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1. In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai (about eighteen miles).
2. For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.
3. And Moses went up unto God (ascended Sinai), and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain (while he was yet a great way off), saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel:
4. Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings ("As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them upon her wings"), and brought you unto myself (out of Egypt and its corrupting influences).
5. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure (some valuable possession which the owner has got by his own exertions) unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
6. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
7. And Moses came and called for the elders (the usual channel of communication) of the people, and laid before their faces (a curious piece of literalism) all these words which the Lord commanded him.
8. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned (reported) the words of the people unto the Lord.
9. And the Lord said unto Moses, Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud (in the denseness of a cloud) that the people may hear when I speak with thee, and believe thee for ever. And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord.
10. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go unto the people, and sanctify them (an outward purification symbolic of inward fitness) to day and to morrow, and let them wash their clothes (the Levitical law requires the washing of clothes on many occasions),
11. And be ready against the third day: for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon mount Sinai
12. And thou shalt set bounds unto the people round about, saying, Take heed to yourselves, that ye go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it: whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death:
13. There shall not an hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live: when the trumpet soundeth long, they shall come up to the mount.
The Results of Obedience
Israel having gone from Rephidim, came to the desert of Sinai, and there Moses, having gone up the mountain, received from God a distinct message, "If ye will obey my voice, ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me." This is a tabernacle without form; this is a sanctuary not made with hands. If we can seize the meaning of this passage we shall have in our hands one of the key-paragraphs of the whole history. Let us try to classify the thoughts which grow as in a garden planted by the Lord himself; a garden whose hedges are far away; for he whose mercy endureth for ever makes no small gardens; he would, indeed, have no desert land.
Here is a Gospel originating in heaven. Moses is not the leading speaker. No desire has been expressed by the people that any such arrangement as this should be completed. The movement is always from above. The rains that water the earth, that make it bring forth and bud, are clouds far above our heads and far beyond our influence. The great thoughts all come down tipped with a light above the brightness of the sun. If any man lack wisdom he is to ask of God. It is not a plant that is grown in the clay; it is a flower that blossoms and blooms in the eternal paradise. Keep this steadily in mind in the perusal of the sacred record, that no great thought ever came from the human side. Man has had but to reply; the infinite appeals of judgment and of grace have come out of the hidden heavens. We are, therefore, debtors to grace. We have nothing that is worth having that is of our own invention or manufacture. All eternal thought and all eternal feeling, being wise, pure, and beneficent, can be traced to him who giveth all good and perfectness. This is the foundation thought.
Now comes a Divine method which attests the heavenliness of its origin, having about it all the mystery of the infinite and unspeakable. God says: "If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant." Can he not make them do so? There is no compulsion in worship, or in morals, or in true spiritual obedience. A child can turn his back upon God and treat the Almighty with sullenness. The tiniest knee can stiffen itself, and decline to bow before the heavens. In its bodily relation, it can be crushed, broken, destroyed; but representing the mind, the heart, the will, God cannot bend that obstinate iron. So God begins by seeking consent. Man has to be a party to this marvellous covenant If we sing, it is because our love is so burning that we cannot keep back the music; if we obey, it is because our hearts consent to the statute which demands obedience. Has God, then, given any detailed laws up to this time which he means the people to accept? No. Here is the wondrousness of the method, the laws using that word in the plural number have yet to come. Mark the Divine wisdom the wondrous reach of the Divine thought. To have come with ten words, or a thousand lines of statute and precept would have excited argument and discontent, criticism, and possible rebellion. Not a word was said about the detail. God will not light the mountain until the sacrifice is prepared; the smoke, and the fire, and the trumpet will come by-and-by. What is first wanted? The spirit, not the act, of obedience. Everything turns upon that distinction. God asks broadly and comprehensively for obedience. He must have a spirit in tune with the music of his own purpose, and then, as to the separate melodies that must be played, they will fall into their right place, and will assume new relations and new value, because of the spirit of obedience which has been enkindled and sanctified in the human heart. That is the Divine philosophy not to come with two tables of stone, and to invite detailed criticism and wordy controversy, but to face the creature, as it were, and to say, "Wilt thou obey thy Creator in very deed?" The creature answers gladly, "I will." After that you may have as many tables of stone as the occasion requires, or as human development may call for in the ages of education yet to dawn upon an advancing race.
