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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Numbers 15

 

 


Verses 1-36

Punishment for Sabbath-breaking

Numbers 15:30-36

This incident has been the occasion of a good deal of jeering. It has often been quoted as an instance of extreme and intolerable severity, and has been cited against those whose reading of the Scriptures leads them to propose to keep the Sabbath day. The mocker has found quite a little treasure here. The incident is altogether so monstrous. The appeal made to common sense and human feeling is so direct and so urgent that there can be no reply to it The poor man was gathering sticks on the Sabbath day, and he had to forfeit his life for the violation of the law! If he had been gathering anything else, the fancy of the reader would not have been so suddenly struck; some grand phrase would have helped him through the difficulty; but when it was known that the poor man was only gathering "sticks," it seemed to be out of all proportion that he should lose his life. Many an amateur commentator has so spoken. No wonder. Men are the victims of phrases. Had the man been found gathering golden wedges out of other people"s caskets, there might have been some proportion between the theft and the penalty; but to be gathering "sticks" and to die for it, does shock the pious fancy of heathen taken this course. A man who had painted the most beautiful picture ever produced by the human fancy and the human hand, would not of course be severe with anyone who had punctured the picture with a needle all over; though he might be a little irritated with any man who set fire to his work of art. A noble-minded artist would have said,—Take no heed: it is only the puncture of a needle; if the picture had been ripped up with a knife I should have been angry, but seeing that it was but the point of a needle, perhaps it is as well done as not done; no notice should be taken of this, and no penalty shall be inflicted.—No engineer would for a moment have allowed any such sense of disproportion to occur in his plans; when he sends a locomotive whirling at lightning pace across the land, he will say to it,—If a fly should alight upon the rails you will pause; if an elephant should be there, or some mighty bird of prey, do what you will; but if a fly should be on the rail, you will stop, and in a spirit of pity, if not in a spirit of respect, you will allow the little trespasser to resume its wing. But law is impartial—terrific yet gracious. It does not work along one line only: it is a guarantee, as well as a penalty; it brings with it in one hand a crown of righteousness, as certainly as it brings in the other a sword of judgment. It is here that we get wrong: we will not grasp the idea of sovereignty, law, order, progress according to divinely-philosophical methods; we will clip, and niggle, and compromise, and patch the universe where we have injured it, and think no one will see the seams we have made. Had the text read,—And a certain man was found in the wilderness openly blaspheming God, and he was stoned to death,—we should have had some sense of rest and harmony in the mind: the balance would seem to be complete. But that is the very sophism that is ruining us. We do not see the reality of the case. We think of huge sins;—there are none. We think of little sins; there are none. We live in a region of fancy; we picture possibilities of sin. We play at the great game of jurisprudence, setting this against that, weighing, measuring, balancing, and telling-off things in definite quantities and relations. It is the spot that is ruin; it is the one little thing that spoils the universe. God cannot drive on his mighty committed, Song of Solomon -called, "little sins," and have perpetrated small and almost nameless trespasses. The whole conception is wrong. We are not fallen because we have committed murder in the vulgar sense of the term. When a man commits murder, there may be some palliation for the crime; there may be a stronger defence for murder than for one evil word. It is easy to imagine how eloquence could warm up into a noble speech on behalf of the man who, carried away by a sudden gust of passion, had perpetrated some dreadful deed; but there is no eloquence that can expand itself for one moment and keep its own respect in defence of backbiting, whispering, evil-thinking and all the miserable pedantry of righteousness; on that side no advocate can be found: an advocate disdains the fee that would bribe his speech; it is mean, contemptible, indefensible. Yet we who reason so in ordinary affairs become quite amateur divinities in relation to the poor man who went out on the Sabbath day to gather a bundle of "sticks." We will look at the "sticks" and not at the Sabbath. We say,—It was but a drop of blackness;—but we forget that the robe on which it fell was a robe of ineffable purity. A drop here or there upon a garment already stained will count for nothing; but who could not see even one ink-blot on the white purity of the Jungfrau? Every eye would seem to be fastened upon it; no notice would be taken of it in the murky valley; but on that shining whiteness—on that snowy purity—it is an offence that cannot be forgiven; the man who wantonly flung that blot on such purity is a base man in his heart. Why not look at the reality of the case—of every case—of our own case—and, instead of trying to reduce the enormity by dwelling upon the relative smallness of the offence, fix the imagination and the judgment and the conscience upon the thing violated?—for only in that way can we establish the balance of righteousness and begin to understand the movement of God.

