W. Hay M. H. (William Hay Macdowall Hunter) Aitken.

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concerning you ; and by-and-by, when the march through the
desert is ended, the song of anticipation shall become the song
of celebration : "And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled
with fire : and them that had gotten the victory . . . stand on
the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the
song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb,
saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty;
just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints."

" Thou dost conduct Thy people
Through torrents of temptation :

Nor will we fear

While Thou art near
The fire of tribulation.
The world with sin and Satan
In vain our march opposes ;

By Thee we shall

Break through them all,
And sing the song of Moses.

" By faith we see the glory
To which Thou shall restore us.

The world despise

For that high prize
Which Thou hast set before us.
And if Thou count us worthy,
We each, with dying Stephen,

Shall see Thee stand

At God's right hand
To call us up to heaven."

Clje Disappointments of flMjelief.

" Wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto
this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of
pomegranates ; neither is there any water to drink." Numbers xx. 5.

WHAT a contrast between the joyous outburst of tri-
umphant anticipation that sounded forth, as we saw
in our last sermon, on the shore of the Red Sea, and these
mournful utterances of bitter disappointment and cruel morti-
fication ! There are no " loud timbrels " now, no voice of
joyful song, no dances of the virgins of Israel, no antiphonal
responses of enthusiastic warriors. The only music now is the
mournful wail of regret ; the only refrain the repining murmurs
of mingled despondency and resentment.

As if to give point to the contrast, this chapter commences
with the mention of the death of that sweet singer who had
led the damsels of Israel in their songs and dances on the
shore of the Red Sea long years before. Miriam the prophe-
tess had passed away without ever realizing the triumphant
anticipations that had filled her "prophetic soul," without ever
setting foot in the land of promise; and her brother Aaron
was soon to follow her. The story of his death ends the
chapter which opens with the "mention of the death of his

Further, the very place where these sad and impatient
utterances were once again sounding forth was a place of evil
memories and mournful associations. Here it was, some
thirty-seven years before, the congregation had awaited with
eager expectation the return of the spies ; here it was that they
might have entered at on':e on their work of conquest and
acquisition ; and here it was that unbelief had triumphed over
faith, and shut them out of the promised heritage. If there
was one place more than another that it must have cost the
Israelites pain and humiliation to revisit, that place was Kadesh


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

And between these two contrasted scenes the moment of
joyous enthusiasm and of triumphant anticipation in the past,
and the moment of deepest depression and disappointment in
the present well-nigh forty long, weary, tedious years of ap-
parently aimless and fruitless wandering, and a dreary story of
rebellion, and wilfulness, and disobedience running through
them all, relieved only now and then by the record of some
wondrous revelation of divine mercy, or some astonishing
display of divine power.

What shall we say? Was the expectation really too confident?
Had God really disappointed them? Was He to blame for
that they had proved, not His promise, but His " breach of
promise"? Let us pass over a few years, and ask the now
hoary-headed Joshua, ere yet he passes away, whether they
expected too much when they indulged in such confident
anticipations. Listen to his words ; they are a dying man's
testimony : "And, behold, this day I am going the way of all
JKhe earth : and ye know in all your hearts and in all your
souls, that not one thing hath failed of all the good things
which the Lord your God spake concerning you ; all are come
to pass unto you, and not one thing hath failed thereof. . . .
And God hath given you a land for which ye did not labour, and
cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them ; of the vine-
yards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat." With
such a testimony sounding in our ears, we have not much
difficulty in answering these questions. The Israelites were
indeed disappointed, but the disappointment was self-caused.

