"John, than which man a sadder or a greater
Not till this day has been of woman born;
John, like some iron peak by the Creator
Fired with the red glow of the rushing morn.
"This, when the sun shall rise and overcome it,
Stands in his shining, desolate and bare;
Yet not the less the inexorable summit
Flamed him his signal to the happier air."
F. W. H. Myers.
The morning star, shining amid the brightening glow of dawn, is the fittest emblem that Nature can supply of the herald who proclaimed the rising of the Sun of Righteousness—answering across the gulf of three hundred years to his brother prophet, Malachi, who had foretold that sunrise and the healing of its wings.
Every sign attests the unique and singular glory of the Baptist. Not that his career was signalized by the blaze of prodigy and wonder, like the multiplication of the widow's meal or the descent of the fire of heaven to consume the altar and the wood; for it is expressly said that John did "no miracle." Not that he owed anything to the adventitious circumstances of wealth and rank; for he was not a place-loving courtier, "clothed in soft raiment or found in kings' courts." Not that he was a master of a superb eloquence like that of Isaiah or Ezekiel; for he was content to be only "a cry"—short, thrilling, piercing through the darkness, ringing over the desert plains. Yet, his Master said of him that "among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist"; and in six brief months, as one has noticed, the young prophet of the wilderness had become the centre to which all the land went forth. We see Pharisees and Sadducees, soldiers and publicans, enthralled by his ministry; the Sanhedrim forced to investigate his claims; the petty potentates of Palestine caused to tremble on their thrones; whilst he has left a name and an influence that will never cease out of the world.
But there is: a further feature which arrests us in the life and ministry of the Baptist. He was ordained to be "the clasp" of two covenants. In him Judaism reached its highest embodiment, and the Old Testament found its noblest exponent. It is significant, therefore, that through his lips the law and the prophets should announce their transitional purpose, and that he who caught up the torch of Hebrew prophecy with a grasp and spirit, unrivalled by any before him, should have it in his power and in his heart to say: "The object of all prophecy, the purpose of the Mosaic law, the end of all sacrifices, the desire of all nations, is at hand." And forthwith turning to the True Shepherd, who stood at the door waiting to be admitted, to Him the porter opened, bowing low as He passed, and crying: "This is He of whom Moses in the law and the prophets did write, Jesus of Nazareth, who was for to come."
Few studies can bring out to clearer demonstrations the superlative glory of Christ than a thoughtful consideration of the story of the forerunner. They were born at the same time; were surrounded from their birth by similar circumstances; drank in from their earliest days the same patriotic aspirations, the same sacred traditions, the same glowing hopes. But the parallel soon stops. John the Baptist is certainly a grand embodiment of the noblest characteristics of the Jewish people. We see in him a conspicuous example of what could be developed out of eight hundred years of Divine revelation and discipline. But Jesus is the Son of Man: there is a width, a breadth, a universality about Him which cannot be accounted for save on the hypothesis, which John himself suggested, that He who cometh from above is above all.
In each case, life was strenuous and short—an epoch being inaugurated, in the one case in about six months, in the other some three years. In each case, at first, there was abounding enthusiasm, bursting forth around their persons as they announced the Kingdom of God, like the flowers which carpet their own fair land after the rains; but side by side the unconcealed hatred of the religious world of their time. In each case, the brief sunny hours of service were soon succeeded by the rolling up of the thunderous clouds, and these by the murderous tempest of deadly hatred, even unto death: "Their dead bodies lay in the street of the great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt." In each case, there was a little handful of detached disciples, who bitterly mourned their master's death, and took up the desecrated corpse to lay it in the tomb; whilst they that dwelt in the earth rejoiced and made merry, and sent gifts to one another, because they had been tormented by their words (Rev. 11:10).
But there the parallel ends. The life purpose of the one culminated in his death; with the other, it only began. In the case of John, death was a martyrdom, which shines brilliantly amid the murky darkness of his time; in the case of Jesus, death was a sacrifice which put away the sin of the world. For John there was no immediate resurrection, save that which all good men have of their words and influence; but his Master saw no corruption—it was not possible for Him to be holden by it—and in his resurrection He commenced to wield his widest and fairest supremacy over human hearts and wills. When the axe of Herod's executioner had done its deadly work in the dungeons of Machaerus, the bond which knit the disciples of John was severed also, and they were absorbed in the followers of Christ; but when the Roman soldiers thought their work was done, and the cry "It is finished!" had escaped the parched lips of the dying Lord, his disciples held together in the upper room, and continued there for more than forty days, until the descent of the Holy Spirit formed them into one of the strongest organizations that this world has ever beheld. John's influence on the world has diminished as men have receded further from his age; but Jesus is King of the ages. He creates, He fashions, He leads them forth; He is with us always, to the end of the age. We have not to go back through the centuries to find Him in the cradle or in Mary's arms, in the fishing-boat or on the mountain, on the cross or in the grave; He is here beside us, with us, in us, "all the days." John, then, was "a burning and shining torch," lifted for a moment aloft in the murky air; but Jesus was That Light. As the starlight, which fails to illumine the page of your book or the dial-plate of your watch, is to the sunlight, as the courier is to the sovereign, as the streamlet is to the ocean—such was John as compared with Him whose shoe-latchet he felt himself unworthy to stoop down to unloose. Greatest born of women he might be; "sent from God" he was: but One came after him who bore upon his front the designation of his Divine origin and mission, behind whom the gates of the past closed as when a king has passed through, and at whose girdle hang the keys of the doors and gates of the Ages.
