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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Exodus 31



Verses 1-18



Exodus 31:1-18.

Next after this marking off so sharply of the holy from the profane, this consecration of men to special service, this protection of sacred unguents and sacred gums from secular use, we come upon a passage curiously contrasted, yet not really antagonistic to the last, of marvellous practical wisdom, and well calculated to make a nation wise and great.

The Lord announces that He has called by name Bezaleel, the son of Uri, and has filled him with the Spirit of God. To what sacred office, then, is he called? Simply to be a supreme craftsman, the rarest of artisans. This also is a divine gift. "I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold and in silver and in brass and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work in all manner of workmanship,"--that is to say, of manual dexterity. With him God had appointed Aholiab; "and in the hearts of all the wise-hearted I have put wisdom." Thus should be fitly made the tabernacle and its furniture, and the finely wrought garments, and the anointing oil and the incense.

So then it appears that the Holy Spirit of God is to be recognised in the work of the carpenter and the jeweller, the apothecary and the tailor. Probably we object to such a statement, so baldly put. But inspiration does not object. Moses told the children of Israel that Jehovah had filled Bezaleel with the Spirit of God, and also Aholiab, for the work "of the engraver ... and of the embroiderer ... and of the weaver" (Exodus 35:31, Exodus 35:35).

It is quite clear that we must cease to think of the Divine Spirit as inspiring only prayers and hymns and sermons. All that is good and beautiful and wise in human art is the gift of God. We feel that the supreme Artist is audible in the wind among the pines; but is man left to himself when he marshals into more sublime significance the voices of the wind among the organ tubes? At sunrise and sunset we feel that

"On the beautiful mountains the pictures of God are hung";

but is there no revelation of glory and of freshness in other pictures? Once the assertion that a great masterpiece was "inspired" was a clear recognition of the central fire at which all genius lights its lamp: now, alas! it has become little more than a sceptical assumption that Isaiah and Milton are much upon a level. But the doctrine of this passage is the divinity of all endowment; it is quite another thing to claim Divine authority for a given product sprung from the free human being who is so richly crowned and gifted.

Thus far we have smoothed our way by speaking only of poetry, painting, music--things which really compete with nature in their spiritual suggestiveness. But Moses spoke of the robe-maker, the embroiderer, the weaver, and the perfumer.

Nevertheless, the one is carried with the other. Where shall we draw the line, for example, in architecture or in ironwork? And there is another consideration which must not be overlooked. God is assuredly in the growth of humanity, in the progress of true civilisation--in all, the recognition of which makes history philosophical. It is not only the saints who feel themselves to be the instruments of a Greater than they. Cromwell and Bismarck, Columbus, Raleigh and Drake, William the Silent and William the Third, felt it. Mr. Stanley has told us how the consciousness that he was being used grew up in him, not through fanaticism but by slow experience, groping his way through the gloom of Central Africa.

But none will deny that one of the greatest factors in modern history is its industrial development. Is there, then, no sacredness here?

The doctrine of Scripture is not that man is a tool, but that he is responsible for vast gifts, which come directly from heaven--that every good gift is from above, that it was God Himself Who planted in Paradise the tree of knowledge.

Nor would anything do more to restrain the passions, to calm the impulses and to elevate the self-respect of modern life, to call back its energies from the base competition for gold, and make our industries what dreamers persuade themselves that the mediaeval industries were, than a quick and general perception of what is meant when faculty goes by such names as talent, endowment, gift--of the glory of its use, the tragedy of its defilement. Many persons, indeed, reject this doctrine because they cannot believe that man has power to abase so high a thing so sadly. But what, then, do they think of the human body?

What connection is there between all this and the reiteration of the law of the Sabbath? Not merely that the moral law is now made a civic statute as well, for this had been done already (Exodus 23:12). But, as our Lord has taught us that a Jew on the Sabbath was free to perform works of mercy, it might easily be supposed lawful, and even meritorious, to hasten forward the construction of the place where God would meet His people. But He who said "I will have mercy and not sacrifice" said also that to obey was better than sacrifice. Accordingly this caution closes the long story of plans and preparations. And when Moses called the people to the work, his first words were to repeat it (Exodus 35:2).

