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THE DESERT HORDES; AND THE MAN AT OPHRAH
JABIN king of Canaan defeated and his nine hundred chariots turned into ploughshares, we might expect Israel to make at last a start in its true career. The tribes have had their third lesson and should know the peril of infidelity. Without God they are weak as water. Will they not bind themselves now in a confederacy of faith, suppress Baal and Astarte worship by stringent laws and turn their hearts to God and duty? Not yet: not for more than a century. The true reformer has yet to come. Deborah’s work is certainly not in vain. She passes through the land administering justice, commanding the destruction of heathen altars. The people leave their occupations and gather in crowds to hear her: they shout, in answer to her appeals, Jehovah is our King. The Levites are called to minister at the shrines. For a time there is something like religion along with improving circumstances. But the tide does not rise long nor far.
Some twenty years have passed, and what is to be seen going on throughout the land? The Hebrews have addressed themselves vigorously to their work in field and town. Everywhere they are breaking up new ground, building houses, repairing roads, organising traffic. But they are also falling into the old habit of friendly intercourse with Canaanites, talking with them over the prospects of the crops, joining in their festivals of new moon and harvest. In their own cities the old inhabitants of the land sacrifice to Baal and gather about the Asherim. Earnest Israelites are indignant and call for action, but the mass of the people are so taken up with their prosperity that they cannot be roused. Peace and comfort in the lower region seem better than contention for anything higher. In the centre of Palestine there is a coalition of Hebrew and Canaanite cities, with Shechem at their head, which recognise Baal as their patron and worship him as the master of their league. And in the northern tribes generally Jehovah has scant acknowledgment; the people see no great task He has given them to do. If they live and multiply and inherit the land they reckon their function as His nation to be fulfilled.
It is a temptation common to men to consider their own existence and success a sort of Divine end in serving which they do all that God requires of them. The business of mere living and making life comfortable absorbs them so that even faith finds its only use in promoting their own happiness. The circle of the year is filled with occupations. When the labour of the field is over there are the houses and cities to enlarge, to improve, and furnish with means of safety and enjoyment. One task done and the advantage of it felt, another presents itself, Industry takes new forms and burdens still more the energies of men. Education, art, science become possible and in turn make their demands. But all may be for self, and God may be thought of merely as the great Patron satisfied with His tithes. In this way the impulses and hopes of faith are made the ministers of egoism, and as a national thing the maintenance of law, goodwill, and a measure of purity may seem to furnish religion with a sufficient object. But this is far from enough. Let worship be refined and elaborated, let great temples be built and thronged, let the arts of music and painting be employed in raising devotion to its highest pitch-still if nothing beyond self is seen as the aim of existence, if national Christianity realises no duty to the world outside, religion must decay. Neither a man nor a people can be truly religious without the missionary spirit, and that spirit must constantly shape individual and collective life. Among ourselves worship would petrify and faith wither were it not for the tasks the church has undertaken at home and abroad. But half-understood, half-discharged, these duties keep us alive. And it is because the great mission of Christians to the world is not even yet comprehended that we have so much practical atheism. When less care and thought are expended on the forms of worship and the churches address themselves to the true ritual of our religion, carrying out the redeeming work of our Saviour, there will be new fervour; unbelief will be swept away.
Israel, losing sight of its mission and its destiny, felt no need of faith and lost it; and with the loss of faith came loss of vigour and alertness as on other occasions. Having no sense of a common purpose great enough to demand their unity the Hebrews were again unable to resist enemies, and this time the Midianites and other wild tribes of the eastern desert found their opportunity. First some bands of them came at the time of harvest and made raids on the cultivated districts. But year by year they ventured farther in increasing numbers. Finally they brought their tents and families, their flocks and herds, and took possession.
In the case of all who fall away from the purpose of life the means of bringing failure home to them and restoring the balance of justice are always at hand. Let a man neglect his fields and nature is upon him; weeds choke his crops, his harvests diminish, poverty comes like an armed man. In trade likewise carelessness brings retribution. So in the case of Israel: although the Canaanites had been subdued other foes were not far away. And the business of this nation was of so sacred a kind that neglect of it meant great moral fault, and every fresh relapse into earthliness and sensuality after a revival of religion implied more serious guilt. We find accordingly a proportionate severity in the punishment. Now the nation is chastised with whips, but next time it is with scorpions. Now the iron chariots of Sisera hold the land in terror; then hosts of marauders spread like locusts over the country, insatiable, all-devouring. Do the Hebrews think that careful tilling of their fields and the making of wine and oil are their chief concern? In that they shall be undeceived. Not mainly to be good husbandmen and vine dressers are they set here, but to be a light in the midst of the nations. If they cease to shine they shall no longer enjoy.
It was by the higher fords of Jordan, perhaps north of the Sea of Galilee, that the Midianites fell on western Canaan. Under their two great emirs Zebah and Zalmunna, who seem to have held a kind of barbaric state, troops of riders on swift horses and dromedaries swept the shore of the lake and burst into the plain of Jezreel. There were no doubt many skirmishes between their squadrons and the men of Naphtali and Manasseh. But one horde of the invaders followed another so quickly and their attacks were so sudden and fierce that at length resistance became impossible, the Hebrews had to betake themselves to the heights and dwell in the caves and rocks. Once in the desert under Moses they had been more than a match for these Arabs. Now, although on vantage ground moral and natural, fighting for their hearths and homes behind the breastwork of lake, river, and mountain, they are completely routed.
Between the circumstances of this oppressed nation and the present state of the church there is a wide interval, and in a sense the contrast is striking. Is not the Christianity of our time strong and able to hold its own? Is not the mood of many churches of the present day properly that of elation? As year after year reports of numerical increase and larger contributions are made, as finer buildings are raised for the purpose of worship, and work at home and abroad is carried on more efficiently, is it not impossible to trace any resemblance between the state of Israel during the Midianite oppression and the state of religion now? Why should there be any fear that Baal worship or other idolatry should weaken the tribes, or that marauders from the desert should settle in their land?
And yet the condition of things today is not quite unlike that of Israel at the time we are considering. There are Canaanites who dwell in the land and carry on their debasing worship. These too are days when guerilla troops of naturalism, nomads of the primaeval desert, are sweeping the region of faith. Reckless and irresponsible talk in periodicals and on platforms; novels, plays, and verses, often as clever as they are unscrupulous, are incidents of the invasion, and it is well advanced. Not for the first time is a raid of this kind made on the territory of faith, but the serious thing now is the readiness to give way, the want of heart and power to resist that we observe in family life and in society as well as in literature. Where resistance ought to be eager and firm it is often ignorant, hesitating, lukewarm. Perhaps the invasion must become more confident and more injurious before it rouses the people of God to earnest and united action. Perhaps those who will not submit may have to betake themselves to the caves of the mountains while the new barbarism establishes itself in the rich plain. It has almost come to this in some countries; and it may be that the pride of those who have been content to cultivate their vineyards for themselves alone, the security of those who have too easily concluded that fighting was over shall yet be startled by some great disaster.
