Sermon III. Vicissitudes of Men and Nations. St. Luke I. 51-53.
He hath showed strength with His Arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down princes from their thrones,
And hath exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
And the rich He hath sent empty away.
BETWEEN the second strophe of the Magnificat and the third, there is a contrast which makes the transition from one to the other appear somewhat abrupt. In the second strophe, so far as her humility would permit, Mary was speaking of herself; she foretold her place throughout all time in the memories and hearts of men; she touched upon the great things which God had done to her; she was not excluding a personal reference when she sang of that Mercy of God which unto all generations is on them that fear Him. But in the strophe which is before us to-day, she is surveying the wide field of human history; she sees God's Arm of power displayed in it conspicuously; she notes the changes which God makes in the fortunes of dynasties and nations; and His rule of action in the kingdom of grace.
"He hath showed strength with His Arm;
He hath scattered the proud in. the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down princes from their thrones,
And hath exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
And the rich He hath sent empty away."
What is the connection between that more personal history and this larger survey of the action of God in the civil and religious affairs of man? How does Mary come to have passed so rapidly from one to the other?
Here let us take note of a common experience of the human mind in all ages, whether within the sphere of inspiration or outside it. At times of deeply moved feeling, whether of joy or sorrow, the soul of man is raised above the level of its average existence, and enjoys the command of a larger outlook. The petty cares of life are lost sight of in these moments of unwonted elevation; and wide and extended horizons, which are ordinarily beyond the range of sight, come into view. From the crest of the wave that is bearing him towards an unknown shore, the mariner looks out for an instant on a distant prospect, it may be of precipitous cliffs, it may be of hills and valleys and peaceful homesteads, and all that recalls the security of a landsman's life;--but he has no sooner descried it than he sinks forthwith into the trough of the sea. And the human soul is able, when borne upwards by a wave of feeling, to perceive larger fields of truth than usual, even though the vision fades almost at the moment of its being enjoyed. Something of this kind has often been observed at the approach of death. Men who are not generally given to hazard predictions, or even to enunciate general principles, will sometimes speak on their death-beds as though they were invested with a kind of prophetic character; so large would seem to be their range of view, so clear and confident their opinion as to what will or will not happen after they are gone. A great joy will sometimes have a like result; and we may have observed how recovery from the extremity of illness, or the birth of a son, or unlooked-for deliverance from impending ruin, will lead even taciturn people to speculate aloud on the influences which govern human life, and with which they feel themselves for the moment to be in vivid contact. Mary's inspiration would not have withdrawn her from the operation of this law of the special illumination which is attendant on certain states of elevated feeling. Her own experience would lead her to reflect on God's general principles of government. For the principles on which He deals with single souls are the same principles as those which control His dealings with nations and races and Churches; the difference lies in the scale of their application. When Newton saw an apple fall from the tree, and had asked himself why it did not go upwards instead of downwards, he had discovered the law which governs the movements of the heavenly bodies; and when Mary surveyed her own history closely, she recognized the principles of God's general government of the world. She was a descendant of David's line; and she knew how in the past her ancestors had been put down from their thrones, while she, in her low estate, had been exalted to a far higher honour than is conferred by any earthly crown. Like every true Israelite, she had longed to see God's promised salvation; and lo! she was to be the Mother of the Promised One. Such experiences could not but lead her to consider the general truths which they so strikingly illustrated; but, before she announces them, she pauses to do homage to a fact which takes precedence of them, and which throws them out into full relief.
