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Ye have compassed this mountain long enough: turn you northward.
A sermon for the new year
Such were the words which the Lord spoke to Moses, after the children of Israel had been compassing Mount Seir “many days.” There are a great many “mountains” which a great many people “compass” in the present day. Some of them mountains indeed--mountains of doubt and difficulty and sin; some of them molehills, which the very pilgrims in their blindness verily believe to be mountains; some of them little hills of pride and obstinacy, the paths round which have become all beaten down because the pilgrim feet have so long trod them. “Turn you northward” is the command required. Anything is better than the old going round and round and coming to the same place again. “Northward” may mean hard fighting, but it will mean great victory.
I. Monotony the ordinary Christian experience.
1. See it as regards the Christian life. How many Christians have much the same experience year after year. We talk about “growth in grace,” and trust we are making some “progress,” but if many of us were to examine ourselves should we not find that our experience differed “little from that of our early Christian life? Thousands of people are lapsing into a monotonous experience. “There is no standing still in the Christian life,” we hear it said. That may be true, but it is also true that there is a great deal of moving round and round. Compassing the mountain is the experience of not a few.
2. See it as regards Christian work. The ideal of Christian work is the same in all ages. It is the conversion of the world. But the method of its accomplishment varies with times and peoples and circumstances. And the Church or worker is wise which adapts the method to the requirements of the hour. But how we like to keep to the old work and do it in the old way! And how apt we are also to keep to the very same kind of work. There is work, I grant, which can best be done by the man who has done it for many years, but there is other work which would be done all the better if the worker were changed sometimes. The question is, are we putting the same enthusiasm into our work which we put into it at the commencement? But there is danger lest “compassing the mountain” should become monotonous. Even the most holy occupation needs varying at times, as every preacher will testify. A change often benefits both worker and work. Then monotony is near akin to sluggishness. Somehow or other that “mountain of work takes longer and longer to “compass.” I long that God’s voice should speak to them as it did to Moses, “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough.” See it as regards Christian thought. The great verities of our holy religion do not change. Truth is eternal as God Himself. But how apt we are to live and move round a little “mountain “ of thought of our own. We made it ourselves years ago, and were very pleased with it then. We do not stop to think whether it suits us now. Surely we should always be having grander, newer thoughts, nobler impulses from the Most High. He has ever greater truths to teach, ever fresh secrets to tall. There are ever fresh treasures of learning to be ransacked. Ideas of Christian life and thought are ever maturing. “Turn you northward” is the needed cry.
II. Progress the proper rule of life. Says Godet, “Man was made in the image of God. He is not therefore condemned, like the lower animals, to move incessantly in the same circle. His progressivity has no limit but that of the absolute good to which he aspires.” The emblem of human life is a spiral, not a circle! Just so! Man must continually “move on.” If he goes round he must at the same time go up. It will be easy to show that this is God’s purpose concerning us.
1. Monotony is contrary to the constitution and course of nature. These point to progress. New forms of life, of thought, of government are being continually evolved. Nothing continues the same but God and His eternal truth.
2. Monotony is contrary to God’s dealings with the human race. God has not dealt with us in a circle. He has ever led His people forward.
3. Monotony is contrary to the spirit of the age, The age is one of progress. New inventions are showered upon us week by week.
4. Monotony is contrary to the teaching of God’s Word. There are three things among many others which I may point out are contrary to monotony, but analogous to progress.
(1) Growth. This is self-evident, and I have no need to do more than mention it. “Grow in grace” is the command of’ Scripture, and all kinds of growth should be seen in the character of the true Christian. There should be inward growth, the life becoming firmer and stronger; there should be outward growth, the life developing in all the more visible graces of the Spirit; there should be upward growth--upward to God, to holiness, to heaven; there should be downward growth--the roots of the Christian life becoming even more firmly planted in the soil of God’s love.
