciple indeed (John 6:67-69; Luke 22:28; 1 John 2:19; Hebrews 3:6). [Ryle.]
WHY SHOULD SIN BE SO INVETERATE IN THE HUMAN HEARTS
Dr. Howat, in illustrating a similar sentiment says, “It is the great law of contraries. ‘The corruption of the best is the worst,’ says the Roman proverb. There is nothing so beautiful as a woman’s love; there is nothing so terrible as a woman’s hatred. Athaliah, to gratify her own ambition, ‘destroys all the seed royal.’ The daughter of Herodias solicits the Baptist’s head.—Jezebel vows to take Elijah’s life.—The pretended mother proposes to slay the living child.” The finer a nature is under its natural conditions it becomes proportionally worse than another nature when it is perverted. If it has a capacity for rising higher in its normal state, it must also have a capacity for sinking lower in its abnormal state. The men of finest gifts and finest sensibilities, when they do sink into the depths of wickedness generally become more abandoned and desperate than the common wicked. For this reason the fallen angelic spirits are more fearful embodiments of all manner of evil than fallen men. Physically speaking too, bodies which have the finest texture, such as the human body, when they do become corrupt, are more loathsome than other bodies. All over the rule holds.
Man’s highest faculty is that by which he is capable of knowing God, loving God, admiring and adoring His wonderful perfections, and enjoying His divine fellowship. But the power to rise so high infers his capacity for sinking down to a proportionate depth. And what measure of depth can correspond fitly with the all but measureless height to which it is possible for him to attain. But this capacity for going down to an indefinate depth when his nature is perverted is really the measure of his corruption or depravity. It is like a pit of unfathomed depth. Or speaking of it more literally, the degeneracy is in proportion to the greatness of man’s nature—as a rational and immortal being, formed after the image of God. Man’s capacity of loving God in his upright state is equalled by the deep and inveterate dislike to God, which he has in his perverted state. Hence, the inveteracy of sin in his fallen nature.
The ancient ring. “A man, wishing to find a handsome ring, went into a jeweller’s shop, in Paris, and there had presented to him a very ancient gold ring which seemed to be very superior, and on its inside were two little lion’s claws. With this he played for some time, but did not purchase it. Scarcely had he reached home when, first his hand, then his side, then his whole body became numb and without feeling, as if he had had a stroke of the palsy. It grew worse and worse, till a physician was called, and he was thought to be dying. ‘You must somehow have taken poison,’ said the physician. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I have not.’ At last he remembered this ring. On examination it was discovered that he had been playing with what used to be called a death-ring, and which was often employed in the wicked Italian States three or four hundred years ago. When one man hated another and desired to kill him he would present him with one of these rings. In the inside was a drop of deadly poison, and a very small hole out of which it would not make its way except it was squeezed. When the poor man was wearing it, the murderer would come and shake his hand violently; the lion’s claw would give his finger a little scratch, and in a few hours he was a dead man.”
“For four hundred years this ring had kept its poison, and at the end was strong enough almost to kill the man who had accidentally scratched his finger with the claw. It required great skill and the strongest medicines to save him. So is it with sin. Our first father had such a ring put into his hand by the Tempter, and by the unhappy squeezing of the claws he died of it. The same ring has been handed down to his posterity from the days of the Expulsion from Paradise till now; and for well nigh 6,000 years it is still a fatal ring to all who touch it.” [Bib. Treas.]
The inveteracy of sin is illustrated by the manner in which the plague of leprosy showed itself in its workings, both in the human body and even in human dwellings. When the plague got into the walls of a building, there was no way of getting it cleansed but by taking down the walls to the foundations. “When N. Phocas had built a strong wall about his palace for his own security, in the night time he heard a voice crying to him, O Emperor! though thou build thy wall as high as the clouds, yet if sin be within, it will overthrow all.”
Sin is also a quicksand. It not only penetrates to the very core internally, but externally it swallows up without power of rescue.
“On certain parts of the coast, especially in Scotland, difficulty is experienced in walking—the shore is like pitch, to which the soles of the feet cling. The coast appears to be dry, but the footprint when the foot is lifted, becomes filled with water. There is no appearance of danger, but suddenly the traveller sinks. He looks at his feet, and the sand covers them. He wishes to turn back, but his efforts only make him sink more deeply. With terror he perceives that he is in a quicksand. He throws down his burden, but it is too late. He finds he is slowly being buried alive! The sand reaches to his waist—to his chest—to his neck—now only his face is visible. He cries, but alas! none hear. At last the sand fills his mouth, and all is silent—his eyes, and the curtain is drawn. He is swallowed up. So of the man who persists inveterately in a course of sin.” [Anon.]
THE DECEITFULNESS OF SIN
“The wages that sin bargains with the sinner are life, pleasure, and profit; but the wages it pays him with are death, torment, and destruction. He that would understand the falsehood and deceit of sin thoroughly, must compare its promises with its payments.” [South.]
“The approaches of sin are like the conduct of Jael—‘It brings forth butter in a lordly dish.’ It bids high for the soul. But when it has fascinated and lulled the victim, the nail and the hammer are behind.” [Cecil.]
“Sin has always two aspects—that which she assumes before the deed is done, and that which she puts on after having ensnared her dupe, and hung her fetters on his soul. How musical in the ear of Judas was the jingle of the thirty pieces of silver, while the bribe was dangling in the purse of the treasurer of the chief priests and scribes! Yet, how dull was its ring, as he dashed them down upon the table in his agony, after their lustre had been tarnished by the tinge of harmless blood! How fair was the enchantress when she came with her promises; yet how hard and haggard were her mocking features when the mask had fallen and the real face was seen! It is always so. There is many a deadly poison which is pleasant to the taste—many a fatal lullaby which is charming to the ear—many a Dead Sea apple which is tempting to the eye—many a cruel hand which is as soft as velvet. Sin is a siren while she tempts, but an ugly, raw-boned hag when she has her prey within her toils. Those tresses which appear so comely may change to snakes to sting the hand which smooths them; those dovelike, winsome eyes that swim so wantonly shall flash like basilisks upon you, if you are captivated by their blandishments.
“In the Halls of the Inquisition there was a beautiful statue of a virgin. The painter’s tenderest strokes had been used to give loveliness to the face, and the sculptor’s utmost skill had been enlisted to add charm to charm in the rounded moulding of form and limb. The white arms were undraped, and extended wide as though to embrace; the eye and lip, and whole attitude, were full of winning invitation, and the professing penitent was led into this fair presence, and commanded to advance and embrace the figure. As soon as he drew near, the fair white arms encircled him, not with the caress of love, but with the vice-like clutch of vengeance, and the bosom opened and lips expanded, and a hundred gleaming knives shot from the virgin figure, transfixing the victim with a hundred scarlet stabs. The parted lips pushed forth a barbed tongue, and showed fanged teeth to acerate and tear. In short, the beauty was transformed into a beast, the fairy form became an armoury of poignards, whose every charm concealed a dagger, and whose every grace was death.
“So it is with sin. Decking her bed with roses, she merges her poison-breath amidst their fragrance, and lulls her silly victim with a counterfeit repose. Oh rest not on her pillow, for a serpent coils beneath it! Wander not amidst her bowers, for wasps are honeying amidst her blossoms and leaving their stings in the core of all her fruits. Recline not upon the sunny knolls, for volcanic lava lurks under the moss, and the fire of hell lights up her transient heaven. ‘My son! when sinners entice thee, consent thou not.’ ” [Mursell.]
Allurements of sin. “There is a tree called the Judas tree. The blossoms appear before the leaves, and they are of brilliant crimson. The flaming beauty of the flowers attracts innumerable insects; and the wandering bee is drawn to it to gather honey. But every bee that alights upon the blossoms imbibes a fatal opiate, and drops dead from among the crimson flowers to the earth. Beneath this enticing tree the earth is strewed with the victims of its fatal fascinations. That fatal plant that attracts only to destroy is a vivid emblem of the deceitfulness and deadliness of sin. For the poison of sin’s bewitching flowers, there is but one remedy. It is found “in the leaves of the ‘tree of life’ that groweth on Mount Calvary.” [Cuyler.]
Avoid the beginnings of sin. “Those who would not fall into the river must not approach too near the banks. He who crushes the egg need not fear the flight of the bird. He who would not drink of the wine of wrath, must not touch the cup of pleasure. He who would not hear the passing-bell of eternal death, should not finger the rope of sin. The man who carries gunpowder cannot stand too far from the fire. If we go with sin one mile, it will compel us to go twain. It swells like Elijah’s cloud, from the size of a man’s hand till it covers the whole sky.” [Secker.]
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 4:3
III. Resort anew to Prayer. “The children of Israel cried unto the Lord,” etc., under their oppression.
This they had done twice before when similarly situated—in the time of the Syrian invasion from the North East, and again when crushed under the heel of the Moabitish king. It indicates two things:
(1.) The whole land became a scene of prayer. From every corner streams of supplication went up from penitent hearts to Him that was able to save. It was no longer confined to the few Israelites indeed, who were accustomed at all times to call on God, and whom God regarded as his “remembrancers,” in times of peace as well as in the evil days; but the whole nation were on their knees.
(2.) The cry was importunate. The extreme pressure of the calamity made it so. To a large extent, doubtless, the motives were defective, yet God is pleased sometimes to hear an earnest cry and grant the deliverance asked where there is only the appearance of genuine prayer. Such is the compassion of His nature. It is, however, only temporal blessings that are so given. Spiritual gifts are reserved for those exclusively who become His children. Where there is faith along with it, importunity is sure to prevail in the long run. But the chief feature to which the God of Israel would have regard in the present case would be the call of His own children, who could hold Him by the girdle of His faithfulness, and who would take no denial. Here we see:
I. The gates of prayer still open. After so long a time, God’s ear is still open. Long and grievously had the people sinned. In the face of warning and remonstrance, while the trumpet of reconciliation was blowing, and Mercy kept pleading and imploring, by every argument she could devise, they sinned. By three long epochs of rebellion against their covenant God, was the page of their history darkened. “Forty years had their God suffered their manners in the wilderness,” and now for four times forty more, when settled in the land of their inheritance, had He continued to bear with their frowardness, while not improved, but tending to become worse than before. How could it be expected that His ear would be open to their prayer as at first? Had no Divine jealousy been awakened in the Divine bosom? Were such persistent profanation of the Divine name, and such incorrigible perversity of nature to be always allowed to happen, without producing any change on the privilege of prayer? Might we not fear that Jehovah would now turn to them the back of His throne and allow the arm of His justice to work unimpeded by the voice of mercy? After this people had for 160 years turned a deaf ear to the voice of their God, it was surely natural to expect that He would act as One who had “forgotten to be gracious, and in anger had shut up His tender mercies?” Would he not now say: “When ye spread forth your hands I will hide mine eyes from you, and when ye make many prayers I will not hear—your hands are full of sins.” Yet His ear is still open, and mainly for two reasons:—
1. God’s long-suffering. From first to last He retains His great name which He made known to Moses. “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth.” An old writer says: “God’s most wonderful attribute is His patience.” Though deeply offended with every individual act of sin, He can wait a thousand years before inflicting the punishment due, should the claims of righteousness permit. He is the King Eternal; and His patience is not to be measured by a man’s standard. Were it to be so estimated, this people had long ere now been swept off the face of the earth. But His own account of Himself is: “I will not execute the fierceness of mine anger and destroy Ephraim, for I am God and not man. I am Jehovah, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”
He is far above the irritation and fretfulness of a creature nature. His Majestic Being is not liable to be ruffled by any storms of rebellion that may arise under His throne. With all His supreme hatred to sin, He ever retains absolute self-command. There is no ill-considered haste (as often happens with man), in closing up the channels of mercy on account of extreme provocation given. “The Lord is slow to anger” (Nahum 1:3), literally, of wide nostrils אֶרֶךְ אַפּיִמ. When the nostrils are narrow, the anger that burns in the bosom has little room to escape, so that there is great agitation in the frame. But when the nostrils are wide, the heaving of the bosom is relieved, and there is free outlet. There is no agitation or heaving of the nature when the anger comes forth. There is great anger, yet absolute self-possession. There is vehement anger, yet no hasty expression of it. In Judges 4:2 it is said, “The Lord is בִעַל חֵמָה a master of anger,” as if He could command the possession of it to any extent; and yet He retains perfect composure. So differently must we think of God from the thoughts we have of man. His anger is never wrongly directed, nor breaks loose from control, as blind passion does in the case of man.
It is added, “He is great in power.” He not only has power over all the creatures, but has power also over Himself. He shows this in being guided not by mere feeling, but by holy principles in the expression of His anger, by righteousness, truth, and faithfulness as well as mercy and compassion (Numbers 14:18). Our God is “the God of patience.” (Romans 15:5). “He waits to be gracious,” and so keeps the gate of mercy open all the day of life long. His patience is the silence of His justice, and the tender whispering of His mercy.
2. Provision is made for keeping the gates open. The way of approach to God is called “a living way”; a way which must always continue open, on account of what has been done both to get it opened, and to keep it open. It is a way that cannot be blocked up. It is like a fountain that always keeps flowing. Everything in the gospel is of a living character. It speaks of a “living hope” (or “lively”), one that will never wither; “living bread,” such as never becomes moulded, and gives life to him that partakes of it; “living water” and “living fountains of water,” always fresh and refreshing; and “living stones,” stones possessing the strange property of life, without losing the properties of solidity, strength, and durability. And the way of access is a “living way.” How is it so?
(1.) The propitiating blood is always efficacious. The Lamb in the midst of the throne always appears “as it had been slain,” i.e. as if newly slain. The blood seems fresh to this day, as if in the act of trickling from the wound. It never coagulates or becomes vitiated, but is always warm and full of virtue, as when it first flowed from the vein. There is “no remembrance any more of the sins” that are confessed over this sacrifice. “We are sanctified by the offering of the person of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 9:26.) His blood is “a fountain opened for sin,” without any stone on the mouth of it, and it flows perennially.
(2) The great Intercessor lives to keep it open. It cannot be that any work of a Divine person should be merely temporary. For His own honour and for the Father’s honour, He lives to see that His great work should have everlasting results. “Our great High Priest is passed into the heavens—let us therefore come boldly unto the throne.” “He ever liveth to make intercession for us.” “This man continueth ever.” Seen by the seer of Patmos in His exalted and permanent state, in the heavenly world, He was “clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the breasts with a golden girdle,” i.e. the robe of blue, the distinctive official robe of the high priest, showing that in heaven He was still at work, and always could continue to be at work in His priestly character keeping the way of access open. He also had on “the curious girdle of the ephod,” which was virtually the working coat of the priestly office.
(3.) God’s names imply that the gates are always open. He is addressed as—“Thou that hearest prayer,” as if that were His perpetual attitude toward man. He is often called “the God of Jacob,” and He often takes this name to Himself, because of the delight He takes in those who have much of the spirit of prayer. Still more emphatic is the corresponding name—“the God of Israel”—the God of the man who, in prayer, “as a prince, had power with God and prevailed.” It is also recorded, “I said not unto the seed of Jacob, seek ye me in vain.” It is implied also in the name, “the God of peace,” which implies that He is accessible to men. Or, more emphatically still, He is said to be “God in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself,” etc. This is His fixed attitude throughout New Testament times.
(4.) His seat implies it. It is a “throne of grace.” Anciently it was called a “mercy-seat,” because blood was sprinkled upon it, and justice, however stern, was satisfied, so that Mercy could freely flow forth. And now through all time, “He slumbers not.” A suppliant never can come and find the gate shut.
(5.) His standing promises regarding prayer imply it. “His ears are open to the cry of the righteous.” “He will fulfil the desire of them that fear Him.” “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver thee.” “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in Him and He will bring it to pass.” “And all the promises of God are in Christ, yea, and in Him, Amen.”
(6.) His readiness to hear every class of suppliants implies it. Even the ruthless persecutor of God’s church (Acts 9:11); the bloody Manasseh (2 Chronicles 33:12-13); the destitute, and the groaning prisoner (Psalms 102:17; Psalms 102:20); those who accept the punishment of their iniquity (Leviticus 26:41-42); the broken hearted penitent (Psalms 51:17); the penitent thief (Luke 23:42-43); and many others.
(7.) His constant attitude of expectancy that men will pray to Him. “When thou prayest, be not as the hypocrites,” implying that they are expected to pray without being told to do so. Mark 11:24; John 14:13-14; John 15:7; Jeremiah 29:12-13; Jeremiah 31:18, etc.; Isaiah 65:24; Isaiah 58:9; Ephesians 3:20.
“The doors of the church are thrown open but once a week, and the communion table is but occasionally spread; but the pages of the Bible are always open, and the gates of prayer, like those of heaven, are never shut. Prayer is like a private postern, through which by night as well as by day, we have the privilege of access to the palace and the presence of the King. Prayer is the first door that is open to us, and it is the last that is shut. When a man is tossing on his death-bed and cannot read his Bible; when even he is unable to give assent to the promises that we pour into his ear, he still can offer up some petitions to the throne of grace. Mark those moving lips! behold he prayeth! and his spirit flies heavenward on the wings of prayer.” [Guthrie.]
II. The baseness of praying to God only in adversity. While the sun of peace shone, these Israelites gave themselves to the worship of idols, and indulged themselves in their sins. They refused to walk with God and cast His laws behind their backs. But when the storm now arises, and the waves of trouble threaten to overwhelm them, immediately they return confessing their error. It is indeed right to pray and confess sin under all circumstances. But what should we think of a friend that never paid us a visit except when he had got into difficulties and came merely to borrow. To pray to God only in emergencies, after we have tried other refuges all round and found them false, and we go to Him as a last resort because we cannot do better—this is most base, and might well fill a man with shame and confusion of face. “The servile man plies his prayers, as sailors do their pumps, only in a storm, or when fearful of sinking.” [Secker.]
The proper rule of the christian life is to keep up intercourse with God at all times. David says, “I have set the Lord always before me; He is at my right hand. Evening, morning, and at noon will I pray and cry aloud, and He shall hear my voice.” How diligent and proficient he was in closet duties and exercises these perennially interesting Psalms testify. The result was, he was not “greatly moved” even when the mountain billows passed over him. Cornelius “prayed to God always.” In due time an abundant answer was given. Daniel at the height of power knelt before his God three times a day, and could be calm under the stern trial through which he had to pass. Job was careful to keep up intercourse with God in his family-circle in the day of prosperity, and so stood prepared for the day of adversity. Read the first paragraph of Job I. with the last paragraph, and see how “the prudent man forseeth the evil and hideth himself.”
The condition of heathen families is described as that of those who “do not call on God’s name.” God complains of His own Israel that they restrained prayer before Him. Isaiah 43:22; Psalms 81:10-11; Hosea 5:4, with Judges 4:15; Judges 6:1-3. Not till He slew them did they return and inquire after God. Psalms 78:34. But when trouble was removed, “they turned back and tempted God,” comp. Deuteronomy 32:15. Here Jehovah complains that notwithstanding God’s goodness to them in settling them in the land, “they forsook the Lord God of their fathers and served other gods.” Only when a mountain wave overwhelmed them did they think of coming back to their God.
Beecher says, “How poor is prayer when men are driven to it by the whip, and they resort to it only when they feel the lash of trouble on their back! What would you think of a son that never went home to his father, except when he was in debt, and had the sheriff at his heels, and wanted help; but the moment that he obtained relief forgot that father again, and had no further intercourse with him till he was again in trouble?”
III. Prayer specially suitable to times of great distress. Though it was base to come to God only in great emergencies, it was natural and most proper that Israel should come to Him as their refuge in the day of great calamity. For “to whom should a people go but to their God?” The whole Book of Psalms is the record of seeking God in distress, with the invariable happy result of doing so. Many special examples of the wisdom of such a course occur throughout Scripture—1 Samuel 30:6; Genesis 32:7; Genesis 32:9-12; Genesis 32:24-30; Exodus 17:11-12; Exodus 32:10-14; Joshua 7:6-9; Judges 15:18-19; Isaiah 38:1-5; Daniel 9:0; James 5:13; Psalms 50:15; Psalms 130:1; Matthew 8:25; Matthew 17:14-15; Jonah 1:6; John 11:3; John 11:21-22; Acts 6:4; Acts 12:12; Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18 (in the evil day); Judges 3:13-14; Colossians 4:2-3; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2; Hebrews 4:16 (time of need); 1 Peter 5:7.
