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They met at Shiloh, where the tabernacle was ; but if they had consulted with the ark of God, they had saved both this labour, and this challenge. This case seemed so plain, that they thought advice needless : their inconsiderateness therefore brands their brethren with crimes whereof they were innocent, and makes themselves the only offenders. In cases which are doubtful and uncertain, it is safe either to suspend the judgment, or to pass it in favour; otherways, a plain breach of charity in us shall be worse than a questionable breach of justice in another,
Yet this little gleam of their uncharitable love began at themselves; if they had not feared their own judgments in the offence of Reuben, I know not whether they had been so vehement. The fearful revenges of their brethren's sin are still in their eye. The wickedness of Peor stretched not so far as the plague. Achan sinned, and Israel was beaten ; there. fore, by just induction, they argue, “Ye rebel to-day against the Lord; to-morrow will the Lord be wrotb with all the congregation.” They still tremble at the vengeance passed ; and find it time to prevent their own punishment, in punishing their brethren. God's proceedings have then their right use, when they are both carefully remembered, and made patterns of what he may do.
Had these Reubenites been as hot in their answer, as the Israelites were in their charge, here had grown a bloody war out of misprision: but now their answer is mild and moderate, and such as well shewed, that though they were "further from the ark, yet no less near to God. They thought in themselves, This act of ours, though it were well meant by us, yet might well be, by interpretation, scandalous; it is reason our mildness should give satisfaction for that offence which we have not prevented. Hereupon their answer was as pleasing, as their act was dangerous. Even in those actions whereby an offence may be occasioned, though not given, charity binds us to clear both our own name, and the conscience of others.
Little did the Israelites look for so good a ground of an action so suspicious; an altar without a sacrifice; an altar and no tabernacle ; an altar without a precept, and yet not against God. It is not safe to measure all men's actions by our own conceit, but rather to think there may be a further drift and warrant of their act, than we can attain to see.
By that time the Reubenites have commented upon their own work, it appears as justifiable, as before offensive. What wisdom and religion is found in that altar, which before shewed nothing but idolatry! This discourse of theirs is full both of reason and piety; we are severed by the river Jordan from the other tribes, perhaps hereafter our choice may exclude us from Israel. Posterity may peradventure say, Jordan is the bounds of all natural Israelites, the streams whereof never gave way to those beyond the river: if they had been ours, either in blood or religion, they would not have been sequestered in habitation. "Doubtless therefore these men are the offspring of some strangers, which, by vicinity of abode, have gotten some tincture of our language, manners, religion; what have we to do with them, what have they to do with the taber, nacle of God? Since therefore we may not either remove God's altar to us, or remove our patrimony to the altar, the pattern of the altar shall go with us not for sacrifice, but for memorial, that both the posterity of the other Israelites may know, we are no less derived from them, than this altar from theirs; and that our posterity may know, they pertain to that altar whereof this is the resemblance. There was no danger of the present; but posterity might both offer and receive prejudice, if this monument were not. It is a wise and holy care to prevent the dangers of ensuing times, and to settle religion upon the succeeding generations. As we affect to leave a perpetuity of our bodily issue, so much more to traduce piety with them. Do we not see good husbands set and plant those trees whereof their grand-children shall receive the first-fruit and shade? Why are we less thrifty in leaving true religion entire to our children's children?
Ehud and Eglon. As every man is guilty of his own sorrow, these Israelites bred mischief to themselves. It was their mercy that plagued them with those Canaanites, which their obedience should bave rooted out. If foolish pity be a more humane sin, yet it is no less dangerous than cruelty. Cruelty kills others, unjust pity kills ourselves. They had been lords alone of the promised land, if their commiseration had not overswayed their justice; and now their enemies are too cruel to them, in the just revenge of God, because they were too merciful. That God, which in his revealed will had commanded all the Canaanites to the slaughter, yet secretly gives over Israel to a toleration of some Canaanites, for their own punishment. He hath bidden us cleanse our hearts of all our corruptions ; yet he will permit some of these thorns still in our sides, for exercise, for humiliation. If we could lay violent hands upon our sins, our souls should have peace; now our indulgence costs us many stripes, and many tears. What a continued circle is here of sins, judgments, repentance, deliverances? The conversation with idolaters taints them with sin, their sin draws on judgment, the smart of the judgment moves them to repentance, upon their repentance follows speedy deliverance, upon their peace and deliverance, they sin again.
Othniel, Caleb's nephew, had rescued them from idolatry and servitude; his life, and their innocence and peace, ended together. How powerful the presence of one good man is in a church or state, is best found in his loss.
