Nathan's apologue, so tenderly beautiful, takes the poet-king on the most susceptible side of his character. All his history shows him as a man of wonderfully sweet, chivalrous, generous, swiftly compassionate nature. And so, when he hears the story of a mean, heartless selfishness, all that is best in him kindles into a generous indignation, and flames out into instinctive condemnation. 'The man that did this thing shall die because he had no pity.'
And then, on to that hot fervour of righteous wrath, comes this dash of cold water, 'And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.' Like some keen spear-point, sharpened almost to invisibility, this short sentence (two words in the original) driven by a strong hand, goes right through the armour to the very heart. What a collapse there would be in the king when the pointed forefinger of the prophet emphasised and drove home the application!
I. This dramatic scene before us may be taken as suggesting first that we are all strangely blind to our own faults.
If a man's own sin is held up before him a little disguised, he says, 'How ugly it is!' And if only for a moment he can be persuaded that it is not his own conduct but some other sinner's that he is judging, the instinctive condemnation comes. We have two sets of names for vices: one set which rather mitigates and excuses them, and another set which puts them in their real hideousness. We keep the palliative set for home consumption, and liberally distribute the plain-spoken, ugly set amongst the vices and faults of our friends. The same thing which I call in myself prudence I call in you meanness. The same thing which you call in yourselves generous living, you call in your friend filthy sensualism. That which, to the doer of it, is only righteous indignation, to the onlooker is passionate anger. That which, in the practiser of it, is no more than a due regard for the interests of his own family and himself in the future, is, to the envious lookers-on, shabbiness and meanness in money matters. That which, to the liar, is only prudent diplomatic reticence, to the listener is falsehood. That which, in the man that judges his own conduct, is but 'a choleric word,' is, in his friend, when he judges him, 'flat blasphemy.'
And so we go all round the circle, and condemn our own vices, when we see them in other people. So the king who had never thought, when he stole away Uriah's one ewe lamb, and did him to death by traitorous commands, setting him in the front of the battle, that he was wanting in compassion, blazes up at once, and righteously sentences the other 'man' to death, 'because he had no pity.' He had never thought of himself or of his crime as cruel, as mean, as selfish, as heartless. But when he sees a partially disguised picture of it he knows it for the devil's child that it is.
'O wad some Power the giftie gie us
and so it would, to see ourselves as we see others. We judge our brother and ourselves by two different standards.
And that is only one phase of a more general principle, one case that comes under a yet wider law, viz. that we are all blind, strangely blind, to our own faults. Why that is so I do not need to spend time in inquiring, except for a distinctly practical purpose. Let me just remind you how a strong wish for a thing that seems desirable always tends to confuse to a man the plain distinction between right and wrong; and how passions once excited, or the animal lusts and desires once kindled in a man, go straight to their object without the smallest regard to whether that object is to be reached by the breach of all laws, human and divine, or not. Excite any passion, and the passion is but a blind propensity towards certain good, and takes no question or consideration of whether right or wrong is involved at all.
And further, habit familiarises with evil and diminishes our sense of it as evil. A man that has been for half a day in some ill-ventilated room does not notice the poisonous atmosphere; if you go into it you are half suffocated at first, and breathe more easily as you get used to it. A man can live amidst the foulest poison of evil; and, as the Styrian peasants get fat upon arsenic, his whole nature may seem to thrive by the poison that it absorbs. They tell us that the breed of fish that live in the lightless caverns in the bowels of some mountains, by long disuse have had their eyes atrophied out of them, and are blind because they have lived out of the light. And so men that live in the love of evil lose the capacity of discerning the evil, and 'he that walketh in darkness' becomes blind, blind to his sin, and blind to all the realities of life.
Then is it not true, too, that many of us systematically and of set purpose, continually avoid all questions as to the moral nature of our conduct? How many a man and woman who reads these words never sits down to think whether what they have been doing is right or wrong, because they have deep down in their consciences an uneasy suspicion as to what the answer would be. So, by reason of fostering passion, by reason of listening to wishes, by reason of the habit of wrongdoing, by reason of the systematic avoidance of all careful investigation of our character and of our conduct, we lose the power of fairly deciding upon the nature of our own acts.
