The History of the Age of the Law

We have seen already that at the very commencement of its history the people failed under the law; and this is the one unvarying lesson of all these ages. Under law it was only more plainly marked, as was indeed to be expected of that which was emphatically the "ministration of condemnation." Still the extent of the failure seems after all amazing. I do not even refer to the worship of the golden calf, although it might seem nothing could more show the desperate wickedness of man's heart than this. The very mount which had flamed and quaked in witness to the divine presence bore witness also to this rapid descent into the abominations of the heathen round about, who "changed the image of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and to fourfooted beasts, and creeping things." Judgment being executed, God took up the people the second time; not, as we know, under the same strictly legal system, which it had been proved they could not endure, but under a mingled system of law and mercy.

It was in this. way that the tabernacle with its sacrifices and priesthood was added to the law, although God, in the display of perfect omniscience which could not be taken unawares, had instructed Moses as to it before the sin of the people (Ex. xxv.-_xxxi.) And here faith found its provision, and a convicted conscience its pledged forgiveness. These - at least, it would be thought, would be prized and welcomed in view of the constant failure which the vigilance of the law detected and condemned. How surpassingly strange, then, that these should have fallen into such utter disuse as God by the mouth of Amos declares they did (v. 25-27). "Have ye offered Me sacrifices and offerings in the wilderness forty years, 0 house of Israel? But ye have borne the tabernacle of Moloch and Chiun, your images, the star of your god, which ye made to yourselves." Thus even Moloch's dreadful altar was preferred to God's and the gracious provisions of His tabernacle dropped into a forgetfulness hard to realise. The failure of the dispensation was already fixed: "Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith the Lord."

Incredible almost would this neglect indeed seem, did not the Word of God itself announce it. And there are testimonies in the history itself which show in a still more striking way the extent of it. Especially is the statement of the book of Joshua (V. 2-7) remarkable as showing the complete breach of the covenant with Jehovah on the part of the people. Nothing was more fundamental to this than the ordinance of circumcision. The uncircumcised man-child was to be cut off from his people (Gen. xvii. 14); and none such could eat of the passover at all (Ex. xii. 48.) Either these laws must have been disregarded or the passover must have been almost entirely omitted toward the close of the wilderness journey, when no one under forty could have been circumcised at all. For the express statement is, "All the people that came out of Egypt that were males, even all the men of war, died in the wilderness by the way, after they came out of Egypt. Now all the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they come out of Egypt, them they had not circumcised." How the patience of the Lord with the people is manifest! but how evident that priesthood and Levitical service must almost have come to an end? If these, as all other of the things that happened to Israel, happened unto them for types (i Cor. x. i i), what admonition would this convey to us!

Moses, even, dies in the land of Moab for his sin; and of all that came as men out of the land of Egypt, Joshua and Caleb alone remained. An entire new generation enter into the land of Canaan, and here a new order of things begins.

For, let us notice, with all the patient goodness manifested toward the people, and which God had declared when He took them up at Sinai the second time, He does not simply continue the trial of them in one form throughout. On the contrary, He varies it in many ways. This, on the one hand, makes it a more perfect trial, as is plain; on the other, it repeats again and again the admonition of a watchful holiness which never lapsed into indifference, while mercy warned of the time of long-suffering, however slowly, still surely running out. As we, upon whom the ends of the ages have come, look back upon them, it is blessed to see how, in the various forms of this trial, God presents to us in changing aspects typically His one unchanging theme,- Christ as the justification of His long-suffering patience as of His fullest grace. This, faith might even in those days in measure see, though not in the detailed glories in which we see it. For the voice of prophecy, even in the law itself, spoke of a Prophet to be raised up, a High-Priest of good things to come,- yea, a priestly King greater than Abraham, in whom Levi had once paid tithes. And we can rejoice in thinking how God thus could linger over the picture of Him to whom when at last come He would give outspoken witness: "This is My beloved Son, in whom I have found My delight.".

In the land, then, as I have said, a new order of things begins. Moses had been in the wilderness the represent-ative of the Lord, the channel of the divine communications. In the land. Joshua stands before Eleazar the priest, and the priest it is who communicates to him the word of the Lord. He who is confessedly the leader of the people, and standing in Moses' place, is nevertheless not in the same place of nearness with God. Departure has brought in distance, while intercession based on sacrifice is that on which all depends. The link between God and the people is now the priesthood.

