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THE DESERT HORDES; AND THE MAN AT OPHRAH.
Judges vi. 1-14.
Jabin king of Canaan defeated and his nine hundred chariots turned into ploughshares we might expect Israel to make at last a start in its true career. The tribes have had their third lesson and should know the peril of infidelity. Without God they are weak as water. Will they not bind themselves now in a confederacy of faith, suppress Baal and Astarte worship by stringent laws and turn their hearts to God and duty? Not yet: not for more than a century. The true reformer has yet to come. Deborah's work is certainly not in vain. She passes through the land administering justice, commanding the destruction of heathen altars. The people leave their occupations and gather in crowds to hear her; they shout, in answer to her appeals, Jehovah is our King. The Levites are called to minister at the shrines. For a time there is something like religion along with improving circumstances. But the tide does not rise long nor far.
Some twenty years have passed, and what is to be seen going on throughout the land? The Hebrews have addressed themselves vigorously to their work in field and town. Everywhere they are breaking up new ground, building houses, repairing roads, organising traffic. But they are also falling into the old habit of friendly intercourse with Canaanites, talking with them over the prospects of the crops, joining in their festivals of new moon and harvest. In their own cities the old inhabitants of the land sacrifice to Baal and gather about the Asherim. Earnest Israelites are indignant and call for action, but the mass of the people are so taken up with their prosperity that they cannot be roused. Peace and comfort in the lower region seem better than contention for anything higher. In the centre of Palestine there is a coalition of Hebrew and Canaanite cities, with Shechem at their head, which recognize Baal as their patron and worship him as the master of their league. And in the northern tribes generally Jehovah has scant acknowledgment; the people see no great task He has given them to do. If they live and multiply and inherit the land they reckon their function as His nation to be fulfilled.
It is a temptation common to men to consider their own existence and success a sort of Divine end in serving which they do all that God requires of them. The business of mere living and making life comfortable absorbs them so that even faith finds its only use in promoting their own happiness. The circle of the year is filled with occupations. When the labour of the field is over there are the houses and cities to enlarge, to improve and furnish with means of safety and enjoyment. One task done and the advantage of it felt, another presents itself. Industry takes new forms and burdens still more the energies of men. Education, art, science become possible and in turn make their demands. But all may be for self, and God may be thought of merely as the great Patron satisfied with His tithes. In this way the impulses and hopes of faith are made the ministers of egoism, and as a national thing the maintenance of law, goodwill, and a measure of purity may seem to furnish religion with a sufficient object. But this is far from enough. Let worship be refined and elaborated, let great temples be built and thronged, let the arts of music and painting be employed in raising devotion to its highest pitch—still if nothing beyond self is seen as the aim of existence, if national Christianity realizes no duty to the world outside, religion must decay. Neither a man nor a people can be truly religious without the missionary spirit, and that spirit must constantly shape individual and collective life. Among ourselves worship would petrify and faith wither were it not for the tasks the church has undertaken at home and abroad. But half-understood, half-discharged, these duties keep us alive. And it is because the great mission of Christians to the world is not even yet comprehended that we have so much practical atheism. When less care and thought are expended on the forms of worship and the churches address themselves to the true ritual of our religion, carrying out the redeeming work of our Saviour, there will be new fervour; unbelief will be swept away.
Israel losing sight of its mission and its destiny felt no need of faith and lost it; and with the loss of faith came loss of vigour and alertness as on other occasions. Having no sense of a common purpose great enough to demand their unity the Hebrews were again unable to resist enemies, and this time the Midianites and other wild tribes of the eastern desert found their opportunity. First some bands of them came at the time of harvest and made raids on the cultivated districts. But year by year they ventured farther in increasing numbers. Finally they brought their tents and families, their flocks and herds, and took possession.
In the case of all who fall away from the purpose of life the means of bringing failure home to them and restoring the balance of justice are always at hand. Let a man neglect his fields and nature is upon him; weeds choke his crops, his harvests diminish, poverty comes like an armed man. In trade likewise carelessness brings retribution. So in the case of Israel: although the Canaanites had been subdued other foes were not far away. And the business of this nation was of so sacred a kind that neglect of it meant great moral fault and every fresh relapse into earthliness and sensuality after a revival of religion implied more serious guilt. We find accordingly a proportionate severity in the punishment. Now the nation is chastised with whips, but next time it is with scorpions. Now the iron chariots of Sisera hold the land in terror; then hosts of marauders spread like locusts over the country, insatiable, all-devouring. Do the Hebrews think that careful tilling of their fields and the making of wine and oil are their chief concern? In that they shall be undeceived. Not mainly to be good husbandmen and vine-dressers are they set here, but to be a light in the midst of the nations. If they cease to shine they shall no longer enjoy.
It was by the higher fords of Jordan, perhaps north of the Sea of Galilee, that the Midianites fell on western Canaan. Under their two great emirs Zebah and Zalmunna, who seem to have held a kind of barbaric state, troops of riders on swift horses and dromedaries swept the shore of the lake and burst into the plain of Jezreel. There were no doubt many skirmishes between their squadrons and the men of Naphtali and Manasseh. But one horde of the invaders followed another so quickly and their attacks were so sudden and fierce that at length resistance became impossible, the Hebrews had to betake themselves to the heights and dwell in the caves and rocks. Once in the desert under Moses they had been more than a match for these Arabs. Now, although on vantage ground moral and natural, fighting for their hearths and homes behind the breastwork of lake, river and mountain, they are completely routed.
Between the circumstances of this oppressed nation and the present state of the church there is a wide interval, and in a sense the contrast is striking. Is not the Christianity of our time strong and able to hold its own? Is not the mood of many churches of the present day properly that of elation? As year after year reports of numerical increase and larger contributions are made, as finer buildings are raised for the purposes of worship and work at home and abroad is carried on more efficiently, is it not impossible to trace any resemblance between the state of Israel during the Midianite oppression and the state of religion now? Why should there be any fear that Baal-worship or other idolatry should weaken the tribes, or that marauders from the desert should settle in their land?
And yet the condition of things to-day is not quite unlike that of Israel at the time we are considering. There are Canaanites who dwell in the land and carry on their debasing worship. These too are days when guerilla troops of naturalism, nomads of the primæval desert, are sweeping the region of faith. Reckless and irresponsible talk in periodicals and on platforms; novels, plays and verses often as clever as they are unscrupulous are incidents of the invasion, and it is well advanced. Not for the first time is a raid of this kind made on the territory of faith, but the serious thing now is the readiness to give way, the want of heart and power to resist that we observe in family life and in society as well as in literature. Where resistance ought to be eager and firm it is often ignorant, hesitating, lukewarm. Perhaps the invasion must become more confident and more injurious before it rouses the people of God to earnest and united action. Perhaps those who will not submit may have to betake themselves to the caves of the mountains while the new barbarism establishes itself in the rich plain. It has almost come to this in some countries; and it may be that the pride of those who have been content to cultivate their vineyards for themselves alone, the security of those who have too easily concluded that fighting was over shall yet be startled by some great disaster.
"Israel was brought very low because of Midian." A traveller's picture of the present state of things on the eastern frontier of Bashan enables us to understand the misery to which the tribes were reduced by seven years of rapine. "Not only is the country—plain and hill-side alike—chequered with fenced fields, but groves of fig-trees are here and there seen and terraced vineyards still clothe the sides of some of the hills. These are neglected and wild but not fruitless. They produce great quantities of figs and grapes which are rifled year after year by the Bedawin in their periodical raids. Nowhere on earth is there such a melancholy example of tyranny, rapacity and misrule as here. Fields, pastures, vineyards, houses, villages, cities are all alike deserted and waste. Even the few inhabitants that have hid themselves among the rocky fastnesses and mountain defiles drag out a miserable existence, oppressed by robbers of the desert on the one hand and robbers of the government on the other." The Midianites of Gideon's time acted the part both of tyrants and depredators. They "left no sustenance for Israel, neither sheep nor ox nor ass. They entered into the land for to destroy it."
"And the children of Israel cried unto the Lord"; the prodigals bethought them of their Father. Having come to the husks they remembered Him who fed His people in the desert. Again the wheel has revolved and from the lowest point there is an upward movement. The tribes of God look once more towards the hills from whence their help cometh. And here is seen the importance of that faith which had passed into the nation's life. Although it was not of a very spiritual kind, yet it preserved in the heart of the people a recuperative power. The majority knew little more of Jehovah than His name. But the name suggested availing succour. They turned to the Awful Name, repeated it and urged their need. Here and there one saw God as the infinitely righteous and holy and added to the wail of the ignorant a more devout appeal, recognizing the evils under which the people groaned as punitive and knowing that the very God to Whom they cried had brought the Midianites upon them. In the prayer of such a one there was an outlook towards holier and nobler life. But even in the case of the ignorant the cry to One higher than the highest had help in it. For when that bitter cry was raised self-glorifying had ceased and piety begun.
Ignorant indeed is much of the faith that still expresses itself in so-called Christian prayer, almost as ignorant as that of the disconsolate Hebrew tribes. The moral purpose of discipline, the Divine ordinances of defeat and pain and affliction are a mystery unread. The man in extremity does not know why his hour of abject fear has come, nor see that one by one all the stays of his selfish life have been removed by a Divine hand. His cry is that of a foolish child. Yet is it not true that such a prayer revives hope and gives new energy to the languid life? It may be many years since prayer was tried, not perhaps since he who is now past his meridian knelt at a mother's knee. Still as he names the name of God, as he looks upward, there comes with the dim vision of an Omnipotent Helper within reach of his cry the sense of new possibilities, the feeling that amidst the miry clay or the heaving waves there is something firm and friendly on which he may yet stand. It is a striking fact as to any kind of religious belief, even the most meagre, that it does for man what nothing else can do. Prayer must cease, we are told, for it is mere superstition. Without denying that much of what is called prayer is an expression of egotism, we must demand an explanation of the unique value it has in human life and a sufficient substitute for the habit of appeal to God. Those who would deprive us of prayer must first re-make man, for to the strong and enlightened prayer is necessary as well as to the weak and ignorant. The Heavenly is the only hope of the earthly. That we understand God is, after all, not the chief thing: but does He know us? Is He there, above yet beside us, for ever?
The first answer to the cry of Israel came in the message of a prophet, one who would have been despised by the nation in its self-sufficient mood but now obtained a hearing. His words brought instruction and made it possible for faith to move and work along a definite line. Through man's struggle God helps him; through man's thought and resolve God speaks to him. He is already converted when he believes enough to pray, and from this point faith saves by animating and guiding the strenuous will. The ignorant abject people of God learns from the prophet that something is to be done. There is a command, repeated from Sinai, against the worship of heathen gods, then a call to love the true God the Deliverer of Israel. Faith is to become life, and life faith. The name of Jehovah which has stood for one power among others is clearly re-affirmed as that of the One Divine Being, the only Object of adoration. Israel is convicted of sin and set on the way of obedience.
The answer to prayer lies very near to him who cries for salvation. He has not to move a step. He has but to hear the inner voice of conscience. Is there a sense of neglect of duty, a sense of disobedience, of faults committed? The first movement towards salvation is set up in that conviction and in the hope that the evil now seen may be remedied. Forgiveness is implied in this hope, and it will become assured as the hope grows strong. The mistake is often made of supposing that answer to prayer does not come till peace is found. In reality the answer begins when the will is bent towards a better life, though that change may be accompanied by the deepest sorrow and self-humiliation. A man who earnestly reproaches himself for despising and disobeying God has already received the grace of the redeeming Spirit.
But to Israel's cry there was another answer. When repentance was well begun and the tribes turned from the heathen rites which separated them from each other and from Divine thoughts, freedom again became possible and God raised up a liberator. Repentance indeed was not thorough; therefore a complete national reformation was not accomplished. Yet as against Midian, a mere horde of marauders, the balance of righteousness and power inclined now in behalf of Israel. The time was ripe and in the providence of God the fit man received his call.