That fact is the active and never-failing Providence of Him Who ordereth all things both in heaven and earth. No fact, perhaps, is so widely confessed and so practically forgotten as God's action in the affairs of the world and of men's separate lives. Yet those who believe in God may always verify it, since it explains, and it alone explains, much which takes place; while if much also takes place which it does not explain to our apprehensions, we may reflect that, alike in what He docs and in what He permits, God, as the Infinite Being, naturally does and allows much which we could not understand. But Mary sings that "He hath showed strength with His Arm." The human arm represents man's working power. The arm executes the orders of the will; and it is in the vigorous, quickly moving arm that we recognize a will of energy and decision. Thus, in the language of the Hebrews, the word "arm" was generally used in the sense of power; as when the man of God prophesied to Eli the downfall of his family: " Behold, the days come, that I will cut off thine arm, and the arm of thy father's house;" or when Jeremiah exclaims that the "arm of Moab is broken;" or Ezekiel, speaking in the Name of God, "I have broken the arm of Pharaoh King of Egypt." A word thus employed to denote human power was naturally used of the Power of God, without, of course, implying that the Divine Being, in ages before the Incarnation, had taken on Him any likeness to the human form. Thus God is often said to deliver His people from Egypt, and from later oppressions, "with an outstretched Arm," that is, by a special exertion of His power. And a Psalmist sings how God "with His own right Hand and His holy Arm hath gotten Himself the victory;" and another, that "He had scattered His enemies abroad with His mighty Arm." And Isaiah speaks of God's showing "the lighting down of His Arm;" and he predicts that the Arm of the Lord shall be on the Chaldeans; and he invokes the Divine attribute of power in favour of captive Israel: "Awake, awake, put on thy strength, O Arm of the Lord;" and he asks, with reference to the future Redeemer, considered as embodying and exhibiting to men the Power of God, "To whom is the Arm of the Lord revealed?" These, as all readers of their Bibles would know, are only a few of the passages which might be quoted; so that Mary was using old and consecrated language when she described God's power by the metaphor of an "arm." But what does she mean by saying that God had "showed strength with His Arm"? Clearly that His incessant energy had brought about particular results whicli were calculated to impress human minds with the sense of His power, as vividly as though they had seen the heavens open, and an arm of irresistible might stretched out to shape the course of men and events according to the good pleasure of their Invisible Ruler. One of the principal uses of the historical books of the Old Testament is to accustom us to look at all history in this way; to see God's Hand and Arm in it; to trace in circumstances which might seem trivial or a matter of course, the strong action of His Holy Will. God is not less present in English than in Jewish affairs; nor has He less concern with our separate lives than with those of the forefathers and heroes and saints of Israel; the great difference is that, as a rule, we do not see Him, whereas they did. Mary, at any rate, before she goes further, will not leave the matter in doubt; God, she says, "hath showed strength with His Arm."
She passes on to note one particular series of events, running through long periods of history in which this action of the Arm of God is especially manifested--
"He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down princes from their thrones,
And hath exalted them of low degree."
Mary here, it seems, looks backward and forward; she is at once historian and prophetess; she is proclaiming principles of the Divine Government which will be as true in the remote future as they have been true in the distant past. She looks backward over the ages of history, and she beholds kingdoms which have fallen from great prosperity into utter ruin; and princes whose names were once the terror of the world, while their thrones have long since been vacant, or humbled with the dust.
