The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
The Drowning of Pharaoh
"What, still talking about miracles? We thought that faith in miracles had been given up long ago by intelligent men." Some such expression as this would not be unnatural from certain quarters. The answer is that "intelligent men" are just beginning to believe in miracles. They are nearly always the last men to come round to great conceptions and noble spiritual realisations. But even "intelligent men" are stirring themselves with somewhat of reluctance in the direction which we should term spiritual and evangelical. All the greatest books that are being written to-day, upon what would once have been called the hostile side, force upon their readers the consciousness of a hunger which nothing in time or space can satisfy—a voracity of the soul. We may be more or less sated after having read arguments upon which we have been nourished for a lifetime, but we are pinched with gnawing and agonising hunger after perusing the pages which were intended to tell us all that can be told. Did the miracles as here reported actually occur? Why not? You can only be puzzled by a miracle when you are puzzled by a God. If your conception of God were like mine, no miracle that ever was reported could touch the region of impossibility. No wonder men are troubled, even to perplexity and sore distress of heart, by Song of Solomon -called miracles, when they have not acquainted themselves deeply with the power and spirit and purpose of God. The study is begun at the wrong point. To me it is easier to believe that the miracles occurred than that they could not have occurred. The difficulty from my point of view is wholly on the other side. Whether they did historically occur or not is not the immediate question. To me, I repeat, it is easier, with my conception of God, to believe that the miracles could have occurred than that it was impossible for them to occur. Everything turns upon our conception of the Worker of the miracles. We do not begin at the miracle itself. We begin with the Teacher, the Worker, the realised Jehovah, or the incarnate Logos. Having first entered into fellowship, we next pass into faith. Knowing by the penetration and sympathy of love what the spirit of the Worker Isaiah, we have no difficulty. We pass with him into all his action, and when the action is mightiest our rest is deepest, because the proportion between the Worker and the work impresses the mind with a sense of infinite harmony. The greater the miracle the easier to believe in it. The greatest miracle must be infinitely less than the Worker who accomplished it. If ever faith falters it must be because the miracle is too small. The great miracle challenges our best self like the trumpet of resurrection; as the miracle increases in volume and grandeur, in pomp and nobleness, something within us hitherto unknown rises and claims kinship with the Worker of that stupendous wonder. This was curiously illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ. When the people fell into unbelief it was because the miracle was of what may be termed a commonplace character,—that is to say, some possible explanation of jugglery might in some degree account for it To open the eyes of the blind might be some trick of magic; but the man himself stood up and said,—"Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind." He seized the true emphasis and meaning of the action. To open the eyes of the blind might be accounted for by some species of cleverness or legerdemain; but, says the man: "I was born blind; I believe this miracle, not because it is little but because it is great." Thus man is made to know subtly and profoundly that he was created in the image and likeness of God, and when God Isaiah, so to say, most God, man realises his human grandeur as he can realise it under no other circumstances. To heal the bruised or broken joint might be some successful trick in occult surgery; there might be pretence about it. We allow a miracle of that kind to pass under our review without being deeply moved by it,—it comes not up to the level of our truest grandeur; but when a dead man is raised—one who has been four days in the grave—when he comes forth, a new feeling seizes the mind, and because the miracle enlarges and ennobles itself, we rise with corresponding and harmonious dignity of conception and sympathy. It is only, therefore, where the miracle is supposedly little or imitable, or commonplace, that faith hardly cares to stoop to take up a trifle so insignificant. The soul of man being really roused, and burning through and through with a celestial fire, asks for infinite miracles,—asks for God. Grow in grace, and you will take up all the minor miracles as very little things, and yearn in sweet and ardent prayer for the greatest of all miracles—the conscious presence of the Living God.
But there is another mode of treatment which we have not in these pastoral studies hesitated to adopt, which will enable us to seize the supernatural element with a firmer hand.
Let us in the first instance always inquire into the moral doctrine of these unusual events: asking what is the underlying truth, what the spiritual and moral meaning the narration of the exciting incidents is intended to convey to us. Having discovered the intent of the writer we shall have no difficulty about the romantic or amazing incidents. This is what we do with a parable, and a parable is a miracle in imagination. The great miracle has about it the touch and the mystery of the marvellous. It is not an off-hand thought It is reason at its best; or, to speak figuratively, it is reason on wings,—no longer walking on the narrow earth but flying in the unmeasured heaven. We do not force a parable into literal meanings at every point; we ask, What is its central intent or meaning? and having seized that we treat all the outward and literal as decorative, suggestive, or merely incidentally helpful; but we do not risk the truth because of the peculiarity of the medium of its conveyance.
"And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night:
"He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people" ( Exodus 13:21-22).
What is the great doctrine of that expression?
