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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Numbers 20

 

 

Verses 1-21

Unexpected Retribution

Numbers 20:14-21

ALL these things have an explanation. The judgment of things does not lie upon the bare surface, nor is our life a quantity constituted between four visible and measurable points. Life is a mystery—sometimes distant, shapeless and measureless as a cloud, and sometimes a veil so thin we can almost see through it, yet when we touch it, it is a hard wall built by hands invisible, and rising up with darkening height to the very clouds from which we expected revelations of morning and summer. Why do we whine and complain, and say we are ill-used and Edom is unkind and ungenerous, wanting in hospitality, and in all the tenderest attributes of human nature? It is an ill speech; it is as wanting in honesty and self-recognition as it is in sound reasoning. Israel was not the poor little innocent wanderer that it appeared to be from the plaintive, suppliant speech of Moses. Nothing is self-contained. We must go into yesterday to find the explanation of to-day. To-day!—What is it? An up-gathering and sharp, yet transient, representation of things that happened in the centuries dead but never forgotten and never inoperative. Who pleads? Israel. To whom is the plea addressed? To a brother. How did the word brother come into the narrative? It came historically. We have here Jacob and Esau. Edom is the name by which Esau was known. Wherever we find the term Edom, our minds may instantly associate with it the history of Esau, and an action of divine sovereignty in relation to that history. Jacob supplanted Esau, ran away in the night time, met his brother at some distance of time afterwards, the brothers fell upon one another"s necks, kissed each other, and seemed to sink the infinite outrage in grateful and perpetual oblivion. Nothing of the kind. Life cannot be managed thus; things do not lie between man and man only. Herein is the difference between crime and sin. Crime may be an affair open, visible, measurable, to which adequate penalty may be measured out; but sin hurts the heavens, insults and stains the sceptre of the universe—pains the heart of God. Can men shake hands over it, sponge it out by some act of transient generosity, and say,—Let it be forgotten, as though it had never been? We cannot treat our own sin. The answer to the sin of men must come from the God against whom the sin was committed. Do not let us imagine that sin is a breach of etiquette, a perversion of social custom, an eccentricity of personal taste, a mere outrage of a conventional kind. If we talk thus flippantly and superficially about sin, we shall be astounded when we behold the Cross that was erected for its obliteration and pardon. We must know the sinfulness of sin before we can know the compassionateness of mercy. So Jacob and Esau come face to face throughout the ages. The supplanter cannot sponge out his miserable cunning and selfish deceit and unpardonable fraud. Jacob the individual dies, Esau the individual dies: but Jacob and Esau, as representing a great controversy, can never die: to the end of the chapter Edom will encounter Israel with deep and lasting animosity. We cannot always explain the animosities which burn in our excited hearts; examined and cross-examined as to their history, we may be quite unable to give any exact account of genesis and growth and culmination. Man cannot explain himself to himself; he only knows that inexplicably he feels an animosity which cataracts cannot quench—a burning, blazing scorn which seas cannot drown. There is a mystery in human development. Things are larger than they seem to be. Awkward, perplexing, distressing, is the fact we are bound to recognise, that we come up against ourselves day by day, and our ghostly history follows us from wedding to burial, from feast to battle, from day to night; and when we would be gladdest it thrusts in its sting the furthest. Let us take care of this life. The day is more than twelve hours long; invisible threadlets pass through the dark night and connect themselves with the next day.—Our life is not a thread like a line; it is a web moving in various directions, and thickening itself into substance not always easy to handle, and sometimes wrapping itself round us like a robe that burns off our skin, and sometimes lifting itself above us to shut out the fire and blessing of the sun. Fools are they who live from hand to mouth,—yea, fools inexplicable and unpardonable and wholly undesirable as to companionship, who live a flippant life, thinking that things are in no wise related, and forgetting that to-morrow brings the harvest of to-day.

