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THE MARSHALLING OF THE PEOPLE
In this chapter we have the order of the twelve tribes in the camp and on the march. And in these verses we have the general directions which the Lord gave unto Moses for marshalling the tribes. Keil and Del.: “The twelve tribes were to encamp each one by his standard, by the signs of their fathers’ houses, opposite to the tabernacle (at some distance) round about, and, according to the more precise directions given afterwards, in such order that on every side of the tabernacle three tribes were encamped side by side and united under one banner, so that the twelve tribes formed four large camps or divisions of an army. Between these camps and the court surrounding the tabernacle, the three leading mishpachoth (i.e., families or clans) of the Levites were to be encamped on three sides, and Moses and Aaron with the sons of Aaron (i.e., the priests) upon the fourth, i.e., the front or eastern side, before the entrance (Numbers 3:21-38) דֶּנֶל, a standard, banner, or flag, denotes primarily the larger field sign, possessed by every division composed of three tribes, which was also the banner of the tribe at the head of each division; and secondarily, in a derivative signification, it denotes the army united under one standard, like σημεία, or vexillum. It is used thus, for example, in Numbers 2:17; Numbers 2:31; Numbers 2:34, and in combination with מַחֲנֶה in Numbers 2:3; Numbers 2:10; Numbers 2:18; Numbers 2:25, where ‘standard of the camp of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan’ signifies the hosts of the tribes arranged under these banners. אֹתת, the signs (ensigns) were the smaller flags or banners which were carried at the heads of the different tribes and subdivisions of the tribes (the fathers’ houses). Neither the Mosaic law, nor the Old Testament generally, gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard (degel). According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man, or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle; so that the four living creatures united in the cherubic forms described by Ezekiel were represented upon these four standards.”
In these verses we have four homiletic points.
The Lord here gives directions to Moses concerning the order that was to be observed amongst them. The great importance of a clear and well understood arrangement amongst so large a number of men will be obvious upon the slightest consideration. But notice:—
1. God Himself delights in order. This is clearly manifest in His works,—in the rising and setting of the sun and moon, in the sublime march of the stars, in the ebbing and flowing of the tides, in the regular succession of the seasons. Even comets, those apparently erratic wanderers in space, are not erratic; but move with perfect precision both as regards space and time.
2. The importance of order is recognised in human affairs. In the Christian Church, in national government, in military affairs, in the family and home, and in the individual life, order is of the utmost importance, and is fraught with the greatest advantages. “Order,” says Southey, “is the sanity of the mind, the health of the body, the peace of the city, the security of the state. As the beams to a house, as the bones to the microcosm of man, so is order to all things.” “Let all things,” says St. Paul, “be done decently, and in order.”
3. This order was probably Divinely instituted as a means to peace and unity. It is probable that if God had not determined the order which should be observed among them, there would have been strife and contention for priority and precedence. Thus the tribe of Reuben might have claimed the pre-eminence as a birth-right, and refused to fall in with the arrangement by which Judah held the post of honour and headed the march. While Judah might have refused to concede the position to Reuben, because of their own vast numerical superiority. Again, the tribe of Simeon, for the same reason, might have refused to occupy a position subordinate to that of Reuben; for the former tribe numbered 59,300, while the latter only 46,500. Other causes of dissatisfaction and dispute would also, probably, have been discovered. And the issue would have been strife, divisions, and we know not what evils. But the Lord prevents this by himself determining the arrangement of the tribes. Order is ever conducive to peace and unity. Let us cultivate order. (a)
There were different standards. Each camp had its own characteristic standard. And each tribe and each father’s house had its own distinctive ensign. Their order was not monotonous. Monotony is not a mark of divinity. Variety characterises the works of God. Countries differ in their climates, conformations, productions, etc. The features of landscapes differ. “Star differeth from star.” Trees, flowers, faces, minds differ. Hence it seems reasonable that we should find different ensigns in the Church of Christ. With one spirit there may be many forms. With unity of the inner life there may be great variety of outward development. There are many denominations in the Christian Church because there are differences of mind, temperament, degrees of education and culture, etc., in those who compose the Church. This variety is promotive of health, activity, usefulness, (b)
All the tribes were gathered “about the tabernacle of the congregation,” as around a common centre. They had different standards and ensigns, but constituted one nation. Their position in relation to the tabernacle illustrates—
1. The dependence of all on God. All the tribes looked to Him for support, provision, protection, direction, etc.
2. The access of all to God. The tabernacle was the sign of the presence of God with them. It was in their midst; not very far from any of them. All of them in the appointed way might approach Him in worship. Through Christ we both (Jews and Gentiles) “have access by one Spirit unto the Father.” (See Ephesians 2:18-22.)
3. The reverence of all towards God. They were to pitch “over against the tabernacle.” Probably the tribes were 2,000 cubits distant from it. Compare Joshua 3:4. They were thus to encamp around the sacred place, that no stranger might draw near to it; and the Levites were to encamp near the tabernacle on every side, that the people themselves might not draw too near to it, but might be taught to regard it with respect and reverence. “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about Him.” Now, all Christians are one in their relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. All depend upon God as revealed in Him; all approach unto God through Him; all reverence God in Him. The various denominations of Christians constitute the one Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the centre of unity. As Christians draw nearer to Him they will draw nearer to each other; not in uniformity, but in increasing nearness to Jesus Christ will the increase of true unity be found. “Uniformity is the creation of man; unity is the inspiration of God. The first can be made by a mask; the latter must be created or imparted by the Spirit of God. Uniformity is compatible with death; unity is inseparable from real and conscious life. Uniformity is the churchyard; unity is the church itself of the living God. All may be uniform, yet all may be dead; none can have real, inner, spiritual, vital unity, without having that truth which God inspires, and that life of which Christ is the Giver.”
The tabernacle of God in the midst of the camp was a guarantee of their safety. We may apply to them the words of one of their poets of a subsequent age: “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved,” etc.
His presence in their midst would tend to—
1. Quell their fears. He had wrought marvellous things on their behalf in the past; He was ever doing great things for them. Then why should they quail before any danger or enemy?
2. Inspire their confidence and courage. It should have given to them the assurance of victory in conflict, etc. This seems to have been the idea of Moses: “When the ark set forward, Moses said, Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.” Distance from God is weakness and peril to His Church. Nearness to Him is safety and power. Living in vital union with Him all-conquering might is ours.
1. Let us learn sincerely and heartily to recognise as members of the Christian Israel all who have the Christian spirit, however widely they may differ from us in forms and opinions.
2. Let us think less of our isms, and more of Christ’s Church; less of theological and ecclesiastical systems, and more of Christ’s Gospel; less of human authority and patronage, and more of the Lord Jesus Christ.
(a) Order is Heaven’s first law—a glorious law,
Seen in those pure and beauteous isles of light
That come and go, as circling months fulfil
Their high behest. Nor less on earth discern’d,
‘Mid rocks snow-clad, or wastes of herbless sand,
Throughout all climes, beneath all varying skies,
Fixing for e’en the smallest flower that blooms
Its place of growth.
(b) Let us go down and stand by the beach of the great, irregular sea, and count whether the thunder of it is not out of time. One—two—here comes a well-formed wave at last, trembling a little at the top, but, on the whole, orderly. So, crash among the shingle, and up as far as this grey pebble; now stand by and watch! Another! Ah, careless wave! why couldn’t you have kept your crest on? It is all gone away into spray, striking up against the cliffs there. I thought as much—missed the mark by a couple of feet! Another! How now, impatient one! couldn’t you have waited till your friend’s reflux was done with, instead of rolling yourself up with it in that unseemly manner? You go for nothing. A fourth, and a goodly one at last. What think we of yonder slow rise and crystalline hollow, without a flaw? Steady, good wave; not so fast, not so fast: Where are you coming to? By our architectural word, this is too bad; two yards over the mark, and ever so much of you in our face besides; and a wave which we had some hope of, behind there, broken all to pieces out at sea, and laying a great white table-cloth of foam all the way to the shore, as if the marine gods were to dine off it! Alas! for these unhappy arrow-shots of Nature; she will never hit her mark with those unruly waves of hers, nor get one of them into the ideal shape, if we wait for her a thousand years.… But the sea was meant to be irregular! Yes, and were not also the leaves and the blades of grass; and, in a sort, as far as may be without mark of sin, even the countenance of man? Or would it be pleasanter and better to have us all alike, and numbered on our foreheads, that we might be known one from the other?—Ruskin.
