Great Texts of the Bible
Repentance and Retribution
And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.—2 Samuel 12:13-14.
1. David has been triumphant as a monarch. And not only has he been triumphant as a monarch; his private designs also have been crowned with success. At this very moment he is enjoying the fruits of a secret and cherished project which was carefully planned and has been prosperously executed. An object very near to his heart has been attained. The risks were great, but they have been surmounted. Obstacles have been removed; publicity has been avoided; no scandal has been created. Uriah has been slain fighting valiantly in the hottest of the battle; and Uriah’s wife has become the wife of David.
2. At this crisis, when success culminates and satisfaction is complete, the blow comes. His tower of pride is crumbled into dust by some unseen hand. Henceforth he is a changed man. He is no more light-hearted and joyous and hopeful. He has tangled a coil of difficulties about him, from which he can never again extricate himself. He has loaded himself with a burden of sorrow under which he must stagger through life, only to bury it finally in the grave. Troubles gather thick upon him, troubles the most acute and numbing—gross crimes and irregularities in his own family, the rebellion of his sons, even of a favourite son, annoyances and perplexities and trials of all kinds. He has placed himself at the mercy of an unscrupulous and arrogant relative—the agent in his stratagem and the master of his secret. Everything goes wrong henceforth. From this time onward “the sword never departs from his house.”
3. And yet, at this very moment, when the greatness of the crisis is revealed to him, his thoughts do not turn to any of these things. Not the gathering storm-cloud, not the fatal ascendancy of Joab, not the existence of a perilous secret, not the loss of respect and of power—not any of the thousand perplexities and troubles in which this one act may involve him rises up before him now. One thought dominates his soul. He remembers only One, whom he has grieved and alienated, One who is invisible and yet very present, One—this is the terrible thought which overwhelms and crushes him—One who is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.” “And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord.”
“I have sinned against the Lord.”
1. What a Divine simplicity there is in the words of the text: “David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord.” That is all. In the original, two words are enough to revolutionize the man’s whole life, and to alter all his relations to the Divine justice and the Divine Friend. “I have sinned against the Lord”—not an easy thing to say; and, as the story shows, a thing that David took a long time to mount up to.
Remember the narrative. A year has passed since his transgression. What sort of a year has it been? One of the Psalms tells us—“When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long; for day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” There were long months of sullen silence, in which a clear apprehension and a torturing experience of Divine disapprobation, like a serpent’s fang, struck poison into his veins. His very physical frame seems to have suffered. His heart was as dry as the parched grass upon the steppes. That was what he got by his sin. A moment of turbid animal delight, and long days of agony, dumb suffering in which the sense of evil had not yet broken him down into a rain of sweet tears, but lay, like a burning consciousness, within his heart.
And then came the prophet with his parable, so tender, so ingenious, so powerful. And the quick flash of generous indignation, which showed how noble the man was after all, with which he responded to the picture, unknowing that it was a picture of his own dastardly conduct, led to the solemn words in which Nathan tore away the veil.
2. “I have sinned.” Similar words were uttered by Pharaoh (Exodus 9:27); Balaam (Numbers 22:34); Achan (Joshua 7:20); Saul (1 Samuel 15:24-30); and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:18).
(1) Pharaoh.—Pharaoh uttered these words as a plea for mercy. He merely wanted to escape the punishment incurred by his guilt. His mock repentance was worse than nothing, for he became hardened, and rushed on in impenitence to his doom.
(2) Balaam.—In greedy haste after the promised riches, and when stopped by an angel, Balaam said, “I have sinned”; but his heart was set on “the rewards of divination,” and he went on in his sin, perishing at last, hardened and impenitent, an example of an insincere repentance.
(3) Achan.—Achan confessed on compulsion, when found out. His trouble was, not that he had sinned, but that he had been detected.
(4) Saul.—Saul, king of Israel, said the same words to Samuel, but they were forced from him only after many vain excuses; and so, as the result shows, were no sign of a lasting repentance. His confession only worked despair, madness, and suicide—an example of the sorrow that “worketh death” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
(5) David.—On three occasions David confessed his sin in these words. His is an example of a genuine repentance, that “godly sorrow” which “worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of.” He sorrowed “after a godly sort,” and it worked in him carefulness, indignation, fear, vehement desire, zeal and revenge against sin (2 Corinthians 7:10-11).
