And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live. Thy raiment waxed not old upon thee, neither did thy foot swell, these forty years. Thou shalt also consider in thine heart, that, as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee.
This is the lesson of our lives. This is training, not only for the old Jews, but for us. What was true of them, is more or less true of us. And we read these verses to teach us that God's ways with man do not change; that his fatherly hand is over us, as well as over the people of Israel; that we are in God's schoolhouse, as they were; that their blessings are our blessings, their dangers are our dangers; that, as St. Paul says, all these things are written for our example.
'And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger.' How true to life that is! How often there comes to a man, at his setting out in life, a time which humbles him; a time of disappointment, when he finds that he is not so clever as he thought, as able to help himself as he thought; when his fine plans fail him; when he does not know how to settle in life, how to marry, how to provide for a family. Perhaps the man actually does hunger, and go through a time of want and struggle. Then, it may be, he cries in his heart--How hard it is for me! How hard that the golden days of youth should be all dark and clouded over! How hard to have to suffer anxiety and weary hard work, just when I am able to enjoy myself most!
It is hard: but worse things than hard things may happen to a man. Far worse is it to grow up, as some men do, in wealth, and ease, and luxury, with all the pleasures of this life found ready to their hands. Some men, says the proverb, are 'born with a golden spoon in their mouth.' God help them if they are! Idleness, profligacy, luxury, self-conceit, no care for their duty, no care for God, no feeling that they are in God's school-house--these are too often the fruits of that breeding up. How hardly will they learn that man doth not live by bread alone, or by money alone, or by comfort alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. Truly, said our Lord, 'how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of heaven.' Not those who earn riches by manful and honest labour; not those who come to wealth after long training to make them fit to use wealth: but those who have wealth; who are born amid luxury and pomp; who have never known want, and the golden lessons which want brings.--God help them, for they need his help even more than the poor young man who is at his wit's end how to live. For him God is helping. His very want, and struggles, and anxiety may be God's help to him. They help him to control himself, and do with a little; they help him to strengthen his character, and to bring out all the powers of mind that God has given him. God is humbling him, that he may know that man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God. God, too, if he trusts in God, will feed him with manna--spiritual manna, not bodily. He fed the Jews in the wilderness with manna, to show them that his power was indeed almighty--that if he did not see fit to help his people in one way, he could help them just as easily in another. And so with every man who trusts in God. In unforeseen ways, he is helped. In unforeseen ways, he prospers; his life, as he goes on, becomes very different from what he expected, from what he would have liked; his fine dreams fade away, as he finds the world quite another place from what he fancied it: but still he prospers. If he be earnest and honest, patient and God-fearing, he prospers; God brings him through. His raiment doth not wax old, neither doth his foot swell, through all his forty years' wandering in the wilderness. He is not tired out, he does not break down, though he may have to work long and hard. As his day is, so his strength shall be. God holds him up, strengthens and refreshes him, and brings him through years of labour from the thought of which he shrank when he was young.
And so the man learns that man doth not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God; that not in the abundance of things which he possesses, not in money; not in pleasure, not even in comforts, does the life of man consist: but in this--to learn his duty, and to have strength from God to do it. Truly said the prophet--'It is good for a man to learn to bear the yoke in his youth.'
After that sharp training a man will prosper; because he is fit to prosper. He has learnt the golden lesson. He can be trusted with comforts, wealth, honour. Let him have them, if God so will, and use them well.
Only, only, when a time of ease and peace comes to him in his middle age, let him not forget the warning of the latter part of the chapter.
For there is another danger awaiting him, as it awaited those old Jews; the danger of prosperity in old age. Ah my friends, that is a sore temptation--the sorest, perhaps, which can meet a man in the long struggle of life, the temptation which success brings. In middle age, when he has learnt his business, and succeeded in it; when he has fought his battle with the world, and conquered more or less; when he has made his way up, and seems to himself safe, and comfortable, and thriving; when he feels that he is a shrewd, thrifty, experienced man, who knows the world and how to prosper in it--Then how easy it is for him to say in his heart--as Moses feared that those old Jews would say--'My might and the power of my wit has gotten me this wealth,' and to forget the Lord his God, who guided him and trained him through all the struggles and storms of early life; and so to become vainly confident, worldly and hard-hearted: undevout and ungodly, even though he may keep himself respectable enough, and fall into no open sin.
Therefore it is, I think, that while we see so many lives which have been sad lives of poverty, and labour, and struggle, end peacefully and cheerfully, in a sunshiny old age, like a still bright evening after a day of storm and rain; so on the other hand we see lives which have been prosperous and happy ones for many years, end sadly in bereavement, poverty, or disappointment, as did the life of David, the man after God's own heart. God guided him through all the dangers and temptations of youth, and through them all he trusted God. God brought him safely to success, honour, a royal crown; and he thanked God, and acknowledged his goodness. And yet after a while his heart was puffed up, and he forgot God, and all he owed to God, and became a tyrant, an adulterer, a murderer. He repented of his sin: but he could not escape the punishment of it. His children were a curse to him; the sword never departed from his house; and his last years were sad enough, and too sad.
Perhaps that was God's mercy to him; God's way of remembering him again, and bringing him back to him. Perhaps too that same is God's way of bringing back many a man in our own days who has wandered from him in success and prosperity.
God grant that we may never need that terrible chastisement. God grant that we, if success and comfort come to us, may never wander so far from God, but that we may be brought back to him by the mere humbling of old age itself, without needing affliction over and above.
Yes, by old age alone. Old age, it seems to me, is a most wholesome and blessed medicine for the soul of man. Good it is to find that we can work no longer, and rejoice no more in our own strength and cunning. Good it is to feel our mortal bodies decay, and to learn that we are but dust, and that when we turn again to our dust, all our thoughts will perish. Good it is to see the world changing round us, going ahead of us, leaving us and our opinions behind. Good perhaps for us--though not for them--to see the young who are growing up around us looking down on our old-fashioned notions. Good for us: because anything is good which humbles us, makes us feel our own ignorance, weakness, nothingness, and cast ourselves utterly on that God in whom we live, and move, and have our being; and on the mercy of that Saviour who died for us on the Cross; and on that Spirit of God from whose holy inspiration alone all good desires and good actions come.
God grant that that may be our end. That old age, when it comes, may chasten us, humble us, soften us; and that our second childhood may be a second childhood indeed, purged from the conceit, the scheming, the fierceness, the covetousness which so easily beset us in our youth and manhood; and tempered down to gentleness, patience, humility, and faith. God grant that instead of clinging greedily to life, and money, and power, and fame, we may cling only to God, and have one only wish as we draw near our end.--'From my youth up hast thou taught me, Oh God, and hitherto I have declared thy wondrous works. Now also that I am old and grey-headed, Oh Lord, forsake me not, till I have showed thy goodness to this generation, and thy power to those who are yet to come.