The sun comes forth. And first I perceive the chick-weed blossoming, almost inconspicuous. It is born again of the sun, and shows the sun’s power. Just beyond there is a clump of violets. They are born again out of death into life by the power of the sun. Further on are bulbs of various kinds. And each developes in its own way. One has one style of leaf or bloom, and another another. And they multiply as the sun grows warmer, till the woods and fields swarm with myriads of growths, some purple, some red, some white, some blue, some green, all shades, and combinations, and forms being represented. They are all born of the sun, and brought into their life and power; and yet they are widely different in their structure and appearance. Would you reduce them all to one, and have nothing but daisies, nothing but tulips, or nothing but violets? Are not God’s abundant riches in this, that when He creates life from death in so many ways there are presented such variations of beauty and amiableness? So it is with the truths of the Gospel. God does not make those truths the same to any two minds. If men had the subtle power of analysis, so as to seize just what they feel, and put their feelings exactly into words, I believe it would be found that no two persons on the face of the earth ever stated or could state, their views of a fact alike. God, that never made two faces alike; God, that never made two leaves alike; God, that makes unity with infinite diversity—He does not mean that men shall feel just alike. The amplitude of being is expressed by variations of being, that go back to essential unity, and take hold of a common root. And the attempt to bring the glowing and fervid Orientals, the staid and practical Occidentals, the mediæval minds, the artist minds, the sombre and unirradiating natures, and the light and pay natures, all to one statement of speculative truth, is as wild and preposterous as the boy’s race after the rainbow. It cannot be done.—H. W. Beecher.
MAN IN RELATION TO ORDER, HOME, AND GOD
Let us inquire what God would teach by this.
I. The importance of Order in everything.
God here insists upon method in all their movements. Each was to be in his own place. He was thus teaching His people, and, through them, the world. The sojourn in the wilderness was their school-time; hence we have so much of it. In the lessons God taught them we find principles that are to guide us. God loves order in everything: He is not the author of confusion. Satan brought discord into the world. There was not a jarring note in the universe till sin came into existence. God loves order. You can see this in all His works; there is no confusion or waste in anything; nothing is neglected or left out; nothing can be improved upon. In all there is completeness and harmony. God is our pattern in this. The highest art is the best copying of nature. So in human life, the noblest, the highest is the one that follows most closely in the footprints of God. To live well is of vast importance to us, and it is impossible with disorder and confusion. In business, if there is no method, failure must be the result. In the home life, if there is no order, there must be misery. So order is essential to success in the religious life. “Let all things be done decently and in order,” said Paul. The reference is to the regularity and discipline of an army: the order is as perfect as possible; and it is this which makes all the difference between an army and a rabble. Order is the essence of beauty, strength, comfort, and usefulness.
II. The sacredness of family life.
Each was to be “with the ensign of his father’s house;” his place was to be with his family. The people had been slaves; and slavery saps the foundation of family life. God has to teach them the sacredness of the family circle. There can be no real national life unless the family life be pure and sacred. Men only live in families. The brutes dwell in herds. God has given man the family instinct; and the Bible and religion ever tend to strengthen, purify, and ennoble it. The higher a man rises in the scale of being, the deeper is his interest in his family. The more we love God, the more we love one another. Divine love sanctifies and elevates the human. God taught the people here to respect their families. Many parents seem to be anxious only to feed, clothe, and help their children for this life. Are their children brutes? Are they to perish like the beasts? Or, have they a soul? Parents, strive to make your homes abodes of peace and blessedness, centres of attraction and holy influence, so that your children may gather round the ensign, etc. God’s eye is on our family life.
III. The right way to feel and to act towards Himself.
They were to be “far off about the tabernacle.” True life is impossible apart from right esteem of God. He is the centre, the pivot of all true life. As amongst this people, so in His Church, God is the attracting power, etc. He is in the midst to rule, protect, and guide. As there is no circle without a centre, so the Church falls to pieces unless God he in the midst. Love to Him brings His people together, and binds them together. The earth is made of particles: gravitation, as it attracts each particle to itself, binds them together so as to form the earth. Thus God attracting each soul to Himself, binds them together as a Church. We are to turn around Him as the planets around the sun, receiving our light, our beauty, our influence from Him.
“Truth is dual.” The above is only half the truth; the other half is involved in the expression, “far off.” In nature there are two great forces at work—the centripetal and the centrifugal. If either of these were to fail, the earth would be wrecked. In religion we have two similar forces. God must attract us; He is the centre of our soul. But we must also keep our distance; we must be “far off.” There is no religion without reverence. God is great and holy. The people were to be “far off” as well as “about the tabernacle.” Divine things are to be treated with respect and handled with reverence. There is no true religion without awe; no true love without fear. While we lovingly trust God as our Father, let us give Him the respect due to His name.
1. The deep interest God takes in His people. He wants them to be the very best possible—to be perfect.
2. How religion affects the whole of man and His life. It teaches us how to act in all things. There is nothing above or beneath its notice that affects us. It is then our best Friend. If it is not yours, seek it without delay.—David Lloyd.
When Balaam looks down upon the outstretched camp of Israel, his very soul expands. It must break forth into praise. The beauty captivates. The order charms. (See Numbers 24:5-9.) Let as, too, view this favoured camp.
I. The Tents.
Not splendid palaces; poor tents. They are the pilgrim-dwellings of a pilgrim-troop—the short-lived homes of short-lived sojourners. Reminds of mortal state. These frames have one original—the dust. Is it not folly, then, to pamper and admire the flesh? At best these bodies are a tent. How soon they crumble! The tents must fall; but when? Perchance this very hour. Is he not then the fool of fools, who boasts him of to-morrow’s dawn? Learn how fleeting is life’s day. When I go hence, is an abiding mansion mine? Flesh is a mean abode. This thought commends the grace of Jesus. He scorned not to assume it. No man was ever man more thoroughly than Jesus. He thus descended that He might bear the curse. He sought a lowly tent to do a godlike work. But soon the degradation passed. The cross was triumph’s car. Manhood now shines in Him arrayed in light of Deity. And all, whom faith makes one with Him, shall soon behold and share this lustre. Weakness and frailty shall put on unfading freshness.
II. The Order.
Let Israel’s camp be now more closely scanned. What perfect regularity appears! Arrangement is complete, etc. Our God delights in order. Where He presides, confusion vanishes. Is it not so in every Christian’s heart? When Jesus takes the throne, wise rule prevails, disturbing lusts lie down, etc. Is it not so in Christian life? Each duty occupies its stated post. The home, the closet, the public, the world, in turn have claims, in turn are served. How different is the worldling’s day! It seems an upset hive, etc.
But in Israel’s camp each tribe has its place.… God fixes all the bounds, and all the bounds are gladly kept. The same all-ruling mind disposes now each member of Christ’s body. Each enters on the stage of life, as God is pleased to call. Each runs a pre-ordained course. Each disappears, when the allotted task is done. We see this clear arrangement throughout the Church’s history … Bow humbly before this ordering mind, then discontent will not arise; no murmurings will mourn an obscure lot, a grievous burden, a lengthened pilgrimage, or an early grave.
III. The Position.
“About the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch.” As the planets circle the sun, so these surround the sanctuary. God is the centre; they form the wide circumference.
Is there no meaning here? God in Christ Jesus is the centre, the heart, the life, the strength, the shield, the joy of His believing flock.
Is there no warning here? Let Christians ponder this Camp’s plan when called to fix their dwellings upon earth. When weighing the advantages of place, the foremost thought should be, Is God known here? Are His pure truths here clearly taught? Was Lot a gainer, when his eye only coveted the fertile plains? Can fairer fields, or sweeter prospects, make amends for a cold blank within? Can air-salubrity repay for inward sickness and a spiritual decline?
