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CHAPTER XLII.

THE THEOPHANY AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE.

1 Kings xix. 9-15.

"Who heardest the rebuke of the Lord in Sinai, and in Horeb the judgment of vengeance."—Ecclus. xlviii. 7.

Throughout the Scriptures infinite care is taken to preclude every notion that the Most High God can be represented in visible form. He manifested Himself at Sinai to the children of Israel, but though the mount burned with fire, and there were clouds and thick darkness, and the voice of a trumpet speaking long and loud, the people were reminded with the utmost solemnity that "they saw no manner of similitude."685685   Deut. iv. 12, 15, (comp. v. 4, 22, 23). Of Moses, on the other hand, it is said, "the similitude of the Lord shall he behold" (Numb. xii. 8; Exod. xxxiii. 11; Deut. xxxiv. 10). Indeed, in later times, when there was a keener jealousy of every anthropomorphic expression, the giving of the law is rather represented as a part of the ministry of angels. The word Makom, or "Place," is substituted for Jehovah, so that Moses and the elders and the Israelites do not see God but only His Makom, the space which He fills;686686   מָקוֹם, τόπος, "place," was a sort of recognised euphemism for God in Rabbinic and Alexandrian exegesis. Thus, in Exod. xxiv. 10, for "they saw the God of Israel," the LXX. have εἷδον τὸν τόπον οὗ εἱστήκει ὁ θεός. Philo says, "God Himself is called Place" (De Somn., i. 525). Rabbi Isaac says, "God is not in Makom, but Makom is in God." See my Bampton Lectures on Hist. of Interpretation, p. 120; Early Days of Christianity, i. 261. the delivery of the432 law is ascribed to angelic ministers. At times the angels are almost identified with the careering flames and rushing winds which a modern theologian describes to us as being "the skirts of their garments, the waving of their robes"; for is it not written, "He that maketh the winds His angels and the flaming fires His ministers"?687687   Psalm civ. 4; Heb. i. 7. This intermediacy of angels is prominently alluded to in Acts vii. 53; Gal. iii. 19; Heb. ii. 2, 3; Deut. xxxiii. 2; Psalm lxviii. 17. And in the daring description of Jehovah's visible manifestation of Himself to Moses, when He hid him in that fissure of the rock with the hollow of His hand, Moses only observes as it were the fringe and evanishment of His glory, "dark with excessive light."

It was natural that Jehovah should reveal Himself to Elijah under the aspect of those awful elemental forces with which his solitary life had made him familiar. No spot in the world is more suitable for those powers in all their fire and magnificence than the knot of mountains which crowd the Sinaitic peninsula with their entangled cliffs. Travellers have borne witness to the overwhelming violence and majesty of the storms which rush and reverberate through the granite gorges of those everlasting hills. It was in such surroundings that Jehovah spoke to the heart of his servant.

First "a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks, before the Lord."688688   The anthropomorphism which the Targumists disliked vanishes in the Chaldee: "And before Him was a host of angels of the wind rending the mountains, and breaking the rocks, before the Lord but the Shechinah was not in the hosts of the angels of the wind, and after the hosts of the angels of the wind was the host of the angel of the earthquake, etc." The433 winds of God, which blow where they list, and we know not whence they come nor whither they go, have in them so awful and irresistible a strength, that man and the works of man, are reduced to impotence before them. And when they rush and roar through the gullies of innumerable hills in tropic lands where the intense heat has rarefied the air, the sound of them is beyond all comparison weird and terrific. We cannot wonder that this roar of the hurricane was regarded as the trump of the archangel and the voice of God at Sinai; or that the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind;689689   Job xxxviii. 1, xl. 6. and appeared to Ezekiel in a great cloud and a whirlwind out of the north;690690   Ezek. i. 4. or that Jeremiah compared His anger to a whirling and sweeping storm;691691   Jer. xxiii. 19, 20, xxv. 32, xxx. 23. or that the Psalmist describes Him as bowing the heavens and coming down and casting darkness under His feet, and flying upon a cherub, and walking upon the wings of the wind;692692   Psalms xviii. 10, civ. 3, 5. or that Nahum says, "The Lord hath His way in the whirlwind and the storm, and the clouds are the dust of His feet, ... and the mountains quake at Him."693693   Nahum i. 3, 5.

