Expositions of Holy Scripture
Part 9 out of 12
odours signify but the ascent of the soul towards God? Put that into
more abstract words, and it is just the old, hackneyed commonplace
which I seek to try to freshen a little now, that incense is the
symbol of prayer. That that is so is plain enough, not only from the
natural propriety of the case, but because you find the
identification distinctly stated in several places in Scripture, of
which I quote but two instances. In one psalm we read, 'Let my
prayer come before Thee as incense.' In the Book of the Apocalypse
we read of 'golden bowls full of odours, which are the prayers of
saints.' And that the symbolism was understood by, and modified the
practice of, the nation, we are taught when we read that whilst
Zechariah the priest was within the court offering incense, as it
was his lot to do, 'the whole multitude of the people were without
praying,' doing that which the priest within the court symbolised by
his offering. So then we come to this, dear friends, that we
fearfully misunderstand and limit the nobleness and the essential
character of prayer when, as we are always tempted to do by our
inherent self-regard, we make petition its main feature and form. Of
course, so long as we are what we shall always be in this world,
needy and sinful creatures; and so long as we are what we shall ever
be in all worlds, creatures absolutely dependent for life and
everything on the will and energy of God, petition must necessarily
be a very large part of prayer. But the more we grow into His
likeness, and the more we understand the large privileges and the
glorious possibilities which lie in prayer, the more will the
relative proportions of its component parts be changed, and petition
will become less, and aspiration will become more. The essence of
prayer, the noblest form of it, is thus typified by the cloud of
sweet odours that went up before God.
In all true prayer there must be the lowest prostration in reverence
before the Infinite Majesty. But the noblest prayer is that which
lifts 'them that are bowed down' rather than that which prostrates
men before an inaccessible Deity. And so, whilst we lie low at His
feet, that may be the prayer of a mere theist, but when our hearts
go out towards Him, and we are drawn to Himself, that is the prayer
that befits Christian aspiration; the ascent of the soul toward God
is the true essence of prayer. As one of the non-Christian
philosophers--seekers after God, if ever there were such, and who, I
doubt not, found Him whom they sought--has put it, 'the flight of
the lonely soul to the only God'; that is prayer. Is that my prayer?
We come to Him many a time burdened with some very real sorrow, or
weighted with some pressing responsibility, and we should not be
true to ourselves, or to Him, if our prayer did not take the shape
of petition. But, as we pray, the blessing of the transformation of
its character should be realised by us, and that which began with
the cry for help and deliverance should always be, and it always
will be, if the cry for help and deliverance has been of the right
sort, sublimed into 'Thy face, Lord, will I seek.' The Book of
Ecclesiastes describes death as the 'return of the spirit to God who
gave it.' That is the true description of prayer, a going back to
the fountain's source. Flames aspire; to the place 'whence the
rivers came thither they return again.' The homing pigeon or the
migrating bird goes straight through many degrees of latitude, and
across all sorts of weather, to the place whence it came. Ah!
brethren, let us ask ourselves if our spirits thus aspire and soar.
Do we know what it is to be, if I might so say, like those captive
balloons that are ever yearning upwards, and stretching to the
loftiest point permitted them by the cord that tethers them to
Now another thought that this altar of incense may teach us is that
the prayer that soars must be kindled. There is no fragrance in a
stick of incense lying there. No wreaths of ascending smoke come
from it. It has to be kindled before its sweet odour can be set free
and ascend. That is why so much of our prayer is of no delight to
God, and of no benefit to us, because it is not on fire with the
flame of a heart kindled into love and thankfulness by the great
sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The cold vapours lie like a winding-sheet
down in the valleys until the sun smites them, warms them, and draws
them up. And our desires will hover in the low levels, and be dank
and damp, until they are drawn up to the heights by the warmth of
the Sun of righteousness. Oh! brethren, the formality and the
coldness, to say nothing of the inconsecutiveness and the
interruptedness by rambling thoughts that we all know in our
petitions, in our aspirations, are only to be cured in one way:--
'Come! shed abroad a Saviour's love,
And that will kindle ours.'
It is the stretched string that gives out musical notes; the slack
one is dumb. And if we desire that we may be able to be sure, as our
Master was, when He said, 'I know that Thou hearest me always,' we
must pray as He did, of whom it is recorded that 'He prayed the more
earnestly,' and 'was heard in that He feared.' The word rendered
'the more earnestly' carries in it a metaphor drawn from that very
fact that I have referred to. It means 'with the more stretched-out
extension and intensity.' If our prayers are to be heard as music in
heaven, they must come from a stretched string.
Once more, this altar of incense teaches us that kindled prayer
delights God. That emblem of the sweet odour is laid hold of with
great boldness by more than one Old and New Testament writer, in
order to express the marvellous thought that there is a mutual joy
in the prayer of faith and love, and that it rises as 'an odour of a
sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing to God.' The
cuneiform inscriptions give that thought with characteristic
vividness and grossness when they speak about the gods being
'gathered like flies round the steam of the sacrifice.' We have the
same thought, freed from all its grossness, when we think that the
curling wreaths going up from a heart aspiring and enflamed, come to
Him as a sweet odour, and delight His soul. People say, 'that is
anthropomorphism--making God too like a man.' Well, man is like God,
at any rate, and surely the teaching of that great name 'Father'
carries with it the assurance that just as fathers of flesh are glad
when they see that their children like best to be with them, so
there is something analogous in that joy before the angels of heaven
which the Father has, not only because of the prodigal who comes
back, but because of the child who has long been with Him, and is
ever seeking to nestle closer to His heart. The Psalmist was lost in
wonder and thankfulness that he was able to say 'He was extolled
with my tongue.' Surely it should be a gracious, encouraging,
strengthening thought to us all, that even our poor aspirations may
minister to the divine gladness.
Now let us turn to another thought.
II. This altar shows us where prayer stands in the Christian life.
There are two or three points in regard to its position which it is
no fanciful spiritualising, but simply grasping the underlying
meaning of the institution, if we emphasise. First, let me remind
you that there was another altar in the outer court, whereon was
offered the daily sacrifice for the sins of the people. That altar
came first, and the sacrifice had to be offered on it first, before
the priest came into the inner court with the coals from that altar,
and the incense kindled by them. What does that say to us? The altar
of incense is not approached until we have been to the altar of
sacrifice. It is no mere arbitrary appointment, nor piece of
evangelical narrowness, which says that there is no real access to
God, in all the fullness and reality of His revealed character for
us sinful men, until our sins have been dealt with, taken away by
the Lamb of God, sacrificed for us. And it is simply the transcript
of experience which declares that there will be little inclination
or desire to come to God with the sacrifice of praise and prayer
until we have been to Christ, the sacrifice of propitiation and
pardon. Brethren, we need to be cleansed, and we can only be
delivered from the unholiness which is the perpetual and necessary
barrier to our vision of God by making our very own, through simple
faith, the energy and the blessedness of that great Sacrifice of
propitiation. Then, and then only, do we properly come to the altar
of incense. Its place in the Christian life is second, not first.
'First be reconciled to thy' Father, 'then lay' the incense 'on the
Again, great and deep lessons are given to us in the place of our
altar in regard to the other articles that stood in that inner
court. I have said that there were three of them. In the centre this
altar of incense; on the one hand the great lampstand; on the other
hand the table with loaves thereon. The one symbolised Israel's
function in the world to be its light, which in our function too,
and the other with loaves thereon symbolised the consecration to God
of Israel's activities, and their results.
But between the two, central to both, stood the altar of incense.
What does that say as to the place of prayer, defined as I have
defined it, in the Christian life? It says this, that the light will
burn dim and go out, and the loaves, the expression and the
consequences of our activities, will become mouldy and dry, unless
both are hallowed and sustained by prayer. And that lesson is one
which we all need, and which I suppose this generation needs quite
as much as, if not more than, any that has gone before it. For life
has become so swift and rushing, and from all sides, the Church, the
world, society, there come such temptations, and exhortations, and
necessities, for strenuous and continuous work, that the basis of
all wholesome and vigorous work, communion with God, is but too apt
to be put aside and relegated to some inferior position. The carbon
points of the electric arc-light are eaten away with tremendous
rapidity in the very act of giving forth their illumination, and
they need to be continually approximated and to be frequently
renewed. The oil is burned away in the act of shining, and the lamp
needs to be charged again. If we are to do our work in the world as
its lights, and if we are to have any activities fit to be
consecrated to God and laid on the Table before the Veil, it can
only be by our making the altar of incense the centre, and these
One last thought--the place of prayer in the Christian life is
shadowed for us by the position of this altar in reference to 'the
secret place of the Most High,' that mysterious inner court which
was dark but for the Shechinah's light, and lonely but for the
presence of the worshipping cherubim and the worshipped God. It
stood, as we are told a verse or two after my text, 'before the
veil.' A straight line drawn from the altar of sacrifice would have
bisected the altar of incense as it passed into the mercy-seat and
the glory. And that just tells us that the place of prayer in the
Christian lift is that it is the direct way of coming close to God.
Dear brother, we shall never lift the veil, and stand in 'the secret
place of the Most High,' unless we take the altar of incense on our
There is one more thought here--
III. The altar of incense shows us how prayer is to be cultivated.
Twice a day, morning and evening, came the officiating priest with
his pan of coals and incense, and laid it there; and during all the
intervening hours between the morning and the evening the glow lay
half hidden in the incense, and there was a faint but continual
emission of fragrance from the smouldering mass that had been
renewed in the morning, and again in the evening. And does not that
say something to us? There must be definite times of distinct prayer
if the aroma of devotion is to be diffused through our else
scentless days. I ask for no pedantic adherence, with monastic
mechanicalness, to hours and times, and forms of petitions. These
are needful crutches to many of us. But what I do maintain is that
all that talk which we hear so much of in certain quarters nowadays
as to its not being necessary for us to have special times of
prayer, and as to its being far better to have devotion diffused
through our lives, and of how _laborare est orare_--to labour
is to pray--all that is pernicious nonsense if it is meant to say
that the incense will be fragrant and smoulder unless it is stirred
up and renewed night and morning. There must be definite times of
prayer if there is to be diffused devotion through the day. What
would you think of people that said, 'Run your cars by electricity.
Get it out of the wires; it will come! Never mind putting up any
generating stations'? And not less foolish are they who seek for a
devotion permeating life which is not often concentrated into
definite and specific acts.
But the other side is as true. It is bad to clot your religion into
lumps, and to leave the rest of the life without it. There must be
the smouldering all day long. 'Rejoice evermore; pray without
ceasing.' You can pray thus. Not set prayer, of course; but a
reference to Him, a thought of Him, like some sweet melody, 'so
sweet we know not we are listening to it,' may breathe its
fragrance, and diffuse its warmth into the commonest and smallest of
our daily activities. It was when Gideon was threshing wheat that
the angel appeared to him. It was when Elisha was ploughing that the
divine inspiration touched him. It was when the disciples were
fishing that they saw the Form on the shore. And when we are in the
way of our common life it is possible that the Lord may meet us, and
that our souls may be aspiring to Him. Then work will be worship;
then burdens will be lightened; then our lamps will burn; then the
fruits of our daily lives will ripen; then our lives will be noble;
then our spirits will rest as well as soar, and find fruition and
aspiration perpetually alternating in stable succession of eternal
RANSOM FOR SOULS--I.
