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Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn.
The sanctification of the firstborn to the Lord
I. That the good are required to sanctify their firstborn unto the Lord. “All the firstborn”--that is to say, the most excellent of their possessions, the most valuable, and that which is viewed with the greatest regard.
1. This sanctification of the firstborn was required by the Divine commandment.
2. This sanctification of the firstborn was a grateful acknowledgment of the Divine mercy in sparing the firstborn from the midnight destruction. Heaven never asks more than it gives, or more than is consistent with the gratitude of a devout heart to bestow.
3. This sanctification of the firstborn was to be associated with the deliverance of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt.
II. That the good, is sanctifying their firstborn unto the Lord, are not called upon to give up the sole use of their property, but to redeem and to put it to a lawful use. Who would not desire his firstborn to be the Lord’s?
III. That the good are required to connect the sanctification of their firstborn with sacrifice. “And all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem” (Exodus 13:14). This redemption was to be by sacrifice. Parents need reminding of this duty.
1. Because they are liable to forget the service which past mercy requires of them.
2. Because they are apt to be selfish in the use of their property.
3. Because they are not sufficiently spiritually minded to see God in their property, and therefore forget His claims.
4. Because they do not like to pay the redemption price.
IV. That the good are to teach the right of God to the firstborn, to their posterity (Exodus 13:14-15). Children are very inquisitive. They will ask questions, even about religious matters. At such times they should be carefully and solemnly instructed in Divine truth. The family is the best school for the young. They should early be taught the meaning of self-sacrifice, and the moral grandeur of giving to the Lord. Even the young have their firstborn, which they can be taught to give to the Lord; and if they grow up in the spirit of this obligation they will in after days, impart to it a truer meaning, and give to it a more solemn influence than before they were capable of. Lessons:
1. That the good must sanctify their best things to the Lord.
2. That this can only be done by the redemption of the Cross.
3. That the young must be early taught their obligation to the Lord. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn
1. A command.
2. A duty.
3. A privilege.
4. A benediction.
5. A prophecy. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
I. Observe the first rule: “Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn of man.” As the redemption of the firstborn of the more valuable animals was graciously commuted by the sacrifice of less valuable ones, so there was a commutation for the firstborn of man; not indeed by inferior substitutes as in the former case, but by his fellowman--by the institution of a priesthood, “sanctifying,” or setting apart, the whole tribe of Levi in place of the firstborn of all Israel. But as this arrangement had not yet transpired at the period of the text, the explanation was deferred till then, that in the meanwhile the whole nation might fully realize the amount and weight of their liability to God; and further, that when Levi was sanctified, the whole Levitical priesthood--a priesthood of their brethren, “bone of their bone, and flesh of their flesh”--might symbolize the High Priesthood of the Mediator who “was in all things made like unto His brethren,” that He too “might also make intercession for the sins of the people.” This lies at the root of the Levitical principle, the layagency in the church of God. Admirable is the advice of Jethro to his son-in-law, and incidentally it bears upon this subject. “This thing,” that is, the whole burthen of the work, “is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone . . . Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, and rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens.” Thus the work of religion, benevolence, and rule was divided, subdivided, and redivided still, from considerable districts down to classes of tens, as we should desire to see the work of God among ourselves distributed among our lay deacons and elders, district visitors, collectors and Sabbath-school teachers, who in their respective ministries should act on the suggestion of Jethro, “The hard causes they brought unto Moses, but every small matter they judged themselves.”
II. Secondly, the text presents the rule of consecrated wealth--“Sanctify unto Me all the firstborn of beasts.” On this point there is some difficulty. “All the firstborn of cattle” were given to the Lord by sacrifice; and yet in the forty-fifth verse of the third chapter of Numbers the whole of the cattle of the Levites were considered as a substitute for the firstlings of the general cattle, just as all the men of the Levites were accepted as the substitute for all the firstborn of men from the rest of the tribes. Possibly the cattle firstlings were redeemed, as the excess of human firstborn over the number of the firstborn of the Levites were, by the half-shekel atonement for each, which was payable at the census or periodical numbering of the people. It is probable that David’s omission of this payment was the sin which incurred God’s heavy displeasure in that unseasonable numbering of the people, which, in omitting the soul-tax for atonement, seemed numbered for David himself, and not for God. Be this as it may, the Lord claimed all the firstborn of their beasts, which were the staple property in the ruder forms of society.
III. The text presents its demand for consecrated time. We need not dwell upon the Sabbath, or the Divine claim upon the sevenths of our time. Assuming we are all agreed that this, the minimum of God’s requirement, is due from every man, we may deplore the manner in which, for the most part, even this holy debt is discharged. The abuse of the Sabbath and insubordination to its constantly recurring, bounden, and emphatic law, lies at the root of the national irreligion. There is a significancy in the proportion of the Divine demand of only a tenth of all other things, but a seventh of our time. (J. B. Owen, M. A.)
The Divine right to the best things of man
“It is Mine.” This is the language of God in reference to each one of us. It is Mine.
I. Because I created it.
II. Because I preserved it.
III. Because I endowed it with everything that makes it valuable. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The first born, types of Christ
I. As they were God’s peculiar.
1. By common nature,
2. By common grace.
3. By a special right.
(1) In His nature, Christ is Firstborn, as Son of God.
(2) In His office, by special prerogative.
(a) For the kind, in that He was Mediator, God and Man in unity of person, and the only Redeemer of His Church.
(b) For undertaking of His office.
(c) For the accomplishing His office, in His resurrection. He is called the First-begotten, or Firstborn of the dead, two ways:
(i) In respect of His Father, who first begot Him from the dead;
In regard of Himself, whose privilege it was to raise up Himself from the dead by His own power.
II. The firstborn of Israel was the second, and next to the father of the family, yea, after the father instead of the father. So is Christ to His family, the Church; He performs all offices of a careful and tender father, and” takes on Him, not the affection only of a father, but even--
1. The name of a father (Isaiah 9:6).
2. The office of a father.
(1) He supplies the means of spiritual life, as they of natural.
(2) He nurtures and teacheth His Church.
(3) He provides for the present, and bestows the inheritance of eternal life.
III. The firstborn had the pre-eminence among the brethren, and were chief in office and authority, rulers in the house after their fathers, and priests in the family, before the Levitical order was established. Herein they were special types of Jesus Christ; who in all things must have the pre-eminence, as first in time, in order, in precedency, and in the excellency and dignity of His person.
IV. The firstborn had a double portion in goods (Deuteronomy 21:17). Signifying--
1. The plenitude of the spirit and grace in Christ, who was anointed with oil of gladness above His fellows.
2. The pre-eminency of Christ in His glorious inheritance, advanced in glory and majesty incomprehensible by all creatures. Use--
(1) Out of the occasion of the law of the firstborn, learn that the more God doth for any man, the more he ought to conceive himself to be the Lord’s, and the more right and interest the Lord challengeth in him.
(2) If Christ be the true firstborn, of whom all they are but types, we must give Him the honour of His birthright.
(3) Here is a ground of much consolation.
(a) In that Christ being the truth of the firstborn, from Him the birthright is derived unto us believers, as it was from Reuben unto Judah, and we partake of the same birthright with our head. For here is a difference between the type and truth of the firstborn. They had all their privileges for themselves: but Christ not for Himself but for us.
(b) Being God’s firstborn throughout, we are dear unto God.
(c) God takes notice, and avenges all wrongs done to the saints, because they are His firstborn.
(4) Seeing in Christ the firstborn we attain the birthright; let every Christian beware of profaneness, and passing away his birthright as Esau, who sold his birthright for pottage (Hebrews 12:16).
(5) Learn to grow in conformity with our Elder Brother Christ, with whom we cannot be equal, but like as brothers. We must be like Him in affection, like Him in affliction, like Him in the combat, and like Him in the crown. (T. Taylor, D. D.)