Obedience can only be tested by Song of Solomon -called little things. It is in relation to little things that a character stands or falls as to its wholeness and reality of good purpose. We are all prepared for state occasions. There is not a man in the world, surely, who has not some robe of respectability he can wear on festive days and notable anniversaries. That arrangement gives no indication of the real substance and tissue of the man"s character. We are all prepared to be heroic; but a man cannot live in ostentatious heroism all his days. We are only too glad of an opportunity to play the hero; it is an hour"s work, or a day"s endurance, and its history will be written in large letters, and men will speak about it, and fame will come to us,—we only long for the occasion and we will provide the man. It is quite easy to join in a great demonstrative procession to show on which side we are. Human nature does not altogether dislike processions; there is something in the human heart that inclines it towards display. To be part of a great host, marching to the blare of trumpet and the touch of drum, all to show on which side we are, is quite an easy piece cf display and is no test of obedience. Who is not ready to watch by the death-bed of the most loved one? The night will bring no weariness—the day and the night shall be run into one common time, and no heed shall be taken of the exhaustion of the flesh; it will be a proud delight; the sacrifice will bring its own heaven with it. We long to show in some such crisis how loyal is our love. It is not so that life is measured by the Living One who is the Judge of all the earth; he does not look at state occasions, at heroic opportunities, at processional displays, at death-bed attendances; he looks at the little things of daily life. Where one man is called to be a hero on some great scale, ten thousand men are called to be courteous, gentle, patient; where one has the opportunity of being great on the battlefield of a death-bed, all have opportunity of being good in hopefulness, charity, forgiveness, and every grace that belongs to the Cross of Christ; where one has the opportunity of joining a great procession, ten thousand have the opportunity of assisting the aged, helping the blind, speaking a word for the speechless, and putting a donation into the hand of honest poverty. Let us realise the truth of the doctrine that we are not called upon to display our obedience upon a gigantic scale within the theatre of the universe and under the observation of angels,—but to go out into the field and work with bent back and willing hands and glad hearts, doing life"s simple duty under Heaven"s inspiration and encouragement. The man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day might have been quite a great man on festival occasions when all Israel had to be dressed in its best; he might have been one of the foremost of the show. You discover what men are by their secret deeds, by what they do when they suppose nobody is looking, by what they are about when they are suddenly pounced upon. Give a man notice that his obedience is to be inquired into, and then how prepared he is! But the man is not what he is at that particular moment, but what he was a few moments before, and what he will be a few moments after. It is only by Song of Solomon -called little things—minor moralities, punctuality, civilities, penny honesties,—that we can understand what we are and estimate the quality of the character of others.

People will always be more willing and ready to punish than to obey:—"all the congregation... stoned him with stones." The congregation was glad of the opportunity:—anything for a new sensation; anything for a change from the intolerable monotony of the wilderness. Stoning a man made a little bubble on the quiet river of the day"s sluggish life; moreover, it looked well to be stoning somebody else; there is a kind of indirect respectability about it. What a heroic people! You would not judge from this verse what a history we have read through up to the time of its being written in the record. These are not the people who mourned, and murmured, and complained, and rebelled against Moses and fought against Heaven, and turned away from righteousness and forgat the Living God? They are unanimous in stoning the Sabbath-breaker; they would have been equally as unanimous in stoning Moses. A word has no sense when it comes to decision and distinctions of this kind. We are all, perhaps, more ready to punish than to obey; when we condemn the action of another, we seem to add to our own piety in public estimation. Herein we do not live in the Mosaic day. Is there no stoning under the Christian dispensation? Yes. By what rule is that stoning determined? A very easy one and most equitable. Christ laid it down, and Christ is our one Law-giver—the true Moses of the Church. We bring a man to him, saying,—Lord, we found this man gathering sticks on the Lord"s day,—what is to be done to him? Stone him. How? "Let him that is without sin cast the first stone." And beginning at the eldest, right away down to the youngest, they all slink out and leave the sabbath-breaker to face the Founder of the day. That is the right law of stoning—may it never be changed! Jesus, Son of God, thou wast never so dear to human hearts, conscious of their guilt and burning with shame, as when thou didst say to the pious hypocrites of thy time,—"Let him that is without sin cast the first stone";—thou art Saviour; these words will keep thy crown above all other crowns, long as the ages of time shall breathe, or the larger ages of eternity roll on in infinite duration. "The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." There must be punishment, but let us take care how it is administered. If there be no stone-throwing until pure hands begin, no stones will be thrown. We are speaking now within the boundaries of the Church, within the sanctities of the holy place,—not of political and municipal life, but of that inner and spiritual existence and relation explained in the person and priesthood of the Son of God.