Mark the wondrousness of the Divine providence, and the Divine method: First, the spirit of obedience is created; then the separate words, or individual and singular laws, are uttered to a prepared heart. Probably it could be proved that a great deal of our conscious disobedience has arisen from our looking at the law we have to obey, rather than preparing the heart to obey the whole counsel of God. You have no right to look at the laws, until you have promised obedience, and pledged with an oath of the heart that you will be true to the Divine proposals. Men first disqualify themselves for judgment, and then proceed to criticism; they say, "What are the Commandments?" That is not a permissible inquiry. We are not dealing with plurals and details, with daily discipline and momentary demands; we are dealing with the soul of things, with the spirit of man, with the mood and temper of the heart. Granted that all is right in this direction, then turn to the laws, and you will take them up as a very little thing, understanding the sweet music of him who came to "fulfil the law." "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light," a most heavy yoke and a burden grievous beyond all other weight, if we come to it without a prepared spirit; but having filled the heart with preparedness, and filled the mouth with a song of adoration and a hymn of loyalty, then let the tables of stone come to us: the stones shall have no hardness, and the law shall no longer be arbitrary, but part of the happy music and sacred necessity which characterise the whole order and intent of God.
Here is the explanation of the Divine preferences which have distressed so many hearts under the cruel name of sovereignty and election. There need be no torture in using those words. If we feel distressed by them, it is because we have come upon them along the wrong path. They are beautiful and noble words when set in their places according to the Divine intent. "Then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people." Is that partiality in any exclusive sense? Not at all; it is really meant to be inclusive. God elects humanity. "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom." In what sense? In the ordinary sense namely, a great aggregate of subjects ruled by one arbitrary and despotic king? In no such sense. The literal meaning is, ye shall all be kings. Now you see the meaning of that great name, "King of kings" not king of an individual monarch here and there, as in Britain, or Russia, or China, but of all believers. All obedient souls are lifted up unto kinghood. We are royal equals if we obey Heaven's will, and God is King of kings, King of all. We are a royal generation. All this language is typical. Beautiful is the historical line when seized and wisely applied. Let us attempt such seizure and application. The firstborn were chosen, and the firstborn were to be priests. In what sense are the firstborn chosen? Not as relegating the afterborn to positions subordinate and inferior; but in the sense of being their pledge and seal. God has the eldest son, and therefore that is the sacred logic he has all the other children. Then the laws regarding the priesthood underwent a change, and the family of Aaron was called. We proceed from an individual, namely, the firstborn, to a family, namely, the Aaronic stock. But why were they chosen? That all the children of Aaron might also be priests, in the truly spiritual and eternal sense, though not in official and formal name and status. Then the family was deposed and a tribe is chosen the tribe of Levi. Mark how the history accumulates and grows up into a prophecy and an argument! First the individual, then the family, then the tribe, then the Son of man, absorbing all the past, gathering up into its true and official meaning all priesthood, all intercession. There is one Advocate with the Father, the Man Christ Jesus.
A new light thus begins to dawn upon the cloud. There is nothing arbitrary in the movement of God when we can penetrate its infinite philosophy. Will God have the firstfruits of the harvest field? He claims all such. Why will he claim the firstfruits? That in having the firstfruits he might have all the field. He will not take the whole wheat acreage of the world into his heavens and devour our poor loaf of bread; but he will take the first ear of corn that we can find in all the fields, and, having taken that, he says: "In giving me this you have given me all." He is not to be charged with arbitrariness and severity because he takes one little ear of corn, or one poor little sheep, and says, "This is mine." He is to be charged with a nobler grace than our fancy had dreamed, for he takes a visit to the poor prisoner as a visit paid to himself, bread given to the poor as bread given to the Triune God. The lifting up of one sheaf of wheat and waving it before him is not the result of an arbitrary sovereignty, but is sign, symbol, and type that we have given him all that "the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof." The Lord said to the man whom he constituted the new head of the race: "In thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed." Think of that noble inclusion when you speak of elective sovereignty and reprobating judgment.
