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The Danites sought them an inheritance . . . They set them up Micah’s graven image.
The image-worship expanding into tribal idolatry
I. The straits to which unbelief reduces the strong (Judges 18:1).
II. Discontent with a divinely-marked lot leads to evil (Judges 18:2).
III. Trifling circumstances often lead to the discovery of sinful schemes (Judges 18:3).
IV. Silent neglect at first, leads afterwards to open rejection of God’s ordinances (Judges 18:5).
V. The most inoffensive people are not safe from the attacks of evil men (Judges 18:7; Judges 18:9-10).
VI. Religion is sometimes invoked to aid the plots of the ungodly (Judges 18:5).
VII. Indirectness is a character of the world’s counsel (Judges 18:6).
VIII. False worshippers take refuge in imitating the appearances of the true (Judges 18:14; Judges 18:17).
IX. Divine providence often offers no interruption to the execution of the designs of the wicked.
X. The sudden destruction of the man-made religion (Judges 18:15-20).
XI. Prayer will not secure the Divine blessing on a wrong action (Judges 18:5-6, also Judges 18:18-19).
XII. Worldly minds care little for accuracy in spiritual things (Judges 18:17-19).
XIII. Neither moral principle nor sound reason can be expected of those who deny to God His natural rights.
XIV. Success in evil is no proof of the Divine approval.
XV. True service is not to be expected from a false priest (Judges 18:20).
XVI. The excessive importance which an idolater Attaches to his gods (Judges 18:24). (J. P. Millar.)
Ask counsel, we pray thee, of God.
Counsel of God
Seeking counsel of God is the first duty of Christian men.
I. Why we should ask.
1. On account of our ignorance and short-sightedness. The way before us dark, uncertain. So reason would suggest to ask, etc. it is the course God’s people have ever adopted. See Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 27:20); Moses (Exodus 33:12); David (2 Samuel 7:29).
2. On account of God’s ability to give. He knows all the way before us.
3. On account of the fact that our best interests are involved in the counsel God can give. It is like the pillar and cloud, the compass of the mariner, light of day, etc.
II. What we may ask.
1. As to our temporal concerns. Duties in the world, engagements, plans, and changes.
2. As to our relative concerns. Families, children, friends, etc. So Abraham and David; so all the truly pious.
3. As to our spiritual concerns. The way of experimental piety, usefulness, etc. Influence for good. The text speaks of the “way being prosperous.”
III. How we must ask.
1. With a deep conviction of our exigency. Not self-sufficient.
2. With believing confidence. The promises are abundant for every scene. To lead, direct, keep, deliver, strengthen, protect, sanctify, save; hence we must calmly look and plead.
3. With a resolution to follow the counsel.
4. Through the person and advocacy of Christ. (J. Burns, D. D.)
We have seen the land, and behold, it is very good.--
Report from the promised land
This was a model report, because it urged the brethren to take advantage of an opportunity that meant benefit to themselves. The believer in Jesus Christ is an explorer, and he brings back a report to his brethren who are unbelievers. Religion, like science, to be exact, must be grounded in truth and fact. We listen to Livingstone and believe him, as we would but few who might tell us of the wastes of Africa, for we know that he has seen. Let your life be a life fragrant with peace, a life unselfish, devoted, Christ-like, a life of beauty, and it will bring a winning report of the land, and your hearers will say, “We will go with you. It will be a good land, for God is with you.” Suppose a man from the cold and cheerless Arctic comes here. He comes from a land of chill and blasts, where the sun’s warmth never falls, where no birds sing, and where flowers never bloom. Suppose a man from this zone of the Arctic were to come to our city and open an office upon Broadway. How many would listen and go back with him to the terrors of that frozen north? But suppose a man from the sunny south should come. He would tell of the birds that sing the whole year round, of the flowers that bloomed season after season, and the bubbling streams that flowed on for ever. Which of the two would repel and which attract? God’s people are weak. Do not attribute their failures to the land from which they come. Do not set your reproof against the land. It is a glorious land. Go and make that land your land, your hope and your eternity. (W. T. Sabine.)