South-west from Shechem, among the hills of Manasseh at Ophrah of the Abiezrites, lived a family that had suffered keenly at the hands of Midian. Some members of the family had been slain near Tabor, and the rest had as a cause of war not only the constant robberies from field and homestead but also the duty of blood-revenge. The deepest sense of injury, the keenest resentment fell to the share of one Gideon, son of Joash, a young man of nobler temper than most Hebrews of the time. His father was head of a Thousand; and as he was an idolater the whole clan joined him in sacrificing to the Baal whose altar stood within the boundary of his farm. Already Gideon appears to have turned with loathing from that base worship; and he was pondering earnestly the cause of the pitiful state into which Israel had fallen. But the circumstances perplexed him. He was not able to account for facts in accordance with faith.
In a retired place on the hillside where a winepress has been fashioned in a hollow of the rocks we first see the future deliverer of Israel. His task for the day is that of threshing out some wheat so that, as soon as possible, the grain may be hid from the Midianites; and he is busy with the flail, thinking deeply, watching carefully as he plies the instrument with a sense of irksome restraint. Look at him and you are struck with his stalwart proportions and his bearing: he is "like the son of a king." Observe more closely and the fire of a troubled yet resolute soul will be seen in his eye. He represents the best Hebrew blood, the finest spirit and intelligence of the nation; but as yet he is a strong man bound. He would fain do something to deliver Israel; he would fain trust Jehovah to sustain him in striking a blow for liberty; but the way is not clear. Indignation and hope are baffled.
In a pause of his work, as he glances across the valley with anxious eye, suddenly he sees under an oak a stranger sitting staff in hand, as if he had sought rest for a little in the shade. Gideon scans the visitor keenly, but finding no cause for alarm bends again to his labour. The next time he looks up the stranger is beside him and words of salutation are falling from his lips—"Jehovah is with thee, thou mighty man of valour." To Gideon the words did not seem so strange as they would have seemed to some. Yet what did they mean? Jehovah with him? Strength and courage he is aware of. Sympathy with his fellow-Israelites and the desire to help them he feels. But these do not seem to him proofs of Jehovah's presence. And as for his father's house and the Hebrew people, God seems far from them. Harried and oppressed they are surely God-forsaken. Gideon can only wonder at the unseasonable greeting and ask what it means.
Unconsciousness of God is not rare. Men do not attribute their regret over wrong, their faint longing for the right to a spiritual presence within them and a Divine working. The Unseen appears so remote, man appears so shut off from intercourse with any supernatural Cause or Source that he fails to link his own strain of thought with the Eternal. The word of God is nigh him even in his heart, God is "closer to him than breathing, nearer than hands and feet." Hope, courage, will, life—these are Divine gifts, but he does not know it. Even in our Christian times the old error which makes God external, remote, entirely aloof from human experience survives and is more common than true faith. We conceive ourselves separated from the Divine, with springs of thought, purpose and power in our own being, whereas there is in us no absolute origin of power moral intellectual or physical. We live and move in God: He is our Source and our Stay, and our being is shot through and through with rays of the Eternal. The prophetic word spoken in our ear is not more assuredly from God than the pure wish or unselfish hope that frames itself in our minds or the stern voice of conscience heard in the soul. As for the trouble into which we fall, that too, did we understand aright, is a mark of God's providential care. Would we err without discipline? Would we be ineffective and have no bracing? Would we follow lies and enjoy a false peace? Would we refuse the Divine path to strength yet never feel the sorrow of the weak? Are these the proofs of God's presence our ignorance would desire? Then indeed we imagine an unholy one, an unfaithful one upon the throne of the universe. But God has no favourites; He does not rule like a despot of earth for courtiers and an aristocracy. In righteousness and for righteousness, for eternal truth He works, and for that His people must endure.