This also throws light upon the vexed question of inspiration, We ask, "Why were some inspired?" You say Moses and David, Isaiah and Daniel, and John and Paul they were inspired that we might all be inspired. They are the firstborn; they are the leaders and prototypes. Because Paul was inspired, it does not follow that the Holy Ghost is withheld from us. The Spirit is the abiding Comforter; he is the possession of the whole redeemed and regenerated Church. He will never leave us. Know ye not that ye are the temples of the Holy Ghost? Do not dwarf the mighty argument by asking shallow questions about the relative degrees of inspiration. We cannot discuss an inquiry which lies beyond the evidence at our command. Enough it is to know that the Holy Ghost is Christ's gift to the whole believing Church. "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him!" So the whole idea of priestism is destroyed, and the whole conception of arbitrary and despotic sovereignty goes down, and must be branded as an unspeakable blasphemy. We are all kings and priests unto God and the Father; we are all royal, chosen, elect, precious. This conception alone fits the character of him who is symbolised by the firmament, and who gives good things to the unthankful and to the evil, as well as to the grateful and the good.
Here is God's conception of "an holy nation." A holy nation in the Divine view is an obedient nation, a nation living in the spirit of obedience. Let the spirit of obedience be right, and the letter of obedience will soon become right also. First must come the spirit, then the literal obedience. So in all things. Our Christian character in its integrity and massiveness is destroyed by our foolish attention in the wrong place to detailed precepts and instances. It is notably so in the matter of Christian liberality. There are but few who understand the philosophy of joyous consecration in this department. What is wanting? The total gift. If it were a question of detail as to whether this or that sum should be given, or the whole appeal be shirked, then a series of vexations would torment the conscience and the judgment. There is no such law. We give the all, and therefore it becomes quite easy to give the little particular. But until we have given the all we cannot give the other. It may be extorted from our hands by a complaining conscience, but it is no acceptable oblation on the altar of the Church. It is notably so in the matter of time. How do we come to give one day in seven to Christ's worship? We do so, when we do it at all properly, because we have first given all the seven days. It is easy to give one in particular when we have consecrated the whole. The one day is the wheat-sheaf taken up from the harvest of time, and God says, receiving it, "You have given me all the days in giving me this, the queenliest of the seven." This is the meaning of still being under the law and not under grace, namely, that we are striving to do little things, and separate laws, and keep particular commandments with which we have no business, until the soul is adjusted by the meridian of the eternal sovereignty, and the whole spirit goes out only anxious to obey.
Read the commandments in the light of this explanation, and how easy they are. " Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The soul is amazed as if the conception of having any other God could have dawned upon such glowing love. " Honour thy father and thy mother." The spirit springs up, and says, "Nothing can be easier, more delightful, or in accord with my wish." " Thou shalt not steal." The heart is, as it were, momentarily and subtly affronted as if such a commandment could be needed, where the sacrifice of the body is so complete. Was the human obedience first pledged? So was the Divine promise. The way of the Lord is equal. Did he who asked for the obedience lay down the ground of his claim? He did, saying, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself." First the history, then the obedience, then the promise, then the detailed law; and the detailed law coming after the promise becomes an easy burden, and a yoke so light as to be like a necklet of jewels.
We cannot get rid of Sinai in human education. If we persuade ourselves by some false reasoning that the things recorded in these chapters did not literally happen, we are playing the fool with ourselves. God could only come to us at the first by the letter. He touches us by infinite accommodations of his own nature and by a gracious study of our own. This is the plague of the imperfect reason, that it will quibble about the incident, the wrappage, and decoration of things. It seems to be unable to penetrate to inmost thoughts, essences, qualities, and meanings. Sinai is in every life. Let us part with as much as we can of the merely external, and still there remains the fact that in our lives are lightnings, and thunderings, and great trumpetings of power, as well as solemn claims and urgent appeals to every quality and force in our nature. Who has not been in stony places in the carrying out of his education, great, black, inhospitable localities, well called wildernesses; wild and howling deserts; mountains of stone; embodiments of difficulty; types of arduous discipline and inexorable demand? Why play the fool? Why miss the wine of God's grace and wisdom by asking narrow or foolish questions about the vessel which contains it, when within the whole mystery of life there stands the barren mountain the inhospitable sand stretches mile on mile on every hand and nothing speaks to us in all the terrific scene but law, claim, and obligation the tremendous demand of an unyielding creditor, who has come to arrest and imprison us until the uttermost farthing be paid? Our spiritual experience makes the letter quite small. There are still those who are asking questions about the local Sinai, the narrow and comparatively trivial incident, and are missing all the poetry of the occasion, not hearing the Divine and solemn voice, and not answering the sublime demand for more perfect purification, completer refinement, and profounder obedience. Why not start our inquiries from the other side? What is this voice of law? What is this standard of discipline which forces itself upon our moral attention? What is this claim that is pressed upon us by every variety of expression which follows us, now affrontingly, now pleading, according to the moral phase which we exhibit towards it? Did we begin our inquiry at that end, and so come along the line of revelation, Sinai, the local mountain, and the desert, and all trumpetings, thunderings, lightnings, tempests, all upheavals, and earthquakes, and terrible scenes, would fall into their right proportion and relation, and the one sovereign thought would be, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?