"He hath scattered the proud," or literally, "the insolently proud." The word which she uses accurately describes the prevailing temper of the average occupant of an Eastern throne. It is the temper which is naturally produced by long-continued success, by the accumulation of much wealth and power. It is to be found on a small scale in men among ourselves in private life, who have had everything their own way, made money rapidly, achieved social and perhaps some political importance, and above all have had many years of unbroken health. To prosper after this fashion, and to remain humble, self-distrustful, unselfish, mindful of the real conditions of life, of the nearness of death, of the weakness of the strongest man, and of the awful Presence and Power Which is around and above us,--this is the exception rather than the rule. The rule is, that when very prosperous men are not under the influences of religion, they become haughty and self-asserting, even although they should have sufficient good taste, as distinct from religious principle, to check the exuberant exhibition of these tendencies in what they do and say. But if such a temper exists in Christendom and in private life, think what may happen when a man is in the position of one of the ancient kings of Egypt or Assyria; with unchecked power over the lives and fortunes of his subjects; with vast wealth, large armies, and a great company of accomplished slaves altogether at his disposal. Wonderful indeed it would be if, without the control of the true religion, the heart of a man in such a position did not swell with an intolerable pride; wonderful if he did not altogether lose sight of the real measure of things, of the place of every dying man in the universe of God, of his true relations with God and with his brother-men. Mary knows this, and thus she sings of God's scattering the insolently proud in, or rather by, the imaginations of their hearts. [Meyer's theory that dianoia is here a dative of more precise definition, would make the phrase too nearly tautologous. Pride cannot exist outside the dianoia thV kardiaV of the proud.] The false estimate of self, of men and things, which is engendered by the temper in question, is constantly fatal to the position which has appeared to warrant it. It overrates its own resources; it underrates the resources of others; it overrates material wealth or power; it underrates the strength of those moral convictions which lie deep in the hearts of millions of men; it is so inflated by the successes of the past, that it cannot coolly take account of the contingencies of the future; it is so full of its Austerlitz and its Jena, that it cannot anticipate what may happen amid the snows of Russia, or during a retreat from Moscow. It is not a peculiarity of the ancient, as also it is not of the modern, world; it is not less true in private than in public life, that God in His own time and way scatters to the winds highhanded insolence as being too full of self to recognize the conditions on which any position is held in this world, by any man or any people whatever.
Mary, no doubt, would often have heard her parents discuss the fall of those ancestors of hers and theirs who had last sat in Jerusalem on the throne of David; and consider how far their temper and conduct or that of some of their predecessors had helped to bring it all about; and repeat the solemn truths contained in those warnings of Jeremiah, which to the last kings of Judah and their courtiers appeared to be so unpatriotic and disloyal. But if these monarchs of what was only an inconsiderable state had to learn that they would not therefore reign because they closed themselves in cedars, their fall was, in the outward scale of events, of trifling importance when compared with that of the occupants of the mighty thrones around them. The Egyptian hieroglyphics and the cuneiform characters have yielded up their secrets to the industry of modern scholars; and we have before our eyes the proud inscriptions in which the old kings of Egypt and Assyria announced their will or proclaimed their triumphs to their subjects and to the world. Nothing is more remarkable in these inscriptions than the astonishing self-assertion which from first to last inspires them: they are the language of men who sincerely believe that no bounds to their power exist, and that to traverse their will is an unpardonable crime. The Egyptian kings believed that they were deities in human form, and they spoke and acted accordingly. [Cf. quotations from the inscriptions in Renouf's Hibbert Lecture for 1879, p. 162 sq.] More than one Syrian monarch after Alexander described himself as "God." [Antiochus II., Antiochus IV., the great oppressor of the Jews, and Antiochus VI., describe themselves on their coins as QEOS.] And the Bible bears a like witness to the temper of the ancient monarchies. Ezekiel records a saying of the contemporary Pharaoh about the Nile: "My river is mine own, and I have made it for myself." Daniel tells us that Nebuchadnezzar "walked in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon; and the king spake, and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?" And how does Ezekiel address a much less considerable potentate, the Prince of Tyre? "Thine heart is lifted up; thou hast said, I am a god, I sit in the seat of God, in the midst of the seas." In a later age there was a scene at Csesarea which illustrates the point before us, when "Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration" to the embassies from Tyre and Sidon; "and the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man."
Mary knew what had happened to Egypt; she knew what had been the fate of Tyre and of Babylon. Before her eyes there passed a long procession of vacant and ruined thrones. Assyria had gone down before Babylon; Babylon and Egypt before the Persians; the Persians before the great Alexander. Alexander's generals in Egypt and in Syria had set up monarchies which by turns oppressed Israel in the later stages of its history; never did a nation sustain a more exhausting struggle for its very life than did the Jews under the Maccabees. But these oppressors too had recently gone their way; in Egypt and Syria they had alike been humbled before the Roman power. It might be said that when Mary sang, the East was still echoing to the crash of falling thrones; and one power remained supreme on earth--at least to the apprehension of populations that had never heard of what was even then going on in India and China--the Imperial power of Rome.
