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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Exodus 23

 

 

Verses 1-33

Negative Commandments

Exodus 22-23

We cannot read the book of Exodus without being struck by the number of things which we are not to do. These detailed and emphatic prohibitions we may regard under the name of negative commandments. We are not left to ourselves in any instance to determine a case of doubt; from beginning to end the Divine voice is clear, and direct, and final in its tone. These negative commandments are interesting upon every ground; but perhaps especially so as revealing human nature to itself. When we hear a command to do, or not to do, we hear in that command a voice which startles us into a new consciousness of our own nature and quality. To be told not to do certain things is now considered equivalent to a kind of affront—assuming it possible that we could do such things as are thus forbidden. We are annoyed, we are excited in a hostile way, at the very thought of it being supposed that we could have done these things which a high legislation attempts elaborately and penally to forbid. We must, however, think ourselves back to the time of day at which all these negative and positive commandments were given. We do not find them in the New Testament, because it is there assumed that we have attained that moral sensitiveness and that spiritual responsiveness which render it entirely unnecessary that we, with many centuries of civilisation culminating in our experience and history, should be forbidden to do certain things.

Take some instances, and use them especially as showing what human nature is apart from Divine direction and continual and gracious supervision.

Who, for example, would imagine that such a commandment as this could be given to any people who profess to know anything about the true God?

"Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him" ( Exodus 22:21).

Is it possible to vex a stranger? Does not the very fact of his being a stranger entitle him to generous hospitality? to a kind construction of his mistakes? Ought we not to be ready to turn his ignorance into wisdom and his inexperience to certainty of knowledge? Yet is it not true that man can vex a brother man who is a stranger and oppress him? Is it not done every day? Is it not one of the tricks by which we live? Do we not pride ourselves upon being too quick for the stranger, or knowing more than he knows? and do we not turn our knowledge to our own advantage and to his personal loss? Why, in this command from Heaven, we have the beginning of the great Gospel of Christ. To God there are no strangers. And to ourselves there would have been no strangers had we been faithful to God. Why all this strangeness? Simply because we have become estranged from the Father of us all. The strangeness began between man and God, not between man and Prayer of Manasseh , and not until we are right with God can we be right with one another. We may make arrangements for momentary convenience; we may consult public sentiment and study the bearing and influence of public doubts in relation to one another; but we cannot be as one heart, and one soul, until we are one with God through Jesus Christ his Son. You cannot permanently tinker the world; there is no rent in it that can be filled up with material at man"s command. The disease is desperate, vital, and only God, the Physician that is in Gilead, can find the healing for the disease infinite and unspeakable. But the command is a looking-glass. A man looking into it may see himself, see what he would do under given circumstances. The assumptions of the text are impeachments; put those impeachments into words, and how stands the great accusation? Thus: you would vex a stranger if you could; you would oppress a stranger if you could do so with impunity. You perhaps think you would not, but the deepest reading of human nature gives this as a result of the study of the human constitution that none can be so savage as man; there is not a beast in the field or in the forest that can equal man in cruelty. We talk about savage beasts and cruel and fierce creatures made to devour one another; but there is no cruelty so terrible, so unsparing, so pitiless, as the cruelty of the human heart. That is the accusation; we must leave the proof to human consciousness and to human history. We understand how men revolt from the suggestion, and how they cover up their passions by paying compliments to own their tenderness and sensibility; but the mischief is—the subtle and tremendous mischief is—that our very tenderness may be a calculation, our very tears may be shed as an investment for our own benefit. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked."

Akin to this commandment there is another. The tender words are these:—

"Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child" ( Exodus 22:22).

This is the Gospel of Christ in the book of Exodus. This is God the Father. There is a majestic solemnity in his voice that is full of ineffable tenderness. This is the Father of all. Would men afflict the widow, or the fatherless child? The answer must be frank and direct, and that answer will be in the affirmative. Who speaks for the widow?—God; and the orphan?—God. Then be cheerful, take heart again; the Orator who speaks for you is God. There are no fatherless children in the deepest sense of that term. As for the fathers we have had after the flesh, they themselves were children, as were their fathers and all their ancestors. There is only one Father. Let us take hold of hands and make a great ring round the family centre and say—holding each tremulously, lusty manhood, thriving childhood—timidly and lispingly,—"Our Father which art in heaven." Given the time when men shall say so with a sound heart, with an undivided mind, with a loyal and constant affection, and then find the angel who can tell where earth ends and heaven begins. Wondrous it is—yea, more and more so—that there should be found any friendless people, poor lonely destitute people, who do not love the Bible. Find me in it one text that does not warn the rich man to take care, for he is standing upon a very slippery place, and when he does slip he plunges a long way down. Find one text in all the glowing volume that rebukes the poor, that is hard with the struggling, that smites the penitent man in the face, that forbids a little child to trouble the Jehovah of the universe. Weakness, poverty, helplessness, homelessness, disease, pain, hunger, thirst—these are thy clients, thou Servant of us all.

