Lecture I. The Death-Vail
"And He will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all the people, and the vail that is spread over all nations." Isaiah xxv. 7.
THE final triumph of our LORD through His Incarnation meeting and overcoming death, is the subject of the prophecy of which this verse forms a part. The vail meant is the mortuary vail, the covering spread over the face of a deceased person; and it is applied to the condition of mankind separated from GOD, the spiritual death which after the Fall spread itself over the whole human race. The explanation of the figure is given in the verse immediately following, where the idea is simply expressed, "He will swallow up death in victory." The spreading of this vail of death over the face of man, hiding from him the vision of GOD, is clearly described in the history of the Fall, and was foretold as the direct consequence of disobedience. "In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die." [Gen. ii. 17.] But how death, with its manifold consequences of sorrow, was ever suffered to arise within the creation of GOD, this is not revealed. All those [1/2] deep searchings of heart, which so often perplex and sadden us, as to the causes of the misery brooding over man's earthly state, the bodily sufferings, the deeper spiritual anguish, how they could have entered within the realms of the kingdom of GOD, how they are to be reconciled with the goodness of GOD,--questionings arising often from one's own trials, oftener still perhaps, and more keenly, from the trials of others, and so difficult wholly to put aside,--find no real answer in the Scriptures. The only reply that echoes through its pages is that, which S. Paul gave to some who doubted the justice of the punishment inflicted on the wicked, and the favour shown to the elect; "But, O man, who art thou that repliest against GOD? Shall the thing formed say to Him that formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus?"
The Bible is not meant to answer questions which had already arisen before the creation of man. It is a record of GOD'S dispensations to man since man's creation, not of those which had preceded it, and therefore affecting pre-existent states of being. Death evidently existed on the earth among the creatures, before man's creation. The consequence of the fall of our race was but to spread over man the terrible destiny which, from whatever cause, had already found its entrance among other creatures. The Scriptures find this awful mystery already in existence, as part of a pre-existing state, and they leave it among the other secrets of GOD. which will find their solution hereafter. All that we are assured of is, that although GOD suffered death to spread over mankind, as a punishment of sin, yet He "made not death, neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living. For He created all things that they might have their being; and the generations of the world were healthful, and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of death upon the earth: (for righteousness is immortal:) but ungodly men with their works and words called it to them."
It is, moreover, part of the mystery of death, that it does not exist of itself alone, but is the effect of another and a greater power. Behind it appears and acts on us a living person, of whom Death is the shadow or vital breath. Death is, as it were, a creature springing out of the fall of the angelic nature, the dreadful plague which had its original source in Satan. Scripture is express on this point. It tells us of "him that hath the power of death, that is the devil." This same truth is also involved in the statement that our LORD, when crucified, by His Cross "spoiled principalities and powers, and made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it." For He spoiled them of their prey, in delivering from their grasp those who were "dead in their sins," but being "quickened together with Him," were thus rescued from their power, the death by which they were held being overcome and done away. Death, therefore, is not the whole of the woe of the fallen; it is merely the consequence of a greater woe, the consequence of man having fallen under the power of the Evil Spirit, whose hand spread the vail of horror and darkness over the face of humanity, in the fatal hour when man shared his sin.
That Satan had some mysterious power on the earth, extending also to the vegetable and the animal kingdoms, and thus gained the means of approaching man so as to hold communion with him and tempt him to his ruin, is evident from the history of the Fall. His influence upon the serpent and through the tree of knowledge, gave him the opportunity he desired of addressing Eve. There is evidence, moreover, in the Scriptures, that before the creation of man, Satan held some high pre-eminence in this world. The state of the earth before the present creation, "without form and void, and darkness on the face of the deep," does not read like a work of GOD, but rather like a ruin of some better work. Probably it was the result of the fall of the angels, the wreck of the storm which, overthrowing them, left its scars even on this solid globe. The descriptions given in Holy Scripture of Satan, as the "god of this world;" "the ruler of the darkness of this world;" "the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience," leading them "captive at his will;" and again, as "the strong man armed keeping his palace,"--unquestionably involve the ideas of pre-eminence, and rule. These texts also prove that although his glory perished in his fall, and he was dislodged from the pre-eminence which he once held, he yet partially at least resumed his hold upon the earth and its inhabitants, when, through his deceit, they joined him against GOD in a like transgression. But the causes of Satan's power, and of his sin, and of death, its dark and dreadful doom, are alike shrouded in the secrets of eternity antecedent to the history of man; and the Bible stretches not back into that pre-existent state. It opens assuming the existing facts of sin, of forfeited vocations, and of death. It finds them, it does not account for them; it only shows how the plague was caught, and spread among mankind.
