Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Numbers 9

Verses 1-23

The Journey of Life

Numbers 9:15-23

A very noble life! a wonderful sense of comfort and security in it; a marvellous childlikeness of spirit and trust, expectation and hope! We have not advanced beyond this. We may, in a sense, be cleverer, abler,—the production of a more intricate civilisation; but we have not advanced beyond this sweet trustfulness, this calm of heart, this religious and sacred tranquillity. There is no strain upon the imagination in thinking of life as a journey. That is one of the simplest and most beautiful figures by which the action of life can be represented, We are travellers; we are here but for a little time; on our feet are sandals and in our hands are staves; here we have no continuing city, and we are called upon to testify to the age that we seek a country out of sight. So then, we are familiar with the figure; it commends itself to us, as life enlarges, as quite expressive of the reality of the case;—every day a milestone, every year so much nearer the end. At first the miles appear so many and so long; then, at a certain period of life, the miles are but a handful, and as for their length, it is the one dimension of which they are destitute. To the child, the year is a life—a quite immeasurable quantity; to the man in mid-life and passing beyond a certain point, the year is a breath, a shadow, quickly flying,—it will be gone whilst we are talking about it; and in that mood of mind, how pensive and tender, how solemn and rousing, the music: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might."

Regarding life, then, as a journey, according to the pattern of this text, is there not a mysterious presence or influence in life which really affects our action? In the text that influence is spoken of as a cloud by day and a fire by night,—two striking natural images. Our controversy is not about the image, or the metaphor: behind it is there not this ever-abiding solemnity, that in life there is a mysterious action—a ministry we cannot comprehend, an influence we cannot overrule? At this moment we need not determine its name: at the outset of the inquiry there is no occasion to perplex the mind by a choice of religious terms; let us first admit that in life there is a mystery—a movement we cannot reckon in its totality, or fix in given boundaries; something that is greater than our thought, and that yet comes into it with illuminating and ennobling energy. We speak of "impression." When we think of changing our position in life, we say we have an impression. What is an impression? Who created it? Who determined its meaning? How do you account for the impression? Upon what is the impression made?—upon the mind, upon something subtler than itself, upon the consciousness, the soul, the spirit—the innermost man. That is a mystery! We will speak the non-religious language for the moment and talk of "impression." There you have a riddle, a difficulty; you cannot explain it. You have a consciousness of its presence; but how it came to be what it Isaiah, and how it came to act when it did, you cannot explain in words. Or we speak of "circumstances." We say that circumstances seem to point in this direction or in that. What are circumstances? Where do they begin? How do they sum themselves up into influence, or into definiteness? How many of them are required to constitute a determining presence in human life? Do we first make the circumstances and then worship them?—then we are but idolaters. De we create the conditions which we suppose are favourable to our thought and our destiny, and then, having created the conditions, regard them as significant of the course which we ought to take? In proportion as you create the circumstances, you must, in your inmost soul, distrust them. You know you shaped the course you follow; you know you first created the conditions, and then construed them so as to affect beneficially certain selfish issues. The reasoning is sophistical; the reasoning Isaiah, indeed, immoral. Having spoken about "impression" and "circumstances," we speak about another mysterious thing which has come to be known by the name of "tendency." We say the tendency of things is—; or the tendency of life seems to indicate—. We have created a species of rhythm, or harmonic movement, falling into which we say,—This is the sweep of tendency, and to resist tendency is impossible. How anxious we are to get rid of religious names! Men who will speak of impression, circumstances, and tendency, will hesitate before saying,—Providence, God, Father in heaven. Who is ashamed to speak about impression, circumstances, tendency? These are words we can use everywhere without committing ourselves to anything definite in the way of religious faith. Let the Church beware how it gives up the grand old names—God, Providence, heavenly direction, spiritual influence! We have exchanged these terms for a meaner currency. We must go back to them and not be afraid of the noble utterance. It may bring us into criticism from the other side, which has nothing kind to say about the noblest truth; but when we utter such language, being at the time faithful to our convictions, we shall find satisfaction in our own hearts—a deep, rich, generous satisfaction, knowing that we have not been ashamed of him who is our Shepherd and Guide and Friend, saying,—"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."

Why shrink from the definite religious testimony of the eighteenth verse: "At the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they pitched"? We speak of definite testimony: here it is. When a man rises in the morning in God"s strength, lies down at night in God"s blessing, walks all day in God"s energy, he lives and moves and has his being in God; he is lost in God; God is in his inmost thought, and every word upon his tongue is an implied or actual confession of childlike trust in God. We need not be ashamed of this definite testimony. It exalts human life. What is the meaning of it? Evidently that our life is recognised by God, our movements are of some consequence to him; he knows our downsitting and our uprising, our going out and our coming in; and there is not a word upon our tongue, there is not a thought in our heart, but, lo, it is known wholly in heaven. Realise that idea; you are not degraded by it, or servilely limited by it: on the contrary, you are lifted up into a nobler self-hood; life becomes a daily sacrament, and the sacrament a daily revelation. A conviction of this kind destroys superstition. The only destroyer of superstition, in any profound and lasting sense, is real religion—a simple, strong grasp of realities. I call the non-religious man superstitious, if he is the victim of impressions, circumstances, tendencies,—if he is always trying to piece together the accidents of the day, and to shape them into some guiding presence and meaning. Where is his point of rest? He is lost in petty details; he has no altar—that is to say, no grand centre of life, the point where he is his noblest self because most humbled before the Living God. Have no fear of the suggestion of superstition in your religious life. The only true rationalism is true religion; it is reason sanctified, reason glorified, reason taken into communion and friendliest fellowship with God. They are superstitious who know not where to build their altar, how to pray when it is built; who have no way into the Infinite opened up and marked by precious blood. They who consult oracles of their own creation, and are looking wistfully and vaguely round for signs of the times or signs of the spaces—these astrologers are superstitious; but the man—great, strong, noble, healthy man—who clasps his hands, closes his eyes, and says in childlike tones—"Father, guide me every day," is not a superstitious man but really healthy in soul,—a man to be trusted, a man whose quality at the last will prove itself to be all gold. This consciousness of divine guidance in life, divine care of life, divine redemption of life, necessitates prayer. The man who seizes this view of things must pray. In no long words may he pray; in no connected sentences flowing through hours need he importune the heavens; the uplifting of an eye is prayer, the falling of a tear may be prayer, a sigh for which there are no fit words may be prayer;—this is praying without ceasing, having that readiness and instancy of mind which flies into heaven when the cloud threatens, when the enemy is at hand, when the perplexity thickens into a baffling mystery; then prayer is sweet. Prayer is natural to the child of God; it is a touch, a smile of the heavenly face, a written revelation inscribed upon the tablets of the heart which the soul can read and understand and the will gladly obey. To be without that is to be in perpetual darkness and in continual pain.