Before they pass over Jordan, all their wilderness history is rehearsed to them, that it may be practical wisdom for their new position, and then they are to take possession of the land which God had promised to Abraham; although not yet do they possess it according to the terms of the covenant with their fathers. They are on the footing of law, and must make good their title to the land by actual victory over the inhabitants of it. "Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses." (Josh. i.) Thus the extent of the land, as the Lord describes it to them, they never actually acquire. Only in David and Solomon's time does their dominion extend to the Euphrates, the Abrahamic boundary, while they never properly possess thus far; Philistines, Phcenicians, Hittites, confine them in fact within much narrower limits. Two and a half tribes they leave on the other side of Jordan, defeated by their own success; just as in Christian times the church has gained by its victories a possession the wrong side of death.

In the land, the Lord delivers their enemies into their hands. But failure is everywhere apparent. The sin of Achan, the defeat at Ai, the snare of Gibeon, follow one another in quick succession. They do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, but make gain of their sin by holding them as tributaries, then go after their gods, as the Lord had warned them, and are soon captive. in the hands of those they had conquered. If Gilgal characterizes the book of Joshua, and there the reproach of Egypt - of their slavery there - is rolled away; Bochim (weeping) characterizes the book of Judges, where they return to a more shameful one. The history shows now their broken unity, the inroad of foreign enemies, the uprising of domestic ones. Again and again they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He delivers them out of their distress. A judge is raised up, and is the instrument of their deliverance; and as long as he judges, maintaining the authority and holiness of God among the people, the deliverance lasts. But their weakness (which is only their willfulness,) is fully apparent: the judge dies, and once more they wander; there is a new captivity, followed at length (because the mercy of God does not forsake them,) by a new deliverance.

These revivals become, however, more and more feeble and less decisive. At last, the priesthood itself fails utterly, and that when the judge and high-priest are one. Eli's sons make themselves vile, and he restrains them not. The Lord swears that this iniquity shall not be purged with sacrifice and offering forever. And though He raise up for Himself a faithful priest, as He declares, and will build him a sure house, yet the order is again changed: Joshua stood before Eleazar, but now the priest is to walk before God's anointed (i Sam. ii. 35; iii. 14).

In the meanwhile, ruin is complete. The Philistines come up against Israel, and smite them; they superstitiously send for the ark of God to deliver them - the ark of the covenant so often broken! They are again smitten, Hophni and Phinehas slain, the ark is taken; Eli falls backward at the news and breaks His neck, and Phinehas' wife, expiring, gives to her son a name expressive of the people's terrible condition. "And she named the child 'Ichabod,' saying, 'The glory is departed from Israel.'" The priesthood, as the link between God and Israel, had come to its final end.

Twenty years pass, and all the house of Israel are found lamenting after the Lord. The ark had not indeed remained long in the Philistines' hand, but had wrought its own deliverance apart from the people. It had returned, but not to Shiloh, its former abode, nor to the tabernacle, no more to receive it. Beth-shemesh - a city of priests - to which it had first come, smitten for its irreverence, had had to yield it up to Kirjath-jearim, where it remained in retirement, kept by Eleazar "in the fields of the wood" (Ps. cxxxii. 6) until David brought it out (2 Sam. vi. 2). All this time was marked thus as a time of disorder and disturbed relation between God and Israel.

This gap of time between Eli and David is bridged by the prophet Samuel, the real link between God and the people even during the reign of Saul. The prominence of the prophets was always a sign of disorder and decline among the people. It was an extraordinary agency, with no provision for succession or permanence at all; in this case, from the first, a note of preparation for the king (i Sam. ii. 10), whom at last it anoints and makes way for. Before the priesthood is set aside, Samuel is established as the prophet of the Lord; but through the unbelief of the people, twenty years pass, after the return of the ark, before the value of God's gift is realized. Then Israel gather for confession and prayer to God at Mizpeh, and Samuel judges them there. This brings up the Philistines; but the battle is now the Lord's, and Israel has but to pursue a smitten foe. The Philistine yoke is broken, and Samuel becomes the judge of Israel. We see the prophet here, as never before under the law, building his altars and offering to the Lord, the priesthood quite unrecognized.

