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DEBORAH'S SONG: A CHANT OF PATRIOTISM.
We have already considered the song of Deborah as a declaration of God's working more broad and spiritual than might be looked for in that age. We now regard it as exhibiting different relations of men to the Divine purpose. There is a religious spirit in the whole movement here described. It begins in a revival of faith and obedience, prospers despite the coldness and opposition of many, grows in force and enthusiasm as it proceeds and finally is crowned with success. The church is militant in a literal sense; yet, fighting with carnal weapons, it is really contending for the glory of the Unseen King. There is a close parallel between the enterprise of Deborah and Barak and that which opens before the church of the present time. No forced accommodation is needed to gather from the song lessons of different kinds for our guidance and warning in the campaign of Christianity.
Here are Deborah herself, a mother in Israel, and the leaders who take their places at the head of the armies of God. Here also are the people willingly offering themselves, imperilling their lives for religion and freedom. The history of the past and the vision of Jehovah as sole Ruler of nature and providence encourage121 the faithful, who rise out of lethargy and leave the by-ways of life to take the field in battle array. The levies of Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, Issachar and Naphtali represent those who are decisively Christian, ready to hazard all for the gospel's sake. But Reuben sits among the sheepfolds and listens to the pipings for the flocks, Dan remains in ships, Asher at the haven of the sea; and these may stand for the self-cultivating self-serving professors of religion. Jabin and Sisera again are established opponents of the right cause; they are brave in their own defence; their positions look most formidable, their battalions shake the ground. But the stars from heaven, the floods of Kishon, are only a small part of the forces of the King of heaven; and the soul of Israel marches on in strength till the enemy is routed. Meroz practically helps the foe. Those who dwell within its walls are doubtful of the issue and will not risk their lives; the curse of sullen apostasy falls upon them. Jael is a vivid type of the unscrupulous helpers of a good cause, those who employing the weapons and methods of the world would fain be servants of that kingdom in which nothing base, nothing earthly can have place. And there are the children of the hour, the fine ladies of Harosheth whose pleasure and pride are bound up with oppression, who look through the lattices and listen in vain for the returning chariots laden with spoil.
1. The leaders and head men of the tribes under Deborah and Barak, Deborah foremost in the great enterprise, her soul on fire with zeal for Israel and for God.
Deborah and Barak show throughout that spirit of cordial agreement, that frank support of each other122 which at all times are so much to be desired in religious leaders. There is no jealousy, no striving for pre-eminence. Barak is a brave man, but he will not stir without the prophetess; he is quite content to give her the place of honour while he does the martial work. Deborah again would commit the task to Barak's hands in complete reliance on his wisdom and valour; yet she is ready to appear along with him, and in her song, while she claims the prophetic office, it is to Barak she renders the honours of victory—"Lead thy thraldom in thrall, thou son of Abinoam."
Rarely, it must be confessed, is there entire harmony among the leaders of affairs. Jealousy is too often with them from the first. Suspicion lurks under the council table, private ambitions and unworthy fears make confusion when each should trust and encourage another. The fine enthusiasm of a great cause does not overcome as it ought the selfishness of human nature. Moreover, varieties in disposition as between the cautious and the impetuous, the more and the less of sagacity or of faith, a failure in sincerity here, in justice there, are separating influences constantly at work. But when the pressing importance of the duties entrusted to men by God governs every will, these elements of division cease; leaders who differ in temperament are loyal to each other then, each jealous of the others' honour as servants of truth. In the Reformation, for example, prosperity was largely due to the fact that two such men as Luther and Melanchthon, very different yet thoroughly united, stood side by side in the thick of the conflict, Luther's impetuosity moderated by the calmer spirit of the other, Melanchthon's craving for peace kept from dangerous concession by the boldness of his friend. Their mutual love and fidelity123 showed the nobleness of both, showed also what the Protestant Gospel was. Their differences melted away in enthusiasm for the Word of God, which one thought of as a celestial ambrosia, the other as a sword, a war, a destruction springing upon the children of Ephraim like a lioness in the forest. The Divine work was the life of each; each in his own way sought with splendid earnestness to forward the truth of Christ.
