As an educator no part of the Bible is of greater value than are its biographies. These biographies differ from all others in that they are absolutely true to life. It is impossible for any finite mind to interpret rightly, in all things, the workings of another. None but He who reads the heart, who discerns the secret springs of motive and action, can with absolute truth delineate character, or give a faithful picture of a human life. In God's word alone is found such delineation.
No truth does the Bible more clearly teach than that what we do is the result of what we are. To a great degree the experiences of life are the fruition of our own thoughts and deeds.
"The curse causeless shall not come." Proverbs 26:2.
"Hear, O earth: behold, I will bring evil upon this people, even the fruit of their thoughts." Jeremiah 6:19.
Terrible is this truth, and deeply should it be impressed. Every deed reacts upon the doer. Never a human being but may recognize, in the evils that curse his life, fruitage of his own sowing. Yet even thus we are not without hope. To gain the birthright that was his already by God's promise, Jacob resorted to fraud, and he reaped the harvest in his brother's hatred. Through twenty years of exile he was himself wronged and defrauded, and was at last forced to find safety in flight; and he reaped a second harvest, as the evils of his own character were seen to crop out in his sons--all but too true a picture of the retributions of human life.
But God says: "I will not contend forever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before Me, and the souls which I have made. For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid Me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners. . . . Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord; and I will heal him." Isaiah 57:16-19.
Jacob in his distress was not overwhelmed. He had repented, he had endeavored to atone for the wrong to his brother. And when threatened with death through the wrath of Esau, he sought help from God. "Yea, he had power over the Angel, and prevailed: he wept, and made supplication." "And He blessed him there." Hosea 12:4; Genesis 32:29. In the power of His might the forgiven one stood up, no longer the supplanter, but a prince with God. He had gained not merely deliverance from his outraged brother, but deliverance from himself. The power of evil in his own nature was broken; his character was transformed.
At eventide there was light. Jacob, reviewing his life-history, recognized the sustaining power of God--"the God which fed me all my life long unto this day, the Angel which redeemed me from all evil." Genesis 48: 15, 16.
The same experience is repeated in the history of Jacob's sons--sin working retribution, and repentance bearing fruit of righteousness unto life.
God does not annul His laws. He does not work contrary to them. The work of sin He does not undo. But He transforms. Through His grace the curse works out blessing.
Of the sons of Jacob, Levi was one of the most cruel and vindictive, one of the two most guilty in the treacherous murder of the Shechemites. Levi's characteristics, reflected in his descendants, incurred for them the decree from God, "I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel." Genesis 49:7. But repentance wrought reformation; and by their faithfulness to God amidst the apostasy of the other tribes, the curse was transformed into a token of highest honor.
"The Lord separated the tribe of Levi, to bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord, to stand before the Lord to minister unto Him, and to bless in His name." "My covenant was with him of life and peace; and I gave them to him for the fear wherewith he feared Me, and was afraid before My name. . . . He walked with Me in peace and equity, and did turn many away from iniquity." Deuteronomy 10:8; Malachi 2:5, 6.
The appointed ministers of the sanctuary, the Levites received no landed inheritance; they dwelt together in cities set apart for their use, and received their support from the tithes and the gifts and offerings devoted to God's service. They were the teachers of the people, guests at all their festivities, and everywhere honored as servants and representatives of God. To the whole nation was given the command: "Take heed to thyself that thou forsake not the Levite as long as thou livest upon the earth." "Levi hath no part nor inheritance with his brethren; the Lord is his inheritance." Deuteronomy 12: 19; 10:9.
By Faith to Conquest
The truth that as a man "thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7), finds another illustration in Israel's experience. On the borders of Canaan the spies, returned from searching the country, made their report. The beauty and fruitfulness of the land were lost sight of through fear of the difficulties in the way of its occupation. The cities walled up to heaven, the giant warriors, the iron chariots, daunted their faith. Leaving God out of the question, the multitude echoed the decision of the unbelieving spies, "We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we." Numbers 13:31. Their words proved true. They were not able to go up, and they wore out their lives in the desert.
Two, however, of the twelve who had viewed the land, reasoned otherwise. "We are well able to overcome it" (Numbers 13:30), they urged, counting God's promise superior to giants, walled cities, or chariots of iron. For them their word was true. Though they shared with their brethren the forty years' wandering, Caleb and Joshua entered the Land of Promise. As courageous of heart as when with the hosts of the Lord he set out from Egypt, Caleb asked for and received as his portion the stronghold of the giants. In God's strength he drove out the Canaanites. The vineyards and olive groves where his feet had trodden became his possession. Though the cowards and rebels perished in the wilderness, the men of faith ate of the grapes of Eschol.
No truth does the Bible set forth in clearer light than the peril of even one departure from the right--peril both to the wrongdoer and to all whom his influence shall reach. Example has wonderful power; and when cast on the side of the evil tendencies of our nature, it becomes well-nigh irresistible.
