The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
We cannot read the book of Exodus without being struck by the number of things which we are not to do. These detailed and emphatic prohibitions we may regard under the name of negative commandments. We are not left to ourselves in any instance to determine a case of doubt; from beginning to end the Divine voice is clear, and direct, and final in its tone. These negative commandments are interesting upon every ground; but perhaps especially so as revealing human nature to itself. When we hear a command to do, or not to do, we hear in that command a voice which startles us into a new consciousness of our own nature and quality. To be told not to do certain things is now considered equivalent to a kind of affront—assuming it possible that we could do such things as are thus forbidden. We are annoyed, we are excited in a hostile way, at the very thought of it being supposed that we could have done these things which a high legislation attempts elaborately and penally to forbid. We must, however, think ourselves back to the time of day at which all these negative and positive commandments were given. We do not find them in the New Testament, because it is there assumed that we have attained that moral sensitiveness and that spiritual responsiveness which render it entirely unnecessary that we, with many centuries of civilisation culminating in our experience and history, should be forbidden to do certain things.
Take some instances, and use them especially as showing what human nature is apart from Divine direction and continual and gracious supervision.
Who, for example, would imagine that such a commandment as this could be given to any people who profess to know anything about the true God?
"Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him" ( Exodus 22:21).
Is it possible to vex a stranger? Does not the very fact of his being a stranger entitle him to generous hospitality? to a kind construction of his mistakes? Ought we not to be ready to turn his ignorance into wisdom and his inexperience to certainty of knowledge? Yet is it not true that man can vex a brother man who is a stranger and oppress him? Is it not done every day? Is it not one of the tricks by which we live? Do we not pride ourselves upon being too quick for the stranger, or knowing more than he knows? and do we not turn our knowledge to our own advantage and to his personal loss? Why, in this command from Heaven, we have the beginning of the great Gospel of Christ. To God there are no strangers. And to ourselves there would have been no strangers had we been faithful to God. Why all this strangeness? Simply because we have become estranged from the Father of us all. The strangeness began between man and God, not between man and Prayer of Manasseh, and not until we are right with God can we be right with one another. We may make arrangements for momentary convenience; we may consult public sentiment and study the bearing and influence of public doubts in relation to one another; but we cannot be as one heart, and one soul, until we are one with God through Jesus Christ his Son. You cannot permanently tinker the world; there is no rent in it that can be filled up with material at man"s command. The disease is desperate, vital, and only God, the Physician that is in Gilead, can find the healing for the disease infinite and unspeakable. But the command is a looking-glass. A man looking into it may see himself, see what he would do under given circumstances. The assumptions of the text are impeachments; put those impeachments into words, and how stands the great accusation? Thus: you would vex a stranger if you could; you would oppress a stranger if you could do so with impunity. You perhaps think you would not, but the deepest reading of human nature gives this as a result of the study of the human constitution that none can be so savage as man; there is not a beast in the field or in the forest that can equal man in cruelty. We talk about savage beasts and cruel and fierce creatures made to devour one another; but there is no cruelty so terrible, so unsparing, so pitiless, as the cruelty of the human heart. That is the accusation; we must leave the proof to human consciousness and to human history. We understand how men revolt from the suggestion, and how they cover up their passions by paying compliments to own their tenderness and sensibility; but the mischief is—the subtle and tremendous mischief is—that our very tenderness may be a calculation, our very tears may be shed as an investment for our own benefit. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked."
Akin to this commandment there is another. The tender words are these:—
"Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child" ( Exodus 22:22).