But now it is time we should turn from them to those whom
they represent only too faithfully the Christian men and
women who begin by " running well," and then who seem to
fall under the blight of a similar disappointment. Alas ! how
many do we meet with who confess in sorrowful and sometimes
in petulant language that their whole lives, after the first few
weeks of their Christian experience, have been miserable failures.
Certainly such Christians do not adorn the doctrine of Christ,
but rather disfigure it, by the witness of their lives. Judged
by the experiences and admissions of these professors, Chris-
tianity itself might well be regarded as weighed in the balances
and found wanting. What is the use of a religion which leaves
its votaries in no better condition, morally speaking, than they
were without it a religion that does not satisfy their legitimate
aspirations, nor answer the proper purposes of religion ? What


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

profit is there in a religion that seems to bring no more enjoy-
ment of God, no more spiritual happiness, no more moral
power, no more capacity for usefulness, than if we possessed
none at all ? Is Christianity itself a failure ? Is the Christian's
hope foredoomed to disappointment ?

These questions are the more easily answered because there
are some, thank God, with whom, as with Joshua of old, the
case is quite otherwise. There are some, even amongst our-
selves, who speak of their own experience of the fulness of the .1
blessing of the gospel with as much of grateful satisfaction
as the good spies displayed in giving their testimony to the
land of promise. There are some who, so far as they have
gone in their career of victory and acquisition, are able to
say, as we have seen that Joshua said at the close of his
wonderful life, " Not one thing hath failed us of all the good
things which the Lord our God spake concerning us." And
this shows that the fault does not lie with Christianity, nor with
the God from whom our holy faith has proceeded. We are not
straitened in Him, but in ourselves; with us, as with the
Israelites, our failures and disappointments are self-caused
they are the product of our own willulness and unbelief.

Now in attempting to gather the lessons of this sorrowful
story of anticipation never fulfilled, and of hopes doomed
to disappointment, let us begin by considering what was God's
purpose in bringing His people into the wilderness, and in
keeping them there for a season; for it is just as clear that it
was the will of God that they should tarry there for a time, as
that it was not the will of God that they should spend their
lives, as most of them actually did, in wandering aimlessly
from place to place in these barren and desolate regions. The*,
passage through the wilderness, and the exposure of the/
children of Israel to these peculiar conditions of trial, was all^"
part of God's gracious plan concerning them ; and from this( ' __
we may learn to explain much that would otherwise be per-
plexing in the early experiences of young Christians, who, like/
their Master, after the first great blessing, find themselves led';
up into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.

We are taught something about these purposes of God long
after the event, when Moses was reviewing the marvellous
history in the book of Deuteronomy; and here I would remark
in passing, that it is always very much easier to see the reason
of things when we look back than when we either look for-
a. 81 s

The Disappointments of Unbelief.

wards to, or are actually in the midst of, the circumstances that
need to be explained. And this should teach us patience, and
dispose us to trust in the superior wisdom of the " Divinity
who shapes our ends rough hew them how we may." How
different all the circumstances and conditions of life will seem
when we come to look back upon them by-and-by in the clear
light of Eternity, from the appearance that they bear now.
Still the Master has to say to us, as He said to His too self-
confident disciple of old, " That which I do thou knowest not
now, but thou shalt know hereafter." And we have to learn
to say with David, " Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the
great waters, and thy footsteps are not known ; but thou
leadest thy people like a flock, by the hand of" a Greater than
" Moses and Aaron."

Well, here then is Moses' statement of the purposes of the
sojourn in the wilderness. You will find it in Deut. viii. 2, 3 :
" Thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God
led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee,
and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether
thou wouldest keep His commandments, or no. And He
humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with
manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know ;
that He might make thee know that man doth not live by
bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the
mouth of the Lord doth man live."

Here the first great object of the sojourn in the wilderness
is described in the words, "to humble thee." Yes, Israel
needed to be humbled, although it might have been supposed
that boasting would have been excluded by the very character
and circumstances of their deliverance, and the helplessness of
their condition as they started on their wilderness journey.
They had done nothing to compass their own salvation ; they
had performed no single deed of prowess. Their own reason
told them that they were utterly helpless and dependent. Yet so
subtle a thing is pride, that it creeps in even where you would
think there was nothing to encourage it, it finds an argument in
the very effects of free and unmerited grace ; and it feeds on
that divine bounty which you might have thought would have
been most unpalatable to it.

