"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him."—Isaiah 57:18.
"Your shoes shall be iron and brass; and as your days, so shall your strength be."—Deut. 33:25.
Both these verses take us to the desert of AFFLICTION under the canopy of its starless night.
The first consists, if I may so describe it, of a fourfold flash from the Pillar of Fire in the environing darkness—a fourfold promise with its graduated scale of consolation. God "sees" us, then He "heals" us, then He "leads" us; then, as the climax, He "comforts" the smitten heart.
It is He alone who does all this. His is the seeing, loving, sympathetic eye; His the healing touch, His the leading, guiding hand, His the restoring solaces. We may recall words of exquisite tenderness—parental love, in another similar voice from the Pillar, recorded in Jeremiah, where the Divine Speaker thus describes His dealings with His people in the wilderness (and they are a true emblem of His dealings with His afflicted Israel still). "In the day that I took them by the hand (like a father) to bring them out of the land of Egypt" (Jer. 31:32).
In the other verse—a verse more especially associated with the mystic column of the Exodus, (it forms one of the farewell utterances of the leader of the chosen race)—there is conveyed a lesson of trust for the future. The "Israel of God," in the most comprehensive sense of the term, are exhorted, resolutely and bravely, to hold on their desert journey, with all its privations—wind-storm, hurricane, blinding sand driving in their faces, sharp stones bruising their weary feet. But He who sends their trials gives them pilgrim-garb and pilgrim-sandals specially suited for the roughest, thorniest, most rugged road: "Your shoes shall be iron and brass."
And then, if the future—that unknown, unrevealed future—obtrudes itself with trembling apprehensions, the fear of fearful things, strength is promised equal to the day: "As your days, so shall your strength be." The "marching orders" of the past are still addressed to the caravan of mourners in every age. "Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward." There is no time for lingering: camping in these "tents of Kedar." The wilderness way must be trodden. "Not" as an old writer has it, "are they to be carried, but with staff in hand to plod on as best they may." In the very effort of bearing tribulations, facing difficulties, and confronting duty, grace will be given.
It is indeed no small part of trial, especially after a lacerating bereavement, when the tendrils of the heart are wrenched from creature props, to face the world again; to encounter the old engagements; to toil through the old imperious mechanical drudgeries and grapple with the conventional commonplaces of life. But anything is better than becoming a prey to morbid feeling and querulous inaction. There is a Divine panacea in work. I was recently struck with this passage in a life of the greatest of the many great proconsuls of India, and a Christian besides, on hearing of the saddest of personal sorrows. It reminds us of what Tacitus relates of Agricola. "He wrote a line to his private secretary begging for work, no matter what kind." In another Biography of the day—these are the words of one as eminent in literature as the other was in statesmanship—"The troubles of labor" (sending a message to a friend in deep sorrow) "are God's most bountiful mercies on such occasions. Prayers and labor are the only consolations." Or, as this has been translated into verse, with a wise philosophy, by George Macdonald—
"Weep, if you will, but weep not all too long,
Or weep and work, for work will lead to song."
Elijah was miserable away from former activities, as he sat moping under his desert juniper tree, or crouched within the cave of Sinai. "Go, return on your way to the wilderness," was God's bracing command and antidote; and his crushed spirit revived. The solitudes of Horeb were left; the moodiness of the lonely life was exorcized in the resumption of the ministries of Jezreel and Carmel.
Mourner, go also your way under the shelter of the twofold saying—the twofold gleam of the Pillar-God's promised presence, and God's promised strength. Not aiming at getting the better of your trial—dulling it by some false opiate; but becoming the better for it, by grasping anew the pilgrim staff, and with girded loins pursuing your appointed way. Even if the darkness be gradually deepening, the fiery pillar is gradually brightening. It is a question of divine counterpoise and proportion. Strength adequate—more than adequate—for all emergencies.
As you are tempted at times to travel onwards with drooping head and faltering step, let the watchword of the primitive believers in their hours of "suffering affliction" be heard—"To heaven with your hearts". Let your response, like theirs, be—"We have raised them to the Lord!"
