MANY writers upon Homiletics condemn in unmeasured terms even the occasional spiritualizing of a text. F15 “Select texts,” say they, “which give a plain, literal sense; never travel beyond the obvious meaning of the passage; never allow yourself to accommodate or adapt; it is an artifice of men of artificial culture, a trick of mountebanks, a miserable display of bad taste and impudence.” Honor to whom honor is due, but I humbly beg leave to dissent from this learned opinion, believing it to be more fastidious than correct, more plausible than true. F16 A great deal of real good may be done by occasionally taking forgotten, quaint, remarkable, out-of-the-way texts; and I feel persuaded that if we appeal to a jury of practical, successful preachers, who are not theorizers, but men actually in the field, we shall have a majority in our favor. It may be that the learned rabbis of this generation are too sublime and celestial to condescend to men of low estate; but we who have no high culture, or profound learning, or enchanting eloquence to boast of, have deemed it wise to use the very method which the grandees have proscribed; for we find it one of the best ways of keeping out of the rut of dull formality, and it yields us a sort of salt with which to give flavor to unpalatable truth. Many great soulwinners have felt it meet to give a fillip to their ministry, and to arrest their people’s attention by now and then striking out a path which had not been trodden heretofore. Experience has not taught them that they were in error, but the reverse. Within limit, my brethren, be not afraid to spiritualize, or to take singular texts. Continue to look out passages of Scripture, and not only give their plain meaning, as you are bound to do, but also draw from them meanings which may not lie upon their surface. Take the advice for what it is worth, but I seriously recommend you to show the superfine critics that everybody does not worship the golden image which they have; set up. I counsel you to employ spiritualizing within certain limits and boundaries, but I pray you do not, under cover of this advice, rush headlong into incessant and injudicious “imaginings,” as George Fox would call them. Do not drown yourselves because you are recommended to bathe, or hang yourselves on an oak because tannin is described as a valuable astringent. An allowable thing carried to excess is a vice, even as fire is a good servant in the grate, but a bad master when raging in a burning house. Too much even of a good thing surfeits and disgusts, and in no case is this fact more sure than in the one before us.
I. The first canon to be observed is this — do not violently strain a text by illegitimate spiritualizing. This is a sin against common sense. How dreadfully the word of God has been mauled and mangled by a certain band of preachers who have laid texts on the rack to make them reveal what they never would have otherwise spoken. Mr. Slopdash, of whom Rowland Hill tells us in his Village Dialogues, is but a type of a numerous generation. That worthy is described as delivering himself of a discourse upon, “I had three white baskets on my head,” from the dream of Pharaoh’s baker, Upon this the “thrice-anointed ninny-hammer,” as a friend of mine would call him, discoursed upon the doctrine of the Trinity! A dear minister of Christ, a venerable and excellent brother, one of the most instructive ministers in his county, told me that he missed one day a laboring man and his wife from his chapel. He missed them again and again, Sunday after Sunday, and one Monday, meeting the husband in the street, he said to him, “Well, John, I have not seen you lately.” “No sir,” was the reply, “We did not seem to profit under your ministry as we used to do.” “Indeed, John, I am very sorry to hear it.” “Well, me and my missis likes the doctrines of grace, and therefore we’ve gone to hear Mr. Bawler lately.” “Oh! you mean the good man at the High Calvinist Meeting?” “Yes, sir, and we are so happy; we get right good food there, sixteen ounces to the pound. We were getting half starved under your ministry — though I always shall respect you as a man, sir.” “All right, my friend; of course you ought to go where you get good for your soul, I only hope it is good; but what did you get last Sunday?” “Oh! we had a most refreshing time, sir. In the morning we had — I don’t seem to like to tell you — however, we had really a most precious time.” “Yes, but what was it, John?” “Well, sir, Mr. Bawler led us blessedly into that passage, ‘Art thou a man given to appetite? Put a knife to thy throat when thou sittest before a ruler,” “Whatever did he make out of that.” “Well, sir, I can tell you what he made out of it, but I should like to know first what you would have said upon it.” “I don’t know, John; I don’t think I should have taken it at all, but if I must have spoken about it, I should have said that a person given to eating and drinking should take care what he was about when he was in the presence of great men, or he would ruin himself. Gluttony even in this life is ruinous.” “Ah!” said the man, “that is your dead-letter way of rendering it. As I told my missis the other day, ever since we have been to hear Mr.