IV. The Standard.
A standard floats above each tribe. Beneath the well-known sign they rest, and by its side they march. Believers have an ensign too. The banner over them is Jesu’s love. (Song of Solomon 2:4.) The standard is a pledge of safety. Mighty foes hate and assail, plot and rage, etc.; but they must fail. Beneath it there is sweet repose. The weary spirit and the worn-out flesh can often watch no more. But as is the vineyard of the Lord, so is His camp. “I the Lord do keep it,” etc. (Isaiah 27:3.)
Beside it there is victory. Many have fought beneath the Gospel-banner, and all have triumphed. They who go boldly forward, looking unto Jesus, assuredly prevail. (2 Corinthians 2:14.) Happy camp, where Jesus is salvation’s Captain; His cross, salvation’s ensign; His heaven, salvation’s rest!
Believer, glory in your standard, and be steadfast. Cling constantly to Christ. Let every company, moment, place, witness your firm resolves. Wave now and ever the glorious ensign—“Christ is all.” Thus dwell within the camp, and you will reign upon the throne.—Henry Law, D.D.
ASPECTS OF HONOUR
“It seems to us,” says Dr. Cumming, “an uninteresting and unprofitable exercise to read the list of the tribes and their names, the camps and their numbers, the captains and their names, who together composed the mighty host that took their exodus from Egypt, through the desert, to the land of Canaan; but surely it was important in the circumstances in which they were placed that each and all should be recorded—it was important with reference to the separate and distinct maintenance of the tribes—that the promise of the Messiah from a specific tribe might be vindicated and established in the fulness of the times. In the next place, this mighty crowd, numbering six hundred thousand men, able to bear arms—and that must have amounted, with camp followers, to nearly two millions—a vast population in the desert—must of necessity be reduced to some order of regiments or companies, in order that authority might be exercised where it was needed; that the means of defence might be had recourse to most speedily and effectually where they were required; and that each loving his own company, each individual loving by preference his own tribe best, might yet, as a tribe mingled with the rest, have that wider feeling, which recognised an Israelite under whatever standard he was, in the great army of which they formed a part. For these and other reasons, God commanded Moses and Aaron to make the arrangements here specified; and what God saw useful to command, it cannot have been useless to record, and it may not be altogether unprofitable to read. We must not think that the chapter that does not personally benefit us spiritually is therefore of no use. It is possible for true Christians often to be somewhat selfish, and to think that that cannot be useful which does not benefit the individual, or that that cannot play a part important in the whole which does not produce a deep, a spiritual, and profitable impression upon each. We must learn to look wider, to extend our horizon, and to learn that there are parts in the Bible which may not bring personal instruction to us, but which nevertheless may have a force in relation to the whole book that vindicates it from the assaults of the sceptic; sets out its great truths in bolder relief and in clearer light; and even those parts which we cannot see or comprehend the use, the place, and the necessity of now, if we can only exercise a little patience we shall know, and understand, and see the usefulness of more clearly hereafter. There are many parts in this globe that we cannot understand the end of; we cannot see the use perhaps of so much water; we cannot see the necessity of those large wasted and blasted deserts. But yet I have no doubt they have a use, and are subserving a purpose; and we must not deny that God made this or made that because we cannot see the purpose that it subserves in the great economy of the universe. I believe that with the exception of what sin has done, there is not a star in the sky, however tiny it looks to us, that is not necessary to the balance of the universe; and that if one star were to fall from its socket, or one orb to be shattered in its march, a shock might be felt that would influence injuriously at least the whole solar system. And it may be that in this blessed Book, which is God’s inspired Book, some of those dull and dry passages, as they must appear to us personally, are probably subserving great and ultimate purposes, which we may not see now, but shall see hereafter.”
Our text gives us the account of the composition of the first camp, which was situated on the east side, toward the rising of the sun. This post of honour was conferred upon Judah. To him was given the first standard. With him were Issachar and Zebulun. These three tribes were descended from the three younger sons of Leah; and their union under one standard was, therefore, an appropriate arrangement. To each tribe a captain was appointed; these captains being the “princes of the tribes of their fathers,” who assisted Moses and Aaron in the numbering. Here, then, are differences of rank ordered by God. One tribe has the most distinguished position of all. Three other tribes are placed each at the head of a camp; and in each tribe one person was appointed by God as captain, or prince, or commander-in-chief. Leaders and rulers are essential to society. “To have neither superiors nor inferiors would be to breathe a stifling atmosphere of mediocrity. Natural leadership is the soul of common action.” Inasmuch as the most distinguished place was assigned to the tribe of Judah we take as our subject: Aspects of Honour.
We see here—
I. Honour wisely conferred.
The tribe of Judah was the must numerous and powerful of all the tribes. This was a good reason for placing it in the most prominent and illustrious position. Honours of title and place are not always wisely conferred. They are sometimes bestowed upon those who are neither distinguished in their abilities, exalted in their character, nor exemplary in their conduct. This is a sad perversion of things. (a) But the truest and highest honours are those of character and conduct, and these are attainable through the grace of God unto all men.
“Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From you blue heavens above us bent,
The grand old gardener and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.”
The honour of being children of the Most High, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ,” of being made “kings and priests unto God,” of sharing in the spirit and service of Christ, we may all attain through Him. But in these honours there are differences of degree. There are some to whom will be given “an abundant entrance,” while others will “be saved yet so as by fire.”
II. Honour in relation with duty and responsibility.
The tribe of Judah in being appointed to the place of honour in the Israelitish host had also the place of peril. Being at the head of the camp, if there were dangers to be met or foes to be encountered, they must first enter the lists against them. In their case rank and risk, distinction and duty, were united. The places of distinction should ever be for those who render the most and best service. And the highest places in both the Church and the State involve gravest responsibilities and most arduous duties. He who treads the path of duty faithfully and bravely will find in due time that it leads to the most unfading honours. (See notes and illustrations on ch. Numbers 1:4-16.) (b)
III. Honour as connected with parental influence.
Judah was the first of the sons of Jacob who was blessed by the venerable patriarch “when he was a-dying.” Reuben, Simeon, and Levi were censured by him. The parental blessing in the case of Judah has not been in vain. And in the honour now put upon the tribe the influence of that blessing is still further manifest (see Genesis 49:8-12). It is in the power of every parent instrumentally to bless his children. By wise teaching, holy example, and believing prayer, parents may confer the greatest advantages on their off-spring, and aid them to reach the highest honours. Let parents seek thus to bless their children. (c)
Let the children of godly parents appreciate their privileges in this respect. (d)
IV. Honour as related to future greatness.
The dying patriarch had predicted that Judah should be the ruling tribe; he promised to Judah a kingdom and sovereignty. Many years have since passed away; and still Judah has neither lawgiver nor sceptre. But here are two things to encourage faith in the patriarchal prediction—viz., the numerical superiority of the tribe, and the post of honour assigned to it. Ages more were to pass away before the prediction was fulfilled; but the honour now conferred on the tribe would encourage faith in its predicted destiny. Its natural tendency would be to stimulate them to—
1. Believe in their destiny.
2. Work for their destiny.
3. Wait for their destiny.
In like manner let every blessing which we receive from God be to us a pledge of our full and final salvation. Let every privilege conferred upon us increase our assurance of the splendid honours which await us hereafter. “Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness,” etc. “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with Me in My Throne,” etc. “Now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be,” etc.
(a) Let none presume
To wear an undeserved dignity.
O, that estates, degrees, and offices,
Were not derived corruptly! and that clear honour
Were purchased by the merit of the wearer!
How many then should cover, that stand bare!
How many be commanded, that command!
How much low peasantry would then be gleaned
From the true seed of honour! and how much honour
Pick’d from the chaff and ruin of the times,
To be new varnish’d!—Shakespeare.
“The Merchant of Venice,” ii. 8.
(b) Not once or twice in our rough island-story
The path of duty was the way to glory:
He that walks it, only thirsting
For the right, and learns to deaden
Love of self, before his journey closes,
He shall find the stubborn thistle bursting
Into glossy purples, which outredden
All voluptuous garden roses.
