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The thing is not merely possible—but we see in it a stamp of likelihood to all that experience tells us of the nature or the habitudes of man. Is there no such thing as his having a taste for the beauties of landscape, and, at the same time, turning with disgust from what he calls the methodism of peculiar Christianity? Might not he be an admirer of poetry, and at the same time, nauseate with his whole heart, the doctrine and the language of the New Testament? Might not he have a fancy that can be regaled by some fair and well-formed vision of immortality—and, at the same time, have
no practical hardihood whatever for the exercise of labouring in the prescribed way after the meat that endureth? Surely, surely, this is all very possible—and it is just as possible, and many we believe to be the instances we have of it in real life, when an eloquent description of heaven is exquisitely felt, and wakens in the bosom the raptures of the sincerest admiration, among those who feel an utter repugnancy to the heaven of the Bible—and are not moving a single inch through the narrowness of the path which leads to it.
“Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered. And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee; and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed. And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee; and he saith, I am not learned.”—Isaiah xxix. 9–12.
WHAT is affirmed in these verses of a vision and prophecy, holds so strikingly true of God's general revelation to the world, that we deem the lesson contained in them to be not of partial, but permanent application—and we therefore proceed immediately, to the task of addressing this lesson, both to the learned and unlearned of the present day. Let me, in the first place, dwell for a little on the complaints which are uttered by these two classes respecting the hidden and impenetrable character of the book of God's communication—and, in the second place, try to explain the nature of that sleep which is upon both, and in virtue of which both are alike in a state of practical blindness to the realities of the divine word—and, in the third place, raise a short application upon the whole argument. I. There is a complaint uttered in these verses, first by the learned—and, secondly, by the unlearned—and we shall consider each of them in order. 1st. If a book be closed down by a material seal, then, till that seal be broken, there lies a material obstacle even in the way of him who is able to read the contents of it. And we have no doubt, that the possession of the art of reading would form the most visible and prominent distinction, between the learned and the unlearned in the days of Isaiah. But it no longer, at least in our country, forms the distinction between these two classes. Many a man who can barely read in these days, will still say, and say with truth, that he is not learned. We
must now therefore strike a higher mark of distinction—and, in reference to the Bible, such a mark can be specified. This book is often made the subject of a much higher exercise of scholarship than the mere reading of it. It may be read in its original languages. It may be the theme of many a laborious commentary. The light of contemporaneous history may be made to shine upon it, by the diligence of an exploring antiquarian. Those powers and habits of criticism, which are of so much avail towards the successful elucidation of the mind and meaning of other authors, may all be transferred to that volume of which God is the author--and what, after all this, it may be asked, is the seal or the obstacle which stands in the way of learned men of our present generation? How is it that any of them can now join in the complaint of their predecessors, in the days of Isaiah—and say, I cannot read this book because it is sealed? Or, is there any remaining hindrance still, in virtue of which, the criti and the grammarians, and the accomplish theologians of our age, are unable to reach the real and effective understanding of the words of this prophecy? Yes, my brethren, there is such an obstruction as you now inquire aster—and it is wonderful to tell, how little the mere erudition of Scripture helps the real discernment of Scripture—how it may be said, of many of its most classical o that though having eyes, they see not, an though having ears, they hear not—how doctrine, which if actually perceived and credited, would bring the realities of an eternal world to bear with effect upon their conduct, is, operatively speaking, just as weak as if they did not apprehend it even in its literal significancy—how the mere verbiage of the matter is all in which they appear to be conversant, without any actual hold of sight, or of conviction, on the substance of the matter—how dexterously they can play at logic with the terms of the communication, and how dimly and deficiently they apprehend the truths of it—how, after having exhausted the uttermost resources of scholarship on the attempt of forcing an entrance into the region of spiritual manifestation, they only find themselves labouring at a threshold of height and of difficulty, which they cannot scale—how, as if struck with blindness, like the men of Sodom, they weary