Consecrated to the Lord
When Bishop Selwyn spoke to Sir John Patteson, then a widower, of the desire of his splendidly gifted son, Coleridge, to join him in the New Zealand Mission, the father’s first exclamation was: “I cannot let him go!” but he immediately added, “God forbid I should stop him!” And he closed the conversation by saying: “Mind, I give him wholly, not with any thought of seeing him again. I will not have him thinking he must come home to see me.”
A consecrated child
A young man was about to enter the foreign missionary work. A gentleman said to the young man’s father, “It’s hard to give up the boy.” “Yes,” replied the father, “but it’s just what we’ve been expecting.” “How so?” inquired the friend. “When he was a little baby,” answered the father, “his mother and I went to a missionary meeting. An appeal, most earnest and touching, was made for men to become missionaries. We ourselves could not go. When we returned home the baby lay asleep in his crib. We went to the crib. His mother stood on one side, I on the other. We together laid our hands on his forehead, and prayed that it might be God’s will for him to become a foreign missionary. We never spoke to him of what we did. But all through these twenty-five years we have believed that our prayer about him would be answered, and answered it now is. Yes, it is hard to give up the boy, but it’s what we’ve been expecting.”
Remember this day.
A day to be remembered
1. God’s commands and His servants’ obedience are sweetly united together.
2. Deliverance of the Church from Egyptian bondage is justly chargeable on their memory.
3. Jehovah the Author of deliverance is to be minded with His work, and power of doing it.
4. Remembrance of Jehovah carrieth with it mindfulness of duty and service to Him (Exodus 13:3).
5. Days and months of mercy are ordered by God to be remembered (Exodus 13:4). (G. Hughes, B. D.)
Days to be remembered
I. There are days in the history of individuals which ought to be celebrated.
II. There are days in the history of churches which ought to be celebrated.
III. There are days in the history of nations which ought to be celebrated. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
Keep this service.
The ordinances of the Lord
I. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed in the times of prosperity (Exodus 13:5).
II. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed with true intelligence (Exodus 13:8-9).
III. That the ordinances of the Lord must be observed with parental solicitude. God has appointed the family the moral nursery of the young. Lessons:
1. To attend to all the ordinances of the Lord.
2. To attend to them at the most appropriate time.
3. To attend to them in right spirit and temper. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
Show thy son in that day.
1. The instruction of children is a duty upon parents.
2. God commands continuance of ordinances for instruction of posterity.
3. The reason of God’s ordinances must be understood by parents and children (Exodus 13:8).
4. Sacramental signs, and memorials of God, He is pleased to give His Church.
5. God would have these signal memorials at hand and before the eyes of His.
6. The Passover was a true sacramental sign and seal of God’s covenant.
7. By sacraments rightly used God’s covenant is confirmed on hearts and in profession.
8. God’s mighty gracious redemption is a just cause of such memorials (Exodus 13:9).
9. God’s sacraments are His statutes and positive laws.
10. It is God s prerogative, to make anniversary memorials of His mercies (Exodus 13:10). (G. Hughes, B. D.)
As the soul is clothed in flesh, and only thus is able to perform its functions in this earth, where it is sent to live; as the thought must find a word before it can pass from mind to mind; so every great truth seeks some body, some outward form, in which to exhibit its powers. It appears in the world, and men lay hold of it, and represent it to themselves, in histories, in forms of words, in sacramental symbols; and these things, which in their proper nature are but illustrations, stiffen into essential fact, and become part of the reality. (J. A. Froude.)
Importance of commemorative days and ordinances
The following sentence is attributed to Voltaire:--“I despair of destroying Christianity in any country, so long as millions of human beings meet on Sunday to worship God.” Many things have been fathered on Voltaire of which he never heard, but if he really said or wrote this he uttered an unusually sensible thing. It is curious that sceptical writers have regarded so little the testimony of Christian rites to the facts with which they are indissolubly connected. How did the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s Day come to be established institutions? Rites and observances do not establish and perpetuate themselves. The origin of these two Christian institutions can only be explained by their connection with the events they commemorate. If the written records of the apostolic age could be blotted from the memory of man, the Lord’s Supper would still bear testimony to Christ’s death for man’s salvation, as the Lord’s Day would eloquently witness to His resurrection from the dead.
All the firstborn.
Firstborn to be dedicated to God
1. Jehovah is the beginning and end of His own ordinances. He sets them for Himself.
2. The Church must act these duties from God unto God Himself.
3. All that God requires must His people make to pass from them to Him.
4. Firstborn males of beasts God required in the law for special use to Himself (Exodus 13:12).
5. Clean and unclean among creatures is a distinction made by God for men, not for Himself.
6. God hath a proprietary in all creatures be they never so unclean.
7. God hath ordered redemption for unclean by putting the clean in their stead.
8. Unclean unredeemed must be destroyed.
9. A price hath God set for man’s redemption to gain a Church of the firstborn.
10. The law of the firstborn hath its truth and accomplishment in Christ Jesus, “the Firstborn of every creature” (Colossians 1:15; verse 13). (G. Hughes, B. D.)
When thy son asketh thee.
The Book of Exodus introduces that new epoch in the scriptural history of sacrifices when they began to be regulated by fixed laws, to be part of a national economy.
I. The offering of the firstborn was the deification and consecration of the whole Jewish nation. The firstborn represented its strength, its vitality, its endurance. This act signified that its strength lay only in its dependence on God’s strength, that its vitality came from the life which is in Him, that it would endure from generation to generation, because He is the same and His years fail not. The calling of the Israelites was the calling to confess a Redeemer of Israel, a righteous Being who had brought out their fathers from the house of bondage.
II. Moses taught the people that by looking upon themselves as beings surrendered and sacrificed to the God of truth, the Deliverer of men, by feeling that they held all the powers of their minds and bodies as instruments for the great work in which He is engaged, thus they might be a nation indeed, one which would be a pattern to the nations, one which, in due time, would break the chains which bound them to visible and invisible oppressors.
III. When once we understand that we are witnesses for God, and do His work, self-sacrifice can never be an ambitious thing--a fine way to get the reputation of saints or the rewards of another world. It will be regarded as the true ground of all action; that on which all the blessed relations of life stand; that which is at the same time the only impulse to and security for the hard and rough work of the world. (F. D. Maurice, M. A.)
Meaning of ordinances to be explained
1. Ancient ordinances may be justly questioned in succeeding ages to know the meaning of them.
2. Reason is to be given of our religion to such as reasonably demand it.
3. Children may ask of parents and they must inform them of the ordinances of God.
4. Redemption-mercies are to be recorded and reported as just ground of God’s ordinance (verse 14).
5. Opposition against redemptions are justly declared to make the work glorious, and God’s people obedient.
6. Vengeance upon the enemies of the Church’s redemption is fit to be known to quicken them to duty.
7. The Church’s reason for its religion to God is rightly taken from its redemption (verse 15).
8. God’s redeeming mercies ought to work in the Church eternal memorials of Him (verse 16). (G. Hughes, B. D.)
1. After redemption of His Church God provideth for guiding them in the way to rest.
2. Nearest ways to rest with men are not always approved by God for His people.
3. God’s foreknowledge of dangerous ways to His Church doth prevent them.
4. God will not put His people upon war or hard trials until He have fitted them for it.
5. God’s special care of His Church is to keep them from a retreat to bondage after redemption (verse 17). (G. Hughes, B. D.)
Knowledge cannot be stolen by or from you. It cannot be sold or bought. You may be poor, and be troubled by the sheriff on the journey of life. He may break into your house and sell your furniture at auction; drive away your cow; take away your ewe lamb, and leave you homeless and penniless; but he cannot lay the law’s hand upon the jewellery of your mind. This cannot be taken for debt; neither can you give it away, though you give enough of it to fill a million minds. In getting rich in the things which perish with the using, men have often obeyed to the letter that first commandment of selfishness: “Keep what you can get, and get what you can.” In filling your minds with the wealth of knowledge, you must reverse this rule, and obey this law: “Keep what you give, and give what you can.” The fountain of knowledge is filled by its outlets, not by its inlets. You can learn nothing which you do not teach; you can acquire nothing of intellectual wealth except by giving. (Elihu Burritt.)
Through the way of the wilderness.
