THE PARABLE OF THE TEN VIRGINS.
"Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom," St. MATTHEW XXV. 1-13
THIS parable is founded on a marriage scene. Though - as,
for example, in wars, or in the Corinthian games - the Scriptures are not to be
regarded as approving of all things which they may employ as figures,
approbation and honour are bestowed on marriage by the lofty uses to which the
sacred writers turn it. With prophets and apostles it shadows forth the holy,
intimate, eternal union which is formed between God's beloved Son and his
chosen people. Those who feel a Christian interest in the purity and happiness
of society, will not regard that as a circumstance of no value. Such discredit
as the Popish Church throws on marriage, by representing it as less holy and
honourable than celibacy, and such impediments as pride and ambition throw in
its way, should be denounced by those who, as Christian ministers, ought to be
Christian moralists - preaching to the times. One of their most evil features
is the false standard of income and position which it is considered proper they
who intend to marry should in the first place secure. This has led to the
bitterest disappointments; to breach of vows; to broken hearts; besides being
the fruitful source of much crime, and furnishing the licentious with an
apology for their immoralities. On this altar, human happiness, as well as the
best interests of morality, are offered up in cruel sacrifice. "A man's life,"
as Scripture saith, "consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he
possesseth: a dinner of herbs where love is, is better than a stalled ox, and
The institution which forms the basis of this parable is one of the two, belonging to innocence and Eden, which the Fall that shook the world and turned it, as an earthquake does a city, into a scene of ruins, left standing. These are the Sabbath and Marriage - the first forming the foundation on which religion, and the last that on which the social fabric, stands. And in looking back to the first marriage, I cannot but think that it was to make its tie more tender that God chose the singular plan he pursued in providing the man with a mate. No other way would have occurred to our fancy of making woman than that of another clay figure, modelled by God's hands in the female form, and inspired by his breath with life. In making her out of Adam, and from the part of his body lying nearest to the heart, while he lay in the mysterious sleep from which he woke to gaze on a beautiful form reposing by his side, God gave a peculiar emphasis and power to the figure "they twain shall be one flesh " - one in sympathy, in mind, in affections, and in interests; nothing but death afterwards to divide them.
Though thus a sacred, marriage was originally a simple, institution. God married the first couple that were husband and wife; but though it had the sanction, it was not till long ages afterwards that marriage was invested with the ceremonies of religion, and priests were introduced on the scene. In none of the cases recorded in Scripture did the parties repair to a place of worship, or call on a minister of religion to tie the nuptial knot. Though such a custom might be proper, and did to some extent prevail even among the heathen, it derives no authority from the Word of God; and may, as existing among us, perhaps be traced to our early connexion with the Church of Rome. Animated by that insatiable ambition which, grasping at all power, has made her the enemy of the liberties of mankind, she seized on marriage, and, exalting this institution into a sacrament, turned it into a tool to serve her own selfish ends. Having persuaded mankind that there could be no holy or valid union without her sanction, she had, the thing she sought, the world at her feet; and there not peasants only, but crowned kings humbly crouched, soliciting a liberty which God had already granted.
Long years, however, before this institution was invested with religious forms, it had been the custom to celebrate it with festivities, - a custom observed by none more than the Jews. For these joyous and festive habits they had the highest sanction. Our Lord accepted an invitation to a marriage scene, and honoured it by the performance of his first miracle; and, though we are to set our hearts on that world where they neither marry nor give in marriage, we should learn from the story of Cana to rejoice with them that do rejoice, as well as to weep with them that weep. It is not religion to turn away from scenes of harmless mirth; such as that on which Jesus put the seal of his approbation and shed the sunshine of his presence.
It is the last act in the drama of such ceremonies as were observed in Cana of Galilee, that this parable presents. The marriage has been celebrated. Accompanied by his bride, the bridegroom is about to return to his own house, their future home. The time, as is still the case in many eastern countries, is night; and the scene has all the picturesque effect of a torchlight procession. While one band of maidens accompany her from her father's house, another wait near the bridegroom's to welcome them home. The hours wear on; eyes peer through the darkness to discover the gleams, and ears listen to catch the sound of the advancing party. By and by, lights sparkle in the distance; by and by, at first faintly heard, shouts and songs break the silence of the night; and now the cry rises, "Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." All are roused - sleepers wakened, lamps trimmed, torches made to blaze with strong and lively flame; and forth from their places go, trooping, singing, rejoicing, the train of waiting maidens. Mingling with the advancing crowd, above whose heads sit the bridegroom and his bride, in gorgeous attire, their jewels flashing back the gleams of lamp and torch, they pass into the house. And now the door is shut. Those ready enter with the bridegroom; such as are unready are kept out, and to their knocking get no other answer but that of the parable, "I know you not." In considering this parable let us look at
He represents our Lord Jesus Christ, the divine head and loving husband of that Church which is his bride, "the Lamb's wife " - the union which faith forms between him and his people being represented as a marriage. It is one of love; for though a wealthy marriage to the bride, it is, on her part as well as on his, one of endearment - " We love him because he first loved us " - " Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power." It is one which grim death shall never dissolve, and leave Christ's Church a mourning widow. It is one which holy prophets sung, and long ages prepared for. It is one which the Son, though stooping to the lowliest object, entered into with his Father's full consent. It is one in which heaven took a part, and angels were wedding-guests - their harps lending the music and their wings the light. It is one over which all the hosts of heaven rejoiced in the fulness of generous love - "I heard," says John, "as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of many thunderings, saying, Alleluiah for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready." May we know the truth of the words that follow, "Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb !"
The story of redeeming love, of this marriage, surpasses anything related in the pages of the wildest romances. These tell of a prince, who, enamoured of a humble maid, assumed a disguise; and doffing his crown and royal state for the dress of common life, left his palace, travelled far, faced danger, and fared hard, to win the heart of a peasant's daughter, and raise her from obscurity to the position of a queen. Facts,, as has been said, are more wonderful than fables. The journey which our divine lover took, was from heaven to earth; to win his bride, he exchanged the bosom of the eternal Father to lie, a feeble infant, on a woman's breast. Son of God, he left the throne of the universe, and assumed the guise of humanity, to be cradled in a, manger and murdered on a cross.
Besides, in his people he found a bride deep in debt, and paid it all; under sentence of death, and died in her room; a lost creature, clad in rags, and he took off his own royal robes to cover her. To wash her, he shed his blood; to win her, he shed his tears; finding her poor and miserable and naked, he endowed her with all his goods; heir of all things, everything that he possessed as his Father's Son, she was to enjoy and share with himself, for are not his people "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together"
Nor was his a love of yesterday - leaving its object to fear that, mushroom-like, its decay might be as rapid as its growth. Older than the hoary hills, it dates from a period when there were no depths, before the mountains were brought forth:
"He loved us from the first of time,
He loves us to the last."
Neither is his love, like man's, capable of coldness or of change; of diminution or decay. Whom he loveth, he loveth to the end. It is stronger than death. Many waters cannot quench it; and no time can cool it. With the fondness of a first love, it has the stability of an old one. What trials does it endure; what ingratitude; what coldness; what contempt! See how he stands at the door knocking, till his head is wet with dew, and his locks with the drops of night! nor counts that anything if he can but win you at the last! And never desisting from pressing his suit on any sinner, lover of our souls, he lingers by the door till another arrive - not with a suit, but with a summons - Death himself come to beat it with a hand that brooks no delay, and takes no refusal.
And why should any refuse the suit of him who stands at their door - a lover, suitor, follower, crying, Behold, I stand at the door and knock - open to me? Setting their affections on unworthy objects, some have repelled addresses which offered them great wealth and high honours; better still, happiness as much as earth can afford. But none ever rejected such an offer as Jesus makes you in the offer of his heart and hand. They never had an opportunity. This is the lover of whom it is said, He is the chiefest among ten thousand, he is altogether lovely, his person is the most beautiful, his heart is the kindest, and his bride shall be the happiest and richest the world ever saw - her home a heavenly palace, and her rank higher than any queen's. Happy are they who have yielded to his suit; and, joining hands with him, have become his in the bonds of the marriage covenant! With the Lord for his shepherd, David felt certain that he could never want, and went down singing into the valley and shadow of death; but much more may we who, closing with Christ's offer, have given him our hands and received him into our hearts; for how much better does a bridegroom love his blooming bride than shepherd ever loved his sheep! "As the bridegroom rejoiceth over his bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee."
Fair women in the prime and flower of life have formed a part, and not the least ornamental part, of nuptial scenes in all ages of the world; and we have still the representatives of the virgins of this parable in the bridesmaids of modern marriages. Ten is their number here. Why ten, and not five, or twenty? The key to this is similar to that which explains the frequent recurrence of seven in the Scriptures - seven golden candlesticks, seven stars in Christ's hand, seven vials, seven plagues, seven thunders; for as the number seven among the Jews denoted perfection, ten was the number that made a thing complete. A company was considered complete when there were ten present - we have Elkanah saying to his wife to comfort her when grieving because she was childless, "Am I not better to thee than ten sons ?" and' so also we have the angels of God reckoned as ten times ten thousand. Here then, blooming like a bed of flowers, are a band of virgins; beauty in their looks; grace displayed in every movement; joy sparkling in their bright black eyes, and jewels, as they move their lamps to and fro, sparkling in their rich, oriental attire. Now they are watching through the evening hours; now, as the night wears on, slumber falls on their eyelids, and stretching themselves out, one after another, they drop off into sleep; now, roused by the cry of the Bridegroom's coming, all start to their feet to arrange their attire and trim their lamps; now, some revive the dying flames with oil, and others, looking with dismay on empty vessels, with urgency and tears,, beseech their companiqns to give them oil. Whom do these represent? Christ is the bridegroom; and the bridesmaids, these virgins, the foolish as well as the wise, who are they?
They stand here the representatives of the visible Church - of every church, and congregation of professing Christians, - a picture this which should fill many of us with alarm, and set all to the task of examining the foundation of their hopes, in the view of death and judgment. The five wise virgins are those who are saved at last; the five foolish are those who are lost - and lost though many of them, at one time, entertained no doubt whatever, that they should be saved. They never so much as fancied that they would be shut out. Such a thought never damped their joy; nor disturbed their dreams, as they slept on with dying lamps beside them. Most alarming picture and solemn warning! These poor virgins do not, let it be observed, represent the openly godless; the licentious; the profane; such as are manifestly the enemies, and not , the friends of Christ. On the contrary, they could not be, in any plain sense, and were not regarded as, the enemies of the Bridegroom. They had not treated his invitation with contempt; nay, nor even with plain neglect. To some extent they had prepared for his coming; and, till the hour of trial came, they seemed as well prepared to meet the Bridegroom as any of their wise companions.' I know nothing in the Bible which more than this parable, and little which so much, should so strongly and so solemnly enforce on us the advice, "Give all diligence to make your calling and election sure."
Unhappy virgins, to whom the Bridegroom brings such unlooked-for woe, who gaze with eyes of horror on your empty lamps, who, with such imploring looks and unavailing tears, entreat aid from your happy companions, who rush out into the darkness only to find the shops all closed, no oil to be bought at so late an hour, who hurry back, alas! to find the door shut - you do not represent hypocrites; or mere formal professors - such as never felt anything of the powers of the world to come; as were never alarmed; never moved by the truth; never thrown into any anxiety about their souls' salvation! Unhappy virgins, at one time all looked so promising - you watched for a while; you had lamps; you had more, you had oil in your lamps; and, though they did not endure, but, unfed, went out, they burned for a time!
Notwithstanding all this, they are lost - teaching us that it is not enough to make a fair appearance; to have been the subjects once of religious impressions; to have heard the Word of God gladly; to have felt some anxiety about our souls, and to have made some movements in the direction of salvation. We see in them how they who are near to the kingdom may yet never reach it - wrecked at the harbour-mouth, within hail of friends and sight of home. If such things are done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?
Let this case induce every man to prove his own work by such questions as these. Have I been converted? Do I know my heart to be changed? Have I something else to rest on as evidence of being in Christ than merely serious impressions, some occasional good thoughts, and fitful seasons of religious feelings - being well inclined, to use a common expression? Have I oil not only in the lamp but in the vessel ? - in other words, have I the grace of God in my heart ? - the love that burns, the faith that endureth to the end? Not he whose light is blown out by every gust of temptation; nor he whose light, a mere lamp of profession, fails amid the trials of death, and, going out, leaves him to darkness and despair; but "he," says our Lord, "that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."
THE SLEEP OF THE VIRGINS.
The scene is one of repose - no sounds, but measured breathing; and by the lamps dimly burning, ten forms are seen stretched out in various attitudes, but all locked in the arms of sleep. How unlike sentinels; watchers; persons waiting a Bridegroom's arrival, and ready at any moment for the call to go forth to meet him - they sleep like infants who have nothing to do or care for; or like sons of toil at the close of day, when their day's work is done. Were even the wise virgins right in yielding to sleep in such circumstances? They are not distinctly blamed; and so far as their own safety was concerned, they suffered no loss by it. With oil not in their lamps only, but in their vessels, being constantly prepared for the Bridegroom's coming, they might go to sleep - they had at least some excuse for sleeping. In one sense, their work was done; and so, in one sense, is ours, if having received Christ and the grace of God into our hearts, we have made our calling and election sure.
Firstly, The sleep of the wise virgins may indicate that peace which they are invited and entitled to enjoy who have sound, scriptural, indubitable evidence in their hearts and lives, that justified by faith they are at peace with God - and so, as Paul says, may "be careful for nothing." If that is all which is meant by their sleep, let those whom they represent sleep on, and take their rest. The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ! Never trouble yourselves about death - to you it is gain, and cannot come too suddenly, or too soon. He who lives in Christ is habitually prepared to die; and what more grace is needed for that hour, will come with it. "My God shall supply all your need."
But what is wisdom in some, is folly in others. He may sleep, rocked in the cradle of the billows, whose vessel rides at anchor; not he who is drifting broadside on to the roaring reef. He may sleep who pillows his head on a royal pardon; not he who, pallid and exhausted by the trial, a downstricken. and haggard wretch, enters a cell which, he leaves not but for the scaffold, unless he obtain mercy. These foolish virgins ought never to have slept till, applying to the proper quarter, and, if necessary, selling their very jewels for oil, they stood prepared for the Bridegroom's coming. Nor should any rest, seeking their soul's salvation, having it for their first thought in the morning, and their last at night, till they have found it; and obtained a good hope that their sins have been washed away in the blood of the Lamb and Son of God - that God himself is now their Father, and heaven shall be hereafter their blessed home.
Secondly, By the sleeping. as well of the wise as of the foolish, our Lord perhaps teaches, what the best will be readiest to admit, that even God's people are not so watchful as they should be; and would be, were they constantly to live under the feeling that they know neither the day nor hour when the Son of Man cometh. Should he come this moment, who, in a sense, are ready to meet him? Are your faith and love, your humility and holiness, in as lively exercise; are your thoughts, all your wishes, and imaginations; is the tone of your conversation, and the daily tenor of your life, such as you would wish them to, be at the Bridegroom's coming? None will say so. Therefore let us not sleep ; nor, with so much to do, act as if we had nothing to do. 0 that we could enter on each day's duties, and close each day's work, as if we had possibly seen our last sunrise, or last sunset. That were not a frame of mind inconsistent with earthly enjoyments. No! How bright the sky, how sweet the song of birds, how beautiful the wayside flowers, how full of pleasure everything to that sun-browned man, who expects, in a few more hours, and after long years of exile, to find himself at home.
Besides, these virgins who lie there asleep, ignorant of their wants and insensible to their danger, what reasons do they form for the wise employing the precious hours otherwise than in slumber! It might have proved another night to them had the wise been wakeful. Had they shaken up the sleepers, pointed them to their empty vessels, pleaded with them, and entreated them, while there was time, to go and buy, the lost might have been saved - the door that shut them out might have shut them in. And what true Christian may not have his hands full of such Christ-like work? Among our acquaintances, the members, perhaps, of our families, are there not some who, careless of their souls, and with less appearance of religion than these. foolish virgins, are not prepared for a dying hour? They would, I fear, be lost, were the Bridegroom to come now. May the idea of that, of seeing them shut out, hearing their plaintive cries, seeing them stand at the bar of judgment pictures of despair, wringing their hands in hell, saying to themselves, "Oh, if my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, my friend, my minister, had only warned me, and pleaded with me, I might never have been here," haunt us, and lie so heavy on our consciences that we shall find no rest till we have implored them to seek a Saviour, to flee from the wrath to come. Thus, going to the work in dependence on the Spirit of God, and with the tenderness, gentleness, modesty, and humility of true Christian love, have many who had neither genius nor intellect been wise to win souls to Christ.
THE SUDDENNESS OF THE BRIDEGROOM'S COMING.
Every stroke which our pulse beats, strikes the knell of a passing soul. There are sixty human lives go out every minute. But while that is the average number, death, each day, like the tide, has its flow and ebb. As harmonizing with its gloomy, scenes, night is the most common period for dying. She throws her sable veil over the appalling features of life's last struggle. It is most frequently at what is called "the turn of the night" that, in those rooms whose lighted windows contrast with darkened streets, and within whose walls spectators watch through their tears the last throes of expiring nature, that the cry arises, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh !" At that hour the cry rose in Egypt when a startled nation woke - and there was not a house in which there was not one dead. So also often on the deep - at midnight, a shock, a crash; and springng from their beds, alarmed passengers rush on deck to see a strange ship vanishing like a phantom in the gloom, and their own, by a gaping wound that admits the sea, sinking into a sudden grave - there is a fearful cry, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh :" they wake to hear it, and, sinking, hear no more. How loud and sudden that cry rose at midnight in the mighty tenement that a year ago shook this city by its fall, and buried in its ruins half a hundred corpses. They slept, nor woke, but to find themselves, to their astonishment, out of this world, and in another - standing before their Judge. How great their surprise; happy if not how great their dismay!
Nor does death surprise its victims only in such accidents. Foreseen by others, how unexpectedly does he often come to the person most concerned! Oh, the lying that is practised beside many deathbeds! All engaged in a conspiracy to deceive the victim, verily the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. Everything serious forbidden; every hint of death forbidden; everything that could excite alarm forbidden: a dying chamber is turned into a stage for players, who wipe away their tears before they enter, and wear a lying mask of ease and smiles and hopes, when hope herself is dead. Everybody sees the approach of death, yet not one is found kind and honest enough to speak of it. And they talk of spring who know that its flowers shall bloom on the victim's grave; they talk of journeys who, know that these poor feet are journeying onwards to the tomb; they talk of dresses who know that that emaciated form shall wear no robe but the shroud of death: the whole scene is like that old pageant of heathen worship, where they crowned the lambs with garlands, and led them to the slaughter with dances and music.
In various ways it belongs, if I may say so, to the chapter of accidents, whether our death may not be as sudden and unexpected as the coming of the Bridegroom here, or as the second advent in which our Lord shall appear with the surprise of a thief in the night. What may happen any day it is certainly wise to be prepared for every day. So men make their wills; but so, alas, they don't mind their souls! This ye should have done, but not have left the other undone. If there is no lawyer, but, if you have any property to dispose of, and would not have your death the signal for quarrels and lawsuits and heart-burnings, will advise you to make a settlement, nor delay one day to do so, oh, how much more need to make your peace with God, and prepare your eternal rather than your temporal affairs for death - to make it all up with him who is willing to forgive all, and is now tarrying on the road to give you time to get oil, and go. forth with joy to the cry, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh !" Seek Christ this day - this hour - this moment. On its decision may hang your irrevocable, fixed, eternal destiny. There is hope for you now; to-morrow there may be none.
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