Finally, there was given to Moses the deposit for which so noble a shrine was planned--the two tables of the law, miraculously produced.

If any one, without supposing that they were literally written with a literal finger, conceives that this was the meaning conveyed to a Hebrew by the expression "written with the finger of God," he entirely misses the Hebrew mode of thought, which habitually connects the Lord with an arm, with a chariot, with a bow made naked, with a tent and curtains, without the slightest taint of materialism in its conception. Did not the magicians, failing to imitate the third plague, say "This is the finger of a God"? Did not Jesus Himself "cast out devils by the finger of God"? (Exodus 8:19; Luke 11:20).

Verse 6

Exodus 31:6

In the hearts of all that are wise hearted I have put wisdom.

The danger of accomplishments

There are persons who doubt whether what are called “accomplishments,” whether in literature or in the fine arts, can be consistent with deep and practical seriousness of mind. I am not speaking of human learning; this also many men think inconsistent with simple uncorrupted faith. They suppose that learning must make a man proud. This is of course a great mistake; but of it I am not speaking, but of an over-jealousy of accomplishments, the elegant arts and studies, such as poetry, literary composition, painting, music, and the like; which are considered, not indeed to make a man proud, but to make him trifling. Of this opinion, how far it is true and how far not true, I am going to speak. Now, that the accomplishments I speak of have a tendency to make us trifling and unmanly, and therefore are to be viewed by each of us with suspicion as far as regards himself, I am ready to admit, and shall presently make clear. I allow that in matter of fact, refinement and luxury, elegance and effeminacy, go together. Antioch, the most polished, was the most voluptuous city of Asia. But the abuse of good things is no argument against the things themselves; mental cultivation may be a Divine gift, though it is abused. An acquaintance with the elegant arts may he a gift and a good, and intended to be an instrument of God’s glory, though numbers who have it are rendered thereby indolent, luxurious, and feeble-minded. But the account of the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, from which the text is taken, is decisive on this point. How, then, is it that what in itself is of so excellent, and, I may say, Divine a nature, is yet so commonly perverted? Now the danger of an elegant and polite education is that it separates feeling and acting; it teaches us to think, speak, and be affected aright, without forcing us to practise what is right. I will take an illustration of this from the effect produced upon the mind by reading what is commonly called a romance or novel. Such works contain many good sentiments (I am taking the better sort of them); characters, too, are introduced, virtuous, noble, patient under suffering, and triumphing at length over misfortune. But it is all fiction; it does not exist out of a book which contains the beginning and end of it. We have nothing to do; we read, are affected, softened, or roused, and that is all; we cool again--nothing comes of it. Now observe the effect of this. God has made us feel in order that we may go on to act in consequence of feeling; if, then, we allow our feelings to be excited without acting upon them, we do mischief to the moral system within us, just as we might spoil a watch, or other piece of mechanism, by playing with the wheels of it. We weaken its springs, and they cease to act truly. For instance, we will say we have read again and again of the heroism of facing danger, and we have glowed with the thought of its nobleness. Now, suppose at length we actually come into trial, and, let us say, our feelings become roused, as often before, at the thought of boldly resisting temptations to cowardice, shall we therefore do our duty, quitting ourselves like men? rather, we are likely to talk loudly, and then run from the danger. And what is here instanced of fortitude is true in all cases of duty. The refinement which literature gives is that of thinking, feeling, knowing and speaking right, not of acting right; and thus, while it makes the manners amiable, and the conversation decorous and agreeable, it has no tendency to make the conduct, the practice of the man virtuous. The case is the same with the arts last alluded to--poetry and music. These are especially likely to make us unmanly, if we are not on our guard, as exciting emotions without insuring correspondent practice, and so destroying the connection between feeling and acting; for I here mean by unmanliness the inability to do with ourselves what we wish--the saying fine things and yet lying slothfully on our couch, as if we could not get up, though we ever so much wished it. And here I must notice something besides in elegant accomplishments, which goes to make us over-refined and fastidious, and falsely delicate. In books everything is made beautiful in its way. Pictures are drawn of complete virtue; little is said about failures, and little or nothing of the drudgery of ordinary, every-day obedience, which is neither poetical nor interesting. True faith teaches us to do numberless disagreeable things for Christ’s sake, to bear petty annoyances, which we find written down in no book. And further still, it must be observed, that the art of composing, which is a chief accomplishment, has in itself a tendency to make us artificial and insincere. For to be ever attending to the fitness and propriety of our words, is (or at least there is the risk of its being) a kind of acting; and knowing what can be said on both sides of a subject is a main step towards thinking the one side as good as the other. With these thoughts before us, it is necessary to look back to the Scripture instances which I began by adducing, to avoid the conclusion that accomplishments are positively dangerous and unworthy a Christian. But St. Luke and St. Paul show us that we may be sturdy workers in the Lord’s service, and bear our cross manfully, though we be adorned with all the learning of the Egyptians; or, rather, that the resources of literature and the graces of a cultivated mind may be made both a lawful source of enjoyment to the possessor, and a means of introducing and recommending the truth to others; while the history of the Tabernacle shows that all the cunning arts and precious possessions of this world may be consecrated to a religious service, and be made to speak of the world to come. I conclude, then, with the following cautions, to which the foregoing remarks lead. First, we must avoid giving too much time to lighter occupations; and next, we must never allow ourselves to read works of fiction or poetry, or to interest ourselves in the fine arts for the mere sake of the things themselves; but keep in mind all along that we are Christians and accountable beings, who have fixed principles of right and wrong, by which all things must be tried, and have religious habits to be matured within them, towards which all things are to be made subservient. If we are in earnest we shall let nothing lightly pass by which may do us good, nor shall we dare to trifle with such sacred subjects as morality and religious duty. We shall apply all we read to ourselves; and this almost without intending to do so, from the mere sincerity and honesty of our desire to please God. We shall be suspicious of all such good thoughts and wishes, and we shall shrink from all such exhibitions of our principles as fall short of action. Of all such as abuse the decencies and elegancies of moral truth into a means of luxurious enjoyment, what would a prophet of God say? (Ezekiel 33:30-32; 2 Timothy 4:2-4; 1 Corinthians 16:13). (J. H. Newman, D. D.)

