And why ?—At His feet the olives were flinging their broad shadows over green Gethsemane, the scene of His coming agony,—but it was not that. Opposite Him, on the rocky plateau beyond the Kidron, Calvary was waiting for His cross of torture,—but it was not that. Nay, but it was something which no eye saw but His. For He was gazing, with the eagle glance of prophecy, on a scene far different from that which met His actual gaze. What He saw was, not a fair and holy city, sitting, like a lady of kingdoms, upon her virgin heights,—but a city cowering, abject, degraded, desolate. To Him the faithful city has become a harlot. Her gold has become dross; her wine mixed with water; and now her hour had come. In the Jerusalem that was — the glittering Jerusalem of the days of Herod and Tiberius—He saw, down the dim vista of fifty years, the Jerusalem that was to be—the desecrated Jerusalem of the days of Titus. He saw those lordly towers shattered,—those umbrageous trees hewn down,—that golden sanctuary polluted,—Judaea Capta a desolate woman, weeping under her palm-tree amid her tangled hair. In the flush of the existing prosperity He foresaw the horrors of the coming retribution. The eye of His troubled imagination beheld the 600,000 corpses carried out of those city gates;—the wretched fugitives crucified by myriads around those walls;—the priests, swollen with hunger, leaping madly into the devouring flames, until those flames had done their purging, scathing, avenging work, and what had been Jerusalem, the holy, the noble, was but a heap of ghastly ruins where the smouldering embers were half-slaked in the rivers of a guilty nation's blood.
And as He saw it,—as this vision of the future rushed red upon His gaze,—as He recalled the promise of peace which the very name of the city breathed, and knew that she would see peace again no more,—this Saviour whom they rejected, whom they hated, whom they crucified, cried aloud in a broken voice, and with eyes that streamed with tears, " If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things that belong unto thy peace !"—" If thou hadst known,"—and indeed those words seemed to summon up yet another picture,—not of Jerusalem as she was,—not of Jerusalem as she was to be,—but of Jerusalem as she might have been,—yes! of a Jerusalem little less glorious than her of the prophet's vision, descending out of heaven with her walls of jasper and gates of pearl,—of that Jerusalem about whom so many glowing hearts have sung:
"Oh happy harbour of the saints, Oh sweet and pleasant soil, In thee no sorrows may be seen, No pain, no grief, no toil.
"Thy houses are of ivory,
Thy windows crystal clear, Thy tiles they are of beaten gold :
O would that I were there !
"Right through the streets, with silver sound, The flood of life doth flow ; Upon whose banks, on either hand, The trees of life do grow".
Alas ! it was all a glorious " if"—a heart-rending " might have been." It was as when a traveller stands on some great misty mountain-top,—longing to gaze on the magnificent expanse of city, and plain, and river, and the rippling sea,—and for one moment, through one great rent of the enshrouding mist, he looks on a fairy vision bathed in sunlight and over-arched with iris,—but, almost before he has seen it, the rent in the mist is closed once more, and ragged and grey the clouds roll up, and he is alone, and miserable, and chill, and disenchanted. Even so was it with that momentary glimpse of the possible Jerusalem; it was. alas ! but a vanishing " might have been," and "Of all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are those 'It might have been.' "
It might have been—but it was not; it never would be now; and love, after doing all in vain, could only weep. " If thou hadst known—even thou—at least in this thy day—the things that belong unto thy peace; "—if—and there sorrow suppressed the apodosis; and when the sob which broke His voice was over, He could only add, " but now they are hid from thine eyes".