Changing the place altogether, you will find another commandment of a tone somewhat startling and surprising.

"Thou shalt not revile the gods... of thy people" ( Exodus 22:28).

This is a passage difficult to understand and impossible fully to explain. In other places, we find idols broken, temples erected to forbidden names thrown down, as by great thunders, and lightnings, and strong winds blowing contempt from eternity upon the petty creations of the debased religious imagination. Yet consistently with all this there is to be no reviling of gods. This is a subtle lesson. Mock no man"s religion—point out the inadequacy of it, show the vanity of the small idolatrous form, remark with pungency, if you please, upon its grotesqueness and its helplessness; but confine your remarks to the visible thing. That can be treated in this way with obvious reasonableness; but the religious instinct lies deeper than you have yet realised if you have been confining your attention to the mere forms of idol worship. The religion is beyond the idol,—above it, below it, away from it. The idol itself is a mere symbol to typify the inexpressible infinite. You do not convert men by mocking their convictions, by reviling them on account of their mistakes. Do what you please with the opprobrious idol—lift it up to prove how little it is in weight; set it down to show how helpless it is in your hand; throw it over to show that it cannot defend itself; but you have not treated the whole case in its entire scope and reality by thus treating the merely visible form of a religious conviction. Men may be mistaken in their convictions of a religious kind; show them the truth; live the truth; illustrate the possibility of living perfect, lofty, noble lives; create a religious wonder in the observer of your life as to the range of motive by which your conduct is mellowed and impelled; so live that you cannot be accounted for, except on the basis that you are living, moving, and having your being in God. Thus, and not by fluent mockery will men be drawn from their own mistakes to partake of the convictions which are as rational as they are beneficent. There is no poor suppliant crying to idols and praying to the empty and mocking wind that does not prove by that very act the mysterious, the Divine origin of the heart that can thus make such egregious mistakes. They are the mistakes of a Divine creation: they are not the petty mistakes of human ignorance. In the plunge of idolatry there is the apostacy of one almost God. It is a rush into a darkness from which any mere beast would flee in terror. Do not mock conviction; do not revile mistakenness of apprehension. Do what you please with the mere idol and with the transient ceremony; be even angry with these,—yea, destructively angry,—but find out in them an instinct, an emotion, a mystery to which you must address yourselves, not in the language of taunt, but in the language of sympathy, with a burning desire to redeem from prostitution an instinct which makes humanity.

"Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" ( Exodus 23:2).

Can a multitude do evil? One soul may stray, but can a whole multitude go away from the light and make itself houses in forbidden places? Can the majority be wrong? There is a sense in which the majority is at this moment against Christ. I would not count it so; rather would I see Christ in many disguises; but I should know it to be the very Christ, whatever the disguise which concealed the dignity. Christ has been with men when men did not know it; their eyes have been holden that they should not see him; he has revealed himself to men under many concealments of a strange kind. There is more Christ in the world than we possibly may suppose. God is infinite; God fills all space, and yet takes up no room; God mingles with thinking, civilisation, action, and yet the human factors in all the mysterious action may be unaware of the Divine presence and impulse; but there has been an unveiling, a sudden revelation of the reality of the case. We are waiting for that millennial disclosure. What if some day God shall look right in the face of the very people who have been doubting or denying any relation to him, and should thus convince them that all the time they have had nothing that they have not received from himself? and what if they should also be surprised by the recollection of a warmth of the heart, a glow of the soul, they had never felt before, and should find in that fire the presence of the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob? God may be working in you without your knowing his name, or without your being at present able to trace the Divine action, as distinctly separate from human thinking. We are waiting for the day of Revelation , the morning of surprise, when we shall stand before God, saying, "Lo! thou wast with us and we knew it not. How solemn is every place which thou hast made!" But when the multitude does evil, we are not to follow it; we must stand still and protest against the evil; in other words, we must see the evil and not the multitude. Always put the emphasis upon the right word, in order to encourage yourself in good action and in straightforward conduct. The emphasis is not altogether upon the word multitude, it is upon the word evil; and we ought to ask God to be enabled so to pronounce the word evil as to feel revolt from everything which it implies and suggests.

