"GOD'S IN HIS HEAVEN..."
Do you remember the strange battle in the desert of Sinai described in the Book of Exodus chapter 17? The Israelites, who had just been liberated from Egypt, were fighting the Amalekites in a deep valley. Joshua was their captain. Nearby, on a hilltop, stood the bearded figure of Moses, raising and lowering his arms. I will quote verses 11-13: "And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands were heavy... and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, until the going down of the sun. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword."
The scene stirs one's imagination and starts many trains of thought. Did the combatants realize the influence Moses was having on their fortunes that day? I am sure they did not! Otherwise, why should they have bothered to exert themselves? Israel and Amalek were locked in bloody battle, each straining to defeat the other, showing much bravery and employing every known stratagem of military science.
This was no play-acting. It was real. They were fighting to the death. And the battle-line swayed backwards and forwards; sometimes the Israelites obtained the advantage, sometimes their enemies.
A tactical expert, watching the campaign, might have weighed up the odds of victory. "Joshua is the better general," he might have said, "but the Amalekites are the better army. The Israelites have the advantage of numbers, but the Amalekites are better armed." And so on. Yet the amazing thing is that the outcome of the battle did not depend on any of these factors. The issue was decided, not by the fighting in the valley, but by the movement of the hands of Moses on the hilltop! When he lowered his hands, Amalek prevailed. When he raised them, Israel prevailed. The stout contestants, for all their striving, were little more than puppets on a string, and Moses was the puppeteer!
Have you ever operated one of those old-fashioned home movie projectors with a handle which you turn? They give you a queer sense of power. The action on the screen is under your control: you can speed it up or slow it down by manipulating the handle, or even suddenly throw it into reverse. Moses must have felt something of this sense of power. He could sway the action below him as he pleased. Furthermore, he seems to have been exercising his control experimentally, just to see what would happen—otherwise why did he ever lower his hands in the first place? He must have intended Israel to win: why didn't he effect a swift and final victory for his people by holding his arms high above his head from the very outset? The unfortunate result of this experimentation was that when, as the day drew to a close, he wanted to give victory to the Israelites, he found he was getting tired and couldn't raise his hands any more! Disaster would have resulted had it not been for the efforts of Aaron and Hur, who made him sit on a rock and supported his arms in the air until the going down of the sun.
What insight do we get from all this, as far as our lives are concerned? Are we to believe that the Lord God is up there on the hilltop controlling all our actions? Is our freewill an illusion, and are we actually only puppets on a string? The thought is a disquieting one. We don't like it. It makes our efforts as we struggle for a better world seem vain and futile, our sacrifices a mockery. It suggests that a grim kind of practical joke is being played on us. If God is in absolute control, what's the use of our trying to do anything?
Well, there is a sense in which God is in absolute control; but it is clear that he does not exercise that control in the arbitrary and experimental way that Moses seems to have done. God's primary purpose is not that we should be free from all tensions, or that everyone should have an easy and peaceful time, but that we should be strengthened and grow spiritually—a process which requires a succession of ups and downs. In every situation, whether in war or peace, the Lord weighs all the circumstances, many of which are outside our knowledge. He deliberately allows us a considerable degree of personal freedom in order that we may become sturdy individual men and women; and he takes full account of the way we use this freedom. Moses apparently did not concern himself in the least with the manner in which Israel and Amalek were fighting; but the Lord leaves nothing out of his calculations.
To be really like the Lord, Moses should have had a perfect knowledge of everything that was going on down in the valley. "That soldier is making a tremendous effort; I must allow him to succeed to some degree, otherwise he will form the opinion that all effort is useless; but he must not be allowed to succeed altogether, or he will destroy a developing tenderness on the part of that other man. Here is a good man who should be protected, but an arrow has been fired which is going straight towards him. I could divert the arrow, but to do so would upset the laws of nature, which would cause confusion just at this moment." Many personal considerations, you see, affect the issue. And other things too, such as the need for people to get evil out of their systems, which is better than bottling it up; the need for them to see the logical effects of evil, and thus judge it for what it really is; and also such considerations as the strengthening or weakening of certain forces emanating from the spiritual realm, which may be even more important in the Lord's eyes than anything that might happen here on earth. The whole situation is exceedingly complex. But always the Lord is the Divine Arbiter; what he actually allows to happen is his responsibility alone.
