J. G. Bellett.
Christian Friend vol. 14, 1887, p. 1.
(This letter is printed from the writer's own MS., and has not been, within the editor's knowledge, before published. Several more will be given (D.V.) as opportunity offers.)
My Dear Brother, — Faith counts upon the end from the beginning, as our hymn has it —
"The guilt of twice ten thousand sins
One moment takes away;
And grace, when first the war begins,
Secures the crowning day."
This calculation upon the end at the beginning is found in Moses' song. (See Exodus 15:17-19.) It is a fine exercise of the soul. Faith knows what the end must be from what the beginning has been. The whole journey, as we know, is finely pictured in Israel from Egypt to Canaan, or from Exodus 12 to Joshua 4. It begins with the settlement, the full and perfect settlement, of the greatest question of all — the question of our relationship with God. In Exodus 12 that is the matter. It was no time of conflict as between Israel and Egypt, but as between the judgment of God and Israel found in the place of judgment. It was like the question between God and our souls, and the blood on the door-post settled it, and settled it for ever.
"The guilt of twice ten thousand sins
One moment takes away."
The destroying angel is turned aside by the blood on the door of that house, where most surely he would have entered, carrying death with him, but for the blood. That blood was God's provision for settling matters between Himself and Israel in the doomed land of Egypt. It effectually blunted the sting or power of death, and it did it all alone, in great ease and simplicity. Nothing else could have done anything at such a moment; but that blood alone did everything that such a moment needed — a moment that was to decide whether Israel were to live or die, to be saved or to perish.
In such a character Israel starts for the journey. The greatest of all questions was settled — their relationship to God; and this being so, they begin, as it were, to live; so that the very month in which all this took place was to be to them the beginning of months. And well is it when the soul owns that this is the first great principal question — that others, be they what they may, are but, can be but, second to this. Have I found it between God and my soul? Thus at peace with God, Israel moves onward. Soon they find themselves at their wits' end; the strength of Pharaoh is behind them, and the Red Sea in front, and it seems as that it was only a choice of deaths — the slaughter or the flood. But He who was in Egypt with them yesterday is today with them on the road out of it. The pillar can do its business as effectually as the blood. It may be, and it is, a different business, but it is disposed of with equal ease. The blood is not in use now; but the pillar serves, because the blood had already served; the pillar defends, — because the blood had already redeemed. Simple and precious, the blood, as I may say, pledges the pillar — pledges all that Israel may need; for
"Grace, when once the war begins,
Secures the crowning day."
Accordingly the pillar comes between the two camps. It is darkness to the one and light to the other, so that Egypt does not touch Israel; and the host of Israel go on and through the sea, when the host of Egypt, in all its strength and flower, perish in it.
Thus is the journey begun. It was as blood-bought people who were taking it, and it is now seen that such a people shall be a defended and a conquering people. The blood pledged the pillar. The song declares this. There had been no song till now. Fitly so. The hour of redemption from the judgment of the Lord had been enjoyed in silence, this hour of deliverance from Egypt was celebrated in a song. The silence may have been of a deeper tone than even the song, but it was also a fitter expression of the joy of the moment. Israel enjoyed the thought of the blood that was redeeming them from the righteous judgment of God by feeding on the paschal lamb, and all in silence: they now enjoyed the sight of the vanquished enemy in the lifting up of their voice in a shout of praise. These distinctions are full of beauty. The silence of the paschal hour was of a deeper character, but it was fitting that it should not have been after the manner of the fervent triumphant hymn of the Red Sea.
Redeemed from judgment, and conquerors of the enemy that would have overwhelmed them, Israel proceed on their way. And a chequered scene they pass through! Necessities call for supplies, and infirmities and trespasses need forgivenesses and healing. The Lord is present; He proves His resources and His grace. He feeds, He disciplines, He rebukes, and yet pardons. And be the demands on Him what they may, or be they repeated as they may, He never leaves them. If Israel bring a pilgrimage of forty years upon themselves, the Lord will be in the wilderness with them for forty years. As God over all, blessed for ever, He is seated between the cherubim, in the sanctuary, the Lord or the glory of the very holy of holies; but the same glory abides as continually in the cloud outside. The God of the camp is the Guide and Companion of the camp; and though He may be grieved, and have to express His displeasure, He never leaves them. His arm is not shortened, nor is His ear heavy.
Say, is Israel a happy people still? Is Israel a less happy people than at the beginning, when in Egypt they dwelt under the covert of the blood? Circumstances have changed, but God has not. They are in the very heart of the wilderness. It is wilderness all around them, while in Egypt it was only the wilderness before them. But are they a less happy people now than then? Can any argument be drawn from the pillar to prove this? They have been made to know trial and need, and weariness and enemies, and, through the betraying of their foolishness again and again, the rod and the discipline. But are they less happy than they were? Have they any reason to be so? Are they more straitened in God now than then? Is the pillar the witness of another than the blood or the song had given them?