Influence is not limited by personal action. What is a "person"? There is no such thing, in any narrow and limited sense of the term. A man stands Up and says,—Am I not a man?—; and I say,—No, you are not—; there need not be any long and wordy discussion about that. What is an "individual"? There is no such thing, in the sense of a quantity that can be measured, weighed, and set down in exact figures, and as having no relation whatever to anything past or to come. When the little child stands up, generations beat in his pulse. When a man asks if he is not a "person," an "individual," he forgets that all his forefathers gather up mysterious influences in his breathing, his attitude, and his action. We are more than we appear to be. We do not bury the past and shut it out as an operative factor in the daily ministry of being. This makes life solemn even to awfulness. When the young life coughs and heaves under the influence of internal pain, what is it that happens? Whole generations of weakness gather up in that sense of distress and powerlessness. When a young and apparently lovely character suddenly deflects from the straight line and goes away into forbidden places, what has happened? Generations of criminals have asserted their ascendency over the individual will, and the wanderer may have run off to meet in invisible council more than two or three generations of men.

Jacob must meet Esau again and again. There is no easy escape for wrongdoers. The eternal distrust which subsists between man and Prayer of Manasseh , family and family, race and race, has a moral explanation. It is not all whim, fickleness, mere passion and selfish excitement. We must be philosophical in our quest for causes and motives. Far back in time almost immeasurable we shall find the seed was sown which comes up in unexpected places. The children must suffer for the fathers. We cannot help it We would complain of it were there not a supplemental and completing truth: for as certainly as the children suffer for their fathers, are they benefited by their fathers" nobleness and beneficence—as certainly do they come to reap golden harvests because of the good seed sowed by the generations that are gone. The way of the Lord is equal. We perhaps cannot understand why we are not allowed to pass through this land, to have right of passage down this country, to navigate certain rivers, and to cross particular provinces; and we take offence: our sensibilities are easily wounded; we say,—This is hard. But you cannot set aside the "divinity that shapes our ends"—the Providence that looks now and again upon us with a face of solemn judgment and transfixes us with a look full of spiritual accusation. What then? Instead of complaining and moaning and reproaching other people, let us search into the reality of the case, and we shall find, perhaps to our surprise—and our surprise may be turned to our instruction,—that whatever occurs to us in the way of disappointment, humiliation, and subordination, is explained by sin done long ago. Is there any consolation in that explanation of the mystery? None; but there is what is better. Why do you always seek for consolation and soothing? Who are we that we should cry out in moaning terms for perpetual consolation? Stand up and say,—This is God"s law, and by it we will work; we suffer hurt, damage, loss, because of what went before us; we cannot remedy that, but, by the help of God, we will see that our posterity shall reap sweetness where we have gathered only bitterness. The lesson is before you; the application relates to those who are coming afterwards. We can make their burdens lighter; we can already open gates through kingdoms for men who are coming fifty and a hundred years and more after this very day; and as the gates fly open, and hospitality is offered in the time of their wandering, they will remember that this day good men sowed good seed, mighty men fought battles with Heaven, great suppliants won great answers which they will enjoy in the fulness of their noble fruition.

So Esau had his turn. We pitied the hairy man as he was driven away portionless, without a blessing, his great big heart full of sin no doubt, quivering with agony, for which there was no adequate expression in words; but in so far as he has been wronged he will see satisfaction and himself be satisfied. The supplanted family had a land when the supplanter"s descendants had only a wilderness. This is the law of Providence. Events are not measured within the compasses of the little day. The cunning man or the strong Prayer of Manasseh , the oppressor or the wrong-doer, may have his victory to-day, and may smile upon it, and regard it with complacency, and receive the incense of adulation from persons who only see between sunrise and sundown. But the heavens are against him; he has to encounter the eternities, long time after his victory shall wither, and in his descendants his humiliation shall be consummated. Suppose, however, that he should not care for his descendants? Then he is not a man to be trusted now. Have no companionship with him. Do not put your hand into his hand, for he will wrong you and you will come out of the grasp with a stain upon your palm. Do not laugh with the fool when he says that he cares not for his descendants. A man who does not care for his descendants, cannot care for you, cannot care for his contemporaries; he writes his own condemnation in his flippant neglect. My Song of Solomon , have nothing to do with such a man; he will take thee into dark places, strip thee, wrong thee, and to suit his purpose may kill thee. Is it not wonderful how the wheel goes round? "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." Events translate themselves into punishment swiftly and suddenly. A shut gate means you are historically connected with a great wrong. Israel adopts the affectionate style of entreaty and says "thy brother Israel." But wrongs are not thus to be obliterated; complimentary speeches do not restore inheritances that have been turned away; eulogiums cannot repossess men of the blessings forfeited by the fraud of others. Live the larger life, the nobler life. Ye are not yourselves: you represent others, and you prepare for others to represent you; and he only handles life wisely who takes hold of both its ends and who remembers the law of cause and effect, seedtime and harvest, action and influence.

