The Two Birds (Lev. xiv. 1-7; 49-53)
FOR our purpose, it would be evidently a diversion to take
the various applications of the sacrifices which we find in the book of
Leviticus or elsewhere; but where we find variation in the sacrifice itself, we
may expect a development of new features in that one great offering which all
these foreshadow. Such variation we have in that which is enjoined for the
cleansing of a leprosy which was already healed; and if we passed it over, we
should manifestly miss designed instruction as to the work of atonement.
Here, "two birds, alive and clean" are to be taken, one only of which is to be killed, and this in a remarkable way, namely, "in an earthen vessel, over running [literally, living] water." "As for the living bird" it is added "he [the priest] shall take it and the cedar wood and the scarlet and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the living water; and he shall sprinkle upon him that is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose into the open field." In the cleansing of the leprous house, the same thing precisely is enjoined.
We have already, in the burnt-offering and sin-offering both, become familiar with the type of the bird. In the case before us there are, however, some notable differences from these, which all tend to show that here we have the type in its fullest character - the most typical of all its forms. Thus it is neither dove nor pigeon nor any particular species that is prescribed, but simply two "birds." It is the bird as such, irrespective of specific qualities -"the bird of heaven" according to the constant phraseology of Scripture,* a being not of earth. Its dying in a vessel of earth, by its plainly designed contrast, only brings out the more this character, and is interpreted for us by the apostles application of the figure (2 Cor. iv. 7) so as to render mistake impossible.
*1n our common version, most generally given as "the fowl of the air."
Again, while the bird-type, in the sin-offering plainly, and in the burnt-offering no less really, is as a misplaced higher thought, in fact a lower one, here, on the other hand, it is the manifestly divine one, remarkable as being defined neither as sin-, nor burnt-, nor any other offering, but standing by itself, (in this first part of cleansing which restores the leper to the camp,) as if representing all. It is a complementary thought, if I may so say, which while not entering into the idea of sacrifice as such, and therefore not found in these distinctive aspects of Christs blessed work, must yet have its place in order to any just conception of what has been done.
The bird, then, represents the Lord as a heavenly Being, acquiring capacity to suffer and die in that manhood which He had taken, and which is symbolized by the earthen vessel; the living water here as ever type of that Eternal Spirit through whom He offered Himself without spot to God. It is striking that the figure does not, as we might at first imagine it would, represent the breaking of the vessel, while the bird itself escapes unhurt, but on the contrary the death of the bird itself; and Scripture is always and divinely perfect: such apparent slips are not in fact blemishes, not even the necessary failure of all possible figures, but things that call for the deepest and most reverential observation.
For it is one blessed Person, in whom Godhead and manhood unite forever, who has been among us, learned obedience in the path which He has marked out for us through the world, suffered the due of our sins, and gone out from us by the gate of death, risen and returned to the Father. We lose ourselves easily in this depth of glory and abasement, where abasement too is glory; but. no Christian can give up the blessed truth because of his ignorance of explanation. In ourselves we have such inexplicable mysteries, not on that account doubted, as where every nerve-pang that thrills the body is felt really not by the body, but by its (as reason would say) untouched spiritual inhabitant. Here it is not needful to explain, to accept the lesson: He who came upon earth to do the Fathers will has taken as the means of His doing it that "prepared body" which was the instrument by which He accomplished it. Thus rightly, according to the figure, the bird of heaven it is that dies in the earthen vessel. This stooping is the unparalleled marvel and power of the weakness in which He was crucified. We must not take the glory that was His to deny or lessen that weakness, but accept as adding to it the wonder of such humiliation. How beautifully is this preserved in that one hundred and second psalm, in which, if any where, we have just this type!
"Hear My prayer, O Lord, and let My cry come unto Thee. . . . For My days are consumed as a smoke. . . . I have eaten ashes like bread, and mingled My drink with weeping; because of Thine indignation and wrath, for Thou hast lifted Me up and cast Me down. My days are like a shadow that declineth. . . .He weakened My strength in the way; He shortened My days: I said, O My God, take Me not away in the midst of My days; Thy years are throughout all generations!"
Who then is this that speaks: who is this who suffers under the wrath of God and that to death; whose days cut off contrast so with the divine eternity? How does this psalm proceed? and what is the astonishing answer to this lowly prayer?
"Of old hast Thou laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall have no end!"
If He go down into death, then, He must needs show Himself master of it. Resurrection must vindicate Him as the Lord of all: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Accordingly in the type before us it is of resurrection that the second bird speaks. Let loose into the open field, he carries back to the heavens to which he belongs the blood which is the witness of accomplished redemption. The second bird represents the unextinguished, unextinguishable life of the first which has come through death, taking it captive, and making it subservient to the purposes of divine goodness, which, by the blood shed in atonement, cleanses us from the defilement of spiritual leprosy.
Here, for the first time, in connection with the Legal sacrifices, we have the type of resurrection as necessary to the application to us of the great Sacrifice itself. "He was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Rom. iv. 25.) In Isaac, long since indeed, we saw one received back in a figure from the dead, but there the results were personal to himself: there was no application of blood, no announcement of justification by resurrection. These are important features, which this type of the birds for the first time adds to the picture of atonement.
And thus it is throughout Heavens ministry of love: not so much the Son of Man necessarily lifted up as on the other hand, so far as such types could reach, that God has given His only begotten Son. It is divine love that has been at charges to bring such ready and effectual help to human outcasts. It is to the degraded and polluted leper that the purity of heaven descends. How precious this contrast! In truth mans case was hopeless to any other than divine resources. If "it is God that justifieth," who but He could righteously justify those expressly designated as "ungodly"?
This justification of ungodly ones who are content to trust themselves as such in the hands of Christ has been once for all pronounced in the raising from the dead of Him who for our sins went into death. Abraham needed a special word in his day from God, and that availed for himself alone. For the rest, the apostle distinguishes between the "passing over of sins that had been before" the cross, and the justification at the present time of him that believeth in Jesus.* Under this public justification by resurrection, announcing the acceptance of that which actually justifies, - the blood of the cross, - we come individually as soon as we believe, and need no individual declaration.
*See the Revised Version of Romans iii. 25, 26.
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