Listen, all you who are judges here on earth. Learn to love justice; learn to think high thoughts of what God is, and with sincere hearts aspire to him. Trust him you must, if find him you would; he does not reveal himself to one that challenges his power. Man's truant thoughts may keep God at a distance, but when the test of strength comes, folly is shewn in its true colours; never yet did wisdom find her way into the schemer's heart, never yet made her home in a life mortgaged to sin. A holy thing it is, the spirit that brings instruction; how it shrinks away from the touch of falsehood, holds aloof from every rash design! It is a touchstone, to betray the neighbourhood of wrong-doing. A good friend to man is this spirit of wisdom, that convicts the blasphemer of his wild words; God can witness his secret thoughts, can read his heart unerringly, and shall his utterance go unheard? No, the spirit of the Lord fills the whole world; bond that holds all things in being, it takes cognisance of every sound we utter; how should ill speech go unmarked, or the scrutiny of justice pass it by? The hidden counsel of the godless will all come to light; no word of it but reaches the divine hearing, and betrays their wicked design; that jealous ear is still listening, and all their busy murmuring shall stand revealed.
Beware, then, of whispering, and to ill purpose; ever let your tongues refrain from calumny. Think not that the secret word goes for nought; lying lips were ever the soul's destroying. Death for its goal, is not life's aim missed? Labours he well, that labours to bring doom about his ears? Death was never of God's fashioning; not for his pleasure does life cease to be; what meant his creation, but that all created things should have being? No breed has he created on earth but for its thriving; none carries in itself the seeds of its own destruction. Think not that mortality bears sway on earth; no end nor term is fixed to a life well lived... It is the wicked that have brought death on themselves, by word and deed of their own; court death, and melt away in its embrace, keep tryst with it, and lay claim to its partnership.
Reason they offer, yet reason all amiss. Their hearts tell them, So brief our time here, so full of discomfort, and death brings no remedy! Never a man yet made good his title to have come back from the grave! Whence came we, none can tell; and it will be all one hereafter whether we lived or no. What is our breath, but a passing vapour; what is our reason but a spark that sets the brain whirling? Quench that spark, and our body is turned to ashes; like a spent sigh, our breath is wasted on the air; like the cloud-wrack our life passes away, unsubstantial as the mist yonder sun disperses with its ray, bears down with its heat. Time will surely efface our memory, and none will mark the record of our doings. Only a passing shadow, this life of ours, and from its end there is no returning; the doom is sealed, and there is no acquittal.
Come then (they say), let us enjoy pleasure, while pleasure is ours; youth does not last, and creation is at our call; of rich wine and well spiced take we our fill. Spring shall not cheat us of her blossoming; crown we our heads with roses ere they wither; be every meadow the scene of our wanton mirth. Share we the revels all alike, leave traces everywhere of our joyous passing; no part or lot have we but this. Helpless innocence shall lie at our mercy; not for us to spare the widow, to respect the venerable head, grown white with years. Might shall be our right, weakness count for proof of worthlessness. Where is he, the just man? We must plot to be rid of him; he will not lend himself to our purposes. Ever he must be thwarting our plans; transgress we the law, he is all reproof, depart we from the traditions of our race, he denounces us. What, would he claim knowledge of divine secrets, give himself out as the son of God? The touchstone, he, of our inmost thoughts; we cannot bear the very sight of him, his life so different from other men's, the path he takes, so far removed from theirs! No better than false coin he counts us, holds aloof from our doings as though they would defile him; envies the just their future happiness, boasts of a divine parentage. Put we his claims, then, to the proof; let experience shew what his lot shall be, what end awaits him. If to be just is to be God's son indeed, then God will take up his cause, will save him from the power of his enemies. Outrage and torment, let these be the tests we use; let us see that gentleness of his in its true colours, find out what his patience is worth. Sentenced let him be to a shameful death; by his own way of it, he shall find deliverance.
So false the calculations that are blinded by human malice! The secret purposes of God they might not fathom; how should they foresee that holiness is requited, how should they pass true award on a blameless life? God, to be sure, framed man for an immortal destiny, the created image of his own endless being; but, since the devil's envy brought death into the world, they make him their model that take him for their master.
But the souls of the just are in God's hands, and no torment, in death itself, has power to reach them. Dead? Fools think so; think their end loss, their leaving us, annihilation; but all is well with them. The world sees nothing but the pains they endure; they themselves have eyes only for what is immortal; so light their suffering, so great the gain they win! God, all the while, did but test them, and testing them found them worthy of him. His gold, tried in the crucible, his burnt-sacrifice, graciously accepted, they do but wait for the time of their deliverance; then they will shine out, these just souls, unconquerable as the sparks that break out, now here, now there, among the stubble. Theirs to sit in judgement on nations, to subdue whole peoples, under a Lord whose reign shall last for ever. Trust him if you will, true you shall find him; faith waits for him calmly and lovingly; who claims his gift, who shall attain peace, if not they, his chosen servants?
But dearly shall the wicked pay for their error, for the claims of right forgotten, for the Lord's will defied. Their case is pitiable indeed, who make light of true wisdom and of ordered living; vain their hope, profitless their toil, barren their achievement. Light women are the wives they wed, worthless is their brood; a curse lies on their begetting. Blessed, rather, her lot, that childless is, yet chaste, that never knew the bed of shame; offspring she will not lack, when holy souls have their reward. Nay, let there be some eunuch that has kept his hands clear of wrong, has never harboured treasonable thought against the Lord; he too with rare gifts shall be faithfully rewarded, shall have the portion that most contents him in God's holy place. A noble harvest good men reap from their labours; wisdom is a root which never yet cast its crop. Not so the adulterers; never look for children of theirs to thrive; the offspring of the unhallowed wedlock will vanish away. Live they long, they shall be held in no regard, in their late age unhonoured; die they soon, they shall die without hope, no comfort to sustain them in the day when all comes to light. Bitterly they shall rue it hereafter, the race of the evil-doers.