Instead of looking at the commandments one by one, and thus running the risk of missing their whole meaning, let us look at the commandments in their totality and call them One Commandment with many different phases, and aspects, and bearings upon human life.
What is the teaching of that great law pronounced from heaven? Is there any grace in it? Is there any touch of love? Is there any trembling of pathos? Is it all hard iron? Is it all tremendous exaction, pitiless, tyrannous claim? Have we always read the commandments aright? and have we been just to their innermost meaning when we have characterised them as hard? I think not. What do these commandments urge upon us? A right view of God. That is the first injunction. We are called to right theology not of a formal and technical, but of a moral and spiritual kind. The great movement of the heart must first of all be Godward. We cannot work until the soul is brought into the right mood and proper quality by a full perception of the sovereignty and righteous claim and tender grace of God. We cannot break in upon the commandments where we please, and obey the law in parts and parcels. There is a temptation to think we can do so. We are sometimes tempted to think that we can keep the eighth commandment, but not the fifth; the fourth, but not the ninth; the tenth, but not the first, and so on. That is impossible. To keep one commandment is to keep all; to offend in one commandment is to break all. This may not seem to be so on the surface; but a complete analysis of the occasion and circumstances will result in the finding that the commandments are one law, complete, indivisible, only set forth in points and aspects for the convenience of learners, and as an accommodation to the infirmity or incompleteness of children. First of all, then, we are called to a right view of God. We cannot move one step in a right direction until something like this view has been realised. Every succeeding commandment will be dumb to us, if we have not entered into the mystery of the first. What is God to us? What are his claims upon us? What is there in us that responds to his presence, and that, so to say, reveals him before he comes with any obvious manifestation of his personality upon us? Are we akin? Are we his children? Is there any sound in the ear or the heart which, being interpreted, means, "In the beginning God made man in his own image and likeness"? That is our first study. We shall be mere moralists if we begin at the second commandment. That is so-called legalism and morality, the pedantry which snaps off the commandments from the great central stem and treats them as separate particles, as isolated possibilities of virtue. We must come from the Divine point, from the spiritual communion of the soul with God, and then the commandments will come upon our souls as appeals to our power, and as sweet necessities, not as arbitrary impositions and tyrannies.
What next have we in this consolidated commandment? Having a right view of God, we have a right view, in the next place, of labour. God condescends to take notice of our working ways, of our allotments and appointments of a temporal kind. The voice of mercy is in this injunction regarding labour. In effect, God says to us, "You must not always toil; your heads must not be bent down in continual proneness to the earth; you may labour six days, but the seventh part of your time should be devoted to spiritual communion, to the culture of the upper and better nature, to the promotion of your higher and nobler education." This is the gracious law; but, say, is this law without tears? Is this commandment without grace? Is there no mercy here? Is there not a subtle allusion to an earlier charter in which God made man to commune with himself? If you are doomed to seven days' work, it is against God's mind. If any have to work seven days for the mouthful of bread they need, it is the doing of an enemy; it is not the claim of God. I ask you to praise him for this defence of feeble human nature and this plea for a higher human education. Do not fritter away the blessing by technical inquiry and pedantic analysis of meaning. The sublime, infinite purpose is this: that man is more than a labourer; he is a worshipper; he is a kinsman of God; he has belongings in the sky. A religion that thus comes to me and takes me away from my toil, and bids me rest awhile and think of the larger quantities, and the more ample time, and the heavenly kingdoms, is a religion I cannot afford to do without. It is a religion of grace; it is a religion which knows my necessities, pities my infirmities, spares my wasting strength. The Sabbath, in its spiritual aspect and meaning, is one of the strongest defences of the inspiration of the Bible and the Divinity of the religion which it reveals. It is man's day and God's day; more thoroughly man's day because completely God's day. It is their united time, time of fellowship, hour of communion, opportunity for deeper reading, larger prayer, and Diviner consecration.
