"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten."—Rev. 3:19
"I rebuke." "I chasten." These are solemn assertions.
The Fire of the Glory-Pillar we have interpreted very specially, as the symbol of the Divine love. But we dare not restrict it to this. It is the emblem of the Divine holiness also. It was an opening strain in the closing song of Israel's great chief—"A God of truth and without iniquity, just and righteous is He" (Deut. 32:4). And the same assertion is repeated in various forms throughout Scripture.
Nor is it well, in the midst of these thoughts of comfort and solace, to forget this complementary phase of affliction, that God—yes, God, our Heavenly Father, appears to His pilgrim Israel now, as then, at times in the character of a punisher, with the fire of rebuke and chastisement. "Behold, My angel," says He, "Shall go before you: nevertheless, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them" (Exod. 32:34). True, it is not the loftiest, it is not the consolatory view to take of His dealings. That gracious assurance of "Fatherhood" revolts at the thought of retributive suffering. In our seasons of deepest grief we cling to the revelation of the Divine Being with His repertory of golden promises, announcing earth's best symbol of love ("like as a Father") to be the parable and exponent of His own.
Moreover, it would be doing injustice at once to God and His people—it would be a misapprehension contradicted by the lips of a gracious Savior, to regard chastisement in the light the sterner Jews were disposed to do, as the invariable token of Divine displeasure (John 9:2, 3). But yet I feel convinced many a stricken one, conscious of sin—it may be some special sin—can acknowledge through tears: "I know that Your judgments are right, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me." "Against You, You only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Your sight, that You might be justified when You speak, and be clear when You judge." "And David said unto God, I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing: but now put away, I beseech You, the iniquity of Your servant. …And the Lord commanded the Angel, and he put up his sword again into the sheath thereof" (1 Chron. 21:8, 27).
Often, also, there may be felt and owned some strange profound conformity between the sin and its chastisement, known only to the individual soul, as it whispers its unspoken griefs and accusings in the ear of Omniscience. The arrow which pierces and rankles may be feathered from our own bosoms. It may be some willful overt act of transgression. It may be the neglect and omission of some known duty. It may be siren voices of the world to which our traitor hearts have too readily, though gradually, responded, resulting in a wounding of the conscience, restraining prayer, grieving the Spirit: in a word, spiritual declension. He subjects in mercy—yes, in mercy, to some sharp discipline, to rouse us from our perilous sleep. That is the rebuke and chastisement of love here spoken of. Self-humbled, self-accused, self-condemned, we utter the confession with tremulous lip and broken heart—"Righteous are You, O Lord."
Tried and suffering one, be comforted. I believe in this furnace of affliction—the fire of Divine rebuke. But I believe, yet more, in the fire of purifying chastisement. Blessed is the man who owns the rectitude of the Great Chastiser, yet who regards all the Divine dealings, with their apparent severity—wasting disease, blighted affections, withering disappointments, lacerating bereavements; only (strange as may be the contradiction) as the tokens and pledges of a Father's love.
The parent of the Parable, weeping over his penitent prodigal, is the Image of God. He tells you it is a furnace affliction, lighted, it may be, because of your sin. But He tells you, also, that He kindles it not to destroy but to refine. He Himself is seated by, tempering the fury of the flames; keeping the silver in the glowing heat just so long and no longer than is needed to purify—to purge away the dross, and leave His own image reflected there—"a vessel fit for the Master's use." One of the great master comforters of a past generation reminds us "it is where the rough waves roar, and the rattling shingle is tossed about, that we find the pebbles rounded and polished. So the Lord is shaping the storm-tossed life" (Guthrie). "In the same way," says another, "Christ deals with the white sapphire stone of His love, glistening with its hexagon star of light and the disciple's own name engraved by His own hand as a keepsake of love. …The white stone is love's symbol. For in the old heraldry the sapphire always meant love. The ruby, which is only the red sapphire, earth's love. The commoner blue sapphire, heaven's love. The white sapphire, Christ's special love" (Lovell).
Never let us forget God's object in affliction. It is to draw out new and hitherto unmanifested graces, especially the grace of silent unquestioning submission: the "peaceable fruits of righteousness in those who are exercised thereby." To adopt a sentence written on a different subject, "The devout soul, in this process, may be likened to a sensitized plate, set in proper position under a starlit sky, which after due exposure is found marked by new stars, invisible to the naked eye, and beyond the farthest sweep of the unaided telescope" (Edinburgh Review).
At times the remedial measures, which God sees and knows to be required, may involve the destruction of fond hopes and proud ambitions. You may recall the story of the Italian painter, high on the church scaffolding, completing on that dizzy height one of the frescoes. He was over-absorbed in his labor, and in a perilous position, from there being no railing. While stepping back, as is the artist's used, to get the general effect of his subject, he was all unconsciously on the very verge of the scaffolding. Another step would have hurled him a dead man to the marble pavement beneath. A brother artist close by, perceived his danger. With a flash of thought he took the swiftest, best means of rescuing his friend. What was this? He made a dash with his brush at the wet fresco. In so doing he spoiled his companion's work, but he saved his life.
This is at times God's needful method of dealing and discipline. He sees His people in perilous and "slippery places," about "to cast themselves to destruction," possibly through their own blindness, and all unconscious of danger. He wrecks, for the moment, their darling hopes, spoils "the pride of life." But all to save and prevent irreparable spiritual loss. "The day of the Lord of Hosts is…on all pleasant pictures" (Isaiah 2:16). It is a strong expression to employ. I heard that great preacher, Henry Melvill, use it fifty years ago, and I have never forgotten it, as he spoke empathetically of a father laying child after child in the grave. "It broke his heart, but saved his soul!" Yes, emphasize the saying of our motto-verse, "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten." "Unto you it is given—(a family badge, a covenant privilege) to suffer." It is with His own children He thus deals, "Whose fire is in Zion, and His furnace in Jerusalem" (Isaiah 31:9).
O fire of the cloudy Pillar! come and search me, come and try me, come and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way! Great will be the blessedness of sorrows if such be the result.