(6) The Prodigal.—The Prodigal Son is the next example—
I dreamed of bliss in pleasure’s bowers,
While pillowing roses stayed my head:
But serpents hissed among the flowers;
I woke, and thorns were all my bed.
Then he came to himself, and said, “I have sinned,” a spontaneous confession; he returned home, was welcomed, forgiven, and reinstated in the position and privileges of a son.
3. What is true Penitence? There are four parts in a complete act of penitence, and they are all necessary. First there is the seeing of the fact, next the acknowledgment of the moral character of the fact, then the owning of responsibility to God for the wrong-doing, and last the consciousness that the wrong-doing is a wrong-being, that the sins are sinfulness. It may come upon a man all in a flash, as it did on David; or it may grow hardly, fought against stoutly, conquering step by step for itself, taking years, perhaps, to get entire possession of the nature. But it must come, and it must all come, or the man’s sins are not genuinely confessed. When it has all come, a man need not question how it came—slowly or swiftly, calmly or violently; however it came, the confession is perfect, and in the utterness of his humiliation there is nothing more that he can do.
In one of his delightfully satirical (apparently superficial but really searching) essays, M. Anatole France speaks of what is popularly called “confession.” “I do not speak,” he says, “of St. Augustine’s Confessions; the great doctor does not confess enough in them. His is a spiritual book, which satisfies Divine love better than human curiosity. Augustine confesses to God and not to man; he hates his sins, and it is only those who still love their faults who make delightful confessions. He repents, and nothing spoils a confession like repentance. He says, for instance, in two charming phrases, that when quite tiny he was seen to smile in his cradle; and immediately he endeavours to demonstrate ‘that there is corruption and malignity even in children who are still at the breast.’ The saint spoils the man to my mind. He relates that in his childhood there was a pear tree loaded with pears close beside his father’s vineyard, and that one day he went with a crowd of young vagabonds to shake the tree and to steal the fruit which fell from it. Does he make of this one of those delightful pictures such as delight us in the first pages of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions? or if that is asking too much, some elegant and sober narrative in the style of the minor Greek story-tellers? No! ‘That,’ he exclaims, ‘is the state in which, O my Lord! was the miserable heart which it has pleased Thy mercy to drag out of the depths of the abyss!’ As if an urchin who stole some wretched pears had fallen into the depths of the abyss! He confesses his love-affairs, but he does not do it with grace, because he does it with shame. He speaks only of ‘pestilences,’ and of ‘infernal vapours which arose out of the corrupt depth of his concupiscence.’ Nothing could be more moral, but, at the same time, nothing less graceful. He does not write for the curious; he writes against the Manicheans. That annoys me doubly, for I am curious, and a little of a Manichean. But such as they are, free of the horror of the flesh, and of disgust at our terrestrial existence, Augustine’s Confessions have contributed more than all the other books of the saint to make him known and loved throughout the ages.”1 [Note: Anatole France, On Life and Letters, 72.]
(1) The admission of the fact that sin has been committed.—That is the first step to be taken. That is the first struggle. To get at the plain facts; to set out in their array the long line of acts that have not been done from any higher motive than the mere desire for one’s own personal comfort or advantage. Even this is not easy. The acts know their own guiltiness and flee behind all kinds of shelter to escape scrutiny; and the man who is really bent upon discovering and confessing them has to seize hold of their reluctance with a strong hand and force them out.
This is the first and perhaps the most difficult step. It is a humiliating thing to make such a confession. Many who fancy that they have repented have never really humbled themselves. It is marvellous to observe the different ways in which our pride will try to spare us the pain of real self-abasement. Sometimes it will endeavour to save us from lowering ourselves before men. It is true (this great enemy seems to whisper) that you have sinned against man as well as against God, but why acknowledge your shortcoming to your neighbour? Why give him an opportunity of lording it over you? Tell it, if you will, to your Maker, but do not humble yourself before man! At other times this subtle pride will tempt us to be content with only a half-humiliation in the presence of God Himself. “You are no worse,” it says, “than others, not so bad as many. True, you have sinned, but your trial was so great, the circumstances in which you were placed were so difficult, your nature is so feeble that you may surely be excused,” and so forth.