Looking at these negative commandments, are we not surprised at the wonderful knowledge of human nature which they reveal? We cannot get away from them; we cannot plant ourselves right in front of them and say, "This is a misinterpretation of human nature." We cannot return the dreadful look of the eyes that shine out of this revelation; we feel that we are in the hands of a Legislator who knows us altogether, and who speaks to us not according to transient and accidental phases of human nature but in the totality of our being. This is the strength of the Bible, this is the vindication of the commandments: that they root themselves in our constitution, that they know us, and that we can only escape their pressure by telling lies to our own souls. Herein is the inspiration of the Book. Its portraiture of man is a portraiture without a blemish or a flaw. He who drew man so completely in every lineament of his image, in every emotion and sensibility of his nature, must have made the man whose portrait he has delineated.

These commandments also show the true relation of God to the human race. He is the Ruler. He enjoins, he forbids; he never comes with apology from the skies, or palliation of sternness, but with the majesty of right. Yet there is one little word in the midst of all these commandments full of sweetest gospel—a word that might have been found in one of the four Evangelists and that might have formed the text of every sermon preached by Apostolic wisdom and eloquence. The sentence you find in the twenty-second chapter and the twenty-seventh verse: "For I am gracious"—a word we cannot do without We cannot explain it, yet we feel that it fills all space in human necessity and consciousness which no other word can fill. This is the defence of the commandments: that they are not arbitrary expressions of mere sovereignty of will and position in the universe, but that they, though commandments, are expressions of grace, mercy, pity, love. The very Spirit of the Cross is in the commandment. Sinai is but one phase of Calvary.

We try to evade many of these commandments on the plea that they were not addressed to us. It is a hollow plea; it is in fact a lie. We turn away from the commandments, saying, with an explanatory gesture, that we are not Jews. We are, if we are in Christ; if we have any love for Christ; if we feel that we must follow in some fashion the way and method of the Son of God. The Christian is a Jew plus. Christianity is the fruition of Judaism. The blood of the One Priest that abideth for ever and hath an unchangeable priesthood gathers up in its redness all the meaner blood which typified and prophesied its shedding. As well may the oak say "I am not an acorn" as Christianity say "I am not Judaism." We cannot have the two Testaments torn asunder as though they had no relation one to the other. The New Testament would have been impossible but for the Old Testament. The song uttered in heaven is the song of Moses and the Lamb. "The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Yet Jesus Christ said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." If he did not recite these negative commandments, it was because he came to put within us a Spirit, a Paraclete, that should abide for ever, whose presence was a law, whose operation in the soul was a daily instruction in righteousness and Wisdom of Solomon , in love and pureness, in which he may stand above the commandments and treat them as an obsolete letter—who has entered into the Spirit of Christ, and who is breathing in his daily life the obedience to which earlier men had to struggle through many an effort, and in struggling towards which they effected many a mournful failure. God never tells us to trust our moral instinct; God never assumed that the child could find its own way through a universe which it had darkened by its sin. He wrote down every line, made it complete; he wrote a detailed and complete specification of duty, service, action, and worship; if any of us have outlived the mere letter and need it no more, praised be God for a spiritual education which has delivered us from the bondage of the letter and led us into a nobler bondage of the heart, a sweet servitude of the soul, a glorious slavery, a glorious liberty.


Verses 20-23

The Angel In Life

Exodus 23:20-33

Laws without angels would turn life into weary drudgery. Life has never been left without some touch of the Divine presence and love. From the very first this has been characteristic of our history. When our first parents were cast out of the garden, the Lord said, "The seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent." That was a prophecy, bright as an angel, comforting as a gospel, spoken from heaven. The difficulty is that we will interfere with the personality of the Angel; we will concern ourselves about his figure and name. Instead of accepting the ministry, and answering a great and solemn appeal addressed to our noblest faculties, we ask the little questions of prying and often profane curiosity. It would seem to be our nature to spoil everything. We take the instrument to pieces to find the music, instead of yielding ourselves to the call of its blast, to the elevation of its inspiring gladness, and to the infinite tenderness of its benediction. We are cursed with the spirit of vain curiosity. We expend ourselves in the asking of little questions, instead of plunging into God"s great sea of grace, and love, and comfort, and waiting patiently for revelations which may address themselves to the curiosity which is premature, and to the prying which now can get no great answers. The solemn—the grand, fact Isaiah , that in our life there is an Angel, a spirit, a presence; a ministry without definite name and altogether without measurableness; a gracious ministry, a most tender and comforting service, always operating upon our life"s necessity and our heart"s pain. Let us rest in that conviction for a moment or two until we see how we can establish it by references to facts, experiences, consciousness against which there can be no witness. We prove some assumptions by the facts which flow from them. We can only establish the existence of some substances by grouping together the phenomena which they present. Into the substances themselves philosophy cannot penetrate; but philosophy can gather together the appearances, sometimes all the elements and effects which are grouped under the name of phenomena, and can reason from these groupings that there must be underneath some unknown, some unknowable substance which expresses itself in these superficial and visible appearances. So our assumption that there is an Angel ahead of us, a radiant light in advance, a heavenly presence in our whole life, may be established by references which appeal not to imagination only but to experience; and if we can establish such events we shall have also to establish the sublime doctrine that in the midst of humanity there is a light of Divinity, and at the head of all the truly upward advancing host of men goes the Angel appointed of God.

