"... reaching forth unto those things which are before ...
toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus
(Philippians 3:13-14)

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Vol. 4, No. 3, May - June 1975 EDITOR: Mr. Harry Foster



RECENTLY I was preparing to give a Bible Reading on Peter when I found my attention being drawn to the Lord's prophetic association of the crowing of a cock with the apostle's denial of Christ. It is a striking fact that this cock is mentioned in all four Gospels, which in itself suggests that the matter is worthy of very special emphasis. What is more, the record stresses the amazing accuracy of timing of the Lord's words, for it was actually while Peter was completing his third shameful denial that the cock began to crow.

At first sight it might appear that the Lord had simply used 'cock-crow' as a time indication, affirming in effect that in less than twenty-four hours Peter would have been proved false. But such a general time factor would hardly have received such detailed treatment by all four Evangelists. I could have presumed that the crowing of the cock was a kind of alarm, a warning signal which the apostle might have heeded and so been saved from disaster; in fact I had previously done so, but as I looked more carefully at the Scriptures, I found that the Lord Jesus had predicted that the cock would crow after Peter's denial, and not just before it. I was therefore left with this intriguing question concerning the unsuspecting but far from insignificant cock who had made history just by crowing. Why was he given so much prominence in the Word of God?

I thought about this and prayed, but went to bed without an answer. In the night, however, I had one of those flashbacks of memory which sometimes come to us in our wakeful moments. I went back in my thoughts to my early life as a missionary. Less than six months after I had arrived in Brazil to work for Christ there, I was taken very seriously ill. I was in an up-country farmhouse, far from any medical help, and I hovered between life and death for several weeks. My Brazilian hosts were very kind, but they were busy people, so that I was left alone for many hours. The nights seemed long, almost endless, and I often lay and longed for the dawn. There was one sound, however, which became sweeter than music to my ears, and that was the crowing of a cock. As I lay in the darkness, longing for a new day, there was a farmyard cock who sensed the dawn well before any vestige of light shone into my shuttered room. He always brought me relief by his confident crowing. In the pitch darkness I was given comfort and hope. The cock had crowed. A new day was about to break.

These were the memories which came to me across the years as I lay in bed. Suddenly I realised their significance; indeed they seemed to be the answer to my enquiring prayer. Cock-crow means -- hope of a new day. However dark and trying my predicament in Brazil was to me, it was as nothing compared with Peter's dark night of the soul. When he heard the cock, he went out and wept bitterly. It seemed like the end: it surely must have been the blackest moment of his life. Yet the Lord Jesus, who had known that it was coming, had prophesied that at the juncture when Peter would have reached the depths, at that very moment the cock would crow; and sure enough that was exactly how it happened. Immediately the words of hot denial had been spoken, the cock uttered his hoarse cry.

Just what the sound conveyed to Peter I do not know. Certainly not hope. To my waiting ears the clarion call had sounded like welcome music. To the shocked ears of the apostle it must have sounded like the final mocking cry of doom. But it was not so -- far from it. Jesus never mocked anyone, least of all the loved disciple over whom He had so earnestly prayed. No, the truth is, as we with hindsight can now see so clearly, that the darkest moment of failure and distress was really the beginning of a new day of blessing and fruitfulness. The same Lord who had so confidently predicted that Peter would thrice deny Him had, with equal assurance, informed him that then the cock would crow. Luke tells us that this happened while Peter was actually speaking. Mark (who is generally said to have written his Gospel under Peter's direction) tells us that the cock crowed twice. No doubt it went on crowing for a bit, as cocks usually do, but twice was enough for Peter. He remembered no more. He broke down completely. But though he was in no condition to realise it, this was to be the new day when Christ would make full atonement for this and all his other sins and purchase full and free pardon for him, and for us all.

The same Saviour watches lovingly over all our ways. He sees ahead those black experiences which to us spell despair, but He also looks [41/42] beyond to the new day of resurrection. There is a sense in which we never really know the full meaning of His title, "the God of hope", until we have sunk to the lowest depths of personal hopelessness. Let me put it the other way round. It is out of our darkest moments that there comes a new realisation of the fact that Jesus Christ is our Hope.


J. Alec Motyer

Reading: Psalm 103

OF all spiritual activities, the one which most honours God is that of blessing Him. "Bless the Lord, O my soul." More is involved in that than just thanksgiving. To bless the Lord is certainly to speak His praise with words, but it is also to take up an attitude toward Him. The word translated 'bless' is somehow related to a word denoted 'to kneel', so that the person who blesses the Lord is doing more than open his mouth, he is bowing his knees to God. Blessing God gives Him the honour due to Him because the lips are opened to praise Him and the knees are bent to worship and adore Him.

When Elijah went up Carmel to give God the praise for the great victory of the fire, the king could go off to feast but the prophet only wished to worship. We do not read of any words which he spoke, but we are told that he put his face between his knees. That is more than some of us are able to do, for one reason or another, but he did it. Those who are still young and supple should try it. They should sit down on their heels and put their head between their knees, and they will then appreciate just how low before God Elijah came. It was not just that he wished to say: 'Thank You, Lord', but he wanted in the deepest sense to bless the Lord. There is nothing that gives God the honour that is due to Him more than that we should bless the Lord. This is more than just thanksgiving; it also contains that all too rare activity, the adoring of God, the appreciation of His true greatness, the worshipping of Him not only for what He has done but for what He is.

When we read: "forgiveth ... healeth ... redeemeth ... crowneth ..." we should know that as all these verbs are participles, they point to something which is characteristic of His person, showing that these are not merely things which from time to time He does, but they are permanent features of His nature. He forgives because He is a Forgiver; He heals because He is a Healer; He redeems because He is the great Redeemer. Blessing the Lord dwells on the person of the Lord Himself in all the fullness of His character as it has been revealed to us. There is nothing in the spiritual life that more honours God and there is nothing that is more beneficial to man.

Look what is involved in this activity: it is 'my soul'. This blessing is something which comes out from the very heart of the believer. It is not a superficial matter, something on the outside, but that which expresses the fullness of one's whole being. "And all that is within me ..." implies what we often call wholeheartedness. The believer brings all that is within him into contact with the holiness of God. This is surely the way of sanctification. There is nothing more beneficial to us, and yet there is nothing that we more rarely do. Why we seldom extend ourselves in real thanksgiving, let alone in this far greater exercise of blessing the Lord and adoring Him for what He is.

The Soul which Knows the Blessing of God is the Soul which Blesses God.

This heart worship of God Himself arises out of a personal experience of His blessing. If God blesses us, then we can bless Him in return, not in the sense of bestowing on Him something which He did not possess before, but of appreciating His great mercies. "... and forget not all his benefits." If the benefits and blessings which God has given us have passed out of our memories and we no longer meditate on the goodness of God, we will have no cause to bless Him. Forgetfulness of the goodness of God deprives us of such opportunities. "For he that [42/43] lacketh these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sin" (2 Peter 1:9).

Let us remember again these blessings: forgiveness, healing, redeeming, crowning! I often think that we value God's material blessings higher than these spiritual ones. You read, say, the story of George Muller and find that in answer to prayer God bestowed on him millions of pounds. You say: 'How, wonderful! What a marvellous God He is! Fancy, millions of pounds!' And it is as though you had suddenly awakened to the dimensions of God. What a great God He is! Fancy, millions of pounds! But to God it was nothing to give millions of pounds compared with what it was to give us His Son. It is the spiritual blessings which He gives us in Christ which are the real index of His greatness. Consequently when, in his exalted moment, David wishes to bless the Lord, he does so in the light of God's spiritual mercies. In his case God had granted him marvellous material benefits. He had raised him from the pastures to the palace: He had delivered him from enemies on every side: He had made him a wealthy ruler; but there was one thing above all others which called for blessing, and that was the fact that all his sins had been forgiven.

God deals with sin in its totality. In this psalm David refers to three features of his sin:

1. Sins (verse 10)

This speaks of specific acts of wrong-doing. These are the actual things which he should not have done. When David admitted to sins he referred to precise acts of wrong which he had done and which could be definitely identified.

2. Iniquities (verse 10)

This is the root from which the sins come. Why did David sin? Because he was a sinner. This refers not to the outside features of his life which others could see, but the inward infection of his heart and nature. Men take note of sin from its fruits, but God has taken knowledge of it in its roots and has dealt with it there.

