The following is the thirteenth sermon in the author's Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament, which a headnote states he delivered at Lincoln's Inn on the third Sunday after Easter, May 11 1851. To permit readers to cite and locate passages in the print edition, page breaks are indicated in the following manner: "347/348." Maurice places all quotations from scripture in italics. In the original text, subtitles or descriptions of it appear in full caps on the right-hand page next to the page number, and I have included them with the page breaks described above; it is not clear if Maurice created these subtitles, or if the publisher added them. [GPL]
"Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and, that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess." — "Lessons for the day, Deuteronomy iv. and v."
HERE are certain popular maxims and phrases respecting the difference between the Old and New Testament which we accept, as if they were parts of holy Scripture, and which affect all our judgments of it. The rewards of the Jewish dispensation, we are told, were temporal; those of the Christian, eternal. The Israelite was taught to respect blessings in the world that is; we are bidden to set our minds upon the world that is to come; prosperity was the sign of God's favour to the chosen nation; adversity is one of the seals of adoption in the Church. If these sayings really expressed the deepest thoughts of those who use them and repeat them; if divines were not compelled again and again to forget them when they are dealing with the facts of the Scriptures, or applying them to the consciences of men; if humble wayfarers when they are in want of [241/242] a guide for their lives, or help in their sorrows, did not continually set them at nought; I should consider it a perilous and rash enterprise to dispute their authority For though they cannot, so far as I know, allege decrees of any church in their favour, and though on the face of them they look as if they interfered with some by which we profess to be bound, there is, no doubt, a sanctity in customary notions which should not be rudely violated. Their currency is evidence that they carry a truth within them, and that truth, — however we may think it has been perverted by the elements with which it is surrounded into a cause of error and unbelief, — should be diligently sought out, and reverently acknowledged, before we dare to reject the opinion in which it is enshrined.
Maurice's emblem on the binding of Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament
I have chosen a passage from the lesson for this afternoon [Deuteronomy iv. and v] which seems to afford a strong justification for the view which is ordinarily taken of the Jewish economy; it is a passage the importance of which can scarcely be overrated: it may help us, I think, to understand better the whole book from which it is taken. The words which close my text, 'That ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess' are likely to fix your attention first as bearing most directly upon this subject. I have no desire to avoid the most literal interpretation of them; any other I should hold to be entirely unsuitable to the context, and to the character of the person who spoke them. But I must defer the consideration of them till I have examined those which precede them, without which they are unintelligible upon any hypothesis, 'Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you.'
I. One of these clauses is commonly said to enjoin [242/243 "God's Highest Blessing to the Jew"] a duty, the other to promise the blessings which those might confidently look for who performed it. Whatever worth there may be in this division, it cannot be considered a satisfactory one by any thoughtful reader of the book of Deuteronomy. Let me recal [sic] to you two or three passages from the chapters which we have read to-day. Take for instance this: 'For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is, in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?' And this again: 'But the Lord hath taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him, a people of inheritance, as ye are this day.' Once more: 'Ask now of the days that are past, which were before thee, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and ask from the one side of heaven unto the other, whether there hath been any such thing as this great thing is, or hath been heard like it? Did ever people hear the voice of God speak out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched-out arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightiest know that the Lord He is God; there is none else beside Him.'
Now what is the effect of all these passages? (and there are hundreds like them; they embody the very spirit of the book.) Do they not declare in the most plain and direct manner that the main, characteristic, fundamental blessing' of the Israelite, consisted in this, that God took [243/244] him into covenant with Himself; that He delivered him out of the hand of human oppressors; that He brought him under His own government; that He revealed to him what manner of Being He was? Would not your natural conclusion be on the first perusal of these passages, — would it not be strengthened by all subsequent reflection upon them, by comparison of one with the other, 'Whatever other advantages the Israelite may have enjoyed, I am taught here that his relation to God, his national position which is grounded upon that, the fact that he was placed under a divine law and made acquainted with its nature, were his great gifts and privileges, to which all others were subordinate?' Is there anything new or surprising in such statements? Could you have doubted, after reading the books of Genesis, and Exodus, and Numbers, that the highest mercy God could confer upon men was to make them conscious of His presence and of His order; that want of belief in that Presence, want of submission to that order, were the curses of human beings, — from which all slavery to men and to natural things, all division, all suffering, proceeded?