Not once or twice in our fair island-story
The path of duty was the way to glory:
He, that ever following her commands,
On with toil of heart and knees and hands,
Thro’ the long gorge to the far light has won
His path upward and prevail’d,
Shall find the toppling crags of duty scaled
Are close upon the shining table-lands
To which our God Himself is moon and sun.
(c) The voice of parents is the voice of gods,
For to their children they are Heaven’s lieutenants,
Made fathers not for common uses merely
Of procreation (beasts and birds would be
As noble then as we are); but to steer
The wanton freight of youth through storms and dangers,
Which with full sails they bear upon, and straighten
The mortal line of life they bend so often.
For these are we made fathers, and for these
May challenge duty on our children’s part.
Obedience is the sacrifice of angels,
Whose form you carry.
Mr. Irving, in his “Life of Washington,” brings to the knowledge of the public, we believe for the first time, a beautiful incident in the religious training of the youthful George when left to the sole care of his widowod mother. Of her general course, Mr. Irving remarks, with fine discrimination: “Endowed with plain, direct good sense, thorough conscientiousness, and prompt decision, she governed her family strictly, but kindly, exacting deference while she inspired affection. George, being her eldest son, was thought to be her favourite, yet she never gave him undue preference, and the implicit deference exacted from him in childhood continued to be habitually observed by him to the day of her death. He inherited from her a high temper and a spirit of command, but her early precepts and example taught him to restrain and govern that temper, and to square his conduct on the exact principles of equity and justice.” No Maternal Association has ever devised a better principle to be observed in training children than this of Mary Washington—“exacting deference while she inspired affection.” How rarely do we see these two essential elements in family government justly combined in either parent! From thin general view Mr. Irving passes to the following incident: “Tradition gives an interesting picture of the widow with her little flock gathered round her, as was her daily wont, reading to them lessons of religion and morality out of some standard work. Her favourite volume was Sir Matthew Hale’s ‘Contemplations, Moral and Divine.’ The admirable maxima therein contained, for outward action as well as self-government, sank deep into the mind of George, and doubtless had a great influence in forming his character. They certainly were exemplified in his conduct through life. This mother’s manual, bearing his mother’s name, Mary Washington, written with her own hand, was ever preserved by him with filial care, and may still be seen in the archives of Mount Vernon. A precious document! Let those who wish to know the moral foundation of his character consult its pages.” Would that the minds and hearts of all our youth might be trained after such a model!—New York Independent.
(d) Hold fast to home influences and remembrances; and recollect that he who tries to shame you out of a father’s and a mother’s fear, and out of obedience to them, tries to steal the most precious treasure you have. He that is trying to destroy the influence of your parents upon you is trying to take from you the most faithful love you ever knew. You shall lie down in the grave when you shall have traversed forty or eighty years of life, without having found another friend who has borne as much for you, or done as much for you, as your father or your mother.—H. W. Beecher.
THE MERCY OF GOD IN RELATION TO THE CONSEQUENCES OF SIN
We have here the account of the composition of the second camp. Its place was south of the tabernacle. At its head was placed the tribe of Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and Leah, and with it were associated the tribe of Simeon, the second son of Leah, and that of Gad, the eldest son of Leah’s handmaid, Zilpah.
Reuel, in Numbers 2:14, is doubtless an error of some copyist, and should be Deuel, as in Numbers 1:14. Several MSS. and Versions read Deuel in this place.
In this section we have—
I. An example of the continuance of the consequences of sin.
How is it that Reuben, being the first-born, does not take the first place? Why was Judah, the fourth son, preferred before him? Because Reuben had been guilty of the most shocking incest. (See Genesis 35:22; Genesis 49:4; 1 Chronicles 5:1.) He sinned grievously, and now his posterity suffer loss thereby. Sin when it is done is not done with. It lives in its results in the person of the sinner, and in the persons of others who are related to the sinner. Sin may be repented of, confessed, forgiven; and yet many of its consequences may remain, and that for many generations. (a)
1. The Sacred Scriptures declare this. (See Exodus 20:5; Leviticus 26:39; Lamentations 5:7; Luke 11:49-51.)
2. The connexion between one generation and another necessitates this. The consequences of the vices of parents are transmitted to their offspring.
3. Our social relationships necessitate this. We are ever exerting an influence upon others, and being influenced by others. One corrupt character corrupts others. One holy character tends to purify and exalt others.
4. The facts of human life attest this. The drunkard may forsake his drunkenness, may seek and obtain the Divine forgiveness, may lead a new life, yet many of the results of his sinful indulgences will remain in himself, and if he be a parent will be transmitted to his children. The spendthrift may abandon his reckless courses; but it requires many years, perhaps more than one generation, to repair the shattered fortunes and restore the family estate to its ancient prosperity. Man may turn to God late in life, may be pardoned, accepted, saved; but he cannot recover the years spent in the service of sin, or undo the evil which he has wrought. The guilt is taken away; but the loss, and much more than the loss, remains. God is just. His laws are immutable. They cannot be set at nought, or disregarded, without incurring stern and certain penalties. Let these solemn facts restrain us from sin. Let parents especially lay them to heart; and for the sake of their offspring, let them eschew evil, and cultivate virtue. “Parents bequeath not to your children’s lot The shame that from them no device can take, The blemish that will never be forgot.”
II. An example of the exercise of the Divine mercy in mitigating the consequences of sin.
Notwithstanding the horrible sin of Reuben, he was not altogether cut off from his father’s house. Though he forfeited his birthright he was not exiled from the family. His posterity was not cast out of the chosen people. His tribe was not degraded to the lowest rank among the tribes, but placed in an inferior position to that of Judah only. “So then,” says Attersoll, “albeit he was punished justly, he was punished gently. Thus God dealeth evermore. He correcteth both moderately and mercifully; and as the physician allayeth the bitterness of the potion with some sweetness, so God assuageth the greatness of His punishment with some mildness and favour that He mingleth with it.” We have illustrations of this in the case of Miriam (ch. 12) and that of David (2 Samuel 24:10-16) (Comp. Psalms 89:30-33; Isaiah 54:7-8; Lamentations 3:31-33.) In further elucidation and confirmation of our position, let the following points be noted:—
1. God delighteth not in judgment, but in mercy. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy,” etc. (Psalms 103:8-11.) Mark the tenderness of His appeal to His faithless and rebellious people, “Why will ye be stricken any more?” (Isaiah 1:5.) “He delighteth in mercy.” (b)
2. He is our Father, and deals with us as a Father. He is not simply our Creator, Sustainer, and Sovereign, but our Father. When He punishes, He does so as a Father. “Consider in thine heart, that as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee” (comp. 2 Samuel 7:14-15).
3. In His dealings with us He duly considers our weakness, our exposedness to temptation, etc. Our temperament, tendencies, temptations, trials, etc., are all known to Him. In His judgments all these things are taken into consideration. He never judges harshly. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him: for He knoweth our frame,” etc. (Psalms 103:13-18)
His mercy is ever in exercise mitigating the severity of the consequences of sin, and tempering the sternness of the woes of life.
1. Let the mercy of God deter us from sin. Shall we be so base as to sin against so much kindness?
2. Let the mercy of God encourage our confidence in Him. In sorrow let us seek Him; for he pities, etc. In guilt let us seek Him; for He forgives, etc.
3. Let this example of the mercy of God lead us to be patient under life’s trials. Like those of Reuben, our trials are not so severe as we have deserved, and they are tempered by the rich mercy of God. He is ever evolving good out of them, making them by His grace the occasion of strength and blessing to us.
4. Let this example of the mercy of God encourage the wicked to forsake sin and seek salvation. “Let the wicked forsake his way,” etc (Isaiah 55:6-7.)