Bawler, the Bible has been opened up to us so that we can see a great deal more in it than we used to do.” “Yes, but what did Mr. Bawler tell you about his text?” “Well, he said a man given to appetite was a young convert, who is sure to have a tremendous appetite for preaching, and always wants food; but he ain’t always nice about what sort of food it is.” “What next, John?” “He said that if the young convert went to sit before a ruler — that is to say, a legal preacher, or a duty-faith man, it would be the worse for him.” “But how about the knife, John?” “Well, sir, Mr. Bawler said it was a very dangerous thing to hear legal preachers, it would be sure to ruin the man; and he might just as well cut his throat at once, sir!” The subject was, I suppose, the mischievous effects of young Christians listening to any preachers but those of the hyper school; and the moral drawn from it was, that sooner than this brother should go to hear his former minister, he had better cut his throat! That was accommodating considerably! Ye critics, we give over such dead horses as these to your doggish teeth. Rend and devour as ye will, we will not upbraid. We have heard of another performer who delivered his mind upon Proverbs 21:17. “He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich.” The Proverbs are a favorite field for spiritualizers to disport themselves withal. Our worthy disposed of the proverb in this fashion: “ ‘He that loveth pleasure, that is, the Christian who enjoys the means of grace, ‘shall be a poor man,’ that is, he shall be poor in spirit; ‘and he that loveth wine and oil;’ that is to say, rejoices in covenant provisions, and enjoys the oil and wine of the gospel, ‘shall not be rich,’ that is, he shall not be rich in his own esteem;” showing the excellence of those who are poor in spirit, and how they shall enjoy the pleasures of the gospel — a very proper sentiment, but my carnal eyes fail to see it in the text. You have all heard of William Huntingdon’s famous rendering of the passage in Isaiah 11:8: “The sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.” “ ‘The sucking child,’ that is, the babe in grace, ‘shall play on the hole of the asp,’ ‘the asp,’ that is, the Arminian: ‘the hole of the, asp,’ that is, the Arminian’s mouth.” Then follows an account of the games in which simple minds are more than a match for Arminian wisdom. Professors of the other school of divinity have usually had the good sense not to return the compliment, or the Antinomians might have found themselves ranked with cockatrices, and their opponents boastfully defying them at the mouths of their dens. Such abuse only injures those who use it. Theological differences are better expounded and enforced than by such buffoonery.
Ludicrous results sometimes arise from sheer stupidity inflated with conceit. One instance may suffice. A worthy minister told me the other day that he had been preaching lately to his people upon the nine and twenty knives of Ezra. I am sure he would handle these edged tools discreetly, but I could not refrain from saying that I hoped he had not imitated the very sage interpreter who saw in that odd number of knives a reference to the four-and-twenty elders of the Apocalypse.
A passage in the Proverbs reads as follows: “For three things the earth is disquieted, and for four which it cannot bear: for a servant when he reigneth; and a fool when he is filled with meat: for an odious woman when she is married; and an handmaid that is heir to her mistress.” A raving spiritualizer declares that this is a sweet picture of the work of grace in the soul, and shows what it is that disquiets Arminians, and sets them by the ears. “ ‘A servant when he reigneth,’ that is, poor servants like ourselves, when we are made to reign with Christ; ‘a fool when he is filled with meat,’ that is, poor foolish men like us, when we are fed with the finest of the wheat of gospel truth; ‘an odious woman when she is married,’ that is, a sinner when he is united to Christ; ‘A handmaid that is heir to her mistress,’ that is, when we poor handmaids that were under the law, bondslaves, come into the privileges of Sarah, and become heirs to our own mistress.”
These are a few specimens of ecclesiastical curiosities which are as numerous and valuable as the relics which are every day gathered so plentifully on the battle-field of Waterloo, and accepted by the more verdant as priceless treasures. But we have surfeited you, and have no wish to waste more of your time. From all such rank absurdity need you be admonished to turn away! Such maunderings dishonor the Bible, are an insult to the common-sense of the hearers, and a deplorable lowering of the minister. This, however, is no more the spiritualizing which we recommend to you than the thistle, in Lebanon is the cedar of Lebanon. Avoid that childish trifling and outrageous twisting of texts which will make you a wise man among fools, but a fool among wise men.