And are ye still?--
Indifference to religion
It may be that we wonder at the slowness of the Danites--wonder that they should hesitate to press forward and possess themselves of such an earthly inheritance; of such an inheritance because it was a part of the land promised by God to their fathers. May we not, however, be the more astonished at ourselves, as we remember our own indifference towards a heavenly inheritance? The habitation we now hold, straitened as it is, and but for time, must be resigned at the call of death, whether we have made any advance towards the heavenly inheritance or not. And why are we still? Is it because we are required to withdraw our affections from the earth? If so, we are to be gainers by it (1 Peter 1:4). And we ourselves often profess a desire to possess such a home. And often do we picture to ourselves a home where all that renders this life painful will be found no more. We desire a land which is “very good.” Such a home, such a land, God’s Word speaks of to us, and says that it is laid up for those who seek it (1 Corinthians 2:9). Yet few of us really seek this home; and so, in the words of the spies, we are again and again rebuked for our indifference. “Behold the land is very good: and are ye still? be not slothful to go, and to enter to possess the land.” Now the spies declared, concerning the people of Laish: “When ye go, ye shall come unto a people secure, and to a large land.”
1. The security here alluded to was a false security. It was that careless indifference to danger--that want of thought for their own safety--which the people of Laish indulged. There was peace about them. They did not think of the possibility of its being broken. They, in fact, prepared the way for their own destruction. And Holy Scripture tells us who seek the heavenly inheritance: “When ye go ye shall come unto a people secure, and to a large land.” But this security is a true one (2 Samuel 22:2-3).
2. It is a large land. In it we shall dwell in peace with those who now enjoy its blessedness. Our entrance there will be followed by the gift of our God to us of fuller measures of love. Could we possibly desire a life more blessed than this?--a life passed with angels, and archangels, and all God’s faithful ones. “Behold,” then, “the land is very good, and the people dwell secure: and are ye still?” In order to rouse their countrymen, and to hasten them forward towards Laish, the spies declared, “God hath given it into your hands.” Now these words either set forth the faith of the spies, and mean, “God will give it into your hands,” or they refer to God’s promise of old to Abraham (Genesis 15:18), and mean, “Know ye not that it is yours already by promise? God hath given it into your hands, since He sware unto Abraham that he and his seed should possess it.” And we would borrow their words, and say of heaven, “God hath given it into your hands.” For ever since the Saviour shed His blood for you, heaven has been purchased thereby for your everlasting inheritance. Heirs, by promise, thereof, your baptism made you. Citizens of heaven ye are now. Take heed that ye forfeit not, by following the world and its lusts, your citizenship. Moreover, it was not purchased to be bestowed arbitrarily, and after the manner of men, upon a few. And this is evident from the whole of our blessed Lord’s teaching. “In it there are many mansions.” “It is a large country.” And though many have passed from the earth, and are sure to enter it, “yet there is room.” But for whom is their room? Oh, not for the proud and the haughty. Not for those who cry “Lord, Lord,” yet do not the things which He hath commanded. Not for those who love this present world, yet profess to seek a better, but are still! There is room in heaven for the poor and humble in spirit, for those who follow “temperance, soberness, and chastity.” The spies also sought to urge their countrymen on by declaring, concerning Laish, that it was “a place where there is no want of anything that is in the earth.” So tempting a prize as this would, we should think, put away all hesitation, all fear of difficulties. And we declare the same of heaven. The blessings offered to the Danites had respect unto the present life. The blessings offered to us are those of the eternal life with God in heaven. Do you desire peace? It is there. Heaven is the abode of holiness; and where holiness is, there also is peace. Do you desire joy? It is there. In heaven sorrows and tears are not. Do you desire security? In heaven nothing shall disturb your peace, nothing shall diminish your joy. Do you long to offer unto God a worship holy and undefiled? In heaven you shall offer it. There you will join the sinless angels, and “the just made perfect,” and with them worship and adore your God. (C. P. Longland.)