"Israel was brought very low because of Midian." A traveller’s picture of the present state of things on the eastern frontier of Bashan enables us to understand the misery to which the tribes were reduced by seven years of rapine. "Not only is the country-plain and hillside alike-chequered with fenced fields, but groves of fig trees are here and there seen and terraced vineyards still clothe the sides of some of the hills. These are neglected and wild but not fruitless. They produce great quantities of figs and grapes, which are rifled year after year by the Bedawin in their periodical raids. Nowhere on earth is there such a melancholy example of tyranny, rapacity, and misrule as here. Fields, pastures, vineyards, houses, villages, cities are all alike deserted and waste. Even the few inhabitants that have hid themselves among the rocky fastnesses and mountain defiles drag out a miserable existence, oppressed by robbers of the desert on the one hand and robbers of the government on the other." The Midianites of Gideon’s time acted the part both of tyrants and depredators. They "left no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep nor ox nor ass. They entered into the land for to destroy it."
"And the children of Israel cried unto the Lord"; the prodigals bethought them of their Father. Having come to the husks they remembered Him who fed His people in the desert. Again the wheel has revolved and from the lowest point there is an upward movement. The tribes of God look once more towards the hills from whence their help cometh. And here is seen the importance of that faith which had passed into the nation’s life. Although it was not of a very spiritual kind, yet it preserved in the heart of the people a recuperative power. The majority knew little more of Jehovah than His name. But the name suggested availing succour. They turned to the Awful Name, repeated it and urged their need. Here and there one saw God as the infinitely righteous and holy and added to the wail of the ignorant a more devout appeal, recognising the evils under which the people groaned as punitive, and knowing that the very God to Whom they cried had brought the Midianites upon them. In the prayer of such a one there was an outlook towards holier and nobler life. But even in the case of the ignorant the cry to One higher than the highest had help in it. For when that bitter cry was raised self-glorifying had ceased and piety begun.
Ignorant indeed is much of the faith that still expresses itself in so-called Christian prayer, almost as ignorant as that of the disconsolate Hebrew tribes. The moral purpose of discipline, the Divine ordinances of defeat and pain and affliction are a mystery unread. The man in extremity does not know why his hour of abject fear has come, nor see that one by one all the stays of his selfish life have been removed by a Divine hand. His cry is that of a foolish child. Yet is it not true that such a prayer revives hope and gives new energy to the languid life? It may be many years since prayer was tried, not perhaps since he who is now past his meridian knelt at a mother’s knee. Still as he names the name of God, as he looks upward, there comes with the dim vision of an Omnipotent Helper within reach of his cry the sense of new possibilities, the feeling that amidst the miry clay or the heaving waves there is something firm and friendly on which he may yet stand. It is a striking fact as to any kind of religious belief, even the most meagre, that it does for man what nothing else can do. Prayer must cease, we are told, for it is mere superstition. Without denying that much of what is called prayer is an expression of egotism, we must demand an explanation of the unique value it has in human life and a sufficient substitute for the habit of appeal to God. Those who would deprive us of prayer must first remake man, for to the strong and enlightened prayer is necessary as well as to the weak and ignorant. The Heavenly is the only hope of the earthly. That we understand God is, after all, not the chief thing: but does He know us? Is He there above yet beside us, forever?
The first answer to the cry of Israel came in the message of a prophet, one who would have been despised by the nation in its self-sufficient mood, but now obtained a hearing. His words brought instruction and made it possible for faith to move and work along a definite line. Through man’s struggle God helps him; through man’s thought and resolve God speaks to him. He is already converted when he believes enough to pray, and from this point faith saves by animating and guiding the strenuous will. The ignorant abject people of God learns from the prophet that something is to be done. There is a command, repeated from Sinai, against the worship of heathen gods, then a call to love the true God the Deliverer of Israel. Faith is to become life, and life faith. The name of Jehovah which has stood for one power among others is clearly reaffirmed as that of the One Divine Being, the only Object of adoration. Israel is convicted of sin and set on the way of obedience.
The answer to prayer lies very near to him who cries for salvation. He has not to move a step. He has but to hear the inner voice of conscience. Is there a sense of neglect of duty, a sense of disobedience, of faults committed? The first movement towards salvation is set up in that conviction and in the hope that the evil now seen may be remedied. Forgiveness is implied in this hope, and it will become assured as the hope grows strong. The mistake is often made of supposing that answer to prayer does not come till peace is found. In reality the answer begins when the will is bent towards a better life, though that change may be accompanied by the deepest sorrow and self-humiliation. A man who earnestly reproaches himself for despising and disobeying God has already received the grace of the redeeming Spirit.
But to Israel’s cry there was another answer. When repentance was well begun and the tribes turned from the heathen rites which separated them from each other and from Divine thoughts, freedom again became possible and God raised up a liberator. Repentance indeed was not thorough; therefore a complete national reformation was not accomplished. Yet as against Midian, a mere horde of marauders, the balance of righteousness and power inclined now in behalf of Israel. The time was ripe and in the providence of God the fit man received his call.
Southwest from Shechem, among the hills of Manasseh, at Ophrah of the Abiezrites, lived a family that had suffered keenly at the hands of Midian. Some members of the family had been slain near Tabor, and the rest had as a cause of war not only the constant robberies from field and homestead but also the duty of blood revenge. The deepest sense of injury, the keenest resentment fell to the share of one Gideon, son of Joash, a young man of nobler temper than most Hebrews of the time. His father was head of a Thousand; and as he was an idolater the whole clan joined him in sacrificing to the Baal whose altar stood within the boundary of his farm. Already Gideon appears to have turned with loathing from that base worship; and he was pondering earnestly the cause of the pitiful state into which Israel had fallen. But the circumstances perplexed him. He was not able to account for facts in accordance with faith.
In a retired place on the hillside, where a winepress has been fashioned in a hollow of the rocks, we first see the future deliverer of Israel. His task for the day is that of threshing out some wheat so that, as soon as possible, the grain may be hid from the Midianites; and he is busy with the flail, thinking deeply, watching carefully as he plies the instrument with a sense of irksome restraint. Look at him and you are struck with his stalwart proportions and his bearing: he is "like the son of a king." Observe more closely and the fire of a troubled yet resolute soul will be seen in his eye. He represents the best Hebrew blood, the finest spirit and intelligence of the nation; but as yet he is a strong man bound. He would fain do something to deliver Israel he would fain trust Jehovah to sustain him in striking a blow for liberty; but the way is not clear. Indignation and hope are baffled.
In a pause of his work, as he glances across the valley with anxious eye, suddenly he sees under an oak a stranger sitting staff in hand, as if he had sought rest for a little in the shade. Gideon scans the visitor keenly, but finding no cause for alarm bends again to his labour. The next time he looks up the stranger is beside him and words of salutation are falling from his lips-"Jehovah is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." To Gideon the words did not seem so strange as they would have seemed to some. Yet what did they mean? Jehovah with him? Strength and courage he is aware of. Sympathy with his fellow Israelites and the desire to help them he feels. But these do not seem to him proofs of Jehovah’s presence. And as for his father’s house and the Hebrew people, God seems far from them. Harried and oppressed, they are surely God-forsaken. Gideon can only wonder at the unseasonable greeting and ask what it means.