'Then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul.'
--EXODUS xxx. 12.
This remarkable provision had a religious intention. Connect it with
the tax-money which Peter found in the fish's mouth.
I. Its meaning. Try to realise an Israelite's thoughts at the
census. 'I am enrolled among the people and army of God: am I
worthy? What am I, to serve so holy a God?' The payment was meant--
_(a)_ To excite the sense of sin. This should be present in all
approach to God, in all service; accompanying the recognition of our
Christian standing. Our sense of sin is far too slight and weak;
this defect is at the root of much feebleness in popular religion.
The sense of sin must embrace not outward acts only, but inner
_(b)_ To suggest the possibility of expiation. It was 'ransom'
_i.e._ 'covering,' something paid that guilt might be taken
away and sin regarded as non-existent. This is, of course,
obviously, only a symbol. No tax could satisfy God for sin. The very
smallness of the amount shows that it is symbolical only. 'Not with
corruptible things as silver' is man redeemed.
II. Its identity for all. Rich or poor, high or low, all men are
equal in sin. There are surface differences and degrees, but a deep
identity beneath. So on the same principle all souls are of the same
value. Here is the true democracy of Christianity. So there is one
ransom for all, for the need of all is identical.
III. Its use. It was melted down for use in the sanctuary, so as to
be a 'memorial' permanently present to God when His people met with
Him. The greater portion was made into bases for the boards of the
sanctuary. That is, God's dwelling with men and our communion with
Him all rest on the basis of ransom. We are 'brought nigh by the
blood of Christ.'
RANSOM FOR SOULS--II.
'The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not
give less than half a shekel....'--EXODUS xxx. 15.
This tax was exacted on numbering the people. It was a very small
amount, about fifteen pence, so it was clearly symbolical in its
I. The broad principle of equality of all souls in the sight of God.
Contrast the reign of caste and class in heathendom with the
democracy of Judaism and of Christianity.
II. The universal sinfulness. Payment of the tax was a confession
that all were alike in this: not that all were equally sinful, but
all were sinful, whatever variations of degree might exist.
'There is no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the
glory of God.'
III. The one ransom. It was a prophecy of which _we_ know the
meaning. Recall the incident of the 'stater' in the fish's mouth.
Christ declares His exemption from the tax. Yet He voluntarily comes
under it, and He provides the payment of it for Himself and for
He does so by a miracle.
The Apostle has to 'take and give it'; so faith is called into
Thus there is but one Sacrifice for all; and the poorest can
exercise faith and the richest can do no more. 'None other name.'
THE GOLDEN CALF
'And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come
down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves
together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us
gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses,
the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt,
we wot not what is become of him. 2. And Aaron said
unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in
the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your
daughters, and bring them unto me. 3. And all the people
brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears,
and brought them unto Aaron. 4. And he received them at
their hand, and fashioned it with a graving-tool, after
he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be
thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the
land of Egypt. 5. And when Aaron saw it, he built an
altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said,
To-morrow is a feast to the Lord. 6. And they rose up
early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings, and
brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat
and to drink, and rose up to play. 7. And the Lord said
unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which
thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted
themselves: 8. They have turned aside quickly out of the
way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten
calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed
thereunto, and said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which
have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.... 30. And
it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses said unto the
people, Ye have sinned a great sin: and now I will go up
unto the Lord; peradventure I shall make an atonement
for your sin. 31. And Moses returned unto the Lord, and
said, Oh! this people have sinned a great sin, and have
made them gods of gold. 32. Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive
their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of Thy
book which Thou hast written. 33. And the Lord said unto
Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot
out of My book. 34. Therefore now go, lead the people
unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee. Behold,
Mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day
when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. 35. And
the Lord plagued the people, because they made the calf,
which Aaron made.'--EXODUS xxxii. 1-8; 30-35.
It was not yet six weeks since the people had sworn, 'All that the
Lord hath spoken will we do, and be obedient.' The blood of the
covenant, sprinkled on them, was scarcely dry when they flung off
allegiance to Jehovah. Such short-lived loyalty to Him can never
have been genuine. That mob of slaves was galvanised by Moses into
obedience; and since their acceptance of Jehovah was in reality only
yielding to the power of one strong will and its earnest faith, of
course it collapsed as soon as Moses disappeared.
We have to note, first, the people's universal revolt. The language
of verse 1 may easily hide to a careless reader the gravity and
unanimity of the apostasy. 'The people gathered themselves
together.' It was a national rebellion, a flood which swept away
even some faithful, timid hearts. No voices ventured to protest.
What were the elders, who shortly before 'saw the God of Israel,'
doing to be passive at such a crisis? Was there no one to bid the
fickle multitude look up to the summit overhead, where the red
flames glowed, or to remind them of the hosts of Egypt lying stark
and dead on the shore? Was Miriam cowed too, and her song forgotten?
We need not cast stones at these people; for we also have short
memories for either the terrible or the gracious revelations of God
in our own lives. But we may learn the lesson that God's lovers have
to set themselves sometimes dead against the rush of popular
feeling, and that there are times when silence or compliance is sin.
It would have been easy for the rebels to have ignored Aaron, and
made gods for themselves. But they desired to involve him in their
apostasy, and to get 'official sanction' for it. He had been left by
Moses as his lieutenant, and so to get him implicated was to stamp
the movement as a regular and entire revolt.
The demand 'to make gods' (or, more probably, 'a god') flew in the
face of both the first and second commandments. For Jehovah, who had
forbidden the forming of any image, was denied in the act of making
it. To disobey Him was to cast Him off. The ground of the rebellion
was the craving for a visible object of trust and a visible guide,
as is seen by the reason assigned for the demand for an image. Moses
was out of sight; they must have something to look at as their
leader. Moses had disappeared, and, to these people who had only
been heaved up to the height of believing in Jehovah by Moses,
Jehovah had disappeared with him. They sank down again to the level
of other races as soon as that strong lever ceased to lift their
How ridiculous the assertion that they did not know what had become
of Moses! They knew that he was up there with Jehovah. The elders
could have told them that. The fire on the mount might have burned
in on all minds the confirmation. Note, too, the black ingratitude
and plain denial of Jehovah in 'the _man_ that brought us up
out of the land of Egypt.' They refuse to recognise God's part. It
was Moses only who had done it; and now that he is gone they must
have a visible god, like other nations.
Still sadder than their sense-bound wish is Aaron's compliance. He
knew as well as we do what he should have said, but, like many
another man in influential position, when beset by popular cries, he
was frightened, and yielded when he should have 'set his face like a
flint.' His compliance has in essentials been often repeated,
especially by priests and ministers of religion who have lent their
superior abilities or opportunities to carry out the wishes of the
ignorant populace, and debased religion or watered down its
prohibitions, to please and retain hold of them. The Church has
incorporated much from heathenism. Roman Catholic missionaries have
permitted 'converts' to keep their old usages. Protestant teachers
have acquiesced in, and been content to find the brains to carry
out, compromises between sense and soul, God's commands and men's
We need not discuss the metallurgy of verse 4. But clearly Aaron
asked for the earrings, not, as some would have it, hoping that
vanity and covetousness would hinder their being given, but simply
in order to get gold for the bad work which he was ready to do. The
reason for making the thing in the shape of a calf is probably the
Egyptian worship of Apis in that form, which would be familiar to
We must note that it was the people who said, 'These be thy gods, O
Israel!' Aaron seems to keep in the rear, as it were. He makes the
calf, and hands it over, and leaves them to hail it and worship.
Like all cowards, he thought that he was lessening his guilt by thus
keeping in the background. Feeble natures are fond of such
subterfuges, and deceive themselves by them; but they do not shift
their sin off their shoulders.
Then he comes in again with an impotent attempt to diminish the
gravity of the revolt. 'When he _saw_ this,' he tried to turn
the flood into another channel, and so proclaimed a 'feast to
Jehovah'!--as if He could be worshipped by flagrant defiance of His
commandments, or as if He had not been disavowed by the ascription
to the calf, made that morning out of their own trinkets, of the
deliverance from Egypt. A poor, inconsequential attempt to save
appearances and hallow sin by writing God's name on it! The 'god'
whom the Israelites worshipped under the image of a calf, was no
less another 'god before Me,' though it was called by the name of
Jehovah. If the people had their idol, it mattered nothing to them,
and it mattered as little to Jehovah, what 'name' it bore. The wild
orgies of the morrow were not the worship which He accepts.
What a contrast between the plain and the mountain! Below, the
shameful feast, with its parody of sacrifice and its sequel of lust-
inflamed dancing; above, the awful colloquy between the all-seeing
righteous Judge and the intercessor! The people had cast off
Jehovah, and Jehovah no more calls them 'My,' but '_thy_
people.' They had ascribed their Exodus first to Moses, and next to
the calf. Jehovah speaks of it as the work of Moses.
A terrible separation of Himself from them lies in '_thy_
people, which _thou_ broughtest up,' and Moses' bold rejoinder
emphasises the relation and act which Jehovah seems to suppress
(verse 11). Observe that the divine voice refuses to give any weight
to Aaron's trick of compromise. These are no worshippers of Jehovah
who are howling and dancing below there. They are 'worshipping
_it_, and sacrificing to it,' not to Him. The cloaks of sin may
partly cover its ugliness here, but they are transparent to His
eyes, and many a piece of worship, which is said to be directed to
Him, is, in His sight, rank idolatry.
We do not deal with the magnificent courage of Moses, his single-
handed arresting of the wild rebellion, and the severe punishment by
which he trampled out the fire. But we must keep his severity in
mind if we would rightly judge his self-sacrificing devotion, and
his self-sacrificing devotion if we would rightly judge his
No words of ours can make more sublime his utter self-abandonment
for the sake of the people among whom he had just been flaming in
wrath, and smiting like a destroying angel. That was a great soul
which had for its poles such justice and such love. The very words
of his prayer, in their abruptness, witness to his deep emotion. 'If
Thou wilt forgive their sin' stands as an incomplete sentence, left
incomplete because the speaker is so profoundly moved. Sometimes
broken words are the best witnesses of our earnestness. The
alternative clause reaches the high-water mark of passionate love,
ready to give up everything for the sake of its objects. The 'book
of life' is often spoken of in Scripture, and it is an interesting
study to bring together the places where the idea occurs (see Ps.
lxix. 28; Dan. xii. 1; Phil. iv. 3; Rev. iii. 5). The allusion is to
the citizens' roll (Ps. lxxxvii. 6). Those whose names are written
there have the privileges of citizenship, and, as it is the 'book of
life' (or '_of the living_'), life in the widest sense is
secured to them. To blot out of it, therefore, is to cut a man off
from fellowship in the city of God, and from participation in life.