Gethsemane teaches us profound lessons on this subject, both by precept and example; and it is by following the Master’s example in “offering up prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, unto Him that is able to save,” that we may expect to fight our way successfully to the crown of glory. It is through prayer that all great deliverances come now. Thus Joshua gained every battle; thus Joseph rose from the pit of Dothan and the dungeons of Egypt to the position of being ruler over all the land of Egypt; thus Hezekiah turned the tide of battle to the gate, when encompassed with formidable hosts; thus Elijah proved more than a match for the King of Israel with the whole nation at his back; thus Jacob changed the heart of his brother Esau, and earned an undying fame; thus Samson “out of weakness became strong,” and slew more of the enemy at his death than he had done during his life; thus Jonah escaped from the most hopeless prison into which a living man was ever cast; thus Paul and Silas awakened the slumbering arm of Omnipotence, and the solid walls of their prison shook, while the barred and bolted gates became loose in a moment, as flax at the touch of fire; thus, too, did the Apostles gain all their victories against the enemies of the Church in the early years of her ever-memorable history.
“Sinking times are praying times with the Lord’s people. Peter neglected prayer when starting on his perilous journey, but when he began to sink his danger made him a suppliant, and his cry, though late, was not too late. In our hours of bodily pain and mental anguish, we find ourselves as naturally driven to prayer as the wreck is driven upon the shore by the waves. The fox hies to its hole for protection; the bird flies to the wood for shelter; and so the tried believer hastens to the mercy-seat for safety. Heaven’s great harbour of refuge is All Prayer; thousands of weather-beaten vessels have found a haven there, and the moment a storm comes on, it is wise for us to make for it with all sail.” [Spurgeon.]
IV. Great trials lead to greater earnestness in prayer. It was when these Israelites came into deep waters that they found the practical value of the privilege of prayer; it was then too that they began in good earnest to pray. The more crushing the calamity that befel them, and the deeper sense they had of their own insufficiency to cope with it, the more eager was their application to the divine footstool, and the more fast was the hold they took of the divine promises. It is when “deep calls unto deep” that prayer becomes a cry. Langour is exchanged for ardour, and the soul pants with desire for the blessing needed. Lukewarmness disappears, and all the force of the instinct of self-preservation is thrown into the cry for relief. Its language is, “My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.” There is a pouring out of the heart before God. The heart is enlarged. Prayer is no longer a bondage but a blessed relief. An old writer remarks, “As music upon the water sounds farther and more harmoniously than upon the land, so do prayers joined with tears.”
Would Jacob have wrestled so hard but for the great pressure put upon him by the approach of the revengeful Esau? Would Abraham have carried on the argument so skilfully on behalf of doomed Sodom but for the fact that he knew the ministers of wrath were already on their way, and were on the point of pouring out their vials? Would David have been so excellent a pattern of the manner in which closet duties should be performed, had he not been so often cast into the furnace when seven times heated? He who has sounded the lowest depths of sorrow can take the firmest grasp of the girdle of the Divine faithfulness. And he who has been most heavily overloaded with a weight of care and anxiety is likely to become most skilful in the use of the weapon—all-prayer. Thus does God bring good out of evil, and make great trials “yield in the end the peaceable fruits of righteousness.”
COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS.—Judges 4:3
THE EXCELLENCE OF PRAYER
Prayer and an open Bible are the greatest of all Christian privileges. They constitute the means by which all others are enjoyed. It is through these that the devout believing soul transacts all its business of communion with God. Through the one we make known all our thoughts, wishes and feelings to our God; and through the other God speaks to us, revealing His mind and will. Prayer, of which only we now speak, is also a highly elevating and purifying exercise. “It is, in one choice handful, Heaven!” For the work of Heaven is praise, arising from answered prayer. It is the soul in audience with its God, heaving sighs at the footstool which shall become songs on the throne. From no exercise can greater soul-profit be reaped when it is well performed. It is fitting therefore that now, when the subject is before us formally, it should be carefully considered.
I. Prayer specially glorifying to God.
It is so for two reasons:—
1. It ascribes to God the glory of His perfections. Prayer does this by its very attitude, and as offered in the name of Christ, whatever the special matter of the petitions presented may be, or whatever confessions are made.
(1.) It assumes His sovereignty—that He is the Great Supreme, before whom every knee shall bow, “of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things,”—the Maker of all, the Possessor of all, and the Worshipped of all. The great Roman said, “I will be Cæsar or no one.” Prayer assumes that if God is to be acknowledged as God, He must be held as Sovereign in His own universe—that the first duty of the creature should be to adore and obey its Creator, and that all the blessings which God confers on his creatures are bestowed of His own good pleasure.
(2.) It ascribes to Him all-sufficiency—that He possesses boundless riches of blessings. The suppliant feels himself but a tiny insect at the door of the Divine all sufficiency, just as an ant might be supposed to lie at the door of a large storehouse, but could only take a single grain of wheat from the vast abundance.
(3.) It ascribes boundless benevolence—that He is so kind, as of His own goodness to open His hand and supply the wants of every living thing. It supposes that He finds the greatest pleasure in making His creatures happy by showering His gifts upon them, through Jesus Christ, the appointed channel.
(4.) It assumes His faithfulness and truth—that He cannot violate His word, but will remain true to His promises in all circumstances and times.
(5.) It supposes Him to be omnipresent—so that from any spot on earth, or in the vast creation, prayer might rise up before Him.
(6.) It also ascribes omniscience—that He can hear the thoughts and musings of the heart, equally with the utterances of the voice.
(7.) And omnipotence—that He can do all that is asked without fail—no proper wish but He can gratify; no want but He can supply; no danger but He can remove; no fear but He can dissipate; no enemy but He can subdue—that “He is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.”
(8.) Also unchangeableness—that however often we approach, and however changing the circumstances, He is always the same in character—a rock amid a sea of change—that the “strength of Israel will not lie.”
All this is assumed by every right-hearted petitioner that comes before the Divine footstool, and thus prayer is reckoned to be most honouring to God.
2. In prayer the creature takes its right place before God—and so God is greatly honoured. It is weakness laying hold of strength—the child of yesterday, throwing itself into the arms of the Everlasting Father—the thing made, bowing itself before Him that made it. It is the empty cistern placing itself at the fountain-head. It is the homage of felt subjection rendered to acknowledged supremacy. Prayer offered through Christ as the appointed way of approach to God is the soul coming to the throne of God’s holiness on His own terms laid down for receiving the guilty and undeserving.
Prayer is often the exercise in which the soul passes out of darkness into light, or when it first draws the breath of spiritual life. It marks the moment when the soul becomes “dead unto sin but alive unto God through Jesus Christ the Lord.” Thus does prayer on all sides greatly honour God.
But all is not prayer that is called prayer. When prayer is a mere formality, it is not counted. Though Saul of Tarsus prayed for years with devout regularity as a Pharisee, none of his exercises were listened to till he began to pray as a penitent. On the same principle, most prayers of most people are never counted prayers at all. A man who had been taught to pray when he was three years’ old, and was converted in his old age, used to say: “I am the old man who said his prayers for seventy years, and yet all the time never prayed at all.” It is of the greatest importance to know what kind of offerings will be acceptable to God. There is a holy skill in the conducting of this exercise which all who really wish to draw down blessings from above, must set themselves to learn. There is an art in prayer, and the art mainly is to be, above all things natural.
Luther understood this art when he adopted the motto—“bene precasse est bene studuisse.” When most pressed with gigantic toils, he said: “I have so much to do that I cannot get on without three hours a day of praying.”
General Havelock rose at four, if the hour for marching was six, rather than lose the precious privilege of communion with God before setting out.
Sir Matthew Hale says: “If I omit praying and reading God’s Word in the morning, nothing goes well all day.”
Dr. Payson, when a student, said: “Since I began to beg God’s blessing on my studies, I have done more in one week than in a whole year before.” These men knew the art of acceptable prayer.
II. Acceptable Prayer.
All true prayer to God will be answered sooner or later in some form. There is not a single case of refusal on record. Such a case as that of Moses is only an apparent exception. (Deuteronomy 3:25-26). He got more than an equivalent. “The Lord buried him,” and after death he opened his eyes on the heavenly Canaan! “Everyone that asketh receiveth.” No man ever yet perished at mercy’s gate. No petition sincerely offered in the name of Jesus ever fell to the ground. Look at the long list of applicants who came to Jesus “in the days of His flesh.” None were put away. It is not doubtful whether we shall be answered, if we pray in the required spirit—humbly, penitently, believingly. But we must leave God to take His own time and His own way of giving the answer.
Were there only a possibility of success, such is the urgency of our case as sin-burdened and helpless, that we might well implore our God importunately to answer us. The four lepers at the gate of Samaria acted on a mere peradventure (2 Kings 7:3-5), yet were successful. Esther was not sure of the king’s favour, yet she went in to the royal presence. Jonah’s companions in the ship could only say “call on thy God if so be that God will think on us.” The heathen deities were supposed often to spurn their suppliants away instead of hearing them. Yet not the less earnestly did they come again with the cry, “O Baal, hear us!” But we have the sure word of Him who is “the Amen—Faithful and True.” (Matthew 21:22.) What an encouragement to ask, seek, knock until it be opened to us!
Acceptable prayer must be:—
1. Personal—the exercise of the man himself. His own heart must be engaged in it, though there should be a thousand present. Without this there might be “dew on the ground” all round about, but our “fleece” would be dry. It will not do to have others praying for us; we must also pray for ourselves. We must also often pray alone; for we have sinned alone, must die alone, and will be judged alone. We should have our own secret place for meeting with God—our “fig tree,” like Nathanael; our “house-top,” like Peter; the open “field,” like Isaac; the “plain,” like Ezekiel; the “river-side,” like Daniel; or even the “dungeon,” like Jeremiah; “the depths,” like David; down “at the bottom of the mountains,” like Jonah; or like the Master Himself, “the desert place or the mountain side.”
2. Simple and sincere. (a) Not artificial, not mechanical. What a drudgery is such prayer! The mere pronouncing of words for a certain length of time, along with the bending of the knee, is by many reckoned a respectful offering up of prayer. And yet it is scarcely better than the conduct of the Thibetan, who puts his written prayers into a cylinder, which revolves on a handle, and which he twirls by the aid of a ball and chain, each revolution counting for an offering of the enclosed petition. Sometimes the cylinder is attached to running water, and thus “praying without ceasing” is carried on by water-power. We pity the poor Buddhist, who ties his prayers to a bamboo stick and waves them many times before his idol god, each oscillation being a repetition of the prayer; or, we pity the Tavist, in China who writes out a statement of his case on paper, with a request accompanying it, and then entrusts it to the priest who burns it, and determines for the suppliant whether his case will be considered favourably by the god or not. Yet what better is the position of the man who repeats formally the words of prayer, without having in his heart anything of the spirit of the exercise? Better indeed than the mere formalist was the case of the man who wished sincerely to pray, but, being entirely ignorant of how to proceed, went every morning before the Lord, and repeated the letters of the alphabet saying, “and now, O good God, put these letters together into words, to make such sense as may be most to thy glory and my good.”
(b) real. The talk of the little child has nothing in it of the grace of speech or beauty of language, and yet it is more pleasing to the father’s ear than the sweetest music, or the most mellifluous phraseology. So it is with the hearer of prayer, who, “before all temples made with hands, prefers the upright heart and true.” It is said of Him, “thou desireth truth in the inward parts.” The great art in praying is to be artless. Eloquence or any straining for effect is a blemish, and a detraction from the acceptability of prayer. The more natural and true, the nearer to success. Our interjections may be prayers. Our sighing may be praying. The bursting forth of our real feelings or wishes, however simple the clothing. A grief or a care, or a genuine wish, expressed by a penitent, humble heart, trusting in the Saviour’s advocacy, and relying on the Divine promises is the kind of offering which God desires.
3. Reverent. He whom the Father always hears teaches us to approach Him with these words on our lips—“Our Father who art in Heaven; hallowed be Thy Name!” “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of His saints, and to be had in reverence of all that are about Him.” South says, “we are to keep our distance from God in our very approaches to Him.” We approach to an Infinite Majesty; One who fills heaven and earth, before whom the seraphim cry aloud, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty!” We come as dust and ashes, confessing we are vile, and rebels against the “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Therefore our spirit ought to be that of the publican (Luke 18:13), or that of Elijah, when “he cast himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees” (1 Kings 18:42), or that of Abraham when he said, “Behold, I have now taken upon me to speak unto the Lord;” “O, let not the Lord be angry and I will speak” (Genesis 18:27-32); or that even of the seraphim, each of whom with two of his wings covered his face, as being ashamed, though a seraph, to stand uncovered before so much excellence; with other two wings he covered his feet, lest even a seraph’s foot should pollute ground so holy; and with his remaining two wings he stood ready to fly swiftly as the lightning, at the lightest whisper that comes from the throne. The holiest of creatures are the most full of godly fear, and have their places nearest the throne.
4. Believing. This exercise is the very least we can give to God as a foundation of intercourse with Him—to trust Him in all that He does, and believe Him in all that He says. But on that footing a great deal may be done—the whole business of the soul’s salvation may be transacted. If we but believe all He has told us about Christ as a Saviour, and trust His character as revealed in Christ, what a mighty impression it must make on the heart. We shall have “boldness at the throne”—the boldness of the little child that climbs his father’s knee, and throws his arms around his neck.
“Prayer is the key of heaven, and faith is the hand that turns it. Faith is to prayer as the feather is to the arrow; faith feathers the arrow of prayer, and makes it fly swifter and pierce the throne of grace. Prayer that is faithless is fruitless” (Mark 11:24). [Watson.]
Many pray to God for pardon and peace, for hope and spiritual joy, as if they did not believe that God were listening to their words, or as if they thought He grudged to give them such things. The promises made to believe in prayer are most explicit (Matthew 21:22; John 14:13-14; Mark 9:23; James 1:5-6; Jeremiah 29:12-13; John 15:7; John 16:24; 1 John 5:14-15).
5. With the use of all the arguments. When an advocate undertakes to plead a cause, he looks at the case on all sides, and, not content with one argument or two, he carefully treasures up every plea he can devise, so that by any means he may bring off his case successfully. And when we come before God we are directed “to take with us words”—both our own words suitable for expressing our needs and desires, and also such words as God has supplied us with as arguments, in order to plead with Him. We are like Job, though not in his self-justifying spirit to “order our cause before God, and fill our mouth with arguments.” We are not to be content with always quoting the same passages of Scripture—those with which we are most familiar—but to turn over the whole Bible in every part, and make use of all its promises and gracious statements, each in turn. God wishes us to honour every part of His word on the one hand, and on the other He delights to see us gathering up all the pleas with which He has furnished us, so as to make the most of our case. He loves us to reason with Him, “Come, let us reason together.” “Produce your cause with the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob.” “Hear, O mountains, the Lord’s controversy, for the Lord hath a controversy with His people.” And especially is it said, “Put me in remembrance, let us plead together, declare thou, that thou mayst be justified.” This is a direct call to make use of all the promises or examples, or gracious statements that we find anywhere within the limit of the blessed volume, which contains the revelation of God’s will, and to hold Him by the girdle of His faithfulness, saying, “We will not let thee go, except thou bless us.” The mightier anyone is in the word, the mightier will he be in prayer.
6. Fervent. The blessings of God’s hand are so valuable, we are in such necessity to have them, and there are such strong reasons for our losing no time to secure them, that a state of fervour is the natural frame for us always to cultivate. Also God is much more disposed to answer an earnest wish than a feeble wish, for the former puts a higher estimate on His blessings than the other. Hence the power of Elijah’s prayers (James 5:16-18).
“Cold prayer is no more prayer than painted fire is fire. Fervency is to prayer what fire was to the spices in the censer; it makes it ascend to heaven as a sweet perfume. Prayer without fervency is no prayer; it is speaking, not praying: lifeless prayer is no more prayer than the picture of a man is a man. Fervent prayer, like a petard set against heaven’s gates makes them fly open. Christ prayed with strong cries.” [Watson].
“One great extremity is approaching death. What can then support us? Prayer—Fervent, earnest, wrestling prayer. With our blessed Lord, prayer was a refuge from the storm; almost every word He uttered during that tremendous scene was prayer—the most earnest, the most urgent; repeated, continued proceeding from the recesses of the soul; private, solitary; prayer for deliverance, for strength, above all for resignation.” [Paley.]
“A small vessel with smart gales will sail faster than a large ship with small winds. When prayer mounts on the wing of fervour to God, then answers come down like lightning from God.” [Seeker.]
“The arrow, though well pointed and feathered, is of little use unless pulled to the head by a strong hand.” [Pilkington.]
Prayer if only dribbled forth from careless lips falls at our feet. It is the strength of fervour which sends it to heaven, and makes it pierce the clouds. It is not the arithmetic of our prayers, how many they are; nor the rhetoric of our prayers, how eloquent they be; nor the geometry of our prayers, how long they be; nor their music, how sweet the voice may be; nor their logic, how argumentative they may be; nor their method, how orderly they may be: nor even their divinity, how good their doctrine may be—which God values. But fervency of spirit “availeth much.” (James 5:16.) [Bp. Hall.]
“It is like the rope in the belfry. Prayer pulls the rope below, and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly; others give but an occasional pluck at the rope; but he who wins heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might.” [Spurgeon.]
7. Daily and without ceasing.
Beecher says, “Let the day have a blessed baptism by giving your first waking thoughts into the bosom of God. The first hour of the morning is the rudder of the day.”
Spurgeon says, “Keep on pulling the bell in the belfry, and though the bell is so high up that you cannot hear it ring, depend upon it it can be heard in the tower of heaven, and is ringing before the throne of God, who will give you answers of peace according to your faith.”
Trapp says, “A good Christian is daily either praying or praising, or both. He drives a constant trade betwixt earth and heaven.”
Henry says, “Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.”
Guthrie says, “It is as impossible for the soul to live and thrive without daily prayer as for the body to do so without daily food. Our graces are like plants that need daily watering; watches that need daily winding; lamps that need daily filling; bodies that need daily feeding.”
Talmage says, “A good day begins with God; a wise merchant would no more think of going to business without communion with Christ than of going to the store without coat, hat, or shoes. I had a poor watch and used to set it every morning in order to make a guess from it about the time of day. Our souls are poor timepieces, utterly out of order. Every morning we need to set them by the Sun of Righteousness.”
Gurnall says, “He who closes his eyes at night without prayer lies down before his bed is made. He is like a foolish captain in a garrison who betakes himself to rest before he has set the watch for the city’s safeguard. God is His people’s keeper; but can he expect to be kept by Him, who chargeth not Divine Providence with his keeping? The angels pitch their tents round the saints’ dwellings, but as the drum calls the watch together, so God expects that by humble prayer we beg of Him their ministry and attendance.”
Gurnall adds (in 1 Thessalonians 5:17), service and prayer are the warp and woof of the Christian life, of which every part of it is composed. Both are in the groundwork of the stuff. Prayer at stated seasons is good and necessary; but a proper Christian will find it impossible to confine his prayers to stated seasons. He will discover that—
“Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,
The Christian’s native air,”
and that to attempt to carry on the spiritual life without more prayer than a short recital in the morning and the same on retiring to rest is equally absurd with a man opening his casement morning and evening and inhaling the fresh air for a few minutes, and then saying to himself that amount of breathing will suffice for the rest of the day. We must always be in the spirit of prayer, and so “pray without ceasing.”
Salter put it, “The bird is not always on the wing, but is ready to fly at any moment.”
8. Importunate. No Christian should in any case despond, because for a time he is not heard. The rule laid down for all by the Master Himself is, that “men should always pray and not faint.” Nay, we must go further. Since our privilege is so great in having a living advocate on high—a Great High Priestwithin the veil, we ought to “come boldly to the throne of grace,” as those who are assured of being heard. We are to throw an earnestness into our prayers like that of Jacob (Genesis 32:26,)—to “pray with groanings or desires that are too great for expression.” When we can put our finger on a promise, and go to God with a “Thou saidst,” our course is to persevere importunately, for God cannot deny Himself, and we are sure of success if we hold on.