II. Our second is, never spiritualize upon indelicate subjects. It is needful to say this, for the Slopdash family are never more at home than when they speak in a way to crimson the cheek of modesty. There is a kind of beetle which breeds in filth, and this creature has its prototype among men. Do I not at this moment call to mind a savory divine who enlarged with wonderful gusto and sensuous unction upon the concubine cut into ten pieces: Greenacre himself could not have done it better. What abominable things have been said upon some of the sterner and more horrifying similes of Jeremiah and Ezekiel! Where the Holy Spirit is veiled and chaste, these men have tom away the veil, and spoken as none but naughty tongues would venture to do. I am not squeamish, indeed, far from it, but explanations of the new birth by analogies suggested by a monthly nurse, expositions of the rite of circumcision, and minute descriptions of married life, would arouse my temper and make me feel inclined to command with Jehu that the shameless one should be thrown down from the exalted position disgraced by such brazen-faced impudence. F18 I know it is said, “Honi soit qui mal y pense,” but I aver that no pure mind ought to be subjected to the slightest breath of indelicacy from the pulpit. Caesar’s wife must be without suspicion, and Christ’s ministers must be without speck in their lives or stain in their speech. Gentlemen, the kissing and hugging which some preachers delight in is disgusting: Solomon’s Song had better be let alone than dragged in the mire as it often is. Young men especially must be scrupulously, jealously modest and pure in word: an old man is pardoned, I scarce know why, but a young man is utterly without excuse should he overstep the strict line of delicacy.
III. Next, and thirdly, never spiritualize for the sake of showing what an uncommonly clever fellow you are. Such an intention will be wicked, and the method used will be foolish. Only an egregious simpleton will seek to be noted for doing what nine men out of ten could do quite as well. A certain probationer once preached a sermon upon the word “but,” thus hoping to ingratiate himself with the congregation, who would, he thought, be enraptured with the powers of a brother who could enlarge so marvelously upon a mere conjunction. His subject appears to have been, the fact that whatever there may be of good in a man’s character, or admirable in a man’s position, there is sure to be some difficulty, some trial in connection with us all: “Naaman was a great man with his master, but…..” When the orator descended from the pulpit the deacons said, “Well, sir, you have given us a singular sermon, but — you are not the man for the place; that we can see very clearly.” Alas! for wit when it becomes so common, and withal puts a weapon into the hand of its own adversaries!
Remember that spiritualizing is not such a wonderful display of ingenuity, even if you are able to do it well, and that without discretion it is the most ready method of revealing your egregious folly. Gentlemen, if you aspire to emulate Origen in wild, daring, interpretations, it may be as well to read his life and note attentively the follies into which even his marvelous mind was drawn by allowing a wild fancy to usurp absolute authority over his judgment; and if you set yourselves to rival the vulgar declaimers of a past generation, let me remind you that the cap and bells do not now command the same patronage as fell to their share a few years ago.
Our third caution is, never pervert Scripture to give it a novel and so-called spiritual meaning, lest you be found guilty of that solemn curse with which the roll of inspiration is guarded and closed. Mr. Cook, of Maidenhead, felt himself obliged to separate from William Huntingdon because of his making the seventh commandment to mean the Lord speaking to his Son and saying, “Thou shalt not covet the devil’s wife, i.e., the non-elect.” One can only say, horrible! Perhaps it would be an insult to your reason and your religion to say, loathe the thought of such profanity. You instinctively shrink from it.
Once more, in no case allow your audience to forget that the narratives which you spiritualize are facts, and not mere myths or parables. The first sense of the passage must never be drowned in the outflow of your imagination; it must be distinctly declared and allowed to hold the first rank; your accommodation of it must never thrust out the original and native meaning, or even push it into the background. The Bible is not a compilation of clever allegories or instructive poetical traditions; it teaches literal facts and reveals tremendous realities: let your full persuasion of this truth be manifest to all who attend your ministry. It will be an ill day for the church if the pulpit should even appear to endorse the skeptical hypothesis that Holy Scripture is but the record of a refined mythology, in which globules of truth are dissolved in seas of poetic and imaginary detail.
