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XXIV. AN ANCIENT HEBREW CUSTOM

 

"Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not; but a body hast thou prepared me." - HEBREWS x. 5.

 

 

IN that old Hebrew world that lies now so far back in the dim twilight of the past, there were several customs, of more than transient interest, one of which claims our thought as it glistens for a moment beneath the touch of this Epistle, as a wave far out to sea, when smitten for a moment by the sunlight.

It appears that if an Israelite, through the stress of bad seasons and disappointing harvests, were to fall into deep arrears to some rich neighboring creditor-so much so that he owed him even more than the land of his inheritance was worth-he was permitted not only to alienate his land till the year of jubilee, but to sell his own service so as to work out his debt. It must have been a very painful thing for the peasant proprietor to say farewell to his humble home and endeared possessions, in which his forefathers had lived and thriven, and to go forth into the service of another. Very affecting must have been the farewell walk around the tiny plot, which he and his might not live to revisit. And yet the bitterness of the separation must have been greatly mitigated and lessened by the instant freedom from anxiety which ensued. No more dark forebodings for the future; no eager questioning of how to keep the wolf from the door; no unequal struggle with the adverse seasons. All responsibility-for the payment of other creditors, for supplies of food and clothing for himself and his wife and children-from henceforth must rest on the shoulders of another.

So the appointed six years passed away, and at their close the master would call the laborer into his presence, to give him his discharge. But at that moment he might, if he chose, bind himself to that master's service forever. If he shrank from facing the storms of poverty and difficulty; if he preferred the shelter and plenty of his master's home to the struggle for existence from which he had been so happily shielded; if, above all, he loved his master, and desired not to be separated from him again, he was at liberty to say so" I love my master, I will not go out free." Then, solemnly, and before the judges, that the choice was deliberately ratified, his master bored his ear through with an awl to the doorpost, leaving a permanent and indelible impression of the relationship into which they had entered. "And he shall serve him forever" (Exod. xxi. 6). This custom was-

 

ALLUDED TO BY THE PSALMIST (Psalm xl. 6). Living amid the routine of daily, monthly, and yearly sacrifices, this saint felt deeply their inability to take away sin, and saw that the true offering to God must be of another kind. What could he do adequately to express his sense of the wonderful works and countless thoughts of God! Surely the offered sacrifice of flour or blood, the burnt-offering or sin offering could not be the highest expression of human love and devotion; and then he bethought him of a more excellent way. He will come to God, bearing in his hand the volume of the book of his will; his heart shall dote upon that holy transcript of his Father's character; yea, he will translate its precepts into prompt and loving obedience. "I delight to do thy will, my God; yea, thy law is within my heart." " This shall please the Lord better than an ox or bullock that hath horns and hoofs."

Nor is this all; recalling the ancient usage to which we have alluded, he imagines himself repeating the vow of the Hebrew bond-servant, and standing meekly and voluntarily at God's door, while his ear is bored to it forever. Henceforth he may almost cry with the Apostle, "From henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus." "Mine ears hast thou bored." "Truly I am thy servant, thou hast loosed my bonds."

We need not wonder at the glad outburst which succeeds (ver. io). As with emphatic and repeated phrase the Psalmist avows his intention of telling the great congregation his discoveries of the love of God, we can well understand the reason of his exultation. There is no life so free as that which has escaped all other masters in becoming the bond-slave of Jesus. There is no nature so exuberant with joy and peace unspeakable as that which has felt the stab of the awl, has been tinged with the blood of self-sacrifice for his dear sake, and has passed through the open doorway to go out nevermore. There is no rest so unutterable as that which knows no further care; since all care has been once and forever laid on him who can alone bear the pressure of sorrow and sin, responsibility and need.

 

APPROPRIATED BY THE LORD JESUS. In his incarnation our blessed Lord has realized all the noblest aspirations and assertions which had ever been spoken by the lips of his most illustrious saints. The very words used by them can, therefore, be literally appropriated by him, without exaggeration, save where they falter with the broken confessions of sin and mortal weakness. Amongst others, when he came into the world, he could take up those olden words of the Fortieth Psalm, and, through them, fulfill the meaning of the ancient Hebrew custom.

The sacrifices of Leviticus had served a very necessary purpose in familiarizing men with the thoughts of God as to the true aspect in which our Saviour's death was to be viewed; but it was evident that they could not exhaust his idea, or fill up the measure of his redeeming purpose. His will went far beyond them all, and, therefore, they could not be other than incomplete; and, on account of their very incompleteness, they needed incessant repetition; and even then, though repeated for centuries, they could not accomplish the purposes on which the divine nature was set. As well fill up the ocean with cartloads of soil, as accomplish the measure of God's will by the blood of bulls and goats.