Moses was so absorbed in his vocation that his life was less to him
than the well-being of Israel. How far he saw into the darkness
beyond the grave we cannot say; but, at least, he was content, and
desirous to die on earth, if thereby Israel might continue to be
God's people. And probably he had some gleam of light beyond, which
enhanced the greatness of his offered sacrifice. To die, whatever
loss of communion with God that involved here or hereafter, would be
sweet if thereby he could purchase Israel's restoration to God's
favour. We cannot but think of Paul willing to be separated from
Christ for his brethren's sake.
We may well think of a greater than Moses or Paul, who did bear the
loss which they were willing to bear, and died that sin might be
forgiven. Moses was a true type of Christ in that act of supreme
self-sacrifice; and all the heroism, the identification of himself
with his people, the love which willingly accepts death, that makes
his prayer one of the greatest deeds on the page of history, are
repeated in infinitely sweeter, more heart-subduing fashion in the
story of the Cross. Let us not omit duly to honour the servant; let
us not neglect to honour and love infinitely more the Lord. 'This
man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses.' Let us see that we
'Thanks never ceasing,
And infinite love.'
THE SWIFT DECAY OF LOVE
'And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and
the two tables of the testimony were in his hand: the
tables were written on both their sides; on the one
side and on the other were they written. 16. And the
tables were the work of God, and the writing was the
writing of God, graven upon the tables. 17. And when
Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted,
he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp.
18. And he said, It is not the voice of them that shout
for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry
for being overcome: but the noise of them that sing do
I hear. 19. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh
unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing:
and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out
of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount. 20. And
he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in
the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon
the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
21. And Moses said unto Aaron, What did this people unto
thee, that thou hast brought so great a sin upon them?
22. And Aaron said, Let not the anger of my lord wax hot:
thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief.
23. For they said unto me, Make us gods, which shall go
before us: for as for this Moses, the man that brought
us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become
of him. 24. And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any
gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then
I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.
25. And when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for
Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their
enemies:) 26. Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp,
and said, Who is on the Lord's side? let him come unto
me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together
unto him.'--EXODUS xxxii. 15-26.
Moses and Joshua are on their way down from the mountain, the former
carrying the tables in his hands and a heavier burden in his heart,--the
thought of the people's swift apostasy. Joshua's soldierly ear
interprets the shouts which are borne up to them as war-cries; 'He
snuffeth the battle afar off, and saith Aha!' But Moses knew that
they meant worse than war, and his knowledge helped his ear to
distinguish a cadence and unison in the noise, unlike the confused
mingling of the victors' yell of triumph and the shriek of the
conquered. If we were dealing with fiction, we should admire the
masterly dramatic instinct which lets the ear anticipate the eye,
and so prepares us for the hideous sight that burst on these two at
some turn in the rocky descent.
I. Note, then, what they saw. The vivid story puts it all in two
words,--'the calf and the dancing.' There in the midst, perhaps on
some pedestal, was the shameful copy of the Egyptian Apis; and
whirling round it in mad circles, working themselves into frenzy by
rapid motion and frantic shouts, were the people,--men and women,
mingled in the licentious dance, who, six short weeks before, had
sworn to the Covenant. Their bestial deity in the centre, and they
compassing it with wild hymns, were a frightful contradiction of
that grey altar and the twelve encircling stones which they had so
lately reared, and which stood unregarded, a bowshot off, as a
silent witness against them. Note the strange, irresistible
fascination of idolatry. Clearly the personal influence of Moses was
the only barrier against it. The people thought that he had
disappeared, and, if so, Jehovah had disappeared with him. We wonder
at their relapses into idolatry, but we forget that it was then
universal, that Israel was at the beginning of its long training,
that not even a divine revelation could produce harvest in seedtime,
and that to look for a final and complete deliverance from the 'veil
that was spread over all nations,' at this stage, is like expecting
a newly reclaimed bit of the backwoods to grow grass as thick and
velvety as has carpeted some lawn that has been mown and cared for
for a century. Grave condemnation is the due of these short-memoried
rebels, who set up their 'abomination' in sight of the fire on
Sinai; but that should not prevent our recognising the evidence
which their sin affords of the tremendous power of idolatry in that
stage of the world's history. Israel's proneness to fall back to
heathenism makes it certain that a supernatural revelation is needed
to account for their possession of the loftier faith which was so
far above them.
That howling, leaping crowd tells what sort of religion they would
have 'evolved' if left to themselves. Where did 'Thou shalt have
none other gods beside Me' come from? Note the confusion of thought,
so difficult for us to understand, which characterises idolatry.
What a hopelessly inconsequential cry that was, 'Make us gods, which
shall go before us!' and what a muddle of contradictions it was that
men should say 'These be thy gods,' though they knew that the thing
was made yesterday out of their own earrings! It took more than a
thousand years to teach the nation the force of the very self-
evident argument, as it seems to us, 'the workman made it, therefore
it is not God.' The theory that the idol is only a symbol is not the
actual belief of idolaters. It is a product of the study, but the
worshipper unites in his thought the irreconcilable beliefs that it
was made and is divine. A goldsmith will make and sell a Madonna,
and when it is put in the cathedral, will kneel before it.
Note what was the sin here. It is generally taken for granted that
it was a breach of the second, not of the first, commandment, and
Aaron's proclamation of 'a feast to the Lord' is taken as proving
this. Aaron was probably trying to make an impossible compromise,
and to find some salve for his conscience; but it does not follow
that the people accepted the half-and-half suggestion. Leaders who
try to control a movement which they disapprove, by seeming to
accept it, play a dangerous game, and usually fail. But whether the
people call the calf 'Jehovah' or 'Apis' matters very little. There
would be as complete apostasy to another god, though the other god
was called by the same name, if all that really makes his 'name' was
left out, and foreign elements were brought in. Such worship as
these wild dances, offered to an image, broke both the commandments,
no matter by what name the image was invoked.
The roots of idolatry are in all men. The gross form of it is
impossible to us; but the need for aid from sense, the dependence on
art for wings to our devotion, which is a growing danger to-day, is
only the modern form of the same dislike of a purely spiritual
religion which sent these people dancing round their calf.
II. Mark Moses' blaze of wrath and courageous, prompt action. He
dashes the tables on the rock, as if to break the record of the
useless laws which the people have already broken, and, with his
hands free, flings himself without pause into the midst of the
excited mob. Verses 19 and 20 bear the impression of his rapid,
decisive action in their succession of clauses, each tacked on to
the preceding by a simple 'and.' Stroke followed stroke. His fiery
earnestness swept over all obstacles, the base riot ceased, the
ashamed dancers slunk away. Some true hearts would gather about him,
and carry out his commands; but he did the real work, and, single-
handed, cowed and controlled the mob. No doubt, it took more time
than the brief narrative, at first sight, would suggest. The image
is flung into the fire from which it had come out. The fire made it,
and the fire shall unmake it. We need not find difficulty in
'burning' a golden idol. That does not mean 'calcined,' and the
writer is not guilty of a blunder, nor needed to be taught that you
cannot burn gold. The next clause says that after it was 'burned,'
it was still solid; so that, plainly, all that is meant is, that the
metal was reduced to a shapeless lump. That would take some time.
Then it was broken small; there were plenty of rocks to grind it up
on. That would take some more time, but not a finger was lifted to
prevent it. Then the more or less finely broken up fragments are
flung into the brook, and, with grim irony, the people are bid to
drink. 'You shall have enough of your idol, since you love him so.
Here, down with him! You will have to take the consequences of your
sin. You must drink as you have brewed.' It is at once a
contemptuous demonstration of the idol's impotence, and a picture of
the sure retribution.
But we may learn two things from this figure of the indignant
lawgiver. One is, that the temper in which to regard idolatry is not
one of equable indifference nor of scientific investigation, but
that some heat of moral indignation is wholesome. We are all
studying comparative mythology now, and getting much good from it;
but we are in some danger of forgetting that these strange ideas and
practices, which we examine at our ease, have spread spiritual
darkness and moral infection over continents and through
generations. Let us understand them, by all means; let us be
thankful to find fragments of truth in, or innocent origins of,
repulsive legends; but do not let the student swallow up the
Christian in us, nor our minds lose their capacity of wholesome
indignation at the systems, blended with Christ-like pity and effort
for the victims.
We may learn, further, how strong a man is when he is all aflame
with true zeal for God. The suddenness of Moses' reappearance, the
very audacity of his act, the people's habit of obedience, all
helped to carry him through the crisis; but the true secret of his
swift victory was his own self-forgetting faith. There is contagion
in pure religious enthusiasm. It is the strongest of all forces. One
man, with God at his back, is always in the majority. He whose whole
soul glows with the pure fire, will move among men like flame in
stubble. 'All things are possible to him that believeth.'
Consecrated daring, animated by love and fed with truth, is all-
III. Note the weaker nature of Aaron, taking refuge in a transparent
lie. Probably his dialogue with his brother came in before the
process described in the former verses was accomplished. But the
narrative keeps all that referred to the destruction of the idol
together, and goes by subject rather than by time. We do not learn
how Moses had come to know Aaron's share in the sin, but his
question is one of astonishment. Had they bewitched him anyhow? or
what inducement had led him so far astray? The stronger and devouter
soul cannot conceive how the weaker had yielded. Aaron's answer puts
the people's wish forward. 'They said, Make us gods'; that was all
which they had 'done.' A poor excuse, as Aaron feels even while he
is stammering it out. What would Moses have answered if the people
had 'said' so to him? Did he, standing there, with the heat of his
struggle on him yet, look like a man that would acknowledge any
demand of a mob as a reason for a ruler's compliance? It is the
coward's plea. How many ecclesiastics and statesmen since then have
had no better to offer for their acts! Such fear of the Lord as
shrivelled before the breath of popular clamour could have had no
deep roots. One of the first things to learn, whether we are in
prominent or in private positions, is to hold by our religious
convictions in supreme indifference to all surrounding voices, and
to let no threats nor entreaties lead us to take one step beyond or
Aaron feels the insufficiency of the plea, when he has to put it
into plain words to such a listener, and so he flies to the resource
of timid and weak natures, a lie. For what did he ask the gold, and
put it into the furnace, unless he meant to make a god? Perhaps he
had told the people the same story, as priests in all lands have
been apt to claim a miraculous origin for idols. And he repeats it
now, as if, were it true, he would plead the miracle as a
vindication of the worship as well as his absolution. But the lie is
too transparent to deserve even an answer, and Moses turns silently
Aaron's was evidently the inferior nature, and was less deeply
stamped with the print of heaven than his brother's. His feeble
compliance is recorded as a beacon for all persons in places of
influence or authority, warning them against self-interested or
cowardly yielding to a popular demand, at the sacrifice of the
purity of truth and the approval of their own consciences. He was
not the last priest who has allowed the supposed wishes of the
populace to shape his representations of God, and has knowingly
dropped the standard of duty or sullied the clear brightness of
truth in deference to the many-voiced monster.