3. Transgressions (verse 12)

This word means rebellion; sin as destroying peace between man and God, making man an enemy of God and God the enemy of man. This was what David meant when he cried out: "Against thee, and thee only, have I sinned" (Psalm 51:4). He had committed a sin, a precise act of wrong-doing. He recognised that he had done so because of his own sinful nature; but more than that, he realised that sin has another dimension, a dimension Godward. So he had to confess that what he had done had been an outrage against God. Sin is rebellion, and it constitutes man a rebel against the law and will of God.

But here David blesses the Lord because there had been a complete coverage of all this -- "... all thine iniquities ...". The marvel of the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ is that it deals with sin in its totality. I cannot surprise God by my sins. I surprise and shock myself at them, and you would be surprised and shocked if you knew it all. But I cannot surprise God. He knew them all, and at Calvary He laid them all on His Son. He also deals with sin in its consequences -- "... healeth all thy diseases ...". I do not believe that by diseases David refers to his body, for it would not always be true to say that God heals physically. He can do so, and He will when it is for His greater glory, but He does not always give bodily healing. There are, however, diseases of the spirit, the awful effects of sin in the life, and these God marvellously cancels out. "Fools because of their iniquities ... are afflicted". And what does God do? "He sendeth his word and healeth them" (Psalm 107:17 and 20). What is more, God not only cancels the immediate effects of sin, but deals with it in its ultimate effects -- "He redeemeth thy life from destruction, from the pit". Sin's end product is death, the destruction of the body and soul in hell which Jesus told us to fear. He redeems us from that.

The word for redeemer was gael. He was the one who stepped in and took over upon himself a situation of helpless and hopeless loss, transforming it into one of prosperity, power and plenty. The redeemer had the right to step in and save. With us sinners God, being the offended party, is the only one who has the right to do this. We cannot say that He has the duty to save, because that would imply that sinners could put pressure on almighty God; but we can accept that He alone has the right to redeem. God reverses the rewards of sin. What does sin bring to the sinner? Destruction, for the wages of sin is death. What does God do about this? He redeems our life from destruction and crowns us [43/44] with loving kindness and tender mercies. Not the pit but the crown: not destruction but the throne, reigning in life with Christ. We live in a diseased world. People go around thinking that they are all right, quite normal, when in fact they are sin-sick. What are the manifestations of juvenile delinquency and adult delinquency but sickness of the soul? How wonderful, then, for the Christian to know God's remedy for sin, His renewing, preserving, regenerating power, cancelling the rewards of sin and bringing in the rewards of grace. How can we fail to be drawn out in adoration and love?

The Soul which Knows what it is to Fear God, is the Soul which Experiences the Fullness of Blessing.

This is another truth which is related to the previous one. Notice the change at verse 6. Previously David spoke of 'thou' and 'thy', addressing his own soul personally. Now he speaks of 'all' and 'us', having broadened his platform in an inclusive way so that the section ends: "His kingdom ruleth over all" (verse 19). Everything is under His control. The God whom we worship does not run helplessly up and down the touchline of human affairs, impotent to control them. "He is a great King above all gods." We need to know, however, that within the setting of this rule over all, there are certain people with whom God deals particularly. These are His own -- "... to such as keep his covenant ..." (verse 18). Then within that group of His own there is a group of special people who know what it is to enjoy the full blessing of God. You will find them mentioned three times: "them that fear Him" (verses 11, 13 and 17). So first we have a world rule, then we have a special concern for the people whom He calls to be His own and then we have the blessing of God poured out upon those who fear Him. Notice the blessings that are given:

1. His great mercy (verse 11)

'Great' is hardly the right word. If we wanted to use a term to describe a soldier in his strength and courage we might use this word. 'So mighty, so strong in His mercy.' Those who fear Him are the people who come to know the strength of God. So it was that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were able to defy the most fearsome expression of man's power because they had complete confidence that God's power was superior. 'How many men did we throw into the fire?' Nebuchadnezzar asked, and when he was told that there were three he exclaimed: 'But I see four! And the form of the fourth is like the son of God'. So strong was God's power that the men were free, they were untouched by the intense heat and they walked with the Lord in the fire. And His mercy is just as great as His power, mercy being that undying love of His which ensures that He will never let His people go.

"Fear Him, ye saints; and you will then

  Have nothing else to fear;

Make you His service your delight,

  Your wants shall be His care."

2. His Fatherly pity (verse 13)

There is the full value of parenthood in this pity of His, for it is motherly as well as fatherly. In the story of the two unfortunate women who appealed to Solomon we are told that the king said to them: 'All right. If you can't make up your minds whose the child is, I will give you half each'. The non-mother agreed with this solution but the real mother rejected it because, "her bowels yearned upon her child". This is the same word as is translated 'pity' in our psalm. God yearns over His own. He has a mother's yearning over the life and welfare of His Church. What an amazing picture this is of God in His fatherly-motherly concern! As to His fatherly heart, we remember how David yearned over his son, even as Absalom lay out in the woods under a heap of stones. "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee ...". All David could say was: "Would God I had died for thee", but our Father says better than that, for He commends His love to us that Christ did die for the ungodly. "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself ..." (2 Corinthians 5:19). What precious outpoured Father's love comes to those who fear Him!

3. His eternal faithfulness (verse 17)

God's undying love is from everlasting to everlasting for those who fear Him. Those who fear Him enjoy the assurance which comes from the knowledge that they were in Christ before the world began, and will still be in Him though heaven and earth pass away. This, surely, is the fullness of God's blessing, to know the unchanging love of God and to be upheld by the everlasting arms.

So the soul which knows what it is to fear God is the soul who enjoys the blessing of God in its fullness, but we need to look again at the psalm [44/45] to discover what is meant by fearing the Lord. "Them that fear him ... to such as remember his commandments to do them" (verses 17 and 18). Simple as it may be, this reminds us that God's commandments are meant to be obeyed. They are not intended for our interest or entertainment: they are to be done. The covenant love of God to His people is to be met by their covenant obedience to Him. When God spoke to Moses of His compassion and grace, and went on to declare: "Behold I make a covenant with you ...", He followed this with a charge: "Observe thou that which I command thee this day ..." (Exodus 34:6-11). He gave His people a revelation and then demanded obedience. If we argue that this was the old covenant, we must admit that the new covenant is no less demanding than the old. The great difference between the two covenants is that under the new covenant obedience becomes possible. "God forbid" that we should be servants of sin, but "God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered to you" (Romans 6:15 and 17).

They that fear His name will think on His commandments to do them. This psalm brings together two things which we would never have thought of bringing together, blessing the Lord and obeying the Lord. It implies that if you have never been drawn out to bless the Lord it may be because you are not obeying Him. A person who is obeying God up to the hilt is venturing everything upon Him and proving Him. Don't you think that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego blessed the Lord when they came out of the fire? We have not ventured far enough with God to know the full reality of His blessedness, and so we fail to bless Him as we should.

The angels have wherewith to bless God because they hearken and obey (verse 20). His hosts can bless Him because they minister to His pleasure (verse 21). His works bless Him, for they are utterly under His dominion, obedient and subservient to His will (verse 22). But what about "my soul"? If my soul is not going out in this kind of adoration, then there is something lacking in the worship ascending to the throne. It is not enough for the angels, the hosts and His works to bless Him if that final contribution which completes the full glorious harmony is not forthcoming. "Bless the Lord, O my soul!" Since blessing and obedience are inseparable, let me make sure that I, too, am so devoted to God's will that I can truly bless Him.



John H. Paterson

JOEL prophesied at a moment of time when the land of Israel seems to have been hit by an unprecedented series of natural disasters. Plagues of locusts have always been a threat to the farmers and food-producers of the Middle East, but the attacks from which the land was now suffering were total in their destructiveness, and appear to have accompanied an equally devastating drought. Yet with their livelihood gone and their livestock starving, the people of the land seem not to have connected these events with a visitation from God; they were wringing their hands -- or rending their garments -- over their misfortunes, but it required a forceful reminder from Joel before they would associate natural disasters with the hand of God, or go on to the kind of self-examination that might yield a clue about the reason for all their troubles.

It is interesting to find that the prophet brings few, if any, specific charges against the people of God. His denunciations in Chapter 3 are against Israel's neighbours, who have persecuted His people and carried off the treasures of His house (3:5). But Israel and Judah themselves are evidently to blame not so much for what they have been doing as for their failure to appreciate that all their history has a spiritual dimension; that since nothing ever happened by chance, they must look for God's meaning in these latest events.


