"Thou shalt . . . bake twelve cakes. . . . And thou shalt set them in two rows, six in a row, upon the pure table before the Lord."—Leviticus xxiv. 5, 6.
The altar in the centre of the Holy Place symbolised the central necessity of the devout life, prayer and communion with God, while the great lamp with its seven arms figuring the flashing out of the light from such a life into a dark world, stood on one side of the altar, and on the other, this table with the products of man's labour laid thereon. Twelve cakes of bread, obviously one for each of the twelve tribes, were laid or piled in two rows on it. Bread is the result of man's labour on corn, which is God's gift. So the loaves stood for the whole class of things to which they belonged, and may be taken to represent the sum of human activities. The literal translation of the words rendered Shewbread is "bread of the face "—that is to say, bread which is to lie before the face of Jehovah, and on which His pure eyes rest.
Thus the lamp and the Shewbread together represent the two sides of the devout life, which, on the one hand, is to ray out light into the world, and, on the other, is to present all its activities before God; and between them stood the altar, representing that perpetual aspiration of the soul towards God, and that continual communion with Him which make both these possible. If, then, the teaching of the table of Shewbread is that the devout life is an offering of its activities to God, the place where it stood is profoundly significant. It flanked the altar of incense, as we have just said, and that means that prayer must underlie all consecrated action. It stood in the inner court, and could only be reached by passing the altar of burnt-offering, which means that only he who has had his part in the sacrifice offered at that altar can pass into the Holy Place, and that no acts piled on that table are acceptable unless their doer has so shared. Expiation must precede consecration. Unless sin is taken away by Christ's sacrifice, the way into the Holy Place is barred, and unless we have made the power of that sacrifice ours by personal faith, we shall not offer our works to God.
The mercy of God, focused into a burning-point in the great sacrifice offered on the Cross which is the world's altar, is the only motive that moves men to offer themselves and their activities as living sacrifices. That fire only will melt the ice of our nature, and make it flow down in sweet waters of thankful service.
What, then, is the conception of life set for our adoption in that table? The presentation by ourselves of ourselves and our acts, both those of hand and foot, and those of mind and heart, before the "pure eyes and perfect judgment " of Him "whose eyes our inmost substance see," but who desires that we should spread them and ourselves before Him, and not only think "Thou, God, seest me," but rejoice in the thought. We lay our acts before God, when we set God before us, and as the Psalmist long ago had learned, we "shall not be moved " if, by the meditations of our minds, by the outgoings of our hearts, by the submission of our wills, by the consecration of our efforts, we set Him always before us.
To the recognition of His presence must be added reference to His will, if we would present the results of our doings to God. The main instrument of parting us from Him is our lifting up ourselves, our purpose, wishes, resolutions against, or independent of, His will. It is a great thing to sacrifice our wills, even though the matter in question is small. People sometimes scoff at the apostle who said, "We have left all and followed Thee," and think that a fishing boat and some nets was not a very magnificent " all" to make a merit of leaving. But Peter had left more than boat and nets—he had left himself, and that was much. We do not spread our activities before God unless, recognising His presence, we bend our wills and, if necessary, bind them with strong fetters, and submit ourselves wholly to Him.
It was appointed that, on the top of the rows or piles of loaves, incense was to be laid. We have seen that incense was a symbol of prayer. So, on the acts of our busy lives should be sprinkled a grain or two of incense. We must manage somehow to unite the blessings and characteristics of the active and of the contemplative life. Work without prayer is scarcely Christian work, and prayer without work is scarcely prayer. When incense is laid on the bread, both are fit to lie before God in the Holy Place.
But the Shewbread said something about God as well as about us. It expressed the great, wonderful truth that our poor work is all a delight to Him. To speak of men's works as God's food is a bold piece of anthropomorphism, but it is no bolder than the other more familiar representation that they are an odour of a sweet smell. One sense is no grosser than another. Taste and scent may be paired off together, and it is no more unworthy of God to speak of food for God than to speak of fragrance delightsome to Him. We read that He found Israel as grapes in the desert, which just means that, as a thirsty traveller would be delighted to find springing amidst the sandy waste an unexpected vine with its juicy, cool clusters, so God rejoices to find in us that which He permits us to conceive of as refreshing Him. We may recall, too, how our Lord sought fruit on the fig tree, which represented the Jewish people, and how He came to the disciples after His resurrection and asked them, as He stood in the morning twilight by the shore, "Children, have ye any meat ?" and how He Himself ate of the "fish which they had caught," setting forth thereby not only the fact of His true corporeity, but His acceptance of the work of His followers. Nor should we forget His message from heaven, in which He has promised to come in and sup with us if we open the door. He delights in our poor deeds when they are laid before Him. That belief should give dignity and blessedness to life, and make us feel that we do great things when we do small things as in His sight and for the love of Him.
Every Sabbath the loaves were renewed, and the old ones taken away, to be eaten by the priests who had, as the representatives of the people, offered them. Our life's activities offered to God will nourish ourselves. Every noble desire and act, every self-surrendering and self-oblivious deed, every piece of service which has "For His dear sake" written on it, will come back in benediction and satisfy and strengthen its doer. Jesus said, "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me." That is our true meat too, and if we eat of it, " in the days of famine we shall be satisfied." All other kinds of activity, sweet as they may be to the taste, starve a man and fill his mouth with gravel; but if we yield ourselves and our works to God, He will give us them back and, in a blessed sense, we shall be filled with the fruit of our doings. Let us see to it that we so live as to gain strength from our labour, and to find that our nourishment and refreshment is, like our Lord's, to do the Father's will and to finish His work.