Church leaders are responsible for not a little which they themselves condemn. Differences do not quickly arise among disciples when the teachers are modest, honourable, and brotherly. Paul cries, "Is Christ divided? Were ye baptized into the name of Paul? What is Apollos? What is Paul? Ministers by whom ye believed." When our leaders speak and feel in like manner there will be peace, not uniformity but something better. God's husbandry, God's building will prosper.
But it is declared to be jealousy for religion that divides—jealousy for the pure doctrine of Christ—jealousy for the true church. We try to believe it. But then why are not all in that spirit of holy jealousy found side by side as comrades, eagerly yet in cordial brotherhood discussing points of difference, determined that they will search together and help each other until they find principles in which they can all rest? The leaders of different Christian bodies do not appear like Deborah and Barak engaged in a common enterprise, but as chiefs of rival or even opposing armies. The reason is that in this church and the other there has been a foreclosing of questions, and the elected leaders are almost all men who are pledged to the tribal decrees. In the decisions of councils and synods, and not less in the deliverances of learned doctors apologising each124 for his own sect and marking out the path his party must travel, there has been ever since the days of the apostles a hardening and limiting of opinion. Thought has been prematurely crystallized and each church prides itself on its own special deposit. The true church leader should understand that a course which may have been inevitable in the past is not the virtue of to-day and that those are simply adhering to an antiquated position who affirm one church to be the sole possessor of truth, the only centre of authority. It may seem strange to advise the churches to reconsider many of the ideas built into creed and constitution and to reject all leaders who are such by credit of sitting immovable in the seats of the rabbis, but the progress of Christianity in power and assurance waits upon a new brotherliness which will bring about a new catholicity. Under guides of the right kind the churches will have qualities and distinctions as heretofore, each will be a rendezvous for spirits of a certain order, but frankly confessing each other's right and honour they will press on abreast to scale and possess the uplands of truth.
To be sure something is said of tolerance. But that is a purely political idea. Let it not be so much as named in the assembly of God's people. Does Barak tolerate Deborah? Does Moses tolerate Aaron? Does St. Peter tolerate St. Paul? The disciples of Christ tolerate each other, do they? What marvellous largeness of soul! One or two, it appears, have been made sole keepers of the ark but are prepared to tolerate the embarrassing help of well-meaning auxiliaries. Neither charity of that sort nor flabbiness of belief is asked. Let each be strongly persuaded in his own mind of that which he has learned from Christ. But where Christ has not foreclosed inquiry and where sincere125 and thoughtful believers differ there is no place for what is called tolerance; the demand is for brotherly fellowship in thought and labour.
Deborah was a mother in Israel, a nursing mother of the people in their spiritual childhood, with a mother's warm heart for the oppressed and weary flock. The nation needed a new birth, and that, by the grace of God, Deborah gave it in the sore travail of her soul. For many a year she suffered, prayed and entreated. Israel had chosen new gods and in serving them was dying to righteousness, dying to Jehovah. Deborah had to pour her own life into the half-dead, and compared to this effort the battle with the Canaanites was but a secondary matter. So is it always. The Divine task is that of the mother-like souls that labour for the quickening of faith and holy service. Great victories of Christian valour, patience and love are never won without that renewal of humanity; and everything is due to those who have guided the ignorant into knowledge, the careless to thought and the weak to strength through years of patient toil. They are not all prophets, not all known to the tribes: of many such the record waits hidden with their God until the day of revealing and rejoicing.
Yet Barak also, the Lightning Chief, has honourable part. When the men are collected, men new-born into life, he can lead them. They are Ironsides under him. He rushes down from Tabor and they at his feet with a vigour nothing can resist. If we have Deborah we shall also have Barak, his army and his victory. The promise is not for women only but for all in the private ways and obscure settlements of life who labour at the making of men. Every Christian has the responsibility and joy of helping to prepare a way for the126 coming of Jehovah in some great outburst of faith and righteousness.
