NOTE TO FILE: 10-20-19
If, with the majority of authorities, we exclude verse 14 from the text, there are, in this
chapter, seven woes, like seven thunders, launched against the rulers. They are scathing exposures, but, as the very word implies, full of sorrow as well as severity. They are not denunciations, but prophecies warning that the end of such tempers must be mournful. The
wailing of an infinite compassion, rather than the accents of anger, sounds in them; and it
alone is heard in the outburst of lamenting in which Christ’s heart runs over, as in a passion
of tears, at the close. The blending of sternness and pity, each perfect, is the characteristic
of this wonderful climax of our Lord’s appeals to His nation. Could such tones of love and
righteous anger joined have been sent echoing through the ages in this Gospel, if they had
not been heard?
I. The woe of the ‘whited sepulchres.’ The first four woes are directed mainly to the
teachings of the scribes and Pharisees; the last three to their characters. The two first of these
fasten on the same sin, of hypocritical holiness. There is, however, a difference between the
representation of hypocrites under the metaphor of the clean outside of the cup and platter,
and that of the whited sepulchre. In the former, the hidden sin is ‘extortion and excess’; that
is, sensual enjoyment wrongly procured, of which the emblems of cup and plate suggest
that good eating and drinking are a chief part. In the latter, it is ‘iniquity’—a more general
The King’s Farewell.
The King’s Farewell.
and darker name for sin. In the former, the Pharisee is ‘blind,’ self-deceived in part or altogether; in the latter, stress is rather laid on his ‘appearance unto men.’ The repetition of the
same charge in the two woes teaches us Christ’s estimate of the gravity and frequency of the
The whitened tombs of Mohammedan saints still gleam in the strong sunlight on many
a knoll in Palestine. If the Talmudical practice is as old as our Lord’s time, the annual
whitewashing was lately over. Its purpose was not to adorn the tombs, but to make them
conspicuous, so that they might be avoided for fear of defilement. So He would say, with
terrible irony, that the apparent holiness of the rulers was really a sign of corruption, and a
warning to keep away from them. What a blow at their self-complacency! And how profoundly true it is that the more punctiliously white the hypocrite’s outside, the more foul is
he within, and the wider berth will all discerning people give him! The terrible force of the
figure needs no dwelling on. In Christ’s estimate, such a soul was the very dwelling-place
of death; and foul odours and worms and corruption filled its sickening recesses. Terrible
words to come from His lips into which grace was poured, and bold words to be flashed at
listeners who held the life of the Speaker in their hands! There are two sorts of hypocrites,
the conscious and the unconscious; and there are ten of the latter for one of the former, and
each ten times more dangerous. Established religion breeds them, and they are specially
likely to be found among those whose business is to study the documents in which it is
embodied. These woes are not like thunder-peals rolling above our heads, while the lightning
strikes the earth miles away. A religion which is mostly whitewash is as common among us
as ever it was in Jerusalem; and its foul accompaniments of corruption becoming more
rotten every year, as the whitewash is laid on thicker, may be smelt among us, and its fatal
end is as sure.
II. The woe of the sepulchre builders (vs. 29-36). In these verses we have, first, the specification of another form of hypocrisy, consisting in building the prophets’ tombs, and
disavowing the fathers’ murder of them. Honouring dead prophets was right; but honouring
dead ones and killing living ones was conscious or unconscious hypocrisy. The temper of
mind which leads to glorifying the dead witnesses, also leads to supposing that all truth was
given by them; and hence that the living teachers, who carry their message farther, are false
prophets. A generation which was ready to kill Jesus in honour of Moses, would have killed
Moses in honour of Abraham, and would not have had the faintest apprehension of the
message of either.
It is a great deal easier to build tombs than to accept teachings, and a good deal of the
posthumous honour paid to God’s messengers means, ‘It’s a good thing they are dead, and
that we have nothing to do but to put up a monument.’ Bi-centenaries and ter-centenaries
and jubilees do not always imply either the understanding or the acceptance of the principles
supposed to be glorified thereby. But the magnifiers of the past are often quite unconscious
The King’s Farewell.
of the hollowness of their admiration, and honest in their horror of their fathers’ acts; and
we all need the probe of such words as Christ’s to pierce the skin of our lazy reverence for
our fathers’ prophets, and let out the foul matter below—namely, our own blindness to
God’s messengers of to-day.
The statement of the hypocrisy is followed, in verses 31-33, with its unmasking and
condemnation. The words glow with righteous wrath at white heat, and end in a burst of
indignation, most unfamiliar to His lips. Three sentences, like triple lightning flash from
His pained heart. With almost scornful subtlety He lays hold of the words which He puts
into the Pharisees’ mouths, to convict them of kindred with those whose deeds they would
disown. ‘Our fathers, say you? Then you do belong to the same family, after all. You confess
that you have their blood in your veins; and, in the very act of denying sympathy with their
conduct, you own kindred. And, for all your protestations, spiritual kindred goes with
bodily descent.’ Christ here recognises that children probably ‘take after their parents,’ or,
in modern scientific terms, that ‘heredity’ is the law, and that it works more surely in the
transmission of evil than of good.
Then come the awful words bidding that generation ‘fill up the measure of the fathers.’
They are like the other command to Judas to do his work quickly. They are more than permission, they are command; but such a command as, by its laying bare of the true character
of the deed in view, is love’s last effort at prevention. Mark the growing emotion of the language. Mark the conception of a nation’s sins as one through successive generations, and
the other, of these as having a definite measure, which being filled, judgment can no longer
tarry. Generation after generation pours its contributions into the vessel, and when the last
black drop which it can hold has been added, then comes the catastrophe. Mark the fatal
necessity by which inherited sin becomes darker sin. The fathers’ crimes are less than the
sons’. This inheritance increases by each transmission. The cloak strikes one more at each
revolution of the hands.
It is hard to recognise Christ in the terrible words that follow. We have heard part of
them from John the Baptist; and it sounded natural for him to call men serpents and the
children of serpents, but it is somewhat of a shock to hear Jesus hurling such names at even
the most sinful. But let us remember that He who sees hearts, has a right to tell harsh truths,
and that it is truest kindness to strip off masks which hide from men their own real character,
and that the revelation of the divine love in Jesus would be a partial and impotent revelation
if it did not show us the righteous love which is wrath. There is nothing so terrible as the
anger of gentle compassion, and the fiercest and most destructive wrath is ‘the wrath of the
Lamb.’ Seldom, indeed, did He show that side of His character; but it is there, and the other
side would not be so blessed as it is, unless that were there too.
The woe ends with the double prophecy that that generation would repeat and surpass
the fathers’ guilt, and that on it would fall the accumulated penalties of past bloodshed. Note
The King’s Farewell.
that solemn ‘therefore,’ which looks back to the whole preceding context, and forward to
the whole subsequent. Because the rulers professed abhorrence of their fathers’ deeds, and
yet inherited their spirit, they too would have their prophets, and would slay them. God
goes on sending His messengers, because we reject them; and the more deaf men are, the
more does He peal His words into their ears. That is mercy and compassion, that all men
may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth; but it is judgment too, and its foreseen
effect must be regarded as part of the divine purpose in it. Christ’s desire is one thing, His
purpose another. His desire is that all should find in His gospel ‘the savour of life’; but His
purpose is that, if it be not that to any, it shall be to them the savour of death. Mark, too,
the authority with which He, in the face of these scowling Pharisees, assumes the distinct
divine prerogative of sending forth inspired men, who, as His messengers, shall stand on a
level with the prophets of old. Mark His silence as to His own fate, which is only obscurely
hinted at in the command to fill up the measure of the fathers. Observe the detailed enumeration of His messengers’ gifts,—‘prophets’ under direct inspiration, like those of old, which
may especially refer to the apostles; ‘wise men,’ like a Stephen or an Apollos; ‘scribes,’ such
as Mark and Luke and many a faithful servant since, whose pen has loved to write the name
above every name. Note the detailed prophecy of their treatment, which begins with slaying
and goes down to the less severe scourging, and thence to the milder persecution. Do the
three punishments belong to the three classes of messengers, the severest falling to the lot
of the most highly endowed, and even the quiet penman being hunted from city to city?
We need not wriggle and twist to try to avoid admitting that the calling of the martyred
Zacharias, ‘the son of Barachias,’ is an error of some one who confused the author of the
prophetic book with the person whose murder is narrated in 2 Chronicles xxiv. We do not
know who made the mistake, or how it appears in our text, but it is not honest to try to slur
it over. The punishment of long ages of sin, carried on from father to son, does in the course
of that history of the world, which is a part of the judgment of the world, fall upon one
generation. It takes long for the mass of heaped-up sin to become top-heavy; but when it is
so, it buries one generation of those who have worked at piling it up, beneath its downrushing avalanche.
‘The mills of God grind slowly,
But they grind exceeding small.’
The catastrophes of national histories are prepared for by continuous centuries. The generation that laid the first powder-hornful of the train is dead and buried, long before the explosion which sends constituted order and institutions sky-high. The misery is that often
the generation which has to pay the penalty has begun to awake to the sin, and would be
glad to mend it, if it could. England in the seventeenth century, France in the eighteenth,
The King’s Farewell.
America in the nineteenth, had to reap harvests from sins sown long before. Such is the law
of the judgment wrought out by God’s providence in history. But there is another judgment,
begun here and perfected hereafter, in which fathers and sons shall each bear their own
burden, and reap accurately the fruit of what they have sown. ‘The soul that sinneth, it shall
III. The parting wail of rejected love. The lightning flashes of the sevenfold woes end in
a rain of pity and tears. His full heart overflows in that sad cry of lamentation over the longcontinued foiling of the efforts of a love that would fain have fondled and defended. What
intensity of feeling is in the redoubled naming of the city! How yearningly and wistfully He
calls, as if He might still win the faithless one, and how lingeringly unwilling He is to give
up hope! How mournfully, rather than accusingly, He reiterates the acts which had run
through the whole history, using a form of the verbs which suggests continuance. Mark,
too, the matter-of-course way in which Christ assumes that He sent all the prophets whom,
through the generations, Jerusalem had stoned.
So the lament passes into the solemn final leave-taking, with which our Lord closes His
ministry among the Jews, and departs from the temple. As, in the parable of the marriagefeast, the city was emphatically called ‘their city,’ so here the Temple, in whose courts He
was standing, and which in a moment He was to quit for ever, is called ‘your house,’ because
His departure is the withdrawing of the true Shechinah. It had been the house of God: now
He casts it off, and leaves it to them to do as they will with it. The saddest punishment of
long-continued rejection of His pleading love, is that it ceases at last to plead. The bitterest
woe for those who refuse to render to Him the fruits of the vineyard, is to get the vineyard
for their own, undisturbed. Christ’s utmost retribution for obstinate blindness is to withdraw
from our sight. All the woes that were yet to fall, in long, dreary succession on that nation,
so long continued in its sin, so long continued in its misery, were hidden in that solemn
departure of Christ from the henceforward empty temple. Let us fear lest our unfaithfulness
meet the like penalty! But even the departure does not end His yearnings, nor close the long
story of the conflict between God’s beseeching love and their unbelief. The time shall come
when the nation shall once more lift up, with deeper, truer adoration, the hosannas of the
triumphal entry. And then a believing Israel shall see their King, and serve Him. Christ
never takes final leave of any man in this world. It is ever possible that dumb lips may be
opened to welcome Him, though long rejected; and His withdrawals are His efforts to bring
about that opening. When it takes place, how gladly does He return to the heart which is
now His temple, and unveil His beauty to the long-darkened eyes!
The King’s Farewell.
‘He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.’ —MATT. xxiv. 13, R.V.
‘In your patience possess ye your souls.’—Luke xxi. 19.
These two sayings, different as they sound in our Version, are probably divergent representations of one original. The reasons for so supposing are manifold and obvious on a
little consideration. In the first place, the two sayings occur in the Evangelists’ reports of
the same prophecy and at the same point therein. In the second place, the verbal resemblance
is much greater than appears in our Authorised Version, because the word rendered ‘patience’
in Luke is derived from that translated ‘endureth’ in Matthew; and the true connection
between the two versions of the saying would have been more obvious if we had had a similar word in both, reading in the one ‘he that endureth,’ and in the other ‘in your endurance.’
In the third place, the difference between these two sayings presented in our Version, in
that the one is a promise and the other a command, is due to an incorrect reading of St.
Luke’s words. The Revised Version substitutes for the imperative ‘possess’ the promise ‘ye
shall possess,’ and with that variation the two sayings are brought a good deal nearer each
other. In both endurance is laid down as the condition, which in both is followed by a
promise. Then, finally, there need be no difficulty in seeing that ‘possessing,’ or, more literally,
‘gaining your souls,’ is an exact equivalent of the other expression, ‘ye shall be saved.’ One
cannot but remember our Lord’s solemn antithetical phrase about a man ‘losing his own
soul.’ To ‘win one’s soul’ is to be saved; to be saved is to win one’s soul.
So I think I have made out my thesis that the two sayings are substantially one. They
carry a great weight of warning, of exhortation, and of encouragement to us all. Let us try
now to reap some of that harvest.
I. First, then, notice the view of our condition which underlies these sayings.
It is a sad and a somewhat stern one, but it is one to which, I think, most men’s hearts
will respond, if they give themselves leisure to think; and if they ‘see life steadily, and see it
whole.’ For howsoever many days are bright, and howsoever all days are good, yet, on the
whole, ‘man is a soldier, and life is a fight.’ For some of us it is simple endurance; for all of
us it has sometimes been agony; for all of us, always, it presents resistance to every kind of
high and noble career, and especially to the Christian one. Easy-going optimists try to skim
over these facts, but they are not to be so lightly set aside. You have only to look at the faces
that you meet in the street to be very sure that it is always a grave and sometimes a bitter
thing to live. And so our two texts presuppose that life on the whole demands endurance,
whatever may be included in that great word.
Think of the inward resistance and outward hindrances to every lofty life. The scholar,
the man of culture, the philanthropist—all who would live for anything else than the present,
the low, and the sensual—find that there is a banded conspiracy, as it were, against them,
Two Forms of One Saying.