We must not delude ourselves with the notion that there are sins which are of no consequence. We say that the man in question may be guilty of telling a lie, but he was never guilty of committing a murder. What is the difference? There is none. You say,—He may be a little unforgiving, but he never murdered anyone;—therefore we invite him to dinner, we travel with him on the road, we recognise him in public, we cheer him when he rises to address a Christian assembly on Christian topics. We say,—Such and such a man may be a little censorious in speech, but he was never known to be drunk. What is the difference? There is more said in the Bible against pride than is said against drunkenness; there is more said in the Bible against censorious-ness than is said against unchastity. We are wrong. We are back among the beggarly elements; we have not come into the sanctuary in which we see spiritual doctrine, spiritual judgment, heart-work; and until we enter that holy place and read the smallest print of the divine record, do not let us suppose we can rival the kingdom of God or annotate with our pointless comments the wisdom of Heaven. The kingdom of heaven is within. Piety is not abstinence from vulgar crime: it is consecration to spiritual purpose and perpetual aspiration after spiritual ideals. Whoso hateth his brother without a cause is guilty of murder. He who has told a lie will break the Sabbath. He who has broken God"s Sabbath—understanding that term in its amplest meaning and intention—has violated to the measure of his power the purity and sanctity of Heaven. The law is one; the universe is one; God is one. He that offendeth in the least offendeth in all. But we cannot have new works till we become new workers, and we cannot become new workers except by the mighty power of the Holy Ghost. Said the Son of God,—"Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again."

Note

The Seventh Day in every week was "set apart" as a day in which no work was to be done; the seventh year was "set apart" as a year in which no seed was to be sown; and at the end of seven times seven years, there was a great festival during which the whole land was to rest, and when debts were to be cancelled, alienated estates to return to their owners, and slaves to be set free.

Consecrated Men, consecrated Property, consecrated Space, consecrated Time, declared that God still claimed the world as his own, and that in all the provinces of human life he insisted on being recognised as Lord of all.

The separation of the Sabbath from the common uses of other days was an essential part of a vast and complicated system for the assertion and maintenance of certain great spiritual ideas. I do not wonder at the severity of the penalty attached to the crime of Sabbath-breaking. The high-priest himself was forbidden, under the penalty of death, to enter the Holy of Holies on any other than the Day of Atonement. To violate the sanctity of that mysterious chamber was a profanation of the Space which God claimed as his own; to violate the Sabbath was a profanation of the Time which God claimed as his own. The defence of the sanctity of the Sabbath was exceptionally necessary in the early times of Jewish history. Before synagogues were built and public worship was celebrated in every part of the country, the vast majority of the people, but for the institution of the Sabbath, would have been seldom reminded of God, except when they went up to Jerusalem to keep the great feasts. The weekly rest from their common labour was a constantly recurring appeal to them to remember the God of their fathers.

—Dr. Dale"s Ten Commandments.

Prayer

Almighty God, when thou dost hide thyself from us the time is long and weary even to intolerableness; when thou dost light up the horizon with the spring time then all things are beautiful and full of joy, and the whole earth is a beautiful sanctuary. We love thee to be near us; when thou art near we are safe; when thou art near we are without timidity or distress of any kind. We say,—The Lord hath called us up, therefore will we be safe, though the enemy press upon us with a heavy hand and threaten us with deadly frowning. Our confidence is in God, not only in his almightiness, but in his eternal, immeasurable affection for us; his great heart, his perpetual love—the love that died that we might live. We will count upon God; he shall be the centre of our calculation. When we think of the future, we will think of the great future, eternity; and not of the little fretful future, to-morrow—full of vexation and noise and angry tumult. We bless thee that we have the foresight that sees eternity, whilst our eyes are holden that they may not see to-morrow. Thou dost give long sight to thy Church. Thou wilt not permit us to pry into the next day, but thou hast given us revelations concerning the next world. This is thy wonderful way. Thou dost move by vast lines. Thou wouldest draw us forward by a wondrously-comprehensive education We bless thee for the largeness of the wisdom by which we are governed, as well as for the depth of the love by which we are saved and redeemed for ever. Thou dost look upon us; thou dost watch us body, soul, and spirit; no part of us is exposed to the divine neglect; thou dost see our hand, our foot, our heart; thou lookest into us altogether, and if there is any evil way in us thou art troubled by its wicked presence. Do thou give us to feel this, and to say, morning, noon and night,—Thou God seest me—not lookest upon me only, but seest me in every thought, feeling, motive, purpose,—in the whole interior mystery of our being. Thus our life will be spent in heaven"s light, and all our days shall be numbered and shall be regarded from on high. All the way is thine. Such a varied way it is: sometimes all sward, green and soft and velvet-like, with hedges on either side, rich with blossom, musical with song; and sometimes it is all gates, and stiles, and difficult places: the roads are many, and large, and rough, and the way altogether is without hospitality or comfort; still it is part of the long mileage—part of the way ending in the brightest land. May we accept all the road, even through the churchyard, and through the desert, and across the river, and up the steep hill, and believe that the way is all regulated and determined for us by the wisdom of the infinite Father. We bless thee if we have any hope in this direction, for it is natural to us to be frivolous, superficial, living in the present moment, and if we can extract a laugh from heart are we; but if thy kingdom has touched us with its glory and ennobled us by its sublimity so that now and again even we have larger thoughts, nobler purposes, wider outlooks, behold, we thank thee for this increase of life; and now we understand in part what Jesus Christ meant when he said,—I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly—like wave upon wave of life, a great river of life, pure as crystal, beginning in God"s throne, and winding its wondrous way back to its own origin. We would be wise—sometimes we think so at least; we would live the noble life, free from all canker, care, and distress; we would dwell in God; we would say in the time of thirst,—The river of God is full of water,—and in the time of famine,—The wheatfields of heaven are never exhausted. Thus living in the upper liberties—in the very heavens of the divine presence—we would do to-day"s work with a clear head, a loving heart, and a willing hand, and count all life a sacrifice that it may become a joy. Thou hast brought thy people together from varied homes into one house. This is a hint of the great meeting,—the eternal fellowship: men shall be brought from all lands, and with all accents shall sing one song. We hope in this: we would not have this sacred forecast overclouded; it makes time easy; and labour light, and suffering but a momentary pang. We give ourselves, our houses, our businesses—all into thine hands. We want to succeed, we are determined to succeed, we are ashamed of failure, and we will resolve again and again to make life a solid success; but when we have made this resolution, if our idea of success be wrong, we are willing that it should be foregone, and that we should die without house, or friend, or helper, if it be better for our soul"s health that our body should thus decay. We will put ourselves into the Father"s hand, without wish, or will, or thought, or desire, that we cannot subordinate to his purposes: we will utter our little prayer, and then leave God to give what answer he may. But to one prayer thou wilt return the answer which we need. God be merciful unto us sinners; wash us in the atoning blood of Christ; speak out of the mystery of eternity to this guilty time, and say to every soul,— Song of Solomon , daughter, thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee. Amen.