But when Jesus came into the world he at once set himself to accomplish that holy will. This was his constant cry: "Lo, I come to do thy will, God! "And he not only essayed to do God's will in every minute particular and detail of his life, but especially where it touched the removal of sin, the redemption of men, the sanctification and perfecting of those who believe. It was to accomplish God's will in these respects that the Saviour died on the cross. And it is because he perfectly succeeded, cutting out the entire pattern of the divine mind in the cloth of his obedience, that the ineffective sacrifices of Judaism have been put an end to; whilst his own sacrifice has not required the addition of a single sigh or tear or hour of darkness or thrill of agony. By the offering of his body once for all we have been sanctified, i.e., our judicial standing before God is completely satisfactory. And by one offering he bath perfected forever them that are being sanctified, i.e., he has accomplished all the objective work of our redemption in such wise as that in him we stand before God as accepted saints, though much more has yet to be done in our subjective inward experience (Heb. x. 10, 14).

The entire submission of our Lord to his Father's will comes out very sweetly in a slight change here made in quoting the ancient Psalm. It may be that some older version, or various reading, is given, with the sanction of the divine Spirit. Instead of saying "Mine ear hast thou opened," the Lord is represented as saying, "A body hast thou prepared for me." In point of fact, though the ear carried the body with it, because it is notoriously difficult to move hand or foot so long as the ear is a captive, yet the Hebrew slave only gave his ear to the piercing awl in token of his surrender. But our Lord Jesus gave, not his ear only, but his whole body, in every faculty and power. He held nothing back, but yielded to God the Father the entirety of that body which was prepared for him by the Holy Ghost in the mystery of the holy incarnation. Ah! blessed is our lot, that God's holy redemptive purpose has been so utterly and so efficiently fulfilled, through the offering of that body once for all nailed, not to the doorpost, but to the cross.

 

APPLICABLE TO OURSELVES. There is a strong demand amongst God's people in the present day for that "more abundant life" which the Good Shepherd came to bestow. Out of this demand is springing a mighty movement, which if it obey the following rules and conditions, will surely be a blessing to the Church.

 

It must be natural. The saintliness that cannot romp and laugh with little children, and looks askance on the great movements in the world around, and shuts itself up in cloistered seclusion, is not the ideal of Jesus Christ, who watched the children playing in the market places, and called them to his arms, and mingled freely at the dinner-tables of the rich. It is easier, perhaps, than his, but it is a profound mistake to suppose that it will satisfy his heart. No; the saintliness of the true saint must find its home in the ordinary homes and haunts of men.

 

It must be humble. Directly a man begins to boast of what he has attained, you may be sure that he makes up in talk for what he lacks in vital experience. The tone with which some speak of perfection indicates how far they are from it. To brag of sinlessness is to yield to pride, the worst of sins. No face truly shines so long as its owner wists it. No heart is childlike which is conscious of itself.

 

It must lay stress on the objective side of Christ's work. There must be introspection for the detection and removal of anything that lies between the soul and God; just as there must be sometimes a discharge of gunpowder to dislodge the accumulated soot of a foul chimney. But when the necessary work of introspection and confession is over, there should be an instant return to God, with the devout outlook of the soul on the person and work of the Lord Jesus. We must never encourage the introspection, except with the view of a more uninterrupted vision of Jesus.

If these three conditions are complied with, the movement now afoot cannot but be fraught with blessing to the universal Church; and it will probably have the effect of leading multitudes to pass through an experience like that indicated in the Psalm. Previously they may have acted merely from a sense of legalism and duty, giving sacrifices and offerings as appointed by the law. But from the glad hour that they realize all the claims of Jesus on their emancipated and surrendered natures, they will exclaim, "We love our Master; we will not go out free; bore our ears to his door, that we may serve him forever; we delight to do his will; his law is within our hearts; we are eager to do all things written in the roll of the book of his will."

Have you ever uttered words like these? Has your life been only a monotonous round of unavoidable service, of which the key-word has been "must"? Alas! you have not as yet tasted how easy is his yoke, how light his burden. But if only from this moment you would open your whole heart to the work of the Holy Spirit, yielding fully to him, he would shed the love of God abroad within you, kindling your love to him; and, at once, you would do from love what you have done from law: you would be so knit to Christ that you would not be free from him, even though you could do without him; you would have forever the scar of the slavery of Jesus wrought into your very nature.

There is nothing in the world that gives so much rest to the soul as to do the will of God; whether it speaks on the page of Scripture, or through the inspirations of the Holy Spirit within the shrine of the heart, or in the daily routine of ordinary or extraordinary Providence. If only we could always say, "I delight to do thy will; I come, I come!" if only we could offer up to God, as Jesus did, the bodies which he has prepared for us, though to the very bitterness of the cross, if only we were as intent on finishing the work given us to do by him, as men are in achieving the ends of personal ambition: then the spirit of heaven, where the will of God is done, would engird our barren, weary lives, as the Gulf Stream some wintry shore, dispelling the frost and mantling the soil with flowers of fairest texture and fruits of Paradise. Do not try to feel the will of God: will it, choose it, obey it; and as time goes on, what you commenced by choosing you will end by loving with ardent and even vehement affection.

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