How fair a thing is the unwedded life that is nobly lived! Think not the memory of it can fade; God and man alike preserve the record; in life how eagerly imitated, in death how long regretted, in eternity how crowned with triumph, the conquest gained in fields of honourable striving! Let the wicked gender as they will, it shall nothing avail them; what, should those bastard slips ever strike their roots deep, base the tree firm? Burgeon they may for a little, but the wind will shake their frail hold; root and all, the storm will carry them away. Half-formed, the boughs will be snapped off, and their fruit go to waste, unripe, unprofitable. And indeed, when the day of reckoning comes, needs must they should be cited as witnesses against their own parents, these, the children of their shame, by unlawful dalliance begotten.
Not so the innocent; though he should die before his time, rest shall be his. A seniority there is that claims reverence, owing nothing to time, not measured by the lapse of years; count a man grey-haired when he is wise, ripe of age when his life is stainless. Divine favour, divine love banished him from a life he shared with sinners; caught him away, before wickedness could pervert his thoughts, before wrong-doing could allure his heart; such witchery evil has, to tarnish honour, such alchemy do the roving passions exercise. even on minds that are true metal. With him, early achievement counted for long apprenticeship; so well the Lord loved him, from a corrupt world he would grant him swift release.
The world looks on, uncomprehending; a hard lesson it is to learn, that God does reward, does pity his chosen friends, does grant his faithful servants deliverance. Did they know it, the death of the just man, with its promise early achieved, is a reproach to the wicked that live yet in late old age. But what see they? Here is a man dead, and all his wisdom could not save him. That the Lord planned all this, and for the saving of him, does not enter their minds. What wonder if the sight fills them with contempt? And they themselves, all the while, are earning the Lord's contempt; they themselves, doomed to lie there dishonoured among the dead, eternally a laughing-stock! How they will stand aghast, when he pricks the bubble of their pride! Ruins they shall be, overthrown from the foundation, land for ever parched dry; bitter torment shall be theirs, and their name shall perish irrecoverably. Alas, the long tally of their sins! Trembling they shall come forward, and the record of their misdeeds shall rise up to confront them.
How boldly, then, will the just man appear, to meet his old persecutors, that thwarted all his striving! And they, in what craven fear they will cower at the sight of him, amazed at the sudden reversal of his fortunes! Inward remorse will wring a groan from those hearts: Why, these were the men we made into a laughing-stock and a by-word! We, poor fools, mistook the life they lived for madness, their death for ignominy; and now they are reckoned as God's own children, now it is among his holy ones that their lot is cast.
Far, it seems, did our thoughts wander from the true path; never did the ray of justice enlighten them, never the true sun shone. Weary it proved, the reckless way of ruin, lonely were the wastes we travelled, who missed the path the Lord meant for us. What advantage has it a brought us, all our pomp and pride? How are we the better for all our vaunted wealth? Nothing of that but is gone, unsubstantial as a shadow, swift as courier upon his errand. The ship that ploughs angry waves, what trace is left of her passage? How will you track her keel's pathway through the deep? The bird's flight through air what print betrays? So fiercely lashed the still breeze with the beating of her pinions, as she cleaves her noisy way through heaven, wings flapping, and is gone; and afterwards, what sign of her going? Or be it some arrow, shot at a mark, that pierces the air, how quick the wound closes, the journey is forgotten! So with us it was all one, our coming to birth and our ceasing to be; no trace might we leave behind us of a life well lived; we spent ourselves on ill-doing. (Such is the lament of sinners, there in the world beneath.) Short-lived are all the hopes of the godless, thistle-down in the wind, flying spray before the storm, smoke that whirls away in the breeze; as soon forgotten as the guest that comes for a day, and comes no more. It is the just that will live for ever; the Lord has their recompense waiting for them, the most high God takes care of them. How glorious is that kingdom, how beautiful that crown, which the Lord will bestow on them! His right hand is there to protect them, his holy arm to be their shield. Indignantly he will take up arms, mustering all the forces of creation for vengeance on his enemies. His own faithfulness is the breastplate he will put on, unswerving justice the helmet he wears, a right cause his shield unfailing. See, where he whets the sword of strict retribution, and the whole order of nature is banded with him against his reckless foes! Well-aimed fly his thunder-bolts, sped far and wide from yonder cloud-arch, never missing their mark. Teeming hailstorms shall whirl about them, the artillery of his vengeance; fiercely the sea's waves shall roar against them, pitilessly the floods cut them off; the storm-wind shall rise in their faces, and scatter them as the gust scatters chaff. The whole earth ransacked, and the thrones of the mighty pulled down, by their own disobedience, their own malignancy!
(Wisdom more avails than strength; for a man of prudence, the warrior is no match.) A word, then, for kings' ears to hear, kings' hearts to heed; a message for you, rulers, wherever you be! Listen well, all you that have multitudes at your command, foreign hordes to do your bidding. Power is none but comes to you from the Lord, nor any royalty but from One who is above all. He it is that will call you to account for your doings, with a scrutiny that reads your inmost thoughts; you that held his commission and were false to it, justice neglected, the law set aside, his divine will transgressed. Swift and terrible shall be his coming; strictly his doom falls where heads rise high. For the meanest, there may be pardon; for greatness, greater torment is reserved. What, should he cringe before high rank, stand in awe of a name, he, the Lord of a universe, that made great and little alike, that cares alike for all? Who most has power, him the sharpest pains await. Do you, then, royal sirs (for my warning touches none so nearly), learn wisdom's lesson, and save yourselves from ruin. He that would find soul's health, holy must be and hallowed precepts observe; master these he must, if he would make good his defence. Cherish these warnings of mine, and greedily devour them for your instruction.