Be not slothful to go, and to enter to possess the land.--
Practical attention to religion
I. Some considerations to induce an earnest, practical attention to religion.
1. Consider the glory and the grandeur of the inheritance to which you aspire. You see much of the wisdom of God in furnishing figurative descriptions of the blessedness of heaven.
2. Consider the encouraging assurances we have of success in our pursuit.
3. Consider the danger of remissness and indifference where interests so momentous are at stake.
II. Brief suggestions as to the means of promoting spirituality of mind.
1. Endeavour to form a high standard of that holiness of character in which fitness for heaven consists.
2. Serious and devout meditation upon the Word of God should form a part of the business of every day.
3. Cultivate a devotional spirit. (Homiletic Magazine.)
Fetched the carved image, the ephod, and the teraphim.--
The stolen gods
Micah and his household worshipping the images of silver, the Levite officiating at the altar, seeking counsel of Jehovah by ephod and teraphim, the Danites who steal the gods, carry off the priest, and set up a new worship in the city they build--all these represent to us types and stages of what is really schism, pitiful and disastrous--that is, separation from the truth of things and from the sacred realities of Divine faith. Selfish untruth and infidelity are schism, the wilderness and outlawry of the soul.
1. Micah and his household, with their chapel of images, their ephod and teraphim, represent those who fall into the superstition that religion is good as insuring temporal success and prosperity, that God will see to the worldly comfort of those who pay respect to Him. Even among Christians this is a very common and a very debasing superstition. The sacraments are often observed as signs of a covenant which secures for men Divine favour through social arrangements and human law. The spiritual nature and power of religion are not denied, but they are uncomprehended. The national custom and the worldly hope have to do with the observance of devout forms rather than any movement of the soul heavenward. A Church may in this way become like Micah’s household, and prayer may mean seeking good terms with Him who can fill the land with plenty or send famine and cleanness of teeth.
2. The Levite represents an unworthy, worldly ministry. Very few of those in the ranks of the Christian ministry are entirely concerned with the respect paid to them in society and the number of shekels to be got in a year. That he keeps pace with the crowd instead of going before it is perhaps the hardest thing that can be said of the worldly pastor. He is humane, active, intelligent; but it is for the Church as a great institution, or the Church as his temporal hope and stay. So his ministry becomes at the best a matter of serving tables and providing alms--we shall not say amusement. Here, indeed, is schism; for what is farther from the truth of things, from Christ?
3. Once more, we have with us to-day, very much with us, certain Danites of science, politics, and the press, who, if they could, would take away our God and our Bible, our Eternal Father and spiritual hope, not from a desire to possess, but because they hate to see us believing, hate to see any weight of silver given to religious uses. Not a few of these are marching, as they think, triumphantly to commanding and opulent positions, whence they will rule the thought of the world. And on the way, even while they deride and detest the supernatural, they will have the priest go with them. They care nothing for what he says; to listen to the voice of a spiritual teacher is an absurdity of which they would not be guilty; for to their own vague prophesying all mankind is to give heed, and their interpretations of human life are to be received as the Bible of the age. Of the same order is the socialist who would make use of a faith he intends to destroy, and a priesthood whose claim is offensive to him, on his way to what he calls the organisation of society. In his view the uses of Christianity and the Bible are temporal and earthly. He will not have Christ the Redeemer of the soul, yet he attempts to conjure with Christ’s words, and appropriate the power of His name. The audacity of these would-be robbers is matched only by their ignorance of the needs and ends of human life. (R. A. Watson, M. A.)
Ye have taken away my gods.--
The loss of gods
I. All men have a God.
1. Whatever a man’s god be, he deems it the greatest good.
2. But man’s ideas of God are very deficient and conflicting. Some make a god of the means of gratifying their passions and lusts; others make money and riches their god; others the praise and approbation of their fellow-creatures, and others the outward rites and ceremonies of religion.