And Elijah felt the terror of the scene, as the storm dislodged huge masses of the mountain granite, and sent them rolling and crashing down the hills. But it did not speak to his inmost heart: for

"The Lord was not in the wind."

And after the wind an earthquake shook the solid434 bases of the Sinaitic range. The mountain saw God and trembled. The Lord, in the language of the Psalmist, shook the wilderness of Kadesh, the mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like young sheep.694694   Psalm xviii. 7, lxxvii. 18, xcvii. 4; Judg. v. 4; 2 Sam. xxii. 8. And man never feels so abjectly helpless, he is never reduced to such absolute insignificance, as when the solid earth beneath him, the very emblem of stability, trembles as with a palsy, and cleaves beneath his feet; and shakes his towers to the earth, and swallows up his cities. Once more the soul of Elijah shuddered at the terrific impression of this sign of Jehovah's power. But it had no message for his inmost heart: for

"The Lord was not in the earthquake."

And after the earthquake a fire. Jehovah overwhelmed the Prophet's senses with the dread magnificence of one of those lurid thunderstorms of which the terrors are never so tremendous as in such mountain scenes, where travellers tell us that the burning air seems transfused into sheets of flame. In that awful muttering and roar of the lurid clouds, that millionfold reverberation of what the Psalmist calls "the voice of the Lord," when the lightnings "light the world, and run along the ground," and, in the language of Habakkuk, "God sends abroad His arrows, and the light of His glittering spear, and burning coals go forth under His feet, the lips of man quiver at the voice, and his heart sinks, and he trembles where he stands." And this, too, Elijah must have felt as "the hiding-place of God's power:"695695   Hab. iii. 3-16. and yet it did not speak to his inmost heart; for

"The Lord was not in the fire."

"And after the fire a still small voice."

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However the rendering may be altered into "a gentle murmuring sound," or, as in the Revised Version, "a sound of gentle stillness," no expression is more full of the awe and mystery of the original than the phrase "a still small voice."696696   1 Kings xix. 12; LXX., φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς; Vulg., Sibilus auræ tenuis; Chaldee, "a voice of angels singing in silence." It was the shock of awful stillness which succeeded the sudden cessation of the earthquake and hurricane and thunderstorm, and instantly, in it appalling hush and gentleness, Elijah felt that God was there; and he no sooner heard that voiceful silence speaking within him than he was filled with fear and self-abasement. He wrapped his face in his mantle, even as Moses "was afraid to look upon God." He came from the hollow of the rock which had sheltered him amidst that turbulence of material forces, and stood in the entering in of the cave.

At once the silence became articulate to his conscience, and repeated to him the reproachful question, "What doest thou here, Elijah?"

Amazed and overwhelmed as he is, he has not yet grasped the meaning of the vision. Something of it perhaps he saw and felt. It breathed something of peace into the despair and tumult of his heart, but he still can only answer as before:—

"I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: because the children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars, and slain Thy prophets with the sword; and I, I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away."

Whatever that theophany had taught him, it had not yet fully removed his perplexity. But now God, in tender forbearance, unfolds at any rate the practical issue of the vision. Elijah is to be inactive no longer.436 He is to find in faithfulness and work the removal of all doubts, and is to learn that man may not abandon his duties, even when they are irksome, even when they seem hopeless, even when they have become intolerable and full of peril. He has to learn that it is only when men have finished their day's work that God sends them sleep, and that his own day's work was as yet unfinished. He is no longer to linger in the wilderness apart from the ways of guilty and suffering men. He is one with them: he may not separate his destiny from theirs; he has to feel that God has no favourites and is no respecter of persons, but that all men are His children, and that each child of His must work for all. "Go," the Lord said unto him, "return on thy way by the wilderness to Damascus." Did the return involve unknown dangers? Still he must commit his way unto the Lord, and simply be doing good, regardless of all consequences. The saints of the Old Dispensation no less than of the New had to go forth bearing their cross, and on their way to Golgotha.

