FOR a pastoral people, a people who lived under their own vines and their own fig-trees, amid the luxuriant herbage of rich valleys, or on the slope of hills whose terraces were beautiful with the white flowers of the almond and the silver leaves of the olive,—it must have been a moment almost too terrible to conceive, when first, in the quiet noon, they saw here and there a locust dropping down upon their fields and vineyards. Eagerly, almost wildly, they strained their eyes towards the horizon to see if these few were the harbingers of more; and when, far off on that horizon, they marked a black speck ever spreading and spreading into a pitchy, rushing cloud, we can barely imagine what agitation seized them; how, in the passionate language of the prophet Joel, whose book is suggested and occupied by this terrible visitation, the inhabitants of the land cried, and all faces did gather blackness. Well might they cry: for the advent of the locust was the advent of famine, of ruin, of despair!
Nearer, nearer, nearer the dark cloud moved, until a noise broke from it like the noise of chariots leaping upon the hills; and the very sun was hidden, and the dense air shuddered with innumerable wings. Then indeed they knew that the locust was upon the land ; and that the noise and motion was the noise and motion of their flight, more dreadful to the terrified husbandman than the beating wings of the Angel of Death. The excited imagination of poet and prophet spoke of them as God's great army:—an army irresistible as horsemen, and devouring as flame, that no sword could wound, that no walls could stay,—swift, and winged, and numberless, —before whose camp the Lord God uttered His great voice. But in truth it needed not the delirium of terror to exaggerate their ravages. Where they came, farewell to the pride of vintage and the hope of harvest, for the corn was wasted and the new wine dried up: the fields of the forest that had clapped their hands, and the valleys that had laughed and sung in the sunshine and the rain, were blackened and loathsome, so that the eye could see no green thing, and every footfall crunched on the griding scales of these crawling or dead invaders. The very branches of the palm, the pomegranate, and the apple-tree were bare; the seed was rotten under the clods, and the once green fields were strewn with heaps of putrescent death; what their raging hunger spared, their touch and their foulness infected; their corrupting swarms bred plague and pestilence ; their horrible fertility, passing through various stages of existence, cut off even the hopes of the future by the numberless multitude of their multitudes; the land was as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them it was a desolate wilderness.
Yes ! the coming of the locusts was a day of the Lord; a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, a day of bitter and heart-rending calamity, of which fathers would tell their children, and children to the generations yet unborn. And, as all things are double one against another,—as the types of the physical have their antitypes in the spiritual world,— • so, is there not something of which the locusts are an emblem, and which is yet more terrible than they?—a mysterious something at which in our healthier state we shudder, as though an evil spirit passed us in the darkness;— a something dimly imaged by the canker that blights all beauty, and the leprosy that eats away all life, —a curse that broods over the green fields of humanity like the shadow of a poisonous tree ? Ay, so it is! To him whose conscience of sin is afraid;—to him whose eyes are opened to see the unseen realities of the moral world ;—to him who tries to see as the Saviour saw, and who would judge not by the standard of man, but of his Maker,—the fall of the first accursed locust on the smiling plain is not one tenth-part so awful as the first little cloud of evil that flung its shadow over the innocence of a still youthful life,—of the life of each one here, while he was yet young. To those angels who behold the face of our heavenly Father, the first base word spoken without a blush,—the first oath that profaned unwonted lips, the first lie dictated by cowardice to screen delinquency, the first duty wilfully neglected,—the first wicked thought consciously harboured, and rolled like a sweet morsel under the tongue,—the first tear called on a mother's cheek,—the first pang caused to a father's heart,—the first lapse into drunkenness or dishonour,—the first desire to taste of the tree of the mystery of evil, and to be as gods, and to whisper to the soul, Thou shalt not surely die,—the first wilful act whereby the erring soul defies its knowledge of that which is true and right, and lifts as it were the banner in the armies of the enemies of God,— these, these are the deeds which the holy ones chronicle in their tablets of sorrow ; and these—far more than the storm, and deluge, and ruin of the groaning and travailing creation,—these far more than the ravage of the pestilence, or the carnage of the fight—force from them "such tears as angels weep." We may have forgotten it;—to us it may be hidden far back in the mists of memory, that first word, that first act of conscious wickedness;—as much as the first locust is forgotten when the myriads have come down;—as much as the first spark on the dry leaf is forgotten when it has wrapped the roaring prairie and the primeval forest in the flame of its conflagration. But they forget not, and God forgets not. He, who foresees "in the green the mouldered tree," knows and marks what sin it was that, first settling on the fair promise of a young life, caused the root to be as bitterness, and the blossom to go up as dust; He sees the pregnant evil grow and multiply, and leave the seeds of its destruction to spring up into their deadly existence in future years, until the field has been blighted into a wilderness, and the soul, which is the garden of God, has become black and noisome as the valley of Hinnom, and of Death. Oh, my brethren, be not deceived, God is not mocked. I know how lightly it is the fashion to think and speak of sin: I know how lightly the young will don and wear that gay robe, which shall cling to them hereafter and tear their flesh like the poisoned tunic of fable : I know how boldly and easily they will laugh away " the troubles of the envious, and the fears of the cowardly, the heaviness of the slothful, and the shame of the unclean;" yet I do not fear for a moment that any wise man will consider the analogy too terrible; if so, let him pause and think whether it may not be because the veil is upon his heart, and he has sunk into that stupor of worldly comfort, that living death of spiritual apathy, that easy acquiescence and tolerance of habitual sin, which is too often the curse and disease of middle life. Alas ! I know that in many a man, who has gone on long undisturbed in guilt, the soul and the conscience " may die a natural death" amid the dull comforts and occupations of the world, until the very sense of guilt is gone, and sin to him has lost all its sinfulness and all its shame.