But yesterday these Israelites were slaves, now they were
free men ; yesterday they were without any national existence,
now they are a promising and powerful commonwealth; yes-


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

terday they were a herd of panic-stricken fugitives, and now
they are the wonder and the terror of all beholders. It is
easy to see how a form of pride, not less perilous because
it was unreasonable, might spring out of the very thought
of the contrast thus presented between the past and the
present ; and had they been led straight into Canaan, and
launched upon a career of conquest in which they themselves
should have borne a part, who shall say to what an extent this
pride of heart might have been developed, and how disastrous
an effect it might have induced upon their subsequent history ?
They must learn in experience what they already know in
theory, that they are in themselves just as helpless now as
when they were slaves in Egypt, and they can best be taught
this by a sojourn in the great and terrible wilderness, where
they are necessarily dependent upon God for everything.

Is it not just so with us? The conditions of justification
have been so ordered of God as that boasting shall be ex-
cluded. "We have sold ourselves for naught, and we have
been redeemed without money ; " yet even out of this humilia-
ting process pride will seek to gather food for itself ; and if we
were to become at once possessed in conscious enjoyment of
all that is by redemption ours, who shall say how high our
vanity might rise ? So we have to learn in our own experience
our own utter helplessness and incapacity before the Lord can
use us, and make us mighty to pull down the strongholds of
evil without and within. We have to learn that we, in our-
selves, apart from divine grace and the indwelling Christ, are
just what we were before our conversion, as impotent and
worthless as ever. Nothing but the presence of His grace
within and the provisions of His care without make us to differ
from those who still are slaves. The new life that we live we
only live by faith in Him. And we learn this lesson best in
the wilderness, which is, as I may say, the elementary school
of Christ, where certain primary lessons have to be learned ere
we can proceed to " go on to perfection."

The Wilderness, lying as it did between Egypt and Canaan,
would seem to represent in type those earlier and intermediate
conditions of spiritual experience, in which the justified soul
begins to find out how much it has lost by turning the
back upon the world and sin, ere yet it begins to appre-
hend, with any degree of fulness, how much it has gained
in Christ. It is that condition in which negation seems to


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

preponderate over acquisition, and longing, yearning desire to
be much more common than any sense of inward gratification.
" Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them." It is
that condition of experience in which we are almost over-
whelmed with a sense of helplessness and need, while we have
only very imperfectly begun to apprehend the completeness of
the divine supply. It is that condition of experience in which
all seems changeful and unsettled a Marah to-day, an Elim
to-morrow ; quails in abundance at one time, not even a drop
of water at another. I dare say many of you know what I
mean ; you are familiar perhaps in your own spiritual life with
such strange vicissitudes between satisfaction and want, enjoy-
ment and depression. It is that condition of experience in
which we are peculiarly disposed to think a great deal of our
feelings, and often seem to find very few pleasant feelings to
think about. The fruits of the Spirit may be in course of
production, but we do not seem to find many indications of
their presence ; we seem rather to sow in tears than to reap in
joy. It is that condition of experience in which our hearts are
ready to faint within us at the thought of all the difficulties and
dangers of the way, and in which we seem to be rescued, and
supported, and helped through by a series of Divine interven-
tions, manifested in response to the cry of our anguish I had
almost said our despair rather than by any fixed law of the
Divine operation with which our faith has become acquainted.

Look at Joshua struggling with the Amalekites, and then look
at the same Joshua triumphing over the four kings, and you
will see the full force of the contrast between wilderness ex-
periences and the life in the Land of Fulfilled Promises, In the
one case you see Amalek commencing the attack, and then
follows a terrible conflict, the tide of battle flowing now one
way, and now the other, until a looker-on might have regarded
the issue as most uncertain. You see upon the mountain-top
Moses supported by his two friends in an agony of prayer, and
only by this mighty effort of supplication is the victory at last
obtained. And even when it is obtained it leaves Amalek
still strong ; the work of crushing him is not completed till
centuries later.