Verses 37-41

The Fringes and Their Meaning

Numbers 15:37-41

The word garments is used with a special direction. The Lord was very careful about the raiment or garment of his people. The Lord"s eyes are upon his people"s apparel. We want to make him simply a Figure in theology—to confine him within the radiant lines of what to us is an invisible heaven. But God will not so be treated. He lives with us in the house; he will make our bed in our affliction; he will turn the house round that it may catch the morning light, if the morning light is best for us. He will keep our books, and watch all our steps; he will conduct the blind man across the busy thoroughfare, and he will set a singing bird in the poor man"s little house. "The very hairs of your head are all numbered." Why make a theological fancy of God? That is practical blasphemy. It is not worship; it is ill-treatment of the divine idea and the divine personality. God would have a seat in our house, a desk in our business, a pen in our library; he would rule our whole life, and make us his companions and friends. From the first he took an interest in the raiment of the people; he knew that poverty was no transient distress, but a part of the general life of the human family; so he made arrangements even about pawnbroking, saying, "If thou at all take thy neighbour"s raiment to pledge, thou shalt deliver it unto him by that the sun goeth down" ( Exodus 22:26.) Pawnbroking was to be but for a few bright hours of the day; as soon as the chill evening came down the pledge was to be restored. Why? The garment referred to was a large foursquare cloth; in the middle of it a hole was cut through which the head could pass, so that the whole cloth fell round the body of the wearer. That garment was both a day garment and a blanket for the night. Allowing, therefore,—such would seem to be the divine reasoning—that a man can do without his outer cloth for a few hours whilst the sun is shining—for the sunshine is a kind of cloak—yet remember that the nights are cold and thy neighbour must not be allowed to lie down to sleep without being properly covered. This is what the Lord says in so many words in Exodus 22:27 : "For that is his covering only, it is his raiment for his skin: wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto me, that I will hear; for I am gracious." Let us understand the meaning of this gospel tone. When the cold man cries because for want of his raiment he cannot sleep—when he had to pawn his raiment for bread,—"I will hear" his cry. What is the reason for hearing the cry?—"for I am gracious"—I care for men who cannot sleep because of the cold; I care for children who cannot sleep because they are hungry; the foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, how then can I forget my own image and likeness?—my heart hears: my heart responds. At the four corners of this cloth were four tassels or fringes. The tassels or fringes were called Craspeda. Great sanctity was attached to these tassels by the Jews: hence the poor woman"s declaration: "If I may but touch a Craspedon I shall be healed." We miss the whole meaning of the passage by thinking of the hem of the garment in the ordinary sense of the term. The garment was foursquare; the head was put through it; at each of the corners there was a fringe or a tassel; each tassel was called a Craspedon; each tassel was regarded with great seriousness by the Jewish mind; it represented great thoughts, and even the divine presence itself: hence the poor woman, knowing this, said within herself—"If I may but touch one of the tassels—if I may but touch one of the fringes, I shall be healed." So these Craspeda were not mere ornaments in dress: they were full of typical ideas, if not of moral virtues. Speaking of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus Christ says ( Matthew 23:5)—"They make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments"—they are great in tassels and fringes: they enlarge them that they may in some way write upon them words from the law, and appear unto men, not only to be very learned in Wisdom of Solomon , but to be excellent patterns of virtue. The ordinary tassel was not enough for the Pharisee; the customary fringe is too small for the pedantic scribe, therefore the fringes must be enlarged, the writings must be multiplied, and a more ostentatious display of virtue must be made to the public eye.

