"Why stand ye here all the day idle ? Go ye also into the vineyard".
Matt. xx. 6, 7.
WHEN God in bad times has good soldiers, He places them in the thick of the battle, and they have fallen under a monument of darts. Near Him, they have been near the fire. For them, as for the old Moslem, "Paradise has been prefigured under the shadow of the crossing scimitars." See how they have sunk to the ground with bleeding feet on the world's highway, whereon often till death they have walked well-nigh alone ! But what happens ? They have never failed— never ultimately failed; they have startled the deep slumber of false opinions; they have thrilled a pang of noble shame through callous consciences ; they become magnetic. Into the next age, if not into their own, " they flash an epidemic of nobleness".
"They utter but a thought, And it becomes a proverb for the state ; They write a sentence in a studious mood: It is a saying for a hemisphere".
Yes, their goal becomes a starting-point of their followers; their heresy the truth of churches; the sons of their murderers build their tombs. But indeed they need no tombs; for their tombs are reared in the gratitude of nations, and their epitaphs are written on the ruins of the lies which they have annihilated, and the immoral tyrannies which they have overthrown.
See if it has not been so. Glance first at the history of the chosen people, which best you know. Israel had gone down into Egypt, and in the torpid civilisation of that sluggish soil—amid the leeks and the melons, the flesh-pots and the cucumbers — they were fast sinking into a nation of sensual slaves. Then in the burning bush God appeared to Moses, and sent him to rouse this dull people; and with plague, and conflict, and victory, and the rolling waters of the sea, he led them into the free air of the wilderness. And when, even in the wilderness, they relapsed into lust and sloth, and— falling into the accursed trap set for them by Balaam, son of Beor—would have been consumed, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, once more saved them,—piercing adulterer and adulteress with one thrust of his avenging spear. Then they conquered Canaan, but again and again sinking into the same idolatry, the same degradation, they became a prey to all the surrounding tribes. How did God deliver them ?
By better men than common men ; by braver men than cautious men; by men who would not shelter themselves in refuges of lies; by men whose love to Him still burned like a fire on the altar of noble hearts, not yet buried under the whitening embers of immoral acquiescence. Wild times needed wild remedies. From Moab, from Amalek, from Canaan, from the Amorite, from the Philistine, the wooden dagger of Ehud, the flashing torch of Gideon, the burning inspiration of Deborah, the rude sword of Jephthah, the rough strength of Samson, the stainless ephod of Samuel, set them free. What was the one grand quality of all these men ? It was courage. Not mere physical courage—though that is something — but the moral courage which towered behind the physical courage; the faith in right which puts an invincible sword into the grasp of resolution; the courage which so hates and despises wrong-doing, that in facing evil it is not afraid to die. I may be speaking to some young men for whom the day shall come on which they may need the courage to risk life, or things as dear as life, in confronting guilty tyranny, or strong oppression, or conventional falsehood, or immoral custom. Well, let them do it, and not be afraid. Gideon's 300 routed the Amalekites; the 300 at Thermopylae faced the myriads of Xerxes ; the three at the Milvian bridge saved Rome from the hosts of Porsena.
Are these but dead facts of history or of legend? Do they need more modern, and very humble examples ? Well then, let me tell them of the old woman whose dauntless bearing in the face of a surging tumult saved the only two houses that were saved in Queen Square at the Bristol riots; of the single verger who saved the cathedral in that city by resolutely closing and barricading the door in the face of the raging mob; of the single sentinel who, in the lifetime of some here, confronted thousands at the entrance of Downing Street, and prevented them from attacking the house of the Prime Minister, by telling them that except over his body not a man should pass,—and who so woke their admiration that they gave him three cheers and passed on. " Do the thing and scorn the consequence." It was the motto of one of our bravest generals in the Indian Mutiny (Col. Neill). It was the motto of the judges and heroes of Israel. If we are to do any real good in the world, it must be ours.
But a far rarer, more splendid, more effective thing than the physical courage of warriors was the spiritual and moral courage of the Hebrew Prophets. They had to take their stand, not only against brute violence, but against perverse authority and corrupted religion; against hypocritic priests and godless kings; against the monopolists of orthodoxy and the masters of armies. Well might they shrink from the hard task. One of them was diffident; another was a poor peasant; another was called when a mere boy; and in the bitter wail of Jeremiah you may hear how painfully they felt the task that was laid upon them. Yet how bravely they performed it! Before the terrible Jezebel and her Baal priesthood Elijah takes his stand; he confronts Ahab at the vineyard gate of his murdered victim; Zechariah rebukes the apostatising Joash; at the high priests Pashur and Amaziah, Jeremiah and Amos hurl their defiant curse; into the palace of Herod the prophet of the desert strides with his blunt reproof. When religion in Judah had degenerated into gorgeous externalism, the message of the prophets was a protest for everlasting truths. Sequences of colours—shapes of vestments—methods of ablution—repetitions of formulae—archaeological disputes about the interpretation of rubrics—these are not religion; have nothing to do with pure religion and undefiled. "I will have mercy, and not sacrifice." " Your new moons and fasts and feasts I cannot away with;" but, " Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes." Not "thousands of rams, or ten thousands of rivers of oil," but what the Lord requires of thee is " to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God." These were the messages of the prophets, and these the truths which might have saved the chosen people. And though the chosen people, like all people, murdered their prophets, and slew those who were sent unto them, these are the truths which have again and again regenerated the world. They are truths which raise their eternal protest against false types of goodness and false types of orthodoxy, and even if destroyed for a time they spring up again.