See how our life is redeemed from baseness by the assumption that an Angel is leading it. Who can believe that an Angel has been appointed to conduct a life which must end in the grave? The anticlimax is shocking; the suggestion is charged with the very spirit of profanity. We could not allow it in poetry; we should resent it in history; we should despise it in all dramatic compilations and representations. You must not yoke a steed of any blood in too small and mean a chariot; you degrade some horses of repute by sending them to do certain base and unworthy service. Is it not so with men also? Are there not men whose names are so lofty, so illustrious, that we could never consent to their doing certain actions too vulgar and low to be worthy of their brilliant repute? Does not the law admit of the highest and widest application? If an Angel is leading us, is he leading us to the grave? Surely it would not need an Angel to conduct us to that poor destiny! We could wander thither ourselves; the blind could lead us, and they that have no intelligence could plunge us into that dark pit. And we feel that we are not being led to the grave. It is possible that some of us may have so lived that the grave would be too good a destiny for us; but I speak of those who have tasted of the sweetness of true life, who have risen above the dreary round of mere existence, and who have tasted in ever so small a degree of the wine of immortality,—men who have felt throbs of infinite life, hearts that have been conscious of pulsings never started by human ingenuity, and such men shrink from the suggestion that all this life, so full of sacred possibility and gracious experience, should terminate in the gloom of the grave. Who says that life was not meant for the grave? The Angel. Whose ministry is a daily pledge against annihilation? The Angel"s. What is it within us that detests the grave, that turns away from it with aversion, that will not be sent into so lone and mean a prison? It is "the Divinity that stirs within us."

Then again, who could ask an Angel to be a guest in a heart given up to evil thoughts and purposes? Given the consciousness that an Angel is leading us, and instantly a series of preparations must be set up corresponding with the quality and title of the leading Angel of our pilgrimage. We prepare for some guests. According to the quality of the guest is the range and costliness of our preparation. Whom our love expects our love provides for. When we are longing for the coming one, saying, "The presence will make the house the sweeter and the brighter, and the speech will fill our life with new poetry and new hope. Oh, why tarry the chariot wheels?" then we make adequate—that is to say, proportionate—preparation. The touch of love is dainty, the invention of love is fertile, the expenditure of love is without a grudge or a murmur,—another touch must be given to the most delicate arrangement; some addition must be made to the most plentiful accommodation; love must run over the programme just once more to see that every line is worthily written. Then the front door must be opened widely, and the arms, and the heart, and the whole being to receive the guest of love. And that is so in the higher regions. If an Angel is going to lead me, the Angel must have a chamber in my heart prepared worthy of myself. Chamber!—nay, the whole heart must be the guest-room; he must occupy every corner of it, and I must array it with robes of purity and brightness that he may feel himself at home, even though he may have come from heaven to do some service for my poor life. Any appeal that so works upon every kind of faculty, upon imagination, conscience, will, force, must be an appeal that will do the life good. It calls us to perfectness, to preparedness, to a nobility corresponding in some degree with the nobility of the guest whom we entertain. If you please, you can fill your heart-house with mean occupants. There are evil visitants that will sit down in unprepared hearts and eat up your life a mouthful at a time. It lies within your power—not within your right—to make your heart-chamber the gathering place of evil things, evil thoughts, evil presences; but any conviction that would lead in that direction proves its own baseness, lies beyond the circle of argument, and is not to be treated seriously by earnest men. Now it is the distinguishing characteristic of Bible-teaching that it wants clean hearts, large hearts, ample entertainment, noble thoughts, sweet patience, complete sacrifice, having in it the pledge of final and eternal resurrection. Any book offering such suggestions of Angel presences, radiant leaderships, Divine associations, proves its own goodness, and its own inexpressible value.