This:—The consciousness of the Divine presence is in proportion to the circumstances in which we are placed. In other words, our circumstances determine our consciousness of the Divine nearness. Sometimes life is all day—almost a summer day with great spans of blue sky overhead, and where the clouds gather they gather in beautiful whiteness, as of purity akin to the holiness of the inner and upper cities of the universe. Then what do we want with fiery displays of God?—they would be out of keeping, out of reason and out of proportion. There are days that are themselves so bright, so hospitable, so long ending, and so poetic in all their breezes, and suggestions, and ministries that we seem not to want any dogmatic teaching about the personality and nearness of God. All beauty represents him. Any more emphatic demonstration would be out of harmony with the splendid serenity of the occasion. Then there are periods in life all night, all darkness, all storm or weariness. We cannot say where the door of liberty Isaiah, nor dare we step out lest we fall over a precipice; all is dark, all is trouble; friends are as absent as if they were dead, and all the sanctuaries to which we have hitherto resorted are concealed by the infinite darkness. What do we want then? A bird to sing to us? That would be helpful. A little tiny voice to break the troubled silence? That would not be amiss. But what do we really want? A column of fire, a pillar of glory, an emphatic incarnation and vision of Providence; and the soul gets both these manifestations of God according to the circumstances under which the soul is living. Take it, therefore, simply as an analogy, and then it is a rational analogy; it is true to every man"s experience. And if the pillar of cloud and fire should drop off, there will remain the eternal truth, that according to the soul"s circumstances is the Divine revelation of itself. Where the visible is enough why add more? A man should not want much theology of a formal sort on a bright summer day. Some little tuft of cloud will represent the Infinite. Some almost invisible wing in the air—more a thought than a thing—hardly to be identified by the bodily eye, will symbolise the all-embracing power and the all-brooding love. Then at night we want what is called dogmatic teaching, broad emphasis, piercing declaration, vividness that cannot be mistaken, God almost within the clasping of the poor arms, God almost in sight of the eyes of the body. Thus God deals with us. This is true to our history. The mere cloud may go, the pillar of fire may be accepted as figurative; but the eternal truth that God comes to us in different ways under different circumstances—now as a cloud, now as a fire, now as a judgment, now as without mercy, now a roaring tempest, now a still small voice,—is a truth that remains whatever havoc may be wrought amid the mere figurativeness by which that truth is symbolised.
Then the cloud went behind the Israelites and separated between the camp of the chosen people and the camp of the Egyptians. That is occurring every day. Our circumstances have different readings from different points of view. It is possible for a life to be so lived that the enemy shall be afraid of it. The enemy shall say, "I do not understand this people; there is a mystery about them, say what you please, criticise them night and day with all possible sharpness and severity; there is a magic ring around them; there are circumstances attendant upon them which are the more perplexing in that they sometimes seem to be disasters: now we say, "Everything is against them," and presently the very things we thought to be against them turn out rather to the furtherance of their purposes." This is a mystery; and thus the Divine Providence turns a different view upon the Church and the world, the son and the alien, the family and the rebel-camp. So long, therefore, as these central truths can be attested and positively verified, why should we fritter away a splendid occasion by a petty criticism of mere figure, and robe, and parabolic symbol and representation? Thus, take it from the literal side, take it from the imaginative and parabolical, my faith has no difficulty whatever with the miracles, except when they are small. It rises to their majesty. The greater they arc the more will every Nicodemus be compelled even at night time to steal out and say to the Worker, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him." Mark how Nicodemus fixed upon the quality of the miracles—the miracles that separated themselves from the magician"s wonders of heathen or cultivated lands.
"And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken, us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness" ( Exodus 14:11-12).
That is a miracle in very deed! That is the marvel that astounds the reason, the heart, the imagination, and the conscience. That is the miracle which grieves Heaven. "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for the Lord hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me." That is the upsetting of the law of continuity. That is the violation of things permanent. That is an ugly and wicked twist in the movement of the law which you call "the persistence of force." After all they had seen,—after all the miracles of love, and grace, and deliverance, and comfort,—after all they had known of the government of God,—they turned round with so base a falseness and smote, as with darts seven times whetted, the heart of Moses their leader. That is the impossible miracle. How mean we are and paltry in our judgment and in thinking that the dividing of a sea or the breaking up of a firmament is the impossible thing, when every day we are working in our own degree and region moral miracles that make the breaking up and reconstruction of the universe mere child"s fancy and child"s play. Why do we not fix our attention upon moral incongruities,—violations of moral law, rebellion against natural instinct? He who smites his father or his mother violates every law of nature with a more forceful and violent hand than the God who interferes or intervenes in his own infinite machine—the universe—to do what pleaseth him for the good of his creatures. We like little intellectual puzzles;—we flee away because "conscience makes cowards of us all," from the violations of moral law of which we are guilty. We love to speak of "continuity,"—it costs us nothing; it does not wring the conscience, it does not set up a bar of judgment in the life; it has a bold resonance which we can utter without moral expense or agony; therefore we play upon it; it delights our intellectual vanity. When we come to ourselves we shall know that we have sinned against Heaven and against ourselves and are no more worthy to be called children. In the sublime agony we shall forget all physical miracles in the stupendous wonder that we have grieved the Father"s heart.