Here is the wrong-doer brought to his knees. That always happens. The wicked man has a short day. The deceiver must face his own deceits. Nothing prospers long in the bad man"s hands. The money which he gets wrongfully he cannot spend to his own satisfaction: it is gone whilst he counts it; it vanishes as he admires it; there is no stay in the gold, no abiding in the substance; it is money put into bags with holes in them. If a bad man could succeed, in the large, deep vital sense of the term, he would by so much dethrone God. He cannot, therefore, succeed; with Heaven against him, with eternity against him, with God against him, when he apparently succeeds, it is but the flash of a little flame that dies in the effort which it makes.

Notice what is termed the solidarity of human life. The human family is one. If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it. The wrongs that were done ten generations ago are being Revelation -asserted as to their moral claim to-day. The controversies of the world are not controversies which began this morning—fights that surprise the combatants; their beginnings lie far back in the gone centuries, and in proportion to the distances from which they come may be the judgment which they will demand.

We live, then, in a scheme of Providence. Life is not atheistic. Our sufferings have an explanation; our weakness is not an accident, but the outcome of a series of processes often lying beyond the line of imagination. The lesson is that we should accept life solemnly, pass through all its processes circumspectly, do nothing at our own bidding or for the gratification of our own will or fancy, but should always say,—My God, thy will be done. Let no man undertake to be God for himself; let him occupy his definite position as servant, errand-bearer, worker in the vineyard, and let his spirit express itself substantially thus: Lord, at thy bidding I would go, at thy bidding I would stay; give me understanding of my time; give me the noble Christly heart, and inspire me by thy Holy Spirit that I may be enabled so to succeed as to ripen into a harvest of satisfaction and gladness in the coming days. No man can live in that spirit without being in heaven as to all the substance and quality of heaven"s meaning. That is what is meant by praying without ceasing—namely, living in the prayerful spirit, always being in touch with God, ever having God"s throne in view, God"s law at heart, God"s will the inspiration and direction of life.

Viewed from this altitude, what is sorrow? what is loss? what is disappointment? All these things may be sanctified: orphanage may come to have a special sanctity; loneliness may be surprised into fellowship by visitants bearing no earthly name; and difficulty in living may become the inspiration and enlargement of noble prayer. If we live within the day, if history be nothing but a series of unrelated anecdotes, if seedtime has no reference to harvest,—then the joy of life is dead, the inspiration of labour has ceased, hope no longer plays its heavenly part in the movement of life and in all the gladness of being. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Clever Jacob, designing Jacob, supplanter of the absent brother, stealer of blessings, will one day have to knock at that brother"s gate and say,—If it please thee, my lord, may I be permitted to hasten through thy land?—and believe me I will touch nothing. Touch nothing! thou thief of the ages, thou simulator of honesty,—nay, thou wilt touch nothing! How the thief can prate of honesty! How the designing supplanter can say he will "go by the king"s high way," and no vine will he touch, and not a drop of water will he drink! We may have acquired such a reputation that people will not believe us even when we intend to be good for a moment. We may sin away our social standing; we may so act towards men that when we go before them, as it were, on bended knees and say we will touch nothing, hurt nothing, drink no water out of the wells but hasten through, they will laugh at us and say,—Mocker! liar! thief! remember the past, and then ask if we can be foolish and trustful enough to believe thee. Take care of your character, take care of your soul"s honesty; one day it will open gates, which will secure the hospitality of princes; and they who serve the Lord—mightily labour for him, and put their whole trust in him, shall go through by the king"s highway, and be permitted to eat of the vineyards and drink of the wells, and the longer they stay the more welcome will they be. Let me live the life of the righteous, let me die the death of the righteous, let me cast in my lot with the true and the wise and the divine—I would live and move and have my being in God.