But it has been a prevailing tradition, and there are passages in Holy Scripture clearly harmonizing with the belief, that the fall of the angels was involved in their resisting GOD'S purpose of becoming Incarnate in man's nature, rather than in their own. It has been believed that the purpose of GOD to take, not "the nature of angels," but "the seed of Abraham;" that "He," CHRIST, as Man, "in all things should have the pre-emiuence;" "that in Him," as Man, all "the fulness of the Godhead should dwell bodily;" "that by Him," as Man, "the FATHER would reconcile all things to Himself, whether they be things on earth, or things in Heaven,"--that these designs of unutterable glory destined to be fulfilled in our nature, in preference to their own, awakened in them that resistance, the fruit of pride, to which Scripture avowedly ascribes their fall, pride maddening these great "principalities, and powers," against GOD, and precipitating them against His irresistible will before which they hopelessly fell.
The supposition that this pride was stirred by the announcement of God's purpose to raise up man nearest to Himself, may account for that dire and relentless enmity with which they assaulted man as soon as he was formed, and for the subtle deceits with which they have ever sought the ruin specially of every one distinguished by the favour of GOD, as well as for the malice and restless hostility which rose to its height in compassing the destruction of Him Who at last appeared, accomplishing the Divine purpose of the Incarnation which had at first awakened their daring and proud antagonism.
This same truth explains to us the original intended destiny of man, and the reason of the solemn charge given to our first father. He was put into the garden of Eden, to "dress it, and to keep it." Mark the express injunction, "keep it,"--keep it evidently against the expected attacks of a designing foe, keep his home, the scene of his development, and so his own life, safe from the destroyer; and for what? Surely for a noble destiny man was urged to be faithful. He was to keep himself pure, to observe the law of his vocation, and the purpose of his Creator, to use his powers for their ordained ends, to be faithful to the light within him for a fixed period of time, as a probation, with the certain prospect that he would then be united with GOD, and become the head of the creatures, the central being in whom all the glory of the creation would meet, the one creature in whom alone GOD would abide by a personal union. GOD needed to select one creature to be the basis on which to build up, and embody, the transcendent idea of a union between Himself, the Uncreated, and created natures; and for this amazing blessedness and glory He predestinated man. To correspond with this design, to fit himself for it, when the fulness of time should come, was the meaning of the charge to "keep" himself, and his earthly home, safe against the encroachments of the fallen angel who had rebelled against this Divine purpose.
Moreover it was intended that the evil which had entered the creation of GOD, should be subdued through man, as GOD'S chosen agent in the contest. GOD purposed to destroy the power of evil, not by a direct exercise of His own power, but through the instrumentality of a creature whom He would endue with supernatural strength for this end. Man may possibly have been raised up "to resist the devil," not for his own sake only, but for the glory of GOD, for the sake of the entire creation. That Satan is finally to fall under CHRIST, as Man; that already overcome by Him in the flesh, he is at last to be "bruised in his head," the very seat of life, by the "Seed of the woman;" that the final condemnation upon him and his host, is to be pronounced by the Saints who, enthroned with CHRIST, shall "judge Angels,"--these truths already proclaimed in the Scriptures, point to the fact that the human conquest of Satan, and the overthrow of evil by man, was part of his original destiny. What he failed to do in himself, he will at last accomplish in CHRIST. The purpose of GOD will not be overruled, nor will the worlds which Satan's transgressions ruined, fail to be rescued from the curse, though in order to accomplish the Divine purpose, humanity must be raised above itself by the indwelling and inworking of GOD.
It is generally thought that the visions foreshadowing the Incarnation, granted to holy men under the earlier dispensations, were only types to teach the world at large the certainty of the glory that should afterwards be fulfilled. They were undoubtedly given for this end. They were revealed to men who had kept their lives, at least in their main end, true, men of faith, of prayer and self-sacrifice, who thus prepared however imperfectly, were capable of the Divine illumination, in order that they might see by faith and teach to others, the union of humanity with the Godhead, as its final destiny of bliss, the certainty of the glory reserved for them, what they should personally possess, as their own future joy, and with themselves, all who should inherit the same faith. But this was not the only purpose of those visions. They also had power to sustain those who beheld them in patient suffering under the assaults of their mortal foe, enabling them to "endure, as seeing the Invisible;" "faith," being to them "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," guiding and sustaining them on their way during their trial-hour. Thus to Noah, when his faith and patience had been fully proved, the rainbow shone forth, his token of the light from heaven glittering through the watery drops of earth, the light of Godhead radiant in the tears of suffering Humanity, the Incarnation manifest in the Passion. Thus Abraham, so wonderfully upheld in lofty communings with GOD, "exulted," as he beheld in the history of his "son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved," the manifestation of a more glorious life, to be fulfilled in his greater Offspring, even the "Day" of CHRIST, which "he saw, and was glad." Thus, again, Jacob, although a lonely fugitive, yet bearing in his person the promise, the sacred heritage of his race, while he lay on the open waste with a stone for his pillow, in the visions of the night was gladdened as he beheld the union of heaven and earth, through the mystic ladder with its train of "angels, ascending and descending;'" himself at its foot, the symbol of Humanity prostrate in its helplessness, and standing above it the very and true GOD, as One preparing to descend; the two Natures separated for a time, but about to become one, and then to abide unchangeably one for ever. Thus again, Moses called forth from among his brethren to bear the burden of the rebellions of a "stiffnecked and gainsaying people," was strengthened for this momentous charge, by the vision of GOD, so vividly bright, that long after his descent from the Mount, his face shone with the radiance of the Presence, in which he abode "forty days and forty nights," so that "the people could not behold him for the glory of his countenance." These are instances of the great truth, that even under the imperfect forms of the earlier covenant, the servants of GOD were sustained by the assurance of the Divine Nature entering within the sphere of Humanity, within their own personal life, breaking through and destroying the vail of death spread over the nations. Even the anticipation of this sure blessedness was enough to nurture, and sustain a faith which could overcome the world.