This is the Gospel of Christ in the book of Exodus. This is God the Father. There is a majestic solemnity in his voice that is full of ineffable tenderness. This is the Father of all. Would men afflict the widow, or the fatherless child? The answer must be frank and direct, and that answer will be in the affirmative. Who speaks for the widow?—God; and the orphan?—God. Then be cheerful, take heart again; the Orator who speaks for you is God. There are no fatherless children in the deepest sense of that term. As for the fathers we have had after the flesh, they themselves were children, as were their fathers and all their ancestors. There is only one Father. Let us take hold of hands and make a great ring round the family centre and say—holding each tremulously, lusty manhood, thriving childhood—timidly and lispingly,—"Our Father which art in heaven." Given the time when men shall say so with a sound heart, with an undivided mind, with a loyal and constant affection, and then find the angel who can tell where earth ends and heaven begins. Wondrous it is—yea, more and more so—that there should be found any friendless people, poor lonely destitute people, who do not love the Bible. Find me in it one text that does not warn the rich man to take care, for he is standing upon a very slippery place, and when he does slip he plunges a long way down. Find one text in all the glowing volume that rebukes the poor, that is hard with the struggling, that smites the penitent man in the face, that forbids a little child to trouble the Jehovah of the universe. Weakness, poverty, helplessness, homelessness, disease, pain, hunger, thirst—these are thy clients, thou Servant of us all.
Changing the place altogether, you will find another commandment of a tone somewhat startling and surprising.
"Thou shalt not revile the gods... of thy people" ( Exodus 22:28).
This is a passage difficult to understand and impossible fully to explain. In other places, we find idols broken, temples erected to forbidden names thrown down, as by great thunders, and lightnings, and strong winds blowing contempt from eternity upon the petty creations of the debased religious imagination. Yet consistently with all this there is to be no reviling of gods. This is a subtle lesson. Mock no man"s religion—point out the inadequacy of it, show the vanity of the small idolatrous form, remark with pungency, if you please, upon its grotesqueness and its helplessness; but confine your remarks to the visible thing. That can be treated in this way with obvious reasonableness; but the religious instinct lies deeper than you have yet realised if you have been confining your attention to the mere forms of idol worship. The religion is beyond the idol,—above it, below it, away from it. The idol itself is a mere symbol to typify the inexpressible infinite. You do not convert men by mocking their convictions, by reviling them on account of their mistakes. Do what you please with the opprobrious idol—lift it up to prove how little it is in weight; set it down to show how helpless it is in your hand; throw it over to show that it cannot defend itself; but you have not treated the whole case in its entire scope and reality by thus treating the merely visible form of a religious conviction. Men may be mistaken in their convictions of a religious kind; show them the truth; live the truth; illustrate the possibility of living perfect, lofty, noble lives; create a religious wonder in the observer of your life as to the range of motive by which your conduct is mellowed and impelled; so live that you cannot be accounted for, except on the basis that you are living, moving, and having your being in God. Thus, and not by fluent mockery will men be drawn from their own mistakes to partake of the convictions which are as rational as they are beneficent. There is no poor suppliant crying to idols and praying to the empty and mocking wind that does not prove by that very act the mysterious, the Divine origin of the heart that can thus make such egregious mistakes. They are the mistakes of a Divine creation: they are not the petty mistakes of human ignorance. In the plunge of idolatry there is the apostacy of one almost God. It is a rush into a darkness from which any mere beast would flee in terror. Do not mock conviction; do not revile mistakenness of apprehension. Do what you please with the mere idol and with the transient ceremony; be even angry with these,—yea, destructively angry,—but find out in them an instinct, an emotion, a mystery to which you must address yourselves, not in the language of taunt, but in the language of sympathy, with a burning desire to redeem from prostitution an instinct which makes humanity.
"Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil" ( Exodus 23:2).
Can a multitude do evil? One soul may stray, but can a whole multitude go away from the light and make itself houses in forbidden places? Can the majority be wrong? There is a sense in which the majority is at this moment against Christ. I would not count it so; rather would I see Christ in many disguises; but I should know it to be the very Christ, whatever the disguise which concealed the dignity. Christ has been with men when men did not know it; their eyes have been holden that they should not see him; he has revealed himself to men under many concealments of a strange kind. There is more Christ in the world than we possibly may suppose. God is infinite; God fills all space, and yet takes up no room; God mingles with thinking, civilisation, action, and yet the human factors in all the mysterious action may be unaware of the Divine presence and impulse; but there has been an unveiling, a sudden revelation of the reality of the case. We are waiting for that millennial disclosure. What if some day God shall look right in the face of the very people who have been doubting or denying any relation to him, and should thus convince them that all the time they have had nothing that they have not received from himself? and what if they should also be surprised by the recollection of a warmth of the heart, a glow of the soul, they had never felt before, and should find in that fire the presence of the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob? God may be working in you without your knowing his name, or without your being at present able to trace the Divine action, as distinctly separate from human thinking. We are waiting for the day of Revelation, the morning of surprise, when we shall stand before God, saying, "Lo! thou wast with us and we knew it not. How solemn is every place which thou hast made!" But when the multitude does evil, we are not to follow it; we must stand still and protest against the evil; in other words, we must see the evil and not the multitude. Always put the emphasis upon the right word, in order to encourage yourself in good action and in straightforward conduct. The emphasis is not altogether upon the word multitude, it is upon the word evil; and we ought to ask God to be enabled so to pronounce the word evil as to feel revolt from everything which it implies and suggests.
