Scripture Characters

PART II. "His heart trembled for the ark of God." 1 SAM. iv. 13.

IN the circumstances, as we have seen, Eli’s heart might well tremble, and could not but tremble, for the ark of God. That sacred symbol was put in peril; nor was there anything, either in the composition of the army or in the character of the fight, to allay the apprehension that might be awakened. On the contrary, whether he considered into what hands the ark had fallen, when it was carried into the camp under the charge of his unhappy sons; or pondered on the circumstances that led to its being sent for, and the use to which it was to be applied; the old man had more than one good reason for apprehension and alarm.
The same reasons, alas, might cause the heart of many an Eli now to tremble for the ark of God; whether the holy veteran looked to the sort of company which has assumed, or accepted, the guardianship of that sacred symbol; or to the exigencies which demand, and the motives which prompt; the risking or committing of what is God’s, on the uncertain field of human controversy and strife. Our subject may thus branch out into two topics:

I. The heart trembling for the ark of God on account of the hands that bear or defend it; and,
II. The same anxiety caused by the occasions and circumstances which serve to bring it forward in battle, and to peril it on the issue. The first of these topics will chiefly occupy our attention, the second being but briefly noticed.

I. The mixed and motley character, the very miscellaneous composition, of the army in whose hands the ark of God seems to be placed, may well cause the heart of an Eli to tremble. Let any thoughtful man cast his eye along the ranks - alas! How broken and disordered of the host that should be fighting the Lord’s battle, and can his heart fail to tremble?

In the first place, there are those whose mere bodily presence is all that can be reckoned on, the lukewarm and indifferent, the treacherous and false, the men who have joined the standard on compulsion, or in the crowd, or to serve a purpose, disguised spies and traitors in the enemy’s interests, or soldiers of fortune, fighting every one for himself. "Unto the wicked God saith, what hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?" "Thy people" says Jehovah to our Lord, the Captain of our salvation, the Conqueror out of Zion, the Ruler in the midst of his enemies "thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power." They shall be all volunteers, no pressed men among them; they shall be all in earnest. That indeed will be the day of his power, when his people are thus willing; the day of his power in a double sense; the day when, in the first place, he makes them all willing, with the rod of discipline and doctrine wielded by his own Spirit, thinning perhaps the columns, yet by that very process inspiring new courage and giving new compactness to those that remain; and when, secondly, he uses that band of brothers for mightier conquests and triumphs than have ever yet been dreamed of.

Gideon’s proclamation, "Whosoever is fearful and afraid, let him return and depart;" aye, and besides this appeal to conscience, some Gideon-like test, some trial appointed by the Lord himself, whether it be the lapping of water or the baptism of fire; must go before that "breaking of the yoke of Zion’s burden, the staff of his shoulder and the rod of his oppressor" which is to be as another day of Midian: "for every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood, but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire." [* Judges vii.; Isa. ix. 4, 5, where this comparison occurs between the victory of Christ and that of Gideon, in immediate connection, on the one hand, with that brief picture of restored peace after successful war which goes before: "Thou hast multiplied the nation, and increased to him the joy (marginal reading or, whose joy thou hadst not increased): they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil;" and, on the other hand, with that glorious doxology or song of praise that follows (ver. 6, 7): "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this."]

It is no strife this for mere hireling mercenaries; or for reluctant recruits, enlisted in a fit of temporary excitement, and almost unawares, and now kept in the camp only because they are ashamed, or are not allowed, to draw back; or for officious allies, encumbering the real force with their intrusive self-sufficiency. The Lord needs no such aid for any purpose of his, his own zeal will perform it; and it will be a zeal whose cleansing and sifting power his own troops may have to experience in the first instance, before he pours out its fury on his foes. They are not all accessions that the Church receives, as its numbers are filled up from among the people of the land. The "mixed multitude" who go up with the children of Israel out of Egypt, "fall a-lusting" themselves, and spread discontent and weeping throughout all the tribes; and when the sacred deposit is in the custody of such hands, the godly man may indeed tremble for the ark of God. These are they who, if they are not conscious and wilful hypocrites, making a gain of godliness, yet almost seem to think that they compliment God by giving in their adherence to his cause, and consenting to take charge of his ark; and make no scruple about bearing it ostentatiously before them into the very heart of the enemy’s country, and the thickest throng of the ungodly; having no fear, no misgiving, as to their being able to bear it in safety through, or to retrieve and repair any temporary damage it may sustain.

