Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Numbers 34

Verses 1-29

Boundaries

Numbers 34:1-12

Life is marked all over with boundary lines. Two different views may be taken of such lines,—that is to say, in the first place they may be regarded as limitations and partial impoverishments, or, in the next place, they may be regarded as defining rights and liberties, possessions and authorities. Thus, the low view or the high view may be taken of everything in life. Men will work according to their imagination—their noblest faculty. Where that is dull, everything will be dull; even God could not sow stars in the leaden firmament of a dull imagination. Where that noblest faculty is alive, bright, daring, devout, all labour will be rest, all pain will be a pledge of reward nobly won. Song of Solomon, we may make the boundaries of life cages, prisons,—very serious and depressing limitations; or we may accept those boundaries as a pledge, a seal of inheritance,—standards and lines to be appealed to when our claim to stand in the lineal sonship of God is questioned or disputed. Very subtle and delicate things are boundaries oftentimes. They are invisible. Are not all the greatest things invisible, as well as the best and most delicate and tender? Show the line of love. There is no line to show. It is at this point that conscience comes into active play. Where the conscience is dull, or imperfectly educated, or selfish, there will be much dispute about boundaries; but where the conscience is sanctified by the power of the Cross and is alive with the righteousness of God, there will be no controversy, but large concession, noble interpretation, willingness to give, to take, to arrange and settle, without the severity of the law or the cruelty of the sword. Sometimes we say,—Let a certain line be imagined. We put imaginary lines upon the very globe itself; the points of the compass cannot touch the lines, yet they are there, present to the spiritual sight, quite open and intelligible to the sanctified conscience. And rights of an imperial and enduring kind are based upon what may be called imaginary lines. Sometimes we are brought very near to the territories of others; it requires more than the naked eye to distinguish between mine and thine in some cases; the approach is very close; the naked eye could see no difference. There are men who have nothing but a naked eye, nothing but a naked hand; they have not the lens of heaven, or the touch that breaks the few loaves into a great feast; rough, heartless men, seizing everything, but enjoying nothing,—slaves of their own cupidity. Many a controversy may arise as to boundary in this matter, because the lines do appear to run into one another: a sword could not divide them; the finest edge ever made by most skilled workers in iron could not part them asunder; but there is a sword that can do so—not iron or steel, but the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, written in the book and set in the heart,—a wonderful tone that gives vision to conscience, the marvellous perception which is a miracle of God in the intellectual and moral constitution of human nature.

What differences there are in boundaries! We read of one, in the seventh verse, whose boundary was "from the great sea"; in the twelfth verse, "the goings out of it shall be at the salt sea." There is so much sea in some people"s limited possession. What a boundary is the inhospitable sea! We cannot cut it up into acres, and lay it out; we cannot sow it with wheat, and reap the harvest, and enjoy the bread; it is to most of us but a spectacle—great, melancholy, unresponsive, pitiless; a liquid emblem of cruel death. Is not this the case with many men? They know they have great possessions, but their greatness is not the measure of their value. A little garden-plot would be to some men more valuable, for purposes of living, than the freehold of the Atlantic. Sometimes men are born to great estates that have nothing in them—boundless nothings; a proprietorship of infinite bogs and wastes and unanswering sterilities; sand that cannot be ploughed, water that cannot be sown with seed, and bogs that cannot be built upon. Contrast with such allotments the words of music which you find in the fifteenth verse: "toward the sunrising." That is an inheritance worth having! The morning sun blesses it: early in the morning all heaven"s glory is poured out upon it with the hospitality of God; whatever is planted in it grows almost instantly; the flowers love to be planted there; all the roots of the earth would say,—Put us in this place of the morning sun, and we will show you what we can do in growth and fruitfulness; give us the chance of the sun, and then say what we really are. We cannot all have our estates "toward the sunrising"; we cannot wholly cut off the north and the north-east—the shady side of the hill: somebody must be there. Does God plant a tabernacle in such sunless districts? Is there any temple of God in the north-lands, where the storm blows with a will and the tempests seem to have it all their own way, rioting in their tumultuous strength, and, as it were, accosting one another in reduplications of infinite thunderings and roarings of whirlwinds? Even there God"s footprint may be found. Even a little may be so held as to be much. Quite a small garden may grow stuff enough for a whole household. Gardens like to be cunningly handled, lovingly arranged, quite embraced with love;—then the least plot of land looks up smilingly, and says,—You have treated me to the best of your ability; if there had been more sun, we should have been as good as any other land in the world; still, let us be friends; till me, culture me, sow me with seed,—do what you can for me, and my answer shall be the brightest answer of love that is in my power to return. Yield not to dejection. Some must live in the north; some must be towards the bleak quarter. Is it not possible for us to have joy in the recollection of the fact, that brothers of ours are living in the south, and that on their gardens, if not on ours, the morning looks with benediction and heavenliness and approbation?