The strongest bulwark of vice in our world is not the iniquitous life of the abandoned sinner or the degraded outcast; it is that life which otherwise appears virtuous, honorable, and noble, but in which one sin is fostered, one vice indulged. To the soul that is struggling in secret against some giant temptation, trembling upon the very verge of the precipice, such an example is one of the most powerful enticements to sin. He who, endowed with high conceptions of life and truth and honor, does yet willfully transgress one precept of God's holy law, has perverted his noble gifts into a lure to sin. Genius, talent, sympathy, even generous and kindly deeds, may thus become decoys of Satan to entice souls over the precipice of ruin.
This is why God has given so many examples showing the results of even one wrong act. From the sad story of that one sin which "brought death into the world and all our woe, with loss of Eden," to the record of him who for thirty pieces of silver sold the Lord of glory, Bible biography abounds in these examples, set up as beacons of warning at the byways leading from the path of life.
There is warning also in noting the results that have followed upon even once yielding to human weakness and error, the fruit of the letting go of faith.
By one failure of his faith, Elijah cut short his lifework. Heavy was the burden that he had borne in behalf of Israel; faithful had been his warnings against the national idolatry; and deep was his solicitude as during three years and a half of famine he watched and waited for some token of repentance. Alone he stood for God upon Mount Carmel. Through the power of faith, idolatry was cast down, and the blessed rain testified to the showers of blessing waiting to be poured upon Israel. Then in his weariness and weakness he fled before the threats of Jezebel and alone in the desert prayed that he might die. His faith had failed. The work he had begun he was not to complete. God bade him anoint another to be prophet in his stead.
But God had marked the heart service of His servant. Elijah was not to perish in discouragement and solitude in the wilderness. Not for him the descent to the tomb, but the ascent with God's angels to the presence of His glory.
These life records declare what every human being will one day understand--that sin can bring only shame and loss; that unbelief means failure; but that God's mercy reaches to the deepest depths; that faith lifts up the repenting soul to share the adoption of the sons of God.
The Discipline of Suffering
All who in this world render true service to God or man receive a preparatory training in the school of sorrow. The weightier the trust and the higher the service, the closer is the test and the more severe the discipline.
Study the experiences of Joseph and of Moses, of Daniel and of David. Compare the early history of David with the history of Solomon, and consider the results.
David in his youth was intimately associated with Saul, and his stay at court and his connection with the king's household gave him an insight into the cares and sorrows and perplexities concealed by the glitter and pomp of royalty. He saw of how little worth is human glory to bring peace to the soul. And it was with relief and gladness that he returned from the king's court to the sheepfolds and the flocks.
When by the jealousy of Saul driven a fugitive into the wilderness, David, cut off from human support, leaned more heavily upon God. The uncertainty and unrest of the wilderness life, its unceasing peril, its necessity for frequent flight, the character of the men who gathered to him there,--"everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and everyone that was discontented" (1 Samuel 22:2),--all rendered the more essential a stern self-discipline. These experiences aroused and developed power to deal with men, sympathy for the oppressed, and hatred of injustice. Through years of waiting and peril, David learned to find in God his comfort, his support, his life. He learned that only by God's power could he come to the throne; only in His wisdom could he rule wisely. It was through the training in the school of hardship and sorrow that David was able to make the record--though afterward marred with his great sin--that he "executed judgment and justice unto all his people." 2 Samuel 8:15.
The discipline of David's early experience was lacking in that of Solomon. In circumstances, in character, and in life, he seemed favored above all others. Noble in youth, noble in manhood, the beloved of his God, Solomon entered on a reign that gave high promise of prosperity and honor. Nations marveled at the knowledge and insight of the man to whom God had given wisdom. But the pride of prosperity brought separation from God. From the joy of divine communion Solomon turned to find satisfaction in the pleasures of sense. Of this experience he says:
"I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards: . . . I got me servants and maidens: . . . I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem. . . . And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor. . . . Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I had labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done."
By his own bitter experience, Solomon learned the emptiness of a life that seeks in earthly things its highest good. He erected altars to heathen gods, only to learn how vain is their promise of rest to the soul.
In his later years, turning wearied and thirsting from earth's broken cisterns, Solomon returned to drink at the fountain of life. The history of his wasted years, with their lessons of warning, he by the Spirit of inspiration recorded for after generations. And thus, although the seed of his sowing was reaped by his people in harvests of evil, the lifework of Solomon was not wholly lost. For him at last the discipline of suffering accomplished its work.
But with such a dawning, how glorious might have been his life's day had Solomon in his youth learned the lesson that suffering had taught in other lives!