However, there is a legitimate range for spiritualizing, or rather for the particular gift which leads men to spiritualize. F19 For instance, you have frequently been shown that the types yield ample scope for the exercise of a sanctified ingenuity. Why need you go about to find “odious women” to preach upon, when you have before you the tabernacle in the wilderness, with all its sacred furniture, the burnt-offering, the peace-offering, and all the various sacrifices which were offered before God? Why struggle for novelties when the temple and all its glories are before you? F20 The largest capacity for typical interpretation will find abundant employment in the undoubted symbols of the Word of God, and it will be safe to enter upon such an exercise, because the symbols are of divine appointment.
When you have exhausted all the Old Testament types, you have left to you an heirloom of a thousand metaphors. Benjamin Keach, in his laborious treatise, proves most practically what mines of truth lie concealed in the metaphors of Scripture. His work, by the way, is open to much criticism on the score of making metaphors run not only on all-fours, but on as many legs as a centipede; but it does not deserve the condemnation of Dr. Adam Clarke, when he says it has done more to debase the taste both of preachers and people than any other work of the kind. A discreet explanation of the poetical allusions of Holy Scripture will be most acceptable to your people, and, with God’s blessing, not a little profitable.
But supposing you have expounded all the usually accepted types, and have cast light upon the emblems and figurative expressions, must your fancy and delight in similitudes go to sleep? By no means. When the apostle Paul finds a mystery in Melchisedek, and speaking of Hagar and Sarah, says, “Which things are an allegory,” he gives us a precedent for discovering scriptural allegories in other places besides the two mentioned.
Indeed, the historical books not only yield us here and there an allegory, but seem as a whole to be arranged with a view to symbolical teaching. A passage from Mr. Andrew Jukes’ preface to his work on the types of Genesis, will show how, without violence, a most elaborate theory may be constructed by a devout mind: “As a base or ground for what is to follow, we first are shown what springs from man, and all the different forms of life, which either by nature or grace can grow out of the root of old Adam.
This is the book of Genesis. Then we see, that be it bad or good which has come out of Adam, there must be redemption; so an elect people by the blood of the Lamb are saved from Egypt. This is Exodus. After redemption is known, we come to the experience of the elect as needing access, and learning the way of it, to God the Redeemer in the sanctuary. This we get in Leviticus. Then in the wilderness of this world, as pilgrims from Egypt, the house of bondage, to the promised land beyond Jordan, the trials of the journey are learnt, from that land of wonders and man’s wisdom to the land flowing with milk and honey. This is the book of Numbers. Then comes the desire to exchange the wilderness for the better land, from, entering which for a season after redemption is known the elect yet shrink; answering to the desire of the elect at a certain stage to know the power of the resurrection, to live even now as in heavenly places. The rules and precepts which must be obeyed, if this is to be done, come next. Deuteronomy, a second giving of the law, a second cleansing, tells the way of progress.
After which Canaan is indeed reached. We go over Jordan: we know practically the death of the flesh, and what it is to be circumcised, and to roll away the reproach of Egypt. We know now what it is to be risen with Christ, and to wrestle, not with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers in heavenly places. This is Joshua. Then comes the failure of the elect in heavenly places, failure arising from making leagues with Canaanites instead of overcoming them. This is Judges. After which the different forms of rule, which the church may know, pass in review in the books of Kings, from the first setting up of rule in Israel down to its extinction, when for their sin the rule of Babylon supersedes that of the elect. When this is known with all its shame, we see the remnants of the elect, each according to its measure, doing what may be done, if possible, to restore Israel; some, like Ezra, returning to build the temple, that is, to restore the forms of true worship; and some coming up, like Nehemiah, to build the wall, that is, to re-establish, by Gentile permission, a feeble imitation of the ancient polity; while a third remnant in Esther is seen in bonds, but faithful, providentially saved, though God’s name (and this is characteristic of their state) never appears throughout the whole record.” I should be far from recommending you to become as fanciful as the ingenious author I have just quoted sometimes becomes, through the large indulgence of his tendency to mysticism, but nevertheless, you will read the Word with greatly increased interest if you are a sufficiently careful reader to have noticed the general run of the books of the Bible, and their consecutiveness as a system of types.