3. It is one thing to be religious; another and a very different matter to be godly, worshipping the Father “in spirit and in truth.”
II. False gods can be taken from their devotees.
1. Often in life. Many, long before they die, lose the means of gratifying sense; many, early in life, though lovers of money, become pitifully poor; and many, by some means or other, are deprived of the means to pursue their accustomed mode of attending to religious rites, and therefore lose their gods.
2. In death. Sense cannot be gratified in the grave. No miser has ever been able to take a grain of his adored money to another world. The world’s praise and blame are equally unimportant when a man feels he is to be ushered before the judgment-seat; and all religious rites and formularies are left behind for ever when we enter a world of spirits.
III. The loss, even of a false god, will be felt to be a great loss. “What have I more?” To tear the thing we have made our god from us is the greatest bereavement. Even though the thing is bad, it has been loved supremely, and the loss of it will create a vacuum and an agony intolerable. But the conscious loss of the true God--this is the climax of suffering. Then the soul is a chaos, an orphan in the universe. (Homilist.)
Micah the Ephraimite
Consider the plan of life he made, and the reason why it turned out so badly.
1. He was not a heathen, though he was an idolater. He thought to serve God through the medium of idols. It was more comfortable to remain at home, and it was more easy to worship by means of what could be seen. He was like people who say that it is not necessary to go to church, because they can read the Bible and say their prayers at home; as if reading the Bible and saying prayers were the whole duty of the man! He was also like those who think that worship must be comfortable: they are not called upon to rise early or to adopt more than a sitting posture. You can see what the influence of idols would become in this man’s life. Micah would gradually forget the unseen world of which they were supposed to remind him, and his image-shop would call for his constant care and attention. What soul he possessed would be centred there, and the presence of the Levite would soothe him with the notion that all was well. Nor was the life a lonely one, for others, it seems, lived near, and took an interest in the carved image, the ephod, the teraphim, and molten image: in fact, there was quite a comfortable little schism formed into which no one was likely to inquire. Such was the plan of Micah’s religious life--a cheap one, you will observe, in spite of the ten shekels of silver and apparel and victuals, for no journeys need now be undertaken to other seats of worship, and no money offered to them.
2. And why did such an inexpensive way of serving God fail? Some rude travellers robbed him of his gods and his priest, and what had he more? It might have been possible to replace them, but the cost would have been much; besides, he had grown fond of these images, and this priest, and his heart was with them. It was too late to begin life again, and such handsome images it would be difficult to make. All might still have been well had he known what worship meant, but unfortunately in his service of God he had left out God. “God is Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth,” Is there anything akin to us in the character of this poor man, who began by cheating others and ended by being cheated himself?
1. True religion cannot be easy, at least at first. It never can be cheap. To do God’s will entails the sacrifice of ourselves, soul and body, to the Almighty. And so easy-going religion is popular. Men will not go far to a service. If they have their temple at their door they can drag their wearied limbs so far, but, unlike their forefathers, they do not care to walk a few miles to God’s house. As for time and money, what a little suffices often to soothe the sleepy conscience!
2. Micah’s religion was self-made. Has he not followers in those who teach that we can please ourselves in the manner and method of worship? Is it perfectly immaterial whether our Saviour made a Church or not, whether we continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayer, or not? And if these things do matter, surely they are worth a little hard thought. “We are all going the same way,” people tell you. Yet it is inconceivable that all can be equally right. Are we not bound to give, each for himself, a reason for the form of the faith we hold?
3. Micah’s religion failed him. His gods were taken away, and his priest, and what had he more? God was left out of sight. We can take the warning to ourselves. Our religion, it may be, has been largely outward: we have said formal prayers morning and evening; we have come to church and gone through services; we have read a few verses of the Bible as a disagreeable duty; we have hoped all was well; and suddenly, a big blow falls--and where are we? Is our religion a comfort? does it help to support us? Not a bit. Why? Because it was only skin-deep. (W. R. Hutton, M. A.)