In the first of these studies it was suggested that each of the twelve Minor Prophets was raised up by God to call attention to some aspect or dimension of His character which had become lost to sight. With an understanding of God distorted [45/46] by these 'missing dimensions', His people were doomed to fail Him, and bound to incur His judgment. Only when all the missing parts of the picture were filled in would a true understanding of God's character emerge. In the second of our studies, on the prophet Hosea, it was suggested that it was Hosea's role to remind his hearers that God is a God of love. Now we come to the prophecy of Joel and the reminder that God is a God of purpose.

On any reading of Joel's words, the key phrase emerges as "the day of the Lord". It occurs five times (1:15; 2:1, 11 and 31; 3:14), and it creates the sense of perspective necessary to an appreciation of all human events; they are timed to culminate "in that day". Without this perspective, life becomes a series of disconnected incidents: the locusts attack here or there at random; the rains fail one year and cause flooding the next; man is the victim of a capricious fate and life is a sick joke. We have plenty of contemporary thinkers who take this view.

No, says Joel, this is not the case. There is a movement of God in history, and there is a purpose in and for His people. This purpose is to mount to a climax of consummation, and God is at work through His Spirit to attain it. Events are to be seen not as disconnected or aimless, but rather as the actions of God, to which He expects a response. If man will indeed respond, then God in His turn will react: "Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered" (2:32).

This was a perspective which the people of God had once had, but by Joel's time had largely lost. There had been a time in Israel's history when the consciousness of God's purpose was strong and real, when He had declared his plan to bring them out of Egypt and into the promised land: "They have seen thy goings, O God; even the goings of my God, my King, in the sanctuary" (Psalm 68:24). But the trouble was that, with Israel's arrival in the land, that purpose had apparently been fulfilled. To the question, 'What next?' there was no obvious answer; merely to 'live happily ever after', even if they had been able to achieve such a state (which of course they were not ), would afford no sense of purpose or give them any positive goals.

For by Joel's time 'What next?' could only be answered in New Testament terms. And it was among the descendants of these same people that the sense of purpose, of the onward movement of God, was recaptured. One of the impressive things in the story which Luke tells of the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus is the way in which those involved immediately sensed the "goings of God" in the apparently trivial circumstances of two babies being born: "the day-dawning from on high has visited us" (Luke 1:78) -- the start of a new phase in the purpose. In due course, it was Peter who quoted Joel to the crowd at Pentecost: "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; and it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh" (Acts 2:16-17). And later on still Paul was looking ahead, beyond the purpose of God for old Israel, or the events of Pentecost, to the ultimate consummation: "That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him" (Ephesians 1:10). There is a stir of excitement because God is on the move.


To possess this perspective on God's purpose and progress is very important. It is important, firstly, because without it we can scarcely hope to build up a worthy picture of God in His creation and, secondly, because to possess it is the basis of Christian assurance.

1. People in general do not believe that God is all-wise, all-powerful, loving, or even interested in His creation. They base their beliefs on what they see, and it is difficult to blame them. When babies are born deformed, avalanches and earthquakes sweep whole towns away, and drought strikes year after year in the same parts of Africa, all in a world professedly under God's control, they feel entitled to doubt His goodwill, even if not His existence. This is the effect of judging by the individual event, in the particular moment of time. If God is to be vindicated it can only be in the long term, but vindicated He must and will be.

To an alarming extent, Israel had lost this perspective. They saw only the disasters around them, and that produced in them a very low estimation of their God. So Joel's first task was to try to rouse them to confront the question, 'Do you really think that this is the best that God [46/47] can do?' For there is another side to life and to nature: "Fear not, O land, be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things" (2:21). And one day God will gather all the nations into the valley of Jehoshaphat for judgment. Jehoshaphat means 'God judges', but it may also be translated 'God vindicates'. God will by then have completed His purpose for His people and when it is seen as a whole, rather than as number of separate, apparently disjointed events, it will perfectly vindicate Him. It will, as Paul expressed it (Ephesians 3:10), be a perfect exhibition of "the manifold wisdom of God".

We all, as God's people, probably sometimes long for something to happen to prove that He was right after all. (We must be careful that what we want is His vindication, and not simply our own; that we are not merely wanting to turn on those who oppose us and say, 'You see, I was right after all). How much more must He Himself wish to set the record straight -- to wind up His purpose once for all; to sweep aside the calumnies heaped upon His name in the course of millennia of human grievances; to present His Son in glory. Then why does He not do so: what is preventing Him? Only, surely, His wish to extend for a little longer the day of grace, before bringing it to an end in the day of vindication.

2. Christian assurance, in turn, looks towards the day of the Lord. To see this, we need only refer to the life of the great apostle, Paul. When he wrote his second epistle to Timothy, he knew that life was nearly over; for him, purpose had narrowed down to what could be accomplished in a few more hours or days. And so he built his assurance on the timescale of God's purpose; he looked ahead to the day of the Lord: "I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day"; "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day ..."

This reflects a wonderful feeling of assurance, but it is not all. In Joel's time, after all, Israel were on the verge of starvation; they had no food and, even if they had possessed any, the chances are that the neighbouring nations would have swept in and robbed them of it. Cold comfort, then, to be told that in the day of the Lord all this would be put right; what were they to eat for breakfast tomorrow?

If there is one verse more than another in Joel's prophecies which makes them real to Christians in every century, it is surely this: "I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten" (2:25), for it introduces us to God who is a God of restoration. Not only do we have the assurance that everything will come right in the end; we are also assured that, in the here and now, He can do what men have always longed to be able to do, but cannot -- to make good past losses, to recover wasted time, to catch up after falling behind.

It is a sore handicap and trial for mortals to have dealings with a God who is eternal; they have only one life, they are always in a hurry and always impatient with the apparently leisurely pace of His purpose. To Him, after all, a thousand years are as a single day, and a day as a thousand years: He is simply not bound by our timescale. But dealing with Him brings one compensating advantage -- that when His time does come, He can make good in a single movement the delays, the failures and the mistakes of a lifetime. What is more, He can if He wishes do it now. We should not too lightly esteem those words of the Lord Jesus, "There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters ... but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses and brethren and sisters ..." (Mark 10:29-30). If the Lord said that, as He apparently did, about material things, how much more should it be true of spiritual restoration. That is the prerogative of a God of restoration.

There are Christians who go through much of their lives under the shadow of past failures. They recognise, perhaps quite correctly, that at a certain period in their spiritual history they took a wrong turning, and nothing has been the same for them ever since. Therefore, they conclude, nothing can ever be right in the future; they are, if not irretrievably lost, at least irremediably committed to the wrong road, a road from which there is no way back to the highway. We should never make light of spiritual failure. But equally we should never accept it as final, so long as we have a God of restoration. To do so would be to do violence to the historic associations of this very passage from Joel's prophecy. For the man who quoted it in the New Testament, who said "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel ...", was Peter. And Peter had just failed, so totally and abysmally that if ever [47/48] anybody deserved to be written off for all future purposes, it was surely himself! But the God of restoration not merely brought him back into service, but set him back on the highway at Pentecost light years ahead of where he had left it a few short weeks before.

So the God of purpose is working towards 'that day' and, in the meantime, the God of restoration is watching over our progress. This God has declared a purpose: that of making each of us like His Son. In that final day, the purpose will be fulfilled: "when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). But what about the in-between? It is one of the bitter lessons of middle-age that, after a lifetime in the school of Christ, we find that we have made very little progress towards being like Him. At this rate, how shall we ever arrive? It is as if we were to set out from London for Edinburgh and, after days of weary travel, find that we had only reached Potters Bar. At this rate, we shall never reach our goal! But that is to reckon without God who, from time to time, in single actions and individual encounters, pours out His Spirit upon men (2:28). The God of purpose will time it all perfectly. "My people shall never be ashamed."


