THE STEPS WHICH LED TO A KING (continued).
In a living body one member does not suffer alone. So neither can the Church be without sympathy, or its members independent of each other's state. "If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it" (1 Cor. 12:26). We find this from the beginning. Achan sinned, Israel suffered (Joshua 7:1). The spies murmured, and Caleb must with the rest wander forty years (Numb. 13:30; 14:33, 34; Joshua 14:10). Miriam reviles Moses, and the whole camp must halt till she is clean (Numb. 12:1, 15). So intimately do the acts of one member affect the rest.
The history before us is no exception to this. The failure of the priests affects Israel, leading them to ask a king. But the Holy Ghost, while thus shewing us the ultimate consequence of their failure, gives us in detail its immediate effects also. In the sketch given in the preceding pages, I have passed over these details, wishing to keep the great steps which led to Saul clear and unencumbered. The details, however, are so weighty, that before I go on to consider the character of Rule which Israel got according to their wish, I turn for a moment to the immediate consequences of the priests' failure. I speak not of the consequences to themselves;—this we have already seen;—but rather of the consequences upon Israel. The 4th, 5th, and 6th chapters give us the particulars, first, in the circumstances connected with the loss of the Ark, and then in the judgment which accompanied its restoration. Both its loss for a season, and the chastening inflicted on its restoration, upon the men of Beth-shemesh, were but the natural effects of the priests' failure.
1. The circumstances connected with the loss of the Ark were simply these:
(i) Israel is in narrow straits. Within, God's altar and house are, as we have seen, defiled by sin. Without, Philistines come up and put themselves in array against them. They join battle, and Israel is smitten before the Philistines, and they slay of the army about four thousand men (1 Sam. 4:2). Israel then come together to consult what should be done; and, as usual, instead of waiting for God, they act for themselves. They send at once for the Ark of God, in the hope, that, as before it Jordan had dried up, it might yet aid them. "Let us fetch," said they, "the Ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that when it cometh among us, it may save us." Vain thought! The Ark is no defence to them, nor are they to it. They lose it, and the Philistines take it.
What was this Ark? Is there anything answering to it in the Christian Church? Can we lose it, as Israel did, to our enemies?
For the Ark, it was that hallowed chest which held the tables of the Law. While in the tabernacle, though not afterwards in the temple, it contained also within it the golden pot of manna, and Aaron's rod that budded (Heb. 9:4, and 1 Kings 8:9). Its cover, of pure gold, called the Mercy-seat, formed, as it were, a throne for that glorious cloud which rested on it, and witnessed the Lord's presence among His people.
Now, the vessels of the Tabernacle all represented certain offices or covenant relations of Christ, or rather certain forms or aspects of His covenant relations. (Note: The different parts of the tabernacle, the respective burdens of Kohath, Gershon, and Merari, bring out each a particular and definite line of truth. The vessels, Kohath's burden, seem, one and all, to have reference to the truths connected with Christ's offices, or covenant relations. The hangings, Gershon's charge, as being the covering of the tabernacle, and so answering to what garments are to an individual, seem clearly to point to the truths connected with Christ's condition, or developed character. Respecting the boards and sockets, Merari's burden, I do not feel so sure. As being composed of wood and gold, they may represent the truths connected with His twofold nature, human and Divine; and I am disposed to think this is correct.) The altar set forth the truth of Christ's relation as satisfying God and man; the laver, as cleansing His priests; the candlestick, as giving them light; the shewbread, as giving them bread within the holy place. The Ark set forth the truth of His relation to God and man, as securing God's presence among His people; as sealing the truth of the word, "Emmanuel, God with us," and witnessing that elect man is now the Lord's dwelling-place. The Ark then represents one form of the truth of God. In the last dispensation the forms which embodied or revealed these truths were carnal forms. In this dispensation the forms are spiritual forms. Yet truth is still for us contained in forms; for our present powers of perception only allow us to take cognisance of the forms of spiritual truth, not of the truth itself. A doctrine is now our form, and but a form, of truth. The doctrine of God's presence in His Church is that form of truth which the Ark both veiled and revealed.
