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Bible Commentaries
Exodus 38

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verse 8

Exodus 38:8

The looking-glasses of the women.

The looking-glass and the laver

Unlike our looking-glasses made of silvered glass, which did not come into use till the thirteenth century, these primitive looking-glasses were made chiefly of an alloy of copper, tin, and lead, wrought with such admirable skill that it was capable of receiving the highest and most enduring polish. The mirror itself was a round or pear-shaped plate, often encircled with a wreath of leaves, or adorned with figures engraved upon the rim; and it was attached to a handle often carved with some elegant form of life. Numerous specehi of this kind have been found in Etruscan tombs, retaining their polish so brightly as sometimes to fit them for their original purpose; and having on their disks scenes of Etruscan life and manners, and representations or symbols of the national faith, illustrated by inscriptions in the native character, they have been well called by Bunsen “a figurative dictionary,” eminently useful to the archseologist for the light they throw upon the creed and history of this ancient and most mysterious race. In Japan certain metal mirrors have acquired a magic fame, and are brought to this country as curiosities, on account of the figures which shine through them when seen in a certain light, while directly viewed they reflect only on their polished surface the face that looks into them. The specula of the Hebrew women were brought with them from Egypt, and doubtless formed part of the spoil which the Israelites took from the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus. In that country they were used not only in domestic economy, but also in the idolatrous worship of the temples; and probably the Hebrew women who assembled at the door of the Tabernacle of the congregation had adopted this custom, and worshipped the God of Israel as the Egyptian women worshipped Isis or Anubis, dressed in linen garments, holding a sistrum in their right hand and a mirror in their left. It is not without deep significance that this holy vessel, typical of spiritual cleansing, should have been formed of such materials. The whole transaction is a most beautiful and expressive symbol of the vast difference between the beauty which man sees in himself, and the beauty which God induces in him by the means of grace. In fact, the whole gospel scheme might be represented to the eye pictorially by these two emblematical objects--the looking-glass and the laver; for it shows us to ourselves, and it cleanses us from our impurity.

1. Let us look, in the first place, at the gospel as a mirror showing us to ourselves. Contemplating the features of our character in our own natural looking-glass, we are satisfied with the image that is reflected there. Comparing ourselves with ourselves we have no sense of contrast; we come up to our own ideal; we realize our own standard of goodness. Comparing ourselves with others we are raised in our own estimation; we see many guilty of meannesses and follies which we should scorn. We feel like the self-righteous Pharisee in the temple, and thank God that we are not as other men, or as the publican beside us. But the gospel is the true mirror in which we see our true image reflected. The holiness of God, as it is revealed to us in the face of His Son Jesus Christ, is the best mirror in which to see reflected our own sinful image. That holiness is the part of the Divine image which we have completely lost in our fallen state. When the pure searching light of His law shines into our hearts, how defiled and unworthy do many things appear which before were regarded as clean and good! What secret unsuspected sins are made manifest like the myriad motes which float in the sunbeams that enter a dark room! How true it is, that those who are ignorant of God are ignorant of them-selves! The mirror must lead to the laver. Having learned what our true condition is, we must cease to look at ourselves, and have recourse to the cleansing bath which God has provided in the gospel for the sinner conscious of his sin. The fact that the laver was made of the looking-glasses teaches this practical lesson to us. We see our impurity in order that we may apply for cleansing. Our uncomeliness is revealed to us for the very purpose of causing us to seek for the beauty of holiness.

2. The laver made of the looking-glasses of the women stood in the court of the Tabernacle between the altar of burnt-offering and the door of the holy place. As the altar removed the legal obstacle that lay in the way of a sinner’s access to God, so the laver removed the moral. The one by the atonement which it presented opened up the way to God; the other by the purification which it effected qualified the believer for coming into God’s presence. And viewed in this light, what an expressive symbol is it of the spiritual fountain opened in the house of David for sin and uncleanness! The laver in which we are washed becomes the mirror in which we see our own reflection; and the mirror of self-complacency, in which hitherto we sought to see visions of our own comeliness whereof to glory in the flesh, is converted into the fountain of life in which the discovery of our own vileness is overborne by the discovery of the surpassing, all-compensating loveliness of Him in whom God sees no iniquity in Jacob, and no perverseness in Israel. (H. Macmillan, D. D.)

The laver and looking-glasses

I shall take that laver of looking-glasses, spoken of in the text, as all-suggestive of the gospel, which first shows us our sins as in a mirror, and then washes them away by Divine ablution.