This religious view of life brings the spirit into the restfulness and blessed joy of obedience. The children of Israel simply obeyed. If the cloud tarried long, they rested long; if the cloud were taken up suddenly, they moved without surprise; when the cloud abode from the even unto the morning, then they abode with it; when it rose, they rose with its ascension; "whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle... the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not." Theirs was not a life of controversy; ours, unhappily, is. We have made it a life of controversy when we need not. We are always arguing with our orders; we are trying to construe them into different and inferior meanings; we are wasting life by discussing in idle words, which can settle nothing, the gravity and authority of our marching orders. If we accept God"s Book, do let us accept it with full trust, not as a field for criticism, but as a code of life—the word, or the testimony by which every thought, feeling, and action is to be determined. Live that life and risk your destiny. If that life will not at the last overthrow the enemy, extract his sting and taunt the grave in rapturous triumph, nothing known to me can meet that final and tremendous necessity. To obey is to live. To look every morning for the marching order of the day is to be master of the day. He who opens the gate of the day with the key of prayer is master of the situation; though the day be full of difficulty, the spirit"s rest will not be disturbed; though there be many things to make the day cloudy and turn it almost into a black night, yet in the soul there will be a light which nothing can dim, a fire which no sea can quench, a deep, holy, unmurmuring, expectant trust in the Living God. Where then is fear—fear of man? There is none. Where is anxiety? There is none. The soul is in heaven, rather than upon earth, in all matters which concern its deepest necessities and its final meanings. Have no marching orders, have no Living God, have no trust in Heaven; and then fear will occupy the mind, anxiety will be like a canker in the heart, a mysterious expectation of something distressing will disennoble every faculty, and life will be turned into a jugglery, a species of gambling, not knowing what will occur. Who will accept that policy of life? Not one, surely, but the fool. Rather let it be ours to look up, to hope on: for in so doing we are not spending our time in foolish contemplation; or in a mental absorption which admits of no practical expression; we are gathering strength for the daily fight, wisdom for the daily mystery, and contentment for the daily lot. Let me live the life of the righteous, let me die the death of the righteous; my last estate will be like his. The "last end" we must face; we can come to it in one of two ways: self-idolatrously, self-trustingly, having the fearlessness of mere boasting, mere defiance; or we can come to it trusting that things are larger than they look, deeper than they seem, believing that our sin was answered by the Lamb of God even before it was committed—for he was slain from before the foundation of the world. We can come to our last end believing that God knows us altogether, remembers our frame, knows how frail we are, has seen our loving trust in his Son Jesus Christ; and I should say that the man who comes to his last end in that spirit is not only a Christian but a philosopher—that he need not take rank amid the inferiorities of his age, but may stand at the front, having seen, by the grace of God, the meaning of life, the mystery of sin, the grandeur of redemption, the certainty of the fatherhood of God. Suppose we rise to that spirit—what then? Is the world of no consequence to us? The world is of all the more consequence to us; we can be in the world, and yet not of it; we can handle it with a steadier mastery, because we come down upon it from the highest heights of spiritual communion. Only he who really knows the Spirit of Christ can be a true lover and helper of mankind. Others may try to help and to love; others will invent theories and try new schemes and set up various institutions; but they will perish in their own action, because there is no fountain sufficiently copious to feed the current of their motive. But he who stands back in the consciousness of Christ"s personality, reality, and Christ"s love of the world—a love that shrank not from death; he who has the mind of Christ will live the helpful life; he will feel that nothing has been done while anything remains to be accomplished; every fatherless child will be his, every weak and deserving cause will belong to his care; the whole world will be too small for a love kindled by the love of the Son of God. We have committed ourselves to this policy. We know the other way of life; we know we can attempt to do without the religious principle; we can attempt to do without prayer or the recognition of divine ministries and influences; we have deliberately and for ever left that side. Do not speak to us as if we had no experience of the atheistic way of living; do not regard us as innocent and simpering inquirers who have not yet known the mystery and the grandeur of atheism. We know what it is to be in a temple without a God, to pass by an altar without a sacrifice, to take our own life into our own keeping; we have done it, and to-day we return, saying, each for himself,—How many servants in my Father"s house have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my Father, and tell him all the tale of sin and sorrow, and if he will admit me into the lowest room in the house, it will be better than being outside amidst all this deprivation, weariness, emptiness, sadness, guilt. We have left the other way of living; we tried it, and found it false; we were allured by its fascinations, and found they were mocking voices; we tried to do without God, and our life withered at the roots. We have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, by the grace of God and the ministry of God the Holy Ghost; and having come back, we say to every man who is yet outside,— Hosea, every one that thirsteth, come, we have a Gospel to preach, and we are not ashamed of its simplicity or of its glory.

Prayer

Almighty God, lead us in thine own way, and the end will be rest We know nothing of the way ourselves, except that it is often long and weary, and much trying to every failing power; but thou knowest the road—all of it; it is not one mile too long. Lead thou us, and we shall be safe; carry us when we are weary, and give us rest according to thine own will and the measure of our need. We bless thee for the way out of time, out of all its perplexities and sorrows; and we bless thee for all the grace, day by day, whereby we are enabled to bear every perplexity and find in it a mysterious joy, and pass under all thy varied discipline and find in it holy meaning and gracious intent—a very mystery of love. We will not go without thy presence; without thy presence there is no light, there is no joy, there is no peace; except thy presence go with us carry us not up hence. Thy will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Chasten our impatience; show us that we are blind and cannot see afar off, that we were born yesterday and to-morrow we die, that it is ours to rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him. This we have learned of Jesus Christ thy Son; we knew it not until we received his Spirit into our hearts; we were brought to this resignation by way of the Cross; we have learned in all things to rest in God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. So now, we stand still, and see the salvation of God; we are in no haste, in no fever of anxiety; in our hearts is the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, and our life is a long waiting, or a glad service, for Christ. We can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth us; he hath done all for us: we are his debtors: we have nothing that we have not received. We would live unto him who died for us and rose again. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 9". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://beta.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jpb/numbers-9.html. 1885-95.