themselves in vain to find the door— and after having reared their stately argumentation about the message of peace, they have no faith; about the doctrine of godliness, they have no godliness. And it is not enough to say, that all this is not due to the want of discernment, but to the want of power—for the power lies in the truth—and the truth has only to be seen or believed, that it may have the power. The reflection may never have occurred to you—but it is not the less just on that account, how little of actual faith there is in the world. Many call it a mere want of impression. We call it a want of belief. Did we really believe, that there was a God in existence—did we really believe, that with the eye of a deeply interested judge, he was now scrutinizing all the propensities of our heart, and appreciating, with a view to future retribution, all the actions of our history—did we really believe, that sin was to him that hateful enemy with which he could keep no terms, and to which he could give no quarter; and that with every individual who had fallen into it, either in its guilt it must be expiated, and in its presence be finally done away, or the burden of a righteous vengeance would rest upon his person through eternity—did we really believe, that in these circumstances of deepest urgency, a way of redemption has been devised, and that to all whom the tidings of it had reached the offer of deliverance, both from sin in its condemnation, and from sin in its power, was made, through the atoning blood and sanctifying spirit of a complete and omnipotent Saviour—did we really believe, that such an offer was lying at the door of every individual, and that his reliance upon its honesty constituted his acceptance of the offer—did we really believe, that throughout the fugitive period of our abode in this world, which was so soon to pass away, God in Christ was beseeching every one of us to reconciliation; and even now, as if at the place of breaking forth, was
ready to begin that great renewing process whereby there is made a commencement of holiness upon earth, and a consummation both of holiness and happiness in heaven--were these, which we all know to be the truths of Christianity, actually believed, the power of them upon our hearts would come, and come immediately, in the train of the #. of them by our understandings. f we remain unquickened by the utterance of them, it is because, in the true sense of the term, we remain unconvinced by them. The utterance of them may be heard as a very pleasant song—and the representation of them be viewed as a very lovely picture —but the sorce of a felt and present reality is wanting to the whole demonstration. And all that reason can do is to adjust the steps of the demonstration—and all that eloquence can do, is to pour forth the utterance---and all that conception can do is to furnish its forms and its colouring to the picture. And after learning has thus lavished on the task the whole copiousness of its manifold ingredients, may we behold in the person of its proudest votary, that his Christianity to him is nothing better than an aerial phantom—that it is of as little operation in dis}..."; sense, and nature, and ungodliness rom his heart, as if it were but a nonentity, or a name—that to his eye a visionary dimness hangs over the whole subject matter of the testimony of the Bible—and still untranslated into the life, and the substance, and the reality of these things, he may join in the complaint of the text, as if they lay sealed in deepest obscurity from his contemplation. Make what you like in the way of argument, of so many simple conceptions, if the conceptions themselves do not carry the impress of vividness and reality along with them—the reasoning, of which they form the materials, may be altogether .." and the doctrine in which it terminates, be held forth as altogether impregnable—yet will it share in all the obscurity which attaches to the primary elements of its formation—and while nature can manage the logical process which leads from the first simple ideas, to the ultimate and made-out conclusion, she cannot rid herself of the dimness in which, to her unrenewed eye, the former stand invested; and she must, therefore, leave the latter in equal dimness. The learned just labour as helplessly under a want of an impression of the reality of this whole matter, as the unlearned—and if this be true of those among them, who, with learning and nothing more, have actually tried to decipher the meaning of God’s communication—if this be true of many a priest and many a theologian, with whom Christianity is a science, and the study of the Bible is the labour and the business of their profession—what can we expect of those among the learned, who, in the pursuits of a secular philosophy, never enter into contact with the Bible, either in its doctrine or in its language, except when it is obtruded on them Little do they know of our men of general literature, who have not observed the utter listlessness, if not the strong and active contempt wherewith many of them hear the doctrine of the book of God's counsel uttered in the phraseology of that book—how, in truth, their secret impression of the whole matter is, that it is a piece of impenetrable mysticism—how, in their eyes, there