Then, too, the faculty which turns to spiritualizing will be well employed in generalizing the great universal principles evolved by minute and separate facts. This is an ingenious, instructive, and legitimate pursuit. Perhaps you might not elect to preach upon, “Take it by the tail,” but the remark arising from it is natural enough — “there is a way of taking everything.” Moses took the serpent by the tail, so there is a mode of grasping our afflictions and finding them stiffen in our hands into a wonder-working rod; there is a way of holding the doctrines of grace, a way of encountering ungodly men, and so on. In hundreds of scriptural incidents you may find great general principles which may nowhere be expressed in so many words. Take the following instances from Mr. Jay. From Psalm 74:14, “Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces, and gavest him to be meat to the people inhabiting the wilderness,” he teaches the doctrine that the greatest foes of God’s pilgrim people shall be slain, and the remembrance of the mercy shall refresh the saints. From Genesis 35:8, “But Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse died, and she was buried beneath Beth-el, under an oak: and the name of it was called Allon-bachuth,” he discourses upon good servants, and the certainty of death. Upon 2 Samuel 15:15, “And the king’s servants said unto the king, Behold, thy servants are ready to do whatsoever my lord the king shall appoint,” he shows that such language may with propriety be adopted by Christians, and addressed to Christ. Should anyone take exception to the form of spiritualizing which Mr. Jay so efficiently and judiciously indulged in, he must be a person whose opinion need not sway you in the least. After my own ability I have taken the liberty to do the same, and the outlines of many sermons of the kind may be found in my little work entitled “Evening by Evening,” and a less liberal sprinkling in its companion, “Morning by Morning.”
A notable instance of a good sermon fixed upon a strained and unjustifiable basis, is that of Everard, in his “Gospel Treasury” In the discourse upon Joshua 15:16,17, where the words are, “And Caleb said, He that smiteth Kirjath-sepher, and taketh it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter to wife. And Othniel the son of Kenaz:, the brother of Caleb, took it: and he gave him Achsah his daughter to wife;” here the run of the preacher’s utterance is based upon the translation of the Hebrew proper names, so that he makes it read, “A good heart said, Whosoever smiteth and taketh the city of the letter, to him will I give the rending of the veil; and Othniel took it as being God’s fit time or opportunity, and he married Achsah, that is, enjoyed the rending of the veil, and thereby had the blessing both of the upper and nether springs.” Was there no other method of showing that we are to search after the inner sense of Scripture, and not rest in the mere words or letter of the Book? The parables of our Lord in their expounding and enforcement afford the amplest scope for a matured and disciplined fancy, and if these have all passed before you, the miracles still remain, rich in symbolical teaching.
There can be no doubt that the miracles are the acted sermons of our Lord Jesus Christ. You have his “word sermons” in his matchless teaching, and his “deed sermons” in his peerless acts. Despite many doctrinal failures, you will find Trench, on the miracles, most helpful in this direction. All our Lord’s mighty works are full of teaching. Take the story of the healing of the deaf and dumb man. The poor creature’s maladies are eminently suggestive of man’s lost estate, and our Lord’s mode of procedure most instructively illustrates the plan of salvation. “Jesus took him aside from the multitude” — the soul must be made to feel its own personality and individuality, and must be led into loneliness. He “put his fingers into his ears,” the source of the mischief indicated; sinners are convinced of their state. “And spat” — the gospel is a simple and a despised means, and the sinner, in order to salvation, must humble himself to receive it. He “touched his tongue,” further pointing out where the mischief lay — .our sense of need grows on us. He “looked up to heaven” — Jesus reminded his patient that all strength must come from above — a lesson which every seeker must learn. “He sighed,” showing that the sorrows of the Healer are the means of our healing. And then he said, “Ephphatha, Be opened” — here was the effectual word of grace which wrought an immediate, perfect, and lasting cure. From this one exposition learn all, and ever believe that the miracles of Christ are a great picture gallery, illustrating his work among the sons of men.