In the other case you see the allied forces of the foe boldly
attacked by the confident Israelites, no thought of defeat, even
for a moment, crossing their minds. We contemplate the night
march, the onslaught in the early dawn of morning, the panic

The Disappointments of Unbelief.

of the vast host, the promiscuous flight, the prolonged pursuit,
the shower of deadly hailstones, the challenge of Joshua to
sun and moon, the slaughter of the kings, the occupation of
their cities. This is the sort of warfare that one expects from
the hosts of the Lord, but they were not fit for such expe-
riences when first they left Egypt. No, they had to be humbled
first, and we have to learn this lesson too. Let us thank God
for conflicts that show us how weak we are, and wilderness
experiences which show us how utterly dependent we are for

The next object of the life in the wilderness may be ^
described as the establishment of law. In the history of
other communities, the local habitation is first occupied, and /
then the political constitution begins to take shape, and not-f-
till then does the national law gradually begin to develop '
itself. But when God undertakes to prepare a nation for
Himself, He gives them a law before He gives them a home,
so that when they enter upon their heritage they may be pre-
pared to hold it as for Him and to keep it undefiled. And
they must not only have a law given, but they must be tested
,' as to their willingness to obey. They must, at any rate, learn )
to assume the attitude of obedience before they can be trusted '
\ in Canaan.

So Moses goes on to say in this passage that this wilderness
experience was permitted "to prove thee, to know what was
in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep His commandments,
or no." Alas ! how little did these triumphant singers know
what was in their heart ! If some one had dared to prophecy
to them, Before many hours have gone you will all be murmur-
ing at Marah ; in a few weeks you will be wishing yourselves
back in Egypt at Rephidim ; in some four months you will be
worshipping a calf in Horeb, and bowing before a graven image;
in less than a year you will be threatening to stone those who
dare to say that these present triumphant anticipations of yours
may then and there be fulfilled, and that Israel is able to take
possession of the promised land who would have listened for -4
a moment to such a prophet of ills ? Yet all this was in their '
hearts, though they knew it not ; and who shall say what is in

One thing is certain, if the law of God is not graven there,
the law of self-will is ; and how needful then it is, ere we enter
upon the enjoyments of our Canaan, that we should be brought


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

face to face with the claims of God upon our obedience, and
the question, Are we going to accept His will as the new law
within, or are we going to assert our own ? It is true that we
have to do with the perfect law of liberty, and that this has to
be written within, not exhibited as engraven on a table of stone
without j still, the regal claims of Christ upon our hearts and
lives have to be pressed upon our recognition, and we have to
be tested as to whether we are ready to submit and to obey ;
for until we have learnt what the new love-law is, and until
something like an attitude of obedience is honestly assumed,
our very Canaan would be in danger of becoming a Babylon
to us, and our very religion the parent of a little Antichrist.

Obedience the habit of obedience, that is to say can of
course be fully learned only in a lifetime ; it is a lesson that we
are ever to go on learning ; it is a lesson that Jesus Christ in
His Manhood had to learn ; but it is something, and indeed it
is no small matter, to have abandoned the attitude of defiance
or the habit of resistance, and to have made a full submission
of ourselves to God. We are then in a position to be trained
in obedience, and to learn how to fulfil His good pleasure ;
but until this full surrender is honestly made, the habit of
obedience can never be formed.