Suppose, however, that in our obstinacy and narrowness of mind we hesitate to accept the suggestion of a living Angel, we lose nothing of all the gracious meaning of the text by substituting other terms. We have to grow up to the apprehension of Angelhood; but the stages of growth can be marked by common terms, and so the growth can be proved to be possible. Many a life has in it a memory playing the part of an Angel, a recollection full of tenderness, a reminiscence that lures the life forward little by little up steep places and through lone and dark valleys. Some might call such a memory an Angel. Why not? It discharges the offices of a blessed minister, it redeems life from despair, it fills life with gracious encouragement, it nourishes life in times of destitution and dejection. Now whilst some minds may be unable to accept the transcendental suggestion of Angel ministry, it is a poor mind—hardly to be reasoned with—that cannot conceive the idea that a memory, a recollection, a vow, an oath, may play an inspiring part in human education, and may save men from evil deeds in the time of tremendous temptation. We all have memories of that blessed kind. We know the vow we spoke, the oath we took, the pledge we gave, the word that passed from us and became solemn by sanctions that could not be remitted except at the expense of the soul"s integrity. Yet we have killed many an Angel. What slaughter we have left behind us! Stains redder than blood show the awful track our lives have made. Mark Antony pointed put the various rents in the robe of the murdered Caesar, and identified each rent with the name of the cruel smiter. So we could do with the robe of our own lives. See where the dewy pureness of young prayer lies mangled; see where the holiest oath of obedience lies with a gashed throat which can never be healed; see where purposes chaste as mountain snow lie murdered and forgotten; see where words of honour plighted at last interviews in whispers softened by tears lie crushed, contemned and mocked,—gather up all the images, the facts, and the proofs, which memory will accumulate, and, as you look upon the hideous heap, regard it as God"s Angel, unheeded, degraded, murdered! Thus we do not escape the pressure of the argument by refusing to accept the supernatural term angel; we do not elude the critical judgment by endeavouring to run away from appearances which are charged with such high titles as Spirit, Angel, Divine minister. We have to answer appeals formed in terms of our own creation. Our common speech itself gathers up into an expression of judgment, and if we imagine that we have never seen an Angel or resented his ministry, we have to account for it that our memory, our vow, our plighted word, our testimonies spoken to the dying, have been forgotten, neglected, abandoned, disavowed; and when we have answered a lower appeal we may be prepared to reply to the challenge which sounds upon us with a more terrific thunder from higher places.

The Divine presence in life, by whatever name we may distinguish it, is pledged to two effects, supposing our spirit and our conduct to be right. God undertakes our cause as against our enemies. Would we could leave our enemies in his hands! I do not now speak altogether of merely human enemies—because where there is enmity between man and Prayer of Manasseh , though it never can be justified, yet it admits of such modification in the system of words as to throw responsibility upon both sides—but I speak of other enemies,—the enmity expressed by evil desire, by the pressure of temptation, by all the array against the soul"s health and weal of the principalities of the power of the air, the princes of darkness, the spirits of evil. Send the Angel to fight the Angel; let the Angel of Light fight the Angel of Darkness. We have no weapon of our own invention and manufacture fine enough to strike the subtle presence; but God is our Guardian. Are not his angels "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be the heirs of salvation"? Sometimes we in our own human personality have not to fight, we have to stand still and see the salvation of God,—to stand back in God"s eternity and say, "The battle is not mine, but thine; I cannot fight these dark ones; I cannot strike these presences, for they elude all weapons at my disposal: undertake for me and I will stand hands down waiting to see the outworking of thy redemption." If we had more faith we should have fewer enemies; if we had more trust in God we should have less anxiety about our foes. We must not encounter the serpent alone; we must not attempt to find answers in the ingenuity of our own minds to the plaguing challenges and temptations of the evil one. The enemies arrayed against us are not those of flesh and blood, or we might in some degree meet them, elude them, disappoint them,—we fight "not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world,"—what have we to oppose to these? The Angel—God"s Angel, the white-robed one,—and he by his holiness shall overthrow all evil, for it lies with the Lord to chase the darkness and with holiness to put down all iniquity.

The second effect to which the Divine presence in our life is pledged is that we shall be blessed with the contentment which is riches. God said he would take sickness away from the midst of his people: "There shall nothing cast their young, nor be barren, in thy land: the number of thy days I will fulfil." We must not be too literal, or here we shall miss the meaning. As we have been in danger of misinterpreting the term angel, we are equally in danger of misinterpreting the term sickness, or poverty, or the general word circumstances. We know nothing about these terms in the fulness of their meaning. We do but live an approximate life; we see hints and beginnings, not fruitions and completions. What will God do for us then?—He will give us a contented spirit. What does a contented spirit do for a man? It turns his poverty into wealth, his sickness into energy, his loss into gain; it gives him to feel that a man"s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth, but is a life hidden in the mystery of God"s own being. Thus we have mysteries amongst us which the common or carnal mind cannot understand. Man asking God"s blessing upon what appears to be unblest poverty,—men saying it is enough when we can discover next to nothing in the hand uplifted in recognition of Divine goodness. Thus we hear voices coming from the bed of affliction that have in them the subdued tones of absolute triumph; thus the sick-chamber is turned into the church of the house, and if we would recover from dejection, and repining, and sorrow, we must go to the bedside of affliction and learn there how wondrous is the ministry of God"s Angel, how perfecting and ennobling the influence of God"s grace.