"And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters Were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left" ( Exodus 14:22).
Did they really do this? Why not? Suppose we set aside the miraculous incident for a moment and ask: What does the writer mean to convey by this high imagining? He means to convey this lesson, namely, that a way was found where a way was supposed to be impossible. Is that his meaning? Yes. If that is Song of Solomon, the doctrine is verifying and illustrating itself every day in the history of every man. This then is the true miracle:—that when our poor life has been driven up to a point from which there seemed to be no escape, God has shown an opening in the rock, or a way through the deep; and we who expected to perish because the way was ended have been enabled to enter upon larger liberties. Who will swear to that? I will. Ten thousand times ten thousand witnesses will avouch it. There will be no halting in that oath; and if you represent to us these deliverances as the breaking up of mountains, the dividing of seas, the cleaving in twain of deep and rapid-flowing rivers, we will say, "Pile up the parables, stir your imagination to some nobler figurativeness, for you can never by symbol, or dream, or romantic art, represent the whole truth which we have realised as to the delivering, protecting, preserving, redeeming providence of God."
Instead, therefore, of joining the unbelievers who waste life in trying to show that Almightiness cannot be Almighty, I prefer to begin the study from the other end and to say,—"Even if this be a figure, it is a happy one, for I have been in circumstances just of this very kind: the enemy behind me, the foe almost with his hand upon my weary back, and no way out of the difficulty has presented itself, and yet suddenly my extremity became God"s opportunity, and at a bound I was beyond the reach of the destroyer." We want personal testimony about matters of this kind. We want such incidents proved by modern consciousness and present-day facts. That can be done,—and is being done. When the Church rises as one man and repeats the challenge of the psalmist—"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul"—the critic will first have to prove us false in our character and in our spirit before he can prove us false in our theology and our worship. Do not find fault with the manner in which the truth itself is presented. To find fault with the mere manner of conveying the truth is foolish, is unjust. We should seek the truth, realise it, own it, and abide by it.
Leaving the merely miraculous line, these incidents show us human life in a state of panic and distress.
"When Pharaoh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians marched after them; and they were sore afraid: and the children of Israel cried out unto the Lord" ( Exodus 14:10).
How soon we are driven into a panic! In the very midst of our prayers we are startled into atheism. A sudden fear shoots through the soul, sometimes in the very act of intercession, and petrifies the holy aspiration, so that we rise from the altar worse than when we bended down before its sacred stones. The incidents show us human nature in a spirit of rebellion and ingratitude. "And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness?" How we are like staves that break in the hands of those who use them! There is but a step between the truest friendship and the bitterest enmity. The brother who adores you to-day will hate you tomorrow, if you cross his will or stain his pride. Here is human life in a condition of utter helplessness.
"Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord" ( Exodus 14:13).
These are noble times—times when we have to be everything by being nothing; days when our poor arms have to fall down at our sides unable to do the very simplest thing in the way of self-deliverance or self-extrication from difficulty. This threefold condition was the state of the world prior to the birth of Christ. The world was in a state of panic and distress; the spirit of rebellion and ingratitude urged itself against the heavens, it had exhausted every possible means of self-deliverance and self- Proverbs -gress, and could go no further. It had begun a circular movement, and in its helpless rotation was dying of monotony. Suddenly there was a voice heard:—"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men." History took a new turn from that day. Account for it as you please—again resent the miraculous and supernatural element,—there is the fact, that to-day men will do more for Jesus Christ than for any other leader. The men who know him best love him most, and have entered most profoundly into his spirit. Paul was not a weak Prayer of Manasseh,—Paul could take hold of an argument by both hands and weigh it, measure it, test it; Paul was a man who is proved by his mere style of writing and of speech to have been a man of great intellectual capacity as well as of fine moral quality,—a philosopher, a reasoner, a critic,—a man of most penetrating intellect and of ample judgment; and Hebrews, having approached this great miracle from the hostile side, left it at last, when he was old, bruised, stripped, almost dead, saying—"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judges, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." It was a philosopher who said, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." It was a critic who said, "I am crucified with Christ." It was an aristocrat of the highest Pharisaic blood who gathered together all pedigrees and genealogies and prides of families and said, "I do count them but dung, that I may win Christ." The Man who made such an impression on such a mind was himself a greater miracle than any wonder or sign which he performed before the imagination, the curiosity, or the unbelief of his contemporaries. Now unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, unto him be glory and dominion and all majesty day without end. Amen.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season front year to year"— Exodus 13:10.
