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"THE PEOPLE ARE YET TOO MANY."
Judges vi. 33-vii. 7.
Another day of hope and energy has dawned. One hillside at least rises sunlit out of darkness with the altar of Jehovah on its summit and holier sacrifices smoking there than Israel has offered for many a year. Let us see what elements of promise, what elements of danger or possible error mingle with the situation. There is a man to take the lead, a young man, thoughtful, bold, energetic, aware of a Divine call and therefore of some endowment for the task to be done. Gideon believes Jehovah to be Israel's God and Friend, Israel to be Jehovah's people. He has faith in the power of the Unseen Helper. Baal is nothing, a mere name—Bosheth, vanity. Jehovah is a certainty; and what He wills shall come about. So far strength, confidence. But of himself and the people Gideon is not sure. His own ability to gather and command an army, the fitness of any army the tribes can supply to contend with Midian, these are as yet unproved. Only one fact stands clear, Jehovah the supreme God with Whom are all powers and influences. The rest is in shadow. For one thing, Gideon cannot trace the connection between the Most High and himself, between the Power that controls the world and the power that dwells in his own will or the hearts of other men. Yet with the first message a sign has been given, and other tokens may be sought as events move on. With that measure of uncertainty which keeps a man humble and makes him ponder his steps Gideon finds himself acknowledged leader in Manasseh and a centre of growing enthusiasm throughout the northern tribes.
For the people generally this at least may be said, that they have wisdom enough to recognize the man of aptitude and courage though he belongs to one of the humblest families and is the least in his father's household. Drowning men indeed must take the help that is offered, and Israel is at present almost in the condition of a drowning man. A little more and it will sink under the wave of the Midianite invasion. It is not a time to ask of the rank of a man who has character for the emergency. And yet, so often is the hero unacknowledged, especially when he begins, as Gideon did, with a religious stroke, that some credit must be given to the people for their ready faith. As the flame goes up from the altar at Ophrah men feel a flash of hope and promise. They turn to the Abiezrite in trust and through him begin to trust God again. Yes: there is a reformation of a sort, and an honest man is at the head of it. So far the signs of the time are good.
Then the old enthusiasm is not dead. Almost Israel had submitted, but again its spirit is rising. The traditions of Deborah and Barak, of Joshua, of Moses, of the desert march and victories linger with those who are hiding amongst the caves and rocks. Songs of liberty, promises of power are still theirs; they feel that they should be free. Canaan is Jehovah's gift to them and they will claim it. So far as reviving human energy and confidence avail, there is a germ out of which the proper life of the people of God may spring afresh. And it is this that Gideon as a reformer must nourish, for the leader depends at every stage on the desires that have been kindled in the hearts of men. While he goes before them in thought and plan he can only go prosperously where they intelligently, heartily will follow. Opportunism is the base lagging behind with popular coldness, as moderatism in religion is. The reformer does not wait a moment when he sees an aspiration he can guide, a spark of faith that can be fanned into flame. But neither in church nor state can one man make a conquering movement. And so we see the vast extent of duty and responsibility. That there may be no opportunism every citizen must be alive to the morality of politics. That there may be no moderatism every Christian must be alive to the real duty of the church.
Now have the heads of families and the chief men in Israel been active in rallying the tribes? Or have the people waited on their chiefs and the chiefs coldly held back?
There are good elements in the situation but others not so encouraging. The secular leaders have failed; and what are the priests and Levites doing? We hear nothing of them. Gideon has to assume the double office of priest and ruler. At Shiloh there is an altar. There too is the ark, and surely some holy observances are kept. Why does Gideon not lead the people to Shiloh and there renew the national covenant through the ministers of the tabernacle? He knows little of the moral law and the sanctities of worship; and he is not at this stage inclined to assume a function that is not properly his. Yet it is unmistakable that Ophrah has to be the religious centre. Ah! clearly there is opportunism among secular leaders and moderatism among the priests. And this suggests that Judah in the south, although the tabernacle is not in her territory, may have an ecclesiastical reason for holding aloof now, as in Deborah's time she kept apart. Simeon and Levi are brethren. Judah, the vanguard in the desert march, the leading tribe in the first assault on Canaan, has taken Simeon into close alliance. Has Levi also been almost absorbed? There are signs that it may have been so. The later supremacy of Judah in religion requires early and deep root; and we have also to explain the separation between north and south already evident, which was but half overcome by David's kingship and reappeared before the end of Solomon's reign. It is very significant to read in the closing chapters of Judges of two Levites both of whom were connected with Judah. The Levites were certainly respected through the whole land, but their absence from all the incidents of the period of Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech and Jephthah compels the supposition that they had most affinity with Judah and Simeon in the south. We know how people can be divided by ecclesiasticism; and there is at least some reason to suspect that while the northern tribes were suffering and fighting Judah went her own way enjoying peace and organizing worship.