is a cast of obscurity over all the peculiarities of the Gospel—and is asked to give their attention thereto, they promptly repel the imposition under the feeling of a hopeless and insuperable darkness, which sits in obsolete characters over the entire face of the evangelical record. There may be bright and cheering examples to the contrary, of men in the highest of our literary walks, who, under a peculiar teaching, have learned what they never learned from all the lessons of the academy. But apart from this peculiar influence, be assured that learning is of little avail. The sacred page may wear as hieroglyphical an aspect to the lettered, as to the unlettered. It lies not with any of the powers or processes of ordinary education to dissipate that blindness, wherewith the god of this world hath blinded the mind of him who believes not. To make the wisdom of the New Testament his wisdom, and its spirit his spirit, and its language his best-loved and best-understood language, there must be a higher influence upon the mind, than what lies in human art, or in human expla– nation. And till this is brought to pass, the doctrine of the atonement, and the doctrine of regeneration, and the doctrine of fellowship with the Father and the Son, and the doctrine of a believer's progressive holiness, under the moral and spiritual power of the truth as it is in Jesus, will, as to his own personal experience of its meaning, remain so many empty sounds, or so many deep and hidden mysteries—and just as effectually, as if the book were held together by an iron clasp, which he has not strength to unclose, may he say of the same book lying open and legible before him, that he cannot read it, because it is sealed. 2. So much for the complaint of the learned; and as for the complaint of the unlearned, it happily, in the literal sense of it, is not applicable to the great majority of our immediate countrymen, even in the very humblest walks of society. They can put together its letters, and pronounce its words, and make a daily exercise, if they choose, of one or more of its chapters. They have learning enough to carry them thus far, but not so far as to keep them from joining the unlearned of my text in the
complaint that I am not learned. They cannot, for example, estimate the criticism of many an expounder. They have not time to traverse the weary extent of many a ponderous and elaborate commentary. And those who have had much of Christian intercourse with the poor, must have remarked the effect which their sense of this inferiority has upon many an imagination --how it is felt by not a few of them, that they labour under a hopeless disadvantage, because they want the opportunities of a higher and a more artificial scholarship, and that if they could only get nearer to their teachers in respect of literary attainment, they would be nearer that wisdom which is unto salvation, and that though they can read the book in the plainest sense of the term, they camot read it with any saving or salutary effect, just because, in the language of my text, they say that they are not learned. And thus it is, that the man who has the literary accomplishments after which they sigh, meets with two distinct exhibitions to instruct and to humble him. The first is, when the poor look up to him as to one who, because he has the scholarship of Christianity, must have the saving knowledge of it also, when he intimately feels that the luminary of science may shine full upon him, while not one ray to cheer or to enlighten, may pass into his heart from the luminary of the Gospel. The second is, when he observes among the poor, those who live, and who rejoice under the power of a revelation, to which himself is a stranger, those who can discern a beauty and an evidence in the doctrine of Christ, which have never beamed with full radiance upon his own understanding—those whose feelings and whose experience move in a consonancy with the truths of the New Testament, which, in his own experience, he never felt—those whose daily path bespeaks the guidance of a wisdom which never yet shone upon his own way, and who are blest with a peace and a joy in believing, which have never found entrance into his own desolate bosom. This gives us a new sight of the peculiarity which lies in the Bible—and by which it stands distinguished from all other compositions. There may remain a seal upon its meaning to him, who, in the ordinary sense of the term, is learned, while the seal may be removed, and the meaning lie open as the light of day to him, who in the same sense is unlearned. It may come with all the force of a felt and perceived reality upon the one, while the reality is not perceived, and therefore not felt by the other. To the man of literary accomplishment, the report of eternal things may reach no other influence than that of a sound upon his ear, or of a shadowy representation upon the eye of his fancy. To the unlettered workman, it may reach an influence as substan tial and as practical, as the report of to-morrow’s work, or to-morrow's wages. The latter may be led to shape his actual measures by the terms of the message of revelation. The former may lavish all the so of science, and subtlety, and specution upon the terms—and yet be as unouched in his personal habits