The stable and the unstable in religion
This story has but a faint analogy with what I wish to speak of--but yet it illustrates a principle applicable in all ages, that essential religion is some thing which cannot be stolen. Now there are all sorts of Danites--real hostile Danites, and men accounted such by timid souls who are not so at all. There are ruthless Danites, whose honest, or dishonest, aim it is to remove what they really seem to think religion is wrapped up in. And then there are friendly Danites, who would remove idol images out of a real love for a more spiritual and vital faith. But whoever the Danites be, this is true--that nobody is afraid of the Danites unless he has gotten a Micah religion; and nobody encourages the raids and raileries of the Danites--“What aileth thee?”--like the man who cries, “What have I more?”
I. Any religion which centres in a form or organisation can be stolen. This is only to say that external aids to devotion, and diverse organisation of God’s host may be changed, and yet destroy none but a Micah faith which is wrapped up in them. But what has seemed so permanent and vital at different times, and to different souls, is just this very thing! The Micah faith of the Jews could be, must be, stolen away. But what was permanent? Reverence and worship of Almighty God. Again, take the New Testament. It was a zeal in God’s name by which Jesus Himself cleansed the temple of His Father! And who ever stole away the Micah elements of religion as did our Lord Himself, in mingled love and indignation for God’s eternal law? Again, have you ever realised that the great argument all through the Epistles of Paul is just this carrying-off process of that system, glorious in its purity and needed for its day, but now to pass, in its essential elements, into a different form of growth? His great contention every where is that there were shadow and substance both in the old Mosaic economy; that form was vanishing, its truth permanent; that Christ had fulfilled, or filled full, those great moral and spiritual needs of men which once were best fed by other means. Did He take away a single element that was permanent?
II. Standards of what is right and wrong in conduct may be stolen, and yet not carry off the eternal obligations of mortality. How often people have been trying to say that this, that, and the other thing is eternally right or wrong for everybody and all nations to do or not to do! It is this spirit which goes to the Bible, and in Leviticus and Ecclesiastes, as well as in John and Romans, would find, on one level of authority, some word to decide, as by a talisman, whether this or that is consistent for everybody everywhere to do or not to do. How this confuses and misrepresents the Bible! The Bible is a book of life, and so it has progressively changed and raised its forms of moral obligation from age to age. Right in the midst of the Old Testament, like a lighthouse in a storm, stand the ten commandments--true, not because they are there, but there because universally true; and yet even they are not true because that is the best or highest form of moral obligation; for Jesus says of that law, “It says so and so, but ‘I’ say”--carrying those same principles further and higher, and adding entirely new and deeper motives and sanctions. Negative “Thou shalt not“ accomplishes for one man or one age what Jesus’ positive “Thou shalt love” does for another--two forms of the same thing. See the progress in Bible standards!
1. Thou shalt not do wrong.
2. Thou shalt love God and man.
3. Love one another, “as I have loved you.” There is a vast difference between these three ways of looking at one thing.
III. What is true of forms of worship and standards of morals is true also of forms and proportions of theological issues. Judged by the Micah creeds of men we might suppose the Christian world would have nothing left of faith after the Danites of each generation had carried away some things upon which every thing seemed to hang. We are living in a time when hosts of Christian people think the ark of God is in danger as it never was before. But when was there an age in which people did not say the same thing? This is said to be an era of readjustment and revolution. Yes; but so has nearly every age been accounted since Jesus came, if we may judge from the fearful auguries of every century. There are always some people perfectly sure if this or that doctrine is not held just as their fathers, or their Church or themselves hold it, that men are cutting loose from all sure anchorage. The reassuring thing is that that is just what men have always been saying, and yet despite dark doubt and augury, hostile Danites, and men so counted Danites in one age to be canonised in the next, have all stolen only what was either false or only one-sided and temporary. There is not a great fact or essential truth of Christian revelation which is not held as firmly this very day as ever before. (A. R. Merriam.)
