"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"For in that He Himself has suffered being tempted, He is able to support those who are tempted."—Heb. 2:18.
"I know their sorrows."—Exod. 3: 7.
"In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."—John 16:33.
He suffered! Sorrowing one, what a gleam of the Pillar-cloud is this!
He suffered! What are all your most agonizing afflictions compared with what He endured for You!
He suffered—poverty, weariness, privation, hunger, thirst, grief, and the minor other ills that flesh is heir to. These, however, were but the surface-heavings of the deeper depths of woe—the assaults of men and the malignity of devils, cruel innuendoes, savage indignities; the loss or desertion of beloved friends; the treachery of trusted associates: that, also, in the case of a nature sensitively strung alike physically and spiritually. "Reproach," said He, "has broken My heart."
He suffered more profoundly still. There was a mystery of anguish in Gethsemane which mortal tongue cannot tell, or imagination conceive. No wonder it is described with an emphasis belonging to no other—"THE Agony." Its undefined dreadfulness is worded in the Greek Litany by "Your sufferings known and unknown." What mean these drops of blood oozing from His brow? What means the thrice-uttered prayer, in a paroxysm of woe, "Let this cup pass from Me"? (Matt. 26:39). What means the climax and consummation of all, when the very sun, in the words of Jeremy Taylor, "put on sackcloth, as if ashamed to confront the spectacle of its expiring Creator": when the wail was evoked from parched and dying lips—the bitterest cry that ever rose from earth to heaven—"My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me"?
He suffered. Of Him alone could the words be said—"All Your waves and Your billows have gone over me." Well may He have addressed the question, first to His disciples and then to His suffering children of all ages—"Can you drink of the cup which I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" With an intense pathos of which the afflicted patriarch knew nothing, He could make the appeal to a whole world of weepers, "Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O you, my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!" (Job 19:21).
He suffered. But the lesson from these sufferings for you and for me is to watch how, in this melancholy gloom, shone the Pillar of Fire! See His perfect and profound resignation! He takes the cup, whatever that mystic emblem may mean, with trembling hand. Humanity in its weakness, rather humanity in its very strength, utters an "If it be possible"—the prayer of His suffering children still—"let it pass." But it is only for the moment. The bitter chalice is drained to the dregs. Three times He recedes from the edge of the abyss and its "horror of great darkness." But it is a momentary recoil—no more. He plunges in! Self-surrender, heroic obedience, unmurmuring submission can go no farther. His own will is now, as ever, submerged in the Divine—"Not as I will, but as You will." He ceases not in the prolonged conflict until He could utter the cry waited for by all time, and which sends its prolonged echoes through eternity—"It is finished!"
Though we have selected the closing hour of all, He was, during the entire period of His earthly life, "the Faithful and True Martyr" (Rev. 1:5). Well may a writer speak of "the fascination of that mournful life-story, so infinite in its pathos and so profound in its wisdom, the most touching of scenes, and the most impressive of tragedies…the loving and gracious Man of Sorrows, listening to every plaint of weakness, and helping every troubled heart to bear its burden, even while on His own there rested the burden of a world's salvation" (Present Day Religion).
Reader, I know not what the circumstances of your suffering are. More than probable they may be identical in kind, though not in degree, with those of your suffering Lord.
(1) They may be physical. As was noted at greater length in a previous chapter, it is only those conversant with a couch of lingering pain who can testify to the reality. The sudden close of the windows, long open to the cheering light of day; the drawn blinds; the tossing from side to side in the hopeless battle with wakefulness—opiates giving, at the best, transient moments of relief—only to renew the pitiless struggle: "Saying in the morning, 'Would God it were evening!' and in the evening, 'Would God it were morning!'"
That pain—that physical pain—on the Cross, He suffered! There were, as I have just said, other reasons of infinitely more tremendous significance which convulsed His soul. But one reason for His being subjected to the pangs of an agonized body, undoubtedly was, that He might impart to every child of anguish His own experimental exalted sympathy. In our hours of prostration, weakness, and weariness—when in their prolonged vigils we may be tempted at times "to faint when we are rebuked of Him," the whisper trembling on parched lips—"Why all this discipline of pain? Why this cruel cross to bear? Where is the wisdom? Where is the love?"—we may think of a Divine fellow-sufferer subjected without any mitigation—(for the very anodyne offered was refused)—to the intensest bodily torture. "Consider Him that endured…lest you be weary and faint in your minds" (Heb. 12:3).
