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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.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 36". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27