The confession must be personal. There must be the personal act of faith; there must be my solitary coming to Him. As the old mystics used to define prayer, so I might define the whole process by which men are saved from their sins, “the flight of the lonely soul to the lonely God.” It is not enough to say, “We have sinned”; we must say, “I have sinned.” It is not enough that from a gathered congregation there should go up the united litany, “Lord, have mercy upon us! Christ, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us!” We must make the prayer our own: “Lord, have mercy upon me!” It is not enough that we should believe that Christ has died for the sins of the whole world. That belief will give us no share in His forgiveness. We must come to closer grips with Him than that; and we must be able to say, “Who loved me, and gave Himself for me.”1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
“My sin!” the low despairing sigh;
“My sin!” the exceeding bitter cry,
Out of those depths is heard on high:
Glad angels hear it where they stand,
And wait—a ministering band—
Their Lord’s permission and command;
It comes—and swiftly, down from heaven
A light whereby the gloom is riven!
A voice of power and peace, “Forgiven!”2 [Note: S. J. Stone, Poems and Hymns, 102.]
(2) The recognition of the moral evil that sin is.—The second stage is the full acknowledgment of the true moral character of a sin. Suppose that the sin is simply selfishness. Once convinced that he is selfish, a man, with more or less consciousness of the sophistry that he is using, almost always sets to work to feel that selfishness is not wrong, but right. “Very well,” he says, “I am selfish, I do live for myself; but what then? Whom should I live for? Is not my own interest and good my first care? Who will take care of me if I do not take care of myself? Must not charity begin at home? Is not this the way the world is meant to work, that every man should nurse his own interests, and so, by the development of each, they all should grow?” Unstated, vaguely felt, this is the acted theory of thousands. No man can possibly confess till first he casts this fallacy entirely away. “It is wrong to live to myself; it is not the design of life.” Around him he must hear a great long wail of human suffering, rising and falling, now wilder and now weaker, but never dying utterly away—the ceaseless claim of needy humanity to be helped by the humanity that has abundance. More quiet, but not less pathetic, he must also hear the longing appeal of what seem the happiest and fullest hearts for sympathy in their joy as others seek it in their sorrow. Let his ears open to the appeals, and his conscience must open too. He will see that no man has a right to shut himself away from those whose life is one with his; nay, that no man has a right to do any act unless he sees that some one else will be the better or the happier for it as well as he. He will see that selfishness is wicked, and begin to be disgusted at his life, so full of it. He will add to the acknowledgment of the act the acknowledgment of the act’s moral character, and his confession will be, not merely “I have been selfish,” but “I have sinned.”
To follow the leading of the ideal was Thoreau’s religion; and sin, whatever it might mean for other people, was to him simply the failure in this course. “Sin, I am sure, is not in overt act, or indeed in acts of any kind, but is in proportion to the time which has come behind us and displaced eternity, to the degree in which our elements are mixed with the elements of the world. The whole duty of life is implied in the question, how to respire and aspire both at once.” So he wrote in his journal when he was a young man of twenty-four, and the remainder of his life and the manner of his death alike bear witness to the absolute sincerity of his convictions.1 [Note: H. S. Salt, Henry David Thoreau, 227.]
(3) The discovery that sin is always and above all an offence against God.—Here is the first place where religion necessarily begins. All up to this point may be wholly unreligious. But the confession must be made to some one. What is the authority that has been violated by our acts which we have decided against as being selfish? Is it just the natural authority of the rights of our fellow-men—some human claim which they have upon our sympathy and help? Or is it some abstract law or principle of the mutual harmonies of universal life against which the selfish man sins, to which he must confess? Surely no obedience to such an abstraction—which, after all, is only a generalization, an induction of the man’s own mind—can bind a man’s hot passions from their self-indulgence, or bend his proud head in penitent confession of wrong-doing. What then? The law must come from God. We must be deeply, keenly conscious that every time we have done a selfish act we have broken His distinct commandment. We must have so entire a sense of how utterly He is love that we shall see every unloving thing that we have ever done to be a direct insult to His nature.