The way of the wilderness
I. The way by which God often leads His people may be described as the “way of the wilderness.” There are several points of analogy or similarity between the journey of Israel from Egypt to Canaan, and the path of God’s people through this world. For one thing, the journey of the sons of Jacob was circuitous. There can be little doubt that, after their release from bondage, they looked forward to a speedy occupation of the Promised Land; but in this they were disappointed. They were not permitted to go direct and at once to their inheritance. Then, again, it was not a way of their own choosing. There were two routes, either of which they might have followed; one, the ordinary caravan route through the country of the Philistines, entering Canaan from the south; the other, by the Red Sea and the wilderness of Sinai, entering Canaan from the west. There was no geographical necessity for taking the more circuitous route through Sinai. Indeed, without an explicit command from God, it would have been the height of folly for any leader, even Moses, to have attempted to conduct such a vast host all unprovided for into the desert. Now, the discerning reader cannot fail to be struck with the similarity of all this to the Providential ordering of human life. The current of our earthly being seldom runs straight. There are often many windings before it reaches its goal; and it may be that few of those windings would have been in accordance with our wishes. How true is this of Moses, who, in his impatience for the release of his countrymen, struck the blow for freedom too soon. And instead of being permitted to go direct to the work, he had to undergo forty years of preparatory service among the solitudes of Midian. Take Joseph, and you see the working of the same principle. How strikingly is the hand of Providence seen in his life! His experiences in Egypt before his promotion may seem a strange preparation for his after eminence, and certainly not of his own choosing. God was “leading him about.” The pit in Dothan, servitude under Potiphar, confinement in prison, were so many steps or turnings in a life that rose to such distinction. Then again take the apostle Paul. The great ambition of his life was to preach the gospel at Rome. The noble apostle got his wish. He was permitted to go to Rome, but he went as a prisoner. The chains might seem to confine his influence, but, for aught we know, they may have added to the impressiveness of his message and testimony for his Master. God was leading him about, an ambassador in bonds. So in our life. The course of Providence sometimes takes strange turns. Our life-path is seldom what at one time we expected it to be, any more than the journey from Egypt to Canaan was what the Israelites expected. We come to our Etham on the edge of the wilderness, and at that point the current of our life is altered and its winding course begins. The altered current may lead us into the desert of adversity, or into the wilderness of affliction, where for years we may have to endure. Many a Christian has been led home through the winding path of pain. It is God “leading us about.”
II. We now proceed to inquire into the purpose of this roundabout journey through the wilderness. When the sons of Jacob left Egypt, they were little better than a band of undisciplined slaves, and they had to be trained. The growth of every noble quality had been cramped and hampered by degrading bondage, and the wilderness was to be their training-school. There was, therefore, a moral purpose in the forty years’ wandering. It was intended to train them to be and to do, to develop in them noble qualities, and train them for noble deeds. They could have marched to Canaan in eight or ten days; but eight or ten days would have been too short a period for the growth of character. No one can read their history without observing the change which forty years had produced on them. They gained new experiences, and developed those manly qualities needed to fight their way to the possession of Canaan. Now, is it not in this way still that God prepares His people for their mission? As a general rule the men who have made the deepest impression for good on the world’s history have been led up to their throne of influence by a long path of preparation. Few leap into their position at a bound. The shortest way is not always the best. There is, perhaps, no station in life in which difficulties have not to be encountered and overcome before any decided measure of success can be achieved. Those difficulties are, however, our best instructors, as our mistakes often form our best experience. Horne Tooke used to say of his studies in intellectual philosophy, that he had become all the better acquainted with the country through having had the good luck sometimes to lose his way. And a distinguished investigator of physical science has left it on record that whenever, in the course of his researches, he encountered an apparently insuperable obstacle, he generally found himself on the brink of some novel discovery. The severe preparatory discipline which God’s men have to undergo is for most part unknown to the world. We cannot tell how the Israelites spent thirty-eight years of their desert life, we only know the effect it had on them. We might further extend this thought to the discipline which God applies for the soul’s sanctification. The ultimate end of all the Divine dealings with man in this life must be sought in the life to come. The soul has often to pass through the path of affliction or adversity ere it is fit for the fellowship of the pure in heart in the Promised Land. The reward will be more prized and the rest the sweeter on account of the experience gained when God led you about through the way of the wilderness.
III. In order to derive full benefit from the experiences of life, several things have to be attended to. Discipline, however suitable it may seem, wilt not of itself further the work of grace in the heart, unless it is accepted as from God. Confining ourselves to this narrative, we find two or three conditions without which Divine discipline will yield no moral profit.
1. In the first place, we must not harbour a spirit of discontent with our lot. To this spirit are traceable many of the calamities of the wilderness, and it barred the gates of Canaan against the generation that left Egypt. That generation did not benefit by God’s dealings. Now all this is true in our life. We often miss the good that is meant for us by dissatisfaction with the channel through which it comes. The apprentice lad must not chafe if he is put to distasteful work and at a low wage: let him learn that this is the price to be paid for future advancement, and let him cheerfully accept his post. Murmuring at cross-bearing will do us no good, but rather harm, as it will prevent us from attaining to acquiescence in the Divine will.
2. Secondly, in order to secure the greatest good from our lot, we must banish from our company whatever tends to lead us astray. When the Israelites left Egypt they were joined by a group called the “mixed multitude.” The Church’s greatest danger lies not so much in attacks from without, as in temporizing with worldly-minded men, and harbouring in her midst those who are not of her in spirit. But this “mixed multitude,” while it is typical-of nominal Christians in the Church, may be regarded as a type of those unholy desires and passions that are more or less to be found in the heart of every one of us. We all carry about with us a “mixed multitude” of unsubdued appetites which crave for gratification; and not more surely did the Israelites suffer from the presence of this base throng, than we shall have the peace of our life marred, and its usefulness impaired, by giving reins to those unholy forces. They need to be constantly kept in check, else they are sure to lead us astray. Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that doth so easily beset us; and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith.
3. There is one more condition that we must comply with, if we would finish our course with joy, and that is, we must loyally follow the guidance of our Heavenly Leader. (D. Merson, M. A.)
Why the Israelites were guided by the way of the wilderness
I. They had been sated with the magnificence of man’s works; God led them forth into the wilderness to show them his works in their native grandeur, and to refresh their exhausted hearts and spirits by the vision of the splendour of His world.
II. God led them forth by the way of the wilderness, that He might reveal not nature only, but Himself. He led them into the wilderness, as He leads us, that He might meet with them, speak with them, reveal Himself to them, and teach them to know themselves in knowing Him.
III. God.led them into the wilderness, that He might there cultivate their manly qualities, and fit them to hold the possessions they might win. (J. B. Brown, B. A.)
1. God does not order salvation to His as it pleaseth man, but as it pleaseth Himself.
2. God in wisdom sometimes translates His Church from the house of bondage to a wilderness.
3. Wilderness and Red Sea paths, are the way of God’s people here below.
4. God makes the way to rest not always straight, but to be about.
5. Israel, or God’s people, go the round that God doth lead them.
6. Orderly and well instructed are the Church’s motions under God in wilderness-ways. (G. Hughes, B. D.)
God’s people in the wilderness
I. That by Israel in Egypt we may understand the spiritual bondage of God’s chosen people at large.
1. Israel was in an enemy’s country. So are the elect by nature.
2. Their bondage was rigorous. So was the Christian’s.
3. Their departure, like the believer’s, was opposed.
4. And when liberated, their enemies pursued them.
II. Some reasons why God did not admit the children of Israel into the promised land, immediately on their going out of Egypt, and why He does not admit His elect into glory immediately on their conversion.
1. The Egyptians must be drowned--enemies subdued.
2. The Israelites must be humbled (Psalms 66:10-12).
3. He led them some hundreds of miles about; yet it was the right way (Psalms 107:7).
4. God’s way is right, although it may appear round about (Psalms 18:30).
III. Some reasons for God’s conduct in keeping them in the wilderness.
1. They were not fit as yet for severe warfare.
2. Their enemies were great, and themselves weak.
3. He had much to teach them.
IV. The manner in which they went up. “Harnessed”--or by fives, or five in a rank, or rather by five bodies or squadrons, and so marched out, not in a disorderly or confused way, but in great order and regularity.