Three missions still awaited him.

First, he is to supersede the old dynasty of Benhadad, King of Syria, founded by Solomon's enemy, and to anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.

Next, he is to abolish the dynasty of Omri, and to anoint Jehu, the son of Nimshi, to be king over Israel.697697   Jehu was the grandson of Nimshi, and was the son of Jehoshaphat (2 Kings ix. 2).

Thirdly—and there was deep significance in this behest, and one which must have humiliated to the dust the risings of pride and the half-reproach, so to speak, for inadequate support which had underlain his appeal to Jehovah—he is to anoint Elisha, the son of Shaphat, of Abel-meholah, to be prophet in his room.

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Elijah had thought himself necessary—an indispensable agent for the task of delivering Israel from the guilty and demoralising apostasy of Baal-worship. God teaches him that there is no such thing as a necessary man; that man at his best estate is altogether vanity; that God is all in all; that "God buries His workmen, but continues His work."

And something of the meaning of these tasks is explained to him. The people of Israel are not yet converted. They still needed the hand of chastisement. The three years' drought had been ineffectual to wean them from their backslidings, and turn their hearts again to the Lord. On the royal house and on the worshippers of Baal should fall the remorseless sword of Jehu. On the whole nation the ruthless invasions of Hazael should press with terrible penalty. And him that escaped from their avenging missions should Elisha slay. The last clause is enigmatical. Elisha can hardly be said directly to have slain any. He lived, on the whole, in friendship with the kings both of Israel and of Aram, and in peace and honour in the cities. But the general idea seems to be that he would carry on the mission of Elijah alike for the guidance and the heaven-directed punishments of kings and nations, and that the famines, raids, and humiliations which rendered his nation miserable under the sons of Ahab should be elements of his sacred mission.698698   Isa. xi. 4, xlix. 2; comp. Jer. i. 10, xviii. 7.

One more revelation remained to lift the Prophet above his lower self. His cry had been, again and again: "I, I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away." He must not indulge the mistaken fancy that the worship of the true God would die with438 him, or that God needed his advice, or that God was slack concerning His promise as some men count slackness. He was not the only faithful person left, nor would truth perish when he was called away. Nor is he to judge only by outward appearances, nor to suppose that the arm of God can be measured by the finger of man. A new prophet is soon to take his place, but God has not been so neglectful as he supposes,—"Yet," in spite of all thy murmurings of failure and a frustrated purpose—"yet will I leave Me"—not thee, thee only—"but seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which has not kissed him."699699   Comp. Rom. xii. 5. Kissing images was a sign of idolatry then as it is now. The foot of the statue of St. Peter in Rome is worn away with kisses. Hosea xiii. 2 tells us of the custom of kissing the calves. Comp. Psalm ii. 12. Cicero tells us that the lovely brazen statue of Hercules at Agrigentum had the mouth and chin partly worn away by the kisses of the devout (in Verr., iv. 43).

It has been regarded as a difficulty that Elijah fulfilled but one of the three behests. But Scripture does not narrate events with the finical and pragmatic accuracy of modern annals. Elisha, directly or indirectly, caused both Jehu to be anointed and Hazael to ascend the throne of Syria, and we are left to infer that in these deeds he carried out the instructions of his Master.

It is a more serious question, What was the exact meaning of the theophany granted to Elijah on the Mount of God?

Here, too, we are left to large and liberal applications. The greatest utterances of men, the loftiest works of human genius, often admit of manifold interpretations, and lend themselves to "springing and germinal developments." Far more is this the case in the439 revelations of God to the spirit of man. We can see the main truths which were involved in that mighty scene, even if the narrator of it leaves unexplained its central significance.