The Saints of old thus lived upon the promise which, reflecting back the glory of our LORD'S manifestation in the flesh, brightened their path of trial, and upheld them in their long waiting. It was their life, although the promise could not be fulfilled, till in the fulness of time One was found, so pure, so perfectly corresponding to the will of GOD, that He could in her unite Himself with our nature. The glory of Mary, why henceforth all generations call her blessed, is because through her pre-eminent sanctity the union of the Godhead and the manhood could find in her a fitting tabernacle. There was the fulfilment of the Divine purpose, because there was the fulfilment of the necessary fitness. She was "highly favoured," because she was found so faithful to the wonderful grace given to her, that the love of GOD toward the creatures could reach its highest development through her, its fitting channel and instrument.
It is the peculiar characteristic of our nature, that the presence of a higher being than our own is needed for its rest and its happiness. It would seem that the nature of Angels is more self-existent, feeding upon GOD indeed, and sustained by GOD, while ever beholding His Face, and so living in His light; but not admitting the indwelling of GOD, not needing GOD as an inward Presence, to be, as it were, the complement of their nature. It is not so with man; "It is not good for man to be alone." The union with the creature, which is the first application of this saying, is but the type of a higher union, which alone can meet a yet deeper need. Man's nature needs a higher nature than itself, to be its stay, its peace. A higher Presence than its own must enter within it, to become a part of itself, or there is a void, a loneliness.
"As the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after Thee, O GOD; my soul is athirst for GOD," is the inspired expression of this profound craving. These words do not imply a desire merely to see GOD, but a secret craving even to receive GOD into man's very nature, to indwell in him, as hunger desires food to satisfy it. So absolute is this law of man's needing a higher being to rule and to possess him, that if the Divine Presence reign not within the soul, this fearful consequence ensues,--where GOD cannot be, where union with GOD, the intended Indweller of our nature, is hindered, there the soul falls, by a fatal necessity, under subjection to the Angel who still "worketh in the children of disobedience." This is the burden of that fearful parable, where our LORD describes the soul "empty, swept, and garnished," and the spirit, after "walking through dry places," entering in "to dwell there:" empty, because man's nature is not meant to be alone, cannot live in himself alone, is not complete in himself. There is a void, and a higher Presence must pervade and fill it. If this Indweller be not GOD, who can it be? This parable--it is our LORD'S own account of the terrible alternative--answers the question, none but Satan. Of one man alone is it said in the Book of GOD that, "after the sop, Satan entered into him;"3 but this isolated case is recorded only because it was the most momentous instance of a law which prevails wherever the vail of spiritual death is hopelessly spread over the soul, and departs not. The dark vail may abide, or may return, and then it becomes "the second death," in those who are "twice dead," to be the unchanging gloom of an endless separation from GOD; when the soul, buried in the everlasting abyss, indwelt by lost angels, shares with them their last destiny of woe, as the true development of a like sin, and of communion with them in the innermost seat of life, binding the two together in a common alienation from GOD. As in the realms of light the indwelling Presence of the ever Blessed GOD abides within the saints, filling them with His fulness, directing and ruling them with a perpetual inspiration; even so where this Presence is wanting, within the folds of the vail of death, the lost soul is inhabited, pervaded, and ruled by the Angel of darkness, held captive by him for ever at his will.