“Our prayers are our bills of exchange, and they are allowed in heaven, when they come from trustful and earnest hearts; but if we be broken in our religion and bankrupts of grace, God will protest our bills; He will not be won with our prayers. [Adams.]
How often have I seen a little child throw its arms round its father’s neck, and win by kisses and importunities what had been refused? Is God less pitiful than we? [Guthrie.]
9. Submissive. Everything we receive from the throne of grace is a favour—an undeserved gift, and therefore all that we ask should be asked in submission to the will of the Great Giver. The tone of every right prayer should be, “Not my will but thine be done!” Besides, it would be presumptuous in us to be supposed to dictate to God what He should give us. It is not for us on any account to prescribe to Him. We dare not suppose that He will bestow His gifts according to our caprice or ill-considered wishes, but according to what he judges to be wise and good. Farther, it might often be the case that the prayers which we offer up, and those of the blessed Advocate might conflict, so that He might be asking one thing for us at the throne while we might be asking another.
“Many times Jesus and His people pull against one another in prayer. You bend your knee and say, “Father, I will that thy saints be with me where I am.” Christ says, “Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am.” Thus the disciple is at cross-purposes with his Lord. The beloved one cannot be with Christ and with you too. Now, which pleader shall win the day? If the king himself should step from his throne and put it to you, “Here are two supplicants praying in opposition to one another; which shall be answered?” Surely you would say, “Well, whatever it costs me, Jesus, not my will, but thine be done!” [Spurgeon.]
10. Watchful. He that prays and watches not, is like him that sows a field with precious seed, but leaves the gate open for hogs to come in and root it up; or him that takes great pains to get money, but no care to lay it up safely when he hath it.” [Gurnall.]
We ought to watch our prayers to see what success we have at the throne. “Children shoot arrows on purpose to loose them, and never so much as look where they light; but men when they shoot, aim at the mark, and go after the arrow, to see how near it falls. So wicked carnal men when they have said, not made their prayers to Almighty God, it is but opus operatum, they have no more regard of them; but God’s children, when they on bended knee dart out their prayers, eye them up into heaven, observe how God entertains them, and wait for a happy return, at His good will and pleasure.” [Wilkinson.]
We are to add watchfulness and thanksgiving together. “Prayer and thanks are like the double motion of the lungs; the air that is sucked in by prayer, is breathed forth again by thanks.”
“Let your requests be made known with thanksgiving. As God hath an open hand to give, so He hath an open eye to see who comes to His door, and to discern between the thankful beggar and the unthankful.” [Gurnall.]
11. In the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is said to “help our infirmities.” and to “make intercession for us with groanings that cannot be uttered.” He is called “the Spirit of grace and of supplications” (Zechariah 12:10). We are said to “pray in the Holy Ghost” (Jude 1:20). We “pray with all prayer and supplication” only by the help of “the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18).
“We must implore the help of God’s Spirit to fix our minds, and make them intent and serious in prayer. The ship without a pilot rather floats than sails. That our thoughts do not float up and down in prayer, we need the Blessed Spirit to be our pilot to steer us. A shaking hand may as well write a line steadily, as we can keep our hearts fixed in prayer without the Spirit of God.” [Watson.]
“As the sails of a ship carry it into the harbour, so prayer carries us to the throne and the bosom of God. But as the sails cannot of themselves speed the progress of a vessel unless filled with a favourable breeze, so the Holy Spirit must breathe on our hearts, or our prayers will be motionless and lifeless.” [Toplady.]
There is need of a spiritual frame inprayer. Our offering must be “inspirit and truth.” The arrow which is shot from a loose cord drops powerless to the ground; but from the tightly drawn bow-string it springs forward, soars upward and reaches the object to which it is directed. So it is not the loose utterance of attempted prayer that is effectual, but the strong earnestness of the heart sending its pointed petitions to heaven, that reaches the Divine ear, and obtains the desired blessing.” [Bowden.]
We must take delight in our prayers, and in order to do this must have the Spirit resting on us. “Delight is the marrow of religion. It makes the melody, without which prayer would be but a harsh sound. God accepts the heart’s offering when it is a gift given, not forced. Joy is the tuning of the soul. We are first to ‘Rejoice evermore,’ then ‘Pray without ceasing.’ Dullness is not suitable to the excellence of the things we pray for. Gospel blessings are a feast. Manna from heaven is not to be sought for with a dumpish heart. With joy we must draw the water out of the wells of salvation. Faith is the bucket, but joy and love are the hands that move it. They are the Aaron and Hur that hold up the hands of Moses.” [Charnock.]
Men never weary of the shining of the sun; so a man who is taught of the Spirit will never weary of spiritual exercises. “The Spirit dwells in us,” and does not depart. Hence there is provision for being always in a devout frame.
“When thou art wrestling like Jacob and art nearly thrown down, ask the Holy Spirit to nerve thine arm. The Holy Spirit is the chariot wheel of prayer. Prayer may be the chariot the desire may draw it forth; but the Spirit is the very wheel whereby it moveth.” [Spurgeon.]
III. Advantages of Prayer. Prayer is of such extensive advantage to the Christian, that it may be said to be an envelope for the whole Christian life. Swinnock says, “As every sacrifice was to be seasoned with salt, so every undertaking and affliction must be sanctified with prayer. It shows the excellence of gold that it is laid upon silver itself, and so it speaks the excellency of prayer, that not only natural but even religious actions are overlaid with it. We pray not only before we eat and drink, but also before we feed on the bread of the word and the bread in the sacrament. Prayer is needed to get a blessing on every providence and every ordinance; it is also needed to make our callings successful. Prayer secures the fort-royal of the heart; it is the porter that keeps the door of the lips; it is the strong hilt which defendeth the hands; it perfumes every relation in life; helps us to profit by every condition; is the chemist that turns all into gold; and is the master workman, who being out of the way, the whole trade stands still, or goeth backward. What the key is to the watch, that prayer is to religion, it winds it up, and sets it going.”
The advantages of prayer are incalculable.
1. It is always good for the soul to be in the presence of its God. “The mind wants steadying and setting right many times a day. It is like a compass placed on a ricketty table; the least stir of the table makes the needle swing round and point untrue. It must settle till it points aright. Stand awhile in the presence of Jesus, in the attitude of prayer, and the thing that worries you will soon drop as a sediment to the bottom, and the soul shall be no longer turbid.” [Goulburn.]
As the earth moves round the sun, exposing every part of its surface in turn to receive his enlightening beams, and be warmed by his genial rays, so by the habit of having recourse to God in prayer in all our states and moods of mind, we are blessed with His charming presence in all our mental experiences however varied. Amid all the dark phases of Providential dealings, we ever turn round to receive afresh the light of the Divine countenance and say, “Truly this light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.” Like Moses in the cleft of the rock we are strengthened by a mere glimpse of the Divine countenance (Psalms 42:5; Psalms 50 a; Psalms 150:0).
Trench says, “If we would measure in some sort the gains of this communion with God, think how much we gain by intercourse with good and holy men, and then conclude from the less to the greater. What ennobling influences does it exercise on the character to live in habitual fellowship with the excellent of the earth, whose conversation is in heaven, and whose tone of mind is always lofty and pure! Unconsciously we catch something of their spirit, and feel that we inhale an atmosphere of health. But how incomparably mightier the reactive influence for good, when we continually enjoy the presence of Him who is highest, purest, and best—in whom all perfections meet, and from whom all true nobleness proceeds!”
Newman adds, “Prayer has a natural effect in spiritualising the soul. A man is not what he was before—gradually he imbibes a new set of ideas, and becomes imbued with fresh principles. He is as one coming from king’s courts with a grace, delicacy, dignity, and propriety—a justness of thought and taste, a clearness and firmness of principle, all his own. As speech is the organ of human society, so is prayer the instrument of Divine fellowship and Divine training.”
Beecher’s conception is, “Prayer is chiefly translation or transfiguration. It was worth more to Peter, James, and John to stand for an hour and see the spirits drawn through the heaven, and talk with Christ, whose face shone as the sun, than if the three tabernacles which they craved had been built of diamonds and rubies on the mountain-tops. It is what we get by the soul that makes us rich.”
2. Prayer is the appointed channel for receiving spiritual blessings. “Ask and ye shall receive.” “Open thy mouth and I will fill it.” “Ye have not, because ye ask not.” We must seek if we are to find. It is the hungry soul that is filled with good things. “Prayer is the vessel by which the good man is continually trading with the Holy Land; he sendeth it out fraught with precious graces—faith hope, desire, love, godly sorrow, and it cometh home many times richly laden with peace, joy and increase of faith.”
The very heathens seemed to feel instinctively that prayer was the natural way of receiving blessing from their God. Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, never addressed an audience without first praying to the gods. Cornelius Scipio, the great Roman General, when he assumed the toga, never undertook any affair of importance without having passed some time alone in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. “The best and noblest action,” says Plato, “which a virtuous man can perform, and that which will most promote his success in life, is to live by vows and prayers, in continual intercourse with the gods; nay, all who would act with due consideration, ought, before beginning any undertaking, great or small, to invoke the Deity.”
3. The warrant is to expect much. “Hitherto ye have asked nothing in my name; ask, and ye shall receive that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24; John 14:13-14; John 15:7; John 15:16.) The terms are “anything”—“whatsoever ye ask.”—“what ye will,” “in everything let your request be made known to God.” When Elisha in God’s name called on the king of Israel to shoot the arrows of deliverance of the Lord’s people from their enemies, the Syrians, the timid monarch smote thrice on the ground and stayed. The prophet was angry that so important a moment should have been half lost by the want of largeness of heart on the part of the king (2 Kings 13:15; 2 Kings 13:19.) Yet this is what most of us are always doing—making mistakes as to how far the measure of the Divine goodness will reach. We hold out a trembling hand, and feel a palpitating heart, when we pray to our God. We feel we deserve nothing, and therefore we ask little, as if our own worthiness were the ground of our asking. If so, we should ask nothing at all, for we have no ground of that kind to stand on. Our natures are so selfish and so carnal that we cannot appreciate that riches of Divine goodness which is set before us in Christ, and so we ask timidly.
The good Philip Henry, after praying for two of his children who were dangerously ill, said, “If the Lord will be pleased to grant this my request, I will not say as the beggars do at our door, ‘I will never ask anything of you again.’ On the contrary, ‘Thou shalt hear oftener from me than ever; and I will love thee better as long as I shall live.’ ” It is said of Alexander the Great that on one occasion he gave permission to one of his favourites with his accustomed generosity to ask of him any gift he pleased. The person so favoured immediately named a large sum of money. The bystanders expected that a frown would instantly overspread the royal countenance. But in place of that the monarch smiled, and gave orders that it should be done as he desired. “That friend, he said, honours me by the largeness of the amount which he asks.” In a certain poem, a man is represented as timidly venturing into God’s presence with a little draft, and God inquires why he did not ask a larger sum, knowing that He delighted to satisfy the longing soul, and would not send the hungry soul empty away. As He said of Jeremiah, so He says still, “Call unto me, and I will shew thee great and mighty things.”
The Armenian Christians, along with many gross fancies, yet believed in the great power of prayer. St. Basil, from his great sanctity, was credited with having an almost resistless power of prayer, so that he not only delivered souls from purgatory, but even lost angels from the abyss of hell. On the sixth day of the creation, when the lost angels fell from heaven through that opening which we call, “The Milky Way,” one unlucky angel, who took no part in the rebellion, yet got entangled in the crowd, and fell with the rebels; nor was this unfortunate spirit restored until long afterwards. St. Basil, coming to understand his condition, made his case the subject of earnest pleadings, and at last was successful in effecting his rescue. His condition meantime, for about 5000 years, must have been very uncomfortable, like that of Klopstock’s repentant demon in the Messiah.
“Man’s plea to man is that he never more
Will beg, and that he never begged before;
Man’s plea to God is, that he did obtain
A former suit, and therefore sues again.
How good a God we serve, that when we sue,
Makes His old gifts the examples of His new!”
4. Prayer is for the spiritual health of the soul. Prayer is the soul spreading its sails to catch the heavenly breeze which is to make it hasten on its voyage on the homeward bound course more rapidly. In prayer, Paul first draws the breath of spiritual life, and in prayer, Stephen breathes his spirit at the point of death into the arms of the Saviour. The praying Christian is the receiving Christian, and so becomes the prosperous Christian.
“More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day;
For what are men better than sheep or goats,
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer,
Both for themselves and those who call them friend
For so the whole round world is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.”
The good man will seek God’s face for evermore. He will call upon Him as long as he lives. (Psalms 105:4; Psalms 116:2.) It is His atmosphere which he breathes, without breathing which he must die. It is the ambient air that goes all round about him, in which he lives and moves and has his being. “There is a class of animals, neither fish nor sea-fowl, called the cetaceous, that inhabit the deep. It is their home; they never leave it for the shore; yet though swimming beneath its waves and sounding its darkest depths, they have ever and anon to rise to the surface that they may breathe the air. Without this they could not live. And similarly is it with the Christian. It is by ever and anon ascending to God, rising through prayer into a purer and loftier region for supplies of Divine grace, that he can preserve his spiritual health. Prevent these animals from rising to the surface, and they die for want of air; and prevent the Christian from rising to God in prayer, and he dies in like manner.” [Guthrie.]
“As the tender dew that falls in the silent night makes the grass and herbs, and flowers to furnish and grow more abundantly than great showers of rain that fall in the day, so secret prayer will more abundantly cause the sweet herbs of grace and holiness to grow and flourish in the soul, than all those more open, public, and visible duties of religion, which too, too often are mingled and mixed with the sun and wind of pride and hypocrisy.” [Brooks.]
The root that produces the beautiful and flourishing tree, with all its spreading branches, verdant leaves, and refreshing fruit—that which gains for it sap, life, vigour and fruitfulness, is all unseen; and the farther and deeper the roots spread beneath, the more the tree expands above. So the man who would flourish as a Christian, and bring forth the fruits of holiness must strike his roots wider and deeper in private prayer. Even the priests of Buddha teach that if men pray to Buddha, and do not become Buddha, it is because the mouth prays and not the mind.”
“Prayer purifies: it is a self-preached sermon.”
5. It reveals the true state of the heart. The barometer makes us acquainted with the actual state of the atmosphere; it takes cognisance of the slightest variation, and by its elevation or depression gives indication of every change at any given time. So the Christian has an index within him of the elevation or depression of his spirituality of mind, namely his spirit of devotion. As is the love for communion with God in prayer and meditation, so is the Christian life in the man.
“You may see the son of a prince one day in richer and more glorious apparel than on another day, but you will never find him in sordid, ragged, and beggarly clothes; he still is clad as becomes a king’s son. And the Christian you may sometimes see come forth with more enlargement of affections in prayer and all his graces in high exercise, but you will never find him with his robe of grace altogether laid aside. The true saint will distinguish his birth by his everyday course, he will not altogether neglect spiritual duties. It is the brand of a hypocrite to have his devotion come by fits, and like a drift of snow to lie thick in one place and none in another—to seem to vie with the angels for zeal at one time, and live like an atheist for weeks after.” [Gurnall.]
The exercise of prayer is so free of all difficulty, that it requires nothing but a proper state of heart to make it the easiest of duties. By every right-hearted person it ought to be hailed instinctively as the means of enriching the soul with marvellously little trouble. We are not required to ascend to heaven, nor take any long journey on earth; we have not to go through a long course of penitential service, to weep tears of blood, or to subject the body to stripes, lacerations and agonies; nor have we to grind in the prison-house for long years of hard servitude. We have but to come to God as a Father in the name of Christ, to tell Him in the spirit of little children all that is in our hearts, to express deep sorrow for our sins, and supplicate pardon and spiritual liberty for Christ’s sake, to plead His promises and pour out our whole hearts for such blessings as He declares Himself ready to bestow—and we shall find the gate of mercy open—the spiritual heavens open, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ willing to pour down blessings till there be not room to receive.
“Every time,” says Faber, “is suitable for the duty, every place and posture. Talent is not needed; nor eloquence, nor dignity of rank. Thoughts are needed; actions too can pray, and sufferings can. There need be no ceremonies, and there are no rubrics to keep. The essence of the duty is the child at the Father’s knee, penitent and trustful, earnest words and a still more wistful face.”
6. It leads to the fulfilment of the Divine promises. Prayer is the key that opens the gate of Heaven’s treasure-house. It is the child knocking at his father’s door for food and drink. In such a case there is nothing more agreeable to the father’s feelings than to open his hand and supply the wants of the suppliant. But in addition to natural willingness, there is in the case of all prayer offered in the name of Christ, all the encouragement which can be given by promises made, explicitly and decidedly by Him who cannot lie. Hence when the tree of the promise is shaken by the hand of prayer, we are assured that precious fruits more or less will fall into our hands. It has been said that “words in prayer are but as powder; faith is the kindled match, and the promise is the bullet that doeth the execution, while fervency gives great force to the discharge.” He is an imprudent soldier who leaves the work of fitting his bullets to the bore of his pieces till he comes into the field; so he is an unwise petitioner at God’s throne who does not provide promises suitable to his case, before he appears to present his request. Daniel and Jacob, and David with other wrestlers, seem all to have had their mouths filled with arguments, and especially with the promises of God, every time they visited the throne of grace.
What a power belongs to prayer when it is carried on with a skilful pleading of the Divine promises! The most honoured list of names in the sacred Book itself is distinguished by nothing more prominently than by the spirit of prayer, from Abraham and Jacob downward to Daniel and Nehemiah in the Old Testament, and from Zacharias and Elizabeth, down to the well-beloved Gaius and the praying ones in the seven churches of Asia Minor, in the New Testament. All the successes gained in the planting of the Christian church in Judea, Samaria, and over so vast a territory of heathendom in the Apostles’ days, and those of their successors, as well as in every age of the thrilling history of time, were due to prayer. A praying church always moved the hand that controlled the storms, and could make all events work together for her good. But for prayer, the worst of the persecutors had not become the chief among the apostles, and one of the most profligate of youths had not been raised up to lay the foundation of the church’s sacred system of faith, and to shine as a star of the first magnitude in one of the darkest nights of her strange history. The mighty Luthers were what they were because of their prayers. The prayers of defenceless Knox were more feared by the persecuting Queen, than an army of ten thousand men. Whitefield and Wesley gave another and fresher colour to the religion of England by means of their prayers. Through the prayers of Finney, Edwards, and many others, what a beneficial influence was brought to bear in the formation of the religious character of the young giant nation of the Western world! And how many individual great men, who have been burning and shining lights in their day, were converted in answer to fervent and united prayer! And still it is this same power which has done so much to bless the church and the world in the past, to which we are to look for bright days, and glorious triumphs for the future. It has been the motto in the past, and still will be in the days to come. “Prayer and pains can do any thing.”
7. It cultivates a spirit of dependence on God. No posture is more humble than that of prayer; none more impresses on the creature a sense of his own emptiness, or on the sinner a sense of his own unworthiness. Gratitude is also taught, and hope, notwithstanding of our guilt. But especially the feeling of dependence on a mightier arm than our own, and a heart truer in love is deeply impressed on all who bend the knee at the Divine footstool.
8. It strengthens for great duties and for severe trials. It is after being long on the Mount with God that the face shines with an unearthly brilliancy like that of Moses, and the hands become strong to fight against any odds, as in the case of Joshua, of Elijah, or of David. Through prayer, the weak learn to become as David, and David becomes as an angel of the Lord. Through prayer, we make peace with the powers of the world to come, we conquer death, obtain an Advocate and propitiation in judgment, and acceptance and a verdict of “Well-done,” from the Great Judge at last. The whole sky of the future becomes cleared, every cloud is dispelled, and a transporting vision of life and glory through the long vista of our immortality is assured without fail to those who place their trust in the Saviour.
These great and awful fears respecting our eternal state being removed, the dangers and trials of time lose all their really formidable aspect (Romans 8:18). Deliverance from the greater trials includes deliverance from the less. Prayer is indeed the wall that surrounds the Christian, wherever his lot is cast in this world of distance and of darkness. No evil can befal him, no plague can come nigh, but instantly, swifter even than the working of the telegraphic wire, he can communicate with the Supreme Governor over all things, and darkness shall become light, weakness shall become strength, and trouble shall be changed into peace.
