NOTHING is more impressive than to stand before one of the great buildings of the world, and mark how the toil of man has rivaled the stability of nature, and his thought its grandeur. It stands up like a crag, and the wind whistles through its pinnacles as in a grove, and the rooks float and soar about its towers as they do among the granite peaks. Face to face with one of these mighty structures, man feels his own pettiness, shivering in the wind, or seeking a shadow from the sun, and thinking how even this breeze may blight or this heat fever him, and how at the longest he shall have crumbled into dust for ages, and his name, and possibly his race, have perished, while this same pile shall stretch the same long shadow across the plain.
No wonder that the great masters of nations have all delighted in building, for thus they saw their power, and the immortality for which they hoped, made solid, embodied and substantial, and it almost seemed as if they had blended their memory with the enduring fabric of the world.
Such a building, solid, and vast, and splendid, white with marble, and blazing with gold, was the temple which Jesus now forsook. A little afterwards, we read that its Roman conqueror, whose race were the great builders of the world, in spite of the rules of war, and the certainty that the Jews would never remain quietly in subjection while it stood, "was reluctant to burn down so vast a work as this, since this would be a mischief to the Romans themselves, as it would be an ornament to their government while it lasted."
No wonder, then, that one of the disciples, who had seen Jesus weep for its approaching ruin, and who now followed His steps as He left it desolate, lingered, and spoke as if in longing and appeal, "Master, see what manner of stones, and what manner of buildings."
But to the eyes of Jesus all was evanescent as a bubble, doomed and about to perish: "Seest thou these great buildings, there shall not be left here one stone upon another that shall not be thrown down."
The words were appropriate to His solemn mood, for He had just denounced its guilt and flung its splendor from Him, calling it no longer "My house," nor "My Father's house," but saying, "Your house is left unto you desolate." Little could all the solid strength of the very foundations of the world itself avail against the thunderbolt of God. Moreover, it was a time when He felt most keenly the consecration, the approaching surrender of His own life. In such an hour no splendors distract the penetrating vision; all the world is brief and frail and hollow to the man who has consciously given himself to God. It was the fitting moment at which to utter such a prophecy.
But, as He sat on the opposite slope, and gazed back upon the towers that were to fall, His three favored disciples and Andrew came to ask Him privately when should these things be, and what would be the sign of their approach.
It is the common assertion of all unbelievers that the prophecy which followed has been composed since what passes for its fulfillment. When Jesus was murdered, and a terrible fate befell the guilty city, what more natural than to connect the two events? And how easily would a legend spring up that the sufferer foretold the penalty? But there is an obvious and complete reply. The prediction is too mysterious, its outlines are too obscure; and the ruin of Jerusalem is too inexplicable complicated with the final visitation of the whole earth, to be the issue of any vindictive imagination working with the history in view.
We are sometimes tempted to complain of this obscurity. But in truth it is wholesome and designed. We need not ask whether the original discourse was thus ambiguous, or they are right who suppose that a veil has since been drawn between us and a portion of the answer given by Jesus to His disciples. We know as much as it is meant that we should know. And this at least is plain, that any process of conscious or unconscious invention, working backwards after Jerusalem fell, would have given us far more explicit predictions than we possess. And, moreover, that what we lose in gratification of our curiosity, we gain in personal warning to walk warily and vigilantly.
Jesus did not answer the question, When shall these things be? But He declared, to men who wondered at the overthrow of their splendid temple, that all earthly splendors must perish. And He revealed to them where true permanence may be discovered. These are two of the central thoughts of the discourse, and they are worthy of much more attention from its students than they commonly receive, being overlooked in the universal eagerness "to know the times and the seasons." They come to the surface in the distinct words, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away."
Now, if we are to think of this great prophecy as a lurid reflection thrown back by later superstition on the storm-clouds of the nation's fall, how shall we account for its solemn and pensive mood, utterly free from vindictiveness, entirely suited to Jesus as we think of Him, when leaving forever the dishonored shrine, and moving forward, as His meditations would surely do, beyond the occasion which evoked them? Not such is the manner of resentful controversialists, eagerly tracing imaginary judgments. They are narrow, and sharp, and sour.
1. The fall of Jerusalem blended itself, in the though of Jesus, with the catastrophe which awaits all that appears to be great and stable. Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, so that, although armies set their bodies in the gap for these, and heroes shed their blood like water, yet they are divided among themselves and cannot stand. This prediction, we must remember, was made when the iron yoke of Rome imposed quiet upon as much of the world as a Galilean was likely to take into account, and, therefore, was by no means so easy as it may now appear to us.
Nature itself should be convulsed. Earthquakes should rend the earth, blight and famine would disturb the regular course of seed-time and harvest. And these perturbations should be the working out of a stern law, and the sure token of sorer woes to come, the beginning of pangs which would usher in another dispensation, the birth-agony of a new time. A little later, and the sun should be darkened, and the moon should withdraw her light, and the stars should "be falling" from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens should be darkened. Lastly, the course of history should close, and the affairs of earth should come to an end, when the elect should be gathered together to the glorified Son of Man.
2. It was in sight of the ruin of all these things that He dared to add, My word shall not pass away.
Heresy should assail it, for many should come in the name of Christ, saying, I am He, and should lead many astray. Fierce persecutions should try His followers, and they should be led to judgment and delivered up. The worse afflictions of the heart would wring them, for brother should deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children should rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. But all should be too little to quench the immortality bestowed upon His elect. In their sore need, the Holy Ghost should speak in them: when they were caused to be put to death, he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved.
Now these words were treasured up as the utterances of One Who had just foretold His own approaching murder, and Who died accordingly amid circumstances full of horror and shame. Yet His followers rejoiced to think that when the sun grew dark, and the stars were falling, He should be seen in the clouds coming with great glory.
It is the reversal of human judgment: the announcement that all is stable which appears unsubstantial, and all which appears solid is about to melt like snow.
And yet the world itself has since grown old enough to know that convictions are stronger than empires, and truths than armed hosts. And this is the King of Truth. He was born and came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and every one that is of the truth heareth His voice. He is the Truth become vital, the Word which was with God in the beginning.