Turning now to a more personal application of the principles we have been considering, you and I are forever involved in a war between good and evil. Spirits from hell assault us; they surge into our hearts, they allure us with false glamour, they threaten us, they stir up unholy desires, sowing jealousies, resentments, doubts, fears, doing everything possible to confuse us and undermine our confidence in our heavenly Father's love. Couldn't the Lord prevent us from being tempted in this way? Of course he could, easily!—and in fact he does raise his hand and call a halt to the infestation when he sees we need a respite, otherwise we should be undergoing the most distressful infestations every day and night, since "the thoughts of our hearts are only evil, and that continually." But at other times he gently allows us to suffer by lowering his hands. Then, when the temptation gets beyond the limit of our strength, he raises his hands again and the victory is ours.
The other day at a swimming pool I saw a father standing in three feet of water teaching his little son to swim. He held the boy in position, then lowered his hands away from him beneath the water. The boy, feeling insecure, threshed and kicked until he began to sink; he cried out, and the father raised his hands from below and supported him again. This, procedure was repeated until the child found he could support himself—he could swim! Our heavenly Father alternately raises and lowers his hands. First he holds us safely out of the sphere of hell, until we have gained some new insight of truth; then he gently releases us and allows us to sink into the morass of our hereditary evils, so that our newly-accepted ideals may be tested and strengthened and confirmed. Then we "cry to the Lord in our trouble, and he delivers us out of our distresses," until eventually we learn to swim!
A blacksmith places a piece of iron alternately in fire and water to temper it. The heat flows backwards and forwards. So in our temptation combats: sometimes Israel advances, sometimes Amalek. But the final issue is in the Lord's hands, who has absolute power to overrule everything for the highest good of all concerned. Absolute? Yes. But there is one limitation to his power which he himself allows. He has ordained that the final victory shall be won only with our co-operation. Not so much on the field of conflict—though, as we have seen, he takes our efforts into account. Mainly he wants our co-operation ON THE HILLTOP. Remember, Moses was not the only figure up there on the hill. Aaron and Hur were with him. It was to them ultimately that the victory was due! They were not in the fighting line; they were on a higher level, struggling with the mysterious spiritual forces which were at work that day. If Aaron and Hur had not done their part in supporting the hands of Moses, then Joshua, the military commander, could not have done his on the battlefield.
Those who doubt the power of prayer to influence earthly events should ponder this. Earnest prayer can have a potent effect. It provides another element which the Lord must take into account, and an extremely powerful one—far more powerful, in the long run, than much that goes by the name of practical action. Often it serves to tip the balance between good and evil, heaven and hell. Aaron and Hur support the hands of Moses on the hilltop, and the victory is won.
Aaron the high priest represents the Church. We don't know who Hur was, but if, as tradition has it, he was the husband of Miriam, and therefore Aaron's brother-in-law, he also represents the Church, perhaps the lay element in the Church. Through the influence of the Church, clerical and lay, we join the Lord on the hilltop, in the secret chambers of our hearts. Here we commune with him and plead with him; we bring our spirits into harmony with his own. It is only by labouring with him on the hilltop that we can wield any real influence on the ultimate issue of events down there in the valley. If we are merely worldly men, limiting our efforts to the affairs of the world, then we are indeed puppets on a string. But praise the Lord! He has invited us to share in the control! Even to have the final control, if we join him in the control tower. We can support the Lord's hands with our prayers, and our evils will lose their grip and cease to afflict us further. The victory will be ours, and the way will be open for us to trek'to the Promised Land.
"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills," says the Psalmist, "from whence comes my strength. My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. The Lord shall preserve you from all evil, He shall preserve your soul. The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and even for ever more."