Saints in Unlikely Places.
by Thomas Baird
I. SAINTS IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
Joseph in Prison in Egypt.
An Egyptian prison-house is an extremely unlikely place to look for a Saint of God. Such are the objectionable quarters in which we find the virtuous Joseph incarcerated. How he came to occupy such a humiliating position is a matter of divine history, and is of intense importance to present-day saints. Joseph's position in Scripture is somewhat unique and extraordinary. He differed considerably from his brothers. His record as far as it is given is flawless. The imperfections and irregularities of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah are chronicled with unerring precision, but Joseph's character shines out without manifestation of either vice or passion. How came he then to be imprisoned? Alas! alas! he is only one of a multitudinous host who all down through the ages have suffered silently for the sake of righteousness. The undisguised favouritism of his father, combined with his own personal morality (Gen. xxxvii. 2), and superior intelligence (v. 5), aroused to the point of frenzy all the malicious envy, and murderous hatred of his brethren, and by subtle stratagem, they contrived and secured his deportation into Egypt. But even there, his keen fear of God, and strong sense of moral rectitude preserved him until the thwarted lust of an unprincipled woman impugned his innocency, and he is sentenced to imprisonment with the brand-mark of crime on his brow. But in reality, his iniquity lay in his innocency! His sin was that he refused to sin! It would have made outward circumstances much easier for Joseph had he sinned. Had he yielded to the persistent solicitations of his sensual mistress, he would have retained her favour, and probably never have known the wrath of his unsuspecting Master. But God is more to Joseph than either master or mistress.
"How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God" (Gen. xxxix. 9). When the mock trial and exposure came, the appearances were all dead against Joseph. His discarded garment was flaunted as the irrefragable evidence of his guilt. Ah! virtuous Joseph, thou art infinitely happier in prison, innocent, than out of prison, guilty!
Thy God is with thee! May we, like Joseph, keep on the sinless side of sin, for after all, the uncommitted side of sin is the only sensible and safe side. Suffering for not sinning is better than suffering for having sinned (1 Peter iv. 14, 15).
II. SAINTS IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
Obadiah in Ahab's Court.
During our country rambles in the sweet summer season, we have frequently experienced a sensation of pleasurable amazement at the discovery of some fine flower or fern mysteriously clinging to, and luxuriantly flourishing upon the hard, unsympathetic surface of a precipitous rock. How it first found a lodgment there, and afterwards continued to maintain a condition of healthy life and verdant colour in such apparently adverse environment, is best known to the ardent student of botany.
And have we not been equally astonished and delighted to encounter beloved saints of the most high God, who were spiritually strong, intellectually fresh, and tenaciously faithful in the midst of the most unpropitious surroundings? Such a surprise is provided for us in the person of Obadiah in Ahab's Court. Ahab and Jezebel! What humiliating visions of sensuality and idolatry do these twin workers of iniquity conjure before memory! What monstrosities in rapine and rebellion they were! No more iniquitous couple ever lived! Both in private life and public behaviour they were "earthly, sensual, devilish." Probably no more voluptuous court ever existed in Israel. Notwithstanding all this abounding confusion and idolatrous corruption; it is just here that we are introduced to Obadiah as an earnest, active saint of God. There is something written of him which is not written of any other human being in all the wide and varied range of Scripture, namely, "Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly" (1 Kings xviii. 3). Astonishing commendation! His fidelity to God placed his life in daily jeopardy. The insatiable Jezebel is wantonly and wickedly slaughtering the prophets of God, but Obadiah courageously defends and conceals them, and becomes personally responsible for their support in a season of unparalleled famine. Here we have a saint in a most unlikely place! How he came to be there, we have no information, but that he truly feared God there can be no doubt. The lesson for us to learn, is that God is able to make us stand. However dark our day, however adverse our circumstances, "God is able to make all grace abound towards us." Let us trust Him.
III. SAINTS IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
The Little Maid in Naaman's Service.
Lest our beloved sisters be aggrieved should they be omitted from the distinguished category of saints in unlikely places, we purpose to introduce here a marvellous example of feminine faithfulness to God under peculiar circumstances. Everyone knows and admits that, "honourable women, not a few" have attained to high rank, and rendered noble service among the elect of God in all ages.
In 2 Kings v. we have a very abrupt introduction to Naanan and his family, and, at the same time, an interesting side-light is incidentally thrown upon contemporaneous history. Irresponsible bands of reckless Syrian raiders had invaded Judean territory, bent on revenge and rapine, and, on returning, brought with them amongst other questionable spoils, "a little maid," and to her was assigned a subordinate position in the family of Naaman, the leper. Now, here we behold a small Israelitish saint in a most unlikely place. Not only is she a captive in an alien country, and a slave in the house of an enemy, but she is also under the roof of a repulsive, leprous man. Surely we are confronted here with "a lily among thorns;" a wee, modest Jewish flower blooming magnificently in an arid Syrian desert. Her presence here bursts upon us with all the sweetness of a fresh surprise, akin to that which we have experienced on seeing a window box of exquisite flowers, blossoming luxuriantly in some squalid, disease-festering alley. Our poet, Gray, in his "Elegy, written in a Country Churchyard," makes mention of flowers that were "born to blush unseen, and waste their sweetness on the desert air," but our little Jewish flower was not so born, neither did she waste her sweetness on that sterile desert air. This nameless damsel possessed an extraordinary combination of graces, all too rare, both in her day and ours. She had deep sympathy, active faith, and amazing courage. She saw her leprous master betimes, and she pitied him. She marked with anxious concern the rapid progress of his malignant disease, and knew that unless Divine intervention could speedily be obtained, he must miserably perish in his own corruption. She had active faith too, in Israel's God and in Jehovah's prophet, and she courageously expressed her conviction to her mistress in simple, unostentatious language. "Would God my Lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! for he would recover him of his leprosy" (verse 3). The maid's message quickly passed from mistress to master, and the upshot of all, was that Naaman was completely cleansed and healed of his leprosy. This precious little "maid of honour" has her deed engraven upon the imperishable page of inspiration. May there not be among the thousands who read The Witness, some modest servant "lassie" in the employment of a modern moral leper? You have a giddy, frivolous mistress, and a godless, sensual master! What can you do? Think upon the little captive maid, I pray you, and follow in her steps. Let your light shine, and if you have an opportunity of speaking, take advantage of it; and who knows but you too, might lead some modern moral leper mistress or master to that fountain which God has opened for sin and uncleanness;—to that greater than Elisha, at Whose Word the vilest who trusts in Him is delivered from both the guilt and power of sin.
IV. SAINTS IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
Nehemiah in the Palace.
Nehemiah in Shushan, the palace, furnishes us with a conspicuous and commendable example of a saint in a most unlikely place. He occupied a position of unique responsibility in the household of a great Gentile monarch, and still his deep, fervent, Jewish piety remained unimpaired and uncorrupted. Revolutionary movements abounded then as now. Reactionary agencies were in active operation in those ancient days, of which fact we have abundant evidence in the book of Esther. Petty and personal jealousies were rampant, and court intrigue was of frequent occurrence. The king's life would be occasionally threatened (Esther ii. 21), hence the necessity for the greatest possible vigilance on the part of those in authority. Some trustworthy person must be selected and appointed to supervise the king's table lest unreasonable and wicked persons should attempt to introduce poison into his food. This honour was conferred on Nehemiah, for he himself distinctly informs us, "I was the king's cupbearer''(Neh. i. 11). But although thus preferred and exalted, he did not allow the policy and practice of court life to corrupt his good manners. Even as plants and trees silently, yet surely, defy the unalterable law of gravitation by growing against it, so this sterling man of God persistently pursued his godly pathway amidst all the depressing and demoralizing influences of a godless, pagan palace. If one might particularize where all is so consistently beautiful, we might say that this saint is especially distinguishable for three excellent virtues.
(1) His cheefulness. Up to the time of his receiving information as to the deplorable condition of Jerusalem, he affirms that he had never before been sad in the king's presence (Neh. ii. 1). Marvellous disposition!
(2) His prayerfulness. A glance over the whole book will reveal what an effectual man of prayer he was. Every circumstance drove him to God, and every fresh item of information was turned into ejaculatory intercession.
(3) His faithfulness. Who amongst us has not secretly admired this man of God for his unswerving devotion to truth and duty? Neither bribery, nor plausibility, nor hostility affected him. Let us, in our evil day be so inspired.
V. SAINTS IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
Manaen in Herod's Family.
Who would ever expect to find a saint of God anywhere in near proximity to the unholy Herods? Yet such are the ways of God in providence and grace that a man in close personal relationship and association with this despicable family should afterwards be saved and become a prophet and a teacher in the church at Antioch. "Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch." (Margin, "Herod's foster brother" Acts xiii. 1).
Who were the Herods? A race of adulterous, unscrupulous men of Idumean extraction, who have made themselves eternally notorious by their licentious lives and murderous misdeeds! There are three individuals bearing this branded name introduced into the New Testament narrative, and all of them murderers, either in attempt or deed!
I. Herod the Great, the attempted murderer of our Lord in His defenseless infancy (Matt. ii.).
II. Herod Antipas, his son, the murderer of John Baptist, and the mocker of our Lord (Matt. xiv; Luke xxiii).
III. Herod Agrippa, nephew to Herod Antipas, the grandson of Herod the Great, the murderer of the Apostle James, and the attempted murderer of the Apostle Peter (Acts xii. 1-3). All murderers! Convincing evidence of the amazing heredity of evil! And yet it is, just here that the all-conquering grace of God makes itself mightily manifest. If John the Baptist's ministry was lost upon the tetrarch, it seems to have made a deep impression on his foster brother. God's Word never returns to Him void. And who has not noticed the name of "Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward" (Luke viii. 3).
God seems to have surrounded this godless family with strong spiritual influences, but with little effect. The first Herod had the testimony of the wise men. The second Herod had the ministry of John the Baptist, and actually saw the Lord Jesus face to face. The third Herod was near enough to James to bring about his death. The same sun which hardens clay, softens wax. Herod resisted; his foster brother yielded. From Herod's family to the Church of God! What a transition! Oh! brethren, let us extol God's grace, let us exalt God's name! He can change the vilest of sinners into the holiest of saints! His grace is never more glorious than when displayed in beautifying misguided and misshapen souls.
VI. SAINTS IN UNLIKELY PLACES.
Saints in Caesar's Household.
Hitherto, in our survey of saints in unlikely places, we have been entirely occupied with individual saints, but in our concluding paper of this series, we purpose to comment on saints in their collective testimony. When Paul wrote the epistle to the Philippians, he speaks of his bonds in Christ being made manifest in "all the palace," "Caesar's Court" (mar. Phil. i. 13), and in finishing up the epistle, he wrote "all the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar's household" (iv. 22). Now, some slight knowledge of contemporary history is indispensable if we would form a proper estimate of what it meant to be a "saint in the household of Caesar." Who was the Caesar of Paul's day? None other personage than the notorious and nefarious Nero! His name has been passed down through ecclesiastical and traditional history stamped with every mark of disapprobation and detestation. Of course, we must distinguish between Paul's first term of imprisonment in Rome, and his second term. The first was characterized by extraordinary leniency and liberty. "He dwelt two years in his own hired house" (Acts xxviii. 30). The second term was passed under other conditions, for his martyrdom was fast approaching. It was during this first term of imprisonment that the converts were secured, and they evidently were not ashamed of their Lord. Who would have prophesied that the Gospel of the despised and crucified Son of God would have penetrated the impervious walls of Imperial Rome; and counted amongst its converts some of the Emperor's personal attendants! Such are some of the majestic, mysterious ways of our God, Whose Name is still Wonderful. May we not here introduce one verse of Dr. Bonar's triumphant hymn—
"The Cross still standeth fast, Hallelujah!
Defying every blast, Hallelujah!
The winds of hell have blown,
The world, its hate hath shown,
Yet, it is not overthrown.
Hallelujah for the Cross"
It cost something to be a saint in the household of the profligate and pitiless Nero. Under his incestuous misrule, the first great persecution conducted by the Roman Emperors commenced. In his day, the unoffending followers of the Lamb were sewn up in the skins of wild beasts, and torn to pieces by dogs. Others were wrapped in sackcloth, smeared with tar, and set on fire. Paul was martyred under his merciless malice, and, no doubt, some of those saints in his household suffered death at his cruel hands. There are few saints in high places, and the godlessness of our upper classes is more appalling than the wickedness of our lower masses. As loyal subjects of our King and Queen, might we not well pray to God to raise up a few zealous saints in our Royal household, and make their testimony as bright and convincing as those saints who lived and shone in the palace of Imperial Rome?