But Samuel grows old, and his sons, whom he has associated with himself in the judgeship, walk not in his ways. The enemies of Israel begin again to gather strength. The unbelief of the people becomes manifest. They desire a king, explicitly to be like the nations, from whom God had separated them. Now, He intended they should have a king. Moses had spoken of it, anticipating indeed their desire as expressed here (Deut. Xvii. 14-20). Hannah had spoken of God's king to whom He would give strength. And to Eli, God had told, by His prophet, of His anointed one, before whom the faithful priest should walk (i Sam. ii. 5). Self-will might here find its excuse, hut nothing more. In fact, as they are forewarned by God through Samuel, the rule of a king among them, while it would bring them into a bondage hitherto unknown, would be the sign of God being further removed from them - another step downward in the long descent they had been making. It does not affect this that under David and Solomon they were in fact freed from their enemies, and attained a wbrldly eminence such as they had not enjoyed till then. The characters of the kingdom as Samuel depicts them were none the less fully illustrated in these reigns; and the more the grandeur of the monarchy, the more even might the yoke press, the more the distance between king and subject. But above all, God Himself, rejected as their King, dealt now with the people, not on the old familiar terms, but at a distance, through the king himself. Let David be rejected, and the show-bread, even if just sanctified, is but common bread (i Sam. xxi.)

That the king was here also the shadow of the King of God's kingdom in a coming day is true, but neither does it alter the significance of the fact literally. Faith here as elsewhere may find tokens of the coming day, and see also the justification of God's long-suffering then. None the less the links between God and His people were more and more being strained. And if this last endured longest of all, it was surely because it was the last: there was no other, and God's patience lingered.

Saul, the first king, though chosen by God, is given them as one after their own heart, as his name providentially signifies,- "the Asked." After being fully tested, he is set aside for the man after God's heart, David. And Saul, though the anointed of the Lord, is never recognized as the true link between the people and God. He is throughout dependent upon Samuel, who, as he anoints him to his office, announces also his rejection, and before his own death anoints his successor.

David is thus the first king fully owned,- with Solomon, the double type of Christ, the Sufferer - Conqueror and the Prince of Peace. He brings the ark to Jerusalem, appoints the courses of the priests and the service of the Lord's house, for which he provides abundantly the material, and receives the pattern. His kingdom is greatly extended and his enemies are subdued, and Solomon builds and consecrates the house, with "neither adversary nor evil occurrent."

But "man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish." And all this glory is like the flower of grass; it has scarcely blossomed before it begins to fade. The first love passes, and there is no indistinct threatening that the candlestick is under sentence to be removed. Solomon loves many strange women, and his heart is drawn after their idols. Adversaries are stirred up against him. He passes away, and a sudden rent tears ten out of the twelve tribes out of the hand of his son; and in the fifth year only of his reign, Shishak sweeps down upon and spoils Jerusalem and the house of the Lord. Henceforth, in Israel, with the worship of the golden calves, it is one monotonous story of evil ever growing worse; in Judah, the descent stopped, indeed, again and again, by the intervention of divine grace acting in an Asa, a Jehoshaphat, a Hezekiah, a Josiah, but still with no recovery really. Blow after blow falls upon them; prophet after prophet warns and threatens in vain: at last, disintegration fully begins. The ten tribes are carried captive into Assyria; Judah, spared for a hundred and thirty years longer, is at last carried into Babylon. The glory has before this departed from the temple, which the king of Babylon plunders and destroys. The people are now (though not forever) disowned of God. The legal covenant, in fact, is over, although the dispensation of law cannot be said to have ceased. "The law and the prophets were until John." But the history of the people as such is closed, although a feeble remnant return from Babylon. But they return only to await in Messiah their Deliverer, amid the tokens of the ruin in which they have involved themselves. The glory does not return. The ark of the covenant, Jehovah's throne in the midst, is gone from their new temple. The Urim and Thummim, by which the Lord had communicated regularly with them in the past, is also gone. Prophets His mercy raises up to them for a brief time, and every one of them is a witness that the moral and spiritual condition is unchanged. This voice soon passes. The history of the favoured people ends in blank and total, most significant silence. The throne of the earth is in the hands of the Gentiles. Israel's dominion is passed away; and those "times of the Gentiles" have begun in which we still are, and which continue until the kingdom of the Son of Man is introduced by His coming in the clouds of heaven. But the significance of this change we must consider more at length