Unconsciousness of God is not rare. Men do not attribute their regret over wrong, their faint longing for the right to a spiritual presence within them and a Divine working. The Unseen appears so remote, man appears so shut off from intercourse with any supernatural Cause or Source that he fails to link his own strain of thought with the Eternal. The word of God is nigh him even in his heart, God is "closer to him than breathing, nearer than hands and feet." Hope, courage, will, life-these are Divine gifts, but he does not know it. Even in our Christian times the old error which makes God external, remote, entirely aloof from human experience survives and is more common than true faith. We conceive ourselves separated from the Divine, with springs of thought, purpose, and power in our own being, whereas there is in us no absolute origin of power-moral, intellectual, or physical. We live and move in God: He is our Source and our Stay, and our being is shot through and through with rays of the Eternal. The prophetic word spoken in our ear is not more assuredly from God than the pure wish or unselfish hope that frames itself in our minds or the stern voice of conscience heard in the soul. As for the trouble into which we fall, that too, did we understand aright, is a mark of God’s providential care. Would we err without discipline? Would we be ineffective and have no bracing? Would we follow lies and enjoy a false peace? Would we refuse the Divine path to strength, yet never feel the sorrow of the weak? Are these the proofs of God’s presence our ignorance would desire? Then indeed we imagine an unholy one, an unfaithful one upon the throne of the universe. But God has no favourites; He does not rule like a despot of earth for courtiers and an aristocracy. In righteousness and for righteousness, for eternal truth He works, and for that His people must endure.
"Jehovah is with thee": so ran the salutation. Gideon, thinking of Jehovah, does not wonder to hear His name. But full of doubts natural to one so little instructed he feels himself bound to express them: "Why is all this evil befallen us? Hath not Jehovah cast us off and delivered us into the hand of Midian?" Unconstrainedly, plainly as man to man Gideon speaks, the burdensome thought of his people’s misery overcoming the strangeness of the fact that in a God-forsaken land anyone should care to speak of things like these. Yet momentarily, as the conversation proceeds, there grows in Gideon’s soul a feeling of awe, a new and penetrating idea. The look fastened upon him conveys beside the human strain of will a suggestion of highest authority; the words, "Go in this thy might and save Israel, have not I sent thee?" kindle in his heart a vivid faith. Laid hold of, lifted above himself, the young man is made aware at last of the Living God, His presence, His will. Jehovah’s representative has done his mediatorial work. Gideon desires a sign; but his wish is a note of habitual caution, not of disbelief, and in the sacrifice he finds what he needs.
Now, why insist as some do on that which is not affirmed in the text? The form of the narrative must be interpreted: and it does not require us to suppose that Jehovah Himself, incarnate, speaking human words, is upon the scene. The call is from Him, and indeed Gideon has already a prepared heart, or he would not listen to the messenger. But seven times in the brief story the word Malakh marks a commissioned servant as clearly as the other word Jehovah marks the Divine will and revelation. After the man of God has vanished from the hill swiftly, strangely, in the manner of his coming, Gideon remains alive to Jehovah’s immediate presence and voice as he never was before. Humble and shrinking-"forasmuch as I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face"-he yet hears the Divine benediction fall from the sky, and following that a fresh and immediate summons. Whether from the tabernacle at Shiloh an acknowledged prophet came to the brooding Abiezrite, or the visitor was one who concealed his own name and haunt that Jehovah might be the more impressively recognised, it matters not. The angel of the Lord made Gideon thrill with a call to highest duty, opened his ears to heavenly voices, and then left him. After this he felt God to be with himself.
"The Lord looked upon Gideon and said, Go in this thy might and save Israel from the hand of Midian: have not I sent thee?" It was a summons to stern and anxious work, and the young man could not be sanguine. He had considered and reconsidered the state of things so long, he had so often sought a way of liberating his people and found none that he needed a clear indication how the effort was to be made. Would the tribes follow him, the youngest of an obscure family in Manasseh? And how was he to stir, how to gather the people? He builds an altar, Jehovah-shalom; he enters into covenant with the Eternal in high and earnest resolution, and with a sudden flash of prophet sight he sees the first thing to do. Baal’s altar in the high place of Ophrah must be overthrown. Thereafter it will be known what faith and courage are to be found in Israel.
It is the call of God that ripens a life into power, resolve, fruitfulness-the call and the response to it. Continually the Bible urges upon us this great truth, that through the keen sense of a close personal relation to God and of duty owing to Him the soul grows and comes to its own. Our human personality is created in that way and in no other. There are indeed lives which are not so inspired and yet appear strong; an ingenious resolute selfishness gives them momentum. But this individuality is akin to that of ape or tiger; it is a part of the earth force in yielding to which a man forfeits his proper being and dignity. Look at Napoleon, the supreme example in history of this failure. A great genius, a striking character? Only in the carnal region, for human personality is moral, spiritual, and the most triumphant cunning does not make a man; while, on the other hand, from a very moderate endowment put to the glorious usury of God’s service will grow a soul clear, brave, and firm, precious in the ranks of life. Let a human being, however ignorant and low, hear and answer the Divine summons and in that place a man appears, one who stands related to the source of strength and light. And when a man roused by such a call feels responsibility for his country, for religion, the hero is astir. Something will be done for which mankind waits.
But heroism is rare. We do not often commune with God nor listen with eager souls for His word. The world is always in need of men, but few appear. The usual is worshipped; the pleasure and profit of the day occupy us; even the sight of the cross does not rouse the heart. Speak, Heavenly Word! and quicken our clay. Let the thunders of Sinai be heard again, and then the still small voice that penetrates the soul. So shall heroism be born and duty done, and the dead shall live.
GIDEON, ICONOCLAST AND REFORMER
"The Lord is with thee, thou mighty man of valour":-so has the prophetic salutation come to the young man at the threshing floor of Ophrah. It is a personal greeting and call "with thee"-just what a man needs in the circumstances of Gideon. There is a nation to be saved, and a human leader must act for Jehovah. Is Gideon fit for so great a task? A wise humility, a natural fear have held him under the yoke of daily toil until this hour. Now the needed signs are given; his heart leaps up in the pulses of a longing which God approves and blesses. The criticism of kinsfolk, the suspicious carping of neighbours, the easily affronted pride of greater families no longer crush patriotic desire and overbear yearning faith. The Lord is with thee, Gideon, youngest son of Joash, the toiler in obscure fields. Go in this thy might; be strong in Jehovah.
But the assurance must widen if it is to satisfy. With me-that is a great thing for Gideon; that gives him free air to breathe and strength to use the sword. But can it be true? Can God be with one only in the land? He seems to have forsaken Israel and sold His people to the oppressor. Unless He returns to all in forgiveness and grace nothing can be done; a renewal of the nation is the first thing, and this Gideon desires. Comfort for himself, freedom from Midianite vexation for himself and his father’s house would be no satisfaction if, all around, he saw Israel still crushed under heathen hordes. To have a hand in delivering his people from danger and sorrow is Gideon’s craving. The assurance given to himself personally is welcome because in it there is a sound as of the beginning of Israel’s redemption. Yet "if the LORD be with us, why then is all this befallen us?" God cannot be with the tribes, for they are harassed and spoiled by enemies, they lie prone before the altars of Baal.
