Scripture Characters


PART III. "His heart trembled for the ark of God." 1 SAMUEL iv. 13.

THE composition of the army to whom the ark of God is committed, may but too well account for the trembling of an Eli's heart. Not to speak of the false and formal adherents to the cause, how feeble and faint-hearted are many of the host, how ill at ease, how unbelieving! And even the best and bravest are compassed about with infirmity; and the holiest fall far short of any adequate apprehension of what it is to serve the holy God, and uphold the honour of his holy name. It is a gloomy picture we have been contemplating. May there be no representation given somewhat less discouraging, to relieve the gloom ere we pass from this first cause of the trembling of Eli’s heart?

Let us try. Let us ask if no company or army of men may be got together, to whom Eli could see the ark of God committed without his heart trembling, at least so very anxiously? The three sketches we have attempted to give, being reversed, may suggest the reply, and furnish the materials of a more trustworthy host. Let us summon our troops. In the first place, let them all be men who come, not as fancying that the Lord hath need of them, but as feeling that they have need of Him. This is our primary and capital qualification. We are to have no self-righteous, self-confident cavaliers, who would either hire themselves to Christ for a reward, or espouse his cause with an air of condescending patronage, as if they were doing him a favour. But is there any poor sinner in all the world who looks upon himself as lost, and so far from imagining that he could ever lend a helping hand in an emergency, considers himself the very Jonah, that, if taken on board, would sink the ship the worse than Achan, that, if admitted into the camp, would only mar the fight? Come, sinner! Whosoever thou art, with nothing but thy wants for Christ to supply thy sins for Christ to forgive thy diseases for Christ to heal thy hard heart for Christ to break; come, thou art the very man for whom Christ is looking out. It was to enlist thee that he came into the world; it was to save thee that he suffered and died. Come; and at thy coming, though thou bringest nothing but guilt and sorrow, wounds and bruises and putrefying sores, Eli’s heart will not tremble for the ark of God.

Secondly, let all who flock to the Lord’s standard at first, or continue to rally round it, make sure and thorough work of the settlement of their covenant with the Lord himself Let there be nothing ambiguous or equivocal, nothing uncertain or precarious, as respects the footing on which you are to be with him. And if any cause of misunderstanding has arisen if any defeat has been sustained while he withdrew his presence on account of your sin think not to patch up a truce or accommodation with him, or to recover his favour and his powerful aid, by having recourse to half measures or formal devices. Come again, at once, to himself; let there be an entire clearing up of all that is amiss between him and you. On his part there is no hesitation or reserve; he would have a perfect covenant of peace established. No measured or doubtful boon does he dispense; but, taking you once more to be his own, he would have you to be again, and for ever, complete in him. Let him have your consent to be so. Let his Spirit incline you to submit thoroughly to him, to his searching of your painful wounds, to his tender upbinding of them all. Be satisfied with no noisy shout of triumph, upon any merely external and temporary sign of his presence. Be satisfied with nothing short of an uncompromising adjustment of the question, why has he been smiting you? Then, all being clear and bright, his Spirit abiding in you and his countenance shining upon you, when he now commits himself to you, and commits you again to himself, frankly and freely, without condition on his part and without guile on yours, there will be no occasion for Eli’s heart to tremble for the ark of God.

Finally, let all in this army recognise and feel their responsibility, the peculiar sacredness of the trust committed to them, and its extreme liability to receive damage in their hands. Let them know what it is to work out their own salvation, and to aim at the salvation of others. Let them have a due sense of the tenderness of the heavenly vessel which they bear, and the holiness of the heavenly name by which they are called. Then, though their infirmities may be many, and they may often feel themselves to be in straits, let them be assured that it is not on their account that Eli’s heart will tremble for the ark of God. You may be hesitating even now, my brother, and shrinking from an explicit and open avowal of your faith, or from the undertaking of some labour of love to which you feel yourself called or prompted. 'Ah!' you may be saying within yourself, 'I would gladly receive the seal and pledge of my living union to Christ, and have him committed to be mine, and myself committed to be his. And I would esteem it a precious privilege and high honour to have a hand in some personal ministry for the glory of his name, and the winning of souls to him. Had I any good reason to hope that I would not dishonour my profession, or do harm instead of good in any work I might undertake, oh! how cordially would I take my place at his table, and enrol myself among those whose whole aim in life it is to be ever doing something for Christ, for perishing sinners, for poor sufferers. But I feel that it is a much more solemn thing than many think or than I once thought myself to take the name of God into my lips, and have the vows of the Lord upon me. I would not rush into such a position so hastily as many do, nor carry its tremendous responsibilities so lightly.