It is usually interpreted as a reproof to the spirit which led Elijah to regard the tempestuous manifestations of wrath and vengeance as the normal methods of the interposition of God. He was fresh from the stern challenge of Carmel; his hands were yet red with the blood of those four hundred and fifty priests. It was perhaps needful for him to learn that God's gentler agencies are more effectual and more expressive of His inmost nature, and that God is Love even though He can by no means clear the guilty. Something of this lesson has been at all times learnt from the narrative.700700   Herder, who was a devout poet, and therefore a true imaginative interpreter of devout poetry, says: "The vision was to show the fiery zeal of the Prophet that would amend everything by the storm, the mild process of God, and proclaim His longsuffering tender nature as previously the voice did to Moses: hence the scene was so beautifully changed." Long before him the wise Theodoret had said: Διὰ δὲ τούτων ἔδειξεν ὅτι μακροθυμία καὶ φιλανθρωπία μόνη φίλη Θεῷ. Irenæus, still earlier (c. Hær., iv. 27), saw in the vision an emblem of the difference between the law and the gospel; and Grotius, following him, says, "Evangelii figuratio, quod non venit cum vento, terræ motu, et fulminibus ut lex," Exod. xix. 16 (see Keil, ad loc., whose illustrations are often valuable when his exegesis is false and obsolete).

"The raging fire, the roaring wind,

Thy boundless power display;

But in the gentler breeze we find

Thy Spirit's viewless way.

"The dew of heaven is like Thy grace,

It steals in silence down;

But where it lights, the favoured place

By richest fruits is known."

Quite naturally men have always seen in the storm,440 the earthquake, and the fire, the presence of God as manifested in His wrath. "Then the earth shook and trembled," says the Psalmist; "the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because He was wroth. There went up a smoke in His nostrils, and fire out of His mouth devoured: coals burnt forth from it. He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under His feet. And He rode upon a cherub, and swooped down: yea, He did fly upon the wings of the wind."701701   Psalm xviii. 7-9; comp. 2 Sam. xxii. 8-11. "I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, at the wrath of the Lord."702702   Isa. xiii. 13. "Thou shalt be visited," says Isaiah, "of the Lord of Hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire."703703   Isa. xxix. 6; comp. Ecclus. xxxix. 28. On the other hand, in His mercy God "maketh the storm a calm." When He reveals Himself in a vision of the night to Eliphaz the Temanite "a wind passed before my face, so that the hair of my head stood up, and there was silence, and I heard a voice saying, Shall mortal man be great before God? shall a man be pure before his Maker?" These passages in no small measure explain the symbolism of Elijah's vision, and point to its essential significance. Who can measure (asks Mr. Ruskin) the total effect produced upon the minds of men by the phenomenon of a single thunderstorm?—"the questioning of the forest leaves together in their terrified stillness which way the wind shall come—the murmuring together of the Angels of Destruction as they draw in the distance their swords of flame—the rattling of the dome of heaven under the chariot wheels of death?"441 Yet it is not the thunderstorms nor the hurricanes that have been most powerful in altering the face or moulding the structure of the world, but rather the long continuance of Nature's most gentle influences.

Viewing the vision thus, we may say that it pointed forward to that transcendently greater than Elijah who did not strive, nor cry, nor was His voice heard in the streets. "There is already a gospel of Elijah. He, the farthest removed of all the Prophets from the evangelical spirit and character, had yet enshrined in the heart of his story the most forcible of all protests against the hardness of Judaism, the noblest anticipation of the breadth and depth of Christianity." This view of the passage is taken, with slight modifications, by many, from Irenæus down to Grotius and Calvin, and modern commentators.

Similarly it is a universal law of history that, while some mighty and tumultuous energy may be needed to initiate the first movement or upheaval, the greatest work is done by gentler agencies. As in the old fable, the quiet shining of the sun effects more than the bluster of the storm. Love is stronger than force, and persuasion than compulsion. Mr. J. S. Mill treats it not only as a platitude but as a falsity to assert that truth cannot be suppressed by violence. He says that (for instance) the truths brought into prominence by the Reformation had been again and again suppressed by the brutal tyrannies of the Papacy. But in all these instances has not the truth ultimately prevailed? Is it not a fact of experience that

"Truth, pressed to earth shall rise again,

The eternal years of God are hers;

But error, wounded, writhes in pain

And dies among her worshippers"?