The believer has a claim in prayer. “All the promises in the Bible are so many bills of exchange drawn by God the Father in Heaven upon His Son Jesus Christ, and payable to every pious bearer—to everyone that comes to the mercy-seat, and offers the promise or bill for acceptance, and pleads in the way of obedient faith and prayer. Jesus the High Treasurer of Heaven knows every letter of His Father’s handwriting, and can never be imposed upon by any forged note. He will ever honour His Father’s bills; He accepts them all. It is for His Father’s honour that His bills never fail of acceptance and payment.” [Beaumont.]
Prayer elevates as well as strengthens. “Constantine the Great was one day looking at some statues of noted persons who were represented standing. ‘I shall have mine taken kneeling,’ said he, ‘for that is how I have risen to eminence.’ Thus it is with the Christian; if he would obtain any real eminence in the Christian life, he must be often kneeling in prayer to God.”
It is a mistake to suppose that good men will get anything they choose to ask for. God will not give what is hurtful, what would feed vanity or pride, or worldliness. He will not give the fish they ask, when it would turn out a serpent. He gives the bitter now, that the sweet may come by and bye.
IV. Hindrances to prayer.
1. An unsuitable frame of mind.
This may arise from various causes:—
(1.) Place may have to do with it. Where there is bustle or excitement it is hard to give that close attention and profound homage of the heart which is essential in transacting business with our God. When Peter wished to do the work of penitence, “he went out.” In the court-room, and in the midst of enemies, he could not pour out the feeling of a full heart without molestation. The Master has said, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet.” We read of some who prayed on “the house-to”—which among the Jews was one of the best places of retirement. We hear also of other spots used for the sacred purpose of prayer—“the little chamber” (2 Kings 4:10); “the upper room” (Acts 1:13); “the inner chamber” (1 Kings 20:30; 1 Kings 22:25). But any place which is private, or free of that which may distract the attention, is suitable. “The desert place, the mountain side, or in the presence of the disciple,” were the places chosen by Jesus himself. Nicodemus chose the friendly shelter of “the fig-tree.” Ezekiel “went forth into the plain.” (Ezekiel 3:22). Jeremiah prayed in “the dungeon.” David, “in the wilderness depths.” Jonah, from “the bottom of the mountains.” Daniel, from a chosen “chamber in his own house, with the windows open towards Jerusalem.”
Wherever the soul may find composure, and be free of all disturbing influences, there is suitableness of place. A man cannot concentrate his thoughts amid a gabble of tongues, or where a multitude of intruders come in to divide the attention.
(2.) Irritation of feeling may have to do with it. Where anger or wrath, or other passions are excited, and a man’s spirit becomes ruffled, heavenly work like that of prayer cannot go on. The Spirit of God has for His emblem “the dove.” He flies from the abodes of strife and clamour, of envyings, hatred, and variance. Elisha’s spirit was roused to a high pitch of righteous anger at the presence of the idolatrous King of Israel, Ahab’s wicked son, when he came to him for aid merely out of courtesy to Jehoshaphat, King of Judah. So great was his perturbation of spirit (2 Kings 3:13-14), that he felt himself in an unsuitable frame for the Spirit of God to rest upon him; and be sought the soothing influence of music to bring down his mind to that calm and placid temper which was necessary to fit him for being also a suitable medium for receiving the Divine afflatus (Judges 4:15). When the soul is tranquil, like the canvas before the painter, it is ready to receive whatever may be depicted thereupon. “The still and quiet soul is like a ship that lies quiet in the harbour; you may take in what goods you please. But it is very difficult to put cargo on board ship in a rough sea. So the soul must lie quiet under God’s hand, in order to get into it much of God, of Christ, or of the spirit of prayer. [Brooks].
Jeremy Taylor says, “Prayer is the issue of untroubled thoughts; it is the daughter of charity, and the sister of meekness; to pray with a discomposed spirit is like retiring into a battle to meditate. Anger prevents prayer rising up in a right line to God. He compares the case to the lark rising from its bed of grass, soaring upwards, singing as it rises, and hoping soon to get above the clouds; but the poor bird is beaten back by the loud sighings of an eastern wind, its motions become irregular, and it descends more at every breath of the tempest, than it can recover by the frequent balancing of its wings. At last the little creature is forced to sit down and pant, and to wait till the storm is over; then it rises joyfully and sings as if it had learned music from an angel, and passes through the air to regions out of sight. So the good man must wait till his spirit is free of all ruffle, is calm as the brow of Jesus and smooth like the heart of God. Then shall it ascend to heaven upon the wings of the holy Dove, and return like the useful bee, laden with a blessing, and with the dew of heaven.”
(3.) Want of sympathy with the exercise. How often is the devotional spirit lacking! The heart feels dull and leaden in its frame when the call comes to address the throne of grace. Yet if the heart be cold, prayer is a more likely means to warm it than to omit prayer. We must come to the fire before we get warm. As Baxter remarks, “God’s Spirit is more likely to help you in duty, than in the neglect of it.” But cold prayers are a sacrifice without fire. The true method is to cultivate spirituality of mind as a rule—to “walk in the Spirit,” i.e., to be habitually spiritually-minded—
“When prayer delights the least then learn to say,
Soul, now is greatest need that thou shouldst pray.
Oh, come, warm sun, and ripen my late fruits.
Pierce, genial showers, down to my parched roots.”
We must by all means get into the spirit of prayer, for without delight in it, prayer will make a harsh sound. “Delight is the marrow of religion.” “With joy we are to draw water out of the wells of salvation.” To refer to a sentiment already quoted, “Faith is the bucket, but joy and love are the hands that move it. God does not value that man’s service who accounts not His service a privilege and a pleasure.” “The arrow which is shot from the bow with a loose cord drops powerless to the ground.” It is not the vapid utterance of a dull leaden heart that has power with God and prevails, but the strong Jacob-like cry which will take no denial till the blessing come.
(4.) Wandering thoughts. These must be called in, and the whole attention given to the subject in hand. The petitioner must be able to say, “My heart is fixed; O God, unto Thee will I sing, and unto Thee will I pray.” All other things must retire, and be shut out while the soul is in audience with its God. Never should the thoughts be more collected. Newton, who complained occasionally of wandering thoughts, said of his case, “I compare myself to the case of a man on his knees before the king pleading for some great favour; in the midst of his petitioning, he sees a butterfly fluttering before him, he immediately breaks off, and runs to catch the butterfly. Such a man is thought mad; and alas! my thoughts prove, that I am not free from spiritual insanity.”
2. Want of premeditation. We ought to have a definite object to pray for. “Be not rash with thy mouth and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God.” Where there is no well-defined object to be gained present to the thoughts, there can be no sincere wish for it in the heart, and therefore no real prayer. It is so great a privilege to be allowed to come at any time, and at all times, to the Fountain-head of blessing, with the assurance of acceptance, that one should always make sure of not returning empty-handed; but to do that there must be definiteness of object, and earnestness of manner. We must consider.
“Meditation is prayer’s handmaid to wait on it, both before and after the performance. It is as the plough before the sower to prepare the heart for the duty of prayer, and the harrow to cover the seed when it has been sown. As the hopper feeds the mill with grist, so does meditation supply the heart with matter for prayer. Before the tradesman goes to the fair, he looks over his shop that be may know what commodity he most lacks. So, ere we engage in prayer, we should be careful to ascertain the graces and mercies we most need. Also our heart is like a watch that is soon run down, and needs constant winding up. It is an instrument put easily out of tune. Meditation tunes the instrument, and sets it for the harmony of prayer. One great reason why our prayers want success is, that we do not meditate before them. We should be able to say with David, “Give ear to my word, O Lord; consider my meditation.” [Gurnall.]
God calls for our best and our utmost. We are to bring the choicest of the flock for an offering, and not to present a lame unconcocted, wandering discourse to God, when we might, with consideration, give something more accurate and exact. When a Roman gentleman invited Augustus Cæsar to supper, and provided him with a mean entertainment, Cæsar very properly took him up with the question, “Friend, how came you and I to be so familiar?” God will reject the sons of presumption and impertinance with disdain, and since they take no time for the making of their prayers, He will take long time before granting them.” [South.]
“We often ramble in our prayers and get nothing, because, in fact, we desire nothing. We only chatter about a number of things, but the desires of the heart do not fix on any one thing. Imagine an archer shooting with his bow, and not knowing where the mark is. How could he succeed? Conceive a ship putting out to sea, without the captain having any idea in what direction he should steer! How foolish! Or suppose a man goes to the market to make purchases, but he has not thought beforehand what things he needs. So is it both unwise and irreverent to go into the presence of God, without being able to answer the question, “What is thy petition, and what is thy request, and it shall be done unto thee.” [Spurgeon.]
3. Sin wilfully cherished in the heart. In order to make thorough work of the religious services of his day, especially in regard to prayer, James, in his epistle, frequently calls on his readers:—“Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; purify your hearts, ye double-minded.” Only thus could they expect that God would draw nigh to them when they drew nigh to Him. Jeremiah also reproves the people of his day for “dissembling in their hearts.” when they asked him to pray unto God for them, and therefore their prayers should be heard in judgment, and not in mercy (Jeremiah 42:20-22). (See Psalms 66:18; Isaiah 59:1-2; Isaiah 1:15-16, etc.; James 4:3; Job 27:8-9). We do not read that Elijah offered a single prayer for the return of the much needed showers of heaven to refresh the parched land until the people had publicly and unanimously repented of their sin of forsaking their own God and going after the worship of idols. But the moment they ceased to practise this sin, we find him at once on his knees, imploring with earnest wrestlings the reopening of the windows of heaven to refresh the burnt up fields and valleys of Israel. (1 Kings 18:42.) For three years and a half he ceased to pray for the land, while the people cherished their sin unrepented; now, he loses not an hour! To sin while we pray, is as if, while a house was on fire, we were to throw water on it with the one hand, and to cast fuel or oil upon it with the other. The fire will not be quenched. Unrepented sin, like a partition wall, prevents our prayers ascending before God. Guilt on the conscience is a great hindrance to prayer.
4. Cares and anxieties. These prevent the calm and firm exercise of faith, and so hinder prayer. Hence Philippians 4:6-7. It is not all at once that most people can compose their minds to a praying frame. When the sea has been agitated all day with the wind, it does not become calm and placid the very moment that a lull comes on. So a man’s mind, which has been full of cares all the day over, will still for a time feel in the midst of bustle, after he retires to his chamber. Gurnall remarks, that “it is hard to converse with the world all day, and then shake it off at night, in order to enjoy privacy with God. The world does by the Christian, as the little child by the mother. If it cannot keep the mother from going out, then it will cry to be taken with her. If the world cannot keep us from going to religious duties, then it will cry to be taken along with us, and there will be much ado to part between it and the affections.” If our prayers would ascend like a pillar of incense from the altar, there must be a holy calm on the spirit, and the boisterous winds of inordinate cares about the world must be laid.
5. Praying without the Spirit. “The Spirit helpeth our infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be altered” (Jude 1:20; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 2:18; Ephesians 6:18). He is called “the Spirit of supplication” (Zechariah 12:10). All spiritual strength is from Him (Ephesians 3:16).
“We need the help of God’s Spirit to fix our minds, and make them intent and serious in prayer. The ship without a pilot rather floats than sails. That our thoughts do not float up and down in prayer, we need the blessed Spirit to be our pilot to steer us. A shaking hand may as well write a line steadily, as we can keep our hearts fixed in prayer without the Spirit of God.” [Watson.]
“As the sails of a ship carry it into the harbour, so prayer carries us to the throne and bosom of God. But as the sails cannot of themselves speed the progress of a vessel unless filled with a favorable breeze, so the Holy Spirit must breathe on our hearts, or our prayers will be motionless and lifeless.” [Toplady.]
“There must be life in the soul before there can be life in the duty. All the rugs in the store will not fetch a dead man to warmth; nor will any arguments, though most moving in themselves, make thee pray fervently while thy soul lies in a dead state. Go first to Christ, that through His Spirit thou mayest have life; and, having life, there is then some hope to chafe thee into some heat. Prayers offered without the Spirit are but smoke before God, offensive to His pure eyes, instead of incense and a sweet savour.” [Gurnall.]
V. Suitable subjects of prayer.
1. The widest range is allowed. The statute-book gives this liberty. The God who began by giving us His Son will now stop nowhere. So far as disposition to give is concerned, there cannot now be any holding back. In giving His Son, He has pitched the scale of benevolence so high that nothing can remain ungiven. If we only devote ourselves to Christ, and keep constantly to Him as our portion, we may “ask what we will and it shall be done.” Christ refuses nothing to thorough friends. “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do,” etc. “If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it.” We come as children to a father, and what good thing will the Father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ deny to children whom He loves so well—who are all so dear to Him through the sprinkled blood! Also we come to a “throne of grace”—not a throne of justice—of power or majesty—high and lifted up, where we could use only stuttering and stammering speech—but a throne before which sin is forgiven—a throne of grace, to which we are called to “come boldly.”
Hence the language so worthy of Him who is “rich in mercy,”—“ask and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find,” etc. etc. “Buy, without price!”—“let your soul delight itself in fatness!”—“ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.”
Our expectations cannot rise too high—to meet all our needs, desires, longings and aspirations; to have fears dissipated, sins pardoned, and peace with God established; to get deliverance from dangers, help under burdens, light in darkness, strength in weakness, and comfort in sorrow; all that can bless the soul for the present, and spread the bow of hope for it in the future. “My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory, by Christ Jesus.” “God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that ye always, having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.”
Southey puts in the foreground four subjects for prayer:—
Four things which are not in thy treasury,
I lay before thee, Lord, with this petition;
My nothingness, my wants,
My sins, and my contrition.
2. Nothing is too little to ask from God. Nothing is too little for Him to attend to. He provides the bee with its food; the gnat and the moth are fed from His hand; He cares for the worm, the insect, and the animalcule. Nothing which it seemed good for Him to create is beneath His care.
Nor is anything too small for us to ask. Any want, however small, we may name before Him if its supply would be to us a relief. Any desire, however trifling it may seem to others, we may express before Him, if to grant it would be to us a material good. That may be of consequence to a boy which would be trivial to his father. That may be a godsend to one weak in the faith, which is regarded as mere puerility or simplicity by one well established. Little and great, indeed, are relative terms. It depends on the scale by which we measure. What is life and death to us, is very small before God. Nay, all His creatures with all their interests, as compared with Himself, are “less than nothing and vanity.” And all are before Him at the same level of insignificance, so that if He should attend to the wants of the mightiest angel around His throne, He may also be expected to attend to the necessities of the meanest of us all.
Things which are distressing to us seem to Him no more than the breaking of a toy to a child; yet as the father of that child does not judge of the importance of the event by the aspect it bears to him, but regards it entirely as it affects the child, and begins to soothe the distress of the little one, and tenderly wipe away his tears, so does God act as our Heavenly Father when an event may happen which proves very afflictive to the feelings of any of His children. He does not sit above the clouds as the heathen thought their gods sat, wrapped in the selfishness of His superiority, and despising the littleness of the creatures that crawl below. “He knoweth our frame.” “He understandeth our thoughts.” “He tells the number of the stars. He also healeth the broken in heart and bindeth up their wounds.” And there is nothing which is a source of pain or uneasiness, of doubt or difficulty, of grief or anguish to any of His children, which He is not only willing to hear, but is desirous that they should tell Him.
3. All that He has promised we may ask. Here every step is sure. God cannot take back His own word; He cannot fail to fulfil it. “Heaven and earth may pass away, His word shall not.” “The strength of Israel will not lie.” But one thing must always be kept in view, it is only through Christ as Mediator that any promise can be answered consistently with God’s holy and righteous character. Every promise we plead in His name we can plead with the greatest confidence. “In Him all the promises of God are yea, and in Him, Amen, to the glory of God.”
To plead God’s faithfulness to His own word is the mightiest of all the arguments we can use at the throne of grace. “My faithfulness will I establish in the heavens”—in the most conspicuous and public manner, because it is so essential to the glory of His name. Even when His people prove treacherous, and violate their engagements to Him, though He may severely chastise them, He still declares: “I will not suffer my faithfulness to fail; my covenant I will not break, nor alter the thing that has gone out of my lips.” The secret of Jacob’s mighty power with God lay entirely in the short utterance: “Thou saidst.” The precious promise made at Bethel, Jacob had kept in his breast as a treasure too rich to be parted with. For the long period of 20 years he kept that treasure locked up in his bosom, as a thing not to be given for gold nor any amount of precious silver. God loved him for it; and, in His Providence, brought round an occasion to bring to light the excellent character of the man who sets a high value on His promises. When that occasion arrived, Jacob showed the fast hold he had of the girdle of the Divine faithfulness, when he would take no denial, because it was for God’s own honour that His word should not fail. And as he so highly honoured God, God also greatly honoured him, by giving him “exceeding abundantly above all that he asked or thought.” This, too, was the secret of Moses’ power in prayer, when he wrought so mightily that God said to him: “Let me alone.”—implying that if Moses went on pleading God’s promises, as he was doing, God must comply with his request. Joshua’s argument was similar: “What wilt Thou do unto Thy great Name?” And Abraham’s case is parallel: “Wilt Thou destroy the righteous with the wicked?.” (Genesis 32:12, with Genesis 4:26; Exodus 32:10; Joshua 7:9; Genesis 18:23). They are called “Sure mercies” (2 Samuel 23:5; Isaiah 55:3).
Our duty then is to go to the promises daily and fill our mouths with arguments to be pled at the Divine footstool, according to the directions given: “Take with you words and turn to the Lord.” “Put me in remembrance; let us plead together,” etc. “Come, let us reason together.”
“God’s promises are prizes in the hand of God to stimulate the soul’s activities—more glorious than laurel wreaths, or the trumpeting of fame, or principalities and thrones. They are yielded by God only to an application of faculties, at the least, as intense and ardent as is put forth in pursuit of human ambition. God doth not cheapen His promises down to a glance at them with the eye, or a mouthing of them with the tongue; but he requireth of those who would have them an admiration equal to that of lovers, an estimation equal to that of royal diadems, and a pursuit equal to that of Olympic prizes.” [Irving].
4. All such blessings as God has already given. This opens out another ground of pleading equally good with direct promises. Everything that God does is a promise in deed that He will do the same thing again in the same circumstances. For He is absolutely consistent with Himself, in all ages, and under all circumstances. He always shows that He is the same God; that He is “without variableness, or the shadow of turning.” His rules in dealing with men never change. What He laid down as rules in the days of Abraham He lays down still, as the footing on which He acts in His intercourse with men. The circumstances may be widely different, and there may be expected a corresponding change in the manner of applying the rules. But there is no departure from the rules themselves in their substance and tenor. In that respect they are identically the same now as they were then, however different in aspect and in the manner of application they may seem. A few thousand years make not the slightest alteration on the character and government of the eternal and immutable Jehovah! It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that is our God, though with the grand addition to His name—the God and Father of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. But, though it was not then revealed, He was in reality the God of the gospel to the fathers, in His gracious dealings with them and the promises He made to them, the same as He is to believing men still. And we, on the other hand, are warranted to plead all His gracious acts done to them, and all the great and precious promises made to them, as equally done and made to us, and arguments for the same things being done and made again and again, in our blessed experience as we may have need of them.
Moses pled thus when he supplicated God to “pardon the people—as He had forgiven them from Egypt until now.” (Numbers 14:19). It is said, “He remembers His word to a thousand generations.” (Psalms 105:8). Which implies that the same word lives down all that time, and will be equally serviceable to any of the generations, as it was to the first. We have also the statement, “Thy memorial endureth throughout all generations.” What God does in one age is a lesson for every age that follows, that He will show Himself the same God in the same or similar circumstances.
Can we point to special seasons in our personal history, when we had exceptionally severe trials to pass through, when the waters came in unto our soul, and our feet did sink in the mire; when friends stood aloof, and no man cared for our soul; when we cried to our covenant God “out of the depths,” and He inclined His ear to our cry; when He brought us up out of the horrible pit and miry clay, and set our feet upon a rock and established our goings,”—then, no better argument could we use for all time to come, in the midst of great trials, than to call to remembrance those seasons and God’s gracious dealings in connection with them, and go to the throne, with a Jacob-like confidence, and remind our Unchangeable Rock—“Lord, thou didst so much for me in the past; wilt thou not do again as thou hast already done? Would it not be like thyself so to act? Would it not be unworthy of thee to even to seem to be different now from what thou wast then? Show that thou dost ‘rest in thy love,’ and that thou wilt ‘continue thy loving kindness to them that know thee.’ ” Such must ever prove a successful ground on which to supplicate blessings at the throne of grace.