There is here an example of largeness in heart and mind which we ought not to miss, especially because it sets before us a principle often unrecognised. It is clear enough that Gideon could not enjoy freedom unless his country was free, for no man can be safe in an enslaved land; but many fail to see that spiritual redemption, in like manner, cannot be enjoyed by one unless others are moving towards the light. Truly salvation is personal at first and personal at last; but it is never an individual affair only. Each for himself must hear and answer the divine call to repentance; each as a moral unit must enter the strait gate, press along the marrow way of life, agonise and overcome. But the redemption of one soul is part of a vast redeeming purpose, and the fibres of each life are interwoven with those of other lives far and wide. Spiritual brotherhood is a fact but faintly typified by the brotherhood of the Hebrews, and the struggling soul today, like Gideon’s long ago, must know God as the Saviour of all men before a personal hope can be enjoyed worth the having. As Gideon showed himself to have the Lord with him by a question charged not with individual anxiety but with keen interest in the nation, so a man now is seen to have the Spirit of God as he exhibits a passion for the regeneration of the world. Salvation is enlargement of soul, devotion to God and to man for the sake of God. If anyone thinks he is saved while he bears no burdens for others, makes no steady effort to liberate souls from the tyranny of the false and the vile, he is in fatal error. The salvation of Christ plants always in men and women His mind, His law of life, Who is the Brother and Friend of all.
And the church of Christ must be filled with His Spirit, animated by His law of life, or be unworthy the name. It exists to unite men in the quest and realisation of highest thought and purest activity. The church truly exists for all men, not simply for those who appear to compose it. Salvation and peace are with the church as with the individual believer, but only as her heart is generous, her spirit simple and unselfish. Doubtful and distressed as Gideon was the church of Christ should never be, for to her has been whispered the secret that the Abiezrite had not read, how the Lord is in the oppression and pain of the people, in the sorrow and the cloud. Nor is a church to suppose that salvation can be hers while she thinks of any outside with the least touch of Pharisaism, denying their share in Christ. Better no visible church than one claiming exclusive possession of truth and grace; better no church at all than one using the name of Christ for privilege and excommunication, restricting the fellowship of life to its own enclosure.
But with utmost generosity and humaneness goes the clear perception that God’s service is the sternest of campaigns, beginning with resolute protest and decisive deed, and Gideon must rouse himself to strike for Israel’s liberty first against the idol worship of his own village. There stands the altar of Baal, the symbol of Israel’s infidelity; there beside it the abominable Asherah, the sign of Israel’s degradation. Already he has thought of demolishing these, but has never summoned courage, never seen that the result would justify him. For such a deed there is a time, and before the time comes the bravest man can only reap discomfiture. Now, with the warrant in his soul, the duty on his conscience, Gideon can make assault on a hateful superstition.
The idolatrous altar and false worship of one’s own clan, of one’s own family-these need courage to overturn and, more than courage, a ripeness of time and a Divine call. A man must be sure of himself and his motives, for one thing, before he takes upon him to be the corrector of errors that have seemed truth to his fathers and are maintained by his friends. Suppose people are actually worshipping a false god, a world power which has long held rule among them. If one would act the part of iconoclast the question is, By what right? Is he himself clear of illusion and idolatry? Has he a better system to put in place of the old? He may be acting in mere bravado and self-display, flourishing opinions which have less sincerity than those which he assails. There were men in Israel who had no commission and could have claimed no right to throw down Baal’s altar, and taking upon them such a deed would have had short shrift at the hands of the people of Ophrah. And so there are plenty among us who if they set up to be judges of their fellow men and of beliefs which they call false, even when these are false, deserve simply to be put down with a strong hand. There are voices, professing to be those of zealous reformers, whose every word and tone are insults. The men need to go and learn the first lessons of truth, modesty, and earnestness. And this principle applies all round-to many who assail modern errors as well as to many who assail established beliefs. On the one hand, are men anxious to uphold the true faith? It is well. But anxiety and the best of motives do not qualify them to attack science, to denounce all rationalism as godless. We want defenders of the faith who have a Divine calling to the task in the way of long study and a heavenly fairness of mind, so that they shall not offend and hurt religion more by their ignorant vehemence than they help it by their zeal. On the other hand, by what authority do they speak who sneer at the ignorance of faith and would fain demolish the altars of the world? It is no slight equipment that is needed. Fluent sarcasm, confident worldliness, even a large acquaintance with the dogmas of science will not suffice. A man needs to prove himself a wise and humane thinker, he needs to know by experience and deep sympathy those perpetual wants of our race which Christ knew and met to the uttermost. Some facile admiration of Jesus of Nazareth does not give the right to free criticism of His life and words, or of the faith based upon them. And if the plea is a rare respect for truth, an unusual fidelity to fact, humanity will still ask of its would be liberator on what fields he has won his rank or what yoke he has borne. Successful men especially will find it difficult to convince the world that they have a right to strike at the throne of Him who stood alone before the Roman Pilate and died on the Cross.
Gideon was not unfit to render high service. He was a young man tried in humble duty and disciplined in common tasks, shrewd but not arrogant, a person of clear mind and a patriot. The people of the farm and a good many in Ophrah had learned to trust him and were prepared to follow when he struck out a new path. He had God’s call and also his own past to help him. Hence when Gideon began his undertaking, although to attempt it in broad day would have been rash and he must act under cover of darkness, he soon found ten men to give their aid. No doubt he could in a manner command them, for they were his servants. Still a business of the kind he proposed was likely to rouse their superstitious fears, and he had to conquer these. It was also sure to involve the men in some risk, and he must have been able to give them confidence in the issue. This he did, however, and they went forth. Very quietly the altar of Baal was demolished and the great wooden mast, hateful symbol of Astarte, was cut down and split in pieces. Such was the first act in the revolution.
We observe, however, that Gideon does not leave Ophrah without an altar and a sacrifice. Destroy one system without laying the foundation of another that shall more than equal it in essential truth and practical power, and what sort of deliverance have you effected? Men will rightly execrate you. It is no reformation that leaves the heart colder, the life barer and darker than before; and those who move in the night against superstition must be able to speak in the day of a Living God who will vindicate His servants. It has been said over and over again and must yet be repeated, to overturn merely is no service. They that break down need some vision at least of a building up, and it is the new edifice that is the chief thing. The world of thought today is infested with critics and destroyers and may well be tired of them. It is too much in need of constructors to have any thanks to spare for new Voltaires and Humes. Let us admit that demolition is the necessity of some hours. We look back on the ruins of Bastilles and temples that served the uses of tyranny, and even in the domain of faith there have been fortresses to throw down and ramparts that made evil separations among men. But destruction is not progress; and if the end of modern thought is to be agnosticism, the denial of all faith and all ideals, then we are simply on the way to something not a whit better than primeval ignorance.