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The truth prevails and the error dies under the slow light of knowledge and by the long results of time.

Nor is it any answer to this view of the revelation to Elijah on the Mount of God that there is not the slightest proof of his having learnt any such lesson, or of such a lesson having been deduced from it by the narrator himself. Neither Elijah, it has been said, nor the writer of the Book of Kings, felt the smallest regret for the avenging deed of Carmel. Their consciences approved of it. They looked on it with pride, not with compunction. This is shown by the subsequently recorded story of Elijah's calling down fire from heaven on the unfortunate captains and soldiers of Ahaziah, in whatever light we regard that story which was evidently current in the Schools of the Prophets. If the massacre of the priests cannot be regarded as morally excusable, the destruction of these royal emissaries by consuming fire was certainly much less so. The vision may have had a deeper significance than Elijah or the Schools of the Prophets understood, just as the words of Jesus often had a deeper significance than was dreamt of even by the Apostles when they heard them. The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. Neither Elijah nor the sacred historian may have grasped all that was meant by the wind, and earthquake, and fire, and still small voice.

"As little children sleep and dream of heaven,

So thoughts beyond their thoughts to those high bards were given."

It is scarcely more than another aspect of the many-sided truth that love is more potent and more Divine than violence, if we also see in this incident a foreshadowing of the truth, so necessary for the impatient443 souls of men that God neither hasteth nor resteth; that He is patient because Eternal; that a thousand years in His sight are but as yesterday, seeing that it is past as a dream in the night. Something of this we learn from the study of nature. It used to be thought that the upheaval of the continents and the rearing of the great mountains was due to cataclysms and conflagrations and vast explosions of volcanic force. It has long been known that they are due, on the contrary, to the inconceivably slow modifications produced by the most insignificant causes. It is the age-long accumulation of mica-flakes which has built up the mighty bastions of the Alps. It is the toil of the ephemeral coral insect which has reared whole leagues of the American Continent and filled the Pacific Ocean with those unnumbered isles

"Which, like to rich and various gems, inlay

The unadorned bosom of the deep."

It is the slow silting up of the rivers which has created vast deltas for the home of man. It has required the calcareous deposit of millions of animalculæ to produce even one inch of the height of the white cliffs along the shores. Even so the thoughts of man have been made more merciful in the slow course of ages, and quiet, incommensurable influences have caused all those advances in civilisation and humanity which elevate our race. The "bright invisible air" has produced effects incomparably more stupendous than the wild tornadoes. "That air, so gentle, so imperceptible, is more powerful, not only than all the creatures that breathe and live by it, not only than all the oaks of the forest which it rears in an age and shatters in a moment, not only than the monsters of the sea, but than the sea444 itself, which it tosses up with foam and breaks upon every rock in its vast circumference; for it carries in its bosom all perfect calm, and compresses the incontrollable ocean and the peopled earth, like an atom of a feather."704704   W. S. Landor.

"Thus regarded," says Professor Van Oort, "the picture of Elijah at Mount Horeb is full of consolation to all lovers of the truth. Sometimes they cry, All is lost! and are ready to despair. But God answers, Never lose heart. Storms in which God is not, in which the power of darkness seems to sweep unbridled and unconquered o'er the earth, come before the whispering of the cooling breeze, but the kingdom of peace and blessedness is ever drawing nigh. Let all who love God truly, work for its 'approach.'"

Let us then cling to the lesson that mercy is better than sacrifice, and is transcendently to be preferred to holocausts of human sacrifice, even when the victims are polluted and cruel idolaters. Scripture never hides from us the imperfections of its heroes, and St. James tells us that Elijah was but a man of like passions with ourselves. The progress of the generations, the slow shining of the light of God, has not been in vain, and we can see truths and read the meaning of theophanies by the experience of three subsequent millenniums, of which two have followed the incarnation of the Son of God.


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