On the back wall of my office hangs a large framed portrait. It is stark and dramatic in its simplicity; drawn in lead on a plain white background are the heads of two draft animals. The tack they wear is so elaborate that you would expect it to be adorning Clydesdales. But no, as you look at the drawing, a pair of mules stares back at you. My wife purchased and framed the drawing for me many years ago. I’d like to think she did so because I had admired it in her presence. But I suspect it had more to do with a certain character trait in mules with which she felt I might identify.
Mules have a reputation for stubbornness. “Stubborn as a mule” is the proverb that leaps to mind when anyone encounters dogged, recalcitrant refusal to move or change opinions. Mules are mentioned numerous times in the Bible in the context of beasts of burden or draft animals, with one exception. In Psalm 32, David writes: “Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings include a bit and bridle to hold them in check, otherwise they will not come near to you” (v. 9).
God has kindly given us in the universally recognized character of a mule a dramatic example of a trait that we should eschew. We should not confuse admirable determination and persistence with rebellious stubbornness. The two share the quality of persistence, but the former is persistence in a good cause or for a proper reason, the latter in sinful rebellion. My father told the story many times of two mules, Dick and Bob, that he and his twin brother worked on his boyhood farm. They had driven a heavily-loaded wagon from the field back to the barn—or almost to the barn—when the mules stopped and refused to budge. The boys yelled, they pushed, they pulled, they used even stronger means of persuasion. But neither mule would move. Finally, in desperation, Dad’s brother lit a fire underneath the two mules. The ploy succeeded. The mules moved—but only far enough so that the flames were underneath the wagon, which caught on fire. The boys were able to put out the fire before much damage was done. Eventually, they got the mules to the barn.
The verse preceding our text sheds valuable light on the nature of stubbornness against which Scripture warns. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you” (v. 8). God is speaking. He promises to give His children direction based on His perfect omniscience and wisdom and tempered by His infinite love and concern for us. His instruction is not right a majority of the time. His teaching is not factual most of the time. They are unfailingly accurate every time, all the time. At any and every moment, the Lord observes us. He knows every possible path we might take. Just north of our home is an intersection of two streets called “Five Points.” It offers the traveler the typical choice of four directions in which to go, but once a fifth street began, or ended, at that intersection, making for a confusing and dangerous number of options. Which street should I take? Not only does the Lord know, but He promises to share with us that invaluable information.
Because God is who He declares Himself to be and does what He promises to do, believers have every reason to expect spiritual success—unless we “be . . . as the mule.” The terrible thing about stubbornness is that we resist and rebel against the perfect direction God has provided in His Word and through His Spirit. GPS may lead us to the wrong place; God never does. We are without excuse. Even more terrible is the fact that our rebellion is simply defiance of God, who loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Stubbornness demonstrates the arrogance of self-will and brings the certainty of chastening. A gentle horse may require no bit. A stubborn mule must have one and is sure to feel the hard steel between its rebellious teeth and against its tender mouth. Far better to recognize that God goes before us, leading us down the right path and to the right destination, and to follow willingly. To rebel is to declare not that God has given no direction, not that we know best, but that we “have no understanding.” Stubborn rebellion is abject foolishness. A good and loving God will certainly chasten the mulish character out of His children.
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