"As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead him." - Deuteronomy 32:11, 12.
"As an eagle (mother-bird) stirreth up her nest, broodeth over her young and he (father-bird) spreadeth abroad his wings, taketh them and beareth them on his wings: So the Lord alone did lead him..."
J. F. Padkin: It is a commonplace remark that old people live in the past. It seems natural to the aged to dwell in conversation on the incidents that have befallen them; especially do we find that those persons who, like the statesman, have been concerned in public commotions, or, like the sailor, have experienced extraordinary dangers, dwell with a delight on the past, fighting again the battles and facing again the perils that are gone.
And this disposition is as useful as it is natural. Through it many valuable instructions are conveyed to others; young people, for instance, who listen to the reminiscences of their elders, reap thereby the advantages of past experience and are taught what they may expect to meet with in their own lives.
This propensity to enlarge on life's changes is beneficial, especially when it is subservient to the purposes of godliness; when incidents are related in such a manner as to lead us into correct and helpful views of the providential government of God in human life, and to inspire us with grateful and trustful sentiments towards our Father in Heaven.
Now, in this text [Deuteronomy] we have recorded the last words of the master-spirit of the Old Testament [Moses]. Looking back upon the story of his own days, and upon the history of Israel, he sees the golden thread of Divine government running through the maze of events; and he sums up his impression of the method, which God followed in the leading of His folk, in this poetic saying: "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, taketh them and beareth them on her wings; so the Lord alone did lead him."
If, now, we look more closely at this passage, we see that Moses here gives us a threefold view of Providence [God's activity]. He shows us, first, that it is a disturbing force; secondly, that it has a progressive purpose; and, third, that it is a sustaining power.
I. God's activity is at times a disturbing force.
These Israelites had had a long and grand past, and it was easy for them to believe in the Divine government as a whole. It is easy for us, when we stand out under the starry sky, to believe in the Divine Architect who shaped the universe. It is easy, when we look at the careers of great men like Luther, Milton, and Cromwell, to believe in a Divinity that shapes the ends of our lives. It is not so difficult, either, to believe in the loving care that watches over ordinary people like ourselves in our quiet uneventful days.
And so the general faith of Israel in the Providential guidance of their steps stood fast. But there was one element in their experience against which they were inclined to rebel, and that was the disturbing element of constant change.
Imagine, for instance, the stir that must have been created in the camp when the word came, "Ye have dwelt long enough in this Mount" (Deut. 1:6). For it meant that the people, who had been living there for some eighteen months, were suddenly rooted up and ordered to move on. Think how this sudden proclamation would upset their family and social arrangements! What a disturbing business! And so, as they murmured, Moses bade them lift up their eyes to the eagles, and consider their loving dealing with their young.
The picture to which he points is full of truth and beauty. Horeb rises before them, and on the edge of the rugged cliff is a rudely constructed nest of sticks. To this nest on the summit of the cliff the eaglets cling, afraid to trust their wings, and so to learn the use of their powers and to attain their fuller life. But the wiser parent-eagle, with stern kindness, drives them from their shelter: "She stirreth up the nest" (Deut. 32:11). Behold, in a moment, the refuge that the little ones loved is gone; they can no longer settle there; and so, perforce, they set forth on their life's adventure, cleaving the air amid the sunny heights. And by this picture Moses seeks to illustrate the love of God that is at the heart of all the vicissitudes of His people's pilgrimage.
Now, see what God our Father is doing with us. He deals with us all through life as the eagle, in her love and wisdom, deals with her young. How often do our hearts, in their foolishness, fondly cling to the delusion that at some favoured Horeb we have all we require; and we are content to nestle there. How often do we hear people talking of "settling down"; as if that were the ultimate good. But the unseen hand of God is ever dealing with us, with loving severity, compelling us to go forth that we may develop the powers of our rising youth, or exercise the privilege of our divine sonship, or develop our souls in preparation for the future glory.
As we look back we see, for example, how He stirred up the school-nest, so that we could not nestle there. School-days and school-companions, where are they? He has scattered our playmates over the face of the earth, and some have already reached the yonder shore. The happy band of laughing lads is scattered, the games are ended; and we are outside of that nest.
Again, there was the nest of our early home. When we were children we never fancied, though we saw change come over other homes, that it would ever come to our own. It never dawned upon us that we should not have our father and mother always with us, and that our family circle would not remain unbroken. How short-sighted of us! Father or mother is gone; perhaps both have passed away. It may even be that all our family circle are dispersed. Peradventure the walls of the old dwelling, in some lone glen, may be yielding to the hand of decay; or, if it is still standing, our shadow may never darken its threshold. Truly the nest is stirred up; it is destroyed; it is gone like a dream.