Is all this passed and done with? It can never be obsolete so long as human nature is human nature. If the Lord permit us to wear a fringe or a tassel, or any outward and typical sign of adoption and sonship, we are by so much exposed to insidious and mighty temptation. Yet we must have something to look at and something to touch, for we ourselves are in the body, and all the creation that we can see is a creation tangible, substantial, full of allegorical writing, it may be, which only skilled eyes can read. Still this visible creation must have some correspondence in the invisible creation into which we are called through Christ, the Keeper of the kingdom. We cannot be trained according to divine purpose except we have the outward, the material, and the visible. These gifts are of divine appointment. God recognises our need of them, and he supplies them, and names them, and specifies their uses. But who can be trusted with line or image, with tassel or fringe, with book or censer,—with anything that appeals to the eye and the touch, without misunderstanding God and exaggerating the purpose of the thing visible and tangible, and thus passing through into all manner of superstition and idolatry? God has given us tassels and fringes to the great garment of the spiritual gift in Christ Jesus his Song of Solomon , and we have misunderstood them, and what were divine gifts to begin with have been turned into temptations by which our worship has fallen into a species of feeble or contemptible idolatry. God has given us the Sabbath day. A most beautiful gift if we could have regarded it within the divine intention, and have accepted God"s sweet purpose implied in the great donation; but we must needs meddle with it and enlarge the tassel, and make broad the phylacteries and the borders, and write upon God"s spring day all manner of narrow-minded and evil writing of our own invention; or we must needs make hard what God made soft with pity, and gracious with love; we must make the day into the sourest of the week, instead of the smile of the passing time; we must be pedantic, stern, iron-bound, exacting in a most narrow-minded and despotic degree;—and this we do to show our noble piety! This is Pharisaism. We condemn ancient Pharisaism the more vehemently that we do not understand what we are condemning, for ignorance has no bounds. But let us be careful whilst we recognise the divine tassel, fringe, or ribband of blue, that we accept it in God"s sense, and with God"s limitation and purpose;—then it shall be unto us Heaven"s own sign—a visible thing by which we enter into invisible meanings and invisible liberties. But Pharisaic virtue will be meddling; it will add one hour to the Sabbath day: it will begin a little earlier than was at first intended; it will make its face sour and its fingers hard, and it will lay upon people exactions intolerable, whilst it, by some way unknown to the people, will sneak off to the enjoyment of its own wicked luxuries. In this way the fringe of the Sabbath has been enlarged by Pharisaic impiety and ostentation, and the sweet idea of sleep, rest, renewal, reinvigoration,—worship, Psalm , sacrifice of a spiritual kind,—all these have been subordinated or lost. He does not keep the Sabbath who merely talks about it. Sabbath-keeping is an affair of the heart. You cannot keep the Sabbath by Act of Parliament; you may close every business in the kingdom by imperial statute, but when you have done Song of Solomon , unless there be a consenting heart, every place devoted to business in the kingdom is more open on the Sabbath than it was on the common week day. We must cultivate love of the Sabbath spirit before we can have obedience to the Sabbath law; we must recall the idea of Christ"s resurrection and believe in its historical reality, or we cannot have a day to celebrate what never took place. We do not keep the birthdays of people who were never born. The birthday represents a historical reality in the family—an advent, a sweet epiphany, an incoming of a stranger who shall never be stranger more. Lose the idea of the birth, and the birthday must go; lose the idea of the resurrection of Christ, and the Sabbath will come only to be misunderstood, and will pass away in contempt or in violation of its claims.