Having a right view of God and a right view of labour, we have also a right view of physiology. The Bible takes care of man's body. Thou shalt not waste it; thou shalt not poison it; thou shalt not degrade the inner nature by a prostitution of the outer constitution. "Thou shalt not commit adultery." A commandment which so speaks to us is associated with a religion that is no merely spiritual phantasy. This is a practical monitor. It enters every room, remains in the house night and day, tarries as a guest seven days a week, goes out with us to the marketplace, takes care of our bodily ablution and cleansing, and regards the sanctity of the body with a Divine care. Who are they that tell us that the Bible religion is a superstition, an affair of fancy, something having in it bright points here and there, and to be treated with proportionate respect? The Bible searches us, tries us, and finds if there is any wicked way in us, and is as careful about the body in its degree as about the soul in its higher plane, because nobler quantity. No man ill-treats his body with the permission of the Bible; no soul quenches its thirst at forbidden wells with the sanction of the Book which we believe to be God's. The Bible would keep society sweet, would watch over our life with ineffable tenderness, would have us right in tone, wholesome, good at every point. A book so graciously exacting, charged with so Divine a spirit of discipline, is a book which will survive every assault made upon it, and return to the confidence of man after many an act of apostacy and ingratitude on his part.
A right view of God, a right view of labour, a right view of physiology, and then a right view of society. Not only is God interested in the individual man, he is also interested in the social, imperial, national world humanity. What says he? "Thou shalt not kill," however hot thy blood, thou shalt not kill; however apparently just thine anger, restrain thyself, lift not the hand to strike, have no weapon in thy fist, "Thou shalt not kill." Woe betide society when it holds human life lightly, when it regards human existence as a mere trifle in an infinite aggregate of circumstances and events! Blessed be that society which numbers the hairs of its children, in which a sparrow is not lost without knowledge, and in which a gracious economy will gather up the fragments that nothing be lost! This is Christian society which will not allow one chair to be vacant. Seeing that vacant chair, Christian solicitude becomes akin to Divine agony; a parental yearning makes the heart sore because one little child is absent, one wanderer is not at home, one man is missing.
"Thou shalt not steal." It is not enough to be less than a murderer, we must be honest, not superficially honest, not having hands merely untainted with overt crime, and theft, and felony; but thoroughly honest, sweet in the soul, really, superbly, almost Divinely honest in thought, in speech, in feeling, and in all the relations of life. Where is there an honest man, except in the common and superficial sense of a man who is not a thief? Honesty is not a negative virtue; honesty is a positive excellence. It renders to every man his due; it steals no man's reputation; it trifles with the property of no heart; it is more anxious to give than to take away. "Thou shalt not covet." We are becoming more spiritual still. "Thou shalt not kill," to that we assented readily; "Thou shalt not steal," to that we also assented with large concession; "Thou shalt not covet," who knows when he covets? We can covet in secret; we can covet, and never speak about the covetousness. Desire need not commit itself to audible terms. We can desire what another man has and yet can look the embodiment of innocence. The law is now becoming sharper, keener, more like a two-edged sword piercing to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow. We cannot keep company with this law in its inner and deeper meanings without finding that its intention is to divide us asunder, and search us, and try us, and never leave us until we become like the Lawgiver himself. Can we wonder that Jesus Christ said he had not come to destroy but to fulfil? that is, to interpret the law and give it its fullest and deepest meaning. When asked what the law was, he said, 'All the law is fulfilled in one word love." But we read the commandments and found no love in them, because we misread every tone in the ancient and solemn music. You could not have the commandment but for the love which makes it law. Outwardly it looks iron-like, stern, rigorous, exacting, pitiless; but within its heart is large as the heart of God.