You do not err, brother, in your estimate of the solemnity of the Christian culling. You cannot form too high a conception of the delicacy, and unsullied purity. and integrity beyond suspicion, that ought to characterize the follower of Jesus; the light that should ever kindle in his eye, the love that should ever burn in his heart, the grace that should be poured into his lips, the comely beauty that should shed a charm over his whole demeanour, and the high authority that should give weight to his counsels, his example, his rebuke. But what then? Do you on that account hesitate, and halt, and hang back, when the Lord is calling you? Are you deterred, by the very loftiness of the standard which you have set up, from casting in your lot with the Lord's host, and do you think it safer for yourself, and better on the whole for the cause, that you should not be so deeply pledged to a style of life which you might not realize, and that the holy name should not be taken into the keeping of one who might only tarnish and soil it? Nay, brother, suffer the word of expostulation. Assuming your scruples to be real, and not affected, let me say to you, first, you have no right thus to reason; you cannot thus evade the responsibility which you would decline. It is laid on you by Christ, and it is treachery or cowardice, or both, to shrink from it. Accept it, rather, cheerfully, manfully, in faith; you have his own assurance: "My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness." And let me also say to you, further, It is precisely you, and such as you, that the Lord seeks to serve him; you who have some adequate notion of the sacredness of the Christian profession, and the magnitude of the Christian enterprise your irresistible call to undertake both, and your utter and helpless insufficiency for either. The Father seeketh such to worship him; the Son seeketh such to commit himself to them; the Spirit seeketh and searcheth such to dwell in them; that they may "work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God that worketh in them both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Aye, and their fear and trembling will go far to supersede all Eli's trembling for the ark of God. "Who is among you that feareth the Lord that obeyeth the voice of his servant that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God." "Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build me and where is the place of my rest? For all these things hath mine hand made, and all these things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word." "Fear not, thou worm Jacob, and ye men of Israel: I will help thee, saith the Lord, and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument, having teeth: thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff. Thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them: and thou shalt rejoice in the Lord, and shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel."

It was not a trembling, but a presumptuous look into the ark, that slew the men of Bethshemesh. It was not a trembling, but a presumptuous hand that Uzzah laid upon the ark, when for that error he was smitten. It was not a trembling, but a presumptuous shout around the ark in the camp that made the old man's heart tremble as he sat watching. Look ye on the ark touch ye the ark rejoice ye in the ark, under the profound impression of this awful inquiry: "Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us?" Let there be such trembling as this in your hearts when you handle the ark of God, and at last the trembling of Eli's heart may cease.

II. Besides the composition of the army into whose hands the ark may have come, the occasions and circumstances which seem to bring it forward in battle, and to peril it on the issue of battle, may cause not a little trembling of heart for its safety. We might here speak of such occasions as that on which the Israelites sustained a miserable defeat at the hands of the Amalekites and Canaanites, when they would have taken the ark with them in their unwarranted enterprise, had not Moses sternly refused to let it go out of the camp (Num. xiv. 40-45). There is not always at hand a Moses to keep the ark from being involved in the hazards of a presumptuous enterprise, undertaken in the impatience of unbelief, by men smarting under the Lord's rebuke, and in haste to retrieve a false or sinful step. An Eli may be unable in such circumstances, to arrest the hot impetuosity of the irritated host, his heart can but tremble for the ark of God. "Woe is me," said the royal psalmist, whom superficial critics would pronounce, with cursing Shimei, to have been a man delighting only in blood; "Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar! My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace. I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war." How weary was David of wars and fightings when he cried out, "Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest!" Nor was it for his own sake alone that he yearned for this quietness; he desired to see the ark of God, so long tossed on the unsettled flood, at last lodged in safety on the holy mountain. And for the sincerity and intensity of this desire, he could appeal to God himself: "Lord, remember David, and all his afflictions: how he sware unto the Lord, and vowed unto the mighty God of Jacob; Surely I will not come into the tabernacle of my house, nor go up into my bed; I will not give sleep to mine eyes, or slumber to mine eyelids, until I find out a place for the Lord, an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob" (Psa. cxxxii. 1-5).

But it was not given to him to accomplish this fondest wish of his heart. It was reserved for Solomon to build for God an house. All David's lifetime, the symbol of the covenant, unsettled and unhoused, was constantly exposed to peril and profanation, amid the vicissitudes of his stormy career; whether lodged with Abinadab at Gibeah, or carried aside into the house of Obed-Edom, or covered with a tent on Zion; whether "heard of at Ephratah," or "found in the fields of the wood" (Psa. cxxxii. 6). All his lifetime, therefore, considering these manifold exposures, David's heart, like Eli's, might tremble for the ark of God. It is the prayer of every true servant and soldier of the Lord, that the din of war and controversy may speedily come to an end, and the Church may dwell safely in a quiet habitation. The world, indeed, is apt to judge otherwise of those who maintain the Lord's cause, especially in troublous times, stigmatizing them as troublesome and pestilent sowers of sedition, or as lovers of strife, seeking to turn the world upside down. There may be those amongst the ranks of Christ's army who delight in contest for its own sake, and are, as it were, in their element when the storm is at its height; and they who witness only the untiring energy and unflinching courage of such devoted men, may conceive of them as having no pleasure in any scene but one of stirring incident and adventure, of peril and of death.