If this be apprehended, it will at once open to us the spiritual import of Israel's act in sending for the Ark and then losing it. It teaches how prone we are to look to doctrines to help us, rather than to God, and to rest in doctrines rather than in God. It teaches too how even the elect, in conflict with evil, (wicked spirits are our foes, Eph. 6:12) if sin be in their camp, cannot keep the truth of God. They may think indeed that the truth of God's presence with them will give them strength. But that truth, which when they were faithful was a blessing, is no defence to them when walking carelessly out of communion with Him. Now [sic] are they able to keep it: it is taken from them. From Eve's days to the present this has been ever so. Poor Eve met the lie of Satan by God's truth. The serpent "said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, lest ye die" (Gen. 3:1-3). Here was God's truth brought to meet the Devil's lie. But truth held out of communion will never keep us. The spies had the truth: they spoke it (Numb. 13:27, 28), but being out of communion with God, it only served to aggravate their sin. Balaam too had the truth (Numb. 23:18-24), but he had no communion; and, spite of his words, he fell with the King of Midian (Numb. 31:8). Truth held by us, while we are parleying with or listening to the tempter, or while out of communion with God, will not help, but be used against us. The doctrine of the Holy Ghost in the Church, God's presence with us, will not save but judge us while we walk in sin; yea, will aggravate our sin, and bring tenfold more judgment upon us when unfaithful than if we held it not. And yet that very truth, which in the hands of the carnal may not only be powerless, but even used against them, is, as we see in our Lord's temptation, the sword of the Spirit, whereby to overcome the evil one. But it has no power, save in judgment, to those who walk not with God. We see it every day. There is not a truth, be it doctrinal or practical, which may not be wrested by the adversary from the disobedient. Promises are of no avail. Precepts are powerless. Experimental truths, which when walking with God were realised, when far from Him bring no peace to the warring soul, conscious of careless walking or wilful sin. And indeed it is a mercy that it is so: for God's truths and gifts, whether His ark, His altar, or His laver, these things were given, not to make us independent of God, but to bring and keep us nearer to Him. Justly therefore, when we keep at a distance from Him, does He make us feel that His most precious gifts are nought without the Giver—that neither can they preserve us from the evil we dread, nor can we preserve them in our possession for Him.
(ii) But if the loss of the Ark shews us the consequences to Israel of the failure of the priests, its history among the Philistines opens out a kindred truth. The Ark among the Philistines was their constant curse. Before it their god is broken. By its presence a judgment from the God of Israel smites their persons and their lands (1 Sam. 5:8; 6:5), until they are glad to get rid of it, with the acknowledgment of His power over them. So God's truth, the truth of His presence, in the hands of the world, will be the certain cause of trial and judgment to them. The world, because through the unfaithfulness of the Church they have got hold of certain precious truths, often seem to think the difference between them and Israel is not so very great. Babylon, which takes so many vessels of the sanctuary, especially falls into this snare. But there is a wide difference. Israel, though judged when in sin by the presence of the Ark, when faithful may rejoice in it. When did Philistines rejoice in the Ark? Never. And the truths of God, the joy and glory of His priests, yet make the world uneasy, and cast down their god; like the Ark among the Philistines, therefore, they must be got rid of as soon as may be.
And here I cannot but note, in passing, the effect of the Ark's presence, in a religious point of view, among the Philistines. It led them to talk of what God had done for Israel, and to offer a trespass offering to Israel's God. Certain religious words are said, and certain religious acts are performed, under cover of which the Ark is, as they think, decently dismissed. Their words respecting Israel's redemption are all true enough:—"Wherefore do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go?" (1 Sam. 6:6). For their acts, five golden mice, and five golden emerods—a trespass offering without blood—are offered to the God of Israel. What God has done for Israel is truly preached. Precious things without blood are offered. Thus is the Ark dismissed. All precisely parallel to much which is called religion in the religious world, which is meanwhile (and do they not know it?) only a civil way of getting rid of what makes them uneasy. Be it noted. It is by religious words and acts—the words true, the acts unchristian—that the world gets rid of the truth of God's presence.