Such then is the state of matters so far as the tribes are concerned at the time when Gideon sounds the trumpet in Abiezer and sends messengers throughout Manasseh, Zebulun, Asher and Naphtali. The tribes are partly prepared for conflict, but they are weak and still disunited. The muster of fighting men who gather at the call of Gideon is considerable and perhaps astonishes him. But the Midianites are in enormous numbers in the plain of Jezreel between Moreh and Gilboa, having drawn together from their marauding expeditions at the first hint of a rising among the Hebrews. And now as the chief reviews his troops his early apprehension returns. It is with something like dismay that he passes from band to band. Ill-disciplined, ill-assorted these men do not bear the air of coming triumph. Gideon has too keen sight to be misled by tokens of personal popularity; nor can he estimate success by numbers. Looking closely into the faces of the men he sees marks enough of hesitancy, tokens even of fear. Many seem as if they had gathered like sheep to the slaughter, not as lions ready to dash on the prey. Assurance of victory he cannot find in his army; he must seek it elsewhere.
It is well that multitudes gather to the church to-day for worship and enter themselves as members. But to reckon all such as an army contending with infidelity and wickedness—that would indeed be a mistake. The mere tale of numbers gives no estimation of strength, fighting strength, strength to resist and to suffer. It is needful clearly to distinguish between those who may be called captives of the church or vassals simply, rendering a certain respect, and those others, often a very few and perhaps the least regarded, who really fight the battles. Our reckoning at present is often misleading so that we occupy ground which we cannot defend. We attempt to assail infidelity with an ill-disciplined host, many of whom have no clear faith, and to overcome worldliness by the co-operation of those who are more than half-absorbed in the pastimes and follies of the world. There is need to look back to Gideon who knew what it was to fight. While we are thankful to have so many connected with the church for their own good we must not suppose that they represent aggressive strength; on the contrary we must clearly understand that they will require no small part of the available time and energy of the earnest. In short we have to count them not as helpers of the church's forward movement but as those who must be helped.
Gideon for his work will have to make sharp division. Three hundred who can dash fearlessly on the enemy will be more to his purpose than two-and-thirty thousand most of whom grow pale at the thought of battle, and he will separate by-and-by. But first he seeks another sign of Jehovah. This man knows that to do anything worthy for his fellow-men he must be in living touch with God. The idea has no more than elementary form; but it rules. He, Gideon, is only an instrument, and he must be well convinced that God is working through him. How can he be sure? Like other Israelites he is strongly persuaded that God appears and speaks to men through nature; and he craves a sign in the natural world which is of God's making and upholding. Now to us the sign Gideon asked may appear rude, uncouth and without any moral significance. A fleece which is to be wet one morning while the threshing-floor is dry, and dry next morning while the threshing-floor is wet supplies the means of testing the Divine presence and approval. Further it may be alleged that the phenomena admit of natural explanation. But this is the meaning. Gideon providing the fleece identifies himself with it. It is his fleece, and if God's dew drenches it that will imply that God's power shall enter Gideon's soul and abide in it even though Israel be dry as the dusty floor. The thought is at once simple and profound, child-like and Hebrew-like, and carefully we must observe that it is a nature sign, not a mere portent, Gideon looks for. It is not whether God can do a certain seemingly impossible thing. That would not help Gideon. But the dew represents to his mind the vigour he needs, the vigour Israel needs if he should fail; and in reversing the sign, "Let the dew be on the ground and the fleece be dry," he seems to provide a hope even in prospect of his own failure or death. Gideon's appeal is for a revelation of the Divine in the same sphere as the lightning storm and rain in which Deborah found a triumphant proof of Jehovah's presence; yet there is a notable contrast. We are reminded of the "still small voice" Elijah heard as he stood in the cave-mouth after the rending wind and the earthquake and the lightning. We remember also the image of Hosea, "I will be as the dew unto Israel." There is a question in the Book of Job, "Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew?" The faith of Gideon makes answer, "Thou, O Most High, dost give the dews of heaven." The silent distillation of the dew is profoundly symbolic of the spiritual economy and those energies that are "not of this noisy world but silent and Divine." There is much of interest and meaning that lies thus beneath the surface in the story of the fleece.
