It is solemn to reflect, in this day, on how the visible and the human are being used to supplant the invisible and the spiritual. Every art of the enemy, his profound skill and dexterity, his many-sided and deeply laid plots, are all in requisition at this moment to destroy, if it were possible, and in any case, alas! to deteriorate and tarnish, every testimony to the reality and power of things not seen.
It is very instructive to note how, even in days when "sight" and "nature" were the ground on which man walked before God, as tested and proved by Him, God had His own independent witnesses to the only path suited to Himself in a world where everything is in revolt, and manifesting the consequences of departure from God. Faith not sight, is that great principle, as we find from Hebrews 11 and this line of life and power was maintained by these worthies amid trials and sorrows of no ordinary kind.
The earliest departure from this divine path of faith is recorded in Genesis 12, in the very same scripture which tells us of the call of Abram "out" from country, kindred, and father's house. Set free by "death" (see Acts 7:2-4), "glory" had its full weight with Abram and very blessedly did he rise and go forth from every visible thing as expressed by country, kindred, and father's house, "into a place which he should afterward receive for an inheritance . . . . not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: for he looketh for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." (Heb. 11:8-10.)
As thus brought forward by glory and death, to walk the invisible path of faith, the visible for a time ensnares him. The famine, that was seen, took a firmer hold upon him than the "God of glory," who appeared to him in Mesopotamia, and afterwards when he was in the land of Canaan. Being thus deceived he sought for help in Egypt, and found Hagar! which "answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children." (Gal. 4:25.) Note well, in this scripture, the contrast between "Jerusalem which now is," and "Jerusalem which is above."
Another instance of the seductive power of the visible, is recorded in Genesis 48. Most blessed is it to see faith, the invisible power, triumphing in Jacob over all that marked his previous checkered history, as we behold him rising superior to nature and its claims, when he laid his hands on the head of Ephraim, the younger of Joseph's two sons "guiding his hands wittingly;" yet equally distinct is the snare of the visible, seen in Joseph's displeasure and dissatisfaction thus expressed: "Not so, my father; for this is the firstborn; put thy right hand upon his head."
There is likewise a very solemn coincidence between this break-down of faith in Joseph, when being invested with the forfeited portion of Reuben (1 Chron. 5), and the actings of the same Reuben afterwards in Israel's history, when, in conjunction with Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh, he erected "a great altar to see to." (Joshua 22:10.) But of this more further on.
How blessed and encouraging to see in the last moments of the patriarch on which we are dwelling, the fruit of the patient, gracious ways of God with him! How cheering to see a man whose sight and sense controlled in no ordinary degree, now in faith the witness for God, intelligent, subdued, and elevated: "By faith Jacob, when he was a dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph, and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff." And equally comforting is it to hear one who was continually contravening the ways of God by the visible and natural, thus accept death for himself upon it all: "Behold I die but God shall be with you."
Another striking instance of the perverting power of the visible is presented in Moses, when called of God to be the deliverer of Israel. Solemn it is to reflect on what little stay his soul derived from the promised "Certainly I will be with thee," of the "I am that I am. (Ex. 3.) Observe how the absence of the visible and the human, "I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue," are his pleading to be excused; and this in the presence of the most marked display of the superhuman. (See Ex. 4:2-7.) This was not that faith which characterised him at the first, when he "refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter." Then the visible was of no account to him; but he has drooped in soul, as it were, since then, and now, as Abraham went into Egypt for help and got Hagar there, so Moses turns to the same quarter and gets Aaron, his trial and affliction afterwards. Very solemn it is to contemplate how this same Aaron, given to Moses in the day when he craved for the outward and the visible, as we have seen, was the very man who ministered to the people in their idolatrous craving after the visible, when they saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount" (Ex. 32:1); and the same Aaron of whom it is said, with respect to the molten calf which he himself had made, and when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it."
In the same manner afterwards, in their history in the wilderness, did they crave for "a captain" (Num. 14:4), in order that they might return into Egypt, where Abraham went in the famine; and where alas! many a child of God now turns in like circumstances, in order to find some visible countenance or support. Both "calf" and "captain," the one made and the other desired, are but the ensnaring meshes of the visible and human. We know that "these things were our examples," that is, types (tupoi). (1 Cor. 10:6.) The Lord give us to study them, and take it to heart, as to how far we, as His saints to-day, have not dropped down a thousand-fold more than they, into the perverting line of sight and nature.
It is very solemn to note the moral order in which the apostle in the above scripture, refers to the circumstances in Israel's history, on some of which we have been dwelling. The spring of all was the insufficiency of the unseen, the craving for the visible; then, having obtained the lusted-after object, it becomes their idol; next follows unholy alliance with Moab (fornication); and lastly, the captain is desired, as the calf had been made. This moral, not historical, order is very solemn, as setting forth the course of the professing church of God up to Laodicea, which is the great boaster of the visible (Rev. 3:17), and which, when full blown, will be spued out, and then carried by the beast — Satan's great visible power on earth. (Rev. 17:7.)
But we must turn to Israel's history in the land for a little, to see how this terrible principle ensnared them in all their course. Alas, even when they were in type a dead and risen people (across Jordan), and in the land of Canaan, their first failure was from this very principle we are considering. First, observe what a testimony Jehovah gave to His thoughts and ways, in the manner in which Jericho was surrounded and captured. There was the entire absence of any visible display in power, but there was to be that which is the invariable concomitant of real power, namely noiseless equanimity. (Joshua 6:10.)
Has not all this its own special voice for His saints of this day, who professedly occupy the ground on which Israel stood typically when in Canaan? Has it not a double voice as well? Does it not distinctly tell us what the mind and thoughts of the Lord are, as to the real power of that which is invisible and supernatural? But does it not also very clearly indicate our true place as across Jordan, namely, that we are dead men, and helpless in every human point of view? The Lord give us to ponder the weighty instruction which is here conveyed to faith.