Mark the elevation of the commandments, of what god are they unworthy? Their Divinity must have impressed us. Point out one weak word; lay the critical finger upon one line that is wanting in intellectual dignity or in moral splendour. By the nature of the laws themselves their inspiration may be vindicated. A bold task it was for any mere poet or dreamer to attempt to invent a commandment which would be worthy of God; but the task was realised. Great opening lines have been expressed in the very finest terms, in the most delicate and exquisite exactions and compulsions. Nowhere does this Decalogue fray away into pointlessness, vagueness, intellectual meanness, moral declension. From first to last the level is one, and the level is worthy of God. To find fault with the commandments is to injure ourselves; to trifle with the commandments is to jeopardise society. They are not repeated formally in the New Testament, but they are fulfilled in that holy covenant. We are now in Christ Jesus, if we are living up to Gospel privileges and opportunities; and, being in him, we breathe the commandments, rather than execute them as with arduous effort. They become part of our very life; they belong to us as the fragrance belongs to the odorous flower. They are no longer burdens grievous to be borne. We love them because we have experienced their love. Away with moral legerdemain! Away with the gymnastics which attempt to climb to heaven by their own moral cleverness! We must go the right road, from God to man, from the law to the neighbour, from the heavenly image to the social obligation; and if the Church would, in the spirit of Christ, without one taint of legalism or servility, keep the commandments, we should have a right view of God, a right view of labour, a right view of the body, and a right view of society. The life would be consolidated upon love and law, and lifting itself up with infinite strength, would be crowned with beauty, and on the top of the pillar would be lilywork; RIGHTEOUSNESS and GRACE would form one noble, sublime, everlasting figure.
"The promulgation of the law, including the construction of the tabernacle, occupied nearly twelve months from Whitsuntide to Whitsuntide as we should say. Throughout this period the people were encamped in the wide plain at the foot of the 'Mount of God.' The whole region seems to be called 'Horeb'; the mount is called 'Sinai.' Travellers seem now disposed to identify it with an isolated mountain which rises so abruptly from the great plain at its foot, that its northern cliff might be said to be touched by one standing in the plain. The northern peak is called Ras-Susâfeh; the southern, Jebel-Mûsa. It rises to a height of 2,000 feet above the plain, and about 7,000 above the sea level." Bible Educator.
"A spacious plain (Er Rahah) confronts a precipitous cliff 2,000 feet in height, which forms the north-western boundary of that great mountain block called Jebel-Mûsa, which tradition and the opinion of travellers and authors of eminence alike point to as the mountain of the law. The plain is of a level character as flat as the palm ( rahah ) of the open hand. It is large enough, if needs be, to encamp all the hosts of the Israelites. There are fully 400 acres of the plain proper, exactly facing the mount, with a wide lateral valley, which extends right and left from the base of the cliffs. Besides this, there is a considerable further open space extending northwestward from the watershed or crest of the plain, but still in sight of the mount the very spot, it may be, to which the trembling Israelites 'removed and stood afar off' when they feared to come nigh by reason of the cloud and thick darkness." Captain Palmer.
Exodus 14:31 ; Exodus 19:7 ; Exo 36:5
In the book of Exodus we have an account of the character of the people delivered by the power of Jehovah and guided and directed by the statesmanship of Moses. Sometimes in reading the history we think there never were such rebellious and stiff-necked people in all human history. Moses is often angry with them; the Lord himself often burns with indignation against them; sometimes, as cool and impartial readers, we feel the spirit of anger rising within us as we contemplate the selfishness, the waywardness, and the impracticableness of the children of Israel. We feel that they were altogether undeserving the grace, the compassion, the patient love which marked the Divine administration of their affairs. The spirit of impatience rises within us and we say, "Why does not God bury this stiff-necked and hard-hearted race in the wilderness and trouble himself no longer about people who receive his mercies without gratitude, and who seeing his hand mistake it for a shadow or for some common figure? Why does the great heart weary itself with a race not worth saving?" Sometimes the Lord does come nigh to the act of utter destruction: and it seems as if justice were about to be consummated and every instinct within us to be satisfied by the vindication of a power always defied and a beneficence never understood.