The morning sun showed the gap upon the hill where the symbols had stood of Baal and Astarte, and soon like an angry swarm of bees the people were buzzing round the scattered stones of the old altar and the rough new pile with its smoking sacrifice. Where was he who ventured to rebuke the city? Very indignant, very pious are these false Israelites. They turn on Joash with the fierce demand, "Bring out thy son that he may die." But the father too has come to a decision. We get a hint of the same nature as Gideon’s, slow, but firm when once roused; and if anything would rouse a man it would be this brutal passion, this sudden outbreak of cruelty nursed by heathen custom, his own conscience meanwhile testifying that Gideon was right. Tush! says Joash, will you plead for Baal? Will you save him? Is it necessary for you to defend one whom you have worshipped as Lord of heaven? Let him ply his lightnings if he has any. I am tired of this Baal who has no principles and is good only for feast days. He that pleads for Baal, let him be the man to die. Unexpected apology, serious too and unanswerable. Conscience that seemed dead is suddenly awakened and carries all before it. There is a quick conversion of the whole town because one man has acted decisively and another speaks strong words which cannot be gainsaid. To be sure Joash uses a threat-hints something of taking a very short method with those who still protest for Baal; and that helps conversion. But it is force against force, and men cannot object who have themselves talked of killing. By a rapid popular impulse Gideon is justified, and with the new name Jerubbaal he is acknowledged as a leader in Manasseh.
False religion is not always so easily exposed and upset. Truth may be so mixed with the error of a system that the moral sense is confused and faith clings to the follies and lies conjoined with the truth. And when we look at Judaism in contact with Christianity, at Romanism in contact with the Protestant spirit, we see how difficult it may be to liberate faith. The Apostle Paul, wielding the weapon of a singular and keen eloquence, cannot overcome the Pharisaism of his countrymen. At Antioch, at Iconium he does his utmost with scant success. The Protestant reformation did not so swiftly and thoroughly establish itself in every European country as in Scotland. Where there is no pressure of outward circumstances forcing new religious ideas upon men there must be all the more a spirit of independent thought if any salutary change is to be made in creed and worship. Either there must be men of Berea who search the Scriptures daily, men of Zurich and Berne with the energy of free citizens, or reformation must wait on some political emergency. And in effect conscience rarely has free play, since men are seldom manly, but more or less like sheep. Hence the value, as things go in this world, of leaders like Joash, princes like Luther’s Elector, who give the necessary push to the undecided and check forward opponents by a significant warning. It is not the ideal way of reforming the world, but it has often answered well enough within limits. There are also cases in which the threats of the enemy have done good service, as when the appearance of the Spanish Armada on the English coast did more to confirm the Protestantism of the country than many years of peaceful argument. In truth, were there not occasionally something like master strokes in Providence the progress of humanity would be almost imperceptible. Men and nations are urged on although they have no great desire to advance; they are committed to a voyage and cannot return; they are caught in currents and must go where the currents bear them. Certainly in such cases there is not the ardour, and men cannot reap the reward belonging to the thinkers and brave servants of the truth. Practically, whether Protestants or Romanists, they are spiritually inert. Still it is well for them, well for the world, that a strong hand should urge them forward, since otherwise they would not move at all. Of many in all churches it must be said they are not victors in a fight of faith, they do not work out their own salvation. Yet they are guided, warned, persuaded into a certain habit of piety and understanding of truth, and their children have a new platform, somewhat higher than their fathers’, on which to begin life.
At Ophrah of the Abiezrites, though we cannot say much for the nature of the faith in God which has replaced idolatry, still the way is prepared for further and decisive action. Men do not cease from worshipping Baal and become true servants of the Most Holy in a single day; that requires time. There, are better possibilities, but Gideon cannot teach the way of Jehovah, nor is he in the mood for religious inquiry. The conversion of Abiezer is quite of the same sort as in early Christian times was effected when a king went over to the new faith and ordered his subjects to be baptised. Not even Gideon knows the value of the faith to which the people have returned, in the strength of which they are to fight. They will be bold now, for even a little trust in God goes a long way in sustaining courage. They will face the enemy now to whom they have long submitted. But of the purity and righteousness into which the faith of Jehovah should lead them they have no vision.
Now with this in view many will think it strange to hear of the conversion of Abiezer. It is a great error however to despise the day of small things. God gives it and we ought to understand its use. Conversion cannot possibly mean the same in every period of the world’s history; it cannot even mean the same in any two cases. To recognise this would be to clear the ground of much that hinders the teaching and the success of the gospel. Where there has been long familiarity with the New Testament, the facts of Christianity and the high spiritual ideas it presents, conversion, properly speaking, does not take place till the message of Christ to the soul stirs it to its depths, moves alike the reason and the will, and creates fervent discipleship. But the history of Israel and of humanity moves forward continuously in successive discoveries or revelations of the highest, culminating in the Christian salvation. To view Gideon as a religious reformer of the same kind as Isaiah is quite a mistake. He had scarcely an idea in common with the great prophet of a later day. But the liberty he desired for his people and the association of liberty with the worship of Jehovah made his revolution a step in the march of Israel’s redemption. Those who joined him with any clear purpose and sympathy were therefore converted men in a true if very limited sense. There must be first the blade and then the ear before there can be the full corn. We reckon Gideon a hero of faith, and his hope was truly in the same God Whom we worship-the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet his faith could not be on a level with ours, his knowledge being far less. The angel who speaks to him, the altar he builds, the Spirit of the Lord that comes upon him, his daring iconoclasm, the new purpose and power of the man are in a range quite above material life-and that is enough.
There are some circles in which honesty and truth speaking are evidence of a work of grace. To become honest and to speak truth in the fear of God is to be converted, in a sense, where things are at that pass. There are people who are so cold that among them enthusiasm for anything good may be called superhuman. Nobody has it. If it appears it must come from above. But these steps of progress, though we may describe them as supernatural, are elementary. Men have to be converted again and again, ever making one gain a step to another. The great advance comes when the soul believes enthusiastically in Christ, pledging itself to Him in full sight of the cross. This and nothing less is the conversion we need. To love freedom, righteousness, charity only prepares for the supreme love of God in Christ, in which life springs to its highest power and joy.
Now are we to suppose that Gideon alone of all the men of Israel had the needful spirit and faith to lead the revolution? Was there no one but the son of Joash? We do not find him fully equipped, nor as the years go by does he prove altogether worthy to be chief of the tribes of God. Were there not in many Hebrew towns souls perhaps more ardent, more spiritual than his, needing only the prophetic call, the touch of the Unseen Hand to make them aware of power and opportunity? The leadership of such a one as Moses is complete and unquestionable. He is the man of the age; knowledge, circumstances, genius fit him for the place he has to occupy. We cannot imagine a second Moses in the same period. But in Israel as well as among other peoples it is often a very imperfect hero who is found and followed. The work is done, but not so well done as we might think possible. Revolutions which begin full of promise lose their spirit because the leader reveals his weakness or even folly. We feel sure that there are many who have the power to lead in thought where the world has not dreamt of climbing, to make a clear road where as yet there is no path; and yet to them comes no messenger, the daily task goes on and it is not supposed that a leader, a prophet is passed by. Are there no better men that Ehud, Gideon, Jephthah must stand in the front?