(a) If sin were mortal, then thirty years would swing the world over into the millenium; we should bury it with the next generation. But it is not mortal. It is not barren, but prolific; it propagates itself; it has paternal functions, and sends its children out in swarms to possess the earth. I wish you all to understand that whatever evil you are tolerating in your lives, will live after you are gone; you will pass away, but this shall not pass away. One immortality you will take with you at death; another you will leave behind. It shall stand above your grave when the mound is fashioned and the mourners depart; and shake itself as a strong man rejoiceth in his strength, and go forth as one of the forces of the world. It will be impersonal; it will have no name; it will show no face; and yet it will be you, your worse half unchecked, unrestrained by the good that was once mated with it, and that kept it within bounds. It is in the moral and spiritual as it is in the material world. It is said that one cannot stir the air with a sound so soft and slight that it will ever cease to be a sound. The words we speak, whether of love or hate, whether pure or vile, start pulsations in the air that will never cease to throb. You cannot open your lips and start a motion in the atmosphere, which shall not, like a wave on a shoreless sea, whose forces are within itself and adequate, roll on and on for ever. An oath once spoken sounds for ever in the universe as an oath; it is an explosion whose reverberations can never die. They roll around all continents; they crash against the sides of all mountains; they beat discordantly in and upon the atmosphere of all worlds; the devils hear them, and rejoice; the holy, and fly in dismay. And, at the Judgment, why may we not suppose that these sounds shall all come back to us—the good in soothing music, and the evil in torturing discord, and every man shall be judged according to the word of his mouth? Indeed, it seems to me that everything in man that is of the mind and soul is immortal.—W. H. H. Murray.
(b) Man having destroyed that which God delighted in, the beauty of his soul, fell into an evil portion, and, being seized on by the Divine justice, grew miserable, and condemned to an incurable sorrow.
In the midst of these sadnesses God remembered His own creature, and pitied it; and, by His mercy, rescued him from the hands of His power, and the sword of His justice, and the guilt of His punishment, and the disorder of his sin, and placed him in that order of good things where he ought to have stood. It was mercy that preserved the noblest of God’s creatures here below; he who stood condemned and undone under all the other attributes of God, was saved and rescued by His mercy; that it may be evident that God’s mercy is above all His works, and above all ours, greater than the creation, and greater than our sins. As is His majesty, so is His mercy, that is, without measures and without rules, sitting in heaven and filling all the world, calling for a duty that He may give a blessing, making man that He may save him, punishing him that He may preserve him. And God’s justice bowed down to His mercy, and all His power passed into mercy, and His omniscience converted into care and watchfulness, into providence and observation for man’s avail; and heaven gave its influence for man, and rained showers for our food and drink; and the attributes and acts of God sat at the foot of mercy, and all that mercy descended upon the head of man.… For, ever since the fall of Adam, who, like an unfortunate man, spent all that a wretched man could need, or a happy man could have, our life is repentance, and forgiveness is all our portion; and though angels were objects of God’s bounty, yet man only is, in proper speaking, the object of His mercy; and the mercy which dwelt in an infinite circle became confined to a little ring, and dwelt here below; and here shall dwell below, till it hath carried all God’s portion up to heaven, where it shall reign and glory upon our crowned heads for ever and ever!… I must tell concerning God’s mercy as we do concerning God Himself, that He is that great fountain of which we all drink, and the great rock of which we all eat, and on which we all dwell, and under whose shadow we are all refreshed. God’s mercy is all this; and we can only draw the great lines of it, and reckon the constellations of our hemisphere, instead of telling the number of the stars; we only can reckon what we feel and what we live by; and though there be, in every one of these lines of life, enough to engage us for ever to do God service, and to give Him praises, yet it is certain there are very many mercies of God on us, and toward us, and concerning us, which we neither feel, nor see, nor understand as yet; but yet we are blessed by them, and are preserved and secure, and we shall then know them, when we come to give God thanks in the festivities of an eternal Sabbath.—Jeremy Taylor.
THE TABERNACLE IN THE MIDST OF THE HOST
We have spoken of two of the standards, and two other remain to be spoken of. In this verse, Moses interlaceth the placing and situation of the tabernacle, which was so environed with the Levites, and they flanked and fortified with the whole host, that it remained in the midst, in a place of the greatest safety, fittest for access in regard of the people, and hardest for access in regard of their enemies.
I. The Reasons for placing the Tabernacle after this manner.
1. God doth hereby admonish them, that they should always have Him before their eyes, lest they should forget His worship or offend Him with their sins (comp. Leviticus 26:11-12).
2. He had respect indifferently unto all the tribes. If any others had pitched their tents farther than from the Tabernacle, they would have quarrelled and complained that they had been contemned and despised.
3. The Levites were hereby put in mind of their duty, and therefore are lodged about it.
II. The Uses of placing the Tabernacle after this manner.
1. It assureth us that God will ever be in the midst of us, and settle His rest and residence among us (comp. Leviticus 26:11-12; Ezekiel 27:27). We must know how God is said to dwell among us. Difference between His general presence and His special presence. His general presence is in all places; His special presence is in His Church. His general presence is of His power; His special presence is of His grace and favour. There is a common manner of God’s being everywhere, and in all things, by His essence: there is a special way of God’s being present, as that which is loved is present in him that loveth (comp. John 14:23).
(1) God is joined unto us in the person of His own only Son Emmanuel—i.e., God with us. We are made members of His body (see Matthew 28:20).
(2). We have with Him the preaching of the Gospel, whereby God is, as it were, brought down to reside and remain among us.
(3) We have the promise of His presence and the seals thereof in His Sacraments, whereby we are at one with Him, and He with us (see Galatians 3:27; John 6:54-56; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
(4) When we come together in the Church to call upon His name, He is near unto us, and most familiar with us (see Matthew 18:20).
(5) He dwelleth among us whensoever He preserveth us from evil, and delivereth us from our enemies.… Let us take heed to walk in fear before Him, etc. (see Deuteronomy 6:12-15; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18). We ought to walk always as in God’s presence, and to consider evermore that His eye is upon us.
2. It serveth to teach us to what end God hath instituted Civil States and Commonwealths in this world—to wit, to be stays and props to the Church, that the people of God may assemble together in peace and quietness.
(1) Let all persons, princes, and people, high and low, do good to the Church of God, and employ their best endeavours to promote the glory of God and the safety of the Church (see Psalms 122:6-7; Psalms 132:1-5).
(2) It is the duty of all persons to assemble together to hear His word.… If we would dwell with God, let us repair to His house; if we would see Him, we shall see Him there; if we would hear Him, we shall hear Him there; if we would know Him, we shall know Him there, for His face is to be seen there, His voice is to be heard there. His presence is to be found there (see Psalms 27:4; Psalms 42:1; Psalms 84:2).
(3) Let us not stand in fear of any enemies, as if they would bear and beat down the Church before them; neither let us forsake our mother, for fear of troubles that may come upon her.… The Church is set in a safe place; they shall not be able to hurt it: it hath a safe Keeper, that neither slumbereth nor sleepeth; they shall not be able to destroy it: the gates of hell and the power of the devil are set against it, but they shall never have victory over it (see Deuteronomy 7:21-22).
3. It serveth to conclude the full and final happiness of the faithful, which is begun in this life, but shall be consummated in the end of this world. Then will God dwell with us, and we shall dwell with Him; then we shall be admitted into His presence, and never be cast out; then no evil shall touch us, or come near us, and no good thing shall be wanting unto us that we can desire (see Revelation 21:3-4; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 7:15-17; Revelation 21:22-27).—W. Attersoll.
THE CAMP OF EPHRAIM, AND ITS SUGGESTIONS
In these verses we have an account of the third camp, which was posted to the west of the Tabernacle. It consisted of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin, all descendants of Rachel. Looking at this camp homiletically we discover in it—
I. An illustration of the Divine Sovereignty.
Ephraim and Manasseh were sons of Joseph by his wife Asenath. Though Manasseh was the elder, yet Ephraim was placed at the head of this camp. “The first indication we have of the ascendancy of Ephraim over Manasseh is in the blessing of the children by Jacob (Genesis 48:0). The intention of Joseph was evidently that the right hand of Jacob should convey the ampler blessing to the head of Manasseh, his first-born, and he had so arranged the young men. But the result was otherwise ordained.”