We fall then, I conceive, into a very inaccurate method of speech, when we say that the prize which God proposes to His people is set forth in one of these clauses; the duty, or performance by which they are to earn that prize, in the other. Moses teaches his countrymen that God has conferred upon them the highest prize which man can conceive, freely and without any merit on their part. When they were bondsmen of Pharaoh, He claimed them as His servants; when they trembled before the powers of the visible world, He showed them that these powers were His instruments, and that He used them for their good; [244/245 "An Invisible, Eternal Blessing] when they fancied that the Ruler of the world was indifferent to them, or hated them, He proved that He was watching over them and caring for them, even in their meanest condition, though they were not thinking at all of Him; when they supposed that He was capricious, He proved to them the evenness, regularity, equity of His government; when they fancied that He was unmerciful, He declared Himself as the Lord God, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin. Was this knowledge of the living and unseen God nothing in itself, but only valuable in virtue of some results that were to come of it? Moses tells his countrymen that it was everything. This knowledge was the good thing which they had received from the Source of all Good. To hold it fast, was to be a nation ; to lose it, was to sink back into the condition out of which they had been raised, — not by their own might, — and which if they trusted in their own might, would assuredly overtake them again.
Will any one say, brethren, that this was a visible blessing? It was the discovery to them of an invisible Being. Moses said to. them,' Take ye therefore good heed to yourselves; for ye saw no MANNER OF SIMILITUDE in the day when the Lord spake unto you in Horeb.' Or was it a temporal blessing? It was the discovery to them of a Being who is and was and is to come, the same from generation to generation. Surely the word [']temporal' must be the most inappropriate to describe it that we can conceive. If the knowledge of God is eternal life, eternal life was offered to the Israelites. Our Article cannot be too strong in its denunciation of the doctrine that the old fathers looked only for transitory promises. One who could not pass away or change was the ground of all their [245/246] belief, the object of all their hope. They came into a region of transitoriness and change when they forgot Him, or began to draw their notions of Him from the vicissitudes of the world around them and the fluctuations of their own hearts.
II. Is there no duty then enjoined in the words of my text? Does it merely speak of a blessing or a privilege? Certainly when it is said, 'Ye shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God hath commanded you,' it must be meant that there was something required on the part of the creature as well as something bestowed by the Creator. What I wish you to observe is, that we cannot understand what is required unless we understand what is bestowed. If we believe that a way has been made for us, and that we have been put into that way, we can apprehend the force of the precept to walk in it; we can feel what is meant by transgression and revolt. If we believe that an actual living Being to whom we are related has put us in this way, and that it is a way of dependence upon Himself, we can understand how the preservation of it becomes a duty to Him ; we begin in fact to know what duty is. If, finally, we believe that He who puts us in this way is the only person who can keep us in it, or prevent us from going out of it, we may feel that His command is itself a power; that it does not merely say, 'Thus and thus you must do, thus and thus you must not do;' but, 'This will I enable you to do, this will I prevent you from doing.'
The more you read the book of Deuteronomy, the more you will feel that these are the principles upon which all the exhortations of Moses to the Israelites are based. He repeats, as you heard this afternoon, the Ten Commandments [246/247 "Blessings the Ground of Duties"] to the people, — to those Israelites who were born in the wilderness. These commandments begin as they did at first with the words, 'I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.' They are not literal copies of the former precepts; in one instance there is a memorable alteration. The Sabbath is ordained, not as before, because God rested on the Sabbath-day. The Israelite who keeps it is to remember that God had delivered him out of the land of Egypt. Thus the belief of a redemption already effected underlies every institution, every precept, the whole economy. Moreover, the commandments are represented as God's covenant: it is not merely said amidst thunders and lightning and fire, 'Whoso transgresseth shall die.' God out of this thunder and lightning and that fire proclaims that His own will and power shall go forth to hold up the nation and all the members of it in their obedience; that they are people of inheritance to Him, that He will be with them and guide them, and support them by night and day. Accordingly the exhortations and warnings of this book are not directed against the rebellions of a people who are told to do certain acts and who neglect them, or who do acts which are forbidden. They are directed against a people with whom God is in covenant, — who deny that He is among them, who do not trust Him to keep them as He has promised to do, — who think they can do right, and be right without Him; who set up other gods in the place of Him, because they do not like to retain Him in their knowledge; who become the worshippers and servants of visible things, because the presence of an invisible Being is terrible and hateful to them; who [247/248] worship unrighteous and unmerciful beings like themselves because they shrink from the recollection of the righteous and merciful Lord. The effects of such wilfulness are set down in very appalling language, some of which we may consider hereafter; language illustrated and fulfilled in the history of that people, and, as I think, in the history of every nation in the ancient and modern world of which we have any records. And so also the effects of obedience are set down with the like breadth and clearness; these effects being order; prosperity; union among themselves; victory over enemies, — the honor and reputation of a true and understanding people in the sight of nations; all the material blessings which accompany and follow such a state of society.
