"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"I will be a father unto you."—2 Cor. 6:18.
"As one whom his mother comforts."—Isaiah 66:13.
"As an eagle stirs up her nest, flutters over her young, spreads abroad her wings, takes them, bears them on her wings: so the Lord alone led him."—Deut. 32:11, 12.
Three gleams from the Pillar of Fire! A triple emblem and relationship of earth is taken to set forth the paternal love and tenderness of God—dealing as a Father; comforting as a Mother; and then is added a figure very subordinate in itself, but still beautiful and touching—a figure surely appropriate here as associated with the "Wilderness of the Wandering"— the eagle of its rocky heights.
The latter words, indeed, form a part of the great leader's own retrospect of the Divine dealing. Jehovah is likened by him to the mother eagle teaching her young brood to fly; alluring them from their eyrie to try their wings, watching their first feeble efforts, hovering over them, ready, if need be, to dart underneath and bear them on her stronger pinions.
Our present brief meditation then, is Israel, and the Israel of the desert of all ages—subjects of a most gracious discipline and training: guided, supported, safeguarded, by the Eagle-wing of God.
God's Parental Love—the heavenly Fatherhood—is surely a theme of themes in the midst of trial. Earth's most sacred relation has its archetype in the Divine. A father's or mother's tenderest thoughts are centered in their weak and suffering child. The strong and vigorous of the family are left to care for themselves. It is the fragile flower, bent with hurricane and storm, that engrosses deepest affection and sympathy. So is it with our Father in heaven. It is the child of sorrow on whom He chiefly lavishes His regards. It was the "sick one" whom "Jesus loved." He took the blind man "by the hand." He was "moved with compassion" when He met the funeral crowd, and spoke words of solace and condolence to the bereft widow. At the sight of His own deeply afflicted mother He forgot for the moment His own pangs. His last deed and word was to dry her tears and provide for her a home (John 19:26). The Shepherd in the parable left the ninety-nine which were safely folded. He deemed it unnecessary to keep watch and ward over them. It was for the footsore and weary wanderer, away up amid the thorny brakes and jagged rocks, that he subjected Himself to toil and peril. "I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak. I will make a covenant of peace with them and drive away the dangerous animals from the land. Then my people will be able to camp safely in the wildest places and sleep in the woods without fear." (Ezek. 34:16, 25).
Reader—in the midst, it may be, of mysterious dealings—dismissing all servile fear, delight to think of this (paradoxical as the words we have often repeated in these pages may appear), "Whom the Lord loves He chastens." "What son is he whom the Father chastens not?" Chastisement—the family badge—the family pledge—the family privilege. Delight to dwell on that great, that greatest revelation of Christ. The saying may be taken as the brightest emanation from the Fiery Pillar—"My Father and your Father; My God, and your God."
My Father! It was the soothing balm mixed in the Redeemer's own cup in Gethsemane. "This cup which My Father gives Me to drink, shall I not drink it?" My Father! it is the one name which fetches back the prodigal and sings him home. So in seasons of severest discipline, submission is best attained when chastisement puts the yearning prayer into heart and lip, "I will arise and go to my Father." "Even so, Father." My Father! it is the key which unlocks many perplexities in life. My Father! it is the lullaby which smooths the pillow of pain and soothes to sweetest rest. It is the requiem in the hour of death—"Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit." Here is a filial prayer: go forth to the desert with it on your lips; hear the response in your night of gloom and sadness—
"The way is dark, my Father! Cloud on cloud
Is gathering thickly over my head, and loud
The thunders roar above me. See, I stand
Like one bewildered! Father, take my hand.
"The way is dark, my child; but leads to light;
I would not have you always walk by sight;
My dealings now you can not understand,
I meant it so; but I will take your hand.
"The way is long, my Father! and my soul
Longs for the rest and quiet of the goal.
While yet I journey through this weary land,
Keep me from murmuring; Father, take my hand.
"The way is long, my child! but it shall be
Not one step longer than is best for thee;
And you shall know at last, when you shall stand
Safe at the end, how I did take your hand."
