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Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Numbers 10

 

 

Verse 29

Numbers

HOBAB

Numbers 10:29.

There is some doubt with regard to the identity of this Hobab. Probably he was a man of about the same age as Moses, his brother-in-law, and a son of Jethro, a wily Kenite, a Bedouin Arab. Moses begs him to join himself to his motley company, and to be to him in the wilderness ‘instead of eyes.’ What did Moses want a man for, when he had the cloud? What do we want common-sense for, when we have God’s Spirit? What do we want experience and counsel for, when we have divine guidance promised to us? The two things work in together. The cloud led the march, but it was very well to have a man that knew all about the oases and the wells, the situation of which was known only to the desert-born tribes, and who could teach the helpless slaves from Goshen the secrets of camp life. So Moses pressed Hobab to change his position, to break with his past, and to launch himself into an altogether new and untried sort of life.

And what does he plead with him as the reason? ‘We will do thee good, for the Lord hath spoken good concerning Israel.’ Probably Hobab looked rather shy at the security, for I suppose he was no worshipper of Jehovah, and he said, ‘No; I had rather go home to my own people and my own kindred and my father’s house where I fit in, and keep to my own ways, and have something a little more definite to lay hold of than your promise, or the promise of your Jehovah that lies behind it. These are not solid, and I am going back to my tribe.’ But Moses pressed and he at last consented, and the following verses suggest that the arrangement was made satisfactorily, and that the journeyings began prosperously. In the Book of Judges we find traces of the presence of Hobab’s descendants as incorporated among the people of Israel. One of them came to be somebody, the Jael who struck the tent-peg through the temples of the sleeping Sisera, for she is called ‘the wife of Heber the Kenite.’ Probably, then, in some sense Hobab must have become a worshipper of Jehovah, and have cast in his lot with his brother-in-law and his people. I do not set Hobab up as a shining example. We do not know much about his religion. But it seems to me that this little glimpse into a long-forgotten and unimportant life may teach us two or three things about the venture of faith, the life of faith, and the reward of faith.

I. The venture of faith.

I have already said that Hobab had nothing in the world to trust to except Moses’ word, and Moses’ report of God’s Word. ‘We will do you good; God has said that He will do good to us, and you shall have your share in it.’ It was a grave thing, and, in many circumstances, would have been a supremely foolish thing, credulous to the verge of insanity, to risk all upon the mere promise of one in Moses’ position, who had so little in his own power with which to fulfil the promise; and who referred him to an unseen divinity, somewhere or other; and so drew bills upon heaven and futurity, and did not feel himself at all bound to pay them when they fell due, unless God should give him the cash to do it with. But Hobab took the plunge, he ventured all upon these two promises-Moses’ word, and God’s word that underlay it.

Now that is just what we have to do. For, after all talking about reasons for belief, and evidences of religion, and all the rest of it, it all comes to this at last-will you risk everything on Jesus Christ’s bare word? There are plenty of reasons for doing so, but what I wish to bring out is this, that the living heart and root of true Christianity is neither more nor less than the absolute and utter reliance upon nothing else but Christ, and therefore on His word. He did not even condescend to give reasons for that reliance, for His most solemn assurance was just this, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you.’ That is as much as to say, ‘If you do not see in Me, without any more argument, reason enough for believing Me, you do not see Me at all.’

Christ did not argue-He asserted, and in default of all other proof, if I might venture to say so, He put His own personality into the scales and said, ‘There, that will outweigh everything.’ So no wonder that ‘they were astonished at His doctrine,’-not so much at the substance of it as at the tone of it, ‘for He taught them with authority.’