The bright beacon of wisdom, that never burns dim, how readily seen by eyes that long for it, how open to their search! Nay, she is beforehand with these her suitors, ready to make herself known to them; no toilsome quest is his, that is up betimes to greet her; she is there, waiting at his doors. Why, to entertain the very thought of her is maturity of the mind; one night's vigil, and all your cares are over. She goes her rounds, to find men worthy of her favours; in the open street unveils that smiling face of hers, comes deliberately to meet them. The very first step towards wisdom is the desire for discipline, and how should a man care for discipline without loving it, or love it without heeding its laws, or heed its laws without winning immortality, or win immortality without drawing near to God? A royal road it is, then, this desire for wisdom, and you, that have nations under your sway, as you value throne and sceptre, must hold wisdom in honour; how else shall your reign be eternal? (A welcome light hers should be to the world's princes.)
What wisdom is, whence came its birth, I will now make known to you. Not for me to withhold the secret; from first to last I will tell the story of her origin, bring to light all that may be known of her, no word of the truth passed by. Withhold it? Nay, the pale miser that grudges his store was never friend of mine; no such character befits the wise. Wide let wisdom be spread, for the more health of mankind; what better security for a people, than prudence on the throne? Learn, then, who will, the lesson of discernment; at my charges, and to his profit.
What of myself? Was not Solomon a mortal man like the rest of you, come down from that first man that was a thing of clay? I, too, was flesh and blood; ten months I lay a-fashioning in my mother's womb; of woman's body my stuff came, and of man's procreation; midnight joys went to the making of me. Born was I, and born drew in the common air; dust amid the dust I fell, and, baby-fashion, my first utterance was a cry; swaddled I must be, and cared for, like the rest. Tell me, was ever king had other manner of coming to be? By one gate all enter life, by one gate all leave it.
Whence, then, did the prudence spring that endowed me? Prayer brought it; to God I prayed, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me. This I valued more than kingdom or throne; I thought nothing of my riches in comparison. There was no jewel I could match with it; all my treasures of gold were a handful of dust beside it, my silver seemed but base clay in presence of it. I treasured wisdom more than health or beauty, preferred her to the light of day; hers is a flame which never dies down. Together with her all blessings came to me; boundless prosperity was her gift. All this I enjoyed, with wisdom to prepare my way for me, never guessing that it all sprang from her. The lessons she taught me are riches honestly won, shared without stint, openly proclaimed; a treasure men will find incorruptible. Those who enjoy it are honoured with God's friendship, so high a value he sets on her instruction.
God's gift it is, if speech answers to thought of mine, and thought of mine to the message I am entrusted with. Who else can shew wise men the true path, check them when they stray? We are in his hands, we and every word of ours; our prudence in act, our skill in craftsmanship. Sure knowledge he has imparted to me of all that is; how the world is ordered, what influence have the elements, how the months have their beginning, their middle, and their ending, how the sun's course alters and the seasons revolve, how the years have their cycles, the stars their places. To every living thing its own breed, to every beast its own moods; the winds rage, and men think deep thoughts; the plants keep their several kinds, and each root has its own virtue; all the mysteries and all the surprises of nature were made known to me; wisdom herself taught me, that is the designer of them all. Mind-enlightening is the influence that dwells in her; set high apart; one in its source, yet manifold in its operation; subtle, yet easily understood. An influence quick in movement, inviolable, persuasive, gentle, right-thinking, keen-edged, irresistible, beneficent, kindly, gracious, steadfast, proof against all error and all solicitude. Nothing is beyond its power, nothing hidden from its view, and such capacity has it that it can pervade the minds of all living men; so pure and subtle an essence is thought. Nothing so agile that it can match wisdom for agility; nothing can penetrate this way and that, etherial as she. Steam that ascends from the fervour of divine activity, pure effluence of his glory who is God all-powerful, she feels no passing taint; she, the glow that radiates from eternal light, she, the untarnished mirror of God's majesty, she, the faithful image of his goodness. Alone, with none to aid her, she is all-powerful; herself ever unchanged, she makes all things new; age after age she finds her way into holy men's hearts, turning them into friends and spokesmen of God. Her familiars it is, and none other, that God loves. Brightness is hers beyond the brightness of the sun, and all the starry host; match her with light itself, and she outvies it; light must still alternate with darkness, but where is the conspiracy can pull down wisdom from her throne?
Bold is her sweep from world's end to world's end, and everywhere her gracious ordering manifests itself.
She, from my youth up has been my heart's true love, my heart's true quest; she was the bride I longed for, enamoured of her beauty. Was I moved by noble birth? No better claim than hers, who dwells in God's palace, marked out by the Ruler of the world as his favourite; the mistress of his craftsmanship, the arbiter of his plans. Or should life's dearest aim be wealth? Why then, who has more wealth at her disposal than wisdom, that turns all to account? Or if sound judgement is man's business, who else on earth goes to work so skilfully as she? If your desire be for honest living, man's excellences are the fruit she labours to produce; temperance and prudence she teaches, justice and fortitude, and what in life avails man more? Or if wide knowledge be your ambition, she can inform you of what is past, make conjecture of the future; she is versed in the subtleties of debate, in the reading of all riddles; marvels and portents she can foretell, and what events time or season will bring.
Her, then, I would take to myself, to share my home; to be my counsellor in prosperity, my solace in anxiety and grief. Through her (said I) I shall win fame in the assembly, find honour, though so young, amidst the elders. If I sit in judgement, quick wit shall be mine, that shall strike awe into the princes when I appear before them, the admiration of the great. Am I silent? They wait my leisure; speak I, they take heed; flows my speech on, they listen, hand on lip. She, too, will bring me immortality; imperishable the name I shall leave to after ages. Mine to rule peoples, and have nations at my call; dread tyrants to daunt by the very name of me, the name of a king so loved by his people, so brave in battle. Then home again, to rest upon her bosom; no shrewish mate, no tedious housewife, joy and contentment all of her.