(2) Enthusiasm. I can imagine that when first the children of Israel commenced to “compass” the “mountain” they did so with a great deal of interest. But after this “compassing.” the “mountain” had proceeded “many days,” interest would decrease and enthusiasm would disappear. The summons “Turn you northward;” would, however, call out all the old interest and enthusiasm, and would come as a grateful relief from the monotony of the past. And in our weakness our enthusiasm requires something new. Further, the command “Turn you northward” not only generated enthusiasm, but required it. It was much easier to continue the task of “compassing the mountain” than to “turn northward.” They had become accustomed to the old circular progress. There were difficulties “northward.” And so it is with us in the present day. To “turn northward” requires enthusiasm. It would be much easier and pleasanter to go the old round, to live the old life.
(3) Enterprise. This is another thing contrary to monotony, but analogous to progress. It required no enterprise to compass the mountain after they had been engaged in that task “many days.” But when they began to “turn northward” enterprise was implied and required at once. And surely enterprise is required today. In every sphere of our life in this world it is to be found. And yet in work for Christ by some it is hardly known except by name. Why should we be content to go along the old beaten tracks? Why should we not strike out new ones for ourselves, or follow without hesitation where the Guiding Hand indicates?
A thing has not always to be because it has been. (W. E. Sellers.)
A new departure
The story with which this order is connected in the annals is found in Numbers 21:12-35.
I. The new departure in Israel’s wandering. Only a few particulars will be necessary in order to show us the pertinency to an anniversary service which the ancient narrative will bring.
1. Past experience was in the word “compassed.”
2. Future experience was in the word “northward.” For they all knew that in that direction lay Canaan. The time was complete, the retribution was fulfilled, a young generation had arrived upon the stage of action. So another forward movement was ordered, this time in the line of progress towards the Jordan and the covenanted land of promise. Evidently a great historical crisis is reached at last. The deadlock of rebellious will is broken. Humanity shows a quickening of life once more. This is what in modern times is called “a new departure”; and this is what renders the incident suggestive as a religious symbol for our present employment.
II. The new departure in our work today. The last week in December is what merchants call “inventory time.” Thoughtful religious people use it often for taking account of spiritual stock. Let the past be left behind; our hopes are all in the future; we have compassed that mountain with its twelve peaks long enough; it is time to “turn northwards.”
III. The new departure in each believer’s history. So vivid appears this illustration that it might easily be made to serve for a permanent exhortation to the churches. Three grand principles in ordinary spiritual life are exhibited in the image employed.
1. All true Christians have mountains to compass. Sometimes our duties are mountains, sometimes our trials. Some have more mountains than others have. Some have harder ones than others have. Some make mountains out of what would be only molehills to those who are braver than they are. But this will be the lesson: God gives all His children mountains to compass.
2. All true Christians must compass their mountains. There can be no rebellious refusal of the task God sets for us. There is no room for any ingenious evasion of His commands. There can never be permitted any sudden leaping over or flying across the difficult ridge of duty. There can be no changing mountains with each other in the hope of getting easier ones.
3. God’s sovereignty decides when the mountain is compassed long enough. There is a period set for continuance and for cessation. Long enough--for the mountain’s sake. Real work has to be done slowly and patiently. Some tasks there are which cannot be at all hurried.
(1) Long enough--for our own sakes. Certain disciplines must be wrought out upon our characters. Dispositions, like finest wines, require what can be done for them only by time and silence. Jehovah was preparing these people for Canaan before He suffered a single one of them to enter.
(2) Long enough--for others’ sake. The principle of division of labour is here involved. Vicarious suffering is the rule for the redeemed race who follow Christ, who was cut off, and not for Himself. These young Israelites were held back to give the older people decorous space in which to die (Deuteronomy 2:14).
(3) Long enough--for the Lord s sake. He asks us to labour on and wait till He tells us what it is all for.
IV. The new departure in Church life. Our admonitions grow rapidly now, for the field of application for the figure is wider.
1. To some who now hear this call it will be the language of rebuke. “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough.” It is of no use to stay here any longer; the chance is lost. It is like Jesus saying to His disciples in slumber, “Sleep on now.” Duty is sometimes neglected until the man is withdrawn from the charge.
