The days of the patriarch Israel were drawing to a close. The eyes that had scanned with keenness the Promised Land now were dim; the arm that had drawn the bow against the Amorite lay lax. But still his mind was clear, and on this day of the Final Blessing it was inspired by the Spirit of God.
Jacob called before him his twelve sons, men grown, every one of them fathers and some of them grandfalhers. They had passed the days of their youth, wild and stormy for most of them, and they had come out into a haven of peace. Yet the thoughts and the deeds of their lives were written in their characters, and would be transmitted to their posterity. Good and evil were commingled. The good might be confirmed, the evil might be conquered; that was the task of ages to come, a fight to be fought by every individual member of every tribe. And that the issues might be of record, the sons of Israel were to be told by the Spirit of God, speaking through their father Jacob.
The words of Jacob to his oldest son: "Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power" (Gen. 49:3). What a eulogy is this! Wouldn't you like to have that said about you? "the beginning of my strength," "the excellency of dignity," "the excellency of power." That is the character which, of right, was Reuben's, with which, indeed, he was endowed. But it was spoiled by a fatal defect. What was that? We read it in the next words: "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel."
You know how unstable water is. Have you ever tried to build anything upon water? Suppose you put down some water as the foundation of a house, does it stand up sturdily and firmly?—No. What does it do? —Why, it runs away, downhill, curling around every little molehill in its way, always seeking the easiest course, and always going downhill.
That is like Reuben. He had good qualities. He was amiable, kind-hearted, ready to relieve in distress; but he had no backbone, no grit and determination to go through hard things. He always sought the easiest way. It was so in his personal life: he was not master of his passions, he could not say No to his appetites; and because of that, he was led into terrible and vile sin. That defect nurtured in his private life showed also in his public acts. He could not be decisive, he could not stand against the opposition of his fellows.
You remember the time when his brother Joseph was sold as a slave. Those nine cruel men, urged by Simeon, seized the frightened lad, and were about to kill him; but Reuben could not bear that. He wished to deliver Joseph; but how did he go about it? He was the oldest of the brethren; his was the right of leadership. He might have struck his fist into his hand, and said to those men: "No; you shall not hurt one hair of my brother's head. I will send him home safe to his father."
But, no, Reuben could not do that. Unstable as water, he could not lead; he must seek an easier way. So, like water curling around its molehills, he skirted the difficulty, and made, as he thought, a better, an indirect plan. "Let us not kill him outright," he urged; "here is a dry pit; let us put him in there and leave him. He will perish, but his blood will not be on our bands." But he intended when his brothers had gone, to come and pull Joseph out and send him home.
So they listened to him, and thrust Joseph into the pit. Reuben went away to hide his feelings. While he was gone, his brothers, at Judah's suggestion, sold the boy to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites; and Reuben, upon his return, was smitten with the fact that his timorous effort at rescue had failed. His easy way had made a harder situation.
Yet again he sought to avoid straight consequences. He might now have gone to his father and made a clean breast of the matter; but that was too difficult a role for Reuben. His brothers succeeded in drawing him into their scheme of deceiving their father as to the death of Joseph; and twenty-two years of sorrow were to pass before the evil was cured.
I have no doubt that Reuben carried influence, had weight, sometimes. That is the nature of water. Put it under certain conditions, and it can turn mill wheels and set great machinery to work. But it always does it going down. And that is the nature of the Reubenite. "Hail fellow well met," he is often the evil genius of the gang, the one whose proposal of a drink, whose graceful flourish of a cigarette, whose invitation to a den of vice, carries his companions with him. But he cannot find a way to carry people with him upward; he is too watery, too wishy-washy. He may get into a passion, like a flood of water, and sweep things away in his rage; that is a characteristic of weak people. But his passion is damaging, not constructive.
"Well," you ask, "are people like that going into the kingdom?" We have a good many of them in the church, a whole tribe; but something is going to happen to them before they get into the sinless kingdom of glory. I don't know, my friends, that any of you belong to the tribe of Reuben. But if in your own soul you know that you do, if you feel your weakness in dealing with your appetites, your passions, your difficulties; if you sorrowfully acknowledge yourself a Reubenite—take heart! God will make you over.
Listen! There is something else about water. Weak, unstable, downward-tending as it is, it can be wondrously transformed. Shut water up in a boiler; put fire under it; make it hot, and hotter, and hotter, and HOTTER, and what happens?—Why, that water turns to steam. And has steam power? —None greater. It has a thousand times the power of water, and it exercises it going up.
