It is sadly instructive to notice that the first application of mechanical skill among the liberated Hebrews was the construction of an idol. The golden calf is the earliest specimen of their art after they obtained their independence. The readiness with which they fell into idolatry reads a humiliating lesson to human kind in every age. Aaron, in his lame apology, says (Exo_32:24), ‘I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.’ Thus a naughty child, caught in the act, ventures half a lie to hide his transgression. No doubt, he or the workman at his bidding, cast the gold into the furnace, and the calf came out: but this is not the whole truth in the case. They planned and executed the image.
I. From the history of the Exodus, we learn that, while the application of art in the service of idolatry came easy and natural to the artists, the application of art to the worship of God was the result of Divine qualification and call. The workers were chosen, and their work prescribed; ‘I have called by name Bezaleel and Aholiab.’ Further, at the very time when the men of Israel were applying their skill to the construction of an idol, God was intimating to Moses in the mount His choice of that skill for the purposes of His own worship. Whether the same two men, Bezaleel and Aholiab, who were selected as the architects of the tent-temple for the worship of God, were employed by Aaron to make an idol in imitation of the Egyption Apis, we do not certainly know. The artificer of the golden calf is not named in the Scriptures. But it is in every way probable that the same men who constructed the idol were afterwards employed in the service of true religion. The skill of those men would be well known throughout the community. A talent such as this cannot be hid. It is the ordinary method of the Divine government not to create new faculties, but in a kingly way to take possession of faculties already existing, and impress them by the power of love into the service of the King.
Thus, Saul of Tarsus was taken captive, and his skill transferred to the service of the Conqueror. The chief priests kept that man in constant employment. His task was to destroy the Church. His great and peculiar talents were laid out in the service of the enemy, before he became a vessel to bear the name of Christ. But, as in the case of the ancient Hebrew artists, the decree had gone forth on the mount, while they were in the flagrant act of idol-making in the valley, that their skill should be forthwith consecrated to the service of God; so, at the very time that the young man Saul kept the clothes of the ruffians who murdered Stephen, the purpose of the Lord was sure, and the decree was already on the wing that should arrest the man, and employ his varied learning in establishing the kingdom of Christ.
II. Can art be employed in making the truth more attractive, so that it may win the nations to the Saviour?—It may; it shall: but the blessed consummation cannot be attained by any rude material process. Gold and silver, wood and iron, are not plastic in the Holy Spirit’s hands. In the human soul sits the disease that perverts art; to the human soul must the cure be applied which shall make all art loyal again to the King Eternal. Alas, our art, with the wealth which it brings, seems to gravitate, like that of the Hebrews, to idolatry! We do not make a calf and dance round it. Covetousness is a more refined and equally real idolatry. Other worships, less reputable, but even more imperious, draw devotees in thousands to their shrines. If the skilful, wealthy, powerful persons were converted to Christ, the skill, and wealth, and power would become tribute in his treasury.
The Art of Britain lacks the blessing, because her artisans, the pith and marrow of the nation, are in a great measure ignorant of the gospel, and of the church and its ordinances.
(1) ‘It is only our ignorance and unbelief that put any limit whatever to the sphere of the Spirit’s working. He can give miraculous strength, and health, and skill, to both body and brain. He can make a dull schoolboy bright, and the clumsy fingers of a little needlewoman to grow skilful, and even clever. By His miraculous aid, many a missionary has learned a new tongue in far less than record time; and many a servant, unskilled to cook, has prepared an excellent dinner. “All my life I’ve been doing the impossible,” said one of our most spiritual teachers not very long ago. It is an exhilarating ideal:—To be ever filled with the Spirit, and then to face everything, no matter how wearisome, or mundane, or difficult, in the certainty of His sufficient help. Finger-tip Christianity is the teaching of our passage. A vast amount of most artistic work had to be done in six short months. It was a sheer impossibility. Then the Spirit came upon Bezaleel and Aholiab, making them men of genius both to invent, to execute, and to teach and train others.’
(2) ‘It is quite clear that we must cease to think of the Divine Spirit as inspiring only hymns and sermons. All that is good and beautiful and wise in human art is of God. The doctrine of this passage is the Divinity of all endowment. Where shall we draw the line, in architecture or in iron-work? Every good gift is from above.’