So ran my thoughts, and well in my heart I pondered them. Wisdom, that brought such kinship with immortality, whose friendship was such dear delight, whose exercise brought me credit unfailing, her daily comradeship a training in sound judgement, the eloquence she inspired an earnest of renown; win her for myself I must, and went about to attain my purpose. I was, indeed, a boy of good parts, and nobility of nature had fallen to my lot; gentle birth above the common had endowed me with a body free from blemish. But to be master of myself was a thing I could not hope to come by, except of God's bounty; I was wise enough already to know from where the gift came. So to the Lord I turned, and made my request of him, praying with all my heart in these words following:
God of our fathers, Lord of all mercy, you by your word have made all things, and you in your wisdom have contrived man to rule your creation, to order the world by a law of right living and of just dealing, and give true award in the honest purpose of his heart. Wisdom I ask of you, the same wisdom that dwells so near your throne; do not grudge me a place among your retinue. Am I not your servant, and to your service born? Mortal man you see me, the puny creature of an hour, a mind unapt for judgement and the making of laws. Grow man to what perfection he will, if he lacks the wisdom that comes from you, he is nothing; and me you have chosen to reign over your people; from me sons and daughters of yours must seek for redress! More than this, you have bidden me raise you temple and altar, upon this mountain, in the holy city where you dwell, model of that holy tabernacle, made long ago, whose pattern was of your own devising. Wisdom was with you then, privy to all your designs, she who stood by you at the world's creation, and knows your whole will, the whole tenour of your commandments. From that heavenly sanctuary, that high throne of yours, send her out still on your errand, to be at my side too and share my labours! How else should your will be made clear to me? For her, no secret, no riddle is too dark; her prudent counsel will be my guide, the fame of her my protection. So shall my task be accomplished as you would have it be; so shall I give this people of yours just awards, no unworthy heir of the throne my father left me.
What God's purpose is, how should man discover, how should his mind master the secret of the divine will? So hesitating our human thoughts, so hazardous our conjectures! Ever the soul is weighed down by a mortal body, earth-bound cell that clogs the manifold activity of its thought. Hard enough to read the riddle of our life here, with laborious search ascertaining what lies so close to hand; and would we trace out heaven's mysteries too? Your purposes none may know, unless you do grant your gift of wisdom, sending out from high heaven your own holy spirit. Thus ever were men guided by the right way, here on earth, and learned to know your will; ever since the world began wisdom was the salve they used, that have won your favour.
When man was but newly made, the lonely father of this created world, she it was that watched over him, and set him free from wrong-doing of his own, and gave him the mastery over all things else. Against her Cain rebelled, when he did foul wrong, and by murderous spite against his brother compassed his own ruin. Who but she, when the world was a-drowning for Cain's fault, gave it a second term of life, steering, on a paltry raft, one innocent man to safety? And when the nations went their several ways, banded in a single conspiracy of wickedness, of one man's innocence she still took note; Abraham must be kept irreproachable in God's service, and steeled against pity for his own child. Here was another innocent man, Lot, that owed his preservation to Wisdom, when godless folk were perishing all around him. Escape he should, when fire came down upon the Cities of the Plain; those five cities whose shame is yet unforgotten, while smoke issues from the barren soil, and never tree bears seasonable fruit, and the pillar of salt stands monument to an unbelieving soul. Fatal neglect of Wisdom's guidance, that could blind their eyes to the claims of honour, and leave the world such a memorial of their folly, as should make the record of their sins unmistakable!
But those who cherish her, Wisdom brings safely out of all their striving. When Jacob, her faithful servant, was in flight from his brother's anger, she guided him straight to his goal, and on the way shewed him the heavenly kingdom, gave him knowledge of holy things. She enriched him by his toil, and gave all his labours a happy issue. Knavery went about to get the better of him, but she stood by him and prospered him; kept him safe from his enemies, protected him from their scheming. She would have him wrestle manfully, and prove that there is no strength like the strength of wisdom. When Joseph, in his innocence, was sold for a slave, Wisdom did not desert him, did not leave him among the guilty, but went down with him into his dungeon. Fast he was bound, but she had not finished with him till she gave him dominion over a whole kingdom, and power to do what he would with his persecutors. So she brought home the lie to those who had traduced him, and won him everlasting fame.
So, too, with that innocent people of Israel, that unoffending race; did she not deliver them from the nations that kept them under? Did she not enter into the heart of God's servant, confronting dread rulers with portent and with miracle? Did she not restore to men ill-used the just reward of their labours? She, too, led them out on their miraculous journey, affording them shelter by day and starry radiance at night. She made a passage for them through the Red Sea, brought them safely through those leagues of water, and churned up the bodies of their drowned enemy from those unfathomed depths. So, enriched by the spoils of the godless, they extolled, Lord, your holy name, proclaimed with one voice your sovereign power; Wisdom opened the dumb mouths and made the lips of infants vocal with praise.
With Moses set apart for his spokesman, to what good issue he brought all their enterprises! Through desert solitudes they journeyed on, pitching their camp far from the haunts of men; boldly they confronted their enemy, and overcame his malice. When they were thirsty, on your name they called, and out of the rock's sheer face water was given to heal their thirst, out of the hard flint. Strange likeness between the punishment that befell their enemies, who went thirsty while Israel had drink to their heart's content, and the relief of their want Israel now experienced! You who once, into defiling blood, had troubled the sources of a living stream, to avenge a murderous edict against new-born children, did now give your people abundant water to drink, by means unlooked for. How ill it had gone with their adversaries in Egypt, that thirst of theirs in the desert plainly shewed them; in mercy schooled, yet sorely tried, they learned to know what torments the wicked had undergone, forfeit to your vengeance. For Israel, only a test of their faith; only a father's correction; for Egypt, as from a king, stern scrutiny and stern doom. Tidings from far away, that racked the Egyptians no less than their own former sufferings; anguish redoubled, as they groaned over the memory of things past! That the same plague of thirst which had tortured themselves should be the source of Israel's rejoicing! Then indeed they felt the Lord's power, then indeed they wondered at the revenge time had brought; wondered at Moses, whom their insolence had long ago disinherited, when they exposed him with the other children. Thirst, that had been Egypt's enemy, had no terrors for the just.