1. Their loins were girt (Ephesians 6:14).
2. Their heart was secured (Ephesians 6:14).
3. Their feet were shod (Ephesians 6:15).
4. Having a shield, helmet, and sword (Ephesians 6:16-17). (T. B. Baker.)
The way of God in conducting the life of the good
I. That it is the way of God to bring the good to a place of rest. This is the object of all life’s discipline.
II. That it is the way of God to bring the good away from the things that would be unfriendly to their welfare. He selects the life path of the good--
III. That it is often the way of God to bring the good a circuitous route to their destination. The nearest way is not always the best.
IV. That it is the way of God to bring the good along unwelcome paths. Impossible to get to Canaan without perplexities. God is always with the good in their wilderness wanderings.
V. That it is the way of God to bring the good into a better and more thorough knowledge of themselves. Men get to know more in the desert. Some Christians are taken to heaven through a long route of pain. They long for home, but the journey is prolonged. It is hard to see the reason of their protracted existence. The Divine purpose is not yet accomplished in them.
VI. That it is the way of God to bring the good into a wise exercise of their own strength. “And the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt.” They walked in battle array. And so, while it is the way of God to conduct human life to its destination, it is also the duty of man to exercise his own wisdom and strength, so that he may do all to aid the plans of God concerning him. Lessons:
1. That God leads men from Egypt to Canaan.
2. That men must give themselves up to the guidance of God.
3. That life is often through a long wilderness.
4. However long the journey, men must trust in God. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The roundabout way
I. God led them. “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” When He calls you up the slopes of the mount of sacrifice, it is to bring you within the sound of Divine voices at the summit; when He calls you to the “edge of the wilderness,” or to a “desert place apart,” it is to “speak comfortably” unto you “out of the cloud.”
II. God led them not through the land of the philistines, although that was near . . . but He led them about by the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea. He had not taken them into His confidence, they could not understand Him, they had no sympathy with His vast and gracious designs, therefore He did not “give an account of any of His matters.” “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter.” Let no one hesitate to “go up and possess the land,” for fear he be overpowered with temptations that beset the path of Peter or Paul or Luther, or of some venerable man of God who but too faithfully has given an account of his conflict with the world and the flesh and the devil. God will take you to heaven, but He has not promised to take you by the near way. It may be by a very long way. One thing I know, it will not be through the way of the land of the Philistines, or of any foes who would effect your ruin and drive you back in despair to the country from whence you came out. Only one enemy will encounter you at a time, and you will be prepared for each as he comes, and the “last enemy” will be kept to the last, and you will be made “more than conquerors.” “God is faithful who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able.”
III. “and the children of Israel went up in battle array out of the land of Egypt.” The great work given the Church to do is the conquest of the world. These are the marching orders of the Captain of Salvation.
IV. If the children of Israel had entered Palestine by the near way, how much would they have missed! The sojourn in the wilderness was not a scene of unrelieved gloom. They bought and sold, they increased in cattle and in riches. “Their garments waxed not old, nor their shoes upon their feet.” They were left generally unmolested by any of the tribes, and when attacked, they were as a rule able to hold their own. Had they not come by the roundabout way, the song of Moses had been unsung, Miriam’s harp had been untuned, Elim, with its wells and palms had been undiscovered, Sinai, with its words of love and law had been unknown, the cloud had never been seen, the manna had not been tasted, the water from the rock had not followed them. They would have had no opportunity of partaking in a sacramental feast with the princely Jethro, and of exerting such a favourable impression upon his tribe that many who were “without” were induced to come within and to respond to the invitation, “Come with us and we will do you good, for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel.” Theirs would not have been the joy which they did experience when, Jordan crossed, they did eat at last the old corn in the land in a city of habitation; they would not have left behind them “footprints on the sands of time,” which will cheer the hearts of countless generations of pilgrims until the world shall have an end; they could never have conceived how good and how patient God was, they could never have believed how corrupt their own hearts were, had not Moses at the end of all the wanderings recalled one scene after another, ore act of rebellion after another committed in the light of the unwearied love which “blackened every blot.” This last point deserves more than passing notice. “Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness to humble thee, to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, to know whether thou wouldst keep His commandments or no.” God knew what was in their hearts. The people did not know their own hearts. Some one will say, “I would that I had died in the days of childhood, I should have been saved many a weary march.” But you would have missed many a providence, the memory of which will cast a shadow of seraphic loveliness on the background of your eternal home, and which will enable you to strike a higher note than otherwise you could ever have reached. Had you not passed through that night of bitter anguish, you could not have fathomed the depths of the words as you did, “Thy way is in the sea, Thy path is in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known.” Had you not been forced to take thought for the morrow, you could never have said as sincerely as you did say, “My heavenly Father knoweth that I have need of all these things.” Had it not been for that sore sickness, there would not have been lying upon your life, consecrating it, a “light that never was on land or sea.” The scars of your suffering are “marks of the Lord Jesus.” Your little bits of experience are so many types which to-day you can set up, and from which you can spell out the might, and majesty, and mercy of the blessed God. (J. Macmillan, M. A.)
The nearest way home
You and I often mark a path out for ourselves; and to us it seems so easy, so likely, so promising of success. Then all at once something happens that disappoints us, and directs us another road that we find further round, and apparently much harder; and we call it a “mysterious providence.” Of course, all is mysterious that is the result of wider knowledge than our own. Do you remember old Quarles’ lines:--
“I say this way; God says that.
His way is best, for He knows what
Of lions may beset my road.
I’ll follow Thee! Lead on, my God!”
He knew what was best and safest, and, in the long run, surest; and by the good hand of God they were kept out of mischief and away from danger. The old proverb is still very true: “The longest way about is often the nearest way home.” “He that goes straight across, may have to carry a cross. He that goes round about, may have the chance to go without.” His thoughts are not our thoughts, and it is a grand thing to be under His guidance; for “the way of man,” as the good Book says, “is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” We know not what is good for us, and, like children, if we were to run alone, we should soon run into mischief. You and I have often been imposed on, both by what we hope and what we fear. Many a time we have tried to run away from what afterwards turned out to be a blessing, and many a time we have been disappointed to save us from being destroyed. I remember on one occasion, when I was young, I got it into my head that I was able to drive. Having narrowly escaped an upset, and frightened myself almost out of my wits, I resigned the reins into more skilful hands than mine, and travelled safely. Let us be as wise as the psalmist, and say, “The Lord shall choose mine inheritance for me!” Let us learn a lesson of patience, too. We may be very anxious to pluck the fruit; but we had better wait till it’s mellow, for fear the pain kills all the pleasure. God’s time is a good time, and God’s way is a safe way, both to-day and to-morrow, too! (J. J. Wray.)
The tender consideration manifested by God towards the Israelites
The Christian life is a growth, and if assailed by some temptations in its infancy, the consequences might be fatal. He, therefore, who commences and maintains the process of our salvation, gradually accustoms His soldiers and servants to the difficulties of their warfare. Their faith, love, zeal, and self-denial are thus exercised rather than oppressed. The text confirms this consolatory view of the Divine procedure.
I. The circumstances of the Israelites. The deliverance of the chosen tribes was at this moment like the first rays of the morning spread upon the mountains. They had been redeemed from bondage. They were commencing their journey to the promised land, every spirit filled with pleasure. They were confident of their power to endure the trials of the way. The heart-searching God knew their deficiencies; and a variety of circumstances connected with their feeble faith determined Him in wisdom to divert their feet towards Canaan by a devious path.
1. The Philistines, who lay between them and the promised inheritance, were a brave and warlike people, against whom the sons of Jacob, numerous as they were, could not hope to succeed in battle. Wisely, therefore, did the Lord judge that they would shrink from such enemies. Such are the Christian’s foes. They are well practised. Satan has triumphed over man in every age, over the philosophy of Greece, the wisdom of Rome, and the refinement of Britain. And thinkest thou, Christian, that the enemies of thy soul are enfeebled? No! What, then, would be the consequences if God led thee past them to Canaan? Wisely and graciously are you led by the wilderness.
