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BY THE REV. HENRY MELVILL, B.D.,
IN THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST. PAUL, LONDON.
“ And, 10, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.”—Ezekiel xxxiii. 39.
There is something so striking in the circumstances of the well known nar rative of Felix and Paul, that we are apt to overlook in comparison similar, and not less instructive accounts. St. Paul was a prisoner, and Felix was the Roman governor at whose disposal he absolutely lay; and every one looks with admiration on the intrepid apostle, as, disregarding the perilous position in which he stood, he declaimed against the very vices by which Felix was enslaved, and denounced Divine vengeance against the intemperate and the unrighteous. When, moreover, as the effect of his lofty eloquence, we read that Felix trembled—the judge trembled before the prisoner-the oppressor before the oppressed ; the result is so surprising, so full of witness to the supremacy of truth, that the most careless hearer is arrested, and yields a passing homage to the majesty of innocence, as it confounds and abashes guilt. And then, who has not wondered and sorrowed at the remainder of the narrative-at the relation of how Felix overcame his convicvictions and settled back into a careless and profligate man, who often listened to Paul without being affected by his preaching, and detained him in prison in the base hope of being bribed to release him! We may justly say of the whole of the narrative, it could hardly fail to excite the interest and fix the attention of every one before whom it is brought, so that there is, comparatively, little danger that its facts will be unheeded, or the inferences which they furnish unobserved, even where practically there is a repetition of the incidents of the temporary conviction and the succeeding indifference. But it may happen, as we have already intimated, that the striking peculiarities of this narrative will prevent men paying much attention to accounts which are similar, though not, perhaps, adapted to take such hold on the imagina
tion. It is far from being a solitary narrative, if you consider it simply as a narrative of a present power of preaching, followed by no permanent effects. For example, in the the case of Herod as acted on by St. John, you have a very similar history to that of Felix rebuked by St. Paul. You read, “ For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him ; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” Our text, in bringing before us the case of Herod as acted on by St. Johu, presents us with a similar history to that of Felix rebuked by St. Paul. The history may not be conveyed in so remarkable a form, the related events may not address themselves so powerfully to the casual hearer, but we are inclined to think, that on the whole, it is the more singular of the two, furnishing the more cause for wonder, and the more material of instruction. We will dwell a little on the history, for, as you will presently see, it furnishes a most apt illustration of our text.
You must all remember the circumstances of the death of John the Bap tist. Herod had formed an unlawful connection with the wife of his brother; and John, too faithful to allow vice to pass unrebuked amongst the great any more than in the mean, denounced the wickedness; and like St. Paul, with Felix, boldly told Herod of his crime. It does not appear that Herod him. self was moved to any great anger by the reinonstrance of the Baptist, but it is certain that he did not so hearken to that remonstrance as to repent of his sin ; he persevered in the unlawful connection, perhaps owning in his heart its unlawfulness, and therefore disposed to shield his reprover, but too much enthralled by a guilty attachment to take the bold resolution of obeying his convictions. But the partner of his crime, equally reluctant to forsake the sin, was not equally willing to tolerate the rebuke. Herodias was fired with indignation against the preacher, who openly put her to shame, and longed .and laboured for revenge. It tells much for the sincerity of Herod in the protection of St. John, that Herodias was obliged to cast about for methods of effecting the destruetion of that herald of Christ. We cannot doubt that this imperious and bloodthirsty woman urged Herod to the putting John to death, beseeching him, by the affection that he professed for her, to gratify her revenge. But all to no purpose ; Herod was perfectly assured that John had spoken only the truth, and done only right; and if he had not courage enough to abandon a favourite sin, he seems to have had conscience enough to determine that he would not at least add murder to adultery. Herodias, therefore, as you remember, had recourse to artifice. She sent her daughter to dance, upon a great festival, before Herod and the assembled lords of Galilee, thinking to fascinate Herod, and then to ensnare him into a promise. She succeeded but too well. Herod, enchanted by the gesture and grace of the damsel, swore to give her whatever she asked, even though her demand should reach the half of his kingdom. She acted under the direction of her mother, and asked, what was dearer to that revengeful woman than half of the empire-the head of John the Baptist in a charger. It tells again, in favour of Herod, that it sorely grieved him to hear this demand. He had professed himself ready to part with half his kingdom, but he was not ready to put John to death, though he had cast him into prison ; and we infer that he would rather have been stripped of half his power than surrender his reprover into the hands of his enemies. He felt, however, what he ought not to have felt, that he was bound by his oath ; as though it could have been a question of casuistry, whether a rash promise should be broken or kept, by the beheading of an innocent man. It would hardly be uncharitable to think that Herod was not displeased to find himself in some sense obliged to order the execution of John, and, therefore, though secretly unwilling to be able to rid himself of a reprover. But, be this as it may, the device of Herodias prerailed, and he of whom prophets in far back ages had spoken, who had been born out of the ordinary course of nature, and who had gone before Messiah in the spirit and power of Elias, perished in a dungeon by the hands of the executioner ; leaving his fate as a witness that they must prepare themselves for the worst persecution, who are intrepid enough to rebuke the vices of the great.
