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The Tree of Life:


The Church Militant

Chapter 1. How far do we measure up to our present standard? How well are we prepared to meet the world? The census of the children of Israel was first taken fourteen months after leaving Egypt, and one month after the tabernacle had been set up at the foot of Sinai. The princes numbered every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war. Israel came out of Egypt a promiscuous crowd of men, women and children. The first step toward organization is to ascertain their military strength. The numbering of the tribes means to set in order and dispose all the teachings of religion for the conflict with evil in self and in the world. The Levites were not numbered. Their duty in times of war or peace is to maintain the service in the tabernacle. They represent the spirit that unites man to man and to God. We estimate the power of the truth by arguments that prove its practical worth. The esprit de corps is an unseen and an unknown quantity until put to the test in conflict. In the bands of a resolute self-sacrificing spirit the truth is invincible.

The Order of Encampment

2. The order of the tribes in the camp presents a picture of the order of the hosts of the Lord. It also presents a picture of the church militant. This is no particular religion, or denomination, but the people individually and collectively in whom is the church, whether they belong to any church or to no church. The camp represents the living church, the invisible church. All its members are related to each other in groups, and as a whole. Their organic connection is known to the Lord alone. The Lord coordinates and interrelates all that is good and true in everyone both individually and collectively for the restoration of his kingdom on earth. It is impossible to figure out the processes by which all the nerve centers in the brain coordinate in making use of the knowledge stored up within it for the day’s work. No more can we grasp how the forces are organized and disciplined for the conflict with evil and the redemption of society. It is enough that we first learn the meaning of God’s law and its application to existing conditions in self and the world. The Lord will order and dispose it all for service later. That is the order of encampment.

The Order of March

In the order of march Judah, Issachar and Zebulun on the east are the vanguard, and Reuben, Simeon and Gad on the south form the second rank. The tabernacle under the care of the Levites is in the center. Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin on the west follow in the third rank, and Dan, Asher and Naphtali on the north take the rear. Those in the greatest love to the Lord and greatest light (Judah and Reuben) advance first, and those in the least degree of love and light (Ephraim and Dan) last. The camp moves forward as heart and head in all reach a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the law under the instruction of the Great High Captain.

3, 4. The progress of civilization in the world depends in the first instance upon an advancing understanding of the law of the Lord in relation to human affairs. To this end the Church serves to unfold the meaning of the Scriptures, and present the truth about life to men. This is clearly indicated by the function of the four groups of Levites who surrounded the tabernacle in the center of the host. The name Levi means adhesion, or conjunction, which for the spirit is effected through love. The Levites who ministered in the tabernacle and transported it through the wilderness, therefore, represent the only medium that can open the Word and conjoin man to God, and man to man—namely, spiritual love, or charity. The families of the sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath and Merari, who moved the tabernacle when on the march, represent those who work out the progressive ideal of the law of love, while Aaron and his sons demonstrate the practical value of it. Moses himself impersonates the voice of God through conscience, which summons all the forces in man to obey. Nor is conscience a voice apart from all that is in man. Everything within the man goes to make conscience. Man as much makes conscience, as conscience makes man. For man—singular or plural—only responds to conscience according to the driving power of an unselfish love back of it.

Love Never Fights

The Levites were not numbered as fighters. They were numbered from one month and upward in lieu of the first-born, and were also numbered from thirty to fifty years of age as assistants in the service of the tabernacle. The first-born is love, and is seen in its purity in the innocence of infancy. This is the heart of religion. But religion only begins to operate with power with the maturation of the faculties, and after some experience of life’s trials. This is the significance of the number thirty. The Lord was about thirty when He began His ministry. The meaning of that fact is the only point of interest in it today.

Truth Learned in Self-Examination

5. The process of numbering, or taking an estimate of character, goes on steadily. Three pictures are presented for guidance in surveying: the seclusion of lepers from the camp, paying the price of restitution for personal injuries, and a trial by ordeal to prove the innocence of a wife suspected of unfaithfulness. During self-examination the Lord often shows us where we are insincere, or hypocritical. As often He reveals unjust thoughts against our neighbor which ought to be indemnified. And conscience frequently calls in question our motives for perfectly good actions.

6. The power of the Word is in the letter—the hair of the head. There is a grave danger of destroying the power of the letter by putting a meaning into it entirely foreign to it, and spiritualizing it away. The spirit is in the letter. We recognize it without argument as we live in the spirit of the great benediction with which the chapter closes.

A Progressive Church

7. The dedication of the tabernacle to the service of the Lord follows. The repetition of the offering by each of the twelve tribes intensifies the impressiveness of the same experience in men of the most diverse interests in life, who give themselves up to the service of their fellowmen. This ensures progress. The wagons which the princes of the tribes brought to the sanctuary were given to the Gershonites and Merarites to carry the heavy parts of the tabernacle in transit to the Holy Land. The Kohathites carried the more precious furniture on their shoulders. So the Church teaches the way of life, and the people make the application to existing conditions. Progress is gauged by the effort to shun evil and do good. Church and state advance together as the actual more and more approximates the ideal. As a counterpart on the lower plane we have the teaching in the schools and universities and the attendant increasing speed in the wheels of industry which mark our material progress. With the wagons and oxen go other offerings which signify elements of spirituality in reformation and regeneration.

8. The Church must keep up with the times, relighting its lamps, getting a new understanding of the Scriptures, and reconsecrating its priesthood for service in a progressive world.

"Thanks Be to God"

9. Everyone must keep the Passover commemorating deliverance from bondage to evil at the appointed time, or, if then absent, or unclean, a month later. Every time we are freed from tribulation we should recognize the hand of the Lord, and rejoice. Indifference or selfishness may deaden our appreciation of the Source of relief. Soon, or late, we must see it, and greet our Helper openly. It is said that nature works a cure in sickness, yet we fail to see the whole truth until we acknowledge the Author of the vis medicatrix naturae.

Marking Time

Every day has its lesson to learn. We may be slow to grasp the meaning of life. We may be ultra-conservative. The cloud rests over the ark, and remains there until we see wherein we oppose progress, and why. We may be despondent or rebellious, because life does not move fast enough for us. The pillar of fire is there in our darkest hour, to remind us of the Lord’s patience and mercy. Whatever our thought or mood may be the Lord is ever present awaiting the opportunity to enlighten and direct us on the heavenward path. The cloud is the guide through the desert. The meaning of the law is never perfectly clear while duty is an abstract consideration. Progress waits upon the test of theory in practice. A tree is known by its fruits.

10. We formulate our convictions about right living, our doctrines, reforms, working hypotheses. We frequently advocate them with zeal. The silver trumpet calls for the assembly, for an open forum, for controversy, for progressive action, or for war, or for consecration to a cause. The heart leads, the head follows. The mind is disciplined in right thinking, and progresses slowly to the point of action, when the truth is put to the test for final proof or disproof.

11. The lack of agreement in matters of belief frequently awakens bitter antagonisms. The camp suffers from fire and the lust for flesh. The manna from heaven is unpalatable. It is a hard lesson to learn to tolerate wide differences of opinion, and preserve the spirit of unity when shaken, or restore it when broken. The tendency is to suppress diversity, to enforce unity. Dictatorship may get the semblance of unity, but at the expense of freedom of conscience to everyone. "Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!" The plague hurts those who lust for the power to crush dissenters.

12. Freedom of speech, however, has its limitations. Constructive criticism is often necessary. The critic may suffer for it. The Lord Himself was crucified for bearing witness to the truth. Unjust judgment, however, condemns the critic. The law of the Lord takes in the wise and the simple alike. Aaron and Miriam were unjustified when they attacked Moses for having an Ethiopian wife, who represents the simple good. Moses took no offense. But Miriam became a leper, and was only relieved from the disease after a seven days’ separation from the camp, by the urgent prayer of Aaron. Bigotry is a form of profanation that separates man from his fellowmen, and needs deep repentance to rectify.