We cannot get rid of boundaries. Never listen to those who talk about equality—simply because you have no time to waste. Equality is impossible. If we were all equal one day, we should all be unequal before the sun went down. Let us listen only to the truly reasonable in this matter. There is something better than outward and nominal equality, and that is an intelligent appreciation of the fact that there must be differences of personality and allotment and responsibility, and that in the end the judgment will be divine in its righteousness. We find boundaries in gifts of all kinds. "Why do you not paint a picture for the Royal Academy?" Suppose a great artist put this inquiry to me, I should reply,—"Nothing would give me much greater pleasure that is of an intellectual kind." Then the artist may say,—"Why do you not realise your ideal of high enjoyment? "I answer interrogatively,—"How can I?" He replies cordially,—"I will find the canvas, I will mix the colours, I will supply the brushes—now what hinders you to be baptised, and to rise an artist?" Why talk about equality? I would rise an artist in a moment, if I could, but it is impossible; my brother must be artist: enough for me I may be but preacher. So I say to him,—"Why do you not preach?" He says,—"I would like to." "Then why do you not? I will find the church and a pulpit and a Bible—why not be baptised, and rise a Voice?" He cannot: it is not born in him; another good gift of God is his, and it is a great gift; and it is not becoming in us that we should put our gifts in hostile opposition to one another, as if one were a gift of God and another a gift of some lower power. All boundaries and divisions and distributions are divine, and the acceptance of them is itself a religion. Why not write a book of exactly the same quality as Paradise Lost?—here is ink enough; what hindereth me to be baptised for poetic honours and Miltonic renown? I have as much right to the six-and-twenty letters of the alphabet as any poet whose brows were ever covered with bays and coronals. That is true. The poorest man is born to own as much of the sun as he can get hold of; the feeblest cripple may wave his crutch in the face of the heavens, and claim all the landscape; but we are limited, distributed, set in our places. One star differeth from another star in glory: one man differeth from another man in mental scope and force. Why rebel? Why call God"s attention to the fact that my boundary on the one side is nothing but a great sea, and I have not a piece of south-looking land in all my little estate? And why aggravate my discontent by pointing to the largeness of my brother"s inheritance, and the sunniness of the aspect which his dwelling-house commands? There is a better policy—a noble and devout emotion—which says,—Not my will, thou great boundary-maker, thou God of allotment and distribution, but thine be done. The tortoise may beat the hare; the poor widow may do more excellently than all the rich men in the city. As for being little, Jesus took a "little child," and set him in the midst of the disciples and said,—This is the standard of greatness; it were better for a man that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Look for the bright spots; add up all the excellences; totalise the attractions of the situation; and it is wonderful how things add up when you know how to add them.

