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THE PALM-BEARING MULTITUDE
The Seer is about to disclose the floods of misery which are to fall upon the earth at the sound of the seven trumpets, like avalanches set loose by a noise. But before the crash of their descent comes there is a lull.
He sees angels holding back the winds, like dogs in a leash, lest they should blow, and all destructive agencies are suspended. In the pause before the storm he sees two visions: one, that of the sealing of the servants of God, the pledge that, amidst the world-wide calamities, they shall be secure; and one, this vision of my text, the assurance that beyond the storms there waits a calm region of life and glory. The vision is meant to brace all generations for their trials, great or small, to draw faith and love upwards and forwards, to calm sorrow, to diminish the magnitude of death and the pain of parting, and to breed in us humble desires that, when our time comes, we too may go to join that great multitude.
It can never be inappropriate to look with the eyes of the Seer on that jubilant crowd. So I turn to these words and deal with them in the plainest possible fashion, just taking each clause as it lies, though, for reasons which will appear, modifying the order in which we look at them. I think that, taken together, they tell us all that we can or need know about that future.
I. Note the palm-bearing multitude.
Now the palm, among the Greeks and Romans, was a token of victory. That is usually taken to be the meaning of the emblem here, as it was taken in the well-known hymn -
‘More than conquerors at last.’
But it has been well pointed out that there is no trace of such a use of the palm in Jewish practice, and that all the emblems of this Book of the Revelation move within the circle of Jewish ideas. Therefore, appropriate as the idea of victory may be, it is not, as I take it, the one that is primarily suggested here. Where, then, shall we look for the meaning of the symbol?
Now there was in Jewish practice a very significant use of the palm-branches, for it was the prescription of the ritual law that they should be employed in the Feast of Tabernacles, when the people were bidden to take palm-branches and rejoice before the Lord seven days.’ It is that distinctly Jewish use of the palm branch that is brought before our minds here, and not the heathen one of mere conquest.
So then, if we desire to get the whole significance and force of this emblem of the multitude with the palms in their hands, we have to ask what was the significance of that Jewish festival. Like all other Jewish feasts, it was originally a Nature-festival, applying to a season of the year, and it afterwards came to have associated with it the remembrance of something in the history of the nation which it commemorated. That double aspect, the natural and the historical, are both to be kept in view. Let us take the eldest one first. The palm-bearing multitude before the Throne suggests to us the thought of rejoicing reapers at the close of the harvest. The year’s work is done, the sowing days are over, the reaping days have come. ‘They that gather it shall eat it in the courts of the Lord.’ And so the metaphor of my text opens out into that great thought that the present and the future are closely continuous, and that the latter is the time for realizing, in one’s own experience, the results of the life that we have lived here. To-day is the time of sowing; the multitude with the palms in their hands are the reapers. Brother! what are you sowing? Will it be for you a glad day of festival when you have to reap what you have sown? Are you scattering poisoned seed? Are you sowing weeds, or are you sowing good fruit that shall be found after many days unto praise and honour and glory? Look at your life here as being but setting in motion a whole series of causes of which you are going to have the effects punctually dealt out to you yonder in the time to come. That great multitude reaped what they had sown, and rejoiced in the reaping. Shall I? We are like operators in a telegraph office, touching keys here which make impressions upon ribbons in a land beyond the sea, and when we get there we shall have to read what we have written here. How will you like it, when the ribbon is taken out of the machine and spread before you, and you have to go over it syllable by syllable and translate all the dots and dashes into what they mean? It will be a feast or a day of sadness. But, festival or no, there stands plain and irrefragable the fact that ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,’ and he will not only have to reap it, but he will have to eat it, and be filled with the fruit of his own doings. That is the first thought.
Turn to the other one. That palm-bearing multitude keeping their Feast of Tabernacles reminds us of the other aspect of the festival in its original intention, which was the commemoration of all that God had done for the people as they passed through the wilderness, and the rejoicing, in their settled abode, over ‘the way by which the Lord their God had led them,’ and over the rest to which He had led them. So the other idea comes out that they who have passed into that great Presence look back on the darkness and the dreariness, on the struggles and the change, on the drought and the desert, on the foes and the fears, and out of them all find occasions for rejoicing and reasons for thankfulness. There can be no personal identity without memory and the memory of sorrows changes into joy when we come to see the whole meaning and trend of the sorrow. The desert was dreary, solitary, dry, and parched as they passed through it. But like some grim mountain-range seen in the transfiguring light of sunrise, and from the far distance, all grimness is changed into beauty, and the long dreary stretch looks, when beheld from afar, one unbroken manifestation of the Divine love and presence. What was grim rock and cold ice when we were near it is clothed with the violets and the purples that remoteness brings, and there shines down upon it the illuminating and interpreting light of the accomplished purpose of God. So the festival is the feast of inheriting consequences, and the feast of remembering the past.
