"And behold the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed."—Exodus iii. 2.
It was a sharp descent from Pharaoh's palace to the wilderness, and forty years of a shepherd's life were a strange contrast to the brilliant future that had once seemed likely for Moses. But God tests His weapons before using them, and great men are prepared for great deeds by great sorrows. Solitude is the mother-country of the strong, and the wilderness with its savage crags, its awful silence, and the unbroken round of its blue heaven, was a surer place to meet God in than the heavy air of a palace or the vulgar splendours of a court. So, as the lonely shepherd was pacing slowly in front of his flock, he saw a strange light that asserted itself even in the bright desert sunshine. "The bush " does not mean a single shrub, but implies a little cluster or copse of the dry undergrowth, characteristic of the desert, over which any ordinary fire would have passed like a flash, leaving it grey ashes. But that steady light persisted long enough to draw the attention of the shepherd, and to admit of his going some way before reaching it. And then—and then—the Lord spoke. What did the unconsumed bush mean?
It is generally understood as a symbolical representation of the preservation of Israel, even in the fiery furnace of Egyptian oppression. But, beautiful as that explanation is, and consecrated to some of us as it is by the use made of it in the Churches of Scotland, which take Nec tamen consumebatur as their motto, it seems to break the law that applies to all other symbolical accompaniments of divine appearances, which uniformly set forth truth about God and not about His Church, and represent to the e3re the same Revelation as is given to the ear by the articulate words. The bush proclaimed the same truths which were spoken out of it, and these were a Revelation of the divine nature.
Throughout Scripture, fire is a symbol of that nature, as in the smoking lamp and the blazing fire that Abraham saw, or the pillar that lighted the darkness over the sleeping camp, or as in the prophet's word, "The light of Israel shall be a flaming fire," or as in the Baptist's prophecy of a baptism in the Holy Ghost and in fire, or* as at Pentecost with its fiery tongues, or as in the great saying, "Our God is a consuming fire." In almost every religion on earth a sacred significance attached to fire. That significance is not primarily destruction, as we sometimes suppose, an error which has led to ghastly misunderstandings of some Scriptures, and of the God whom they reveal. When, for instance, Isaiah asks, "Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?" he has been supposed to be asking what soul can endure the terrors of God's consuming and unending wrath. But a little attention to the words would have shown that "the devouring fire" and the "everlasting burnings" mean God and not hell, and that the divine nature is by them not represented as too fierce to be approached, but as the true dwelling-place of men, which indeed only the holy can inhabit, but to inhabit which is life. Precisely parallel is the Psalmist's question, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, and who shall stand in His holy place?" Fire is the source of warmth, and so, in a sense, of life. It is full of quick energy; it transmutes dead matter into its own ruddy likeness, and changes gross earthly dulness into flame aspiring towards the skies. Therefore it is fit symbol of creative and cleansing power. God is the fiery Spirit of the universe, a spark from whom irradiates and vitalises every living thing. But the felicity of the symbol is that, along with blessed thoughts of life-giving and purifying, it suggests potentiality of destructive energy. The same God is the fire to quicken, sanctify and bless, and if rejected, to consume. "What maketh heaven, that maketh hell."
The bush burned and was not consumed. That undying flame teaches the same great truth as the accompanying words, "I am that I am." It burns and does not burn out, it has no exhaustion waiting on its energy, and thus is a symbol of the One Being whose being is its own law and its own source. He gives and is none the poorer; He works and never wearies; He "operates unspent"; He loves and loves for ever. We are that which we become, He is that which He is. We die because we live, but He lives by His own life. That fire burns, and needs no replenishing, and knows no extinction. Surely that great sight, which startled and strengthened the shepherd for his tremendous task, may well evoke our faith. Surely, in our fleeting days, the one means of securing for ourselves blessedness, rest, strength, and a life that, like His, can never die into cold ashes, is to grasp this great truth, and to knit ourselves to Him who lives for ever, and whose love is as lasting as His life. "The eternal God, the Lord, fainteth not, neither is weary. He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might he reneweth strength."
Regarding the lowly thorn-bush as an emblem of Israel—which unquestionably it is, though the fire be the symbol of God—in the fact that the symbolical manifestation of the divine energy lived in so lowly a shrine, and preserved it by its burning, there is a great and blessed truth. It is the same truth which Jesus Christ, with a depth of interpretation that put to shame the cavilling listeners, found in the words that accompanied this vision: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." He said to the sneering Sadducees, who like all other sneerers, saw only the surface of what they were sarcastic about, "Did not Moses teach you in "—the section about "the bush, that the dead rise, when he said: I AM the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob." A man of whom it can once be said that God is his God, cannot die. Such a bond can never be broken. The communion of earth, imperfect as it is, is the prophecy of heaven and the pledge of immortality. And so from that relationship which subsisted between the fathers and God, Christ infers the certainty of their resurrection. It seems a great leap, but there are intervening steps not stated by our Lord, which securely bridge the distance between the premises and the conclusion. Such communion is, in its very nature, unaffected by the accident of death. Therefore, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still living, "for all"—those whom we call dead, as well as those whom we call living—" live unto Him," and though so many centuries have passed, God still is, not was, their God. The relation between them is eternal, and guarantees their immortal life. But immortality without corporeity is not conceivable as the perfect state, and if the dead live still, there must come a time when the whole man shall partake of redemption; and in body, soul, and spirit, the glorified and risen saints shall be for ever with the Lord.
That is but the fuller working out of the same truth that is taught us in the symbol. "The bush burned and was not consumed." God dwelt in it, therefore it flamed; God dwelt in it, therefore though it flamed, it never flamed out. Or in other words, the Church, or individual in whom He dwells, partakes of the immortality of the indwelling God. "Every one shall be salted with fire," which shall be preservative and not destructive; or, as Christ has said, "because I live ye shall live also."
Humble as was the ragged sapless bush, springing up and living amidst the desert sands, it was not too humble to hold God; it was not too gross to burst into flame at His touch; it was not too fragile to be gifted with unconsumed life, like His that deigned to abide in it. If He dwells in us, we shall live as long as, and because, He lives, and the fire that He kindles shall be in us a fountain of fire, springing up into life everlasting.