Prayer

Almighty God, in wrath thou dost remember mercy. What are thy judgments but calls upon the compassion of thy people? By thy threatening thou dost bring forth men who will pray. Behold, when thy judgments are abroad in the earth, men take censers and fill them, and pray more mightily unto God than before. Such is thy wondrous way. We, who will not pray in calm time when no wind is abroad shaking the forest, fall to and pray most vehemently when the tempest shakes the heavens and the earth seems to tremble. We, who will not wait upon thee at the altar or care for thy sanctuary in any way when all things flow serenely around us, hasten to the Lord"s temple when the air is tainted with death. Thou wilt lay hold upon us either here or there, in this way or in that: but surely thine hand shall find us, and we must face the living God. Thou hast given us a Gospel which is a savour of life unto life, or of death unto death. We cannot escape it or deny it: behold, we must account with it; it is the Lord"s voice, it is the testimony divine, and we have to make some answer to its great cry of pity and offer of redemption. Thou dost take away the preacher: but the Gospel remains; thou dost change the congregation: but the sanctuary abides for ever; other hands pile the altar fire: but the altar itself is of thy founding and cannot be removed: it is the Lord"s appointed meeting-place; there his name is recorded and there his glory shines. Enable us to remember how little we are. We are but the creatures of yesterday and the victims of to-morrow, with a little time of tumult and anxiety between; and instead of attempting to solve the great mysteries of being—to set up an answer to the awful problems of the universe,—may we learn to pray, to love, to cry in penitential cries over our sin, and to hope in the living God, and thus may we be enabled to leave all mystery and great wonder and miracle of thought to be revealed and solved in the eternal world. Meanwhile, make us industrious in all things practical; give us a heart to feel for human want, a hand willing to help all human weakness; heighten our reverence for things divine; put into our voices the tone of noble solemnity; work in us the spirit of resignation; turn our eyes away from all saviours and redeemers but One; and, fixing our vision upon the central Cross, may we behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, and give ourselves to him, asking him to have mercy upon us and apply to us all the virtue of his priesthood. Prepare us for all events. We never know what shall be on the morrow: we will rest in God and trust in truth, and make a sanctuary of the divine righteousness, and would have God find for us a hole in the side of the rock in which we may stand in perfect security until all calamities be overpast Amen.