There is one other aspect of this metaphor which I may just mention in a sentence. Later days in Judaism added other features to the original appointments of the Feast of Tabernacles, and amongst them there was one which our Lord Himself used as the occasion of setting forth one aspect of His work. ‘On the last day, that great day of the feast,’ the priests went down from the Temple, and filled their golden vases at the fountain, brought back the water, and poured it forth in the courts of the Temple, chanting the ancient song from the prophet, ‘With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.’ And our Lord in His earthly life used this last day of the feast and its ceremonial as the point of attachment for His revelation of Himself, as He who gave to men the true living water. In like manner, the expansion of my text, which occurs in the subsequent verses, refers, as it would seem, to the festival, and to our Lord’s own use of it, when we read that the ‘Lamb which is in the midst of the Throne shall be their Shepherd, and shall lead them to the fountains of living waters.’
So the emblem of the feast brings to our mind, not only the thought of retribution and of repose, but also the thought of the abundant communication of all supplies for all the desires and thirsts of the dependent and seeking soul. Whatsoever human nature can need there, it receives in its fullness from Jesus Christ. The Rabbis used to say that he who had not seen the joy of the Feast of Tabernacles did not know what joy meant; and I would say that until we, too, stand there, with the palms in our hands, we shall not know of how deep, fervent, calm, perpetual a gladness the human heart is capable.
II. Note their place and attitude.
They stand before the Throne, and before the Lamb. Now it would take me too far away from my present purpose to do more than point, in a sentence, to that remarkable and tremendous juxtaposition of the ‘Throne’ and the ‘Lamb,’ which Lamb is the crucified Christ. What did the man that ventured upon that form of speech, bracketing together the ‘Throne’ of the Divine Majesty and the slain Lamb ‘who is Christ, think about Christ that he should sever Him from all the multitude of men, and unite Him with the solitary God? I only ask. I leave you to answer.
But I turn to the two points - ‘before the Throne and the Lamb,’ and ‘standing’; and these two suggest, as it seems to me, the two thoughts which, though we cannot do much to fill them out, are yet all-sufficient for illumination, for courage, and for hope. These two are the thought of nearness and the thought of service. ‘Before the Throne and the Lamb’ is but a picturesque way of saying ‘to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.’ I do not enter upon any attempt to expound the manner of such nearness. All that I say is that it is a poor affair if we are to let flesh and sense interpret for us what is meant by ‘near’ and ‘far.’ For even here, and whilst we are entangled with this corporeal existence and our dependence upon the conditions of time and space, we know that there is nearness mediated by sympathy and love which is independent of, which survives and disregards, external separation in space. Every loving heart knows that where the treasure is, there the heart is, and where the heart is, there the man is. And the very same thing that knits us together, though oceans wide between us roll, in its highest form will knit the souls that love Jesus Christ to Him, wherever in space they and He may be. Here we have five senses, five windows, five gates. If our ears were different we should hear sounds, shrill and deep, which now are silence to us. If our eyes were different we should see rays at both ends of the spectrum which now are invisible. The body hides as much as it reveals, and we may humbly believe that when the perfect spirit is clothed with its perfect organ, the spiritual body - that is to say, the body that answers to all the needs of the spirit, and is its fit instrument, then many of those melodies which now pass by us unheard will fill our senses with sweetness, and many of these flashing lustres which now we cannot gather into visual impressions will then blaze before us in the perfect light. We shall be near Him, and to be with Christ, however it is mediated and we cannot tell how, is all that you need, for peace, for nobleness, for blessedness, for immortality. Brethren! to have Christ with me here is my strength; to be with Christ yonder is my blessedness. They are ‘before the Throne of God and the Lamb.’ I do not believe that we know much beyond that, and I am sure that we need nothing beyond it, if we rightly understand all that it means.
But I said there was another idea here, and that is implied by the words, they stood before the Throne,’ and is further drawn out in the expansion of my text which follows it as interpretation: ‘Therefore are they before the Throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His Temple.’ What the nature of the service may be it boots not to inquire, only let us remember that the caricature of the Christian heaven which has often been flung at Christian people as a taunt, viz., that it is an eternity of idleness and psalm-singing, has no foundation in Scripture, because the New Testament conception unites the two thoughts of being with Christ and of service for Christ. Remember, for instance, the parable of the pounds and the talents, in which the great law is laid down. ‘Thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many things,’ and mark how here ‘these . . . that came out of great tribulation’ are not only in His presence, but active in His service. We have the same blending still more definitely set forth in the last chapter of this book, where we read of ‘those who serve Him, and see His face’; where the two ideas of the life of contemplation and rapt vision, and of the life of active service and joyful employment are welded together as being not only not incompatible, but absolutely necessary for each other’s completeness.