2. The circumstances connected with the restoration of the Ark are no less instructive than those connected with its loss, and shew no less than the other the far-spreading effects of the failure of the priests on God's chosen people. God's Ark, for awhile lost by Israel, is again by His grace brought among them. But the men of Beth-shemesh, the priests having failed whose lips should keep knowledge, though rejoiced to see it return, and ready with grateful hearts to sacrifice to God, do with the Ark what was forbidden. They looked into that Ark which none but priests might look on. And judgment at once followed. "The Lord smote the men of Beth-shemesh: and the people lamented because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter. And the men of Beth-shemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?" (1 Sam. 6:19, 20).
The application of this, according to the analogy of the dispensations, is most simple, yet full of warning. There were things for Israel, as the Ark of God, which, though given for Israel's blessing, and to be kept in their midst, could yet not be touched by all, or looked on by them. None but priests could touch or look upon the Ark. None but Levites bear it. (Note: The law directed, that when the Ark moved, Aaron and his sons were to go into the holy place, there to wrap up the Ark in the veil. Over that they were to put a covering of badgers' skins, and then a cloth of blue. The staves were then put in. When this was done, the Levites, the sons of Kohath, were permitted to bear it by the staves. But the law was express—"They shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die" (Numb. 4:15).) "And I, brethren," said Paul to the Corinthians, "could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat; for hitherto ye were not able to bear it" (1 Cor. 3:1, 2; so also Heb. 5:11-14). There are truths which should ever be in the Church, on the preservation of which in our midst much blessing depends, and which are given of God for us, which yet cannot be looked at safely, save when we realise communion with God, and walk humbly and truly in it. Of this sort especially are some of the truths foreshadowed in certain vessels of the Tabernacle. All Israel can use the brazen altar, and see the vessels of the outer court. Priests only can see the shewbread and incense altar: nay, they only look on these things within the holy place; out of sight of Israel, in God's more immediate presence, walking before Him rather than before His saints. And this is yet the only place to look on some truths respecting Christ. In priestly communion we can and may discern all things. But of all things dangerous, the most dangerous is carnal handling of spiritual truths. "The right faith is that we worship."
This then is the lesson taught here. Long-lost truth by grace regained by the Church, as it was lost through failure in communion, will often be met on its recovery by a corresponding lack of communion, and judgment on Israel will be the result. For our God is a consuming fire. And the more precious the blessing is which He communicates, the more jealous is He of the way in which it is received and used. We are apt to think, knowing that truth is of God, that the mere presence of truth among us must necessarily involve blessing. But truth of itself, without preparedness of heart, may be, nay will be, only judgment. Surely some of us have seen and felt this in the recovery, through grace, of certain lost and forgotten truths within our own days. The truth respecting the Incarnation, involving as it does so much, among other points, God's presence in the Church by the Holy Ghost;—the consequences flowing from Christ's true humanity, whereby God is "Emmanuel, God with us;"—the truths of His return;—how have all these, in some cases, on their first recovery, been accompanied by judgments upon those, who, though they rejoiced at that recovery, yet misused what was recovered through lack of communion.
And how precisely the consequence of such failure is the same now as of old. The men of Beth-shemesh, like David afterwards on a like occasion (2 Sam. 6:9), at once wished to get rid of the Ark. It caused them judgment; and they forgot that it arose from the failure of the priests and Levites with them. And how often have we seen precious truth, just restored, shunned by saints on account of the judgments which have accompanied its misuse on its restoration. Instead of judging themselves for unpreparedness and incapacity rightly to use the gifts of God, men are ready to judge the gifts as the cause of all their sorrow. The very chastening which comes in mercy to teach the difference between the use and misuse of truth, is made an argument for hastily dismissing the whole matter. Yet wisdom is justified of all her children. And though, like David, many have yet to learn by painful chastenings, the deep responsibility of handling the truths of God, with him they will say at last, "Sanctify yourselves, ye and your brethren, that ye may bring up the Ark of the Lord God of Israel. For because ye did it not at the first, the Lord our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought Him not after the due order" (1 Chron. 15:12, 13).
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