Looking at these negative commandments, are we not surprised at the wonderful knowledge of human nature which they reveal? We cannot get away from them; we cannot plant ourselves right in front of them and say, "This is a misinterpretation of human nature." We cannot return the dreadful look of the eyes that shine out of this revelation; we feel that we are in the hands of a Legislator who knows us altogether, and who speaks to us not according to transient and accidental phases of human nature but in the totality of our being. This is the strength of the Bible, this is the vindication of the commandments: that they root themselves in our constitution, that they know us, and that we can only escape their pressure by telling lies to our own souls. Herein is the inspiration of the Book. Its portraiture of man is a portraiture without a blemish or a flaw. He who drew man so completely in every lineament of his image, in every emotion and sensibility of his nature, must have made the man whose portrait he has delineated.
These commandments also show the true relation of God to the human race. He is the Ruler. He enjoins, he forbids; he never comes with apology from the skies, or palliation of sternness, but with the majesty of right. Yet there is one little word in the midst of all these commandments full of sweetest gospel—a word that might have been found in one of the four Evangelists and that might have formed the text of every sermon preached by Apostolic wisdom and eloquence. The sentence you find in the twenty-second chapter and the twenty-seventh verse: "For I am gracious"—a word we cannot do without We cannot explain it, yet we feel that it fills all space in human necessity and consciousness which no other word can fill. This is the defence of the commandments: that they are not arbitrary expressions of mere sovereignty of will and position in the universe, but that they, though commandments, are expressions of grace, mercy, pity, love. The very Spirit of the Cross is in the commandment. Sinai is but one phase of Calvary.
We try to evade many of these commandments on the plea that they were not addressed to us. It is a hollow plea; it is in fact a lie. We turn away from the commandments, saying, with an explanatory gesture, that we are not Jews. We are, if we are in Christ; if we have any love for Christ; if we feel that we must follow in some fashion the way and method of the Son of God. The Christian is a Jew plus. Christianity is the fruition of Judaism. The blood of the One Priest that abideth for ever and hath an unchangeable priesthood gathers up in its redness all the meaner blood which typified and prophesied its shedding. As well may the oak say "I am not an acorn" as Christianity say "I am not Judaism." We cannot have the two Testaments torn asunder as though they had no relation one to the other. The New Testament would have been impossible but for the Old Testament. The song uttered in heaven is the song of Moses and the Lamb. "The law came by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Yet Jesus Christ said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil." If he did not recite these negative commandments, it was because he came to put within us a Spirit, a Paraclete, that should abide for ever, whose presence was a law, whose operation in the soul was a daily instruction in righteousness and Wisdom of Solomon, in love and pureness, in which he may stand above the commandments and treat them as an obsolete letter—who has entered into the Spirit of Christ, and who is breathing in his daily life the obedience to which earlier men had to struggle through many an effort, and in struggling towards which they effected many a mournful failure. God never tells us to trust our moral instinct; God never assumed that the child could find its own way through a universe which it had darkened by its sin. He wrote down every line, made it complete; he wrote a detailed and complete specification of duty, service, action, and worship; if any of us have outlived the mere letter and need it no more, praised be God for a spiritual education which has delivered us from the bondage of the letter and led us into a nobler bondage of the heart, a sweet servitude of the soul, a glorious slavery, a glorious liberty.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Exodus 22". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25