"He loved the people; all His saints are in Thy hand; and they sat down at Thy feet; every one shall receive of Thy words."—Deuteronomy xxxiii. 3.
Whoever was the author of this great song, he has, by dint of divine inspiration and his sympathy with the inmost spirit of the Old Covenant, anticipated some of the deepest thoughts of the New Covenant, in the words at the head of this paper. His invocations of blessing on the tribes have for their foundation the revelation of God on Sinai. He begins with the fact with which the national existence began, and on the basis of that, outlines in these words the elements of the relation between God and His " saints."
Divine Love is the starting-point of all. The word rendered "loved" is eloquent, both in its literal meaning and in its form. It is only employed in this place, but has cognates in allied languages, which mean the bosom and a tender embrace, and so it suggests the picture of that Divine Lover foiding "the people " to His heart, as a mother might her child, and cherishing them in His bosom. The participial form is used here, implying that the act spoken of is continuous. That tender love is timeless, lifted above the distinctions of tenses, such as past, present or future, having no beginning and therefore no end, no growth and therefore no decay.
Further, mark the place in this great song where this verse comes in. As we said, it is laid as the beginning of everything. "We love Him because He first loved us " was the height to which the last of the Apostles attained in the last of his writings. But this singer, with the mists of antiquity round him, who knew nothing about the Cross, nothing about the historical Christ, who had only that which modern thinkers tell us is a revelation of a wrathful God, somehow or other rose to the height of the evangelical conception of God's love as the foundation of the very existence of a people who are His. Like an orchid growing on a block of dry wood and putting forth a gorgeous bloom, he, with so much less to feed his faith than we have, has yet borne this fair flower of deep and devout insight into the secret of things and the heart of God. "He loved the people "—therefore He formed them for Himself; therefore He brought them out of bondage; therefore He came down in flashing fire on Sinai and made known His will, which to know and do is life. All begins from the tender, timeless love of God.
And if the question is asked, Why does God thus love ? the only answer is, Because He is God. "Not for your sakes, O house of Israel . . . but for mine own name's sake." The love of God is selforiginated. In it, as in all His acts, He is His own motive, as His name, "I am that I am," proclaims. It is inseparable from His being, and flows forth before, and independent of, any thing in the creature which could draw it out. Men's love is attracted by their perception or their imagination of something lovable in its objects. It is like a well, where there has to be much work of the pump-handle before the gush comes. God's love is like an artesian well, or a fountain springing up from unknown depths in obedience to its own impulse.
The bed-rock is the spontaneous, unalterable, inexhaustible, ever-active, fervent love of God, like that with which a mother clasps her child to her maternal breast. This great thought was a product of Judaism. Let no man say that the God of Love is unknown to the Old Testament.
From that root of all things springs guardian care of all who answer His love by theirs. The singer goes on, mixing up his pronouns in the usual fashion of Hebrew poetry, "All His saints are in Thy hand." Now, what is a saint? A man that answers God's love by his love. The notion of a saint has been marred and mutilated by the Church and the world. It has been taken as a special designation of certain selected individuals, mostly of the ascetic and monastic type, whereas it belongs to every one of God's people. It has been taken by the world to mean sanctimoniousness and not sanctity, and is a term of contempt rather than of admiration on their lips. And even those of us who have got beyond thinking that it is a title of honour, belonging only to the aristocracy of Christ's kingdom, are too apt to mistake what it really does mean. The root idea of sanctity or holiness is not moral character, goodness of disposition, and of action, but it is separation from the world and consecration to God. As surely as a magnet applied to a heap of miscellaneous filings will pick out every little bit of iron there, so surely will that love which He bears to the people, when it is responded to, draw to itself, and therefore draw out of the heap, the men that feel its impulse and its preciousness. And so "saint" means, secondly, righteous and pure, but it means, first, knit to God, separated from evil, and separated by the power of His received love.
Do I yield to that timeless, tender clasp of the Divine Father and Mother in one? Do I answer it by my love? If I do, then I am a saint, because I belong to Him, and He belongs to me. And in that commerce I have broken with the world. If we are true to ourselves, and true to our Lord, and true to the relation between us, the purity of character which is popularly supposed to be the meaning of holiness will come. Not without effort, not without set-backs, not without slow advance, but it will come. For he that is consecrated to the Lord is separated from iniquity.
"All His saints are in Thy hand." The first metaphor of our text spoke about God's bosom, to which He drew the people and folded them there. This one speaks about His hand. They lie in it. That means two things. It means absolute security, for will He not close His fingers over His palm to keep the soul that has laid itself there? And " none shall pluck them out of my Father's hand." No one but ourselves can do that. And we can do it, if we cease to respond to His love, and so cease to be saints. Then we shall fall out of His hand, and how far we shall fall God only knows.
Being in God's hand means also submission. Loyola said to his black army, " Be like a stick in a man's hand." That meant utter submission and abnegation of self, the willingness to be put anywhere, and used anyhow, and done anything with. And if I, by my reception of, and response to, that timeless love, am a saint belonging to God, then not only shall I be secure, but must I be submissive. "All His saints are in Thy hand." Do not try to get out of it; be content to be guided as the steersman's hand turns the spokes of the wheel and directs the ship.
"They sat down at Thy feet; every one shall receive of Thy words." The picture sets before us a group of docile scholars, listening with open ears to the Teacher. But another rendering seems more probable, namely, "they follow at Thy feet "; then the picture is of the saints following the God whom they love, like sheep their shepherd. Religion is imitation of God. That was a deep thought for such a stage of revelation, and it in part anticipates Christ's tender words: "He goeth before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice." They " follow at His foot." That is the blessedness and the power of Christian morality, that it is keeping close at Christ's heels, and that, instead of its being said to us, "Go," He says, "Come," and instead of bidding us hew out for ourselves a path of duty, He says to us, "He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."
They " receive His words." Yes, if we keep close to Him, He will turn round and speak to us. If we are near enough to Him to catch His whisper, He will not leave us without guidance. It is one side of the thought, that following we receive what He says, whereas they that are away far behind Him scarcely know what His will is, and never can catch the low whisper which will come to us by providences, through the exercise of our own faculties of judgment and common sense, if only we will keep near to Him. "Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding, whose mouths must be held in with bit and with bridle, else they will not come near to thee," but walk close behind Him, and then the promise will be fulfilled: "I will guide thee with mine eye." A glance tells two who are in sympathy what each wishes, and Jesus Christ will speak to us if we keep close in His steps.
They that follow Him will receive His words in another sense; they will take them in, and His words will not be wasted And they will receive them in yet another sense; they will carry them out and do them, and His words will not be in vain.
So the peace, the strength, the blessedness, the goodness of our lives flow from these three stages, that this singer so long ago had found to be the essence of everything, recognition of the timeless tenderness of God, yielding to and answering that love, so that it separates us for Himself, the calm security and happy submission which follow thereon, the imitation of Him in daily life, and the walking in His steps, which are rewarded and made more perfect by hearing more distinctly the whisper of His loving, commanding voice.