2. We contrast next the people who offered themselves willingly, who "jeoparded their lives unto the death upon the high places of the field," and those who for one reason or another held aloof.
With united leaders there is a measure of unity among the tribes. Barak and Deborah summon all who are ready to strike for liberty, and there is a great muster. Yet there might be double the number. Those who refuse to take arms have many pretexts, but the real cause is want of heart. The oppression of Jabin does not much affect some Israelites, and so far as it does they would rather go on paying tribute than risk their lives, rather bear the ills they have than hazard anything in joining Barak. These holding back, the work has to be done by a comparatively small number, a remnant of the nobles and the people.
But a remnant is always found; there are men and women who do not bow the knee to the Baal of worldly fashion, who do not content their souls amid the fleshpots of low servitude. They have to venture and sacrifice much in a long and varying war, and oftentimes their flesh and heart may almost fail. But a great reward is theirs. While others are spiritless and hopeless they know the zest of life, its real power and joy. They know what believing means, how strong it makes the soul. Their all is in the spiritual kingdom which cannot be moved. God is the portion of their souls, their gladness and glory. Those who stand by and look on while the conflict rages may share to a certain extent in the liberty that is won, for the gains of Christian warfare are not limited, they are for all mankind. There is a wider and better ordered life for127 all when this evil custom and that have been overcome, when one Jabin after another ceases to oppress. Yet what is it after all to touch the border of Christian liberty? To the fighters belongs the inheritance itself, an ever-extending conquest, a land of olives and vineyards and streams of living water.
Different tribes are named that sent contingents to the army of Barak. They are typical of different churches, different orders of society that are forward in the campaign of faith. The Hebrews who came most readily at the battle call appear to have belonged to districts where the Canaanite oppression was heavy, the country that lay between Harosheth, the head-quarters of Sisera, and Hazor the city of Jabin. So in the Christian struggle of the ages the strenuous part falls to those who suffer from the tyranny of the temporal and see clearly the hopelessness of life without religion. The gospel of Christ is peculiarly precious to men and women whose lot is hard, whose earthly future is clouded. Sacrifices for God's cause are made as a rule by these. In His great purpose, in His deep knowledge of the facts of life, our Lord joined Himself to the poor and left with them a special blessing. It is not that men who dwell in comfort are independent of the gospel, but they are tempted to think themselves so. In proportion as they are fenced in amongst possessions and social claims they are apt, though devout, to miss that very call which is the message of the gospel to them. Well-meaning but absorbed, they can rarely bestir themselves to hear and do until some personal calamity or public disaster awakens them to the truth of things. The steady support of Christian ordinances and work in our day is largely the honour of people who have their full share128 in the struggle for earthly necessaries or a humble standing in the ranks of the independent. The paradox is real and striking; it claims the attention of those who vainly dream that a comfortable society would certainly become Christian, as effect follows cause. While the religion of Christ makes for justice and temporal well-being, blessing even the unbeliever, while it leads the way to a high standard of social order, these things remain of no value in themselves to men unspiritual: it holds true that man can never live by bread alone, but by the words which proceed out of the mouth of God. And there are forces at work among us on behalf of the Divine counsel that shall not fail to maintain the struggle necessary to the discipline and growth of souls.