The wise hearted ones

Who are the wise hearted ones?

1. They are those who prove themselves as having ability to do useful work. Work done, and well done, though it be in itself of trifling value, is the determination of wisdom.

2. The wise hearted are they who reach beyond present ability to perform. No true workman is satisfied to simply repeat his last job.

3. The wise hearted are they who, at Christ’s call, enter His kingdom, there to labour under the influence of the purest, strongest motives. (C. R. Seymour.)

Grace and genius

I. Natural gifts are often discovered by grace.

II. Natural gifts are directed by grace.

III. Natural gifts are heightened by grace.

IV. Natural gifts are sanctified by grace. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)

The method of Providence

God would have everything built beautifully. What an image of beauty have we seen this Tabernacle to be through and through, flushed with colours we have never seen, and bright with lights that could not show themselves fully in the murkiness of this air! He would make us more beautiful than our dwelling-place. He would not have the house more valuable than the tenant. He did not mean the worshipper to be less than the Tabernacle which He set up for worship. Are we living the beautiful life--the life solemn with sweet harmonies, broad in its generous purpose, noble in the sublimity of its prayer, like God in the perpetual sacrifice of its life? Not only will God build everything beautifully; His purpose is to have everything built for religious uses. His meaning is that the form shall help the thought, that images appealing to the eye shall also touch the imagination and graciously affect the whole spirit, and subdue into tender obedience and worship the soul and heart of man. What is the Tabernacle for? For worship. What is the meaning of it? It is a gate opening upon heaven. Why was it set up? To lift us nearer God. If we fail to seize these purposes, if we fail of magnifying and glorifying them so as to ennoble our own life in the process, we have never seen the Tabernacle. Herein is it for ever true that we may have a Bible but no revelation; a sermon but no Gospel; we may be in the church, yet not in the sanctuary; we may admire beauty, and yet live the life of the drunkard and the debauchee. In all His building--and God is always building--He qualifies every man for a particular work in connection with the edifice. The one man wants the other man. The work stands still till that other man comes in. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Various kinds of inspiration

Who can read these words as they ought to be read? How it makes ministers of God by the thousand! We have thought that Aaron was a religious man because of his clothing and because of many peculiarities which separated him from other men; but the Lord distinctly claims the artificer as another kind of Aaron. Who divides life into sacred and profane? Who introduces the element of meanness into human occupation and service? God claims all things for Himself. Who will say that the preacher is a religious man, but the artificer is a secular worker? But let us claim all true workers as inspired men. We know that there is an inspired art. The world knows it; instinctively, unconsciously, the world uncovers before it. There is an inspired poetry, make it of what measure you will. The great common heart knows it, says, “That is the true verse; how it rises, falls, plashes like a fountain, flows like a stream, breathes like a summer wind, speaks the thoughts we have long understood, but could never articulate!“ The great human heart says, “That is the voice Divine; that is the appeal of heaven.” Why should we say that inspiration is not given to all true workers, whether in gold or in thought, whether in song or in prayer, whether in the type or in the magic eloquence of the burning tongue? Let us enlarge life, and enlarge Providence, rather than contract it, and not, whilst praying to a God in the heavens, have no God in the heart. You would work better if you realized that God is the Teacher of the fingers, and the Guide of the hand. Labour is churched and glorified. Art turns its chiselled and flushed features towards its native heaven. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Gifts from God as well as graces

God gave the plan clearly, graphically, distinctly, to Moses; but it needed men raised up specially by the Spirit of God to execute the plan, and to give it practical development. And we learn from this fact that a gifted intellect is as much the creation of the Spirit of God as a regenerate heart. Gifts are from God as truly as graces; it needs the guidance of God’s good Spirit to enable a man “to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them; and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship“; just as it does to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. We thus see that God gives light to the intellect as well as grace to the heart; and we may, perhaps, from this learn a very humbling, but a very blessed truth--that the man with a gifted intellect is as much summoned to bow the knee, and to thank the Fountain and the Author of it, as the man that has a sanctified heart feels it his privilege to bow his knee, and to bless the Holy Spirit that gave it, for this his distinguishing grace and mercy. (J. Cumming, D. D.)

Spiritual gifts

1. Prize them inestimably.

2. Covet them earnestly.

3. Seek for them diligently.

4. Ponder them frequently.

5. Wait for them patiently.

6. Expect them hopefully.

7. Receive them joyfully.

8. Enjoy them thankfully.

9. Improve them carefully.

10. Retain them watchfully.

11. Plead for them manfully.

12. Hold them dependently.

13. Grasp them eternally. (Biblical Museum.)

Genius and industry

A friend of Charles Dickens, a man who had given promise of a noble career as an author, but who, through indolence, had failed in doing any permanent work, called upon him one morning, and, after bewailing his ill-success, ended by sighing, “Ah, if I only were gifted with your genius!” Dickens, who had listened patiently to the complaint, exclaimed at once in answer, “Genius, sir! I do not know what you mean. I had no genius save the genius for hard work!” However his enthusiastic admirers may dispute this, certain it is that Dickens trusted to no such uncertain light as the fire of genius. Day in and day out, by hard work, he elaborated the plot, characters, and dialogue of his imperishable stories. Whole days he would spend to discover suitable localities, and then be able to give vividness to his description of them, while, sentence by sentence, his work, after apparent completion, was retouched and revised. The great law of labour makes no exception of the gifted or ignorant. Whatever the work may be, there can be no success in it without diligent, unceasing, persevering labour.

Verse 18

Exodus 31:18

Written with the finger of God.

God’s writing

It is said of these tables that they “were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables.” Some infidels have carped at this; and I must say it does seem to me as if it were not human finger, or human stylus, or pen, but God Himself that engraved it; but why should it be thought impossible for God to engrave upon stone? Have we not discovered that the lightning can carry our messages--that the lightning let go at London can print at Dover, as has been more recently shown--is it not found that the very rays of light themselves can engrave the most exquisite and intricate imagery; and should it be thought strange, then, that God should Himself engrave upon stone the Ten Commandments? The fact is, the higher we rise in scientific knowledge, the more we see how true this Book is, how worthy of God to write it, how dutiful in man to believe, and bless Him and rejoice in Him. (J. Cumming, D.D.)


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Exodus 31:4". The Biblical Illustrator. 1905-1909. New York.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 27th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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