"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"I will remember the works of the Lord; surely I will remember Your wonders of old."—Psalm 77:11.
"I will remember You from the land of Jordan, and of the Hermonites, from the hill Mizar."—Psalm 42:6.
The psalmists of Israel loved with reiterated interest to recall the memories of the pillar of cloud and fire—the varied incidents in the desert march. "O God, when you led your people from Egypt, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured rain before you, the God of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel. You sent abundant rain, O God, to refresh the weary Promised Land." (Psalm 68:7, 8, 9). "Your way is in the sea, and Your path in the great waters, and Your footsteps are not known. You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron" (Psalm 77:19,20). In seasons of trial a similar rehearsing in thought of our personal and individual histories cannot fail to be profitable, comforting, strengthening. This is peculiarly so in times of severe bereavement, when tempted, at first, in a spirit of hasty impatience, to say with the faithless, desponding Prophet, "It is better for me to die than to live." In such a retrospect of the Divine doings and dealings, we may well contemplate the mingled faithfulness and love of Him who has "led us all our life long"; ever proving Himself true to His desert name and memorial, "The Lord God, merciful, gracious, long-suffering," "staying His rough wind in the day of His east wind," "tempering the wind to the shorn lamb," "in wrath remembering mercy." The rehearsal is surely calculated to moderate grief and foster trust and lowly submission; prompting, amid present sadder experiences, to say, "I will abundantly utter the memory of Your great goodness and talk of Your righteousness."
The second of our motto-verses, though it has no reference to the Arabian desert, contains a like re-traversing of the pilgrim way by the greatest of the psalmists. During his exile in the land of Gilead, his throne for the time lost, and deeper heart-sorrows gathering around him, he revives his fainting spirit and waning fortunes by recalling some never-to-be-forgotten experiences associated with help and deliverance—some Ebenezers, we know not what they were, in the Valley of the Jordan, by the slopes of Hermon, or on "the hill Mizar." As he opened these windows of the soul each had some consolatory vista-view, each had some memory of blessing which inspired and reassured him for the future. And not in exceptional times and exigencies alone did he revive these pillar-gleams of a chequered life. When he reached the end of the wilderness, the brink of the border river—in that most magnificent of all his Psalms, the 18th (as the superscription informs us in 2 Sam. 22), he unfolds his experiences at yet greater length. It is a record of reminiscences—gleam on gleam, flash on flash, of the Column of Fire, giving the God he served the praise of all: "He gives strength"—"BY MY GOD." He embraces, too, even such minute providences as the rush through the enemy's troop, the snapping of the foeman's bow of steel, and the agile leap—the bounding over the fortress-wall which saved his life (vv. 22-30).
He does not indeed seek to disguise the occasional mystery of the Divine dealings, the glooms as well as the gleams of the Pillar. "He bowed the heavens also and came down, and darkness was under His feet" (Psalm 18:9). "He made darkness His secret place; His pavilion round about Him was dark waters and thick clouds of the sky" (v. 11). But taking a cumulative view of life, he sees no purpose of God in him unfulfilled. He owns redemptive ministries in every event of his existence, summing up the long catalogue with the attestation—"As for God, His way is perfect" (v. 30).
Observe yet further, in this great heart-hymn (the swan-song, written "when God had delivered David from all his enemies"), these rehearsals—records of the past—inspire him with confidence for the days that are yet to come, and for the final day of all. He reverently gazes on the wilderness pillar with its reflected lights, and resolves undeviatingly to follow.
Read its prologue: "I love You, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust: my shield, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower (v. 1, 2). For You will light my candle; the Lord my God will enlighten my darkness" (v. 28).
Pilgrim of sorrow! in the midst of your present affliction, be what it may, seek to remember "all the way by which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness." Subscribe the roll of His suffering children with the wilderness testimony—"They called upon the Lord, and He answered them. He spoke unto theme in the cloudy pillar" (Psalm 99:6, 7). Mingled, with you, as with the kingly mourner of Zion, will—must be, the retrospect. At this moment your past is overshadowed by the gloom of a present chastisement. That chastisement, moreover, may be of no ordinary severity. Is it bereavement—the removal of one who seemed the indispensable companion of the pilgrimage, who worked with you, toiled with you, anticipated your every wish, abridged your every care, shared with quick sympathy your every sorrow and anxiety? Now the gushing fountain of joyous existence has ceased to flow. But if you are true in these memories, you will not fail, you cannot fail, even though standing amid the shadows of the Valley, to recall the "goodness and mercy that have followed you all the days of your life"; the hospices that have sheltered you; the ministering angels who once guarded you, though they have surrendered earthly trusts for higher ones.
Even in the most chequered of human existences there is more of May than December; the darkest horizon is rainbow-spanned; the bright spots outnumber the dreary. No, no—deal faithfully with God and with yourself. Life is not one uniform leaden sky loaded with weeping clouds. Life is not all music in the minor-key—far less a crash of discord and dissonance. It is rather made up of blended harmonies. The key-note of its long sonata should rather be "Mercy rejoices over judgment." Take one solace among a hundred others. Though deprived now of visible helps and comforters, nothing can defraud you of the "treasures of memory." The past can never find a vacant place in your library of thought. No page can be torn from any of its volumes. All is sacredly recorded. In these sunny memories you can bask. Your shadows are in front, and your sun is behind you.