by all the information which it lays before him, as if the message were untrue. It is not learning that has made the difference; for the veil may be upon the eyes of him who is rich in this acquirement, while it is taken away from him who, in respect of scholarship, is poor, and blind, and destitute. There is not a single weapon in the whole armoury of human learning, by which the proudest of its votaries can sorce his entrance into a region of spiritual manifestation. The wise and prudent cannot, on the strength of any of their own peculiar resources, they cannot, with all their putting forth of desire and energy, attain unto those things which are revealed unto babes. There is a barrier here against which all the machinery of the schools may be made to play without effect. And it would look as is argument might as soon remove the film from the eye of him who labours under a natural blindness, as dissipate that thick and impalpable obscurity which lies in the way of all spiritual discernment. There are two immediate uses to which all this may be rendered subservient. The first, to rebuke the poor for an apology which they are sometimes heard to make, when convicted of blindness and ignorance in regard to the essential truths of Christianity. The second, while we do not sustain the apology, to encourage them with the assurance, that it is just as competent for them to be wise unto salvation, as for those in the higher and more cultivated walks of human society. In pressing home the truths and overtures of Christianity on the poor, we often meet with the very answer of the text, “I am not learned.” This answer is not copied by them from the text. But the text, true as the Bible strikingly and universally is, in all its descriptions of Nature, copied it from them. It is in truth a very frequent conception among them, that had they the advantages of a higher scholarship than what they actually possess, they would be nearer the wisdom which is unto salvation. This ministers a kind of false security to their hearts, under the consciousness of a lack of knowledge, and that too of vital necessity to their immortal well-being. They think that there is an ignorance which nécessity attaches to their condition; and that this should alleviate the burden of their condemnation, in that they know not God. They spend the day in drudgery, and think,
that on this account, they must a so spend it in a state of desolation, as to the whole light and learning of the Gospel. They are apt to look upon it, not as their fault, but as their doom, that they are strangers to the doctrine of peace and of righteousness; and often regard it to be as effectual a plea for justifying their ignorance of what is sacred, as of what is profane and secular, that they are not learned. Now we refuse this apology altogether; and we should like to warn you in tim that it will-stand you in no stead, nor be o any avail to you in the day of reckoning. The word of the Lord is in your hands, and you can at least read it. The candle of the Lord may be lighted in your hearts, and you can at least pray for it. The Gospel is preached unto you as well as unto others; and you can at least attend to it. There will no incurable darkness settle upon your minds, unless you love the darkness. There will no fixed and obstinate unbelief adhere to your understandings, unless your deeds are evil. This will be your condemnation, if you are found to be without knowledge and without faith. But be assured, that all the aids and promises of Christianity are unto you as well as unto others; and if you grieve not the spirit by your wilful resistance—if you put not at a distance from you that Holy Ghost which is given to those who obey him, by your disobedience—if you despise not the grace of God by your daily and habitual neglect of those mercies—in the use of which alone, God undertakes to meet you with its influences —then be assured, that all the comforts of the Gospel, and all its high and heavenly anticipations, will descend more richly upon you, than upon the noble and wealthy of our land; and let your work through the week be what it may, there is not an hour of it which may not be sweetened by a blessing from above, which may not be regaled and heightened into rapture by the smile of a present Deity. It is not merely to blame you, that we thus speak. It is further to encourage you, my friends, and that, by an assurance which we cast abroad among you, and that, too, with all the confidence of one who has the warrant of inspiration. The knowledge which is life everlasting, is just as accessible to the poor, as it is to the rich, who have time to prosecute, and money to purchase education. Whatever the barrier may be, which rises as a wall of separation between Nature and the Gospel, it is just as impenetrable to the learned as it is to the unlearned —and however the opening through that barrier is made, it is made as often and oftener, for the purpose of sending a beam of spiritual light into the heart of the latter, than into the heart of the former. The Gospel may as effectually be preached unto the