T. Austin-Sparks

Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee.
Make level the paths of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established.
Turn not to the right hand nor to the left.
(Proverbs 4:25-27)

"Looking unto Jesus ..." (Hebrews 12:2)

FOR the man in Christ life has a clear and definite objective. The Spirit has seen good to fill the whole Bible with that truth, continually urging the believer to realise that his life is set in the context of divine purpose. The letter to the Hebrews not only appeals to us to press on to this goal, but it portrays Christ as the great example and proof that the goal can be reached. Jesus has gone this way; He has gone the whole way, and He has arrived at the destination. More-over He has done it all for us, and by His accomplishment has given us the ground of confidence that the goal can be attained and the prize received. He took upon Himself our humanity, accepted the challenge of our circumstances and experiences, never faltering until the divine end was reached. We are reminded that He has triumphantly fulfilled God's purpose, and that by His present position He offers us the assurance that we too can share in His triumph. We must keep looking unto Jesus. More correctly this should be stated as: 'looking off unto Jesus'. This matter of the direction of our spiritual gaze is of the utmost importance. The wise man equated a straight and established path with the straight look ahead and with no turning aside to the right or to the left. The Word of God gives clear warning about getting off the road of His will, for God knows the hazards involved in so doing and wishes to save us from the hindrance to progress which can result when we look or face in the wrong direction. In this article we shall consider some of these looks which must be avoided by those who wish to make spiritual progress.

The Backward Look

The Lord Jesus was most emphatic about this matter when He stated that the one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God. This backward look can lead to grave tragedies. In the wilderness this is what Israel did. Egypt lay behind them and should always have been turned away from, but in the difficulties of the way they called one another to look back. "They turned again and tempted God, and provoked the holy one of Israel" (Psalm 78:41). They spoiled their whole course by this action, and for many years they made no progress at all but went round and round in circles; and all because of the backward look. That generation failed to enter into what God had prepared for them, simply because they yielded to the temptation to look back, which was -- and always is -- the wrong direction. [48/49]

Similar perils beset God's people in New Testament times. The Galatian believers were unsettled by the voice of the Judaizers, calling them to look back, not to the world with its ungodliness, not altogether to forsake Christ, but to face towards a religious procedure which was not the spiritual life to which they had been called in Christ. They had already half looked back, and had come to a standstill because of this. Previously they had been making good progress, as we always do when we keep our eyes on Christ, but now they had stopped and were raising the question as to whether they would in fact go on any more, or whether they would go back to the beggarly elements which should have been left behind. The letter was meant to warn them of the dangers of the backward look. The letter to the Hebrews was written for the same purpose. Those concerned could easily be made to feel the emotional nostalgia of the system from which they had been delivered, so they had to be reminded that they would forfeit God's pleasure if they drew back, and urged rather to press on, looking away from the past and focussing their gaze on the exalted Christ. However advanced we may be in our Christian experience, there seems to be no point when we can afford to take our eyes off the goal set before us and indulge in the follies of the backward look.

The Look Around

When the spies brought back the wrong report concerning the promised land, they did so because they had only looked around them, and never measured what they saw with the reality of an all-powerful God. They did not just imagine the difficulties; they did not need to do so for the cities and giants were real enough. But they kept their gaze down to the things around them, never lifting up their eyes to the one from whom help comes, and so they were discouraged themselves and they discouraged God's people with what was called an evil report. The trouble was that they only looked on their visible surroundings and took their eyes off the Lord. There were only two of them who kept their gaze in the right direction, and they were the ones who eventually went through to the end. Their eyes looked right on, and so their ways were established.

In the New Testament Peter is the great example of the peril which comes to those who look around. So long as he kept his eyes on Christ he could actually walk on the water, but he began to sink as soon as he turned them away, changed the direction of his attention and began to look at circumstances -- "When he saw the wind ..." (Matthew 14:30). Once again let it be said that he had plenty of reason for his fear. Indeed there are ancient manuscripts which read, 'the strong wind'. However it was his foolishness in letting outward circumstances distract his attention from his Lord which earned him a wetting, even though the hand of Jesus so graciously rescued him from anything worse. At all costs we must beware of looking around in unbelief when we should be looking off and up in faith.

The Short-sighted Look

Paul had to blame the Corinthians for limiting their vision to the things immediately before their eyes: "You look at the things which are before your face" (2 Corinthians 10:7). To be spiritually short-sighted, focussing only on what is near at hand, is to become too easily satisfied and contented in the realm of things spiritual; to have a small and narrow horizon and to fail to appreciate the much more which God has in mind. It is so easy to settle into a limited and very circumscribed area, thinking only of the spiritual things with which we are familiar and which seem so important to us, while we fail to take note of the much more which lies beyond us and to which we are being called. There are few things more stultifying in the Christian life than an assumption that there is nothing beyond the small sphere of our experience. It is possible to get so shut-in, so near-sighted, that we go round and round in circles, never looking out to the new dimensions of spiritual experience to which God is calling us, and almost imagining that we know all there is to know about God's Word and His purposes in Christ. The Corinthians seem to have done this, so to have focussed down on their own affairs, even their own spiritual gifts, that they were almost at a standstill spiritually. They were looking at themselves, full of concern for their own assembly, which was right enough, but apparently not able to appreciate the large purposes of God as represented by Paul's ministry. Even the matters which have been clearly shown of God and blessed by Him can become a hindrance when they arrest and hold the attention as things in themselves. These are the things before our face, but we were intended always to look beyond them to the Lord, and always beyond the immediate factors to the eternal values in Christ. [49/50] We can be short-sighted even with the Word of God, if we concentrate only on what we have already known of Christ and fail to appreciate that God has much more light and truth to break forth from His Word.

The Downward Look

To the Philippians Paul wrote: "... not looking each of you to his own things ..." (Philippians 2:4). He was urging them not always to be governed by how things affected them personally, not to measure every matter as to whether they stood to gain or lose by what was happening. Self-forgetfulness is one of the secrets of spiritual progress. When, in His talk with the needy Samaritan woman at Sychar's well, Jesus had demonstrated this gracious turning aside from personal concerns to care for others, He followed up His example by exhorting His disciples to lift up their eyes and look upon the fields. A selfish look is a downward look, and as such is to be avoided by those who wish to make level the paths of their feet. Paul's concern was not only with the spiritual good of the individual believers but with the onward march of the fellowship of God's people, and he knew that this would be seriously impaired if each one became preoccupied with his own affairs, even though it was in the realm of spiritual things.

The Inward Look

The last of these mis-directed looks is perhaps the commonest in the case of those who wish to follow the Lord. How much of the Scriptures seems to be concerned with getting God's people to stop looking inwards. Perhaps there is nothing more calculated to arrest spiritual progress than the inward look. What are we looking for? Something good in ourselves? We will never find that, as Paul makes quite clear when he affirms: "I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing" (Romans 7:18). Introspection is the very opposite of faith, for it searches for some evidence of God's holiness and power in ourselves, instead of rejoicing in the perfection of the Saviour. It has a spurious appearance of humility and piety, but in fact it leads to self-preoccupation, instead of preoccupation with Christ. We need to be sensitive so that the Holy Spirit can lead us ever continuingly to the appropriation of the cleansing power of Christ's blood, but we must never keep gazing inwards when we should be looking off and up to our Substitute and Saviour. It is not a healthy person but a sick one who is always feeling his own pulse and taking his own temperature. Salvation is health; the health of those who know that their righteousness is in heaven. We do right to let the Lord search us, but we will have nothing but trouble if we persist in looking within. If we think that it is necessary to keep looking in to avoid falling into Satan's snares, the psalmist will assure us that the Lord will watch our feet if we keep our eyes on Him: "My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for He will pluck my feet out of the net" (Psalm 25:15). This is one more argument for the upward look.

The Upward Look

It is becoming apparent that a great deal depends on our looking, so we are not surprised that towards the end of the letter to the Hebrews which reminds us that we are called to partnership with Christ and urges us to press on towards fullness in Him, there should be this call to look off unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We are to look off from what is behind, from what is round about, from what is near at hand and what is essentially selfish; to look off from ourselves to Jesus. Abraham, the great man of faith, looked for a heavenly city and a heavenly country, and so was saved from looking back or settling down. Much was bound up with this sustained look of his. So often he was tempted to seek more immediate benefits, some middle ground which was less than God's best, and the Lord had constantly to call him to take his eyes off earth's distractions and rewards so that he could look away to the essentially spiritual and heavenly goal of his calling.