III. We come then at length to this class of blessings which are shortly gathered up in the words: 'That ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.' It is here signified in very simple, clear language, which admits, I conceive, of no double sense, that a people in a right, orderly, godly state shall be a well-doing people; a people with all the signs and tokens of strength, growth, triumph; a people marked for permanence, and indefinite expansion. I cannot put another meaning upon these words; I should think that a wish to dilute their force was a proof of the greatest carelessness about the authority from which they proceed, as well as of the most shocking inhumanity. If it be the distinction of saints and spiritual men, that they do not trouble themselves about the external prosperity of a land, that they do not care whether the oxen are strong to labour, whether the sheep are bringing forth thousands and ten [248/249 "The Inward and the Outward"] thousands, whether there is no complaining in the streets ; if they are so occupied in the future as to have no interest in the present, too busy with their souls to have leisure for thinking about the ruin which may be threatening the bodies of their fellow-men, — then I say at once Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, were not saints and spiritual men. They had no pretension to the title; every word they have left is a disclaimer of it. They never fancied that the desire that their nation should have all possible outward blessings was a proof of indifference to the unseen Source of these blessings; they considered it an act of homage to Him, — that any other feeling would have been a practical denial of Him. If natural things were not His, if the bodies of men were not His, then it would have been right to put on a contempt of the external world and of all which merely concerned man as an animal. But since they rejected any such notion as idolatrous or atheistic, — since they believed the one Lord, their God, to be the Lord of the whole universe, — they had no choice but either to forget Him altogether, or to see tokens of His wisdom and power in all events whatsoever, whether voluntary or involuntary creatures were the instruments in bringing them to pass. Since they held that God's order was the perfectly right and living order, they could not but think that all disorder, all wrong and death which had invaded it, must have come through man's neglect to fulfil the part which had been assigned him; — through his unwillingness to till and subdue the earth which he was meant to till and subdue; through his idleness and distrust and self-seeking, his refusal to walk in the ways which God had commanded. They knew too well, for [249/250] they felt in themselves, how strong the disposition in all men was to choose a way of their own, and to forget the covenant of God. They could only look up to Him to overcome this tendency, in them and in their countrymen, by whatever discipline or punishment He knew to be needful.
IV. And therefore, brethren, it cannot be true, — the whole history of the Jews declares it not to be true, —that the blessings of adversity were unknown to them, were reserved for a later period. Which of the good men of the Old Testament was not proved in a furnace? Into whose soul did the iron at some time not enter? It was not because they believed in God's promises to their nation, and were sure that its outward prosperity must and would at last correspond to its inward health and vitality, — it was not because they longed for the earth to bring forth and bud, to have heaps of corn upon it, that its presses might burst forth with new wine, — it was not on this account that they had to endure less of inward sadness, or fewer reproaches from the kings and priests and people to whom they spoke. No; the more strong their feeling was that God had chosen their nation and made a covenant with it, the greater was the struggle with their individual selfishness, their desire of great things for themselves; the more need had they of God's fires to purify them. The more they believed that the nation could only be what it was intended to be when it was remembering the covenant of its God, the more had they to reprove those who were living to themselves and glorying in themselves, — not caring for the privilege upon which all the outward blessings of Israel depended, — not caring to know Him who executed righteousness and judgment upon the earth. These reproofs [250/251] "The Religion of Easy Men"] brought, as they were certain to bring, reproaches; shame, persecution upon those who uttered them. No men could be more taught than the Jewish seers were, that punishments are necessary for individuals and nations, and that 'Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.'
I have thought it necessary to examine these often-repeated dogmas respecting Old Testament history, — because they seem to me to have just the same effect in hindering the right and manly investigation of it, as the idols which Bacon denounced and overthrew, in hindering the fair investigation of nature. But I have felt even more anxious to discuss them upon another ground, because, if I am not mistaken, they are as hurtful to the rightful understanding of the New Testament as of the Old. They prevent us from seeing the difference which does exist between them, by inventing one which does not exist; and they both indicate and foster tendencies, which in our day I fear are ripening and are bringing forth very evil fruits.
For it is surely a perilous and an almost fatal notion, that Christian men have less to do with the present than the Jews had, that their minds and their religion are to be projected into a region after death, because there only the Divine Presence is dwelling. Is it possible that this is what the writers of the New Testament meant when they proclaimed that the Son of God had taken flesh and become man, and that thenceforth the Lord God would dwell with men and walk with them, and that they should be His children and He would be their Father? Do such words import, that the world in which God has placed us has lost some of the sacredness which it had before; that the visible has become hopelessly separated from the invisible; that earth and heaven are not as much united as they were [251/252] when Jacob was travelling to the land of the people of the east: that now earth is merely a forlorn place, in which men are forced to stay a certain number of years, engaged in a number of occupations with which Heaven has nothing to do, while yet it is held that the preparation for Heaven is the great business of those who dwell here? Surely there must be terrible contradiction in such language, a contradiction which cannot fail to exhibit itself in oar practice, to introduce unreality, insincerity, heartlessness into every part of it.