So lost to piety were these Egyptians, such foolish reasonings led them astray, that they worshipped brute reptiles, and despicable vermin. And swarms of brute beasts you did send to execute your vengeance, for the more proof that a man's own sins are the instrument of his punishment. Your power knows no restraint, the power that created an ordered world out of dark chaos. It had been easy to send a plague of bears upon them, or noble lions; or to form new creatures, of a ferocity hitherto unknown, breathing fiery breath, churning out foul fumes, terrible sparks darting from their eyes, so that men would die of fear at their very aspect, without waiting for proof of their power to do harm. Nay, without more ado you might have overthrown them with a single blast; all at once their sins should have found them out, your fierce breath whirled them away; but no, all you do is done in exact measure, all is nicely calculated and weighed. No moment passes but you, if you will, can shew yourself supreme; that arm has power there is no withstanding; the whole world, matched against you, is but a scruple on the balance, is but a drop of dew, falling to earth at sunrise. Only you are all-merciful, as befits the Almighty, and do overlook our human slips, in hope of our repentance. All things you love, nor hold any of your creatures in abhorrence; hate and create you could not, nor does aught abide save at your will, whose summoning word holds them in being. They are yours, and you spare them; all things that live you love, you, the Master of them all.
Your kindly influence, Lord, your gracious influence is all about us. Tender, at the first false step, is your rebuke; you do remind and warn us that we have gone astray, to make us leave our sinning and have faith in you. So it was with the former inhabitants of this your holy land. Good reason you had to be their enemy; of what detestable practices were they not guilty, with those sorceries and unhallowed rites of theirs! Murderers that would not spare their own children, that feasted on human flesh, human entrails and blood, they must have no share in your covenant. Your will was that our fathers should root them out, these unnatural murderers of their own defenceless children; and this land, dear to you as no other, should be more worthily peopled by the sons of God. Yet they, too, were men, and you would deal gently with them; you would send hornets as the vanguard of your invading host; to wear them down gradually. Not that it was beyond your power to give piety the mastery over godlessness by victory in battle, by some plague of ravening monsters, or by one word of doom. But no, their sentence should be executed by degrees, giving them opportunity to repent; though indeed you knew well that theirs was a worthless breed, of a malice so ingrained, that they would turn aside from their ill devices never; from its beginnings, an accursed race.
Nor, if you were patient with the sinner, was it human respect that persuaded you to it. Your acts who shall question, your doom who shall gainsay? Will some champion arise to challenge you on behalf of these rebels, tax you with unmaking the peoples you have made? God there is none save you, that have a whole world for your province; and shall your justice abide our question? Punish you may as punish you will; king nor emperor can be bold to outface you. So high beyond our censure, and therewithal so just in your dealings! To condemn the innocent were unworthy of such majesty as yours; of all justice, your power is the true source, universal lordship the ground of universal love! Only when your omnipotence is doubted will you assert your mastery, their rashness making manifest, who will not acknowledge you; elsewhere, with such power at your disposal, a lenient judge you prove yourself, riding us with a light rein, and keeping your terrors in reserve.
Two lessons your people were to learn from these dealings of yours; ever should justice and mercy go hand in hand, never should your own children despair of forestalling your justice by repentance. What, so patient, so unhurrying, in your vengeance on the doomed enemies of your chosen race; always delay, always the opportunity given them to repent of their misdeeds; and would you shew less anxious care in trying the cause of your own children, bound to you from of old by a sworn covenant so rich in mercies? It is for our instruction, then, that you use such exquisite care in the punishing of our enemies; judge we, let us imitate your clemency, abide we judgement, let us ever hope for pardon.
And so it was that you did plague the Egyptians, that were knaves and fools both; their own false gods should be the undoing of them. This was the worst error of all their erring, that they worshipped the meanest of beasts as gods; silly children had been no more credulous. Why then, these silly children should have play-time penalties first; of those play-time penalties if they took no heed, then at last they should feel how a God can punish. Humiliated they well might be at those sufferings of theirs, the very gods they worshipped the instruments of their distress; a sight enough to convince them that he was the true God, whom all this while they had rejected! But no, they must needs bring upon themselves the full rigours of justice.
What folly it argues in man's nature, this ignorance of God! So much good seen, and he, who is existent Good, not known! Should they not learn to recognise the artificer by the contemplation of his works? Instead, they have pointed us to fire, or wind, or to the nimble air, wheeling stars, or tempestuous waves, or sun and moon, and made gods of them, to rule the world! Perhaps the beauty of such things bewitched them into mistaking it for divinity? Ay, but what of him who is Master of them all; what excellence must be his, the Author of all beauty, that could make them! Or was it power, and power's exercise, that awoke their wonderment? Why then, how many times greater must he be, who contrived it! Such great beauty even creatures have, reason is well able to contemplate the Source from which these perfections came.
Yet, if we find fault with men like these, their fault is little by comparison; err they may, but their desire is to find God, and it is in that search they err. They stop short in their enquiry at the contemplation of his creatures, trusting only in the senses, that find such beauty there. Excuse them, then, we may not; if their thoughts could reach far enough to form a judgement about the world around them, how is it they found, on the way, no trace of him who is Master of it? But there are men more wretched yet, men who repose all their confidence in a world of shadows. They give the name of god to what is made by human art, gold and silver that human workmanship has turned into the likeness of living things, blocks of senseless stone that human hands have carved, long ago.