And herein, my brethren, lies the meaning of this scene for us; this is the lesson on which I would desire to fix our hearts this evening. An awful lesson ! There, before the Saviour's gaze of tears, lay a city, splendid apparently and in peace, and destined to enjoy another half-century of existence. And the day was a common day; the hour a common hour: no thunder was throbbing in the blue unclouded sky; no deep voices of departing deities were rolling through the golden doors : and yet,—soundless to mortal ears in the unrippled air of Eternity,—the knell of her destiny had begun to toll: and, in the voiceless dialect of heaven, the fiat of her doom had been pronounced ; and in that realm which knoweth and needeth not any light save the light of God, the sun of her moral existence had gone down while it yet was day.—Were her means of grace over? No, not yet. Was her Temple closed ? No, not yet. Were her services impossible ? No, not yet. The white-robed Levites still thronged her courts; the singers still made the heavens ring with their passionate litanies and silver Psalms; the High Priest yet sprinkled, year by year, the gold of the holiest altar with the blood of unavailing sacrifice. No change was visible in her to mortal eyes. And yet, for her, from this moment even unto the end, the accepted time was over, the appointed crisis past,—the day of salvation had set into irrevocable night. It was with her as with the barren fig-tree, on which, next day, the Lord pronounced His doom. The leaf of her national life was still glossy green ; the sun still shone on her ; the rain fell; the dew stole down; but the fruit would grow on her no more, and therefore the fire was kindled for the burning, the axe uplifted, which would crash on the encumbering trunk. She was not spared for her beauty; she was not forgiven for her fame. And, if it were so with the favoured city, may it not be so with thee, and thee, and me ? What shall the reed of the desert do if even the cedar be shattered at a blow ?—Yes : the lesson of the tears of Jesus over Jerusalem, as she gleamed before Him in the vernal sunshine, a gem upon her crown of hills, is this : that, as for her, so for us, there may be a too-late; the door may be shut without a sound; the doom sealed without a sigh; life may be over before death comes. It is not—(oh mark this !)—it is not that God loses His mercy, but that we lose our capacity for accepting it: it is not that God hath turned away from us, but that we have utterly paralysed our own power of turning back to Him. And then the voice sighs forth with unutterable sadness, "Ephraim is turned unto idols, let him alone." Let him alone, O preacher, for he hates the words of truth! let him alone, O Word of God, for he has set his face as a flint against thee ! let him alone, O Conscience, for he is bent on murdering thee; his sins have become not wilful only, but willing; he has chosen them,—let him have them. He has loved death more than life, and lies rather than righteousness, and vice more than virtue, and the world more than heaven, and the lusts of the flesh rather than the law of God. And the Spirit of God hath striven with him, and striven in vain: all, all hath been in vain: let him alone: let him eat of the fruit of his own works, and be filled with his own devices.
O fearful voice of most just judgment! and yet observe further, as a still more solemn source of warning, that, at the very instant when this dread fiat is sounding forth, we may be all unconscious of it. Jerusalem knew not— she was wholly unaware—that this was the last day of her visitation. She had quenched the light of life,—but dreamed not of the hastening midnight: she had silenced the voice of warning, and suspected not that the hush which followed was but the hush before the hurricane,— the silence before the trumpet's sound. Sick—she knew it not: dying—she knew it not. " Ephraim hath grey hairs upon him, and he knoweth it not." It is, alas! ever thus. This is the very method of God's dealings with us,—not by stupendous miracles, but by quiet warnings; not by shocks of catastrophe, but by processes of law. The Holy Light is but a beam shining quietly in the darkness, easily strangled in the wilful midnight: the pleading voice is but a low whisper amid the silence, easily drowned in the tempest of the passions. And so, though the day of grace has its fixed limits, and these may be often narrower than the day of life, we neither know what those limits are, nor when they are transcended. Oh, my brethren, who knows whether this very day may not be for us the day of our visitation ? Now the door of repentance stands open, and heaven's light streams through it;—now in all love and gentleness the voice of our Saviour calls;—now the Holy Spirit of God still strives with us in our wanderings, still pleads for us in our failures;—now, but who shall say how long ? not for ever : not, it may be, even all our lives : not even, it may be, for many days. Oh, to-day if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts.
The Silence and the Voices of God. p. 171.