Then, if you rise to the truly elevated view of the Divine dealings, have not your very trials already proved, or will they not in the future prove, as they were designed to be, aids in the prosecution of the journey, gleams of pillar-light in the midnight march, new spiritual forces assisting in the up-building of faltering purposes and in the reaching of noble ideals? Naturalists tell us of some migratory birds which, in being carried high by contrary winds, are thus helped onwards in their flight. So, many, buffeted with the adverse storms of trial (what Augustine calls "the severe discipline of the Lord's mercy") have, with weary, drooping wings, been driven to loftier regions and stimulated to loftier purposes. Savonarola avows how, in his case, crushed affection—the dissolved dream of young life—awoke hitherto slumbering aspirations, and raised his whole being to a consecrated mission for God and man.
Happy those whose trials thus serve to bring them near to the ever-living, ever-loving One; rousing from the dream of earth, with its often poor cares and debasing secularities, to have their lips attuned to another stanza in the sweet singer of Israel's canticle—"In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God. He heard my voice out of His temple, and my cry came before Him, even into His ears" (18:6). "They confronted me in the day of my calamity: but the Lord was my stay. He brought me forth also into a large place; He delivered me, because He delighted in me" (18:18, 19).
"I see the desolated ground
With dews of heavenly kindness fed,
And fruits of joy and love surround
The heart which You have comforted."
The refrain of David's "Psalm of the Exile" is "Hope in God" (Psalm 42:5). Beautiful, at that crisis-hour of his life, was his calm resignation—the absolute resolving, for good or for evil, his own will into that of a Higher. "If," says he, in words uttered on this same occasion, elsewhere recorded, "If I shall find favor in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me back again.…Behold, here am I, let Him do to me as seems good unto Him" (2 Sam. 15:25, 26).
Be it yours to aim after a similar spirit of lowly acquiescence, whatever the dealings of God may be. Your duty—your bliss—is to ask no questions, or attempt to solve the insoluble, but simply to wait and follow the guiding Pillar in the spirit of an older patriarch, "faint, yet pursuing" (Judges 8:4). The time will come when "in God's light you will see light"; when, with eyes opened and mysteries solved in whole or in part, you will own the rectitude of Christ's rebuke of unfaithfulness, "Didn't I say unto you, if you would believe, you would see the glory of God?"
It is well, too, to note the Divine order generally in these scenes of changeful and chequered life. The sequence is sorrow first, joy afterwards—the bitter first, the sweet afterwards—the cloud first, the rainbow in it afterwards. Our Marahs and Elims are strangely near and united, just as they were in the successive encampments of Israel in the wilderness. Bonar, who beautifully notes this in his travels through the "Desert of Sinai," goes on to say: "In token, we broke off a small branch of palm from one of these Elim trees, and laying it on the similar branch we had brought from Marah, we tied them together, to be kept in perpetual memorial, not merely of the scenes, but of the truth which they so vividly teach."
Aged Jacob at first uttered the hasty verdict that for him there was nothing but "the bitter well." But he had a calmer one at last—"his spirit revived." So the day is assuredly coming when rest will follow the toil and stress of battle, sunshine follow gloom; when bereavement will interpret its often misunderstood mission; when we shall see the present apparently shapeless and incomplete building standing forth in the beautiful proportions of Eternity; our fallen and scattered blossom making way for the immortal fruit; the Pillar of the night projecting on the sands far back to the receding horizon a trail of brightness, a pathway of golden promises now luminously fulfilled; our loved ones, we thought we had lost, waiting for us at the Gate, with the cry and the welcome—"We are all here!" (Acts 16:28).
I like the closing words in the following beautiful sentence from one of the great masters of thought and feeling of our age, as he speaks of the remembrance of sorrows here, and the blessed watchers yonder: "Their voices, common enough to other ears, fraught to us with unnumbered memories of life, have become the natural music of earth…To forget, it cannot be. We daily pass through places which are the shrine of a thousand recollections; we are startled by tones which pour on us a flood of conviction; we open a book, and there is the very name; we write a date, and it is an anniversary. …That is the most filial hope which, regarding the brotherhood of man as an inference from the paternity of God, looks to heaven as to another home" (Martineau).
Let these interweaved memories and hopes be summed up in the lines of a living singer—
"I go to sleep, but sleep itself reveals
The phantoms of a day that long is fled,
And through the land of shadows softly steals
The figured presence of the loved and dead.
"O Live in God, and your dead past shall be
Alive forever with eternal day;
And planted on His bosom you shall see
The flowers revived that withered on the way."
"Your goodness is so great! You have stored up great blessings for those who honor you. You have done so much for those who come to you for protection, blessing them before the watching world." Psalm 31:19