"And will You hear the fevered heart
To You in silence cry?
As the inconstant wild fires dart
Out of the restless eye.
"You will, for many a languid prayer
Has reached You from the wild
Since the lone mother, wandering there,
Cast down her fainting child.
"You will be there and not forsake,
To turn the bitter pool
Into a bright and breezy lake,
The throbbing brow to cool!
"Until, left awhile with You alone,
The willful heart be sincerely to own
That He, by whom our bright hours shone,
Our darkness best may rule."--Christian Year.
"The wilderness and the solitary place."--Isa. 35:1.
"Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Haran. When he
reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set.
Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to
sleep." Genesis 28:10-11
The fugitive, having selected his resting-place for the
night, would again unbind his belt and open the bag containing the few
provisions with which doubtless he had been supplied on his hasty departure.
After concluding his simple meal, he betakes himself to his stony pillow.
In the preceding chapter, we have taken the 'night' and
the 'sunset' as figuratively descriptive of a peculiar class of sorrows;
such as the darkness of personal and family bereavement, or the yet denser
gloom of intellectual and spiritual doubt. May we not make the title of the
present chapter suggestive of a different phase of trial what may be brought
under the category of the hardships of existence--the fight
with adverse circumstances--the often hopeless struggle with secular things.
This, with many, (though feebly realized by those in affluence and
abundance), is indeed a 'pillow of stone.' Hapless seems the destiny of such
sufferers! The sun sets placidly on the hamlets in the valley--curling
smoke, and gleaming lights telling of peace and serenity, while they are out
with Jacob in the bleak uplands, with scanty coverlet and downless couch.
Can they fail to contrast that happy fire-glow and the music of
child-voices, with the cold of the rock and the sigh and sob of the night
wind; perhaps the memory of some Beersheba tent, with similar loving hands
and cheerful faces in the far away of life, only adding a fresh pang of
bitterness to the experiences of the present hour? We have known not a few
of such cases, when the cruel load, pressing like the chill of an avalanche
on the soul, seems as if it were greater than could be borne, and the cry of
wild despair rises unsuccoured. Why such a fate as this? Why this toiling
misery? Why the rod instead of the smile? Why the pitiless rain streaming on
the desert rocks, instead of the sunshine falling on the sheltering roof?
Why, while OTHERS can warble of
A painted skiff with a singing crew,
Sky reflections soft and bright,
Tremulous crimson, gold and blue."
Or others, of
"A shining reach,
A crystal couch for the moonbeam's rest,
Starry ripples along the beach,
Sunset songs from the breezy west."
Why should MY experience be--
"foam and roar.
Restless heave and passionate dash,
Shingle-rattle along the shore,
Gathering boom and thundering crash?"
We cannot reply. It would be presumption to attempt
answering the question; and the more so, when the mysterious fact is too
patent, that the rough stone seems at times the appointed lot of the
brave and loving, the generous and true; while the soft bed and the
fine linen are often bestowed on the selfish and grasping, the base and
unworthy. It is the old startling perplexity embodied in the plaintive wail
of the Psalmist--"My steps had well-near slipped. For I was envious at the
foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. Behold, these are the
ungodly, who prosper in the world" (Ps. 73:2, 3, 12).
All we can say is, that in the case of Jacob (and is it
not so in the case of many?) it was the stony pillow which was followed
by the heavenly vision. If we may so express it, it was through an
iron, not a golden gate, that he had revealed to him the vista of
angels and the dream of God. He was not the first who was able to take up an
inspired after-song--"I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined unto
me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of
the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And
He has put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God--many shall see
it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord" (Ps. 40:1-3).
It must be borne in mind, as a key to many enigmas deemed
now insoluble, that life, with all, (but with some more than others) is a
probation. "I proved you," says God, speaking of and to His
Israel (Ps. 81:7). But what is the end of that probation-discipline? Is the
burden always to crush? Is there to be no remission of the load, no rift in
the cloud of sorrow, no escape from the hard degrading bondage? Is the
"thundering crash" to boom in the ear forever? Hear other words of the
Divine Speaker in that same Psalm--"Now I will relieve your shoulder of
its burden; I will free your hands from their heavy tasks. You cried to me
in trouble, and I saved you; I answered out of the thundercloud. I tested
your faith at Meribah, when you complained that there was no water."