"Jehovah is with thee:" so ran the salutation. Gideon thinking of Jehovah does not wonder to hear His name. But full of doubts natural to one so little instructed he feels himself bound to express them: "Why is all this evil befallen us? Hath not Jehovah cast us off and delivered us into the hand of Midian?" Unconstrainedly, plainly as man to man Gideon speaks, the burdensome thought of his people's misery overcoming the strangeness of the fact that in a God-forsaken land any one should care to speak of things like these. Yet momentarily as the conversation proceeds there grows in Gideon's soul a feeling of awe, a new and penetrating idea. The look fastened upon him conveys beside the human strain of will a suggestion of highest authority; the words, "Go in this thy might and save Israel, have not I sent thee?" kindle in his heart a vivid faith. Laid hold of, lifted above himself, the young man is made aware at last of the Living God, His presence, His will. Jehovah's representative has done his mediatorial work. Gideon desires a sign; but his wish is a note of habitual caution, not of disbelief, and in the sacrifice he finds what he needs.
Now, why insist as some do on that which is not affirmed in the text? The form of the narrative must be interpreted: and it does not require us to suppose that Jehovah Himself, incarnate, speaking human words, is upon the scene. The call is from Him, and indeed Gideon has already a prepared heart, or he would not listen to the messenger. But seven times in the brief story the word Malakh marks a commissioned servant as clearly as the other word Jehovah marks the Divine will and revelation. After the man of God has vanished from the hill swiftly, strangely, in the manner of his coming, Gideon remains alive to Jehovah's immediate presence and voice as he never was before. Humble and shrinking—"forasmuch as I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face"—he yet hears the Divine benediction fall from the sky, and following that a fresh and immediate summons. Whether from the tabernacle at Shiloh an acknowledged prophet came to the brooding Abiezrite, or the visitor was one who concealed his own name and haunt that Jehovah might be the more impressively recognised, it matters not. The angel of the Lord made Gideon thrill with a call to highest duty, opened his ears to heavenly voices and then left him. After this he felt God to be with himself.
"The Lord looked upon Gideon and said, Go in this thy might and save Israel from the hand of Midian: have not I sent thee?" It was a summons to stern and anxious work, and the young man could not be sanguine. He had considered and re-considered the state of things so long, he had so often sought a way of liberating his people and found none that he needed a clear indication how the effort was to be made. Would the tribes follow him, the youngest of an obscure family in Manasseh? And how was he to stir, how to gather the people? He builds an altar, Jehovah-shalom; he enters into covenant with the Eternal in high and earnest resolution, and with a sudden flash of prophet sight he sees the first thing to do. Baal's altar in the high place of Ophrah must be overthrown. Thereafter it will be known what faith and courage are to be found in Israel.
It is the call of God that ripens a life into power, resolve, fruitfulness—the call and the response to it. Continually the Bible urges upon us this great truth, that through the keen sense of a close personal relation to God and of duty owing to Him the soul grows and comes to its own. Our human personality is created in that way and in no other. There are indeed lives which are not so inspired and yet appear strong; an ingenious resolute selfishness gives them momentum. But this individuality is akin to that of ape or tiger; it is a part of the earth-force in yielding to which a man forfeits his proper being and dignity. Look at Napoleon, the supreme example in history of this failure. A great genius, a striking character? Only in the carnal region, for human personality is moral, spiritual, and the most triumphant cunning does not make a man; while on the other hand from a very moderate endowment put to the glorious usury of God's service will grow a soul clear, brave and firm, precious in the ranks of life. Let a human being, however ignorant and low, hear and answer the Divine summons and in that place a man appears, one who stands related to the source of strength and light. And when a man roused by such a call feels responsibility for his country, for religion, the hero is astir. Something will be done for which mankind waits.
But heroism is rare. We do not often commune with God nor listen with eager souls for His word. The world is always in need of men, but few appear. The usual is worshipped; the pleasure and profit of the day occupy us; even the sight of the cross does not rouse the heart. Speak, Heavenly Word! and quicken our clay. Let the thunders of Sinai be heard again, and then the still small voice that penetrates the soul. So shall heroism be born and duty done, and the dead shall live.
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