MEN FOR THE TIMES
“… men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.”
1 Chron. 12.32.
Sermon preached by Rev. J. W. Fraser, B.D., Retiring Moderator, at the opening of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland on 24th May 1966.
Many a nugget of true gold is hidden among the names of those earlier chapters of Chronicles. Here is oneÂ—the qualifications of these 200 men of Issachar who came to David to HebronÂ—”men that had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do”. What an asset these counsellors must have been to David as he look over the government of the whole kingdom of Israel! They were men of political wisdom and statescraft, wise, experienced, nature of judgement. They must also have been men of God, endowed with the Spirit of God, for Israel was not a secular but a heocratic kingdom, and only “holy men of God, moved by the Holy Ghost” really know “what Israel ought to do”.
What an invaluable asset such men would be in both Church and State in our own times!
I. The Times
May I draw your attention first of all, fathers and brethren, to the phrase “the times”. Those men, belonging to an altogether indistinguished tribe (for Issachar could not boast of many great men like Judah or Benjamin, Ephraim or Levi) had “understanding of the times . . .”.
This suggests an obvious, yet important, truthÂ—that times differ from each other. There is no “flat rate” of time; no monotonous flow. Tomorrow shall not be as today. True, each day goes by with 24 hours, and every year with 365 days with an extra day thrown in every four years to bring the calendar into line with the solar year. Days, months and years are one thing, but the times are another. There is no rule-of-thumb, no mechanical instrument, to measure them. They have a psychological sensitiveness, a spiritual connotation.
Furthermore there is a purpose running throughout the times like a scarlet thread. This, no doubt, the wise counsellors of Issachar realised. And the purpose is the purpose of God. The moving finger that writes the story of the times is the finger of God. He has ‘ordained whatsoever comes to pass” and ordained it for the all-excellent end of His own glory. Amidst the jumble of circumstances, and the apparently meaningless tangle of events, faith holds fast to thisÂ—that God is working all things according to the counsel of His will. What He does we may not know now but we shall know hereafter and recognise that He does all things well, that all things, even the apparently untoward and disastrous, “work together for good to them that love God who are the called according to His purpose”. “According to His purpose”Â—the scarlet thread of the divine purpose runs through, affording our clue to the maze of events. The times, our times, and others, are in God’s handsÂ—wise, omnipotent, holy and good.
The phrase also suggests that as the divine purpose runs through the centuries, giving pattern to history and point to God’s dealings with His Church, so there are seasons in our years. There is a time for every purpose under heaven, a seed-time and a harvest, a psychological moment, often so nicely poised that premature action can do irreparable damage and failure to act at the right moment may lead to loss. To use the homely proverb we must strike while the iron is hot or hammer away uselessly and laboriously for ever.
The bard of Avon, who seldom missed his cue, has put itÂ—
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
The Preacher puts it thus, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted … a time to break down and a time to build up … a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (he is a wise man who knows this!) … “He has made everything beautiful in His time (Eccles. 3. w. 1-9 &11).
No one understood, and exemplified, this better than our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. He is the ‘beau ideal’ of one with understanding of the times. He did everything in the Father’s season. He delayed where impatience would have “plucked its berries harsh and crude”, until the times were ripe. How often He said, “My time is not yet come”. It was in the fulness of time that He made His appearance in Bethlehem of Judah, and in the fulness of God’s time He set His face steadfastly to go up to Jerusalem, to be betrayed,
condemned and crucified, to suffer, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God. And now He waits until His enemies are made His footstool and the rightful King returns to reign. Even of the Cross of Calvary with its dark side of sin and misery, humanly speaking, with bated breath and Scripture-taught wisdom we may say, “He hath done all things well”, “everything is beautiful in His season”.
2. Understanding the Times
In the second place these men of Issachar had the rare qualification that they understood the times. “They had understanding of the times to know …” Let me invite your attention now to this valuable endowment, an endowment which made these 200 men of Issachar better than the thousands of soldiers the other tribes could muster to the side of David. Their wisdom and statescraft were worth battalions of swords and spears.
Understanding one’s times is a gift of God and among the finest assets of any Church or nation. It is a rare achievement, for “our own times” are proverbially difficult to assess. The verdict of history may be quite opposite to the sentence of the age in which events take place. How often it is that the fathers kill the prophets and their descendants garnish their tombs! A Joan of Arc is burnt as a heretic only to be later canonised by the same Church that condemned her! We stand so near to our times that we lose the perspective of history. We tend to fall into two extremesÂ—one of pessimistic condemnation and the other of flattering optimism. The one shakes his head and declares that no times were ever so evil as his own day. Spurgeon tells somewhere of one who read to a friend a mournful description of an age to which the listener gave his hearty Amen.
“That man knows our age, he describes it so well.” He was somewhat put about when the reader told him that the description was of an age hundreds of years before! Human nature does not change much, basically! We shake our heads at the juvenile delinquency of our own age. Yet a father’s letter written 2,000 years ago, and now a museum piece, complains bitterly that children were not what they used to be, but were unmannerly, forward, without respect for their elders!
On the other hand there are those who think our own ageÂ—apart from a rash of troubles like industrial disputes, racial controversies and international tensionsÂ—the most “advanced” of ages. Not “to keep up with the times”, indeed not to be in the vanguard of the
movements of the age, is to be hopelessly underprivileged, or wilfully obscurantist. No one denies that, technologically, our own age has made spectacular advances. But not all would say, unless with their tongue in their cheek, “Truly we are the men and wisdom shall die with us!”
How to think soberly, fairly, justlyÂ—that is the question. Those men of Issachar had their finger on the pulse of their age. They had “understanding of the times to know …” They tried the spirits. They “proved”, or tested, “things that differ” that they might approve the things that are excellent. They had a touchstone to discern between fool’s gold and the true ore. They were not put off with a yellow glitter.
Now this is an asset both Church and state could well do with more of. The state could do with fewer politicians and more statesmen. The Church would reap the benefit if she had more men of understanding. We should, as a nation and as a generation, be kept from many hurtful and foolish courses.
These men of Issachar, no doubt, received their gift from God, for God only is the fountain of wisdom and understanding. We feel that they must have been good men, not just detached oracular machines, like Ahithophel, but men of God, humble as they were wise, of the kind that, later, Daniel and his three friends belonged to; and Nehemiah too!
They received their wisdom, undoubtedly, as a talent from God, but it was developed by a study of God’s Word, prayerfully undertaken, and by integrity of character and devotion to duty as the case of Daniel so well illustrates.
3. What Israel ought to do
Finally, these wise men of Issachar not only understood the times but knew what politics Israel ought to follow, what action they ought to take. They were practical men. They knew what Israel ought to do. Theirs was no mere academic pursuit. Their preoccupation with the times was not just a mental exercise. They were not academic professors of the subject but exponents of the duty of Israel. They were eminently practical in their knowledge. They knew what Israel might do, nay more, they knew what Israel ought to do and no doubt by example as well as by precept they encouraged Israel to go and do it.
They knew what Israel ought to do. Conversely they knew what the nation should not do. This is very important and not so trite a statement as it may seem. Too often the energies of Church and nation are directed to catching hares no one wants to eat, at pursuing will-o’-the-wisps which can only land us in a quagmire, or even gathering wild gourds which put death into the pot. These men of Issachar never made the mistake of the false prophets who grieved God’s true prophets and deceived the Israel of their own day, lulling them to sleep with “peace, peace” when there was no peace; or saw for them “false causes of banishment”.
The prophet Isaiah warns us not “to say ‘a confederacy’ to all to
whom this people says ‘a confederacy'”. Because the majority say something it is not thereby right. We are warned against “following a multitude to do evil”. Or on the other hand a majority is not “ipso facto” wrong. We must try the spirits by the touchstone of the truth as it is revealed in the whole of the Scriptures. This, by the Holy Spirit’s guidance, will teach us what Israel ought to do and by the same token what Israel ought not to doÂ—the one that we may obey, and the other what we must avoid.
What Israel ought to do depends on the times in which our lot is cast. The problems of each generation are not the same. The emphasis alters. The enemy does not keep shelling from the same dug-out. His tactics vary, for the devil is nothing if not versatileÂ— though he seems to find that, basically, the same old snares answer well enough!
The emphasis of duty may alter from generation to generation. One generation’s duty may be to pull down, another’s to build up. One generation’s may be to advance, another’s to hold fast (the cloudy pillar that guided Israel was not always on the move). It takes wisdom to know when we should move forward and when we should stay put. But He who led Israel by His pillar of fire and cloud still guides those who wait on Him in faith and in prayer.
There are things that God’s Israel ought to do. This is a salutary reminder that we are not to give way to the blankness of despair, not to throw ourselves under our juniper tree, demit office and retire from the fray. Our hands must not hang idly down as a result of the despondent cry “What’s the use?” Our efforts may seem to be in vain. A better than we cried, “I have spent my strength for nought and in vain!” “Lord, who hath believed our report and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” But the faithful service of God’s obedient servant is not in vain. “What can the righteous do?” The righteous can do muchÂ—he can do his duty. “In due time, we shall reap if we faint not.” Remember that God’s purpose is being worked out. Even our failures, without diminishing our responsibility or minimising our sin, have a place in the purpose of Him “who makes the wrath of man to praise Him”. There is a harvest, it will not fail. “Who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Christ’s Kingdom shall come. His glory shall yet fill the earth. “The future is as bright,” as Judson reminded the faltering friends at home, “as the promises of God.”
So let us go to our tasks with diligence, “not slothful in business, fervent in Spirit, serving the Lord”, in the confidence that God’s work must prosper and that Israel shall be blessed in Him. Let us be instant in season, out of season, redeeming the time even if the days be evil. Let us be faithful to our stewardship, always seeking the glory of the God who chose us and called us by His grace, of the
Christ who redeemed us and is our Master, and of the Holy Spirit by whom we are sealed unto the day of redemption. And may God grant us at this Assembly and at all times understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to doÂ—and may He give us grace to do it.