SUNSET ON THE MOUNTAINS OF GILEAD
"This world is all a fleeting show,
"And false the light on glory's plume
"Poor wanderers of a stormy day,
BARZILLAI the Gileadite now arrived from Rogelim to conduct the king across the Jordan. He was very old, about eighty, and very wealthy. He was the one who provided food for the king during his stay in Mahanaim. "Come across with me and live in Jerusalem," the king said to Barzillai. "I will take care of you there." "No," he replied, "I am far too old for that. I am eighty years old today, and I can no longer enjoy anything. Food and wine are no longer tasty, and I cannot hear the musicians as they play. I would only be a burden to my lord the king. Just to go across the river with you is all the honor I need! Then let me return again to die in my own town, where my father and mother are buried. But here is my son Kimham. Let him go with you and receive whatever good things you want to give him."
So all the people crossed the Jordan with the king. After David had blessed and embraced him, Barzillai returned to his own home.
2 Samuel 19:31-37, 39
Here is a noble sunset on the border hills of Palestine.
We do not, indeed, see the sun vanishing behind the mountain-tops; it is rather the flush of crimson before the setting. We are not called around the death-couch of BARZILLAI; but his words all speak of approaching departure. He knows that the sand-glass is hastening to its last grain; and, in the prospect of a speedy exodus from the house of his earthly pilgrimage, he summons us to hear his simple but significant discourse on the philosophy of life.
We have only this brief glimpse in his biography. He comes before us--the Melchisedek of his age--to meet David, as Melchisedek had met his great ancestor, with the spoils of victory. He gives him his blessing, and then vanishes from the scene. But enough is recorded, to make us admire and love him; and though living in an age of lesser light and fewer privileges than ours, there is much in his character which we shall do well to imitate.
We shall endeavor, with God's blessing, to draw one or two lessons from the character of Barzillai suggested in the interesting Bible narrative.
Let us first observe, his PITY FOR THE FALLEN.
It is a beautiful picture to see this old chieftain, when he hears of David's sudden humiliation, hastening to the place of exile, to offer him his generous sympathy, along with substantial gifts for his exhausted followers. In concert with other two chiefs of the Trans-Jordanic region, hearing that "the people are very tired and hungry and thirsty after their long march through the wilderness," they bring with them, as presents, the fruits of their pastoral domains--"wheat, barley, and flour, honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese," (2 Sam. 17:29). Barzillai seems to have been a wealthy proprietor or chief in Gilead--a petty prince among the mountaineers of Palestine, animated with a true clansman's spirit, and capable of noble and generous deeds. Even though the gifts had been less valuable and needed, they would still have evinced a spirit of generous sympathy and commiseration for the fallen.
The scene in these highlands of Gilead, where the interest centers on a dethroned monarch, forcibly reminds us of the same generous impulse which, more than a hundred years ago, in our own Scotland, stirred many a Highland heart--when one, in whose veins the blood of kings flowed, was a homeless wanderer among her moors and mountains. Many who had no sympathy for his cause commiserated his fate. They forgot the crimes of his house, in his personal misfortunes; they knew that he had seen better times--that he had once walked in royal halls; and cave, and cottage, and hut, were freely tendered to shelter his defenseless head.
This pity for the unfortunate is one of the finest traits in our human nature. Would that it were a universal one! But the world is not always so lavish of its pity. It finds it easier and more profitable to fawn on the prosperous--to flatter the great--to give to those from whom it may hope again to receive. How many, (so long as you are in affluent circumstances,) will be seen in your company; visitors at your house, guests at your table. But if the gifts of capricious fortune take wings and flee away--if (with no stain on your honor, or blot on your character,) the bleak winds of misfortune have scattered your hopes in the bud, and made havoc and ruin of your capital--then such friends as these can afford to forget you; no time, as formerly, for a talk on the street, or a friendly call in passing--a forced, fake smile takes the place of the old familiar one. These are summer friends; out, like the butterfly, on the day of sunshine; away, we know not where, when the sky is cloudy and lowering. Ah! there is nothing--(I speak in the case of reverses for which you are not morally responsible)--there is nothing so base and dastardly as this. Unkindness and resentment, under any circumstances, are indefensible; but to trample on a fallen friend--to crush the powerless--to visit them with coldness and unkindness at the very moment when they most need their aching wounds bound up--this is cruel indeed!