Oh! how does our heart tremble for the ark of the Lord, when we see so many lightly taking upon them the Christian name, and making the Christian profession with little of anything like an adequate and serious sense of what so solemn a pledge implies. Alas! How many do we see rushing to the Lord’s Table today, and frequenting the haunts of vanity tomorrow, exposing their Christian character, in the very flush and bloom of its newly-budding freshness, to the withering blight of a worldly atmosphere and worldly conversation? They profess, and perhaps feel, not a little devotion in the sanctuary, although at home, and in the social circle, they make it too plain to their ungodly companions that there is really no very essential difference between them. They refuse to come out and be separate, so as to shun and shrink from the very touch of the unclean thing; while still they dream of preserving sufficiently entire all the pure grace and holy beauty of their blood-washed raiment, and all the tenderness and truth of their filial reverence and love, as the sons and daughters of the Lord God Almighty. Is it any wonder, then, that the cause of God languishes, and conversions are few, and iniquity abounds, and the adversary waxes bold, and many an aged believer’s heart but lately perhaps cheered with the hope of a better day, as the Lord seemed to be leading his Church out into the wilderness, and there reviving her begins again to tremble for the ark of God!

But, secondly, there are those in the camp who are not thus insincere and false, who are, nevertheless, disabled and enfeebled by some rankling inward wound, some corroding grief, some sad sense of insecurity, or of a doubtful right to be themselves there, and to have the ark among them. On the occasion before us, the Israelites had just been smitten in a previous battle with the Philistines; and it was as defeated men that they were about to take the field again. True, they had now got possession of what was wont to be a pledge of victory. Their elders, in proposing to bring down the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh, had assured them that whenever it came it would save them out of the hands of their enemies; and the multitude, ready to grasp at any lie and trust in any spell, had welcomed with mad joy the consecrated symbol, and made the earth ring again with their shouting. But were there no sad countenances and grave looks, as this ill-timed scene of premature exultation went on? Were there no ears on which the rude clamour of that noisy mirth struck as a funeral knell? And when the first drunken and senseless fit of enthusiasm was over, were there none among the shouters themselves whose hearts began to misgive them, who, hurried along in the first tumultuous burst of the contagious rapture, had since got leisure to reflect, and found too good cause to despond?

We may imagine some such little group of thoughtful men, as the shout arose, or at least as the shout fell, opening to one another their minds, and exchanging words of fear. It is so far well to see the army in good heart, and, instead of the lamentations of defeat, to hear the brave note of defiance again; but is all this confidence justly warranted? The ark, indeed, is with us; but in what spirit has it been sent for, and in what spirit received? If it be right to take it down with us into the second battle, it must have been wrong to go without it to the first. By thus seeking to have God in the midst of us now, we confess that he was not in the midst of us before, and that it was in our own strength that we fought. Have we repented of our sin? Is it out of a returning sense of duty that we now hasten to repair our sad omission; or is it by a mere feeling of superstition, and on the pressure of extreme necessity, that we are driven to avail ourselves of this high refuge? If so, can we expect that it will stand us in stead? Its presence has not always saved our armies in time past; nor will it now, if it be all that we have to look to, if there be no searching of heart among us, no humiliation before God, and no turning with weeping and lamentation to him. The elders themselves, in the proposal they made to us to send for the ark in our straits, submitted to us a solemn question in reference to our former defeat (ver. 3): "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us today before the Philistines?" Has that question been duly weighed and faithfully answered? If not, with all the security which the ark of God is fitted and designed to give, aye, and that multiplied a hundredfold can we dare to hope for a better issue in the enterprise which we are about to undertake tomorrow?

Thus, they that feared the Lord might have much talk one with another, both as to the state of mind in the army generally, and as to their own condition in particular. And if such a feeling of doubt, respecting others or respecting themselves, began to spread like a panic through the ranks, it was they, and not the enemy, that had the best reason to be afraid. The Philistines might rally and recover themselves after the first surprise occasioned by this new device: for they might shrewdly suspect that it was no honest faith in their God that moved the Israelites to resort to it, but the mere helplessness of despair; and they might gather courage in the end, rather than lose it. The Israelites themselves, however, or at least the serious and thoughtful among them, could scarcely get so easily over the consciousness of guilt and guile; and sympathizing in these sentiments even at a distance, as the godly Eli could not fail to do, what marvel if, as he sat and watched, his heart trembled for the ark of God?