Verse 29

Connecting Lines

Numbers 20:29

We have seen the earth open and swallow up the rebels; now we may expect to have peace. A great judgment has fallen upon Israel, and from this time there will be no more murmuring and complaining. An earthquake will settle everything. If one could rise from the dead and visit the living, one sight of the dead man would cause the mind to think, the heart to dissolve in tears, and the whole will to consecrate itself to perpetual obedience. We have often invented methods of evangelising the world. Were an angel to stand in the very centre of the mid-day sky so that every one upon the earth could see him, and were he to preach some brief sermon to the sons of men, all the populations upon the face of the globe would instantly hail Jesus Christ, Son of Prayer of Manasseh , Son of God, Saviour of the world. If during some great outrage or crime of nations the earth were suddenly to tremble, shaking down tower and temple here and there, as if about to shake down all cities, men would begin to think, and repent, and pray, and believe. How long shall we forget that history is full of miracles and wonders and signs intended to convey moral instruction to the nations and to bring the peoples to sobriety of mind and religiousness of purpose? All these inventions which we suppose ought to accompany a divine administration of affairs have been tried and they have all failed. The earthquake is useless, and the great flood, the drowning deluge, and the storm of fire and brimstone;—these things are exploded as arguments for the purpose of pointing in the direction of the right method of converting the world. An instance in point is now before us ( Numbers 16:41). "But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the Lord." When did this murmuring occur? The very day that the divine judgment was inflicted. Earthquakes have no abiding moral; great physical demonstrations seem to perish in the using. An earthquake becomes a familiarity; a plague becomes a topic of common gossip; darkening heavens and shooting lightnings are remarked upon by the people who pass under the tempestuous canopy. The world is not to be sobered as we thought—to be steadied and brought into prayerful mood and temper; it is not by miracle, nor by earthquake, nor by fire, but by some other way subtler, farther off, apparently less effectual, and a method requiring long time to develop itself and apply itself to the whole line of human action and human need. It would be difficult to believe all this if we could not corroborate it by our own experience. When was the great sin committed in your case? "On the morrow" after the judgment. Can men sin so suddenly and immediately after the divine chastisement for wrong-doing? As an argument we should say, No, they cannot do so; but we are forced back upon facts, realities, solid and personal experiences, and all these combine to say: Hardly will the night pass to separate men from the great judgment before they are back at the forbidden altar, drinking the forbidden cup, and lifting up their hand in obstinate challenge to Heaven. It is so everywhere. Men see the evil results of wrong courses of behaviour, and they repeat those wrong courses as soon as their energy is recruited; men feel the ill effects of wrong living, and they will repeat that wrong living to-morrow. Daily we see what comes of evil practice, ignoble purpose, unholy thought, and yet we no sooner look at the punishment than we go away to do the very thing which involved the judgment of God. Account for this. There is no accounting for it argumentatively. If this were a mere matter of words, it could only be settled in one way. Were it possible for any human fancy so to forget all the history of the world as to stand up and say what men would do under such and such circumstances, detailing the very facts of life as we ourselves know them, we should resent the suggestion, we should declare it an exaggeration, an expression of an absurd impossibility. The witness is in ourselves: our conscience condemns us. Why is it important to dwell upon this? To show that human nature is one, to show that the Bible deals with one kind of humanity, and that one kind of humanity is found in all lands, in all ages it never changes; and it is important also as aggravating a condition to which some reply must be made from Heaven. We mass ourselves up into one terrific solid, and God must find some answer to the tremendous consolidation which we present. He must answer it with judgment, or he must answer it with mercy. The answer must come from above, be it what it may; and it can only be one of two answers: destruction—salvation; anger—pity; an assertion of sovereign and majestic power, or a condescension of divine majesty to the low condition and awful apostasy of human nature. Reading the Bible through thus, page by page, steadily and patiently, one may come upon the Cross with a feeling which would be utterly impossible under any other conditions of Biblical perusal. The Lord is angry with the people; he says he will destroy them after all: he will send a plague upon the camp which shall utterly burn it up. Is the Lord not sometimes tempted to fight us with our own weapons? Is not the divine patience apparently exhausted? Does it not seem as if only in one way can God get hold of us, and that by the way of destruction? So often is his hand lifted up and so often does it fall without inflicting the penalty. This is a holy vacillation; this is a glorious hesitancy. Looking at history we say,—Now the arm will fall and nothing can prevent it;—and suddenly as by a breath—soft as the breath of prayer—that great arm is turned aside, and the blow is not struck. This is divinity. It would be fickleness but in God; it would be an incertitude of mind but in the Most High. God knows that the way of salvation is the best way,—not the readiest, not the directest—destruction always lies handiest to the law that has been outraged;—but salvation may be so conceived, wrought out, and applied as to vindicate itself in the long run. Any time in relation to eternity must be a quantity infinitesimal. We store up our millenniums and call them long periods; we pile one thousand years upon another thousand years and multiply the double thousand by ten until our poor imaginations stagger under the vastness of the result; but the accumulated millenniums are but the flicker of a pulse, coming, going, dying, in the twinkling of an eye, compared with the duration of the divine throne. It will be seen, therefore, in Heaven"s by-and-by, that the method of salvation, though apparently so indirect and so remote in its influence and effect, is a divine method—the only method, the method that alone can vindicate itself by its sublimest issues.