IV. Note the rallying of true hearts round Moses. The Revised
Version reads 'broken loose' instead of 'naked,' and the correction
is valuable. It explains the necessity for the separation of those
who yet remained bound by the restraints of God's law, and for the
terrible retribution that followed. The rebellion had not been
stamped out by the destruction of the calf; and though Moses' dash
into their midst had cowed the rebels for a time, things had gone
too far to settle down again at once. The camp was in insurrection.
It was more than a riot, it was a revolution. With the rapid eye of
genius, Moses sees the gravity of the crisis, and, with equally
swift decisiveness, acts so as to meet it. He 'stood in the gate of
the camp,' and made the nucleus for the still faithful. His summons
puts the full seriousness of the moment clearly before the people.
They have come to a fork in the road. They must be either for
Jehovah or against Him. There can be no mixing up of the worship of
Jehovah and the images of Egypt, no tampering with God's service in
obedience to popular clamour. It must be one thing or other. This is
no time for the family of 'Mr. Facing-both-ways'; the question for
each man is, 'Under which King?' Moses' unhesitating confidence that
he is God's soldier, and that to be at his side is to be on God's
side, was warranted in him, but has often been repeated with less
reason by eager contenders, as they believed themselves to be, for
God. No doubt, it becomes us to be modest and cautious in calling
all true friends of God to rank themselves with us. But where the
issue is between foul wrong and plain right, between palpable
idolatry, error, or unbridled lust, and truth, purity, and
righteousness, the Christian combatant for these is entitled to send
round the fiery cross, and proclaim a crusade in God's name. There
will always be plenty of people with cold water to pour on
enthusiasm. We should be all the better for a few more, who would
venture to feel that they are fighting for God, and to summon all
who love Him to come to their and His help.
Moses' own tribe responded to the summons. And, no doubt, Aaron was
there too, galvanised into a nobler self by the courage and fervour
of his brother, and, let us hope, urged by penitence, to efface the
memory of his faithlessness by his heroism now.
We do not go on to the dreadful retribution, which must be regarded,
not as massacre, but as legal execution. It is folly to apply to it,
or to other analogous instances, the ideas of this Christian
century. We need not be afraid to admit that there has been a
development of morality. The retributions of a stern age were
necessarily stern. But if we want to understand the heart of Moses,
or of Moses' God, we must not look only at the ruler of a wild
people trampling out a revolt at the sacrifice of many lives, but
listen to him, as the next section of the narrative shows him,
pleading with tears for the rebels, and offering even to let his own
name be blotted out of God's book if their sin might be forgiven.
So, coupling the two parts of his conduct together, we may learn a
little more clearly a lesson, of which this age has much need,--the
harmony of retributive justice and pitying love; and may come to
understand that Moses learned both the one and the other by
fellowship with the God in whom they both dwell in perfection and
THE MEDIATOR'S THREEFOLD PRAYER
'And Moses said unto the Lord, See, Thou sayest unto me,
Bring up this people: and Thou hast not let me know whom
Thou wilt send with me. Yet Thou hast said, I know thee
by name, and thou hast also found grace in My sight.
13. Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace
in Thy sight, show me now Thy way, that I may know Thee,
that I may find grace in Thy sight: and consider that
this nation is Thy people. 14. And He said, My presence
shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest. 15. And
he said unto Him, If Thy presence go not with me, carry
us not up hence. 16. For wherein shall it be known here
that I and Thy people have found grace in Thy sight? Is it
not in that Thou goest with us! So shall we be separated, I
and Thy people, from all the people that are upon the
face of the earth, 17. And the Lord said unto Moses, I
will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou
hast found grace in My sight, and I know thee by name.
18. And he said, I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory.
19. And He said, I will make all My goodness pass before
thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before
thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,
and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy. 20. And
he said, Thou canst not see My face: for there shall no
man see Me, and live. 21. And the Lord said, Behold,
there is a place by Me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
22. And it shall come to pass, while My glory passeth
by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and
will cover thee with My hand while I pass by: 23. And
I will take away Mine hand, and thou shall see My back
parts; but My face shall not be seen.'--EXODUS xxxiii. 12-23.
The calf worship broke the bond between God and Israel. Instead of
His presence, 'an angel' is to lead them, for His presence could
only be destruction. Mourning spreads through the camp, in token of
which all ornaments are laid aside. The fate of the nation is in
suspense, and the people wait, in sad attire, till God knows 'what
to do unto' them. The Tabernacle is carried beyond the precincts of
the camp, in witness of the breach, and all the future is doubtful.
The preceding context describes (vs. 7-11) not one event, but the
standing order of these dark days, when the camp had to be left if
God was to be found, and when Moses alone received tokens of God's
friendship, and the people stood wistfully and tremblingly gazing
from afar, while the cloudy pillar wavered down to the Tabernacle
door. Duty brought Moses back from such communion; but Joshua did
not need to come near the tents of the evil-doers, and, in the
constancy of devout desire, made his home in the Tabernacle. In one
of these interviews, so close and familiar, the wonderful dialogue
here recorded occurred. It turns round three petitions, to each of
which the Lord answers.
I. We have the leader's prayer for himself, with the over-abundant
answer of God. In the former chapter, we had the very sublimity of
intercession, in which the stern avenger of idolatry poured out his
self-sacrificing love for the stiff-necked nation whom he had had to
smite, and offered himself a victim for them. Here his first prayer
is mainly for himself, but it is not therefore a selfish prayer.
Rather he prays for gifts to himself, to fit him for his service to
them. We may note separately the prayer, and the pleas on which it
is urged. 'Show me now Thy way (or ways), that I may know Thee.' The
desire immediately refers to the then condition of things. As we
have pointed out, it was a time of suspense. In the strong metaphor
of the context, God was making up His mind on His course, and Israel
was waiting with hushed breath for the _dénouement_. It was not
the entrance of the nation into the promised land which was in
doubt, but the manner of their guidance, and the penalties of their
idolatry. These things Moses asked to know, and especially, as verse
12 shows, to receive some more definite communication as to their
leader than the vague 'an angel.' But the specific knowledge of
God's 'way' was yearned for by him, mainly, as leading on to a
deeper and fuller and more blessed knowledge of God Himself, and
that again as leading to a fuller possession of God's favour, which,
as already in some measure possessed, lay at the foundation of the
whole prayer. The connection of thought here goes far beyond the
mere immediate blessing, which Moses needed at the moment. That cry
for insight into the purposes and methods of Him whom the soul
trusts, amid darkness and suspense, is the true voice of sonship.
The more deeply it sees into these, the more does the devout soul
feel the contrast between the spot of light in which it lives and
the encircling obscurity, and the more does it yearn for the further
setting back of the boundaries. Prayer does more than effort, for
satisfying that desire. Nor is it mere curiosity or the desire for
intellectual clearness that moves the longing. For the end of
knowing God's ways is, for the devout man, a deeper, more blessed
knowledge of God Himself, who is best known in His deeds; and the
highest, most blessed issue of the God-given knowledge of God, is
the conscious sunshine of His favour shining ever on His servant.
That is not a selfish religion which, beginning with the assurance
that we have found grace in His sight, seeks to climb, by happy
paths of growing knowledge of Him as manifested in His ways, to a
consciousness of that favour which is made stable and profound by
clear insight into the depths of His purposes and acts.
The pleas on which this prayer is urged are two: the suppliant's
heavy tasks, and God's great assurances to him. He boldly reminds
God of what He has set him to do, and claims that he should be
furnished with what is needful for discharging his commission. How
can he lead if he is kept in the dark? When we are as sure as Moses
was of God's charge to us, we may be as bold as he in asking the
needful equipment for it. God does not send His servants out to sow
without seed, or to fight without a sword. His command is His
pledge. He smiles approval when His servants' confidence assumes
even bold forms, which sound like remonstrance and a suspicion that
He was forgetting, for He discerns the underlying eagerness to do
His will, and the trust in Him. The second plea is built on God's
assurances of intimate and distinguishing knowledge and favour. He
had said that He knew Moses 'by name,' by all these calls and
familiar interviews which gave him the certainty of his individual
relation to, and his special appointment from, the Lord. Such
prerogative was inconsistent with reserve. The test of friendship is
confidence. So pleads Moses, and God recognises the plea. 'I call
you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth;
but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of
my Father I have made known unto you.'
The plea based upon the relation of the people to God is subordinate
in this first prayer. It is thrown in at the end almost as an
afterthought; it boldly casts responsibility off Moses on to God,
and does so to enforce the prayer that he should be equipped with
all requisites for his work, as if he had said, 'It is more Thy
concern than mine, that I should be able to lead them.' The divine
answer is a promise to go not with the people, but with Moses. It is
therefore not yet a full resolving of the doubtful matter, nor
directly a reply to Moses' prayer. In one aspect it is less, and in
another more, than had been asked. It seals to the man and to the
leader the assurance that for himself he shall have the continual
presence of God, in his soul and in his work, and that, in all the
weary march, he will have rest, and will come to a fuller rest at
its end. Thus God ever answers the true hearts that seek to know
Him, and to be fitted for their tasks. Whether the precise form of
desire be fulfilled or no, the issue of such bold and trustful
pleading is always the inward certainty of God's face shining on us,
and the experience of repose, deep and untroubled in the midst of
toil, so that we may be at once pilgrims towards, and dwellers in,
'the house of the Lord,'
II. We have the intercessor's prayer for the people, with the answer
(vs. 15-17). If the promise of verse 14 is taken as referring to the
people, there is nothing additional asked in this second stage, and
the words of verse l7, 'this thing also,' are inexplicable. Observe
that 'with me' in verse 15 is a supplement, and that the 'us' of the
next clause, as well as the whole cast of verse 16, suggests that we
should rather supply 'with us,' The substance, then, of the second
petition, is the extension of the promise, already given to Moses
for himself, to the entire nation. Observe how he identifies himself
with them, making them 'partakers' in his grace, and reiterating 'I
and Thy people,' as if he would have no blessing which was not
shared by them. He seeks that the withdrawal of God's presence,
which had been the consequence of Israel's withdrawal from God,
should be reversed, and that not he alone, but all the rebels, might
still possess His presence.
The plea for this prayer is God's honour, which was concerned in
making it plain even in the remote wilderness, to the wandering
tribes there, that His hand was upon Israel. Moses expands the
argument which he had just touched before. The thought of His own
glory as the motive of God's acts, may easily be so put at to be
repulsive; but at bottom it is the same as to say that His motive is
love--for the glory which He seeks is the communication of true
thoughts concerning His character, that men may be made glad and
like Himself thereby. Moses has learned that God's heart must long
to reveal its depth of mercy, and therefore he pleads that even
sinful Israel should not be left by God, in order that some light
from His face may strike into a dark world. There is wide
benevolence, as well as deep insight into the desires of God, in the
The divine answer yields unconditionally to the request, and rests
the reason for so doing wholly on the relation between God and
Moses. The plea which he had urged in lowly boldness as the
foundation of both his prayers is endorsed, and, for his sake, the
divine presence is again granted to the people.