Give yourselves a little time to discover if you can the redeeming points even in so ungracious and so unlovable a history. It will indeed be a religious exercise, full of the spirit of edification and comfort, to seek some little sparkles of gold in this infinite mass of worthlessness. It will be quite worth a Sabbath day's journey to find two little grains of wheat in all this wilderness of chaff. Surely this is the very spirit of compassion and love, this is the very poetry and music of God's administration, that he is always looking for the redeeming points in every human character. Allowing that the mass of the history is against the people: still there cannot be any escape from that conclusion. If it were a question of putting vice into one scale and virtue into the other, and a mere rough exercise in avoirdupois-weighing, the Israelites could not stand for one moment. To find out the secret of patience, to begin to see how it is that God spares any man, surely is a religious quest in the pursuit of which we may expect to find, and almost to see face to face, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Moses, having come from the Divine presence:
"called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" ( Exo 19:7-8 ).
That was an outburst of religious emotion; that exclamation showed that the heart was not all dead through and through. That one sentence might be remembered amidst many a hurricane of opposition and many a tumult of ungrateful and irrational rebellion. We understand this emotion perfectly. There have been times in our most callous lives when we have caught ourselves singing some great psalm of adoration, some sweet hymn holding in it the spirit of testimony and pledge and holy oath. It would seem as if God set down one such moment as a great period in our lives as if under the pressure of his infinite mercy he magnified the one declaration which took but a moment to utter into a testimony filling up the space of half a lifetime. It is long before God can forget some prayers. Does it not seem as if the Lord rather rested upon certain sweet words of love we spoke to him even long ago, than as if he had taken a reproach out of our mouth at the moment and fastened his judgment upon the severe and ungrateful word? Is it not within the Almighty love to beat out some little piece of gold into a covering for a long life? It is not his delight to remember sins or to speak about the iniquities which have grieved his heart, or to dig graves in the wilderness for the rebellious who have misunderstood his purpose and his government. "His mercy endureth for ever," and if we have ever spoken one true prayer to heaven, it rings, and resounds, and vibrates, and throbs again like music he will never willingly silence It would seem as if one little prayer might quench the memory of ten thousand blasphemies. "And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." Here you find a religious responsiveness which ought to mark the history of the Church and the history of the individual as well.
"The people feared the Lord, and believed the Lord, and his servant Moses" ( Exo 14:31 ).
Every good thing is set down. The Lord is not unrighteous to forget your work of faith. We wonder sometimes in our ignorance whether any little sign of good that has been in the heart is not written most legibly in heaven; and all things unlovely, undivine, so written that none but God can decipher the evil record. It would be like our Father to write our moral virtues in great lustrous characters and all the story of our sin and shame so that no angel could read a word of it. This is the way of love. How much we talk about the little deed of kindness when we want to save some character from fatal judgment, from social separation, and from all the penalties of evil behaviour! There is no monotony in the recital; love invents new phrases, new distributions of emphasis, wondrous variations of music, and so keeps on telling the little tale of the flower that was given, of the smile that was indicative of pleasure, of the hand that was put out in fellowship and pledge of amity. Again and again the story so short is made into quite a long narrative by the imagination of love, by the marvellous language which is committed to the custody of the heart. It is God's way. If we give him a cup of cold water, he will tell all the angels about it; if we lend him one poorest thing he seems to need, he will write it so that the record can be read from one end of the earth to the other; if we give him some testimony of love, say one little box of spikenard, he will have the story of the oblation told wheresoever his gospel is preached. Yes, he will tell about the gift when he will hide the sin; he will have all his preachers relate the story of the penitence in such glowing terms that the sin shall fall into invisible perspective. God is looking for good; God is looking for excellences, not for faults. Could we but show him one little point of excellence, it should go far to redeem from needful and righteous judgment and penalty a lifetime of evil-doing.