Is there anything analogous to this state of feeling among us? Let all, as they read, inquire; and let us inquire with reference not only to our standing as individual believers, but to the congregation with which we are associated, the community to which we belong, and the Church of Christ generally. Let us consult first and principally our own personal experience. We have failed, perhaps, hitherto once, or it may be more than once, in maintaining the Lord’s cause, and resisting the enemies of our peace. We have yielded in the struggle with our evil hearts of unbelief, and with the world, the devil, and the flesh. We have sustained a sad and shameful defeat, and left the field of battle thickly strewed with the fragments of our shivered shields and swords, our broken promises, and resolutions, and vows, our unanswered, because unwatched and unheeded prayers.

Is this indeed our case? Are our consciences thus laden with the sense of recent backsliding? It may be some specific instance of unfaithfulness that it vexes us to think of; or it may be a certain general listlessness and languor and spiritual declension of which we have to complain. Let us affectionately ask one another, let us faithfully ask ourselves, wherefore is it so? Is it the remembrance of particular occasions on which we are conscious that we have compromised our truth and integrity, dissembled our principles, connived at sin, or treated it lightly, or made a mock at it; failed, in trying circumstances, to testify for God; wounded tender consciences, or cast a stumbling-block in the way of anxious inquirers, or stifled awakenings in careless souls, by our inconsistency, our worldly conformity, our easy walk, our abuse of our Christian liberty; is it any such remembrance that haunts us? Or is it, what is even more distressing, a certain vague feeling of apathy, for which we can scarcely assign any tangible cause, that oppresses us, a want of interest in sacred things, a dreary drowsiness in poring over the word and drawing near to the throne of grace, a kind of lethargy, in short, coldly stealing and insinuating itself through all our spiritual frame? Have we to confess that we are in the position of beaten men in Christ’s warfare, or of men who have given way? And are we engaging in any holy service coming, let us say, to the Lord’s table in something of the same spirit in which the Israelites sent for the Lord’s ark, expecting, somehow, to be the better for this sacrament being administered to us, as they imagined they would fight the better for that symbol being among them; and determined, on the strength of this holy ordinance, to make a firmer stand in the next trial of our courage, and leave no inglorious buckler on the field? And yet, all the time we are not quite at ease, we have our misgivings and alarms. The unanswered question, "Wherefore did the Lord smite us before the Philistines?" stands ominously out as a barrier against our complete enlargement, confidence, and security.

But why, let us ask again, why is it still an unanswered question? Why should it be an unanswered question any longer? Even now the Lord is ready to answer it. Even now he will search and try us. He will unfold to us the real cause of any controversy he has with us or of any failures and defeats on our part, in our walking with him, and our warring for him. Have any of us been offering in earnest the prayer of the psalmist: "Search me, God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting?" And may not some of us truly say, that in a way we little thought of by terrible things in righteousness the Lord has been answering that prayer to us? Would that we were all made willing now, under the searching of his providence as well as of his word and Spirit for he is searching us very sharply this day to have the wound of our souls thoroughly probed, and not slightly healed; each man among us submitting the plague of his own heart to be dealt with, oh! how faithfully and yet how tenderly by him who is the holy God, but who is also to us in Christ Jesus a reconciled and loving Father.

See, brother, he waiteth to be gracious. He has balm for every wound, blood for every sin, healing for every backsliding, and a gracious reception and free love for each and all, however miserable on account of the greatness of their guilt or the stony hardness of their heart, who, with all that great guilt and that hard heart, will only so far honour, and trust, and gratify him, as let him take the guilt away and turn the smitten rock within into a fountain of tears.

Thus repenting and doing our first works, returning anew to God, and embracing anew his promises of full and free reconciliation, by all means let us send for the ark; by all means let us come to the sacrament; it will do us good now. No matter for our past defeat, we shall be more than conquerors now. And it will be no vain and idle shout of boasting that lifts us up, as if a chest of Shittim-wood, or this covered table and these elements of bread and wine, could save us; but the deep and grateful consciousness of our having, not the seal and symbol only of God’s presence, but God himself in very truth, in all the fullness of his redeeming love and all the power of his quickening Spirit, in us and among us; this will so inspire a calm serenity, and humble, holy resolution, as to strike real, and it may be salutary, fear into the consciences of the enemies of the truth, and satisfy aged Eli, that, so far as this particular cause of anxiety is concerned, his heart need no more tremble for the ark of God.

Would to God that all of us individually, all the congregations of the Church, and our beloved Church herself, were thus brought low, that we might be exalted, thus weakened, that we might be strengthened in the Lord! For who can shut his eyes to the fact, that even since the Lord began to deal with us, and with the Church, as in these last years he has been dealing, there has been too much of human boasting and human confidence, too much noise and shouting? The high testimony which we have been honoured to bear for Christ, and the great things which he has done for us; the liberty and enlargement which he has granted to us, and the liberality and love which he has called forth among us; the approving voice of other Churches, and of all our missionaries in other lands; our door of access to the people at home; nay, even the partial droppings of the dew of the Holy Spirit on our assemblies and flocks; the prosperity of so many of our congregations; the very persecutions which have visited others; all these things we have been too apt to regard very much as the Israelites regarded the arrival of the ark among them; we have exulted when our adversaries seemed to be startled and surprised; and we have congratulated one another, as if the warfare were accomplished and the victory were already ours.

Is it in rebuke of such untoward and untimely lifting up of our hearts, that the great Head of the Church is chastening us, that symptoms of disorder are showing themselves here and there, and masters in Israel are cut down? May the Lord himself sanctify these troubles! Everywhere may clamour cease, and deeply may the question be pondered, and fairly may it be met in reference both to the past and the present: "Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us?" For, assuredly, until that great outstanding question be disposed of, as regards individuals, congregations, and the Church at large whatever zeal there may be, whatever enthusiasm, whatever wise plans and bold doings the heart of an aged and godly Eli cannot cease to tremble for the ark of God. [*This whole passage I have thought it best to leave as it was originally written, although its application is partly local and temporary, having reference to a time of private bereavement and public loss (April and May, 1845) a time, moreover, when men’s minds in the Church to which the author belongs were not a little exercised in the manner here indicated.]

Once more, in the third place, let us take yet another, and that the most favourable view of the parties in whose hands the ark has come to be placed. Let us suppose them to be neither hypocrites and mere formalists on the one hand, nor backsliders and men of doubtful position on the other. Let them be men of truest conscience and tenderest walk before God in Christ. Still, compassed about as they are with manifold infirmities, and liable to err and stumble at every step they take, how shall they carry the precious burden safe along the rough road, or across the channel of the stormy sea, or by the way of the howling wilderness, or through the rage and din of hostile crowds? For it is a delicate and tender, as well as a costly deposit that is committed to their charge, easily susceptible of injury, apt to be soiled and tarnished if the dust of earth reach it, or the very wind of heaven be suffered to visit it too roughly.

The essential holiness of God, do we rightly apprehend what it is? And have we any adequate impression of that holiness as imparted and communicated to whatever is his? The name, the word, the day, the house of the Lord, whatsoever he vindicates and challenges to himself, not by the right of creation merely, but by that of redemption through the blood of his Son, and renewal through the operation of his Spirit; these things, that thus belong to God our Saviour how venerable are they, and how awful! And it is these glories and wonders of his grace and power that he commits into our hands, to be defended and to be displayed.

Ah! My brother, if indeed you are a believer in Jesus, consider how much of what is God’s you carry about with you wherever you go! your body and your spirit, which are his, your character and reputation, which are his, your talents, which are his, your very life, which is now altogether his! His honour, and the interests of his kingdom, are now bound up with everything you say and do. Not a plan or purpose you can form but must affect something that is his; every hour you spend is a portion of his time; every mite you cast into whatsoever treasury is his property!

For it is not with us now as it was with the Israelites of old. They might place the ark in comparative security in the midst of their close and compact ranks, where not a finger of the enemy could touch and pollute it, until all its defenders were slain. Man after man might be smitten, and phalanx after phalanx might be cut down or scattered to the winds; and though the danger, becoming more imminent every moment, might make the heart of one who witnessed it tremble more and more, not a profane or unhallowed breath could sully the sacred symbol till its last guardians, the wretched Hophni and Phinehas, had fallen. But in the Christian army, what of God’s is entrusted to men’s care, is so diffused and circulated through all the troops, that not a tongue can speak, nor a limb move, nor the poorest soldier in the utmost extremity of the lines be wounded, or turn his back, or lay down his arms, without instant damage to the holy trust which is committed more or less to all. And how sensitive to the slightest shock is the holiness of all belonging to God that you have to handle and to bear about with you! The smallest rent mars that seamless coat, woven from the top throughout, which is the uniform of all Christ’s volunteers, the faintest stain shows itself on that clear bright name with which each forehead is sealed!

Ah! Who may venture to undertake such responsibility, as this? Who is sufficient for these things? Let me never open my mouth for Christ, or lift my hand for Christ, or stir my foot for Christ, lest inadvertently I offend, and be found hindering instead of furthering the cause which I love, blemishing instead of adorning the doctrine which I believe, discrediting instead of magnifying the only name under heaven which I care to honour, because it is the only name under heaven given among men whereby I, or any sinner like me, can be saved. Nay, but, brother, inactivity, reserve, hanging back, will not mend your position. You have got your post assigned to you; and whether you decline to act at all, or act amiss, the jewel of Christ’s crown which you have in charge is in either way compromised. Nor have you any choice, or any liberty to stand aloof. Necessity is laid upon you. Woe is unto you if you preach not the gospel! Woe is unto you if you testify not for Christ! Woe is unto you if you speak not to your ungodly neighbour’s conscience, and care not for his soul! Woe is unto you if you visit not the fatherless and widows in their affliction! Woe is unto you if you speak not a word in season to him that is weary! You have your task, your office, your ministry, allotted to you, whether as a public functionary or as a private member of the Church; and if you undertake it with fear, if your heart trembles for the ark of God, which you feel yourself to be so incompetent to handle, ask yourself, would either it or you be at all the safer were you to refuse to handle it at all?

Let me put myself now for an instant in the position of an onlooker or watcher, like the aged Eli; and what might be my thoughts, as I gaze, not on the faithless or the faltering part of the Lord’s army, but on his true and earnest adherents? Do I see any living for themselves alone, caring for their own souls, apparently finding food and refreshment in ordinances, and striving to have a close walk with God while yet there is no sign of their taking any special interest in any department of the Lord’s work, or charging themselves with any specific duty with reference to any one in particular of their fellow sinners around them? I ask, if, with all their devout assiduity of personal and private piety, their souls are prospering and in health? Ah! The complaint is, "My leanness, my leanness!" And when I consider the selfish, secluded, isolated, and indolent character of their devotions, I cease to wonder, I simply mourn; and, having a regard to those very spiritual interests of their own which they seem exclusively to care for, more even than to the good cause which they are sinfully neglecting, my heart trembles for the ark of God.

Do I see any who are keepers of the vineyards of others, and are not keeping their own; any spiritual busybodies in other men’s matters, and idlers in their own; any who are tempted to put an officious and bustling energy in the Lord’s work in the place of deep experimental searching of the Lord’s word; any, in short, who find it easier to exhaust themselves for whole days in active service than to pass a still and silent hour in solitary prayer? Ah! I may cease to wonder that such incessant pains should issue in such scanty fruit; and, with special reference even to those public concerns which such persons seem to prefer to their own spiritual well-being, my desponding heart trembles for the ark of God.

Where, then, shall this trembling heart find rest? I pass in review before me the whole muster-roll of the tried and tested army of the Lord. I take the champions and captains one after another. I rely on the mature experience of many a hoary veteran. I hail the fresh ardour of many an eagle-eyed recruit. But as, one after another, they take up the seemingly desperate battle, and one after another give some melancholy advantage to the foe, my heart still trembles for the ark of God. I cannot see a preacher, however gifted, ascend to his desk; or a pastor, however faithful, visit his flock; or an elder, the most conscientious, go his rounds; or a deacon, the most punctual, perform his service; or any private member of the church draw near a sick-bed where an anxious soul is tossing, or enter a parlour where a word in season may be spoken, and a clear testimony may be borne; but my heart must tremble for the ark of God. And all the while my heart must tremble the more, because the parties who are the occasions of its trembling seem themselves to tremble so very little. For if the Israelites in the camp had trembled more for the ark of God, Eli’s heart, as he sat by the wayside watching, might have trembled less.

Go to Scripture Characters No.4


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