(Ps. 81:6, 7). It has been well remarked that Adam fell, not in a
wilderness, but in a garden, while the second Adam conquered, not in a
garden, but in a wilderness. The training to "endure hardness" is the true
stuff of which men and heroes are made--
"Oh, fear not in a world like this
And you shall know, 'fore long,
Know how sublime a thing it is,
To suffer and be strong."
That is the noblest victory of faith, which after
protracted struggle can convert apparently crushing defeats into trophies;
hard trials into material for praise. Just as we have seen a forest tree
ravaged by the storm, torn up by the roots, and lying prostrate on the sward
with the nests of its feathered tenants scattered pitilessly around--yet the
birds, which for a time uttered their wailing cries around the pillaged
home, come at last to nestle in the prone branches and to resume their
warblings. The man with his head resting on the hardest stone is not to be
pitied, in comparison with many whose downy pillows are only inducing a
deeper sleep of apathy and forgetfulness--
"Those hearts that cower
In willful slumber, deepening every hour;
That draw their curtains closer round,
The nearer swells the trumpet's sound."
Better far to have the poet's prayer answered, for the
couch of rock and the crude awakening--
"Lord, before our trembling lamps sink down and die,
Touch us with chastening hand, and make us feel You nigh."
Another thought suggested by the Patriarch and his desert
pillow, is in connection with the loneliness of his present
position. He, who, as the great Sheikh's son at Lahairoi, Beersheba, and
Kirjath-Arba, had night after night his mat spread and his meals served by
scores of willing slaves, was now absolutely unattended. So lonely was he,
that these very stones which were to form the night-rest for his head, were
carried by his own hands. "He took the stones of that place, and
put them for his pillows." One who was habituated from boyhood to the
stir of camp life, and the sympathy of friendly voices--accustomed ever and
anon to hear the well-known welcome of hospitality to the passing stranger
or wayfarer, "Turn in, my lord, turn in" (Judges 4:18), while he was served
up in the "lordly dishes" (Judges 5:25 ), is all at once plunged into
solitude. The very tinkle of bells on sheep and camels, once so familiar to
him, has died away in the far distance. But here, again, solitude was
another factor (to use a modern term) which prepared him for the visions
which followed. He entered the vestibule of silence, before being admitted
into the Inner Sanctuary.
His experience was in harmony with that of the most
privileged saints of every age. Loneliness indeed would almost seem to be a
necessary condition of receptivity in regard to the loftiest and divinest
revelations of a personal God. Moses was alone in the solitudes of
Sinai when Jehovah appeared to him in the midst of the burning bush (Exod.
3:1). Eliphaz was alone, (in the passage previously alluded to,) when
the mysterious spirit passed before his eyes. He specially notes "There was
silence" (Job 4:16). Job was alone on his bed of ashes, resting on a
harder pillow than Jacob's, when the near Presence there unfolded
itself--and when he thus solitary, the foundation Article in the creed of
Christendom was uttered--"I know that my Redeemer lives" (Job 19:25).
Elijah was alone in the cave of Horeb, when he became spectator of the
great drama of the desert, which began with the mighty wind, and ended with
the still small voice (1 Kings 19:12). John was alone in the Isle of
Patmos, when he heard behind him "the voice of a great trumpet" and beheld
his Lord arrayed in the lusters of glorified humanity (Rev. 1:9). And it was
when all other lights were paled, and when, (no other footstep near,)
Jacob lay in the darkness away from the trodden highway, that the path
of angels was made visible and the voice of God was heard.
It is so, often, with His most favored people still.
Periods of loneliness, stated seasons of quiet and retirement, are demanded
for the nurturing of the spiritual nature. The finer sensibilities get
soiled by constant contact with the world, its fevered heats and tempted
hours, and restless turmoil. The soul needs, at times, removal to a calmer
atmosphere--"the sphere of silence."
The picture may be recalled of penitent Israel in future
times. All the tribes are represented as mourning alone; "every
family apart, every individual apart" (Zech. 12:12). But what,
are we told, is the immediate result and sequence of that season of solemn
seclusion and heart probing--sitting thus alone, in meditative silence? It
is the fullest revelation of Gospel grace and mercy--"In that day
there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and to the
inhabitants of Jerusalem" (Zech. 13:1).
