"The Lord went before them by night in a pillar of fire."
"Behold, the ark of the Covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes over before you into Jordan"—Josh. 3:11.
"And the king said unto him, Come over with me, and I will feed you with me in Jerusalem."—2 Sam. 19:33.
The theme of this meditation may seem a step backward from the preceding; but I have purposely retained it as an appropriate one with which to close our volume. The wilderness Pillar was undeviating in its guidance to the end. This pillar of the Hebrew host never failed in "giving light by night to these" until Jordan was reached.
We can picture it as it moved silently, majestically through the hills of Moab—from upland to upland, from ridge to ridge, from valley to valley—the pioneer of the mighty multitude, until its fiery splendor was seen for the last time. It had for forty long years shot up its column to the heavens. Now that its mission is accomplished, it ceases to shine. Its sacramental purpose is no more needed.
Yet, in another sense, it was more needed than ever. If the visible symbol be removed, is there no guarantee for further Divine guidance at this final crisis-hour? When the river—the arrowy river rushing through its gorges—(for Jordan was in full flood) was seen by the pilgrim tribes, the question must have naturally passed from lip to lip—'How are we to cross the impetuous barrier?' Joshua calms their fears with the inspiring assurance, "Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth passes over before you into Jordan."
Believer, with you also, in a true anti-typical sense, the border-river may now, or before long, be within sight. For yourself—(more possibly for some one near and dear to you) there is a gradual or near approach to the end of the pilgrimage. It is a new experience. In the words of Joshua uttered at the same historic hour, "You have not passed this way before" (Josh. 3:4). It is the night of nights—night in its deepest darkness. You may try to invent euphemisms to dim and mitigate the gloom. It is nevertheless too surely, too dreadfully, the advent of the King of terrors. But if by grace served heir to the hopes and promises of the Gospel, that final passage is not traversed alone. Your Savior-God (Joshua-Jesus) gives a corresponding assurance—a better counterpart to that of Israel's commander—"Lo, I am with you aways, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20). "I am the first and the last" (Rev. 1:17). He will be true to His own covenant word, "Fear not, for I am with you" (Isaiah 43:2).
No, more, not only does He conduct you through the stream, but He has Himself forded it. He knows what death and the grave are. He surrendered Himself to both, a voluntary captive. As He, the Incarnate Redeemer, the Divine Son of Man, has shared every wilderness experience of His people, so also this closing one. "Fear not: I am He that lives and was dead" (Rev. 1:18). 'Can you dread,' He seems to say, 'to pass what I have encountered before you? With Me at your side you will go over dry shod. I have sanctified that hour of departure by My own. By My dying, the tomb has been transfigured. The gate of the grave has been made the gate of Heaven. I have "abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light!"'
Believer! when the wilderness journey is about to end—the better Canaan in sight, take God to witness, as did the Hebrew leader, "There has not failed one word of all His good promise which He promised" (1 Kings 8:56). "The light of fire" has been "all the night"; it has never dimmed. The faithfulness of Jehovah in the past is a pledge that He will not forsake you now. He who guaranteed special provision for the roughest part of the way (Deut. 33:25) will not forget you in the supreme hour of all. And when the guiding column fails, it is only to be superseded by "the glory that excels." You will not need the Shadow where you have the Substance. You will not need the Satellites where you have the Sun. You will not need the Symbol where you have the all-glorious Reality. In the words of a recent theme of meditation—"God Himself shall be with them, and be their God." The invitation will then be true regarding every ransomed Israelite, in a far higher and nobler sense than when uttered to the aged Gilead chief by the brink of the literal Jordan—"And the king said unto him, Come over with me, and I will feed you WITH ME in Jerusalem."
