"However, may the Lord pardon me in this one thing. When my master the king goes into the temple of the god Rimmon to worship there and leans on my arm, may the Lord pardon me when I bow, too." 2 Kings 5:18
We left Naaman, in the preceding chapter, all joy. It was with him the flush of a new springtime—alike in both bodily and spiritual being. The 'torpor of winter and death' had given place to the gleaming of green woods, the release of icebound rivulets, the song of gladsome warblers as they hailed the return of grove, and flower, and sunshine—"Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land" (Sol. Song 2:11, 12). Elastic with this resurrection of life and hope, and with a heart overflowing with gratitude, he stood at the door of Elisha, and made the bold avowal of his faith in Israel's God.
But these spring-tides of feeling have their ebbs as well as their flows. In our highest moments of inspiration we are soon reminded that the struggle-hour is at hand. 'Transfiguration-scenes' and experiences are temporary and exceptional. "In the world" is the normal condition of the human spirit. How to bear itself amid secular and often unholy contacts—and amid base, coarse, and sinful compliances, that is the stern problem which by the best must be faced and mastered.
Naaman's thoughts begin to travel back from the banks of the Jordan and the Prophet's dwelling, to his distant home. Soon must he mingle once more in the crowd and din of the heathen city—soon must he be back again at court, to resume the demanding duties of his station, as General of the Syrian hosts. His feelings and position were very similar to those, which from time to time the Christian, under a new and better dispensation, experiences in coming from the holy ordinance of the Lord's Supper, where his thank-offering has been presented, and his eucharistic sacrifice and vow have been made and recorded.
Emerging from the sacramental waters with thoughts full of recent pledges and memorials of God's love, Naaman knows that the hum of the old Damascus world must burst upon him before long. The memories of Gilgal and the Jordan must be superseded by sterner realities, amid the duties and cares and temptations of life. Happy are those who, in such circumstances, though they have left Mount Gilgal, have taken the earth with them for their life-altar of gratitude and thanksgiving; saying, in the spirit of the old patriarch of Bethel, as he awoke from his desert-dream and poured the anointing oil on the stone—"Then shall the Lord be my God; and this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house" (Gen. 28:21, 22).
There might well have been, in the case of Naaman, many causes of anxious foreboding in the prospect of resuming his court and military duties. But the picture presented to us in these verses is true to nature and experience, when, by some momentary and accidental association of ideas, one peculiar thought or anticipation dominates all others, and keeps for the time exclusive possession of the soul. The feeling or suggestion which now flashes across the mind of the cured warrior rankles like an arrow in his bosom, disturbing the peace of the present hour. With a childlike spirit he makes the cause of perplexity known to Elisha, and solicits his advice. Let us state what it is.
He remembers that his royal master Benhadad is still an idolater; that at particular times he was in the habit of going, for purposes of worship and high festival, to the Temple of Rimmon. Moreover, that it was part of Naaman's own official duty, as commander-in-chief, to accompany the king—a duty, the non-performance of which would entail the resignation of his office. The warrior has that confidence in Benhadad's magnanimity and liberality of spirit, as to feel assured that he will not, on account of a change of religion, degrade a tried and trusted officer of his household from his rank and official position. He will still continue him general of his troops as before.
But what will be Naaman's own duty with regard to that heathen temple? Will he not compromise his character, as a proselyte and worshiper of the true Jehovah, by setting his foot across its threshold?—dare he venture with impunity—dare he, without dishonoring the great Name he has sworn to venerate, venture to join the heathen procession? No more—Benhadad, on entering the temple and approaching the idol, was in the habit of leaning on Naaman's arm. When the king bowed or prostrated himself, his Naaman was obliged, in appearance, to bow also. Even this 'semblance of homage' to the Baal of Syria disturbs Naaman's sensitive conscience. Yet how can he manage to evade the duty? We repeat, he seems not to doubt or question that his master will grant him (to use a modern phrase) the fullest toleration in his creed. He would concede to him an exemption from "religious duties," from which others dared not plead exemption; but he would not be so ready to release Naaman from official attendance at this temple ceremony.
Would it be lawful, would it be expedient to go, with the royal arm locked in his—could Naaman, as the king's adjutant, perform this state duty without being identified as a worshiper? The troubled chief resolves to unbosom his scruples to the Prophet Elisha. "However, may the Lord pardon me in this one thing. When my master the king goes into the temple of the god Rimmon to worship there and leans on my arm, may the Lord pardon me when I bow, too." 2 Kings 5:18. Let us pause for a moment in passing, and mark—
(1.) Naaman's sincerity and forthrightness.He does not muffle his feelings. If he had been like many, he would have masked his doubts, concealed his difficulties, waited until he reached Damascus, and then solved them as best he could, by some questionable compromise between principle and expediency. He might have said, 'What is the use of injuring myself in the eyes of this Prophet—risking his reproof and indignation. I shall put the key in the wards of my heart, and keep that scruple imprisoned there.' No! the cause of perplexity is out at once. He makes a clean acknowledgment of it, and solicits advice. His eye was single; he had a simple, honest desire to know his Lord's will, and knowing it, to do it.
