Outward Orthodoxy and Moral Condition
Outward orthodoxy is not everything. If moral condition does not accompany it Pharisaism is the result. Pharisaism is worse, perhaps, than open backsliding. The former is deceitful and hardening; the latter, at any rate, is above-board. Sooner or later outward orthodoxy without moral condition is exposed, and seen in all its colourless impotency.
This is well illustrated in the history of the children of Israel in connection with the ark of the covenant. The ark was a symbol, and in itself was nothing. The divine thought behind it gave the symbol its value.
The Israelites were defeated by the Philistines. “Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us before the Philistines?” they asked. If the LORD had smitten them surely there was a grave reason. That reason was their low moral condition.
But that condition carried blindness with it. What blind folly to seek to remedy things in the way they did!
They brought the ark of the covenant into the camp. They looked not to God; but to a symbol, to save them. They looked to outward orthodoxy and ignored moral condition. Hophni and Phinehas—its two custodians—were acting in a shameless way, causing men to abhor the offering of the Lord.
Did the expedient answer? God had allowed His people to be defeated. Would He allow the ark to be put to open shame? Israel shouted with a great shout till the earth rang again. The Philistines trembled, saying in their ignorance, “GOD is come into the camp,” whereas only a symbol had been brought to the rescue.
Little did it suffice for the Israelites to boast, The ark of the covenant is with us. His eye rested, indeed, on outward orthodoxy, but with it there was no moral condition answering to it.
Israel utterly routed; thirty thousand left dead on the field of battle; Hopbni and Phinehas slain in their wantonness and sin; the ark of God captured, all told the tale of God’s abhorrence of empty orthodoxy.
Eli’s heart failed him. He fell backward from his seat by the side of the gate, where he had so weakly and unwisely judged Israel, his neck brakes and he died. The wife of Phinehas, hearing of the death of husband and father-in-law and the capture of the ark, bowed herself in travail, and died in giving birth to her son. No joy that a man-child was born was hers. She named him Ichabod [the glory is departed from Israel], not seeing that the glory had departed when moral condition was lacking. The mere presence of the symbol did not ensure the presence of the glory.
Never could be sadder picture of the emptiness and sin of orthodoxy without a moral answer, unless it be when orthodoxy crucified the Lord of glory.
But when the ark fell into the hands of the Philistines God had to teach them there was a divine meaning behind the symbol. They placed it beside their own god, Dagon, as if the two were on a level, perhaps in their judgment their god the superior, seeing they had overcome the Israelites and captured their ark.
But it is only to discover Dagon fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. They set their god up again. It had been well for them had they taken heed to God’s intervention. Next day they found Dagon fallen again, a mere stump, his head and the palms of his hands cut off, and a decimating plague burst out in all its fury amongst them. Thus would God teach them that there was a moral meaning behind the symbol.
Hurried from place to place, its route marked plainly by widespread death on all hands, they determined at the end of seven months to return the ark, adding to it a trespass offering, acknowledging their guilt.
So slow is man to believe that they finally put a severe test upon the ark. They placed it on a new cart, and yoked to it two milk cows not broken into the yoke, and carried their calves home with them. Untrained, lawless beasts, without direction, contrary to nature, lowing with the pain of doing violence to their maternal instincts, they carried the ark straight to Beth-shemesh.
The Israelites rejoiced to see the ark of God again, but the root of recovery was not reached yet. They dared to treat the symbol lightly by looking in. Over fifty thousand perished as God’s answer to this. They had to learn there was a solemn moral meaning behind the symbol.
Twenty years later the Israelites defeated the Philistines. How different was their conduct. They judged their idolatry, prepared their hearts to follow the Lord wholly, showed their dependence by beseeching Samuel not to cease to pray for them, and God heard them.
Later on God taught a further lesson by slaying Uzzah when he sought to steady the ark as the oxen stumbled, and by blessing Obed-edom in connection with the ark dwelling in his house, blessing his home by its presence.
Years after David showed that he had the sense that moral condition with God was more than mere outward orthodoxy. Absalom rebelled. His grief-stricken father fled from Jerusalem. Zadok and the Levites carried the ark out of the city, so that it might be with David. He nobly replied:
“Carry back the ark of God into the city: if I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me again, and show me both it and His habitation; but if He thus say, I have no delight in thee; behold, here am I, let Him do as seemeth good to Him” (2 Sam. 15:25-26).
Thus David recognized God’s discipline, discipline only for good. The mere possession of a symbol, he knew, would not help matters. Moral condition under God’s eye was what concerned him. And he showed he had this by thus unreservedly placing himself in God’s hands.
Nor did David lightly esteem the symbol, the outward sign. He longed for the day when he would return in peace, and, finding favour in the eyes of the Lord God, would “show me both it and His habitation” to His servant.
The writer has to confess that reflection upon all this has deeply exercised him. May it exercise the reader. The ark of the covenant was a symbol or type of CHRIST. It is only as we have Him in living reality before our souls that we shall be kept.
A deep impression was made on my mind the other day. A sister in the Lord said to a well-known brother, “Nothing but love will keep us, Mr.—.” He replied, “Whose?” She meant our love to Christ; he meant Christ’s love to us. And truly as we are thus looking to Him, receiving from Him, we shall be kept in moral condition. Moreover, moral condition carries with it the reverse of self- occupation. “Moses wist not that the skin of his face shone.” It is only by being occupied with CHRIST Himself, the glorious, living expression of God behind the symbol, that we shall be kept.
The history of the seven churches well illustrates the truth of the foregoing. Ephesus outwardly was so correct and zealous; but He, whose eyes were as a flame of fire, looked beneath the outward form and saw they were fading. Love was on the wane, and His heart could not brook that. What sad examples Sardis and Laodicea are! Sardis! “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” Laodicea! “I would thou wert cold or hot.” Immense pretensions, but the Lord outside. It is possible for us to arrange things for ourselves, to look to leaders to manage matters, instead of waiting on the Lord to come in to order and arrange for us.
Outward orthodoxy will cry, “The ark of the covenant is with us”; but moral condition will say with David, “If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, He will . . . show me both it [the ark of the covenant] and His habitation.” We shall find not merely a symbol but God’s dwelling-place. Outward correctness will not be less esteemed but more, because kept in its true place by exercise as to moral condition; and for this introspection as to myself will not help, but exercise that the Lord shall have His proper place, will meet with its reward.
Words of Grace and Encouragement 1908