But remember that if there is to be service yonder, here is the exercising ground, where we are to cultivate the capacities and acquire the habitudes which there will find ampler scope and larger field. I do not know what we are here in this world for at all, unless it is to apprentice us for heaven. I do not know that there is anything that a man has to do in this life which is worth doing unless it be as a training for doing something yonder that shall more entirely correspond with his capacities. So what kind of work are you doing, friend? Is it the sort of work that you will be able to carry on when you pass beyond all the trivialities of this life? I beseech you, remember this, that life on earth is a bewilderment and an enigma for which there is no solution, a long piece of irony, unless beyond the grave there lie fields for nobler work for which we are being trained here. And I pray you see to it that your life here on earth is such as to prepare you for the service, day and night, of the heavens. How can I drive that home to your hearts and consciences? I cannot; you must do it for yourselves.
III. Lastly, note their dress.
‘ Clothed with white robes’ - the robe is, of course, in all languages, the character in which, as the result of his deeds, a man drapes himself, that of him which is visible to the world, the ‘habit’ of his spirit, as we say and the word ‘habit’ means both custom and costume. ‘White’ is, of course, the heavenly colour; ‘white thrones,’ ‘white horses’ are in this book, and the white is not dead but lustrous, like our Lord’s garments on the Mount of Transfiguration, such white as sunshine smiting a snowfield makes. So, then, the dress, the habit of the spirits is of lustrous purity, or glory, to put it all into one word. But more important than that is this question: How came they by such robes? The expansion of our text, to which I have already referred more than once, and which immediately follows, answers the question. ‘They washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ ‘They washed’; then there is something for them to do.
‘The blood of the Lamb’ was the means of cleansing; then cleansing was not the result of their own effort. The cleansing is not the mere forgiveness, but includes also the making of the character, pure, white, lustrous. And the blood of the Lamb does that. For Christ by His death has brought to us forgiveness, and Christ by His imparted life brings to each of us, if we will, the cleansing which shall purify us altogether. Only we have something to do. We cannot indeed cleanse ourselves. There is no detergent in any soap factory in the world that will take the stains out of your character, or that will take away the guilt of the past. But Jesus Christ by His death brings forgiveness, and by His life imparted to us, will change the set of a character, and make us gradually pure. He has ‘washed us from our sins in His own blood.’ We have to wash our garments, and make them ‘white in the blood of the Lamb.’ He has brought the means; we have to employ them. If we do, if we not only trust Him for pardon, but accept Him for purifying, and day by day honestly endeavour to secure greater and greater whiteness of garments, our labour will not be in vain. If, and only if, we do that, and see stain after stain gradually fade away from the garment, under our hands, we may humbly hope that when we die there will be one more added to the palm-bearing, white-robed multitude who stand before the Throne and before the Lamb. ‘Blessed are they that wash their robes that they may have right to the Tree of Life,’ and may enter in through the gate into the City.
Joh_1:14 . - Rev_7:15 . - Rev_21:3 .
The word rendered ‘dwelt’ in these three passages, is a peculiar one. It is only found in the New Testament-in this Gospel and in the Book of Revelation. That fact constitutes one of the many subtle threads of connection between these two books, which at first sight seem so extremely unlike each other; and it is a morsel of evidence in favour of the common authorship of the Gospel and of the Apocalypse, which has often, and very vehemently in these latter days of criticism, been denied.
The force of the word, however, is the matter to which I desire especially to draw attention. It literally means ‘to dwell in a tent,’ or, if we may use such a word, ‘to tabernacle,’ and there is no doubt a reference to the Tabernacle in which the divine Presence abode in the wilderness and in the land of Israel before the erection. In all three passages, then, we may see allusion to that early symbolical dwelling of God with man. ‘The Word tabernacled among us’; so is the truth for earth and time. ‘He that sitteth upon the throne shall spread His tabernacle upon’ the multitude which no man can number, who have made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb; that is the truth for the spirits of just men made perfect, the waiting Church, which expects the redemption of the body. ‘God shall tabernacle with them’; that is the truth for the highest condition of humanity, when the Tabernacle of God shall be with redeemed men in the new earth. ‘Let us build three tabernacles,’ one for the Incarnate Christ, one for the interspace between earth and heaven, and one for the culmination of all things. And it is to these three aspects of the one thought, set forth in rude symbol by the movable tent in the wilderness, that I ask you to turn now.
I. First, then, we have to think of that Tabernacle for earth. ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt, as in a tent, amongst us.’