The Testing of Job
For those who love God, those who are "the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28), Bible biography has a yet higher lesson of the ministry of sorrow. "Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord, that I am God" (Isaiah 43:12)--witnesses that He is good, and that goodness is supreme. "We are made a theater unto the world, both (R.V., margin) to angels, and to men." 1 Corinthians 4:9, margin.
Unselfishness, the principle of God's kingdom, is the principle that Satan hates; its very existence he denies. From the beginning of the great controversy he has endeavored to prove God's principles of action to be selfish, and he deals in the same way with all who serve God. To disprove Satan's claim is the work of Christ and of all who bear His name.
It was to give in His own life an illustration of unselfishness that Jesus came in the form of humanity. And all who accept this principle are to be workers together with Him in demonstrating it in practical life. To choose the right because it is right; to stand for truth at the cost of suffering and sacrifice--"this is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of Me, saith the Lord." Isaiah 54:17.
Very early in the history of the world is given the life record of one over whom this controversy of Satan's was waged.
Of Job, the patriarch of Uz, the testimony of the Searcher of hearts was, "There is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil."
Against this man, Satan brought scornful charge: "Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast Thou not made an hedge about him, and about his house, and about all that he hath on every side? . . . Put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath;" "touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse Thee to Thy face."
The Lord said unto Satan, "All that he hath is in thy power." "Behold, he is in thine hand; but save his life."
Thus permitted, Satan swept away all that Job possessed--flocks and herds, menservants and maidens, sons and daughters; and he "smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot unto his crown." Job 1:8-12; 2:5-7.
Still another element of bitterness was added to his cup. His friends, seeing in adversity but the retribution of sin, pressed on his bruised and burdened spirit their accusations of wrongdoing.
Seemingly forsaken of heaven and earth, yet holding fast his faith in God and his consciousness of integrity, in anguish and perplexity he cried:
"My soul is weary of my life." "O that Thou wouldest hide me in the grave, That Thou wouldest keep me secret, until Thy wrath be past, That Thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!" Job 10:1; 14:13.
"Behold, I cry out of wrong, but I am not heard: I cry for help, but there is no judgment. . . . He hath stripped me of my glory, And taken the crown from my head. . . . My kinsfolk have failed, And my familiar friends have forgotten me. . . . They whom I loved are turned against me. . . . Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends; For the hand of God hath touched me." "Oh that I knew where I might find Him, That I might come even to His seat! . . . Behold, I go forward, but He is not there; And backward, but I cannot perceive Him: On the left hand, where He doth work, but I cannot behold Him: He hideth Himself on the right hand, that I cannot see Him. But He knoweth the way that I take; When He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold." "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him." "I know that my Redeemer liveth, And that He shall stand up at the last upon the earth: And after my skin hath been destroyed, this shall be, Even from my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, And mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger." Job 19:7-21, R.V.; 23:3-10, R.V.; 13:15; 19:25-27, R.V., margin.
According to his faith, so was it unto Job. "When He hath tried me," he said, "I shall come forth as gold." Job 23:10. So it came to pass. By his patient endurance he vindicated his own character, and thus the character of Him whose representative he was. And "the Lord turned the captivity of Job: . . . also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. . . . So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning." Job 42:10-12.
On the record of those who through self-abnegation have entered into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings, stand--one in the Old Testament and one in the New-- the names of Jonathan and of John the Baptist.
Jonathan, by birth heir to the throne, yet knowing himself set aside by the divine decree; to his rival the most tender and faithful of friends, shielding David's life at the peril of his own; steadfast at his father's side through the dark days of his declining power, and at his side falling at the last--the name of Jonathan is treasured in heaven, and it stands on earth a witness to the existence and the power of unselfish love.
John the Baptist, at his appearance as the Messiah's herald, stirred the nation. From place to place his steps were followed by vast throngs of people of every rank and station. But when the One came to whom he had borne witness, all was changed. The crowds followed Jesus, and John's work seemed fast closing. Yet there was no wavering of his faith. "He must increase," he said, "but I must decrease." John 3:30.
Time passed, and the kingdom which John had confidently expected was not established. In Herod's dungeon, cut off from the life-giving air and the desert freedom, he waited and watched.
There was no display of arms, no rending of prison doors; but the healing of the sick, the preaching of the gospel, the uplifting of men's souls, testified to Christ's mission.
Alone in the dungeon, seeing whither his path, like his Master's, tended, John accepted the trust--fellowship with Christ in sacrifice. Heaven's messengers attended him to the grave. The intelligences of the universe, fallen and unfallen, witnessed his vindication of unselfish service.
And in all the generations that have passed since then, suffering souls have been sustained by the testimony of John's life. In the dungeon, on the scaffold, in the flames, men and women through centuries of darkness have been strengthened by the memory of him of whom Christ declared, "Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater." Matthew 11:11.
"And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; . . . and Samuel, and of the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
"Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection: and others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
"And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." Hebrews 11:32-40.