Not that by any means "frames and feelings" are to be
made tests and interpreters of reality in religious experience. But this
introspection has its genuine side, as well as its counterfeit. We never
surely can suspect the Apostle Paul of being the morbid analyst of mere
emotions. He was far too real and practical for that. Yet his exhortation
stands recorded--"Let a man examine himself." He knew the tyranny of
the secular--the constant friction which wears the wheels of the spiritual
as of the physical life. He who had his own lengthened season of solitude
and retirement in the desert of Arabia (Gal. 1:17), knew how wise and
needful were occasional pausing-places in the journey, to enable the Pilgrim
of Eternity to breathe with greater intensity the soliloquy which closes the
Old Testament psalm to the omniscient Jehovah--"Search me, O God, and know
my heart; try me, and know my thoughts; and see if there be any wicked way
in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23, 24).
More than this; there is an instructive lesson surely
conveyed, when ONE, greater than Apostle or Psalmist--One who required no
such retreat to purge His soul from sin, and who was most habitually
conversant with heavenly things, said to His disciples, (and that too in the
midst of their round of spiritual activities,) "Come with me by
yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." (Mark 6:31). No, who
Himself ever preceded what may be called the great crisis-hours of His life
and ministry, by silent prayer and communion--alone in the
wilderness--alone on the midnight hills around Gennesaret--alone
in the moon-lit glades of Olivet. "And He continued all night in prayer to
God" (Luke 6:12). "Sit here" (He must be alone) "while I go and pray yonder"
(Mark 14:32). The Divine breathings, "O My Father, if it be possible;" "Not
as I will, but as You will," were uttered, not amid the holy fellowships of
the supper table, but amid the loneliness of Gethsemane.
To return to the solitary dreamer at Bethel. Would the
conflict of inner feeling--the sting of bitterly-felt self-reproach--forbid
him, before he laid his head on his stony resting place, to, accord with the
hallowed usages of his previous life, by kneeling on the bare rock in this
open Temple of the Great Universe and invoke the blessing of his father's
God? We cannot tell. Perhaps the lustrous, watchful stars gleaming above
him--in one sense the chapters and verses of His Bible--would suffuse a
calming, re-assuring influence on his perturbed spirit. It might be as if
one of the angels of the vision, preceding his fellows, had thus addressed
the exile before he resigned himself to slumber--"Lift up your eyes on high,
and behold who has created these things, that brings out their host by
number--He calls them all by names by the greatness of His might, for that
He is strong in power; not one fails. Why say you, O Jacob, and speak, O
Israel, My way is hidden from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from
my God? Have you not known, have you not heard, that the everlasting God,
the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, neither is
weary?" (Isaiah 40:26-28.)
And HOW are His people still brought into this silent,
secluded contact with the God of Jacob? It is, often at least, by means we
have already dwelt upon; through temporary seasons of trial; by having their
hearts and homes darkened with sorrow. They are thus impelled to escape from
the fever and whirl of life, the passions and interests and engrossments of
the hour, and taken out on the lonely Bethel-heights to hold converse with
Himself. "Behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from
thence" (Hosea 2:14, 15). The vineyards would have been unsought and
untasted, the "comfortable words" would have been unheeded, but for the
wilderness discipline, the wilderness silence--the tearful eye
closing on the wilderness pillow. "Come, My people," says the same Divine
Being in another place, as He beckons apart from 'the loud stunning tide of
human care,' "Come, My people, enter into your chambers, and shut your doors
about you" (Is. 26:20).
It is in such moments of often enforced retirement,
that they are able to realize the littleness of the frets and annoyances of
the way which have too frequently disturbed their serenity and poisoned
their peace; and which, moreover, may have dimmed and dwarfed their faith.
While it is at such seasons, also, that they rise from the rough stone and
the night-watch with fresh incentives for holy duty, and resolutions for a
nobler life. They have "seen God face to face;" and a new dignity is given
to human existence by vividly linking it with the divine.
"Oh for 'a desert place' with only the Master's smile!
Oh for the 'coming apart' with only His 'rest awhile!'
Yes, I have longed for a pause in the rush and whirl of time,
Longed for silence to fall, instead of its merriest chime.
"Longed for a calm, to let the circles die away
That tremble over the heart, breaking the heavenly ray,
And to leave its wavering mirror true to the Star above,
Brightened and stilled to its depths with the quiet of 'perfect love.'"
--Ministry of Song