(2) Your sufferings may be mental. Harassment, unkindness, ingratitude, the barbed shafts of malice and slander, all the more grievous to bear if sent winged from the quiver of a friend. It may be anxiety about a beloved relative, the subject of slow disease, around whose couch the too ominous shadows are gathering—"life balanced in a breath." It may be the agony of bereavement, when the long alternations of hope and fear have ended—the vacant niche in your heart—the vacant chair in your home—the cherished name on the gravestone. Or, it may be, in your own case, wasting disease too surely pointing to the fatal termination—this involving the severance of holiest ties, and leaving dear ones solitary and alone to do battle with adversity. These and many such, though varying in their outer form and complexion, your great suffering Master knew in their fullest measure. Yes, inclusive of the last-mentioned; when, Himself racked in agony, He had that agony intensified by the sight of a fond mother jostled amid the crowd that surged around, and made sport of His dying moments; the sword too truly piercing her own heart, as the nails were lacerating the Body at whose feet she crouched.
The refrain of the present meditation is, He suffered; and because He suffered, says the Apostle in our motto-verse, "He is able to support." We have quoted more than once, as suggested by the name of this book, the words which emanated from the Jehovah of the Pillar-cloud, the opening syllables in that drama of the Exodus and the desert; let them be repeated in their most appropriate form here: "I have seen, I have seen the affliction of My people, for I know their sorrows." His whole life, from Bethlehem's manger to Calvary's cross, formed an empathetic commentary and fulfillment. He knew—He knows, every heart-throb of His suffering Israel in every age. He is no god or demi-god of Pagan mythology, who lives in unsympathetic isolation amid the clouds of Olympus, all in ignorance of the travail of a sin-stricken, woe-worn world. From deepest experience He is cognizant of every pang that rends the soul. If one of earth's kingdoms is the Kingdom of Sorrow, He is its King. The crown on His head was a crown of thorns, and, being so, the scepter in His hand is the scepter of kingly sympathy.
It is recorded of Alexander the Great, that he touched with his crown a wounded soldier in the ranks, and that at the touch there were the tinglings of new life. It is so in a diviner, heavenly sense. Christ touches our wounds with His double crown—the crown of thorns as the Human Sympathizer, and the crown of glory as Head over all. It is the thorn-crown which forms the special theme of our present meditation. I always like the conjunction of the two clauses in the familiar Litany—"Pitifully behold the sorrows of our hearts…O Son of David, have mercy upon us!" It was the Lord of the Pillar-cloud, the God-Man, of whom it is touchingly said, "So He was their Savior. In all their afflictions He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them, and He bore them, and carried them all the days of old" (Isaiah 63:8, 9). "It is Christ alone," beautifully says Pere Didon, in his Life of Jesus, "who teaches the joy of suffering, because it is He alone who pours into the soul a Divine life which no pain can overwhelm; which trial only strengthens, and which can despise death, because it permits us to face it with the fullness of immortal hope."
My brother, trust this Great Sympathizer, "who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the Cross." Conquer as He conquered, by a noble submission and self-surrender to the will of your Father in heaven. While you take trial for granted as a part of His appointed discipline, hear the Lord of sorrow encouraging you from His own example and victory—"In the world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."
We read of Him that "being in an agony He prayed the more earnestly." "Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard (as it has been rendered) because of His reverent submission" (Heb. 5:7). Is not that saying impressive—"He became obedient unto death"? It was a gradual effort requiring Divine self-sacrifice. But it was given, and the triumph was assured. Let this, also, afflicted one, be the sanctified result, in your case, of the Cup which the same Father has put into your hands. "Be more courageous," are the words of Francis de Sales, "in your trials, cherish them carefully, and thank God for vouchsafing to give you ever so small a share in His dear Son's cross."
"Rejoice inasmuch as you are partakers of Christ's sufferings; that when his glory shall be revealed, you may be glad also with exceeding joy."