Let it be an instruction, however, to all who handle either the parables or the metaphors, to be discreet. Dr. Gill is one whose name must ever be mentioned with honor and respect in this house in which his pulpit still stands, but his exposition of the parable of the Prodigal Son strikes me as being sadly absurd in some points. The learned commentator tells us, “the fatted calf” was the Lord Jesus Christ! Really, one shudders to see spiritualizing come to this. Then also there is his exposition of the Good Samaritan. The beast on which the wounded man was placed is again our Lord Jesus, and the two pence which the Good Samaritan gave to the host, are the Old and New Testament, or the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Despite this caution, you may allow much latitude in spiritualizing to men of rare poetical temperament, such as John Bunyan. Gentlemen, did you ever read John Bunyan’s spiritualizing of Solomon’s Temple? It is a most remarkable performance, and even when a little strained it is full of a consecrated ingenuity. Take, for a specimen, one of his most far-fetched explanations, and see if it can be improved. It is on “the Leaves of the Gate of the Temple,” “The leaves of this gate or door, as I told you before, were folding, and so as was hinted, have something of signification in them. For by this means a man, especially a young disciple, may easily be mistaken; thinking that the whole passage, when yet but a part, was open, whereas three parts might be yet kept undiscovered to him. For these doors, as I said before, were never yet set wide open, I mean in the antitype; never man yet saw all the riches and fulness which is in Christ. So that I say, a new comer , if he judged by present sight, especially if he saw but little, might easily be mistaken, wherefore such for the most part are most horribly afraid that they shall never get in thereat. How sayest thou, young comer, is not this the case with thy soul? So it seems to thee that thou art too big, being so great, so tun-bellied a sinner! But, O thou sinner, fear not, the doors are folding-doors, and may be opened wider, and wider again after that; wherefore when thou comest to this gate, and imaginest that there is not space enough for time to enter, knock, and it shall be wider opened unto thee, and thou shalt be received. Luke 11:9; John 6:37.
So then, whoever thou art, thou art come to the door of which the temple door was a type, trust not to thy first conceptions of things, but believe there is grace abundant. Thou knowest not yet what Christ can do, the doors are folding-doors. He can ‘ do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think.’ Ephesians 3:20. The hinges on which these doors do hang, were, as I told you, gold; to signify that they both turned upon motives and motions of love, and also that the openings thereof were rich.
Golden hinges the gate to God doth turn upon. The posts on which these doors did hang were of the olive tree, that fat and oily tree, to show that they do never open with lothness, or sluggishness as doors do whose hinges want oil. They are always oily, and so open easily and quickly to those who knock at them. Hence you read that he that dwells in this house gives freely, loves freely, and doth us good with all his heart. ‘Yea,’ saith he, ‘I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly, with my whole heart, and with my whole soul.’ Jeremiah 3:12,14,22; Jeremiah 32:41; Revelation 21:6; Revelation 22:17.
Wherefore, the oil of grace, signified by this oily tree, or these olive-posts, on which these doors do hang, do cause that they open glibly or frankly to the soul.”
When Bunyan opens up the meaning of the doors being made of fir wood, who but he would have said, “The fir tree is also the house of the stork, that unclean bird, even as Christ is a harbor and shelter for sinners. As for the stork, saith the text, the fir tree is her house; and Christ saith to the sinners that see their want of shelter, ‘Come unto me, and I will give you rest.’ He is a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in time of trouble.
Deuteronomy 14:18; Leviticus 11:19; Psalm 109:17; Psalm 74:2,3; Matthew 11:27,28; Hebrews 6:17-20.” In his “House of the Forest of Lebanon” he is still more puzzled, but works his way out as no other man could have done. He finds the three rows of pillars of fifteen each to be an enigma rather too deep for him, and gives it up, but not until he has made some brave attempts upon it. Mr. Bunyan is the chief, and head, and lord of all allegorists, and is not to be followed by us into the deep places of typical and symbolical utterance. He was a swimmer, we are but mere waders, and must not go beyond our depth.
I am tempted before I close this address to give a sketch or two of spiritualizings which were familiar to me in my earliest days. I shall never forget a sermon preached by an uneducated but remarkable man, who was my near neighbor in the country. I had the notes of the discourse from his own lips, and I trust they will remain as notes, and never be preached from again in this world. The text was, “The night-hawk, the owl, and the cuckoo.” That might not strike you as being exceedingly rich in matter; it did not so strike me, and therefore I innocently inquired, “And what were the heads?” He replied most archly, “Heads? why, wring the birds’ necks, and there are three directly, the nighthawk, the owl, and the cuckoo.” He showed that these birds were all unclean under the law, and were plain types of unclean sinners. Night-hawks were persons who pilfered on the sly, also people who adulterated their goods, and cheated their neighbors in an underhand way without being suspected to be rogues. As for the owls, they typified drunkards, who are always liveliest at night, while by day they will almost knock their heads against a post because they are so sleepy.
