"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God." Isaiah 40:1
"Make a highway for the Lord through the wilderness. Make a straight, smooth road through the desert for our God." Isaiah 40:3
"Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together." Isaiah 40:5
"I, even I, am the one who comforts you." Isaiah 51:12
Then the Lord told him, "You can be sure I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cries for deliverance from their harsh slave drivers. Yes, I am aware of their suffering. So I have come to rescue them." Exodus 3:7-8
Though so far an echo of our prefatory words, this gleam of the Fiery Pillar may well occupy the opening meditation. What, in the darkest hour of trial, is so inspiring and solacing as the simple but sublime thought of the Divine Presence? God near to us, near to us continually; the Pillar emitting no fitful intermittent flame, but "all the night with a light of fire." He whom that light symbolized and enshrined, not only ordering our afflictions, but, in them all, identifying Himself with His people in their time of trouble. "I know their sorrows,"—"I have come down to deliver them," were words spoken on the threshold of the Exodus.
Though they actually preceded the manifestation of the Cloud, we may well regard them as the key-note to the entire night-song of pilgrim Israel. The same assurance is thus expanded by a later Psalmist: "When the Israelites escaped from Egypt—when the family of Jacob left that foreign land—Judah became God's sanctuary, and Israel became his kingdom." He proceeds to tell how the Fiery Pillar was then kindled—kindled at the Red Sea, conducting through all the immensity of the wild desert and its darkness, until they reached the border river—"The SEA saw it and fled, JORDAN was driven back." In closing the same historic hymn, he renews the theme, as he asks the reason of this opening and closing—rather this continuous miracle. It is "the presence of the Lord—the presence of the God of Jacob" (Psalm 114:1, 2, 3, 7). The Jehovah of the burning bush—the Jehovah of the burning column—remained their Divine Consoler and Guide. Night-watch after night-watch the Pillar seemed to flash out the calming assurance, "I, even I, am He that comforts you!"
Afflicted one! this is still the gracious gleam in your deepest night of trial, "I have seen your affliction." Israel's God and His realized nearness is the supreme consolation. Human sympathy is soothing; often precious; indispensable. But it has its limitations, we may even say its shortcomings. There are times when no earthly comforter can meet your case or fathom the aching voids of your heart. Words of gushing condolence, doubtless well intended, are often mis-timed, an intrusion on the sacredness of sorrow. Great afflictions are too deep to be reached by words. Milton's "mute expressive silence" is generally the best way of dealing with such; and it is the Divine way.
You remember how He who was Himself the Prince of Sufferers—who understood all the finer feelings and intuitions of the soul—the divinely sympathetic Brother-Man, dealt in a recorded hour of bereavement? He takes His disciples aside from the crowd. "Come," said He, on hearing of the death of the Baptist, "Come apart into a desert place, and rest awhile" (Mark 6:31). He knew, with discriminating tenderness, that sorrow often most appreciates the shade; the responsive sigh, the pensive unspoken look; the grasp of the hand, the unbidden tear—away from "the minstrels making a noise" (Matt. 9:23), the conventionalisms of consolation. True are the poet's words to his "Friend on the death of his sister"—
"With silence only as their benediction,
God's angels come;
Where, in the shadow of a great affliction
The soul sits silent."
Reader, seek thus, in your hour of loneliness and sadness, to stand amid these "silences of heaven," and hear the whisper of love from Him who is the Author and Sender of your trial, and who best comprehends its severity: "Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed" (marg. Look not around you), "for I am your God" (Isaiah 41:10). A writer tells us that the old motto of the Fatherland is still preserved in United Germany. It may be seen as a heraldic device, sometimes engraved on shrine or portal, or emblazoned on military standard, or heard as a war-cry amid the thunders of battle. It is the same which forms the chief watchword, the strength and support of the Christian in his "great fight of afflictions"—"God is with us".
Yet, alas! despite of this, the soaring wings of faith and trust will at times droop; the old reclaiming word may, and doubtless will intrude—"If the Lord be with us, why then has all this befallen us?" (Judges 6:13). There is no response, no solace, save in the simple words of acquiescence—"Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight!" (Matt. 11:26). Trial ever has been, and ever will be, His method of parental dealing. He employs it as the ballast of the soul—it steadies the ship. The angels of affliction conduct "through the wilderness." Their herald-cry is in the words of one of our motto-verses—"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a high way for our God" (Isaiah 40:3).
