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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Numbers 14

 

 

Verses 1-25

Irreligious Fears

Numbers 13 , Numbers 14:1-25

God gives no speculative commands. When he said—"Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel," he meant that the land of Canaan was to be given to Israel whatever difficulties or delays might occur in the process of acquisition. There is no if in the commandments of Heaven that may mean either of two courses or either of two ways. God says,—You shall have this, if you are faithful. But the if relates to the human mind and to the human disposition, and not to the solidity and certainty of the divine purpose or decree. This is true in morals. Along the line that is laid down in the Bible, which is called, happily and properly, the line of salvation, heaven is found—not the mean heaven of selfish indulgence and selfish complacency and release from mere toil and pain, but the great heaven of harmony with God, identification with the Spirit divine, complete restfulness in the movement of the infinite purpose. There will be difficulties on the road; these difficulties will assume various proportions, according to the dispositions of the men who survey them; but the Lord does not propose to give the end without, by implication, proposing also to find the grace and comfort necessary for all the process. We are not at liberty to stop at processes as if they were final points; we have nothing to do with processes but to go through them; the very call to attempt them is a pledge that they may be overcome. But these processes test the quality of men. It is by such processes that we are revealed to ourselves. If everything came easily as a mere matter of course, flowing in sequence that is never disturbed, we should lose some of the highest advantages of this present time school. We are made strong by exercise; we are made wise by failure; we are chastened by disappointment; driven back again and again six days out of the seven, we are taught to value the seventh day the more, that it gives us rest, and breathing time, and opportunity to consider the situation, so that we may begin another week"s battle with a whole Sabbath day"s power. To some the processes of life are indeed hard; let us never underrate them. Men are not cheered when the difficulties of the way are simply undervalued. No man can sympathise with another until he has learned the exact weight of the other man"s trouble and the precise pain of his distress. There is a rough and pointless comfort which proceeds upon the principle that you have only to underrate a man"s trials—to make them look as little and contemptible as possible—in order to invigorate his motive and to increase his strength. That is a profound mistake. He can sympathise best who acknowledges that the burden is heavy and the back weak, and the road is long, and the sky dull, and the wind full of ominous moaning;—granted that the sympathising voice can say all this in a tone of real appreciation, it has prepared the listener for words of cheer and inspiration—healthy, sound, intelligent courage. This is just the way of the Bible; it recognises the human lot in all its length and breadth; it addresses itself to circumstances which it describes with adequate minuteness and with copious and pathetic eloquence.

Here you find a number of men, such as live in all ages, who are crushed by material considerations. They report that the people of the country which they were sent to search were "strong," their cities were "walled and very great," and the population was made up of the Anakim—the "giants," the towering and mighty sons of Anak; they reported that some dwelt in "the south," and some "in the mountains," and some "by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan." This was a mean report, it was hardly a report at all,—so nearly may a man come to speak the truth, and yet not to be truthful, so wide is the difference between fact and truth. Many a book is true that is written under the name of fiction; many a book is untrue that lays claim only to the dry arguments of statistics and schedules. Truth is subtle; it is a thing of atmosphere, perspective, unnameable environment, spiritual influence. Not a word of what the truth says may have occurred in what is known as within the boundaries of any individual experience. The fact relates to an individuality; the truth relates to a race. A fact is an incident which occurred; a truth is a gospel which is occurring throughout all the ages of time. The men, therefore, who reported about walled cities, and tall inhabitants, and mountain refuges, and fortresses by the sea, confined themselves to simply material considerations; they overlooked the fact that the fortress might be stronger than the soldier, that the people had nothing but figure, and weight, and bulk, and were destitute of the true spirit which alone is a guarantee of sovereignty of character and conquest of arms. But this is occurring every day. Again and again we come upon terms which might have been written this very year. We are all men of the same class, with an exceptional instance here and there; we look at walls, we receive despatches about the stature of the people and the number of their fortresses, and draw very frightsome and terrible conclusions concerning material resources, forgetting in our eloquent despatches the only thing worth telling, namely: that if we were sent by Providence and are inspired by the Living God and have a true cause and are intent to fight with nobler weapons than gun and sword, the mountains themselves shall melt whilst we look upon them, and they who inhabit the fortresses shall sleep to rise no more. This is what we must do in life—in all life—educational, commercial, religious. We have nothing to do with outsides and appearances, and with resources that can be totalled in so many arithmetical figures; we have to ascertain, first, Did God send us? and secondly, if he sent us, to feel that no man can drive us back. If God did not send us, we shall go down before the savage; if God is not in the battle, it cannot and ought not to succeed, and failure is to be God"s answer to our mean and unrighteous and untimely prayer. Who is distressed by appearances? Who is afraid because the labour is very heavy? What young heart quails because the books which lie upon the road which terminates in the temple of wisdom are many in number and severe in composition? We are called to enter the sanctuary of wisdom and of righteousness; therefore we must take up the books as a very little thing and master them, and lay them down, and smile at the difficulties which once made us afraid.