No one knows till he has really thus confessed how great the relief is of a recognition of this sole responsibility to God. We mount above our fellow-men, and their judgment-seats. We leave their puny criticisms far below us. They may be right in blaming us—no doubt they are. But past their blame the very magnitude of our guilt exalts us to a higher judgment-seat. The soul, full of God’s power and love at once, is not satisfied to utter itself to less than Him. It must cry as David did in that 51st Psalm, which he wrote about this same crime touching Uriah: “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” In one word, it must be able to complete the whole confession of our text, and say, not merely, “I have sinned,” but “I have sinned against the Lord.”1 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
The feeling which is here concentrated in one despairing sentence is amplified in the 51st Psalm. “Against thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight.” “Wash me throughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.” “Lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts.” “Turn thy face from my sins, and put out all my misdeeds. Make me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” “O give me the comfort of thy help again, and stablish me with thy free Spirit.” “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise.”
The oldest tradition regards this 51st Psalm as the outpouring of David’s soul at this crisis, when the crowning sin of his life was brought home to him in all its heinousness. The ancient heading in our Bibles so describes it. Nor need we question the truth of this tradition. To the thoughtful mind it will appear to bear the very stamp of that terrible crime and that deep penitential sorrow. It would be difficult to fix on any incident, or any man, in the whole range of history, to whom the language and the feelings would be so appropriate as to the man after God’s own heart in the first revulsion of spirit after his terrible fall. One objection only is offered to this ancient and widespread belief. The concluding verses seem to speak of a later period, when the city was rebuilding after the return from Babylon. But is it not reasonable to suppose that these two verses were a later addition to adapt the Psalm to liturgical uses?1 [Note: J. B. Lightfoot.]
(4) And what more is there in the true confession of selfishness? Only one thing, and that is the acknowledgment that the selfish acts which we confess are representations and expressions of a selfish character and heart in which our true guilt abides. If we could make out an absolutely complete list of all the selfish acts that we have ever done, all the selfish words that we have ever spoken, all the selfish thoughts that we have ever thought, and, bringing it up, should unroll it in the sight of God, and, pointing with shame down the long catalogue, should say, “Look, Lord, and read. They are all there. I have not left out one. The black tale is complete”—when that is over, have we confessed our sinfulness? We have not touched it. As fertile and as foul as ever, it lies deep in our heart, ready to breed new selfish acts when these are cleared away. Not till we trace these things down to their roots; not till we say, “I did wrong things because I was a wrong thing. I lived for myself, not for my neighbours, and so broke God’s law in my heart before I broke it with my hands. I was, I am, a living violation of it every day I live”; not till a spiritual logic thus traces back corrupt deeds to their source in a corrupt nature; not till “I have sinned” means “I am sinful,” is the confession finally complete.
How feebly we talk and think about the judgment-day! We tremble when we picture God upon His great white throne, hurling at our dismayed terror the long succession of our sins. We shudder at the thought of this deed and that which we must meet again. The true horror of the judgment-day will be the making manifest of hearts. What I have done will fade before the pre-eminent shame at what I have been. Then, if not before, deeds will take their true places as mere fruits and types of character. Just as we grow into the solemnity of the judgment-day we attain its point of view already, and learn to enlarge David’s “I have sinned” into Simon Peter’s “l am a sinful man, O Lord.”2 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
“The Lord also hath put away thy sin.”
1. Can there be anything more striking, can there be anything more in the nature of a gospel to us all, than this brief dialogue? “David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin.”
The two things to take account of are the immediacy of the pardon and its completeness.
(1) The pardon was immediate.—David had hardly been brought to own his guilt, had hardly got the words of confession off his lips, before the prophet, who represented before him the justice and authority of God, gave back the answer as if he had it all ready upon his lips and had been waiting for the chance to give it. “I have sinned against the Lord.” “The Lord also hath put away thy sin.” The whole was but the transaction of a moment. One minute he was standing obstinate and rebellious, stout in his sin, and the next minute the whole change had come, and the hard heart was softened and the proud will had bent and the sin was gone.