The Indian problem
Do we consider that a man situated as this man was a fit object of pity and sympathy or not? The stern, uncompromising iconoclast would certainly say, “No.” He would feel that it was better for such an one to find out by bitter experience how vain and useless were the idols in which he trusted. In and through his desolation he might be brought to seek for help where alone it could be found. The mild, tolerant student of comparative religion would probably say, “Yes.” He would urge on his behalf that at that particular point in the evolution of Jewish religion from its primitive worship of invisible forces it was inevitable that the worshipper should seek to give concrete form and embodiment to the anthropomorphic idea of God which was then being assimilated from the nations around. For such an one to be deprived of his idols was to be put out of rapport and correspondence with his religious environment, and as that meant spiritual death, he clearly deserves our pity in his destitution. Turning, however, from the merely speculative interest which the ancient Israelite’s case presents, I wish to transfer it, “as in a figure,” to the very real and practical interest presented by the parallel situation of a large section of our fellow-subjects in India, and to endeavour to answer the question just raised by considering what our duty to them is. For in the main the plea of the Jew of Mount Ephraim is being echoed now either in unexpressed feeling or in outspoken utterance by thousands of religious-minded Hindus in India. It is only with one portion of the problem that I would attempt to deal; that, namely, which is connected with the sphere of Christian education. It would be to repeat an oft-told tale to recount at any length what has been and will be increasingly the necessary result of such contact of the West with the East as our rule in India has brought about. That contact is unique and unprecedented in some if not all of its conditions, and must be expected to produce strange and unlooked-for, even contradictory, results. But it is of the moral aspect of them only that I wish to speak. When the Government of India decided that State education must be conducted on the principle of religious neutrality and non-interference, it does not appear whether the disintegrating effect of purely secular instruction was fully realised. What, in short, was not foreseen, but is now being daily found to be the inevitable result of the State system of education, is that while it tends to destroy much that was hurtful and fatal to progress, it fails to supply the place of what it destroys by any new and vital principle of cohesion and solidarity. The son goes back to his home and announces to his parents that he has learnt to rise superior to caste traditions and prejudices, and it is found that what this amounts to practically is, that while he has a veneer of Western learning and science, he has lost his hold of what is the very life and soul of any society, the sense of obedience, of reverence, of duty in the family and in the State. He has gained, indeed, ideas of freedom, of independence, of equality, of self-assertion, but if he has lost or is in danger of losing these other ideas, which surely it is true to say are more fundamental and indispensable for the well-being of the family and the nation, is not the loss likely to be greater than the gain, at any rate for the Indian? If there is any virtue which the caste system can claim to have developed and preserved, it is the instinct of reverence and obedience. And it is this instinct which it is the tendency of our education to weaken if not to destroy. And further, it is precisely in those parts of India which are most advanced in Western knowledge where this tendency is seen in its fullest development. What wonder is it, then, that the parent who hears of the boasted advantages of Western science and education bewails the result of it in words which seem an echo of the cry of the Jew of Mount Ephraim “Ye have taken away my gods which I made, and what have I more? and how then say ye unto me, What aileth thee?” But this is not all. The student, bereft of the moral sanctions of his religion, and supplied with no new motives of obedience and rectitude, is exposed to yet other dangers. If the demon of superstition has been expelled, there are the seven other spirits more wicked than the first, ready to rush in and occupy the vacant, cheerless room. For the mental facilities of the Indian student are far in advance of his moral faculties. This is so naturally; and when the course of education tends almost exclusively to develop the intellectual part of him, the disparsity becomes all the more marked. The moral element in him, already of weakened vitality, is gradually starved out, and the struggle for superiority is rather between the animal and the intellectual. There are many noble exceptions, but they cannot redeem a system which condemns the majority to moral sterility. It is to the Christian Church, and that alone, that we must turn for the assertion and vindication of the principles of true reform, as well as for the moral dynamic which is to energise and embody them in and