On the other hand, how noble is the example of Barzillai, and such as he, who love to come with words and deeds of kindness in the hour of bitter reverse and altered fortune. He had often, doubtless, admired David in his greatness; alike as the warrior, the king, and the saint; and being, like himself, "an old man, and full of years," he would all the more commiserate him when sent forth to buffet this pitiless storm. If he can do no more, he will hasten across the mountain-passes, to offer the tribute of his sympathy to the crownless king; and, in accordance with oriental munificence, take with him the produce of his rich meadows.
Be it ours to imitate the spirit of this Gilead chief, and never to be guilty of the dastard act of trampling on a humbled foe. In commercial communities especially, where money is the standard of everything, and where the man in the ceiled house today, may be in the humble lodging in a few months, there is a greater temptation to treat misfortune with unkind severity; to be all familiarity and courtesy to king David in the Jerusalem palace, but to be all disdain and distance to the exile at Mahanaim!
How does our blessed Lord rebuke, in us all, this cold, hardened, heartless behavior to the fallen; yes, also, even when there was more than misfortune. You remember that withered flower that tried, in the presence of the Infinitely Pure One, to lift its drooping head? The Pharisees (in the spirit of the world) would have crushed it in a moment. The disciples, in an equally cruel spirit, would have cast it among the weeds as outcast and polluted. But what says Jesus whose great errand from heaven to earth was to lift the fallen, and commiserate a world of "the lost?" "Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more!"
As a second lesson, mark his UNSELFISH LOYALTY.
Expediency! expediency! with how many is that the regulating, governing principle of their lives!--not what is right--but what is profitable. Such are they who sail with wind and tide--in politics, in religion, in commerce, in daily society and friendship. They will take the winning side. They are what the world call far-seeing men. They look before them. They make a careful calculation of consequences; and are not very scrupulous as to principle.
How did right and might--principle and expediency--stand to one another at this juncture of Hebrew history? Absalom had stolen the hearts of Israel. By consummate art, or rather by unprincipled prince-craft, he had undermined his father's throne, sown disaffection among the people; and, in short, with everything to favor him, in youth, attractiveness, pomp, and display, (all powerful qualities with the oriental mind,) he had seized the Hebrew scepter.
According to human calculations, his aged father's case might be deemed desperate. He had crossed Jordan, in all probability, to his grave; and the risk old Barzillai incurred, in fraternizing with the outlawed king, was a serious one. What if Absalom and his army, in the flush of triumph, cross Jordan, and cut to pieces David's panic-stricken force? Woe to the aged clansman of Gilead who has dared to show him kindness. His hoary head will be hung a trophy on the gate of Mahanaim! And Barzillai must have weighed all these consequences. By becoming confederate with David--sending these camel-loads of butter and honey and cheese, and these bushels of corn--he made himself a marked man. His fertile fields at Rogelim, will be swept by the army of the usurper. He and his, will be the first to feel Absalom's revenge.
But how does he act? He will do what is right, and leave the results in a Higher hand. Though with fearful odds against him, he will cling to injured goodness, and assert the majesty of truth over baseness and wrong. What cared he for those hollow acclaims that rose on the other side of Jordan, welcoming a villain to a throne to which he had climbed over the grey hairs of an honored father. No; though he should stand alone, he will denounce Absalom's deed. Though it should cost him his lands, his flocks, his patrimonial inheritance, he will cast in his lot with dishonored and deeply-injured virtue, rather than with a successful but unprincipled traitor.
Had Barzillai made it a question of expediency, he would either have preserved his neutrality, not mixing himself up with the quarrel at all, but remaining in quiet possession of his flocks and inheritance in the south; or else he might have lent the weight of his influence to the popular side, "for the conspiracy," we read, "was strong; for the people increased continually with Absalom," (2 Sam. 15:12). Had he been a mercenary adventurer, by becoming confederate with the victorious army, and cutting off the supplies from the camp of David, he would have decided the fortunes of the day.
How differently does he act! He never hesitates. Whatever might be the result, he knows who has the right; and hastens to the expatriated king with acceptable supplies of the best he has; yes, and with what to a wounded spirit was better than all the balm of Gilead or the flocks of its mountains, he carries his own sympathy and manifested pity for fallen greatness.