The "hornets," spoken of in Exodus 23:28, must be taken figuratively. The Egyptian made as a symbol of princely quality and princely power the wasp and the bee. These were Egyptian symbols. Remembering the history of his people, going back to the period of their Egyptian bondage, seeing upon Egyptian banner, and fresco, and all manner of things royal, the image of the wasp and the bee, God said,—I will send hornets before thee that can do more than these painted things can possibly do: I will destroy by a power that cannot be controlled: I will kill armies by hornets, I will dissolve hosts by winds that are charged with elements that life cannot withstand; I will be thy friend. God does not fight with one weapon; God"s method cannot be predicted. The wind is his, and the pestilence, and the tempest, and many things that we cannot name or control, and they are all pledged to work in favour of the cause of righteousness and the white banner of truth. Thus our hearts may claim a great and solid comfort. We are not going through the wilderness alone. As Christians we believe in the guardianship of Christ. Our prayer is "Jesus, still lead on." Angel of the Covenant, let us feel assured of thy continued presence. Guide us with thine eye. The road is long, hard, and often inhospitable, but it is measured every inch, and no man could lengthen it. It is good for us to be sometimes in the wilderness; there we long for rest, there we sigh for companionship, there we mourn for one sight of flowers and one trill of birds carolling in the sunny air. The wilderness tames our passion, chastens our ambition, modifies our vanity: we can do nothing in sand; we cannot cool the fierce air; we cannot melt the rocks into streams of water. In the city man becomes boastful, there men outrun one another and get richer than their brethren; they spread themselves like green bay-trees; and fester in the noisomeness of unblest success; but in the waste of the wilderness, in the dead flats of affliction, in the monotony of sorrow, they learn how frail they are, how helpless, how dependent upon Angel ministries. Bless God for the wilderness; thank God for the long nights; be thankful that you have been in the school of poverty and have undergone the searching and testing of much discipline. Take the right view of your trials. You are nearer heaven for the graves you have dug if you have accepted bereavements in the right spirit; you are wiser for the losses you have bravely borne, you are nobler for all the sacrifices you have willingly completed. Sanctified affliction is an Angel that never misses the gate of heaven.


Verse 28

Hornets and Angels

Exodus 23:28; Exodus 33:2

God brake the ships of Tarshish with an east wind, a puff of breath. He told the east wind to seize their masts and torment them to their destruction. Dagon was thrown down upon his face, though he was locked up with the ark, and no hand was near him; yea, he was utterly broken to pieces so that he was not a god at all. How was this? The chariots of God are twenty thousand. Can you remember twenty thousand names? Can you venture to say, "This Isaiah , and this is not, one of the twenty thousand"? It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. A great wind battered the Armada of Spain in a critical moment in English history. Thus God has more resources than those which are merely human. We gather ourselves together as if we were all his belongings, as if he depended upon us alone, and we talk, and resolve, and organise, and go forth, as if the Lord had nothing else to depend upon. Mayhap that is partly right. A man may do more if he thinks that everything depends upon himself; but he should cheer himself, and bring great encouragement into his soul, by remembering the number of God"s chariots; they are twenty thousand. The stars in their courses fought against Sisera, and the stones of the field were covenanted to help those that feared the Lord. Nature helps, nature hinders, nature is God"s other self, and his chariots are twenty thousand strong. The Lord God is a sun and shield, he is a spear and buckler, he is a pavilion and a sanctuary. The lightnings gather themselves round him, and say, "Here we are"; his ministers are the frog and the fly, the hornet and the locust; the fiery flying serpent and the hidden viper, the child, the angel, poverty and plenty, are his servants; yea, all things praise the Lord by their sympathy and help, so much so that if we were to hold our tongues, the universe would not be silent. "I tell you that if these were to hold their peace, the very stones would cry out, for God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." He shall never want a minister to stand before his face. If so be thou art a minister, boast not thyself of thy ministry, for a hornet may take thy place, a frog may dispossess thee, and there may be none to find out thy footsteps. Be thankful, hopeful, energetic, glad; but boast not, for boasting hastens death.

The one thought that is to inspire us is that God has many ways of helping his people, likely and unlikely, but they are ways of his own choosing, and therefore they will end in success. Hornets and angels,—Are not the ministers of God both visible and invisible? The flying hornet you can see, but who can trace the angel in the air? Can you see the angel? He is there, notwithstanding your inability to descry him. You see the hornet. Ah! we are all quicker in seeing the hornet than in seeing the angel. Fie on us, shame on shame, till we be burnt with blushes. Can you see the angel? You cannot always tell what forces and ministries are fighting either for you or against you. We do not know the meaning of nature. She is a parable we have not fully read or understood; an eternal lesson, God"s perpetual illustration of himself. Oh that we had eyes to see and hearts to understand; for the library is always open, and the writing is always done by an angel"s hand.