To read the calm idyllic pages of the Gospels, apart from some knowledge of contemporary history, is to miss one of their deepest lessons—that such piety and beneficence were set in the midst of a most tumultuous and perilous age. Those times were by no means favourable to the cultivation of the deepest life. The flock of God had long left the green pastures and still waters of outward peace, and were passing through the valley of death-shadow, every step of the path being infested by the enemies of their peace. The wolf, indeed, was coming. The national life was already being rent by those throes of agony which betokened the passing away of an age, and reached their climax in the Fall of Jerusalem, of which Jesus said there had been nothing, and would be nothing, like it in the history of the world.
Herod was on the throne—crafty, cruel, sensual, imperious, and magnificent. The gorgeous temple which bore his name was the scene of priestly service and sacramental rites. The great national feasts of the Passover, of Tabernacles, and Pentecost, were celebrated with solemn pomp, and attracted vast crowds from all the world. In every part of the land synagogues were maintained with punctilious care, and crowds of scribes were perpetually engaged in a microscopic study of the law, and in the instruction of the people. In revenue, and popular attention, and apparent devoutness, that period had not been excelled in the most palmy days of Solomon or Hezekiah. But beneath this decorous surface the rankest, foulest, most desperate corruption throve.
To the aged couple in the hill-country of Judæa, as to Mary and Joseph at Nazareth, must have come tidings of the murder of Aristobulus, of the cruel death of Mariamne and her sons, and of the aged Hyrcanus. They must have groaned beneath the grinding oppression by which Herod extorted from the poorer classes the immense revenues which he squandered on his palaces and fortresses and the creation of new cities. That he was introducing everywhere Gentile customs and games; that he had dared to place the Roman eagle on the main entrance of the temple; that he had pillaged David's tomb; that he had set aside the great council of their nation, and blinded the saintly Jochanan; that the religious leaders, men like Caiaphas and Annas, were quite willing to wink at the crimes of the secular power, so long as their prestige and emoluments were secured; that the national independence for which Judas and his brothers had striven, during the Maccabean wars, was fast being laid at the feet of Rome, who was only too willing to take advantage of the chaos which followed immediately upon Herod's hideous death—such tidings must have come, in successive shocks of anguish, to those true hearts who were waiting for the redemption of Israel, with all the more eagerness as it seemed so long delayed, so urgently needed. Still, they made their yearly journeys to Jerusalem, and participated in the great convocations, which in outward splendour, eclipsed memories of the past; but they realized that the glory had departed, and that the mere husk of externalism could not long resist the incoming tides of militarism, of the love of display, and the corrupting taint of the worst aspects of Roman civilization. When the feasts were over, these pious hearts turned back to their homes among the hills, tearing themselves from the last glimpse of the beautiful city, with the cry, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!"
The darkest hour precedes the dawn, and it was just at this point that Old Testament predictions must have been so eagerly scanned by those that watched and waited. That the Messiah was nigh, they could not doubt. The term of years foretold by Daniel had nearly expired. The sceptre had departed from Judah, and the Lawgiver from between his feet. Even the Gentile world was penetrated with the expectation of a King. Sybils in their ancient writings, hermits in their secret cells, Magi studying the dazzling glories of the eastern heavens, had come to the conclusion that He was at hand who would bring again the Golden Age.
And so those loyal and loving souls that often spake together, whilst the Lord hearkened and heard, must have felt that as the advent of the Lord whom they sought was nigh, that of his messenger must be nearer still. They started at every footfall. They listened for every voice. They scanned the expression of every face. "Behold, He shall come," rang in their hearts like a peal of silver bells. At any moment might a voice be heard crying, "Cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up an ensign for the peoples. Say ye to the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy salvation cometh." Those anticipations were realized in the birth of John the Baptist.