These verses occur in the record of the last words of Moses to the tribes of Israel. The propriety of the text should be obvious to all when a man of God is to be inducted to the pastorate of this congregation. Moses was a servant of God, who was faithful in all his house, duly set over Israel by God. We may hesitate to compare ourselves with Moses, yet we think that his choice, by faith, is basically that which is made by all who are truly called to the ministry. He saw more glory in suffering “affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt” (Heb 11:25-26). The sufferings connected with Christ had an infinitely greater attraction and satisfaction for him than the richest treasures of Egypt. His was the faith that worketh by love, purifieth the heart and overcometh the world.
From our text we would:
- Discover the meaning of the name Asher.
- Look at the threefold blessing desired for him.
- Consider the significance of the double prediction in verse 25.
1. The meaning of the name Asher. Among the Jews, names had a special purpose. By us they are used to identify, and distinguish, one individual from another, whereas among the Jews they had an additional element which indicated the moral, prophetic or spiritual character of the child. This verbal feature must be observed here. In Genesis 30:12-13 we read that “Zilpah Leah’s maid bare Jacob a second son. And Leah said, Happy am I, for the daughters will call me blessed: and she called his name Asher.” The name of this male child, then, refers to happiness brought about by the birth of her son. A similar form of bliss, only on a scale infinitely greater, belongs to all who are in Christ Jesus, to every true child of God, for “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon His Kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgement and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will perform this” (Is 9:6-7).
Through this child alone, we come to possess a peculiar form of blessedness and felicity. All who know the Lord savingly, by the power of the Holy Spirit in their souls, should seek to be raised to nothing less than a holy ecstasy of joy by these most glorious words of prophecy. O blessed, blessed God for Christ – and “O greatly blessed the people are the joyful sound that know” (Ps 89:15). However, we need not go as far as Isaiah for light on the nature and source of true happiness. Just look at verse 29 in the chapter already read in your hearing. Listen to these words and drink them into your soul. Here is an early draught of the love that is better than life, and the wine that refreshes the heart of God and man: “Happy art thou, O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord, the shield of thy help, and who is the sword of thy excellency! And thine enemies shall be found liars unto thee; and thou shalt tread upon their high places.” In this glorious verse we have the secret to the possession of such happiness – “saved by the Lord”. You cannot know true happiness apart from salvation in its biblical connotation, and there is but one way of salvation – by faith in the crucified Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Make no mistake about the nature of this salvation, for the angel announced: “He shall be called Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Total salvation from the guilt, the power, the pollution and the dominion of sin cannot be experienced apart from a spiritual appreciation of the atoning death of Christ, the Great Sinbearer, “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet 2:24). The glorious news of the Saviour is so closely related to the preaching of the gospel that Paul poses these questions: “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” (Rom 10:14-15). This quotation indicates the necessity of the presence of the pastor who is to be inducted among you tonight.
Let it be noticed that fallen man was not only under sentence of condemnation, but also under the curse of God. This anathema, then, could not be removed by any other than God Himself and, even by Him, not apart from the death of Jesus Christ. He, the Son of God, must take the nature, the place, the penalty and the curse of man’s disobedience. He must needs die, not by assassination or stoning, but by the accursed death of the cross. He must needs be crucified. Nothing less would suffice if we are to obtain this blessing and felicity. He was made a curse for sin; He wore the crown of thorns because the ground was cursed of God on account of Adam’s sin. Finally, in the words of Holy Writ: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil 2:5-8). The sorrow and incomparable pain of that shameful death stands behind the saving joy of the believer.
Now, my friends, may I ask you, are you of this blessed people? Or would you like to dispute, or even challenge, the validity and the veracity of these words: “Happy art thou O Israel”? Perhaps you feel that you could prove your own point of view: that the ungodly, the carefree and the godless, taking their fill of the flesh, experience much greater joy than that of believers. Well now, without going into a comparison of the nature and levels of the joy experienced by both parties, may I ask you one question: Where are those who preferred carnal, worldly mirth to the joy of the Lord? Where are they now, and presently, if they have left this world? Truth to tell, their merriment is over for ever, and they are in outer darkness, where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for all eternity. But where now are the godly who have left this world? Most emphatically, eternally beyond the reach of all evil, rejoicing with the spirits of just men made perfect, awaiting the glorious morning of the resurrection.
2. Moses’s threefold prayer for Asher: “Let Asher be blessed with children: let him be acceptable to his brethren: and let him dip his foot in oil”. Literally, children are God’s heritage, and the fruit of the womb His reward. Spiritually also, they are God’s heritage. It is clear from many passages in the Epistles that the Church and the Apostles were blessed with a spiritual seed. In this context, Paul speaks of travailing in birth until Christ be formed in souls the hope of glory. Isaiah prophesies of the greatest of all preachers, even Christ: “He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand. He shall see of the travail of His soul, and shall be satisfied: by His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many; for He shall bear their iniquities” (Is 53:10-11). His unique and diversified travail is the secret to any successful travail on the part of His servants. “Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it” (Eph 5:25). Paul, Peter and John all desired such spiritual fruit. The fervent love of a father, or a mother, shines through the Epistles again and again. “My beloved”, “my dearly beloved”, “my own son in the faith”, “my little children”, were not mere words on their lips, but evidence of the depths of sincerity and rejoicing at the thought of their spiritual offspring. No care was too great, no hazard too daunting in pursuance of nourishing and cherishing the children.
All ministers, worthy of the name, should know at least in a measure, what it is, in their own sphere, to travail for souls and labour for their edification. Paul’s desire along this line was no doubt intensified by the painful recollection of having persecuted the Church of God. Be that as it may, those of us who hold the sacred office of the Christian ministry may be ready to whisper the words: yearning, praying, longing to see a seed, but shrink from using the word travail. Indeed there are times when we fear that we know nothing of this exercise of love for souls, yet a promise of a seed we all possess. Furthermore, in this desire for a seed, there is proof of care and concern for the future of the Church of God. They are worried for the generation to come. It is not the way of those who love Sion to confine their efforts and solicitude for the Cause of Christ to the present. In their prayers there is frequent reference to the future. Think of Psalm 45:16-17:
“Instead of those thy fathers dear, thy children thou mayest take,
And in all places of the earth them noble princes make.
Thy name remembered I will make through ages all to be:
The people therefore evermore shall praises give to thee.”
And, again, Psalm 22:30:
“A seed shall service do to Him; unto the Lord it shall
Be for a generation reckoned in ages all”.
And, again, Psalm 87:5:
“And it of Sion shall be said, This man and that man there
Was born; and he that is most High himself shall stablish her”.
Finally, these well-known words in Psalm 122:6-7:
“Pray that Jerusalem may have peace and felicity:
Let them that love thee and thy peace have still prosperity.
Therefore I wish that peace may still within thy walls remain,
And ever may thy palaces prosperity retain.”
Such promises and prayers we plead to the glory of God, with the assurance that the witness of the Church in this world shall never be extinguished.
“Acceptable to his brethren”, is the second petition. Such a desire is most eminently necessary and important. The blessing refers to the labours and fellowship of the brethren when they serve the Lord together in the vineyard. Their relationship is close – they are fellow-workers, fellow-sufferers and fellow-believers. Note the idea of fellowship in the gospel. The blessing of unity among those that fear God is beautifully delineated in Psalm 133:1-3:
“Behold, how good a thing it is, and how becoming well,
Together such as brethren are in unity to dwell!
Like precious ointment on the head, that down the beard did flow,
Even Aaron’s beard, and to the skirts did of his garments go.
As Hermon’s dew, the dew that doth on Sion’ hills descend:
For there the blessing God commands, life that shall never end.”
It is sad indeed when brethren fail to work together amicably. We may take comfort from the fact that, on occasion, even apostles disagreed, but we cannot rejoice in it. Generally speaking, the seeds of pride and self-seeking are responsible for this defect, along with pique, vanity, jealousy and a watching devil to fan the flames. The Pastoral Epistles are most useful in this sphere. There, we find no place for self-will, or a domineering spirit, but rather: “not soon angry”, “neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:3). On the positive side, the ornaments of compassion, humility, forbearance and love are all necessary virtues to the peace of Sion. Anything that mars this unity should be mortified, because this is vitally essential in our witness to the world. Let us all covet earnestly the best gifts to the edifying of the Church. Just imagine the paradox that all are “accepted in the Beloved”, yet sometimes not acceptable to one another. “My brethren, these things ought not so to be.”
One word of caution. Reference to Levi is found in verse 9 of the chapter who did not “acknowledge his brethren, nor knew his own children”. Commendation is given to him because his zeal for the Lord took precedence over love to his own children. That such a caveat is necessary is confirmed by Samuel’s failure to honour God, rather than his sons. This incident is rendered more solemn, when we think of Samuel’s youthful fidelity to Eli, and indeed throughout his course to the Lord. Therefore beware of nepotism; beware of being swayed by natural affection, so as to think lightly of the sins of those related to us in the flesh.
Now we pass on to the third petition: “Let him dip his foot in oil”. As far as I can judge, this is a poetic way of wishing Asher an all-round prosperity – a holy consistent walk in the fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Ghost. Possibly Job gives expression to the same wish when he says: “O that it were with me as in times past when I dipped my foot in oil” (16:4). Canaan was a land of olives and vines, indicative of an abundance of oil and fertility, with a good degree of the divine favour.
3. Now the prediction: “Thy shoes shall be iron and brass; and as thy days, so shall thy strength be”. The first part may give more than a hint that the road to heaven will be rough and hard. The impression of an easy journey in this wilderness is not to be found in Scripture, but something better is guaranteed, namely, a glorious and divine provision for such a difficult and hazardous way – both iron and brass. Iron refers to strength in a good sense. For example, the Lord said to Jeremiah: “For, behold, I have made thee this day a defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brasen walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, against the princes thereof, against the priests thereof, and against the people of the land. And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the Lord, to deliver thee” (1:18-19). By these words victory is ensured. Believers in Christ are well clad and well shod. In the wilderness we read of a continuing miracle in this respect: “Yea, forty years didst thou sustain them in the wilderness, so that they lacked nothing; their clothes waxed not old, and their feet swelled not” (Neh 9:21). Those who travel the way to Sion are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace.
The bars of iron and brass possibly refer to the steadfast fidelity of strength and principle. Biblical principles are necessary to safeguard the Church and the children of God from the inroads of evil. We all need loyalty to God and to the Church, in this generation of God’s wrath. Let us not be ashamed of the pure gospel and the faithful preaching of it, as the primary function of the true Church of God. In a day of superficiality, compromise and degeneration in doctrine and practice, we sorely need men of “iron and brass”. Where can the iron and brass be found? Were there not mines of iron and brass in the promised land, so rich in minerals and ore? For us there is in Christ an all-sufficient fullness of grace, of which we are so frequently reminded in Scripture.
Finally, there is the sweet word given to Asher; that is, to all who are saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: “And as thy days so shall thy strength be”. Briefly then, divine grace, divine control, divine strength, is given proportionate to the times and trials – for the dark days, the days of desertion, the days of depression, even the days of backsliding. Every day, however discouraging, this promise is given: “As thy days so shall thy strength be”. That strength is referred to by Paul, when the Lord said to him: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in my infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 13:9).
In conclusion, can you think of a more comprehensive promise than this: “Happy art thou O Israel: who is like unto thee, O people saved by the Lord”? O let us seek its fulfilment for ourselves and others.
1. Preached at the induction of Rev Wilfred Weale, on 20 November 2001, to the Staffin congregation.