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THE ANGEL IN THE FIELD.
Judges xiii. 1-18.
In our ignorance not in our knowledge, in our blindness not in our light we call nature secular and think of the ordinary course of events as a series of cold operations, governed by law and force, having nothing to do with divine purpose and love. Oftentimes we think so, and suffer because we do not understand. It is a pitiful error. The natural could not exist, there could be neither substance nor order without the over-nature which is at once law and grace. Vitality, movement are not an efflorescence heralding decay—as to the atheist; they are not the activity of an evil spirit—as sometimes to confused and falsely instructed faith. They are the outward and visible action of God, the hem of the vesture on which we lay hold and feel Him. In the seen and temporal there is a constant presence maintaining order, giving purpose and end. Were it otherwise man could not live an hour; even in selfishness and vileness he is a creature of two worlds which yet are one, so closely are they interwoven. At every point natural and supernatural are blended, the higher shaping the development of the lower, accomplishing in and through the lower a great spiritual plan. This it is which gives depth and weight to our experience, communicating the dignity of the greatest moral and spiritual issues to the meanest, darkest human life. Everywhere, always, man touches God though he know Him not.
No surprise, therefore, is excited by the modes of speech and thought we come upon as we read Scripture. The surprise would be in not coming upon them. If we found the inspired writers divorcing God from the world and thinking of "nature" as a dark chamber of sin and torture echoing with His curse, there would be no profit in studying this old volume. Then indeed we might turn from it in discontent and scorn, even as some cast it aside just because it is the revelation of God dwelling with men upon the earth.
But what do the writers of faith mean when they tell of divine messengers coming to peasants at labour in the fields, speaking to them of events common to the race—the birth of some child, the defeat of a rival tribe—as affairs of the spiritual even more than of the temporal region? The narratives simple yet daring which affirm the mingling of divine purpose and action with human life give us the deepest science, the one real philosophy. Why do we have to care and suffer for each other? What are our sin and sorrow? These are not material facts; they are of quite another range. Always man is more than dust, better or worse than clay. Human lives are linked together in a gracious and awful order the course of which is now clearly marked, now obscurely traceable; and if it were in our power to revive the history of past ages, to mark the operation of faith and unbelief among men, issuing in virtue and nobleness on the one hand, in vice and lethargy on the other, we should see how near heaven is to earth, how rational a thing is prophecy, not only as relating to masses of men but to particular lives. It is our stupidity not our wisdom that starts back from revelations of the over-world as if they confused what would otherwise be clear.
In more than one story of the Bible the motherhood of a simple peasant woman is a cause of divine communications and supernatural hopes. Is this amazing, incredible? What then is motherhood itself? In the coming and care of frail existences, the strange blending in one great necessity of the glad and the severe, the honourable and the humiliating, with so many possibilities of failure in duty, of error and misunderstanding ere the needful task is finished, death ever waiting on life, and agony on joy—in all this do we not find such a manifestation of the higher purpose as might well be heralded by words and signs? Only the order of God and His redemption can explain this "nature." Right in the path of atheistic reasoners, and of others not atheists, lie facts of human life which on their theory of naturalism are simply confounding, too great at once for the causes they admit and the ends they foresee. And if reason denies the possibility of prediction relating to these facts we need not wonder. Without philosophy or faith the range of denial is unlimited.
From the quaint and simple narrative before us the imaginative rationalist turns away with the one word—"myth." His criticism is of a sort which for all its ease and freedom gives the world nothing. We desire to know why the human mind harbours thoughts of the kind, why it has ideas of God and of a supernatural order, and how these work in developing the race. Have they been of service? Have they given strength and largeness to poor rude lives and so proved a great reality? If so, the word myth is inadmissible. It sets falsehood at the source of progress and of good.