Reader, with the hand of a Father-God in yours, and yours in His, rejoice in the double assurance, alike under the shadow of the Pillar of cloud and the gleam of the Pillar of fire—"You compass my path" (in the daytime), "and my lying down" (the vigils of night). Implicitly rely on the methods of His guidance. His one object in all is to bring you nearer to Himself; and even if there be the removal of prized blessings, be assured there is a "needs-be." "You may accuse me," says the Duchess de Gontaut, in her impressive Memoirs, "of making too light of all vicissitudes. You would be wrong. God has simply endowed me with the faculty of making the best of His severest inflictions: and I believe this to be the surest proof of real faith and the only way of living through life without repining."
Oh for the trust and ready implicit submission of the Father of the Faithful, of whom it is said, "he rose up early in the morning"; as if eager to fulfill, be what it might, the bidding of his God! Instead of murmuring at the slow lifting of the cross, seek to bear meekly your mystery of pain or of sorrow. We are apt to be hasty and impatient; to marvel at protracted suffering and baffled hopes. All God's dealings are slow. An earthly father's education of his child is necessarily gradual and prolonged. The child feels the slowness. There are tears shed over hard tasks, and restlessness under what appears redundant toil and effort. But there is wise discipline in all these mental and moral struggles. Our Heavenly Father has the same end in view—"He, for our profit"—"Then do we with patience wait for it." Let every murmur be suppressed with the Master's words, "If you (earthly fathers), being evil (imperfect—often erring), know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?" (Matt. 7:11).
It is difficult—almost impossible—often to own all this—to see wisdom and love, "good things," in what seem strange, regarded as paternal dealings. But ever fall back on the truth that the best and noblest lives have been molded by affliction: the purest gold is brought forth from the refining process in the furnace. It was the alabaster vase in New Testament story, shattered and broken, that yielded precious ointment and diffused sweetest fragrance. How many of God's afflicted family can give the attestation—It was trial that braced me for duty and service. Trial was the training school where I was disciplined as a soldier in the use of spiritual weapons: taught how to put on "the whole armor of God" that I might be able to stand in the evil day, and having done all to stand. "It was good for me that I was so afflicted, for before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word!" The homestead has been pillaged, but the pillaging of the earthly nest has driven me to the wing and to heavenly soarings. As it is the famine, and crippled resources, which form the main impelling motives of the emigrant to seek other climates and shores, so it is affliction which often colonizes the spiritual kingdom.
Trust parental love. In words suggested by one of our motto-symbols—
"Let Your angel-wings be spread
O'er me; keep me close to Thee:
In the peace Your love does shed
Let me dwell eternally!"
"What," says Bishop Hall, "if property, credit, health, friends, and relatives were all lost; you have a Father in heaven." And if these fatherly dealings are not at the time apparent—if the writings be now blotted, undecipherable; rather, if we in our infancy are only spelling out our Father's mysterious words—the meaning strange—the time will come, when all shall be made plain; erasures restored; light supplied; involved passages interpreted. Many a needed translation of what has been long to us like a foreign language, will be rendered in "Heaven's Vernacular," the motto on every title-page of the volumes—too often blurred and faded now, made luminous then—"like as a father pities his children."
It is said of the seventy translators of the Old Testament into Greek (the Septuagint), who were shut up to accomplish their task by one of the Ptolemies in the Island of Pharos, that though each occupied a separate apartment, on issuing forth from their seclusion, the translations were to a word identical. It will be so in Heaven with God's translated Providences. However diverse may be the rendering at times here, there will be no divergence from the united testimony in that true "Land of LIGHT"—"He has done all things well" (Mark 7:37). "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away…Now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face" (1 Cor. 13:9, 10, 12).
"Leaflets, now unpaged and scattered,
Time's great library receives;
When Eternity shall bind them,
Golden volumes we shall find them,
God's light falling on the leaves."
Yes, His ways may be past finding out; but confident that there are blessings in reserve for us, blessings in disguise, surrender yourself to His wiser, better guidance, with faith's impassioned prayer, "Bless me, even me also, O my Father!" The response will in due time come. It is already yours—the Pillar-flash lights up the barren wilderness—"I will be a father unto you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord almighty."