"Ye hermits blest, ye holy maids,
Formative Influences -- A Historical Parallel -- The Burning of the Vanities -- "Sent from God"
"Thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Most High" -- thus Zacharias addressed his infant son, as he lay in the midst of that group of wondering neighbours and friends. What a thrill of ecstasy quivered in the words! A long period, computed at four hundred years, had passed since the last great Hebrew prophet had uttered the words of the Highest. Reaching back from him to the days of Moses had been a long line of prophets, who had passed down the lighted torch from hand to hand. And the fourteen generations, during which the prophetic office had been discontinued, had gone wearily. But now hope revived, as the angel-voice proclaimed the advent of a prophet. Our Lord corroborated his words when, in after days, He said that John had been a prophet, and something more. "But what went ye out to see?" He asked. "A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet."
The Hebrew word that stands for prophet is said to be derived from a root signifying "to boil or bubble over," and suggests a fountain bursting from the heart of the man into which God had poured it. It is a mistake to confine the word to the prediction of coming events; for so employed it would hardly be applicable to men like Moses, Samuel, and Elijah, in the Old Testament, or John the Baptist and the apostle Paul, in the New, who were certainly prophets in the deepest significance of that term. Prophecy means the forth-telling of the Divine message. The prophet is borne along by the stream of Divine indwelling and inflowing, whether he utters the truth for the moment or anticipates the future. "God spake in the prophets" (Hebrews i.1, R.V.). And when they were conscious of his mighty moving and stirring within, woe to them if they did not utter it in burning words, fresh minted from the heart.
With Malachi, the succession that had continued unbroken from the very foundation of the Jewish commonwealth had terminated. Pious Israelites might have found befitting expression for that lament in the words, "We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet" (Psa. lxxiv.9).
But as the voice of Old Testament prophecy ceased, with its last breath it foretold that it would be followed, in the after time, by a new and glorious revival of the noblest traditions of the prophetic office. "Behold," so God spake by Malachi, "I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. iv.5, 6).
I. THE FORMATIVE INFLUENCES BY WHICH THE BAPTIST'S PROPHETIC NATURE WAS MOULDED. -- Amongst these we must place in the foremost rank the Prophecies, which had given a forecast of his career. From his childhood and upwards they had been reiterated in his ear by his parents, who would never weary of reciting them.
How often he would ponder the reference to himself in the great Messianic prediction -- "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.... The voice of one that crieth, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God...." There was no doubt as to the relevance of those words to himself (Luke i.76; Matt. iii.3). And it must have unconsciously wrought mightily in the influence it wielded over his character and ministry.
There was, also, that striking anticipation by Malachi which we have already quoted, and which directly suggested Elijah as his model. Had not Gabriel himself alluded to it, when he foretold that the predicted child would go before the Messiah, in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke i.17)? And again his statement was confirmed by our Lord in after days (Matt. xi.14).
Thus the great figure of Elijah was ever before the mind of the growing youth, as his model and inspiration. He found himself perpetually asking, How did Elijah act, and what would he do here and now? And there is little doubt that his choice of the lonely wilderness, of the rough mantle of camel's hair, of the abrupt and arousing form of address, was suggested by that village of Thisbe in the land of Gilead, and those personal characteristics which were so familiar in the Prophet of Fire.
But the mind of the Forerunner must also have been greatly exercised by the lawlessness and crime which involved all classes of his countrymen in a common condemnation. The death of Herod, occurring when John was yet a child, dependent on the care of the good Elisabeth, had led to disturbances which afforded an excuse for the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. The sceptre had departed from Judah, and the lawgiver from between his feet. The high priesthood was a mere forfeit in the deals of Idumaean tetrarchs and Roman governors. The publicans were notorious for their exactions, their covetousness, their cheating and oppression of the people. Soldiers filled the country with violence, extortion, and discontent. The priests were hirelings; the Pharisees were hypocrites; the ruling classes had set aside their primitive simplicity and purity, and were given up to the voluptuousness and licence of the Empire. "Brood of vipers" was apparently not too strong a phrase to use of the foremost religious leaders of the day -- at least, when used, its relevance passed without challenge.
Tidings of the evil that was overflowing the land like a deluge of ink were constantly coming to the ears of this eager soul, filling it with horror and dismay; and to this must be traced much of the austerity which arrested the attention of his contemporaries. The idea which lies beneath the fasting and privation of so many of God's servants, has been that of an overwhelming sorrow, which has taken away all taste for the pleasures and comforts of life. And this was the thought by which John was penetrated. On the one hand, there was his deep and agonizing conviction of the sin of Israel; and on the other, the belief that the Messiah must be nigh, even at the doors. Thus the pressure of the burden increased on him till he was forced to give utterance to the cry it extorted from his soul: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
But in addition to these we must add the vision of God, which must have been specially vouchsafed to him whilst he sojourned in those lonely wilds. He spoke once of Him "who sent him to baptize." Evidently he had become accustomed to detect his presence and hear his voice. Those still small accents which had fallen on the ear of his great prototype had thrilled his soul. He, too, had seen the Lord high and lifted up, had heard the chant of the seraphim, and had felt the live coal touch his lips, as it had been caught from the altar by the seraph's tongs.
This has ever been characteristic of the true prophet. He has been a seer. He has spoken, because he has beheld with his eyes, looked upon, and handled, the very Word of God. The Divine Prophet, speaking for all that had preceded Him, said: "We speak that which we know, and testify that we have seen."
In this we may have some share. It is permitted to us also to see; to climb the Mount of Vision, and look on the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ; to have revealed to us things that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived. Let us remember that we are to be God's witnesses in the Jerusalem of the home, the Judaea of our immediate neighbours, and to the uttermost parts of the earth of our profession or daily calling. God demands not advocates, but witnesses; and we must see for ourselves, before we can bear witness to others, the glory of that light still flushing our faces, and the accent of conviction minted in our speech.
These are the three signs of a prophet: vision, a deep conviction of sin and impending judgment, and the gushing forth of moving and eloquent speech; and each of these was apparent, in an exalted and extreme degree, in John the son of Zacharias.
II. AN ILLUSTRATIVE AND REMARKABLE PARALLEL. -- As John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, so, four hundred years ago, in the lovely city of Florence, a man was sent from God to testify against the sins of his age, who in many particulars so exactly corresponds with our Lord's forerunner that the one strongly recalls the other, and it may help us to bring the circumstances of the Baptist's ministry within a measurable distance of ourselves if we briefly compare them with the career of Girolamo Savonarola. It must, of course, be always borne in mind that the great Florentine could lay no claim to the peculiar and unique position and power of the Baptist. But, in many respects, there is a remarkable parallel and similarity between them, which will help us to translate the old Hebrew conceptions into our modern life.
The physician's household at Ferrara, into which Savonarola was born on September 21, 1452, was probably no more distinguished amid other families of the town than that of Zacharias and Elisabeth in the hill country of Judaea.
And as we read of the invincible love of truth which characterized the keen and intelligent lad, we are forcibly reminded of the Baptist, whose whole life was an eloquent protest on behalf of reality. In one of his greatest sermons Savonarola declared that he had always striven after truth with all his might, and maintained a constant war against falsehood. "The more trouble" -- they are his own words -- "I bestowed upon my quest, the greater became my longing, so that for it I was prepared to abandon life itself. When I was but a boy, I had such thoughts; and from that time, the desire and longing after this good has gone on increasing to the present day."
We cannot read of Savonarola's saintly life, over which even the breath of calumny has never cast a stain -- of his depriving himself of every indulgence, content with the hardest couch and roughest clothing, and just enough of the plainest food to support life -- without remembering the camel's cloth, the locusts and wild honey of the Baptist.
If John's lot was cast on evil days, when religion suffered most in the house of her friends, so was it with Savonarola. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the increasing corruption and licentiousness of popes and clergy. The offices of cardinal and bishop were put up to auction, and sold to the highest bidder. The bishop extorted money from the priests, and these robbed the people. The grossest immorality was prevalent in all ranks of the Church, and without concealment. Even the monasteries and convents were often dens of vice. "Italy," said Machiavelli, "has lost all piety and all religion. We have to thank the Church and the priests for our abandoned wickedness."
As John beheld the fire and fan of impending judgment, so the burden of Savonarola's preaching was that the Church was about to be chastised, and afterwards renewed. So powerful was this impression on the preacher's mind that it can best be described in his own words as a vision. He tells us that on one occasion the heavens seemed to open before him, and there appeared a representation of the calamities that were coming on the Church; on another, he saw, in the middle of the sky, a hand bearing a sword, on which words of doom were written. He described himself as one who looked into the invisible world.
The herald of Jesus possessed a marvellous eloquence, beneath which the whole land was moved; and so it was with Savonarola. During the eight years that he preached in the cathedral, it was thronged with vast crowds; and as he pleaded for purity of life and simplicity of manners, "women threw aside jewels and finery, libertines were transformed into sober citizens, bankers and tradesmen restored their ill-gotten gains." In Lent, 1497, took place what is known as the Burning of the Vanities. Bands of children were sent forth to collect from all parts of the city, indecent books and pictures, carnival masks and costumes, cards, dice, and all such things. A pile was erected, sixty feet in height, and fired amid the sound of trumpets and pealing bells.
What Herod was to John the Baptist, the Pope and the magnificent Lorenzo di Medici were to Savonarola. The latter seems to have felt a strange fascination towards the eloquent preacher, tried to attach him to his court, was frequent in his attendance at San Marco, and gave largely to his offertories. To use the words of the New Testament, he feared him, "knowing that he was a righteous man, and a holy" (Mark vi.20). But Savonarola took care to avoid any sign of compliance or compromise; declined to pay homage to Lorenzo for promotion to high ecclesiastical functions; returned his gold from the offertories; and when they ran to tell him that Lorenzo was walking in the convent garden, answered, "If he has not asked for me, do not disturb his meditations or mine."
Like John, Savonarola was unceasing in his denunciation of the hypocritical religion which satisfied itself with outward observances. "I tell you," he said, "that the Lord willeth not that ye fast on such a day or at such an hour; but willeth that ye avoid sin all the days of your life. Observe how they go about -- seeking indulgences and pardons, ringing bells, decking altars, dressing churches. God heedeth not your ceremonies."
John's exhortation to "Behold the Lamb of God" finds an echo in the noble utterance of this illumined soul, who, be it remembered, anticipated Luther's Reformation by a hundred years. "If all the ecclesiastical hierarchy be corrupt, the believer must turn to Christ, who is the primary cause, and say: 'Thou art my Priest and my Confessor.'"
The fate of martyrdom that befell John was awarded also to Savonarola. Through the impetuosity of his followers, he was involved in a challenge to ordeal by fire. But by the manoeuvres of his foes, the expectations of the populace in this direction were disappointed, and their anger aroused. "To San Marco!" shouted their leaders. To San Marco they went, fired the buildings, burst open the doors, fought their way into the cloisters and church, dragged Savonarola from his devotions, and thrust him into a loathsome dungeon. After languishing there, amid every indignity and torture, for some weeks, on May 23, 1498, he was led forth to die. The bishop, whose duty it was to pronounce his degradation, stumbled at the formula declaring -- "I separate thee from the Church, militant and triumphant." "From the militant thou mayest, but from the triumphant thou canst not," was the martyr's calm reply. He met his end with unflinching fortitude. He was strangled, his remains hung in chains, burned, and the ashes flung into the river. When the commissioners of the Pope arrived at his trial, they brought with them express orders that he was to die, "even though he were a second John the Baptist." It is thus that the apostate Church has always dealt with her noblest sons. But Truth, struck to the ground, revives. Hers are the eternal years. Within a few years, Luther was nailing his theses at the door of the church at Wittenberg, and the Reformation was on its way.
There is a legend, which at least contains a true suggestion, that when Savonarola was on his way to Florence from Genoa, as a young man, his strength failed him as he was crossing the Apennines, but that a mysterious stranger appeared to him, restored his courage, led him to a hospice, compelled him to take food, and afterwards accompanied him to his destination; but on reaching the San Gallo gate he vanished, with the words, Remember to do that for which God hath sent thee!
The story recalls forcibly the words with which the evangelist John introduces his notice of the Forerunner -- "There was a man sent from God, whose name was John." Men are always coming, sent from God, specially adapted to their age, and entrusted with the message which the times demand. See to it that thou too realize thy divine mission; for Jesus said, "As the Father hath sent Me, even so send I you." Every true life is a mission from God.
And when we read the words of the apostle Paul about John "fulfilling his course," we may well ask for grace that we may fill up to the brim the measure of our opportunities, that we may realize to the full God's meaning and intention in creating us: and so our lives shall mate with the Divine Ideal, like sublime words with some heavenly strain, each completing the other.