2. To some who now hear it this call will be the language of comfort. “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough.” Oh, how fine a thing it is to look back upon a hard work carried well and patiently through into grand success! Leave the old toil now; let the bent form straighten up; let the tired shoulder rest.
3. To some it will be the language of command. “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough; turn you northward.” Yes; turn northward straight to another mountain, and another; for there is no discharge in that war! Is it your birthday? Then one mountain is well compassed; take a new one. Is it the anniversary of your first communion? One good mountain compassed; now again! And the soul is all alive with fresh exhilaration from the hill climbing.
4. For to some this call is the language of encouragement. “Ye have compassed this mountain long enough; turn you northward.” And northward lies the land of covenant promise; every mountain now passed brings us nearer to the end of them. It grows a little gladder in the sunshine and clearer in the atmosphere; it seems like attaining the last hill and catching the gales from beyond the river. (C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
The Divine recall to duty
I. If we do not follow God’s plan, if we neglect our duty, we are losing time. The Israelites lost thirty years by disregarding the call of duty, and we too are always losing time when we obey not God’s commands.
II. By commanding the Israelites to leave the mountain and turn northward, God was teaching His people that there is no better defence to a life of obedience than life itself. It is evident that the children of Israel stayed by the mountain partly for purpose of self-defence.
III. By commanding the people to leave the mountains and turn northward, God was teaching them that their work was not done until they had conquered their enemies.
IV. God said, “turn you northward,” for that was the way to Canaan. (J. L. Williams, B. A.)
A short account of the long story of Israel in the wilderness
We compassed Mount Seir many days (verse 1). Nearly thirty-eight years they wandered in the deserts of Seir; probably in some of their rests they stayed several years, and never stirred: God by this not only chastised them for their murmuring and unbelief, but--
1. Prepared them for Canaan, by humbling them for sin, teaching them to mortify their lusts, to follow God, and to comfort themselves in Him. It is a work of time to make souls meet for heaven, and it must be done by a long train of exercises.
2. He prepared the Canaanites for destruction; all this time the measure of their iniquity was in the filling; and though it might have been improved by them as a space to repent, it was abused by them to the hardening of their hearts.
3. Orders given them to turn towards Canaan. Though God contend long, He will not contend forever; though Israel may be long kept waiting for deliverance and enlargement, it will come at last.
4. A charge given them not to annoy the Edomites.
(1) They must not offer any hostility to them as enemies (verses 4, 5). Meddle not with them.
(a) They must not improve the advantage they had against them by the fright they would be put into upon Israel s approach. They shall be afraid of you, knowing your strength and numbers, and the power of God engaged for you; but do not you think that their fears making them an easy prey, you may therefore prey upon them; no, take heed to yourselves. There is need of great caution, and a strict government of our own spirits, to keep ourselves from injuring those we have an advantage against. Or, this caution is given to the princes; they must not only not meddle with the Edomites themselves, but not permit any of their soldiers to meddle with them.
(b) They must not revenge upon the Edomites the affront they gave them in refusing them passage through their country (Numbers 23:21). Thus before God brought Israel to destroy their enemies in Canaan He taught them to forgive their enemies in Edom.
(c) They must not expect to have any part of their land given them for a possession; Mount Seir was already settled upon the Edomites, and they must not, under pretence of God’s covenant and conduct, think to seize for themselves all they could lay hands on. Dominion is not founded in grace.
5. They must trade with them as neighbours: buy meat and water off them, and pay for what they bought (verse 6). Religion must never be made a cloak for injustice. The reason given (verse 7) is, because God hath blessed thee, and hitherto thou hast lacked nothing; and therefore--
(1) Thou needest not beg; scorn to be beholden to Edomites when thou hast a God all-sufficient to depend upon. Thou hast wherewithal to pay for what thou callest for, thanks to the Divine blessing; use therefore what thou hast, use it cheerfully, and do not sponge upon the Edomites.