Assured that yet another step in advance may be taken, Gideon leads his forces northward and goes into camp beside the spring of Harod on the slope of Gilboa. Then he does what seems a strange thing for a general on the eve of battle. The army is large but utterly insufficient in discipline and morale for a pitched battle with the Midianites. Men who have hastily snatched their fathers' swords and pikes of which they are half afraid are not to be relied upon in the heat of a terrible struggle. Proclamation is therefore made that those who are fearful and trembling shall return to their homes. From the entrenchment of Israel on the hillside, where the name Jalid or Gilead still survives, the great camp of the desert people could be seen, the black tents darkening all the valley toward the slope of Moreh a few miles away. The sight was enough to appal even the bold. Men thought of their families and homesteads. Those who had anything to lose began to re-consider and by morning only one-third of the Hebrew army was left with the leader. So perhaps it would be with thousands of Christians if the church were again called to share the reproach of Christ and resist unto blood. Under the banner of a popular Christianity many march to stirring music who if they supposed struggle to be imminent would be tempted to leave the ranks. Yet the fight is actually going on. Camp is set against camp, army is mingled with army; at the front there is hot work and many are falling. But in the rear it would seem to be a holiday; men are idling, gossiping, chaffering as though they had come out for amusement or trade, not at all like those who have pledged life in a great cause and have everything to win or lose. And again, in the thick of the strife, where courage and energy are strained to the utmost, we look round and ask whether the fearful have indeed withdrawn, for the suspicion is forced upon us that many who call themselves Christ's are on the other side. Did not some of those who are striking at us lift their hands yesterday in allegiance to the great Captain? Do we not see some who have marched with us holding the very position we are to take, bearing the very standards we must capture? Strangely confused is the field of battle, and hard is it to distinguish friends from foes. If the fearful would retire we should know better how we stand. If the enemy were all of Midian the issue would be clear. But fearful and faint-hearted Israelites who may be found any time actually contending against the faith are foes of a kind unknown in simpler days. So frequently does something of this sort happen that every Christian has need to ask himself whether he is clear of the offence. Has he ever helped to make the false world strong against the true, the proud world strong against the meek? Many of those who are doubtful and go home may sooner be pardoned than he who strikes only where a certain false éclat is to be won.
"Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote....
We shall march prospering—not thro' his presence;
Songs may inspirit us—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire."
In the same line of thought lies another reflection. The men who had hastily snatched their fathers' swords and pikes of which they were half afraid represent to us certain modern defenders of Christianity—those who carry edged weapons of inherited doctrine with which they dare not strike home. The great battle-axes of reprobation, of eternal judgment, of Divine severity against sin once wielded by strong hands, how they tremble and swerve in the grasp of many a modern dialectician. The sword of the old creed, that once like Excalibur cleft helmets and breastplates through, how often it maims the hands that try to use it but want alike the strength and the cunning. Too often we see a wavering blow struck that draws not a drop of blood nor even dints a shield, and the next thing is that the knight has run to cover behind some old bulwark long riddled and dilapidated. In the hands of these unskilled fighters too well armed for their strength the battle is worse than lost. They become a laughingstock to the enemy, an irritation to their own side. It is time there was a sifting among the defenders of the faith and twenty and two thousand went back from Gilead. Is the truth of God become mere tin or lead that no new sword can be fashioned from it, no blade of Damascus firm and keen? Are there no gospel armourers fit for the task? Where the doctrinal contest is maintained by men who are not to the depth of their souls sure of the creeds they found on, by men who have no vision of the severity of God and the meaning of redemption, it ends only in confusion to themselves and those who are with them.
Ten thousand Israelites remain who according to their own judgment are brave enough and prepared for the fight; but the purpose of the commander is not answered yet. He is resolved to have yet another winnowing that shall leave only the men of temper like his own, men of quick intelligence no less than zeal. At the foot of the hill there flows a stream of water, and towards it Gideon leads his diminished army as if at once to cross and attack the enemy in camp. Will they seize his plan and like one man act upon it? Only on those who do can he depend. It is an effective trial. With the hot work of fighting before them the water is needful to all, but in the way of drinking men show their spirit. The most kneel or lie down by the edge of the brook that by putting their lips to the water they may take a long and leisurely draught. A few supply themselves in quite another way. As a dog whose master is passing on with rapid strides, coming to a pool or stream by the way stops a moment to lap a few mouthfuls of water and then is off again to his master's side, so do these—three hundred of the ten thousand—bending swiftly down carry water to their mouths in the hollow of the hand. Full of the day's business they move on again before the nine thousand seven hundred have well begun to drink. They separate themselves and are by Gideon's side, beyond the stream, a chosen band proved fit for the work that is to be done. It is no haphazard division that is made by the test of the stream. There is wisdom in it, inspiration. "And the Lord said unto Gideon, By the three hundred men that lapped will I save you and deliver the Midianites into thine hand."