The passage in Proverbs stresses the close relationship between looking straight ahead and having a clear and direct path of progress. Abraham found that this looking away from the things of earth kept him constantly on the move. From time to time he could have settled down in satisfaction with his own position, but "he looked for a city", and he was saved from stagnation by keeping his eyes on God's promised goal. A very relevant passage in this connection is: "Our light affliction, which is for the moment, worketh for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Corinthians 4:17-18). It is the eternal [50/51] which is in view, and this calls for adjustment in many respects of our affairs, so that our lives can be directed towards the permanent glory of God's purpose for us. Our procedure should always have eternity in view. When we are considering a relationship, we should see it in the light of God's end. If we have to decide where to live or what work to take up, we should let our eyes look right on, not choosing what seems good just at the moment, but making sure that eternal values are also considered. Just as Satan tempted Christ by offering Him the kingdoms of this world and their glory, so he will try to distract our attention from the will of God by offering seeming advantages now. We shall always be saved by the upward look.


Alan L. Barrow

"Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession ..." (1 Timothy 6:12-13)

WE now come to the matter of the good confession. In his charge to Timothy as a man of God, Paul found it helpful to remind his younger brother not only of his calling to victory and eternal life but also of a definite incident in his Christian life. "You made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses," he said, seeming to imply that he himself was present on the occasion when Timothy gave this good, or beautiful testimony.

Most commentators seem to be of the opinion that he was referring to Timothy's baptism, and this is particularly likely in view of the close association of the incident with taking hold of eternal life. Other occasions mentioned in the letter may refer to his ordination, or setting apart for the work of the gospel, but this one, stressing both the call to eternal life and also the presence of many witnesses, most probably alluded to the great time in his life when he confessed his union with Christ by believers' baptism. That must have been a great moment in this young man's life. He let the world know that he was on the Lord's side and intended to follow Jesus in a hostile world. There is a sense in which Timothy's world was much more hostile to Christ than ours is today, though many of us may be discovering that it is in fact the same world which has always hated and always will hate God's Son.

In Timothy's day, though, Christians were very, very few and in his area they were having a bad time. He, however, was prepared to make no secret of the fact that Christ was everything to him, and so this was rightly called "the good confession". At this later stage of his life the apostle encouraged him to remember that grand occasion when Christ meant so much to him. Perhaps it would be salutary to reflect on whether the Lord was any less important now or less worthy of wholehearted devotion. This is a healthy exercise. It is not enough for us to have made a good confession in the past: we need to ask ourselves if now we are less keen in our following of Him. And it is not only at our baptism that we make a good confession, for the Lord's Table provides a constant opportunity for renewing our stand of living only for Him and exercising dependance on Him. Years ago, when I first came to Honor Oak, I was given a kind of briefing session by John Paterson. I had never before shared in the Breaking of Bread, so John gave me a quick run-down on the procedure and then added: 'Well, if you want to go on with the Lord, this is what you do'. I remember vividly the jolt which it gave me when he said: 'If you want to go on with the Lord ...' IF! As if there could be any doubt about it. Christ was the mainspring of my life. For me, the first thing in the morning till the last thing at night was to follow the Lord. That anyone should even hint that there was any 'if' about it was shocking. Yet how right my brother was. Every time we come to the Lord's Table we are challenged as to whether we still wish to make the good confession.

The actual charge to Timothy provides an interesting parallelism. Timothy gave his good confession in the presence of many witnesses, and [51/52] he is now urged to maintain it in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. His life is being lived: "in the sight of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession". It is no chance that the Scripture lays emphasis on both the Father and the Son, and it may be helpful for us to be freed from a certain blurring of identities which can confuse our thinking. Does it really matter? Well, if we are thinking of making an issue with others and criticising their rather vague confusing of the Father and the Son in their prayers, the answer is, No. When we pray to Christ we are praying to God. But since the Word of God usually makes very clear the distinction between the Father and the Son, and since this charge to the man of God refers to both so definitely, we do well to pay attention to the distinctive features involved. If identities within the Godhead become indistinct and blurred in our minds, then to that extent we will fail to get the full values intended. If, for instance, we think vaguely, we will not appreciate what it means to have at God's right hand in heaven a Man, a true Man, tempted, triumphant and sympathetic.

THE immediate point of emphasis is that our testimony or confession is set in the context of everything being said and done in the sight of God. When I was young, the moral law was simplified to me as being concerned with what I would do if Mother were watching. Perhaps that would not apply so well today, and in many homes it would have little validity, but the principle of openness is a good one, especially when we think of openness in the sight of God. We live our lives and present our witness in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus.

Now the particular qualifications applied to the Father and then to the Son are quite unusual and worthy of our closest attention. Firstly it is said of God that He is the one "who gives life to all". Life is God's prerogative. Scientists can analyse the mechanism of the transfer of life and much more, but they know that in the end they are no nearer to discovering where life comes from and why life came. In this, as in every other matter, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Those who are not prepared to come to God to find the answer to their questions about life will certainly never find that answer in the laboratory.

Why must the man of God know Him as the giver of life? Because just to give a true testimony for God exposes a man to the power of death. How many have given "the good confession" by laying down their lives? And if the actual suffering of physical death is not involved it is still true that the good confession always demands the principle of death, the laying down of the life in accordance with 2 Corinthians 4:11. In experiences of this kind. when you have to face death to man's approval, to your personal preferences and even to your own efforts to serve God, you simply must know God as the one who answers death by new life. Nothing less will do. Unless you know the God who gives life, then there is no point in running into a situation of certain death.

So death is the price of the good confession. There is no alternative to this. There is no other way; no short cut, no crash course, no easy method of becoming a man of God. The only way in which men of God can be produced is by their running into circumstances where they know that it will be the end, unless God gives them new life. But if they give their good confession in the sight of God then it will be all right, for He is the one who gives life -- even to them. And it is the secret of the good confession that those who give it, do so in the presence of God.

IN the second place, we are in presence of Christ Jesus. And here, too, we find a very unexpected description for, of all things which could be said about Jesus, the one thing singled out is that He first witnessed the good confession, and did it before Pontius Pilate. This immediately stresses the historicity of the occasion, for nobody disputes the authenticity of the Roman ruler. It would also remind Timothy that the charge was not just a vague general principle, but one which called for definite action on specific occasions. There was a point in time in which the Man, Jesus, stood in the presence of the man, Pontius Pilate, and witnessed the good or beautiful confession.

Now there is not much that one can say about that particular moment of testimony. It witnessed no miracles, there was nothing sensational, nothing emotional about it. Jesus did not display any striking wit or brilliant repartee to impress His hearer; He just stood firmly for the truth. 'Yes,' He said, 'I am king, though not in the sense that you mean. And I am here in this world to bear a true testimony to My Father.' So His good confession meant that He quietly stood for the truth. This is something which we must all [52/53] do. In the case of the Lord Jesus, He witnessed in the face of death, for Pontius Pilate had -- and used -- his human authority to have Christ crucified. Thus we link up again with this matter of confessing in the presence of God who gives life, who answers death with resurrection life. In a marvellous way this was proved as resurrection life was given to the Son as the fruit of His good confession.

FOR us the whole matter may be revolved into a question of being faithful to the truth when it would be quite easy to dodge the issue. It may be in some conversation in staff-room or works canteen; it may be in our business dealings with others; or it may even be in some situation which arises among professed Christians. If we wish to do so we can, perhaps, avoid action without actually denying our Lord, but if we wish to be true to Him we must stand for what is right. We may have no power to produce miracles, which is just as well since they might only confuse the issue. We may have no capacity for brilliant flights of intellect, which again might well bring in confusion and encourage hostility on an intellectual basis. No, like our Saviour before Pilate, we are not to provide cleverness but simply to stand for the truth. This is the good confession. And like Him, we may well have to be ready for death even as we make it. It will certainly mean death to our self esteem, as our complete dependence on God is exposed to public view. Unlike those who can get on well enough without God, we readily acknowledge our deep dependence, for this is part of our confession. And so the principle of death continues to work, and we are exposed as being weak in ourselves and having nothing apart from Christ. But remember, we are in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. He who Himself made that beautiful confession before Pontius Pilate now supports us as we face hostility for His sake.

Stephen gives us a striking example of a witness being conscious of the presence of the Father and the Son as he faced a hostile and murderous crowd. We are told that by the Spirit he saw: "the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7 .55). This is hardly surprising, for he lived as in Their presence and was therefore especially made aware of Them in this moment of supreme need. And so he died. He who had spoken with such eloquence and who had worked many miracles was now reduced to the good confession which brought upon him a violent death. But in it all he had the presence of God who gives life and of Christ Jesus, the Faithful Witness, and in due course it is evident that his good confession had a tremendous impact on the history of the Church. He had no lengthy ministry, no striking deliverance, no sensational write-up. But He had God's presence as he made his good confession and he proved himself to be a man of God. And this is the charge now committed to us.


Roger T. Forster

OUR only concern in turning to the Song of Solomon is to draw out some of the principles which it gives in the matter of the development of our love relationship with the Lord Jesus. We consider a familiar three-fold reference to the relationship between the bride and her Beloved. First she says: "My beloved is mine and I am his" (2:16), but later changes to: "I am my beloved's and he is mine" (6:3), and finally asserts: "I am my beloved's, and his desire is toward me" (7:10), this time saying nothing about her claim on Him.

At the beginning of the book she is delighted to express this claim: "My beloved is mine". It is a good thing to have such confidence. It gives a new dimension to life to be able to say that He is mine, even though it is only as a sort of rider that I add: 'Oh, and I am His'. As we go on, however, in the life of a love relationship, it becomes more and more important to recognise His claim on me, and now to say: 'I belong to Him', adding only as a sort of afterthought that He belongs to me. It is very important to grow in this way. It is a great moment when you can sing:

'Mine, mine, mine; I know Thou art mine.

Jesus my Saviour, I know Thou art mine.'

but perhaps it represents a real advance spiritually if we change it, and sing:

'Thine, Thine, Thine; I know I am Thine.

Jesus my Saviour, I know I am Thine.' [53/54]

This is not just playing with words, but represents a real progression of experience when we want to emphasise the fact that we belong to Christ rather than just to make our claim that He is ours.

It is still more important, though, to reach the place where we forget all about our own claim on the Lord and are content simply to assert that we are His, we belong to Him, and His desire is toward us. Isn't it really wonderful! The Lord joys over His people as they gather together, searching their hearts, looking down deep to appreciate their worship. His desire is toward them; this is what really matters, that He should feel satisfaction in His people's love.

WE notice three different emphases in the matter of location. In the first place, when the bride is talking of her own claims on her Beloved, she does it when she is inside her house, in the privacy of her room. She speaks of Him standing behind their wall and looking in (not 'forth' as in A.V.) at the windows. Then the Beloved calls her to rise up and come away into the glorious experiences of Spring, giving some beautiful pictures of resurrection and inviting her to rise up and come away. Her response, however, is still from inside the house and is rather disappointing, for she replies: "Until the day breaks and the shadows flee away ...", in other words, 'Yes, but tomorrow. Yes, go on being like a roe and a young hart. I enjoy seeing you like that.' In effect she is saying: 'Yes, it is a good thing my loved one is full of energy and that He wants me to share His resurrection joys, but let Him be out on the mountains, but I will stay here for another day'. As we move into chapter 3 we find her lying on her bed with an unhappy sense of the distance between them. In actual fact, of course, the Lord never leaves us, but in our consciousness He can seem to be far away. So she sought Him unsuccessfully within her room and had to rise, go out into the streets and look for Him.

When we get to our second statement, she is no longer in the house but out in the garden, and it is there that she passes to speak of putting Him first. "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine" -- the first and greatest thing is that I belong to Him. This is in the garden, and suggests to us that while there is an indoor experience which is precious, there should also be a garden experience which is even more wonderful. But there is more to come; there is the further and deeper expression of love's devotion. They move out now, reach the gate and pass out into the fields and villages. "Let us get up early to the vineyards ... there will I give thee my loves" (7:12). This is an interesting series of movements; the bride moves out from the secrecy and privacy of her own room into the garden, where her experience of love grows even more, and then into the fields and villages where the relationship becomes even less selfish and more akin to His great love.

NOW I am not suggesting that this is a picture of the Christian life in the sense of beginning by loving the Lord inside our house and then leaving this position until we finally finish up with Him in the fields, for that is not true. It is no use going out into the fields unless we have the intimate experience of His love in the secret place. So although we are considering development as we move on through the book, this never means that we are to leave the first experience behind. No, this aloneness with Him is essential and basic to all else that follows.

As we review the three stages we think first of the personal experience in the home. This means that we are building a relationship with the Lord in the privacy of our own hearts. It is something very personal. But we must remember that our most sacred moments can also be our most dangerous moments, times when -- like the Pharisee in the temple -- we thank God that we are so different from others. Our Lord is so wonderful, so full of energy, running to and fro in the earth and working in heights and realms that are quite beyond us, and we can be snug and content in some enjoyment of communion which is largely self-centred and self-seeking. So, precious and vital as the secret place is, it should never be a thing in itself. There is a real possibility that we may not press beyond this stage of relationship with Christ and never move out into active life with Him. Thank God for the sweet joys of secret fellowship, but we must also listen to the voice of our Beloved when He calls us out to where He is gathering lilies in the garden.

The garden suggests church life, the corporate fellowship where there are many lilies. A garden is ordered; it provides variety in harmonious blending. When Adam was brought into this world he was placed in a garden. It was God's gift to him, needing only to be tended. If he [54/55] looked out from that garden he saw the wilderness of the world, and God told him that it would be his task to subdue that world. He was to take the God-provided Paradise, or parkland of Eden, and extend it into the rest of the world. He must bring it into order, subdue it, so that the wilderness of nature might be changed into the beauty of God's garden. This illustrates the calling of the Church. Just as Eden was the beginning of what God had intended should spread through the whole of the earth, so we are a kind of first fruits of all creation: we are the beginning of what God means to extend throughout His whole universe. The Church is the area where He is expressing the beauty of His order. We are already under the headship of Christ, but one day all things will be brought under that headship. We already express to some degree His order, the culture and loveliness of His garden. One day the whole of the creation will express it through the manifestation of the sons of God. So the Church, the garden, is the beginning of God's bringing everything into that beautiful harmony which is called glory. The Church is meant by its spiritual order to express the glory of God -- "The glory which thou gavest me I have given them".

And it is within this Church order that we develop our love for Christ. If we do not make use of this means which the Lord has given us, then naturally we will grow stale and dry and our love will start to shrivel up. It may be difficult to define what we mean by Church order, but we note that it was in a garden that the Lord met Mary and said to her: "Go to my brethren and say ...". "My brethren" -- that is what the garden is all about. 'Go and share with My brethren, go and talk to My brethren. Tell them that I ascend to My Father and to their Father ...' I am sure that one of the ways by which we begin to move from our petty selfish claims on the Lord and move into the realm where He has the first place is by the recognition of the importance of our brethren. The strange thing is that this brings us more assurance. When we see that there are others who belong to us because we all belong to the Lord, we get fresh and stronger assurance of His love toward us. It is in this garden that we pass from wrongly emphasising our own rights (My Beloved is mine) to the fuller understanding of His rights (I am my Beloved's). It is as we share our brotherhood that we find more and more that the Lord has the foremost place in all things.

I was recently at a college where a relative trained, and I took pleasure in talking about him to the present students. He has had a good career, so I was proud to discuss him. I did not have a bad word to say about him. After all he is my relative. Now there might be an occasion when someone would come and tell me something about him that was not nice. What would I do then? I would leave the place, even if it meant travelling overnight, arriving at his home in the early hours of the morning, and we would talk the matter out like men and get it straight. I would not speak about him, not even to the man who gave me the bad report. Why ever not? Because he is of my family! I was glad to talk about how well he had done in his profession, but I am not prepared to discuss anything derogatory. In a loyal family you don't listen to or discuss your brother's faults, though you gladly join in appreciating his virtues. You will notice, too, that in this fellowship garden the Beloved also showed deeper appreciation of His bride: "Thou art beautiful, o my love ... comely as Jerusalem ... Turn thine eyes away from me, for they have overcome me" (6:4-5). It is within the realm of loving fellowship that we will make new discoveries of how much we mean personally to the Lord.

THIRDLY our love finds even deeper realisation as we call on the Lord to lead us out into the world around. "Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields; let us lodge in the villages. Let us get up early to the vineyards" (7:11-12). Four times she called to the Beloved to move out with her. She did not sit down and say that it would be a good thing if the villages were visited or the fields worked, but said: 'Come on, Lord. Let's go!' This almost sounds as if she were taking liberties in desiring to have the initiative, but it is not quite that but just the matter of having the right balance for life in the Spirit. For instance, to pray in the Spirit does not mean to wait until you feel some emotional urge, but to take the initiative in praying and so prove the Spirit's support. There is an initiative that should come from us as we talk to the Lord about the needs of the fields and the villages. We will probably not do all that we talk about, and may well find the Lord checking us, but as we talk to Him and press the issue, we will find that He will channel us into the areas of opportunity and work which are His will. And in it all we will be making new discoveries of His love. "I am [55/56] my Beloved's, and his desire is toward me." It was something of this which happened to Isaiah when he heard the Lord questioning: "who will go for us?" As he listened, Isaiah asked: 'What about me? Why not send me? So it was that he went, and he certainly made many discoveries of the greatness of God's love. If we press the Lord to move out we may find that He will not be persuaded, but will turn us in another direction. He could never have done this work of checking and re-directing, though, if we had not first approached Him and opened up the simple subject of outreach. He cannot lead unless we begin to talk with Him. We say: "Let us go into the fields", and as we do so we are more overwhelmed with the wonder of His love toward us.

These, then, are three areas of development of our love relationship with Christ; our secret life, our fellowship life, and our service life. All are important: all lead to the satisfaction of the heart of the great Lover of our souls.


(Studies in 1 Samuel)

3. THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD (Chapters 4 - 6)

Harry Foster

WE come now to the third great factor in God's preparations for His kingdom. It is divine sovereignty. Literally the word just means 'ruling', but when we use it in relation to God we generally have a special emphasis of its absoluteness. Some people use the term 'sovereign grace' when they wish to express the fact that God's grace has no human explanation or cause. This helps us to appreciate the matter which we are to consider, namely God's activities which depend on nobody and nothing but Himself alone. These are things which nobody else thought of, which nobody contributed to and which nobody deserved. So when I use the word 'sovereignty' I do so to stress the thought of God acting to get His own will done without consultation with or co-operation from anyone else. This will become clearer as we study the three chapters before us, especially as Samuel is not seen to play any part at all in the events described. It may be that he was praying in secret, but from the statement that "The word of Samuel came to all Israel" (4:1) to the day when he recalled the house of Israel to return to the Lord (7:3), no mention is made of this prophet whom God had raised up. So this study will not deal with Samuel at all. I am sure that he was watching in the shadows, but even this is not mentioned, for the whole emphasis of these three chapters seems to be that God was looking after His own interests. Even when we, His servants, feel painfully powerless to affect a situation at all, we can always count on God to do this.

Eli, that rather pathetic character, is described as "trembling for the ark of the Lord". Considered superficially this sounds pious and highly commendable, but in truth it betrays a complete breakdown of faith. Trembling for the ark, indeed! Can the Lord not look after His own interests? Tremble for yourself, Eli! Tremble for those wicked sons of yours! But you need never tremble about God's ability to defend His name. Samuel did not tremble. He was helpless, apart from prayer, and he had to wait. And as the period which we are about to describe was for seven months and then twenty years, we may well feel that his was an amazing triumph of sorely tested faith. Some of us, when we have to wait a few days, begin to doubt and panic because we cannot see that the Lord is working. For seven months the ark was actually with the Philistines. Just as Hannah did not worry when she left her small boy in the Eli household, so in his turn Samuel did not worry about the ark being in Philistine custody. And even after that, another twenty years passed. But the years found Samuel as full of confidence in the Lord as ever, and he was able to assure the people that if they would return to the Lord and prepare their hearts unto Him He would certainly deliver them (7:3).

And if he so rested in the assurance of God's sovereignty how right he was. On another occasion God said to Israel: "I do not this for their sakes, O house of Israel, but for my holy name's sake". "Not for your sakes do I this, saith the Lord [56/57] God. Be it known unto you ..." (Ezekiel 36:22 and 32). It was as though God said: 'You are a lot of failures who have let Me down and shamed My name, but I am not defeated. There is no need to worry about Me. I can look after My own name!' We don't have to tremble for the ark; nor do we have to put out our hand to steady it, as somebody mistakenly did later on in Israel's history. There are times when we can do nothing; times when even our prayers seem powerless; but it is then that we can affirm with absolute certainty that God cannot fail. God is faithful to Himself. God is God!


We first look at chapter four which tells us how God's people lost the glory of His presence with them. The last word of this chapter is Ichabod -- "the glory is departed from Israel, for the ark of God is taken". I am so glad that the saints in heaven do not know what is going on down here on the earth, for that day would have been a tragic one for Moses. Imagine, knowing the circumstances under which that ark was made and the majestic glory of God's presence above it in the tabernacle, and then being informed that it had fallen into the hands of the Philistines. It would have spoiled heaven for him, but for the fact that he would there know, as we are going to see, that God cannot be defeated. God is God: He did know all about it, and yet He was quite unmoved. And what about Joshua? He took the ark right through Jordan at full flood and then made the walls of Jericho collapse as it was carried round that city. If some angel had whispered to Joshua: 'The ark has gone. It has been captured', that would have seemed an unthinkable tragedy to him, for even at Ai that had not happened. Samuel was not in heaven. He was still on the earth. He knew the worst, and may well have been alone in his sorrow when the news came. I cannot imagine what agonies he must have suffered when the information reached him. Well, perhaps I do know something of what he must have felt, for I know how painful it is to see the Lord thoroughly let down in a life or in a fellowship.

If we have seen assemblies which have counted for God and, although not perfect representations of His presence as the ark was, yet sufficiently glorified by that presence so as to provoke real praise to Him; and have then seen their spiritual values sacrificed by men's folly, then we may be able to sympathise with Samuel in his sorrow. Everything seems lost. It is not so much a question of men's behaviour or reputations, but only that the divine glory is obscured and the Lord's testimony shamed in the eyes of men and devils. The glory has gone. In our helplessness we can hardly pray. We don't know what to pray, and can only ache with sorrow. But even at such a time there is an inner conviction that God will not allow His name to be dragged in the mud. He will care for His own interests; and lead us in a new way to appreciate what I regard as one of the main features of the faith life, namely confidence in the absolute sovereignty of God. Perhaps this was the lesson which Samuel learned in those gloomy days.

As the chapter opens we notice the presumption of God's people. They were not attending to the Word; they were despising His offerings; and yet they had the effrontery to embark on a campaign in His name. It was Israel who went out to battle, not the Philistines, and they did so because they relied on their slogans and traditions, wrongly assuming that God was with them. The result of such a procedure was -- and always is -- a ghastly defeat. Afterwards they discussed what had happened in the pious language which seemed appropriate, admitting that it was the Lord who had smitten them. There are few more pathetic experiences than to hear talking, preaching and praying which seek to cover spiritual irresponsibility and deviation with religious phraseology.

They still used the name of the Lord, but they had been defeated and disgraced because in heart they were out of touch with Him. They then passed from presumption to superstition, agreeing together that if they could bring the ark on to the battlefield then 'it' would save them. It is true that there is some difference of opinion as to their actual words, and it might possibly have been that they said that with the coming of the ark, 'He', that is the Lord, would come among them and save them. This does not alter my contention that they were now trusting in an 'it' rather than in the living God Himself. Before we blame them too much for this, let us pause and consider how often God's people centre their confidence on a thing, even a spiritual thing, rather than on their living Lord. There are so many possible things which become a ground of confidence, Church procedure, sacraments, doctrines, spiritual gifts, even the Bible itself as we interpret it; and the moment we are trusting in an 'it', the [57/58] effect is division and spiritual defeat. It does not seem to matter how true or important the thing may be; if our spiritual position depends on it rather than on the person of Christ, the enemy will gain ground and God's name will cease to be hallowed. We notice that the Philistines shared this superstitious approach, imagining that the ark was the Israelitish God just in the same way as their images were their gods. It is true that they were frightened, but they still hoped to get the better of this 'god'. In a sense they did so, for after all it was only a thing. But in another sense they met more than their match, for the living God took up the matter for His own name's sake.

More than presumption or superstition, though, they were guilty of wilful disobedience for, though Samuel was now their prophet, they did not consult him at all. They dare not. He would have applied the Word of God to their situation and refused to support them. So they referred the matter to Hophni and Phinehas who could be counted on to agree with them. It is true to my experience that self-willed Christians only ask advice in order to get confirmation of the course which they wish to adopt. If they think that a man's advice will not tally with their ideas they either do not consult him or else go from him to seek a second opinion more congenial to them. In this case the Israelites had no difficulties with Hophni and Phinehas who were ready enough, with unholy hands, to take this symbol of God's holiness into the conflict, with disastrous consequences to themselves and to God's people. Without the ark 4,000 were killed, but with it the casualty list rose to 30,000 (v.10). If we glance ahead to Israel's experience when they did humble themselves and pay heed to God's Word through Samuel, we shall find a very different story, this time one of miraculous victory. If we enquire further into the event we discover that this victory proceeded from the offering of a lamb (7:9-11). The ark without the lamb was a symbol with no power, and so was captured; the priests involved were men with a holy calling but with unholy lives, and so they died; the mass of the people were trying to meet God's enemies without God's Word, and so were doomed to defeat and disaster.

The ark was taken, a disaster so great that it brought God's high priest, Eli, into the dust of death and destroyed his family with the one exception of a new-born baby who was named Ichabod by his dying mother. This chapter is a vivid illustration of the text that "the wages of sin is death". It ends with this name Ichabod -- the glory has departed. This would not only have been the end of a chapter but the end of God's purposes for Israel had it not been for sovereign grace. So we can pass on to another chapter, finding there that the hand of God which was so clearly withheld from Israel, was active enough and strong enough when it came to the defence of His holy name. And in yet another chapter we shall find that sovereign grace brought the glory back, even to an erring and unworthy people.


We now have more than a new chapter of the book; we have a new page of history in which we read of the steps which God took to preserve His glory. At first the Philistines were thrilled at their apparent success and wished to give the glory to their own god, Dagon, so they took the ark to his temple. But if the Philistines were pleased, Satan was much more so, for all false worship means glory for him. So when the symbol of God's glory was brought into the house of Dagon, it represented one more phase of that age-long conflict over worship, and looked for the moment as though Satan had got the better of God. He is out to rob God of that worship which He so rightly deserves, and grasps eagerly at every departure from faith which can add to his own evil purposes. God's enemies therefore gloated and God's true people mourned. But not for long, for while men slept God acted. Next morning, when the Philistines got up early and hurried off to their temple to do some more gloating, they found their Dagon lying flat on his face in helplessness before the ark. This ark was the ark of the covenant, the pledge of God's faithfulness. It is true that His people had lamentably failed Him and had therefore been defeated, but God cannot fail and God is never defeated. So for His own name's sake He upset this false god and brought him down into the dust. The Philistines did not wish to accept the significance of what had happened, so they set the image up and went away hoping for the best. Next morning they discovered that such hopes had been in vain, for they had hardly begun to open the door when they found a confusion of trunk, head and hands littering the threshold. Dagon was broken in pieces. The first calamity had been inside the house and could be hushed up. This time it was a public disgrace, open for [58/59] everyone to see. In a sense it was a permanent disgrace, for after this they never again trod on that threshold.

And this was only the commencement. God was going to press this matter until the Philistines would be as glad to get rid of the ark as, long ago, Pharaoh had been to send Moses and the people out of Egypt. The next word is 'But' -- one of God's great 'buts' -- which reminds us that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Again and again in chapters five and six we have mention made of the hand of the Lord. They moved the ark from place to place, trying to out-manoeuvre God, but discovering that whatever they did and wherever they took the ark, His hand was heavy upon them. At length that hand grew "very heavy" (5:11), which made them decide that they had had enough, and must get rid of this troublesome reminder of the holiness of God.

I would like to think that during those historic seven months Samuel was in Mizpah (the watch-tower), praising God in the quiet confidence of faith. He undoubtedly would be praying, for we must always pray; but praying from a position of strength and triumphant peace. We do not know. What we do know, though, is what should be our own heart's attitude in the face of Satan's fury. We are told to bless the Lord at all times. We are in a world of Philistines. For one reason or another God's testimony (not an ark now, but a people) is beset by evil powers which are daily becoming more antagonistic to all that is holy and true. In every realm of every land there is such a show of satanic strength that we are tempted to fear for the testimony of Christ. Like Samuel, we feel so small and so helpless. Like him, however, we shall prove that God will be jealous for His own name and preserve His glory. His people may fail Him, but He will never fail Himself. It is therefore our privilege in this evil day to sound the high praises of God, rejoicing as we pray and praying the more as we rejoice. As we shall now see, the glory returned to Israel.


The pressure of God's hand was so great upon His enemies that they were impelled to send the ark back to where it belonged, the land of Israel. The Philistines betray by their words and actions that they knew that they were not dealing with God's people but with God Himself, and for this reason they tried to get Him to remove His hand from them by their offerings of golden tumours and mice, which were representative of the nature and the carriers of the bubonic plague from which they were suffering. And it is interesting that although at that time the testimony of the Israelites was feeble in the extreme, the facts of their redemption from Egypt were never far from the Philistines' minds. They despised the people but they feared their God.

Even so, they devised a plan which would prove whether their calamities had been connected with the ark, for they chose the most unlikely means of conveyance and then waited to see what would happen. Having put the ark with their offerings, on a new cart, they then harnessed not oxen but a couple of milking cows who had never been yoked together before and never drawn a cart. The Philistines wanted to find out if this miraculous presence of God was a real thing. What is more, they chose cows who were actually in milk and kept their calves shut up. Apparently they then did nothing more than to release the cows and watch events. God was quite ready to take up the challenge. If a miracle is something contrary to nature, it was certainly a miracle which happened. It needs a miracle to keep two cows walking together. It needs a greater miracle to have them walk straight along a road without turning to right or left. And the greatest miracle was that although their calves called to them and they lowed back, they did not turn back but took the straight way over the border to Beth-shemesh. No man had a hand in this: it was the hand of God. He did not do this to help the Philistines, for they were never converted. He did not do it because His people deserved it, for they had failed Him. He did it for His own name's sake, reversing the very order of nature. So first His sovereignty preserved the glory and now it worked in grace to show mercy to His unworthy but chosen people.

I find tremendous encouragement in these divine activities, for they show me that when I am involved in the testimony of Christ among His people, however much human failure there may have been and however many evil powers seem to have the victory, we can still expect the miracles of sovereign grace.

What a thrill came over the men of Judah who left off their harvesting to watch in amazement [59/60] the cart which with no urging or guidance from man finally came to a halt in the field of a man called Joshua -- God is Saviour (v.14). He is indeed Saviour, and the harvesters were quick to offer their whole-hearted praises. When the ark was carried off it seemed unlikely that it would ever return. When it was placed on the new cart it seemed impossible that direct and prompt delivery could be made. But our God is the God of the impossible. And that is precisely what I mean when I talk of divine sovereignty. The ark of God came from the heart of the enemies' camp to the field of a man called Joshua without the single touch of a human hand. Dear friends, God is not wanting us to tremble for His testimony. Nor is He asking us to agitate and manipulate for its recovery. He wants us rather to take up the challenge of the impossible, to glorify His name in faith and to prove Him by prayer.

But we must beware of the wrong kind of familiarity with holy things, and so we are given a solemn warning as we read more of these favoured people of Beth-shemesh. Whether it was that they questioned if the tables of the law were still intact, or whether it was just their over-excited jubilation at God's miracles, we do not know, but they failed to respect the holiness of God. They decided to have a look into this wonderful ark. And God smote them. He smote the men who had been so loud in His praises. He smote the men who had joined in making a burnt offering. They could have argued that God might smite the Philistines but He would never smite them. But He did! Clearly He was not prepared to let His testimony be mis-handled by carnal enthusiasts. It was unnecessary to tremble for the ark, but it was much worse to meddle with it. So at considerable cost they learned what it means to stand before a holy God. It is an important lesson for us all to learn. Familiarity with God's mercies and miracles can make us careless about His holiness; we are to serve the Lord with fear and to rejoice with trembling.

The citizens of Beth-shemesh decided to invite the men of Kiriathjearim to relieve them of this sacred testimony. I do not think that this was an unfriendly attempt to pass on troubles to others but rather a conviction that the men concerned, and especially Abinadab, were more able to live with the holiness of God. They were right. For the next twenty years the ark was safe and was cared for with devotion and reverence. All through Saul's reign it remained in that house on the hill, making it possible for Samuel to go out from his Mizpah watch-tower and challenge Israel to get right with God. So sovereignty came to Israel in terms of grace. It comes to us in the same way. How else would we dare to use Samuel's well-known word, Eben-ezer -- Hitherto hath the Lord helped us? (7:12).

(To be continued)



Mr. H. Foster will (D.V.) be ministering in California during August.
Applications for the above Camp (August 11-16) to: Whittier Fellowship,
P.O. Box 5271, Hacienda Heights, CALIFORNIA 91745 [60/ibc]

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