"The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work" ( Exo 36:5 )
There is a redeeming point. The spirit of willingness is in the people. They have a good season now; they are in their best moods at this time; they are most generous; they come forward in their very best force and look quite godly in their daily devotion and service to the tabernacle. Surely in the worst character there are some little faint lines of good! Why do we not imitate God and make the most of these? We are so prone to the other kind of criticism: it seems to be in our very heart of hearts to find fault; to point out defections; to write down a whole record and catalogue of infirmities and mishaps, and to hold up the writing as a proof of our own respectability. God never does so; he is righteous on the one side and on the other; he never connives at sin; he never compromises with evil; he never fails to discriminate between good and bad, light and darkness, the right hand and the left; but when he does come upon some little streak of excellence, some faint mark of a better life he seems to multiply it by his own holiness, and to be filled with a new joy because of pearls of virtue which he has found in a rebellious race. Character is not a simple line beginning at one point and ending at another, drawn by the pencil of a child and measurable by the eye of every observer. Character is a mystery; we must not attempt to judge character. "Judge not, that ye be not judged." "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." The Pharisees dragged up those whom they found doing wrong, but their doing so was never sanctioned by the Master; in all their attempts at judgment they were judged; whenever they displayed their virtue he burnt up the rag and left them to carry the cinders away. This should lead us to much seriousness in estimating character, and should keep us from uncharitableness; but at the same time it should encourage our own souls in the pursuit and quest of things heavenly. We do not know the meaning of all we feel and do. Let me suppose that some man is not regarded by others as religious and spiritual; let it be my business as a Christian shepherd to find out some point in that character upon which I can found an argument and base an appeal. I may find it sometimes in one great hot tear; the man would not have allowed me to see that tear on any account if he could have helped it, but I did see it, and having seen it I have hope of his soul. He is not damned yet. I may notice it in a half-intention to write to the wronged ones at home. The young man has taken up his pen and begun to address the old parents whose hearts he has withered. When I observe him in the act of dipping his pen, I say, "He was dead and is alive again"; and though he should lay down the pen without writing the letter of penitence, I have hope in him: he may yet write it and make the confession and seek the absolution of hearts that are dying to forgive him. Do not tell me of the spendthrift's course, do not heap up the accusation any hireling can be bribed to make out the black catalogue; be it ours to see the first heavenward motion, to hear the first Godward sigh, and to make the most of these signs of return and submission. Good and bad do live together in every character. I never met a human creature that was all bad: I have been surprised rather to see in the most unexpected places beautiful little flowers never planted by the hand of man. All flowers are not found in gardens, hedged and walled in, and cultured at so much a day; many a flower we see was never planted by the human gardener. In every nation, he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of Heaven. At the risk of incurring the unkind judgment of some in that I may be ministering to your vanity how they mistake the case who reason so! I will venture to say that in every one, however unrecognised by the constables of the Church or by the priests of the altar, there are signs that they are not forsaken of God.
Now comes the thought for which I have no language adequate in copiousness or fit in delicateness. It would seem as if the little good outweighed the evil. God does not decide by majorities. There is not a more vulgar standard of right and wrong than so-called majorities; it is an evil form of judgment wholly useful for temporary purposes, but of no use whatever in moral judgment. The majority in a man's own heart is overwhelming. If each action were a vote, and if hands were held up for evil, a forest of ten thousand might instantly spring up; and then if we called for the vote expressive of religious desire, there might be one trembling hand half extended. Who counts? God. What says he? How rules he from his throne? It will be like him to say, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." If he could find out in our life that we once dropped on one knee, and began a prayer, there is no telling what may be done by his love in multiplying the act into an eternal obeisance and regarding the unfinished prayer as an eternal supplication. This is how the judgment will go. God has not forsaken us. To open his book with any desire to find in it reading for the soul is a proof that we are not abandoned of our Father; to go into the sanctuary even with some trouble of mind or reluctance of will to be there is a sign that we are not yet cast out into the darkness infinite.
Yet even here the stern lesson stands straight up and demands to be heard namely: If any man can be satisfied with the little that he has, he has not the little on which he bases his satisfaction. It is not our business to magnify the little; we do well to fix our mind for long stretches of time upon the evil, and the wrong, and the foul, and the base. It is not for us to seek self-satisfaction; our place is in the dust; our cry should be "Unclean! unprofitable!" a cry for mercy. It is God's place to find anything in us on which he can base hope for our future, or found a claim for the still further surrender of our hostile but still human hearts.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Lo, I come unto thee in a thick cloud." Exodus 19:9 .
This is a sample of God's daily visitation of the world. God cannot come otherwise than in a thick cloud. The cloud is not necessary for him, it is necessary for those to whom he comes. No man can see God and live. Many a cloud that we blame is created for the purpose of attempering high light to our vision. The darkness of the way is as much to be attributed to God as is the light. He makes us stand still as well as go forward. The cloud does not deprive us of the music of the voice. Mere spectacle would do little for us; it is to the voice itself that we must pay heed. Remember that the cloud only conceals God: it does not destroy him. Clouds and darkness are round about him; righteousness and judgment are the habitation of his throne.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 19". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany