Great Texts of the Bible
A Brand Plucked out of the Fire
And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to be his adversary. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; yea, the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?—Zechariah 3:1-2.
The Israelites were engaged in rebuilding the Temple, but notwithstanding their own zeal and earnestness, and the ostensible permission and encouragement of the Babylonian king, they found themselves making little progress. They were being continually thwarted. The work halted in their hands. We can well imagine the thoughts which may have troubled many at so unexpected an event. Had then God indeed cast them off? Would the Lord no more dwell upon Mount Zion? Was it a vain effort to attempt to raise from its ruins their holy place? Meditations like these may well have swept across their minds, and made their souls disquieted within them. And now what is the message from the Lord? It comes in a vision to Zechariah. In this vision is laid bare the whole secret of the hindrances which so bowed the hearts of the people. In this they are led to trace the radical cause of all their difficulties. The Jewish Church and nation are suitably represented in the person of the high priest. Their moral condition contaminated with past idolatry, and their struggling against opposition to rebuild the Temple, is with equal precision denoted by the foul garments of the high priest and the close neighbourhood of Satan. Then follows the consolation. Satan is rebuked; the inglorious apparel is taken away, the mitre set upon Joshuas head, and a sublime promise added, that if Joshua, having been thus readorned, shall discharge his office faithfully, he shall retain a perpetual priesthood; if, in other words, the Israelites would walk in Gods law, they should never be rejected.
“He shewed me Joshua the high priest.”
1. This Joshua was a leading figure of the period. In the contemporary prophet Haggai he is frequently mentioned. There we learn that he was the son of Jehosadak, and that he was closely associated with Zerubbabel in all the pious and patriotic undertakings of those days. The one, indeed, was the ecclesiastical and the other the civil head of the new community.
In Ezra and Nehemiah this Joshua is called Jeshua. His grandfather, Seraiah, who was high priest at the time of the capture of Jerusalem, was executed at Riblah by Nebuchadnezzar, and his father Jehosadak was carried captive to Babylon, where Joshua was probably born. On the arrival of the caravan at Jerusalem, Joshua naturally took a leading part in the erection of the altar of burnt-offering, and in the laying of the foundations of the Temple.
2. When it is said that he was seen standing before the Lord, the first notion suggested by the words is that, as high priest, he was engaged in the duties of his sacred office; because to stand before the Lord is frequently mentioned in Scripture as the privilege of the priesthood. It is probable, however, that the image presented to the mind of the prophet was totally different. It was not in the Temple that Joshua seemed to him to be, but in the hall of judgment. To stand before the judge is a phrase used of the prisoner at the bar; and that this is its signification here is proved by the statement which follows—that Satan was standing at his right hand to accuse him; for this was the position of the prosecutor in a court of justice. And the same view is further supported by the fact that Joshua was clothed in filthy garments—a condition in which the high priest could, under no circumstances, have appeared before God in the service of his office, but which befits exactly the position of a criminal.
Josephus says that among the Jews persons who had to appear at the bar of a judge as accused usually, on such occasions, were habited in black garments. The garments, however, in which Joshua was seen were not black, but filthy; they may have been originally white or splendid, but they were unclean, sordid, or befouled. Now, as clean and white garments betokened purity and righteousness, garments dirtied and defiled indicated the opposite—a state of humiliation, impurity, and guilt. The filthy garments, therefore, in which Joshua was attired indicated his being in a state of moral impurity and sinfulness. Unlike the worthy few in the Church at Sardis “who had not defiled their garments,” that is, had kept themselves free and blameless, he had come under sin, and appeared before the Angel of the Lord as one encompassed with iniquity.
Let a man persevere in prayer and watchfulness to the day of his death, yet he will never get to the bottom of his heart. Though he know more and more of himself as he becomes more conscientious and earnest, still the full manifestation of the secrets there lodged is reserved for another world. And at the last day who can tell the affright and horror of a man who lived to himself on earth, indulging his own evil will, following his own chance notions of truth and falsehood, shunning the cross and the reproach of Christ, when his eyes are at length opened before the throne of God, and all his innumerable sins, his habitual neglect of God, his abuse of his talents, his misapplication and waste of time, and the original unexplored sinfulness of his nature, are brought clearly and fully to his view? Nay, even to the true servants of Christ, the prospect is awful. “The righteous,” we are told, “will scarcely be saved.” Then will the good man undergo the full sight of his sins, which on earth he was labouring to obtain, and partly succeeded in obtaining, though life was not long enough to learn and subdue them all. Doubtless we must all endure that fierce and terrifying vision of our real selves, that last fiery trial of the soul before its acceptance, a spiritual agony and second death to all who are not then supported by the strength of Him who died to bring them safe through it, and in whom on earth they have believed.1 [Note: 1 J. H. Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, i. 48.]
3. It was not, however, his own personal transgressions alone of which Joshua bore the guilt. He appears here as the representative of a guilty people. The filthy garments with which he is clothed are the sins of the community; and the charges urged against him by Satan are its crimes and backslidings. The uncleanness of Israel which infests their representative before God is not defined. Some hold that it includes the guilt of Israels idolatry. But they have to go back to Ezekiel for this. Zechariah nowhere mentions or feels the presence of idols among his people. The vision itself supplies a better explanation. Joshuas filthy garments are replaced by festal and official robes. He is warned to walk in the whole law of the Lord, ruling the Temple and guarding Jehovahs court. The uncleanness was the opposite of all this. It was not ethical failure: covetousness, greed, immorality. It was, as Haggai protested, the neglect of the Temple, and of the whole worship of Jehovah. If this be now removed, in all fidelity to the law, the high priest will have access to God, and the Messiah will come. The high priest himself will not be the Messiah—this dogma is left to a later age to frame. But before God he will be as one of the angels, and himself and his faithful priesthood omens of the Messiah. We need not linger on the significance of this for the place of the priesthood in later Judaism. Note how the high priest is already the religious representative of his people: their uncleanness is his; when he is pardoned and cleansed, the uncleanness of the land is purged away. In such a high priest Christian theology has seen the prototype of Christ.
Heaven is not a place of sacrifice, and our Lord is no longer a Sacrificing Priest. He has “offered one sacrifice for sins for ever.” But His Presence in the Holiest is a perpetual and effective presentation before God of the Sacrifice once offered, which is no less needful for our acceptance than the actual death upon the Cross. He has indeed “somewhat to offer” in His heavenly priesthood, for He offers Himself as representing to God man reconciled, and as claiming for man the right of access to the Divine Presence. He Himself, as He sits on the Throne, in the perfected and glorified Manhood which has been obedient unto death, is the living Propitiation for our sins, and the standing guarantee of acceptance to all “that draw near unto God through him.”1 [Note: H. B. Swete, The Ascended Christ, 43.]
“And Satan standing at his right hand to be his adversary.”
1. The rôle played in this scene by Satan is similar to that ascribed to him in the Book of Job, where he appears in the court of Heaven, to minimize the merits of good men and to place their shortcomings in the worst of lights. So here he is the accuser who, with the skill of an advocate, urges the offences of which the people of God have been guilty and endeavours to secure their condemnation and rejection.
It has been contended that in such passages we have a conception of Satan out of accordance with the later representations of Scripture. Satan, it is said, is not here a fallen angel and an enemy of God, whose abode is in hell, but one of the sons of God, enjoying free access to the Divine Presence, and fulfilling a necessary, though perhaps a disagreeable, function in the Divine administration.
This, however, is a shallow view; because the part played by Satan both here and in Job is a thoroughly evil one. It is true that to expose sin may be praiseworthy work. It is the work of the prophet; an Amos, a Malachi, and a John the Baptist had to make manifest the exceeding sinfulness of the public crimes of their day, and drag into the light the hidden vices. In all ages this is the duty of the preacher; it was performed by a Chrysostom, a Savonarola, and an Andrewes; and in no country or city is it superfluous. The office of conscience itself is to accuse and condemn the sinner. Yet it does not follow that everyone is praiseworthy who undertakes the office of accuser. All depends on his motive. The prophets stigmatized sin because they were jealous for the honour of God; the true-hearted preacher awakens the conscience in order to save the soul; but it is possible to expose sin merely for the purpose of gloating over it. The shortcomings of good people may be held up to ridicule, not for the purpose of correcting them, but in order to prove that no such things as unselfishness and purity exist. There are those who are never so happy as when they have discovered something which seems to prove that a profession of religion or high principle is only the mask under which a hypocrite is concealing his misdeeds. When Gods work is making progress and its leaders are performing acts of heroism, such critics are silent; but, when any good cause shows signs of decline or any good man takes a false step, they seize upon the fact with avidity and publish it to all the winds of heaven. This is the spirit of the devil, and it is the one attributed in this passage to Satan.
In a letter to his friend F. J. A. Hort, Maurice writes: “You think you do not find a distinct recognition of the devils personality in my books. I am sorry if it is so. I am afraid I have been corrupted by speaking to a polite congregation. I do agree with my dear friend Charles Kingsley, and admire him for the boldness with which he has said that the devil is shamming dead, but that he never was busier than now. I do not know what he is by theological arguments, but I know by what I feel. I am sure there is one near me accusing God and my brethren to me. He is not myself; I should go mad if I thought he was. He is near my neighbours; I am sure he is not identical with my neighbours. I must hate them if I believed he was. But oh! most of all, I am horror-struck at the thought that we may confound him with God; the perfect darkness with the perfect light. I dare not deny that it is an evil will that tempts me; else I should begin to think evil is in Gods creation, and is not the revolt from God, resistance to Him. If he is an evil will, he must, I think, be a person. The Word upholds his existence, not his evil. That is in himself; that is the mysterious, awful possibility implied in his being a will. I need scarcely say that I do not mean by this acknowledgment of an evil spirit that I acknowledge a material devil. But does any one?”
In a subsequent letter, Maurice relates that “Mr. Hall, the Baptist preacher, was once accosted by one of his confrères: Sir, do not you believe in the devil? No, sir, he answered; I believe in God. Do not you? Now he had an intense feeling of the devil as his personal and constant enemy; but he kept his belief for his everlasting friend.”1 [Note: Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, ii. 21, 403.]
Between these two classes, of the happy and the heartless, there is a mediate order of men both unhappy and compassionate, who have become aware of another form of existence in the world, and a domain of zoology extremely difficult of vivisection—the diabolic. These men, of whom Byron, Burns, Goethe, and Carlyle are in modern days the chief, do not at all feel that the Nature they have to deal with expresses a Feast only; or that her mysteries of good and evil are reducible to a quite visible Kosmos, as they stand; but that there is another Kosmos, mostly invisible, yet perhaps tangible, and to be felt if not seen.
Without entering upon the question how men of this inferior quality of intellect become possessed either of the idea—or substance—of what they are in the habit of calling “the Devil”; nor even into the more definite historical question, “how men lived who did seriously believe in the Devil”—(that is to say, every saint and sinner who received a decent education between the first and the seventeenth centuries of the Christian era)—I will merely advise my own readers of one fact respecting the above-named writers—that they, at least, do not use the word “Devil” in any metaphorical, typical, or abstract sense, but—whether they believe or disbelieve in what they say—in a distinctly personal one: and farther, that the conceptions or imaginations of these persons, or any other such persons, greater or less, yet of their species—whether they are a mere condition of diseased brains, or a perception of really existent external forces,—are nevertheless real Visions, described by them “from the life,” as literally and straightforwardly as ever any artist of Rotterdam painted a sot—or his pot of beer: and farther—even were we at once to grant that all these visions—as for instance Zechariahs, “I saw the Lord sitting on His Throne, and Satan standing at His right hand to resist Him,” are nothing more than emanations of the unphosphated nervous matter—still, these states of delirium are an essential part of human natural history: and the species of human Animal subject to them, with the peculiar characters of the phantoms which result from its diseases of the brain, are a much more curious and important subject of science than that which principally occupies the scientific mind of modern days.1 [Note: Ruskin, Deucalion, vol. ii. chap. ii. § 21 (Works, xxvi. 344).]
2. This is the secret of the slow progress of Christs Kingdom. “He shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand.” Who is this Joshua but the representative of Jesus, our great High Priest within the veil? The names “Joshua” and “Jesus” are identical, and, being interpreted, mean “Jehovah, the Saviour.” When the Jews were struggling, amidst diverse hardships, to build up their Temple at Jerusalem, the prophet was taught the secret of the opposition they met with by being made to behold in vision the then head of the Israelitish Church, and Satan close by resisting him. And this vision is the key which unlocks the secret of the entire history of the Christian Church. The cause of Christianity is the cause of Christ. He is, and has been throughout, as really involved in all that has been done; He has throughout been acting as really, though invisibly, as when He taught in the streets of Capernaum. And, even as beneath the outward instrumentality of apostles and preachers we are to trace and appreciate the unseen hand and the inaudible voice, of the high priest of our profession, so in the resistance of the heathen, in the cruelties heaped upon the martyrs, in the slow progress of the faith, we are to feel the presence and energy of the great fallen angel. It is from hell that the opposition comes. As it is Christ from His throne, in the light inaccessible, who animates the souls, and influences the hearts of His saints to do and suffer for His Names sake, so is it the apostate seraph, from his lurid abode, who stirs up adversaries on every side.
To Luther Satan was no mere influence or principle of evil, but a real personal foe—the prince of the powers of the air, the ruler of this world—against whom he, as a captain of the Lords host, had to wage a terrible and constant conflict. The Diabolus of Bunyans Holy War, the Apollyon of the Pilgrims Progress, was to Luther also a mighty adversary of Gods saints and of Christ, the Captain of our salvation.
If enemies abound and dangers are thickening, it is the Devil who is leading his hosts of evil against the cause of Christ. If there is a time of quiet and of prosperity, it may only be the craft of the Tempter, to cause want of earnestness and of vigilance.
Always, it is more of the Devil than of the Flesh and the World that Luther appears to speak in his spiritual warfare. It was so in his early struggles with sin and with self-righteousness, and in fighting his way to a position of peace and safety through faith in Gods righteousness. It was so in the midst of the grand conflict with the potentates of this world, as when he steadfastly set his face to go to Worms, “though there were as many devils there as tiles on the roofs!” It was so in the evening of his life, when sickness and feebleness prevented his maintaining more active conflict for the cause of the truth.
It may be that, by dwelling upon the fact of the enmity of the devil and his angels, and allowing the idea of active personal conflict habitually to work in his imagination, Luther came to give an excessive prominence to this Satanic influence. The idea may even have exerted at times a morbid effect upon him; amounting almost to mental disease, in the eyes of those who knew not the Scriptural ground for his belief, nor understood his spiritual experience. But the charge—that stories of Luthers conflicts are only proofs of a weakly superstitious or a fanatically diseased mind—comes with bad grace from those who not only ridicule all belief in the personal existence and agency of the devil, but who are unable also to understand Luthers belief in the existence and presence of God, in whose sight he ever lived, and wrote, and acted.
3. Satans accusations were unfortunately true. Joshua could not refute them. He was actually clothed in filthy attire. The devil is generally a liar, but he was not a liar in this particular instance. That which the devil said was perfectly true. It is a grand thing when we are able to face the enemy and say, “You always were a liar, and you are a liar now”; but it is a terrible thing when we have to say, “The devil himself is speaking the truth for once.” Joshua has not a word to say. He is perfectly silent. What can he say? Suppose he were to deny the charge. All that Satan would have to do would be to point at him with his finger, and say, “Look at these filthy garments.” What could Joshua reply? And when Satan brings his charges against the sinner, what has the sinner to say? He himself proves that Satan is correct in everything that he says. Woe be unto the man when there is no one to speak up for him and he cannot speak for himself!
Satan stands at his right hand to resist him. In our language we should say that there is a social embodiment of opposition to goodness which that man has made for himself; he has created an atmosphere about his own life which is blighting to reforming efforts, and there is a social power which stands like a Satan, like an adversary, on his right hand, the hand of action, to paralyse it. Moreover, that sort of life puts itself in communication with great forces of evil, and altogether the man feels that a great overpowering adversary is against him. Before God he feels guilt, but no hope. Now what is there to be said to a man in this condition? He has no hope for himself, and says that no one who knows him has the least hope that he will ever be different. His garments are filthy, the devil is at his right hand, and God, so far as he knows, is only his Judge. That is the difficulty, and it is fearful. Is there any hope?
In fearful truth, the Presence and Power of Satan is here; in the world, with us, and within us, mock as you may; and the fight with him, for the time, sore, and widely unprosperous. Do not think I am speaking metaphorically or rhetorically, or with any other than literal and earnest meaning of words. Hear me, I pray you, therefore, for a little while, as earnestly as I speak.
Every faculty of mans soul, and every instinct of it by which he is meant to live, is exposed to its own special form of corruption; and whether within Man, or in the external world, there is a power or condition of temptation which is perpetually endeavouring to reduce every glory of his soul, and every power of his life, to such corruption as is possible to them. And the more beautiful they are, the more fearful is the death which is attached as penalty to their degradation.…
Now observe—I leave you to call this deceiving spirit what you like—or to theorize about it as you like. All that I desire you to recognize is the fact of its being here, and the need of its being fought with. If you take the Bibles account of it, or Dantes or Miltons, you will receive the image of it as a mighty spiritual creature, commanding others, and resisted by others.… If you take a modern rationalists you will accept it for a mere treachery and want of vitality in our own moral nature exposing it to loathsomeness or moral disease, as the body is capable of mortification or leprosy. I do not care what you call it,—whose history you believe of it,—nor what you yourself can imagine about it; the origin, or nature, or name may be as you will, but the deadly reality of the thing is with us, and warring against us, and on our true war with it depends whatever life we can win. Deadly reality, I say. The puff-adder or horned asp is not more real. Unbelievable,—those,—unless you had seen them; no fable could have been coined out of any human brain so dreadful, within its own poor material sphere, as that blue-lipped serpent—working its way sidelong in the sand. As real, but with sting of eternal death—this worm that dies not, and fire that is not quenched, within our souls or around them. Eternal death, I say—sure, that, whatever creed you hold;—if the old Scriptural one, Death of perpetual banishment from before Gods face; if the modern rationalist one, Death Eternal for us, instant and unredeemable ending of lives wasted in misery.1 [Note: Ruskin, Time and Tide, § 51 (Works, xvii. 361).]
The Lord said unto, Satan The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; yea, the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?”
The speaker here is the Angel of the Lord before whom Joshua stood, and when He says, “The Lord rebuke thee,” there is the same distinction made between Him, the manifested Jehovah, and the invisible Jehovah that we find made in the account given of the destruction of the cities of the plain in Genesis 19:24, where we read, “Then the Lord [i.e. the Angel of Jehovah who had visited Lot] rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven.” There is a distinction between the two, and yet the incommunicable name “Jehovah” belongs to both, and both are on an equality in respect of attribute, power, and honour. The language of the Lord here is not that of petition or desire; it is that of performance. As He “rebuked the Red Sea also, and it was dried up” (Psalm 106:9), so here He rebuked the adversary, and he was silenced and rebuffed.
1. Satan is silenced, not by argument, but on this simple ground—the election of God. What though this is a sin-defiled and unworthy servant, shall that hinder the riches of Gods free grace? Is he not chosen of the Father? and wherefore chosen but that he should be holy and without blame before Him in love? And shall His design be foiled, and the very object of His gracious purpose be set aside? What though he has followed too much the devices and desires of his own heart?—“There are many devices in a mans heart; nevertheless the counsel of the Lord, that shall stand.”
To our Divine Lord, when on earth, the mystery of election was a theme for praise. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight.” How strange these words sound from the lips of Jesus! But with His knowledge we could rise to His praise. In heaven it is Christs silencing answer to the accusing enemy. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” That He chooses the sinner assures the righteousness of the choice. Even Satan is silenced. “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of Gods elect? It is God that justifieth.”
Certain theologians have placed the eternal sovereignty in the Divine will, asserting that God “out of His mere good pleasure” entered into a covenant of grace with men. Others with a greater reach have passed beyond the fiat of God to His infinite wisdom—“the counsel of His will.” But the heart cannot rest until it finds behind the wisdom of God the eternal love. “Gods first decree,” said an ancient Dutch divine, “is the bestowal of Christ.” This is in agreement with the teaching of St. Paul: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love.” The election of the saints is for life and service, for holiness and glory. Gods chosen ones are the Divine ambassadors; they are witnesses to the preciousness of redeeming love. They are commissioned with the authority of the Master: “As thou didst send me into the world, even so sent I them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth.”1 [Note: D. M. McIntyre, Life in His Name, 81.]
Chosen not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Saviours side,
By the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
By my love, how much I owe.2 [Note: R. M. McCheyne.]
2. Then the Lord appeals to what He has done for Joshua already. Of Joshua, as representing the people, the Lord said, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” The same expression occurs in Amos 4:11, where it is applied to the people of Israel rescued by God from amidst the terrible judgments which had been sent upon them, and by which they had been consumed as in a furnace. The expression is probably proverbial, and was used to convey the idea of unexpected deliverance from imminent calamity. Satan would have had the brand kept in “the furnace of affliction” until it was utterly consumed; but the Lord would not have it so; His grace and power had interposed to rescue His people from captivity, and He would complete the deliverance He had begun. The brand had been plucked from the burning, and was not again to be cast into the fire.
Israel in the Exile had been thrown into the fire of the Divine wrath. Much had been burnt, and perhaps all deserved to be. But at the critical moment the heart of God relented, and He snatched the burnt stump out of the fire. It was still defaced with what it had passed through, and bore the smell of burning. To gloat over the wretchedness of such a remnant was a shameful thing to do; and, for doing so, Satan received a sharp rebuke. But God Himself took up the brand tenderly, His repentings kindling together, to see what might still be made of it. Have I not already, He seems to say, snatched him from destruction; and shall I not deliver him from sin? I have delivered his soul from death; shall I not deliver his feet from falling, that he may walk before Me in the light of the living? I have done the greater, shall I not do the less? What can Satan answer? He is speechless.
When the prairie catches fire, if the wind is blowing very strongly the prairie fire will travel faster than a horse can gallop. Those who have settled on the prairies see the devouring flames come, and they know they cant run away from them. What do they do? They burn a large space in the vicinity of their home; in a short time a very large piece of ground is absolutely cleared and blackened. What do they do then? For purposes of safety they go and stand on the ground where the fire has been already. When the great devouring prairie fire comes up it stops there—it can go no farther—there is nothing to burn. There is but one place where the fire has already been, and that is the cross of Calvary, the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have only to come to the place where the fire has already been, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we shall hear these words: “I have caused thine iniquities to pass from thee.”1 [Note: Church Pulpit Year Book, 1909, p. 21.]
3. “And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take the filthy garments from off him.” The speaker here is the Angel of the Lord, who gave the command to those that stood before Him, i.e., the attendant angels who waited to do His pleasure, to remove from Joshua the filthy garments in which he had appeared. That this symbolized the remission of sins, and the acceptance into favour of Joshua and the people whom he represented, is seen from what follows. Addressing Joshua, the Lord says, “Behold, I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee”—I have taken it away and delivered thee from it—“and I will clothe thee with change of raiment” (festive garments, or rich dress). The Targum explains this as meaning, “I have clothed thee with thy righteousness”; and such seems to be substantially the meaning.
One thing alone remained, and Joshuas restoration to favour was complete. “And I said”—why the prophet should have said it does not appear, but he seems to have been so overwhelmed with the interest of the vision as to have been carried out of himself—“And I said, Let them set a fair mitre upon his head. So they set a fair mitre upon his head, and clothed him with garments and the angel of the Lord stood by.” The mitre was the sign and token of high priestly service, and Joshua knew, as it was placed upon his head, that he was once more “a priest in function,” and that he was free to serve.
Seldom, if ever, do we find in Scripture the entire plan of Gods salvation shadowed forth in any one individual; but here we have it all. The man is brought before our view as a sinner and as a saint, and in this little picture we have all the successive stages by which he passes from the one state to the other. We see the man brought step by step from a condition of defilement, shame, and ignominy—a position in which Satan himself, the accuser of the brethren, points at him and laughs him to scorn—and accepted before God and made splendid in beauty; and the work is not finished until—wonder of wonders—a mitre is put upon his head, and he is qualified for priestly work; and all the while this miracle of grace is being wrought the Angel of the Lord stands by.
Sainthood is the concrete presentation of the spiritual element in humanity. It is the incarnation in human personalities of that Infinite Holy which is eternally seeking to make us share in its blessedness. But here arises a question. How far do the saints of the past stand for the true expression of the idea? Does sainthood, in the conception which is to rule the future, consist necessarily, as they imagined, in a withdrawal from the worlds activities, in celibacy, in semi-starvation, in maiming and torturing the body, in a denial of the human joy of living? Are saints only of one type, the Church type? Are the men of affairs, the inventors, the captains of industry, the artists, the musicians, to be by the nature of their calling excluded from the category? Are their products to be classed as non-sacred? Is sainthood of the cloister only, and never of the market-place?
That is a swiftly-dying, if not already an actually dead, idea. It is one which shuts God into one corner of His world. In its place has dawned a conception which is destined to remain. It is that which regards holiness as essentially a wholeness, which sees the saint as the complete man, and everything which tends to his completion as a holy ministration. Not in the torture of his body—as though God loved cruelty!—but in the development of its highest power; not in the restriction of his vision, but in such broadening as helps it to take in the whole of things; not in meaningless austerities, but in a joyous helping of ones fellows; not in the selection of one class of duties as specially consecrate, but in the pious dedication of our common work as a service of God: it is on these broader bases that the modern world will build its saintliness.… The saints are the men and women in whom the Divine Spirit works, and who in their day and generation listen to its voice and obey its call.1 [Note: J. Brierley, The Secret of Living, 126.]
Thomas Olivers was one of the trophies of Whitefields preaching. His conversion was almost a moral miracle. He was a Welshman, born at Tregaron in 1725. Being left an orphan at the age of five he early became bold in sin, and mastered the whole of the blasphemers language, and was familiar with the dialect of hell, in fact, being considered the most wicked boy throughout the region where he lived. At eighteen he went as an apprentice to shoe-making, but never learned half his trade. He plunged into the grossest vices, and his sins were of the deepest dye. With another young man, wicked as himself, he “committed a most notorious and shameful act of arch villainy,” which caused them suddenly to leave their neighbourhood. They went to Bristol, where Whitefield was then preaching. Young Olivers, while walking out one evening, saw a great number of people all pressing in one direction, and ascertained that they were going to hear Whitefield.
Says Olivers: “As I had often heard of Whitefield, and had sung songs about him, I said to myself, I will go and hear what he has to say. ” He arrived too late, but on the next evening he was some three hours ahead of time. He heard the great “son of thunder,” who thundered conviction into his inmost soul, striking him with the hammer of Gods word, and breaking a heart of stone. Whitefields text was, “Is not this a brand plucked from the burning?” Olivers says: “When the sermon began I was a dreadful enemy of God and all that was good, and one of the most profligate and abandoned young men living; but during that sermon there was a mighty transformation in me. Showers of tears poured down my cheeks, and from that hour I broke off all my evil practices, and forsook all my wicked and foolish companions without delay, giving myself up to God and His service with all my heart. O what reason had I to say, Is not this a brand plucked from the fire? ”
The Gospel from the lips of Whitefield proved the power of God to the salvation of young Olivers. His after-life showed how wonderful was the change. He ever afterward remained a true soldier of the Lord. He joined Mr. Wesleys band and became one of his ablest itinerants, a flaming herald of the cross, an able minister of the New Testament. His hymn “The God of Abram praise” is one of inimitable beauty. James Montgomery, no mean poet himself, says concerning it, “There is not in our language a lyric of more majestic style, more elevated thought, or more glorious imagery.” After a ministry of many years, this distinguished convert of Whitefield died suddenly March 7, 1799, and was buried in the tomb of Wesley, City Road Chapel, London.1 [Note: J. B. Wakely.]
A Brand Plucked out of the Fire
Alexander (W. L.), Zechariahs Visions and Warnings, 37.
Banks (L. A.), The Sinner and his Friends, 292.
Godet (F.), Biblical Studies: Old Testament, 18.
Moore (E. W.), Life Transfigured, 129.
Price (A. C.), Fifty Sermons, iv. 361.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Morning by Morning, 332.
Stewart (J.), Outlines of Discourses, 176.
Williams (T. R.), The Evangel of the New Theology, 191.
Wright (C. H. H.), Zechariah and his Prophecies, 45.
Christian World Pulpit, xvi. 166 (G. T. Coster).
Church Pulpit Year Book, 1909, p. 20.
Churchmans Pulpit: St. Peter, St. James, xv. 3 (J. Stalker), 6 (J. Woodford).
Homiletic Review, xxxiv., No. 3, 237 (B. D. Thomas).
Peoples Pulpit: Selected Volume, No. 45 (A. G. Brown).
Preachers Magazine, iv. 41.