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Gideon's Altar

"Then Gideon built an altar there unto the Lord, and called it Jehovah-shalom " (the Lord is peace).

Judges vi. 24.

The picturesque story is familiar of the simple husbandman up in the hills, engaged furtively in threshing out a little wheat in some hollow in the rock, where he might hide it from the keen eyes of the oppressors; and of how the angel of the Lord, unrecognised at first, appeared to him; and gradually there dawned upon his mind the suspicion of who he was who spoke. Then follow the offering, the discovery by fire, the shrinking of the man from contact with the Divine, the wonderfully tranquillising and condescending assurance, cast into the form of the ordinary salutation of domestic life: "And the Lord said unto him, Peace be unto thee "—as any man might have said to any other: "Fear not! thou shalt not die." Then Gideon piles up the unhewn stones on the hillside into a rude altar, apparently not for the purpose of offering sacrifice, but for a monument, to which is given this name, "The Lord is peace." A strange title to be given by warrior lips, and in view of the fierce conflict to which the divine vision, which the altar commemorated, had summoned Gideon! But the very inappropriateness, as it seems, of the designation leads to inquiry as to its significance, and to discerning the large truths expressed by it.

The name first suggests the great discovery which Gideon had made, that the sight of God was not death but life and peace. Up to the time of the vision he had apparently been contentedly tolerating the prevailing idolatry. He had heard of Jehovah as a name, a tradition from his fathers. Into his hearsay religion came, as with a flash, the conviction that this hearsay God was beside him, speaking to him, and that he had personal relations with Him. Whenever the lightning edge of such a conviction cuts down through formalisms and conventional religion, and pierces the heart, there comes what came to Gideon, the swift thought—" If I really am in touch with the living Person whose name is Jehovah, what is to become of me? Shall I not shrivel up to nothingness when His fiery finger is laid on me?" Were there no sin there would be no fear, but hearts would open in silent blessedness, and yield sweet fragrance of love and adoration, as flowers do to the kiss of the sunbeams. But, taking that sad and universal fact into account, men cannot but shrink from the revealing light, and be struck with terror at the vision of God. It is sad that it should be so. But it is sadder still when it is not so, but when, as is sometimes the case, the sight of God wakes no sense of sin, and no consciousness of discord, or foreboding of judgment. For, only through that valley of the shadow of death lies the path to the happy confidence of peace with God, and unless there has been trembling at the beginning, there will be no firm and reasonable trust afterwards.

Gideon's terror prepared the way for the gracious proclamation, " Peace be unto thee; fear not, thou shalt not die." So dread melted into joy, and what had been a fountain of death became a wellspring of life. The divine message met Gideon's then deepest need, and he drank it in, as the parched ground sucks up the showers, and, in the rapture of the discovery that the name, which had come down to him from of old, was the name of a living Person with whom he stood in real relationship of simple friendship and concord, he piled the rough stones into a memorial altar, and gave it the designation which echoed the divine word that had emancipated him from dread, and filled his heart with strange, new delight. If God is our peace, then all will be peace. Peace with God will widen and deepen into "the peace of God." Trust is tranquillity; submission is repose. To live near Him and to cease from our own works is to enter into rest. God being my peace, and I yielding myself to Him, the fever of my unrest is cooled down and my heart is quiet.

The purpose of the vision was to send Gideon as God's soldier into a desperate struggle, of which the first blow was to be struck that very night. It summoned him to years of hard war, and yet its inmost message was: "The Lord is peace." We should rather have expected the inspiration for battle to have been drawn from "The Lord is a man of war." But it is a deep thought that the peace of God is the best preparation for conflict. It gives courage, it leaves the heart at leisure, so as to bring all its force to bear on the conflict, it braces with the consciousness of a divine ally. The Christian soldier's feet are "shod with the preparedness of the gospel of peace." That will make us " ready, aye ready," for the roughest march, and enable us to stand firm against the most violent charges of the enemy. There is no such preparation for the conflict of life, whether it be waged against our own inward evil, or against opposing forces without, as to have deep within the soul the settled and substantial peace of God. If we are to come out of the battle with victory sitting on our helmets, we must go into it with the Dove of God brooding in our hearts.

But, besides this thought that the knowledge of Jehovah as peace fits us for strife, that hastily reared altar with its seemingly inappropriate name, may remind us that, in the sternest hand-to-hand grip with evil, we may possess a tranquillity which knows no disturbance. The depths of ocean are still, though storms rave and race along the surface. Over the tortured waters of the cataract the bow of promise and of peace lies unmoving, though its particles are in perpetual change. So over all the rush and thunder of life there may stretch, radiant and manycoloured, and dyed by the very Sun Himself, the abiding bow of beauty. The Christian life is continual warfare, but in it all, " the peace of God which passeth understanding" may " garrison our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." In the keep of the castle, while the storm of war is breaking on the walls, there will be a quiet chamber where no shafts of the assailants can penetrate, and " the noise of them that strive for the mastery " is never heard. Dwelling in the " secret place of the Most High," we can keep our souls in peace, while we fight the good fight of faith. We are God's warriors; let us make sure that on every battle-field we rear an altar and call it " The Lord is peace."

The altar spoke of the aim of the conflict and the hope which sustained the warrior. Gideon fought for peace; and if we would enter into peace, we, too, shall have to fight for it. The Christian warfare, whilst it rests upon, and is prompted by, the revelation of the God who is Peace, aims in all its blows at the conquering of that sure and settled peace which shall be broken by no rebellious outbursts of self-will, nor by any risings of passions and desires. What we should fight for is that the peace of God may be throned in our hearts, and sit there a gentle queen. The true tranquillity of the blessed life is the prize of conflict.

The altar was a trophy erected before the battle, and the confidence that war would result in victory, and that victory would bring peace, was based only on reliance on Jehovah. Across the dust of our conflicts the fair vision of eternal peace should gleam, visible to the eye of faith, and able to renew fainting strength and revive drooping courage, if we fix our gaze on it. We may realise that hope in large measure here. But its fulfilment is reserved for the land of peace which we enter by the last conflict with the last enemy. Every Christian's gravestone is an altar on which is written, "The Lord is peace," in token that the soldier sleeping there has passed into the land in which "violence shall no more be heard, wasting nor destruction within its borders," but deep repose and the unarmed, because unattacked, peace of communion with and likeness to Jehovah our Peace.

So let us pass from tradition and hearsay into personal intercourse with God, and from shrinking and doubt into the sunshine of the conviction that He is our peace. And then, with His tranquillity in our hearts, let us go out, the elect apostles of the peace of God, and fight for Him, after the pattern of the Captain of our salvation, who had to conquer peace through conflict; and was "first of all King of Righteousness, and after that also King of Peace."