We take this review of the circumstances of the death of the Baptist, that you may learn that Herod, though a slave to his lusts, was not wholly insensible to the power of truth, but was rather in a measure influenced by his prisoner John, even as was Felix by his prisoner Paul. Nay, for this is the point to which we are most anxious to bring you, it seems to me that Herod went much beyond Felix. Their circumstances were similar, inasmuch as the two were guilty of the same crime, and were upbraided with it by a messenger from God. But Felix appears to have felt nothing more than a passing conviction-he trembled for a moment, and then settled into apathy; whereas John gained, it would seem, something like a lasting hold on Herod, and influenced him to the doing much, though not all that was faithfully prescribed. You gather this from the words already quoted from St. Mark, which sets Herod before you under a most extraordinary point of view. It is declared, that Herod feared John, and that too, on the very ground of his knowing that John was a just man and a holy.” It is added, that he observed him," or gave heed, as the phrase may probably denote, to his example and his precepts. And this was not a marking, or a listening without any correspondent effect, for we next read, that " when he had heard him he did many things, and heard him gladly.” It is this last statement, a closely parallel statement to that of our text, which is full of interest and instruction, and which makes the case of Herod far more remarkable, as we think, than even that of Felix. We are not told of Felix that he ever did more than tremble ; there is no register of his having taken any steps in consequence of his conviction. Not merely was he not induced by St. Paul's reasoning on righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, to put away Drusilla, but it does not appear that he made any correction whatsoever in his practice ; at least, since he detained Paul in prison, in the hope of obtaining money for his release, it is evident that he remained a corrupt judge, and an unjust governor, as well as a hardened adulterer. It was not, however, the same with Herod; we are distinctly told "that he did many things”did them (for this is the gist of the matter,) in consequence of what he heard from the Baptist ; and although we are not informed precisely what those things were, we gather sufficiently from the office of him at whose bidding they were done, that they must have been things which accorded with the known will of God. Neither is this even the most remarkable respect in which the moral effect produced upon Herod transcended that of which Felix was the subject. You read that Felix trembled when he heard Paul preach. You hardly wonder that when the eloquence of such a man as the great apostle of the Gentiles was employed on so fearful a topic as that of judgment to come, he should have thrilled the guilty ruler, surrounded though he was by all the retinue of greatness, and forced from him tokens of
dread and perturbation. But you do not read that Herod trembled. You would have been prepared for that. The austere Baptist, who had lived in the wilderness, and whose very aspect was likely to strike awe into the proAigate, might well have been expected to cause a guilty man like Herod to shrink back aghast, and to show by his agitation that the terrors of the last judgment were upon him. It is not so, however. You read only of Herod, that "he heard John gladly.” “Gladly.” What is the meaning of this! We look for fear-whence should come gladness? And thus you must all see that the case of Herod is a most accurate illustration of what is alleged in our text, except, indeed, that it goes still further, inasmuch as Herod not only listened to John, but did, in a measure, the things which were prescribed ; and however you set aside his doing many things, and confine your· selves to the gladness which is derived from his preaching, you still have the precise case sketched in our text. Here is a stern and vehement preacher, who, like Ezekiel, denounces wickedness and threatens wrath; and the hearer, in place of being either awed into repentance, or appalled by the remonstrance, or even chilled into indifference, derives a sort of pleasurable excitement from the tragic and dolorous haraugue. You cannot say to the Baptist, “Thou art unto Herod a terror, or a fear, or a burden.' Herod heard him gladly. What then ! You can only say, “Lo, thou art unto him as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument."