2. The Israelites were disarmed, and therefore utterly unable to cope with the Philistines, who were prepared with every means of defence which a people whose delight was in war could invent. The young believer just escaped from the house of bondage is defenceless. His enemies are armed. He cannot expect to wield the sword of the Spirit with the full energy of one who has been accustomed to fight with it.
3. In thus estimating the goodness of God towards the children in their need, we must add that their spirits were bowed down by long captivity. The hard bondage in mortar and brick was not the school in which to learn courage. Hence Israel was not fitted to match against the free soldiers of Philistia. The slavery of Satan unfits for conflict with the foes of the soul.
II. The dealing of God towards them. God might have made Israel at peace with the Philistines; or have given them courage to defeat their foes. But this procedure would have comprehended less of moral discipline.
1. He avoided the nearest way to the promised land, and led them by the way of the wilderness. The Israelites would be astonished at the line of march; they would be disposed to murmur. Has not God often contradicted your desires? You ought not to impugn His wisdom. The passenger ignorant of navigation cannot direct the course of the ship. The shipmaster knows the rocks: God knows our path best.
2. The Most High saw fit, not only that His chosen tribes should avoid the shortest way, but that they should pass through the dangers of the Red Sea, and sojourn in the wilderness of Zin. Could this be the result of wisdom? Clouds and darkness are round about Him. It is the exclusive province of unerring wisdom to draw a line between the discipline necessary for our moral good, and that severity of affliction, which might overwhelm us with despondency. We must confide in our heavenly Father.
3. Never, then, should it be forgotten, that although the journey of the Israelites was contrary to their expectations, their wishes, and their clouded judgment, it was the safest and the best path to Canaan. (R. P. Buddicom.)
Walking through the wilderness
Let us try to apply this, so far as the circumstances of the case permit, to the Christian’s experience in his religious life. That life must have had somewhere a conscious beginning. I say a conscious one, because its actual beginning precedes our knowledge of the fact. Our Christian life really began, through God’s grace, in our baptism, wherein we were made, though unconscious of the blessed truth, the children of God. But to know what then was done for us; to know that we have been made and are alive unto God, to perceive what we are and whose we are--this is like a second beginning. This new beginning is made, ordinarily, at the time of confirmation and first communion; then the Christian’s conscious life begins. If at that time you were really in earnest, and knew what you were about, and did what you did in love and sincerity, then first you felt yourself to be a Christian, and for the first time saw yourself to be on the march towards the Celestial City. Now how, by what route, or what line, was your journey to be made? I say at once and emphatically that its best typical picture must still be found in the forty years of wandering, with what they brought by way of trial, and proof, and weaning from the love of this present world; and that without such steady, quiet discipline, the work runs the risk of being brought to naught. For persons recently awakened to sober reflection on their state, and newly brought to Christ, should not be thought of as able, competent, and strong. They are not yet veterans; they are not yet fairly drilled reserves; they are but raw and awkward recruits. It must be so, unless in rare instances, as when in some sweet, holy child one sees the certain making of a saint. If they make their profession of Christ at a very early age, and ere yet they have left the secure protection of a holy family and a religious household, then their weakness is that of a fallen nature which has not been tried by severe temptations from outside. If, on the other hand, they make their open profession of the faith at a later date of life, then, in addition to that congenital weakness, they have what comes of loss of time, delay without sufficient cause, and commerce with the world, and some past relish for the paths of sin. Either way, this new recruit is weak, and liable to fall. Now suppose such an one brought face to face with the Philistines, with a race that know not God, with Goliath and the other giants, with the vast and splendid array of the notable enemies of the Church, with the temptations and trials of this world. Such an encounter can hardly, by any possibility, be avoided. The world is become one great Philistine camp. Strong races, hardened against religion, hold its chief places. What is likely to result when our young Christian falls on such terrible appearances and is called on to surrender? Here surely is work for veterans and champions; but he is no champion, and as yet has hardly proved his arms. There is danger of discouragement, of terror, of flight. And Egypt calls to him to come back, fair to the eye, sweet to the taste, with many allurements, and a bondage which many find agreeable, as if one were bound in fetters of silk or chains of gold. Yes, the danger, if one were to go right on by the way that is near, would be that of losing heart under the first fire, and wishing one’s self out of the battle; and taking back, or at least forgetting, the promise he had made, and sinking down, a backslider from Christ. What he wants is hardening, proving, tempering. But that comes in the roundabout way. It is affected by means of the discipline of long and slow-moving years; it is the result of innumerable trials and temptations, the fruit of many painful incidents. St. James bids us count it all joy when we fall into divers temptations. Why? Because they constitute the precious discipline of life. If we fail not, we shall be purified thereby, and made ready for the great and final conflict in our own valley of decision. (Morgan Dix, D. D.)
The way of the wilderness
To spare a child the toils and pains of education, is the most grievous wrong that a father can inflict On him. Thus did not God spare His sons! From the day when they sang their triumphal hymn upon the desert shore, to the day when they “passed over Jordan,” their life was one continued discipline: each station, each experience, had a distinct office in relation to the formation of their character; was sent to add to them a virtue which would be an instrument of conquest or government, and a spring of strength, not in time only, but eternity. Not simply to keep them out of the way of the Philistines, but to drill them till they could master their enemies; to nurse them till they could bring forth a Samson, a David, who could compel the Philistines to own their supremacy, He led them by Sinai, and trained them, by self-conquest, to conquer the strongest foes. They came at last on Canaan, not as a scattered band of marauders, but with the shock of a thunderbolt; you feel that the battle is won the first moment that they set their feet on the land. And those men in the desert, hard as was their way and fare, were making history. Bunsen says, “History was born that night, when Moses led forth his people from Goshen.” The narrative of their toils and struggles is the oldest and most precious of historic records, and their waybook has become the heirloom of the pilgrim world. “Behold, we count them happy which endure.” And you who are out in the wilderness, faithless and heartless, like a sailor on a dark sea unlit by stars, learn from Israel the grand reason of your pilgrim vocation, and the end to which it will be guided if you follow the highway of God. God finds you a slave; He would make you a son. You are not the lawful slave of wanton Egypt; you have the King’s mark upon you--the King of kings is waiting to redeem His own. Come forth, then, come forth to freedom! breathe the free air, scan the broad horizon--it is your land of wandering; see the soft blue hills swelling in the distance, the gleaming of rivers, the shadow of wood-lands--it is your land of rest. (J. B. Brown, B. A.)
When the English soldiers were marching up the heights of Alma, meeting the Russians who were marching down towards the English lines, there came a command for the English company to divide, part turning to the left and marching along the side of the hill. It seemed a foolish order when first received by the soldiers. There were Russians marching right in their teeth, and yet half of them were to turn away when the foe was close upon them! But the order was not long considered foolish. Those that turned to the left soon found that a company of Russians had been secretly coming up the side of the hill to fall upon the English unawares. The commander-in-chief from the hill on which he stood could see all the movements of the foe, while those that were perplexed at his orders could see only a small portion of the field. So He who orders our life and lot sees all the movements of the powers of darkness, and to deliver us from their plots and designs, He often leads us by a way we know not. (H. Starmer.)
God’s wondrous providence
What do you do when, in reading the massive folios of ancient English authors, you meet passages written in an unknown tongue? Paragraph after paragraph but you read with all possible fluency, instantly apprehending the author’s purpose; suddenly the writer throws before you a handful of Latin, or a handful of Greek; what then? If you are absorbed by the interest of the book, you eagerly look out for the next paragraph in English, and continue your pursuit of the leading thought. Do likewise with God’s wondrous Providence-book. Much of it is written in your own tongue--in large-lettered English, so to speak; read that, master its deep significance, and leave the passages of unknown language until you are further advanced in the rugged literature of life; until you are older, and better scholars in God’s probationary school. The day of interpretation will assuredly come. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Moses took the bones of Joseph.
