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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

Barzillai

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BARZILLAI, to put it all into one word, was an aged, venerable, hospitable Highland chief. Barzillai, by this time, was eighty years of age, and he was as full of truth, and courage, and goodwill, and generosity as he was full of years. From within the walls of his lofty keep in far-off Gilead, Barzillai had watched the ways of God with His people Israel in the south country all through the days of Eli, and Samuel, and Saul, and David, and Joah, and Jonathan, and Mephibosheth, and Absalom, and his humble heart and his hospitable house had always been open to the oppressed, and to the persecuted, and to the poor. And thus it was that when David fled from Jerusalem to escape from Absalom, and when David made his final stand at Mahanaim, Barzillai lost no time in coming down to David's assistance. The sacred writer is at particular pains to tell us the whole of that truly Highland hospitality with which Barzillai replenished the king's camp at Mahanaim. Beds, we read, and basons, and earthen vessels, and wheat, and barley, and flour, and parched corn, and beans, and lentils, and parched pulse, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine for David, and for his people that were with him. For Barzillai said, The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty in the wilderness. Then come the two chapters about the successful battle; after which, when David sets out to return to Jerusalem, the sacred writer takes up the noble name of Barzillai again in this fine passage: 'And Barzillai the Gileadite came down from Rogelim, and went over Jordan with the king, to conduct him over Jordan, And the king said to Barzillai, Come thou over with me, and I will feed thee with me in Jerusalem, And Barzillai said unto the king, How long have I to live that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? I am this day fourscore years old, and can I discern between good and evil? Can thy servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women? Wherefore, then, should thy servant be yet a burden to my lord the king? Thy servant will go a little way over the Jordan with the king; and why should the king recompense it me with such a reward? Let thy servant, I pray thee, turn back again, that I may die in mine own city, and be buried by the grave of my father and my mother. And when the king was come over the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him; and Barzillai returned to his own place.' A beautiful old man, and a beautiful incident in a far from beautiful time.

Now, to begin with, Barzillai was a true Highlander in his splendid loyalty to David in his distress. Many men who had sat at David's royal table, and who had held their lands at David's royal liberality; many such men hedged and held back till they should see whether David's sun was to set, never to rise again, or not. Where is thy master? said David to Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth. But Barzillai was not Mephibosheth. There was no lameness in Barzillai's allegiance to David. Barzillai did not wait to see how the wind would blow. The old hero took his ancient tower, and his great estate, and his own future, and the future of his family all in his hand that day. And, had Absalom succeeded, Barzillai would have been an outlawed and a sequestered man; and all the omens, to those who went by omens, looked that way that day. But Barzillai had steered all his eighty years by the fixed stars of truth, and righteousness, and duty, and loyalty, and he would steer by the same sure stars to the end. Even had David's cause been as bad as it was good, Barzillai's loyalty would have been noble to contemplate. Wrong-headed and short-sighted as was our own Highland loyalty to the Stuart House, there was not a little that was noble and brave and beautiful in it. It was a mad project to think to solder the crown of Charles Stuart to the crown of Jesus Christ; at the same time, there was a pathos and a poetry in it that still touch our hearts to this day. But Barzillai's loyalty to David was as sane-headed as it was warm-hearted. It was as far-seeing and as sure-footed as it was warm-hearted and open-handed. David, on the throne or off the throne; David, in Jerusalem or in Mahanaim, is our divine king, said Barzillai to his household. The God of battles will do as seemeth Him good in this business, but our duty is clear, and it is pressing. Make haste and make up a present for David, and let it be the best. And say to the king that Barzillai, his servant, follows after the present as fast as his fourscore years will let him. Had Barzillai been tempted to hedge at dangers, and to calculate chances, and to weigh likelihoods, and to find excuses, he would not have wanted materials. No doubt David had done not a little to bring this terrible overthrow upon himself. And a cautious man would have considered all that. There are always sufficient reasons why a deliberating and a considering man should stand aloof for a time from a fallen man. But Barzillai had no head for such reserves and calculations. David was David to Barzillai, and as long as Barzillai has a roof over his head and a morsel of meat on his table, David shall not want. David's adversity was only all the more Barzillai's duty and opportunity.

And, every day, we all have Barzillai's duty and opportunity too, if only we have Barzillai's mind and heart. Not that kings and princes lie in want in our neighbourhood every day; but good causes do, and needy and deserving men, and old and distressed friends. There is not a day passes but our boldness, and our courage, and our loyalty, and our fidelity are put to the test. There is not a day that we do not hear some censuring, fault-finding, detracting, and injuring word spoken against an absent friend. And what do we do? Do we let it pass? Do we in our heart of hearts like to hear it? Do we silently, or with a half-uttered consent fall in with it? How seldom do we stand up as we would be stood up for! How seldom do we pluck out the false and spiteful tongue! Let us be men the next time. Let us be Barzillai the next time, if Absalom, and Ahithophel, and Mephibosheth, and all the miserable house of Israel are all arrayed against David. Let them know from Jerusalem to Mahanaim that there is one man in Israel who is a man and is not a dog.

Barzilla's truly Highland courtesy, also, is abundantly conspicuous in the too-short glimpse we get of the lord of Rogelim. For, how he anticipated all David's possible wants! How he put himself into all David's distressed place! How he did to David as David would have done to him! How he came down from his high seat, with all his years on his head, in order with his own hand to conduct the king over Jordan! And, then, with what sweetness of manner and music of speech he excused himself out of all the royal rewards and honours and promotions David had designed and decreed to put upon him!