Now you will see why we dwelt so long on the case of Herod. There was to a certain extent, a close resemblance between the Baptist and Ezekiel, Both were stern preachers, charged with messages of woe and tribulation. In no part of the Bible do you find severer or more vehement denunciations than in the writings of Ezekiel ; and you might have expected that they who sat and heard his terrific invective would, if not led to the forsaking evil ways, have at least avoided for the future listening to what was so harsh and so repulsive. And yet it was not so. The impenitent Aocked in crowds to hearken to the prophet; there was something of excitement in bis wild and withered oratory; and it was just the same as if they had gathered round a musician of magnificent power and exquisite taste--they were carried away by the eloquence as they might have been by the melody, there was a hold on the imagination, though none on the conscience; and the orator whose whole aim it was to rouse men to contrition and amendment, virtually did nothing but help his hearers to wile away an hour which might otherwise have hung heavily upon their hands. They heard Ezekiel gladly, just as Herod heard John ; but there was a gladness which had nothing to do with the joy of the penitent who forsakes his evil ways and finds acceptance with God. And we wish to speak to you with all faithfulness on a case which is thus proved possible, if not common; the case of persons who may derive pleasure from the preaching of the gospel, and yet not be moved by it to the abandoning their sins. Indeed, we believe that there may be not only the cases amongst us which go as far as these two cases, but those which go further ; cases in which not only is the word heard gladly, but in which, as with Herod, many things are done in consequence of what is heard, though men stop short of what the gospel requires. A sense of uneasiness under powerful rebukes, a wish to be able in some measure to prove to themselves that they are not utterly indifferent to repeated remonstrances, may cause the hearers to avoid certain things which the preacher denounces, and to attempt certain things which the preacher prescribes. Then there is the fear of man, which operates so largely where there is power to injure, and where even there is only power to threaten and rebuke. Do I not know, that it is a distressing thing for those who sit about us, in one of our weekly assemblings, to hear denunciations of faults, to which they feel themselves prone ? and if there be so clear a delineation of any particular case, that an individual might fancy he had been sitting for a portrait, will not that individual be as though he sat upon thorng, imagining that all around were applying the description, and recognizing the likeness ? And why should I not think, that merely out of fear of these cutting reproofs, parties may be induced to attempt certain reforms ? Not that they are actually in dread of the judgment of God, but that they have a dislike to the remonstrance of men, and would fain stand well with their fellowcreatures, although as yet they are almost indifferent as to how they stand with God. I care not, whether it be through the energy of addresses which you hear from the pulpit, or the workings of conscience which is roused through some other instrumentality ; but this we are persuaded of, that there may be many of you stirred, like Herod, to the going to a certain point in reformation, but, like Herod, stop short of genuine repentance. They give up one thing after another, according as conscience is more or less urgent; but the favourite practice, the darling passion, this still retains its mastery, whilst less cherished habits are broken, and less powerful desires are repressed. The man whose master-passion is covetousness, may become most rigidly moral, though he had not heretofore been distinguished by purity of life ; but the increased morality, in place of being attended with diminished covetousness, may be only a make weight with conscience against the abiding and even the growing eagerness for gain. The man, again, whose masterpassion is sensuality, may give much in alms to the poor, though he had previously been accounted penurious ; but is he thus necessarily less the slave of his lust ? Ah, no. He may only have bought himself peace in the indul. gence of his appetites by liberality in relieving the destitute. It is the same in the case of every other master-passion. Until it be that passion that is withstood, until it be Herodias that is put away, there is no evidence of genuine repentance; all that is surrendered may be nothing more than a proof of the value which is put upon that which is retained. And if you would discriminate between reformation and repentance, if you would know whether you have limited yourselves to the former, and are yet strangers to the latter, examine what it is you keep, rather than what it is you give up.
We feel, however, that we are thus somewhat travelling beyond the precise case which is sketched in our text. We have rather been showing you that, as in the instance of Herod, men may even go beyond what is alleged of the Jews ; they may not only have pleasure in hearing, they may even, up to a certain point, make an attempt at obeying. Come, now, we will confine ourselves more closely to the questions before us. You have the Jews thronging round Ezekiel-thronging in their impenitence, thronging in their determined adherence to their idolatries and their vices, and the prophet is not sparing in his denunciations, and is not prophecying smooth things, saying, “ peace, peace, where there is no peace.” Well, then, are the Jews painfully affected, since they are resolved to give no heed to Ezekiel? Do they not at least turn away in insolence and disgust, resolving that they will never listen again to the ravings of so wild an enthusiast ? Nothing of the kind. There they sit, like fascinated things ; they come again and again, as to an intel