(2) Therefore thou must not steal. Thou hast experienced the care of the Divine Providence concerning thee; in confidence of which for the future, and in a firm belief of its all-sufficiency, never use any indirect methods for thy supply. Live by thy faith, and not by the sword. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)
For He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness.
Comfort in the wilderness
I. A fact general. He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness. Wilderness and a complete barrenness are not synonymous in Scripture. There were palms of Elim, and wells of Marah, and beautiful withdrawn places where the grass grew; and yet it was a wilderness great and often terrible. After all, like such a wilderness is life. It is not all a wilderness. There are pleasant places in it, and homes, and loving hearts. This is the fact general--that the usual human life has a good deal of wilderness in it. Life is a wilderness because--
1. Of its mystery.
2. Of its discipline.
3. Of its unreached ideals.
4. Of its transitoriness.
5. Of its enemies--Egyptians, Amalekites, Midianites, Edomites, Moabites, Amorites throng against it.
II. A fact personal. He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness. The personal fact is that you must thread your way through this strange, great wilderness of a life. Nobody can tread the path for you. The decisions of it you must make. The results of your decisions you must abide.
III. The girding comfort for us. He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness.
1. He knoweth sympathisingly. It is such meaning God’s knowing always carries in the Scripture.
2. He knoweth in detail. Thy walking; precious truth this of the Divine omniscience of us.
3. He knoweth, taking account of thy weakness. How tender God was toward these Israelites!
4. He knoweth, wisely providing. Think how all the various discipline of the wilderness wandering issued in the change of the Israelites from a mob to a nation.
IV. What then?
1. I can walk the way.
2. I shall not be lost.
3. I shall reach Canaan.
4. I have comfort for the journey. (W. Hoyt.)
These forty years the Lord thy God hath been with thee; thou hast lacked nothing.--
I. Look back upon the past.
1. What strikes me in Moses’ review is this, the prominence which he gives to God in it. Here let me note that our own retrospect of the past will, if we are genuine Christians, have in it many bright lights of the conspicuous presence of God, making the pathway here and there like holy ground.
2. A very leading point is the blessing which God gave. Our text says He has blessed all the works of our hand. I suppose that alludes to all that Israel had a right to do; the Lord multiplied their cattle, He increased their substance, He guided them in their marches, He protected them in their encampments. There were some things in which He did not bless them. They wanted to go up into the promised land against His commandment, and the Amalekites smote them; He did not bless them there. God does not bless the sins of His people, for if He did it would bring on them the tremendous curse of being happy in the ways of evil.
3. Again, in our retrospect of the past we should notice the perfection of the Lord s sympathetic care; Observe the words, “He knoweth thy walking through this great wilderness.” He has known our rough paths and our smooth ways, the weary trudging and the joyous marching; He has known it all, and not merely known it in the sense of omniscience, but known it in the sense of sympathy.
4. We have had also what is better than this during our forty years, the special presence of God. “These forty years the Lord thy God hath been with thee.” He has not been ashamed to be with us, though we have been despised and ridiculed. Whenever we have prayed we have had audience with Him; when we have worked we have seen His mysterious hand working with us; when we have trembled we have felt the tender arms sustaining us; when we have been in bodily pain He has made our bed in our sickness. The best of all is God with us, and in this sign we conquer.
5. Again, we have had much cause to bless the Lord for the abundance of His supplies. “Thou hast lacked nothing.” Some things which we could have wished for we have not received, and we are glad they were denied us. Children would have too many sweets if they could, and then they would be surfeited or be ill. Walking on in the path of Providence, trusting in the Lord, what have we lacked?
II. But now we must take the second head, which is--Forty years in the wilderness should teach us much of service for the present. I do not say that it will do so, for we do not all grow wiser as we grow older, but it ought to be so. Folly is bound up in the heart of many a man, and it takes much of the rod to whip it out of him.
1. Experience is a noble teacher, but we are dull scholars; yet at any rate we ought to have learned to continue trusting in God.