Two Forms of One Saying.
and that they have to fight their way by continual antagonism, by continual persistence, as
well as by continual endurance. Within, weakness, torpor, weariness, levity, inconstant wills,
bright purposes clouding over, and all the cowardice and animalism of our nature war
continually against the better, higher self. And without, there is a down-dragging, as persistent
as the force of gravity, coming from the whole assemblage of external things that solicit,
and would fain seduce us. The old legends used to tell us how, whensoever a knight set out
upon any great and lofty quest, his path was beset on either side by voices, sometimes
whispering seductions, and sometimes shrieking maledictions, but always seeking to withdraw
him from his resolute march onwards to his goal. And every one of us, if we have taken on
us the orders of any lofty chivalry, and especially if we have sworn ourselves knights of the
Cross, have to meet the same antagonism. Then, too, there are golden apples rolled upon
our path, seeking to draw us away from our steadfast endurance.
Besides the hindrances in every noble path, the hindrances within and the hindrances
without, the weight of self and the drawing of earth, there come to us all—in various degrees
no doubt, and in various shapes—but to all of us there come the burdens of sorrows and
cares, and anxieties and trials. Wherever two or three are gathered together, even if they
gather for a feast, there will be some of them who carry a sorrow which they know well will
never be lifted off their shoulders and their hearts, until they lay down all their burdens at
the grave’s mouth; and it is weary work to plod on the path of life with a weight that cannot
be shifted, with a wound that can never be stanched.
Oh, brethren, rosy-coloured optimism is all a dream. The recognition of the good that
is in the evil is the devout man’s talisman, but there is always need for the resistance and
endurance which my texts prescribe. And the youngest of us, the gladdest of us, the least
experienced of us, the most frivolous of us, if we will question our own hearts, will hear their
Amen to the stern, sad view of the facts of earthly life which underlies this text.
Though it has many other aspects, the world seems to me sometimes to be like that pool
at Jerusalem in the five porches of which lay, groaning under various diseases, but none of
them without an ache, a great multitude of impotent folk, halt and blind. Astronomers tell
us that one, at any rate, of the planets rolls on its orbit swathed in clouds and moisture. The
world moves wrapped in a mist of tears. God only knows them all, but each heart knows its
own bitterness and responds to the words, ‘Ye have need of patience.’
II. Now, secondly, mark the victorious temper.
That is referred to in the one saying by ‘he that endureth,’ and in the other ‘in your endurance.’ Now, it is very necessary for the understanding of many places in Scripture to remember that the notion either of patience or of endurance by no means exhausts the power
of this noble Christian word. For these are passive virtues, and however excellent and
needful they may be, they by no means sum up our duty in regard to the hindrances and
sorrows, the burdens and weights, of which I have been trying to speak. For you know it is
Two Forms of One Saying.
only ‘what cannot be cured’ that ‘must be endured,’ and even incurable things are not merely
to be endured, but they ought to be utilised. It is not enough that we should build up a dam
to keep the floods of sorrow and trial from overflowing our fields; we must turn the turbid
waters into our sluices, and get them to drive our mills. It is not enough that we should
screw ourselves up to lie unresistingly under the surgeon’s knife; though God knows that it
is as much as we can manage sometimes, and we have to do as convicts under the lash do,
get a bit of lead or a bullet into our mouths, and bite at it to keep ourselves from crying out.
But that is not all our duty in regard to our trials and difficulties. There is required something
more than passive endurance.
This noble word of my texts does mean a great deal more than that. It means active
persistence as well as patient submission. It is not enough that we should stand and bear
the pelting of the pitiless storm, unmurmuring and unbowed by it; but we are bound to go
on our course, bearing up and steering right onwards. Persistent perseverance in the path
that is marked out for us is especially the virtue that our Lord here enjoins. It is well to sit
still unmurmuring; it is better to march on undiverted and unchecked. And when we are
able to keep straight on in the path which is marked out for us, and especially in the path
that leads us to God, notwithstanding all opposing voices, and all inward hindrances and
reluctances; when we are able to go to our tasks of whatever sort they are and to do them,
though our hearts are beating like sledge-hammers; when we say to ourselves, ‘It does not
matter a bit whether I am sad or glad, fresh or wearied, helped or hindered by circumstances,
this one thing I do,’ then we have come to understand and to practise the grace that our
Master here enjoins. The endurance which wins the soul, and leads to salvation, is no mere
passive submission, excellent and hard to attain as that often is; but it is brave perseverance
in the face of all difficulties, and in spite of all enemies.
Mark how emphatically our Lord here makes the space within which that virtue has to
be exercised conterminous with the whole duration of our lives. I need not discuss what
‘the end’ was in the original application of the words; that would take us too far afield. But
this I desire to insist upon, that right on to the very close of life we are to expect the necessity
of putting forth the exercise of the very same persistence by which the earlier stages of any
noble career must necessarily be marked. In other departments of life there may be relaxation,
as a man goes on through the years; but in the culture of our characters, and in the deepening
of our faith, and in the drawing near to our God, there must be no cessation or diminution
of earnestness and of effort right up to the close.
There are plenty of people, and I dare say that I address some of them now, who began
their Christian career full of vigour and with a heat that was too hot to last. But, alas, in a
year or two all the fervency was past, and they settled down into the average, easygoing,
unprogressive Christian, who is a wet blanket to the devotion and work of a Christian church.
I wonder how many of us would scarcely know our own former selves if we could see them.
Two Forms of One Saying.
Christian people, to how many of us should the word be rung in our ears: ‘Ye did run well;
what did hinder you’? The answer is—Myself.
But may I say that this emphatic ‘to the end’ has a special lesson for us older people,
who, as natural strength abates and enthusiasm cools down, are apt to be but the shadows
of our old selves in many things? But there should be fire within the mountain, though there
may be snow on its crest. Many a ship has been lost on the harbour bar; and there is no excuse
for the captain leaving the bridge, or the engineer coming up from the engine-room, stormy
as the one position and stifling as the other may be, until the anchor is down, and the vessel
is moored and quiet in the desired haven. The desert, with its wild beasts and its Bedouin,
reaches right up to the city gates, and until we are within these we need to keep our hands
on our sword-hilts and be ready for conflict. ‘He that endureth to the end, the same shall
be saved.’
III. Lastly, note the crown which endurance wins.
Now, I need not spend or waste your time in mere verbal criticism, but I wish to point
out that that word ‘soul’ in one of our two texts means both the soul and the life of which
it is the seat; and also to remark that the being saved and the winning of the life or the soul
has distinct application, in our Lord’s words, primarily to corporeal safety and preservation
in the midst of dangers; and, still further, to note the emphatic ‘in your patience,’ as suggesting
not only a future but a present acquisition of one’s own soul, or life, as the result of such
persevering endurance and enduring perseverance. All which things being kept in view, I
may expand the great promise that lies in my text, as follows:— First, by such persevering
persistence in the Christian path, we gain ourselves. Self-surrender is self-possession. We
never own ourselves till we have given up owning ourselves, and yielded ourselves to that
Lord who gives us back saints to ourselves. Self-control is self-possession. We do not own
ourselves as long as it is possible for any weakness in flesh, sense, or spirit to gain dominion
over us and hinder us from doing what we know to be right. We are not our own masters
then. ‘Whilst they promise them liberty, they themselves are the bond-slaves of corruption.’
It is only when we have the bit well into the jaws of the brutes, and the reins tight in our
hands, so that a finger-touch can check or divert the course, that we are truly lords of the
chariot in which we ride and of the animals that impel it.
And such self-control which is the winning of ourselves is, as I believe, thoroughly
realised only when, by self-surrender of ourselves to Jesus Christ, we get His help to govern
ourselves and so become lords of ourselves. Some little petty Rajah, up in the hills, in a quasiindependent State in India, is troubled by mutineers whom he cannot subdue; what does
he do? He sends a message down to Lahore or Calcutta, and up come English troops that
consolidate his dominion, and he rules securely, when he has consented to become a feudatory, and recognise his overlord. And so you and I, by continual repetition, in the face of
self and sin, of our acts of self-surrender, bring Christ into the field; and then, when we have
Two Forms of One Saying.
said, ‘Lord, take me; I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’; and when we daily, in spite of
hindrances, stand to the surrender and repeat the consecration, then ‘in our perseverance
we acquire our souls.’
Again, such persistence wins even the bodily life, whether it preserves it or loses it. I
have said that the words of our texts have an application to bodily preservation in the midst
of the dreadful dangers of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. But so regarded they are
a paradox. For hear how the Master introduces them: ‘Some of you shall they cause to be
put to death, but there shall not a hair of your heads perish. In your perseverance ye shall
win your lives.’ ‘Some of you they will put to death,’ but ye ‘shall win your lives,’—a paradox
which can only be solved by experience. Whether this bodily life be preserved or lost, it is
gained when it is used as a means of attaining the higher life of union with God. Many a
martyr had the promise, ‘Not a hair of your head shall perish,’ fulfilled at the very moment
when the falling axe shore his locks in twain, and severed his head from his body.
Finally, full salvation, the true possession of himself, and the acquisition of the life which
really is life, comes to a man who perseveres to the end, and thus passes to the land where
he will receive the recompense of the reward. The one moment the runner, with flushed
cheek and forward swaying body, hot, with panting breath, and every muscle strained, is
straining to the winning-post; and the next moment, in utter calm, he is wearing the crown.
‘To the end,’ and what a contrast the next moment will be! Brethren, may it be true of
you and of me that ‘we are not of them that draw back unto perdition, but of them that believe
to the winning of their souls!’
Two Forms of One Saying.
‘Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.’—MATT. xxiv.
This grim parable has, of course, a strong Eastern colouring. It is best appreciated by
dwellers in those lands. They tell us that no sooner is some sickly animal dead, or some piece
of carrion thrown out by the way, than the vultures—for the eagle does not prey upon carrion—appear. There may not have been one visible a moment before in the hot blue sky,
but, taught by scent or by sight that their banquet is prepared, they come flocking from all
corners of the heavens, a hideous crowd round their hideous meal, fighting with flapping
wings and tearing it with their strong talons. And so, says Christ, wherever there is a rotting,
dead society, a carcase hopelessly corrupt and evil, down upon it, as if drawn by some unerring attraction, will come the angels, the vultures of the divine judgment.
The words of my text were spoken, according to the version of them in Luke’s Gospel,
in answer to a question from the disciples. Our Lord had been discoursing, in very solemn
words, which, starting from the historical event of the impending fall of Jerusalem, had
gradually passed into a description of the greater event of His second coming. And all these
solemn warnings had stirred nothing deeper in the bosoms of the disciples than a tepid and
idle curiosity which expressed itself in the one almost irrelevant question, ‘Where, Lord?’
He answers—Not here, not there, but everywhere where there is a carcase. The great event
which is referred to in our Lord’s solemn words is a future judgment, which is to be universal.
But the words are not exhausted in their reference to that event. There have been many
‘comings of the Lord,’ many ‘days of the Lord,’ which on a smaller scale have embodied the
same principles as are to be displayed in world-wide splendour and awfulness at the last.
I. The first thing, then, in these most true and solemn words is this, that they are to us
a revelation of a law which operates with unerring certainty through all the course of the
world’s history.
We cannot tell, but God can, when evil has become incurable; or when, in the language
of my text, the mass of any community has become a carcase. There may be flickerings of
life, all unseen by our eyes, or there may be death, all unsuspected by our shallow vision. So
long as there is a possibility of amendment, ’sentence against an evil work is not executed
speedily’; and God dams back, as it were, the flow of His retributive judgment, ‘not willing
that any should perish, but that all should come to the knowledge of the truth.’ But when
He sees that all is vain, that no longer is restoration or recovery possible, then He lets loose
the flood; or, in the language of my text, when the thing has become a carcase, then the
vultures, God’s scavengers, come and clear it away from off the face of the earth.
Now that is the law that has been working from the beginning, working as well in regard
to the long delays as in regard to the swift execution. There is another metaphor, in the Old
The Carrion and the Vultures.
The Carrion and the Vultures.
Testament, that puts the same idea in a very striking form. It speaks about God’s ‘awakening,’
as if His judgment slumbered. All round that dial the hand goes creeping, creeping, creeping
slowly, but when it comes to the appointed line, then the bell strikes. And so years and
centuries go by, all chance of recovery departs, and then the crash! The ice palace, built upon
the frozen blocks, stands for a while, but when the spring thaws come, it breaks up.
Let me remind you of some instances and illustrations. Take that story which people
stumble over in the early part of the Old Testament revelation—the sweeping away of those
Canaanitish nations whose hideous immoralities had turned the land into a perfect sty of
abominations. There they had been wallowing, and God’s Spirit, which strives with men
ever and always, had been striving with them, we know not for how long, but when the time
came at which, according to the grim metaphor of the Old Testament, ‘the measure of their
iniquity was full,’ then He hurled upon them the fierce hosts out of the desert, and in a
whirlwind of fire and sword swept them off the face of the earth.
Take another illustration. These very people, who had been the executioners of divine
judgment, settled in the land, fell into the snare—and you know the story. The captivities
of Israel and Judah were other illustrations of the same thing. The fall of Jerusalem, to which
our Lord pointed in the solemn context of these words, was another. For millenniums God
had been pleading with them, sending His prophets, rising early and sending, saying, ‘Oh,
do not do this abominable thing which I hate!’ ‘And last of all He sent His Son.’ Christ being
rejected, God had shot His last bolt. He had no more that He could do. Christ being refused,
the nation’s doom was fixed and sealed, and down came the eagles of Rome, again God’s
scavengers, to sweep away the nation on which had been lavished such wealth of divine love,
but which had now come to be a rotting abomination, and to this day remains in a living
death, a miraculously preserved monument of God’s Judgments.
Take another illustration how, once more, the executants of the law fall under its power.
That nation which crushed the feeble resources of Judaea, as a giant might crush a mosquito
in his grasp, in its turn became honeycombed with abominations and immoralities; and
then down from the frozen north came the fierce Gothic tribes over the Roman territory.
One of their captains called himself the ’Scourge of God,’ and he was right. Another
swooping down of the vultures flashed from the blue heavens, and the carrion was torn to
fragments by their strong beaks.
Take one more illustration—that French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century.
The fathers sowed the wind, and the children reaped the whirlwind. Generations of heartless
luxury, selfishness, carelessness of the cry of the poor, immoral separation of class from
class, and all the sins which a ruling caste could commit against a subject people, had prepared
for the convulsion. Then, in a carnival of blood and deluges of fire and sulphur, the rotten
thing was swept off the face of the earth, and the world breathed more freely for its destruction.
The Carrion and the Vultures.
Take another illustration, through which many of us have lived. The bitter legacy of
negro slavery that England gave to her giant son across the Atlantic, which blasted and
sucked the strength out of that great republic, went down amidst universal execration. It
took centuries for the corpse to be ready, but when the vultures came they made quick work
of it.
And so, as I say, all over the world, and from the beginning of time, with delays according
to the possibilities of restoration and recovery which the divine eye discerns, this law is
working. Verily there is a God that judgeth in the earth. ‘The wheels of God grind slowly,
but they grind exceeding small.’ ‘Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered
And has the law exhausted its force? Are there going to be no more applications of it?
Are there no European societies at this day that in their godlessness and social iniquities
are hurrying fast to the condition of carrion? Look around us—drunkenness, sensual immorality, commercial dishonesty, senseless luxury amongst the rich, heartless indifference
to the wail of the poor, godlessness over all classes and ranks of the community. Surely,
surely, if the body politic be not dead, it is sick nigh unto death. And I, for my part, have
little hesitation in saying that as far as one can see, European society is driving as fast as it
can, with its godlessness and immorality, to such another ‘day of the Lord’ as these words
of my text suggest. Let us see to it that we do our little part to be the ’salt of the earth’ which
shall keep it from rotting, and so drive away the vultures of judgment.
II. But let me turn to another point. We have here a law which is to have a far more
tremendous accomplishment in the future.
There have been many comings of the Lord, many days of the Lord, when, as Isaiah
says in his magnificent vision of one such, ‘the loftiness of man has been bowed down, and
the haughtiness of man made low, and the Lord alone exalted in that day when He arises
to shake terribly the earth. And all these ‘days of the Lord’ are prophecies, and distinctly
point to a future ‘day’ when the same principles which have been disclosed as working on
a small scale in them, shall be manifested in full embodiment. These ‘days of the Lord’ proclaim ‘the day of the Lord.’ In the prophecies both of the Old and New Testaments that
universal future judgment is seen glimmering through the descriptions of the nearer partial
judgments. So interpreters are puzzled to say at what point in a prophecy the transition is
made from the smaller to the greater. The prophecies are like the diagrams in treatises on
perspective, in which diverging lines are drawn from the eye, enclosing a square or other
figure, and which, as they recede further from the point of view, enclose a figure, the same
in shape but of greater dimensions. There is a historical event foretold, the fall of Jerusalem.
It is close up to the eyes of the disciples, and is comparatively small. Carry out the lines that
touch its corners and define its shape, and upon the far distant curtain of the dim future
there is thrown a like figure immensely larger, the coming of Jesus Christ to judge the world.
The Carrion and the Vultures.
All these little premonitions and foretastes and anticipatory specimens point onwards to
the assured termination of the world’s history in that great and solemn day, when all men
shall be gathered before Christ’s throne, and He shall judge all nations—judge you and me
amongst the rest. That future judgment is distinctly a part of the Christian revelation. Jesus
Christ is to come in bodily form as He went away. All men are to be judged by Him. That
judgment is to be the destruction of opposing forces, the sweeping away of the carrion of
moral evil.
It is therefore distinctly a part of the message that is to be preached by us, under penalty
of the awful condemnation pronounced on the watchman who seeth the sword coming and
gives no warning. It is not becoming to make such a solemn message the opportunity for
pictorial rhetoric, which vulgarises its greatness and weakens its power. But it is worse than
an offence against taste; it is unfaithfulness to the preaching which God bids us, treason to
our King, and cruelty to our hearers, to suppress the warning—‘The day of the Lord cometh.’
There are many temptations to put it in the background. Many of you do not want that kind
of preaching. You want the gentle side of divine revelation. You say to us in fact, though
not in words. ‘Prophesy to us smooth things. Tell us about the infinite love which wraps all
mankind in its embrace. Speak to us of the Father God, who “hateth nothing that He hath
made.” Magnify the mercy and gentleness and tenderness of Christ. Do not say anything
about that other side. It is not in accordance with the tendencies of modern thought.’
So much the worse, then, for the tendencies of modern thought. I yield to no man in
the ardour of my belief that the centre of all revelation is the revelation of a God of infinite
love, but I cannot forget that there is such a thing as ‘the terror of the Lord,’ and I dare not
disguise my conviction that no preaching sounds every string in the manifold harp of God’s
truth, which does not strike that solemn note of warning of judgment to come.
Such suppression is unfaithfulness. Surely, if we preachers believe that tremendous
truth, we are bound to speak. It is cruel kindness to be silent. If a traveller is about to plunge
into some gloomy jungle infested by wild beasts, he is a friend who sits by the wayside to
warn him of his danger. Surely you would not call a signalman unfeeling because he held
out a red lamp when he knew that just round the curve beyond his cabin the rails were up,
and that any train that reached the place would go over in horrid ruin. Surely that preaching
is not justly charged with harshness which rings out the wholesome proclamation of a day
of judgment, when we shall each give account of ourselves to the divine-human Judge.
Such suppression weakens the power of the Gospel, which is the proclamation of deliverance, not only from the power, but also from the future retribution of sin. In such a maimed
gospel there is but an enfeebled meaning given to that idea of deliverance. And though the
thing that breaks the heart and draws men to God is not terror, but love, the terror must
often be evoked in order to lead to love. It is only ‘judgment to come’ which will make Felix
tremble, and though his trembling may pass away, and he be none the nearer the kingdom,
The Carrion and the Vultures.
there will never any good be done to him unless he does tremble. So, for all these reasons,
all faithful preaching of Christ’s Gospel must include the proclamation of Christ as Judge.
But, if I should be unfaithful, if I did not preach this truth, what shall we call you if you
turn away from it? You would not think it a wise thing of the engine-driver to shut his eyes
if the red lamp were shown, and to go along at full speed and to pay no heed to that? Do
you think it would be right for a Christian minister to lock his lips and never say, ‘There is
a judgment to come’? And do you think it is wise of you not to think of that, and to shape
your conduct accordingly?
Oh, dear friends! I do not doubt that the centre of all divine revelation is the love of
God, nor do I doubt that incomparably the highest representation of the power of Christ’s
Gospel is that it draws men away from the love and the practice of evil, and makes them
pure and holy. But that is not all. There is not only the practice and the power of sin to be
fought against, but there is the penalty of sin to be taken into account; and as sure as you
are living, and as sure as there is a God above us, so sure is it that there is a Day of Judgment,
when ‘He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He hath ordained.’ The
believing of that is not salvation, but the belief of that seems to me to be indispensable for
any vigorous grasp of the delivering love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
III. And so the last thing that I have to say is that this is a law which need never touch
you, nor you know anything about but by the hearing of the ear.
It is told us that we may escape it. When Paul reasoned of righteousness, and temperance,
and judgment to come, his hearer trembled as he listened, but there was an end. But the
true effect of this message is the effect that Paul himself attached to it when he said in the
hearing of Athenian wisdom, ‘God hath commanded all men everywhere to repent, because
He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness.’ Judgment
faithfully preached is the preparation for preaching that ‘there is no condemnation to them
which are in Christ Jesus.’ If we trust in that great Saviour, we shall be quickened from the
death of sin, and so shall not be food for the vultures of judgment. Can these corpses live?
Can this eating putrescence, which burrows its foul way through our souls, be sweetened?
Is there any antiseptic for it? Yes, blessed be God, and the hand whose touch healed the
leper will heal us, and ‘our flesh will come again as the flesh of a little child.’ Christ has bared
His breast to the divine judgments against sin, and if by faith we shelter ourselves in Him,
we shall never know the terrors of that awful day.
Be sure that judgment to come is no mere figure dressed up to frighten children, nor
the product of blind superstition, but that it is the inevitable issue of the righteousness of
the All-ruling God. You and I and all the sons of men have to face it. ‘Herein is our love
made perfect, that we may have boldness before Him in the Day of Judgment.’ Betake
yourselves, as poor sinful creatures who know something of the corruption of your own
hearts, to that dear Christ who has died on the Cross for you, and all that is obnoxious to
The Carrion and the Vultures.
the divine judgments will, by His transforming life breathed into you, be taken out of your
hearts; and when that ‘day of the Lord’ shall dawn, you, trusting in the sacrifice of Him who
is your Judge, will ‘have a song as when a holy solemnity is kept.’ Take Christ for your Saviour,
and then, when the vultures of judgment, with their mighty black pinions, are wheeling and
circling in the sky, ready to pounce upon their prey, He will gather you ‘as a hen gathereth
her chickens under her wings,’ and beneath their shadow you will be safe.
The Carrion and the Vultures.
‘Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. 43. But know this,
that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would
have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up. 44. Therefore be ye
also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of Man cometh. 45. Who then is a
faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them
meat in due season! 46. Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find
so doing. 47. Verily I say unto you, That he shall make him ruler over all his goods. 48. But
and if that evil servant shall say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; 49. And shall
begin to smite his fellow- servants, and to eat and drink with the drunken; 50. The lord of
that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not
aware of, 51. And shall out him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites:
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’—MATT. xxiv. 42-51.
The long day’s work was nearly done. Christ had left the temple, never to return. He
took His way across the Mount of Olives to Bethany, and was stayed by the disciples’ question
as to the date of the destruction of the temple, which He had foretold, and of the ‘end of the
world,’ which they attached to it. They could not fancy the world lasting without the temple!
We often make a like mistake. So there, on the hillside, looking across to the city lying in
the sad, fading evening light, He spoke the prophecies of this chapter, which begin with the
destruction of Jerusalem, and insensibly merge into the final coming of the Son of Man, of
which that was a prelude and a type. The difficulty of accurately apportioning the details of
this prophecy to the future events which fulfil them is common to it with all prophecy, of
which it is a characteristic to blend events which, in the fulfilment, are far apart. From the
mountain top, the eye travels over great stretches of country, but does not see the gorges,
separating points which seem close together, foreshortened by distance.
There are many comings of the Son of Man before His final coming for final judgment,
and the nearer and smaller ones are themselves prophecies. So, we do not need to settle the
chronology of unfulfilled prophecy in order to get the full benefit of Christ’s teachings here.
In its moral and spiritual effect on us, the uncertainty of the time of our going to Christ is
nearly identical with the uncertainty of the time of His coming to us.
I. The command of watchfulness enforced by our ignorance of the time of His coming
(vs. 42-44). The two commands at the beginning and end of the paragraph are not quite the
same. ‘Be ye ready’ is the consequence of watchfulness. Nor are the two appended reasons
the same; for the first command is grounded on His coming at a day when ‘ye know not,’
and the second on His coming ‘in an hour that ye think not,’ that is to say, it not only is
uncertain, but unexpected and surprising. There may also be a difference worth noting in
the different designations of Christ as ‘your Lord,’ standing in a special relation to you, and
Watching for the King.
Watching for the King.
as ‘the Son of Man,’ of kindred with all men, and their Judge. What is this ‘watchfulness’?
It is literally wakefulness. We are beset by perpetual temptations to sleep, to spiritual
drowsiness and torpor. ‘An opium sky rains down soporifics.’ And without continual effort,
our perception of the unseen realities and our alertness for service will be lulled to sleep.
The religion of multitudes is a sleepy religion. Further, it is a vivid and ever-present conviction of His certain coming, and consequently a habitual realising of the transience of the
existing order of things, and of the fast-approaching realities of the future. Further, it is the
keeping of our minds in an attitude of expectation and desire, our eyes ever travelling to
the dim distance to mark the far-off shining of His coming. What a miserable contrast to
this is the temper of professing Christendom as a whole! It is swallowed up in the present,
wide awake to interests and hopes belonging to this ‘bank and shoal of time,’ but sunk in
slumber as to that great future, or, if ever the thought of it intrudes, shrinking, rather than
desire, accompanies it, and it is soon hustled out of mind.
Christ bases His command on our ignorance of the time of His coming. It was no part
of His purpose in this prophecy to remove that ignorance, and no calculations of the chronology of unfulfilled predictions have pierced the darkness. It was His purpose that from
generation to generation His servants should be kept in the attitude of expectation, as of an
event that may come at any time and must come at some time. The parallel uncertainty of
the time of death, though not what is meant here, serves the same moral end if rightly used,
and the fact of death is exposed to the same danger of being neglected because of the very
uncertainty, which ought to be one chief reason for keeping it ever in view. Any future event,
which combines these two things, absolute certainty that it will happen, and utter uncertainty
when it will happen, ought to have power to insist on being remembered, at least, till it was
prepared for, and would have it, if men were not such fools. Christ’s coming would be oftener
contemplated if it were more welcome. But what sort of a servant is he, who has no glow of
gladness at the thought of meeting his lord? True Christians are ‘all them that have loved
His appearing.’
The illustrative example which separates these two commands is remarkable. The
householder’s ignorance of the time when the thief would come is the reason why he does
not watch. He cannot keep awake all night, and every night, to be ready for him; so he has
to go to sleep, and is robbed. But our ignorance is a reason for wakefulness, because we can
keep awake all the night of life. The householder watches to prevent, but we to share in, that
for which the watch is kept. The figure of the thief is chosen to illustrate the one point of
the unexpected stealthy approach. But is there not deep truth in it, to the effect that Christ’s
coming is like that of a robber to those who are asleep, depriving them of earthly treasures?
The word rendered ‘broken up’ means literally ‘dug through,’ and points to a clay or mud
house, common in the East, which is entered, not by bursting open doors or windows, but
by digging through the wall. Death comes to men sunk in spiritual slumber, to strip them
Watching for the King.
of good which they would fain keep, and makes his entrance by a breach in the earthly house
of this tabernacle. So St. Paul, in his earliest Epistle, refers to this saying (a proof of the early
diffusion of the gospel narrative), and says, ‘Ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day
should overtake you as a thief.’
II. The picture and reward of watchfulness. The general exhortation to watch is followed
by a pair of contrasted parable portraits, primarily applicable to the apostles and to those
‘set over His household.’ But if we remember what Christ taught as the condition of preeminence in His kingdom, we shall not confine their application to an order.
‘The least flower with a brimming cup may stand,
And share its dew-drop with another near,’
and the most slenderly endowed Christian has some crumb of the bread of life intrusted to
him to dispense. It is to be observed that watchfulness is not mentioned in this portraiture
of the faithful servant. It is presupposed as the basis and motive of his service. So we learn
the double lesson that the attitude of continual outlook for the Lord is needed, if we are to
discharge the tasks which He has set us, and that the true effect of watchfulness is to harness
us to the car of duty. Many other motives actuate Christian faithfulness, but all are reinforced
by this, and where it is feeble they are more or less inoperative. We cannot afford to lose its
influence. A Church or a soul which has ceased to be looking for Him will have let all its
tasks drop from its drowsy hands, and will feel the power of other constraining motives of
Christian service but faintly, as in a half-dream.
On the other hand, true waiting for Him is best expressed in the quiet discharge of accustomed and appointed tasks. The right place for the servant to be found, when the Lord
comes, is ‘so doing’ as He commands, however secular the task may be. That was a wise
judge who, when sudden darkness came on, and people thought the end of the world was
at hand, said, ‘Bring lights, and let us go on with the case. We cannot be better employed,
if the end has come, than in doing our duty.’ Flighty impatience of common tasks is not
watching for the King, as Paul had to teach the Thessalonians, who were ‘shaken’ in mind
by the thought of the day of the Lord; but the proper attitude of the watchers is ‘that ye study
to be quiet, and to do your own business.’
Observe, further, the interrogative form of the parable. The question is the sharp point
which gives penetrating power, and suggests Christ’s high estimate of the worth and difficulty
of such conduct, and sets us to ask for ourselves, ‘Lord, is it I?’ The servant is ‘faithful’
inasmuch as he does his Lord’s will, and rightly uses the goods intrusted to him, and ‘wise’
inasmuch as he is ‘faithful.’ For a single-hearted devotion to Christ is the parent of insight
into duty, and the best guide to conduct; and whoever seeks only to be true to his Lord in
the use of his gifts and possessions, will not lack prudence to guide him in giving to each
Watching for the King.
his food, and that in due season. The two characteristics are connected in another way also;
for, if the outcome of faithfulness be taken into account, its wisdom is plain, and he who
has been faithful even unto death will be seen to have been wise though he gave up all, when
the crown of eternal life sparkles on his forehead. Such faithfulness and wisdom (which are
at bottom but two names for one course of conduct) find their motive in that watchfulness,
which works as ever in the great Taskmaster’s eye, and as ever keeping in view His coming,
and the rendering of account to Him.
The reward of the faithful servant is stated in language similar to that of the parable of
the talents. Faithfulness in a narrower sphere leads to a wider. The reward for true work is
more work, of nobler sort and on a grander scale. That is true for earth and for heaven. If
we do His will here, we shall one day exchange the subordinate place of the steward for the
authority of the ruler, and the toil of the servant for the ‘joy of the Lord.’ The soul that is
joined to Christ and is one in will with Him has all things for its servants; and he who uses
all things for his own and his brethren’s highest good is lord of them all, while he walks
amid the shadows of time, and will be lifted to loftier dominion over a grander world when
he passes hence.
III. The picture and doom of the unwatchful servant. This portrait presupposes that a
long period will elapse before Christ comes. The secret thought of the evil servant is the
thought of a time far down the ages from the moment of our Lord’s speaking. It would take
centuries for such a temper to be developed in the Church. What is the temper? A secret
dismissal of the anticipation of the Lord’s return, and that not merely because He has been
long in coming, but as thinking that He has broken His word, and has not come when He
said that He would. This unspoken dimming over of the expectation and unconfessed doubt
of the firmness of the promise, is the natural product of the long time of apparent delay
which the Church has had to encounter. It will cloud and depress the religion of later ages,
unless there be constant effort to resist the tendency and to keep awake. The first generations
were all aflame with the glad hope ‘Maranatha’—‘The Lord is at hand.’ Their successors
gradually lost that keenness of expectation, and at most cried, ‘Will not He come soon?’
Their successors saw the starry hope through thickening mists of years; and now it scarcely
shines for many, or at least is but a dim point, when it should blaze as a sun.
He was an ‘evil’ servant who said so in his heart. He was evil because he said it, and he
said it because he was evil; for the yielding to sin and the withdrawal of love from Jesus dim
the desire for His coming, and make the whisper that He delays, a hope; while, on the other
hand, the hope that He delays helps to open the sluices, and let sin flood the life. So an outburst of cruel masterfulness and of riotous sensuality is the consequence of the dimmed
expectation. There would have been no usurpation of authority over Christ’s heritage by
priest or pope, or any other, if that hope had not become faint. If professing Christians lived
with the great white throne and the heavens and earth fleeing away before Him that sits on
Watching for the King.
it, ever burning before their inward eye, how could they wallow amid the mire of animal
indulgence? The corruptions of the Church, especially of its official members, are traced
with sad and prescient hand in these foreboding words, which are none the less a prophecy
because cast by His forbearing gentleness into the milder form of a supposition.
The dreadful doom of the unwatchful servant is couched in terms of awful severity. The
cruel punishment of sawing asunder, which, tradition says, was suffered by Isaiah and was
not unfamiliar in old times, is his. What concealed terror of retribution it signifies we do
not know. Perhaps it points to a fate in which a man shall be, as it were, parted into two,
each at enmity with the other. Perhaps it implies a retribution in kind for his sin, which
consisted, as the next clause implies, in hypocrisy, which is the sundering in twain of inward
conviction and practice, and is to be avenged by a like but worse rending apart of conscience
and will. At all events, it shadows a fearful retribution, which is not extinction, inasmuch
as, in the next clause, we read that his portion—his lot, or that condition which belongs to
him by virtue of his character—is with ‘the hypocrites.’ He was one of them, because, while
he said ‘my lord,’ he had ceased to love and obey, having ceased to desire and expect; and
therefore whatever is their fate shall be his, even to the ‘dividing asunder of soul and spirit,’
and setting eternal discord among the thoughts and intents of the heart. That is not the
punishment of unwatchfulness, but of what unwatchfulness leads to, if unawakened. Let
these words of the King ring an alarum for us all, and rouse our sleepy souls to watch, as
becomes the children of the day.
Watching for the King.
‘Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps,
and went forth to meet the bridegroom. 2. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.
3. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: 4. But the wise took
oil in their vessels with their lamps. 5. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and
slept. 6. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out
to meet him. 7. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. 8. And the foolish
said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. 9. But the wise answered,
saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell,
and buy for yourselves. 10. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that
were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. 11 Afterward came
also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. 12. But he answered and said, Verily
I say unto you, I know you not. 13. Watch therefore; for ye know neither the day nor the
hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.’—MATT. xxv. 1-13.
We shall best understand this beautiful but difficult parable if we look on to its close.
Our Lord appends to it the refrain of all this context, the exhortation to watch, based upon
our ignorance of the time of His coming. But as in the former little parable of the wise servant
it was his faithful, wise dispensing of his lord’s goods, and not his watchfulness, which was
the point of the eulogium passed on him, so here it is the readiness of the wise virgins to
take their places in the wedding march which is commended. That readiness consists in
their having their lamps burning and their oil in store. This, then, is the main thing in the
parable. It is an exhibition, under another aspect, of what constitutes fitness for entrance
into the festal chamber of the bridegroom, which had just been set forth as consisting in
faithful stewardship. Here it is presented as being the possession of lamp and oil.
I. The first consideration, then, must be, What is the meaning of these emblems? A great
deal of fine-spun ingenuity has been expended on subordinate points in the parable, such
as the significance of the number of maidens, the conclusions from the equal division into
wise and foolish, the place from which they came to meet the bridegroom, the point in the
marriage procession where they are supposed to join it, whether it was at going to fetch the
bride, or at coming back with her; whether the feast is held in her house, or in his, and so
on. But all these are unimportant questions, and as Christ has left them in the background,
we only destroy the perspective by dragging them into the front. In no parable is it more
important than in this to restrain the temptation to run out analogies into their last results.
The remembrance that the virgins, as the emblem of the whole body of the visible Church,
are the same as the bride, who does not appear in the parable, might warn against such an
error. They were ten, as being the usual number for such a company, or as being the round
number naturally employed when definiteness was not sought. They were divided equally,
The Waiting Maidens.
The Waiting Maidens.
not because our Lord desired to tell, but because He wished to leave unnoticed, the numerical proportion of the two classes. One set are ‘wise’ and the other ‘foolish,’ because He
wishes to show not only the sin, but the absurdity, of unreadiness, and to teach us that true
wisdom is not of the head only, but far more of the heart. The conduct of the two groups
of maidens is looked at from the prudent and common-sense standpoint, and the provident
action of the one sets in relief the reckless stupidity of the other.
There have been many opinions as to the meaning of the lamps and the oil, which it is
needless to repeat. Surely the analogy of scriptural symbolism is our best guide. If we follow
it, we get a meaning which perfectly suits the emblems and the whole parable. In the Sermon
on the Mount, our Lord uses the same figure of the lamp, and explains it: ‘Let your light
shine before men, that they may see your good works.’
II. Note the sleep of all the virgins. No blame is hinted on account of it. It is not inconsistent with the wisdom of the wise, nor does it interfere with their readiness to meet the
bridegroom. It is, then, such a sleep as is compatible with watching. Our Lord’s introduction
of this point is an example of His merciful allowance for our weakness. There must be a
certain slackening of the tension of expectation when the bridegroom tarries. Centuries of
delay cannot but modify the attitude of the waiting Church, and Jesus here implies that
there will be a long stretch of time before His advent, during which all His people will feel
the natural effect of the deferring of hope. But the sleep which He permits, unblamed, is
light, and such as one takes by snatches when waiting to be called. He does not ask us always
to be on tiptoe of expectation, nor to refuse the teaching of experience; but counts that we
have watched aright, if we wake from our light slumbers when the cry is heard, and have
our lamps lit, ready for the procession.
III. Then comes the midnight cry and the waking of the maidens. The hour, ‘of night’s
black arch the keystone,’ suggests the unexpectedness of His coming; the loudness of the
cry, its all-awaking effect; the broken words of the true reading, ‘Behold the bridegroom!’
the closeness on the heels of the heralds with which the procession flashes through the
darkness. The virgins had ‘gone forth to meet him’ at the beginning of the parable, but the
going forth to which they are now summoned is not the same. The Christian soul goes forth
once when, at the beginning of its Christian life, it forsakes the world to wait for and on
Christ, and again, when it leaves the world to pass with Him into the banquet. Life is the
slumber from which some are awaked by the voice of death, and some who ‘remain’ shall
be awaked by the trumpet of judgment. There is no interval between the cry and the appearance of the bridegroom; only a moment to rouse themselves, to look to their lamps, and to
speak the hurried words of the foolish and the answer of the wise, and then the procession
is upon them. It is all done as in a flash, ‘in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.’ This impression of swiftness, which leaves no time for delayed preparation, is the uniform impression
conveyed by all the Scripture references to the coming of the Lord. The swoop of the eagle,
The Waiting Maidens.
the fierce blaze of lightning from one side of the sky to the other, the bursting of the flood,
that morning’s work at Sodom, not begun till dawn and finished before the ‘sun was risen
on the earth,’ are its types. Foolish indeed to postpone preparation till that moment when
cry and coming are simultaneous, like lightning and thunder right overhead!
The foolish virgins’ imploring request and its answer are not to be pressed, as if they
meant more than to set forth the hopelessness of then attempting to procure the wanting
oil, and especially the hopelessness of attempting to get it from one’s fellows. There is a
world of suppressed terror and surprise in that cry, ‘Our lamps are going out.’ Note that
they burned till the bridegroom came, and then, like the magic lamps in old legends, at his
approach shivered into darkness. Is not that true of the formal, outward religion, which
survives everything but contact with His all-seeing eye and perfect judgment? These foolish
maidens were as much astonished as alarmed at seeing their lights flicker down to extinction;
and it is possible for professing Christians to live a lifetime, and never to be found out either
by themselves or by anybody else. But if there has been no oil in the lamp, it will be quenched
when He appears. The atmosphere that surrounds His throne acts like oxygen on the oilfed flame, and like carbonic acid gas on the other.
The answer of the wise is not selfishness. It is not from our fellows, however bright their
lamps, that we can ever get that inward grace. None of them has more than suffices for his
own needs, nor can any give it to another. It may be bought, on the same terms as the pearl
of great price was bought, ‘without money’; but the market is closed, as on a holiday, on the
day of the king’s son’s marriage. That is not touched upon here, except in so far as it is hinted
at in the absence of the foolish when he enters the banqueting chamber, and in their fruitless
prayer. They had no time to get the oil before he came, and they had not got it when they
returned. The lesson is plain. We can only get the new life of the Spirit, which will make our
lives a light, from God; and we can get it now, not then.
IV. We see the wise virgins within and the foolish without. They are, indeed, no longer
designated by these adjectives, but as ‘ready’ and ‘the others’; for preparedness is fitness,
and they who are found of Him in possession of the outward righteousness and of its inward
source, His own divine life in them, are prepared. To such the gates of the festal chamber
fly open. In that day, place is the outcome of character, and it is equally impossible for the
‘ready’ to be shut out, and for ‘the others’ to go in.
‘When the bridegroom with his feastful friends passes to bliss at the mid hour of night,’
they who have ‘filled their odorous lamps with deeds of light’ have surely ‘gained their entrance.’ There is silence as to the unspeakable joys of the wedding feast. Some faint sounds
of music and dancing, some gleams from the lighted windows, find their way out; but the
closed door keeps its secret, and only the guests know the gladness.
That closed door means security, perpetuity, untold blessedness, but it means exclusion
too. The piteous reiterated call of the shut-out maidens, roused too late, and so suddenly,
The Waiting Maidens.
from songs and laughter to vain cries, evokes a stern answer, through which shines the awful
reality veiled in the parable. We do not need to regard the prayer for entrance, and its refusal,
as conveying more than the fruitlessness of wishes for entrance then, when unaccompanied
with fitness to enter. Such desire as is expressed in this passionate beating at the closed door,
with hoarse entreaties, is not fitness. If it were, the door would open; and the reason why it
does not lies in the bridegroom’s awful answer, ‘I know you not.’ The absence of the qualification prevents his recognising them as his. Surely the unalleviated darkness of a hopeless
exclusion settles down on these sad five, standing, huddled together, at the door, with the
extinguished lamps hanging in their despairing hands. ‘Too late, too late, ye cannot enter
now.’ The wedding bell has become a funeral knell. They were not the enemies of the
bridegroom, they thought themselves his friends. They let life ebb without securing the one
thing needful, and the neglect was irremediable. There is a tragedy underlying many a life
of outward religiousness and inward emptiness, and a dreadful discovery will flare in upon
such, when they have to say to themselves,
‘This might have been once,
And we missed it, lost it for ever.’