The human nature, the visible, material body of Jesus Christ, in which there enshrined itself the everlasting Word, which from the beginning was the Agent of all divine revelation, that is the true Temple of God. When we begin to speak about the special presence of Omnipresence in any one place, we soon lose ourselves, and get into deep waters of glory, where there is no standing. And I do not care to deal here with theological definitions or thorny questions, but simply to set forth, as the language of my text sets before us, that one transcendent, wonderful, all-blessed thought that this poor human nature is capable of, and has really once in the history of the world received into itself, the real, actual presence of the whole fulness of the Divinity. What must be the kindred and likeness between Godhood and manhood when into the frail vehicle of our humanity that wondrous treasure can be poured; when the fire of God can burn in the bush of our human nature, and that nature not be consumed? So it has been. ‘In Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.’
And when we come with our questions, How? In what manner? How can the lesser contain the greater? we have to be content with the recognition that the manner is beyond our fathoming, and to accept the fact, pressed upon our faith, that our hearts may grasp it and be at peace. God hath dwelt in humanity. The everlasting Word, who is the forthcoming of all the fulness of Deity into the realm of finite creatures, was made flesh and dwelt among us.
But the Tabernacle was not only the dwelling-place of God, it was also and, therefore, the place of Revelation of God. So in our text there follows, ‘we beheld His glory.’ As in the tent in the wilderness there hovered between the outstretched wings of the silent cherubim, above the Mercy-seat, the brightness of the symbolical cloud which was expressly named ‘the glory of God,’ and was the visible manifestation of His real presence; so John would have us think that in that lowly humanity, with its curtains and its coverings of flesh, there lay shrined in the inmost place the brightness of the light of the manifest glory of God. ‘We beheld His glory.’ The rapturous adoration of the remembrance overcomes him, and he breaks his sentence, reckless of grammatical connection, as the fulness of the blessed memory floods into his soul. ‘That glory was as of the Only Begotten of the Father.’ The manifestation of God in Christ is unique, as becomes Him who partakes of the nature of that God of whom He is the Representative and the Revealer.
And how did that glory make itself known to us? By miracle? Yes! As we read in the story of the first that Christ wrought, ‘He manifested forth His glory and His disciples believed upon Him.’ By miracle? Yes! As we read His own promise at the grave of Lazarus: ‘Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?’ But, blessed be His name, miracle is not the highest manifestation of Christ’s glory and of God’s. The uniqueness of the revelation of Christ’s glory in God does not depend upon the deeds which He wrought. For, as the context goes on to tell, the Word which tabernacled among us was ‘full of grace and truth,’ and therein is the glory most gloriously revealed.
The lambent light of stooping love that shone forth warning and attracting in His gentle life, and the clear white beam of unmingled truth that streamed from the radiant purity of Christ’s life, revealed God to hearts that pine for love and spirits that hunger for truth, as no others of God’s self-revealing works have done. And that revelation of the glory of God in the fulness of grace and truth is the highest possible revelation. For the divinest thing in God is love, and the true ‘glory of God’ is neither some symbolical flashing light nor the pomp of mere power and majesty; nor even those inconceivable and incommunicable attributes which we christen with names like Omnipotence and Omnipresence and Infinitude, and the like. These are all at the fringes of the brightness. The true central heart and lustrous light of the glory of God lie In His love, and of that glory Christ is the unique Representative and Revealer, because He is the only Begotten Son, and ‘full of grace and truth.’
Thus the Word tabernacled amongst us. And though the Tabernacle to outward seeming was covered by curtains and skins that hid all the glowing splendour within; yet in that lowly life that was lived in the body of His humiliation, and knew our limitations and our weaknesses, ‘the glory of the Lord was revealed; and all flesh hath seen it together’ and acknowledged the divine Presence there.
Still further the Tabernacle was the place of sacrifice. So in the tabernacle of His flesh Jesus offered up the one sacrifice for sins for ever. In the offering up of His human life in continuous obedience, and in the offering up of His body and blood in the bitter Passion of the Cross, He brought men nigh unto God.
Therefore, because of all these things, because the Tabernacle is the dwelling-place of God, the place of revelation, and the place of sacrifice, therefore, finally is it the meeting-place betwixt God and man. In the Old Testament it is always called by the name which our Revised Version has accurately substituted for ‘tabernacle of the congregation,’ namely ‘tent of meeting.’ The correctness of that rendering and the meaning of the name are established by several passages in the Old Testament, as for instance, ‘There I will meet with you, to speak there unto thee, and there I will meet with the children of Israel.’ So in Christ, who by His Incarnation lays His hand upon both, God touches man and man touches God. We who are afar off are made nigh, and in that ‘true tabernacle which the Lord pitched and not man’ we meet God and are glad.
‘And so the word was flesh, and wrought
With human hands the creed of creeds,
In loveliness of perfect deeds.’
The temple for earth is ‘the temple of His body.’
II. We have the Tabernacle for the Heavens.
In the context of our second passage we have a vision of the great multitude redeemed out of all nations and kindreds, ‘standing before the Throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands.’ The palms in their hands give important help towards understanding the vision. As has been often remarked, there are no heathen emblems in the Book of the Apocalypse. All its metaphors move within the circle of Jewish experiences and facts. So that we are not to think of the Roman palm of victory, but of the Jewish palm which was borne at the Feast of Tabernacles. What was the Feast of Tabernacles? A festival established on purpose to recall to the minds and to the gratitude of the Jews settled in their own land the days of their wandering in the wilderness. Part of the ritual of it was that during its celebration they builded for themselves booths or tabernacles of leaves and boughs of trees, under which they dwelt, thus reminding themselves of their nomad condition.
Now what beauty and power it gives to the word of my text, if we take in this allusion to the Jewish festival! The great multitude bearing the palms are keeping the feast, memorial of past wilderness wanderings; and ‘He that sitteth on the throne shall spread His tabernacle above them,’ as the word might be here rendered. That is to say, He Himself shall build and be the tent in which they dwell; He Himself shall dwell with them in it. He Himself, in closer union than can be conceived of here, shall keep them company during that feast.
What a thought of that condition-the condition as I believe represented in this vision-of the spirits of the just made perfect, ‘who wait for the adoption, to wit, the resurrection of the body,’ is given us if we take this point of view to interpret the whole lovely symbolism. It is all a time of glad, grateful remembrance of the wilderness march. It is all a time in which festal joys shall be theirs, and the memory of the trials and the weariness and the sorrow and the solitude that are past shall deepen to a more exquisite poignancy of delight, the rest and the fellowship and the felicity of that calm Presence, and God Himself shall spread His tent above them, lodge with them, and they with Him.
And so, dear brethren, rest in that assurance, that though we know so little of that state, we know this: ‘Absent from the body, present with the Lord,’ and that the happy company who bear the palms shall dwell in God, and God in them.
III. And now, lastly, look at that final vision which we have in these texts, which we may call the Tabernacle for the renewed earth.
I do not pretend to interpret the scenery and the setting of these Apocalyptic visions with dogmatic confidence, but it seems to me as if the emblems of this final vision coincide with dim hints in many other portions of Scripture; to the effect that some cosmical change having passed upon this material world in which we dwell, it, in some regenerated form, shall be the final abode of a regenerated and redeemed humanity. That, I think, is the natural interpretation of a great deal of Scriptural teaching.
For that highest condition there is set forth this as the all-sufficing light upon it. ‘Behold, the Tabernacle of God is with men, and He will tabernacle with them.’ The climax and the goal of all the divine working, and the long processes of God’s love for, and discipline of, the world, are to be this, that He and men shall abide together in unity and concord. That is God’s wish from the beginning. We read in one of the profound utterances of the Book of Proverbs how from of old the ‘delights’ of the Incarnate Wisdom which foreshadowed the Incarnate Word ‘were with the sons of men.’ And, at the close of all things, when the vision of this final chapter shall be fulfilled, God will say, settling Himself in the midst of a redeemed humanity, ‘Lo! here will I dwell, for I have desired it. This is My rest for ever.’ He will tabernacle with men, and men with Him.
We know not, and never shall know until experience strips the bandages from our eyes, what new methods of participation of the divine nature, and new possibilities of intimacy and intercourse with Him may be ours when the veils of flesh and sense and time have all dropped away. New windows may be opened in our spirits, from which we shall perceive new aspects of the divine character. New doors may be opened in our souls, from out of which we may pass to touch parts of His nature, all impalpable and inconceivable to us now. And when all the veils of a discordant moral nature are taken away, and we are pure, then we shall see, then we shall draw nigh to God. The thing that chiefly separates man from God is man’s sin. When that is removed, the centrifugal force which kept our tiny orb apart from the great central sun being withdrawn, we shall, as it were, fall into the brightness and be one, not losing our sense of individuality, which would be to lose all the blessedness, but united with Him in a union far more intimate than earth can parallel. ‘The Tabernacle of God shall be with men, and He will tabernacle with them.’
Do not let us forget that this highest and ultimate hope that is held forth here, of the union and communion, perfect and perpetual, of humanity with God, does not sweep aside Jesus Christ. For through all eternity the Everlasting Word, the Christ who bears our nature in its glorified form, or, rather, whose nature in its glorified form we shall bear, is the Medium of Revelation, and the Medium of communication between man and God.
‘I saw no Temple therein,’ says this final vision of the Apocalypse, but ‘God Almighty and the Lamb,’ and these are the Temples thereof. Therefore through eternity God shall tabernacle with men, as He does tabernacle with us now through Him, in whom dwelleth as in its perennial habitation, ‘all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.’
So we have the three tabernacles, for earth, for heaven, for the renewed earth; and these three, if I may say so, are like the triple division of that ancient Tabernacle in the wilderness: the Outer Court; the Holy Place; the Holiest of all. Let us enter into that outer court, and abide and commune with that God who comes near to us, revealing, forgiving, in the person of His Son, and then we shall pass from court to court, ‘and go from strength to strength, until every one of us in Zion appear before God’; and enter into the Holiest of all, where ‘within the veil’ we shall receive splendours of revelation undreamed of here, and enjoy depths of communion to which the selectest moments of fellowship with God on earth are shallow and poor.
TWO SHEPHERDS AND TWO FLOCKS
Psa_49:14 . - Rev_7:17 .
These two verses have a much closer parallelism in expression than appears in our Authorised Version. If you turn to the Revised Version you will find that it rightly renders the former of my texts, ‘Death shall be their shepherd,’ and the latter, ‘The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their Shepherd.’ The Old Testament Psalmist and the New Testament Seer have fallen upon the same image to describe death and the future, but with how different a use! The one paints a grim picture, all sunless and full of shadow; the other dips his pencil in brilliant colours, and suffuses his canvas with a glow as of molten sunlight. The difference between the two is partly due to the progress of revelation and the light cast on life and immortality by Christ through the Gospel. But it is much more due to the fact that the two writers have different classes in view. The one is speaking of men whose portion is in this life, the other of men who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. And it is the characters of the persons concerned, much more than the degree of enlightenment possessed by the writers, that makes the difference between these two pictures. Life and death and the future are what each man makes of them for himself. We shall best deal with these two pictures if we take them separately, and let the gloom of the one enhance the glory of the other. They hang side by side, like a Rembrandt beside a Claude or a Turner, each intensifying by contrast the characteristics of the other. So let us look at the two-first, the grim picture drawn by the Psalmist; second, the sunny one drawn by the Seer. Now, with regard to the former,
I. The grim picture drawn by the Psalmist.
We too often forget that a psalmist is a poet, and misunderstand his spirit by treating his words as matter-of-fact prose. His imagination is at work, and our sympathetic imagination must be at work too, if we would enter into his meaning. Death a shepherd-what a grim and bold inversion of a familiar metaphor! If this psalm is, as is probable, of a comparatively late date, then its author was familiar with many sweet and tender strains of early singers, in which the blessed relation between a loving God and an obedient people was set forth under that metaphor. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ may have been ringing in his ears when he said, ‘Death is their shepherd.’ He lays hold of the familiar metaphor, and if I may so speak, turns it upside down, stripping it of all that is beautiful, tender, and gracious, and draping it in all that is harsh and terrible. And the very contrast between the sweet relation which it was originally used to express, and the opposite kind of one which he uses it to set forth, gives its tremendous force to the daring metaphor.
‘Death is their shepherd.’ Yes, but what manner of shepherd? Not one that gently leads his flock, but one that stalks behind the huddled sheep, and drives them fiercely, club in hand, on a path on which they would not willingly go. The unwelcome necessity, by which men that have their portion in this world are hounded and herded out of all their sunny pastures and abundant feeding, is the thought that underlies the image. It is accentuated, if we notice that in the former clause, ‘like sheep they are laid in the grave,’ the word rendered in the Authorised Version ‘laid,’ and in the Revised Version ‘appointed,’ is perhaps more properly read by many, ‘like sheep they are thrust down .’ There you have the picture-the shepherd stalking behind the helpless creatures, and coercing them on an unwelcome path.
Now that is the first thought that I suggest, that to one type of man, Death is an unwelcome necessity. It is, indeed, a necessity to us all, but necessities accepted cease to be painful; and necessities resisted-what do they become? Here is a man being swept down a river, the sound of the falls is in his ears, and he grasps at anything on the bank to hold by, but in vain. That is how some of us feel when we face the thought, and will feel more when we front the reality, of that awful ‘must.’ ‘Death shall be their shepherd,’ and coerce them into darkness. Ask yourself the question, Is the course of my life such as that the end of it cannot but be a grim necessity which I would do anything to avoid?
This first text suggests not only a shepherd but a fold: ‘Like sheep they are thrust down to the grave.’ Now I am not going to enter upon what would be quite out of place here: a critical discussion of the Old Testament conception of a future life. That conception varies, and is not the same in all parts of the book. But I may, just in a word, say that ‘the grave’ is by no means the adequate rendering of the thought of the Psalmist, and that ‘Hell’ is a still more inadequate rendering of it. He does not mean either the place where the body is deposited, or a place where there is punitive retribution for the wicked, but he means a dim region, or, if I might so say, a localised condition, in which all that have passed through this life are gathered, where personality and consciousness continue, but where life is faint, stripped of all that characterises it here, shadowy, unsubstantial, and where there is inactivity, absolute cessation of all the occupations to which men were accustomed. But there may be restlessness along with inactivity; may there not? And there is no such restlessness as the restlessness of compulsory idleness. That is the main idea that is in the Psalmist’s mind. He knows little about retribution, he knows still less about transmutation into a glorious likeness to that which is most glorious and divine. But he conceives a great, dim, lonely land, wherein are prisoned and penned all the lives that have been foamed away vainly on earth, and are now settled into a dreary monotony and a restless idleness. As one of the other books of the Old Testament puts it, it is a ‘land of the shadow of death, without order, and in which the light is as darkness.’
I know, of course, that all that is but the imperfect presentation of partially apprehended, and partially revealed, and partially revealable truth. But what I desire to fix upon is that one dreary thought of this fold, into which the grim shepherd has driven his flock, and where they lie cribbed and huddled together in utter inactivity. Carry that with you as a true, though incomplete thought.
Let me remind you, in the next place, with regard to this part of my subject, of the kind of men whom the grim shepherd drives into that grim fold. The psalm tells us that plainly enough. It is speaking of men who have their portion in this life, who ‘trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches . . . whose inward thought is that their house shall continue for ever . . . who call their lands after their own names.’ Of every such man it says: ‘when he dieth he shall carry nothing away’-none of the possessions, none of the forms of activity which were familiar to him here on earth. He will go into a state where he finds nothing which interests him, and nothing for him to do.
Must it not be so? If we let ourselves be absorbed and entangled by the affairs of this life, and permit our whole spirits to be bent in the direction of these transient things, what is to become of us when the things that must pass have passed, and when we come into a region where there are none of them to occupy us any more? What would some Manchester men do if they were in a condition of life where they could not go on ‘Change on Tuesdays and Fridays? What would some of us do if the professions and forms of mental activity in which we have been occupied as students and scholars were swept away? ‘Whether there be knowledge it shall cease; whether there be tongues they shall vanish away,’ and what are you going to do then, you men that have only lived for intellectual pursuits connected with this transient state? We are going to a world where there are no books, no pens nor ink, no trade, no dress, no fashion, no amusements; where there is nothing but things in which some of us have no interest, and a God who ‘is not in all our thoughts.’ Surely we shall be ‘fish out of water’ there. Surely we shall feel that we have been banned and banished from everything that we care about. Surely men that boasted themselves in their riches, and in the multitude of their wealth, will be necessarily condemned to inactivity. Life is continuous, and all on one plane. Surely if a man knows that he must some day, and may any day, be summoned to the other side of the world, he would be a wise man if he got his outfit ready, and made some effort to acquire the customs and the arts of the land to which he was going. Surely life here is mainly given to us that we may develop powers which will find their field of exercise yonder, and acquire characters which shall be in conformity with the conditions of that future life. Surely there can be no more tragic folly than the folly of letting myself be so absorbed and entangled by this present world, as that when the transient has passed, I shall feel homeless and desolate, and have nothing that I can do or care about amidst the activities of Eternity. Dear friend, should you feel homeless if you were taken, as you will be taken, into that world?
Turn now to
II. The sunny landscape drawn by the Seer.
Note the contrast presented by the shepherds. ‘Death shall be their shepherd.’ ‘The Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall be their Shepherd.’ I need not occupy your time in trying to show, what has sometimes been doubted, that the radiant picture of the Apocalyptic Seer is dealing with nothing in the present, but with the future condition of certain men. I would just remind you that the words in which it is couched are to a large extent a quotation from ancient prophecy, a description of the divine watchfulness over the pilgrim’s return from captivity to the Land of Promise. But the quotation is wonderfully elevated and spiritualised in the New Testament vision; for instead of reading, as the Original does: ‘He that hath mercy on them shall lead them,’ we have here, ‘the Lamb which is in the midst of the Throne shall be their Shepherd,’ and instead of their being led merely to ‘the springs of water,’ here we read that He ‘leads them to the fountains of the water of life.’
We have to think, first, of that most striking, most significant and profound modification of the Old Testament words, which presents the Lamb as ‘the Shepherd.’ All Christ’s shepherding on earth and in heaven depends, as do all our hopes for heaven and earth, upon the fact of His sacrificial death. It is only because He is the ‘Lamb that was slain’ that He is either the ‘Lamb in the midst of the Throne,’ or the Shepherd of the flock. And we must make acquaintance with Him first in the character of ‘the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world,’ before we can either follow in His footsteps as our Guide, or be compassed by His protection as our Shepherd.
He is the Lamb, and He is the Shepherd-that suggests not only that the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ is the basis of all His work for us on earth and in heaven, but the very incongruity of making One, who bears the same nature as the flock to be the Shepherd of the flock, is part of the beauty of the metaphor. It is His humanity that is our guide. It is His continual manhood, all through eternity and its glories, that makes Him the Shepherd of perfected souls. They follow Him because He is one of themselves, and He could not be the Shepherd unless he were the Lamb.
But then this Shepherd is not only gracious, sympathetic, kin to us by participation in a common nature, and fit to be our Guide because He has been our Sacrifice and the propitiation of our sins, but He is the Lamb ‘in the midst of the throne,’ wielding therefore all divine power, and standing-not as the rendering in our Bible leads an English reader to suppose, on the throne, but-in the middle point between it and the ring of worshippers, and so the Communicator to the outer circumference of all the blessings that dwell in the divine centre. He shall be their Shepherd, not coercing, not driving by violence, but leading to the fountains of the waters of life, gently and graciously. It is not compulsory energy which He exercises upon us, either on earth or in heaven, but it is the drawing of a divine attraction, sweet to put forth and sweet to yield to.
There is still another contrast. Death huddled and herded his reluctant sheep into a fold where they lay inactive but struggling and restless. Christ leads His flock into a pasture. He shall guide them ‘to the fountains of waters of life.’ I need not dwell at any length on the blessed particulars of that future, set forth here and in the context. But let me suggest them briefly. There is joyous activity. There is constant progression. He goeth before; they follow. The perfection of heaven begins at entrance into it, but it is a perfection which can be perfected, and is being perfected, through the ages of Eternity, and the picture of the Shepherd in front and the flock behind, is the true conception of all the progress of that future life. ‘They shall follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth’-a sweet guidance, a glad following, a progressive conformity! ‘In the long years liker must they grow.’
Further, there is the communication of life more and more abundantly. Therefore there is the satisfaction of all desire, so that ‘they shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more.’ The pain of desire ceases because desire is no sooner felt than it is satisfied, the joy of desire continues, because its satisfaction enables us to desire more, and so, appetite and eating, desire and fruition, alternate in ceaseless reciprocity. To us, being every moment capable of more, more will be given; and ‘to-morrow shall be as this day, and much more abundant.’
There is one point more in regard to that pasture into which the Lamb leads the happy flock, and that is, the cessation of all pains and sorrows. Not only shall they ‘hunger no more, neither thirst any more’; but ‘the sun shall not smite them, nor any heat, and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.’ Here the Shepherd carried rod and staff, and sometimes had to strike the wandering sheep hard: there these are needed no more. Here He had sometimes to move them out of green pastures, and away from still waters, into valleys of the shadow of death; but ‘there,’ as one of the prophets has it: ‘they shall lie in a good fold, and in a fat pasture shall they feed.’
But now, we must note, finally, the other kind of men whom this other Shepherd leads into His pastures, ‘They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ Aye! that is it. That is why He can lead them where He does lead them. Strange alchemy which out of two crimsons, the crimson of our sins and the crimson of His blood, makes one white! But it is so, and the only way by which we can ever be cleansed, either with the initial cleansing of forgiveness, or with the daily cleansing of continual purifying and approximation to the divine holiness, is by our bringing the foul garment of our stained personality and character into contact with the blood which, ‘shed for many,’ takes away their sins, and infused into their veins, cleanses them from all sin.
You have yourselves to bring about that contact. ‘ They have washed their robes.’ And how did they do it? By faith in the Sacrifice first, by following the Example next. For it is not merely a forgiveness for the past, but a perfecting, progressive and gradual, for the future, that lies in that thought of washing their robes and making them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Dear brethren, life here and life hereafter are continuous. They are homogeneous, on one plane though an ascending one. The differences there are great-I was going to say, and it would be true, that the resemblances are greater. As we have been, we shall be. If we take Christ for our Shepherd here, and follow Him, though from afar and with faltering steps, amidst all the struggles and windings and rough ways of life, then and only then, will He be our Shepherd, to go with us through the darkness of death, to make it no reluctant expulsion from a place in which we would fain continue to be, but a tranquil and willing following of Him by the road which He has consecrated for ever, and deprived for ever of its solitude, because Himself has trod it.
Those two possibilities are before each of us. Either of them may be yours. One of them must be. Look on this picture and on this; and choose-God help you to choose aright-which of the two will describe your experience. Will you have Christ for your Shepherd, or will you have Death for your shepherd? The answer to that question lies in the answer to the other-have you washed your robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb; and are you following Him? You can settle the question which lot is to be yours, and only you can settle it. See that you settle it aright, and that you settle it soon.
END OF VOL. I.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Revelation 7". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27