No, beloved, this is not so. They are not straitened in God. And if they loved Him, the movement of the pillar would be as welcome as the hour of the song. The very wilderness, in all its circumstances, is given to them to this end — to prove whether they would indeed obey the Lord, and thus to know what was in their heart towards Him. (Deut. 8:2.) Was such an opportunity ungrateful or unwelcome to them? Would it be to us at this day, if indeed we loved a person? Should we resent some call to serve, some occasion to give proof that we had him in our heart, that there was something there for him? We know we should not. We know that we should rather give place to such opportunities, if indeed we loved him. And the wilderness to Israel was all that, and life to the saints in this world is all that. As far as we are "lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God," we shall be uneasy and fretted, and impatient and disappointed; but as far as we love, anxious to prove that our heart's are with Christ, these times of journeying, through abounding and through need, through good report and through evil report, through humblings and changes, through weariness or solitude, will not be resented. In themselves they are not joyous. Nothing can make them in themselves other than they are — grievous. But the pillar tells us of the presence of a glorious Friend, who condescends to be our Companion from first to last, though the way always witness our exile, and at times our shame and weakness. It is a happy people we are to be all along the road. The blood, the song, the pillar are only different tokens of the very same Jesus in whom we are never straitened. Just at the end of the way there was a confederacy on the heights of Peor against Israel, as just at the beginning there was a confederacy on the borders of the land at the Red Sea. The Lord has a great occasion to prove Himself the very same to Israel after forty years' sore trial with them as He had been at the outset. And so He does. However we may entertain such opportunities, we may say He welcomes them to prove what is in His heart towards us.
He meets Balaam and Balak, and all their attempts — their altars and their enchantments on the heights of Baal and of Peor — all alone. Israel is stretched out in the valleys beneath, their very rest there not being allowed to be disturbed by even a report of what was going on — a moment, as it was in one sense, full of imminent peril to them. The Lord meet's the confederates all alone. As in the day of Pharaoh and the sea, Israel had not to raise a band or strike a blow, and all the tokens of the liars are frustrated. There is no enchantment against Israel. The Lord lets the Moabite and the Ammonite know this, and Israel may stop on and take their rest when the question is raised. Can anything erase them from the palms of the hands of the Lord? When the occasion is set for the proving whether indeed He still had them in His heart, all the attempts and powers of darkness shall learn the secrets of that bosom. If we did but value what we have in Him, dear brother; if we but estimated our condition in relation to the Lord, and not in relation to circumstances, all would be joy in the spirit. It is there we fail. We love circumstances, and not the divine favour. We live in the power of circumstances, and not in the light of the Lord's countenance. And we are dull and low, and half-hearted. That is the secret of our bosoms, though we know the secret of His. Were it not so with us, the journeys under the cloud, chequered as they are, would find us as happy a people as the hour of the song had witnessed. It is one Jesus throughout, whether it be the day of the blood, the song, or of the pillar — one and the same Jesus, who was here with us amid the circumstances of human life, died for us on the cursed tree, now lives in heaven for us, and will give us His unchanged Self in glory for ever.
But further — for there is a stage beyond the heights of Peor in the journey of Israel, there is the passage of the Jordan — the moment when for ever the wilderness is to be put behind the back of Israel, as there had been in Egypt the hour when the wilderness was all before them, and, after they crossed the sea, the times and the seasons when the wilderness was all around them. And now it is not the blood, or the song, or the pillar, but the ark, and the feet of the priests. New occasions bring out new agencies. Other necessities display other resources, but the same Lord; different administrations, but the same Jesus. The arm is not shortened, and the help of Israel for the Jordan is as perfect as was the help at the Red Sea. Not a wave of the swellings and overflowings of the river touch the sole of the foot of the feeblest or most distant of all the tribes. The waters are again a wall on the right hand and on the left. The ark stations itself in the very midst of the river, and there it stands till all had gone clean over. Its presence more than encourages them, when nature might have sunk and had a thousand misgivings. Would not these watery walls give way? Would not the river from above assert its rights, and claim its possession of a thousand years? Would not the source of that river force its title on the trespassers? The calm and assured aspect of the priests as they bore the ark, and stood with it there in the very place of the river's height of pride and strength, gave all such questionings their answer, and stilled every misgiving. The people all passed over dryshod; the ark gave them its presence till all was done. The waters would have been first overwhelming the ark, had they been able to touch even a sole of the foot of the feeblest of the tribes. And all this crowning mercy visits them without the Lord for a single moment calling to their remembrance a single evil they had committed all the journey thitherto. He gave there indeed liberally and upbraided not. He sees no iniquity in Jacob, no perverseness in Israel. Everything that is done is done by an arm of conquering strength, and by a heart of perfect, unupbraiding love; and Israel passes on to their inheritance under the very same God of grace by whom they had passed out from the place of death and judgment. The earliest pledge is redeemed at the latest moment; and the song, which in spirit we had at first, is sung again under a fresh breath in the power of the truth of it —
"And grace, when once the war begins,
Secures the crowning day."
* * *
Accept this, beloved in the Lord, as a little remembrance that we may again, though absent in body, sit and meditate in His truth and presence in spirit together. The Lord bless you.
Ever your affectionate brother, J. G. Bellett, March 14th, 1852.