So Moses and Aaron turned aside the divine wrath, and the Lord took to another course. He said,—This matter of rulership and guidance must be settled once for all. If the tone of impatience could enter the divine voice, it would be under such daily and vexatious provocation. So he will appeal to the eyes of the people; he would have the rods laid up, according to the statement in the seventeenth chapter,—he would have every one of them take a rod according to the house of their fathers, of all their princes according to the house of their fathers: twelve rods; and every man"s name was to be written upon his rod, and the man whose rod budded was to have the rulership and the primacy of Israel. So God will become an infant to us, because we are infants. This is the great method of human education. The philosopher has to become a child if he would teach a child; the mother can only charm the baby as she herself becomes a baby; God can only help man as he becomes a man. Great is the mystery of godliness, because always great is the mystery of love. Great is the mystery of condescension—infinite is the miracle of stooping to the lowest condition. Now Israel shall see a sight,—it is the stoop of God. The rods were laid up, in due time they were examined, and there was one rod budding and blooming like a living thing, and nor bud nor blossom could be seen upon the other rods. Whose rod budded and blossomed? It was Aaron"s rod. Henceforth it was to be a sign of power and divine election, and the sight of that rod was to settle all conflict, all controversy. Did that succeed? Nothing can succeed that is outward, visible, typical, or even miraculous. The miracles have all been tried, and they have all failed. Christ laid them down as useless tools. He knew from the beginning that they were useless; but he must adapt his plans to the condition of the scholars who are supposedly attending his school. So he leads us to drop miracle and sign and wonder and judgment, and causes us to cry out,—What then is the strength of God? what is the method of Heaven? and when our judgment and imagination have been purged of false conclusions and vain imaginings, then he says—and he could have said it at no earlier period, "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Song of Solomon , that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." To have said so at the beginning, would have been to puzzle the human mind, and distract the human imagination. First of all man must be cleared of the sophism that judgment can work wonders, that rising from the dead can convert families and nations. The miracle delusion must be destroyed. Yet the purpose of the miracle remains; when the mere miracle drops off, the spirit which animated it abides for ever—a spirit of compassion, condescension, gracious and tender appeal to men, willing in any way, if by any means the human heart can be touched with religious and ennobling emotion. This miracle in its great moral purpose is still wrought amongst us. The Bible is the rod that buds. We have laid up all other books along with it: we have given them plenty of time together, and now when we open the place where they were put together, we find that only one Book has upon it bud and blossom, and sign of satisfying fruit. Our appeal is to facts. Many books have arisen to dispute the supremacy of the Bible; many plans have been invented for overturning Christ"s method of saving the world; the mocker has laughed, the vain imagination has invented its fancies, and the troubled conscience has wrought miracles in casuistry and in the base use of language with double and triple meanings, and men have invented noises for the purpose of destroying spiritual and moral voices and appeals; but after all the experiments there is one rod that buds, one Book that blossoms, one tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We must, therefore, go through miracles to facts, through spaces which daze the mind by their mystery or their vastness, to the simple realities of life; and the Bible this day and every day calls men to any Carmel they may choose, and on the height of the solemn hill it will settle the controversy by appealing to the influence exerted upon human life, to mastery of human affairs, and to the power of giving solace under all the exacerbations and infinite distresses of human life.

Now the history passes on, and we find, presently, that the little company of leaders becomes less. In the twentieth chapter and the first verse we have one line which says,—"And Miriam died there, and was buried there." You could scarcely say less about a dog! She began bravely and musically did this woman, but she was full of thought; she inspired her feeble brother Aaron that they might together challenge the pontificate of Moses. She began with timbrel and dance, with a thrilling soprano; she was first among those who sang the Song of Deliverance, and we thought then she would do well; but hers was a poor course—a bright promise that never came to any solid effect. She murmured against Moses, she found fault with his marriage, she disputed his supremacy, she inspired the most fickle and feeblest of all great men, namely, Aaron her brother, that he might take share in the cowardly attack upon Moses; and now history—solemn, impartial, awful history—avenges the cause of righteousness and gives Miriam but one line:—"Miriam died there, and was buried there." We may so live as to be so characterised ourselves. It is possible for us so to live that nobody may miss us when we die. Of course we must have a grave: the earth must be scarred in some few inches to let us into its impartial bosom; but it is poor work; and there lies here a man over whose grave no child ever wept, over whose resting-place no heart ever beat with unusual quickness as if stirred by grateful emotion; here lies a man who took up room that a better man might have occupied, and he is thrust in here without any memorial. It is possible to live so. There is a happier possibility: we may live so that our grave shall be a sacred spot, a kind of altar inscribed to the honour of the mercy and goodness of the living God, so that men passing it may say, He was a brave soul; he had a noble heart; no suspicious thought ever vitiated that man"s thinking; no mean desire or purpose ever warped and depraved his career, in relation to the cause of weakness and poverty and pain. Such men cannot die, except in the narrowest sense of that term; when they are laid away they seem to be more with us than ever. We multiply our dead: we magnify our good ones; we create a little heaven in our own imagination and heart, and we remember little words, quiet tones, and gentle touches, subtle references, and sum up all these things into the judgment of goodness, and the record of gratitude. That the sweet singer—that the sister of Moses—that a woman with the spirit of leadership in her, should simply have "died" and been "buried" is a lesson to us. How arc the mighty fallen! how have the sons of the morning lost their light!