The First Reconnaissance

13, 14. The tribes reach the southern confines of the promised land. Twelve are sent to investigate and to report upon its suitability for a home. They brought back samples of the fruits. It was a good land, but had walled cities and giants in it, and could not be conquered. Caleb and Joshua stood heroically for a minority report. Take a sight of heaven! Imagine what this world might be if the nations got together, and everyone did his utmost to make life richer and better for all the rest! Behold a cluster of grapes that takes two men to carry, and pomegranates and figs! Such fruits! But powerful vested interests with gigantic pretensions defy interference. It would be the height of folly to attempt to change the order of things that has existed from time immemorial. You cannot change the world; better fall into line than be ruined! That is the cry touching the world without. Touching the world within it runs—"It is useless for me to attempt to change my nature! To love those whom I despise and hate? Better leave well enough alone."

We may sometimes feel that way, and yet be conscious of a mild protest. That tame dissent must not be lost, but must grow until faith becomes pungent as "a grain of mustard seed that will move mountains" (Matthew 17:20). It is vain to attempt reconstruction with a listless mind or purpose. The eye must be single, the motive unselfish, and the hand steady and firm. The tribes had to suffer discipline in the wilderness for thirty years until all of that generation over twenty years of age had died. The younger generation with Caleb and Joshua alone entered the land.

15. Instructions now follow regarding the service in the tabernacle when they enter into the land. The part of the mind open to instruction learns more about the heavenly life. It is a criminal offense to gather sticks on the Sabbath day. Sticks for fire! Stray considerations of self-merit to afford comfort in a cold and unappreciative world! Such thoughts must be proscribed if we would fit ourselves for the task before us. Even in relation to the most trivial acts of kindness, our thoughts should turn to the service of others and not to ourselves. This is the ribbon of blue in the border of our garments.

The Supremacy of God’s Law

16. The authority of the law is a perennial issue during this instruction period, in both Church and state, in matters of love and faith, in questions of religion, morals and civics. Korah and his two hundred and fifty adherents questioned the authority of Moses and Aaron; and Dathan and Abiram rebelled against Moses for misleading and deceiving the people. Moses put the question to the test. The earth opened and engulfed them and their households, while fire consumed the followers of Korah. Sympathizers in the camp were smitten by the plague.

This presents a terrible lesson. To deny the supremacy of God’s law, or question the permissions of Providence for human betterment, opens the way to hell, and destroys the love of God in the heart.

17. The law of love—the saving love of God in Christ—dominates all the teachings of the Church. Aaron’s rod alone budded, and was placed before the ark in the holy of holies as a token against any further rebellion. The pilgrim must be ever "watchful" that he is actuated by the law of love in all life’s experiences. The rod yielded almonds, a word that means "watchful." "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Self-Love Alienates Man from God

18. This incident throws light on the meaning of the repeated statement that the stranger who approaches the tabernacle shall be put to death. Self-worship is the antithesis of the worship of God, and must be cut off. This is not effected by a word of condemnation, but through the extinction of it every time it appears. And it often comes into the light for judgment, just when the love of the Lord operates in the soul. The Levites keep the charge of the tabernacle for the services in it. They bear the iniquity of the priesthood, and are sustained by offerings of the people—the heave offering, the Holy Spirit. It is the mystery of suffering, the passion of the cross. The Lord bore our iniquities, and removes our sins as we bear our cross without a murmur, without breaking under it. "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Revelation 2:10).

Self-Confidence Spoils Culture

19. A calf growing rapidly on the mother’s milk and full of playfulness is an image of youth, well educated, well bred and full of life. Unfortunately snobbishness is often a concomitant of this estate, even though it may not always assert itself in conduct. When unmasked it becomes apparent that culture and wit are dead as ashes when destitute of the heartfelt appreciation of the good in others, howsoever meager that may be. The self-realization of this great spiritual truth is brought to light in the use of the waters of separation made of the ashes of the red heifer, or cow-calf. "The natural of man from birth is contaminated and crammed with evils" (Marital Love #146). It is a dead body, to touch which, or sense definitely, entails purification. "The soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even." "At the time of evening there shall be light." It is the beginning of a new day every time we see though dimly that "the flesh profiteth nothing, the spirit only giveth life" (John 6:63).

20. The presumptuous spirit in which Moses and Aaron drew water from the rock for a rebellious people further exemplifies the point. Self-conceit damns culture or refinement. Nor is there any shortcut to the correction of any defects in character. Edom will not let his brother Israel pass through his territory. The natural disposition, soured by life’s hardships, contests the way. At Mount Hor Aaron dies, and Eleazer takes his place. Aaron might not enter the land, because be became exasperated over the complaints of the people. The Savior’s love cannot operate within when patience gives way to petulance. This weakness must be surrendered to proceed on the heavenward path.

A Costly Detour

21. The conviction that impatience is futile in life’s battle gives a victory over an enemy that had tied up some of our forces in the past. Israel punished Arad for prisoners taken captive years earlier. The arduous journey compassing the land of Edom again tested the people’s patience. Israel resented Edom’s unbrotherly treatment. Israel returned evil for evil. What wonder the people again loathed the bread from heaven. Many died from the bite of fiery serpents. In penitence they appealed to Moses, and were healed by looking up to the brazen serpent.

Compassing Edom! Herein is a last temptation in the wilderness to succumb to the subtle importunity of human nature, rigorous in its antagonism to the spiritual life, deaf to reason, and insinuating the consummate folly of trusting in the Lord. Must we abandon all our convictions and expectations in meek submission after having suffered so much for them? And that merely because the task before us seems to be hopeless and futile! The example of the Lord rises up before us revealing the power of the Word to glorify "our nature," which He took upon Him in this world. We cannot surely afford to ignore the significance of that which He suffered solely for our sakes! "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:14).

The First Bit of Heaven Regained

All this searching of the reins and heart at length opens the way to the confines of the promised land. Two kings occupied the territory on this side of the Jordan, Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan. They opposed Israel’s advance, but were defeated, and Israel took possession of the first division of their inheritance. Moab and Ammon, descendants of Lot, also occupied part of this region, but were friendly to Israel. The land "on this side of the Jordan" represents the outer plane of the spiritual life, orderly conduct in private and public life. Moab and Ammon represent reasonable pleasures of life which are a help to good behavior. The victory over Sihon and Og registers success through unquestioning obedience to the law in controlling habits of life contra bonos mores. On this initial foundation of rigid self-discipline, the whole superstructure is built step by step. The major work before the tribes is the conquest of the land, which presents the picture of the conquest of the hidden evils back of our actions.

The Freedom of Reason

22–25. The promised land is now in sight. Our private life must be remodeled as well as our public life. But how shall we be sure when our motives, or feelings and thoughts, are wrong? It is so easy to prove that black is white, and vice versa. Self-interest notoriously warps our judgment. The story of Balaam’s ass shows how human reason is protected by the Lord even when the sky is blackest. Judges long ago rode on asses. Why? Because the ass keeps its eyes on the ground, and, independent of its rider, chooses where to plant its foot to avoid any stumbling block, and tread on solid earth. In like manner a good judge looks to the facts of the case free from prejudice or self-interest, avoids questionable evidence, and proceeds on what appears to be safe ground to his conclusion. When tempted to justify wrong in ourselves the Lord is near. As is our need, so is his presence, here represented by an angel with a drawn sword in his hand. The angel appeared to the ass bearing Balaam on his way to curse Israel. The ass saw the angel, and swerved from the path. Conscience speaks. The Lord awakens reason to defend the right. Self-interest attempts to force reason to justify wrong. It invents reasons to approve of a spirit inimical to the welfare of others and of self also. It even threatens to silence reason, or kill conscience, to gain peace of mind. Balaam smote the ass to obey his will even to the point of death. The angel then appeared to Balaam, and made him understand that the ass had saved his life. Balaam bowed to the authority of the angel, and repented. He proposed to return home, but no, he must proceed on his way, and speak only the word of the Lord.

Disregard reason and the cause of right suffers. But the destruction of reason spells insanity. The temptation to justify self may be extreme, and the humiliation of giving ear to conscience almost unendurable, but reason must be spared at any cost. Salvation depends upon its preservation. Therefore, Balaam blessed Israel three times, and closed with that wonderful prophecy regarding the advent of "the Star out of Jacob, and the Scepter rising out of Israel," to redeem humanity. The whole incident gives a transcendent meaning to the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday as "the King," riding upon an ass, "whereon never man sat."

No, when the fight begins within himself,
A man’s worth something. God stoops o’er his head,
Satan looks up between his feet—both tug—
He’s left, himself, i’ the middle: the soul awakes
And grows. Prolong that battle through life!
Never leave growing till the life to come.

– R. Browning, "Bishop Blougram’s Apology"

The Cost of Hypocrisy

This experience brings us face to face with hypocrisy. Balaam was a hypocrite, as was likewise Balak, who seduced the soothsayer to come and curse Israel. "Balaam taught Balak to cast a stumbling block before Israel, to commit whoredom" with the Midianites. Hypocrisy is a subtle evil, and sadly misleading. It is there for our condemnation every time it is exposed to view. "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into heaven" (Matthew 5: 20).

The Ascendancy of Love

26. Where are we now? The children of Israel are now numbered again on the plains of Moab at the close of their pilgrimage through the desert. The differences in the numbering here and on the former occasion (Chapter 1) are significant. The nation had lost in number as a whole. Reuben, Simeon, Gad, Ephraim and Naphtali were fewer in number, Simeon being reduced by more than 37,000 on account of the whoredom with the Midianites. This last fact indicated that the will to obey suffered deep humiliation in the process of reformation. On the other hand, Judah and six other tribes made considerable gains in their families. The figures seem to infer the growing supremacy of the heart over the head. This conclusion is strengthened by noting that the order of the tribes is exactly the same in each list with one exception. In the former list Ephraim precedes Manasseh, while in the latter list Manasseh precedes Ephraim. This marks the ascendancy of love, or of the new will, which is the dominating factor in the regeneration of the inner life, which is to follow.

27. The five virgins, daughters of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasseh, claim recognition as the heirs of their father, who had served honorably in the host. Their request was granted. They represent affections of truth of a progressive order, born of the "new will in the natural man." We cannot have reforms without reformers. Both radical and reactionary, however, must learn that they know nothing of the truth from themselves, but only from the Lord. The idea that we have the truth and all the truth needful for anyone, or everyone, has no place in heaven. Moses may see the land, but may not enter it for his presumptuousness when drawing water from the rock. Joshua—Jesus, the Savior—is ordained to take his place.

28. Innocence must occupy the first place in the life before us. In all things we must look to the Lord for leadership, and recognize our works as His works in and through us. The morning and evening sacrifice of a lamb is mentioned again in this context to remind us of this truth. All work must be done in the Lord’s service. The offering of the kid of the goats, to make an atonement for us, represents the acknowledgment that at best we are unprofitable servants.

29. The feast of trumpets broadcasts the call for self-consecration, in preparation for the homecoming service on New Year’s Day, followed by the great Day of Atonement and the seven days of the Feast of Booths, or Tabernacles. How characteristic of the cycle of life, from joy to sorrow, and then back to a fuller realization of the mercy of the Lord in deliverance from sin. "Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil" (Psalm 90:15). The sacrifices specify the modus operandi, which consists essentially in shunning evils as sins, and doing good in the name of the Lord.

30. In the life of religion there seems to be no reason why a man’s vow should be binding under all circumstances, and a woman’s vow not binding except under circumstances, according to the law of Moses. Man, however, represents reason, and woman affection. A vow which has the rational approval of either man or woman must be fulfilled. It is part of their faith, or belief, and only practice or experience can determine its validity. A vow which is volitional, or a wish, in man or woman, may be summarily dismissed to advantage, if and when reason determines that it is foolish, or unwise, or wicked.

Reaping the Whirlwind

31. Now follows the fulfillment of a vow of vengeance on Midian for enticing the children of Israel to idolatry and immorality. Vengeance is unchristian. Israel was also as greatly to blame for being seduced as Midian. The story in its spirit, however, has an altogether different lesson for us. Balaam and Midian represent foes within to whom we can grant no quarter. The conflict that ends in signing the covenant in our own blood is dramatized in the war with Midian, resulting in the death of their kings, and Balaam, and the extermination of the women who had corrupted Israel. The division of the spoil, and the oblation for the preservation of the sons of Israel who fought and won, express further surrender of self to the service of the Lord.

32. It is then meet that the land conquered in Transjordania should be allotted to Reuben and Gad, who chose it as their home. The men of these two tribes, however, must fight shoulder to shoulder with those of the other tribes in dispossessing the nations occupying the promised land. The lots on the farther side of Jordan would be valueless should the other tribes fail to conquer the enemies in the land. Like nature in time of sickness which summons all the resources to restore health, the Church militant must preserve its integrity to regain sanity. Whatever enters into our life from without or within from day to day, we must seek the right, and stand firm in the effort to maintain it.

33. The itinerary of the tribes in the wilderness follows. It is useful at times to consider where we have been, where we are, and whither bound. This revision of the past for us relates solely to the spirit. Here the survey is limited to the period of trials that have slowly, but surely, brought us out of a state of worldliness to a higher conception of what life might be in ourselves and in the world. Specifically the wilderness period relates to our advancement in learning the meaning of the law, or what life teaches us. "The Prophets" to follow deal with the practice of the law. These two estates of life, education and practice, may remain apart if we only live to learn. But when the value of knowledge is determined by experience the two become one—the law is written on the heart, and the life is the expression of the meaning of it. For us today that heavenly life is attainable on condition that we dispossess all the enemies that hold any place in our hearts, and share the inheritance with all who help us to regain it.

34. The boundaries of any country are important to those nations who require to observe them. The boundaries of Canaan mean nothing to us in the letter, but much in the spirit. There is a point beyond which every virtue becomes a vice. Thus far you may go, and no further. Even in eating and drinking we draw the line. We note here, however, that this boundary line differs for different individuals. Some may eat or drink more than others without harm. We, however, draw the line at temperance for all in all things. The enemies of Israel live beyond the boundary line. Heaven has its boundaries where right ends, and wrong begins. We may not be able to agree about the limit. We may do wrong in the belief that it is right, or in ignorance. The line is there all the same, and awaits further survey and delimitation, if uncertain. The correlation of the groups must also be determined by the leaders in each group for the highest efficiency of the whole.

Provision for Unintentional Wrongs

35. The spirit of charity or love is distributed throughout the land, and holds all together as a unit. There is good in every religion to preserve the state. The influence of that good extends to the confines of every community, in its homes, its industries, and its recreations. The inheritance of the Levites is in cities and their suburbs throughout the land. Six of these cities, three on either side of the Jordan, are cities of refuge. When anyone injures his neighbor unintentionally in thought, or word, or deed, and is under criticism, he may find refuge in the truth which the experience has taught him. He will not repeat the offense. But if he does not know wherein he was to blame, or the full extent of his responsibility, he must hold his feelings in restraint, until he has seen his problem in the light, and "the truth has made him free." He may not leave the city of refuge till "the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil." "Defile not, therefore, the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel."

True Marriage and Religion Inseparable

36. The book of Numbers closes with a chapter which has no connection with its immediate context in the letter. In the spirit, however, it touches upon the fundamental problem of civilization. Numbers express quality, and the quality of civilization is inherently a question of marriage and heredity. Through the justification of wrongdoing from generation to generation humanity has been almost ruined. Only through the acceptance of the truth and patient effort to express it in newness of life can humanity be redeemed. The organic unity of Israel in its occupation of the promised land was dependent upon the integrity of the tribes, and that upon the marriage of the daughters of Zelophehad with their father’s brothers’ sons—sons of Manasseh, the son of Joseph. Manasseh, the first-born of Joseph, represents the new will by which man is saved. That new will continually generates a new affection for the truth and for newness of life in accord with it. It purifies marital love: it is the only basis of marriage, through which man acquires and transmits a new inheritance, which will transform the innocence of infancy into the innocence of wisdom in the human race.


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