(2.) Mark his sensitive conscience.He had no thought of worshiping Rimmon. The old Syrian deity holding the symbolic pomegranate, was from that hour a senseless idol. It was the mere posture, the semblance of adoration—and no more, which caused Naaman these scruples. But the very 'appearance of approving' an idolatrous rite aggrieved his conscience. Was not the crossing of that idolatrous threshold doubtful? Would it not seem in the eyes of his fellows—of his soldiers—of his king, as if he were indifferent to the honor and glory of the true God? He may possibly (and he might imagine so himself) be over-fastidious on this subtle question of conscience; but unless he had it resolved on the authority of God's Prophet, it would sorely disturb his homeward journey. His sunny dreams of Jordan and Gilgal would be haunted and scared with visions of Rimmon's Temple; and of himself, with broken vows on his head, doing obeisance at the idol shrine. He resolves to take this 'case of perplexity' to the Prophet of Israel.
Would that we had more of such tenderness of conscience—in business, in the world, in the everyday relations of life—that we more honored and revered Conscience as God's own viceregent, feeling that in fighting against the sacred monitor, and disowning the responses of the divine oracle, we are fighting against God!
(3.) Note Naaman's faith—his determination, at all hazards, to cleave to Jehovah. For there is every reason to infer, that if the Prophet had given a negative to his request—pronounced the accompanying his master to Rimmon's Temple to be incompatible with his religious duty, he would have acted on his decision—he would have been willing to renounce pay and place—surrendered all he had, rather than dishonor that holy name, and give occasion to Jehovah's enemies to blaspheme. And noble evidence it is of strength of faith and integrity of purpose, when in critical circumstances, and in those special emergencies when conscientious scruple stands confronted face to face with worldly and professional interests, we are willing to take God's word and to abide by it, even though duty demands the renunciation of material good—the taking up of the cross—denying ourselves earthly honor and advantage. We shall be no losers at last—"Those who honor me," says God, "I will honor." It may be, like the tempest-tossed disciples on Lake Tiberias, to steer our way through boisterous wind and buffeting waves. But if it be at His bidding, He who "constrained His disciples to get into the ship" (Matt. 14:22) will bring us, sooner or later, to the haven where we would be.
And how does Elisha reply to the question of the proselyte? Naaman, perhaps, would expect—and perhaps we expect, to hear the Prophet's denunciation of the proposal. We look for a response in the spirit and words of the old Tishbite—"How long halt you between two opinions—if the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him." Are we not ready to picture the frown of stern indignation on the brow of the man of God, and to imagine him exclaiming, 'It cannot be! By thus identifying yourself with heathen abominations you would only draw down afresh the vengeance of Heaven. The leprosy now washed away in the Jordan would again cleave unto you forever, and you would go forth anew from the idol's temple, a leper white as snow. Dream not thus of dishonoring your vows—of attempting to serve both God and Rimmon. Go, tell Benhadad, that rather than mock the Jehovah whom you have covenanted to serve, you will consent to be degraded to the most menial drudgery; that the keys and sword of office will readily be surrendered, before you darken the portals of the sun-god.'
This, however, is not his answer. He does not indeed say, 'You may bow—your conscience is too tender, you are unnecessarily sensitive and scrupulous.' He leaves it still with him an open question; and without pronouncing any final or authoritative deliverance, he gives the simple benediction, "Go in peace." Elisha knew he could place reliance on the recent convert. He could trust his new strength of purpose, his principle, his sincerity. He knew well the trials of faith to which he would be subjected on his return to Damascus—the envenomed darts that would likely be hurled upon him by those who would have no sympathy with his alien religion. If Elisha had, by a withering negative, at once forbidden the request, and declared, 'Bow in Rimmon's Temple you dare not, even in semblance,' he might have greatly and unnecessarily perplexed him, in this the first hour of his spiritual experience. But he knew that "to the upright there would arise light in darkness" (Ps. 112:4)—that the day would come when the anxious inquirer would have his difficulties satisfactorily solved. Meanwhile, therefore, he says, "Go in peace;" 'I know my God will go with you. He will guide you aright. He will give His angels charge concerning you, to keep you up in all your ways. I know you will never be guilty of dishonoring Him in the eyes of the heathen. He who has delivered your soul from death—will He not deliver your eyes from tears, and your feet from falling?'