But one man at least spoke up and said,—We must go; this thing is to be done:—"Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it." Was Caleb, then, a giant—larger than any of the sons of Anak? Was he a Hercules and a Samson in one? Was his arm so terrific that every stroke of it was a conquest? We are not told so; the one thing we are told about Caleb is that he was a man of "another spirit." That determines the quality of the man. Character is a question of spirit. It is an affair of inward and spiritual glow. Caleb had been upon the preliminary search; Caleb had seen the walls, and the Anakim, and the fortresses, and he came back saying,—We can do this, not because we have so many arms only or so many resources of a material kind—but because he was a man of "another spirit." In the long run, spirit wins; in the outcome of all history, spirit will be uppermost. The great battles of life are not controversies of body against body, but, as far as God is in them, they are a question of spirit against body, thought against iron, prayer against storming and blustering of boastful men. While the cloud hangs over the field, and the dust of the strife is very thick, and the tumult roars until it deafens those who listen, we cannot see the exact proportions, colours, and bearings of things; but if we read history instead of studying the events of the day which have not yet settled themselves into order and final meaning, we shall discover that spirit is mightier than body, that "knowledge is power," that "righteousness exalteth a nation," and that they who bear the white banner of a pure cause ultimately triumph because God is with them.

How little the people had grown! They hear of the walled cities, and the great towns, and the tall men—the Amalekites, and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and they lifted up their voices and wept—and wept all night! You have only to make noise enough in the ears of some men to make them afraid; you have simply to keep on repeating a catalogue of names, and they think you are reciting the resources of almightiness; mention one opposition, and possibly they may overcome the suggestion of danger: but have your mouth well-filled with hostile names and be able to roll off the catalogue without halt or stammer, and you pour upon the fainting heart a cataract which cannot be resisted. The people had grown but little: they were still in the school of fear; they were still in the desert of despair; they were childish, cowardly, spiritless; they had no heart for prayer; they forgot the only thing worth remembering, the pledge and covenant of God. Let us not condemn them. It is easy to condemn ancient Israelites and forgotten unbelievers. How stands the case with us? Precisely as it stood with the people of whom we are now reading. We are not an inch ahead of them. Christians are to-day just as fearful as the children of Israel were thousands of years ago: they have only to hear of certain bulks, forces, sizes, Numbers , in order to quail as if they had never heard of the Eternal God. Would to Heaven we could make an exchange as between such people and some Song of Solomon -called infidels we know! The infidels would make better Christians. There is more reality in them, more firmness, more standing right up to the line of conviction. He who prays, and then fears, brings discredit upon the altar at which he prayed; he who talks of the promises of God, and then lives in subjection to the devil, is worse than an infidel.

What wonder that God himself was filled with contempt towards the people whom he had thus far led? He would slay them; he would "smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them"; he would root up the root of Abraham and begin a new people in the spirit and life of Moses; he would start from a new centre; he would obliterate the past: he would begin afresh to-morrow.

"And Moses said unto the Lord, Then the Egyptians shall hear it, (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them;) And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one Prayer of Manasseh , then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying, Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness" ( Numbers 14:13-16).

What book but the Bible has the courage to represent a man standing in this attitude before his God and addressing his Sovereign in such persuasive terms? This incident brings before us the vast subject of the collateral considerations which are always operating in human life. Things are not straight and simple, lying in rows of direct lines to be numbered off, checked off and done with. Lines bisect and intersect and thicken into great knots and tangle, and who can unravel or disentangle the great heap? Things bear relations which can only be detected by the imagination, which cannot be compassed by arithmetical Numbers , but which force upon men a new science of calculation, and create a species of moral algebra, by which, through the medium and help of symbols, that is done which was impossible to common arithmetic. Moses was a great leader; he thought of Egypt: what will the enemy say? The enemy will put a false construction upon this. As if he had said,—This will be turned against Heaven; the Egyptians do not care what becomes of the people, if they can laugh at the Providence which they superstitiously trusted; the verdict passed by the heathen will be:—God was not able to do what he promised, so he had recourse to the vulgar artifice of murder. The Lord in this way developed Moses. In reality, Moses was not anticipating the divine purpose, but God was training the man by saying what Hebrews , the Lord, would do, and by the very exaggeration of his strength called up Moses to his noblest consciousness. We do this amongst ourselves. By using a species of language adapted to touch the innermost nerve and feeling of our hearers, we call those hearers to their best selves. If the Lord had spoken a hesitant language, or had fallen into what we may call a tone of despair, Moses himself might have been seduced into a kindred dejection; but the Lord said, I will smite, I will disinherit, I will make an end; and Moses became priest, intercessor, mighty pleader,—the very purpose which God had in view—to keep the head right, the leading man in tune with his purposes. So Moses said, "Pardon"; the Lord said, "Smite"; and Moses said, "Pardon "—that is the true smiting. The Lord meant it; the Lord taught Moses that prayer which Moses seemed to invent himself. The Lord trains us, sometimes, by shocking our sensibilities; and by the very denunciation of his judgments he drives us to tenderer prayer.