The real army of faith is largely drawn from the ranks of the toilers and the heavy laden. Yet not entirely. We reckon many and fine exceptions. There are rich who are less worldly than those who have little. Many whose lot lies far from the shadow of tyranny in green and pleasant valleys are first to hear and quickest to answer every call from the Captain of the Lord's host. Their possessions are nothing to them. In the spiritual battle all is spent, knowledge, influence, wealth, life. And if you look for the highest examples of Christianity, a faith pure, keen and lovely, a generosity that most clearly reveals the Master, a passion for truth consuming all lower regards, you will find them where culture has done its best for the mind and the bounty of providence has kindled a gracious humility and an abounding gentleness of heart. The tawdry vanities of their fellows in rank and wealth seem what they are to these, the gaudy toys of children who have not yet seen the glory and the goal of life.129 And how can men and women hear the clarion of the Christian war ringing over the valleys of degradation and fear, see the Divine contest surging through the land, and not perceive that here and here only is life? Men play at statecraft and grow cold as they intrigue; they play at financing and become ciphers in a monstrous sum; they toil at pleasure till Satan himself might pity them, for at least he has a purpose to serve. All the while there is offered to them the vigour, the buoyancy, the glow of an ambition and a service in which no spirit tires and no heart withers. Passing strange it is that so few noble, so few mighty, so few wise hear the keen cry from the cross as one of life and power.
Among the tribes that held aloof from the great conflict several are specially named. Messengers have gone to the land of Reuben beyond Jordan, and carried the fiery cross through Bashan. Dan has been summoned and Asher from the haven of the sea. But these have not responded. Reuben indeed has searchings of heart. Some of the people remember the old promise made at Shittim in the plain of Moab, that they would help their brethren who crossed into Canaan, never refusing assistance till the land was fully possessed. Moses had solemnly charged them with that duty, and they had bound themselves in covenant: "As the Lord hath said unto thy servants, so will we do." Could anything have been more seriously, more decisively undertaken? Yet, when this hour of need came, though the duty lay upon the conscience nothing was done. Along the watercourses of Gilead and Bashan there were flocks to tend, to protect from the Amalekites and Midianites of the desert who would be sure to make a raid in the absence of the fighting men. To130 Asher and Dan the reference is perhaps somewhat ironical. The "ships" for trade, the "haven of the sea," were never much to these tribes, and their maritime ambition made an unworthy excuse. They had perhaps a little fishing, some small trade on the coast, and petty as the gain was it filled their hearts. Asher "abode by his creeks."
It is not to a religious festival that Deborah and Barak have called the tribes. It is to serious and dangerous duty. Yet the call of duty should come with more power than any invitation even to spiritual enjoyment. The great religious gathering has its use, its charm. We know the attraction of the crowded convocation in which Christian hope and enthusiasm are re-kindled by stirring words and striking instances, faith rising high as it views the wide mission of gospel truth and hears from eloquent lips the story of a modern day of Pentecost. To many, because their own spiritual life burns dull, the daily and weekly routine of things becomes empty, vain, unsatisfying. In the common round even of valued religious exercise the heat and promise of Christianity seem to be lacking. In the convention they appear to be realized as nowhere else, and the persuasion that God may be felt there in a special manner is laying hold of Christian people. They are right in their eager desire to be borne along with the flood of redeeming grace; but we have need to ask what the life of faith is, how it is best nourished. To have a personal share in God's controversy with evil, to have a place however obscure in the actual struggle of truth with falsehood,—this alone gives confidence in the result and power in believing. Those who are in contact with spiritual reality because they have their own testimony to bear, their own watch to131 keep at some outpost, find stimulus in the urgency of duty and exultation in the consciousness of service. Men often seek in public gatherings what they can only find in the private ways of effort and endurance; they seek the joy of harvest when they should be at the labour of sowing; they would fain be cheered by the song of victory when they should be roused by the trumpet of battle.