Can we look at this scene without seeing in it the operation on a
lower field of the same great principle of intercession, which
reaches its unique example in Jesus Christ? It is not arbitrary
forcing of the gospel into the history, but simply the recognition
of the essence of the history, when we see in it a foreshadowing of
our great High-priest. He, too, knits Himself so closely with us,
both by the assumption of our manhood and by the identity of loving
sympathy, that He accepts nothing from the Father's hand for Himself
alone. He, too, presents Himself before God, and says 'I and Thy
people.' The great seal of proof for the world that He is the
beloved of God, lies in the divine guardianship and guidance of His
servants. His prayer for them prevails, and the reason for its
prevalence is God's delight in Him. The very sublime of self-
sacrificing love was in the lawgiver, but the height of his love,
measured against the immeasurable altitude of Christ's, is as a
mole-hill to the Andes.
III. We have the last soaring desire which rises above the limits of
the present. These three petitions teach the insatiableness, if we
may use the word, of devout desires. Each request granted brings on
a greater. 'The gift doth stretch itself as 'tis received.'
Enjoyment increases capacity, and increase of capacity is increase
of desire. God being infinite, and man capable of indefinite growth,
neither the widening capacity nor the infinite supply can have
limits. This is not the least of the blessings of a devout life,
that the appetite grows with what it feeds on, and that, while there
is always satisfaction, there is never satiety.
Moses' prayer sounds presumptuous, but it was heard unblamed, and
granted in so far as possible. It was a venial error--if error it
may be called--that a soul, touched with the flame of divine love,
should aspire beyond the possibilities of mortality. At all events,
it was a fault in which he has had few imitators. _Our_ desires
keep but too well within the limits of the possible. The precise
meaning of the petition must be left undetermined. Only this is
clear, that it was something far beyond even that face-to-face
intercourse which he had had, as well as beyond that vision granted
to the elders. If we are to take 'glory' in its usual sense, it
would mean the material symbol of God's presence, which shone at the
heart of the pillar, and dwelt afterwards between the cherubim, but
probably we must attach a loftier meaning to it here, and rather
think of what we should call the uncreated and infinite divine
essence. Only do not let us make Moses talk like a metaphysician or
a theological professor. Rather we should hear in his cry the voice
of a soul thrilled through and through with the astounding
consciousness of God's favour, blessed with love-gifts in answered
prayers, and yearning for more of that light which it feels to be
And if the petition be dark, the answer is yet more obscure 'with
excess of light.' Mark how it begins with granting, not with
refusing. It tells how much the loving desire has power to bring,
before it speaks of what in it must be denied. There is infinite
tenderness in that order of response. It speaks of a heart that does
not love to say 'no,' and grants our wishes up to the very edge of
the possible, and wraps the bitterness of any refusal in the sweet
envelope of granted requests. A broad distinction is drawn between
that in God which can be revealed, and that which cannot. The one is
'glory,' the other 'goodness,' corresponding, we might almost say,
to the distinction between the 'moral' and the 'natural' attributes
of God. But, whatever mysterious revelation under the guise of
vision may be concealed in these words, and in the fulfilment of
them in the next chapter, they belong to the 'things which it is
impossible for a man to utter,' even if he has received them. We are
on more intelligible ground in the next clause of the promise, the
proclamation of 'the Name.' That expression is, in Scripture, always
used as meaning the manifested character of God. It is a revelation
addressed to the spirit, not to the sense. It is the translation, so
far as it is capable of translation, of the vision which it
accompanied; it is the treasure which Moses bore away from Sinai,
and has shared among us all. The reason for his prayer was probably
his desire to have his mediatorial office confirmed and perfected;
and it was so, by that proclamation of the Name. The reason for this
marvellous gift is next set forth as being God's own unconditional
grace and mercy. He is His own motive, His own reason. Just as the
independent and absolute fullness of His being is expressed by the
name 'I am that I am,' so the independent and absolute freeness of
His mercy, whether in granting Moses' prayer or in pardoning the
people, is expressed by 'I will shew mercy on whom I will shew
mercy.' Not till all this exuberance of gracious answer has smoothed
the way does the denial of the impossible request come; and even
then it is so worded as to lay all the emphasis on what is granted,
and to show that the refusal is but another phase of love. The
impossibility of beholding the Face is reiterated, and then the
careful provisions which God will make for the fulfilment of the
possible part of the bold wish are minutely detailed. The
distinction between the revealable and unrevealable, which has been
already expressed by the contrast of 'glory' and 'grace,' now
appears in the distinction between the 'face' which cannot be looked
on, and the 'back' which may be.
Human language and thought are out of their depth here. We must be
content to see a dim splendour shining through the cloudy words, to
know that there was granted to one man a realisation of God's
presence, and a revelation of His character, so far transcending
ordinary experiences as that it was fitly called sight, but yet as
far beneath the glory of His being as the comparatively imperfect
knowledge of a man's form, when seen only from behind, is beneath
that derived from looking him in the face.
But whatever was the singular prerogative of the lawgiver, as he
gazed from the cleft of the rock at the receding glory, we see more
than he ever did; and the Christian child, who looks upon the 'glory
of God in the face of Jesus Christ,' has a vision which outshines
the flashing radiance that shone round Moses. It deepened his
convictions, confirmed his faith, added to his assurance of his
divine commission, but only added to his knowledge of God by the
proclamation of the Name, and that Name is more fully proclaimed in
our ears. Sinai, with all its thunders, is silent before Calvary.
And he who has Jesus Christ to declare God's Name to him need not
envy the lawgiver on the mountain, nor even the saints in heaven.
GOD PROCLAIMING HIS OWN NAME
'The Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The
Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering,
and abundant in goodness and truth.'--EXODUS xxxiv. 6.
This great event derives additional significance and grandeur from
the place in which it stands. It follows the hideous act of idolatry
in which the levity and sinfulness of Israel reached their climax.
The trumpet of Sinai had hardly ceased to peal, and there in the
rocky solitudes, in full view of the mount 'that burned with fire,'
while the echoes of the thunder and the Voice still lingered, one
might say, among the cliffs, that mob of abject cowards were bold
enough to shake off their allegiance to God, and, forgetful of all
the past, plunged into idolatry, and wallowed in sensuous delights.
What a contrast between Moses on the mount and Aaron and the people
in the plain! Then comes the wonderful story of the plague and of
Moses' intercession, followed by the high request of Moses, so
strange and yet so natural at such a time, for the vision of God's
'glory.' Into all the depths of that I do not need to plunge. Enough
that he is told that his desire is beyond the possibilities of
creatural life. The mediator and lawgiver cannot rise beyond the
bounds of human limitations. But what _can_ be _shall_ be.
God's 'goodness' will pass before him. Then comes this wonderful
advance in the progress of divine revelation. If we remember the
breach of the Covenant, and then turn to these words, considered as
evoked by the people's sin, they become very remarkable. If we
consider them as the answer to Moses' desire, they are no less so.
Taking these two thoughts with us, let us consider them in--
I. The answer to the request for a sensuous manifestation.
The request is 'show me,' as if some visible manifestation were
desired and expected, or, if not a visible, at least a direct
perception of Jehovah's glory.' Moses desires that he, as mediator
and lawgiver, may have some closer knowledge. The answer to his
request is a word, the articulate proclamation of the 'Name' of the
Lord. It is higher than all manifestation to sense, which was what
Moses had asked. Here there is no symbol as of the Lord in the
'cloud.' The divine manifestation is impossible to sense, and that,
too, not by reason of man's limitations, but by reason of God's
nature. The manifestation to spirit in full immediate perception is
impossible also. It has to be maintained that we know God only 'in
part'; but it does not follow that our knowledge is only
representative, or is not of Him 'as He is.' Though not whole it is
real, so far as it goes.
But this is not the highest form. Words and propositions can never
reveal so fully, nor with such certitude, as a personal revelation.
But we have Christ's life, 'God manifest': not words about God, but
the manifestation of the very divine nature itself in action.
'Merciful':--and we see Jesus going about 'doing good.' 'Gracious,'
and we see Him welcoming to Himself all the weary, and ever
bestowing of the treasures of His love. 'Longsuffering':--'Father!
forgive them!' God is 'plenteous in mercy and in truth,' forgiving
transgression and sin:--'Thy sins be forgiven thee.'
How different it all is when we have deeds, a human life, on which
to base our belief! How much more certain, as well as coming closer
to our hearts! Merely verbal statements need proof, they need
warming. In Christ's showing us the Father they are changed as from
a painting to a living being; they are brought out of the region of
abstractions into the concrete.
'And so the word had breath, and wrought
With human hands the creed of creeds.'
'Show us the Father and it sufficeth us.' 'He that hath seen Me,
hath seen the Father.'
Is there any other form of manifestation possible? Yes; in heaven
there will be a closer vision of Christ--not of God. Our knowledge
of Christ will there be expanded, deepened, made more direct. We
know not how. There will be bodily changes: 'Like unto the body of
His glory.' etc. 'We shall be like Him.' 'Changed from glory to
II. The answer to the desire to see God's glory.
The 'Glory' was the technical name for the lustrous cloud that hung
over the Mercy-seat, but here it probably means more generally some
visible manifestation of the divine presence. What Moses craved to
see with his eyes was the essential divine light. That vision he did
not receive, but what he did receive was partly a visible
manifestation, though not of the dazzling radiance which no human
eye can see and live, and still more instructive and encouraging,
the communication in words of that shining galaxy of attributes,
'the glories that compose Thy name.' In the name specially so-
called, the name Jehovah, was revealed absolute eternal Being, and
in the accompanying declaration of so-called 'attributes' were
thrown into high relief the two qualities of merciful forgiveness
and retributive justice. The 'attributes' which separate God from
us, and in which vulgar thought finds the marks of divinity, are
conspicuous by their absence. Nothing is said of omniscience,
omnipresence, and the like, but forgiveness and justice, of both of
which men carry analogues in themselves, are proclaimed by the very
voice of God as those by which He desires that He should be chiefly
conceived of by us.
The true 'glory of God' is His pardoning Love. That is the glowing
heart of the divine brightness. If so, then the very heart of that
heart of brightness, the very glory of the 'Glory of God,' is the
Christ, in whom we behold that which was at once 'the glory as of
the only begotten of the Father' and the 'Glory of the Father.'
In Jesus these two elements, pardoning love and retributive justice,
wondrously meet, and the mystery of the possibility of their
harmonious co-operation in the divine government is solved, and
becomes the occasion for the rapturous gratitude of man and the
wondering adoration of principalities and powers in heavenly places.
Jesus has manifested the divine mercifulness; Jesus has borne the
burden of sin and the weight of the divine Justice. The lips that
said 'Be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee,' also cried, 'Why
hast Thou forsaken Me?' The tenderest manifestation of the God
'plenteous in mercy ... forgiving iniquity,' and the most awe-
kindling manifestation of the God 'that will by no means clear the
guilty,' are fused into one, when we 'behold that Lamb of God that
taketh away the sin of the world.'