Jacob persisted in setting Ephraim before Manasseh. “God chose from the beginning,” says Bishop Patrick, “in several instances, to prefer the younger before the elder, as Abel before Cain; Shem before Japheth; Isaac before Ishmael; Jacob before Esau; Judah and Joseph before Reuben; and here Ephraim before Manasseh; and Moses before Aaron; and David, the youngest of all, before his elder brethren—to show that the Divine benefits were not limited to the order of nature, but dispensed freely, according to God’s most wise goodness.” God bestows all His gifts freely, according to His own good pleasure, both when He will, and where He will, and to whom He will. Our salvation from beginning to end is owing to His sovereign favour. We have nothing of our own. “For who maketh thee to differ? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive?” etc. God is debtor to no man. We have no claim upon His bounty. If He should withhold His blessing from any of us, we should have no just ground of complaint against Him. We, however, do well ever to bear in mind that His is the sovereignty of a Being of infinite wisdom, righteousness, and love. It is the sovereignty of GOD, the Supremely Good, (a) Though we know not the reasons of many of His decisions and doings, yet we know that in them all He is actuated by motives and seeks the accomplishment of ends which are worthy of Himself. Let us then, like the Hebrew poets, rejoice in God’s sovereignty, and celebrate it in reverent and hearty songs.
II. An illustration of the sacredness of family ties
These three tribes which constitute this camp were all descended from Rachel, and were the whole of her descendants. We may fairly conclude that this was one reason, and a chief one, why they were grouped together. To the eye of God family ties are sacred things. Jesus our Lord “was subject unto” His parents. On the cross, amidst His own fierce agonies of both body and soul, He was mindful of His mother, spake to her and committed her to the care of His beloved disciple. The ties of kinship are of the closest, tenderest, strongest, holiest nature; and should be so regarded. In our families let us cultivate mutual forbearance, and helpfulness, and holy love; “for without hearts there is no home.” Let us make our houses homes; the scenes of confidence, peace, affection, and worship. “It is just as possible to keep a calm house as a clean house, a cheerful house, an orderly house, as a furnished house, if the heads set themselves to do so. Where is the difficulty of consulting each other’s weakness, as well as each other’s wants; each other’s tempers, as well as each other’s health; each other’s comfort, as well as each other’s character? Oh! it is by leaving the peace at home to chance, instead of pursuing it by system, that so many houses are unhappy.” (b)
III. An illustration of the Divine regard for the weak.
This was the least numerous of the four great divisions, and therefore by direction of God it was appointed to that position in which there was the last danger. Tenderly God cares for the feeble. “He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” “A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench.” What a rich fund of comfort and encouragement there is here—
1. For those who are physically afflicted.
2. For those whose faith is feeble.
3. For those who are sorely tried
He is acquainted with us altogether; and in our great need He will bestow upon us the tenderest care and the richest grace, (c)
Let us unfalteringly trust in God. Let us rejoice in the sovereignty of so wise and kind a Being.
“He everywhere hath sway,
And all things serve His might,
His every act pure blessing is;
His path unsullied light.
Leave to His sovereign sway,
To choose and to command:
So shalt thou wondering own His way,
How wise, how strong His hand!
Thou comprehend’st Him not:
Yet earth and heaven tell
God sits as Sovereign on the throne;
He ruleth all things well.
Thou seest our weakness, Lord,
Our hearts are known to Thee;
O lift Thou up the sinking hand,
Confirm the feeble knee.
Let us in life and death,
Boldly Thy truth declare;
And publish with our latest breath,
Thy love and guardian care.”
(a) The sovereignty of God naturally ariseth from the relation of all things to Himself as their entire Creator, and their natural and inseparable dependence upon Him in regard of their being and well-being. The fast cause of everything hath an unquestionable dominion of propriety in it upon the score of justice. By the law of nations, the first finder of a country is esteemed the rightful possessor and lord of that country, and the first inventor of an art hath a right of exercising it. If a man hath a just claim of dominion over that thing whose materials were not of his framing, but from only the addition of a new figure from his skill; as a limner over his picture, the cloth whereof he never made, nor the colours wherewith he draws it were never endued by him with their distinct qualities, but only he applies them by his art to compose such a figure; much more hath God a rightful claim of dominion over His creatures, whose entire being, both in matter and form, and every particle of their excellency, was breathed out by the word of His mouth. He did not only give the matter a form, but bestowed upon the matter itself a being; it was formed by none to His hand, as the matter is on which an artist works. He had the being of all things in His own power, and it was at His choice whether He would impart it or no; there can be no juster and stronger ground of a claim than this. A man hath a right to a piece of brass or gold by his purchase, but when by his engraving he hath formed it into an excellent statue, there results an increase of his right upon the account of his artifice. God’s creation of the matter of man gave Him a right over man; but His creation of him in so eminent an excellency, with reason to guide him, a clear eye of understanding to discern light from darkness, and truth from falsehood, a freedom of will to act accordingly, and an original righteousness as the varnish and beauty of all; here is the strongest foundation for a claim of authority over man, and the strongest obligation on man for subjection to God.—Charnocke.
(b) Families are not isolated individuals, but the descendants of their fathers, and therefore essentially members one of another; God himself being the Father of all the families of the universe. What can be more interesting than to contemplate the intelligent universe, as consisting of endlessly multiplied bonds of fatherhood and childhood; and all these held in the strong unity of one Divine Fatherhood and one Divine Sonship?
Family relationship is therefore a very sacred thing. Its root being not in the creation, but in God. And though we shall not find on earth any development worthy of its holy root, nevertheless, the flower which fills the world with choicest fragrance is family affection. It is capable of becoming most heavenly, since the Eternal Father is Himself the spring of parental, as His Eternal Son is of filial love. Therefore, also, family affections are capable of ceaseless cultivation. There is nothing to hinder family love from becoming evermore deeper, stronger, and lovelier. If it be so strong and so precious among fallen creatures, what must it be among the perfect? If family life on the earth gives rise, as it often does, to a very paradise of courtesies and tender sanctities, what must family life be in the immediate Presence, and under the direct influence, of the Infinite Father and His Only Begotten Son? Christian parents and their children should know therefore, that in their families they have not a little world, but a little heaven to cultivate.
What a solace to our hearts is the assurance, that we shall never cease to be members of a family! The perfection of the great heavenly household is that it is a Household of households. We are born into a family, we grow up in a family, we die in a family, and after death, we shall not simply go into the great heaven, but to our own family, in our Father’s House. “Abraham gave up the ghost, and was gathered to his people.” “Thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace,” God had said to him. All in heaven will not know us, but our own people will know us. We shall go to them.—J. Pulsford.
(c) “A bruised reed I will not break.” Is there anything that grows so high, carrying up so little strength of stem, as the reed that rises twenty or thirty feet in the air, and has a stalk not larger than my finger? Now, a beast striking through the thicket, eager, with his unquenched thirst, for the cooling draught, strikes against a joint of the slender reed, shattering it so that it has but just strength to boar its own weight. So weak is it, that if there be so much wind as to lift one of its leaves, or to bend it in the least degree in either direction, it must surely break. But God says, “My gentleness is such that when I go down among men whose condition is like that of a bruised reed, I will do nothing to complete their overthrow, but will deal with them in such a way that they shall gather strength till I have sent forth judgment unto victory.”
“And smoking flax I will not quench.” If the flame is just dying out in a lamp it is not in danger of being suddenly extinguished, for the old warmth in the wick seems for a time to nourish and sustain it; but immediately after the wick is lighted, and before any warmth is communicated to it, the least movement is sufficient to extinguish it. Now God says, “Wherever there is a spark of grace lighted in the soul, if it flickers so that the least breath of the person who carries it, or the least motion of his hand is in danger of putting it out, I will deal so gently with him as not to quench that spark. I will treat it with such infinite tenderness that it shall grow into a flame which shall burn on for ever.” And these are the symbols by which God measures His wonderful gentleness.—H. W. Beecher.