A man says, "A curse on this hornet, this winged, stinging insect, only a large bee, only an exaggerated wasp—a curse on the thing. I dare not open my window, for it may fly in; I dare not go out, for it hovers near my door and may smite me with its cruel sting. It never sleeps, it seems ever to fill the sultry air." He does not know what he is talking about: he thinks it is an insect; he says: "Why did God make such a creature?"—ah, why? He calls it insect; when he has been longer at school he may call it minister of God, and servant of the Most High. He is fretted by its unceasing and energetic buzz; by-and-by he will hear music in it, a sad and terrible music. That hornet is sent of God to drive you out: it will not die; you have been doing wrong and it has come to punish you. That hornet is death, or loss, or pain, or bitterness of soul. That hornet is not a mere insect; it means judgment, penalty, retribution, death. I wish people would see the great meaning of things and not the little trifling suggestions.

I will tell you what to do with the hornet. Hear me—bad Prayer of Manasseh , hear me: I have a gospel for thee. Outrun it: thou hast two legs, two leaden feet—outrun the hornet. "I cannot." Then that will not do. Close your hand upon it. "I dare not." No, you dare not. Then that will not do. Bribe it: coat your window-sill with sugar, inches thick, and it will glut itself to death. "Aye, I will try that." Ah, it grows by what it feeds on. It is a stronger hornet for the sugar. It took your bribes and strengthened itself against you. I will tell you what to do: compromise with it, propose terms, negotiate, send a third party. "Oh bitter irony, oh mocking Prayer of Manasseh ," say you?—Yes, I mean to mock, for who can outrun the chariots of God? No, Sirach , no: stop, turn round, fall down, confess, pray; cry mightily to God to take the hornet back. That is the true gospel: hear it, and thou shalt live.

Then on the other hand there is a kind angel that can be nearly seen, and that can be almost heard, and that can be all but felt. Thank God for the things that are nearly, that are all but, that are just about to begin to be. Thank Heaven this verb of life is not all shut up in the indicative mood. Wondrous conjugation—indicative, potential, subjunctive, infinitive—how the verb grows; how the little "I Amos ," a child"s first mouthful, grows into the immeasurable eternity. Think of this kind angel, who is all but seen, who is so near as to be almost felt. You catch an aroma which he must have shaken from his wings. Bless God for these occasional hints, and touches, and blessings as we go on. The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him. Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?

Then remember the hornet will fight for you as well as against you. If you are in the right way, the hornet is your friend. It will pursue your enemies, it will bring them to reflection, it will drive them to repentance, it will force them to prayer. That hornet never dies. My God, my Father, follow not my enemies with the hornet, if gentler means will bring them to their senses; but bring them to their senses, even if it take the hornet to do it.

Hornets and angels—are not the agencies of God both humble and illustrious? See the contrast, the flying insect and the flying angel, yet they are both the messengers of Heaven. Suppose them to meet one another in the summer air—what a talk they might have! Saith the hornet, "Why does he send me when he has servants like you who can do his work so much better than I, poor winged insect, charged indeed with a sting, can do?" Saith the angel, "Why am I not employed in studying the deeper problems of the universe, when little mean insects like this could go about the work of visitation, and penalty, and judgment?" Then they catch the Divinity of the purpose, they realise their election in God, and they say, "He doeth as it pleaseth him in the armies of heaven and among the children of men. There is no meanness in doing his work. His household is infinite and his servants are many—away, sting the enemy, bless the friend, let the decree of punishment be confirmed, and let the gospel of benediction be proclaimed." So away they go, hornet and angel, to carry out the will of just but clement Heaven. Beware: the angels of God and the hornets are both his servants.

Hornets and angels—are not God"s agencies material and immaterial? Of matter and of spirit doth he not make his ministers? The hornet is of the earth, the angel is of the skies; the hornet is from below, the angel is from above. There are no barren spaces in God"s universe. All that great sky, on which you have never driven your small vehicles—beginning in your little baby"s cart, and ending in your last hearse-ride to the gaping tomb—all that blue ground, what is it but an armoury in which he stores his resources? All things are his; all things are mine it I be in him: if I am in Christ all things are mine: death, life, angels, principalities, powers, past, present, future—all, for I am Christ"s and Christ is God"s. Oh, hide thee in the broken heart of Christ, shelter thee in his wounded side: do not be living in thy little mean propositions, and small theories, and miserable dogmas, and noisy controversies—hide thee in the bleeding side of the wounded Lamb of God. Then all things that fought for him will fight for me, and if I do not fight, but stand still and suffer, draw no sword for me: thinkest thou not that I could pray to my Father, and he would give me more than twelve legions of angels to defend me wherein I am right, and am hidden in his Son Jesus Christ?