And the result is that where spiritual work waits to be done there are but few to do it. Examine the state of any Christian church, reckon up those who are deeply interested in its efficiency, who make sacrifices of time and means, and set against these the half-hearted, who ignobly accept the religious provision made for them and perhaps complain that it is not so good as they would like, that progress is not so rapid as they think it might be,—the one class far outnumbers the other. As in Israel twice or three times as many might have responded to Barak's call, so in every church the resolute, the energetic and devoted are few compared with those who are capable of energy and devotion. It is sometimes maintained that the worship of goodness and the Christian ideal command the minds of men more to-day than ever they did, and proof seems ready to hand. But, after all, is it not religious taste rather than reverence that grows? Self-culture leads many to a certain admiration of Christ and a form of discipleship. Christian worship is enjoyed and Christian philanthropy also, but when the spiritual freedom of mankind calls for some effort of the soul and life, we see what religion means—a wave of the hand instead of enthusiasm, a guinea subscription instead of thoughtful service. Is it a Christian or a selfish culture which is content132 with fragmentary concessions and complacent patronage where the claims of social "inferiors" are concerned? That there is a wide diffusion of religious feeling is clear enough; but in many respects it is mere dilettantism.
Notice the history of the tribes that lag behind in the day of the Lord's summons. What do we hear of Reuben after this? "Unstable as water thou shalt not excel." Along with Gad Reuben possessed a splendid country, but these two faded away into a sort of barbarism, scarcely maintaining their separateness from the wild races of the desert. Asher in like manner suffered from the contact with Phœnicia and lost touch with the more faithful tribes. So it is always. Those who shirk religious duty lose the strength and dignity of religion. Though greatly favoured in place and gifts they fall into that spiritual impotence which means defeat and extinction.
"Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord against the mighty." It is a stern judgment upon those whose active assistance was humanly speaking necessary in the day of battle. The men only held back, held back in doubt, supposing that it was vain for Hebrews to fling themselves against the iron chariots of Sisera. Were they not prudent, looking at the matter all round? Why should a curse so heavy be pronounced on men who only sought to save their lives? The reply is that secular history curses such men, those of Sparta for example to whom Athens sent in vain when the battle of Marathon was impending; and further that Christ has declared the truth which is for all time, "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it." Erasmus was a wise133 man; yet he made the great blunder. He saw clearly the errors of Romanism and the miserable bondage in which it kept the souls of men, and if he had joined the reformers his judgment and learning would have become part of the world's progressive life. But he held back doubting, criticising, a friend to the Reformation but not an apostle of it. Admire as we may the wit, the reasoner, the philosopher, there must always be severe judgment of one who professing to love truth declared that he had no inclination to die for it. There are many who without the intellect of Erasmus would fain be thought catholic in his company. Large is the family of Meroz, and little thought have they of any ban lying upon them. Is it a fanciful danger, a mere error of opinion without any peril in it, to which we point here? People think so; young men especially think so and drift on until the day of service is past and they find themselves under the contempt of man and the judgment of Christ. "Lord, when saw we Thee a stranger or in prison and did not minister unto Thee?" "Depart from Me, I never knew you."
3. Jael, a type of the unscrupulous helpers of a good cause.
Long has the error prevailed that religion can be helped by using the world's weapons, by acting in the temper and spirit of the world. Of that mischievous falsehood have been born all the pride and vainglory, the rivalries and persecutions that darken the past of Christendom, surviving in strange and pitiful forms to the present day. If we shudder at the treachery in the deed of Jael, what shall we say of that which through many a year sent victims to inquisition-dungeons and to the stake in the name of Christ? And what shall we say now of that moral assassination134 which in one tent and another is thought no sin against humanity, but a service of God? Among us are too many who suffer wounds keen and festering that have been given in the house of their friends, yea, in the name of the one Lord and Master. The battle of truth is a frank and honourable fight, served at no point by what is false or proud or low. To an enemy a Christian should be chivalrous and surely no less to a brother. Granting that a man is in error, he needs a physician not an executioner; he needs an example not a dagger. How much farther do we get by the methods of opprobrium and cruelty, the innuendo and the whisper of suspicion? Besides, it is not the Siseras to-day who are dealt with after this manner. It is the "schismatic" within the camp on whom some Jael falls with a hammer and a nail. If a church cannot stand by itself, approved to the consciences of men, it certainly will not be helped by a return to the temper of barbarism and the craft of the world. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of strongholds."
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