Wondrous must have been the spectacle in that final hour of the Hebrew march—the goal of the desert wanderings. Already some had pitched their tents amid the acacias and palm-groves which studded the plain beyond, near to the Valley of Achor and the walls of Jericho. But the safety of all was secured: alike manhood in its strength; infancy in its feebleness; age in its decrepitude. The crossing was completed, doubtless with a hymn of victory, similar to that which resounded on the Red Sea shores. Thus will it be with the army of the Redeemed—"the multitude which no man can number"! The Great Captain of Salvation will not only be their faithful Protector and Guide, but He will secure that however varied their bygone experience, there will be a glorious meeting at last, as individuals and families, in "scenes beyond the flood,"—"the fields of living green." And so all Israel shall be saved (Rom. 11:26).
You who are laid on beds of hopeless suffering, wait patiently amid the experiences of "death's dark night," until the sentinel footsteps are heard with tidings of the dawn. Pain, weakness, and languor, inseparable from the closing hour, may be yours, or that of those by whose couch you are keeping sacred watch. But though an enemy confronts you, it is the last enemy. It is but the boom of the breakers telling that the voyage is ending and the heavenly shore is at hand. John in Patmos, as he listened to the blast of trumpets and beheld the outpouring of vials—in the hush and interlude of the great drama, heard a voice saying, "Write; Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord." Be it yours to subscribe the inspired beatitude. Feeling that "to die is gain," let this be your prayer and calm resolve—"All the days of my appointed time, (or as rendered in the Revised Version, "of my warfare,") would I wait until my release come."
"Now we pitched our final tent,
The desert journey done:
The glorious hills of the Better Land
Gleamed in the setting sun.
"The great and terrible river
Which we stood by night to view
Is left far off in the darkness,
For the Lord has brought us through."
Meanwhile, with memories of the goodness and mercy that have followed you all the days of your life—a wilderness-vista of these, you can take up the great song of the ages, "the Song of the Valley," the most familiar of all inspired words, with their rhythmic music—"I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff comfort me." It is, at best, but a brief transit. It is only the shadow of death. The substance—the terribleness has been taken away by Him who announced in a note of prophetic triumph, "I will ransom them from the power of the grave, I will redeem them from death. O death, I will be your plague, O grave, I will be your destruction." "With that staff," said an aged pilgrim, speaking of the revealed Christ of the Bible with His supporting grace—"will I pass over this Jordan."
"My work is done; I lay me down to die.
Weary and travel-worn I long for rest.
Speak but the word, dear Master, and I fly,
A dove let loose, to nestle in Your breast.
"It is enough, dear Master—yes, Amen!
I will not breathe one murmur of reply.
Only fulfill Your work in me, and then
Call me, and bid me answer, 'Here am I.'"
O God, when the terminating hour of the pilgrimage comes to me, or comes to those I love, shine upon us through the flaming Pillar! I seek no other funeral torch but this. Let it prove what a lighthouse often is in "crossing the bar" of some earthly harbor, when friends are disclosed on the pier waving their welcome. Yes, the thought of reunion after long years of separation, will joyfully mingle with other supreme visions of the Home hereafter, and God will be found true to His word, "the God not of the dead but of the living."
"We must not doubt, or fear, or dread,
That love for life is only given,
And that the calm and sainted dead
Will meet unrecognized in Heaven;
But that which makes this life so sweet
Shall make eternal joy complete."
Was it a cheering thought to the Hebrews, that once on the Canaan side, their feet touched the land made sacred by the names of the patriarchs—the pilgrim fathers of their nation sleeping in the not distant cave of Machpelah? What, O child of promise, will be your joy, when, the border-river left behind, you come not only to share the Presence of the King in Jerusalem, but also to recognize sainted ones gone before you; and, as a member of the family of the glorified, sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of Your Father?
May the fleeting meditations of the foregoing pages carry with them a few balm-words of comfort to those who may stand much in need of such. Pausing once more under the Column of Fire—or rather, with the last gleam of the Pillar reflected in the gloomy waters, and with our faces and footsteps turned to the City of the living God, let us sing the final, triumphant note—"Death is swallowed up in VICTORY."
"And they all passed over Jordan by morning light."