And then, see the sequel of the history. When all was over--when a Greater than any earthly might had scattered the alien armies and laid low the usurper, and the venerable monarch was on his triumphal march back to his throne, the old Gileadite chief came down once more from his secure place with a body of servants, to do homage to the King and give him his patriot welcome and blessing. Nor was David forgetful of the unselfish loyalty so lately manifested. In a spirit of equally noble generosity and gratitude, he urged Barzillai to join the triumphal cavalcade, to come and have a home in his palace in Jerusalem, and a place and seat at his royal table.
But he will take no reward or recompense, although what millions are spending a lifetime to achieve was within the grasp of this border Sheik. Up the steep hill of fame, few reach more than half-way; fewer still ever gain the summit. But here was one to whom was offered the hand of friendship by the greatest king of the age, and a dwelling in the palace of Zion. Thousands would have coveted the honor. His name would have been on every tongue as a favored old man, the envy of all his brother chieftains.
"But no," says he. "It was for no such base, paltry, selfish motive I acted a patriot's part to a patriot king. I brought not of my produce in hopes of getting in return some princely recompense. In giving in my faithful attachment to the cause of David, it was with no base hope of bettering my position or aggrandizing my family. Let me give and receive a blessing--that is all I want. Let me bend homeward these aged steps. My best reward--my only accepted reward--will be the feeling, I have done my duty."
Mark, once more, as a third lesson, HIS ESTIMATE OF LIFE.
A flattering proposal had just been made to him. In the brilliant pageant that was sweeping past, he had a place of royal and conspicuous honor in his offer. Few would have resisted the golden bribe. But he remembered that fourscore years had whitened his head. A brief time, at the best, he could still have in the world. He had outlived the age when he could enjoy its pageantries and honors–"But Barzillai answered the king, "How many more years will I live, that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is good and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of men and women singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will cross over the Jordan with the king for a short distance, but why should the king reward me in this way? Let your servant return, that I may die in my own town near the tomb of my father and mother." 2 Samuel 19:34-37
As if he had said, "Tempt me not. The day was when I might have grasped at the munificent honor. The day was when this heart would have beat with pride at the thought of being a lordly confidant of the Hebrew king--a guest at his table. But these things have lost their relish for me now. The whirl and excitement, the glitter and pageantry of a courtier's life have no charm. The festive rejoicings on the return of the king would be too much for this aged frame. 'I am this day eighty years old.' This head, once covered with raven locks, is now white with the snows of winter. These hands, that once dealt and repulsed the warrior's blow, have now tremblingly to grasp the pilgrim's staff. These limbs, that once could nimbly chase the gazelle up the craggy heights of Gilead, now totter underneath me. These eyes, 'the windows of the house,' are beginning to be darkened; they look out on a dimmed and murky landscape; I could not see the glories of the king's palace at Jerusalem even were I there. These ears, once the inlets of enjoyment, which once loved to hear the dulcet tones of my own mountain-pipe, would listen with unavailing effort to the choristers of Zion, or to tabret and lute and harp of sweetest Hebrew minstrelsy. I would be but a poor accession to the royal table--a poor guest in the palace of Judah. Bid me not go there! Allow me rather to say farewell on the banks of the frontier river. Return! O monarch, beloved of the Lord! return to your capital, and may the acclamations of a grateful people greet your restoration. For myself, permit me quietly to abide in my own highland-home--these my native rugged mountains. Their sepulchers hold dust that is sacred to me. This is now my only unfulfilled wish--that I may die in my own town near the tomb of my father and mother."
We cannot positively pronounce on Barzillai's piety. The very respect and personal kindness manifested for David, "the man after God's own heart," combined with his loyalty, unselfishness, and filial devotion, would lead us to draw favorable conclusions regarding his religious character. At all events, we cannot think of him as a mere satiated voluptuary, his bones full of the sin of his youth; with debilitated frame and shattered nerve, breathing out the fretful soliloquy of a peevish old age. We would accept these words of his, rather as the address of a good and venerable old man, who takes the grand view of this present life as a prelude to another, and who wishes to be tempted by nothing that would dissipate his thoughts, and unfit him for solemn preparation for his great change. "Tempt me not," he says, "with what might divert my thoughts from more solemn and urgent verities. Let me enjoy a quiet eventide before the great night-journey! Let me go and set my house in order before I die!"
And it is to this we must all come! Life is now before most of us, with its bright plans and phantom-visions--its rainbow-hues and air-castles. Many have no eyes to see the end of that glowing perspective--the close of the avenue, which at present is overarched with the green boughs of hope. But as we go on, the distance sensibly diminishes; our consciousness becomes more and more vivid that the end is nearing; and we feel that we are passing, like the millions that have preceded us, to our "long home."