And that is just what will happen to the Reubenites who are to go into the kingdom. Let God take us, and put us into a situation where the trials are more terrible than we think we can bear; let His fires of affliction grow hotter and hotter; and if by His grace we will stand to it, long after we think we shall die in it—then the change of character will be made. Our weak points will become our strong points, our downward tendencies will become upward tendencies, our force will be exerted for God rather than for the flesh. We shall be changed from weak, watery Reubenites into forceful, steamlike Reubenites, in whom the good qualities of kindliness and helpfulness will show forth in perfect ministry to others.
The Reubenite may not be myself. I may be strong, upright, and inclined to be stern (strict, of course, I call it) with those who show weakness of character. And I observe that Reubenite dodging issues in public life, and falling down before the temptations of His appetite or his passion in private life. Maybe he has a weakness for drink or tobacco, or drugs, and sometimes, in an hour of temptation, down he goes. Or maybe, suddenly and to my horror, I hear that he has been caught in sensuality; his weak will and conscience, overcome by his passions, have let him down into social vice. And I crease my lips into a firm, straight line of virtue, and I lift my hands in horror, and I shake my head, and I say, "He's gone to the devil!"
But what is the law of the kingdom? "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye love one another." Has Jesus given him up? Did Jesus cast the first stone at the woman taken in adultery? Did He thrust the recreant Peter down to despair: No; no! He, the pure, the true, was the first to hold out His hand. "I condemn thee not," He said. And even as He loved them, the erring, so He loves the weak and fallen today. And so He asks you and me to love them, and help them, to stand by them. And by that love we shall rescue and save them, and bring them up to the place where they stand, in the transforming power of Christ, strong where once they were weak.
Simeon and Levi
"Simeon and Levi are brethren; instruments of cruelty are in their habitations" (Gen. 49:5). The particular crime that called forth this denunciation was the treacherous slaying, by these two brothers, of the men of Shechem; but their conduct at other times was in keeping with this description. The two brethren were not wholly alike. We may discern in Simeon a zeal which was debased, by a passionate nature, into wrath and treachery; in Levi, we may see a stern sense of right, which, under evil influences, led him less to the checking of his own wrongdoing than to cruel and savage punishment of other offenders. Zeal and loyalty, when infused with love, are among the most valuable traits in the Christian character, and God makes use of them. But without that prime principle of love, whereby, Jesus said, "shall all men know that ye are my disciples," they have the terrible results that cause the Spirit to cry: "0 my soul, come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly, mine honor, be not thou united."
There are bloody pages of church history ascribable to the Simeonites and Levites of Christ's body, who, with sincere zeal, but without the knowledge which can come only through love, smote infidel and heretic with terrific destruction. They thought they were doing God service; but the sentence of the Spirit is, "Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel."
To-day in the church of Christ there are potential inquisitors whose spirit, unless conquered by the love of God, will lead them into the condemnation of Simeon and Levi.
Levi, however, underwent a great change. Like John the beloved disciple of Jesus, who, from being a "son of thunder," came to be the apostle of love, Levi was so transformed that his impregnable loyalty made the bulwark rather than the danger of Israel. In the apostasy at Sinai, when Israel went into the worship of the Egyptian bull god, Serapis, the tribe of Levi, with few exceptions, stood loyal to Jehovah, and it was rewarded with the trust of the perpetual tuition of Israel. "They shall teach Jacob thy judgments, and Israel thy law" (Dent. 33:10). The roll of Levi's great ones is second only to that of Judah. AVhat heroic memories in the wars of God are recalled as we name Jochebed, Moses, Aaron, Phinehas, Samuel Abiathar, Jehoiada, Jeremiah, the Maccabees, John the Baptist! Love added to loyalty softens the sternness of an adamant nature into the sweetness and the firmness of the teacher.
If, then, we find in our midst today—as we shall—those who have a zeal not balanced by knowledge, or a forbidding sternness that would call down fire from heaven upon the erring and the froward, let us not forget that still they may be members of God's Israel, and that He is concerned to convert and employ them. How often we are called to grieve over the intemperate words or ill-advised acts of some member of our church who has thus brought discredit upon the cause of God! But let us leave the condemnation of Simeon to God, while, with the love wherewith Christ has loved us, we pray for him, and seek to help him, by word and example, into a zeal that is according to knowledge. Again, with what a shock we sometimes run full tilt into a Covenanter breed of church father, whose rigid code and contemptuous hatred of the lightness of youth seem certain to drive the younger or the less solid members of the church to despair and rebellion! But let us not forget that God can change Levi, and that His instrument of love may be exercised for that purpose through us, if we remember our Saviour's commandment, "That ye love one another; as I have loved you."
Let Simeon and Levi also consider their course; for only by the entrance of the loving Christ, who will drive out their passion and their cruelty, can they ever become full members in the church God knows as His own.
(To be continued)