5. All that we know to be agreeable to His will. There may be many things that are of the nature of blessings of the Divine hand, that are not specially particularised in the Divine promises—especially those that relate to the details of daily life, and the lot of individual men. The promises are generally made to those who possess a certain character—the meek, the humble, those that fear, love, and obey God, the righteous, etc. This not only shows that “God is no respecter of persons,” that He respects only characters, but also sets every man on inquiring whether he, for his part, possesses such features of character as are described in these promises. This is often a puzzling problem to solve, and it is often a great relief to get the auxiliary principle brought in, that all that is really agreeable to God’s will must be held as suitable subject of prayer. Nay, we have a distinct intimation on the subject made, “If we ask anything according to His will He heareth us.”
“No one thinks of praying that the sun may rise in the west instead of the east. Not because it is impossible with God, but long experience proves to us that it is not His will. No one thinks of praying that one who has just breathed his last may wake up to life once more; and for the same reason. Nor does anyone deem it right to pray that those who have advanced to extreme old age should be granted a new lease of life, and blush again into youth, and the blooms of early promise. When we see clearly what is the will of God, we feel we must submit to it without seeking to go against it.” [Roberts.]
A faithful, prolonged, and intelligent study of the Word of God, where God reveals His character and will, is necessary in order both to be able to plead the promises aptly and skilfully, and also to judge accurately of what things would be agreeable to the Divine will. To pray that we may be at peace with God through the acceptance of Christ as our personal Saviour, that all our sins, however numerous and great, may be forgiven and forgotten, that we may get the victory over any evil principle or passion in the heart, that God may truly become our Father and God, that, in fact, we may individually come to have a share in all the spiritual blessings that are enjoyed by those who accept of Christ as their Saviour—we know to be agreeable to God’s will, though our names are not given in the Bible. From God’s nature we know it, for “He is love.” Also from express general statements we know it. “He will have all men to be saved,” etc. “He willeth not that any should perish.” A multitude of texts prove it.
6. The best gifts we may most freely ask. To ask temporal blessings is allowable. Yet they occupy a greatly inferior place in the scale to those which are spiritual. There is but one petition, in the model prayer taught us by the Saviour, for temporal good things, but five references made to those which relate to spiritual blessings. The Saviour also expressly requires us to put the blessings of the kingdom in the foreground. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” etc. It is also to be noticed that while temporal blessings are recognised as a suitable subject for prayer, the promise extends only to a very moderate degree of those blessings—“Daily bread,” “bread and water” (Isaiah 33:16); “food and raiment” (1 Timothy 6:8); “to eat, drink, and be clothed” (Matthew 6:31-32); “to be fed” (Psalms 37:3). Manna only was given as wilderness provision, which was esteemed “light food” (Numbers 11:6; Numbers 21:5). The prayer of Agur is recorded as an example for us to copy, who, while wishing to be kept above poverty, does not covet riches (Proverbs 30:8-9). Solomon’s choice is specially commended, who when left free to ask any good thing he might desire, put his finger on wisdom as better than rubies. God both gave him a wise and understanding heart, and added riches and honour (1 Kings 3:9-13). Mary was specially approved of by her Lord in improving the occasion of His presence in her house by “sitting at His feet and listening to His word,” rather than by busying herself with efforts to prepare Him a sumptuous table (Luke 10:38-42). Spiritual blessings are always to be greatly preferred to temporal, in our prayers. The latter, indeed, are only tolerated, or recognised as proper in their place, never to be coveted as a portion; while the latter are set forward as the great matter of prayer (Psalms 4:6; Psalms 16:3; Psalms 16:5-6; Proverbs 8:10-11; 1 Corinthians 12:31; John 6:27; Psalms 17:13-14; Habakkuk 3:17-18).
The choice of Peter is recorded to his everlasting honour (John 6:68); and the choice of Moses (Hebrews 11:25-26) has upon it the seal of an approving heaven. We must hold it to be wrong to pray for riches as such, not only because these as a rule become more or less of a temptation and a snare (1 Timothy 6:9-10), but because they are unsuitable as a portion for the soul, and their acquisition is discouraged in scripture. Should God confer upon us riches as well as spiritual blessings, they are to be regarded as merely added to the latter, which constitute the real gifts. And they are to be understood as not absolutely ours, but only given to us in stewardship. So David judged when he said, “Of Thine own have we given Thee” (1 Chronicles 29:14; 1 Chronicles 29:16). For the supply of necessary wants, for the means of giving to everyone his due, or helping on the Lord’s work, or for a proper competency for one’s self and family circle, we may and ought to pray (1 Timothy 5:8; Romans 13:8). What is necessary is promised (Psalms 34:9-10; Psalms 34:22; Psalms 37:3).
7. All that would be for God’s glory and for our good. Many miscellaneous subjects are ever coming up in daily life, in regard to which it will be felt more or less difficult to decide, whether they should be made matter of prayer to God or not. But there can be no doubt it is right, to bring every thing which we feel to be a difficulty to the throne of grace, and ask Divine direction (James 1:5). Also, every thing which we feel to be a corroding care, or a burden of anxiety, we must refer to our God (Philippians 4:6). But many things which are not expressly promised must be asked only in submission to the Divine will, and under the condition—As far as it may be for God’s glory and for our good.
It is right to pray for recovery from sickness, whether in regard to ourselves, or in regard to any object near and dear to us, but God may have appointed the sickness to be unto death, and the great Intercessor on High, may be expressing it as His will before the throne, that the afflicted member of His body may be taken home to Himself to behold His glory. Therefore we should pray in submission to the Divine will. If some rough wind of adversity blows over us, and we find our fair prospects suddenly blighted, with cruel “Disappointment standing before us as our only Comforter.” For a return of former prosperity we may supplicate, both as to the measure and manner, but only as it may seem meet to our Father in heaven. For the success of this or that project we have devised we may pray, or for the obtaining of some eligible situation in life, or for general success in business, and a comfortable through bearing in life, but always in the tone of saying—If it be for God’s glory and for my good. Both of the one and the other of those things, God Himself must be the judge. For we are utterly incompetent to determine what is for God’s glory, and even as to our own good, we oftentimes ask a stone for bread in our ignorance, or we ask a serpent for a fish. And were God to answer our prayers, it would not prove a blessing but rather a curse. But our Heavenly Father’s knowledge of what is best for us to have is always perfect, and His character is such that He never can decide otherwise than for our highest good, if we will only let Him have His own way.
VI. Answers to Prayer.
1. True prayer is certain to be answered. If prayer is both so gloryfying to God, and so beneficial to ourselves, then it must be accepted. The form in which the answer is to be given may differ more or less in every different case, but that God will hear all genuine prayer and put it to our account is certain. He has given His word for it six times over in one sentence (Matthew 7:7-8). Cuyler says, “Answered prayers cover the field of Providential history as flowers cover western prairies.” The whole Book of Psalms is a testimony to what God has done in answering prayer. It is not a doubtful matter whether we shall be listened to and answered in some manner when we pray aright. There are no exceptions in point of fact, whatever may seem to be the case to the petitioner himself. Though the heavens do not open, though no audible voice is heard, though no sign is given, it is as certain as any fixed law of nature that humble, penitent, believing prayer—the prayer of the “heart of flesh,” is treasured up before God, and shall, without fail, be attended to in God’s time and way. Not a single believing prayer is ever lost. The passage above quoted proves it. All the experience of God’s people prove it. All the promises in the Bible on the subject of prayer prove it.
2. The answer is often delayed.
“Answering prayer does not always stand next door to petition; yet prayers are not forgotten by the faithful God. Even when we have forgotten them He remembers them. I stand in the rooms of my office, and wish to communicate with an official in the fifth story. I blow a whistle and talk through the tube. I know the message has got up there and that he has heard it. Yet I do not see him and he does not answer me back. I ask him to send down some papers, and after waiting for some time he answers me. So when we send up our prayer to God in heaven, we know He is there and knows about it. It is not for us to fret and worry about it, but leave the case in His hand, for He will do what is right ere long.” [Beecher.]
“We shall have harvest after all, says the believer, in Genesis 8:22, though the rains should fall and the prices rise, though the barometer should be low and the winds threaten to destroy the crop. And this we may safely say of the fruits of devout and earnest prayer. The answer may be long in coming, but in due time it will come. The seed often lies buried in the ground for months; but what is dormant is not dead. True prayers are not lost, they only bide their time, God’s ‘set time.’ And when that time comes round, he who has sown in tears shall reap in joy. The God who puts His people’s tears into His bottle will certainly not forget their prayers.” [Guthrie.]
Many reasons may cause delay:—In general, any want in the right spirit of prayer, or, where that spirit exists, God may wait to convince us that we have no claim to the blessing, that it comes as a pure favour, and is given without being deserved; or, He may wait, because it becomes the majesty of His nature as God to proceed slowly and with deliberation in all His doings. Also, because one step of blessing is a precedent and a pledge of other steps. Also, because the present may not be the best time to give an answer. Or, because if the answer were given at once it might lead to presumption, and we might suppose we could command God’s blessings at our own pleasure, and to try our faith in His character and word is always part of the reason for this waiting.
Gurnall says, “Prayers are not long on their journey to heaven, but long in coming back with a full answer. There is often a long and sharp winter between the time of sowing and that of reaping. Christ, at this day in heaven, hath not a full answer to some of those prayers which He put up on earth, for He is said to “expect till His enemies be made His footstool.” The father reads his son’s letter which has come from a distance; he likes his request, his heart closeth with it, and he resolves to grant it; but he takes his own time to send his despatch. Princes have their books or records wherein they put down the names of those whom they deem worthy of their favour, but they may stand for years without any honour being conferred. The name of Mordecai stood in Ahasuerus’ book somewhile before his honour was given, and God records the names of His saints and their prayers in a degenerate age, but the reward is not given till the end come” (Malachi 3:16-18).
3. We ought to look for an answer. To offer prayer to God, and not to follow it up by expecting an answer, is a certain indication either of insincerity in our petitions, or of unbelief as to God’s promise to answer them. “Where the treasure is, there the heart will be.” If the blessing sought be esteemed a treasure, the heart will certainly go out after it till it be gained. What shall we think of a subject, who has got the privilege of coming into the royal presence to present a petition, which he professes to regard as of the utmost importance to his interests? He offers his petition with becoming gravity of manner, but the moment he is done with the duty of presenting it, he turns his back on his sovereign, and walks out of the audience-chamber without waiting or caring to hear whether any reply be made or not! What is this but to mock royalty, and abuse the privilege of access to the fountain-head of power. Yet thus do we act towards God when we do not look after our prayers.
“To pray and not watch what becomes of our prayers is a great folly, and implies no little guilt. It is to take the name of God in vain, and trifle with an ordinance that is holy and sacred. It is like little children who knock at the door of some great house, and run away before it is opened, for their own amusement. When thou hast been with God, expect good to come from God, either at the moment, or some time after, or both. Enter His presence with the purpose, ‘I will direct my prayer to thee, and will look up.’ Your prayer will certainly receive no more attention from God if it is no longer attended to by you. If you do not believe, why pray? And if you do believe, why not expect? By not expecting you again renounce your confidence.” [Gurnall.]
“People say, ‘What a wonderful thing that God should hear George Müller’s prayers!’ Truly, we are come to a strange pass when we think it wonderful that God is true! It is indeed wonderful that God should make so many promises to us, but not wonderful that He should fulfil His word.” [Spurgeon.]
We should not only look for an answer, but wait patiently for it, and pray again and yet again until the answer come. If the thing asked is promised by God, or is agreeable to His will, let us only persevere in looking for an answer. Elijah looked out seven times for the little cloud before it came; so should we look if it were seventy times seven rather than cease looking and expecting an answer. David went through the exercise of devotion before God with the greatest care. First he began with “meditations;” then followed petitions, humble, believing, fervent; next came “looking up;” and lastly came treasuring up in his book of remembrance. This is to do the business of prayer in a business manner. When we are asked to pray, we are bidden to “knock,” which implies more than one call at the gate. And if we are not heard at once, let us knock, again and yet again for we know we are at the right gate. Should there be no sound of any one approaching to open the gate we must continue to knock, for at last some one shall appear, and our waiting and anxious expectation shall not have been in vain.
4. Trust God for the time and manner of giving the answer. The circumstances are so numerous and so varied which must be considered in order to give a wise and even a kind answer, that our narrow minds are not competent duly to weigh them and come to a well-balanced judgment in the matter. It is therefore not the least proof of God’s loving kindness and faithful care in watching over us that He should take the decision as to the time and manner of answering our prayers into His own hands. For He is not only thoroughly trustworthy, but He cannot in any case be misinformed, or make mistake on the one hand, and on the other hand it is His very nature to be just, compassionate, righteous, merciful and true, so that our interests are absolutely safe in His hands. He not only “will give grace and glory, but He cannot withhold any good thing from them that walk uprightly.” His heart will not allow Him to do less. “They that seek Him shall not want any good thing.” His nature forbids Him to give less. Truly “blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.”
As to the manner of the answer: God may give directly what is asked, or may give something better in its place, or may give support meantime while it is delayed, or may make the denial of it the means of an excellent discipline to the soul which is often the most profitable of all.
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 4:4; Judges 4:11
IV. Deliverance again provided.
We must here call attention to the statement formerly made (p. 190), that while the fact of sin is told in a single sentence in this chapter, the story of the deliverance from its consequences is spread over the whole chapter. The Bible is a book written to give an account of one grand Redemption, and many smaller redemptions, which are emblems of the greater. Its spirit is not to depict elaborately the dark features of fallen human nature, and show how fully the race deserve to be destroyed; but rather to show how man has brought ruin on himself, and needs a great redemption. The final end kept in view is not destruction, but salvation. Hence at the opening of the Book, the account of man’s falling into sin, his loss of the favour and the image of God; his expulsion from the society of the holy; and his exposure to all manner of evils from his falling under the Divine frown—all this is given in a single chapter (Genesis 3:0). Whereas the whole Bible otherwise is taken up with an account of the working out of the scheme of man’s redemption. It is so easy to destroy; it is so difficult to restore. God delights so much to save; He is so loathe to consign to destruction.
Corresponding with this, it ought to be noted, that while the sins and black-slidings of God’s people, in this book of Judges, are faithfully narrated, and a true exhibition of their character is given, so that no one can mistake what is their own personal desert, the eye is yet not allowed to rest long on a delineation of details of their wickedness, but full scope is given to the pen of the sacred writer when it is employed to describe the interposition of Divine mercy, Almighty power, and marvellous wisdom, in the accomplishment of their deliverance. The glory of God manifested in the repeated redemption of an exceedingly sinful people, from the consequences of their sins, is the spirit of this book of Judges.
In noticing the account of the deliverance here narrated, we find:—
1. God was the author of this deliverance. The thought arose with Him. The nation had become so sunk, not only in ungodliness, but in all that was noble and manly, that no one was found of sufficient force of character to attempt to act the part of a liberator. As on all other occasions, God Himself originated the means of deliverance for His people. Though He had already three times delivered them (if we count Judges 3:31, as one), from national ruin, while now for at least 160 years they had provoked Him to anger with their idolatrous tendencies, yet, full of pity, He rises up for their help, exclaiming, “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? How shall I deliver thee, Israel?” It was for the glory of His own great name in the world that He should preserve their existence as a nation. They owed their existence to a gracious purpose which God was to fulfil through their instrumentality; but should their name as a nation be blotted out, that purpose must fail of accomplishment. Another nation might have been created to supply their place; but still it would have been said that God’s original purpose in bringing this people into existence had failed. And it must not be whispered in heaven above or on the earth beneath that any plan of the Divine Wisdom and Love had proved abortive. Hence we find this people always spared in some manner, that no shadow might rest on Jehovah’s name. “For mine own name’s sake will I defer mine anger.” (Isaiah 48:9-11.) Besides, the history of this people stood as a whole. Only a part of it had yet run. A glorious display of the divine perfection had already been made in connection with that history, much more of which had yet to run. It was of the highest consequence therefore for the glory of the Divine name that this people, notwithstanding the heinous character of their sins, should be preserved, and that it should be seen how radically different was the character of their God from the dumb idols of the heathen around them. To show forth anew God’s glory was the great purpose to be gained in the deliverance now to be effected.
That the idea of a hostile movement against Sisera was of God himself, appears from the statement in Judges 4:6, where Deborah speaks as one commissioned by Jehovah to be an organ for the communication of His will to men. All the directions, also, as to what should be done, who were to do it, and how it was to be done, were given by God through the prophetess. His honour and glory were the ends to be gained; His hand, therefore, must be seen in all. Not only in the general scheme of Providence, but also in the history of every individual nation, and individual man it is true, that “of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things.”
2. The hopeless character of Israel’s prospects. Not only had truth fallen in the streets, but its form was scarcely anywhere seen in the land. Only a few glimmering lights appeared like torches, while darkness was in all the dwellings of Israel. Not only the race of heroes, but that of the men of God had died out. No prophet seemed to be at work from North to South; and the sole possessor of the heavenly gift in all Israel was a woman whom God had chosen. All had become craven hearted, abject and weak. The nation had lost its manhood, and had again become a herd of slaves. They were now learning in their miserable plight, what an “evil and bitter thing it was for them to have forsaken the Lord their God;” for now, He, their Rock, had sold them—their God had shut them up. There was no sword nor spear in Israel. There was no leader. There were no resources. There was no courage. There was no rallying point. Everything forbade the possibility of anything being done. On all sides there was prostration. It was the doing of sin; which is ever the reproach of any people. If an army could be raised in Israel, how could it make head against the nine hundred chariots of iron of the enemy; which, in all the ages of antiquity, were reckoned an irresistible force? There was also the large general army of the enemy to be reckoned with; there was their renowned captain, who was a host in himself; and there was the demoralised condition of the whole people of Israel.
Who should come to the help of the Lord against the mighty in such an evil day? “Jehovah looked and there was none to help; He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor; therefore His own arm brought salvation.” “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” It is part of His wonder-working wisdom to turn the wickedness of man into the means of praising Him. The weakness to which his people had been reduced through their wickedness furnished the occasion for a more illustrious display of His glory as their Saviour God, than could have been made in an ordinary condition of things.
3. Suitable instruments are found when required to do God’s work. Yet though the energies of the nation were paralysed, and the mainspring of its activities was broken; though its princes had become as harts fleeing before the pursuer, and all its men of heroism had disappeared from the land; though the Joshuas and Calebs, and Othniels were no longer to be found, while the people had become fewer in number, spent their days in terror, and were thoroughly crushed in spirit—within a few days, perhaps within one short week, when God was raised up by the voice of their penitence and their prayers, agents were found to take the lead to set a machinery in motion, and carry out a plan suitable to meet the emergency that had arisen. Man in such a case fails to find the fitting materials. God is at no loss. Jesus knew in a moment where to find the fish, which had a piece of money in its mouth, that was needed to meet a just claim which had occurred in the ordinary relations of life; and now though the land of Israel was stripped bare of resources as the barren wilderness, God knew at once where instruments were to be found suitable for carrying out His purpose. All hearts are in His hand, and all events are at His disposal. No time is needed to institute a search for the fit persons. In a moment He points with the finger to the persons whom He shall employ to execute His will.
To our thinking the individuals thus singled out may seem to be in several respects most unqualified to occupy the position to which God calls them. Yet thereby are they all the better qualified for bringing praise and honour to the Divine arm and the Divine wisdom, in the successful issue of the means employed. “God chooses the foolish things to confound the wise, and weak things to overcome things that are mighty; yea the base things, and such as are despised, He employs to bring to nothing things that are—that no flesh should glory in His presence.” Who could have supposed that two women would have been put in the foreground to meet this most serious juncture in Israel’s history—the one to act as the head, and the other as the hand, in vanquishing and even in annihilating the formidable power that had ground Israel to the dust for twenty years! Had a Joshua been raised up to act as leader, then the glory might have been ascribed to the great captain that led Israel’s armies. But when a Deborah and a Jael are employed to do the work, then is it all the more conspicuous, that the hand of the Lord had brought about the result.
In congregations of Christian people there may sometimes be few persons, or almost none who have the gifts to act as leaders, by whom the Church’s work may be carried on. In communities, sometimes scarcely a man can be found to come to the front, who possesses education, tact, firmness, or natural ability sufficient to act the part of a public leader. In a great religious crisis when the interests of Christ’s truth, or the spiritual welfare of thousands, may be alarmingly at stake, few or none may appear possessing all the qualifications to take the helm, and conduct the vessel safely away from the breakers and bring it into port. But in such a case the course is clear. Let “the Lord’s remembrancers” put the case into the hands of Him who can “make the weak become as David,” and who now wrought with the Deborahs and the Baraks as mightily, as He did with the Samsons and the Jephthahs. No matter what may be the instruments employed, if the Lord’s hand is at work, the Church will always be able to say, “We lack nothing.”
4. Fit means must be employed along with Divine power. God never despises the use of means in bringing about certain results, because it is the arrangement He Himself has established through all nature, that certain means should be employed to produce certain effects. When Jesus opened the eyes of the blind man, “He spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, with which He anointed his eyes.” Not that the spittle had any efficacy, but He would show His regard to the use of some means, rather than work without means at all; and that He could make use of any means, however unlikely, to serve His purpose successfully. So now, though God could have easily overthrown Sisera and his army by miracle, by pestilence, by an earthquake, by the lightnings of heaven, by paralysing the muscular power of every soldier in the enemy’s camp, or in many other ways, yet he chooses to employ natural means for the purpose. He gives orders that an army be raised, and appoints a suitable leader. He requires that army to engage in battle with the enemy, and gives the assurance that, through their instrumentality, He will overthrow Sisera, and utterly destroy his host.
The army was limited by God to 10,000 men, lest, as in Gideon’s case, if a larger number had been chosen, Israel might have said, “Mine own hand hath saved me.” It was extremely inadequate when looked at in the light of the terrible opposition it had to meet. The number of Sisera’s army is not given; but judging by the whole account given it seems to have been an overwhelming force. The proposition might be similar to the force of Israel in the days of Ahab, as compared with the huge host of Benhadad—“like two little flocks of kids, while the Syrians filled the country.” As the men of this small army came chiefly from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun, it is supposed that, as Hazor, Jabin’s royal city, lies in the territory of the former of these tribes, and as it is likely that it was at Hazor, or near it, where the chariots of iron were made, Barak’s army was largely made up of the smiths or workers in iron, his vassals who actually made these chariots of iron, or along with these the woodcutters, armed with their axes and hatchets, who were employed in large numbers in that great timber-growing district. If so, what a retribution on the head of the oppressor! Another supposition is, that as in Elijah’s day, the number of these who had not bowed the knee to Baal was 7000, so in the days before Deborah arose, the number of this class in Northern Israel was 10,000—a supposition not so fanciful as at first might seem, for the battle was fought on religious grounds. “They came to the help of the Lord against the mighty,” and “they jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.” The glory of the God of Israel was the chief thing concerned in the fighting of this battle, and that, every man who was there, or who stayed away, seemed to understand.
Here then was an army of fearers of the God of Jacob, who had not gone after other gods, men whose religious principles were put to the test, and they nobly stood the test. Can we wonder if God Himself should go forth before them, if He should “teach their hands to war and their fingers to fight,” and if, thus succoured, the stout hearted should be spoiled before them, and none of the men of might should find their hands.
5. A strong faith and its reward. This we find in Deborah. She was the centre of interest, and the spring of all active movement throughout this interesting episode of history. All Israel looked to her for counsel. She was the nation’s oracle. We hear nothing of high priest or seer in this degenerate day—only Deborah. She was prophet, priest, and king. Without her Barak was nothing, and could do nothing. She was the one hope of Israel. That star put out, the whole sky would have been hopelessly dark. But for this one woman, the history of this sorrowful period would have been far more dismal still. Through her the turning-point was made to a happier and brighter era.
All this she was because of her faith. She had indeed the gift of prophecy, and performed the function of a judge, for she was appealed to in that capacity from all parts of the land. But that which determined her character was her faith in the God of Israel. She believed in His name; in His character; in His covenant with His people; and in His promises. She believed that the God of Jacob was with Jacob’s seed, that “the Strength of Israel would not lie,” that God would not forsake His people, but would in due time return and send relief to them under their manifold sorrows.
This faith, though that only of a single individual, was most refreshing in times when all things looked so dull and dreary. It revived the drooping spirits of the nation. If there was but one rose in the desert, its sweet perfume seemed to be wafted to every home in the land. When a man thought of Deborah he thanked God and took courage. This was most honouring to God—to see faith burning so strong in one bosom when it seemed to be so sickly and languishing everywhere else. When she announced the message of her God to Barak, she spoke with the utmost certainty of success. No faltering of tone, and no hesitation of manner. Doubt and fear were cast to the winds, while every word was spoken and every step was taken in the assurance of victory.
And what is the reward of such faith in a degenerate time? Every step succeeds of the directions which she gave. Barak’s scruples are overcome; the 10,000 men assemble at Mount Tabor; Sisera’s army are drawn together to the River Kishon; Jehovah specially interposes on behalf of Israel, and the enemy are destroyed beyond remedy. The praises of the God of Israel are again sung, and the fear of His name spreads abroad to every land. Another bright chapter is added to the history of Israel, and Deborah’s name shall be known as that of a “mother in Israel” to all generations. How many in after years would rise up to call her blessed! Her name is immortalised as a “savior” of the Church of God in an evil day, and that name shall shine as a star in the firmament through every age to the end of time. Nor shall it be lost sight of when the stream is swallowed up in the shoreless ocean beyond. For, from the wreck of time all God’s jewels shall be carefully gathered, and made up in a glorious wreath to adorn the Redeemer’s head through everlasting ages. Nothing that has been done for the church of God shall be forgotten. All who have been “faithful unto death shall receive the crown of life.”
6. A weak faith and its chastisement. Barak looked on the same picture as Deborah did, but (at first) with very different eyes. He started back when he saw what seemed to be hobgoblins, satyrs, dragons, and all manner of hideous spectres; while she exulted at the thought that “the angel of the covenant” encamped round about His people, covering them with His feathers, and giving them all needful shelter under His protecting wing. Weak faith saw in the near foreground the dark thunder-cloud, surcharged with the elements of ruin, and hanging ready to burst over the homes of the once beloved, but now deserted people. Strong faith saw a mighty wind sent out from the Lord, dispersing the murky clouds, clearing the whole sky of danger, and opening out a period of glorious sunshine to succeed the period of gloom and sorrow. Weak faith saw the billows too mighty for the little skiff they carried on their bosom, and fearing it might founder at any moment, began to call for aid. Strong faith saw that skiff under the care of Him who walks on the waters, and commands every wave by a word, who controls every breath of wind, and has pledged Himself to bring all safe in due time to land. Weak Barak-like faith sees the enemy stretching out his lines in deadly array, believes in the faintest possibility of its own success, and the high probability of crushing defeat with its frightful consequences. Strong faith says: “Who are these uncircumcised that they should defy the armies of the living God? These Canaanites “are men and not God, and their chariot horses flesh and not spirit.” “Far more are with us than all that are against us.” Once more weak faith says: We have no might against this great company that come against us, we are as grasshoppers before them, while they are a vast multitude, well-disciplined by the best of generals, and highly accoutred in arms. Strong faith says: “Though they compass us about as bees, they shall be quenched as the fire of thorns, for in the name of the Lord we will destroy them.” It sees the finger of Omnipotence about to be put forth, and victory sure, swift, and overwhelming over the foe secured for the Church of God.
Barak’s faith, though at first weak, was genuine. It seemed to be in part the weakness of surprise. He was taken aback, when told that he was chosen to occupy the perilous and difficult position of being captain over God’s people; and he felt his insufficiency for the duties of the situation. But weak faith is yet true faith; as a drop of water is water as well as the ocean, or a spark of fire is fire as well as a large flame. The little finger lives the same life that the hand or foot does. A little grace may be true grace, as the filings of gold are as good gold (though little of it) as a whole wedge. Though the pearl of faith be small it shines with great beauty in God’s eye; it is a ray of His own excellence. As yet Barak could only say: “Lord I believe! help thou mine unbelief!” If he were helped by Deborah, he was prepared to undertake the arduous duty. That indicated true faith. He knew that the Lord was with the prophetess, but he did not as yet feel that the Lord was in any special sense with himself. Had he shown a firm faith and at once said, without any hesitation: Here am I! Send me! Very likely the next sentence we should have read would have been: “The Spirit of the Lord came upon him.” This is the first chastisement of his weak faith—the lack of the double portion of the Divine Spirit. That he had the Spirit was manifest, but it was not given in such large degree apparently, as in the case of some others of the judges.
His faith seems to have grown stronger every hour while Deborah was with him; and at last we see him boldly taking the initiative in going forth to encounter the mighty host of Sisera in battle array. And because, when the time came, he rose with the occasion, and performed the great feat of that day by faith and not by sight, therefore his name finds a place in the honourable list of the men of faith. Thus in the end his faith obtained a great reward, though the crowning laurels were denied to it, because it staggered at the beginning. While Sisera lived the enemy lived. His destruction was the putting an end to the oppression of the people of God, and the signal for their immediate emancipation. This honour was withheld from Barak and conferred on a woman. And thus more especially was his weak faith chastised. Zacharias was struck dumb for his unbelief; and Moses had the scar of Meribah left on him till the last. But the blessed thing is to have true faith at all. Even when small as the acorn it is able to move mountains of difficulty. And if only living, however small, it will grow. Under proper cultivation it may become powerful as the cedar, and be able to use the noble language, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me.”
7. God’s ordering the battle, a presage of victory. The thought of having a battle at all was God’s own. It was the natural way of getting out of the hands of the oppressor. Though war in itself is a thing to be deprecated, it sometimes becomes a necessity; and as a matter of fact. God sometimes takes that way of punishing the oppressor. It was so now. In Judges 4:6 we are told that the God of Israel gave the command to raise an army and go out to battle against the Canaanites. This command was the first step. The second lay in appointing Barak to be the leader of the army of Israel; as is implied in the same charge. Another step commanded was to make the number of combatants as few or as many as 10,000. Still another step was that God Himself would draw forth Sisera to engage in battle, with his full force assembled. And lastly, a promise is added, “I will deliver the enemy into thine hand.”
The Lord is a rock; His work is perfect. When He begins, He carries through. If He stir up a spirit of prayer in a man for some special blessing, the pouring out of that spirit is itself evidence enough that He means to bestow the blessing. Or if with the finger of Providence He points out the steps of some course of duty we are to take, the fact of our being Divinely directed is sufficient proof that God will bless us with success, if we faithfully walk in the path of duty of His appointment. There is such a thing as reading the leadings of Providence, an attainment at which one may expect to arrive, by carefully and prayerfully watching the course of God’s dealings for a period of time. When we can make out that God is pointing out some work for us to do, and we set about doing it, we may count on success, for He does not go back in His purpose. Besides, in anything which He calls us to do, He always promises His presence and help in the doing of it. When He called Joshua, He promised—“I will be with thee, I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” “He sendeth none a warfare on their own charges.” In the present case Barak had strong ground to conclude that God was with him, from the many specific directions given to him, all of which implied that God had a plan to be carried out, and therefore He would certainly be with the agent whom He employed to carry it out. He also knew that Deborah, who gave him his instructions, was well accredited as the messenger of God, so that what she said had the Divine seal upon it, and was authorised by God. All this was sufficient to form a foundation for a strong faith. In the great majority of cases there is evidence furnished for cherishing a strong faith, were there only a disposition to do so. But in how many cases is that disposition a-wanting!
VICTORY—THE LORD GOING BEFORE.—Judges 4:12-24
CRITICAL NOTES.— Judges 4:12. And they showed Sisera, etc.] Sisera was the generalissimo of the King of Hazor; to him, therefore, the report was carried, that the revolt of the tribes of Israel from under the hand of Jabin his master had come to a head, and that an army was being collected at Mount Tabor under the captaincy of Barak, with the view of breaking their yoke of servitude. Of this God made use to fulfil His promise, “I will draw to thee, Sisera, with his chariots and multitude,” etc. (in Judges 4:7). For Sisera required no further motive to rouse him in a moment to opposition and to vengeance; though we might add here as in Pharaoh’s case, that the Lord hardened his heart so that he pursued after the people (comp. Exodus 14:3-8). Accordingly we read in—
Judges 4:13. Sisera gathered together all his chariots, etc.] Filled with indignation at the attempt of the long subject nation to recover their liberty, he resolves to put forth the whole mighty force at his command to crush for ever their aspirations after national independence, and reduce them to a state of perpetual vassalage. All the people that were with him from Harosheth of the nations unto the River Kishon.] This seems to indicate that besides Jabin’s subjects proper, there were many others in this formidable conscription brought together, mercenaries, or tributaries—a huge host collected out of the whole north-west of Palestine, in addition to the mighty chariot force already specified. The description covers a large breadth of country, sufficient to furnish from one to two hundred thousand men; though the precise number is not given, the only expression used being “his multitude” (27). There seemed to be a powerful confederacy, who said to each other, “come let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance.” (Comp. Psalms 83:0)
Judges 4:14. And Deborah said unto Barak, Up; for this is the day, etc ] It is a sad omission that in this critical juncture of the national history, we hear nothing of God’s priests—the men whose office it was to present the offerings and prayers of the people at the Divine footstool. Had the class become defunct? If not, why such a dead silence in regard to them? Why not appeal to the sacred Urim and Thummim in order to ascertain God’s will at this solemn moment? Where was the ark of God before which supplications and confessions might be made? Did the sacred fire still burn? Is not the Lord gone out before thee?] “The captain of the Lord’s host” fought at the head of the Israelitish army in every battle; unseen He appeared only to Joshua at the beginning of the campaign. But He had gone before the people in the wilderness as their Guide and Protector or Shepherd, though all unseen. For “this is He that was with the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38; Exodus 23:20-23; Exodus 33:2; Deuteronomy 18:15). And as a proof that this same—not angelic merely, but Divine—Friend was with them still to act as their Saviour, we have a distinct notice of His presence at the beginning of the dark days of the Judges in Judges 2:1-5. Now He was to act as the general of the army—the Lord’s host, and to go forth at the head of that host (Isaiah 52:12). He was Himself the army; the King of Kings.
Judges 4:15. And the Lord disoomfited Sisera and all his chariots, etc., with the edge of the sword, etc.] The word יָּהָם means agitated—dispersed—or rather confounded (2 Samuel 22:15; Psalms 144:6) (Keil, Cassel, etc.), which is more than simple defeat; as if a higher than ordinary power had been at work. It is the same word that is used to express the effect produced on Pharaoh’s host, when they pursued after Israel into the sea. “The Lord troubled the host of the Egyptians.” It was made manifest that another than human power was arrayed against them. So it was in the destruction of the Canaanites in Joshua 10:10, where the same word is used. In the present case, as well as in that which occurred in Joshua’s days, there were two powers at work—the seen and the unseen; the first being enclosed (so to speak) in the other. The matter stood thus—It was a battle of faith. There was no visible sign of the Divine presence. There was the greatest possible disparity of force on the side of Israel. It seemed an act of madness, according to all reasonable calculations, for Barak and the people he had assembled to throw themselves against the irresistible chariot force of the Canaanites. No wise soldier leader would have tried conclusions at arms in such circumstances—sheep against wolves, boys against men. Nothing but faith could justify the step which they now took in going down into the plain—faith in the covenant God, in His character and standing promises, in the intimations He had given of specific steps to be taken on this occasion in order to the carrying out of a certain plan of His own, implying that He had a plan, and if so, would certainly carry it out.
Deborah was the guiding spirit of the occasion. The people trusted her as a prophetess of the Lord—the chosen organ for communicating the intimations of His will. All things being ready for the conflict, under an impulse of the Divine Spirit, she calls aloud to Barak, with a tone of authority, as speaking in God’s name, that now the moment had arrived when prompt and decisive action must be taken against the enemy, for the Lord Himself—the God who had wrought all the wonders of the past—had gone out before him. Nor would she confine herself to that single sentence, recorded in Judges 4:14, but “with many other words would she testify and exhort,” till the whole camp was roused to the highest pitch of fervour. Like a seraphic spirit in human form, faith, hope, and courage flashing from her eyes, and going out like electric sparks from all her features and her movements, the very incarnation of trust in her God, standing before the people, it was no wonder if every man, from Barak downward, became animated with something of the Divine fire, if doubts and fears were cast to the winds, and one feeling filled every breast, that of assurance that victory was already theirs.
The people, too, were all men of faith; or the greater part of them. For “they offered themselves willingly” (Judges 5:2). Their characters were tried in their being called to be soldiers. It was not merely, could they pray to Israel’s God, as in the case of Cromwell’s “Ironsides,” or Havelock’s noble regiments. But what included everything else essential to a true religious character—had they practical faith up to the mark of facing all danger out of loyalty to Israel’s God? Hence the true force of that word (Judges 4:6)—“Go and draw toward Mount Tabor, and take with thee ten thousand men of Naphtali and of Zebulun.” Every man was to have life and death set before him on the one side, and his duty to his God on the other. Between these he is left to choose. It was no easy thing to go up that hill. Only hearts of steel could try. Many on such terms preferred to continue under their drudgery and their bonds. “The inhabitants of Meroz; the men of Reuben, of Gilead, and of Dan” (Judges 5:23; Judges 5:15-17). Not so, many in Zebulun and Naphtali, with the princes of Issachar (Judges 5:18; Judges 5:15). This character of the people—their being all chosen men, chosen on the ground of their faith, was a most important factor in the case. For on this account, the summons to battle in their case would be felt with the power of a “Thus saith the Lord.” Also the fullest measure of the Divine blessing might be expected to crown their efforts. How could such men fail of success, when the faithfulness of their God was pledged to aid them?
Barak their leader was also now risen to the occasion. A man of faith at bottom, he had now got over his first surprise. His doubts would all be solved by Deborah, and no doubt in answer to much prayer he would have grace given according to the day. He now seems fully to realise that the battle is the Lord’s, and that the glory of His name and the success of His cause, are the objects above all others to be gained. He is now assured, that “the Lord of Hosts is on the side of Israel, and that the God of Jacob is their refuge.” It is in this spirit that he goes forth to fight, taking his place in the van, and calling on his army, “Follow me, for the time of the Lord’s deliverance is come.” In the thickest of the fight we see him, and all through to the end, desisting not till he can find the man who had dared to stretch forth his hand against the anointed people of the Lord.
It is manifest from this account, that, while human instruments are employed to do the great work contemplated, these were all animated by the presence and succouring strength of the Spirit of the living God. That Spirit gives courage to every heart and strength to every arm. He fills every bosom with the assurance of victory, and enables the whole to act as one man in striking the requisite blow. Ten thousand determined men, acting as if with one arm, could accomplish great things under any circumstances. But here the Ruler of all the ten thousand Providential circumstances in life, which may easily prevent the “race going to the swift or the battle to the strong,” was on their side, and about to employ His resources on their behalf. Imagine, then, this little army of Barak, at a given moment, making a whirlwind charge down the western side of Tabor, and throwing itself in a compact mass on the ranks of the bewildered foe. Sisera was apparently only in the act of marshalling his mighty forces, putting his chariots in their places, and his footmen in order, when this unexpected avalanche of enthusiasm, came thundering from the hill, ere his preparations were completed. In a moment everything was in confusion. So sudden, and so unlooked for was the rush made, and so extraordinary was the change in the spirit of the assailants from being men of craven hearts, to being men of lion-like spirit, that the Canaanites were stunned and even appalled.
Add to this, the visible signs of the omnipotent hand of Jehovah. In the text these are not given in detail. Only we are informed, that it was “the Lor.” who “discomfited or confounded Sisera and his host.” Also, at the beginning of the fight it is said, “the Lord is gone out before thee.” The whole ordering of the battle was His—“I will draw Sisera to thee—I will deliver him into thine hand.” It is said also in Deborah’s song, “They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” There must then have been visible signs of God’s mighty hand. Josephus says that a dreadful thunderstorm came on at the moment of attack, and that extraordinary hail-stones beat with great force in the faces of the foes, so that the bows and slings of the Canaanites were rendered useless, and the men’s hands were benumbed with cold. We know that in the battle recorded in Joshua 10:0, “the Lord cast down great stones from heaven upon the Canaanites, so that more died in consequence of these stones than from the sword of Israel.” Something similar took place on the occasion referred to in 1 Samuel 7:10. Some even go so far as to imagine that the eyes of Sisera’s host were opened like those of Elisha’s servant (2 Kings 6:16-17), and “behold Mount Tabor was full of horses and chariots of fire round about” Barak’s army. This would indeed give a striking meaning to Judges 5:20. But the fact that such a thing took place once, is insufficient ground for bringing it in without any warrant at any other time. Rather we are disposed to think, that if so striking a spectacle as an army of angels with horses and chariots of fire, in the form of a protecting shield to the army of the living God, had really been exhibited, we must have heard of it from the inspired writer himself.
In any event, the host of Sisera were struck with terror, and thrown into confusion all over the field. Thus they became an easy prey to the sword of Barak. That mighty heathen host fell atrembling, when they saw from all the appearance of things around them, that the old irresistible force, which had destroyed all the nations of Canaan in the days of Joshua, was again awakened and bearing down upon them with overwhelming weight; so that they said to one another, as did the Egyptians, when the Lord pulled off their chariot wheels, “Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the Lord fighteth for them against the Canaanites.” Thus the little army of Barak, braced up to the highest degree of courage and confidence, was but one of the elements of the case; there were certain supernatural influences or agencies at work at the same moment, sufficient to show that the mighty God of Jacob was present to defend His people.
Judges 4:15. Sisera lighted down off his chariot and fled away on his feet.] Even the stern-hearted captain shared in the universal panic. “The stout-hearted were spoiled, and none of the men of might did find their hands.” Such was his terror that he was glad to leave his chariot and run away on foot; in order no doubt to mislead his pursuers, and get to some retired spot for safety, while they were off the track.
Judges 4:16. Barak pursued.] Though faint-hearted a little at first, from the time that he recovered his faith and began the work of a leader in good earnest, Barak nobly acted his part on to the end, foremost in the fight, and slacking no rein till he had run his course to a successful issue—all the host fell on the edge of the sword, and there was not a man left.] The destruction of so large a host was made so complete, that it seemed as if a very special arrangement of Providential circumstances had been made, so as to secure such an awful result. In any ordinary case many would have escaped. But here “not even to one.”—not a single man was left. The River Kishon swept away vast numbers, for it was then overflowing (Judges 5:21). But it was by means of the sword that most of them were cut off. They were like stricken deer, many of them smiting down each other, but the majority falling an easy prey to the sword of Barak and his little army of heroes.
Judges 4:17. Sisera fled away on his feet to the tent of Jael, etc.] He naturally in his flight takes a northern direction, that being towards Hazor. He must have gone a long way on foot, for the place where he now took rest was many miles from the battle-field. Besides, he was overcome with fatigue, and soon fell fast asleep. In his flight he bethought him of a house, not occupied by an Israelite, but by one who was friendly with Jabin, and might be counted on as affording safe shelter now, when every other spot was a point of danger. It was the house of Heber the Kenite. That family we have already seen (Judges 4:11), though casting in their lot with Israel, originally belonged to a different race, and still kept up the custom of dwelling in tents. For this reason probably Jabin was not bitter against them, as he was to all Israelites. So we are told there was peace between Jabin and the house of Heber the Kenite.] Here, therefore, the fugitive thought he might find temporary refuge. But it is the part of the tent occupied by Jael, not that of Heber, into which he enters. For though they were husband and wife, they had different apartments in the tent according to eastern custom (Genesis 18:6; Genesis 18:10; Genesis 24:67; Genesis 31:33). In the absence of Heber, Arab custom required that Jael, his wife, should perform the duties of hospitality to a stranger. Sisera’s claim for protection was as valid as a common claim for hospitality, and could not be refused. Having once received a stranger into his tent, and given him the rites of hospitality, it is then reckoned an invariable rule, which the most unprincipled Arab never fails to observe, that his guest should be concealed in case of danger, and even defended with life from his pursuers. The giving of refreshments was regarded in every instance as a seal to the covenant of peace and safety. It is probable that Jael introduced Sisera for safety into the inner part of the tent—the woman’s division—where no man dared to enter without her permission, under the severest penalty.
Judges 4:18. She covered him with a mantle.] A close covering or rug—perhaps the rug on the ground on which Jael slept, it being the Oriental custom to sleep on mats, or rugs stretched on the ground (Lias). The Targum regards it as a καυνάκή, a covering rough on one side. It was a close covering, fitted to conceal the soldier who lay beneath it. Some make it the counterpane. It ought here to be noted that the Kenites, the people to whom Heber belonged retained till now, and long after this, the habits of their primitive tent life. The Rechabites referred to in Jeremiah’s day were a nomadic tribe belonging to the Kenites of Hemath (1 Chronicles 2:55) of the family of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. They came into Canaan with the Israelites, but to preserve their independence chose a life in tents, without a fixed habitation (1 Samuel 15:6). They seem to have been proselytes of the gate. Their clinging to tent life on to Jeremiah’s time is proved by the passage in Jeremiah 35:7-10.
On Judges 4:18-22, see Judges 5:24-27.
Judges 4:23. So God subdued, etc.] Not Barak, Deborah, or the people; but God did it.
Judges 4:24. Hand of Israel prospered and prevailed] Lit. “continued going on and proving heavy.” There was progress in the successes against Jabin, as in 2 Samuel 5:10; 2 Samuel 3:1; Genesis 26:13. Israel’s hand increased in its pressure on Jabin till he was destroyed.
MAIN HOMILETICS.—Judges 4:12-24
LESSONS FROM THE BATTLEFIELD
1. The Church’s Battles under the Old Dispensation were fought with carnal weapons. The people of Israel formed, throughout their whole history, the Church of the living God. They were never left to themselves to guide their own history, or to seek to attain ends such as might seem good to themselves, or might be for their own glorification. They were the property of another, and the very end of their existence was to glorify another. This fact they were never allowed to forget. Hence
(1.) Every battle they fought was ordered by their God. Should they enter into any battle without asking counsel of their God it was an offence against their true and proper King. On this principle it was disobedience and distrust not to go up against the Canaanites when they heard the report of the spies; and again, when they were forbidden to go up, it was presumption in them to do so, when they saw the fatal consequences of their unbelief. In like manner, in all Joshua’s campaign, not a single battle was undertaken on his own responsibility. He was simply a sword in God’s hand. All the battles in this book of Judges were specially ordered by God, as an attentive perusal of the first few chapters alone will show. It is the same with all that is recorded in every historical book of the Old Testament. But it was not so with all the other battles which the nations of the world fought with one another. Though God’s general providence includes all events, and all actors in the world’s history, there was no such special taking in hand, and directing the national movements of any other country as in the case of the Israelites. The great reason was:—
(2.) Every battle they fought was to serve the interests of God’s Church. It was in no case to exalt the martial prowess of Israel over the nations. In every instance, from beginning to end of their history, the glory of their God over all the gods of the nations was the end to be gained, and not their national fame; or if they are sometimes spoken of as superior to any other people, it is solely because their God has made them so, and for the purpose of showing forth His glory, not theirs. Their very existence on earth was to be a church for the living God. Their battles, therefore, had always a spiritual or holy end in view. They were really the battles of the living God as against the dumb idols—the Holy One of Israel and His people, as against “the rulers of the darkness of this world” and the multitudes of their wicked subjects.
(3). Though the end was spiritual, it was necessary to make use of carnal weapons as the means. In the old Dispensation, that mighty spiritual weapon, called “the sword of the Spirit,” had not yet been drawn from its scabbard. “Christ crucified”—was as yet “a mystery hid from the ages,” and in its absence other means must be used. The weapons must correspond with the times in which they are to be used. The nations of the world as yet lived down at the low level of deep spiritual ignorance of God and His ways, and owned as their only rules to act by force, by violence, by cruelty, and to give natural expression to every evil passion. Such was the sort of world the Church in its imperfectly formed state had to pass through. It was also the first stage of God’s dealing with His Church—when he taught His truths by pictures and signs in the external world. He appealed to men’s senses rather than to their spiritualised reason. Laws for the conscience and the heart came through an elaborate system of sensible ceremonies and symbols. In correspondence with this, the vindication of God’s truth, and the maintenance of the Church’s interests in the world, were effected by the use of external force, strictly regulated by God’s commands. The arrangement was confessedly temporary and imperfect. But the fact that so horrible a thing as war with carnal weapons was necessary to keep alive God’s truth in the earth and to prevent the extinction of His Church was not only a sad proof of the world’s enmity against God, but also a conclusive argument for some more effectual means being used to bring back the world to God. To lead this proof in full, long time was given that the conclusion might be more perfectly made out. And now we have the reign of the love of God and the peace of God through Jesus Christ, as the true method of governing a restored world, established on an everlasting basis.
(4). The great disadvantages of using carnal weapons. It is always stern work to go to the battle field. The work of shedding human blood by the sword is always most revolting. It is the vocation of the tyrant or the beast of prey. It transforms man into a savage, and kills out of his breast all the kindlier feelings. It is to make man the most terrible enemy of man. It is to rouse all the most ferocious passions that belong to our fallen human nature, and let loose the raging of the evil feelings—legions in number—that slumber unknown in the deep cavities of the heart. How can the spirit of peace and love live in an atmosphere of passion and revenge! How can the work of God be promoted by destroying man, made after the image of God! How can our own personal profit be advanced, when ruthlessly taking the life of a fellow creature!
Yet war was to the religious man in ancient times often a commanded duty. However stern the work, it was only commensurate with the stern necessities of the times which called for it. It was oftentimes the visible and well-deserved punishment of the wicked for their wicked deeds. It was often God meeting the ungodly on their own ground, and showing what jealousy and reverence must be maintained for His great name. But what a mighty relief it is for those who live in the times of “peace on earth and good will to men.” No human instrument is now to be used but that of the tongue. No weapon, but the word of reconciliation. No spirit, but the meekness and the gentleness of Christ. Now we do not look at the hard metal by which the body may be cut to pieces, but we have regard to the iron that enters into the soul. We now carry on war with sin in the heart—our own hearts, or those of others. Evil principle and evil purpose must be subdued there. Evil principles, evil schemes, and evil practices in the world everywhere must be put down. And one weapon is sufficient for every purpose—the quick, sharp, powerful two-edged sword of the Spirit of God.
2. God employs great variety of instruments in carrying out His purposes. The honour of service, and the distinction of success are not confined to one person alone. Even the mighty and the noble have sometimes to come down from their seats, while the Ruler of Providence “exalts the man of low degree, that no flesh might glory in His presence.” Who could have supposed that in a great crisis, when all that was precious in the Church of God was at stake, a solitary woman should be brought to the front, and through her an agency should be set on foot that would effectually stem the tide of oppression and bring back the best days of Israel’s history? The mighty king that sat frowning like an overshadowing cloud over the land and defying the armies of the living God, finds more than his match in one of the weaker sex. When the warriors had all disappeared, when there were no kings nor princes to lead on the nation to assert its independence, when true piety seemed to have taken refuge in the dens and caves of the earth, and when the enemy swept like a flood over all the homes of Israel—then God was pleased to raise up a woman to be the “savior” of His Church and people. Formerly He had made use of a man without the natural use of his right hand in a great extremity; at another time, a man taken from the plough, able only to wield an ox-goad; still again a foreigner dwelling in Israel but not of Israelitish blood. And in after years we know He used sometimes a man of Herculean strength like Samson, an outcast Gileadite like Jephthah, or one of the least of a poor family in Manasseh like Gideon—all of them most unlikely to be chosen, as seeming to be unfit, for the service of God’s Church in her days of great trial. But in this very circumstance lies an important element of their fitness, that in not possessing of themselves qualifications sufficient to meet the emergency, but full of faith in the resources of Him who has called them, they all the more distinctly prove “that the excellency of the power is of God and not of them.”
Barak cannot originate a scheme to meet the emergency, and if he could, has not the courage to carry it through. Deborah has the plan of what should be done set before her by God; and, though she cannot go out herself to battle, she has ardour and faith enough to inspire the hesitating Barak with a zeal and fortitude equal to the occasion. There is work for both, and the work of each cannot be done by the other. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee; nor the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” Sometimes, indeed, the more feeble members are the more necessary.
And what shall we say of Jael? God has need of her in this singular adjustment of agencies. She is brought in to carry away an honour that might and would have belonged to Barak had he firmly stood the test when put to the proof. How singularly she is brought in! Not an Israelite, but a member of a heathen family, who in Moses’ days forsook their worship of idols and did cast in their lot with the people of the living God—a family that kept fast by the worship of Jehovah amid all the changes that swept over the land of Israel. Travelling from point to point in the land of Israel, Heber had now pitched his tent near to Kedesh-Naphtali, but keeping up his distinctive character as a Kenite, and therefore a naturalised foreigner. The Lord has now need of one in this house, who can better serve the purpose than a native-born Israelite—one of foreign blood and therefore one to whose dwelling Sisera would come for shelter, yet one of Israelitish faith, and full of zeal for the cause of Israel’s God. Who could have thought such an one could be so easily found?
3. God makes use of men unconsciously to do His will. To Barak He said, “I will draw unto thee to the River Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army,” etc. Yet all that is done to induce Sisera to collect his army there is the report carried to him that Barak had planted the standard of revolt on Mount Tabor. (Judges 4:12.) There is no constraint put on Sisera; he is left entirely free to himself. It is of his own free will that he resolves to collect his army round the base of Mount Tabor. He never once thought of Israel’s God in the matter. Nothing was farther from his thoughts than to imagine that he was but an instrument in the hands of that God to bring to pass His deep purposes. Nor do the wicked ever think of this. “They boast of their heart’s desire; and through the pride of their countenance they will not acknowledge God; God is not in all their thoughts.” Their language is, “I am, and there is none besides me.” It is indeed, according to every man’s consciousness, that he is not put under the slightest restraint in his action. Were it to be so, the first principle of moral government would be interfered with—the freedom of the subject of moral government. But while that is preserved complete, God has still such entire control over his own creature, that He can employ him as an instrument in His hand to fulfil His purposes as it may seem good to Him. How can it be so? One step we can explain. God acts by every creature He has made, according to the faculties He has bestowed upon him. To man He has given the god-like faculty of free will, and in all His dealings with him, the Maker allows the fullest exercise of that faculty to His creature. But free will is governed or influenced by motives, and according as the motives set before it may be in agreement with its inclinations, so is it led to decide. God, having entire control of all possible motives that can influence the human mind, as He is Supreme Ruler in Providence, has but to adjust the proper motives which shall induce the human will to decide this way or that way, in a given case, and the end is gained.
There is no compulsion used in leading a man to adopt a particular line of action, while yet God makes use of him to accomplish His purposes as He pleases. In thus making use of him He does not begin by destroying his liberty of will to decide as he may choose; but having respect to that, He takes means to influence that will legitimately according to its inclinations, and so leads it to decide in such a manner as shall execute His will. Thus far we can go. But there are questions at the back of this which demand an answer; but this is not the place to enter on these. It is enough at present, if the great principle is acknowledged that while men feel perfectly free to act in all matters according to their own inclinations, God yet employs them as He sees meet, to execute any purpose which He pleases to have fulfilled in the course of His holy providence.
In the case of Sisera, it is easy to see how he was led to fulfil God’s purpose, in marshalling his army on the plain through which the River Kishon flowed. The report of the daring of Jabin’s vassals to try to break the yoke, that had been so long rivetted on their necks, would act like an electric shock on the mind of the high-spirited general, and rouse him to unwonted energy in collecting an army. The same motive would induce him to bring out all his resources at once, so as to inflict a crushing defeat on the people, on whom he wished to trample; but thus, in case of defeat, which God intended, he prepared an occasion for the whole strength of the nation being broken at one blow. God employed him unconsciously to do His will, in effecting the complete emancipation of His chosen Israel from the oppression of the cruel Canaanitish king.
4. The Lord’s battles are always gained through faith. In the Lord’s battles, the Lord Himself must always be present, and faith makes Him present. It is the province of faith to say, “Lord! without thee we can do nothing. We have no might against the great company that cometh against us, neither know we what to do, but our eyes are upon thee. Thine is the greatness, and the power, and the victory. In thine hand it is to give strength to all. Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman watcheth in vain.” And when the victory has been gained faith adds, “If the Lord had not been on our side when men rose against us, then they had swallowed us up quick—the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream had gone over our soul. Blessed be the Lord, who hath not given us as a prey to their teeth.” Battles gained through faith are thus always glorifying to God. Because—
(1.) It is His purpose that is to be gained by the battle. Barak felt that he was nothing but an instrument. He had nothing to fight for of his own. There was no plan shaping itself before his mind in the exercise of his own ingenuity. The deliverance of God’s Church from vassalage and from burdens he knew to be the one object in view, along with the destruction of the Church’s enemies, and thereby the vindication of the name of the God of Israel in the sight of the heathen. For that with all his might he fought. The idea of showing that superior prowess belonged to the army of Israel over that of Canaan; or that his skill of generalship was superior to that of Sisera, did not for a moment cross his mind. The reverse of this was too obvious a fact to be disputed. No circumstances could make it clearer that this battle was entirely God’s own, and fought in the interest of showing forth His glory.
(2.) It is by His means that success comes. Barak owed his valour to the fact that God’s Spirit rested upon him. The people did the same. For manifestly God poured out His Spirit on those who so “willingly offered themselves” at the greatest personal risk to vindicate the honour of His name. The courage which led them to jeopard their lives in the high places of the field, and the extraordinary feat they performed in the destruction of the whole of Sisera’s army, prove that special aid must have been given them. It was God, too, that ordered the battle. All the steps were laid down by Him. It was, also, through special signs from heaven that the Canaanitish host were struck with terror and fled before the sword of Israel. And it was of God that the River Kishon should have risen so far above its mark even in high flood, and, overflowing its banks, should have swept away so many whom the sword did not slay (Judges 5:21).
(3.) God honours faith because faith honours Him. It was greatly honouring to God to believe that He would make the handful of the Church’s defenders on Mount Tabor—a raw and undisciplined force—too mighty for Sisera’s warriors to stand before them. To take His word for it, that if His people went forth at His call, however insignificant in numbers and resources, He would “give power to the faint, and to them that had no might He would increase strength, so that they would mount up as on eagle’s wings, run and not be weary, and walk and not faint,” and on the faith of that assurance to go into battle against such overwhelming odds, was most honouring to the trustworthiness of the Divine character. Indeed, faith is the exercise of the soul looking away from one’s self and all other objects, and fixing on God alone as its stay, strength, and shield, thus making everything of God, and keeping all things else in the background. No wonder if such a man is “compassed about with the Divine favour as with a shield,” and that Omnipotence will, sooner or later, be found operating on his side. “Them that honour me, I will honour.” The Saviour’s invariable rule with all who came to Him in distress was, “According to your faith so be it unto you. If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.” The great work of the soul’s eternal salvation is made to depend solely on believing; and the most honourable list of names known in God’s Church is the list of those “Elders, who by faith obtained a good report.”
5. The importance of God’s people helping each other in the day of battle. “If thou wilt go with me then I will go; but if thou wilt not go with me, I will not go.” This confession was not to Barak’s credit. It showed a limping faith at least, though it did not prove the want of loyalty altogether. But it showed what stress he put on the aid he might receive from Deborah. That to him was so important a consideration that it turned the balance. Deborah seeing the necessity of the case did consent to go; for there was no rule transgressed by her compliance, and the emergency for Israel’s well-being at the moment was so great, that she felt every other consideration must give way to gain the success of the enterprise in hand. Barak looked to her as the medium chosen by God for the communication of His will, and hence felt that her presence was of the greatest possible consequence. As a matter of fact, though the account given in the text is very brief, we may fairly infer, that she not only gave directions to Barak as to how to proceed with the arrangements, but also that she was of the greatest service in stirring up the faith, patriotism, and pious zeal of all around her, beginning with the captain himself and going down to the meanest in the ranks. She was the soul of the army; and that soul was one of burning energy, and of genuine loyalty to her God. Nor did she stop, until every man of the ten thousand had got a soul infused into him of equal energy and fervour with her own.