But Mary is a prophetess no less than an historian; and as she could foretell her own place in the memory of the grateful Church, so she could divine what would happen to the great world-Empire. She speaks of what God has done. "He hath scattered;" "He hath put down;" "He hath exalted;" "He hath filled;" "He hath sent away." But this is sometimes the style of a prophet, who is by no means obliged to use a future tense when foretelling a future time. The vision of the future passes before the prophet's soul; and he describes what he sees as actually occurring, or as already accomplished. Thus it is that Isaiah, in the latter part of his book, foretells the captivity in Babylon as though it had already produced a state of things in the midst of which he was actually living; and the prophets sometimes use a past tense advisedly, as expressing as vividly as possible their conviction that the predicted future is as certain as the past. If, then, Mary speaks of God as having put down princes from their thrones, she may mean Roman emperors to come no less than the dynasties which had long since ruled on the Nile or on the Euphrates. When Mary sang, Rome was at the height of her power; the greatest part of the known world obeyed her laws. Her legions had planted their eagles on the Rhine, on the Danube, on the Euphrates, on the Nile, in the deserts of Africa. Her civilization, with its blessings and its vices; her institutions, her manners and motives, even her language, had followed. The world was already Roman, not only in name, but to a large extent in sympathy and purpose; and no social and political fabric that had ever bound civilized men together seemed so strong or so durable as that which stood around the throne of the Caesars. And yet the causes which had brought about the downfall of earlier powers were at work within the great Empire. Material splendour had blinded men's eyes to the secret symptoms of decay, and to the truths and virtues which could alone avert it; and at last the crash came. It nearly came in the third century after Christ, two hundred years before its time. It did come with overwhelming terrors in the fifth, when everything that had been venerated for centuries, save only the Church of God, was involved in one vast catastrophe, and when Goths and Huns, and Vandals and Lombards, swept like waves of angry men over the wreck of the old civilization. Thus at last the words were fulfilled which St. John had heard in ecstasy, "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen!"
But the work of the Arm of God, as Mary watches it from afar, is not merely or chiefly destructive; it scatters and destroys only that it may gather and rebuild. As the Church says with such truth and beauty, "God declareth His Almighty Power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity." [Collect for Eleventh Sunday after Trinity.] When Mary sings that God hath exalted the humble and meek, or rather, them of "low estate," she may well be thinking of the position of Israel among the nations of the world; surrounded by mighty monarchies, while itself occupying a territory not much larger than an English county, yet chosen to be the people of Revelation, and to exercise an altogether unrivalled influence on the future of the human race. Or she may have in her mind such careers as those of Joseph at the court of Egypt in one age, and of Daniel and Esther at the courts of Babylon and Persia in another. Nor can she but have borne in her grateful soul an ever-present and overwhelming sense of the exceptional honour put upon herself. What royal distinctions were in reality ever comparable to hers who was the chosen Mother of Emmanuel; to hers, of whom--as St. Paul said of her race--as concerning the flesh, Christ came, Who is over all, God blessed for ever?
And may we not here also observe that Mary's words have a reference to the future as well as to the past? Does she not already descry a far-off time, when the disciples of the Crucified would succeed to the empire of the world; when "the meek would inherit the earth, and be refreshed in the multitude of peace"? The triumph of Christianity, notwithstanding the faults of individual Christians, was on the whole a victory of purity and patience, of humility and conscientiousness, over the corruption, violence, pride, Jack of serious moral principle, which so largely characterized the social fabric of the old empire. And Mary beheld the coming victory; she saw that it was involved in the angel's promise respecting her Son. "He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end."