One answer certainly is that the nation at the stage it has reached cannot as a whole esteem a better man, cannot understand finer ideas. A hundred men of more spiritual faith were possibly brooding over Israel’s state, ready to act as fearlessly as Gideon and to a higher issue. But it could only have been after a cleansing of the nation’s life, a suppression of Baal worship much more rigorous than could at that time be effected. And in every national crisis the thought of which the people generally are capable determines who must lead and what kind of work shall be done. The reformer before his time either remains unknown or ends in eclipse; either he gains no power or it passes rapidly from him because it has no support in popular intelligence or faith.
It may seem well nigh impossible in our day for any man to fail of the work he can do; if he has the will we think he can make the way. The inward call is the necessity, and when that is heard and the man shapes a task for himself the day to begin will come. Is that certain? Perhaps there are many now who find circumstance a web from which they cannot break away without arrogance and unfaithfulness. They could speak, they could do if God called them; but does He call them? On every side ring the fluent praises of the idols men love to worship. One must indeed be deft in speech and many other arts who would hope to turn the crowd from its folly, for it will only listen to what seizes the ear, and the obscure thinker has not the secret of pleasing. While those who see no visions lead their thousands to a trivial victory, many an uncalled Gideon toils on in the threshing floor. The duties of a low and narrow lot may hold a man; the babble all around of popular voices may be so loud that nothing can make way against them. A certain slowness of the humble and patient spirit may keep one silent who with little encouragement could speak words of quickening truth. But the day of utterance never comes.
To these waiting in the market place it is comparatively a small thing that the world will not hire them. But does the church not want them? Where God is named and professedly honoured, can it be that the smooth message is preferred because it is smooth? Can it be that in the church men shrink from instead of seeking the highest, most real and vital word that can be said to them? This is what oppresses, for it seems to imply that God has no use in His vineyard for a man when He lets him wait long unregarded; it seems to mean that there is no end for the wistful hope and the words that burn unspoken in the breast. The unrecognised thinker has indeed to trust God largely. He has often to be content with the assurance that what he would say but cannot as yet shall be said in good time, that what he would do but may not shall be done by a stronger hand. And further, he may cherish a faith for himself. No life can remain forever unfruitful, or fruitful only in its lower capacities. Purposes broken off here shall find fulfilment. Where the highways of being reach beyond the visible horizon leaders will be needed for the yet advancing host, and the time of every soul shall come to do the utmost that is in it. The day of perfect service for many of God’s chosen ones will begin where beyond these shadows there is light and space. Were it not so, some of the best lives would disappear in the darkest cloud.
"THE PEOPLE ARE YET TOO MANY"
Judges 6:33-40; Judges 7:1-7
ANOTHER day of hope and energy has dawned. One hillside at least rises sunlit out of darkness with the altar of Jehovah on its summit and holier sacrifices smoking there than Israel has offered for many a year. Let us see what elements of promise, what elements of danger or possible error mingle with the, situation. There is a man to take the lead, a young man, thoughtful, bold, energetic, aware of a Divine call and therefore of some endowment for the task to be done. Gideon believes Jehovah to be Israel’s God and Friend, Israel to be Jehovah’s people. He has faith in the power of the Unseen Helper. Baal is nothing, a mere name-Bosheth, vanity. Jehovah is a certainty; and what He wills shall come about. So far strength, confidence. But of himself and the people Gideon is not sure. His own ability to gather and command an army, the fitness of any army the tribes can supply to contend with Midian, these are as yet unproved. Only one fact stands clear, Jehovah the supreme God with Whom are all powers and influences. The rest is in shadow. For one thing, Gideon cannot trace the connection between the Most High and himself, between the Power that controls the world and the power that dwells in his own will or the hearts of other men. Yet with the first message a sign has been given, and other tokens may be sought as events move on. With that measure of uncertainty which keeps a man humble and makes him ponder his steps Gideon finds himself acknowledged leader in Manasseh and a centre of growing enthusiasm throughout the northern tribes.
For the people generally this at least may be said, that they have wisdom enough to recognise the man of aptitude and courage, though he belongs to one of the humblest families and is the least in his father’s household. Drowning men indeed must take the help that is offered, and Israel is at present almost in the condition of a drowning man. A little more and it will sink under the wave of the Midianite invasion. It is not a time to ask of the rank of a man who has character for the emergency. And yet, so often is the hero unacknowledged, especially when he begins, as Gideon did, with a religious stroke, that some credit must be given to the people for their ready faith. As the flame goes up from the altar at Ophrah men feel a flash of hope and promise. They turn to the Abiezrite in trust and through him begin to trust God again. Yes: there is a reformation of a sort, and an honest man is at the head of it. So far the signs of the time are good.
Then the old enthusiasm is not dead. Almost Israel had submitted, but again its spirit is rising. The traditions of Deborah and Barak, of Joshua, of Moses, of the desert march and victories linger with those who are hiding amongst the caves and rocks. Songs of liberty, promises of power are still theirs; they feel that they should be free. Canaan is Jehovah’s gift to them and they will claim it. So far as reviving human energy and confidence avail, there is a germ out of which the proper life of the people of God may spring afresh. And it is this that Gideon as a reformer must nourish, for the leader depends at every stage on the desires that have been kindled in the hearts of men. While he goes before them in thought and plan he can only go prosperously where they intelligently, heartily will follow. Opportunism is the base lagging behind with popular coldness, as moderatism in religion is. The reformer does not wait a moment when he sees an aspiration he can guide, a spark of faith that can be fanned into flame. But neither in church nor state can one man make a conquering movement. And so we see the vast extent of duty and responsibility. That there may be no opportunism every citizen must be alive to the morality of politics. That there may be no moderatism every Christian must be alive to the real duty of the church.
Now have the heads of families and the chief men in Israel been active in rallying the tribes? Or have the people waited on their chiefs and the chiefs coldly held back?
There are good elements in the situation, but others not so encouraging. The secular leaders have failed; and what are the priests and Levites doing? We hear nothing of them. Gideon has to assume the double office of priest and ruler. At Shiloh there is an altar. There too is the ark, and surely some holy observances are kept. Why does Gideon not lead the people to Shiloh and there renew the national covenant through the ministers of the tabernacle? He knows little of the moral law and the sanctities of worship; and he is not at this stage inclined to assume a function that is not properly his. Yet it is unmistakable that Ophrah has to be the religious centre. Ah! clearly there is opportunism among secular leaders and moderatism among the priests. And this suggests that Judah in the south, although the tabernacle is not in her territory, may have an ecclesiastical reason for holding aloof now, as in Deborah’s time she kept apart. Simeon and Levi are brethren. Judah, the vanguard in the desert march, the leading tribe in the first assault on Canaan, has taken Simeon into close alliance. Has Levi also been almost absorbed? There are signs that it may have been so. The later supremacy of Judah in religion requires early and deep root; and we have also to explain the separation between north and south already evident, which was but half overcome by David’s kingship and reappeared before the end of Solomon’s reign. It is very significant to read in the closing chapter, of Judges of two Levites both of whom were connected with Judah. The Levites were certainly respected through the whole land, but their absence from all the incidents of the period of Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah compels the supposition that they had most affinity with Judah and Simeon in the south. We know how people can be divided by ecclesiasticism; and there is at least some reason to suspect that while the northern tribes were suffering and fighting Judah went her own way, enjoying peace and organising worship.