The third object of the wilderness life specified by Moses in
this passage was the inculcation of faith. This was the great
positive lesson that they had to learn, as humility was the
negative. They were not only to become practically con-
vinced of their own weakness and insufficiency, but also to be
fully_persuaded of His power and of the boundless extent of
God's resources. They were to learn that "man doth not live
by bread only, but by_ey^ryjvqrd that proceedeth out of the
mouth of God." Their raiment was not to wax old, nor their
foot to swell ; they were to drink water out of the stony rock,
or to dig wells with their staves in the burning sand ; they
were to fight battles by prayer, and to take journeys guided by
a pillar of cloud ; and thus, in all the details of their daily
life, they^ were to be educated and trained to trust.

And such is the lesson that we too have to learn ere we can
rise to the true level of our Christian privileges. It is not
enough to be unclothed; we need to be clothed upon. Not
enough that we should be humbled and stripped of all kind of
confidence in ourselves. We need not only to be justified by
faith, but to live by the faith of the justified. We have to learn


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

by experience the great lesson of trust; and instead of
depending upon anything external, or even upon spiritual ex-
periences, \ve have to learn to live "by every word that
proceeded! out of the mouth of God." To move forward
with a divine uncarefulness, trusting the future, as the past, to
an unchanging love ; to face dangers without fear, and difficul-
ties without misgiving ; to march without asking where, and
expect supplies without asking whence this is to show that
we have learnt the great lesson that wilderness experiences are
specially designed to teach.

Humility, obedience, faith these are to Christian experi-
ence what the famous " three R's " are to modern elementary
education. We need to be well grounded in these before we
can go on to enjoy the Christian's Canaan the land of ful-
filled promise. And as these same "three R's" are seldom
learned without tears, so these fundamental lessons of the
wilderness are not for the most part learned without the appli-
cation of more or less of that gentle, fatherly discipline,
without which we might believe ourselves to be bastards, and
not sons. So Moses goes on to remind his hearers that "as a
man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee."
The wilderness is not a pleasant place even to pass through,
much less to dwell in, and the conditions of existence in such
a place are sufficiently trying, but these elementary lessons
are more readily learnt there than elsewhere ; for the wilder-
ness itself, with all its terrible and depressing features, seems
to thrust the necessity of learning them upon our hearts.

We see then that the wilderness had its uses, although these
murmurers were doubtless right in describing it as a very un-
desirable place, and very different from the land flowing with
milk and honey which they had looked forward to ; but let us
ask, How came these Israelites to make such a bad use of that
place of trial; how had it become to them a vast prison a
convict's territory, instead of a school and training ground ?

We must go back a long way for the answer. The joyful
anthems of praise on the shore of the Red Sea had hardly
died away when the first false keynote was sounded, from
which we may say all the miserable discords of the future were
to flow in mournful cadences. They came to Marah, and
they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were
bitter. And the people murmured against Moses, saying,
"What shall we drink?" Oh, why did they murmur? Had


The Disappointments of Unbelief.

they already forgotten the miracle of their deliverance ? Why
didn't they trust instead of murmuring? and then the first
trial might have proved, as it was doubtless intended to be, a
first victory. But, alas ! their confidence in God seems to
have been very short-lived, and soon to have given place to a
rooted mistrust, which remained, ever ready to break out in
fresh murmurings and repinings at each new trial.

Thus we see how they contrived by their petulance and

unbelief (to use the startling and terrible words of the prophet

r Malachi) to curse their blessings. Each fresh intervention

I of divine love and power on their behalf, instead of drawing

them nearer to the Lord, seems to produce a fresh estrange-

;ment. They murmured at Marah, and the Lord by miracle

TrTacTe the bitter water sweet; but the bitter taste of their own

murmuring spirit remained long after the waters had been

healed. They murmured for food in the wilderness of Sin,

and the Lord sent them Manna; but the voice of solemn

warning against their untoward ways sounded even more sternly

than before, while they were informed of the provision that

God was about to make. They gained the outward good, but

they lost the inward blessing.

They murmured at Rephidim, and the Lord sent them

Online LibraryW. Hay M. H. (William Hay Macdowall Hunter) AitkenThe highway of holiness; helps to the spiritual life → online text (page 9 of 26)