How stands our own case in relation to this? We deserve divine contempt: we are frail and spiritless and mean; we shun danger; we are afraid of the damp night; we want to be let alone; if it is possible to die without fighting, let us die in the wilderness; if we can escape danger, we prefer to turn over upon our couch and to slumber away into death and oblivion. Where is the aggressive spirit amongst Christians? Men have gone out to search the land, and they have brought back this report: that the land is a land of darkness: the land is a land of shame: there are thousands upon thousands of people dying of starvation, perishing for lack of knowledge, contemning the sanctuary, shut up in avenues and alleys and back places into which the daintiest civilisation dare not go: rough men given to drunkenness, bestiality and cruelty: women who are concealing their beauty under distress and poverty and manifold shame: children who have never heard the divine name or been invited to the divine table. Christians are few in number; the devil"s army is an infinite host, dwelling in great cities walled and very strong, and the devil"s men are of heroic proportion; their language is strong and definite; their habits have in them no touch of fear; they are valiant in their master"s cause: they care not whether they swear, whether they drink, whether they do the foul and forbidden deed of unrighteousness and untruthfulness. The Church says,—Let us sing an evening hymn and go home by the quiet way, and sigh ourselves into any heaven that may be ready to take us; do not be sensational; do not attempt anything novel or unusual; let us be quit of all things; and if we can get home by sneaking along the eaves of the houses and in the shady part of the road so that nobody may see us, do let us sing the evening hymn and go to rest. Is there no Caleb? Is there no Joshua? Is there no man of "another spirit" to say, Let us go up at once, when we are well able to overcome it? In whose strength? In God"s. By whose armour? God"s. The battle is not yours, but God"s. The one thing we have dropped out of our calculations is—Almightiness.


Verses 1-45

Religious Explanation of Failure

Numbers 14:43

Even that is a word of comfort. The comfort is not far to fetch, even from the desert of this stern fact. The comfort is found in the fact that the Lord will be with those who have not turned away from him. The law operates in two opposite ways. Law is love, when rightly seized and applied; and love is law, having all the pillars of its security and all the dignity of its righteousness to support it in all the transitions of its experience. The reason why we fail is that God has gone from us. Putting the case Song of Solomon , we put it wrongly. God has not gone from us: we have gone from God. What we want is more plain speaking to ourselves. Until a man can see the word CRIMINAL written in capital letters upon the very centre of his heart, and can spell the word, pronouncing each letter with tremulous deliberation, and uttering the whole word with broken-hearted-ness, he does not begin to touch the gate which opens upon the kingdom of heaven. He must not apply the word sinner to himself too familiarly, because it is a common name; it is an appellation written upon the whole belt of the world, and can therefore be used with vague generality. The term is right enough: it is a necessary term; but it must be so personalised and accentuated and driven home that there can be no mistake about the individuality of its application. When we see the sin, we will cry for the Saviour. The Church is nothing without its godliness; it is less than nothing: it is not only the negation of strength, it is the utter and most helpless weakness. Israel was the Church in the wilderness, and Israel was nothing without its God. The number might be six hundred thousand fighting men, and they would go down like a dry wooden fence before a raging fire, if the Lord was not in the midst. They were not men without him. The Church lives, moves, and has its being in God—not in some high or deep metaphysical sense only, but in the plain and obvious sense of the terms: that it has no being or existence outside God. When it forgets to pray, it loses the art of war; when the Church forgets to put on the beautiful garments of holiness, though it be made up of a thousand Samsons, it cannot strike one fatal blow at the enemy. Let us understand this with some clearness. The Church is assembled, say, a thousand strong; but if every man in that thousand has turned from the Living God, what does the thousand account for in battle? For nothing! Ceasing to be godly, they cease to be men, in any sense significant of devotion, energy and successful application of resources. They were only made men by their goodness; it was only while they prayed that they stood upright; whilst the hymn was singing in their hearts and outpouring itself from their grateful lips, they were men who could fight and win, every stroke being a victory, but when they left off their religion, or their religious loyalty, they did not become as other men; it is impossible to fall back into the common quantity of human nature after having been in heaven: the fall is deeper than that. When Lucifer fell, he fell into a bottomless pit: wherever he Isaiah , he is falling now. So the Christian professor, having turned aside from God, does not become an ordinary man and take his old place in society, and be just as he used to be in the old times when he never prayed or confessed the holy Name. We do not fall back upon our old selves: we fall into perdition. The Church is not a club, nor is it so much physical force, nor is it, in any technical sense, a mere army of men drawn up in battle array, equal to the fight, whatever their principles may be. Again and again let it be said, till the densest heart responds to the tremendous appeal, the Church has no existence apart from its godliness. It is constituted upon divine foundations; it is animated by divine impulses; it is inspired by divine motives; it is protected by divine security. A Church that has lost its faith has lost itself. You cannot have an unbelieving Church, a faithless Church: when the faith has gone, the Church has gone. Were there not, then, a thousand men of Israel against a thousand men of Amalek? No; the thousand men of Israel had no existence but for God. They represented an idea, a kingdom, a divine purpose, a theocracy,—a wholly new thought in the universe; and apart from that, they became minus quantities. A thousand men of Israel were a thousand men plus God. Men cannot lose their godliness and keep their character. A man who has once really prayed can never go back to the common speech of men and be as if he had never prayed when he goes back; the common speech becomes profanity in lips which have forsworn their own oath. You cannot take the statistics of the Church. You cannot be numbering men and saying,—The Church is thus and Song of Solomon , as to quantity, force, and influence. The Church lives upon bread the world knoweth not of. Count the Church by the volume of its prayer; register the strength of the Church by the purity and completeness of its consecration. If you number the Church in millions, and tell not what it is at the altar and at the cross, you have returned the census of a cemetery, not the statistics of a living, mighty, invincible host. Genius is nothing, learning is nothing, organisation is a sarcasm and an irony,—apart from that which gives everyone of them value and force—the praying heart, the trustful spirit. The Church conquers by holiness. There is an answer to grammar; there is no reply to self-sacrifice. Men may smite theology of a formal and scientific kind, or may render its existence a perpetual risk; but there is no answer to the love which hopeth all things, endureth all things,—love which is mightiest when the clouds are darkest, and most redeeming when the sin is most complete.