"How long," said Barzillai, "have I to live?" "How long have I to live?"--what a solemn question for us all, amid the daily-occurring proofs of our frailty and mortality. Oh, what a motto to bear about with us continually amid the wear and tear of life!
YOUNG MAN! with the flash of young hope in your eye; existence extending in interminable vista before you; pause ever and always on the enchanted highway, and put the solemn question to yourself, "How long have I to live?"
MAN OF BUSINESS! in availing yourself of new openings in trade, accepting new responsibilities and anxieties, involving yourself in new entanglements, have you stopped at the threshold and probed yourself with the question, "How long have I to live?"
CHILD OF PLEASURE! plunging into the midst of dissipating excitement--the whirl of intoxicating gaiety--have you ever, in returning, jaded, and weary, and worn, from the heated ball-room, flung yourself prayerless on your pillow, and sunk into a feverish dream, with the question haunting you, "How long have I to live?"
FRUITLESS PROFESSOR! who, with the form of godliness, are yet destitute of every practical active Christian virtue; who have never known what it is to relieve the needy, or support the poor, or whisper the word of unselfish kindness, or help the languishing mission-cause. You who have lived a useless life--who in the retrospect can point to no one good, or generous, or self-sacrificing deed. Amid abounding opportunities, perhaps with full coffers at your side, and the bar of God before your eyes, have you ever seriously pondered the question--how soon the opportunity may be past and gone?--"How long have I to live?"
How long have I? A short time, almost all of us. And those who are past life's mid-day, on whom the glow of sunset is stealing; those who have crossed the grand turning point--passed over the mountain-top, and are beginning to descend the shady side to the grave in the valley--let them, especially, listen to the warning. Let them imitate the example of the aged chief--seek leisure from over-much and over-many cares, to prepare for death.
It is strange that OLD AGE is as disinclined as youth to listen to the voice of wisdom in this. You imagine that you can take on new worldly burdens, and reach heaven safely enough notwithstanding! Ah! these burdens too often weigh hopelessly down. Like the bee that has wandered from its garden-hive, or its hole in the rock, in search of honeyed treasure, but which, in winging its way back, drops exhausted, and never reaches home. Old Barzillai was a noble exception to this. With courtier's grace, and a sublime moral fortitude, he declined the regal request, "Come you over with me!"--a question which does not always get a negative from old age, when Pleasure, shaking in her hands her crowns of beautiful flowers, cries, "Come over with me!"--and Mammon, clinking his bags of gold, cries, "Come over with me!"--and Ambition, pointing to the hazy mountain-top, and her coveted temple gleaming in the sun, cries, "Come over with me!"
Be it ours to reply--"I have a nobler heritage now to care for, a nobler temple for which to prepare. The day will come when these things will yield me no pleasure--when they shall be seen in their true light, as the empty baubles of an hour." Oh, what though you may have all that now caters to the pride of life--affluence, prosperity, success in business --"gaining the whole world," if you imperil or impoverish your immortal soul? What though life's morning and midday be bright and sunny, if you have made no provision for the wet drizzling rain of its afternoon, and find creeping upon you the joylessness of a godless old age. You imagine it will be easy enough to seek God, and find Him amid the 'dregs of existence', at the close of its weary day. But it will be with you as with the child who imagines, in the bright morning, that it will be safe to spend the sunny hours in play, and put off learning the morrow's task until night. When night comes, the little procrastinator is nodding over the book. Through fatigue and sleep, the unlearned lesson is abandoned, and it wakes on the morrow with its pillow bedewed with tears, under the consciousness that its work is undone.
On the other hand, how beautiful is that close of life which is ended with God! "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace," (Ps. 37:7). "Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you," (Isa. 46:4). What though the sun may have waded through clouds in the early morn? It has a couch of amber and gold now. The beginning and close of many a Christian's life is like that glorious Alp of which we have previously spoken. Its base and furrowed sides are in mist and cloud; but its white, hoary summit of everlasting snow, is bathed in the crimson hues of fading day.
Be it ours, to live the life of the righteous, that we may come at last to die their death; and standing, like Barzillai, by the brink of Jordan, hear the voice and invitation of a Greater and Mightier than earthly monarch calling us to a seat at His table in the Heavenly Jerusalem.