"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"And confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one; therefore God is not ashamed to he called their God for He has prepared a City for them."—Heb. 11:13, 16.
Though really spoken of the older patriarchs, these verses would seem as if uttered under the gleam of the Pillar-cloud. They might have formed the refrain in the Song of Israel for forty years in their desert.
"Pilgrims and strangers on the earth!" This opening clause, applicable to believers in all ages, is no morbid sentiment. The Christian is not a pessimist. God's child, pilgrim and wayfarer though he be, has bright experiences in "the house of his pilgrimage." He comes to Zion, not with dirges, but with songs. "Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return to Jerusalem, singing songs of everlasting joy. Sorrow and mourning will disappear, and they will be overcome with joy and gladness." (Isaiah 35:10). He is feelingly alive to the wealth of loveliness in the surrounding world. It belies the name often given to it of "Valley of Tears." None more than he, none so truly as he, in the contemplation of the glowing skies by day and the silver galaxy by night,
"Can lift to Heaven an unpresumptuous eye,
And smiling say, My Father made them all."
And yet it is not inconsistency to affirm—it would be vain to deny, that in the hour of sorrow all undergoes a gloomy transformation. Affliction has its exceptional teachings. God's fair earth then seen through tearful eyes, is draped in sadness. It wears not bridal attire, but funeral clothes. And the lesson so reluctantly listened to in the day of prosperity, with its sunshine, is urged with irresistible power on the broken heart—"I am a stranger with you, and a sojourner as all my fathers were!" The harp of a thousand strings is rendered tuneless—the light of life goes out, like the stars fading from the sky.
Job was no pessimist. On the contrary, his heart, in its normal condition, was full of brightness and thankfulness. Read his pathetic story. No eye had a keener relish for the grand and beautiful in nature. He revels in "the philosophy of the seasons." The keener were his sympathies, that he saw God's footsteps and felt God's touch, in all. But can we wonder that this "Prince of the East," dowered with the three best gifts– goodness, intellect, and piety, when stricken in soul and body, realized as he had never done before, that Time was "a walking shadow"; and that he is heard wailing out the monotone, "Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and is cut down: he flees also as a shadow, and continues not" (Job 14:1, 2). In a word, "he confessed that he was a stranger and pilgrim on the earth."
The time indeed (and thank God for it) will come, must come, when the cloud is lifted; when you will even feel the reviving influences of nature and yield to the claim and attraction of human interests. But meanwhile, all is "sicklied over with the pale cast of thought." The way cannot be traversed with gleaming eye and elastic step when the staff and the beautiful rod are broken.
It is, therefore, in no spirit of murmuring or rebellion, that we repeat the first entry in this meditation. Let us rather look at it as lighted up by the sanctity of the Pillar of Fire. Reader, in that ashen flame, God—the God who has seen fit severely to chasten—would lead you, it may be through tears of anguish and a rifled home, to confess your homelessness. But it would be a poor, unworthy result of family trial, were it simply to discover the blight that has passed over your being and surroundings. The passage which forms our theme does not confine itself to gazing on the cloud. It has a glorious counterpart. There is a rift in the sky, disclosing the blue eternities behind and beyond. The down-cast pilgrim when he most deeply realizes that he is but a pilgrim, is inspired with noble resolves—stimulated with brighter prospects. The Song of the Night merges into a Song of Eternal Day. It is the grandest possible result of trial—"But NOW (the sequence of affliction) they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one."
Oh most blessed fruit and result of the Divine dealings! The sorrowing present not obscuring or shrouding, but only lending brightness and glory to the future! The wear and tear of life—many petty cares it may be, wedded with far deeper sorrows—unspoken trials, anxieties, and responsibilities previously unknown. "Hill Difficulties," which before had their arbors and hospices, now one toilsome ascent; rugged steep and treacherous hollow, bewildering mist and storm-cloud. It was but recently balmy seas, now it is winter with fog and snowstorm, needing anxious pilotage. Worst and saddest of all, the oppressive silence in the dark empty halls of grief. "One there is not," rings dolefully at every turn. What you thought to be a fixed star is changed into meteor-gleam, vanished as a morning cloud, or like the bubble on the ocean. Yes, let none cynically deny you your newly-appropriated name, "Pilgrims and strangers." They can see no wilderness, because they have still their unshattered tents and camp fires, and undiminished circle to surround them. Can it be wondered at that the song of their encampment can get no response in yours?
