"The forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured." - 2 Samuel 18:8.
H. L. Simpson: That statement is taken from one of the vivid battle scenes which the Old Testament writers were such adepts at describing. Far and wide the tide of battle had run throughout the pleasant land, sucking in more and more of the people into its maelstrom. It developed into an action in which everybody seemed to become involved.
"So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim. And the people of Israel were smitten there before the servants of David, and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty thousand men. For the battle was there spread over the face of all the country: and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured." (2 Sam. 18)
We, too, are painfully, personally, and practically aware of the fact enunciated here, that the accompaniments and consequences of war can be far more disastrous than the actual fighting. It is the unexpected that happens, the unlooked-for that piles up the casualties. It was the place of shelter that shattered: the green sward was grimmer than the grey sword, the sylvan glade than the sharpened blade.
And it was all so easily done. Tragedies usually do take place when the sun is shining. It is only your third-rate novelist who seeks to freeze your blood with doings on "a night in which you would not have turned a dog out of doors." It was on an autumn Bank [i.e., National] Holiday that life for every one of us began its revolutionary change [start of World War I].
And moral disasters, like physical ones, generally occur in happy autumn fields and vernal woods. The major damage is caused by such trifling things. "We are driven from a useful life, like travellers from the woods, not by lions but by midges [small flies]." For one among us who ever has occasion to carry a Winchester repeater [rifle], scores of us need to arm ourselves with midge lotion.
You would never think that those pleasant woods of Ephraim would turn traitor - the orchard closes of home. They afford some of the most charming woodland scenery that Syria [Palestine] knows. From noble oaks standing in luxuriant grass shot with a rich variety of wild flowers, the wood pigeons rise in clouds, and jays and woodpeckers flash and chatter in every glade.
As I rode under just such an oak as arrested Absalom's flight, where one could picture the broken lines and a rout through the open forest, and was allowing my grey Arab to pick his way while I felt in my saddlebag for my Bible in order to refresh my memory about details in the old story, I lost my pith helmet and puggaree [scarf] in the branches of the spreading tree, so far repeating Absalom's experience.
Now the wonderful, the divine thing in reading the Old Testament stories of the Book which contains for us the word of God, is that you never feel that these are merely "tales of old forgotten things and battles long ago." You cannot help feeling that these things were written for your edification who find that the battle of life is spread over the face of all the country, so that everybody is drawn into it.
Why is the sacred writer at such pains to tell us the details of the wonderful head of hair which Absalom possessed, and of his overweening pride therein, if not that he may also tell us how this same feature was the means of the debonair young rebel's undoing? He would not have done so if it were not always true that great natural gifts may become snares and dangers to their possessors if they are not used for the glory and in the service of God. He wishes us to realize, through a graphic instance of the eternal truth, that a man is liable to be undone at his strongest point, and that those who presume upon natural aptitudes are often left hanging between heaven and earth.
And it is because of that perpetual search for the deeper meanings of trifling events, the continual looking from the straw to the blowing of the wind that bears it, that I think we are justified in seeking to penetrate this wood of Ephraim a little farther than the mere surface facts of the tale would take us. For of the battle of life also it is true that the forest devours more people than the sword devours.
The Odyssey of life is as long and tragic a tale in its way as the Iliad. The old Greeks showed their knowledge of the fact that the wood can be as dangerous as the sword, when Homer makes Odysseus inquire "Did all those Achaeans return safe with their ships, or perished any by a shameful death aboard his own ship, or in the arms of his friends, after he had wound up the clew [thread] of war?" This is the universal experience of the race; and they have hidden the warning in their tales.
"Some people's sins are evident," says St Paul, "leading the world to an estimate of their characters, but the sins of others lag behind" (1 Tim. 5:24). That is the apostle's way of stating the too familiar truth that, although there are some notorious cases in which people fall openly in the sight of the world, cut down by the sword of the enemy, there are far more who succumb in the dark and hidden depths of the forest, unmarked by the public gaze. Yet is their fate none the less sealed than that of those more notorious failures.
Against the open and grosser sins there is probably the less need for most of us to arm ourselves, just because we know the sharp edge of a sword and what it can do in the way of destroying life. But the wood devours far more than the sword.
It is in the secret places of life and thought that most of the mischief is wrought. And none of us can halloo, [shut loudly] because none of us is clear of the wood.
One of the old commentators, taking the word "devour" literally, explains that the fate which those who fled to the forest for refuge met with was to be devoured of the wild animals it sheltered, who had their dwelling there. And readers of Dante will recall how he opens his great drama by representing himself as suddenly, when halfway through life, finding himself in the midst of a dark wood infested with wild beasts.
In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray,
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell,
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
And he tells how he encountered first a panther, and then a lion, and then a she-wolf, and how each successive encounter exposed him to fresh danger.
That is Dante's way of telling us the same story and giving us the same warning. He found that it was in the mid-years of life that a man is apt to fail and succumb. Having escaped the violent edge of the sword - the more flagrant sins, he was in danger of going down before either the panther or the lion or the she-wolf - that is to say, before luxury, before pride, and before avarice.
The danger for most of us, especially those in the mid-years of life, all the experts seem to be agreed, is that we should become entangled in that which lured us to enter it at first because it looked attractive, and seemed to offer us a means of shelter and a way of escape in the battle of life. It may be something which in itself is innocent enough at first, but which proves our undoing if it come to entangle us so that it prevents us from going onward and upward.
I met a man recently whom I had known many years ago as a deacon in a certain church, one who took a great lift of work among lads, and who was known for his enthusiasm in all good causes. When he removed to another city he had at first sought out the place and the people who could most help him and whom he could most help in the higher pursuits of life. But he confessed that gradually the pressure of business had so engrossed him, that first he seemed to have no time for his old delights, and then little inclination. He admitted that he was more accusing than excusing himself when he said that the business of making a living had prevented him in the making of a life. He was the kind of man who would never have fallen by the sword, but he was being devoured by the wood, as he not unsorrowfully admitted.
And when we consider our own case, must we not admit that we are entangled by things in a way we had never meant to allow ourselves to be? The stream of life is being dispersed in spray. It may be our vocation, which has become an avocation, it may be our pleasures, it may be just our general mode of life - no sharp and cutting edge of a sword, but just a sense of having got so entangled in lesser concerns that we are in danger of never getting out of the wood at all.
The good things of life have kept us from the best things. We are held, enslaved by the entangling undergrowth of the occupations and interests which we never imagined, when first we became absorbed in them, were going to separate us from God, and to hold us back from taking our place in the vanguard with the soldiers of Christ.
It is just the tragedy of to-day that the forest devours more than the sword, that so many are lost to the cause of Christ and the Kingdom of God through no open sin, but just through entanglement with what our Lord called "the worry of the world and the lure of riches" (Matt. 13:12).
We are being devoured of the wood if our own hearts condemn us that we are not so sensitive to the voices of the Spirit as once we were. If we are content with second-bests and unworthy compromises; if we have lost the edge of our appetite for the beautiful and noble things after which we used to hunger and thirst; if we are conscious of having lowered our standards of reverence, or of rectitude, or of morality; if we must admit to ourselves that we are not so punctilious in the observance of religious duties as once we were, then the forest has us in thrall.
We may pass successfully, and even with a margin of credit, all the standards of the world around us; and yet, if we know that we are not making the most of our spiritual capacity, then we are counting for less than God meant that we should count for in His world. The peril of the forest is just that we should become entangled with things which are not wrong in themselves, but whose tragic grip of us consists in this, that they are holding us back from all that we might be. They are brushwood entanglements, preventing us from doing all that God made us capable of doing, and from being all that He would have us to be. Our danger is, not that anybody should be able to point a finger at us, but that no one will be the better for having known us; not that we should do anything conspicuously wrong, but that we should never do anything splendidly right; not that we should be guilty of pursuing unworthy ends, but that we should fail of man's chief end, which is to glorify God.
The words in which the story of Absalom's fatal entanglement are told contain one of the grimmest pieces of irony to be found in the whole of Scripture. I can recall nothing in literature and history more sardonic than this: "And Absalom rode upon his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went on" (2 Sam. 18:9).
The man was left high and dry while his mule went on! The man got stuck behind, and his beast went on without him! His head caught hold of the oak. Pity it had never caught such a firm hold of anything elevating before! And if it hadn't been for Joab's impertinent interference, the Bible would have left him hanging there, kicking his ineffectual heels in the air, while his mule went careering on.
The city is full of stories like that, of men of great ability and great promise, whose very gifts become their undoing. Their latter end was emptiness - hanging in mid-air; and the business that was under them went on.
"The forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured." That is to say, Pan ["God of Forests"] is a great deal more deadly than Mars ["God of War"]. The pursuit of pleasure, the shameless chase after selfish luxury, is a far greater catastrophe for a man and a nation than the hard trial of war. Some of us should pray to be delivered from prolonged life rather than from sudden death.
If, as a nation, we have escaped the sword only to fall into the entanglements of the forest; if we have fled from Mars only to fall into the hairy paws of Pan, our latter end is worse than our former fate. And this deadly snare of pleasure, holding us back from the fulfillment of life and destiny, is far more widespread than the devastation of war.
A French writer on Pascal has said that Christ has two great enemies, the god Priapus ["God of male sexuality"] and the god Pan ["God of good-times"], and that of the two the latter is the more deadly. That is to say, that you can vanquish sensuality in its ugliest forms, but the easy-going idea that everything should be taken as it comes, and that nothing is really more important than anything else, is death to all moral earnestness and to all Christian endeavor.
And that is why it behooves those of us who care at all for the well-being of the nation's soul to resist all the insidious attempts which are being repeatedly made in so many quarters to filch from us the safeguards of the spiritual life which have been handed down from the fathers.
It is possible for you to argue, and even to argue speciously, for the laxer observance of the Sabbath, and for the letting go of customs and habits which were perhaps promulgated and defended in the past with more bitterness than wisdom. But if you even wish to argue for the abandonment of these things, you betray at once that you are none of Christ's. For the question with Christ's men and women can never be, Is it wrong? or even, Is it lawful? but only, Is it expedient? Is it the best?
To treat these questions with even indulgent tolerance is to tamper with the locks of the King's palace. It is in effect not only to take the crutch from the weaker brother, but also the crown from the Redeemer, whom we can never too highly or too scrupulously honour. It is the kind of act that should be classed with the crimes of selling the password and betraying military secrets in time of war.
And even while you are doing it your own soul is turning King's [State's] evidence against you. For you owe everything that you possess of iron in your will and of salt in your character to that old discipline which guarded the outposts because they were the King's territory as much as the citadel. Any sweetness of disposition and lovableness of nature that you still possess witness against you even while you are violating their springs. And even in your mad revolt you will never altogether get away from the man that once you were.
You may break, you may shatter the vase if you will,
But the scent of the roses will hang round it still.
Sermon by Hubert L. Simpson, Glasgow, Scotland, 1920
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