How far happier would men be, if they could only be sure that their future place in another world, if not here, will be the reverse--I do not say of their place, but--of their temper, whether of self-effacement or of self-assertion, in this! Doubtless there have been paupers who have cherished in their rags the pride of discontent in a measure not unworthy to be compared with Sennacherib's pride of success; and there have been kings whom crown and sceptre, and the fascinations of power, and the adulations of a court, have not rendered incapable of cultivating the humble and patient temper of a Christian saint. The position counts for little; the important point is the temper. As it is the self-asserting temper which God deposes from its throne of pride, so it is the self-renouncing temper which He exalts to His realm of glory. How could it be otherwise, when the Most Holy, being in the form of God, did not deem His equality with God a prize to be eagerly grasped, but emptied Himself of His glory, and took on Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man, in order that this same mind might be in us which was also in Himself, Christ Jesus? And what more natural and fitting than that the Mother of the Incarnate God should proclaim a moral truth which is the first lesson of the Incarnation of her Son?
Corresponding with this law of the depression of the insolent and the exaltation of the unpretending, is God's rule of administration in the purely spiritual world. They who are sensible of their needs and deficiencies, who are seeking truth and longing for grace, are, sooner or later, satisfied. They who deem themselves to have need of nothing from on high, who are sure that they see at once to the bottom of every question, who hold that they can do right without any aid from the Author of all goodness--the self-reliant and the self-complacent,--these men are excluded from a share in the Divine bounty.
"He hath filled the hungry with good things;
But the rich He hath sent empty away."
This principle, that a sense and confession of want must precede in intelligent men any communication of God's best blessings, is in keeping, as Mary's metaphor suggests, with the law of nature. If food is to invigorate the body, if it is not to be an incumbrance, and a cause of discomfort and disease, it must be welcomed by appetite. Appetite is nature's certificate that food will not be injurious. And if a soul is to be benefited by truth or grace, that soul must desire the blessing. No fact is more constantly insisted on in Holy Scripture than this; unless it be another fact which follows as a consequence, namely, that God withholds His best blessings when men do not seek them.
This is the constant teaching of the Old Testament. "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." "Call upon Me," says God, by the mouth of Jeremiah, to Israel--"call upon Me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not." "If," says Solomon, "thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; if thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God." And so a Psalmist during the exile sings: "Blessed are they that keep God's testimonies, and seek Him with their whole heart. . . I have had as great delight in the way of Thy testimonies as in all manner of riches. . . . Open Thou mine eyes, that I may see the wondrous things out of Thy Law. . . . My soul hath longed for Thy salvation, and I have a good hope because of Thy Word. Mine eyes long sore for Thy Word, saying, O when wilt Thou comfort me? ... I have longed for Thy saving health, O Lord; and in Thy Law is my delight. O let my soul live, and it shall praise Thee."
This teaching and these prayers would have been familiar to Mary; and her Son and Lord confirmed their import in after-years. "Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."
On the other hand, Mary proclaims that "the rich He hath sent empty away." God does not force Himself on those who think that they can do without Him. He offers them His good things; and if He meets with the indifference of an imaginary sufficiency, He passes on. They who deem themselves too well off to need Him, are taken at their word; and they cannot complain if it be so. So it was in the days of our Lord and His Apostles. Herod, Pilate, Felix, all came close to truth, and were sent empty away; while Simeon and Anna, and first one, and then another Apostle--the fishermen, the tax-gatherer, the tent-maker--and later on, Cornelius the centurion, were filled with the good things of faith in the Unseen, and hope in an endless inheritance, and love towards God and man. And as with individuals, so with classes of men. The average Greek, satisfied with his shallow pride of culture, had no eye for the realities of the moral world, or for his own deep need of pardon and grace. He toyed with some one of the current philosophies; and if it told him nothing certainly about those things which it most concerns a thinking man to know, it at least produced in him a sense of tranquil satisfaction with life and with his own powers. And the average Jew was either a hard-headed sceptic like the Sadducees, or a man of phrases and proprieties like that Pharisee who is apostrophized by St. Paul: "Behold, thou art called a Jew, and restest in the Law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest His Will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the Law; and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the Law." This is a picture of the temper of a great number of Jews in the Apostolic age; and we can understand how, in such a state of mind, "they being ignorant of God's righteousness, went about to establish their own righteousness, not submitting themselves to the righteousness of God." The earlier chapters of the Epistle to the Eomans are devoted to breaking down, in Gentile ° and Jewd alike, this fatal temper of satisfaction with self, and to proving that, since all the world is guilty before God, all need that gift of pardon and peace which is offered by His Blessed Son, Incarnate and Crucified for men.