Many are the commonplace incidents, the seemingly small points in life that test the quality of men. Every day we are led to the stream-side to show what we are, whether eager in the Divine enterprise of faith or slack and self-considering. Take any company of men and women who claim to be on the side of Christ, engaged and bound in all seriousness to His service. But how many have it clearly before them that they must not entangle themselves more than is absolutely needful with bodily and sensuous cravings, that they must not lie down to drink from the stream of pleasure and amusement? We show our spiritual state by the way in which we spend our leisure, our Saturday afternoons, our Sabbaths. We show whether we are fit for God's business by our use of the flowing stream of literature, which to some is an opiate, to others a pure and strengthening draught. The question simply is whether we are so engaged with God's plan for our life, in comprehending it, fulfilling it, that we have no time to dawdle and no disposition for the merely casual and trifling. Are we in the responsible use of our powers occupied as that Athenian was in the service of his country of whom it is recorded: "There was in the whole city but one street in which Pericles was ever seen, the street which led to the market-place and the council-house. During the whole period of his administration he never dined at the table of a friend"? Let no one say there is not time in a world like this for social intercourse, for literary and scientific pursuits or the practice of the arts. The plan of God for men means life in all possible fulness and entrance into every field in which power can be gained. His will for us is that we should give to the world as Christ gave in free and uplifting ministry, and as a man can only give what he has first made his own the Christian is called to self-culture as full as the other duties of life will permit. He cannot explore too much, he cannot be too well versed in the thoughts and doings of men and the revelations of nature, for all he learns is to find high use. But the aim of personal enlargement and efficiency must never be forgotten, that aim which alone makes the self of value and gives it real life—the service and glory of God. Only in view of this aim is culture worth anything. And when in the providence of God there comes a call which requires us to pass with resolute step beyond every stream at which the mind and taste are stimulated that we may throw ourselves into the hard fight against evil there is to be no hesitation. Everything must yield now. The comparatively small handful who press on with concentrated purpose, making God's call and His work first and all else even their own needs a secondary affair—to these will be the honour and the joy of victory.
We live in a time when people are piling up object after object that needs attention and entering into engagement after engagement that comes between them and the supreme duty of existence. They form so many acquaintances that every spare hour goes in visiting and receiving visits: yet the end of life is not talk. They are members of so many societies that they scarcely get at the work for which the societies exist: yet the end of life is not organizing. They see so many books, hear so much news and criticism that truth escapes them altogether: yet the end of life is to know and do the Truth. Civilization defeats its own use when it keeps us drinking so long at this and the other spring that we forget the battle. We mean to fight, we mean to do our part, but night falls while we are still occupied on the way. Yet our Master is one who restricted the earthly life to its simplest elements because only so could spiritual energy move freely to its mark.
In the incidents we have been reviewing voluntary churches may find hints at least towards the justification of their principle. The idea of a national church is on more than one side intelligible and valid. Christianity stands related to the whole body of the people, bountiful even to those who scorn its laws, pleading on their behalf with God, keeping an open door and sending forth a perpetual call of love to the weak, the erring, the depraved. The ideal of a national church is to represent this universal office and realize this inclusiveness of the Christian religion; and the charm is great. On the other hand a voluntary church is the recognition of the fact that while Christ stands related to all men it is those only who engage at expense to themselves in the labour of the gospel who can be called believers, and that these properly constitute the church. The Hebrew people under the theocracy may represent the one ideal; Gideon's sifting of his army points to the other; neither, it must be frankly confessed, has ever been realized. Large numbers may join with some intelligence in worship and avail themselves of the sacraments who have no sense of obligation as members of the kingdom and are scarcely touched by the teaching of Christianity as to sin and salvation. A separated community again, depending on an enthusiasm which too often fails, rarely if ever accomplishes its hope. It aims at exhibiting an active and daring faith, the militancy, the urgency of the gospel, and in this mission what is counted success may be a hindrance and a snare. Numbers grow, wealth is acquired, but the intensity of belief is less than it was and the sacrifices still required are not freely made. Nevertheless is it not plain that a society which would represent the imperative claim of Christ to the undivided faith and loyalty of His followers must found upon a personal sense of obligation and personal eagerness? Is it not plain that a society which would represent the purity, the unearthliness, the rigour, we may even say, of Christ's doctrine, His life of renunciation and His cross must show a separateness from the careless world and move distinctly in advance of popular religious sentiment? Israel was God's people, yet when a leader went forth to a work of deliverance he had to sift out the few keen and devoted spirits. In truth every reformation implies a winnowing, and he does little as a teacher or a guide who does not make division among men.
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