An interesting incident in Israel’s departure from Egypt
I. The discharge of a sacred trust (Genesis 50:24-25). Pay attention to the requests of the dead.
II. THE fulfilment of an ancient prophecy (Genesis 1:25). God can kindle the fire of prophecy in the soul of a dying saint, that the sorrowful may be encouraged.
III. The giving of a timely encouragement.
IV. The bestowal of an appropriate honour on an illustrious ancestor. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
A memento and a pledge
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. This rendered the march a kind of funeral procession, and such as no other history relates. Never was body so long in its conveyance to the grave, for forty years were taken up in bearing Joseph to his burial. We read at the death of Joseph that “they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” The precious deposit, likely to be cared for by some of the descendants of his own family, was dear to all. It was a memento of the vanity of human greatness. It was also a moral as well as a mortal memento. Joseph was a very pious character; he had been highly exemplary in every relation and condition of life, and much of God, of providence, and of grace was to be read in his history. What an advantage to be always reminded of such a man in having his remains always in the midst of them! But the body would be above all valuable as a pledge of their future destination. It was a present palpable sign of God’s covenant with their fathers in their behalf. (A. Nevin, D. D.)
Rest in native land
Sir Bartle Frere was often asked at the Cape, “What do you expect when you reach England?” His reply, which was found written on a slip in his Bible after his death, was thus expressed:
“Where in the summer sun the early grasses grow,
Six feet of English ground, a Briton’s grave,
Rest in my native land is all I crave.”
It is the almost universal custom in America, and seems to be growing in favour here, for great men to be buried in the place where they have mostly lived, and among their own kith and kin. Washington lies at Mount Vernon; Lincoln at Springfield; Emerson and Hawthorne under the pines of New England; Irving on the banks of the Hudson; Clay in Kentucky. They are laid to rest not in some central city or great structure, but where they have lived, and where their families and neighbours may accompany them in their long sleep. (H. O. Mackey.)
By day in a pillar of a cloud.
The prophetic element in life
“The Lord went before them in a cloud.” So God ever goes before His people, and standing as we do now on the threshold of a new year, we may recall this truth to our great comfort. The future, unknown to us, is not unknown to Him; He has gone before us, and is evermore delicately adjusting things to our discipline, our perfecting, our utmost salvation and bliss.
I. We find an illustration of the text in the preparation of the world as a dwelling-place for man. Ages before man appeared on this planet, God was preparing it as a habitation for us to dwell in. You talk of “getting the house ready” for some newly married pair; but consider the getting ready of this globe as the scene for humanity to dwell in, and in which to work out its fortunes. What vast ages! What complex and far-seeing adjustments! And so we find to-day that the world has been provisioned for ages, the storehouses of nature are full, we do not lack any good thing. And God also anticipated the moral exigencies of the race.
II. We find another illustration of the text in God’s government of the race. We are not moving at random, the world is full of design, the law is progress, we are always entering into our inheritance. The races of man form a vast motley multitude, and the Lord goes before us preparing for us paths, resting places, wells, palm-trees. “He sent a man before them, even Joseph, who was sold for a servant” (Psalms 105:17). “He sent a man before them.” And this was not some exceptional thing; God is always sending out pioneers, outriders, heralds to prepare the way for the general host in its march through the ages. They come in science, they come in politics, they come in philosophy, they come in religion: men full of the prophetic instinct, men who anticipate a new world, and who prepare us for it. So these Josephs, these dreamers, go before us, making possible to us new creations, new redemptions, We ought all of us, as God’s people, to have a bit of this prophetic instinct in us, helping to usher in a new and better state of things--God’s messengers preparing the way. God has gone before us; He is preparing happier things for our race; and although He works mysteriously, He works certainly to His glorious purpose. And all this is true in relation to our universal life. In our worldly life God is ever providing for us new blessings, glad surprises. Some do not see God because of the cloud, but He is in it nevertheless, working out His gracious purpose. And as to our spiritual life and need, God goes before us. We believe in “prevenient” grace--the grace that goes before. Grace that comes before our trials, preparing us for them, so that they do not overwhelm us. Grace that comes before our temptations, warning us of them, strengthening us against them. Grace that comes before our duties, so that we no sooner hear the call than we feel the strength to obey. We may enter a new year with tranquil confidence. Sydney Smith recommended people to take “short views,” and we can afford to do that, because God on our behalf takes long views.
III. We find our last illustration of the text in the fact that Christ has gone before us into the heavenly places. “A cloud received Him out of their sight.” In that cloud He has gone before us to make ready for us once more. (W. L. Watkinson.)
The pillar of cloud; a symbol of the Bible
I. The mystic pillar resembled the Bible in the ends it answered.
1. The mystic pillar promoted their emancipation. So the Bible opens the soul’s prison doors, snaps its chains, delivers it from the despotism of sin, and makes its way clear into the kingdom of God.
2. The mystic pillar guided them through the wilderness. So does the Bible show us the path of life. It is ever in advance of humanity, etc.
3. The mystic pillar protected them from all that would injure. The Bible is the sword of the Spirit; the armour of the soul.
II. The mystic pillar resembled the Bible in the attributes it displayed.
III. The mystic pillar resembled the Bible in the conditions it required.
1. It required a constant observance of its movements. Bible of no service unless studied.
2. It required a constant following of its movements. You must go as the Bible goes in relation to sin. Satan, holiness, and God; life and death, time and eternity. (Homilist.)
The Divine leadership of the good
I. That the good are Divinely led in the wanderings of life. “The Lord went before them.”
1. A visible Guide.
2. A competent Guide.
3. A faithful Guide.
II. That the good are often Divinely led during the wanderings of life into varied and unsuspected paths. “The edge of the wilderness.”
1. God sometimes leads His people contrary to their expectations.
2. God sometimes leads His people contrary to the dictates of their reason.
3. God always leads His people into those paths which shall yield the most sacred and safe discipline to them.
III. That the method of the Divine leadership is adapted to the changing circumstances of the good. “By day in a pillar of cloud,” etc.
IV. That the Divine leadership should not be mistaken in association with the ordinary agencies of life.
V. That the Divine leadership is solicitous to lead the good to their promised and peaceful destiny. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
The cloudy and fiery pillar a symbol of the Bible
I. As the pillar of cloud was given to guide and comfort, so the Bible is designed to lead the thought and console the sorrow of man. Without the Bible man would be lost in the wide waste of error. It is also intended to console the human heart in all the troubled moods of life, when its joys grow dim, when it is rendered lonely by bereavement, and when it comes to death. At such times the Bible is our chief consolation, it enables us to sorrow in hope, it shows us One who is the Resurrection and the Life.
II. As the pillar combined both cloud and fire, so the Bible unites illumination and mystery. There is mystery in it which the finest genius cannot attain, which angelic intelligence cannot interpret, and which eternity may not simplify. Deity dwells in the volume, and we expect that clouds and darkness will be round about Him. But there is fire in the Book which illumines the doctrines and morality of the Christian life.
III. As the pillar of cloud aided the outgoing of Israel from bondage to rest, so the Bible is the best help man can have in walking through this life to the next. They walk the best in the wilderness of life who pay the most heed to the Word of God (Psalms 119:105). Lessons:
1. Be thankful for the Bible.
2. Follow the directions of the Bible.
3. Seek the consolation of the Bible. (J. S. Exell, M. A.)
I. Explain the text.
1. We may observe that God’s people in every age stand in need of a guide, and without it they would miss the path of duty and of happiness.
2. The Lord Himself graciously condescends to become the guide of His people, and He alone is fit to be so. He only has a perfect knowledge of the way, and of all the difficulties that may befall them in it; and He only is able to support and defend them against the designs of all their enemies.
3. The Lord guides His people in different ages of the world, by various means adapted to their circumstances, and to the peculiar dispensations under which they live.
(1) By His Providence.
(2) By His Word.
(3) By His Spirit.