What would you? Here is a craftsman in wood has been to the forest and sawed off a fine straight branch; deftly he strips off the bark, and fashions, with patient skill, some piece of carpentry apt for man's needs. As for the chips in his workshop, they cook his meal for him, to eat and take his fill. But one more piece of refuse wood is left, that is fit for nothing; so crooked is it and so gnarled. See him, in an idle moment, pick it up and spend his leisure carving it! A master craftsman this; ere long it has taken shape, made into a man's likeness; or it may be he gives it the form of a senseless beast. And now he paints it with ochre; ruddled it must be till all its native colour is lost, all its faults hidden away. That done, he must find a suitable room to house it, and there lets it into the wall, making it fast with iron clamps. No pains does he spare to keep it from falling; fall if it does, it shall find no remedy; please you, this is but an image, and cannot shift for itself!
And so, unashamed, for home and children and wife he utters his prayer, addressing himself all the while to a senseless thing. A weak, foolish thing, and for health he asks it; dead, and he will have life of it; shiftless, and he will have aid of it. How should it set forward his journeyings, that cannot walk? What service should it do, if trade he want, or skill, or good fortune, that is every way unserviceable?
Nay, here is one that will go a-voyaging, the wild waves for his pathway, and perishable wood to carry him, yet he makes his prayer to a piece of wood more perishable yet! As for the ship's timbers, it was man's covetousness that made the need for them, and man's skill that fashioned them; but it is your fatherly Providence that brings her safe to port; you have made the sea into a highroad men may travel by without harm, as if you would prove to us how strong is your protection, though the sailor have little skill. So careful are you that the gifts your wisdom affords us should not go unused; man ventures his life on a few planks and the frail barque gives him safe conduct across the waves. And what marvel? At the beginning of all, when the giants perished in their pride, was not such a barque the refuge of all the world's hopes? Yet your hand was at the helm, and the seed of life was saved for posterity. A blessing on the wood that can so procure salvation! But yonder idol is accursed, no less than the man who made it; he for his wicked design, and the lifeless thing for the legend of divinity that was attached to it. Sinner and sin, God hates both; pardon is none for deed or doer. Thus it is that a time of reckoning will come for these idols the Gentiles make; part of God's creation though they be, he detests them, so have they entangled men's souls, and laid a trap for fools. When idols were first devised, then began unfaithfulness; there was death in the invention of them. For indeed they were no part of man's life from the first, nor shall be at the last; it was but man's folly brought them into the world, and there shall be a short way with them yet. Here was some father, bowed with sorrow before his time, his child untimely lost; the likeness of those features once made, to mortal man (that was dead besides) he would pay divine honours, and with that, rites of initiation must become the tradition of his clan. As time went on, impious habit grew into impious custom. A king would have his own likeness adored, and his subjects, living far away, so that they could not do obeisance to him in person, would have his present image set up in their view, eager to pay his absent royalty their adulation. And if any spur were needed yet for their ignorant superstition, the rivalry of craftsmen afforded it; each of these sought to please his master by improving the portrait, with the utmost abuse of his skill, till at last the vulgar, carried away by so much grace of art, would account him a god whom yesterday they reverenced as mortal man. So, unawares, the world was caught in the ambush; under the stress, now of bereavement, now of royal policy, men imparted to stocks and stones the incommunicable name of God.
Nor were they content with these false notions of God's nature; living in a world besieged by doubt, they misnamed its innumerable disorders a state of peace. Peace, amidst their rites of child-murder, their dark mysteries, their vigils consecrated to frenzy! Peace, while there is no respect for life, or for wedlock undefiled; always the murderous ambush, the jealous pangs of a husband betrayed! All is a welter of bloodshed and murder, theft and fraud, corruption and disloyalty, sedition and perjury; honest men are assailed, kindnesses forgotten, souls defiled, breeds confused, marriages unsettled; adultery reigns and wantonness. Name we all these, name we never the idols whose worship is the cause, the beginning and end, of all these! Their ecstasies are but raving, their prophecies are but lies; ill live their worshippers, and lightly forswear themselves. And no marvel; what hurt should they take from the oath falsely sworn, since all their faith is in dead gods? But indeed they shall pay both scores, idolaters that thought so ill of God, and perjurers that by their treason slighted all honour; not the power he swore by, but the justice that keeps watch over sinners, walks ever close on the heels of ill-doing.
For us, you are God; you, beneficent and truthful, you, always patient and merciful towards the world you govern. Sin we, still we are your worshippers; have we not proof of your power? Sin we not, of this, too, we have proof, that you will count us for your own. To know you as you are, is the soul's full health; to have proof of your power, is the root whence springs immortality. Not for us to be led astray by foolish tales of man's imagining, by the sculptor's barren art, as he picks out some image with motley colours, to set fools gaping at the sight of a lifeless shadow, all seeming and no breathing. Lovers they are of their own ruin, worthy of the fond hopes they cherish, that make such things, or sigh after them, or do them reverence.
Despise we not the potter's toil, that works the pliant earth between his fingers, and makes a cup here, a dish there for our use. Serve they noble ends or base, all alike come from the same clay, and what employment each of them shall find, it is the potter's right to determine. But very ill is that toil bestowed, when he uses the same clay to fashion some god that is no god. Bethink you, potter, that it is but a little while since you yourself were fashioned out of the same earth, and ere long, when the lease of your soul falls due, to that earth you shall return. But no, he never looks forward to the day when he will be past work; how short life is, he recks not; he must vie with goldsmith and silversmith, he must be even with his neighbour that works in bronze; in puppet-making all his hope lies of winning fame. O heart of dust, ambition worthless as the sand, life than his own clay more despicable! No thought for the God that was his own fashioner, quickened him with the pulse of energy, breathed into him a living spirit! Existence, for him, only a toy to be played with; our life here, only a market-place, where a man must needs get his living by fair means or foul! Such a man, as no other, sins with his eyes open; from the same earthenware he will make you fragile pot or carved effigy as you will.