Such then is the state of matters so far as the tribes are concerned at the time when Gideon sounds the trumpet in Abiezer and sends messengers throughout Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali. The tribes are partly prepared for conflict, but they are weak and still disunited. The muster of fighting men who gather at the call of Gideon is considerable and perhaps astonishes him. But the Midianites are in enormous numbers in the plain of Jezreel between Moreh and Gilboa, having drawn together from their marauding expeditions at the first hint of a rising among the Hebrews. And now as the chief reviews his troops his early apprehension returns. It is with something like dismay that he passes from band to band. Ill-disciplined, ill-assorted, these men do not bear the air of coming triumph. Gideon has too keen sight to be misled by tokens of personal popularity; nor can he estimate success by numbers. Looking closely into the faces of the men he sees marks enough of hesitancy, tokens even of fear. Many seem as if they had gathered like sheep to the slaughter, not as lions ready to dash on the prey. Assurance of victory he cannot find in his army; he must seek it elsewhere.
It is well that multitudes gather to the church today for worship and enter themselves as members. But to reckon all such as an army contending with infidelity and wickedness-that would indeed be a mistake. The more tale of numbers gives no estimation of strength, fighting strength, strength to resist and to suffer. It is needful clearly to distinguish between those who may be called captives of the church or vassals simply, rendering a certain respect, and those others, often a very few and perhaps the least regarded, who really fight the battles. Our reckoning at present is often misleading so that we occupy ground which we cannot defend. We attempt to assail infidelity with an ill-disciplined host, many of whom have no clear faith, and to overcome worldliness by the cooperation of those who are more than half-absorbed in the pastimes and follies of the world. There is need to look back to Gideon, who knew what it was to fight. While we are thankful to have so many connected with the church for their own good we must not suppose that they represent aggressive strength; on the contrary we must clearly understand that they will require no small part of the available time and energy of the earnest. In short we have to count them not as helpers of the church’s forward movement but as those who must he helped.
Gideon for his work will have to make sharp division. Three hundred who can dash fearlessly on the enemy will be more to his purpose than two-and-thirty thousand most of whom grow pale at the thought of battle, and he will separate by and by. But first he seeks another sign of Jehovah. This man knows that to do anything worthy for his fellow men he must be in living touch with God. The idea has no more than elementary form; but it rules. He, Gideon, is only an instrument, and he must be well convinced that God is working through him. How can he be sure? Like other Israelites he is strongly persuaded that God appears and speaks to men through nature; and he craves a sign in the natural world which is of God’s making and upholding. Now to us the sign Gideon asked may appear rude, uncouth, and without any moral significance. A fleece which is to be wet one morning while the threshing floor is dry, and dry next morning while the threshing floor is wet, supplies the means of testing the Divine presence and approval. Further it may be alleged that the phenomena admit of natural explanation. But this is the meaning. Gideon, providing the fleece, identifies himself with it. It is his fleece, and if God’s dew drenches it that will imply that God’s power shall enter Gideon’s soul and abide in it even though Israel be dry as the dusty floor. The thought is at once simple and profound, child-like and Hebrew-like, and carefully we must observe that it is a nature sign, not a mere portent, Gideon looks for. It is not whether God can do a certain seemingly impossible thing. That would not help Gideon. But the dew represents to his mind the vigour he needs, the vigour Israel needs if he should fail; and in reversing the sign, "Let the dew be on the ground and the fleece be dry," he seems to provide a hope, even in prospect of his own failure or death. Gideon’s appeal is for a revelation of the Divine in the same sphere as the lightning storm and rain in which Deborah found a triumphant proof of Jehovah’s presence; yet there is a notable contrast. We are reminded of the "still small voice" Elijah heard as he stood in the cave mouth after the rending wind and the earthquake and the lightning. We remember also the image of Hosea, "I will be as the dew unto Israel." There is a question in the Book of Job, "Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?" The faith of Gideon makes answer, "Thou, O Most High, dost give the dews of heaven." The silent distillation of the dew is profoundly symbolic of the spiritual economy and those energies that are "not of this noisy world but silent and Divine." There is much of interest and meaning that lies thus beneath the surface in the story of the fleece.
Assured that yet another step in advance may be taken, Gideon leads his forces northward and goes into camp beside the spring of Harod on the slope of Gilboa. Then he does what seems a strange thing for a general on the eve of battle. The army is large, but utterly insufficient in discipline and morale for a pitched battle with the Midianites. Men who have hastily snatched their fathers’ swords and pikes of which they are half afraid are not to be relied upon in the heat of a terrible struggle. Proclamation is therefore made that those who are fearful and trembling shall return to their homes. From the entrenchment of Israel on the hillside, where the name Jalid or Gilead still survives, the great camp of the desert people could be seen, the black tents darkening all the valley toward the slope of Moreh a few miles away. The sight was enough to appal even the bold. Men thought of their families and homesteads. Those who had anything to lose began to reconsider and by morning only one-third of the Hebrew army was left with the leader. So perhaps it would be with thousands of Christians if the church were again called to share the reproach of Christ and resist unto blood. Under the banner of a popular Christianity many march to stirring music who, if they supposed struggle to be imminent, would be tempted to leave the ranks. Yet the fight is actually going on. Camp is set against camp, army is mingled with army; at the front there is hot work and many are falling. But in the rear it would seem to be a holiday; men are idling, gossiping, chaffering as though they had come out for amusement or trade, not at all like those who have pledged life in a great cause and have everything to win or lose. And again, in the thick of the strife, where courage and energy are strained to the utmost, we look round and ask whether the fearful have indeed withdrawn, for the suspicion is forced upon us that many who call themselves Christ’s are on the other side. Did not some of those who are striking at us lift their hands yesterday in allegiance to the great Captain? Do we not see some who have marched with us holding the very position we are to take, bearing the very standards we must capture? Strangely confused is the field of battle, and hard is it to distinguish friends from foes. If the fearful would retire we should know better how we stand. If the enemy were all of Midian the issue would be clear. But fearful and faint-hearted Israelites who may be found any time actually contending against the faith are foes of a kind unknown in simpler days. So frequently does something of this sort happen that every Christian has need to ask himself whether he is clear of the offence. Has he ever helped to make the false world strong against the true, the proud world strong against the meek? Many of those who are doubtful and go home may sooner be pardoned than he who strikes only where a certain false eclat is to be won.
Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat-
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote.
"We shall march prospering-not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us-not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done-while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire."