II. Symbolic meaning.
1. It was altogether miraculous, and a symbol of the Divine presence. It was called the cloud of the Lord; there it was He dwelt in the midst of His people, and spake with them face to face (Numbers 19:14).
2. This mysterious cloud was intended to direct the Israelites in their journey, and by it the Lord communicated to them His will.
3. The cloudy pillar in the wilderness afforded refreshment by its shade, as well as guidance by its light. And is not Jesus both our sun and shield, our light and shade, as our different necessities require? In a season of darkness, He sends forth His cheering beams; and when our soul is ready to faint within us, He ministers to our refreshment and relief.
4. The cloudy pillar was designed for safety and defence, as well as for a guide through the wilderness. (B. Beddome, M. A.)
Need of guidance
General Hill says: “In many of the battles the great want with the Confederates, strange as it may seem, was accurate knowledge of the country in their front. The map furnished me (and I suppose the six other major-generals had no better) was very full in regard to everything within our own lines, but a red line without any points marked on it was our only guide to the route on which our march was to be made.” (H. O. Mackey.)
The other day I was walking across the Northumbrian fells to call at a shepherd’s house that lay distinctly enough before me on the Fell side. The directions I received from a Fellsider whom I had just left, after the manner of those who live every day in the midst of ample space, were vague indeed. The rutty, half-formed road on which I was walking was distinct enough immediately before me, but when I strove to trace the course of the road a greater distance ahead it became blended with the frowsy bracken and bronzed heather, and was utterly lost to view. To have struck boldly out across country to reach my destination by what seemed the shortest route would have entangled me among the spongy bogs and numerous streams with which the hillside was intersected. However, by carefully following the road that was visible before me I managed to pick my way and reached my calling-place in safety. So is it in our daily search after the knowledge of the Divine will. When in our impatient eagerness we wish to look too far into the future, all is indistinct and hazy; but, if we carefully note what is near and sufficiently revealed, we shall be led up infallibly to safety and to rest. (Christian Journal.)
God’s guidance of the Israelites
There was an old fisherman who got converted in his old age. He was not able to read, and therefore had to do his own thinking, not being able to catch up all ideas aired in our newspapers. A friend of mine visited him, and knowing how he loved the Word of God, said to him, “Now, John, shall I read you a chapter?” “Yes, if you please, I should so much like to hear a chapter. I do dearly love to hear the Word read.” “And what part shall I read to you?” “About the Lizard Lights, please. Do read about them, for when I see them I always think I am near my heavenly home. I have often been out on the Atlantic on dark stormy nights, and when I caught sight of the Lizard Lights I knew I was near Falmouth harbour, and would soon be safely moored.” “I am afraid,” ventured my friend, “that I do not know about the Lizard Lights!” “Not know about them! Well, I thought you a gentleman, and had Scripture knowledge, but if you don’t know about the Lizard Lights, you must just wait until Mary comes in.” In a short; time Mary, who was his daughter, came in, and the old man said, “Mary, where is that in the Book about the Lizard Lights? You know you were reading about them last Sunday night.” “Oh, father,” she said, “that was not the Lizard Lights. It was the Israelites.” That old man had made a mistake in the apprehension but not in the application. The story of the Israelites told of the guidance of God, in their wanderings, and the Lizard Lights had frequently been the beacon that had guided the fisherman to his desired haven. (Mark G. Pearse.)
The pillar of cloud; historical parallels
Xenophon mentions, in his Spartan republic, in describing the military expedition of a Spartan king, that a servant, or officer, who was called “firebearer,” preceded the king with the fire, which had been taken from the altar, on which he had just before sacrificed at the frontier of the Spartan territory. After they had sacrificed once more, and the march had commenced, s fire which was lighted at the second sacrifice preceded the lines, without ever extinguishing. In Curtius we read, “He (Alexander the Great) ordered a lofty pole, visible from all sides, to be raised over the general’s tent, and from the top of this pole streamed a signal conspicuous everywhere to every one, smoke by day and fire by night.” Alexander had in this, as in many other points, imitated the custom of the Persians, who, in common with most of the eastern nations, on their mashes through deserted regions, bear before the army high poles, on which iron pots are affixed, filled with lighted combustibles; so that, the smoke by day, and the flame by night, signalized the way to the troops. Thus we cannot but acknowledge a certain curious similarity between the Biblical miracle and a general military custom prevailing in the East. Under these circumstances we entirely approve of Faber’s remarks: “Both the miracle and the custom, collated and compared, give light to each other. The custom effects, that we find the miracle dignified and worthy of God; and the miracle shows, that that very custom cannot have been quite unknown to the Israelites.” (M. M. Kalisch, Ph. D.)
The pillar of the cloud and of fire
The pillar of cloud and of fire was certainly
(1) sacramental (1 Corinthians 10:1-2);
(2) of a typical character (Isaiah 4:5; Numbers 14:42).
He whom the cloudy and fiery pillar typified was the same Almighty Being who hath said to the faithful members of his militant Church, in every age of its warfare, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” The cloud was manifestly intended--
I. To guide the Israelites through the wilderness.
1. The pillar of cloud guided the children of Israel with infallible certainty. God Himself was in it; and unless He could err, their way could not be mistaken. Mark here, the glorious character of the Bible,--that light to our feet with which the unsearchable compassion of our Saviour’s love has provided us. It testifies of Christ. It embodies His teaching and salvation, as the pillar contained them in the.wilderness.
2. This wondrous appearance in the heavens was a constant director to Israel. In every emergency the page of divine truth may be consulted.
II. The cloudy and fiery pillar afforded not merely guidance, but protection to the Israelites in their eventful march. Sin invades, temptation threatens, and every spiritual enemy seems permitted to assail with a fierceness which might well gather gloom and despondency around the heart; but the fainting Christian is encouraged by that voice which speaks as from the cloud between him and his enemies. “Fear thou not, for I am with thee: be not dismayed, for I am thy God.” His life is hid with Christ in God; and amidst every trial and seduction by which his salvation is endangered, he may lay bold upon One who walks with him, and has promised to uphold him with the sufficiency of an Almighty arm.
III. The pillar of cloud and of fire had yet another office to perform for the children of Israel. It gave them refreshment and comfort in the wilderness. Now say, O Christian, is it not thus with thee in the hour of thy most oppressive trial? (R. P. Buddicom.)
The pillar of cloud and fire
I. The way along which God led his people.
II. The manner in which God guided and protected them.
1. Pillar of cloud and fire only means: Jehovah Himself their true guide. God is with His people. What decision, blended with humility, will the realization of this great truth give us! What calmness in the midst of excitement; submission under trial; perseverance under difficulties.
2. Mark the adaptation of God’s method of guidance to the condition and necessities of the Israelites. Gradual progress. (G. Wagner.)
The fiery cloudy pillar
The fiery cloudy pillar performed many friendly offices to the Israelites, It was--
1. A guide. To lead was its main mission. It was a striking illustration of the longsuffering kindness of God. Neither murmurings, nor rebellion, nor idolatry, ever drove away the angel of His presence. The guidance vouchsafed, too, was of the most gracious kind--that of a shepherd (Psalms 78:52), and that of a loving and affectionate parent (Deuteronomy 1:31).
2. A light (see Nehemiah 9:19).
3. A shade (see Psalms 105:39).
4. A shield (see Deuteronomy 1:30; Exodus 14:19).
5. An oracle (see Psalms 119:7). He who opened His mouth in the burning bush at Horeb, opened His mouth in the cloudy pillar, and frequently spake to Israel’s leader for Israel’s benefit.
6. An avenger. When God wished to mark His displeasure, the cloud assumed a very wrathful appearance. The Lord looked unto the host of the Egyptians through the pillar of fire, and troubled the host of the Egyptians. What a dreadful visage it must have worn when flashes went forth from it and devoured Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:2), and also when fire came out from it and consumed two hundred and fifty men! (Numbers 21:35). If the aspect of the cloud was thus at times such as to trouble those with whom God was angry, it would, no doubt, have a very pleasing one when He desired to manifest His favour to the congregation. As they looked up, they would behold the smiling face of their Divine leader cheering and encouraging them to go on in the path of duty. (W. Brown.)