THE CAMP OF DAN: ASPECTS OF DIVINE SERVICE
This is the fourth great division which encamped north of the tabernacle, and brought up the rear on the march. The powerful tribe of Dan was placed at the head of it, and with it the remaining tribes, Asher and Naphtali. Dan was the fifth son of Jacob, and the first of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid. Asher was the eighth son of Jacob, and the second of Zilpah, Leah’s handmaid. Naphtali was own brother to Dan, being the sixth son of Jacob, and the second of Bilhah. The composition and station of this camp suggest certain homiletic points concerning the Divine service.
I. Persons of every kind and degree of faculty may find employment in the Divine service.
Each of the tribes had its position and duties in one of the four great divisions, or in the interior near to the tabernacle. Whatever its number or its peculiar characteristics, every one had its allotted place and work. It would appear that Judah was strong and courageous, while Dan was secret and subtle (see Genesis 49:8-12; Genesis 49:17); yet for Dan, as well as for Judah, there is a place in the great army of Israel. In the great work of God amongst men there is room for workers of every kind and degree of ability. And God lays claim to the services of every one. There is work suited to every one, as St. Paul clearly shows in 1 Corinthians 12:0. Eloquence, scholarship, teaching power, courage, patience, tact, administrative ability, aptitude for the details of business, etc., may each find its appropriate sphere in the great work and warfare of the Church of Jesus Christ. Even the patient sufferer has a place in His service.
“The; also serve who only stand and wait.”
Let this serve as—
1. An encouragement to the feeble.
2. A rebuke to the slothful. (a)
II. It is essential that even the lowest position in the Divine service should be faithfully filled.
It may appear to some that the place allotted to the camp of Dan was an inferior and obscure one. “They shall go hindmost with their standards.” But it was essential that some of the tribes should occupy this position, and discharge its duties. There must be a rearguard as well as a vanguard. In building the temple the services of the hewers of wood are as indispensable as those of the skilled workmen. The blower of the organ-bellows is as necessary to secure its grand aid in worship as the accomplished musician.
“Small service is true service while it lasts;
Of friends, however humble, scorn not one:
The daisy, by the shadow that it casts,
Protects the ling ring dewdrop from the sun.”
Moreover, great achievements are impossible apart from faithful attention to the details of the enterprise. The strength of the whole chain is not greater than that of its weakest link. The efficiency of the entire body is affected by the condition of its obscurist and feeblest member. Faithfulness in littles is imperatively demanded as a condition of success in all true and noble work. (b)
III. Even the lowest position in the Divine service is one of privilege and honour.
If the position of Dan and the two associated tribes be regarded as the lowest in the great host, yet it was a distinguished and advantageous position. They were as truly a part of the people chosen of God as those in the first camp. The privileges which those of the other camps enjoyed, they enjoyed also. The promises and prospects which encouraged the others, encouraged them also. The Lord was their God, etc. The feeblest and obscurist member of God’s spiritual Israel occupies a place and sustains relationships of highest honour and richest privilege. “We are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God,” etc. In calling us to any work, even the most menial, in His service, God confers upon us the most exalted distinction. It is a call to co-operation with Himself, etc. “We are workers together with Christ.”
“Our Master all the work hath done
He asks of us to-day;
Sharing His service every one,
Share too His sonship may:
Lord, I would serve and be a son,
Dismiss me not, I pray.”
T. T. Lynch.
IV. Seemingly obscure positions in the Divine service are in many instances positions of great importance and responsibility.
It was so in this case. There was danger of attack in the rear. With the exception of the camp of Judah, which led the way, the camp of Dan was in a position which required the greatest strength. And, being numerically interior only to Judah, the wisdom of its appointment to that position is obvious. Though their position was “hindmost,” yet in importance it was second only to that of the camp of Judah. An illustration of spiritual work. The services of the quiet and comparatively obscure scholar, thinker, and writer are, at the very least, quite as important as those of the popular preacher. The wise and faithful pastor, who is almost unknown beyond his own sphere of service, is doing as worthy and as needful a work as the evangelist whose fame is world-wide. The quiet members of the Church, who are influential in the family and in the prayer meetings, are perhaps more necessary to the existence and prosperity of the Church than the men who are prominent in committees and on public platforms. (c)
1. Have we any place in the spiritual Israel?
2. Are we endeavouring faithfully to discharge its duties?
(a) The feeblest power may be beneficially exerted. Are there any who are flittering themselves that if they possessed gigantic talents they would employ them on behalf of human freedom and human progress? I pronounce such self-consolation a deadly error. Man’s business is to employ the talents with which Almighty Wisdom has endowed him, and by their employment to multiply them. Deposit the acorn in a cabinet, and time will turn it to corruption; but plant that acorn where the light and the dew of heaven can exert upon it their fructifying influence, and time will develope the majestic oak. So with talents; bury them in disuse, and they will become morally pestilential; but give them free and beneficent exercise, and they will breathe new life into the social constitution. Young man! employ thy one talent diligently, and thou shalt be promoted to the rulership of larger empire: wait not for time that may never advene; sigh not for golden opportunities and felicitous coincidences; the true man makes every opportunity golden by turning it to a golden use, and the robust soul conquers the infelicties of unpropitious circumstances. That will be a glorious day in human history on which all Christians, the feeblest and mightiest, will be working for the advancement of Christ’s Kingdom;—the orator swaying the multitude, the writer sending forth his richly laden page, the widow giving her two mites, and the child of poverty bestowing “a cup of cold water.” When the whole Church is at work the kingdom of darkness will be shaken to its centre.—J. Parker, D.D.
(b) Napoleon was the most effective man in modern times—some will say of all times. The secret of his character was, that while his plans were more vast, more various, and, of course, more difficult than those of other men, he had the talent, at the same time, to fill them up with perfect promptness and precision, in every particular of execution. His vast and daring plans would have been visionary in any other man: but with him every vision flew out of his brain a chariot of iron, because it was filled up, in all the particulars of execution, to be a solid and compact framework in every part. His armies were together only one great engine of desolation, of which he was the head or brain. Numbers, spaces, times, were all distinct in his eye. The wheeling of every legion, however remote, was mentally present to him. The tramp of every foot sounded in his ear. The numbers were always supplied, the spaces passed over, the times met, and so the work was done.… There must be detail in every great work. It is an element of effectiveness, which no reach of plan, no enthusiasm of purpose, can dispense with. Thus, if a man conceives the idea of becoming eminent in learning, but cannot toil through the million of little drudgeries necessary to carry him on, his learning will be soon told. Or, if a man undertakes to become rich, but despises the small and gradual advances by which wealth is ordinarily accumulated, his expectations will, of course, be the sum of his riches. Accurate and careful detail, the minding of common occasions and small things, combined with general scope and vigour, is the secret of all the efficiency and success in the world.—H. Bushnell, D.D.
(c) Slight services may be invaluable services. What can be a more trivial image than “a cup of cold water?” Less trivial, unquestionably, in the hot East than in our well-watered England; but a trivial image even there. And yet I have read of cases in which a cup of water would have fetched more than its weight in gold. Look into the despairing eyes of that boat-load of ship-wrecked sailors, tossing hour after hour on the ocean in the heat of the sun: the briny water glancing and flashing all around them as if in mockery, and not a drop anywhere of that which might slake their wild human thirst. What would not those men give for a draught of fresh water a-piece? Look at the caravan in the desert, when the last camel, “the ship of the desert.” lies stranded and doomed upon the sand; when no hope remains to the travellers of reaching in time the spot where the cool palm trees draw their life from the hidden spring. How much of his rich merchandize would not that dying trader be content to part with in exchange for “a cup of cold water?” Or traverse the battle-field when the fight is ended, and one poor wounded soldier, whose courage had carried him too far has been overlooked. The sun goes down, the stars appear, but dewy night fails to alleviate the burning thirst which always follows gun-shot wounds. Yet if some comrade shall venture out to look for the wounded man, shall find him groaning under the silent stars, and shall bring him, though it were from the nearest puddle, the draught he craves, they two shall know for ever what a blessing there may be in “a cup of cold water.” And have we not all heard of the generous Sidney, as he was borne dying from the field of Zutphen, how he had just put the cup to his lips, when a poor fellow was carried by, who looked as he went at the richer Sidney’s draught with the longing eyes of despair,—and how the dying rich man withdrew his lips before he drank, and gave the cup to the dying poor man with the words, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine!” Beside the noble Sidney’s name is that simple story still inscribed upon the immortal page. Of such and of so great a value may even “a cup of cold water” be. And I often think of HIM who sat once by Jacob’s well in the heat of the day, asking for a drink of water from the Samaritan woman. He accepted all the conditions of human weakness and human want. He knew by experience, even whilst he used this image to indicate the slight nature of such an offering as this, what a precious offering it might really be, and that it might be employed, and that without exaggeration, to denote all the difference between life and death.—J. G. Pigg, B.A.