Now the very next chapter is the record of how the visible ensnares, for we read of Achan making confession of his sin in these words: "When I saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold of fifty shekels weight, then I coveted them, and took them." (Joshua 7:21.) How solemn the rise, progress, and issue of the bewitching effects of the visible!
We will turn now to another striking exemplification of our subject: it is supplied to us in the history of Reuben's great altar, "TO SEE TO." (Joshua 22:10.) This act of the two and a half tribes was in perfect moral accord with the position they had taken. That position is thus sorrowfully expressed, "Bring us not over Jordan." (Num. 32:5.) They were under the power of the visible, they possessed "a very great multitude of cattle." What could be more natural than that they should seek the spot most suitable to their circumstances? And if in that day there were to be found men of such narrow and extreme thoughts as to press the fact that the other side of Jordan was the true possession of God's Israel, and that taking it this side, or looking for it this side, is abandoning the call and purpose of God, how would not Reuben and his associates resent all such visionary and transcendental notions as these? And is it not Satan's great object in this day as in that day, to hinder the people of God, and keep them out of their true and rich blessing, by despising and scorning the unseen land beyond the river, and presenting some visible Jazer and Gilead instead? May the Lord give to His saints in this time of sifting, the wing of faith to rise beyond the snares and nets abounding in the land of sight!
But mark the beginning of this great altar. We read: "When THEY SAW the land of Jazer, and the land of Gilead, that behold, the place was a place for cattle." It was the same principle exactly that operated in Lot, who "lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere, before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar." (Gen. 13:10.) The sight-principle confounds the garden of the Lord and the land of Egypt. Just think of these two put together: "Egypt," and "the garden of the Lord!" What a contrast! The one is above and unseen; the other is below and visible. Jordan separates them. And alas! there are not a few to-day who have lifted up their eyes like Lot, and like Reuben, and seen well-watered plains and places for cattle, and are settling down, or are settled down, on this side of Jordan. It is thus evident that there can be no security whatever from the ensnaring effects of the things seen, save as the soul is consciously kept in the light of what is unseen; and that cannot be, if the other side of Jordan is abandoned, as the only sphere for faith to rest in.
Thus to return to this history of the two and a half tribes, we find that their "great altar to see to" was in perfect keeping with their choice of what they had seen this side Jordan; it was a craving after the visible. It was a subtle wile too. They did not mean or intend to abandon the worship of the God of Israel; but having made a false choice in settling down in Jazer and Gilead, their human expedient is the erection of the great altar to see to, something visibly great, somewhat that appealed to the eye; an attempt in reality to bring God to man's ground, instead of man to God's. How solemn! It is not necessary to pursue the history further, or to point out how the other tribes resented this act of Reuben. My one object in dwelling on it so far, has been to point out the principle involved, and how deceiving and ensnaring the visible is.
It is very instructive also to observe how, in the close of Joshua (chap. 23), the people are warned in the most solemn way against the inevitable consequences of being ensnared by visible worship (ver. 7), and association in a natural way (that is, yielding to what is seen) with the people of the world (ver. 12); and this is precisely what came to pass. How solemn! They were in the true standing, yet incompetent to maintain it. Then in Joshua 24; it is the same line of the most solemn prophetic exhortations. They had been worshippers of the visible (idolaters), and the snare would be to return to it. All being finished, Joshua "took a great stone, and set it up there under an oak, that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said unto all the people, Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us; for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which he spake unto us."
I shall now turn to one more instance of the power of the visible and its consequences upon Israel, and that is, the way in which it acted upon them so as to hinder the observance of the Sabbatical year. In this instance it is all the more remarkable and solemn how the visible turned them aside, inasmuch as there was a special provision made by Jehovah to meet the case. (See Lev. 25:20, 21.) The desire of His heart was that the land should keep a sabbath unto the Lord: "The seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest unto the land, a sabbath for the Lord." Nothing could be more distinct, or beautiful in its import and typical bearings. Did Israel observe and cleave to the mind of Jehovah as to this? Observe the solemn warning of chapter 26:43: "The land also shall be left of them, and shall enjoy her sabbaths, while she lieth desolate without them;" as well as verses 33, 34: "And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste. Then shall the land enjoy her sabbaths, as long as it lieth desolate, and ye be in your enemies' land even then shall the land rest, and enjoy her sabbaths." Such were the prophetic warnings which follow immediately the ordinance of Jehovah as to the sabbatical year, yet how lost upon the nation, ruled by the visible, as it is clear they were, in refusing to keep it! In vain, as far as they were concerned, did Jehovah promise, "I will command my blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth fruit for three years. (Chap. 25:21.) The visible work of man's hands, their sowing and reaping, was greater and better to them than His blessing. Thus they lost their highest favour, and 2 Chronicles 36:20, 21 records the execution of the predicted sentence in those solemn words: "And them that had escaped from the sword carried he away to Babylon, where they were servants to him [the king of the Chaldees] and his sons, until the reign of the kingdom of Persia: to fulfil the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her sabbaths; for as long as she lay desolate she kept sabbath, to fulfil threescore and ten years." How solemn all this yet how blessed to see that when they were in Babylon and all visible means of help gone from them, and entirely in the hands of their oppressors, then those, who were really faithful to the Lord, found out where alone their real resources where — even in God Himself.
May His saints to-day have grace to ponder and weigh in His presence, the weighty lessons which the history affords, that, amid the increasing tendency to turn away from the line of life and faith, grace may either preserve or recover a true remnant for the Lord, broken-hearted ones who, amid sorrow and pressure, cleave to Himself, whom, having, not seen, they still love.