There were owls also among professors. The owl is a very small bird when he is plucked; he only looks big because he wears so many feathers; so, many professors are all feathers, and if you could take away their boastful professions there would be very little left of them. Then the cuckoos were the church clergy, who always utter the same note whenever they open their mouths in the church, and live on other birds’ eggs with their churchrates and tithes. The cuckoos were also, I think, the free-willers, who were always saying, “Do-do-do-do.” Was not this rather too much of a good thing? Yet from the man who delivered it the sermon would not seem at all remarkable or odd. The same venerable brother delivered a sermon equally singular but far more original and useful; those who heard it will remember it to their dying day. It was from this text: “The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting.” The good old man leaned upon the top of the pulpit and said, “Then, my brethren, he was a lazy fellow!” That was the exordium; and then he went on to say, “He went out a hunting, and after much trouble he caught his hare, and then was too idle to roast it. He was a lazy fellow indeed!” The good man made us all feel how ridiculous such idleness was, and then he said, “But then you are very likely quite as much to blame as this man, for you do just the same. You hear of a popular minister coming down from London, and you put the horse in the cart, and drive ten or twenty miles to hear him; and then when you have heard the sermon you forget to profit by it. You catch the hare and do not roast it; you go hunting after the truth, and then you do not receive it.” Then he went on to show, that just as meat needs cooking to prepare it for assimilation in the bodily system — I do not think he used that word though — so the truth needs to go through a process before it can be received into the mind so that we may feed thereon and grow. He said he should show how to cook a sermon, and he did so most instructively. He began as the cookery books do — “First catch your hare.” “So,” he said, “first get a gospel sermon.” Then he declared that a great many sermons were not worth hunting for, and that good sermons were mournfully scarce, and it was worth while to go any distance to hear a solid, oldfashioned, Calvinistic discourse. Then after the sermon had been caught, there was much about it which might be necessary because of the preacher’s infirmity, which was not profitable, and must be put away. Here he enlarged upon discerning and judging what we heard, and not believing every word of any man. Then followed directions as to roasting a sermon; run the spit of memory through it from end to end, turn it round upon the roasting-jack of meditation, before the fire of a really warm and earnest heart, and in that way the sermon would be cooked and ready to yield real spiritual nourishment. I do but give you the outline, and though it may look somewhat laughable, it; was not so esteemed by the hearers. It was full of allegory, and kept up the attention of the people from the beginning to the end. “Well, my dear sir, how are you?” was my salutation to him one morning, “I’m pleased to see you so well at your age.” “Yes, I am in fine order for an old man, and hardly feel myself failing at all.” “I hope your good health will continue for years to come, and that like Moses you will go down to your grave with your eye undimmed and your natural force unabated.” “All very fine,” said the old gentleman, “but in the first place, Moses never went down to his grave at all, he went up to it; and in the next place, what is the meaning of all you have been talking about? Why did not the eye of Moses wax dim?” “I suppose, sir,” said I, very meekly, “that his natural mode of life and quiet spirit had helped to preserve his faculties and make him a vigorous old man.” “Very likely,” said he, “but that’s not what I am driving at: what’s the meaning, the spiritual teaching of the whole matter? Is it not just this: Moses is the law, and what a glorious end of the law the Lord gave it on the mount of his finished work; how sweetly its terrors are all laid to sleep with a kiss from God’s mouth! and, mark you, the reason why the law no more condemns us is not because its eye is dim, so that it cannot see our sins, or because its force is abated with which to curse and punish; but Christ has taken it up to the mount and gloriously made an end of it.” Such was his usual talk and such was his ministry.
Peace to his ashes. He fed sheep the first years of his life, and was a shepherd of men the next, and, as he used to tell me, “found men by far the more sheepish of the two.” The converts who found the road to heaven under him were so many that, when we remember them, we are like those who saw the lame man leaping through the word of Peter and John; they were disposed to criticize, but “beholding the man that was healed standing with Peter and John, they could say nothing against, it.”
With this I close, re-asserting the opinion, that guided by discretion and judgment, we may occasionally employ spiritualizing with good effect to our people; certainly we shall interest them and keep them awake.