Here are two Hebrew peasants, in a period of Philistine domination more than a thousand years before the Christian era. Of their condition we know only what a few brief sentences can tell in a history concerned chiefly with the facts of a divine order in which men's lives have an appointed place and use. It is certain that a thorough knowledge of this Danite family, its own history and its part in the history of Israel, would leave no difficulty for faith. Belief in the fore-ordination of all human existence and the constant presence of God with men and women in their endurance, their hope and yearning would be forced upon the most sceptical mind. The insignificance of the occasion marked by a prediction given in the name of God may astonish some. But what is insignificant? Wherever divine predestination and authority extend, and that is throughout the whole universe, nothing can properly be called insignificant. The laws according to which material things and forces are controlled by God touch the minutest particles of matter, determine the shape of a dew-drop as certainly as the form of a world. At every point in human life, the birth of a child in the poorest cottage as well as of the heir to an empire, the same principles of heredity, the same disposition of affairs to leave room for that life and to work out its destiny underlie the economy of the world.
A life is to appear. It is not an interposition or interpolation. No event, no life is ever thrust into an age without relation to the past; no purpose is formed in the hour of a certain prophecy. For Samson as for every actor distinguished or obscure upon the stage of the world the stars and the seasons have co-operated and all that has been done under the sun has gone to make a place for him. One who knows this can speak strongly and clearly. One who knows what hinders and what is sure to aid the fulfilment of a great destiny can counsel wisely. And so the angel of Jehovah, a messenger of the spiritual covenant, is no mere vehicle of a prediction he does not understand. Without hesitation he speaks to the woman in the field of what her son shall do. By the story of God's dealings with Israel, by the experiences of tribe and family and individual soul since the primitive age, by the simple faith of these parents that are to be and the honest energy of their humble lives he is prepared to announce to them their honour and their duty. "Thou shalt bear a son and he shall begin to deliver Israel." The messenger has had his preparation of thought, inquiry deep devout and pondering, ere he became fit to announce the word of God. No seer serves the age to which he is sent with that which costs him nothing, and here as elsewhere the law of all ministry to God and man must apply to the preparation and work of the revealer.
The personality of the messenger was carefully concealed. "A man of God whose countenance was like that of an angel of God very terrible"—so runs the pathetic, suggestive description; but the hour was too intense for mere curiosity. The honest mind does not ask the name and social standing of a messenger but only—Does he speak God's truth? Does he open life? There are few perhaps, to-day, who are simple and intelligent enough for this; few, therefore, to whom divine messages come. It is the credentials we are anxious about, and the prophet waits unheard while people are demanding his family and tribe, his college and reputation. Are these satisfactory? Then they will listen. But let no prophet come to them unnamed. Yet of all importance to us as to Manoah and his wife are the message, the revelation, the announcement of privilege and duty. Where that divine order is disclosed which lies too deep for our own discovery but once revealed stirs and kindles our nature, the prophet needs no certification.
The child that was to be born, a gift of God, a divine charge, was promised to these parents. And in the case of every child born into the world there is a divine predestination which whether it has been recognized by the parents or not gives dignity to his existence from the first. There are natural laws and spiritual laws, the gathering together of energies and needs and duties which make the life unique, the care of it sacred. It is a new force in the world—a new vessel, frail as yet, launched on the sea of time. In it some stores of the divine goodness, some treasures of heavenly force are embarked. As it holds its way across the ocean in sunshine or shadow, this life will be watched by the divine eye, breathed gently upon by the summer airs or buffeted by the storms of God. Does heaven mind the children? "In heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father."
In the marvellous ordering of divine providence nothing is more calculated than fatherhood and motherhood to lift human life into the high ranges of experience and feeling. Apart from any special message or revelation, assuming only an ordinary measure of thoughtfulness and interest in the unfolding of life, there is here a new dignity the sense of which connects the task of those who have it with the creative energy of God. Everywhere throughout the world we can trace a more or less clear understanding of this. The tide of life is felt to rise as the new office, the new responsibility are grasped. The mother is become—
"A link among the days to knit
The generations each to each."
The father has a sacred trust, a new and nobler duty to which his manhood is entirely pledged in the sight of that great God who is the Father of all spirits, doubly and trebly pledged to truth and purity and courage. It is the coronation of life; and the child, drawing father and mother to itself, is rightly the object of keenest interest and most assiduous care.