Then self-love comes in, and still another thing tends to blind us. We are all ready to acquiesce in the general indictment, and so to shirk the particular application of it. That is what people do about all great moral principles that ought to affect conduct, -- they admit them in words, as general truths applying to mankind, and then hide themselves in the crowd, and think that they escape the incidence and particular application of the truths. No one of us would, I suppose, venture in plain words to stand up and say: 'I am an exception to your general confessions of sin,' and most of us would be ready to unite in the acknowledgment: 'We have all come short of the glory of God,' though in our consciences there has never stirred the faintest movement of self-condemnation even whilst our lips have been uttering the confession. Do not shrink away in the crowd, my brother! Come out to the front, and stand by yourself as God sees you, isolated. Look at your own actions; never mind about other men's. Do not content yourselves with saying,' We have sinned'; say, 'I have sinned against Thee.' God and you are as if alone in the universe. 'Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned.' There are no crowds in God's eyes; He deals with single souls. Every one of us, -- thou, and thou, and thou, -- must give account of himself to God.
II. In the next place, let me ask you to think how this story suggests that the true work of God's message is to tear down the veil and to show the ugly thing.
'Nathan said unto David, Thou art the man.' It needed a prophet to do that, with divine authority. Nothing less would suffice to get through the thick bosses of the buckler of self-conceit and ignorance which he had to penetrate. As God's messenger, he gathered up, as I said, into one sharp-pointed, keen-edged, steel-bright sentence, the very spirit of the whole ancient Law, which seeks to individualise the sinner, and to drive home to the conscience the consciousness of wrong-doing.
The remarks that I have been making, in the former part of this sermon, imperfect as they must necessarily be, may at least serve one or two purposes in reference to this part of my discourse.
It seems to me that if what I have been saying as to a man's blindness to his own true moral character be at all correct, there flows from that thought a strong presumption in favour of a divine revelation. We need another than our own voice to lay down the law of conduct, and to accuse and condemn the breaches of it. Conscience is not a wholly reliable guide, and is neither an impartial nor an all-knowing judge. Unconsciousness of evil is not innocence. It is not the purest of women who 'wipes her mouth and says, I have done no harm.' My conscience says to me, 'It is wrong to do wrong'; but when I say to my conscience, 'Yes, and pray what is wrong?' a large variety of answers is possible. A man may sophisticate his conscience, or bribe his conscience, or throttle his conscience, or sear his conscience. And so the man who is worst, who, therefore, ought to be most chastised by his conscience, has most immunity from it, and where, if it is to be of use, it ought to be most powerful, there it is weakest.
What then? Why this, then -- a standard that varies is not a standard; we are left with a leaden rule. My conscience, your conscience, is like the standard measures which we at present possess, which by their very names -- foot, handbreadth, nail, and the like, tell us that they were originally but the length of one man's limb. And so your measure of right and wrong, and another man's measure, though they may substantially correspond, yet differ according to your differences of education, character, and a thousand other things. So that the individual man's standard needs to be rectified. You have to send all the weights and measures up to the Tower now and then, to get them stamped and certified. And, as I believe, this fluctuation of our moral judgments shows the need for a fixed pattern and firm unchangeable standard, external to our mutable selves. A light on deck which pitches with the pitching ship is no guide. It must flash from a white pillar founded on a rock and immovable amid the restless waves. Our need of such a standard raises a strong presumption that a good God will give us what we need, if He can. Such a standard He has given, as I believe, in the revelation of Himself which lies in this book, and culminates in the life and character of Jesus Christ our Lord. There, and by that, we can set our watches. There we can read the law of morality, and by our deflections from it we can measure the amount of our guilt.
But beyond that, the remarks which I have already made in the former part of my sermon may suggest to us, along with this utterance of the prophet's, that one indispensable characteristic and certain criterion of a true message and gospel from God is that it pierces the conscience and kindles the sense of sin. My dear brethren, there is a great deal of so-called Christian teaching, both from pulpits and books in this day, which, to my mind, is altogether defective by reason of its underestimate of the cardinal fact of sin, and its consequent failure to represent the fundamental characteristic of the gospel as being deliverance and redemption. I am quite sure that the root of nine- tenths of all the heresies that have ever afflicted the Christian Church, and of the weakness of so much popular Christianity, is none other than this failure adequately to recognise the universality and the gravity of the fact of transgression. If a word comes to you, calls itself God's message, and does not start with man's sin, nor put in the forefront of its utterances the way by which the dominion of that sin in your own heart can be broken, and the penalties of that sin in your present and future life can be swept away, it is condemned, ipso facto, as not a gospel from God, or fit for man. O my brother! it sounds harsh; but it is the truest kindness, when Nathan stands before the king, and with his flashing eye and stern, calm voice says, 'Thou art the man.' Was not that nobler, truer, tenderer, worthier of God, than if he had smoothed David down with soft speeches that would not have roused his conscience? Is it not the truest benevolence that keeps the surgeon's hand steady whilst his heart is touched by the pain that he inflicts, as he thrusts his gleaming instrument of tender cruelty into the poisonous sore? And are not God's mercy and love manifest for us in this, that He begins all His work on us with the grave, solemn indictment of each soul by itself, 'Thou art the man'?
'He showed me all the mercy,
III. Lastly, let me say that God accuses us and condemns us one by one that He may save us one by one.
The meaning of Nathan's sharp sentence was speedily disclosed when the broken-down king exclaimed, 'I have sinned against the Lord,' and when, with laconic force as great as that which barbed the condemnation, the prophet stanched the wound with the brief words, 'And the Lord hath made to pass the iniquity of thy sin.' The intention of the accusation is the extension of the mercy and forgiveness. God, as the Apostle puts it, 'hath concluded all in unbelief, that He might have mercy upon all.'
And now, mark, for the carrying out of that divine purpose in regard to us, and for our possession of the proffered mercy, the same individualising and isolating process is needful as was needful for the conviction of the sin. God desires to save the world, but God can only save men one at a time. There must be an individual access to Him for the reception of forgiveness, as there must be in regard to the conviction of sin, just as if He and I were the only two beings in the whole universe. There is no wholesale entrance into God's Church or into God's kingdom. God's mercy is not given to crowds, except as composed of individuals who have individually received it. There must be the personal act of faith; there must be my solitary coming to Him. As the old mystics used to define prayer, so I might define the whole process by which men are saved from their sins, 'the flight of the lonely soul to the lonely God.' My brother, it is not enough for you to say, 'We have sinned'; say, 'I have sinned.' It is not enough that from a gathered congregation there should go up the united litany, 'Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us!' You must make the prayer your own: 'Lord, have mercy upon me!' It is not enough that you should believe, as I suppose most of you fancy that you believe, that Christ has died for the sins of the whole world. That belief will give you no share in His forgiveness. You must come to closer grips with Him than that; and you must be able to say, 'Who loved me, and gave Himself for me.' Let us have no running away into the crowd. Come out, and stand by yourselves, and for yourselves stretch out your own band, and take Christ for yourselves.
A man may die of starvation in a granary. You may be lost in the midst of this abundance which Christ has provided for you. And the difference between really possessing salvation and not possessing it, lies very largely in the difference between saying 'us' and 'me.' 'Thou art the man' in regard to the general accusation of sin; 'Thou art the man' in regard to the solemn law which proclaims that 'the soul that sinneth it shall die'; and, blessed be God, 'Thou art the man' in regard to the great promise that says, 'If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink.' Christ gives you a blank cheque in His word: 'Whoso cometh unto Me, I will in no wise cast out.' Write thine own name in, and by thy personal faith in the Lamb of God that died for thee, thy sins shall pass away; and all the fulness of God shall be thy very own for ever. 'If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself, and if thou scornest, thou alone shall bear it.'