CONTENTMENT AND OBEDIENCE
These verses present to us two topics on which we may reflect with profit.
I. Contentment with the Divine appointment.
We have seen that God in His infinite and sovereign wisdom allotted to each tribe its place and duty as it pleased Him. And it appears from the text that each tribe freely accepted the Divine appointment, and fell into its allotted position. There is not even a hint that any one of the tribes was guilty of any murmuring against the arrangements. This is the more remarkable when we take into account how prone the people were to complain and fret upon the very slightest pretext. Let us learn to be content cheerfully to occupy the position, and diligently to do the work allotted to us by God. “My times are in Thy hand.” “He shall choose our inheritance for us.” “Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel.” The most cogent reasons urge us to be content with the appointments of God concerning us.
1. We are incompetent to determine our own place and duty. This will at once appear if we consider—
(1). Our ignorance. How ignorant we are (a) of ourselves. Possibilities of both good and evil are latent within us which only God knows. If the determination of our lot were with us, we might choose such an one as would tend to kill any germs of truth and goodness which are within us, and to stimulate the germs of evil into awfully rapid and ruinous development. God alone is thoroughly acquainted with us. How ignorant we are (b) of the future. The particular character and circumstances of the coming minute are veiled from us. The choice which now seems wise and good, amid the altered circumstances and conditions of the morrow, may appear foolish and evil. To God only is the entire future clearly visible. Our incompetence to determine our own lot will appear further if we consider—
(2) Our proneness to self-indulgence. In choosing for ourselves, we should select the pleasant rather than the painful, the sweet rather than the bitter. And yet for us the bitter may be the more wholesome, and the painful may be indispensable to our well-being. We are incapable of choosing our own place and work.
2. We have ample grounds for confidence in the determinations of God for us. We discover these in—
(1) His knowledge. He knows all things. He knows the whole future perfectly. He knows us individually and thoroughly (see Psalms 139:1-4).
(2) His wisdom. “Wisdom and might are His: He giveth wisdom unto the wise,” etc.; “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” etc.; “The only wise God.”
(3) His kindness. He is as gracious as He is wise. “God is love” (seePsalms 145:8-9; Psalms 145:8-9). Surely, in considerations like these we have most powerful reasons for contentment with the place and work to which we are appointed by God. (a) These considerations should—
First—Silence our murmurings because of our particular circumstances and condition.
Second—Deter us from seeking to alter our condition and circumstances by any unrighteous or unworthy methods. (b)
II. Obedience to the Divine commands.
The obedience of Israel upon this occasion seems to have been most exemplary, “And the children of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards,” etc. Without murmuring or disputing, without abatement or omission, they did as they were directed. Their obedience was prompt and complete. Let us note this to their credit, and as an example to us. Entire obedience is required of us also.
1. All God’s commands are binding, because they are all right. He requires of us nothing but what is just and true. We cannot break the least of His commandments without sin. “The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”
2. All God’s commands are benevolent. “In keeping of them there is great reward.” Obedience is blessed as well as binding. (c)
Let us seek Divine aid that we may render full and hearty obedience to all the commands of God.
“O let Thy sacred will
All Thy delight in me fulfil!
Let me not think an action mine own way,
But as Thy love shall sway,
Resigning up the rudder to Thy skill.”
(a) There are two forms of discontent: one laborious, the other indolent and complaining. We respect the man of laborious desire, but let us not suppose that his restlessness is peace, or his ambition mockness. It is because of the special connection of meekness with contentment that it is promised that the meek shall “inherit the earth.” Neither covetous men, nor the grave, can inherit anything; they can but consume. Only contentment can possess. The most helpful and sacred work, therefore, which can at present be done for humanity, is to teach people (chiefly by example, as all best teaching must be done) not how to “better themselves,” but how to “satisfy themselves.” It is the curse of every evil nation and evil creature to ear, and not be satisfied. The words of blessing are, that they shall eat and be satisfied. And as there is only one kind of water which quenches all thirst, so there is only one kind of bread which satisfies all hunger, the bread of justice or righteousness; which hungering after, men shall always be filled, that being the bread of Heaven; but hungering after the bread, or wages, of unrighteousness, shall not be filled, that being the bread of Sodom. And, in order to teach men how to be satisfied, it is necessary fully to understand the art and joy of humble life,—this, at present, of all arts or sciences being the one most needing study. Humble life,—that is to say, proposing to itself no future exaltation, but only a sweet continuance; not excluding the idea of foresight, but wholly of fore-sorrow, and taking no troublous thought of coming days: so, also, not excluding the idea of providence, or provision, but wholly of accumulation; the life of domestic affection and domestic peace, full of sensitiveness to all elements of costless and kind pleasure;—therefore, chiefly to the loveliness of the natural world.—J. Ruskin.
(b) But that Thou art my wisdom, Lord,
And both mine eyes are Thine,
My mind would be extremely stirr’d
For missing my design.
Were it not better to bestow
Some place and power on me?
Then should Thy praises with me grow,
And share in my degree.
But when I thus dispute and grieve,
I do resume my sight;
And pilf’ring what I once did give,
Disseize Thee of Thy right.
How know I, if Thou should’st me raise,
That I should then raise Thee?
Perhaps great places and Thy praise
Do not so well agree.
Wherefore unto my gift I stand;
I will no more advise:
Only do Thou lend me a hand
Since Thou hast both mine eyes.
(c) That principle to which Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, and Creation its continuance, is Obedience.… How false is the conception, how frantic the pursuit, of that treacherous phantom which men call Liberty! most treacherous, indeed, of all phantoms; for the feeblest ray of reason might surely show us, that not only its attainment, but its being, was impossible. There is no such thing in the universe. There can never be. The stars have it not; the earth has it not; the sea has it not; and we men have the mockery and semblance of it only for our heaviest punishment.… If there be any one principle more widely than another confessed by every utterance, or more sternly than another imprinted on every atom of the visible creation, that principle is not Liberty, but Law.
The enthusiast would reply that by Liberty he meant the Law of Liberty. Then why use the single and misunderstood word? If by liberty you mean chastisement of the passions, discipline of the intellect, subjection of the will; if you mean the fear of inflicting, the shame of committing, a wrong; if you mean respect for all who are in authority, and consideration for all who are in dependence; veneration for the good, mercy to the evil, sympathy to the weak; if you mean watchfulness over all thoughts, temperance in all pleasures, and perseverance in all toils; if you mean, in a word, that Service which is defined in the liturgy of the English Church to be perfect Freedom, why do you name that by the same word by which the luxurious mean licence, and the reckless mean change; by which the rogue means rapine, and the fool equality, by which the proud mean anarchy, and the malignant mean violence? Call it by any name rather than this, but its best and truest is Obedience. Obedience is, indeed, founded on a kind of freedom, else it would become mere subjugation, but that freedom is only granted that obedience may be more perfect; and thus, while a measure of licence is necessary to exhibit the individual energy of things, the fairness and pleasantness and perfection of them all consist in their Restraint. Compare a river that has burst its banks with one that is bound by them, and the clouds that are scattered over the face of the whole heaven, with those that are marshalled into ranks and orders by its winds. So that though restraint, utter and unrelaxing, can never be comely, this is not because it is in itself an evil, but only because, when too great, it overpowers the nature of the thing restrained, and so counteracts the other laws of which that nature is itself composed.—J. Ruskin.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 2". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19