In the words of an excellent writer, "he knew that it was not good to put 'old wine into new bottles,' and to load the tender feelings of the weak disciple with duties most painful and difficult even to the strongest, or to expose him to the most trying of all opposition, the sneers and sarcasms of his companions. Elisha foresaw that the time would come, when the seed so lately sown, and now scarcely in the blade, would become the strong and powerful tree, and he was content to wait for this. He therefore treated the tender plant with gentleness."
Let us not, however, mistake the Prophet's deliverance. Let us not construe it into a formal sanction of doubtful expediency or worldly conformity. Many there are, who would willingly enlist this passage on their side, to draw such a conclusion—who would make it their authority for conforming with some questionable—and more than questionable—maxims and practices. They would willingly retain their religious profession—the outward semblance of fidelity to God and His righteousness, and yet claim the sanction to go and bow in some Rimmon-Temple.
The Bible is always consistent; and there can be nothing in this isolated passage, contradictory to its manifold other express sayings and injunctions. God demands the whole heart; He will be satisfied with nothing short of it; and when any competing object comes between it and Him, that object must be removed. "No man," is the utterance of the Great Teacher Himself, "can serve two masters." "He who is not with me is against me." "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." "Let us therefore," says the apostle, "go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach." Is Naaman, then, to be made an exception to all this? Is he encouraged by the Prophet of Gilgal to act on different principles; to serve two masters; to offer allegiance alike to God and to Baal?
No! it is obvious there was no such sanction given, thus to serve Jehovah in the land of Israel and Rimmon in the land of Syria. This would have been one of the most pernicious of modern dogmas—that all creeds and beliefs are the same. Neither did the convert shrink from confessing the true God before his fellows. He was ready to brave all, and, if need be, to lose all. His confession we have already listened to—it was that of no lip votary, no hypocritical dissembler, no spiritual coward, whispered in a corner—he made it publicly, in presence of all his heathen servants. He had nothing to be ashamed of. Taking with him in his cavalcade the two loads of earth, to form a public altar—was not the deed of a man wishful to evade the light and to hide his religion under a basket.
Elisha, knowing that he was dealing with an earnest soul, one who wished really to glorify the true Jehovah, tells him to proceed on his journey in "peace"—that the Gracious Being he had avouched to be his God would teach him in His own good time a more excellent way. If Naaman's had been a poor, miserable, half-hearted belief and profession—a compound of his ancestral and adopted faith, the Prophet might have required to meet his question with a strong prohibition. But he seems to say, 'I know, that as a learner in the school of truth, you will be instructed aright. In your case the promise will be fulfilled—"The meek will He guide in judgment, and the humble will He teach His way." (Ps. 25:9). "Then shall you know, if you follow on to know the Lord."'
It is the same, or a similar question to that of Naaman, which is often addressed still, and especially by those who are young in the life of faith, to their religious teachers and guides—'Can I, as a Christian, venture where pleasure and taste, and it may be companionship which it were hard to renounce, would all lead me—to places of fashionable, some would say, frivolous amusement?' Again, 'Can I accept that post of advancement, or continue in it, without being suspected of selfish, calculating, carnal motives, or without being tempted to a dereliction of principle?' Again, 'Can I continue in that social circle, or prosecute that secular calling, without lowering my standard, compromising character, and dishonoring God?'
We pronounce, at present, no verdict on these hypothetical cases, and especially on the lawfulness or unlawfulness of this or that worldly amusement. On the one hand, there may be, and there is with many, a morbid and unhealthy shrinking from the acceptance of much happiness in this beautiful earth of which God has made the human heart receptive—the "all things" He has given us "richly to enjoy"—what regales the ear and delights the eye, and refines and elevates the taste. On the other hand, it is equally certain there are manifold resorts, pleasing and pleasurable, and some of them apparently innocuous, resorting to to which, may be like treading the edge of a volcano—threatening their frequenters with continual risk of being scathed with the fire.
But if, in such "cases of conscience" we were dealing (as Elisha knew he was dealing), with a sensitive, honest, upright, God-fearing individual, who really wished to know the path of duty and to be divinely guided, we would say with the Prophet, "Go in peace." Do not involve yourself in needless perplexities. Your difficulties will in due time be solved and your path made plain. If you can utter the prayerful desire to the Heavenly Light—"Lead me, Lord!"—"Teach me the way wherein I should walk; I lift up my soul unto You"—then, frequent these amusements so long as the dictates of your new and better nature accord a sanction. If such resorts run counter to your spiritual advancement—if they hinder and impede your heavenly walk, and interfere with the love and allegiance you owe to Christ as your divine Lord and Master, you will soon come to discard them. You will soon have them superseded by different tastes, new likings and preferences. You will soon cease to find satisfying enjoyment, in what are counterfeits of the true. You will soon discover that there is no honey to be extracted from such "untrue rocks"—no living water to be drawn from such leaky, broken cisterns. You will soon serve yourself heir to nobler aspirations and purer enjoyments. When you enter that temple of Rimmon, and witness the senseless and sinful rites, you will turn away with averted face. Your own enlightened judgment will teach you, as possibly it taught Naaman, that the two are incompatible. As you lean on your Master's arm, conscience will make a coward of you. It will whisper, 'As a spiritual Israelite, as a true-hearted Christian, you are out of your place here.' "All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world" (1 John 2:16).