We shall conquer the Amalek world when we have conquered our own hearts. God does not fight for nominal believers. Israel represented nominal religion. The Amalekite and the Canaanite would be represented as peoples of heathenish relations and conditions, and Israel would be represented as the people of God. But the Lord will not fight the battles of nominal believers. By the very righteousness which makes him God he prefers an honest idolater to a dishonest nominalist. That is a thought which should make us consider our position. An idolater may be honest; but a professing Christian, if not faithful to his profession, is not merely unfaithful: there is no term that can describe the turpitude of his wickedness. The Lord will make Amalek conqueror and send down the Canaanite to burn the dry stubble of prayerless Israel:—"the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and smote them, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah"—men that might have been beaten back by a hand that was true to Heaven. It is right that the heathen should conquer when the Church is unfaithful. It is solemnly right that the heathen should mock the land that sends out missionaries one day and doers of all evil the next, if not in the same ship. What wonder if the heathen laugh at the missionary when they see immediately behind him the man who is to undo all that the Christian evangelist attempts to accomplish? It may be rough logic—it may be reason in which many a flaw can be found by penetrating minds; but it is. not to be wondered at, considering the nature of heathenism and the intuitions of common sense. You have no right to ask God to go with you merely as a convenience. Amalek is in sight, the Canaanite is on the alert, the walls are thick with the enemy—Lord help us!—that is a coward"s prayer, and Heaven will be empty to that cry; the shout will dissolve in echoes, because the heart is not faithful towards God. Who does not make a convenience of his religion? What coward is there who does not pray when he wants fine weather for the wedding at which he will make a sot of himself? Or who does not pray because a spirit—dim, spectral, black—is in the air, and may any moment alight upon the roof or quench the household fire? But the prayers of the wicked are an abomination unto the Lord. The air is vexed with cries of atheistic distress which want to ennoble themselves into momentary prayer.

Moses told the people of Israel exactly how the case stood, "and the people mourned greatly"; and afterwards they said they would go up, and Moses replied, "Go not up, for the Lord is not among you; that ye be not smitten before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites are there before you, and ye shall fall by the sword"—your only safety is in not going up;—but the people "presumed to go up unto the hill top." They thought they were still men, though they had turned away from God. Not one of us could live a moment but for the mercy of Heaven. We have no "selves" in any sense significant of independence and self-invigoration and self-renewal; we are God"s offspring. As well let the little grass-blade leap up out of its green bed and say it will live, without rooting itself in the earth or warming itself at the sun, as for us to say we will live, in any profound and immortal sense, without dependence upon the mercy and redeeming help and grace of God. We are in danger of living lives of presumption. Surely, we think, God will not remember that we have not paid him our tribute of prayer. Surely, in all the streams of praise continually flying towards his throne as towards the centre of the universe, he will not miss our little rill of adoration and confession. So we deceive ourselves. We presume: we say we will take our chance: we will go out under all circumstances, and see what can be done,—and, behold, we have put our sickle into a field of darkness, and if we bring back aught with us, we bring back sheaves of fog. There is no life without God, no true fighting without faith, no lasting conquest that does not express the righteousness that accomplished it.

The picture is most graphic. There was only a hill between Israel and the land of promise. One stony mountain or range of hills. Surely, the space being so small some concession will be made to Israel? If God could concede one inch to the bad Prayer of Manasseh , he could concede all heaven. No concessions are made to unbelief. This religious life is not a matter of proportions; we do not come into fraction and decimal here, and throw things in as if they were of no consequence. A ship may go down within ten feet of the shore; the vessel that has come proudly over the main may be wrecked in the channel. There is to be no intermission of service; no space is to be accounted trifling; no action is to be regarded as of but secondary consequence. There are no days off duty. May not a man pray six days and do what he will on the seventh? It is morally impossible. The law is one, goodness is one, loyalty is one. This is not a theological mystery: this is a simple matter of daily experience and personal proof. We cannot love our friend six days out of the seven and disregard him on the seventh. If it is impossible in human relations, how can it be possible in divine relations? Love makes all the week into a Sabbath day. Faithfulness accounts that every moment of time is due to those with whom we have covenanted as to its duties and its remuneration. Find a man who can say,—This is but one hour taken from the service which I have pledged and for which I have been paid—and you find a thief. Find a man who will take ten minutes to do a piece of work which he could easily have done in five, and will receive payment for it, or set up a right founded upon it, and you find a felon—the deadlier that the magistrate cannot lay hold upon him. These are the truths we must trust; this is the standard by which we must measure ourselves. Measuring ourselves by ourselves, who is not respectable—passable at least?—who is not upon something like an equality with his brother? But measuring ourselves by the divine standard, who would not run away into the darkness, finding his heart-ache intolerable, and his self-reproach like a scorching fire? "What I say unto one I say unto all," said Christ, "Watch!" "Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." After a long life of devoted labour, see that ye be not lost at the very last by a remission of discipline, by lightening of duty, and by the curtailment of prayer. Having come proudly, as to divine reliance, over a thousand miles of water, see that there be no collision at the last for want of watchfulness, no breakdown for want of self-criticism. We must complete the journey; we cannot get off a few miles before the appointed landing-place. We are called to discipline. We can keep our learning, our genius, our intellectual energy, our marvellous mental capacity, and can do all kinds of conjuring with the imagination and with the tongue, and may appear unto men to be as we have ever been—(society is easily deceived)—but if we have put out the altar fire which no eye can see—if we have let the temperature of love go down—if we begin to calculate where once we were delighted to serve—if we begin to set up an argument where once we built a cross,—we may go out to fight Amalek, but the heathen will laugh at us, and the men against whom we are pitted will have us in derision. We are nothing without God; but we can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth us.

