"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"O Israel, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? How can you say God refuses to hear your case? Have you never heard or understood? Don't you know that the Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth? He never grows faint or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding."—Isaiah 40:27, 28.
"The Lord is good unto those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him."—Lam. 3:25.
"O Israel, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? How can you say God refuses to hear your case?" Strong, impassioned as are these words, how truthfully they interpret the thoughts of many a sorrowing heart! Yes, of many a Christian heart. For, observe, the tender reproach and admonition is not addressed to the unbeliever, with his sceptic devil-born doubts; but to God's own covenant people—"Israel." Disguise it as we may, in the depths of profound grief, and despite of all accepted dogmas and creeds, such reflections will obtrude themselves. "Has not God forgotten me? I adore Him and cling to Him as my Heavenly Father—it is the assurance I shall be the last to surrender. But why this terrible trial? Where are any footprints of His love? I fail to hear even the faintest tones of the voice from the cloudy Pillar. Life is bereft of its beauty and brightness, and I am called to tread the dreary corridors of death, wedded to sepulchral silence. My prayers are apparently unheard. They only seem to lead from darkness to darkness. Surely He is, like Baal, asleep, leaving me to cry unsupported in the lonely desert—My soul thirsts for You, in a dry and weary land, where there is no water."
In vain I make my appeal to the God of the Fiery Column. In vain I plead the memories of the old pilgrim march—"Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord!…Are you not the One who dries up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over?" (Isaiah 51:9, 11). I call in the anguish and desertion of despair, "Keep not silence, O God. Hold not Your peace, and be not still, O God!" (Psalm 83:1).
These, sorrowing one, in your seasons of despondency—it may be even now—are the tones of your muffled harp. Like the Syrophenician woman you eagerly follow the steps of the Great Helper—seeking deliverance from Him who alone can give it. You can, as little as she did, understand the strange silence, the unheeded appeal, the apparent repulse. Is this like—is it not rather sadly unlike His loving heart? "Surely my way is hidden from the Lord,"—might well have been her agonizing soliloquy. But the tide of Divine-human sympathy was only for the time pent up and restrained. The sluices were before long withdrawn—her trust was commended; her child restored. The word of the Gracious Consoler was a bequest for the importunate of all ages, "O woman, great is your faith; be it unto you even as you will."
Call to remembrance, child of affliction, a higher than any mere human experience. Christ could Himself enter into the mystery—shall I say, the terribleness of apparently unheard and unsuccoured prayer. Read that psalm so unquestionably His own; the psalm of the Eloi-cry, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" His tearful pleadings were, "Why are You so far from the words of My roaring? O My God, I cry unto You in the daytime, but You hear not, and in the night season I am not silent!" What is His solace and balm-word in that hour of apparent desolation? He rests contented with the assurance, "But You are Holy" (Psalm 22:3).
Think, in the midst of your crisis-hours with their silences of grief, how He traversed this, as well as other solitudes—how He drank this, as well as other sorrow-brooks by the way (Psalm 110:7). Under the shade of these moonlit olives, the Master is giving utterance to importunate pleadings. But the cup is not allowed to pass, and that, also, though "being in an agony, He prayed the more earnestly," "BUT, You are Holy." He will not surrender His confidence in God—in His Heavenly Father's righteousness, faithfulness, and truth. At last, light breaks through the darkness; and before the Psalm of the Agony closes, He can tell the joyful experience, imparting help and hope and courage to all His people in their hours of misgiving—"Snatch me from the lions' jaws, and from the horns of these wild oxen. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy." (Psalm 22:21, 26). The pathway of thorns is changed into that of triumph.
Take courage from the example and experience of the Great Sufferer. Plead the promise of this same praying Savior, whose heart vibrates and throbs on the throne to the woes of humanity—"Verily, verily I say unto you, Whatever you shall ask the Father in My name He will give it you." Only adding, as He did, "Nevertheless not as I will, but as You will."
The great lesson He would teach His children is "Be patient." Let faith rise above the obscurations of sight and sense. This was the philosophy of affliction manifested in the case of the smitten patriarch of Uz. "Behold we count them happy who endure. You have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy" (James 5:11). In the case of this much tried servant, the mysterious dealings came at last to be vindicated; and in anticipation he sang the song of victory on his bed of ashes—"Though He slays me yet will I trust in Him." "For I know that my Redeemer lives!"
Seek to imitate this creed of the Pilgrim Father. Chide your buffeted and baffled faith with the verse which heads this meditation, "Why say you, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel?" "Israel!" that is the tenderest word in the remonstrance, for it again recalls the wrestler in Peniel—the conflict all night long, which left a struggling wayfarer the triumphant "Soldier of God!" Hope on; trust on; fight on; pray on. Feel the calm assurance that "the prayer of faith shall save," and that, also, despite of thwarted purposes and apparently unanswered requests.
The following words simply but truthfully describe the sorrowful—the at times despairing yearnings of one who feels the mystery of unsupported pleadings; but who feels also, that these "silences," rightly understood, have deep meanings, if not in most cases triumphant issues—and alluring, at all events, to higher hopes, even though the way leads through shadow and darkness—
"Will not the baffled soul, dismayed,
Fall prostrate in the dust?
The expectant child-like heart, afraid,
Forget its early trust?
"They shall not be ashamed who wait,
Are words that cannot fail.
Blessed who linger at the gate
Until their suit prevail.
"Forthwith, transfigured, smiles each sense
Over which the darkness fell;
The notes of praise swell dear and keen—
'He does all things well.'"
They are an echo of the more familiar words of the Laureate—
"The world's great Altar-Stairs,
Which slope through darkness up to God."
Not a few, doubtless, have personally experienced—more likely have witnessed in others such notable results and triumphs. One aged mother in Israel, well known to the writer, never ceased for years, undeterred by adverse, almost hopeless influences, to plead, and plead, and plead again—rising from her bed at night, in the darkness, to pursue her importunate suit. She refused to surrender the conviction that the answer would come. Though it tarried, she "waited for it." Come it did, in time to gladden her waning existence and to enable her on her own death-bed—"the sleep of the beloved"—to adore her faithful God as the Hearer and Answerer of prayer. Her experience for years might well have been that of our verse, "My way is hidden from the Lord, and my cause is passed over from my God." But she had "known and heard," and testified—that "the everlasting God (the God of Eternity), the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, neither is weary."
Reader, look and long for the assured gleams of this Pillar of Fire. "The Lord is good unto those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him." He never said unto any of the seed of Jacob, "you seek My face in vain." Three times Christ prayed the prayer of His agony before He was heard. Three times Paul prayed the prayer for the removal of the buffeting thorn before he was heard. In both cases, at last, support was given, not in the way it was asked for (by removal), but an angel was sent from heaven to strengthen. You may be now like the Apostle on another occasion, in the dungeons of Philippi: your soul under scourging; your feet fast in the stocks—the plaintive dirge on your lips, "Where is now my God?" But, as with him, "at midnight," the darkest hour of all, deliverance—not perhaps as you expect it, will be given. The gracious though deferred accents will be heard—"You called me in troubles, and I delivered you: and heard you what time as the storm fell upon you" (Psalm 81:7). Yes, following the Pillar—peering for its light in the surrounding darkness, sooner or later the experience and the prayer of the desert Psalm will be your own: "They cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distresses. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their bands in sunder. Oh, that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!"
"O house of Jacob, come and let us walk in the light of the Lord."