We may learn, too, from Naaman's question and Elisha's reply, that our conduct—what an apostle calls "our walk and conversation"—will be molded and regulated according to the state of the heart with God. If the heart be right, all will come right. The stirred pool may take a while to settle into its normal state of clearness and quiescence—there may, for a time, be dulled and distorted images on its ruffled surface, but soon it will become like a calm mirror, reflecting truth, purity, and righteousness.
How different from Naaman were many of the characters with whom our Savior came in contact in the New Testament! How different were His dealings with Pharisees whose hearts were not right! In the external observances of the law they were scrupulously correct. They tithed their anise, mint, and cummin; they made broad their phylacteries; they whitewashed persistently the sepulchers of the prophets; they were punctilious in creed and external forms; they would not speak to a Samaritan; they would not for a moment bow in a Rimmon temple—if they came within sight of it, they would shake the dust off their feet. But they devoured widows' houses; they oppressed the poor; they despised justice, judgment, and mercy. They were quick enough to discern the mote in their brother's eye; but they did not discern the beam in their own. Incarnate Truth, Purity, and Justice, could not say to such, "Go in peace." He could pronounce nothing but impending woe and judgment—His withering words of condemnation were unsparing, uncompromising, sharper than any two-edged sword.
On the other hand, see how tenderly He dealt with sensitive consciences. Nicodemus, who came by night seeking instruction in the kingdom of God; or the weeping penitent, who crouched at His feet, bedewing them with tears. He did not break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. He tempered the wind to the shorn lamb, and laid no trial or temptation on His people heavier than they were able to bear.
The subject, indeed, of this chapter, is one on which it becomes us to speak with 'extreme caution'. Let none gather from it the impression, that they can follow Naaman's example—leave duty an "open question," and enter with impunity the great Rimmon-Temple of the world. True, Daniel could remain unscathed in heathen Babylon. There were saints in Nero's household; and many a brave young Christian has done noble battle with the irreligious influences among which his lot has been cast. But, to revert to the same beacon and warning selected for example in a former chapter—"Remember Lot's wife!"—remember Lot's family! See what contact with the irreligious and godless did! See the result of entering the gates of Sodom—tampering with a world lying in wickedness—trying to serve God and Mammon. There is—there can be, no blast of the silver trumpet, "Go in peace," sounded in the ear of such—"There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked."
Remember the twofold apostolic motto and watchword—the warrant for liberty and the warning against license—"Use the world," (that is the sanction for liberty; in lawful enjoyment of all earthly good—for stretching our sails on its summer seas and basking under its summer skies)—"without abusing it," (that is the admonishing warning bell from rock or lighthouse, when these seas are treacherous, and when, unknown, we may be gliding over the unseen reef). Keep off 'debatable' ground. Keep clear of positions and situations where your faith is likely to be imperilled. Beware of living what has been called a "border life;" hovering on the confines of the kingdom of light—and the kingdom of darkness. It is the irresolute of the army who are the first to break rank and flee; whereas the smallest battalion, if staunch and valorous, can stand the charge.
Remember, many there are who enter the world unvisited by Naaman's scruples, who have none of Naaman's dislike for its base and sordid compliances. For such to enter Rimmon's Temple is to court certain ruin. These God addresses in language of unqualified prohibition—"What fellowship has righteousness with unrighteousness—and what communion has light with darkness—and what concord has Christ with Belial—or what part has he who believes with an infidel? Therefore come out from among them, and be separate, says the Lord, and do not touch the unclean thing" (2 Cor. 6:14, 15, 17).
God's own gracious benediction is, "Go in peace." And if, from peculiar circumstances, you may be led at times into difficult and perplexing paths—your footsteps perhaps trembling on the threshold of some questionable or forbidden resort, seek to hear His voice alone, and be prepared to follow the summons—"This is the way—walk in it." Looking up to Him who has promised to "keep in perfect peace" the mind which is stayed on Him, and which trusts in Him (Isa. 26:3), may this be your prayer—"To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. I trust in you, my God! Do not let me be disgraced, or let my enemies rejoice in my defeat. No one who trusts in you will ever be disgraced, but disgrace comes to those who try to deceive others. Show me the path where I should walk, O Lord; point out the right road for me to follow. The Lord leads with unfailing love and faithfulness all those who keep his covenant and obey his decrees." (Ps. 25:1-4, 10). Thus shall the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus."