This is one of the many cases in which the Revised Version, by accuracy of rendering the tense of a verb, gives a much more striking as well as correct reproduction of the original than the Authorised Version does. The former reads 'going out,' instead of 'gone out,' a rendering which the Old Version has, unfortunately, relegated to the margin. It is clearly to be preferred, not only because it more correctly represents the Greek, but because it sets before us a more solemn and impressive picture of the precise time at which the terrible discovery was made by the foolish five. They woke from their sleep, and hastily trimmed their lamps. These burned brightly for a moment, and then began to flicker and die down. The extinction of their light was not the act of a moment, but was a gradual process, which had advanced in some degree before it attracted the attention of the bearers of the lamps. At last it roused the half-sleeping five into startled, wide-awake consciousness. There is a tone of alarm and fear in their sudden exclamation, 'Our lamps are going out.' They see now the catastrophe that threatens, and understand that the only means of averting it is to replenish the empty oil-vessels before the flame has quite expired. But their knowledge and their dread were alike too late, and, as they went on their hopeless search for some one to give them what they once might have had in abundance, the last faint flicker ceased, and they had to grope their way in the dark, with their lightless lamps hanging useless in their slack hands, while far off the torches of the bridal procession, in which they might have had a part, flashed through the night. We have nothing to do with the tragical issue of the process of extinction; but solemn lessons of universal application gather round the picture of that process, as represented in our text, and to these we turn now.
I. We must settle the meaning of the oil and the lamps.
The Old Testament symbolism is our best guide as to the significance of the oil. Throughout it, oil symbolises the divine influences that come down on men appointed by God to their several functions, and which are there traced to the Spirit of the Lord. So the priests were set apart by unction with the holy oil; so Samuel poured oil on the black locks of Saul. So, too, the very name Messiah means 'anointed,' and the great prophecy, which Jesus claimed for His own in His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, put into the Messiah's lips the declaration, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me.' But there are Old Testament symbols which bear still more closely on the emblems of our text. Zechariah saw in vision a golden lamp-stand with seven lamps, and on either side of it an olive tree, from which oil flowed through golden pipes to feed the flame. The interpretation of the vision was given by the 'angel that talked with' the prophet as being, 'not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.'
So, then, we follow the plainly marked road and Scripture use of a symbol when we take the oil in this parable to be that which every listener to Jesus, who was instructed in the old things which he was bringing forth with new emphasis from the ancient treasure-house of the word of God, would take it to be -- namely, the sum of the influences from Heaven which were bestowed through the Spirit of the Lord.
Such being the meaning of the oil, what was meant by the lamp? We have no intention of discussing here the many varying interpretations which have been given to the symbol. To do so would lead us too far afield. We can only say that the interpretation of the oil as the influence of the Holy Spirit necessarily involves the explanation of the lamp which is fed by it, as being the spiritual life of the individual, which is nourished and made visible to the world as light, by the continual communication from God of these hallowing influences. Turning again to the Old Testament, I need only remind you of the great seven-branched lamp which stood in the Tabernacle, and afterwards in the Temple. It was the symbol of the collective Israel, as recipient of divine influences, and thereby made the light of a dark world. Its rays streamed out over the desert first, and afterwards shone from the mountain of the Lord's house, beaming illumination and invitation to those who sat in darkness to behold the great light, and to walk in the light of the Lord. Zechariah's emblem was based on the Temple lamp. In accordance with the greater prominence given by the Old Testament to national than to individual religion, both of these represented the people as a whole. In accordance with the more advanced individualism of the New Testament, our text so far varies the application of the emblem, that each of the ten virgins who, as a whole, stand for the collective professing Church, has her own lamp. But that is the only difference between the Old and the New Testament uses of the symbol.
I need not remind you how the same metaphor recurs frequently in the teachings of our Lord and of the Apostles. Sometimes the Old Testament collective point of view is maintained, as in our Lord's saying in the Sermon on the Mount, 'Ye are the light of the world,' but more frequently, the characteristic individualising of the figure prevails, and we read of Christians shining 'as lights in the world,' and each holding forth, as a lamp does its light, 'the word of life.' Nor must we forget the climax of the uses of this emblem, in the vision of the Apocalypse, where John once more saw the Lord, on whose bosom his head had so often peacefully lain, 'walking in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.' There, again, the collective rather than the individual bearing of the figure is prominent, but with significant differences from the older use of it. In Judaism there was a formal, outward unity, represented by the one lamp with its manifold lights, all welded together on the golden stem; but the churches of Asia Minor were distinct organisations, and their oneness came, not from outward union of a mechanical kind, but from the presence in their midst of the Son of God.
The sum of all this course of thought is that the lamp is the Christian life of the individual sustained by the communication of the influences of God's Holy Spirit.
II. We note next the gradual dying out of the light. 'Our lamps are going out.'
All spiritual emotions and vitality, like every other kind of emotion and vitality, die unless nourished. Let no theological difficulties about 'the final perseverance of the saints,' or 'the indefeasibleness of grace,' and the impossibility of slaying the divine life that has once been given to a man, come in the way of letting this parable have its full, solemn weight. These foolish virgins had oil and had light, the oil failed by their fault, and so the light went out, and they were startled, when they awoke from their slumber, to see how, instead of brilliant flame, there was smoking wick.
Dear brethren, let us take the lesson. There is nothing in our religious emotions which has any guarantee of perpetuity in it, except upon certain conditions. We may live, and our life may ebb. We may trust, and our trust may tremble into unbelief. We may obey, and our obedience may be broken by the mutinous risings of self-will. We may walk in the 'paths of righteousness,' and our feet may falter and turn aside. There is certainty of the dying out of all communicated life, unless the channel of communication with the life from which it was first kindled, be kept constantly clear. The lamp may be 'a burning and a shining light,' or, more accurately translating the phrase of our Lord, 'a light kindled and' (therefore) 'shining,' but it will be light 'for a season' only, unless it is fed from that from which it was first set alight; and that is from God Himself.
'Our lamps are going out,' -- a slow process that! The flame does not all die into darkness in a minute. There are stages in its death. The white portion of the flame becomes smaller and the blue part extends; then the flame flickers, and finally shudders itself, as it were, off the wick; then nothing remains but a charred red line along the top; then that line breaks up into little points, and one after another these twinkle out, and then all is black, and the lamp is gone out. And so, slowly, like the ebbing away of the tide, like the reluctant, long-protracted dying of summer days, like the dropping of the blood from some fatal wound, by degrees the process of extinction creeps, creeps, creeps on, and the lamp that was going is finally gone out.
III. Again, we note that extinction is brought about simply by doing nothing.
These five foolish virgins did not stray away into any forbidden paths. No positive sin is alleged against them. They were simply asleep. The other five were asleep too. I do not need to enter, here and now, into the whole interpretation of the parable, or there might be much to say about the difference between these two kinds of sleep. But what I wish to notice is that it was nothing except negligence darkening into drowsiness, which caused the dying out of the light.
It was not of set purpose that the foolish five took no oil with them. They merely neglected to do so, not having the wit to look ahead and provide against the contingency of a long time of waiting for the bridegroom. Their negligence was the result, not of deliberate wish to let their lights go out, but of their heedlessness; and because of that negligence they earned the name of 'foolish.' If we do not look forward, and prepare for possible drains on our powers, we shall deserve the same adjective. If we do not lay in stores for future use, we may be sent to school to the harvesting ant and the bee. That lesson applies to all departments of life; but it is eminently applicable to the spiritual life, which is sustained only by communications from the Spirit of God. For these communications will be imperceptibly lessened, and may be altogether intercepted, unless diligent attention is given to keep open the channels by which they enter the spirit. If the pipes are not looked to, they will be choked by masses of matted trifles, through which the 'rivers of living water,' which Christ took as a symbol of the Spirit's influences, cannot force a way.
The thing that makes shipwreck of the faith of most professing Christians that do come to grief is no positive wickedness, no conduct which would be branded as sin by the Christian conscience or even by ordinary people, but simply torpor. If the water in a pond is never stirred, it is sure to stagnate, and green scum to spread over it, and a foul smell to rise from it. A Christian man has only to do what I am afraid a good many of us are in great danger of doing -- that is, nothing -- in order to ensure that his lamp shall go out.
Do you try to keep yours alight? There is only one way to do it -- that is to go to Christ and get Him to pour His sweetness and His power into our open hearts. When one of the old patriarchs had committed a great sin, and had unbelievingly twitched his hand out of God's hand, and gone away down into Egypt to help himself instead of trusting to God, he was commanded, on his return to Palestine, to go to the place where he dwelt at the first, and begin again, at the point where he began when he first entered the land. Which being translated is just this -- the only way to keep our spirits vital and quick is by having recourse, again and again, to the same power which first imparted life to them, and this is done by the first means, the means of simple reliance upon Christ in the consciousness of our own deep need, and of believingly waiting upon Him for the repeated communication of the gifts which we, alas! have so often misimproved. Negligence is enough to slay. Doing nothing is the sure way to quench the Holy Spirit.
And, on the other hand, keeping close to Him is the sure way to secure that He will never leave us. You can choke a lamp with oil, but you cannot have in your hearts too much of that divine grace. And you receive all that you need if you choose to go and ask it from Him. Remember the old story about Elisha and the poor woman. The cruse of oil began to run. She brought all the vessels that she could rake together, big and little, pots and cups, of all shapes and sizes, and set them, one after the other, under the jet of oil. They were all filled; and when she brought no more vessels the oil stayed. If you do not take your empty hearts to God, and say, 'Here, Lord, fill this cup too; poor as it is, fill it with Thine own gracious influences,' be very sure that no such influences will come to you. But if you do go, be as sure of this, that so long as you hold out your emptiness to Him, He will flood it with His fulness, and the light that seemed to be sputtering to its death will flame up again. He will not quench the smoking wick, if only we carry it to Him; but as the priests in the Temple walked all through the night to trim the golden lamps, so He who walks amidst the seven candlesticks will see to each.
IV. And now one last word. That process of gradual extinction may be going on, and may have been going on for a long while, and the virgin that carries the lamp be quite unaware of it.
How could a sleeping woman know whether her lamp was burning or not? How can a drowsy Christian tell whether his spiritual life is bright or not? To be unconscious of our approximation to this condition is, I am afraid, one of the surest signs that we are in it. I suppose that a paralysed limb is quite comfortable. At any rate, paralysis of the spirit may be going on without our knowing anything about it. So, dear friends, do not put these poor words of mine away from you and say, 'Oh! they do not apply to me.'
I am quite sure that the people to whom they do apply will be the last people to take them to themselves. And while I quite believe, thank God! that there are many of us who may feel and know that our lamps are not going out, sure I am that there are some of us whom everybody but themselves knows to be carrying a lamp that is so far gone out that it is smoking and stinking in the eyes and noses of the people that stand by. Be sure that nobody was more surprised than were the five foolish women when they opened their witless, sleepy eyes, and saw the state of things. So, dear friends, 'let your loins be girt about, and your lamps burning; and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their Lord.'