The Lord has given us two tassels called the Sacraments. Look at the Sacrament of the Lord"s Supper. It was meant as a memorial; it was a sublime appeal to the memory of the heart. Said the dying Son of God,—"This do in remembrance of me." A simple feast: a Supper which the poorest man can have at his own little deal table, if so be he will drink one little drop of water and taste one crumb of bread,—nay, he can even do without these things if he eat and drink with the Spirit Into what enlargement of priestly pomp and meaning has that Sacrament been brought! What magic has been used over the bread and the cup! What with transubstantiation and consubstantiation, and all the polysyllables of the theologues, we have lost the Supper. Memory has now next to no function to perform in connection with that Sacrament. The priest must operate upon the elements, some mysterious process must take place in the bread and in the cup; and not until such priestly pranks have been played may the common people touch these things,—nay, in some churches, they may not touch them at all, especially one of the elements: it is enough if the priest drink in some kind of representative capacity. They have enlarged the borders of their garments. The blue ribband was right, the fringe was of divine appointment, God meant the robe to have its tassels; but we have enlarged and vitiated and perverted and played all manner of tricks, and exercised every possible species of invention. "God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions"—and God does not know the tassels he appointed because of the enlargements and the discolourings invented and accomplished by depraved human genius.

God has given us another tassel in the Bible. He knew we could not do without a book: he made the Bible as small as possible; never book had so much matter crushed into it—every line a living stem of a living vine; the very punctuation seems to be part of the common vitality. But it is possible to make a fetish or idol of the Bible; it is possible to make it a mere gathering of isolated texts to be fingered by men as they may be pleased to manipulate the thousand beads of heaven. So we have the Bible misunderstood—little detached texts thrust into wrong perspective and relation. We have lost the Biblical spirit in pedantic reverence for the Biblical letter. We have never yet seen in all its fulness that the letter is trying to tell something which it can never tell in all the amplitude of its meaning, and we have been afraid lest we should lose the spirit by not properly regarding the letter. Believe me, God"s Book is a revelation. Everything is contained in it. The Book cannot be enlarged by human hands: it enlarges itself. You can enlarge the loaf of bread by your hands whilst that loaf is in process of formation, but you must keep your fingers off the growing blade and ear of wheat; let the baker deal with the dough—he may not touch that living, golden thing which, through great agony and travail down in the darkness, has pierced the sod and come breathingly and lovingly up into the mellowing and ripening light. It is even so with God"s Book. It needs no vindication. Your manufactured bread may need to be announced and weighed and justified to the public examiner and the public taste; but God"s wheat is not to be so regarded. How it grew he has never told us; in all the information he has conveyed to the human family, he has never told us where the wind Isaiah , how the wheat grows; he has kept these things—so palpable and obvious in their appearances—to himself, as to the secret of their origin and movement. The vindication which the Bible asks for is to be seen, to be read. The Bible does not begin at the Book of Kings, or in the middle of the volume; the Bible—simple as the statement may appear—begins at the beginning, where so few people have ever begun; they have used the Bible as if it began nowhere, and could be opened promiscuously and understood in the most casual manner. The Bible has its own beginning, its own line of evolution, and it must be begun and perused according to its own genesis and law if its music is to be heard, and if human life is to fall into rhythm with its majestic purpose. Nothing is easier than to pervert the Bible. More mischief can be done by incompetent persons talking about the Bible and in its favour than ever can be done by the most skilful and obstinate assailants of its inspiration. The Bible has more to fear from its friends than from its enemies. I will vary the phrase and say, the Bible has nothing to fear from opposition; sometimes even it may tremble under the shadow of patronage.

All these—the Sabbath, the Sacraments, the Bible, the Sanctuary—are divine institutions, tassels ordained and declared in heaven; but we must be careful to ascertain where the divine ends and the human begins. The Pharisees have meddled with the fringes; the scribes have performed magical tricks upon the tassels. It is so with the ministry of the Gospel. The ministry of the Gospel is a divine institution; but how we have meddled with it and made it less in trying to make it larger! The ministry of the Gospel is a ministry of brotherhood, sympathy—great human love. It has been made into a priestly trick and has been invested with sacerdotal sanctions, and men—constables of their own appointment—have stood at the pulpit stairs to keep away persons who were supposed not to be authorised. The great authorisation of the preacher is first of God, and next of the common people. The common people will soon tell you whom God has called to the ministry. The congregation is judge. You cannot deceive the great common heart; it knows the elect man: the very first sentence he utters is recognised as genuine or as counterfeit. The people, the common people, all the people,—they stand next to God in this matter:—"Vox populi, vox Dei." The question has sometimes been asked—Do the common people hear us "gladly"? That question ought not to be asked until another has been answered: Do we preach to the common people—in great human words, in tears of compassion, in genuine, manly, Christian sympathy? Blessed be God, the common people will never listen to theology, to polysyllables, to wordy refinements. The common people can understand the sunshine and respond to its sublimity; but they cannot understand many of the lights which men have invented and patented and heavily charged for. So with truth. The great fringe truth has been enlarged by opinions. Opinion has been enthroned. Not until we distinguish between truth and opinion can we distinguish between God"s fringe and the Pharisee"s phylactery. When any man has spoken—whatever his name, intellectual capacity, moral pith, or rhetorical eloquence—he has only announced a series of opinions. He can so announce them as to make himself ridiculous, offensive, as to usurp a divine position. But the truth underlies opinion, is different from opinion, admits of great variety of opinion. As the sun will grow all kinds of flowers, and the good old mother earth will let all flowers grow within the bounds of her hospitality, so truth will admit of all shades of opinion, all varieties of expression. Why can we not recognise this, and clasp hands in spiritual brotherhood, every man having a right to his own opinion and being bound to society in nothing but in the reality and sincerity of his soul?