Turn, however, now, your contemplation to the reverse side. If bereavement and death have read their own impressive homily, there is a contrasted view to those afflictions which "for the present are not joyous but grievous." God's end and the soul's good is attained, if the breaking up of the temporary desert home quickens the onward march; lip and heart attuned to the resolve, "Now we desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one!" But for that trial, you might have forgotten that the wilderness was not your final rest or portion. You might otherwise have permitted fond fibers of affection to root you to earth. You might have continued in the pursuit of tinted air-bubbles—like one of Bunyan's well-known characters in his dream, preferring feathers and dust to the beckoning angel and the gleaming crown—dimming your eye to "the Better Country."
God has, in mercy, shut out the garish noontide, and lighted up His own fiery column with its own golden splendor. He has illuminated it with the words which you can turn, in all time to come, into a pilgrim chant—a "song of degrees," like one of those used by the Jews in going up to their greatest Feast, "God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them." Your affliction has brought Heaven nearer. It has served to wean from the too alluring fascinations of the present. It has forged adamantine chains to link you to the unseen and eternal. If some who read these pages can tell of successive bereavements—they have peopled the once strange, silent, solitary Land with living souls. Angels and glorified spirits seem to wave signals of welcome. It has made the other world more of a home than this—
"We dream awhile that Home is Heaven;
We learn at last that Heaven is Home."
Happy those who can thus join the two correlated Bible sentences, "Pilgrims and strangers on the earth," "Our Citizenship is in Heaven" (Phil. 3:20); who can listen under desert skies to words of heart-cheer, "Upwards, Onwards, Heavenwards, Homewards!" I like the words in the Revised Version of 2 Cor. 5:8, "We are of good courage, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord."
In heathen mythology (the legend is one of the oldest of Greek antiquity), Prometheus, represented by Aeschylus "as an immortal god and friend of the human race—willing to sacrifice himself for their salvation," was said to bring down two gifts from heaven—that is, Fire and Hope. In an infinitely more real sense, as our double motto-verse unfolds, the true Prometheus—the Son of the Highest—Himself the Divine Sacrifice, "brought down FIRE for the Pillar-cloud in the night of earth." Along with this He has brought HOPE, "the hope full of immortality,"—the promised bliss of that world where darkness is changed to light and hope to full fruition—where the winter is forever past, the rain over and gone, nothing left but eternal summer for the soul.
Pilgrim of sorrow, recognize your afflictions to be ladder-steps to help you in reaching the Gate of the City. It was the beautiful saying of young Prince Otto, who endured with such heroic Christian fortitude—"More than we can bear is not sent us; and when we can bear no longer, the end comes, and we are blest in heaven." Yes, "more than we can bear is not sent us." Whatever is sent, in the way of pain and suffering and bereavement, is God's needed discipline—God's best discipline. The gifts and graces of the Christian have ever been nurtured thereby. To borrow the words of a friend, "In the garden of sorrow the soul's loveliest passion-flowers reach their ideal perfection." The noblest heroes and heroines of the Faith have been braced by "great tribulation." It is often the bruised reeds the Almighty converts into golden arrows for His quiver.
Go, then, up and on through the wilderness leaning on your Beloved. Keep in sight the guiding night Pillar. Be loyal to God, as a son whom He chastens, and He will be faithful to the resigned and trusting heart. So may it be said of you, day by day, and never more than on the last day of all—life's vesper bell ringing the words—"There has sprung up a light for the righteous, and joyful gladness for such as are true-hearted."