ŇAnd what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets.Ó Hebrews 11:32.
Hitherto, the author of this epistle hath set down unto us examples of faith, more at large. But from this verse to the end of this chapter, he heaps up briefly together many examples of faith, one upon another. The reason whereof is: First, because the number of true believers which are mentioned in Scripture is very great, and therefore he could not here stand to set them all down in order one by one. Secondly, by handling all the examples at large which the author propoundeth in this short epistle, he should have seemed to have restrained the name and title of faith to a very few; for all that are here named are commended for their faith, are but few, in comparison of all that truly believed in the Old Testament. And therefore he heaps up the rest together, to intimate that the number of believers was more than he could record. And this he doth by a rhetorical preterition, or passing over, called in schools paralepsis; whereby matters are briefly despatched and passed over, with the very naming only.
What shall I say more?
That is, as if he had said: I have propounded divers worthy examples of faith; and besides these, there are also many more; but the time of writing an epistle will not suffer me to handle them all at large.
First, in this quick despatch of believers by our apostle, we may observe a difference between the infinite understanding of God, and the created understanding that is in manŐs mind. Man indeed understands the things that are revealed to him of God; but yet in a manner and order far different from that which is in God; for man cannot conceive in his mind all the things he knows, at once, by one act of his understanding; but must have distinct time to conceive of them, one by one distinctly. For look as he utters them distinctly, one by one (as we see in this place), so likewise doth he apprehend them in his mind and understanding. But with God it is not so; for God at once, by one act of understanding, without distinction of time, doth conceive of all things at once, both past, present and to come; and so could utter and express them, if any creature were able in their mind so to comprehend them.
Secondly, whereas the Holy Ghost saith, The time would be too short etc., He gives us to understand that the number of believers is very great, and that a long time would not serve to repeat them, or to write of them. This directeth us unto a good answer to a question, which much troubleth our common people; to wit, How great is the number of them that shall be saved; whether it is greater than the number of them that shall be damned? Answer: We must consider the number of the elect two ways: first, in comparison of them that shall be condemned; secondly, in themselves. If we compare the elect with the reprobate, the number of the elect is but a small number; for in most ages, the church of God hath been but an handful, compared to the rest of the world. And in the church, this likewise is true: Many are called, but few chosen (Matt. 22:14), in respect of them that are called. But yet consider the elect as they are in themselves, and they are a huge great number; yea, innumerable, as St John saith speaking of the elect among the Gentiles, besides the chosen Jews; for all that do truly believe, shall be saved. Now, believers are innumerable. This the author of the epistle would insinuate unto us by his phrase of speech, What shall I say more, etc.
In handling these examples, we must observe the order here used by the Holy Ghost; for in this 32nd verse he sets down the names of the persons that believe, all jointly together, rehearsing them one by one; and in the 33rd to 35th verses, he lays down briefly the fruits of all their faith; in number ten most notable actions, serving all and every one of them, most worthily to commend their faith. In handling of them, we will follow the order observed by the Holy Ghost; and first speak of the persons, then of their actions.
I. The four first are these: Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah. These four were judges in Israel. The fifth is David, who was both a prophet and a king. The sixth is Samuel, both a judge and a prophet. Lastly, the prophets generally; by whom we must understand especially these three, Elijah, Elisha and Daniel.
In speaking of these persons here commended unto us; first, we will entreat of them generally, and then in particular.
1. In general:
(1) Let us first observe the order which the Holy Ghost here useth in naming them. Gideon, for time, was after Barak; and yet he is first named; so Samson was after Jephthah, and yet here he is put before them. This the Holy Ghost would never do without some special cause. We therefore must know that the Scripture useth a twofold order in reckoning up of persons; to wit, the order of time, when as he that lived first is first named; and the order of dignity, when the most worthy and excellent is named first, though he were later in time. Now the Scripture accounteth best of them those that did excel in faith, and in the fruits thereof; so in this place whereas Gideon is set before Barak, and Samson before Jephthah; the Holy Ghost observes not the order of time, but the order of dignity, according to the excellency of their faith; naming them in the first place, those that were most famous for this grace of faith, and did exceed the other in the fruits thereof.
Here we learn this special point: that the more men excel in faith, and other graces of God, the more God will honour them; for look who most honour God, shall be most honoured of Him; but the more a man excels in grace, the more he honours God. And for this cause is Gideon preferred before Barak, and Samson before Jephthah; because they were more plentiful in the fruits of faith. This must move us, not only to seek to have faith, but to labour every day, more and more for the increase of faith, and of obedience; for the more a man abounds in grace before God, the more will God honour him, both here and in heaven. And thus much for the order wherein they are propounded.
(2) Secondly, let us consider what manner of persons these were, Gideon, Barak and the rest. They were extraordinary men, in their time, raised up by God, for the special good of His church, and the commonwealth of the Jews, that they might help and defend them in distress. And therefore, as their calling was extraordinary, so God endued them with extraordinary gifts of wisdom, strength, zeal and authority; for which they are here renowned in this catalogue of most worthy believers.
In their example, we may observe this point: That those whom God doth raise up extraordinarily, for some special good in His church, them He endues with extraordinary gifts to discharge that calling; and withal, He gives them the spirit of grace, with a true and lively faith. This (besides the instance we have in hand) appears plainly in ChristŐs apostles; they were called by Christ to preach the gospel to all the world, and to plant the church universally; and thereupon (howsoever they were simple men before) were furnished with extraordinary gifts of wisdom, zeal and knowledge, and with this excellent grace of saving faith, which did sanctify their other gifts; for howsoever Judas was numbered among them, having been a disciple; yet he never came to the execution of the apostleship, but went astray from that administration (Acts 1:25). And in these latter days, when God restored His gospel to light, out of the dark mist of popery; He raised up extraordinary men whom he endued with wisdom, zeal and judgment; which gifts also He sealed up in them by a lively faith, which they testified by their piety and godliness in life and conversation. And this course He observeth usually, in all those whom He raiseth up extraordinarily for the good of His church.
This we must observe, to acquaint us with a special difference between those whom God raised up extraordinarily for special good, and all arch-heretics and traitors that set up themselves, unsent of God. For many such wretches have excelled in wisdom, in worldly policy, in zeal and authority; whereupon they have pretended and persuaded many that they were called of God. But hereby especially they are to be discovered that they are void of this rare gift of true saving faith; for look at their lives, and ordinarily for impiety they have been and are arch-devils. So that though they wanted not authority, or outward zeal and wisdom; yet they wanted faith, which should purify their hearts; or else they would never have lived in such notorious sins as they were discovered to do. And this is the trial which our Saviour Christ directs us unto, saying, Ye shall know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16). Let them therefore pretend what knowledge, what zeal, or authority whatsoever they will; if the fruits of faith appear not in their lives by obedience, they are not called of God for the special good of His church.
2. Thus much of these men in general. Now we come to entreat of them severally, as they are propounded in the text.
(1) The first person commended here unto us is Gideon; the history of whose acts is laid down at large in Judges chapter 6. In his example note one point especially, to acquaint us with the manner God useth in begetting and increasing true faith in the hearts of His children. If we read the story, we shall see that the Lord in the likeness of an angel called Gideon once, twice, yea, thrice to be a judge to His people. But Gideon greatly doubts of his calling; and therefore desires a sign of the Lord, which God gave him, for the sacrifice which he offered was burned up with fire from heaven. Yet still he doubted, and was in a greater fear than before, even of death itself; but being confirmed by the angel, and set a work, he brake down the altar of Baal, and built one to the true God, and thereon offered sacrifice as God commanded, though with some fear. And when the Midianites and Amalekites came armed against Israel, he is stirred up by the Spirit of God for their defence; but yet still he doubted of his calling, and therefore again asked a sign at GodŐs hands, and had it; and after that asked another, which God also granted. Now having all these one in the neck of another, at length he knows his calling, and so goes in faith, and defends Israel; so that he got the assurance of his calling by sundry particular signs and confirmations of his faith. And although he doubted greatly at the first; yet after he believeth, not only that he should be a judge and deliverer of GodŐs people out of the hands of their enemies; but this principally, that God was his God, and would give him everlasting life.
Here then we have a notable precedent of the manner of GodŐs working true and sound faith in the hearts of His children. They receive not this grace at once, but by degrees; God worketh it in them by little and little. When a man is first called of God, he hath much doubting and fear; but then God sends sundry helps to weaken this fear and doubting; and as they decrease, so is faith increased. No man believes soundly at the first, but weakly; even as he grows in years, so he must grow in faith; and the increase of our faith is by continuance in the means, and by the experience of GodŐs love and favour. And indeed the more faith increaseth, the more we use the means to grow therein, and the more we delight in the means; and at length, after long experience of GodŐs mercy, we shall have wrought in our hearts this gift of true and lively faith, which shall be able to prevail against all fear and doubting. And thus much for the person of Gideon.
(2) The second person commended unto us is Barak, of whom we may read in Judges chapter 4. His story is large and plain enough; and therefore we will not stand upon it.
(3) The third person is Samson, of whom we may also read in Judges chapters 13 to 16. Now touching Samson, this question may well be asked: How can he be justly commended for his faith, seeing it may seem he killed himself? Answer: Samson did not kill himself, for he was called extraordinarily to be a judge over Israel, for their defence and delivery out of the hands of the Philistines. Now when the princes of the Philistines were gathered together, being his enemies, and the enemies of God and His people, he cast the house down upon their heads to kill them therein, because (being blind) he could not pursue them in battle. And therefore having them by GodŐs providence in his hands, he destroyed them as his calling was; albeit, he lost his life in the same action.
Again, Samson in pulling down the house purposed not directly and wilfully to kill himself, but to adventure his own life by taking just revenge upon his enemies, and the enemies of God; and therefore as GodŐs servant, he prayed first unto God; and so did no more than the soldier in the field ought to do; who bearing a loving mind towards his country, is content to adventure his own life for the destruction of his enemies, in the defence of his country; and is resolved that if he die in that defence, he dieth in his lawful place and calling, and dieth GodŐs servant, yea, GodŐs champion. This did Samson, and therefore may justly be commended for his faith. Neither is this fact of any disgrace, but rather a notable commendation of his faith, and an evidence of great zeal for GodŐs glory, and of singular love to his people.
(4) The fourth person commended here is Jephthah, of whom we may read in Judges chapter 11. Jephthah was the base son of Gideon, born of an harlot. To be base born is noted in Scripture as a matter of reproach; and therefore the Lord forbad a bastard from entering in to the congregation of the Lord to bear any office to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:2). So ignominious is this kind of birth, by the judgment of GodŐs Spirit, unto that party on whom it falls. For this sin of fornication doth not only hurt the persons committing it, but even frames the children base born, unto the tenth generation. Yet howsoever Jephthah was base born, and so suffered for it great reproach; afterwards, he is commended unto us for his faith, among the most worthy believers that ever were. Indeed, besides Jephthah, we shall not find the like example in Scripture. Yet in Jephthah we may see that howsoever it be a reproachful thing to be born of fornication, yet that doth not hinder, but that the party so born may come to true faith, and so to the favour of God, and to life everlasting. Such persons as are base born, upon view of that reproach which the Scripture fasteneth upon them, might take occasion to think miserably of themselves; even that God hath rejected them; but this example serves to shew that it hindereth not, but that they may come into the favour if God, and by faith get honour of God, to counterveil that discredit which they have by their base birth.
Further, whereas we commonly say that such as are base born are wicked persons; here we see the contrary in Jephthah; and therefore we must not for this cause condemn any for wicked or ungodly. Indeed, the Lord hath branded this estate with reproach, that men should shun the sin of fornication the more.
Again, whereas Jephthah is here commended for his faith; we may probably gather that their opinion is not true who hold that Jephthah sacrificed and killed his own daughter. For being commended here for his faith, certain it is that he had knowledge in GodŐs will and Word; and therefore we must not think but that he knew God and would never accept of such a vow by the performance whereof he should commit wilful and most unnatural murder. This his faith shews that it was not his intent to kill the first person that met him out of his house, for by the light of nature he might know that God would never accept thereof; and therefore it is not likely that he so made his vow; for this faith and such a vow cannot stand together.
But some will say that the text is plain (Jud. 11:31), that he vowed to offer for a burnt offering, the thing that came out of the doors of his house to meet him when he came home. Answer: It is so indeed in some translations: It shall be the LordŐs and I will offer it etc. And this latter translation is more suitable to the circumstances of the place, for this was JephthahŐs meaning, that whatsoever met him first, he would dedicate it to God; and if it were a thing that might be sacrificed, then his purpose was to offer it unto the Lord in sacrifice.
Question: But if he did not kill her, why did he then so lament for her? Answer: Because, by his vow, he was to dedicate her unto God; and so she was to live a Nazarite all her life long; which must needs be a very bitter thing to him who had no child but her; it being so great a reproach, and in some sort a curse in those days, to want issue. I speak not here how ill or well Jephthah did in making her a Nazarite; but this may no way be admitted, that believing godly Jephthah should advisedly kill his own daughter. Undoubtedly he could not think that God would be pleased with such an abominable sacrifice.
Thus much for these persons; the rest I pass over, because this story is plain and large in Scripture.