Was Moses, then, perfect? The two brothers are left alone now,—was Moses a perfect man? Let us thank God that he was not. The perfect man is a most discouraging influence in any community. He repels rather than attracts, being simply a man and perfect as such, first because perfection is impossible, secondly because its appearance, assumption, or attainment, discourages men who feel that they cannot advance with its pace or attain to its pre-eminence. So Moses falters; Moses will become in some degree one of us. When the people murmured for want of water, the Lord said,—Go forward; show them the rod, and quiet their murmurings. But this was never done. Moses went forward, and in a moment of rage or impatience—not to be wondered at—he struck the rock; and because of that stroke God struck him. We must not do things in our own way; we must show the rod, not strike with the rod. By such fine distinctions are men judged. The difference between men is not the difference between black and white—great broad issues,—but often becomes a distinction between full obedience and partial obedience, continual sacrifice and occasional sacrifice; a difference of tone—too loud, too low; too emphatic, too hesitant. So critical—so minute—is the vision and the judgment of God.

Then we come to the time when Moses was left alone.

"And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel" ( Numbers 20:29).

They took the nobler view of the man. After all he was God"s priest. We must have some regard to the men who have thrown even the censer of the sanctuary. He was sometimes feeble to contemptibleness, sometimes perhaps a little vain, though he would not have been half so vain but for the prompting of his ambitious sister; he made the calf of gold, he did things which he ought not to have done; still for him the ephod was made, on him the sacerdotal robes were set as by the very hands of God; he was Aaron after all. So when he died there was a thirty days" mourning for him, "even all the house of Israel." They remembered the old man"s best qualities: they said,— he was always valiant: he seemed—he was—a good man in the soul of him: the rotten places were all outside: the core of the old priest was a sound and healthy core. The people have the spirit of judgment; the people know the true from the false. There is hardly any bar of judgment out of heaven so exact in its decisions as the bar of the common opinion of the nations. So Aaron was mourned for by all the house of Israel. We shall—said they in effect—see the old man no more; he had a noble speech: he was the rhetor of the wilderness: he was chosen because of his eloquence: he was to be a mouth unto Moses and Moses was to be as God unto him. So they complemented one another: what the one had the other had not: what the one had not the other had; they were brothers indeed, and the mourning was touched with a deeper pathos when Israel caught sight of Moses. Miriam gone, Aaron gone—who next can go but the great chief himself? So wondrously are the events of life related to one another, touched by one another, coloured by one another, and so profound and subtle is the mystery of pathos itself. Who remains? The Lord abideth for ever—Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever. The singing Miriam dies, but the music still flows on; priestly Aaron passes away, but our Melchizedek abideth a Priest for ever; the great Moses dies with the only pomp possible to the majesty of his career—in the solitude of the divine companionship, but the God of Moses lives. This must be our confidence in the day of fear, when we ask,—What shall Israel do when Miriam ceases to sing, when Aaron ceases to pray, when Moses ceases to lead? What shall be done when the prophets drop their mantle and the fathers say Adieu? Our confidence must be in God: his heaven is full of angels, his ministers are without number in their host, and never yet sang human voice, never yet resounded human eloquence, never yet went forth the champion of human liberties, whose place God could not supply with an ampler abundance. There is no searching of his understanding. The Church does not stand in the song of its singers, in the eloquence of its preachers, in the prayers of its priests; the Church stands in Christ. When he dies, the Church dies. He abideth for ever; the Church Isaiah , therefore, assured as to its duration by the eternity of its Lord.