The most intricate moral processes take but a moment to result. The volcano that the chemistry of years has been preparing breaks into eruption in an hour. The blossom that the patient plant has been designing for a century bursts into flower in a single night. And so the reconciliation of a soul to God, which it has been the labour of the ages to make possible, and which dates for its conception back to the dateless time when the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world, comes to its completion in a period too short to measure, in the sudden meeting of a soul filled with penitence and a God filled with mercy.
Whenever humbly I begin
To search my heart and own to Thee
My great perversity and sin,
Thou hinderest me.
How can I tell what evil drifts
Beneath the bench, behind the door,
When, everywhere I turn, Thy gifts
Fill all the floor?
Miserere is not said
Ere Benedictus is begun;
O visit not upon my head
What Thou hast done!1 [Note: Anna Bunston.]
(2) Not only was the answer immediate, it was complete.—The original language of the text might be rendered, “The Lord hath caused thy sin to pass away.” The thought being substantially that of some impediment or veil between man and Him, which with a touch of His hand, He dissolves, as it were, into vapour, and so leaves all the sky clear for His warmth and sunshine to pour down upon the heart. Howsoever we have piled up mountain upon mountain, Alp upon Alp, of our evils and transgressions, all pass away and become non-existent. Another word of the Old Testament expresses the same idea when it speaks about sin being “covered.” Still another word expresses the same idea when it speaks about God as “casting” men’s sins “into the depths of the sea”—all meaning this one thing, that they no longer stand as barriers between the free flow of His love and our poor hearts. He takes away the sense of guilt, touches the wounded conscience, and there is healing in His hand.
There is a law in our nature which makes it necessarily certain that if you touch a particular muscle the arm will quiver; if you appeal to a particular feeling the anger will rise and flush the face. Now, just so is it a law of God’s nature—invariable with a godlike uniformity, more certain than the succession of the seasons or the comings and the goings of the stars—that if a human being touches Him with a true confession He must answer with an unreserved forgiveness.
Back turned I from that wave most blest,
Fresh, as fresh plant with fresh leaves dressed,
Prepared, all clean from cares,
To mount unto the stars.2 [Note: Dante, Purg., xxxiii. 142, tr. by Dr. Shadwell.]
“Howbeit, the child shall surely die.”
1. So forgiveness does not mean impunity. A man may be pardoned, and nevertheless he may be punished. His sin may be put away from him, and yet its painful issues and results may flow in upon him as if his sin were unpardoned. God forgave David; yet God bereaved David. God announced his forgiveness, and yet in the same breath foretold his punishment: “Thy sin is put away; nevertheless, the child that is born unto thee shall surely die.” And this is no exceptional, no extraordinary, case. It is simply a notable illustration of a general law. In all ages the sins of penitent men are forgiven them; and in all ages penitent men have to endure the punitive results of the very sins that have been forgiven. Whatsoever they sow, that they reap, however bitterly they may repent having mingled tares with the wheat.
Abraham sinned, in his eagerness to secure “the child of the promise,” by taking Hagar to wife. His sin was forgiven him; but none the less he was troubled with strife and discord in his tent: i.e. the natural result of his deed came upon him. In his eagerness to secure the promised birthright, Jacob deceived his father, defrauded his brother. God forgave him his sin, nay, met him at Bethel to assure him of forgiveness, to ratify the promise, to foretell the wide inheritance of good on which he should enter. Yet he had to eat the bitter fruit of his sin through long years of labour and sorrow and fear. God chastened him again and again till, at Peniel, the subtle spirit of deceit was cast out of him. Yet, even after that—after the sin was pardoned, after the pardon was published, after the evil heart was replaced by a clean heart and a right spirit—even then, and to the very last, Jacob was deceived by his children, defrauded by his kinsmen and neighbours, was, in short, paid back in his own coin. St. Peter sinned, in that he denied his Master with oaths and curses. His sin was forgiven. It was the tender forgiving look of Christ that broke his heart when he went out and wept bitterly. Yet St. Peter had to go softly many days; to brook the pain of the thrice-repeated reproach, “Lovest thou me?” to find his sin recoiling upon him years afterwards when he played the “hypocrite” at Antioch and St. Paul had to withstand him to his face.1 [Note: S. Cox.]