We must not go the other extreme, and do away with profession—tear off the ribband of blue, and the fringe on the borders of the garment, and say,—We will have nothing more to do with these things. They are all divine appointments. The sanctuary is God"s; the coming together of men to worship is itself a holy act. You cannot worship individually, in the fullest sense of the term. What is an individual? There is no such thing; society has rendered that impossible. God is the Author of society; God is the Author of humanity. Only in some narrow or limited sense can a man offer any worship in solitude. He is part of a band—a great organisation built for music. In some sense it may be true that a man considerably under six feet high may take hold of a gun and sword and say he will go out and fight as an individual wherever the war may be; but such an action needs hardly to be named to bring upon itself the contempt which it deserves. The individual is part of a larger individuality; the person is part of the larger person called the army. To your ranks! To your regiments! When the trumpet-blast sounds, it sounds an appeal and an instruction to the whole body of men. Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is. A man who is not a churchgoer is a bad Prayer of Manasseh , in some sense, or an incomplete man in others; he has fallen below a right comprehension of human relations and social connections and reciprocations. Behold the solitary wanderer who has gone away by himself on the holy Sabbath morning!—he is going to "hear the birds sing" and "the brooks ripple and gurgle," and "see the hyacinths and the violets"—behold him there! Was ever irony more complete? He has missed the divine idea. He should have said,—No; to the centre! to the meeting-place! to the rendezvous!—together, all together,—common prayer, common Song of Solomon , common study; and then radiate as you please, carrying the public personality with the narrow individualism, and enlarging the little unit by the infinite completeness of human nature. We need some outward help. We love to hear somebody pray when we are very lonely and dyingly sick. To hear another human voice is a hint of fellowship, a hint of consolidation, a hint of heaven. We could pray by ourselves, mayhap. Not altogether. It will do us good if some man has force enough to pray aloud; the very audibleness of the speech will bring a kind of society into the chamber; we shall feel the larger by hearing some sympathetic voice arguing, pleading, with God; the walls of the chamber will be broken down and the boundary line will be a horizon, the roof will be removed and the blue ceiling will be heaven. We need the Sabbath day, the memorial Sacraments, the Holy Book, the preaching Prayer of Manasseh , the fellow-suppliant, the congregation; but let us take care not to make more of these tassels than God intended. Let us take care lest by enlarging the fringe we destroy its meaning.

Note

The Law of Fringes.—According to Herodotus, the dress of the Egyptians consisted of a linen garment, over which was worn a white woollen cloak or shawl. The former, which seems to have been often, if not generally, worn without the other, was fringed at the bottom. Concerning the form of this fringe perhaps nothing positive can be determined. Some endeavour to ascertain its character by examining the two Hebrew words by which it is expressed, ציצח tzizith, in the present text, and גדלים gedilim, in Deuteronomy 22:12. The former of these words elsewhere (as in Ezekiel 8:3) means a lock of hair; and the latter a rope, such as that with which Delilah bound Samson ( Judges 14:11-12); and it is hence imagined that these fringes consisted of many threads which hung like hair, and were twisted like a rope. The "ribband" probably was either a blue thread twisted with a white one through the whole fringe, or a lace by which the fringe was fastened to the edge of the garment. Many commentators of authority think, from the explanation in Deut. xxii, that the "fringes" were no other than strings with tassels at the end, fastened to the four corners of the upper garment, the proper use of these strings being to fasten the corners together. Of this opinion are the modern Jews. What they understand by the direction of the text appears from Levi"s description of the tzizith or robe in question. It is made of two square pieces with two long pieces like straps joined to them, in order that one of the said pieces may hang down before upon the breast, and the other behind; at the extremity of the four corners are fastened the strings, each of which has five knots besides the tassel, signifying the five books of the law. The rabbins, under whose instruction this profound analogy has been established, further observe that each string consisted of eight threads, which, with the number of knots and the numeral value of the letters in the word tzizith, make613 , which Isaiah , according to them, the exact number of the precepts in the law. From this they argue the importance of this command, since he who observes it, they say, in effect observes the whole law! The law seems to require that the fringes should be constantly worn; but as it would not consist with the costume of the countries through which the Jews are now dispersed to wear the fringed garment as an external article of dress, every Jew makes use of two—a large one which is used only at prayers, and on some other occasions, and is then worn externally, and a small one which is constantly worn as an under-garment. The principal denomination of this article is Tzizith, on account of the fringes, in which all its. sanctity is supposed to consist; but the proper name of the vestment itself is Talith, and by this it is commonly distinguished.