The Desert—He calls us, as He did Philip of old, from beautiful Samaria, with its groves and gardens, its rippling streams and healthful breezes—it may be from our appointed human work, imperious claims and urgent responsibilities—to Gaza, which is desert (Acts 8:26). The way to the Kingdom is by the way of the Cross. It is he "going forth weeping, bearing precious seed," who at last is rewarded with the harvest reaping and the harvest-home (Psalm 126:6). Those who have traveled amid the sandy wastes and scant herbage of the Pillar-route know well that the dew falls thickest (most drenching) after a day of burning heat. The dews of the Spirit's grace fall most copiously after the heat of fiery trial. It is then the promise of the Divine Comforter is made good, "I will be as the dew unto Israel" (Hosea 14:5).
"When we walked," says Richter, "under the forest aisles in summer, the foliage hid from us God's sweet skies. But it was only when the desolating winds of winter had made the branches bare, that through those very black and naked boughs we could all the better discern God's eternal guiding star." It is the midnight sea, ploughed by the keel of trial, in which a brighter and better than natural illumination is manifested. In that most beautiful of inspired idylls, the Bride of the Song is represented as saying, "By night I sought Him whom my soul loves" (Sol. Song. 3:1).
"The Pillar in the night" of our volume was light in a cloud: a lustrous gleam in a cloudy setting. It is said of God, "He makes the clouds His chariot" (Psalm 104:3). "A great cloud with the fire infolding itself " (Ezek. 1:4). It is for us, therefore, to feel assured, that the clouds of life, often so gloomy, are in reality "the chariots of God." This thought inspires a living poet's invocation—
"Oh, make my clouds Your chariots; so shall I learn to see
That the mist that dims, the glory is itself a light from Thee;
For the shadows of the wilderness to me shall sing aloud,
When I find Your nearest coming, in the advent of a cloud."
I may close this meditation with two thoughts regarding the Divine Comforter and His comforts.
(1) He is an UNCHANGING Comforter. He survives all trials, all vicissitudes. He is the living Fountain that remains ever fresh, ever flowing, over-flowing, when other surroundings are crumbling, or have crumbled to decay. Our oldest and best writer of historical romance speaks thus of a Well, which in a former century was close by one of the ancestral palaces of England: "This fountain of old memory had been once adorned with architectural ornaments in the style of the sixteenth century. All these were now wasted and overthrown, and existed only as moss-covered ruins: while the living spring continued to furnish its daily treasures, gushing out amid disjointed stones, and bubbling through fragments of ancient sculpture." In a far higher, diviner sense is this typical of the true "Well of Water springing up unto everlasting life."
"They shall perish, but You remain." Lover and friend may be put far from you and your acquaintance into darkness: the face and the place that once knew you may know you no more. "They truly were many, because they were not allowed to continue by reason of death." But the voice steals down from the lips of Him who is changeless among the changeable, "I am He who lives and was dead; and behold I am alive for evermore!" Go, weave this word-pattern in your web of sorrow, "My flesh and my heart may fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:26). "I, even I, am He that comforts you."
(2) My second thought is, that He is the SOLITARY comforter.
These are the words of the great Leader of the Hebrew host: "Did ever a people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard? Know that the Lord He is God; there is none else beside Him" (Deut. 4:33, 35). "None else" can comfort. It is the avowal of every child of trial—"In the multitude of the sorrows that I had in my heart, Your comforts (alone) have refreshed my soul" (Psalm 94:19, Prayer Book version). These comforts are His exclusive remedies. The world, with all its garish blessings and fascinations, cannot give them. The world with all its tribulations cannot take them away. Philosophy and the schools can yield no such solvent. Affliction baffles the most profound earthly forces and panaceas.