These facts concerning our state reveal the secret of the struggle of life ever going on within us. Some, craving after the Divine vision, longing for union with GOD, having the one pervading desire to cast off the vail of separation which keeps the soul from seeing GOD, and possessing GOD, are striving to fulfil their vocation, to keep the way of the LORD, to discipline and train themselves, to bring every thought into subjection, to perfect holiness, to live by faith; and for what end? Not for its own sake; oh, no! Not as if aught in one's own nature, however high, however holy, could satisfy itself, or be one's end; but in order that they may be fitted for the Divine union, and that more and more of the Divine indwelling may possess them, as they become more assimilated to It in mind and will; and that this may hereafter be perfected, the soul's chiefest bliss, its truest glory. Such persons look for intimations of the Divine will wherever they may be found, for revelations of truth, and laws of love ever developing into new and enlarged forms of grace, and fresh methods of spiritual amendment, living by rules of spiritual discipline, and striving to overcome sin, all sin, so that the vail of death may continually be kept back, and finally destroyed; that the power of evil, which continually seeks to re-assert its ancient hold, may be resisted at every attempt; that through the precious Blood ever pleaded, and the grace of sacraments, the Divine aid, thus invoked, may be ever ensured to stay hack the surges of the dreadful tides of sin, the subtle deceits of him who "hath the power of death," knowing that as there is a continual endeavour to destroy us, there must be a continual energy of life to force the Evil one afar off. Such is one side of the history of human society, secretly it may be, but surely working out its appointed destiny in the midst of us,--a destiny of final beatitude irreversible, because the LORD, Who is the Truth, hath spoken it.
There is another side of human life, to the consequences of which we cannot shut our eyes. When evil is openly allowed, and known disobedience admitted, none can doubt the results. The danger of self-deceit lies rather in the less palpable forms of sin. When evil customs are pleaded as an excuse for lax indulgence; when excitement succeeds excitement; when pleasure is ever first sought, or business followed as eagerly as pleasure; when the necessity of station, or use, or example, or mere weakness, is supposed a sufficient plea for questionable courses; when the soul scarcely ventures to look forward to the future, and all serious weighing of the momentous questions involved in it, all reckoning of consequences, is day after day postponed; when even although there may be no distinct and palpable sin on which you can put your finger, (for of manifest transgressions the consequence is certain,) yet without any outward stamp of wickedness there is no spiritual rule over the life, striving to subject the life to the will of GOD, no high aim sustained, no earnestness, no strength or sincerity of religious purpose, no self-sacrifice, no self-restraint over the weak points of character, no consistency with any high aim, no secret deep fervour of confession, and prayer and communion with GOD,--what can we suppose to be the real inner life of such souls? Must it not be that the Evil one, however imperceptibly, is using either the weak indulgence of passion, or the specious conventional usages of a mere worldly morality, to withdraw them from GOD, steadily influencing them by the human traditions which in general society have taken the place of the stern uncompromising laws of the Divine life, and thus even in the Christian world re-asserting his ancient hold within the empty chamber of man's nature, perhaps all the more readily because there is no startling sin forcing on the conscience the necessity of repentance, the very ease and fearlessness of these children of the more polished world only ensuring more fatally the truth that "the face of the covering cast over all people" has "blinded their eyes, lest the light of the glorious Gospel of CHRIST, Who is the Image of GOD, should shine upon them?" Holy Scripture employs a fearful expression when it speaks of "servants" of sin,--or rather taking the full and proper sense of the original word, "slaves" of sin. There may be slaves bound by silken cords, and by trammels of courtly ease, as well as by ruder and seemingly stronger bonds; but let it be considered, how truly a thoughtless indulgence, an allowed weakness, some heedless impulse of self, may be an encroachment of Satan, an avenue for more fatal assaults, such as he has ever sought as his chosen mode of approach; and that he is still "the god of this world," to overcome whom is possible only through the energy of the life of GOD reigning within the soul.
The eventful struggle between the two sides of human life, is felt more or less within all hearts; the strife between nature and grace, between the pleadings of human weakness and the exactions of the Divine perfections. The life of the natural self is ever tending to unite itself with the enemy of GOD, yielding readily to his seductions, and thus sinking under his control, while the darkness of the covering cast over the nations, gathers around the soul, shutting out the holy light, and clouding over the natural conscience, so that at last the soul yields itself a ready prey to sins from which it once shrunk back with horror. It is only the light of GOD which can break through the darkness, the indwelling Life of One Who is mighty to save, revealing to the soul its own shame, awakening it to its real danger, and stirring a new and Divine energy to overmaster its natural sloth and love of ease, lest it perish. This power from above can alone dissipate the fatal cloud, and establish within the reign of righteousness and peace.
"The plague has begun," and everywhere prevails around us. It has been stayed back in us, its power weakened, its fatal doom atoned; its death, it may be, to the end restrained, to be gradually wholly removed from our being, and destroyed, and be as though it had never been. But this salvation can be ours, only if the sacred Presence, the Priest of the everlasting covenant Himself, stand within us, "between the living and the dead," between the old and the new natures, between the ever struggling efforts of the flesh still abiding in us, and the spirit of the new and glorious life which His love has breathed into us; and wholly restore us to His own Likeness, that we may be one with Himself everlastingly. To Him, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all glory and praise for ever. Amen.