through an actual visible living society. And it is quite wonderful to notice how India’s need of the gospel is being recognised on all sides and in the most unexpected quarters. The politician looks to the spread of Christianity as one great source of strength and stability for the permanence of British Empire. The educationalist looks to our native Christian women as at present the most hopeful means of making female education effective among the upper classes. Sir W. W. Hunter has lately said, “Christianity holds out advantages of social organisation not offered by Hinduism or Islam. It provides for the education and moral supervision of its people with a pastoral care which Islam, destitute of a regular priesthood, does not pretend to. It receives the new members into its body with a cordiality and a completeness to which Hinduism is a stranger. I believe,” he says, “it is reserved for Christianity to develop the highest uses of Indian caste, ‘as a system of conservative socialism.’ . . . But it will be Indian caste humanised by a new spiritual life.”Or to take one or two more specific cases. The tahsildar or head native officer of a large country town appeals to a missionary to send a Christian teacher for a Hindu school, because he finds the Hindu teachers have yielded to the prevailing immorality of the town. The municipality of a large city in the Punjab appoints a native Christian minister its chairman because they can find no other man so high-minded and honest for the post. The only great modern religious reformer India has produced bore witness on his death-bed to India’s need of Christ. When the man of Macedonia stood before St. Paul that night in the vision, did not the pathos of the cry, “Come over and help us,” arise from the very fact of its being the unconscious appeal of the heathen world for help? And if the response to that cry was the mission to Europe, which was the origin and cause of all that is highest and best and noblest in our life and thought here to-day, shall the Church’s response to India’s cry be less prompt, less devoted, less full of faith and hope and love, when she has that greatest of all examples to inspire and stimulate her, the experience of the power of the message he bore to support and guide her in her task, the certainty of final victory, not in our time, but in God’s time, to cheer and encourage her till Christ comes to claim the kingdom for His own? (S. S Allnutt, M. A.)
And what have I more?--
The beyond in religion
It was natural that Micah should deplore the loss of his images. We may smile at his grief, and say that he was a very ignorant and a very superstitious man. Doubtless he might have reflected that the loss was not irreparable; doubtless he might have consoled himself with the thought of what remained. And yet we, with our purer faith and nobler creed, need to remind ourselves that such superstition is not altogether unknown amongst us. There has always been a tendency to mistake the outward and visible for the inward and spiritual, to think or to act as if these were all, and to forget the beyond; even to imagine that if these are withdrawn and taken from us, then all is gone and nothing more is left. Idolatry in its grosset forms has passed away, and it is not likely to return; but the tendency still exists to pay undue deference to and to depend upon what is visible and material and transitory, while we ignore those unseen and abiding elements in which alone the true vitality of religion consists. Let us trace this tendency in three directions.
1. Religion is enshrined in ceremonies. Forms may be not only useful in religion, they are to certain extent necessary. In Christian worship there has always been more or less of form, ceremonial, ritual. Men have tried at various times to maintain a religion which should be purely spiritual, but the effort has not in the long run been successful. In early days Christian worship was severely simple. It was so partly by design, in contrast with the sensuous materialism of surrounding idolatry; partly of necessity, because of the poverty of the worshippers. In later times came the elaboration of ceremonial. The question for us is, What have we more? Do our worship, our ceremonies lead us to what is beyond? Are we relying on the accessories, or on the everlasting truths they enshrine? What have we more? I may, for instance, be accustomed to a place of worship where the services are rendered with the most exquisite musical taste, where the art of the sculptor or the painter ministers to my sense of culture and refinement; but what have I more? If altered circumstances should force me to worship with none of those surroundings, could I know that there in the meanest and poorest temple is no less the presence of God? If I should be condemned as an invalid to pass weary months and even years within the four walls of my sick-room, could I rest in the assurance that still Christ is with me, and that possessing Him I possess all things? This is to penetrate into the kernel of religion; this is to have the power as well as the form of godliness, and it is to this that all form, all ritual, should lead up, and without this they profit nothing.