So we have boundaries in general character. Sometimes, one man is nearly as good as another. Sometimes the son is almost mistaken for the father, in point of genuine excellence, benevolence, and thorough goodness of soul; still, he is not his father; he never will be so princely and so good, because there is not so much of him to work upon; he is a less man altogether. Why are not men equal in good, equal in power of prayer, equal in willingness in the direction of self-sacrifice? Why is it hard for some men to pray? Why do they fall down in some pitiable fit if they try to pray aloud and in the hearing of others? That miracle never can be wrought. Suggest to some men that they should pray in public, and instantly they reply in expressions of wonder too profound for words. Who made these differences? Are all these things indications of chance, haphazard, mere experiment, without reason for a centre or probability for an issue? What if the attentive eye should see the divine hand in all these appointments, and, recognising that hand, should touch it reverently and say to it,—O hand of the Lord, arrange everything for me: be my hand: when I write, take hold of my hand with thine, and let us write together; and when war comes upon me, let thine hand be outstretched in my protection and defence!

Boundary is disciplinary. Who would not like to add just one more shelf to his library, and could do it if he were at liberty to take the books from another man"s study? Who does not desire to have just the corner plot to make the estate geometrically complete, and would do it if the owner of the plot were not looking? But to retire within your own boundary!—to have nothing but a ditch between you and the vineyard you covet! Who is stopped by a ditch? To have nothing but one thin, green hedge between proprietorship actual and proprietorship desired! Why not burn the hedge, or transfer it? "Whoso breaketh an hedge, a serpent shall bite him,"—saith the Proverbs, of Solomon. To be kept within our own lines, to build our altar steadily there, and to bow down at that altar, and confess that "The earth is the Lord"s, and the fulness thereof," and that, whether a man has much or little, he may be God"s child, God"s servant, and Christ"s apostle;—that is the highest discipline, and it is possible to every man.

Boundaries are suggestive. Every boundary, rightly-inter-preted, means: Your last estate will be a very little one—a grave in the cemetery, a tomb in the silent place. Does it come to this, that the man who wanted acres a thousand in number doubled lies down in six feet, or seven, by four? Can a carpenter measure him for his last house? Does there come a time when a man steals quietly upstairs with a two-foot measure, and afterwards hurries out to build for him in the eventide his last dwelling-place? It is impossible to exclude this thought from all our best reasoning. There is no need to be mawkish, sentimental, foolishly melancholy about it; but there is the fact, that there is an appointed time to man upon the earth, as well as an appointed place to man upon the earth, and that he is the wise man who looks at that certain fact and conducts himself wisely in relation to it. Men have the power of closing their eyes and not seeing the end, but to close the eyes is not to destroy the inevitable boundary. Even the grave can be made beautiful. A man may so live that when he is laid in his grave other men may go to see the tomb, and bedew it with tears, and even stoop down and touch it with a loving hand as if it were a living thing.

Then comes the other thought immediately upon this gloomy one, saying,—The man is not there: he is risen; he has entered the boundless land, where every man may have as much as he can receive, and still feel that he has not begun to realise the infinite possibilities of immortal life. Our Christian contention Isaiah, that any man who lives under the inspiration of all these thoughts is living a wise life; he can defend himself by reasoning without a flaw, by eloquence noble, persuasive, dignified. There is the difficulty of living up to this ideal;—there is the blessed satisfaction of knowing that we never can live up to it. Let us take comfort in our inability as well as in our ability. Who can overtake his prayers? When the mocker says,—Could the suppliant live his prayers, he would be a noble Prayer of Manasseh,—it is Hebrews, not the suppliant, who talks irrationally and foolishly. Our prayers are our impossible selves: our prayers are the selves we would be if we could. To have our life set in their direction is itself a conquest; and that conquest is possible to all of us. Poor life! Some seem to have nothing; they wonder why they live; their bread is bitter; and as for the water they drink, there is hardly enough of it to touch the fire of their thirst; they think they do not want much, and they suppose they could do with a good deal more than they have. Who is right—the distributing God or the receiving man? In whose hand does ail this business lie? The Christian doctrine Isaiah, that it lies in the hands of God, and that he will withhold no good thing from them that walk uprightly; and the motto he has written upon his broad heavens is this: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you;" and they are the mighty preachers—voices sent from eternity—who can read that writing, pronounce it accurately, and so utter it as to bring men to thought, to reason, to prayer.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 34". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/numbers-34.html. 1885-95.