III. The answer to a great sin.
This Revelation is the immediate issue of Israel's great apostasy.
Sin evokes His pardoning mercy. This insignificant speck in Creation
has been the scene of the wonder of the Incarnation, not because its
magnitude was great, but because its need was desperate. Men,
because they are sinners, have been subjects of an experience more
precious than the 'angels which excel in strength' and hearken 'to
the voice of His word' have known or can know. The wilder the storm
of human evil roars and rages, the deeper and louder is the voice
that peals across the storm. So for us all Christ is the full and
final revelation of God's grace. The last, because the perfect
embodiment of it; the sole, because the sufficient manifestation of
it. 'See that ye refuse not Him that speaketh.'
SIN AND FORGIVENESS
'... Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and
that will by no means clear the guilty....'--EXODUS xxiv. 7.
The former chapter tells us of the majesty of the divine revelation
as it was made to Moses on 'the mount of God.' Let us notice that,
whatever was the visible pomp of the external Theophany to the
senses, the true revelation lay in the proclamation of the 'Name';
the revelation to the conscience and the heart; and such a
revelation had never before fallen on mortal ears. It is remarkable
that the very system which was emphatically one of law and
retribution should have been thus heralded by a word which is
perfectly 'evangelical' in its whole tone. That fact should have
prevented many errors as to the relation of Judaism and
Christianity. The very centre of the former was 'God is love,'
'merciful and gracious,' and if there follows the difficult addition
'visiting the iniquities,' etc., the New Testament adds its 'Amen'
to that. True, the harmony of the two and the great revelation of
the _means_ of forgiveness lay far beyond the horizon of Moses
and his people, but none the less was it the message of Judaism that
'there is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared.' The law
spoke of retribution, justice, duty, and sin, but side by side with
the law was another institution, the sacrificial worship, which
proclaimed that God was full of love, and that the sinner was
welcomed to His side. And it is the root of many errors to transfer
New Testament language about the law to the whole Old Testament
system. But, passing away from this, I wish to look at two points in
I. The characteristics of human sins.
II. The divine treatment of them.
I. The characteristics of human sins.
Observe the threefold form of expression--iniquity and transgression
It seems natural that in the divine proclamation of His own holy
character, the sinful nature of men should be characterised with all
the fervid energy of such words; for the accumulation even of
synonyms would serve a _moral_ purpose, expressive at once of
the divine displeasure against sin, and of the free full pardon for
it in all its possible forms. But the words are very far from all
meaning the same thing. They all designate the same actions, but
from different points of view, and with reference to different
phases and qualities of sin.
Now these three expressions are inadequately represented by the
'Iniquity' literally means 'twisting,' or 'something twisted,' and
is thus the opposite of 'righteousness,' or rather of what is
'straight.' It is thus like our own 'right' and 'wrong,' or like the
Latin 'in-iquity' (by which it is happily enough rendered in our
version). So looking at this word and the thoughts which connect
themselves with it, we come to this:--
(1) All sin of every sort is deviation from a standard to which we
ought to be conformed.
Note the graphic force of the word as giving the straight line to
which our conduct ought to run parallel, and the contrast between it
and the wavering curves into which our lives meander, like the lines
in a child's copy-book, or a rude attempt at drawing a circle at one
sweep of the pencil. Herbert speaks of
'The crooked wandering ways in which we live.'
There is a path which is 'right' and one which is 'wrong,' whether
we believe so or not.
There are hedges and limitations for us all. This law extends to the
ordering of all things, whether great or small. If a line be
absolutely straight, and we are running another parallel to it, the
smallest possible wavering is fatal to our copy. And the smallest
deflection, if produced, will run out into an ever-widening distance
from the straight line.
There is nothing which it is more difficult to get into men's belief
than the sinfulness of little sins; nothing more difficult to cure
ourselves of than the habit of considering quantity rather than
quality in moral questions. What a solemn thought it is, that of a
great absolute law of right rising serene above us, embracing
everything! And this is the first idea that is here in our text--a
grave and deep one.
But the second of these expressions for sin literally means
'apostasy,' 'rebellion,' not 'transgression,' and this word brings
in a more solemn thought yet, viz.:--
(2) Every sin is apostasy from or rebellion against God.
The former word dealt only with abstract thought of a 'law,' this
with a 'Lawgiver.'
Our obligations are not merely to a law, but to Him who enacted it.
So it becomes plain that the very centre of all sin is the shaking
off of obedience to God. Living to 'self' is the inmost essence of
every act of evil, and may be as virulently active in the smallest
trifle as in the most awful crime.
How infinitely deeper and darker this makes sin to be!
When one thinks of our obligations and of our dependence, of God's
love and care, what an 'evil and a bitter thing' every sin becomes!
Urge this terrible contrast of a loving Father and a disobedient
This idea brings out the ingratitude of all sin.
But the third word here used literally means 'missing an aim,' and
so we come to
(3) Every sin misses the goal at which we should aim. There may be a
double idea here--that of failing in the great purpose of our being,
which is already partially included in the first of these three
expressions, or that of missing the aim which we proposed to
ourselves in the act. All sin is a failure.
By it we fall short of the loftiest purpose. Whatever we gain we
Every life which has sin in it is a 'failure.' You may be
prosperous, brilliant, successful, but you are 'a failure.'
For consider what human life might be: full of God and full of joy.
Consider what the 'fruits' of sin are. 'Apples of Sodom.' How sin
leads to sorrow. This is an inevitable law. Sin fails to secure what
it sought for. All 'wrong' is a mistake, a blunder. 'Thou fool!'
So this word suggests the futility of sin considered in its
consequences. 'These be thy gods, O Israel!' 'The end of these
things is death.'
II. The divine treatment of sins.
'Forgiving,' and yet not suffering them to go unpunished.
(1) God _forgives_, and yet He does not leave sin unpunished,
for He will 'by no means _clear_ the guilty.'
The one word refers to His love, His heart; the other to the
retributions which are inseparable from the very course of nature.
Forgiveness is the flow of God's love to all, and the welcoming back
to His favour of all who come. Forgiveness likewise includes the
escape from the extreme and uttermost consequences of sin in this
life and in the next, the sense of God's displeasure here, and the
final separation from Him, which is eternal death. Forgiveness is
not inconsistent with retribution. There must needs be retribution,
_(a)_ The very constitution of our nature.
Conscience, our spiritual nature, our habits all demand it.
_(b)_ The constitution of the world.
In it all things work under God, but only for 'good' to them who
love God. To all others, sooner or later, the Nemesis comes. 'Ye
shall eat of the fruit of your doings.'
(2) _God_ forgives, and therefore He does not leave sin
unpunished. It is divine mercy that strikes. The end of His
chastisement is to separate us from our sins.
(3) Divine forgiveness and retributive justice both centre in the
revelation of the Cross.
To us this message comes. It was the hidden heart of the Mosaic
system. It was the revelation of Sinai. To Israel it was
'proclaimed' in thunder and darkness, and the way of forgiveness and
the harmony of righteousness and mercy were veiled. To us it is
proclaimed from Calvary. There in full light the Lord passes before
us and proclaims, 'I am the Lord, the Lord God merciful and
gracious.' 'Ye are come ... unto Jesus.' 'See that ye refuse not Him
that speaketh.' 'This is my Beloved Son, hear Him !'
BLESSED AND TRAGIC UNCONSCIOUSNESS
'... Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone
while he talked with Him.'--EXODUS xxxiv. 29.
'... And Samson wist not that the Lord had departed
from him.'--JUDGES xvi. 20.
The recurrence of the same phrase in two such opposite connections
is very striking. Moses, fresh from the mountain of vision, where he
had gazed on as much of the glory of God as was accessible to man,
caught some gleam of the light which he adoringly beheld; and a
strange radiance sat on his face, unseen by himself, but visible to
all others. So, supreme beauty of character comes from beholding God
and talking with Him; and the bearer of it is unconscious of it.
Samson, fresh from his coarse debauch, and shorn of the locks which
he had vowed to keep, strides out into the air, and tries his former
feats; but his strength has left him because the Lord has left him;
and the Lord has left him because, in his fleshly animalism, he has
left the Lord. Like, but most unlike, Moses, he knows not his
weakness. So strength, like beauty, is dependent upon contact with
God, and may ebb away when that is broken, and the man may be all
unaware of his weakness till he tries his power, and ignominiously
These two contrasted pictures, the one so mysteriously grand and the
other so tragic, may well help to illustrate for us truths that
should be burned into our minds and our memories.
I. Note, then, the first thought which they both teach us, that
beauty and strength come from communion with God.
In both the cases with which we are dealing these were of a merely
material sort. The light on Moses' face and the strength in Samson's
arm were, at the highest, but types of something far higher and
nobler than themselves. But still, the presence of the one and the
departure of the other alike teach us the conditions on which we may
possess both in nobler form, and the certainty of losing them if we
lose hold of God.
Moses' experience teaches us that the loftiest beauty of character
comes from communion with God. That is the use that the Apostle
makes of this remarkable incident in 2 Cor. iii, where he takes the
light that shone from Moses' face as being the symbol of the better
lustre that gleams from all those who 'behold (or reflect) the glory
of the Lord' with unveiled faces, and, by beholding, are 'changed
into the likeness' of that on which they gaze with adoration and
longing. The great law to which, almost exclusively, Christianity
commits the perfecting of individual character is this: Look at Him
till you become like Him, and in beholding, be changed. 'Tell me the
company a man keeps, and I will tell you his character,' says the
old proverb. And what is true on the lower levels of daily life,
that most men become assimilated to the complexion of those around
them, especially if they admire or love them, is the great principle
whereby worship, which is desire and longing and admiration in the
superlative degree, stamps the image of the worshipped upon the
character of the worshipper. 'They followed after vanity, and have
become vain,' says one of the prophets, gathering up into a sentence
the whole philosophy of the degradation of humanity by reason of
idolatry and the worship of false gods. 'They that make them are
like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.' The law
works upwards as well as downwards, for whom we worship we declare
to be infinitely good; whom we worship we long to be like; whom we
worship we shall certainly imitate.
Thus, brethren, the practical, plain lesson that comes from this
thought is simply this: If you want to be pure and good, noble and
gentle, sweet and tender; if you desire to be delivered from your
own weaknesses and selfish, sinful idiosyncrasies, the way to secure
your desire is, 'Look unto Me and be ye saved, all the ends of the
earth.' Contemplation, which is love and longing, is the parent of
all effort that succeeds. Contemplation of God in Christ is the
master-key that opens this door, and makes it possible for the
lowliest and the foulest amongst us to cherish unpresumptuous hopes
of being like Him' if we see Him as He is revealed here, and
perfectly like Him when yonder we see Him 'as He _is_.'