poor as unto the wealthy. Simply grant to the one the capacity of reading, and the opportunity of hearing, and he is, at the very least, in as fair circumstances for becoming one of the children of light as the other. In respect to human science, there is a distinction between them. In respect of the gospel, that distinction is utterly levelled and done away. Whatever the incapacity of Nature be for the lessons and the light of revelation, it is not learning, commonly so called, which resolves the incapacity; and until that peculiar instrument be actually put forth which can alone resolve it, the book of revelation may pass and repass among them; the one complaining that he cannot read it, because he is not learned; the other equally complaining that he cannot read it, because it is sealed. II. Let us now proceed, in the second place, to explain a circumstance which stands associated in our text, with the incapacity both of learned and unlearned, to discover the meaning of God’s communications; and that is the spirit of a deep sleep which had closed the eyes of the people, and buried in darkness and insensibility the prophets, and the rulers, and the seers, as well as the humblest and most ignorant of the land. The connexion between the one circumstance and the other is quite palpable. If a peasant and a philosopher, for example, were both literally asleep before me, and that so profoundly, as that no voice of mine could awaken them; then they are just in the same circumstances, with regard to any demonstration which I address to their understandings. The powers and acquirements of the latter would be of no avail to him in such a case. They are in a state of dormancy, and that is just as firm an obstacle in the way of my reasoning, or of my information, as if they were in a state of non-existence. Neither would it at all help the conveyance of my meaning to their mind, that while dead to all perception of the argument which issued from my lips, or even of the sound which is its vehicle, the minds of both of them were most busily alive and active amongst the imagery of a dream; the one dreaming too, perhaps, in the style of some high intellectual pursuit; and the other dreaming in the style of some common and illiterate occupation. Such, indeed, may be the intoxication of their fancy, that in respect of mental delirium, they may be said to be drunken, but not with wine, and to stagger, but not with strong drink. Still, though in the language of the text, I should cry out, and cry, it may be just as difficult to awaken them to a sense of what I am saying, out of a reverie of imagination, as it is to awaken them out of a simple and unconscious slumber. Nay, the very engagement of their
fancy, with its ever-floating and aerial pictures, may have the effect of more strongly detaining the mind from the call which I vainly lift, for the purpose of arousing them. And as the visionary scenes, whether of bliss, or of anxiety, or of sadness, or of eager pursuit, or of bright or of fearful anticipation, pass successively before them, the reality of my waking address may fall unheeded upon each; and though the one be learned, and the other be unlearned, it, in respect of their listening to me, and their understanding of me, totally annuls this difference between them, that their eyes are firmly closed, and a deep sleep is poured upon them both. Such, it is possible to conceive, may be the profoundness of this lethargy, as to be unmoved by the most loud and terrifying intimations. I may list this note of alarm, that a fire has broken out in the premises, and is on the eve of bursting into their apartment—and yet such may be the deathlike sleep of both, that both may lie motionless and unconscious on the very confines of their approaching dissolution. Or, what would be more affecting still, both, in the airy chase of their own imagination, may be fully engrossed among the pictures and the agitations of a dream, and be inwardly laughing, or crying, or striving, or pursuing, or rejoicing; and that, while the flame is at their door, which in a few minutes is to seize upon and to destroy them. When a man is asleep and dreaming, he is alive only to his own fancies, and dead to all the realities of the visible world around him. Awaken him, and he becomes intelligent and alive to these realities, but there may still be other realities to which he is not yet awakened. There may remain a torpor upon his faculties, in virtue of which, he may have as little sense and as little feeling of certain near and impending realities, as the man who is wrapt in the insensibility of his midnight repose has of earth and of all its concerns. The report of an angry God, and a coming eternity, may as little disturb him as the report of a conflagration in the premises, disturbs the sleeping inmate besore he is awakened. It is not learned argument which works out, in the one case, the escape of him who is in danger. Could we only awaken him, we would need no argument. Neither is it learned argument which works out, in the other case, the escape of him who is in danger. It is the cry of “Awake, O sinner,” listed with power enough to arouse him out of his †. ritual lethargies. It is the shaking of soul out of those heavy slumbers, under which it is weighed down to deep and strong insensibility, about the awful urgencies of guilt, and danger, and death, by which it is encompassed. When the house which covers a sleeping peasant and a sleeping