Fools all, and doomed to misery beyond the common doom of tyrants, were the enemies that from time to time have lorded it over your people. Gods, for them, were all the idols of the heathen, with their sightless eyes, their nostrils that never drew breath, deaf ears, unfeeling hands, and feet that still would walk, yet still tarry; gods man-made, gods of his fashioning that is a debtor for the very breath he draws. For indeed, the gods man fashions are less than himself; vain his impiety, since he is but mortal, they already dead; better he than they, since he lived once, and they never. And what beasts are these they worship? Of all beasts, the most hateful; such models they have foolishly chosen as cannot vie with the others; as have no beauty, even beast-fashion, to make them desirable; the least honourable of God's creatures and the least blessed.
Fittingly, then, were the Egyptians plagued by such beasts as these, that swarmed to their undoing. Your own people no plague befell; pined their queasy stomach for dainties, you would feed them on quails. Though hunger drove them to food, the men of Egypt turned away with loathing from the necessaries they craved, so foul the sight of the frogs that came to punish them. Your own people should go wanting for a little, only so as to prepare them for the dainties that would follow. Their oppressors must feel the pinch of poverty; for themselves, the sight of another's chastisement should be lesson enough. When they themselves encountered brute malice, and the bites of writhing serpents threatened them with destruction, your vengeance did not go to all lengths; enough that they should be warned by a brief experience of distress; they should be put in mind of your law, yet have the assurance that you would come to their rescue. For indeed, he who turned to look did not win safety from the brazen serpent which met his eyes, but from you, who alone can save.
No better proof could our enemies have, that from all peril you alone deliver. Bite of locust or sting of fly was the undoing of them; no salve could be found against the mortal punishment they had deserved. And here were these sons of yours, unvanquished even by the teeth of venomous serpents, because your mercy came out to meet them and gave relief. They must feel the prick, to remind them of the commandments they had from you, and then quickly be rescued before they sank into deep lethargy, beyond the reach of your succour. Herb nor plaster it was that cured them, but your word, Lord, that all healing gives. Lord of life as of death, you can bring us down to the grave and back from the grave; yours is not the fatal stroke man deals in spite, that banishes life beyond recall, imprisons the soul for ever.
Truly, yours is a power there is no escaping; the uplifted arm that plagued impious Egypt, where you were treated as a stranger. Strange, indeed, to that country were the rains that hunted them down, the fierce hail-storms; the fire, too, that wasted them. Wonder beyond all wont, that in water, the all-quenching, fire should rage its fiercest; no element but must rally in the cause of right. Here the flame would burn low, to spare those creatures a scorching, that were your emissaries against the godless; doubt there should be none, for any who saw it, but divine justice was at his heels. Here, in the very midst of the water it would burn as never fire burned yet, to blast all the fruits of that accursed land. And your own people, Lord? Them you did foster with the food of angels; bread from heaven you did set before them, which no labour of theirs had made ready, every taste uniting that could bring content, of every appetite the welcome choice. So would your own nature manifest a father's universal love; this food should humour the eater's whim, turning itself into that which he craved most. In Egypt, snow and ice had resisted the fire, never melting; plain it was that this fire, which shone out amid the hailstones and the rain, was in alliance with them to burn up and destroy the enemy's harvest. Now, once again, fire forgot its own nature, this time, to give faithful souls their nourishment! So well does your creation obey you, its author now exerting all its powers to punish the wicked, now abating its force to do your loyal followers a service!
Why should nature, seconding that universal bounty of yours, go to all shifts to meet the needs of your suppliants, but for the instruction of your own children, Lord, children so well beloved? They were to learn that man lives, not by the ripening of crops, but by your word, ever protecting the souls that trust in you. This manna, that never shrank from the fire while it was a-cooking, would melt before the heat of the sun's first feeble ray. What meant this, but that we must be up before the sun to give you thanks, seeking your audience with day's earliest light? Thankless if a man be, like the hoar frost of winter his hopes shall dissolve; like water that goes to waste they shall vanish.
High above us, Lord, are your judgements, mysterious your dealings; no skill had those Egyptian hearts to understand them. They had thought to exercise barbarous tyranny over a nation consecrated to you. And now they lay, shut close under their own roofs, darkness their dungeon, their sentence a long-drawn night, exiled from the gifts of your eternal Providence. Did they hope, under that dark veil of oblivion, to find a cloak for secret sinning? Nay, they were scattered far apart, and in grievous dread of the terrors that came to daunt them. Lie snug in their hidden lairs they might not; noises swept down, echoing about their affrighted ears, and boding visions of sad faces cowed their spirits. Fire itself no light could give them, nor star's clear beam illuminate that hideous night; only now and again a blaze shone out, not of their kindling, terrible to behold; and fear of this unseen radiance lent fresh horror to the sights it shewed.
A mockery, now, seemed those magic arts of theirs; ignominious the rebuff to their boasted cunning. The very men who had professed to rid ailing minds of all discomposure and disquiet, were now themselves sick with apprehension, to their great discomfiture. Even when no alarms were present to disturb them, the memory of prowling beast and hissing serpent filled them with mortal tremors, till they shut their eyes against the sight of empty air, we must all breathe. So cowardly a thing is wickedness, it pronounces its own condemnation; hard pressed by conscience, it forecasts ever the worst. What else is timorousness, but a betrayal of the vantage-ground reason gives us? Imagination, already defeated within its own stronghold, fears the unknown more than it fears the true source of its misery. Whether the darkness that held them bound were true night, or that darkness which comes up from the lowest depths of the grave, their bemused senses could not well distinguish; now monstrous apparitions came indeed to scare them, now it was but their own faint hearts made cowards of them; in a moment dismay was all about them, and took them unawares.
Into this prison, then, that needed no bars to secure it, all fell alike, whatever their condition; tiller of the fields, or shepherd, or workman that plied his task out in the desert, each was caught at his post, each must abide the inevitable lot, by darkness, like all his fellows, held in thrall. Did the wind whistle, or bird utter tuneful notes deep amid the boughs; were it the dull roar of some waterfall, or the sudden crash of tumbling rocks, or the padding feet of beasts that gambolled past them unseen, or the howl of wild things ravening, or a booming echo from the mountain hollows, it was all one; it would startle them into a great quaking of fear. All around them the world was bathed in the clear sunlight, and men went about their tasks unhindered; over them alone this heavy curtain of night was spread, image of the darkness that should be their next abode. Yet each man had a burden heavier to bear than darkness itself, the burden of his own companionship.