Prayer

Almighty God, thou dost lead us by the right way. Its length is determined, and all the influences which operate upon it are under thy control. We did not begin the way, nor do we know one turning that is upon it, nor can we determine the length thereof. It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps; the way of man is from the Lord which made heaven and earth, and he will sustain the traveller, he will bring the weary pilgrim to the heavenly rest. Thou hast led us these many years in the wilderness, and thou hast made a garden of the desert, and thou hast found for us orchards amongst the rocks; thy course towards us has been a daily miracle, a surprise of love, a new revelation of light. So now we begin to see somewhat of God"s meaning in what to us has been so long confusion and bewilderment. Thou dost work secretly, so that we cannot see thee; thine hand is not always visible to us so that we can say,—This is the Lord, and this is his work, and, behold, he doeth it in his own way and time. We cannot see much; we can hear but a little; we must, therefore, live our larger life—the life of faith, the noble, eternal life of trust in the living God; saying daily, until our very voice becomes musical by the exercise,—The will of the Lord be done: it is best; thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. When we can speak this prayer with our hearts, we shall know that the pinnacle is being put upon the temple, that the topstone is being set upon the tower, and that our life"s education upon earth is nearly completed. Do thou take us, by thine own way, to the city which hath habitations built for the sons of men. We think we nee the shorter road; but our life is full of mistakes of our own making: so we will judge nothing before the time, but wait in the spirit of trust and in the meekness of patience. We will leave all the way to God. We will not take our life-course from our passion, our imagination, our selfishness; we will have nothing to do with it, except in God and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Then our thirst shall be a blessing, our hunger shall be a means of grace, our difficulties shall be elements of delight, and the strain that is put upon our weakness shall be the beginning and the assurance of power. Bring us into the inner places of God"s house; take us from chamber to chamber until we see the innermost centre possible to earthly vision; give us to feel the warmth of the sanctuary—its tender, hospitable glow; give us to feel assurance of God"s nearness and God"s love and God"s almightiness to save. Protect us from impression made through the senses only, and undertake for us that we shall learn wholly from thy Spirit, disregarding appearances which we can neither understand nor control. Enable us to trust thee, and love thee, and serve thee: and when the enemy"s hand is mighty upon us, may the hand of God be mightier still; and when the discouragement of the way is very severe, may our gift in prayer be greatly enlarged, and our souls see an open gate to the throne of the heavenly grace. We bless thee for thy Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour. We love him because he first loved us. Whilst we were yet sinners he died for us, much more now that he is raised and throned in heaven will he mightily succour us by his consolations and ennoble us by his promises. Comfort thy people; say unto them their iniquity is pardoned, and grant unto them assurance that the enemy hath no more power over them, seeing they are bought with a price and are marked by the sign of God and are guided by the Spirit Eternal. We remember our loved ones everywhere, praying for them with all prayer and supplication, that they, with us, may enjoy the common blessings of the sanctuary, and, having happiness of home, may have triumph in the house of God and great success in the marketplace; the Lord bless them in basket and in store, in property, in children, in all manner of business and avocation, in travelling by sea and by land; and show us all that there can be no distance from one another, where there is no distance from the common centre; if we love God, we shall be near one another, though mountains intervene and seas roll between us; we touch a common Cross, we look at a common Light, we breathe to the One, the Universal, Father; and in this sweet, noble fellowship we are conscious of living union. Make the sick thy care. In many cases they are quite beyond us; our gentlest touch is roughness, our whispered affection is a loud voice; but thou canst speak to souls nearing heaven, thou canst comfort those whose feet are touching the last cold river, thou canst trim the light when we cannot touch it. So we hand over our sick chambers and all our suffering loved ones to the Physician and Healer of the universe, willing to be his servants that we may work as he bids us, and wait all the time until our patience is completed. The Lord hear us in these things; the Lord send us answers more than we have capacity to receive; the Lord show us that he is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think: that in our mightiest prayer we have not begun to touch the infinity of his reply. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 20:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/numbers-20.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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