Prayer

Almighty God, we cannot do the whole law. We have tried. One man said unto thee,—All these things have I done from my youth up. We have not done one of them; we have spoiled the whole law. We have done what we liked, and we have left undone that which we disliked. We have been partially good, but not good in the root of us, in the inner heart, in the place where the true life lives. We have a chamber of imagery in our hearts; we know the way down to it, though no other man knows of its existence. The whole head is sick; the whole heart is faint; both hands are criminals; and as for our feet, they have been swift to run in the evil way. We are clever in wickedness: we have great ability in serving the devil; but to serve God rightly, truly, constantly—who hath found it possible? God be merciful unto us sinners! Yet it is something to know that we have been ill-behaved, it is worth knowing that we have done the things we ought not to have done. We would be contrite—really brokenhearted; we would come without plea, defence, excuse—extenuation of any kind and say,—We have done the things we ought not to have done; we have left undone the things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us. Have mercy, thou living Christ of God! Thou hast shown us how we may begin again; thou art always giving the soul new opportunities. If we confess our sins, thou art faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We will try to confess—not with our lips, for that is worthless, but with our hearts; we will let our souls talk; we will call upon our spirits to accuse themselves, and to deny their claim to any virtue, or comeliness, or beauty. There is none righteous, no not one. All we like sheep have gone astray: we have turned every one to his own way. We have been mistaken altogether; we have lived in ill-reasoning, and we have perpetrated innumerable mistakes. Beside all this, our heart is wrong: we are rotten at the core. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. The work must be done in the heart, and thou alone canst do it. We will not marvel that thou sayest,—Ye must be born again. We know it; that is right; we answer thy declaration with a great shout of acquiescence, full of tears and sobs. Lord, give us the Holy Ghost! spare not the gift divine! Not by works of righteousness which it is possible for us to do, but according to thy mercy must thou save us, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Ghost. This is God"s doing; this is the miracle of the Holy Spirit Encourage us. Thou couldest overwhelm us with despair, and so the enemy might get great advantage over us; but even in our faraway wandering, and in our obstinacy of heart, send some message after us saying the house-door is still open and Christ is mighty to redeem. Amen.


Verse 21

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"As truly as I live all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord."Numbers 14:21

No bolder word was ever uttered even by a Christian apostle.—This prediction is founded upon the philosophy of the principles which it represented; that is to say such is the adaptation of divine thought to human need, that it must in the long run put down all competition, and prove itself to be the one thought which is full of rational satisfaction.—It is not to be supposed that one set of principles is to get the better of some other set, as the result of a kind of pitched battle in which the one side has been cleverer than the other.—Christianity is to triumph by virtue of its adaptation to every necessity of human need.—By addressing itself to the experience of mankind, by waiting with long patience for a full reception into the heart, and an honest trial in the life, by answering questions which no other religion can settle, and in every way to the ministry of thought, Christianity will show itself to be the one religion which abundantly covers the whole space of human necessity.—Other religions address themselves to races or kingdoms, to particular climates and modes of life; Christianity looks abroad upon the whole earth and proposes one blessing, the blessing of adoption and pardon for every member of the human race.—The promise seems to be founded upon the very constitution of God: the terms are, "As truly as I live"; this is not a mere exclamation, or a varied form of oath, least of all is it a rhetorical embellishment; it would seem to be that the filling of the whole earth with the glory of God is a necessity of the very nature of God.—God is love; God is light; love and light have undertaken to fill the whole earth with beauty and splendour.—This is not the God of a mechanician who does so much work for so much reward, and who is willing to do a directly opposite work for higher compensation; it is the ministry of love, the energy of light, and the pressure of eternity.—God will have all things like himself.—He is holy, he is good, he is wise, and what he is he means all responsible creatures to be in their degree.—The Christian worker is to conduct his service under the inspiration of this prediction.—He is not to look at temporary discouragements, or vexatious details, or personal infirmity, or the supposed strength of an enemy; he is to stand upon the rock of divine promise, and daily sustain his confidence by the pledge of God.—Love and light must always succeed.—They are the forces which give energy to the Christian ministry in all its forms and activities, and because they are of the very nature and quality of God they cannot ultimately fail of their purpose.