Has there been a hornet in your estate lately? I wonder what it meant. Why cannot you kill that hornet? It comes by every post. You dare not open that letter—there is a hornet in it It comes by many a telegram. You dare not open the third telegram you get to-morrow—there is a hornet in it. When life is sharpened into a pain, when loss swiftly succeeds loss, when the rich showers fall everywhere except on our own garden, when every flower withers, when the firstborn sickens and the eyes are filled with mist, when the strong hands tremble—men should bethink themselves: the hornet of the Lord is then piercing the very air with its sting, puncturing our life and giving it great agony. Do not call it insect; call it God—do not call it misfortune—let the atheist use up that same inheritance; it is not misfortune, it is—Providence. Oh, the hornet stings me, frets me, plagues me; will not let me have a holiday, knows when I am going out, flies faster than the lightning express, waits for me at the seashore, goes with me over the sea.—Beast?—no: God, law, righteousness, mercy, didst thou but know it. It is sent to pain thee into prayer, for thou hast sinned away thy visitation day, and now it is God"s turn. Lord, teach us the meaning of these hornets; they are hard to bear. We dare hardly turn over any leaf for fear a hornet should spring up and sting us: our life is now one daily fear—teach us the meaning of this, and by prayer may we find the remedy.

Has there been an angel in your estate lately? I say it with shame that we are much quicker in seeing the hornet than in seeing the angel; our cry is readier than our hymn, our fear is more emphatic than our love. Is the angel in your estate? Do you say you do not know? Then I will find him for you. Be still awhile. Are the children all well? "Yes." Flowers budding, singing-birds returning, the rain over and gone? "Yes; but the garden is much less than it used to be." A few flowers in the window? "Just a little box full, about eighteen inches long." Still, you have them? "Yes." Bread enough? "Plenty." A few friends? "Few, but good." The angel is in your lot. Give these things their highest meanings. There are plenty of people outside who would drag down life and make it smaller and smaller in its meanings. I would be sent of God to widen speech till it takes in all that it can of God"s purpose and God"s life. Poetry will have faith; faith itself is the poetry of reason; carry it up to its highest uses, and make your life as large and luminous as you can.

There are some people who are afraid of giving too great meanings to the events of life. There they get miserably wrong. When the ruddy morning comes, do not be afraid to call it the awakening angel. There are people near you who will call it fantasy; those people are lean, bony, shrivelled, dessicated, mean; and when they tell you that this is fantasy, and that is poetry, they speak out of themselves: they have no gospel to deliver. If thou dost meet a man on the high-road who takes up a flower and says, " Sirach , this flower is a child of the sun," make friend of him rather than of the man who takes it up and says, "Ah, poor thing," and throws it over the fence. When spring spreads her green carpet and makes the warm air live with wordless Song of Solomon , do not be afraid to call it God"s angel. There be little, narrow, pence-table men who say, "It is spring, and there is rent day in spring, and there is hope of good trade in spring, and spring is one of four seasons of the year, and spring begins on the sixth and ends on the twentieth, and spring.... is nothing more."

So God rules his world. "I will send hornets before thee, and they will drive out the Hivite and all the nations that set themselves against thee. I will not send angels to fight the Hivites: let the hornets do it. And I will send an angel before thee, and he will find thee a resting-place, space for the sanctuary, and he will give thee peace." Great God! rule us still; spare the hornets, we cannot bear them, but send the hornets, if nothing else will bring us home.

"I will send," saith the first text, "I will send," saith the second. Then do not you be sending anything; sit still; I am afraid of your sending things. "I will send hornets,"—then do not you be sending your nasty, bitter, cantankerous letters, keep your hands off post-cards, do not write anonymous slanders on sheets of paper you borrow from other people. "I will send," then do not interfere with God"s movements. He knows when to send, how to send, how many to send, where to send—let him do it. "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord." No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper. I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay-tree. Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not: yea, I sought him, but he could not be found. I have seen the great gourd of the wicked arching over his blasphemous head—lo, in the morning it was not. Why? For God prepared a worm—a worm, and the worm cankered the root of the gourd, and it withered away. Send angels if you can—live as if you would send ten thousand angels, sweet blessings, tender gospels, messages of the heart. You live in that direction, and some day God will pick you up in one of his chariots and drive you to the very camp of your enemies and show you unto them as their true friend. I will stand in God; I will rest in God.

Let the hornet do its work; let the angel fulfil his ministry. God"s people cannot be permanently injured; and as for God"s Church, it shall be set up on foundations broad and immovable, and all its glowing pinnacles shall pierce the clouds, and God"s will shall be done on earth as it is done in heaven.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 23:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/exodus-23.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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