The interest lies greatly in this, that to the father and mother first, then to the world there may be untold possibilities of good in the existence which has begun. Apart from any prophecy like that given regarding Samson we have truly what may be called a special promise from God in the dawning energy of every child-life. By the cradle surely, if anywhere, hope sacred and heavenly may be indulged. With what earnest glances will the young eyes look by-and-by from face to face. With what new and keen love will the child-heart beat. Enlarging its grasp from year to year the mind will lay hold on duty and the will address itself to the tasks of existence. This child will be a heroine of home, a helper of society, a soldier of the truth, a servant of God. Does the mother dream long dreams as she bends over the cradle? Does the father, one indeed amongst millions, yet with his special distinction and calling, imagine for the child a future better than his own? It is well. By the highest laws and instincts of our humanity it is right and good. Here men and women, the rudest and least taught, live in the immaterial world of love, faith, duty.
We observe the anxiety of Manoah and his wife to learn the special method of training which should fit their child for his task. The father's prayer so soon as he heard of the divine annunciation was, "O Lord, let the man of God whom Thou didst send come again unto us and teach us what we shall do unto the child that shall be born." Conscious of ignorance and inexperience, feeling the weight of responsibility, the parents desired to have authoritative direction in their duty, and their anxiety was the deeper because their child was to be a deliverer in Israel. In their home on the hillside, where the cottages of Zorah clustered overlooking the Philistine plain, they were frequently disturbed by the raiders who swept up the valley of Sorek from Ashdod and Ekron. They had often wondered when God would raise up a deliverer as of old, some Deborah or Gideon to end the galling oppression. Now the answer to many a prayer and hope was coming, and in their own home the hero was to be cradled. We cannot doubt that this made them feel the pressure of duty and the need of wisdom. Yet the prayer of Manoah was one which every father has need to present, though the circumstances of a child's birth have nothing out of the most ordinary course.
To each human mind are given powers which require special fostering, peculiarities of temperament and feeling which ought to be specially considered. One way will not serve in the upbringing of two children. Even the most approved method of the time, whether that of private tutelage or public instruction, may thwart individuality; and if the way be ignorant and rough the original faculty will at its very springing be distorted. It is but the barest commonplace, yet with what frequency it needs to be urged that of all tasks in the world that of the guide and instructor of youth is hardest to do well, best worth doing, therefore most difficult. There is no need to deny that for the earliest years of a child's life the instincts of a loving faithful mother may be trusted to guide her efforts. Yet even in those first years tendencies declare themselves that require to be wisely checked or on the other hand wisely encouraged; and the wisdom does not come by instinct. A spiritual view of life, its limitations and possibilities, its high calling and heavenly destiny is absolutely necessary—that vision of the highest things which religion alone can give. The prophet comes and directs; yet the parents must be prophets too. "The child is not to be educated for the present—for this is done without our aid unceasingly and powerfully—but for the remote future and often in opposition to the immediate future.... The child must be armed against the close-pressing present with a counter-balancing weight of three powers against the three weaknesses of the will, of love and of religion.... The girl and the boy must learn that there is something in the ocean higher than its waves—namely, a Christ who calls upon them."77Richter, Levana. On the religious teaching especially which is given to children much depends, and those who guide them should often begin by searching and reconsidering their own beliefs. Many a promising life is marred because youth in its wonder and sincerity was taught no living faith in God, or was thrust into the mould of some narrow creed which had more in it of human bigotry than of divine reason and love.
"What shall be the ordering of the child?" is Manoah's prayer, and it is well if simply expressed. The child's way needs ordering. Circumstances must be understood that discipline may fit the young life for its part. In our own time this represents a serious difficulty. What to do with children, how to order their lives is the pressing question in thousands of homes. The scheme of education in favour shows little insight, little esteem for the individuality of children, which is of as much value in the case of the backward as of those who are lured and goaded into distinction. To broaden life, to give it many points of interest is well. Yet on the other hand how much depends on discipline, on limitation and concentration, the need of which we are apt to forget. Narrow and limited was the life of Israel when Samson was born into it. The boy had to be what the nation was, what Zorah was, what Manoah and his wife were. The limitations of the time held him and the secluded life of Dan knowing but one article of patriotic faith, hatred of the Philistines. Was there so much of restriction here as to make greatness impossible? Not so. To be an Israelite was to have a certain moral advantage and superiority. It was not a barren solidarity, a dry ground in which this new life was planted; the sprout grew out of a living tree; traditions, laws full of spiritual power made an environment for the Hebrew child. Through the limitations, fenced and guided by them, a soul might break forth to the upper air. It was not the narrowness of Israel nor of his own home and upbringing but the licence of Philistia that weakened the strong arm and darkened the eager soul of the young Danite. Are we now to be afraid of limitations, bent on giving to youth multiform experience and the freest possible access to the world? Do we dream that strength will come as the stream of life is allowed to wander over a whole valley, turning hither and thither in a shallow and shifty bed? The natural parallel here will instruct us, for it is an image of the spiritual fact. Strength not breadth is the mark at which education should be directed. The intellectually and morally strong will find culture waiting them at every turn of the way and will know how to select, what to appropriate. In truth there must be first the moral power gained by concentration, otherwise all culture—art, science, literature, travel—proves but a Barmecide feast at which the soul starves.