A recent renewed study of those later years of David’s reign has left on my own soul an impression of peculiar sadness. There is nothing quite like it in the Bible. Look at this man who, from one point of view, was “after God’s own heart,” yet from another was so awful an example of the deceitfulness of sin, and so woefully chastened for it. There is no other Bible portrait with quite this tremendous chiaroscuro, this dread contrast of light and night.2 [Note: H. C. G. Moule.]
2. God restored His favour to him; David walked again in the light of God’s countenance; he was most truly His child—forgiven, cleansed, received back. It was not that God forgave him only partially, and so punished him still. There is no such thing as a partial forgiveness; it is yes or no; God forgives all or none; a man is in his sin, or he is not in his sin. David was not in his sin; God’s word by the prophet had absolved him from that; and yet this stroke came upon him at once, and in a little while those others which were behind it; for this was only the beginning of sorrows, and far sadder and more searching were behind. The sword never did depart from his house; evil did rise up against him from the bosom of his own family. It is hardly too much to say that his after-story, to the end of his life, is a scroll written within and without with lamentations, and mourning, and woe.
I made the cross myself, whose weight
Was later laid on me.
The thought is torture as I toil
Up life’s steep Calvary.
To think mine own hands drove the nails!
I sang a merry song,
And chose the heaviest wood I had
To build it firm and strong.
If I had guessed—if I had dreamed
Its weight was meant for me,
I should have made a lighter cross
To bear up Calvary.3 [Note: Anne Reeve Aldrich.]
3. Why did David suffer after he had been forgiven? There are several good reasons.
(1) In the words of Nathan, he had given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. The eminence of a man makes his sin the more conspicuous and the more deadly in its effects. The question for every man must be, What will be the result of sin on my part, not to myself only, but to the cause of Christ, to the character of religion? And putting the question thus, he will perceive that there are results over which he can have no control, that the mere escape of himself from personal consequences will not be the same as the blotting out of the sin. There may be in God’s mercy the assurance, “Thou shalt not die”; but the deadly character of the sin may show itself in the death of the innocent. Furthermore, as a matter of fact, men are kept back from Christ as much by the inconsistency of His professed disciples as by any other cause whatever.
(2) But there are reasons in the very nature of sin. One very obvious reason why God does not detach their natural results from our sins, even when He forgives our sins, is that to do so would necessitate an incessant display of miraculous power before which all law and certainty would be swept away, and our very conceptions of right and wrong would be confused. God has so made the world and so ordered human life that every seed brings forth fruit of its kind, every action issues in a corresponding result. This is the constant invariable law. Holding fast by this law, we know what to expect, we can foresee what fruit our actions will bring forth. But were God for ever to violate the law by lifting every penitent beyond the reach of the painful results whose natural causes he had set in motion, no man would any longer know what to expect, an element of bewildering uncertainty would enter into every lot. Instead of that noble being, with large discourse of reason, looking before and after, instead of being able to calculate the results of action and to rely on the certainties of law, man would sink into the slave of an incalculable and unintelligible Caprice, pleasure and pain would be exalted over right and wrong, the sacredness of duty would be impaired, the very pillars of the universe would be shaken and removed out of their place.
If a boy breaks a window with a stone and afterwards removes the stone, it does not mend the pane of glass.
My father called me to him. “John,” said he, very kindly, “I wish you would get the hammer.” “Yes, sir.” “Now a nail and a piece of pine board from the wood shed.” “Here they are.” “Will you drive the nail into the board?” It was done. “Please pull it out again.” “That’s easy.” “Now, John,” and my father’s voice dropped to a lower, sadder key, “pull out the nail hole.”
(3) And there are moral reasons. The penalty which follows transgression deepens our sense of sin, it strengthens our reliance on God, and it tests the reality of the repentance itself. As the old wounds reopen, and new sorrows spring from our old sins, we acknowledge our transgression, our sin is ever before us; we recognize the evil that is in us, and hate it with a more perfect hatred. Moreover, we can no longer trust ourselves. And so, drawn by our very straits and necessities, attracted and won by the very stroke which seemed to repel us, we come to God for a clean heart and a right spirit: we put our trust in Him, the God of our salvation. And if our repentance is sincere, if it is the evil and the alienation of our hearts that we really hate, and not the painful issues of our evil conduct, we shall take our punishment, not as the angry blows and rebukes of an offended God, but as the corrections of a loving Father who, because He desires nothing so much as our well-being, puts our penitence and our recovered obedience to a decisive test.
