Reading #31

I love this message. There’s so much to appreciate here.

Excerpt here cannot capture the whole message but only some parts of it:

“Hold fast the form of sound words,” said Paul, “which thou hast heard of me;” or, as I remember to have said before, while the form of religion is not power, yet unless the form be carefully observed, it is not easy to maintain the power. It is like an egg-shell enclosing the egg; there is no life in the shell, but you must take care you do not crack it, or else you may destroy the life within. The ordinances and doctrines of our faith are only the shell of religion—they are not the life; but we must take care that we do not hurt so much as the outward shell, for if we do, we may endanger the life within; though that may manage to live, it must be weakened by any injury done to the outward form thereof.

And as the form must not be altered, so it must not be despised. These Philistines despised the ark. They took it and set it in their idol temple, and the result was that their idol god, Dagon, was broken in pieces. They then sent it through their cities, and they were smitten with emerods. And then, being afraid to put it within walls, they set it in the open country, and they were invaded with mice, so that everything was eaten up. God would not have any dishonour put even upon the outward form of his religion; he would have men reverently take care that they did no dishonour even to his ark; it might be nothing but gopher-wood, but because, between the wings of those cherubim God had dwelt, the ark was to be held sacred, and God would not have it dishonoured. Take care, ye that despise God, lest ye despise his outward ordinances. To laugh at the Sabbath, to despise the ordinances of God’s House, to neglect the means of grace, to call the outward form of religion a vain thing—all this is highly offensive in the sight of God. He will have us remember that while the form is not the life, yet the form is to be respected for the sake of the life which it contains; the body is to be venerated for the sake of the inward soul; and as I would have no man maim my body, even though in maiming it he might not be able to wound my soul, so God would have no man maim the outward parts of religion, although it is true no man can touch the real vitality of it.

Yet one more remark, and that a very solemn one. As the outward form is neither to be altered nor despised, so neither is it to be intruded upon by unworthy persons. You remember that this ark of the covenant, after it was brought back from the land of the Philistines, was set in the field of Joshua the Bethshemite, and the Bethshemites took off the lid, and looked into the ark of the Lord, and, for this, the Lord “smote of that people fifty-thousand and three-score and ten men; and the people lamented because the Lord had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.” These Bethshemites had no intention whatever of dishonouring the ark. They had a vain curiosity to look within, and the sight of those marvellous tables of stone struck them with death; for the law, when it is not covered by the mercy-seat, is death to any man, and it was death to them. Now, you will easily remember how very solemn a penalty is attached to any man’s intruding into the outward form of religion when he is not called to do so. Let me quote this awful passage: “He” (speaking of the Lord’s Supper) “that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” How frightful an announcement is that! A curse is pronounced upon the man who dares to touch even the outward form of religion, unless he hath the power of it; and we know there is nothing which excites God’s holy anger more swiftly than a man’s attending to the ordinances of his house and making an outward profession of being in Christ, while he has no part nor lot in the matter. Oh, take heed. The outward ordinances of Christ are not the vitality of religion, but nevertheless they are so solemnly important, that we must neither alter nor despise them, nor rush into them without being invited; for if we do so, the curse of God must light upon us for having despised the holy thing of the Most High God of Israel.

And now, before I close this first head, let me remark, that the outward things of God are to be diligently cared for and loved. We have in our reading had two instances of that. There was holy Eli: he knew very well that the ark of God was not God; he understood that it was but the outward sign of the inward and spiritual; yet when the ark of God was taken, mark the poor old man’s trouble: his heart broke, and then he fell down and broke his neck. Then there was that nameless woman. Her husband was the priest who attended to this very ark, but he was a man whose character I cannot describe better than by saying that he was a son of Belial. It is hard for a woman to believe religion if she has a minister for a husband who is profane and wicked. This woman’s husband not only committed wrongs against God, but against her. He was a filthy and unclean person, who polluted the very courts of the Lord’s house with his fornications; and yet she had such faith in her God, that she knew how to love the religion which her husband, by his awful character, brought into disrepute. She knew how to distinguish between the man and his duty, between the priest and the priesthood, between the officer and the office. I do wonder at her. I am sure there is nothing that staggers our faith like seeing a minister walking inconsistently; but this man was the chief minister, and her own husband, living in known sin, and a sin which came home to her, because he sinned against her. I am sure it was wonderful that she believed at all; but so strong was her faith and attachment to her religion, that though, like Eli, she knew that the ark was not God, that the form was not the inward thing, yet the form itself was so precious to her, that the pangs of child-birth were hurried on prematurely and in the midst of her pain, this still was uppermost—that the ark of the Lord was taken. It was in vain to cheer her with the news that her child was born; it was an idle tale to her, and she rejoiced not in it. She lay in a swoon; but at last, opening her eyes, and remembering that her husband was dead, and that therefore, according to Jewish usage, it was her duty to give the child a name, she faintly opened her lips before she died, and said, “Call his name Inglorious (Ichabod) for the glory is departed;” and then she added this reason for it: she did not say, “because my husband is dead,” though she loved him; she did not say, “because my father-in-law, Eli, is dead” or “because my nation has been defeated,” but she added that all-significant reason, “because the ark of the Lord was taken;” and she died. Oh, I would to God that we all loved God’s house, and loved the ways of God, and the ordinances of God as much as she did. While we attach no superstitious importance to the outward ceremony, I wish we thought as much of holy things, because of the Holy One of Israel. as did Eli, and this nameless, but noble woman.

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