Memory needs to be vivified.—We pursue this kind of practice in our own household life.—The recurring birthday is a recurring joy.—Every child in the family has its own method of celebrating its nativity.—Great mercies should create their own anniversaries.—It is well to sanctify our time by religious recollections and consecrations.—There is no need to fall into superstition in this matter.—We may be but sparing ourselves when we relax our religious discipline on the ground that religious observances may become superstitions.—Every act of life is capable of debasement; but it does not therefore follow that life should be without action, and particularity of observance and ceremonial. The Church is a help to remembrance, so is the ordinance of the Lord"s Supper.—We ourselves are at liberty to set up milestones by the road, and to set aside special days for the remembrance of particular acts of providential revelation and care.—Every line in the diary should have in it something of God.—There is a deep spiritual sense in which every day is a birthday, and every morning a new year.—They use time well who find in it many new points of newness—that Isaiah, chances of being better and opportunities of rendering wider service.—By indicating a special day, God lays down a law rather than fixes a technical statute: the law being that days may be marked according to their position in what may be termed the religious calendar—the diary of the soul.
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt: but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red sea: and the children of Israel went up harnessed out of the land of Egypt. And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you."— Exodus 13:17-19.
God"s mercy is continued beyond the mere act of deliverance.—God does not sit down outside the gate saying, "You are now free, do all the rest for yourselves."—Little acts follow great deeds in the wondrous economy of the Divine providence.—There is a preventative ministry in the government of life.—Near cuts to the goal are often dangerous cuts; to go across country instead of round by the proper circuit may appear to be very clever and successful, but it is only the cleverness and the success of suicide.—Do not consider that we are out of the road because the road seems to be longer than it might have been.—Often better to be in the wilderness than to be in the battlefield.—God so orders his providence that men have services to render which considerably assist the detection of the path of duty. The services may be of an incidental and indirect kind, and may not always be accredited with their proper bearing and influence in life.—Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.—The carriage of the bones of Joseph had much to do with the progress of Israel in the wilderness.—The solemnity of a vow was upon Israel.—A dying man had given a direct charge to the children of Israel and had received an oath, and that oath was amongst the people as an inspiration, an encouragement and a discipline.—God thus often charges our lives with sacred ministries which have an incidental bearing upon the steadiness of our course. We have made promises, or entered into engagements, or signed covenants, or done something which comes up again and again in the life and says, "You are bound to go forward; you cannot retreat without falsehood and cowardice."
"Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you."— Exodus 13:19.
A very simple thing it appears to be to us that Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.—The circumstance is full of poetry and moral significance.—Do not we all carry with us the bones of the past? This is the very pith of history.—If we did not take the past with us the present would be a continual disappointment,—a line coming and going without bringing with it any opportunity of service and enlargement of soul.—Much depends upon our conscious and intelligent relation to the past—We ought to have brought a good deal with us from all the centuries that are gone.—If we have come up out of them empty-handed, we have by so much turned the counsel of God to non-effect—Every wise heart is carrying up with it memories, vows, oaths, traditions, sacred impressions, and is under the responsibility of trusteeship to the future to be faithful to all the highest claims of the past. Poor is he who has no history behind him.—He becomes the victim of every combination of circumstances; the dupe of every tempter that assails his heart with unfamiliar and lying promises.—To carry up the past may steady our whole movement and give it dignity in times of fear and depression.—However little we may be in ourselves, we are charged as messengers of Heaven to carry on certain work and to connect transient periods of time and so assist in the consolidation of human history.—On the other hand we must guard against the worship of ancestry which is founded upon mere superstition.—We do not carry the bones of Joseph, we honour his service and redeem our own pledge.—What bones all Christians have to carry!—Think of all the heroes, witnesses, martyrs, and confessors of the past, and let the humblest Christian pilgrim realise that he has it distinctly in his charge to carry forward such histories and testimonies to the age that is to follow.—Whatever Israel carried through the wilderness derived importance from the fact that it was associated with the bones of Joseph.—Those bones kept Israel from going back to Egypt.—When Israel reeled in its purpose and thought of returning to the land of tyranny the question would arise again and again, What are we to do with the bones which we promised to carry up and to protect by burial in another land?—By many curious lines and ties does God bind us down to the fulfilment of our destiny.—The record is not all written in plain letters; many an invisible line now and then comes into sight to show us that under all the great letters which the naked eye can see there are writings and meanings which are only disclosed to patient waiting and scrutiny.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 13". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25