The service and the loyalty I owe,
In doing, pays itself. Your Highness' part
Is to receive our duties; and our duties
Are to your throne and state children and servants,
Which do but what they should, by doing everything
Safe towards your love and honour.
The rest is labour which is not used for you.

The humility, also, of that Old Testament hero is already our New Testament humility in its depth and sweetness and beauty. A perfect and a finished courtesy has always its roots struck deep down into humility; which humility, again, has its roots struck deep down into the grace of God. In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Yea, all of you be clothed with humility, for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble. Humility and courtesy are the court manners of the kingdom of heaven. A true, a finished, and an unconscious courtesy is the perfected etiquette of the palace and the presence of the great King.

And, then, there can be no doubt about Barzilla's Highland hospitality. Highland hospitality is a proverb of honour among us; and Barzilla's hospitality was the same proverb in the whole after history of Israel. As hospitable as Barzillai of Rogelim, they used to say. A bishop must be like Barzillai of Rogelim, wrote Paul to both Timothy and Titus. One would think that the two asses that stood so laden and waiting for David on the top of the hill had marched straight out of Barzilla's butler's pantry. As, indeed, so they had. For Ziba, who had saddled and so loaded them, had first learned how to saddle and how to load an ass when he lived at Lodebar. He had found out how much charity a strong ass could carry when he and his master lived on charity at Rogelim and Lodebar. A couple of asses saddled as they used to saddle them at Rogelim and Lodebar could carry two hundred loaves of bread, and a hundred bunches of raisins, and a hundred of summer fruits and a bottle of wine. But it is not great lords only like Barzillai of Rogelim and Machir of Lodebar and Shobi of Rabbah who are summoned to show hospitality. No class of men could be poorer than were the bishops of Paul's day, and yet the apostle enjoins Titus and Timothy to ordain no man who is not given to hospitality. And the same apostle reminds the poor Hebrew laity that some men in old times have entertained angels unawares. But the truth is, true Highland hospitality is in the mind and in the heart of the host and hostess. A poor widow's hut will show you Highland hospitality in the way she comes out and offers you a drink of milk or even of water. You cannot tie up the hands of a hospitable heart. Does not Aristotle himself tell us that a munificently-minded man is seen as well in his present of a ball or a top or a picture to a little child as in a temple or a sacrifice or a banquet to a God? And has not a Greater than Aristotle told us that the widow's mite will be extolled for its splendid munificence wherever His munificent gospel is preached? Hospitality and munificence and magnanimity are in the mind and in the heart, and it is the mind and the heart that are accepted and acknowledged of God. 'With what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you'; so our Lord lays down His last-day law. And then Bengel annotates our Lord's law thus: Mensura est cor. The measure is the heart, with its capabilities, desires, anxiety to impart blessings to others, and loving obedience. And thus it is that hospitality, with its present blessedness and its everlasting rewards, is not a matter of wealth or poverty, any more than it is of race or region.

Barzillai's passionate love of his Highland hills and valleys is another fine feature in this ripe old saint. As also his brooding, emotional, melting, Gaelic-like eloquence when he opens his whole heavenly-minded heart to David. Like Moses also in his old age, Barzillai has numbered his days, and has applied his heart to wisdom. Like Paul also, if his outward man must perish, then Barzillai will see to it that his inward man shall not be squandered abroad and lost. No! 'Let the king pardon and discharge his servant,' Barzillai said. 'The king, I fear, forgets how old I am. This is my birthday, and I am fourscore years old today. No; it is not for an old man like me to go up to Jerusalem. My time is past to be eating and drinking as they will eat and drink in Jerusalem when God sends back their king to his people, I would be a burden to myself and to the king's servants. But take my son, if it please thee, and let him see Jerusalem. But as for me, the king will let me return home to die and to be buried beside my father and my mother. I shall need all my time; for I am fourscore years old this day, and how shall I go up with the king to Jerusalem?' Who can help loving the octogenarian Barzillai, with his 'courtesy in conversation,' and when, like Pompey in Plutarch, he 'gave without disdain, and took with great honour'? And the king kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and Barzillai returned to his place at Rogelim.

And in this also the wise and good Barzillai is surely a beautiful lesson to all old men. Barzillai shows us how to take our advancing years. He shows us how to apply our hearts to wisdom as we number our days. He shows us also how, with all willingness, and sweetness, and courtesy, and divine wisdom to leave cities, and feasts, and crowds, and trumpets, and honours, and promotions to younger men, and to apply our whole remaining strength, and our whole remaining time, to end our days as our days should be ended. Barzillai having showed us how to live, shows us also how to die. Barzillai dies the same devout and noble and magnanimous man he has all his days lived. We have not as yet learned to live; and how, then, can we know how to die? We die like a man run down in a race. We die like a man who has not lived half his days. We die while yet this word is in our mouth, Today or tomorrow I will go to such a city, and will buy and sell, and get gain. We die like a fox taken in a trap. We die like a rat poisoned in a hole. But Barzillai died like the heavenly-minded man he had always lived. Barzillai died like our own Highland laird, Fraser of Brea. For Fraser of Brea died still 'laying his pipe' ever closer and closer up and up to the fountain, till the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne led him to the living Fountain itself, and till God wiped all tears from his eyes.


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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Barzillai'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/b/barzillai.html. 1901.

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