Verses 26-45

Divine Sovereignty

Numbers 14:26-45

Is this ancient history? Is there no inquiry of this kind propounded in heaven to-day? Has the generation ceased to be evil? and is God no longer made angry by repeated and aggravated disobedience? Because the thing was once written, we must not conclude that it was only once done. There are some things we cannot keep on writing, and we cannot continue to speak; we write them once, and the words must stand for ever as our one testimony; other things we say once for all: we could not bear to Revelation -utter the complaint, so bitter, so trying, so destructive to the utterer: we pass from words to signs; sometimes we do not even make the sign, unless it be found in some broken sob or sigh, full of unutterable meaning. We shall put ourselves in a right relation to this inquiry, if we make answer that the generation is still evil, the Lord is still forbearing, the attitude of Heaven is a posture expressive of wonder and sorrow, and the answer of the earth to that posture is a repetition of rebelliousness and disobedience. A tender word is this word bear—"How long shall I bear with this evil congregation?" And yet the word bear is put in by the English writer; it seemed to him to express the divine meaning most fully. But another word might have been inserted here, and is inserted by the best commentators upon the sacred text. "How long shall I forgive this congregation?" Forgiveness itself becomes a kind of weariness; the repetition of pardon becomes a bitter irony and most vexatious mockery of the man who pardons; an awful thought, verified by our own experience, needing no long and wordy argument to establish it. There does come a time in heart-history when the utterance of another pardon would seem to dispossess the man himself of judgment, responsibility, or sense of rightness; he is driven to say,—No, the pardons have all been lost, the noble words have been thrown into the sea, or they have died upon the idle wind, and I will say them no more. So there comes a day of withdrawal, even in human relations: a time when we say, We cannot repeat our supplication for pardon addressed to Heaven on the part of one who has seen a thousand pardons trampled under foot. Is this ancient history? It is the story of this present day; it is a line from every man"s biography. Could we rid ourselves of the distance of mere time and look with eyes cleansed and strengthened from on high at this passage, we should feel that it set before us the very agony of God in relation to our own accumulated and intolerable guilt.

What is the great all-determining thought arising out of this reasoning on the part of God and this determination to judge and destroy the men who have so long defied him? That thought Isaiah , that it is impossible to resist God and live. Were it possible to live in a spirit of resistance to God, that very possibility would dethrone the God who is defied. He is not God who can be resisted, and yet the rebel enjoys all the delights of immortality and all the security of heaven. This is not fatalism. Fatalism can play no part in the distribution and action of men who are morally constituted. It is a contradiction in terms to assert that a man who is morally constituted can be fated. Wherever moral purpose asserts its presence and influence, fatalism is impossible. By the very circumstances of our nature God has rendered predestination, of the narrow and selfish kind, impossible. We cannot predestinate moral beings. By the very act of predestination, narrowly construed, we take out the moral element which we are supposed to have fatalised and predetermined. To have a moral constitution is to have rights. God made of one blood all nations of men—not in any merely physical or animal sense; but he made of one kind all men—one kin, one fellowship, one soul—one central and unchangeable relation to himself. That is the full meaning of the declaration that men are one, that humanity is one. But is there not a difference amongst men with regard to genius, force, capacity,—all kinds of accent and individuality? Certainly; but all these bear no relation whatever to the eternal destiny of the soul. There is a difference in the things of nature,—the little flower, the great tree; the tiny insect, and the sun-darkening eagle that lives at its gate;—but all these have a common centre: all these are, so to say, gravitated around the one centre: all these plants, trees, flowers, grasses, are rooted in the same soil, are baptised by the same cloud, are warmed by the same sun. The difference is a difference of expression and relation; but the root is fed by the same great bounty. So differences of capacity and of influence, and differences of all kinds must be regarded within other boundaries than those which men attempt to set up as describing the fatalism of life. God makes no experiments upon his creatures. God did not create a man with the view of satisfying the divine wonder as to how that man would work out the mystery of life. The purpose of God is one. The Bible reveals the unity of that purpose. It never changes. It is one of two things in relation to the ages: salvation or destruction, complacency or judgment; heaven or hell. We are not justified in making experiments even upon one another in any sense that involves the possibility of an awful destiny. When we inflict pain, when we occasion disappointment, when we subject our nearest and dearest ones to all kinds of suffering,—we can only justify ourselves by saying that the process will be consummated in a result that will repay all the trial of the road, and glorify it, and make its memory sweet, so that our very sufferings shall add to the richness and intensity of our joy. You have no right to subject anyone to the pain of travelling—its disappointment, its humiliation, and its sorrow,—say to all the agony of the sea—merely for the sake of watching the sufferer writhe under the torment; but knowing that all the heaving billows and stormy winds, and all the evils incident to such travel, mean final escape, the attainment of a desired haven, the hospitality of a new world, the liberty and progress of ennobled conditions, you say,—Bear up; cheer thee; be brave; to-morrow there will be land ahead, or presently you will see those whose faces you have desired, and one glimpse of them, one clasp of united hands, and the sea is forgotten, and your enjoyment of your escape is none the less because of your recollection of many a discomfort and your memory of many a pain. So God is conducting this congregation of Israel through the wilderness; but he will have his own way. If it were an exercise of merely arbitrary judgment and Wisdom of Solomon , we might feel unable to accept the story; but the purpose of it is liberty, enjoyment, progress,—a great Canaan, a place of summer and fruitfulness and home. Where the purpose is beneficent the process must partake of its nature, and the process is justified by the beneficence of the end. Who could justify God, even within the narrow boundaries of this earth, if our present experience were to end in itself? The days so few—a handful at the most—so troubled, so storm-darkened, so shaken by a thousand alarms; the body so ailing, so frail, always cowering under the fear of approaching death; disappointments thick as thorns upon the tree; who could justify even God himself, who set us in this life, if this life were all? Who then could refrain from the cry,—"If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable," because our standard is wrong, and our expectation is a deception? Take in the whole horizon; embrace the whole purpose of God; then you will be enabled to say,—"All things work together for good to them that love God." We must not interrupt the process saying,—We will judge God here, or there; we must wait until he says,—It is finished,—and then give our judgment.