2. Experience should also give us greater ease in confiding in the Lord. Use is said to be second nature, but in your case grace has given you in very deed a real second nature, and this by use should have grown stronger and more prevalent.
3. Forty years of Divine faithfulness should teach us also a surer, quicker, calmer, and more joyous expectation of immediate aid in all times of strait and trial: we should learn not to be flurried and worried because the herds are cut off from the stall, and the harvest is withered, for we know from abundant proofs that “The Lord will provide.”
4. Forty years of blessing should teach each of us to believe in holy activity. “The Lord thy God hath blessed thee in all the works of thy hand. Some people believe in God’s blessing the dreams and theories of their heads, and their prayers are unattended by action. They believe in His blessing them when they are scheming and putting fine plans on paper, or when they meet at a conference to talk about how to do Christian work. I believe in God’s blessing the actual work of our hand; He waters not the seed which we talk of sowing, but that which we actually scatter.
5. Forty years’ experience ought to have taught us to avoid many of the faults into which we fell in our early days. It is a great pity when advancing age teaches men rather to avoid their virtues than their follie.
6. You will have observed that the text mentions twice “The Lord thy God.” All through the chapter it is always that--“Jehovah thy God.” Here we have mention of His covenant relationship, in which He is ever most dear to us. Shall we not at this time renew our own personal covenant, and take our God to be ours afresh? We read that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebecca. Let us have a new wedding day ourselves, and give ourselves over again to the Husband of our souls, even Jesus the well-beloved.
III. The future. Having come so far on our journey as to have reached forty years, we are bound to feel a powerful influence upon us as to the future. How? I will borrow our remarks from the context.
1. Read in the second chapter, second verse, “And the Lord spake unto me saying, Ye have compassed this mountain long enough: turn ye northward.” What way was northward, then? Why, toward Canaan. Forty years wandering up and down in the wilderness is enough, now turn your faces towards Canaan and march heavenward. It is time we all had our faces turned heavenward more completely. The time past may suffice us to have wrought the will of the flesh, now let us cry, “Heavenward, ho.” Pull up the anchor, spread the sails, and let us away to the fair country whither Jesus has gone before us.
2. The next thing we should learn is indifference to this world’s heritage. The next verse says, “Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir; and they shall be afraid of you; take ye good heed unto yourselves, therefore: meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given Mount Seir unto Esau for a possession.” Esau sold his heritage, and had his mess of pottage, let him have it; keep you the birthright, and never think of putting your spoon into his mess. The world is for worldlings. What do you want with it?
3. Let us learn from the past to cultivate independence of spirit. “Ye shall buy meat of them for money, that ye may eat; and ye shall also buy water of them for money, that ye may drink.” He is indeed a man of God who has learned to walk uprightly, and no longer leans upon the creature, nor practises policy to win his way.
4. Once again, after forty years in the wilderness God would have His people learn generosity of spirit. The Edomites were very much afraid of the Israelites, and would, no doubt, have bribed them to let them alone, but Moses in effect says, “Do not take anything from them; you have no need to do so, for you have never lacked anything, and God has been with you. They are afraid of you; you might take what you please from them, but do not touch even the water from their wells without payment.” Oh, that we had a generous spirit, that we were not for oppressing others in any degree whatever, feeling that we have too much already given us by God to be wanting to tax any man for our own gain.
5. The spirit of freedom from murmuring should be in us after forty years of blessing. Jarchi tells us that this exhortation meant that they were not to pretend to be poor. You know how many do so when it is likely to save their pockets.
6. Lastly, we ought for the future to show more confidence in God if we have had forty years of His love: we should have more confidence in working for Him that He will bless us, more confidence as to our personal weakness that He will strengthen us, more confidence as to the unknown future, that through the great and terrible wilderness He will be with us, and that through the last cold stream He will still be our companion; more confidence that we shall behold the light of His countenance, and more confidence as to the supply of all our needs, for as we have lacked nothing, so all things shall be freely supplied till we cross the river and eat the old corn of the land. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Deuteronomy 2". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19