If Kant emphasized the starry heavens and the moral law; if Daniel Webster emphasized the thought of personal responsibility to God, Hawthorne believed the greatest thought that can occupy the human mind is the thought of justice and its retributive workings through conscience. Doubtless there are a thousand problems that compete for the attention of youth; but for men grown mature and strong, life offers no more momentous question than this: Can the soul, injured by temptation and scarred by sin, ever recover its pristine strength and beauty? Is it true that the breach that guilt has made in the soul can never be repaired, but only guarded and watched, while always by the broken wall there lurks “the stealthy tread of a foe who waits to renew his unforgotten triumphs”? Is there no place of recovery, though man seek it long with tears? “I do not know,” answers the old Greek; “I do not know that God has any right to forgive sins.” But Dante, having affirmed that man cannot forgive himself, thinks that sin may be consumed, and therefore makes the transgressor walk up a staircase of red-hot marble that pain may consume his iniquities. Though Hawthorne lived in a grim dark era, for him there was light on the top of the mountains. The summer shower, falling softly upon the banks of violets, cleanses the soot from the blossoms. In the deep forest glen a pure spring gushes, and into the deep pool wild birds plunge to brighten their dull plumage. And Hawthorne felt that somewhere life holds a fountain Divine for cleansing the dust from the soul’s wings. Baring to us all the secrets of the human heart, and portraying the gradual unfolding of pain and penalty, he at last affirms that the sinning soul may recover its native simplicity and dignity through repentance and confession. Therefore, at the very gates of the jail into which the prisoner enters, Hawthorne made a rose-bush grow, with thorns indeed to typify the sharp pains that society inflicts upon the wrong-doer, but with blossoms, too, offering fragrance to the prisoner as he goes in, and suggesting that if the petals fall through the frosts of to-day, these falling petals, passing into the root, will reappear in the richer blossoms of tomorrow; as if another life might recover the disasters of this; as if, no matter what man’s harshness, great nature and nature’s God hold a wide, deep pity that can atone, forgive, and save.1 [Note: N. D. Hillis, Great Books as Life Teachers, 93.]
4. And so there is danger lest the walls we build to keep the truth in keep the souls of men out. Let us not be afraid to be as free as Christ. A whole confession must bring a true forgiveness. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us. The moment we cry, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” the reply is ready, “Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”
Magdalen at Michael’s gate
Tirled at the pin;
On Joseph’s thorn sang the blackbird,
“Let her in, let her in!”
“Thou bringest no offering,” said Michael,
“Nought save sin”;
Sang the blackbird, “She is sorry, sorry, sorry;
Let her in, let her in!”
“Hast thou seen the wounds?” said Michael,
“Knowest thou thy sin?”
“She knows it well, well, well,” sang the blackbird;
“Let her in, let her in!”
When he had sung himself to sleep,
And night did begin,
One came and opened Michael’s gate,
And Magdalen went in.1 [Note: Henry Kingsley.]
Bosanquet (C.), The Man after God’s own Heart, 298.
Brooks (P.), Sermons for Festivals and Fasts, 184.
Cox (S.), Expositions, 1st Ser., 143.
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, 5th Ser., 139.
Hort (F. J. A.), Village Sermons in Outline, 15.
Krummacher (F. W.), David: the King of Israel, 373, 388.
Lightfoot (J. B.), Sermons in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 16.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: 2 Samuel and Kings, 64.
Moule (H. C. G.), From Sunday to Sunday, 211.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 457.
Trench (R. C.), Sermons preached in Westminster Abbey, 351.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), x. No. 833; xi. No. 834.
Wilkinson (G. H.), The Heavenly Vision, 25.
Christian Age, xxxi. 38 (Brooks).
Church Pulpit Year Book, vi. (1909) 104.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Sixth Sunday after Trinity, x. 358 (Trench).
Clergyman’s Magazine, New Ser., i. 185.
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., iv. 29 (Cox).