This unreality, insincerity, heartlessness, may remain hidden for a time, though its mischiefs will be at work. There may be a sort of compromise and understanding in the upper and middle classes of society, that certain persons shall have religious tastes and indulge them, while the majority shall be given up to their farms and merchandise. The hollowness of the arrangement will often come to light; it will divide those who feel and know that they ought to be at one; family obligations, family affections will break it down, or will be destroyed by it; at length those whose consciences tell them that they must work in the world feel themselves excommunicated, and act as if they were; while those whose minds are in the future declare that they must separate themselves and form a world of their own, or their souls will perish. Such things have happened again and again in all societies, — are happening now. But still, as I said, these social conventions, often broken, may be renewed; there may be truces if there can be no solid peace, so long as what are called the respectable classes have the power of setting the terms. But from the moment that the men of toil and suffering, the real stuff of which every country [252/253 "The Religion of Working Men"] is composed, claim to exercise any direct and independent thought upon such subjects, from that moment it becomes absolutely impossible that arrangements which are grounded upon the notion of a part of mankind having certain religious propensities, and a part belonging to the world, should last. The alternative then is a faith which shall belong to men as men, which shall concern all their ordinary pursuits, toils, relations; which shall not only bestow upon them an artificial sanctity, a passing benediction, but which shall show that they are holy according to God's eternal purpose and order, — the alternative, I say, is between such a faith and absolute Atheism. We must settle it in our minds clearly and decisively, — not that we may come to this point hereafter,but that we are come to it now, — here in England and in every country of Christendom. The revolutions of three years ago announced this crisis; oh! do not let us delude ourselves with the notion that any plots or devices of ours have suspended it. God in His mercy is giving us a brief respite, during which we may decide on what ground we will take our stand. If we hope anything from a conventional religion adopted to keep the existing system of the world together, we shall find ourselves utterly deceived; the fabric and its props will fall together. If we hope anything from a religion having no deeper foundation than a wish for our own personal security, we shall find that the protest against selfishness which Christianity has borne for 1800 years will prove the destruction of the counterfeit which usurps its name. But if we believe in our hearts that the New Testament is not contrary to the Old; that our Covenant is larger, deeper, more social than the Jewish, — not narrower, more individualizing, less rooted in the Nature [253/254] and Being of God; that every maxim of trade or government, however sustained by custom, opinion, authority, which is opposed to Truth and Righteousness, is doomed to perish; then we have a Gospel which men will listen to in the nineteenth century more than they did in the sixteenth or the third; a Gospel that will uphold all ranks and orders of society so long as they do not interfere with a more fixed and everlasting order; but which will derive fresh evidence and authority from their dissolution if they should claim for themselves some independent worth, and set at nought the blessings which God has intended for all His creatures. 'I said, Ye are gods, and are children of the most High.' your authority is God-given, and deserves all reverence while you use it as if it were. But if you will be gods in yourselves, if you pretend to some absolute right over your fellow-creatures, if you will not acknowledge that they, the meanest of them, are children of the most High, redeemed by the blood of His Son, endued with His Spirit, then shall ye fall like feeble men as you are, and die like one of those princes whose fate has been set before your eyes as a spectacle and warning to yourselves. The Book we have begun to read to-day is full of terrible threatenings and prophecies ; let us not forget them or apply them to others rather than to ourselves. Assuredly they will be executed upon us if we choose some separate way of our own; not that way which God has intended for us all. But if we will walk in that good way, His word remains sure. The land which the Lord our God has given us will be a good land. We shall be able to rejoice in the prosperity of it. We shall be able to leave it an inheritance to our children's children. And with it we shall leave them also the blessing which God in [254/255 "God's Promises to England"] His old covenant and His new pronounced upon the poor; the sign of fatherly love which Solomon and St. Paul alike saw in God's chastisements; the assurance that here we are in the presence of an innumerable company of saints and angels, and of God the Judge of all, and that Christ desires that we shall enter into the fuller enjoyment of that society, into a deeper apprehension of His Redemption, when death is swallowed up in victory.
Maurice, Frederick Denison. Patriarchs and Lawgivers of the Old Testament. A Series of Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Lincoln's Inn. London: Macmillan, 1892.
Last modified 17 April 2006