"Duty's path may thorny be,
Steep may be her climbing;
But upon her hill-top free,
Sabbath bells are chiming."
Depend upon it—the day will come when His gentle, tender dealing will be owned and manifested—gracious illuminations from the flaming cloud. Standing on the other side of the river, with the wilderness discipline forever ended, you will then have no memory but this—"Your right hand has held me up, and Your gentleness (or, as that has been rendered—Your loving correction) has made me great" (Psalm 18:35).
One thing we must bear in mind. As the Pillar of old was (we may believe) gradually lighted, gradually revealing its glory at the vanishing of day, so it may be, and doubtless will be, with you. Do not expect a sudden or miraculous illumination. The Great Physician, as in the first of our motto-verses, bids you wait His time, "I will (leaving the period indefinite) heal him, and restore to him comforts." They are only strangely unskilled in trial—the sanctities of bereavement—who would expect and exact the suddenness of an unnatural submission, and harshly forbid the heart its season of sorrow.
Nature, in her great yearly parable, teaches the true lesson. The seed of the flower has a slow, long battle with the overlying earth before its petals nestle under the blue sky and are bathed in the sunlight. Often the more beautiful the blossom the greater is the struggle. But the battle is at last won. "The winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth" (Cant. 2:12). So let us trust God that in due time—His own time—strength will be made perfect in weakness. The law in the material and spiritual world is the same, "out of weakness made strong." "For this cause we faint not," is the gradual experience of the weary, burdened pilgrim of sorrow, "for though the outward man perish, the inward man is renewed day by day" (2 Cor. 4:16).
Meanwhile God will take His own way with us, not ours. Sometimes He will say in His succouring love, as He disappoints our fears and more than realizes our hopes, "I removed his shoulder from the burden" (Psalm 81:6). At other times he keeps the burden on: it may even be for a time adds to it, and then He either takes it off, or gives us augmented strength to bear.
Happy those who can tell, as their experience and resolve—
"I come not to avoid my care;
I come not to desert the strife;
I come to seek new strength to bear;
I fly to find new power for life.
"When noontide brings its work to all,
I find my task so hard to be
That I would sink, did You not call,
My strength is perfected in Thee."
Let us only reliantly lean upon Him in the extremity of our weakness; not "discouraged because of the way." He will not reproach us for our feeble pulse-beats, when with plans crossed and purposes thwarted, and deepest clouds lowering, we pass through the Valley of Baca. He will not deal harshly with us if at first it be only with lisping, stammering tongue and bated breath we say, "Your will be done."
Yet, also, observe, His word is conditional on patient continuance in well doing—"Wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart" (Psalm 27:14). Be very sure that He has some great end in this trial. Seek that it may make you holier, humbler, more gentle, more submissive. Let His dealings serve to quicken your footsteps to the true Land of promise, until, the fiery pillar ceasing, the fiery chariot descends to bear you up to reunions that never can be dissolved.
O gracious Healer, Up-binder, Leader, Consoler, come in all the plenitude of Your pledged love and faithfulness! Enkindle this flaming Column in my present darkness. Put in my hand the staff of unwavering trust. Give me the sandals specially fitted for the bleeding feet; so that my experience may be that of the mighty host of sufferers who have trodden the same path, "They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distresses" (Psalm 107:4, 5, 6).
If we seek to do our duty in "the daily round, the common task," glorifying God in the season of solemn adversity, He will meet us half-way. "He meets him that rejoices and works righteousness, those who remember You in Your ways" (Isaiah 64:5). "I am the Almighty God" was the Divine watchword to the earliest of the Bible's Pilgrim Fathers—GOD, ALL-SUFFICIENT. We have heard of the Wady Mukatteb, in the Arabian Peninsula, with its "written rocks,"—the strange hieroglyphics of later pilgrims in the track of the Israelites. Reader, in closing this meditation, lift your eye to a great monolyth in the wilderness of affliction. Let the gleam of the fiery pillar fall on its letterings. It is an inscription applicable to all varying seasons and phases of trial—"As your days, so shall your strength be."