On Saturday evening, December 14, 1996, the earthly pilgrimage of our beloved Rev. Harbach ended, when the Lord took him from a nursing home to his eternal home and eternal reward.
Soft spoken, unassuming, never one to seek, or even to want, a place of prominence among men.
But, in the kingdom, a “giant warrior of the faith.” In referring to him thus in his funeral message, Rev. Spriensma was speaking for all those who were privileged to sit under Rev. Harbach’s preaching, either in an established church or on a mission field. One needed not to listen long to Rev. Harbach, or to read much of his writing, to be persuaded that this minister of the gospel of grace not only talked the truth but loved it and valiantly defended it.
A “warrior.” “It matters not,” he once wrote from a mission field, “that we may have to stand alone in all this bleak, and religious, wilderness. It is our calling to let our light shine before men, and to set up the standard toward Zion’ (Jer. 4:6).” “These are days,” Rev. Harbach continued, “when preaching is largely ignored, especially Reformed preaching. It is pushed aside for dashes of religious entertainment. Men who occupy the pulpit (I hate calling them- ministers) do not preach the Word, do not preach sermons. The people do not hear the Word. Many of them do, not ask for bread, being satisfied with stones, which is what they get.”
“But,” he added, “the preaching of the Word is still to be heard. By it we learn to know the truth, embrace it, live in it, and gain heaven by it…. For by such means the sovereign God purposes to save those who believe, and to gather together in one the children of God scattered abroad.”
Rev. Harbach considered preaching “a very serious stewardship, a weighty trust committed to Christ’s ministers.” His own preaching reflected untold hours in the study. So did his writing. It sparkled with illustrations not only from church fathers but also from English poets and Greek philosophers.
Hardly was it the case however that all of his source material was on the shelves of his library. He was a careful and appreciative student of another “book,” one which he “read” with the aid of field binoculars, or, sometimes, an underwater face mask and a snorkel. For the July 1979 issue of this magazine Rev. Harbach submitted a “Contribution” entitled “Come Ye Apart.” In that single article are woven effectively references to some 45 different kinds of birds.
“There are times,” he wrote, “when in our busy round of toil and care we must take time to come apart and rest awhile or we may come apart. The needed rest, one, a grey-beard, finds in twenty minutes of running three times a week. But since life today is so characterized by hurry, why, it may be asked, take up running to gain that needed refreshing? Why not, rather, take the time to notice the flora and fauna, to smell the flowers? Even though creation’s glorious characters are large enough so that he that runneth may read, much is missed in the flurry and scurry of life. The world is a beautiful place; as Moses wrote in Genesis One, very beautiful. But in the mad pace of our Western life-style we are all too often heedless of the beauty fashioned by the divine artisan.” Rev. Harbach then puts it all in perspective when he concludes,
Not nature itself, not anything of the world, but the spiritual gift and ability to read parables divine revealed in the creation do comfort the soul. So field or Kleinstiickwald in snow-laden winter becomes a haven from the strife of tongues and the crashing din of sin in the world. The woods ring with the crow of the cock pheasant; Black-capped Chickadees twitter high aloft; the noisy Titmouse proclaims its presence; the Redpolls and Purple Finches make it a red letter day; a Towhee scratches on the leafy forest floor; Pine Siskins appear, then vanish; a small flock of Cedarbirds eats its way through the winter berries lading the bushes, while ubiquitous Juncos lead the way on our path! The death of winter teems with life! Ask the birds of the air and they shall tell thee. But He maketh us wiser than the birds of heaven. The stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time, and the turtledove and the crane and the swallow observe the time of their coming; but My people know not the judgment of the Lord. The birds observe the approach of winter: do we the winter of judgment? O how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all. The earth is full of Thy riches!
Of all the many references made in the Bible to nature, the singing of birds is mentioned only three times. Yet in the loud and lovely song emitted from their tiny throats, we think miracles have not ceased. It must be most glorious music that is reserved for the saints in heaven, since the Lord allows wicked men such music on earth!
So much he enjoyed the music of little songbirds! .Now he knows also that more glorious music, for he has joined the multitude of redeemed in glory, standing on the sea of crystal, singing the song of Moses and the song of the lamb, “Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 15:2, 3).
After his retirement from the ministry, and before Parkinson’s disease left him unable to work at all, Rev. Harbach remained active in his study. From his pen came a number of pamphlets and regular contributions to the SB. We are glad for that; but we are thankful especially, that in the good providence of God, Rev. Harbach was able to finish his greatest work, Studies in the Book of Genesis. A lasting legacy! Any reflection on the gifts of God to His church through the dedicated labors of Rev. Harbach would be incomplete. without mention of that book. Its “Foreword,” written also by the undersigned, includes the kind of biographical information which, we think, will be a fitting conclusion for this article in memory of its author.
The author, the Rev. Robert C. Harbach, was born on July 27, 1914, in Riverdale, Maryland. As a boy, he went through the Philadelphia Public School system, and, on graduation from high school in 1933, thought first of going into art and journalism. He had a change of heart, however, and enrolled instead in the Philadelphia School of the Bible, founded by C.I. Scofield, the noted dispensationalist. By the spring of 1939 he had graduated from that institution and went on to study at the Theological School of the Reformed Episcopal Church. Not one to miss an opportunity both to gain valuable experience and to be of service, he spent one of the summers of his three years at the R.E. Seminary working with a missionary in Kentucky.
His wife Roberta, meanwhile, was attending night school at the Philadelphia School of the Bible and she herself graduated from there in 1944. That was one year after her husband had received his diploma from the Reformed Episcopal Seminary. After graduation, Rev. Harbach became involved with Child Evangelism Fellowship. From an office in Boston he served as director of the ‘Eastern Massachusetts’ branch of the Fellowship. After holding that position for a couple of years, he received a call in 1946 from Emmanuel Reformed Episcopal Church of Somerville, New Jersey. He was pastor there until, through the influence particularly of the late Rev. Marinus Schipper, he decided in 1950 to move to Grand Rapids, in order to study further in the Theological School of the Protestant Reformed Churches .
It was in Grand Rapids that his children were born – Philip in 1951, during Rev. Harbach’s first year in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, and Janice in 1955, two years after his graduation. It was in 1955 also that Rev. Harbach received a call from the Protestant Reformed Church in Lynden, Washington. He served as pastor there for seven and a half years till, in 1963, he accepted a call from the Kalamazoo (Michigan) Protestant Reformed Church.
Eleven years later he took another call, this one to serve as home missionary in Houston, Texas. During his three years of labor there the Trinity Protestant Reformed Church was organized, on February 15, 1977. Soon after, Rev. Harbach took the call to be missionary in Victoria, British Columbia. It was there that he closed out his active ministerial career. His retirement in 1979, after only two years of service in Victoria, was precipitated by very serious sight problems. Cataracts had brought blindness to one of his eyes and much impaired vision to the other. So, in 1979, Rev. Harbach officially retired from the ministry and returned to Grand Rapids.
In Grand Rapids he submitted to successful eye surgery. Intraocular lens inserts brought, in the good counsel of God, restoration of vision to both eyes. Rev. Harbach was of course deeply grateful to the Lord for that recovery. It meant, for one thing, that the beauties of God’s handiwork in creation would still be available to his sight. He had always been one to take great pleasure in that. It happens that birds were a special fascination of his. In Kalamazoo he would carry his books from his study to the living room so that, while he was preparing sermons, he could keep an eye on the bird feeder which stood outside the picture window. During his stay in Houston he loved to go to the marshlands or to the coastal area, loaded down with telescope, binoculars, camera, and field guides. He kept a written record of sightings of different species of birds. Letters to his children, from the mission field, often included detailed accounts of the location, time, and circumstances of his observation of unusual birds.
His appreciation for natural beauty went far beyond birds however. He used his three-inch telescope not only for studying birds, but also for looking into the heavens at night. And his camera has been used for taking pictures of everything from majestic mountain scenery to tiny flowers – all of which reveal the greatness of their Creator, to those to whom God has given spiritual eyes to see. In one of those letters to his son Phil, Rev. Harbach wrote, “How good it is to know the Lord! How good that He speaks to us in His Word. What a glorious word He speaks to us in the Book of Creation! I see there His infinite MAJESTY. I see miracles before my very eyes. Just a little plover is a source of delight, as though it were something supernatural! How glorious heaven must be!”
Yes, Rev. Harbach was indeed thankful for the restoration of his sight. That “Book of Creation” remained as it were open to his view. But he was concerned about other books too. The manuscript for a possible commentary on the book of Genesis, for example, lay unfinished in his study. That was a project which he very much wanted to complete. And it seemed for awhile as if it might have been placed just beyond his reach. But, as this volume proves, the Lord willed otherwise.
Apart from that unfinished “book,” Rev. Harbach had in his study shelves of books which for years had been special friends. When he moved to Victoria, it happened that he was not able, or did not choose, to take with him all of his books. As a result, he often felt “like a workman without his tools.” His “workshop” now was in British Columbia and some of his “tools” were 2,600 miles away. So close had he always been to those tools that, when on occasion he would call or write Phil, asking that a particular volume be sent to him, he would be able to describe its exact location in the study (not only on which shelf it was, but what particular place it occupied on that shelf – “third shelf on the right, fourth book from the left side”).
Rev. Harbach is an avid reader. His knowledge of astronomy (to say nothing of physics) becomes evident in his treatment of God’s work of creation on the fourth day. The same can be said for what he writes concerning the fifth day of creation week. He can, for example, give an interesting description of the coot – a kind of “half duck and half chicken” – from his own observation of the bird in a lake near the southern tip of Cape May Point in New Jersey. All of those visits to the swamps and the sea coast have paid handsome dividends in the writing of his commentary on Genesis. When the writer is able to describe the beauty of the sea floor, having himself donned a face mask to observe it in the Caribbean at Jamaica, it becomes obvious that he is not one who has contented himself with poring over theological tomes in ivory towers. Rev. Harbach has read widely, and has a broad range of experiences and interests. In fact, when in his continued reading he would come upon pertinent information for chapters already completed, he would make marginal notes for updating of, or additions or corrections to, what he had written earlier. Sometimes too he would rewrite certain sections in order to make relevant application of the book of Genesis to events in the latter part of the 1970s and early 1980s. And all of this continued right up to the time he had at last to surrender the manuscript to the typesetter. The fruit of that kind of effort, over a period of some thirty years, can be seen now in an extraordinarily fascinating book from his pen.
Rev. Harbach is a scholar. It is apparent too that his commentary on Genesis was written by a learned man. But it is not technical. Frequent reference is indeed made in the book to the Hebrew and Greek, but Rev. Harbach does that in such a way that it is a help rather than a hindrance to the serious reader. One need not have had seminary training in order fully to appreciate this work. Neither, however; was the book intended to be merely devotional. It is that too, to be sure, but, as the reader will very soon learn for himself, the purpose goes beyond that. The book is first of all instructive. Genesis, as the author points out in his preface, is indeed the “key to the rest of scripture:” This commentary helps one to get a good hold on that key. Where and when appropriate, various doctrinal errors and false theories are exposed and refuted. And, throughout the book, the truth of God’s particular grace and particular covenant is ably set forth.
His life having been influenced especially by two books – Pink’s Sovereignty of God and Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination – Rev. Harbach came to appreciate early the truth of double predestination. In all of his ministry he tried to preach in harmony with that great truth. His book gives ample evidence of that commitment. And, having come out of Presbyterian background, Rev. Harbach also learned to appreciate the fact that man’s aim in life must be God’s aim, namely, the glorification of His name. Again, throughout his ministry, Rev. Harbach strove to keep that goal in view – not the saving of souls, but the glorifying of God in all things. To that end he wrote this book. And we thank the Lord for what He has given us through the faithful labors of Rev. Harbach.