Brightest of all, that light shone on your chosen people. These neighbours of theirs, heard but not seen, the Egyptians must congratulate on their escape from the common doom, thank them for letting vengeance be, and ask forgiveness for past ill-will. To these you gave, not darkness, but a pillar of burning fire, to be the guide of their unfamiliar journey, a sun, all gracious welcome, that brought no harm. A fitting punishment it was for the Egyptians this loss of light; fitting that they should be imprisoned in darkness, who had kept your own sons in prison; your own sons, through whom that law, which is light unfailing, was to be given to the world. It was their purpose, besides, to slay all the children born of that holy stock; but one child survived exposure and lived to rebuke them; through him you did destroy Egypt's own children in their thousands, and drown its assembled host in the rushing waves. Of what should befall that night, our fathers had good warning; confidence in your sworn protection should keep them unafraid. A welcome gift it was to your people, rescue for the just, and doom for their persecutors; at one stroke you did punish our enemies, and make us proud men by singling us out for yourself.
In secret they offered their sacrifice, children of a nobler race, all set apart; with one accord they ratified the divine covenant, which bound them to share the same blessings and the same perils; singing for prelude their ancestral hymns of praise. But music was none in the enemy's cry that answered them; here all was dirge for children untimely mourned. Slave and master, prince and peasant, a common doom met them, and a common loss; death levelled all under one title; unnumbered everywhere the slain, nor might the living suffice to bury them; all in one moment, the flower of their race had perished. Against those earlier plagues, sorcery had hardened their hearts; Israel they recognized for God's children only when the first-born died.
There was a hush of silence all around, and night had but finished half her swift journey, when from your heavenly throne, Lord, down leaped your word omnipotent. Never lighted sterner warrior on a doomed land; never was sword so sharp, errand so unmistakable; your word that could spread death everywhere, that trod earth, yet reached up to heaven. All at once came terror in their dreams; phantoms dismayed, and sudden alarms overtook them; and when they lay a-dying, each fallen where fall he must, they confessed what fault it was they expiated; all was foretold by the dreams that so disquieted them; they were not suffered to perish ignorant of their offence. There was a time, too, when God's own people tasted the bitterness of death; out there in the desert a plague fell upon the common folk; but not for long this vengeance lasted. A peerless champion they found, in Aaron, that quickly took up the shield of his appointed ministry; the power of intercession that was his, and the atoning incense, held your wrath in check, and brought the calamity to an end; none could doubt now he was the man of your choice! Not by strength of body, not by prowess in arms, he won the victory; by persuasion he disarmed resistance, calling to mind the sworn covenant of our race. Already the corpses were piled thick one on another; but he kept vengeance at bay, standing in between to breach the path between dead and living. Such blazonings he bore; what meant that long robe of his but the whole world's orbit, the four rows of gems but the great deeds of our first fathers, the mitre on his head but your own greatness? In awe of these shrank the destroying angel away; for your own people, some taste of your vengeance should be enough.
It was not so with their impious enemies; with them, God decreed that pitiless justice should run its course, knowing well what ill-doing of theirs lay yet in store; how the very men who had allowed the Israelites to depart, nay, set them eagerly on their way, would soon repent of it and march out in pursuit. The business of mourning still in hand, the grave-sides of the dead still calling for their tears, they must needs betake themselves to a fresh desperate shift; they would hunt down as fugitives the unwelcome guests of yesterday. Fitting destiny, that lured them to a fitting doom, made them forget the past, and led them on to complete their tale of suffering and of punishment! For your people, a strange sea-faring; for those others, an unexampled manner of death!
Each form of nature, in its own proper sphere, was formed anew as from the beginning, obedient to the new laws you had given it, for the greater safety of your children. Such was the cloud that over-shadowed their camp; such the dry land that appeared where water stood before; the Red Sea unlaboriously crossed, a grassy floor spread out amid the surging billows! So, sheltered by your hand, they passed on their way, a whole nation of them, strange marvels seen in their passage; lighthearted as horse at pasture or frisking lamb, they chanted praises to you, Lord, their rescuer. Such, too, were their memories of Egypt itself; memories of the land that bred lice and could breed no beasts else, the river that could spawn frogs, yet never a fish lived there. Later on, they were to see how birds could be the subject of a new creation, when their appetites craved for richer fare, and quails came up from the sea to content them.
Nor were the Egyptians punished without warning; the thunders that terrified them were but echoes of the past. Did not their own wickedness deserve the pains they suffered, a race even more inhospitable than the men of Sodom before them? These did but refuse a welcome when strangers came to their doors; the Egyptians condemned their own guests, their own benefactors, to slavery. It is one thing to be called to account for unfriendly treatment of alien folk; but these Egyptians had received the Israelites into their midst with rejoicing, had admitted them to rights of citizenship, and then turned on them with savage ill-treatment. No wonder blindness fell on them, as upon the men of Sodom at Lot's door! But in Egypt the darkness was so bewildering that a man could not find his way through the doors of his own house. All the elements may be transposed among themselves, keeping up the same answering rhythm, like the notes of a harp altering their mood; so much we may infer with certainty from the sights that have been witnessed in the past. Land-beasts turned to water-beasts, and the firm ground was trodden by creatures born to swim. Fire surpassed its own nature, when water forgot to quench it; then fire, in its turn, could not waste the frail flesh of living creatures that traversed it, nor melt that heavenly food that melted easily as ice. No means would you neglect, Lord, to magnify your people and win them renown; never would you leave them unregarded, but always and everywhere came to their side.