And, again, in later years, maybe, we choose a happy partner and make a home for ourselves. We fill this earthly nest with all manner of comforts; and then, we say, we will settle down. The husband is pleased with his business and its returns; and the wife with her comfortable home and her surroundings. They nestle in their comfort like birds in a warm nest. Sometimes, alas! in circumstances like these, the generous hopes and ideals of youth are lost; religion is forsaken; earnest benevolent work for Christ, the prayer-meeting and other such forms of Christian activity, come to be avoided as a leper would be in our street. Now, if death comes into such a home and writes paleness on some cheeks of roses there, do you wonder? Do you marvel that God disturbs such lives in order to stir them up to thoughts of better things? Such are some of the more common ways in which the unsettling power of God is made manifest in human affairs.
But you can look into your own experience and see what deeper and more revolutionary changes there have been in it. For God comes into every life, not only in such ordinary ways as we have noted, but in many a strange, mysterious guise, severing earthly friends, plucking away loved ones, breaking cherished plans and hopes. All this happens to us in the line of Divine government.
But, alas! we do often fail to remember this. We see in all these dispensations nothing but barren grief and pain. We are blind to the loving purpose of the Most High in the changes which He works; and so, like the Israelites, we dwell upon our hardships, to the weakening of our faith, to the hurt of our courage, and almost to the destruction of our souls. It was in such an hour that Moses led his people to see an illustration of God's love in the eagle's stirring up of her nest.
II. God's activity has always a progressive purpose.
The Divine government is a disturbing force in our life, in order that it may be an agent of progress. We do not, as a rule, see this until we have moved on. There is little or nothing of the Divine to be seen in events when they are right upon us. In the spiritual sense we are all long-sighted; we see things better at a distance than we do when we are in the midst of them. And so
"... the past will always win
A glory from its being far,
And orb into a perfect star
We saw not when we moved therein."
It was only after forty years in the wilderness that Moses discerned fully how the Lord had disturbed these Israelites, only that at the proper time He might lead them to their inheritance.
And even so God disturbs our life that He may force us on to something better, never for the mere sake of disturbance or punishment. If God does ask us to uproot ourselves and move out yonder, it is because yonder there is a higher possibility and a better sphere. We may not see the benefit, but God's eye is on the attainment.
Consider again, from this point of view, the eagle's purpose for her young. The picture is full of suggestiveness. She flings the young out of the nest and drops them over the cliff, high above the earth. They have never been in the air before and cannot trust their wings. The ordeal is for them a terrible one. But is that mother-bird cruel? No; for why does she disturb the eaglets? Watch her, and you will understand. She swoops round and round above her young, teaching them to fly; and when they are like to fall, in their first and feeble effort, the father-bird spreadeth abroad his wings, taketh them and beareth them on his wings, that they may feel the possibility and the exhilaration of flight.
That is how God deals with us. He would teach us how to use the gifts with which He has endowed us. For instance, it was hard for the lad to leave home. The parting, God knows, was sad enough. With tears and good-bye wishes he was launched out into life; but the change that was thus bitter in its beginning proved itself to be good in later days. For, by God's grace, with strong hand and healthy brain, he rose to the full use of his faculties.
He became a prosperous merchant, a skilful mechanic, or an honored professional man. He had to go out into the world to learn self-development, self-control, and the power to serve his day and generation according to the will of God. So rose Benjamin Franklin, like an eaglet of science, till he caught the forked lightning of heaven and taught us electricity. So rose David Livingstone from being a weaver's lad to be the great missionary of the Dark Continent. So rose Thomas Chalmers from a lowly homestead in Fifeshire, and John Cairns from a farm cottage in Berwickshire, to be the heads of their respective Churches.
If it be true that a young eaglet, left alone, would become a mere weakling, starved and never able to fly, how much more true is it of a soul nestling in sin? But God in His great love awakeneth the soul, even at the cost of making the heart bleed. He sends some painful event, some convicting message of His Word, which kindles a fire in the conscience and drives the sufferer to Jesus for relief.
When a party of Arctic explorers went to search, years ago, for Sir John Franklin among the snows and icebergs, they encountered frost so intense that the thermometer sank to seventy degrees below zero, and the strongest men, overcome with cold, lay down to sleep. But the leader knew that half an hour of that treacherous sleep would leave every one of them stiff in death. He roused them up; they said, "We are not cold; we only want a little rest." So the leader struck them, boxed them, bruised them, and did everything to drive off the fatal slumber. And the arm that aroused them was the arm that saved them.
So does God often deal with the souls of men, awaking them with merciful pain, scourging them into life, driving them as with fierce storm into the harbor of peace. Thus was it that He wrought salvation for John Bunyan; who tells us how, in the throes of his spiritual anguish, he wandered hither and thither in Elstowe fields, trembling often in every part of his being, tormented by supernatural terrors, fearing even the sound of the church-bell, as though it were a call to Judgment. So did he suffer; but the powers that distressed him were the heralds of redemption. For the day came when he heard simple women in a doorway talking of the love of Christ; and through their message his heart found refuge from its woe and, in the blessed light of grace, bloomed as a flower in glory of peace, poetic faith, joy and vision. Such are not seldom the ways of God as He brings salvation to His beloved.
Sometimes the minister is summoned hurriedly to a home, for a dear little child is sick. Another and unseen visitor has been there, touching the cheek with paleness and hushing the voice that rang with glee. When the life goes utterly away and there is no responsive smile and no intelligent look, the parents' hearts cry out in their anguish, "Where is the love of God?" But later comes the blessing; and their hearts follow on after that little child; and what they want to know is how they can meet her again. What a disturbance, yet what a progress in thought, belief and aspiration!
But what do all such experiences mean? They are only God's methods of teaching us the secret, innate forces of our life, and leading us to the development of them. The government of God is a disturbing thing at times; but, praise be to His holy name, it has always a progressive and perfecting power.
III. Providence is always a sustaining power.
The purpose of Moses was to quicken the faith of these Israelites in God, increase their courage, and make of them valiant heroes. There were battles to be fought and duties to be done before they entered into their inheritance. Having shown them the Divine purpose of progress, he sought to encourage and strengthen them by the assurance of God's sustaining of them. Perhaps some young, inquiring mind will ask, "Did any of the little eagles fall to the ground?" Ah! dear young heart, you have put your finger on a precious part of the kernel of the wonderful truth of our text.
After the mother-bird has stirred up the nest and forced the young ones to their trembling attempt at flight, with the yawning abyss beneath them, the father-bird swoops beneath them, catches them on his wings, and bears them up. Thus, Moses in directing the attention of troubled Israel to the dealings of the eagle with its young, sought to teach them not only that God troubles and distresses men for their higher good, but that He gives them also security and peace.
This was the very lesson which Jesus afterwards taught to His disciples when He said, "Consider the fowls of the air... your heavenly Father feedeth them" (Matt. 6:26); and, "Not one sparrow falleth to the ground without your Father" (Matt. 10:29). "Are ye not much better than they?" (Luke 12:7).
For this is how God deals with us who are His children. Having cast us out into elements new and strange, so that we have felt lost and afraid, He spreads out His omnipotent wings beneath us and sustains us. Had you ever trouble, that you took from Him, which did not bring that hovering Presence nearer you? ["hover" is Hebrew meaning of "Passover"] Yes, if we take our changes and our sorrows as loving summonses from Him to effort and advance, we may rely on His upholding power. He spreadeth out His wings, taketh us and beareth us on His wings. On these broad wings we are carried and by them we are guarded.
Mr. Boreham has been reminding us that David Livingstone found himself, after having been in Africa sixteen years, surrounded by hostile natives, and felt that he stood face to face with death. Opening his New Testament, his eye fell on these words, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." (Matt. 28:20) "It," said Livingstone to himself, "is the word of a Gentleman of the most strict and sacred honour, so there's an end on it.... should such a man as I flee?" We find that soon afterwards this entry appears in his diary, "I feel much better now; thank God."
When he returned on furlough to his native country, every place sought to honour him. As he stood up in the University of Glasgow to be created Doctor of Laws, he was received by the students in reverential silence. In his address afterwards he told his audience that he was going back to Africa "without misgiving and with great gladness. For would you like me to tell you what supported me through all the years of exile among people whose language I could not understand, and whose attitude towards me was always uncertain and often hostile? It was this: `Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world!' On those words I staked everything, and they never failed!"
In this matter we may all follow in the footsteps of Livingstone, and may all conquer by the same faith. The power that was sufficient for him will not disappoint us. If only we lay ourselves on God's wings, and that not in idleness, but also doing, like men, the best we may, there shall no evil come nigh us. He shall give His angels charge over us to keep us in all our ways (Psa. 91:11). He will be our Refuge (Psa. 46:11), and underneath us will be the Everlasting Arms (Deut. 33:27). Resting on the Lord we shall renew our strength, we shall mount up with wings as eagles; we shall run and not be weary; we shall walk and not faint (Isa. 40:31).
"So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile."
Sermon preached by James F. Padkin, Govan, Scotland, 1920
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