In the same line of thought lies another reflection. The men who had hastily snatched their fathers’ swords and pikes of which they were half afraid represent to us certain modern defenders of Christianity-those who carry edged weapons of inherited doctrine with which they dare not strike home. The great battleaxes of reprobation, of eternal judgment, of Divine severity against sin once wielded by strong hands, how they tremble and swerve in the grasp of many a modern dialectician. The sword of the old creed, that once like Excalibur cleft helmets and breastplates through, how often it maims the hands that try to use it but want alike the strength and the cunning. Too often we see a wavering blow struck that draws not a drop of blood nor even dints a shield, and the next thing is that the knight has run to cover behind some old bulwark long riddled and dilapidated. In the hands of these unskilled fighters too well armed for their strength the battle is worse than lost. They become a laughing stock to the enemy, an irritation to their own side. It is time there was a sifting among the defenders of the faith and twenty and two thousand went back from Gilead. Is the truth of God become mere tin or lead that no new sword can be fashioned from it, no blade of Damascus firm and keen? Are there no gospel armourers fit for the task? Where the doctrinal contest is maintained by men who are not to the depth of their souls sure of the creeds they found on, by men who have no vision of the severity of God and the meaning of redemption, it ends only in confusion to themselves and those who are with them.
Ten thousand Israelites remain who according to their own judgment are brave enough and prepared for the fight; but the purpose of the commander is not answered yet. He is resolved to have yet another winnowing that shall leave only the men of temper like his own, men of quick intelligence no less than zeal. At the foot of the hill there flows a stream of water, and towards it Gideon leads his diminished army as if at once to cross and attack the enemy in camp. Will they seize his plan and like one man act upon it? Only on those who do can he depend. It is an effective trial. With the hot work of fighting before them the water is needful to all, but in the way of drinking men show their spirit. The most kneel or lie down by the edge of the brook, that by putting their lips to the water they may take a long and leisurely draught. A few supply themselves in quite another way. As a dog whose master is passing on with rapid strides, coming to a pool or stream by the way, stops a moment to lap a few mouthfuls of water and then is off again to his master’s side, so do these-three hundred of the ten thousand-bending swiftly down carry water to their mouths in the hollow of the hand. Full of the day’s business they move on again before the nine thousand seven hundred have well begun to drink. They separate themselves and are by Gideon’s side, beyond the stream, a chosen band proved fit for the work that is to be done. It is no haphazard division that is made by the test of the stream. There is wisdom in it, inspiration. "And the Lord said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you and deliver the Midianites into thine hand."
Many are the commonplace incidents, the seemingly small points in life that test the quality of men. Every day we are led to the stream side to show what we are, whether eager in the Divine enterprise of faith or slack and self-considering. Take any company of men and women who claim to be on the side of Christ, engaged and bound in all seriousness to His service. But how many have it clearly before them that they must not entangle themselves more than is absolutely needful with bodily and sensuous cravings, that they must not lie down to drink from the stream of pleasure and amusement? We show our spiritual state by the way in which we spend our leisure, our Saturday afternoons, our Sabbaths. We show whether we are fit for God’s business by our use of the flowing stream of literature, which to some is an opiate, to others a pure and strengthening draught. The question simply is whether we are so engaged with God’s plan for our life, in comprehending it, fulfilling it, that we have no time to dawdle and no disposition for the merely casual and trifling. Are we in the responsible use of our powers occupied as that Athenian was in the service of his country of whom it is recorded: "There was in the whole city but one street in which Pericles was ever seen, the street which led to the marketplace and the council house. During the whole period of his administration he never dined at the table of a friend"? Let no one say there is not time in a world like this for social intercourse, for literary and scientific pursuits, or the practice of the arts. The plan of God for men means life in all possible fulness and entrance into every field in which power can be gained. His will for us is that we should give to the world as Christ gave in free and uplifting ministry, and as a man can only give what he has first made his own the Christian is called to self-culture as full as the other duties of life will permit. He cannot explore too much, he cannot be too well versed in the thoughts and doings of men and the revelations of nature, for all he learns is to find high use. But the aim of personal enlargement and efficiency must never be forgotten, that aim which alone makes the self of value and gives it real life-the service and glory of God. Only in view of this aim is culture worth anything. And when in the providence of God there comes a call which requires us to pass with resolute step beyond every stream at which the mind and taste are stimulated that we may throw ourselves into the hard fight against evil there is to be no hesitation. Everything must yield now. The comparatively small handful who press on with concentrated purpose, making God’s call and His work first and all else, even their own needs, a secondary affair-to these will be the honour and the joy of victory.
We live in a time when people are piling up object after object that needs attention and entering into engagement after engagement that comes between them and the supreme duty of existence. They form so many acquaintances that every spare hour goes in visiting and receiving visits: yet the end of life is not talk. They are members of so many societies that they scarcely get at the work for which the societies exist: yet the end of life is not organising. They see so many books, hear so much news and criticism that truth escapes them altogether: yet the end of life is to know and do the Truth. Civilisation defeats its own use when it keeps us drinking so long at this and the other spring that we forget the battle. We mean to fight, we mean to do our part, but night falls while we are still occupied on the way. Yet our Master is one who restricted the earthly life to its simplest elements because only so could spiritual energy move freely to its mark.
In the incidents we have been reviewing voluntary churches may find hints at least towards the justification of their principle. The idea of a national church is on more than one side intelligible and valid. Christianity stands related to the whole body of the people, bountiful even to those who scorn its laws, pleading on their behalf with God, keeping an open door and sending forth a perpetual call of love to the weak, the erring, the depraved. The ideal of a national church is to represent this universal office and realise this inclusiveness of the Christian religion; and the charm is great. On the other hand a voluntary church is the recognition of the fact that while Christ stands related to all men it is those only who engage at expense to themselves in the labour of the gospel who can be called believers, and that these properly constitute the church. The Hebrew people under the theocracy may represent the one ideal; Gideon’s sifting of his army points to the other; neither, it must be frankly confessed, has ever been realised. Large numbers may join with some intelligence in worship and avail themselves of the sacraments who have no sense of obligation as members of the kingdom and are scarcely touched by the teaching of Christianity as to sin and salvation. A separated community again, depending on an enthusiasm which too often fails, rarely if ever accomplishes its hope. It aims at exhibiting an active and daring faith, the militancy, the urgency of the gospel, and in this mission what is counted success may be a hindrance and a snare. Numbers grow, wealth is acquired, but the intensity of belief is less than it was and the sacrifices still required are not freely made. Nevertheless is it not plain that a society which would represent the imperative claim of Christ to the undivided faith and loyalty of His followers must found upon a personal sense of obligation and personal eagerness? Is it not plain that a society which would represent the purity, the unearthliness, the rigour, we may even say, of Christ’s doctrine, His life of renunciation and His cross must show a separateness from the careless world and move distinctly in advance of popular religious sentiment? Israel was God’s people, yet when a leader went forth to a work of deliverance he had to sift out the few keen and devoted spirits. In truth every reformation implies a winnowing, and he does little as a teacher or a guide who does not make division among men.
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 6". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26