By J.R. Miller
The stay at Sinai was ending. The time had come for the beginning of the march towards the promised land. Pauses in life are necessary. The tarrying at Sinai was not loitering on the way. It was part of the will and plan of God for the people. They stopped there at God's command, that they might receive revelations and instructions. At Sinai the law was given. There they received also the tabernacle with its furniture and all its equipment for worship. There the great system of feasts and all the ritual of religious life were promulgated.
The year spent at Sinai was therefore not a lost year. It was a year spent with God in necessary preparation for the beginning of national life. Activity is not the only duty in true living; sometimes it is quite as essential that we wait with God--as that we work for Him. Youth must take time for growth and for education, before entering upon active tasks and duties. We need to get acquainted with God, to learn our relation to Him, to know His will for us and our duty to Him--before entering His service in a public way.
Some people chafe when they are interrupted in their progress, kept waiting when they want to hasten on. But the pauses in life, when they come in Providential guidance, are as fruitful of good and blessing as the hours of most strenuous activity. Night is not a wasteful mistake in the ordering of time. Sleep is not self-indulgence. The hour of devotion at the beginning of the day is not lost time. Stopping for meals does not keep us back in our day's schedule. "Prayer and provender hinder no man's journey."
Some pauses in life are forced. The busy man in his busiest season is stricken with illness and has to drop all his pressing work and be shut up in a sick-room. But he need not fret. The days of illness are not meant to be lost. If rightfully accepted and used--they do not set us back in our life. We have to grow spiritually, and we may grow more in a week or a month in a darkened room, suffering pain--than in a year of free, unhindered life in the world.
Sinai was not therefore an interruption on the way to the promised land; it was a preparation, a help. But at length the time came for going on. Here the people are receiving their instructions for the march. They would need guidance, for there was no great highway to follow. Their route lay through a wilderness. They would be Divinely led every step of the way. "Whenever the cloud lifted from above the Tent, the Israelites set out; wherever the cloud settled, the Israelites encamped. At the LORD's command the Israelites set out, and at his command they encamped. As long as the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. Whether by day or by night, whenever the cloud lifted, they set out. Whether the cloud stayed over the tabernacle for two days or a month or a year, the Israelites would remain in camp and not set out; but when it lifted, they would set out."
We do not seem to have any such guidance in our lives. That is, we have no pillar of cloud or fire to lift and go before us when we are to go forward, to settle down when we are to stay our steps, and to rest over us when we are to keep still and do nothing, whether it be for two days, or a month, or a year. There come times to many of us when we would like to have just such guidance, when our hearts cry out to have some unmistakable leading, when we should be freed from the responsibility of having to decide certain questions for ourselves.
Is there anything now in place, of this wonderful supernatural guidance which the Israelites had in their journeys? There certainly is nothing which our eyes can see. The Incarnation was the coming of God into the world in a human life, and now there is no longer any need for the forms of Divine revealing that were used before Christ came. Yet the New Testament assures us of Divine leading in these Christian days, just as real and as unmistakable as was the leading of Israel in the wilderness.
Part of the care of the Good Shepherd for His sheep, is their guidance. "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me." Jesus led His own disciples while He was with them, answered their questions, told them what they should do, was their real Companion in their journeys, helped them over the rough, dangerous places and through the dark ways. There is no doubt about the guidance of our Master's personal friends while He was with them.
But when He left them, they seemed to have no leading, no way of finding the road. They were like a company of orphan children, in the sad days after His death. They did not know what to do or where to go. They were timid and afraid. When they met together they locked the door for fear of enemies. But Jesus had assured them that He would be absent only a little while--and would soon be with them again.
When at the last supper, Thomas asked Him about the way to the place where He was going, and how they could know the way, Jesus answered: "I am the way." He Himself would be their guide. We are sure, therefore, that the friends of Christ will be led through all this world's tangled paths--just as unmistakably as if they had a visible pillar going before them.
We have the guidance of the Holy Spirit who will lead us from within, filling our hearts with wisdom, enlightening oar eyes and making the way plain. We have the guidance of the Word of God which is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. We have Providential guidance. Life is full of God. He is in all events and circumstances. We talk about the strange way in which things happen, working out good for us. Only, really, things do not happen--nothing just happens. Everything is under God's all wise providential control.
We need not ever seek guidance in vain--God is everywhere, and He is ready always to show us the way if we want to find it, if we truly seek it, and if we are willing to take it.
The trouble is--we often do not want to take God's way. When the pillar settles down--we are not ready to pitch our tent--but want to push on. Or when the cloud lifts to lead on--we are not ready to go forward, at least to go the way it moves. We are too often more willing to hear some earthly guidance than the heavenly. In His parable, Jesus said of the sheep that they know the shepherd's voice and follow him--but will not follow a stranger, for they know not the voice of strangers. We may always hear the Good Shepherd's voice if we will, and may always have heavenly guidance in all the ways of our earthly life.