There have been various conjectures as to the object of this law. The most probable is that, the "fringe" was intended as a sort of badge or livery, by which, as well as by circumcision and by the fashion of their beards, and by their peculiar diet, the Hebrews were to be distinguished from other people. Be this as it may, much superstition came in the end to be connected with the use of these fringes. The Pharisees are severely censured by our Saviour for the ostentatious hypocrisy with which they made broad the "border" of their garments.

—Pictorial Commentary.

Prayer

Almighty God, to thy throne we come as if by right of love. Surely we have no right of conduct. Our behaviour would turn us away from places of light, but because of a love thou hast created in the heart we cannot be content with darkness; we yearn towards the morning; we would stand up in places full of glory and take part in every hymn of praise which celebrates thy pity and thy grace. This is the Lord"s working in our hearts, this is the seal divine, this is the signature of Heaven; there is none like it, there is no mistaking it. We feel what we cannot explain—that we have been born into a new life, have laid hold of a new relation, and are now standing in the strength and comfort of a covenant that cannot be broken. If for a moment we doubted this, we should be as men who think the clouds have put out the sun; we should reason wrongly, and make perverted use of thy promises and ministries in the soul. Yet it is difficult sometimes not to think that the sun is dead, that the clouds have conquered at last, and that the air is mightier than light. Thou wilt pity us herein, for our ignorance is our commendation as well as our infirmity. If we own it, thou wilt displace it by wisdom; if we obstinately cling to it, we may suffer the penalty of our folly. We are of yesterday and know nothing. We will not reason before thee; we will that thou wilt reason with us; so there shall be no argument on our side, except the argument of listening well, fixing upon thee the attention of our love and looking at thee with eyes of hunger. With this thou wilt be satisfied. Thou delightest in our upward look; to thee it is a great speech without words, a longing of the heart, a quick beating of the pulses. Behold, thou art worshipped by all the world in this form or in that; but it is after thee the nations yearn. They do not all know it, nor could many of them explain it, and some might even deny it; but, Lord, the earth groaneth for thee, and the peoples of the world are looking wistfully for thy coming. This day we all worship thee: some through the moles and the bats, some through hideous images; those of broader and livelier imagination through the sun and moon and stars, the dawning east and the purpling west; and some in this way and in that: some truly, wisely, by way of Revelation , grasping the Cross, seeing the propitiatory Blood, owning the mighty Name, and sealing every prayer with the name of Christ; but the whole earth is thine. In our littleness we reject and classify and distinguish, but in thy greatness thou dost see the inner meaning of things—the spiritual purpose, the ultimate design, and thou wilt judge righteous judgment and save many whom we would lose. We come before thee with different forms and conceptions of worship, but thou wilt interpret the motive and answer the heart"s desire. Hear the little child, who can but say, Father, and then wait in troubled silence because other and equal words will not come; tell him it is the greatest prayer—the unfinished cry, and the cry that never can be finished. Hear the sinner—broken, shattered, and confounded, who can but sob,—God be merciful to me a sinner. Stop him there as thou dost stop men who have built a whole tower; there is no need for further word, or speech, or plea; thou wilt stop it with an infinite reply, and come with much of blessing, yea, with festival and banqueting of soul to those who are alive at every point, who commune with thee in high imagining, in gracious fellowship, in tender yearning, through every form possible to the human mind, through all the mediums open to the access of the creature; and thus give a portion of meat to each in due season, and make us all forget the difference of way, and speech, and degree, in the enthusiasm of a common thankfulness, the burning of a unanimous love. We put ourselves into thy keeping. They are well kept whom thou keepest. Stand by the gate; watch the way to the heart; set a burning word near the tree of life to keep it from all trespass. Help us to do our duty bravely, wisely, tenderly, as strong and trustful hearts should do it. May we walk through the night as if it were a new form of day, may we plunge into the sea assured that the plunge will divide the waters, and may we face the wilderness as if it were a garden planted from on high; and when the way is beauteous and summer-lighted, full of song and sweetness and manifold delight, keep us from its fascinations and help us to make it but a dim, poor symbol of the paradise and the heavens which we have yet to realise. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 15:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/numbers-15.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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