So helpful may God’s people be to each other in times of great difficulty. Their mere presence and sympathy with each other in fighting the battle of truth against error, or of righteousness against sin, is of itself the greatest possible encouragement. Even the Saviour Himself, in the hour of His terrible agony, showed the need of a weak human nature, by imploring His own disciples to give Him their feeble aid, such as it was. “Could ye not watch with me one hour?” It was like a strong man clinging to a few straws in the midst of the torrent; or like a father seeking a little comfort from the prattle and sympathy of three of his own little children, when pressed down under the weight of an intolerable burden. The duty and the advantage of helping each other when carrying on the Lord’s work was recognised by the Master Himself when He sent out His disciples to preach His Gospel, in the form of two and two going together. When Peter and John had to fight so hard a battle before the Sanhedrim, it was very helpful to them at the close to be able to “go to their own company and report all that the chief priests and elders had done,” and follow this up by “lifting up their voices with one accord,” and so to put the whole case anew into the hands of the exalted Saviour, asking grace that they might be able on other occasions to prove themselves worthy of Him whom they served. And the answer was given (Acts 4:23-24, with Judges 5:29-31). Paul, notwithstanding the abundant grace conferred on him, confesses his obligations to be so deep to many who were his fellow-helpers in the cause of Christ, that but for their succour we are led to conclude, he never could have gone through the work and the struggle that he did. What help did he get from their Christian fellowship, their sympathy, their prayers, their counsels, and their many services in connection with carrying on the work! Romans 16:0, and the closing chapter of several other Epistles, contain allusions to several “fellow-workers unto the kingdom of God,” who were of the greatest service to him in his work. On some names he puts a special emphasis—the Timothys, Epaphroditus-es, Tychicus-es, Onesimus-es, and certain others, not to speak of the labourers of the first class, such as Barnabas first, and Silas afterwards.
The same principle is illustrated in Church History from the earliest years to the present time. We uniformly perceive the triumphs of the gospel to be owing in large degree to the practical union, and mutual help-giving of Christians among each other in carrying on their great work. What striking proof of this have we in such examples as those of Luther, Melancthon, the Elector of Saxony, and the many other Reformers who succoured each other in duty and danger? Were not the ultimate successes of missions in the South Seas largely due to this? Might not such men as Carey, Henry Martyn, and D. Brainerd have done much more in the pit of heathenism, had the Christians at home held the rope better? Is not the whole Church-history of this country, for centuries, a prolonged evidence of the value of mutual help in doing the Lord’s work?
COMMENTS AND SUGGESTIONS.—Judges 4:12-24
VARIETY OF GIFTS IN THE CHURCH
This is suggested by the variety of persons and characters introduced to notice, in this striking episode of Church history. Deborah tops the list with her strong faith, force, and fervour of genuine piety, dauntless courage, unflagging zeal, fertility of resource, and supreme faculty of infusing into others her own spirit. Barak comes next, with true faith, but greatly troubled with doubt and fear, depressed with the low condition of his church and people, consciously incompetent to meet the emergency, yet not unwilling to do what he can, if only others would come forward with counsel and aid. Next come “the willing people” (Judges 4:2), all of them self-devoted to this work, because it is the cause of their God they have in their hands, and His glory in the good of His Church, is the end they ardently seek. They are not the rich and noble of the land, but for the most part appear to have been the workers in iron, who were employed by Jabin probably in making his iron chariots, and the hewers of timber, whom he employed in large numbers in cutting down his forests in the district of Harosheth, and utilising the wood by transporting it to Zidon. These, all with stout hearts and brawny arms, would give service in the battlefield.
Besides these, in the foreground of the story we read, that “out of Machir (tribe of Manasseh, to the West of Jordan) came down governor.” or chieftains; “and out of Zebulun they that handle the pen of the writer”—or staff of the officer, as some make it—the military scribe, whose duty it was to keep the muster roll, and superintend the recruiting of the army (2 Kings 25:19). The princes of Issachar, too, gave their help, doubtless in their own proper capacity. Others are also alluded to as being there on the great occasion. All wrought in their place, and all gave a willing service. And lastly came Jael, whose act brought the whole strange chapter of events to a close.
Thus one great result was brought about by the employment of a variety of agents, each doing what was his part to do; and this was according to the counsel of Him who ordered the battle.
1. A variety of gifts in the Church is a necessity. In carrying on the work of the Church, all the different aspects of human life must be met, for in the constant turning of the kaleidoscope, each of these in turn must have an agency provided which is adapted to the circumstances. No one worker, however versatile his genius, can be expected to show superiority of skill all round the compass, and to be as thoroughly proficient in every department as the specialist of that department. There are all manner of trades and professions in civil and social life, and so there may be expected to be persons of all classes, and of all kinds and degrees of capacity for usefulness in the Church. There is every possible variety of work to be done, every variety of station to occupy, every variety of qualification to be exercised, and every phase of danger to be met. All have their respective places to occupy in a very complicate arrangement. No man can do his neighbour’s work so well as his own; and each is responsible for doing what belongs to him to do, or that which he is qualified to do, whatever may be done or left undone by those around him.
All the members of the human body have their respective functions to perform. The eye is for seeing, the tongue for speaking or singing, the ear for hearing, the nose for smelling, and the hand for touching, grasping, or working. “If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing; if the whole were hearing, where were the smelling.” So in the Church there are different offices to fill and different functions to discharge. Some are church office-bearers, and others are private church-members. Some have the gift specially for acquiring knowledge suitable for the church’s instruction, others have the skill for imparting it. Some have a special adaptation for the training of the young, others for teaching and enforcing truth in the public assembly. Some have the faculty of addressing men in a popular style of thought, and others the capacity of meeting the wishes and tastes of the scholarly and refined. “There are diversities of gifts, but it is the same Spirit; and there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all.”
2. God bestows the gifts according to His good pleasure. All the qualifications possessed by all the workers are gifts conferred on them by God. No man’s genius is a thing of his own acquirement, or an heir-loom handed down to him by his ancestors. His possessions, too, though they may come in one sense as the result of his own industry or skill, yet would never come without the ordering of God’s over-ruling Providence. “The Lord maketh rich.” Every man’s special faculty for work is given him originally by his Maker. For God confers on every man some endowment, but the nature of it, and the measure of it, God himself determines. He has made the gifts exceedingly diverse one from another. “He who taught the lark to trill, has taught the eagle to scream. He who moulded the dewdrop, and caused it to hang in silence on the fringe of the flower, poured out the boundless sea, and caused it to roar night and day as if uttering the prayer of all earthly troubles.” “In the same pasture the ox can find fodder, the hound a hare, the stork a lizard, the fairmaid flowers.”
“On the face of a watch there are three workers, or, as we usually call them, hands—the second-pointer making rapid revolutions, the minute-pointer going at reduced speed, and the hour-pointer, which is more tardy still. Any one, not knowing the mechanism, would suppose that the busy little second-pointer was doing all the work. It is clicking away at sixty times the speed of the minute-pointer; and as for the hour-pointer, it seems to be doing no work at all. So is it in the church. There are active fussy men who appear to be doing the whole work, while others seem to be doing little or nothing at all. But can we do without the hour and minute-pointers? The noisy second hand might go its round for ever without telling the world the true time. The silent steady hour-hand need not envy its noisy little colleague. It gives by far the most valuable information. Every man’s duty is to do his allotted work, so as to gain the approbation of the Master whom he serves.”—(Parker.)
But as no one key can open all locks, so no one man possesses all the gifts. God has made no man so rich in genius or resources, but that he is dependent on some other men, as the wheel goes round. The strongest is not unfrequently made to depend on the weakest, and the highest on the lowest. Even the little mouse (in the fable) is made to gnaw the meshes of the lion’s net, and set free the lord of the forest. The little captive maid may direct the mighty captain of the host of Syria where to find a cure for his leprosy.
God so distributes his gifts to all that the most highly-gifted shall feel he is still not independent of those beneath him, and all shall feel that what they possess is not their own, but talents given to trade with for another, while at any moment they may be called to give an account of their stewardship. All the best gifts are not conferred on any one man, lest he should become arrogant towards his fellows, and begin to glory in the presence of the Sovereign Giver! Even with the best of men care is taken to avoid ground for boasting, and those most richly endowed are made to realise their need for succour from those around them. In the conducting of such a great movement as the Reformation from Popery in the sixteenth century, such qualities were needed as a Boanerges-like spirit, great powers of reasoning, force, fervour, passion, energy of character, on the one hand; and, on the other, a well-balanced judgment, learning, depth of insight, along with patience, caution, and equanimity of spirit. God divided these gifts, conferring the former on Luther, and the latter on Melancthon; but they were all put at the service of the church. Luther, gifted as he was, felt he could not do without Melancthon, and Melancthon felt that the work could not go on without Luther. Both, too, were ever made to feel that their all-sufficiency was of God.
Again, in the ordinary distribution of mental gifts among men, we find checks put on vanity and pride. Some possess the gift of genius, and exhibit feats of mental ability which excite the envy and the admiration of those around them; but yet, in regard to several of the ordinary faculties of mind, they are only on a par with those around them, or are even inferior. Others, again, are gifted with great intellectual grasp and strong powers of reasoning, but are deficient in fertility of imagination, and in skilfully decorating their thoughts with fit drapery of language. Some are mighty rhetoricians and brilliant orators, who can elicit the applause of the multitude, and yet they want capacity to excavate in the deeper mines of thought, and to build up solid structures of maxims and rules for men’s guidance in the practical affairs of life. In all cases gifts are so bestowed as to prevent boasting on the part of the recipients, and to make all feel their mutual dependence on one another.
God would also show His sovereign right to bestow His gifts entirely according to His own good pleasure, to bless one after this manner, and another after that. He assigns to one man a place in His church here, and to another there, as it seemeth good in His sight. Not that any are ever treated unjustly or unkindly. But as none receive their gifts as a matter of claim, God shows His right in His own creature, in endowing him with this or that faculty as it pleaseth Him, in order to gain the ends of His own wisdom. Thus He qualifies some to occupy a higher place in His Church; others, a lower. Some are qualified to teach and build up in the faith; others, to devise plans and institute organisations for carrying on the work of the Church. Some have special aptitudes for attending to financial affairs; others for conducting religious meetings, and attending to the spiritual well-being of the Church. Some find their element in the instruction of the young, and in rendering the work of religion attractive to their youthful minds; while others are more adapted to sympathise with the aged and the infirm, to give succour to those that are in distress, and to comfort the feeble-minded.
3. This variety is a feature of great beauty to the Church. The Church is not a vast surface of dead uniformity; were it so, the spectacle presented would be tame, monotonous, uninteresting. But as God has arranged things in the world of nature, so has He done in His Church. There is every possible diversity of taste, of disposition, of temperament, of qualification, among the members of His Church. While all exhibit a family-likeness of character, each has some special features of spiritual beauty peculiar to himself, his own tint and hue of loveliness, or his own special faculty of service, which none possess precisely the same in kind or degree but himself. This diversity of excellence, extending over the whole community of the Christian brotherhood, gives to the Church the appearance of a body of manifold interest and beauty. It is as when a light is reflected from a multiplying glass, in which all the surfaces are differently sized, differently coloured, differently cut, and all placed at different angles, there is a spectacle presented of endlessly diversified lights and colours—of manifold beauty—yet all arising from one and the same light falling on many surfaces.
(1.) We see this element of beauty in Nature:—“Amongst the trees of the wood there is great variety—the sturdy oak; the flexile willow; the solid maple; the graceful ash; the terraced cedar, with cones uprising through each grassy-looking lawn of tender leafery; the larch, hanging its scarlet blossoms from every pointed arch of its green pagoda; the stiff, stout holly, disdainful of the breeze; the fidgety aspen, all in a flutter at the faintest sigh; the spacious chestnut; the strict, solemn cypress, with every twiglet pointing straight up to heaven. So, too, with the bark of the timber—the ebony, sinking like stone; the cork, riding on the crest of the billow; the elder, so soft and spongy; the box, in his firm structure, retentive of the finest engraving; the homely deal, and thyine veneer—beautiful some, but useful all, and not to be interchanged with advantage.
(2.) “So is it with men’s minds. Melancthon would have made a poor substitute for Luther, but the absence of Melancthon would have left a poor Reformation. Great as was the invention of the Sunday School, it was not revealed to Bishop Butler, but was reserved for Robert Raikes; and yet if the former had not written the “Analogy,” the latter could not have supplied the desideratum. And although Jeremy Taylor and John Bunyan had each a fine fancy, the world is now agreed, that if they had changed places, they could have made it no better; we are quite content with the pilgrim of the one, and the golden grove of the other.” [Hamilton.]
(3.) Throughout nature there is a charm in variety. “The plough is fatal to the picturesque. A country under husbandry, with all God’s beautiful flowers cut down and cast out under the name of weeds, is as inferior in point of beauty, as it is superior in point of profit, to moor or mountain. How tame your levelled fields of wheat or barley compared with the rudest hill side, where green bracken, and the plumes of the fern, and the bells of the foxglove, and brown heath with its purple blossoms, and the hoar, grey, rugged stones that lie scattered in wild confusion, unite to form a mantle, in richness and variety of hues, such as loom never wove and queen never wore. Without this variety, how tame our gardens, with every flower in form and colour the counterpart of another; and how monotonous the music of early morn, did every lark in the sky, linnet in the bush, rook and ringdove in the woods, all utter the same notes!” [Guthrie.]
(4.) “But variety is everywhere. Each lamb of the flock has a bleat known to its mother; each rose on the bush has its own shape and shade of colour; and, there is not a lark that hangs carolling in the clouds, but has a voice recognised by the brood, above whose grassy nest she sings her morning hymn, calling the drowsy world to rise for worship and for work. So is it in the world of mankind, who, though numbering so many hundred millions, and showing so much similarity of general characteristics, have yet, in the case of each individual, a face and features, a configuration and colour, organs, limbs, and voice peculiarly his own. The same law operates among the fishes, the beasts, the birds, and the insects; it is everywhere also among the stars of the sky; and taking nature as a whole, what a manifold and magnificent diversity do we perceive among the works of God!” [Guthrie.]
(5.) “It is the same in the world of grace and in the Christian Church. There are different peculiarities among different Christians, which constitutes a charm rather than a defect. A John is pre-eminent for love; a Peter for ardour; a Paul for zeal; a Job for patience; a Moses for meekness; a David for devoutness; a Samuel for a prayerful spirit; a Jeremiah for tenderness; and an Abraham for faith. Yet all have the one Spirit of grace, and all possess one family-likeness. Those greatly mistake the matter who would have all Christians modelled on their own pattern, as, for example, of some modest, retiring, gentle spirits, who cannot appreciate the worth and usefulness of those whom God has cast in a rough mould and made of stern stuff.” [Guthrie.]
(6.) Everyone is needed in his place. The Samsons are needed in their place, as well as the Samuels, to fill up the beauty of the picture. The little captive maid to tell the mighty captain where to go for his cure, as well as the prophet to direct him in God’s name what to do. The quiet, simple-hearted Nathanael is needed to pray and to meditate under the fig-tree, as well as the more noisy and demonstrative Peter to be the mouthpiece of his brethren. The meek and soul-absorbed Mary, putting everything aside for Christ as “the one thing needful,” has her place, and also the bustling, more pretentious Martha, who is anxious to give the best of welcomes to her Lord. The eloquent and honest, though somewhat blundering Apollos is needed, and also the quieter but better-informed Aquila and Priscilla. The bold warriors are needed to go out into the open field to measure swords with the foe; and also, “the women who remain at home” are of service, in their place, “to distribute the prey.” A Luke is needed to act the part of the “beloved physician;” the house of Stephanas to “addict themselves to the ministry of the saints;” an “Epaphras to labour fervently in prayer” for Christian professors, that they may “stand complete in all the will of God;” and Christian widows are required to “wash the saints’ feet, to relieve the afflicted, and be patterns of every good work.” God has given to every thing a place, and has made every thing beautiful in his place.
4. Every Christian is responsible for making his own contribution for the good of the Church.
Every gift or faculty which a man has is given him in stewardship. It is a talent committed to his trust, of which his Lord says, “Occupy till I come.” The giver expects that every talent shall be traded with so as to gain something; some more, some less, according to the number given to trade with. If two are given, it is expected the trader will make other two; if ten are given, the result looked for is other ten, and so on. The fruit tree that occupies the best soil, and has had most time, cost, and labour bestowed upon it, is expected to yield most abundant fruit. “In the ceremonial law, God required more sacrifices from the rich than from the poor; such as had great store of oxen, sheep, and other things to be offered in sacrifice would not have been accepted had they offered “a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons,” which yet were acceptable from the poorer sort of persons.” “To whom much is given, of them much is required.” God had done great things for Eli and for David, and from them expected greater returns of duty and obedience all their lives after; but when they failed in some great particulars, God was sore displeased with them, and reckoning up the great benefits He had conferred, He tells them that He expected other returns from them. Hezekiah, too, having received much, God looked for answerable returns, and was greatly offended when such were not given.
“God gives to some many gifts, both of nature and of grace. He gives them much knowledge, learning, wisdom, great riches, honours, offices, places, much time, liberty, great and choice means of grace, special providences and dispensations, and many other things which others have not. Of these persons God requires more than of those who have fewer and less of such things, and their not making suitable returns provokes God against them. But no one, whether having greater or less gifts, is freed from making returns of duty to God, even if he should “have to work with his hands that He may have to give to him that needeth.” [Austen.]
Every man should devote himself to the task for which he is best qualified. Everyone should ask himself the question—For what am I best qualified? and, on discovering that special faculty, should regard it as the indication of God in His Providence of the line of duty appointed to him in his place. It may be to visit the sick couch; to express sympathy with the destitute, the bereaved, or those in special distress; to counsel the unwary, the inexperienced, or those exposed to strong temptation; to distribute tracts or books, and carry on spiritual conversation from house to house. Or it may be to take a lead in prayer meetings, to strengthen the hands of the Christian pastor, to take part in encouraging all schemes of Christian good-doing, to watch over the spiritual well-being of the Church with which one is connected, and to do all that can be done by conscientious and believing prayer for every person and every interest around us.
“Lord Thurlow was astonished that his kinsman, William Cowper, should have resigned the clerkship of the Lords, because he had not courage to read aloud petitions and minutes; yet, though the Chancellor was himself a stranger to trepidation, it may be questioned, if, even to secure the Great Seal, he could have written ‘The Task,’ or ‘John Gilpin.’ ”
5. This varied and unequal distribution of gifts calls into exercise many excellent features of the Christian character. What seems at first a great irregularity is really the best means that could be devised for knitting and cementing together the whole body of Christians in one harmonious brotherhood. Those who are rich feel they are debtors to the poor whom God has made dependent on others, and so are called upon to exercise beneficence. The poor are made to feel that a great favour is done to them by the rich, and so become bound to them by ties of gratitude. The one class feel they are making a sacrifice with which God is well pleased, in giving without the expectation of being recompensed again. The other class feel they owe their love, their thanks, and their prayers, to those who have done them a material kindness, and whom they cannot recompense again.
Humility is cultivated by this arrangement, and a sense of creature dependence. Everyone is led to put the question, “What have I that I did not receive? Now if it was received, why dost thou glory as if thou didst not receive it? I am full of wants—a mere empty cistern, and all my supplies are made by the Giver of all good.” Self is thus reduced to nothing, and God becomes all in all.
Resignation, or submission to God’s will in the ordering of our lot is cultivated. This springs out of a sense of our dependence, for all graces of the Christian character are closely allied as members of one family circle. If I have nothing that I can call my own, then why murmur at any mode of distribution which Divine Providence is pleased to make; God is only disposing His own. Whatever may come to my share is only a favour greater or less—a thing to which I can lay no claim. Let Him take His own way with His own.
“I dare not choose my lot,
I would not if I might;
Choose, then, for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.”
Contentment is also called into exercise. The family-likeness here between this and the disposition we have spoken of is so strong, that they seem to be twin sisters. To be content is to be meekly satisfied with our share of things. And for this there are many good reasons. Every well-taught Christian will say, if such is the Master’s will, I am satisfied. My will is always His will. Besides, I brought nothing into this world, and it is certain I can carry nothing out. And it is always true, were I to receive only what I deserve, I would receive nothing at all.
Other features would also be called into exercise, such as respect for all; fellow-feeling; forbearance; the absence of jealousies and heart-burnings; and that charity which is a uniting bond all round.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Judges 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter