Jesus is still seated on 'the Mount,' "over against the Temple," surrounded by the chosen few, to whom He had just been unfolding, in prophetic discourse, the deeper mysteries of the kingdom. He proceeds, through His favorite medium of parable, to graft on these remarkable predictions of His 'coming,' farther teachings on the same transcendent topics.
Two of these new memories of Olivet, will in this, and the following chapter, engage our thoughts.
The evening shadows have fallen over Jerusalem--the sun has set behind the mountains of Bether--the gates are shut; and the sound of the footfall of the passers-by is diminishing in the darkened streets. While the curtain of night has thus been drawn around other homes of the city, one of these is illuminated for a festive occasion. Lights are seen gleaming through the latticed windows, and an expectant crowd indicate that a marriage procession is momentarily expected. The Jewish nuptials, as in many parts of the East to this day, were celebrated in the evening--generally after sunset. In accordance too with Hebrew used, the Bridegroom, with his own special friends, has gone to fetch home his affianced bride. By torchlight--amid the flare of flambeaux--he will conduct her along these streets from her father's house to his own, where a banquet is prepared for the invited guests. Near to the Bride's home, lingering not far from the doorway, are seen ten young women in white festal attire. The number ten was sacred among the Jews. Ten bridesmaids was the usual number at the marriage festivities--ten people was the number which constituted "a family" for the celebration of the Passover feast--ten were required before a synagogue could be built. Each of these bridal attendants has a lamp in her hand, and a small flagon or vessel of oil is slung at her side. Their lamps are lit. They have been waiting--moment after moment, hour after hour, for the coming of the Bridegroom--their eyes wistfully turned towards the house where he has gone, eager to catch the first gleam of light issuing from the vestibule betokening his approach.
Some unforeseen reason has occasioned delay. Wearied with excitement and the fatigue of the long and unexpected vigil, these vestal watchers have, one after another, dropped asleep, their lamps left to burn as they may. Several hours have passed. At last, midnight arrives; and in that silent season the sleepers are startled with the cry from the lips of some herald or messenger, "Behold, the bridegroom comes!" All at once, the sealed eyes are opened--drowsiness and slumber are exchanged for life and activity. The ten virgins have sprung to their feet; the procession which they have been waiting to join, is close at hand, with its waving torches and loud joyous music, "the voice of the Bridegroom, and the voice of the Bride," (Jer. 7:34.)
The Bridegroom is walking by the carriage, in which, under silken canopy, is seated his Bride veiled in white, decked with ornaments flashing in the torchlight--bracelets upon her hands and a chain on her neck--a jewel on her forehead, ear-rings in her ears, and a beautiful wreath or garland upon her head, (Ezek 16:11, 12.) Instinctively, the maiden watchers seize their lamps and commence to trim them. Five of these watchers have been wise and provident. They have their flagons filled with oil, anticipating the contingency of delay in the return of the Bridegroom. From these flagons their lamps are refilled and replenished, and the decaying flame burns with renewed luster. The other five have not been thus foreseeing. They had made no provision for such an emergency as postponement until the midnight-watch. When they awoke refreshed from slumber, it was only to discover, when too late, that their lamps had either gone out or were fast expiring; and when they looked to their oil-flagons, with dismay they made the discovery that they were empty and unreplenished.
What was to be done? Their first impulse was to make application to their more fortunate companions--"Give us of your oil." But these latter had no extra supply. To wise forethought, they had added wise economy. They had only enough for their own use; they had made no provision to supplement a neighbor's shortcomings. One alternative only remained--to go to the adjoining street to the shop or store of the oil-seller; and though the likelihood would be, at that untimely hour, that his store was closed and he himself in bed, it was their one chance, and they risked it. Meanwhile, the procession has come up; it is joined by the five wise with their re-trimmed lamps. They proceed to the home of the Bridegroom. Soon the darkness is left behind--the bridal train has entered within--the door is shut.
By and by, quick footsteps are heard approaching. It is the five unwise watchers, hastening also to the banquet-hall. They knock; but an unexpected negative is returned. Bitter are their reproaches, when they see the lights of festive joy gleaming through the windows, and hear the sound of minstrel music, while they themselves are left standing in the vacant street amid the blackness of night.
Such is the outer framework of the spiritual picture contained in this most impressive 'Olivet memory.' Jesus, the Divine Bridegroom, repeats in parabolic form, the same great truth He had recently prophetically proclaimed on the Mount, that He is coming a second time, to conduct His affianced Bride in triumph to His Heavenly Home--that Bride constituting the entire Church in every age of the world, and which He has betrothed to Himself forever. The Church on earth--the visible Church, composed of wise and foolish, is symbolized by the ten virgins who are represented--some prepared, others not prepared--some ready, others unready, to follow the glorious procession into the eternal banqueting hall.
Without entering minutely into the interpretation of the Parable, or straining unnecessarily the application of its several parts, let us gather from it a few practical truths; starting with the great lesson which it would seem again to be the special design of the Divine Speaker, as in the discourse which preceded it, to inculcate– that is, the necessity of WATCHFULNESS in the prospect of His coming.
There is one utterance, indeed, in the Parable, which seems at first sight rather to neutralize the power and efficacy of this lesson--the clause where the Bridegroom is spoken of as "tarrying"--"while the Bridegroom tarried." This was doubtless intended by Jesus, to be a word of guidance as well as comfort to His Church in the long ages that were to intervene before His second advent. The Christians of the early centuries--indeed of the apostolic age, as we have recently had occasion to observe--had indulged in erroneous expectations as to the imminence of His coming. He did nothing expressly to extinguish the hope, or to weaken the motive to holiness of heart and life therein supplied. He knew how salutary the expectation, thus habitually and solemnly cherished, would prove. But He here, by parable, drops the significant hint, which we now can understand and appreciate, that the Church need not be surprised though centuries should elapse before the advent hour strikes--that she must not despond at the long tarrying of the chariot-wheels of this true Sisera, or utter the despairing complaint as she looks vainly through the lattice, "Why is His chariot so long in coming--why tarry the wheels of His chariot?"
In no respect, however, was this uncertainty--or this probable postponement of His Advent, to diminish the need of habitual watchfulness--leading to any relaxation of vigilance in respect to the replenishing of the oil-flagons or the trimming of the lamps. "Watch therefore," says He, "for you know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of man comes," (ver. 13.) He renews the prophetical warning given in the preceding chapter, that it will be "at midnight"--the time He is least looked for--the cry will be heard, "Behold, the Bridegroom comes."
How striking and impressive is this frequent reiteration of the same truth from the lips of the Son of God! If we had some very special injunction often-times repeated by the lips of a beloved earthly friend--if there were some one utterance more than another associated with the last days or hours of a revered parent, with what hallowed fondness would we cling to it and cherish it--how it would ring its echoes in our ear, and stir to its depths our heart of hearts! What friend had we ever had like Him, who has so often and so solemnly said to us, "Watch therefore--for you know not when the master of the house comes, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning--lest, coming suddenly, he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch!" (Mark 13:35-37.)
A special warning word in this Parable, is surely addressed to the ungodly. Observe, we have before set forth, in strong and impressive coloring, the eternal detriment and loss resulting, not to the impious and profane, but to unwise and unwatchful professors; those who had a fair exterior--who were attired in the same festal dress as the wise virgins--who had the same lamps in their hands--who had gone forth professedly to meet Christ--who called Him "Lord, Lord;" and yet, with all this apparent resemblance and identity, who were disowned at last by the Divine Bridegroom.
In the case of the foolish virgins moreover, it was disownment at a season when, above all others, we would have naturally looked for the manifestation of mercy, if this had been compatible with the principles of rectitude and justice. The Bridegroom had come to fetch home his Bride. It was "the day of espousals, the day of the gladness of his heart." On earth, and in the case of earthly kings, it is the bridal or coronation day which is the day of reprieve and amnesty--when the prison-doors are thrown open, and liberal things are devised and done. But observe, when these importuning virgins are repulsed with the withering words, "I know you not," it is at the very hour when the Heavenly Bridegroom and enthroned King would be expected to be thus lavish in his benefactions--when, joyous Himself, every other thought would be excluded from His heart but kindness for others--when the joy, deepest in the great Center, might be expected to send its concentric waves out to the very circumference of being, setting even the lost and stranded vessel floating on its waters.
Yet, even at this time, when if Mercy could stretch forth her golden scepter, it would be done--come and hear the solemn assertion--"and the door was shut!" What, then, will be the doom of the obdurate sinner, the openly profane, the stout-hearted scorner of Divine love? "If these things be done in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" "If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"
You who are now all apathetic and unconcerned, the day is coming when you will be startled from this atheist dream, and when you will be driven to entertain those momentous questions you are at present evading and professing to despise. "Fearfulness shall surprise the hypocrites." "Then ALL arose and trimmed their lamps."
Blessed be God, the Bridegroom tarries.--"While he tarried!" What comfort is in these words, for those who have for the first time woke up to a sense of their guilt and danger. He still tarries! The wickedness of the world, rising every day before His throne, might well quicken His advent-steps to consume it with the breath of His mouth, and destroy it with the brightness of His coming. But see His forbearance--He tarries! For all this His anger is turned away, and His hand of patience and mercy is stretched out still--He is not willing that any should perish. He tarries! but presume not on His forbearance. "Yet a little while, and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry!"
I repeat the remark we had occasion to make in connection with the same subject in the preceding chapter--remember, if the advent of the Lord be itself distant--though ages should elapse before the final trumpet be heard, there is another advent that cannot, with any of us, be very far off. As it has been well observed, "There is a relative nearness of all of us to the time of Christ's second coming in judgment. There is an absolute nearness of all of us to Christ's second coming at death." It matters not whether it be the archangel's trumpet or our own funeral bell--either will, to us, really sound the same summons, "Behold, the Bridegroom comes."
Be not among the presumptuous number who are lulling themselves into a yet deeper sleep by the cry, "My Lord delays His coming. Death may come to other doors, but not to mine. No furrow is on my cheek, no dimness in my eye. Other gnarled trees in the forest may tremble at the sound of the woodman's axe, or succumb to the winter storm; but my roots are moored firm and fast; I am strong as an oak of Bashan. Others may do well to prepare for the midnight cry, by trimming their lamps and replenishing their empty vessels; but there is no such urgency in my case. I have time enough before I die."
Another hour, eternity may be at the door, the Bridegroom at hand, the gates of mercy closed forever! You may affect indifference to the concerns of your souls now, but it will be a dreadful reality then. You may mock at prayer now, but it will be, with no pretended anxiety, that the cry will ascend from your lips then, "Lord, Lord, open!" Yes, all will be in earnest then, when a gloomier than Hezekiah's messenger will come with the startling mandate, "Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live."
That old man grown gray in the SERVICE OF SIN--the lamp of salvation left untrimmed for a whole existence--will be in earnest then. That selfish worldling, whose life was a fevered scramble in the race for riches, will be in earnest about the true riches then. That votary of pleasure, who bartered all that was great, and, lovely, and generous, and good, for the flippant superficial gaieties of a vain world, will be in earnest then. Oh, neglectful one, prepare to meet your God! Rouse yourself from your guilty lethargy; go in the gladdening sunlight, when the oil is not sold but gifted, when the flagon may be filled "without money and without price."
"Give us of your oil" is the frantic cry of many a man on his DEATH-BED--the unsuccoured wail and appeal of desperation to the anguished relatives standing around. But another Bible saying has, at that solemn hour, a new and dreadful truthfulness imparted to it--"None of them can by any means redeem his brother," (Ps. 49:7.)
This parable, indeed, forms another of the reiterated calls of Christ, which we have had again and again to note in these Olivet memories, to beware of forfeiting present opportunities--leaving the concerns of the soul to hinge on the risk of a peradventure; toiling on, the livelong day, at the world's mill, making sure of the world's promised "penny" to its fagging laborers--but oh, at what a peril and cost of bankruptcy has that penny been earned! The world has been true to its promised wages; the stipulated recompense is paid--but at what a sacrifice of eternal peace and happiness! Jeopardize not your safety. It is a solemn thought surely to all, that every new week is bringing you nearer the midnight summons, "Go out to meet Him!" yes, and if unready, to find no place in the festal procession and festal hall--to discover the closed door and the cheerless repulse! "Go" not only today, but "go and buy for yourselves." You cannot get from a brother or sister. There are no works of supererogation--"There is not enough for us and for you." "Why do they not cry to the Bridegroom," says Luther, "why do they run to men for oil?" But there is enough and to spare in that inexhaustible store garnered in Jesus. "Awake you that sleep, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light."
If there be a special word of warning to the sinner, there is a word, alike of exhortation and comfort to the GODLY--Christ's true people. Be waiting. This is the bridal attitude. "Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning; and you yourselves like unto men that wait for their master, when he will return from the wedding; that when he comes and knocks, they may open unto him immediately," (Luke 12:35, 36.)
An apostle breathes the prayer, "The Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patient waiting for Christ." "Lo, this is our God, we have waited for him." No sooner were the Thessalonians brought under the regenerating power of divine grace, so as to "serve the living and true God," than it was further said of them, that they "waited for his Son from heaven," (1Thess. 1:10.) Beware of anything and everything that would defraud you of your full festal joy, and mar the prospect of that "blessed hope."
Be sober, be vigilant; watch the first dimming of your lamps, the first shortcomings in prayer, the first symptoms of spiritual slumber, any defection and declension from your first love. Beware of resting content with the mere spasmodic religion of feeling and emotional impulse--a fitful intermittent flame--"He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."
For this purpose, and above all, see to your store of oil. It was this which made the difference between the virgins of the parable. Oil is the Scripture symbol and emblem of the Holy Spirit. The wise virgins--the waiting ones, had their faith and love and patience fed and nourished by the indwelling and anointing of the Spirit of God. He is one of the two Olive-trees which distilled the golden oil into Zechariah's typical reservoir, (Zech. 4:12.) By His gracious agency, the lamp is kept from flickering, faith from decaying, and believers are made to "shine as lights in the world."
Readiness to meet the Lord, is not the gathering up of the wrecks of 'a worn and withered love' at the last--not the attempt to buy oil and to furbish the lamp, when the cry of the Bridegroom is heard, and the bridal procession is on its way to the festive hall. Life is the true preparation for His coming. Indeed, in this view, we are partial to the interpretation given by some of the older divines to the sleep of the wise virgins. We may take, at all events, the alternative meaning, that it may have been intended, not to indicate a participation in the drowsiness and sloth of the foolish, but rather the calm sleep of the mind at peace with God--the soul soothed to tranquil repose, under the sublime consciousness that torch and flagon were all ready--the waiting, prepared Christian, having nothing to do but to die, and to wake up in glory everlasting. "So gives He his beloved SLEEP;" or as we observe it beautifully expressed regarding the recent death of an eminent Eastern missionary, "Wearied in his toil, he lay down to rest, and the angels came and bore him away."
Happy those soldiers of the cross, who, feeling that they are all ready to meet the last enemy, can lay themselves down by the camp fire, and wait tranquilly the blast of the warning trumpet, or the voice of the sentinel summoning to the brief closing struggle. Happy they who are thus ready--thus ready, also, to meet their Lord in the midst of earth's employments--ready, at any moment, to doff the soiled garments of a workday world, to be arrayed in wedding attire--the hand begrimed with earthly toil, ready, at any moment, to take the palm--the voice uplifted amid earth's busy industries, ready, at any moment, to take up "the new song."
Yes, to be truly prepared, does not imply that you be, at the hour of the advent cry, busied in direct acts of religiousness--called to meet God, as we have known some to be, in the very attitude of prayer, beckoned from their knees to the Bridegroom's presence--prayer suddenly changed into praise--one instant engaged in noble service for their Savior on earth, the next, translated among ministering seraphim! Work, secular work, must, in the case of God's people, be mingled with worship. The Christian may receive the final call, as we have already seen, when grinding at the mill, or plying the shuttle, or serving at the counter, or busied in the mart; or, like Hedley Vicars, when engaged in the roar of battle. Many (indeed most) are arrested by the summons of death amid the commonplace drudgeries of the world, and not a few, in the twinkling of an eye, translated to the consecrated activities of the glorified.
These five wise virgins, though the festal procession found them asleep, were nevertheless, 'ready'--their ordinary duties and business had not allowed them to neglect the bridal lamp, and the oil to trim it. Of each one of these it might be said, as of their sister at Bethany, when the words were addressed to her, "The Master has come, and calls for you"--"as soon as she heard that, she arose quickly and came unto Him." The readiness of a Christian to meet his Lord, is not the readiness mechanically attained by cloistered seclusion, 'bidding his work and his neighbor farewell,' but holiness of heart and consecration of the will and the affections to Christ. We repeat, this is the perfection of the saintly life--to have the lamp and the vessel so replenished beforehand, that death can never overtake too soon, or too suddenly. Sad only is the case of those, who have, for the first time, to seek a living Savior in a dying hour--to go to the oil-vender in the blackness of the night of death, when the store is locked up, the bridal procession has reached the festive hall, and the door is shut.
Church of the living God! if thus ready, if thus "waiting for HIM," how glorious, how gladdening your prospects! In what an endearing attitude is He here brought before you as your heavenly Bridegroom! If even the Baptist, when that bright nuptial and coronation hour was yet in a far distant future--when the day was one of "darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains"--if even he 'rejoiced greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice,'--if the children of the bride-chamber, amid fasting and weeping, and the surroundings of humiliation and sorrow, had, in that lowly and despised Jesus of Nazareth, their "joy fulfilled"--what will be the joy of that bridal day, when the cry will ascend from a triumphant Church, "Let us be glad and rejoice, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready!"--when the days of sadness and tears are ended forever, and when "with gladness and rejoicing she shall be brought, and she shall enter into the king's palace"?
The door of that banquet-hall, the door of your Father's house, will shut you in, and that forever, from the night of a dark world--from all temptation, all sin, all sorrow. No vacant seat, no absent guest, will be found there. What is life's best banquet often, but a scene of vanished mirth; the flowers which adorned the festive hall withered--gaps found in the home circle; marred friendships; saddened memories coming forth like the writing of old, of a man's hand on the wall? The brightest nuptial procession on earth, must have, sooner or later, the inevitable sequel of widowhood; the weeds must, sooner or later, succeed the wreath of white blossom; the funeral dirge drown the festive strain.
Not so these espousals of the heavenly Bridegroom. These are ties which know no dissolution--"I will betroth you unto me forever." No shadow will ever darken that heavenly feast--no funeral dirge ever interrupt the music. "Oh what a moment will that be," said a faithful watcher, who has now felt the reality of his words, "when the lamp of faith will be suddenly extinguished, not amid the darkness of eternal night, but amid the splendors of everlasting day!"
And, better than all, it will be to enjoy eternal fellowship with Jesus! At earth's most hallowed seasons of spiritual communion, such fellowship is fitful, intermittent, transient--the heavenly Bridegroom is seen "behind the lattice," or like "a stranger in the land, a wayfaring man that turns aside to tarry for a night;" but a glorious element in the bliss of the triumphant Church is thus specified in the parable--"those who were ready went in with Him to the marriage." "With HIM." It is the presence of Christ which is to constitute the chief bliss in that eternal festival. The bridal dress, the music, the decorations, the provisions of the banqueting hall are not mentioned. They are to be 'with Him;' and that is the joy of their joy, "Enter into the joy of your Lord;" "As the bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." "Blessed are those who are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb!"
"The watchers on the mountains