The Ten Virgins
William Bacon Stevens, 1857


Matthew 25:1-13
"At that time the kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
"At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
"Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'
"'No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'
"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'
"But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour!"

 

The simple diction, the attractive similitudes, and the solemn moral of this parable invest it with peculiar interest. Many ancient and modern writers have attempted to compose similar allegories but in elegance, fitness, and didactic force they fall far below this parable of our Lord.

We are here introduced into the stirring and picturesque scenes of an oriental marriage.

The nuptial ceremony in the East is always one of display and often magnificence, is full of excitement, and marked by many peculiar customs an understanding of which is necessary to a full appreciation of this beautiful parable.

These marriage festivals lasted sometimes several days but the period of greatest public interest was that when the bridegroom conducted his bride from her parent's house, to her future home. This was usually done at night, when the parties, accompanied by their respective friends, joined in glad procession, and the scene, lit up by countless torches, and enlivened by choral songs or instrumental music, was peculiarly exciting and delightful.

The custom still prevails in Asiatic countries, and we have been present at an Eastern wedding, where the ceremonies observed corresponded very much to those here described. We well remember the moving lamps glittering like so many fireflies in the darkness; the strains of music varying in volume, in measure, in expression yet mostly jubilant; the advancing procession; the shout of those stationed at the bridegroom's house, as the head of the nuptial column came into sight, "behold the bridegroom comes!" and the expressions of joy and hilarity which lighted up every countenance and animated every heart, and while beholding this scene we felt, as we had never before done, the force and fidelity, as well as emphasis of the Parable of the Ten Virgins.

The design of this parable is to enforce Christian watchfulness; and nothing could more aptly illustrate its necessity, than the felicitous similitude here employed.

By "the kingdom of Heaven" is meant the state of things under the gospel dispensation.

By the "virgins," the members of Christ's church the professors of his religion, who should be like virgins in the purity and innocence of their lives and conversation.

The number ten was doubtless mentioned because it was a favorite one among the Jews. According to the Mishna, a congregation consisted of ten people, and less than that number did not make one; and whenever there were ten people in a place, they were obliged to build a synagogue, etc., etc.

The Lamps represent the profession of godliness,
the Bridegroom is Christ,
his Spouse is the Church.

The words rendered respectively "wise" and "foolish," mean, the former: sensible, prudent, having sagacity and discernment. And the foolish: dull, sluggish and slow, evidencing the lack of those very qualities which make up the character of the wise. And the wisdom and folly of each five was seen in the fact mentioned by our Lord, "That those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them; but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps."

The obscure ideas which this passage conveys to an English reader, is made clear by a recurrence to Eastern customs. Rabbi Jarchi says that it was the custom in the land of Ishmael to bring the bride from her father's house to her husband's house in the night, and to carry before her about ten staves. Upon the top of each staff was the form of a brazen dish, and in the midst of it pieces of garments, oil, and pitch, which they set on fire; holding these in one hand, they carry in the other a vessel full of oil, with which they replenish from time to time their else useless lamps.

The having or not having "Oil in their vessels with their lamps," is the hinge upon which turns the whole moral of the parable.

Many and very diverse have been the interpretations given of this emblem; and many a controversial battle has been fought upon this narrow verse.

Looking only at the intention of the parable, and the circumstances under which it was uttered we feel warranted in saying, that while the "lamps" represent the outward profession of religion, the "oil in their vessels with their lamps," signifies the grace of God in the heart, by which only true religion can be nurtured and sustained; for wherever the Spirit of Christ is not, there, of course, is an absence of that oil of grace by which the professor can become "a burning and a shining light."

Taking then the wise and foolish virgins as exponents respectively of true and false professors of religion, let us notice first the points of resemblance between them:

They were both virgins in name and character, outwardly unimpeachable and chaste in conduct.

They were both attendant on the bridegroom, had received and obeyed the external calling which enrolled them as his attendants.

They were both invited to the marriage-feast, and had held out before them the bliss of that festive occasion, when they would sit down with the bridegroom at the nuptial supper.

They both had lamps, the outward signs and evidences of being attendant on the bridegroom, the symbols of a professing faith.

They both, while the bridegroom tarried, slumbered and slept; relapsed from a watchful state into a careless, nodding, sleeping condition.

They both arose at the midnight cry, "Go out to meet him," and "trimmed their lamps," to comply with the summons.

Just so with the similarities with regard to true and false professors.

They both are all nominal Christians, visible and outward attendants on the bridegroom Christ.

They both have all the lamp of a holy profession, and maintain the same general character for virgin purity Christ.

They are both . . .
strict in the performance of all moral duties,
constant in their attendance on the house of God,
give, perhaps liberally, for the support of the Gospel,
manifest much zeal for Christ, and
bear towards men, the form and visage of true devotion.

These are some of the points wherein the true and the false professor agree. They travel thus far in the same visible path, and the eye of the world cannot, up to this point, detect any difference. But to the eye of Him who sees in secret there is a marked and eternal dissimilarity. For, secondly, the points of dissimilarity, though not so numerous as those of resemblance, are very distinct and significant:

The wise virgins had taken oil in their vessels with their lamps but the foolish virgins neglected this precaution, and when the first flame of enthusiasm or mental fervor was burnt out they had no supply of grace to sustain the light of life.

They differed also in the fact that, while, at the midnight cry, the lamps of the wise virgins were still burning, and only needed "trimming," the lamps of the foolish had altogether "gone out." Consequently, while the one class was prepared to go out to meet the bridegroom the other was embarrassed and unprepared. The midnight hour was no time wherein to buy the needed oil; and, though they attempted to repair their indiscretion, it was too late. The wise virgins, joining the procession with trimmed and burning lamps, passed on in the bridegroom's train, and "the door was shut!"

The broad difference thus indicated still exists between the sincere Christian and the hypocrite.

The lamps of the false professor often go out in this life, when they who have begun in the spirit, end in the flesh, and they break out perhaps into open apostasy. How often, in the language of Job, is "the candle of the wicked" thus "put out," for they have not, with the lamp of profession a heart filled with the oil of grace. This oil of grace, lodged in the heart is the sole replenisher of the lamp of profession.

Each Christian's heart must be like the bowl of the golden candlestick which Zechariah saw in vision in the Sanctuary, wherein was kept the oil pure costly elaborately prepared; which, through golden pipes, "fed the seven lamps on the top thereof." Every lamp of the Christian profession must draw its oil through these golden pipes of the Sanctuary, and from this golden bowl, filled with the oil of God's Spirit.

That life of outward devotion, of external profession, which is not daily fed by the indwelling grace of the Holy Spirit is a foolish virgin's lamp. It will do while they slumber and sleep but will fill them with sore dismay when the cry shall be made at midnight: "Behold the Bridegroom comes; go out to meet him!" when they shall discover alas! too late that they have "no oil in their vessels with their lamps.''

Such being the points of similarity and dissimilarity between the wise and foolish virgins we now turn to examine the respective results in the case of each.

The wise virgins, though sleeping when the midnight cry was heard, "arose, and trimmed their lamps," and were soon in a condition to go out and meet the bridegroom. Joining the nuptial procession, they moved along to the bridegroom's house, and "went in with him to the marriage."

The foolish virgins, like the wise virgins, arose and trimmed their lamps but having no oil with which to replenish them, sought to borrow some from their sister virgins, and failing in this, "went to buy" some. While thus engaged, the bridegroom came. The procession moved on; the wise virgins passed in to the feast. And when afterward the other virgins came, they found the streets dark and deserted, and when they reached the bridegroom's house, "the door was shut!" In vain they cried, "Lord, Lord, open to us!" His reply was, "I don't know you!"

In like manner, will the false professors fail to gain admittance to the marriage-supper of the Lamb in Heaven. Lacking the oil of grace, they will not be able to join with the bridegroom's train; and when in despair they besiege the ear of God with the cry, "Lord, Lord, open unto us!" they will find the door shut, and will hear the voice of the Heavenly Bridegroom saying from within, "I don't know you!"

There is no entreaty that will then avail the virgin chasteness of an outward morality; the lamp of a once bright profession; the companionship of the wise virgins will each be worthless. What is needed at that midnight hour, and to gain an entrance through that open door to the marriage-feast is the burning lamp fed with the oil of grace, and shining out in the holy faith and pious works of one made "wise" by the renewing of the Holy Spirit.

The Lord Jesus gives us the moral of this parable in the words, "Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of Man comes!"
 

Watchfulness is an essential requisite of Christian character; and this watchfulness must be exercised in reference to things within and things without.

We must watch the affections of the heart their character, their direction, their force.

We must watch the operations of our minds their motions, thoughts, imaginations.

We must watch the outgoing desires of our soul their aim, their tendency, their exciting cause.

We must watch also our outward temptations the snares spread for our feet, the wiles of the adversary, and the manifold arts and transformations whereby he lays in wait to deceive.

If it is true in politics, where we have but human enemies to contend with, that the price of liberty "is eternal vigilance" much more in religion, where we wrestle not against "flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world," is it true that the price of eternal life is unrelaxing watchfulness.

The unwatching will soon be a conquered Christian.

The Christian's lamp needs daily replenishing from the fountain of all light. The oil of grace needs daily renewal, and must be daily sought for at the mercy seat.

Especially is there a necessity for this constant preparation to meet the Bridegroom, in view of the uncertainty of the time when He will appear.

That "He will come and will not tarry," is a revealed and certain truth. But when He will come the week, the day, the hour we know not. How He will come suddenly or slowly, at home or abroad, with lingering disease or unforeseen accident we know not. Hence the necessity of being always prepared, of having our lamps always "trimmed," and of having "oil in our vessels with our lamps," that when the summons comes, we may be prepared to obey it, and go in unto the marriage supper of the Lamb in Heaven!

There are, then, in the visible church, such people as correspond in character to the "foolish virgins;" and it befits us then to mark well the points wherein they are deficient; and seek, where only it can be found, at the throne of grace for that wisdom which is liberally given by God, that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom, and by which we are made "wise" unto everlasting life.

There is, then, such a thing, as an oilless lamp. Many such lamps are carried by the professed attendants of the Bridegroom, Christ; and it behooves us to see to it that there is oil in our vessels, the oil of grace, as without it we have but "a name to live but are dead."

There is, then, to be heard a midnight cry. "Behold the Bridegroom comes, go out to meet Him!" And we must see to it that we arise and trim our lamps, that Death surprises us not in our slumber, and find us unprepared for the summons that must soon ring upon our ears.

There will be found, at last, by every possessor of a lamp which has "gone out" an unopened door and a rebuking Savior. So it is of the utmost importance that we should diligently seek every needed preparation, so that we may go in with the Bridegroom to the marriage supper, and not come at the last, after fruitless effort to buy the oil of grace at human shambles, amidst the unillumined darkness of the midnight of death to that unopened door, only to hear from within, in response to our knocks, and our cry "Lord, Lord, open unto us," the stern rebuff, "Truly I say unto you: I don't know you!"

That we may, therefore, avoid the doom of the foolish virgins, and secure the position of the wise virgins let us give all diligence to our Lord's injunction, "Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man comes!"