1. Now, I have to say that this is the only looking-glass in which a man can see himself as he is. There are some mirrors that flatter the features, and make you look better than you are. Then there are other mirrors that distort your features, and make you look worse than you are; but I want to tell you that this looking-glass of the gospel shows a man just as he is. When the priests entered the ancient Tabernacle, one glance at the burnished side of this laver showed them their need of cleansing. So this gospel shows the soul its need of Divine washing. “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” That is one showing. “All we, like sheep, have gone astray.” That is another showing. In Hampton Court I saw a room where the four walls were covered with looking-glasses, and it made no difference which way you looked, you saw yourself. And so it is in this gospel of Christ. If you once step within its full precincts you will find your whole character reflected--every feature of moral deformity--every spot of moral taint.

2. I want you to notice that this laver in which the priests washed was filled with fresh water every morning. So it is with the gospel of Jesus Christ; it has a fresh salvation every day. Come this morning and take the glittering robe of Christ’s righteousness from the Saviour’s hand. You were plunged in the fountain of the Saviour’s mercy a quarter of a century ago. That is nothing to me; I tell you to wash now in this laver of looking-glasses, and have your soul made clean.

3. I notice, also, in regard to this laver of looking-glasses spoken of in the text, that the priests always washed both hands and feet. The water came down in spouts, so that without leaving any filth in the basin, the priests washed both hands and feet. So the gospel of Jesus Christ must touch the very extremities of our moral nature.

4. I remark, further, that the laver of looking-glasses spoken of in the text, was a very large laver. I always thought from the fact that so many washed there, and also from the fact that Solomon afterwards, when he copied that laver in the temple, built it on a very large scale, that it was large, and so suggestive of the gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation by Him--vast in its provisions. The whole world may come and wash in this laver and be clean.

5. But I notice, also, in regard to this laver of looking-glasses spoken of in the text, that the washing in it was imperative and not optional. When the priests came into the Tabernacle (you will find this in the 30th chapter of Exodus), God tells them they must wash in that laver or die. The priests might have said: “Can’t I wash elsewhere? I washed in the laver at home, and now you want me to wash here.” God says, “No matter whether you have washed before. Wash in this laver or die.” “But,” says the priest, “there is water just as clean as this, why won’t that do? . . . Wash here,” says God, “or die.” So it is with the gospel of Christ--it is imperative. There is only this alternative: keep our sins and perish, or wash them away and live. (Dr. Talmage.)

Old things turned to new uses

In many ancient religions women took a leading part in some of the ceremonies. This was so in Egypt. Each woman had a looking-glass made of polished brass, and that mirror was used in some way in connection with idolatrous practices. When the Tabernacle was being built the women gave up their mirrors and so contributed to the formation of the laver, which was made of brass, and the foot of it of brass. Thus we have old things turned to new uses, and it is for us to say whether we shall regard this incident as a piece of ancient history, or whether we shall enter into the spirit of it and realize the action in our own day and on a broader scale. How came the women to give up their looking-glasses to assist in constructing the laver? Because a superior spirit had taken possession of them. That is the philosophy and that the explanation of the case. What then is the spirit that is to enter into us? None other than the spirit of Christ. We might use many words in describing the spirit, but all the words would focalize themselves at last in this sublime expression--“For Christ’s sake.” The highest personality is Christ. We follow Him, and in proportion as we follow Him all things we possess are His. There is room in the sanctuary for everything. This is the point we have so often missed in our Christian teaching. No punishment is burning enough for the men who would belittle God’s house. What have you? You have nothing that cannot be used in the building of God’s house and kingdom. Have you nothing but the little looking-glass? It can be used. Is yours, on the other hand, but one small flower which a child could pluck? It was God’s flower before it was yours, and He will never consent to lose a flower; it cost Him thought and care and love; He dressed the flower as Solomon never could dress himself. Blessed will be the day when the breweries of the country are turned into mechanics’ institutes, great sanitary establishments for the washing and cleansing of the people. Blessed will be the day when the rich man’s saloons shall be thrown open to the poorest neighbours he has who will come to look at his articles of vertu,--who will turn over his curiosities and examine them with honest fingers, and so admire them as to be touched into desire for broader life. Blessed--bright will be the day when in that sense we shall have all things common; when the strong man’s strength shall be the weak man’s refuge; when the homeless shall have a large home in the charity and love of his richer brother; when the one object of every heart will be to extend the happiness of mankind--the one question in the morning being, What good can be done to-day? and the one question at eventide, What good has been accomplished? My persuasion is that if ever that time is to be brought about, it can only be by the extension of the spirit of Jesus Christ. Taking the Christian view, all becomes larger still and brighter, and the hope is given that one day everybody will be in the kingdom, and every man, woman, and child, wilt be doing their very best to make that kingdom what God means it to be. The great men, by heroic strength, by dauntless valour, will carry on their sublime occupation; the patient women--gentle souls, having the genius of sympathy and the faculty of interpreting by suffering--will contribute their important, their ineffably valuable share; and little children will make up the sum total of the consecration. (J. Parker, D. D.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Exodus 38". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/exodus-38.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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