It is impossible to obey God and die. Those who went out to spy the land and brought back a whining report filled with trouble and discontent died. The divine contempt killed them. God"s laugh drove them away like a bitter wind. But Caleb and Joshua lived. Why did they live? Because they wrought in harmony with the divine purpose. They brought back the gospel—not a gospel of sensuous ease and indulgence, calling upon men to fold their arms and wait in slumbrous tranquillity until heaven descended into their hearts; but the braver gospel: Let us go up at once and possess it, for we are well able to do this; the Lord"s hand is mighty enough to win this battle for us. Such men cannot die. God will protect their immortality. Our cheerful singers cannot perish; their songs belong to the ages; their words of joy and stimulus and inspiration are at once taken in by every heart and are welcomed into every home. Analyse human history: go into origins, and roots, and central springs, and fountains, and you will find that the gospel spirit of Caleb and Joshua is the victor spirit; the cheerful spirit, is the spirit immortal.

All fear tends to death; it darkens the mind; it shuts out complete views of things; it distempers all colour; it disqualifies a man for using his own resources. "The fear of man bringeth a snare." Wherever there is fear, there is not a sound mind or a perfect will or a united strength. This is well known in all circles. If the speaker utters his discourse under fear either of criticism or misunderstanding, by so much that fear binds the wings of his mind, puts out the eyes of his genius, shears the locks of his strength, and throws him down in humiliation and helplessness; but when he is himself in very deed, living in the joy of the hearer, answering with gracious response the appeal of radiant faces, at home in the mystery of his subject,—then he wins: every sentence is a victory, every argument a conquest, the closing of every paragraph the waving of the white banner of entire victory and success. Fear cannot read the Bible; fear cannot hear the Gospel; fear cannot understand the darkness. Let us beware of the spirit of fearfulness; nor let us distress ourselves by imagining that fearfulness arising from physical conditions is a sin before God. Your fearfulness may not be the result of unbelief but of some subtle trouble in the body. God will understand that difficulty. He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are but dust—a wind that cometh for a little time and then passeth away. He will not plead against us with the thunder of his power; he will comfort us in the day of our weakness. But whilst this word of tender solace is spoken to some, it must not be taken as a justification of fearfulness or timidity arising from partial belief; under such circumstances Christ"s question is "Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?" We wound him by our unbelief; we break in two his miracle by our want of perfect trust in wisdom and truth.

The men who brought the report died, and their children had to wander in the wilderness a year for every day that their fathers were away searching out the land. The children had to bear the burden. If there were no Bible, this would still be the case. This is the Bible of fact, not the Bible of speculative theology. We see this every day: that we are bearing the burdens left us as a heavy inheritance of trouble. The lines upon your face would not have been so deep but for the sin you may not name. You would not at five-and-forty years of age have been an old Prayer of Manasseh , out of whose voice all tones of joy have been taken, but for the sins of those now dead whose names you will not even mention aloud, lest the utterance of them should double the sorrow already too much. This mystery is in life. The Bible does not invent a fanatical Providence or set up some wonderful scheme built upon the baseless fabric of imagination. We have facts occurring around us: experiences of our own: a consciousness that cannot be destroyed in our own hearts; and all these gather themselves up into a poignant and firm corroboration of what is found written in the Holy Scriptures. The children do suffer for their forefathers" misdeeds. The battles of one century are occasioned by the misrule of centuries long forgotten. We carry our dead about with us in many forms day by day. Are we, then, to content ourselves with this retrospective contemplation, saying,—My diseases are due to my forefather, my sorrow is a black inheritance, my weakness has a history stretching far back through my ancestors? We may indulge in that retrospect, but only for a moment. It is a selfish retrospect if pushed too far. It becomes gracious, Christian,—a noble stimulus—if coming out of it we say,—Then by so much as I have been injured by the past, I must take care in God"s grace and strength to do what I can for those who are to come after me; I will prevent their carrying a burden if I can possibly do Song of Solomon , in the strength and grace of God; I will try to live so wisely, simply, purely, obediently, as not to leave any great black cloud resting over my house and name. If the retrospect lead to that noble decision, then it is of the quality of prayer, and belongs to the holy class of the most spiritual and sacred oaths. Beware of sentimentalism. Recognise the reality of history and turn it into an inspiration in view of all the untravelled and unknown future.

The people were like ourselves. Having heard from Moses what the Lord had resolved upon—for "Moses told these sayings unto all the children of Israel"—"the people mourned greatly. And they rose up early in the morning, and gat them up into the top of the mountain, saying, Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord hath promised: for we have sinned." But Moses said,—No. Men cannot work out of time. There is a providence of time; there is a providence of opportunity. The people, smarting, perhaps, more in consequence of the effects of sin than in consequence of a thorough perception of the nature of sin, said,—We will now go up. But Moses said,—Do not be foolish; if you go, the Ark of the Covenant will not depart out of the camp and go with you; you are out of time; you are too late; you had the opportunity and neglected it. Men cannot create opportunities after this fashion. There are prayers that become idle cries; there are religious services that become, because untimely, mere mockeries. There is a reading of the Bible which gets nothing out of the sacred Book; you let the hour of light pass by, and now in these dark troubled clouds you can read nothing of truth, of grace. Redeem the time! "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." Work while it is yet day, for the night cometh wherein no man can work. You will pray by-and-by? There is no by-and-by. You will go up presently? There is no presently. You mean one day to shake off the devil and be free? There is no promise of such day,—"now is the accepted time... now is the day of salvation." "To-day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your heart, as in the provocation in the wilderness." Be wise! be wise in time!