2. But religion is not only enshrined in form; it is embodied in phrases. Churches have their creeds and their catechisms. Religious truth must find its expression in doctrine, in portable forms which are easily remembered, though the doctrine probably expresses very inadequately the truth it inculcates. A sound creed is the basis of a strong character. Words are the necessary embodiment of truth. But there is always a danger lest the mere framework of words be taken as a substitute for the truth it indicates. There are those who worship, instead of a living Christ, their own wooden and stony forms of theology, which may leave them just as hard and just as narrow and just as loveless as any other form of superstition. The history of Christianity is full of examples. This tendency to depend on words is especially seen in the decadence of any religious movement. Phrases which were at one time pregnant with meaning are repeated with parrot-like accuracy by those who are very far from being animated by their spirit. They think that because they have the words they must also have the truth. “What have I more?” We have our doctrines, our creeds, our catechisms; but do they lead us to what is beyond? Do we reach forth with the strong grasp of a living faith to the unchanging and eternal truths which the words embody? Do you remember that it is one thing to say, “I believe in God,” another to believe in God with heart and soul as the great Factor in our lives? Phrases may change; but God does not change. Truth cannot change, though it may be conveyed through different means. Creed is important, but character is greater than creed. Life is more than orthodoxy, and goodness than correct opinions.
3. Once more, religion is not only enshrined in ceremonies and creeds, but also in persons. When St. Paul says that the Church is the “body of Christ,” he implies that our Lord works through Christian people, and that they are His representatives on earth. As a matter of fact all our earlier impressions, and many of our later impressions, in religion, have come to us through persons. The mother who taught our infant lips to pray, the teacher who first instructed us in the simple truths of the gospel, the pastor at whose feet we sat as children, the friend so noble and so brave on whom we leaned for counsel and guidance--these and others were those who first brought religion to our notice as the great power in the world. And no one can overrate the power and the value of religious training and Christian friendship. But yet even the best and purest and holiest of earthly influences may sometimes be almost the idol, whose removal may be the wreck of our hopes. I sometimes tremble for the religion of the young lad who goes forth from a holy and happy village home into the crowded thoroughfares of the great city. Will he stand fast in the future? Will he be true to the teaching of his boyhood in the presence of increasing temptations? Will he keep to the old faith in the land that is new? He will not, if his faith is merely second-hand. He will not if he has never really made his parents’ belief to be his own belief. The great question is, “What have I more?” I have Christian influence around me, I have religious friends; but what have I more? If God should see fit to take away these, have I learnt to trust in the one Friend from whom neither distance nor death can part? Can I lean on Him when every earthly prop is removed? Some years ago I was called to visit an aged lady who was on her death-bed. She was a very sincere Christian, who had led an exceptionally useful life of active benevolence. But she had drunk deep of the cup of sorrow; she had been reduced through monetary losses to comparative poverty; her husband had deserted her, and she had few, if any, relatives who could help her. And as I sat by her bedside, a few hours before her death, she talked of her trials, her sorrows, her losses, when, suddenly raising herself, she pointed upward to a text above her bed, and said, “But I have found that true all along.” I looked up and read the text. It was the familiar promise, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.” Yes, earthly friends might fail and leave her, but there was One who would never forsake her, the unchanging Friend who had strengthened and supported her in life as in death. Certainly the day will come to us all when all earthly helps will leave us, and we shall have to fall back on the unseen realities, or on--nothing. At such a time, if ever, we shall need to depend on the reality and not the shadow. No forms, no phrases, no friends can help us then. Nothing but the living Christ can then be our strength and stay; He and He only can say, “When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee.” May God keep us from trusting in the shadow rather than the substance. “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.” (Christian World Pulpit.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Judges 18". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13