This consideration may enable us to answer two questions which are often asked nowadays, and which are sufficiently practical in their bearings.
And first, Why do so many people, who have opportunities of knowing Christian truth, and have good natural abilities, often know so little about its real character?
The answer, at least in a great many cases, is, that they do not make a serious effort to find out what it is. They take it for granted that while you cannot master a science or learn a new language without some serious trouble, religious knowledge will somehow come to them as a matter of course. They have learnt something about it many years ago, and that, they think, will do. They give the real energy and vigour of their minds to the things of this world; they reserve a few spare moments for religion. Religion, they say to themselves, being meant for all, can be thoroughly understood, with a very little effort, by any person of average ability; and to spend too much labour on it would be a waste of time.
Now, natural ability has nothing necessarily to do with the real apprehension of religious truth. It can master the surroundings of religion; the evidences on which the Creed depends; the historical circumstances which accompanied the appearance of our Lord among men; the outline of Church history; the controversies which have arisen on religious matters from century to century. But the essential point, the appeal which our Lord makes to the moral and spiritual faculty in a man, has no more to do with his intellectual capacity than it has with his accomplishments as an athlete or as an artist. And unless the spiritual faculty be on the alert, hungering to be satisfied with the good things of God, religious truth falls dead upon the soul, whatever a man's natural ability may be. It is one thing to read about religion, and to use religious language; and a very good thing too, as far as it goes. But it is another to perceive the reality of religion from its perfect adaptation to the wants and aspirations of a man's own soul. And this perception is impossible if we allow ourselves to think that, as we already know all about religion, there is no need for further trouble. However much he may have learnt about God, a true Christian is always learning; and he ever bears in mind, that, since he, a finite being, is face to face with the Infinite, there must always be something, or rather much, to learn. He is always forgetting those things that are behind, and pressing forward to those things that are before. The moment he ceases to do this; ceases to desire to know more of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ; the pores of his soul close up, and a process of spiritual atrophy begins to develop itself. To him, not less than to souls that are choked with the cares and riches and pleasures of this life, is addressed the solemn warning: "Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see."
And the other question is, Why do many of us apparently get so little moral and spiritual strength from the Holy Communion? Considering what that Sacrament really is, and Who it is That we meet in it, and the purpose with which He comes, we may wonder that it is, in so many cases, to all appearance, so unfruitful in spiritual results.
Well, my brethren, there may be some other answers to that very important question; but one answer, doubtless, is that we do not sufficiently long for it. Our Lord Himself said of the last Passover at which He met His disciples, "With desire have I desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;" and every communicant ought to be able to say to our Lord, before each Communion, "With desire have I desired once more to receive this Thy Sacrament before I die." Such desire must grow out of and be prompted by an unaffected sense of our weakness, nay, of our impotence, without the strengthening Presence and aid of our Lord Jesus Christ; but to a soul that has any relish for spiritual things, this desire is not less spontaneous than is the craving for food in a hungry man. Such a desire prompts and guides preparation for Communion; review of conscience, confession of sins, prayers for the dispositions of repentance, faith, hope and love, which befit the approach to this great means of grace. The spirit of this desire is that of the Psalmist in exile on the hills of Bashan, who, as his thoughts wandered to the services in the distant temple, beheld at his feet the wild gazelles tracking the water-courses that furrowed the mountain-sides in search of some spring which might slake their thirst: "Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God: when shall I come to appear before the Presence of God?"
May our Lord Jesus Christ, of His great Mercy, empty us of all which so satisfies the soul as to make it insensible to His supreme attractions; and then may He fill us with such true love of Himself, that we, loving Him above all things, may obtain His promises, which exceed all that we can desire!