But could we read their hearts as God does, ah! we would soon see what injustice the world does them. Not willingly, but because necessity is laid on them, do they engage in such scenes; and amid all their bold and hearty animation when the war is raging, what secret sighs are breathed for the return of a serene and honourable peace! Could it be effected without compromising the cause of truth and righteousness, how gladly, whether on the field of theological controversy, or of ecclesiastical contention, or of those political struggles in which the interests of Christ's kingdom are mixed up, how gladly would we proclaim a cessation of hostilities, a truce, an armistice, a pause, that the ark of God might have a little rest! "Thou sword of the Lord, how long will it be ere thou be quiet? Put up thyself into thy scabbard; rest and be still. How can it be quiet, seeing the Lord hath given it a charge against Askelon, and against the seashore? There hath he appointed it," (Jer. xlvii. 6, 7). Quiet! Rest! How can it be? Satan is not bound; the world still lieth in wickedness; heresies, divisions, strifes, abound; Babylon is not yet fallen. Nay, if ever there was a time when rest and quiet might appear indefinitely remote when the sacred symbol might be regarded as but a speck like the halcyon bird, or that Noetic ship dimly seen amid the chaos of the wild and tumultuous waters it is this present age, this present hour, in which, as it would seem, old controversies and new, old causes of agitation and new outbreaks, are about to be blended in one general hurricane and fiery storm. What former dispute, in literature, theology, or politics, is not revived? What fixed foundation of opinion, in any department of human thought, is not now unsettled? What body of men is in security and at ease? What creed, or covenant, or combination, is giving compactness to the gathering masses, whether of the higher intellectual and spiritual orders, or of the grosser portions of mankind? Statesmen and people, priest and flock all alike are thrown back on first principles if they have any, or on mere hour-glass expediency if they have none.

And seeing how things most sacred are now at issue on the field of strife, and how much risk there is, in such stirring times, of the kindling of that wrath of man which worketh not the righteousness of God, as well as the scheming of that wisdom of man which is foolishness with God, how shall not Eli's heart tremble for the ark of God! Is there, then, no source of consolation in the prospect of such trials and commotions as these? Had any one sought to comfort the blind old man, as he sat upon a seat by the wayside watching, and to allay the agitation of his soul he might have been reminded that what his heart trembled for was the ark of God; that God himself, therefore, might be expected to care for it; and that for him to be so anxious concerning it, was almost like distrusting God. Or it might have been represented to him, that for any evil consequences ensuing from the ill-advised policy on the part of the elders and people that put the ark in peril, he at least could not be held personally responsible. The whole of these proceedings were against his judgment and remonstrances; and be the issue what it may, his conscience at all events must be clear, and his hands must be clean. Would these considerations materially alleviate his grief? The last of them, so far from taking in as comfort, he might almost have resented as an insult. What! Was he thinking only of himself, and of his own individual credit or security, when his heart trembled for the ark of God? There may be men who, in such circumstances, would rather congratulate themselves on their own exemption from blame, than enter into the risk and danger of the good cause and of its soldiers. From the safe shore they pleasantly view the toil of the exhausted crew, whose bark is all but engulfed in the billows; all the while complacently taking credit to themselves for having wisely declined to embark, and having warned their rash comrades of the impending storm. These are they who are so selfish, even in the Lord's work, that they can rejoice in no success that is not won by themselves, and grieve over no failure for which they cannot be brought in as personally accountable.

Not such was Eli. That selfish ground of congratulation is not one that he can stand on. The other topic, indeed, is more congenial; it is comfort which he can take in. He calls to mind, that great as is the peril to which it is exposed, and weak and unworthy as are the hands that bear or defend it, it is the ark of God still; and, remembering this, he bids his trembling heart be calm. Still it costs him an effort to say, when things seem to be at the worst, "I will trust, and not be afraid." It is impossible for him to disconnect himself from the battle that is raging: nor can even the assurance of the ark's ultimate safety and triumph make him insensible in the meantime to the rude shocks that assail it, and the perils it has to encounter alike from friends and from foes. I cannot help becoming indignant and uneasy when a father's good name is aspersed, or his good faith is called in question, even though I know that he will certainly clear himself at last. No more can I look on with calm indifference, when I see the good cause injured by human pride, and prejudice, and passion, even though I firmly believe that it will ere long come off victorious. If I love God, I feel for the honour and safety of his ark with that nice sense of honour which would make the sword leap from its scabbard when the faintest whisper is breathed, or the puniest arm is raised, to its disparagement or injury. But, alas! I know not what spirit I am of, when I would call fire from heaven on the heads of those who will not give it homage, or when I would use the fire of earth to minister in its service. Let me be still and know that it is the ark of God. And while engaged in the strife, let me beware of all that, if I were but a looker-on or a looker-out, would make my heart tremble for the ark of God. Then only may I say with Moses, when the ark sets forward: "Arise, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee." And when it rests, oh that it might be soon! How gladly will I join in the triumphant and peaceful strain: "Return, Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel" (Numbers x. 35, 36).

Go to Scripture Characters No.5


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