The special method of training for the child Samson is described in the words, "He shall be a Nazirite unto God." The mother was to drink no strong drink nor eat any unclean thing. Her son was to be trained in the same rigid abstinence; and always the sense of obligation to Jehovah was to accompany the austerity. The hair neither cut nor shaven but allowed to grow in natural luxuriance was to be the sign of the separated life. For the hero that was to be, this ascetic purity, this sacrament of unshorn hair were the only things prescribed. Perhaps there was in the command a reference to the godless life of the Israelites, a protest against their self-indulgence and half-heathen freedom. One in the tribe of Dan would be clear of the sins of drunkenness and gluttony at least, and so far ready for spiritual work.
Now it is notable enough to find thus early in history the example of a rule which even yet is not half understood to be the best as well as the safest for the guidance of appetite and the development of bodily strength. The absurdities commonly accepted by mothers and by those who only desire some cover for the indulgence of taste are here set aside. A hero is to be born, one who in physical vigour will distinguish himself above all, the Hercules of sacred history. His mother rigidly abstains, and he in his turn is to abstain from strong drink. The plainest dieting is to serve both her and him—the kind of food and drink on which Daniel and his companions throve in the Chaldean palace. Surely the lesson is plain. Those who desire to excel in feats of strength speak of their training. It embraces a vow like the Nazirites, wanting indeed the sacred purpose and therefore of no use in the development of character. But let a covenant be made with God, let simple food and drink be used under a sense of obligation to Him to keep the mind clear and the body clean, and soon with appetites better disciplined we should have a better and stronger race.
It is not of course to be supposed that there was nothing out of the common in Samson's bodily vigour. Restraint of unhealthy and injurious appetite was not the only cause to which his strength was due. Yet as the accompaniment of his giant energy the vow has great significance. And to young men who incline to glory in their strength, and all who care to be fit for the tasks of life the significance will be clear. As for the rest whose appetites master them, who must have this and that because they crave it, their weakness places them low as men, nowhere as examples and guides. One would as soon take the type of manly vigour from a paralytic as from one whose will is in subjection to the cravings of the flesh.
It soon becomes clear in the course of the history that while some forms of evil were fenced off by Naziritism others as perilous were not. The main part of the devotion lay in abstinence, and that is not spiritual life. Here is one who from his birth set apart to God is trained in manly control of his appetites. The locks that wave in wild luxuriance about his neck are the sign of robust physical vigour as well as of consecration. But, strangely, his spiritual education is not cared for as we might expect. He is disciplined and yet undisciplined. He fears the Lord and yet fears Him not. He is an Israelite but not a true Israelite. Jehovah is to him a God who gives strength and courage and blessing in return for a certain measure of obedience. As the Holy God, the true God, the God of purity, Samson knows Him not, does not worship Him. Within a certain limited range he hears a divine voice saying, "Thou shalt not," and there he obeys. But beyond is a great region in which he reckons himself free. And what is the result? He is strong, brave, sunny in temper as his name implies. But a helper of society, a servant of divine religion, a man in the highest sense, one of God's free men Samson does not become.
So is it always. One kind of exercise, discipline, obedience, virtue will not suffice. We need to be temperate and also pure, we need to keep from self-indulgence but also from niggardliness if we are to be men. We have to think of the discipline of mind and soul as well as soundness of body. He is only half a man, however free from glaring faults and vices, who has not learned the unselfishness, the love, the ardour in holy and generous tasks which Christ imparts. To abstain is a negative thing; the positive should command us—the highest manhood, holy, aspiring, patient, divine.
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