It is well for us to have our hearts so sensitive towards God, that we shall always recognize the leading He would give us. It is a lofty privilege to have in our earthly life, heavenly guidance. Dr. Peabody, of Harvard University, tells of watching a vessel lying becalmed on a glassy bay. There was not a breath of air to fill the sails. While the men were waiting and watching, however, they noticed that the little pennant, far up on the masthead, began to stir and lift. There was still not a ripple down on the water, nor the faintest moving of the air on the deck--but when they saw the pennant's stirring they knew that there was a wind rising in the higher air, and they quickly spread the upper sails; and instantly the vessel began to move under the power of the upper currents, though on the surface of the water there was still a dead calm.
The incident suggests something like this also in common life. There are lower and higher currents. There are influences that are only earth-born, and there are currents that blow down out of heaven from God. There are friendships that offer guidance which would lead us only along low plains; and there are friendships which would lift us up towards God, and whatever things are true and noble. Too many people set only the lower sails and catch only the winds that blow on earthly levels. But if we would get the Divine guidance, we must catch the upper currents; that is, put our lives under heavenly influences.
We may do this by abstaining from evil companionships--not walking in the counsel of the wicked, nor standing in the way of sinners, nor sitting in the seat of scorners. We may do it by choosing for our companions and friends--only those who are godly, by living in the atmosphere of holiness. If we walk with God--we shall ever be where the upper currents blow, and we shall always be in the way where God will lead us.
Very beautiful is the prayer in one of the Psalms: "Cause me to know the way wherein I should walk." This prayer we may make every morning as we go out for the day, and our prayer will be answered if it is sincere. We need, too, to make the prayer, for we cannot find the way ourselves. There is no morning when we do not need to make it, for even the day when the path seems plainest--may have its experiences of peril. The guidance may come when we think it has not come, and the bit of hard path which it seems to us certainly cannot be the answer to our prayer--may indeed be God's very way for us.
The cloud may sometimes rest for weeks or months when we think it ought to lift and lead on; still it is all right. No movement really takes us forward--unless God leads on. No resting ever retards our progress--if it is God's will that we should rest. All our guidance is hour by hour, step by step. The cloud showed the people only a little bit of the way at once, and any moment might settle down. So our guidance is only a step at a time.
In the story of Hobab, we have an illustration of the human part in the guidance of the people. The cloud was to lead them in all their marches, calling them to move, indicating the course they should take, and fixing the place at which they should rest. But there was need also for human guidance in the details of the marches. One who knew the wilderness, its paths, its springs of water, its shelters, its dangers, was essential to the commander in leading his people towards Canaan. Hence Moses desired the help of Hobab, the Kenite. The Kenites were an Arab tribe. When Moses fled from Egypt he took refuge with these people, marrying a daughter of Jethro, their chief. Jethro was helpful to Moses in his organization of the people, and when the march was about to begin Moses earnestly requested Hobab to accompany him. "Come you with us, and we will do you good," was the assuring invitation.
We should invite our friends to join us and go with us on our pilgrimage towards the holy land of heaven. Yet we must really believe in God ourselves and in the promises of the inheritance which He has in reserve for us, or we cannot assure others of the good things they will receive if they go with us. But if our faith is strong and clear--we can say to people confidently that it will be a good thing for them to unite with the church. It will bring them into the company of those who are journeying towards the good land.
The invitation, however, did not impress Hobab. His answer was: "No, I will not go; I am going back to my own land and my own people." His own home and kindred evidently drew strongly on his heart. The good promised him did not seem sufficient to win him away from the simple associations of his life. There are many people who make a like response to kindly invitations to unite with the church. They are not willing to leave their own companionships and fellowships, to make the sacrifices they would have to make.
Moses showed much earnestness and importunity with Hobab. He was not willing to leave him behind. They had long been good friends, and it was hard to go on even to the land of promise and have Hobab not go with him. He said: "Please do not leave us. You know where we should camp in the desert, and you can be our eyes." The first plea of Moses was that Hobab would find good for himself by accompanying Israel. Now he pleads that Hobab would be helpful on the way. Moses needed him. Hobab had been brought up in the desert and knew every part of it, every path, every spring of water, every bit of pasture. He would be able, therefore, to be a guide to the people in their journeys.
Moses felt that he could not spare Hobab, that he could not take the people through the wilderness without his help. This appears to have had more influence with Hobab, than the promise that he would receive good himself by going. Some people are more strongly influenced by opportunities for usefulness and helpfulness, than they are by promises of personal good. In every appeal, too, which Christ makes for followers, He has the two thoughts in mind--He would save the man himself, lift him up to life and blessedness; then He would have the man become a helper of others, a helper of the church.
There are many people not yet members of the church whom God needs and whom Christ is calling, and who could be greatly helpful to the cause of Christ if they would become His followers. There are men with money who would do very much in the world if only they were Christians devoted to Christ. There are men with gifts of speech, who, if they would unite with the church and devote their energies and powers to the service of Christ, could win many souls and give great help in the building up of Christ's kingdom. There are women with large social influence whom Christ needs. If they would enter His church with devoted hearts and ready hands their lives would be great blessings to many.