There have been in the past, and there are today, thousands of
simple souls, shut out by lowliness of position and other
circumstances from all the refining and ennobling influences of
which the world makes so much, who yet in character and bearing, ay,
and sometimes in the very look of their meek faces, are living
witnesses how mighty to transform a nature is the power of loving
gazing upon Jesus Christ. All of us who have had much to do with
Christians of the humbler classes know that. There is no influence
to refine and beautify men like that of living near Jesus Christ,
and walking in the light of that Beauty which is 'the effulgence of
the divine glory and the express image of His Person.'
And in like manner as beauty so strength comes from communion with
God and laying hold on Him. We can only think of Samson as a 'saint'
in a very modified fashion, and present him as an example in a very
limited degree. His dependence upon divine power was rude, and
divorced from elevation of character and morality, but howsoever
imperfect, fragmentary, and I might almost say to our more trained
eyes, grotesque, it looks, yet there was a reality in it; and when
the man was faithless to his vow, and allowed the crafty harlot's
scissors to shear from his head the token of his consecration, it
was because the reality of the consecration, rude and external as
that consecration was, both in itself and in its consequences, had
passed away from him.
And so we may learn the lesson, taught at once by the flashing face
of the lawgiver and the enfeebled force of the hero, that the two
poles of perfectness in humanity, so often divorced from one
another--beauty and strength--have one common source, and depend for
their loftiest position upon the same thing. God possesses both in
supremest degree, being the Almighty and the All-fair; and we
possess them in limited, but yet possibly progressive, measure,
through dependence upon Him. The true force of character, and the
true power for work, and every real strength which is not disguised
weakness, 'a lath painted to look like iron,' come on condition of
our keeping close by God. The Fountain is open for you all; see to
it that you resort thither.
II. And now the second thought of my text is that the bearer of the
radiance is unconscious of it.
'Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone.' In all regions of
life, the consummate apex and crowning charm of excellence is
unconsciousness of excellence. Whenever a man begins to imagine that
he is good, he begins to be bad; and every virtue and beauty of
character is robbed of some portion of its attractive fairness when
the man who bears it knows, or fancies, that he possesses it. The
charm of childhood is its perfect unconsciousness, and the man has
to win back the child's heritage, and become 'as a little child,' if
he would enter into and dwell in the 'Kingdom of Heaven.' And so in
the loftiest region of all, that of the religious life, you may be
sure that the more a man is like Christ, the less he knows it; and
the better he is, the less he suspects it. The reasons why that is
so, point, at the same time, to the ways by which we may attain to
this blessed self-oblivion. So let me put just in a word or two some
simple, practical thoughts.
Let us, then, try to lose ourselves in Jesus Christ. That way of
self-oblivion is emancipation and blessedness and power. It is safe
for us to leave all thoughts of our miserable selves behind us, if
instead of them we have the thought of that great, sweet, dear Lord,
filling mind and heart. A man walking on a tight-rope will be far
more likely to fall, if he is looking at his toes, than if he is
looking at the point to which he is going. If we fix our eyes on
Jesus, then we can safely look, neither to our feet nor to the
gulfs; but straight at Him gazing, we shall straight to Him advance.
'Looking off' from ourselves 'unto Jesus' is safe; looking off
anywhere else is peril. Seek that self-oblivion which comes from
self being swallowed up in the thought of the Lord.
And again, I would say, think constantly and longingly of the
unattained. 'Brethren! I count not myself to have apprehended.'
Endless aspiration and a stinging consciousness of present
imperfection are the loftiest states of man here below. The
beholders down in the valley, when they look up, may see our figures
against the skyline, and fancy us at the summit, but our loftier
elevation reveals untrodden heights beyond; and we have only risen
so high in order to discern more clearly how much higher we have to
rise. Dissatisfaction with the present is the condition of
excellence in all pursuits of life, and in the Christian life even
more eminently than in all others, because the goal to be attained
is in its very nature infinite; and therefore ensures the blessed
certainty of continual progress, accompanied here, indeed, with the
sting and bite of a sense of imperfection, but one day to be only
sweetness, as we think of how much there is yet to be won in addition
to the perfection of the present.
So, dear friends, the best way to keep ourselves unconscious of
present attainments is to set our faces forward, and to make 'all
experience' as 'an arch wherethro' gleams that untraveiled world to
which we move.' 'Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone.'
The third practical suggestion that I would make is, cultivate a
clear sense of your own imperfections. We do not need to try to
learn our goodness. That will suggest itself to us only too clearly;
but what we do need is to have a very clear sense of our
shortcomings and failures, our faults of temper, our faults of
desire, our faults in our relations to our fellows, and all the
other evils that still buzz and sting and poison our blood. Has not
the best of us enough of these to knock all the conceit out of us? A
true man will never be so much ashamed of himself as when he is
praised, for it will always send him to look into the deep places of
his heart, and there will be a swarm of ugly, creeping things under
the stones there, if he will only turn them up and look beneath. So
let us lose ourselves in Christ, let us set our faces to the
unattained future, let us clearly understand our own faults and
III. Thirdly, the strong man made weak is unconscious of his
I do not mean here to touch at all upon the general thought that, by
its very nature, all evil tends to make us insensitive to its
presence. Conscience becomes dull by practice of sin and by neglect
of conscience, until that which at first was as sensitive as the
palm of a little child's hand becomes as if it were 'seared with a
hot iron.' The foulness of the atmosphere of a crowded hall is not
perceived by the people in it. It needs a man to come in from the
outer air to detect it. We can accustom ourselves to any mephitic
and poisonous atmosphere, and many of us live in one all our days,
and do not know that there is any need of ventilation or that the
air is not perfectly sweet. The 'deceitfulness' of sin is its great
But what I desire to point out is an even sadder thing than that--namely,
that Christian people may lose their strength because they
let go their hold upon God, and know nothing about it. Spiritual
declension, all unconscious of its own existence, is the very
history of hundreds of nominal Christians amongst us, and, I dare
say, of some of us. The very fact that you do not suppose the
statement to have the least application to yourself is perhaps the
very sign that it does apply. When the lifeblood is pouring out of a
man, he faints before he dies. The swoon of unconsciousness is the
condition of some professing Christians. Frost-bitten limbs are
quite comfortable, and only tingle when circulation is coming back.
I remember a great elm-tree, the pride of an avenue in the south,
that had spread its branches for more years than the oldest man
could count, and stood, leafy and green. Not until a winter storm
came one night and laid it low with a crash did anybody suspect what
everybody saw in the morning--that the heart was eaten out of it,
and nothing left but a shell of bark. Some Christian people are like
that; they manage to grow leaves, and even some fruit, but when the
storm comes they will go down, because the heart has been out of
their religion for years. 'Samson wist not that the Lord was
departed from him.'
And so, brother, because there are so many things that mask the
ebbing away of a Christian life, and because our own self-love and
habits come in to hide declension, let me earnestly exhort you and
myself to watch ourselves very narrowly. Unconsciousness does not
mean ignorant presumption or presumptuous ignorance. It is difficult
to make an estimate of ourselves by poking into our own sentiments
and supposed feelings and convictions, and the estimate is likely to
be wrong. There is a better way than that. Two things tell what a
man is--one, what he wants, and the other, what he does. As the will
is, the man is. Where do the currents of your desires set? If you
watch their flow, you may be pretty sure whether your religious life
is an ebbing or a rising tide. The other way to ascertain what we
are is rigidly to examine and judge what we do. 'Let us search and
try our ways, and turn again to the Lord.' Actions are the true test
of a man. Conduct is the best revelation of character, especially in
regard to ourselves. So let us 'watch and be sober'--sober in our
estimate of ourselves, and determined to find every lurking evil,
and to drag it forth into the light.
Again, let me say, let us ask God to help us. 'Search me, O God! and
try me.' We shall never rightly understand what we are, unless we
spread ourselves out before Him and crave that Divine Spirit, who is
'the candle of the Lord,' to be carried ever in our hands into the
secret recesses of our sinful hearts. 'Anoint thine eyes with eye
salve that thou mayest see,' and get the eye salve by communion with
God, who will supply thee a standard by which to try thy poor,
stained, ragged righteousness. The _collyrium_, the eye salve,
may be, will be, painful when it is rubbed into the lids, but it
will clear the sight; and the first work of Him, whose dearest name
is _Comforter_, is to convince of sin.
And, last of all, let us keep near to Jesus Christ, near enough to
Him to feel His touch, to hear His voice, to see His face, and to
carry down with us into the valley some radiance on our countenances
which may tell even the world, that we have been up where the Light
lives and reigns.
'Because thou sayest, I am rich and increased with goods, and have
need of nothing, and knowest not that thou art wretched, and
miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked, I counsel thee to buy of
Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white
raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy
nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye salve, that
thou mayest see,'
AN OLD SUBSCRIPTION LIST
'And they came, every one whose heart stirred him up,
and every one whom his spirit made willing, and they
brought the Lord's offering to the work....'
--EXODUS xxxv. 21.
This is the beginning of the catalogue of contributions towards the
erection of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. It emphasises the
purely spontaneous and voluntary character of the gifts. There was
plenty of compulsory work, of statutory contribution, in the Old
Testament system of worship. Sacrifices and tithes and other things
were imperative, but the Tabernacle was constructed by means of
undemanded offerings, and there were parts of the standing ritual
which were left to the promptings of the worshipper's own spirit.
There was always a door through which the impulses of devout hearts
could come in, to animate what else would have become dead,
mechanical compliance with prescribed obligations. That spontaneous
surrender of precious things, not because a man must give them, but
because he delights in letting his love come to the surface and find
utterance in giving which is still more blessed than receiving, had
but a narrow and subordinate sphere of action assigned to it in the
legal system of the Old Covenant, but it fills the whole sphere of
Christianity, and becomes the only kind of offering which
corresponds to its genius and is acceptable to Christ. We may look,
then, not merely at the words of our text, but at the whole section
of which they form the introduction, and find large lessons for
ourselves, not only in regard to the one form of Christian service
which is pecuniary liberality, but in reference to all which we have
to do for Jesus Christ, in the picture which it gives us of that
eager crowd of willing givers, flocking to the presence of the
lawgiver, with hands laden with gifts so various in kind and value,
but all precious because freely and delightedly brought, and all
needed for the structure of God's house.
I. We have set forth here the true motive of acceptable service.
'They came, every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom
his spirit made willing.' There is a striking metaphor in that last
word. Wherever the spirit is touched with the sweet influences of
God's love, and loves and gives back again, that spirit is buoyant,
lifted, raised above the low, flat levels where selfishness feeds
fat and then rots. The spirit is raised by any great and unselfish
emotion. There is buoyancy and glad consciousness of elevation in
all the self-sacrifice of love, which dilates and lifts the spirit
as the light gas smoothes out the limp folds of silk in a balloon,
and sends it heavenwards, a full sphere. Only service or surrender,
which is thus cheerful because it is the natural expression of love,
is true service in God's sight. Whosoever, then, had his spirit
raised and made buoyant by a great glad resolve to give up some
precious thing for God's sanctuary, came with his gift in his hand,
and he and it were accepted. That trusting of men's giving to
spontaneous liberality was exceptional under the law. It is normal
under the Gospel, and has filled the whole field, and driven out the
other principle of statutory and constrained service and sacrifice
altogether. We have its feeble beginnings in this incident. It is
sovereign in Christ's Church. There are no pressed men on board
Christ's ship. None but volunteers make up His army. 'Thy people
shall be willing in the day of Thy might.' He cares nothing for any
service but such as it would be pain to keep back; nothing for any
service which is not given with a smile of glad thankfulness that we
are able to give it.