Prayer

Almighty God, show us that we are living under thy rule, and that thy rule is best because it is thine. God is love; God is light: in him is no darkness at all. God knoweth the end from the beginning, and every step of the long road; therefore will we take our marching orders from thyself, going as thou dost command, halting where thou dost please, and going quickly, or slowly, or standing still, as we may receive word from God. We never thought we should have said this; it is not natural to us. We love our own way; we think our wisdom quite divine; we are obstinate and self-regarding; but thou hast wrought upon us directly and indirectly, by light, by opening of the mind, by bitter portions, by stinging disappointment, by showing us that the road we thought led to liberty led nowhere. So we have come back again, humbled, much enlightened, conscious of our own folly, and modestly desiring to be taught of God. We thought we were mighty, until we lifted our arm and found it was but a straw; we said we would run all the way and know no weariness, and, behold, in one hour we were laid down in fatigue and pain and distress. Thus thou dost teach men, not always by doctrine and argument and exhortation in words which men can answer again with vain impertinence of mind, but by overthrow, confusion: night suddenly encroaching upon day, and all things set upside down in bewilderment that cannot be ordered into straight lines. So are we taught, and taught of God. We call it experience, because we are afraid to use some noble and truer term. Yet even here thou art patient with us, so that now many men who once spake of experience venture to speak of God. We would be found in the number; we would not be of those who are afraid to give the right names to things. Open thou our mouth that we may show forth boldly our testimony on thy behalf. It will do us good to speak the word that fills the mind. If we could once speak it, we could speak it again, more easily, with more familiarity and even tenderness. Help us to say,—God did thus for me; God led me in this wise; God is my Maker, my Portion, my Redeemer, my All; God is his name, and God is love. We bless thee for this use of words; we are the better for it; we feel as if we had opened a channel through which purest water had streamed from fountains in heaven the very words purify the channel through which they flow. Thou hast led us all our days. We see it now; it is perfectly clear to minds that once could see nothing because of spiritual blindness; we see now why the message came in the night time and not in the morning, why the flower was plucked in the bud before it opened the secret of the mystery of its beauty; we see now how, though the night was crying, the tears were morning dew. We understand things better than we did. Time has altered itself to us; it is nothing: it is a breath—a wind; sometimes a mere mockery of duration, without substance—flying, dying, whilst we speak of it. So now we take our stand upon thy word. We are sure, through Jesus Christ thy Song of Solomon , that thy purpose concerning us is full of mercy; thou hast no pleasure in the death of men: thy delight is in life, in liberty, in immortality. Life and immortality are brought to light in the Gospel by thy Song of Solomon , our one Saviour, almighty in power, infinite in love. We give thee thanks for all the mercies of our little life. If we have escaped the sea and are again on firm land, we say,—The earth is the Lord"s, and the fulness thereof, the sea and they that dwell upon it;—and we bless thee for nightly protection, daily care, for family reunion, and the incoming of the hopes which make our life worth living. Accept the praises of those who in reunion bless the Lord in family rejoicing and sacred song. If we have been brought through perplexity, business difficulty,—if controversies have been settled,—if the dark cloud has been lifted,—if the pain at the heart has been somewhat lessened,—if the sorrow-flood has assuaged a little—we bless thee: it is God"s doing, it is the Father"s revelation of himself in the night of our distress, and we will rejoice and be glad, and with instruments of music will heighten the song which our own voices cannot fully express. Tell the old man that he has hardly begun to live: that the ages in the flesh are not in the soul. Take up the little child, and show it wonders in all the blue heaven, and bid it be glad whilst it may, and to know nothing of the mystery of tears Whisper to the dying that death is the gate of immortality. Speak to the lonely; startle his solitude into mystic and solemn communion. Bring back the bad man; we cannot reach him; he is to us as hell: no water can drown the flame; no speech of ours can be heard by badness so wicked. The Lord hear us, pity us, spare us a little while; and then, the shadows thickening, lengthening, darkening, may there be beyond a glint of light, which means dawn, morning, heaven. Amen.


Verse 27

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me?"Numbers 14:27.

This is really a parental inquiry.—The proof of this is in the very agony of the terms.—A tyrant could have crushed the difficulty, a mere ruler might have been haughtily indifferent to it, but where tyrants and rulers are exhausted fatherhood begins to put its most anxious inquiries.—God has never been readily received into the human heart.—His rejection has in some cases been grounded upon the mystery of his nature; in others, on the difficulties of his providence; and in others upon the love of self-indulgence which characterises all human affections.—The terms of the inquiry assume that the forbearance has been long continued.—God does not ask such a question at an early period of his attempts to subdue the heart and will of man.—The inquiry, which is here put as to a congregation, is addressed to every human creature in his individuality.—Every man has justified the inquiry.—No man can satisfactorily answer the inquiry.—Every man is witness in his own case that the forbearance of God has been continuous and tender.—It is evident that forbearance has only been equal to the occasion created by human rebellion.—This circumstance having been amply proved, we come upon the discovery that forbearance has been completed by redemption.—The cross is not only an expression of forbearing love, it is the mystery of pardon wrought by righteousness.—If the cross should fail, God has no other resources so far as revelation can guide us.—Our forbearance expresses our love.—Where there is little love there will belittle forbearance.—Where there is much love the anxious inquiry will often arise, How can I give thee up?—This is the inquiry which is culminated in the cross of Christ.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 14:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/numbers-14.html. 1885-95.

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Monday, January 27th, 2020
the Third Week after Epiphany
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