In these our days there is many an intellectual triumph to be recorded. All hearts may well pulsate with pride as we hear of the ever-increasing victories in the realm of science. Honor to its experts and votaries—they may well be laurel-crowned. But what can science, in the zenith of her achievements, do for us amid the deepening floods of trial? With all her spoils and trophies can she utter the longed-for assuring word, "When you pass through the waters I will be with you"? (Isaiah 43:2). In the darkest hour of all, what response has she to give to the Prophet's anxious question "How will you do in the swelling of Jordan?" (Jer. 12:5). There is but One who can say, "Through the rivers, they shall not overflow you," "I will restore comforts unto him and to his mourners" (Isaiah 57:18). "Deep calls unto deep at the noise of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and Your billows are gone over me. Yet the Lord will command His loving-kindness in the daytime, and in the night His song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life" (Psalm 42:7, 8).
As the Pillar of the desert was formed of one isolated column or cloud, with no other to support it, so is He all-sufficient in Himself: wiser than all others, kinder than all others, independent of all others. Though it may be no more than a legend—one amid many such told of in the desert march and in connection with the Pillar-cloud, it may here be recalled. It was on the occasion of the death of Aaron. Moses was commanded to announce to his beloved brother that Aaron was about to die. In doing so (thus runs the Jewish tradition) the great leader and lawgiver let fall many tears. Ascending Mount Nebo together, Moses still weeping all the way, they came at last to a large cavern in the rock, where a couch with funeral trappings was prepared and ready. Aaron was calm and composed; Moses still wept sorely. "Why, Moses," said the other, "are you so in tears?" "Because," was the reply, "when our sister Miriam died, I had you to be with me in the hour of death. Now, when that comes I shall die alone." "No, brother, not alone: Jehovah will be with you. He will smooth your dying pillow. He will close your eyes, and be better unto you than all mourners and funeral rites. God shall be in the place of brother or sister." And the legend thus touchingly closes, "the word of Aaron came true."
"All men forsook me," was the plaint of Paul, in the Mamertine dungeon, with a violent death before him—"Notwithstanding, the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me" (2 Tim. 4:16, 17). "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?" He, alone, as in the case of His apostle, can relax the galling chain, brighten the lonely prison and the lonely spirit. He alone can wipe the tear-dimmed eye. He alone understands the sob of a broken heart—"I am bereaved!" (Gen. 43:14). Think of Him, rejoice in Him, as what the old divines call "the upmaking Portion,"—all sufficient from center to circumference; no fantasy, but a living, loving, Divine Personality: "The Father of mercies and the God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3). "I, even I, am He who comforts you."
Believe it, you sufferers. Believe that trial is the thunder-cloud with a rainbow often sleeping in its depths: that it is the door opening to the inner chamber where we are invited to touch the King's golden scepter. A quaint writer says, "He demands tribute-money from us; and Affliction is His 'Receipt of Custom.'" "Tarry here," are the words still of the suffering Master. Yes, tarry under the olive shade of your Gethsemane, whatever it is, and "watch with Me." Thus will your severest sorrows endear to you the nearness and presence of Him of whom alone it can be said, from His own deep heartfelt experience—"In all their afflictions He was afflicted!"
And then, trust this all-comforting God for the future. He will read, in His own good time and way, the typical parable of our present volume. To quote the familiar words of the poet—
"By day, along the astonished lands
The cloudy pillar glided slow;
By night, Arabia's crimsoned sands
Returned the fiery column's glow.
"And oh, when stoops over pilgrim-path,
In shade and storm the frequent night,
Be you long-suffering, slow to wrath,
A burning and a shining light!"
Yes, the time will undoubtedly come when "in Your light we shall see light." The afflictions of the present resemble what the clefts and unsightly gashes were to the Israelites when encamped beneath the savage cliffs of Sinai. Their gloom and terror and mystery were all gone when beheld at the far distance in the flush of evening. So, too, will your experiences of trial be, when seen bathed in the glory of unsetting suns. What now is like the tolling of funeral bells will then appear rather to have been preparatory and preparation-chimes, ringing in the festal worshipers to the Church of the glorified. No purpose of God regarding you will remain unfulfilled—no flower uncrowned with blossom.
Lord! let nothing dim the brightness of the Pillar, in the midst of present environing gloom! Let that gloom rather inspire me with greater ardor of heart and lip to pray, "I beseech You, show me Your glory!" Turn my night of weeping into a morning of joy. Let me hear the Prophet's refrain—the sweet promise of Your love—as a voice crying in the wilderness—