And for the true acceptableness of Christian service, that motive of
thankful love must be actually present in each deed. It is not
enough that we should determine on and begin a course of sacrifice
or work under the influence of that great motive, unless we renew it
at each step. We cannot hallow a row of actions in that wholesale
fashion by baptizing the first of them with the cleansing waters of
true consecration, while the rest are done from lower motives. Each
deed must be sanctified by the presence of the true motive, if it is
to be worthy of Christ's acceptance. But there is a constant
tendency in all Christian work to slide off its only right
foundation, and having been begun 'in the spirit,' to be carried on
'in the flesh.' Constant watchfulness is needed to resist this
tendency, which, if yielded to, destroys the worth and power, and
changes the inmost nature, of apparently devoted and earnest
Not the least subtle and dangerous of these spurious motives which
steal in surreptitiously to mar our work for Christ is habit.
Service done from custom, and representing no present impulse of
thankful devotion, may pass muster with us, but does it do so with
God? No doubt a habit of godly service is, in some aspects, a good,
and it is well to enlist that tremendous power of custom which sways
so much of our lives, on the side of godliness. But it is not good,
but, on the contrary, pure loss, when habit becomes mechanical, and,
instead of making it easier to call up the true motive, excludes
that motive, and makes it easy to do the deed without it. I am
afraid that if such thoughts were applied as a sieve to sift the
abundant so-called Christian work of the present day, there would be
an alarming and, to the workers, astonishing quantity of refuse that
would not pass the meshes.
Let us, then, try to bring every act of service nominally done for
Christ into conscious relation with the motive which ought to be its
parent; for only the work that is done because our spirits lift us
up, and our hearts are willing, is work that is accepted by Him, and
is blessed to us.
And how is that to be secured? How is that glad temper of
spontaneous and cheerful consecration to be attained and maintained?
I know of but one way. 'Brethren,' said the Apostle, when he was
talking about a very little matter--some small collection for a
handful of poor people--'ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
how that, though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor, that
we, through His poverty, might become rich.' Let us keep our eyes
fixed upon that great pattern of and motive for surrender; and our
hearts will become willing, touched with the fire that flamed in
His. There is only one method of securing the gladness and
spontaneousness of devotion and of service, and that is, living very
near to Jesus Christ, and drinking in for ourselves, as the very
wine that turns to blood and life in our veins, the spirit of that
dear Master. Every one whose heart is lifted up will have it lifted
up because it holds on by Him who hath ascended up, and who, being
'lifted up, draws all men to Him.' The secret of consecration is
communion with Jesus Christ.
The appeal to lower motives is often tempting, but always a mistake.
Continual contact with Jesus Christ, and realisation of what He has
done for us, are sure to open the deep fountains of the heart, and
to secure abundant streams. If we can tap these perennial reservoirs
they will yield like artesian wells, and need no creaking machinery
to pump a scanty and intermittent supply. We cannot trust this
deepest motive too much, nor appeal to it too exclusively.
Let me remind you, too, that Christ's appeal to this motive leaves
no loophole for selfishness or laziness. Responsibility is all the
greater because we are left to assess ourselves. The blank form is
sent to us, and He leaves it to our honour to fill it up. Do not
tamper with the paper, for remember there is a Returning Officer
that will examine your schedule, who knows all about your
possessions. So, when He says, 'Give as you like; and I do not want
anything that you do not like,' remember that 'Give as you like'
ought to mean, 'Give as you, who have received everything from Me,
are bound to give.'
II. We get here the measure of acceptable work.
We have a long catalogue, very interesting in many respects, of the
various gifts that the people brought. Such sentences as these occur
over and over again--'And every man with whom was found' so-and-so
'brought it'; 'And all the women did spin with their hands, and
brought that which they had spun'; 'And the rulers brought' so-and-
so. Such statements embody the very plain truism that what we have
settles what we are bound to give. Or, to put it into grander words,
capacity is the measure of duty. Our work is cut out for us by the
faculties and opportunities that God has given us.
That is a very easy thing to say, but it is an uncommonly hard thing
honestly to apply. For there are plenty of people that are smitten
with very unusual humility whenever you begin to talk to them about
work. 'It is not in my way,' 'I am not capable of that kind of
service,' and so on, and so on. One would believe in the genuineness
of the excuse more readily if there were anything about which such
people said, 'Well, I _can_ do that, at all events'; but such
an all-round modesty, which is mostly observable when service is
called for, is suspicious. It might be well for some of these
retiring and idle Christians to remember the homely wisdom of 'You
never know what you can do till you try.' On the other hand, there
are many Christians who, for want of honest looking into their own
power, for want of what I call sanctified originality, are content
to run in the ruts that other people's vehicles have made, without
asking themselves whether that is the gauge that their wheels are
fit for. Both these sets of people flagrantly neglect the plain law
that what we have settles what we should give.
The form as well as the measure of our service is determined
thereby. 'She hath done what she could,' said Jesus Christ about
Mary. We often read that, as if it were a kind of apology for a
sentimental and useless gift, because it was the best that she could
bestow. I do not hear that tone in the words at all. I hear, rather,
this, that duty is settled by faculty, and that nobody else has any
business to interfere with that which a Christian soul, all aflame
with the love of God, finds to be the spontaneous and natural
expression of its devotion to the Master. The words are the
vindication of the form of loving service; but let us not forget
that they are also a very stringent requirement as to its measure,
if it is to please Christ. 'What she could'; the engine must be
worked up to the last ounce of pressure that it will stand. All must
be got out of it that can be got out of it. Is that the case about
us? We talk about hard work for Christ. Have any of us ever, worked
up to the edge of our capacity? I am afraid that if the principles
that lie in this catalogue were applied to us, whether about our
gold and silver, or about our more precious spiritual and mental
possessions, _we_ could not say, 'Every man with whom was
found' this, that, and the other, 'brought it for the work.'
III. Notice, again, how in this list of offerings there comes out
the great thought of the infinite variety of forms of service and
offering, which are all equally needful and equally acceptable.
The list begins with 'bracelets, and earrings, and rings, and
tablets, all jewels of gold.' And then it goes on to 'blue, and
purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and red skins of rams, and
badgers' skins, and shittim wood.' And then we read that the 'women
did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun'--namely,
the same things as have been already catalogued, 'the blue,
and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen.' That looks as if the
richer gave the raw material, and the women gave the labour. Poor
women! they could not give, but they could spin. They had no stores,
but they had ten fingers and a distaff, and if some neighbour found
the stuff, the ten fingers joyfully set the distaff twirling, and
spun the yarn for the weavers. Then there were others who willingly
undertook the rougher work of spinning, not dainty thread for the
rich soft stuffs whose colours were to glow in the sanctuary, but
the coarse black goat's hair which was to be made into the heavy
covering of the roof of the tabernacle. No doubt it was less
pleasant labour than the other, but it got done by willing hands.
And then, at the end of the whole enumeration, there comes, 'And the
rulers brought precious stones, and spices, and oil,' and all the
expensive things that were needed. The large subscriptions are at
the bottom of the list, and the smaller ones are in the place of
honour. All this just teaches us this--what a host of things of all
degrees of preciousness in men's eyes go to make God's great
So various were the requirements of the work on hand. Each man's
gift was needed, and each in its place was equally necessary. The
jewels on the high-priest's breastplate were no more nor less
essential than the wood that made some peg for a curtain, or than
the cheap goat's-hair yarn that was woven into the coarse cloth
flung over the roof of the Tabernacle to keep the wet out. All had
equal consecration, because all made one whole. All was equally
precious, if all was given with the same spirit. So there is room
for all sorts of work in Christ's great house, where there are not
only 'vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth,'
and all 'unto honour ... meet for the Master's use.' The smallest
deed that co-operates to a great end is great. 'The more feeble are
necessary.' Every one may find a corner where his special possession
will work into the general design. If I have no jewels to give, I
can perhaps find some shittim wood, or, if I cannot manage even
that, I can at least spin some other person's yarn, even though I
have only a distaff, and not a loom to weave it in. Many of us can
do work only when associated with others, and can render best
service by helping some more highly endowed. But all are needed, and
welcomed, and honoured, and rewarded. The owner of all the slaves
sets one to be a water-carrier, and another to be his steward. It is
of little consequence whether the servant be Paul or Timothy, the
Apostle or the Apostle's helper. 'He worketh the work of the Lord,
as I also do,' said the former about the latter. All who are
associated in the same service are on one level.
I remember once being in the treasury of a royal palace. There was a
long gallery in which the Crown valuables were stored. In one
compartment there was a great display of emeralds, and diamonds, and
rubies, and I know not what, that had been looted from some Indian
rajah or other. And in the next case there lay a common quill pen,
and beside it a little bit of discoloured coarse serge. The pen had
signed some important treaty, and the serge was a fragment of a flag
that had been borne triumphant from a field where a nation's
destinies had been sealed. The two together were worth a farthing at
the outside, but they held their own among the jewels, because they
spoke of brain-work and bloodshed in the service of the king. Many
strangely conjoined things lie side by side in God's jewel-cases.
Things which people vulgarly call large and valuable, and what
people still more vulgarly call small and worthless, have a way of
getting together there. For in that place the arrangement is not
according to what the thing would fetch if it were sold, but what
was the thought in the mind and the emotion in the heart which gave
it. Jewels and camel's hair yarn and gold and silver are all massed
together. Wood is wanted for the Temple quite as much as gold and
silver and precious stones.
So, whatever we have, let us bring that; and whatever we are, let us
bring that. If we be poor and our work small, and our natures
limited, and our faculties confined, it does not matter. A man is
accepted 'according to that he hath, and not according to that he
hath not.' God does not ask how much we have given or done, if we
have given or done what we could. But He does ask how much we have
kept back, and takes strict account of the unsurrendered
possessions, the unimproved opportunities, the unused powers. He
gives much who gives all, though his all be little; he gives little
who gives a part, though the part be much. The motive sanctifies the
act, and the completeness of the consecration magnifies it. 'Great'
and 'small' are not words for God's Kingdom, in which the standard
is not quantity but quality, and quality is settled by the purity of
the love which prompts the deed, and the consequent thoroughness of
self-surrender which it expresses. Whoever serves God with a whole
heart will render to Him a whole strength, and will thus bring Him
the gifts which He most desires.
THE COPIES OF THINGS IN THE HEAVENS
'And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2. On the first
day of the first month shalt thou set up the tabernacle
of the tent of the congregation. 3. And thou shalt put
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