A man that is at once eminent in place and goodness, is like a stake in a hedge; pull that up, and all the rest are but loose and rotten sticks easily removed : or like the pillar of a vaulted roof; which either supports or ruins the building. Who would not think idolatry an absurd and unnatural thing? which as it hath the fewest inducements, so had also the most direct inhibitions from God; and yet after all these warnings, Israel falls into it again. Neither affliction nor repentance can secure an Israelite from redoubling the worst sin, if he be left to his own frailty. It is no censuring of the truth of our present sorrow, by the event of a following miscarriage. The former cries of Israel to God were unfeigned, yet their present wickedness is abominable. “Let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."
No sooner had he said, Israel had rest, but he adds, They committed wickedness. The security of any people is the cause of their corruption. Standing waters soon grow noisome. While they were exercised with war, how scrupulous were they of the least intimation of idolatry! The news of a bare altar beyond Jordan drew them together for a revenge: now they are at peace with their enemies, they are at variance with God. It is both hard and happy not to be the worse with liberty. The sedentary life is most subject to diseases.
Rather than Israel shall want a scourge for their sin, God himself shall raise them up an enemy. Moab had no quarrel but his own ambition; but God meant, by the ambition of the one part, to punish the idolatry of the other: his justice can make one sin the executioner of another, whilst neither shall look for any other measure from him but judgment. The evil of the city is so his, that the instrument is not guiltless. Before, God had stirred up the king of Syria against Israel ; now, the king of Moab; afterwards, the king of Canaan. He hath more variety of judgments, than there can be offences. If we have once inade him our adversary, he shall be sure to make us adversaries enough, which shall revenge his quarrel, whilst they prosecute their own.
Even those were idolaters, by whose hands God plagued the idolatries of Israel. In Moab, the same wickedness prospers, which in God's own people is punished. The justice of the Almighty can least brook evil in his own. The same heathen, which provoked Israel to sin, shall scourge them for sinning. Our very profession hurts us, if we be not innocent.
No less than eighteen years did the road of Moab l'est upon the inheritance of God. Israel seems as born to servitude ; they came from their bondage in the land of Egypt to serve in the land of promise. They had neglected God, now they are neglected of God; their sins have made them servants, whom the choice of God had made free, yea, his first-born. Worthy are they to serve those men, whose false gods they had served ; and to serve them always in thraldom, whom they have once served in idolatry. We may not ineasure the continuance of punishment by the time of the commission of sin ; one ininute's sin deserves a torment beyond all time.
Doubtless Israel was not so insensible of their own misery, as not to complain sooner than the end of eighteen years. The first hour they sighed for themselves, but now they cried unto God. The very purpose of affliction is to make us importunate. He hears the secret murmurs of our grief; yet will not seem to hear us, till our cries be loud and strong. God sees it best to let the penitent dwell for the time under their sorrows; be sees us sinking all the while, yet he lets us alone, till we be at the bottom : and when once we can say, “Out of the depths have I cried to thee;" instantly follows, “ The Lord heard me.” A vehement suitor cannot but be heard of God, whatsoever he asks. If our prayers want success, they want heart; their blessing is according to their vigour. We live in bondage to these spiritual Moabites, our own corruptions. It discontents us : but where are our strong cries unto the God of heavens ? where are our tears? If we could passionately bemoan ourselves to him, how soon should we be more than conquerors? Some good motions we have to send up to him, but they faint in the way. We may call long enough, if we cry not to him.
The same hand that raised up Eglon against Israel, raised up also Ehud for Israel against Eglon. When that tyrant hath revenged God of his people, God will revenge his people of him. It is no privilege to be an instrument of God's vengeance by evil means. Though Eglon were an usurper, yet had Ehud been a traitor if God had not sent him. It is only in the power of him that makes kings, when they are once settled to depose them. It is no more possible for our modern butchers of princes, to shew they are employed by God, than to escape the revenge of God, in offering to do this violence, not being employed.
What a strange choice doth God make of an executioner? A man wanting of his right hand; either he had but one hand, or used but one, and that the worse, and the more unready. Who would not have thought both hands too little for such a work, or, if either might have been spared, how much rather the left? “God seeth not as man seeth.” It is the ordinary way of the Almighty to make choice of the unlikeliest means. The instruments of God must not be measured by their own power or aptitude, but by the will of the agent. Though Ehud had no hands, he that employed him had enabled him to this slaughter. In human things, it is good to look to the means ; in divine to the worker. No means are to be contemned, that God will use; no means to be trusted, that man will use without him.
It is good to be suspicious, where is least shew of danger, and most appearance of favour. This left-handed man comes with a present in his hand, but a dagger under his skirt. The tyrant, besides service, looked for gifts; and now receives death in his bribe : neither God nor men do always give where they love. How oft doth God give extraordinary illumination, power of miracles, besides wealth and honour, where he hates ! So do men too oft accompany their curses with