But what right had He to teach them with authority? What right has He to present Himself there in front of us and proclaim, ‘I say unto you, and there is an end of it’? The heart and essence of Christian faith is doing, in a far sublimer fashion, precisely what this wild Arab did, when he uprooted himself from the conditions in which his life had grown up, and flung himself into an unknown future, on bare trust in a bare word. Jesus Christ asks us to do the same by Him. Whether His word comes to us revealing, or commanding, or promising, it is absolute, and, for His true followers, ends all controversy, all hesitation, all reluctance. When He commands it is ours to obey and live. And when He promises it is for us to twine all the tendrils of our expectations round that faithful word, and by faith to make ‘the anchor of the soul, sure and steadfast.’ The venture of faith takes a word for the most solid thing in the universe, and the Incarnate Word of God for the basis of all our hope, the authority for all our conduct, ‘the Master-light of all our seeing.’

II. Hobab suggests to us, secondly-

The sort of life that follows the venture of faith. The hindrances to his joining Moses were plainly put by himself. He said in effect, ‘I will not come; I will depart to mine own land and to my kindred. Why should I attach myself to a horde of strangers, and go wandering about the desert for the rest of my life, looking out for encampments for them, when I can return to where I have been all my days; and be surrounded by the familiar atmosphere of friends and relatives?’ But he bethought himself that there was a nobler life to live than that, and because he was stirred by the impulse of reliance on Moses and his promise, and perhaps by some germ of reliance on Moses’ God, he finally said, ‘The die is cast. I choose my side. I will break with the past. I turn my back on kindred and home. Here I draw a broad line across the page, and begin over again in an altogether new kind of life. I identify myself with these wanderers; sharing their fortunes, hoping to share their prosperity, and taking their God for my God.’ He had perhaps not been a nomad before, for there still are permanent settlements as well as nomad encampments in Arabia, as there were in those days, and he and his relatives, from the few facts that we know of them, seem to have had a fixed home, with a very narrow zone of wandering round it. So Hobab, an old man probably, if he was anything like the age of his connection by marriage, Moses, who was eighty at this time, makes up his mind to begin a new career.

Now that is what we have to do. If we have faith in Christ and His promise, we shall not say, ‘I am going back to my kindred and to my home.’ We shall be prepared to accept the conditions of a wanderer’s life. We shall recognise and feel, far more than we ever have done, that we are indeed ‘pilgrims and sojourners’ here. Dear Christian friends, we have no business to call ourselves Christ’s men, unless the very characteristic of our lives is that we are drawn ever forward by the prospect of future good, and unless that future is a great deal more solid and more operative upon us, and tells more on our lives, than this intrusive, solid-seeming present that thrusts itself between us and our true home. That is a sure saying. The Christian obligation to live a life of detachment, even while diligent in duty, is not to be brushed aside as pulpit rhetoric and exaggeration, but it is the plainest teaching of the New Testament. I wish it was a little more exemplified in the daily life of the people who call themselves Christians.

If I am not living for the unseen and the future, what right have I to say that I am Christ’s at all? If the shadows are more than the substance to me; if this condensed vapour and fog that we call reality has not been to our apprehension thinned away into the unsubstantial mist that it is, what have the principles of Christianity done for us, and what worth is Christ’s word to us? If I believe Him, the world is-I do not say, as the sentimental poet put it, ‘but a fleeting show, for man’s illusion given’;-but as Paul puts it, a glass which may either reveal or obscure the realities beyond; and according as we look at, or look through, ‘the things seen and temporal,’ do we see, or miss, ‘the things unseen and eternal.’ So, then, the life of faith has for its essential characteristic-because it is a life of reliance on Christ’s bare word-that future good is consciously its supreme aim. That will detach us, as it did Hobab, from home and kindred, and make us feel that we are ‘pilgrims and sojourners.’

III. Lastly, our story suggests to us-

The rewards of faith.

‘Come with us,’ says Moses; ‘we are journeying unto the place of which the Lord said, I will give it you. Come thou with us, and we will do thee what goodness the Lord shall do unto us.’ He went, and neither he nor Moses ever saw the land, or at least never set their feet on it. Moses saw it from Pisgah, but probably Hobab did not even get so much as that.

So he had all his tramping through the wilderness, and all his work, for nothing, had he? Had he not better have gone back to Midian, and made use of the present reality, than followed a will-of-the-wisp that led him into a bog, if he got none of the good that he set out expecting to get? Then, did he make a mistake? Would he have been a wiser man if he had stuck to his first refusal? Surely not. It seems to me that the very fact of this great promise being given to this old-dare I call Hobab a ‘saint’? -to this old saint, and never being fulfilled at all in this world, compels us to believe that there was some gleam of hope, and of certainty, of a future life, even in these earliest days of dim and partial revelation.

To me it is very illuminative, and very beautiful, that the dying Jacob bursts in his song into a sudden exclamation, ‘I have waited for Thy salvation, O Lord!’ It is as if he had felt that all his life long he had been looking for what had never come, and that it could not be that God was going to let him go down to the grave and never grasp the good that he had been waiting for all his days. We may apply substantially the same thoughts to Hobab, and to all his like, and may turn them to our own use, and argue that the imperfections of the consequences of our faith here on earth are themselves evidences of a future, where all that Christ has said shall be more than fulfilled, and no man will be able to say, ‘Thou didst send me out, deluding me with promises which have all gone to water and have failed.’

Hobab dying there in the desert had made the right choice, and if we will trust ourselves to Christ and His faithful word, and, trusting to Him, will feel that we are detached from the present and that it is but as the shadow of a cloud, whatever there may be wanting in the results of our faith here on earth, there will be nothing wanting in its results at the last. Hobab did not regret his venture, and no man ever ventures his faith on Christ and is disappointed. ‘He that believeth shall not be confounded.’


Verse 35-36

Numbers

THE HALLOWING OF WORK AND OF REST

Numbers 10:35 - Numbers 10:36.

The picture suggested by this text is a very striking and vivid one. We see the bustle of the morning’s breaking up of the encampment of Israel. The pillar of cloud, which had lain diffused and motionless over the Tabernacle, gathers itself together into an upright shaft, and moves, a dark blot against the glittering blue sky, the sunshine masking its central fire, to the front of the encampment. Then the priests take up the ark, the symbol of the divine Presence, and fall into place behind the guiding pillar. Then come the stir of the ordering of the ranks, and a moment’s pause, during which the leader lifts his voice-’Rise, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’ Then, with braced resolve and confident hearts, the tribes set forward on the day’s march.

Long after those desert days a psalmist laid hold of the old prayer and offered it, as not antiquated yet by the thousand years that had intervened. ‘Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered,’ prayed one of the later psalmists; ‘let them that hate Him flee before Him.’ We, too, in circumstances so different, may take up the immortal though ancient words, on which no dimming rust of antiquity has encrusted itself, and may, at the beginnings and the endings of all our efforts and of each of our days, and at the beginning and ending of life itself, offer this old prayer-the prayer which asked for a divine presence in the incipiency of our efforts, and the prayer which asked for a divine presence in the completion of our work and in the rest that remaineth.

I. So, then, if we put these two petitions together, I think we shall see in them first, a pattern of that realisation of, and aspiration after, the divine Presence, which ought to fill all our lives.

‘Rise, Lord, let Thine enemies be scattered.’

But was not that moving pillar the token that God had risen? And was not the psalmist who reiterated Moses’ prayer asking for what had been done before he asked it? Was not the ark the symbol of the divine Presence, and was not its movement after the pillar a pledge to the whole host of Israel that the petition which they were offering, through their leader’s lips, was granted ere it was offered? Yes. And yet the present God would not manifest His Presence except in response to the desire of His servants; and just because the ark was the symbol, and that moving column was the guarantee of God’s being with the host as their defence, therefore there rose up with confidence this prayer, ‘Rise, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered.’

That twofold attitude, the realisation of, and therefore the aspiration after, the divine gifts, which are given before they are desired, but are not appropriated and brought into operation in our lives unless they are desired, is precisely the paradox of the Christian life. Having, we long for, and longing, we have, and because we possess God we pray, ‘Oh! that we might possess Thee.’ The more we long, the more we receive. But unless He gave Himself in anticipation of our longing, there would be neither longing nor reception. Only on condition of our desiring to have Him does He flow into our lives, victorious and strength-giving, and the more we experience that omnipotent might and calming, guiding nearness, the more assuredly we shall long for it.

Let us then, dear brethren, blend these two things together, for indeed they are inseparable one from the other, and there can be no real experience in any depth of the one of them without the other. Blessed be God! there need be no long interval of waiting between sowing the seed of supplication and reaping the harvest of fruition. That process of growth and reaping goes on with instantaneous rapidity. ‘Before they call I will answer,’ for pillar and ark were there ere Moses opened his lips; and ‘while they are yet speaking I will hear,’ for, in response to the cry, the host moved triumphantly, guarded through the wilderness. So it may be, and ought to be, with each of us.

In like manner, coupling these two petitions together, and taking them as unitedly covering the whole field of life in their great antitheses of work and rest, effort and accomplishment, beginning and ending, morning and evening, we may say that here is an example, to be appropriated in our own lives, of that continuous longing and realisation which will encircle all life as with a golden ring, and make every part of it uniform and blessed. To begin, continue, and end with God is the secret of joyful beginning, of patient continuance, and of triumphant ending. There is no reason in heaven, though there are hosts of excuses on earth, why there should not be, in the case of each of us, an absolutely continuous and uninterrupted sense of being with God. O brethren! that is a stage of Christian experience high above the one on which most of us stand. But that is our fault, and not the necessity of our condition. Let us lay this to heart, that it is possible to have the pillar always guiding our march, and possible to have it stretching, calm and motionless, over all our hours of rest.

II. Now, if, turning from the lessons to be drawn from these two petitions, taken in conjunction, we look at them separately, we may say that we have here an example of the spirit in which we should set ourselves, day by day, and at each new epoch and beginning, be it greater or smaller, to every task.

There are truths that underlie that first prayer, ‘Rise up, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered,’ which are of perennial validity, and apply to us as truly as to these warriors of God in the wilderness long centuries ago. The first of them is that the divine Presence is the source of all energy, and of successful endeavour after, and accomplishment of, any duty. The second of them is that that presence is, as I have been saying, granted, in its operative power, only on condition of its being sought. And the third of them is that I have a right to identify my enemies with God’s only on condition that I have made His cause mine. When Moses prayed, ‘Let Thine enemies be scattered,’ he meant by these the hostile nomad tribes that might ring Israel round, and come down like a sandstorm upon them at any moment. What right had he to suppose that the people whose lances and swords threatened the motley host that he was leading through the wilderness were God’s enemies? Only this right, that his host had consented to be God’s soldiers, and that they having thus made His enemies theirs, He, on His part, was sure to make their enemies His. We are often tempted to identify our foes with God’s, without having taken the preliminary step of having so yielded ourselves to be His servants and instruments for carrying forward His will, as that our own wills have become a vanishing quantity, or rather have been ennobled and greatened in proportion as they have been moulded in submission to His. We must take God’s cause for ours, in all the various aspects of that phrase. And that means, first of all, that we make our own perfecting into the likeness of Jesus Christ the main aim of our own lives and efforts. It means, further, the putting ourselves bravely and manfully on the side of right and truth and justice, in all their forms. Above all, it means that we give ourselves to be God’s instruments in carrying on His great purposes for the salvation of the world through Jesus Christ. If we do these things, whatever obstacles may arise in our paths, we may be sure that these are God’s antagonists, because they are antagonists to God’s work in and by us.

Only in so far as they are such, can you pray, ‘Let them flee before Thee!’ Many of the things that we call our enemies come to us disguised, and are mistaken by our superficial sight, and we do not know that they are friends. ‘All things work together for good to them that love God.’ And, when we desire His Presence, the hindrances to doing His will-which are the only real enemies that we have to fight-will melt away before His power, ‘as wax melteth’ before the ardours of the fire; and, for the rest, the distresses, the difficulties, the sorrows, and all the other things that we so often think are our foes, we shall find out to have been our friends. Make God’s cause yours, and He will make your cause His.

That applies to the great things of life, and to the little things. I begin my day’s work some morning, perhaps wearied, perhaps annoyed with a multiplicity of trifles which seem too small to bring great principles to bear upon them. But do you not think there would be a strange change wrought in the petty annoyances of every day, and in the small trifles of which all our lives, of whatever texture they are, must largely be composed, if we began each day and each task with that old prayer, ‘Rise, Lord, and let Thine enemies be scattered’? Do you not think there would come a quiet into our hearts, and a victorious peace to which we are too much strangers? If we carried the assurance that there is One that fights for us, into the trifles as well as into the sore struggles of our lives, we should have peace and victory. Most of us will not have many large occasions of trial and conflict in our career; and, if God’s fighting for us is not available in regard to the small annoyances of home and daily life, I know not for what it is available. ‘Many littles make a mickle,’ and there are more deaths in skirmishes than in the field of a pitched battle. More Christian people lose their hold of God, their sense of His presence, and are beaten accordingly, by reason of the little enemies that come down on them, like a cloud of gnats in a summer evening, than are defeated by the shock of a great assault or a great temptation, which calls out their strength, and sends them to their knees to ask for help from God.

So we may learn from this prayer the spirit of expectance of victory which is not presumption, and of consecration, which alone will enable us to pass through life victorious. ‘Be of good cheer,’ said the Master, as if in answer to this prayer in its Christian form-’I have overcome the world.’ We turn to the helmed and sworded Figure that stands mysteriously beside us whilst we are all unaware of His coming, and the swift question that Joshua put rises to our lips, ‘Art Thou for us or for our adversaries?’ The reply comes, ‘Nay! but as Captain of the Lord’s host am I come up.’ That is Christ’s answer to the prayer, ‘Rise, Lord, let Thine enemies be scattered.’

III. Lastly, we have here a pattern of the temper for hours of repose.

‘When the ark rested, he said, "Return, O Lord, unto the many thousands of Israel."‘ As I said at the beginning of these remarks, the pillar of cloud seems to have taken two forms, braced together upright when it moved, diffused and stretched as a shelter and a covering over the host of Israel when it and they were at rest. In like manner, that divine Presence is Protean in its forms, and takes all shapes, according to the moment’s necessities of the Christian trusting heart. When we are to brace ourselves for the march it condenses itself into an upright and moving guide. When we lay ourselves down with relaxed muscles for repose, it softly expands itself and ‘covers our head’ in the hours of rest, ‘as in the day of battle.’

Ah! brother, we have more need of God in times of repose than in times of effort. It is harder to realise His Presence in the brief hours of relaxation than even in the many hours of strenuous toil. Every one who goes for a holiday knows that. You have only to look at the sort of amusements that most people fly to when they have not anything to do, to see that there is quite as much, if not more, peril to communion of soul with God in times when the whole nature is somewhat relaxed, and the strings are loosened, like those of a violin screwed down a turn or two of the peg, than there is in times of work.

So let us take special care of our hours of repose, and be quite sure that they are so spent as that we can ask when the day’s work is done, and we have come to slippered ease, in preparation for nightly rest, ‘Return, O Lord, unto Thy waiting servant.’ Work without God unfits for rest with Him. Rest without God unfits for work for Him.

We may take these two petitions as tests of the allowableness of any occupation, or of any relaxation. Dare I ask Him to come with me into that field of work? If I dare not, it is no place for me. Dare I ask Him to come with me into this other chamber of rest? If I dare not, I had better never cross its threshold. Take these two prayers, and where you cannot pray them, do not risk yourself.

But the highest form of the contrast between the two waits still to be realised. For life as a whole is a fight, and beyond it there is the ‘rest that remaineth,’ where there will be not merely God’s ‘return unto the thousands of Israel,’ but the realisation of His fuller presence, and of deeper rest, which shall be wondrously associated with more intense work, though in that work there will be no conflict. The two petitions will flow together then, for whilst we labour we shall rest; and whilst we rest we shall labour, according to the great sayings, ‘they rest from their labours,’ and yet ‘they rest not day nor night.’

 


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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Numbers 10:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/numbers-10.html.

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