The presence of God adapted to human need
The consciousness of the Divine presence is in proportion to the circumstances in which we are placed. In other words, our circumstances determine our consciousness of the Divine nearness. Sometimes life is all day--almost a summer day with great spans of blue sky overhead, and where the clouds gather they gather in beautiful whiteness, as of purity akin to the holiness of the inner and upper cities of the universe. Then what do we want with fiery displays of God?--they would be out of keeping, out of reason and out of proportion. There are days that are themselves so bright, so hospitable, so long ending, and so poetic in all their breezes, and suggestions, and ministries, that we seem not to want any dogmatic teaching about the personality and nearness of God. All beauty represents Him. Any more emphatic demonstration would be out of harmony with the splendid serenity of the occasion. Then there are periods in life all night, all darkness, all storm or weariness. We cannot say where the door of liberty is, nor dare we step out lest we fall over a precipice; all is dark, all is trouble; friends are as absent as if they were dead, and all the sanctuaries to which we have hitherto resorted are concealed by the infinite darkness. What do we want then? A bird to sing to us? That would be helpful. A little tiny voice to break the troubled silence? That would net be amiss. But what do we really want? A column of fire, a pillar of glory, an emphatic incarnation and vision of Providence; and the soul gets both these manifestations of God according to the circumstances under which the soul is living. Take it, therefore, simply as an analogy, and then it is a rational analogy; it is true to every man’s experience. And if the pillar of cloud and fire should drop off, there will remain the eternal truth, that according to the soul’s circumstances is the Divine revelation of itself. Where the visible is enough, why add more? A man should not want much theology of a formal sort on a bright summer day. Some little tuft of cloud will represent the Infinite. Some almost invisible wing in the air--more a thought than a thing--hardly to be identified by the bodily eye, will symbolize the all-embracing power and the all-brooding love. Then at night we want what is called dogmatic teaching, broad emphasis, piercing declaration, vividness that cannot be mistaken, God almost within the clasping of the poor arms, God almost in sight of the eyes of the body. Thus God deals with us. This is true to our history. The mere cloud may go, the pillar of fire may be accepted as figurative; but the eternal truth that God comes to us in different ways under different circumstances--now as a cloud, now as a fire, now as a judgment, now as without mercy, now a roaring tempest, now a still small voice,--is a truth that remains, whatever havoc may be wrought amid the mere figurativeness by which that truth is symbolized. (J. Parker, D. D.)
How does this remarkable narrative exhibit to us in every variety the picture of God’s daily guidance of His people!
1. The guidance is as indispensable, and at the same time as obvious now as it was then. God still leads His people, through the voice of the purified conscience, through the evident suggestions of His exalted Providence, through the utterances especially of His infallible Word; and all these indications differ sufficiently from what flesh and blood make known to us in order to preserve us from wandering.
2. The guidance now is indeed as mysterious, but yet as well adapted to its purpose, as that of which the history of Israel tells us. Our countless whys and wherefores are still as little answered as the questions concerning the peculiar nature and essence of the pillar of fire and of cloud which probably disturbed the minds of the ancient Israelites. But as regards the question whither, the answer, God be praised, has not remained unknown to us; all God’s guidance of His people, we know, has one good--to bring us out of disquietude into rest, out of bondage to liberty, along the path of faith to the land of sight.
3. Also in our case God’s guidance is as varied, but still as faithful, as was the promise to the ancient people. In the day of prosperity He goes before us as in the cloudy pillar, in order to temper the glow of our joy through the remembrance of His close neighbourhood; in the night of adversity the word of His promise beams on us in as friendly and consoling a manner as did the fiery pillar on Israel in midst of the darkness. But as Moses beheld in the fortieth year of his pilgrimage the same sign in the heavens which had guided and encouraged him in the first, so God’s presence is never lost to His redeemed ones in Christ, whatever else around may faint or fail. Neither by day nor by night does He take from us the tokens of His nearness; and even when He seems to hide His face from us, new thoughts of mercy and of peace are in His heart.
4. Who does not perceive how such a guidance promises as much, but also claims as much return as that of Israel? It guarantees us the entrance into Canaan, but only along the path of believing perseverance and obedience. When the way indicated through the wilderness was despised, the pillar of cloud and fire rose above many a grave, and yet there is no single promise of God to him who chooses his own path. (J. J. Van Oosterzee, D. D.)
The mystic pillar
I have called it a mystic pillar--that cloud in the desert; and so to them who saw it, and to us who read of it, it was. Of what it was composed; by what means it was kept pillar-like and intact while all other clouds were carried and scattered by the winds of heaven; by what strange secret force the cloud-pillar was nightly transformed to a column of bright flame?--these are questions that no doubt often exercised the minds of the spectators, only to be dismissed again as a baffling mystery that could not be explored. And not only its nature and changes, but its direction, its movements as to time and place--they had no knowledge, could make no sure prediction. Whether it would bend to the right, turn to the left, or move straight onward; whether it would remain stationary, or begin to move night or morning, or at noon--all this, and all concerning it, was above and beyond their knowledge; the laws that governed it and the will that led it was as entirely outside their information as it was beyond their control. What they did know was that Jehovah was the God of the cloud; what they could do was to trust it implicitly, follow it constantly, seeing in it all the while the good hand of their God over them for good. In all this, for my learning and for yours, I see a picture--a true and instructive picture--of the providence of God. From the beginning until now, the ways of God to man have been shrouded in mystery, have exercised inquiring but baffled minds, have furnished material for the sneer of the infidel, the sophistry of the sceptic, and the logic of the merely scientific mind; ay, and have strained and tested the faith of the pious, and placed stumblingblocks before his faith, on which his foot hath well-nigh slipped. All this arises from the fact that men will strive to be equal with God; that their mind will cope with that of Deity, and by their finite feebleness gauge the plans and purposes of the Infinite and Eternal Lord of all. (J. J. Wray.)
A clergyman who, with some others, had escaped in a boat from a burning ship, was discoursing in a large company of the marvellous favour of Divine Providence, that had so specially watched over and preserved him. A wonderful providence! A special intervention of God’s goodness! “That was a very great mercy, sir,” said Archbishop Whately, seriously, “but I can record a greater in my own experience. I once sailed across the sea in just such a ship, and bound for just the same port, and--would you believe it?--the vessel never caught fire at all!” My friends, that is the way I would have you think of, and trust in Providence, as being ever present, ever wise and watchful, and, like the cloud-pillar of Israel, ever for your real good--pursuing its Divine and gracious path. Good and bad, light and shade, joy and sorrow, prosperity and adversity, things present and things to come, all are proceeding on precisely the same plan,--namely, the working of the soul and mind of God for His glory in the true well-being of His creatures, and for the ultimate advancement and elevation of mankind. Wherever the pillar went, with whatever seemingly reasonless vagaries the pillar moved, and however widely experiences and opinions differed about its moving, we know now that it led them safe enough and sure enough to the Canaan which was the longing desire of every heart. The mind of a pious and thoughtful artisan named Albert Thierney was much occupied with the ways of God which seemed to him to be full of inscrutable mysteries. The two questions, “How?” and “Why?” were constantly in his thoughts, both as to the events of his own life and the government of the world. One day, in visiting a large ribbon manufactory, his attention was attracted by a large and extraordinary piece of machinery. His eye was that of a cultivated artisan, and he was immensely interested. Countless wheels were revolving in intricate motions, and thousands of threads were twirling and twisting in all directions. He could not understand its movements, and closer study only deepened his interest and increased the mystery. He was informed that all this work and motion was connected with a common centre where there was a large chest which was kept shut. Anxious to understand the principle of the machine, he asked permission to look inside the chest. “The master holds the key,” was the reply. The words came to him like a flash of light. Here was the answer to all his perplexing thoughts--his anxious questionings about Providence. “Yes,” thought he, “the Master holds the key; He knows, He governs, He directs all--God! That is enough! what need I more?” (J. J. Wray.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Exodus 13". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent