Part 3 The Eternal Issues

Chapter 23.

The Ministry of Death

If death has then the place which we have seen it has, it is no longer a strange thing to hear of a "ministration of death"; nay, it is rather just what we should have reason to expect, that God would take up the fact of it, and of the condemnation of man which it involves, and press it home upon the hearts and consciences of men in some distinct and positive way. We should expect from His goodness, that He would not be content in letting the fact speak for itself, but would give it a voice and utterance which should be in itself — however much men might shut their ears to it an unmistakable one.

Now this is precisely what the apostle says he has done. The character of the law, — of the Old Testament therefore — is that it was a "a ministration of death," — a "ministration of condemnation."

Death was therein taken up as a moral, yea, spiritual teacher of a lesson most humbling to man's pride indeed, and therefore most difficult to learn; but a lesson, when learnt, of the very greatest value. It was made a teacher of the inadequacy of all human righteousness, the impotence of human power, the impossibility of a corrupt and fallen creature standing in the presence of a holy God: all this we shall find in the Jewish system when once we understand that the death it speaks of — "the soul that sinneth it shall die" — is not the yet unrevealed second death, but "death" in its ordinary sense. This once established satisfactorily, we shall find the Old Testament in a new light, and the perfect self-consistency of truth everywhere in its utterances.

And this will be established, as soon it is seen, what should be manifest as to the holy law of the unchangeable God, that the obedience it required was absolute, perfect obedience, and nothing short. This the New Testament, no less than the Old, abundantly declares. We have already had the apostle's statement as to this, which shows that Christianity itself also had not modified the law's requirements. It is the great apostle of the Gentiles, the man who, if any did, understood God's grace in the gospel, who assures us that "as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them" (Gal. 3:10). It is again the apostle who is considered by many (however improperly) the apostle of law, who unites with Paul in this testimony, that "whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (James 2:10). Unswerving, perfect obedience was therefore that required by the law.

To this, however, may be thought opposed the whole system of appointed sacrifices and the forgiveness that in this way the very law itself proclaimed. But the objection would apply in that case to the apostles' teaching, who certainly were not ignorant of so plain a fact. We must take it up, however, a little particularly, and try to show the consistency of these two things.

There were, as all will easily remember, two givings of the law. The first time (which we shall find as history in Exodus 19-24) it was pure law, with no whispered word even of mercy, — no provision for failure or for sin. Moses is then called up into the Mount to receive from God's hand the tables of stone "written with the finger of God." There, in the Mount, he does indeed see the pattern of other and of heavenly things, for God would show us that mercy is already in His heart, as it surely is. But no word of this is yet spoken to the people, and as actual institution finds no place till the covenant of the law as first given is transgressed and set aside. As far as the people is concerned, it is all as yet law pure and simple. Under this they fail utterly, turning their deliverer-God, "their glory, into the similitude of an ox that eateth grass." The tables of the covenant are broken; judgment is executed on the guilty people; and all, on this ground, is over forever (Ex. 32).

But the blessed God has still resources in Himself, and again He takes up the people. Again the law is given, word for word the same, and not a jot abated; for the holiness of God's nature can know no change. But there is this difference, and it is characteristic: it is now written by the hand of the mediator (Ex. 34:28), and not by God Himself. The law is in the hands of the mediator, and now we hear the new glad tones of long-suffering goodness and mercy.

Jehovah declares Himself, as He did not before. His glory shines out as not yet it had. He is "the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin." This is new ground; and yet not altogether new, nor grace unmixed. He is still the Lawgiver, still in a covenant of works with His people: — "and that will by no means clear the guilty." This is the new basis upon which everything is now to rest. It is law, but it is not pure law. It is law in a mediator's hand, ministered in mercy, yet not lessening its requirement: an apparent contradiction, and in reality two principles united which cannot unite really in the justification of man. God says so: He cannot clear — cannot justify; and it is of the law thus given, the second time and not the first, that the apostle speaks when he calls the law "written and engraven in stones," "the ministration of death" and "the ministration of condemnation" (2 Cor. 3:7, 9). It is of this law in the hand of the mediator, that he says again, "As many as are of the works of the law are under the curse."

If we look at the scene described in the book of Exodus (33, 34), we shall find that God really gave witness at the very time He gave it, of its true character, although in that typical way, the well-known characteristic of Old Testament revelation. When Moses the mediator, and thus the representative of the people, prays, "I beseech Thee, show me Thy glory," God answers: "I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee, and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." But He adds, — and the words are the key-note of the Old Testament dispensation, — "THOU CANST NOT SEE MY FACE; for there shall no man see me, and live. And He said, There is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock; and it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and cover thee with my hand while my glory passeth by; and I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my back parts; but my FACE shall not be seen."

And thus, as at the first time of the giving of the law, the flame of fire upon the quaking mount, hid, not revealed, the Divine Goodness; so even now, while goodness covered the human eyes not yet able to behold face to face the One in whose presence he stood, still IT COVERED THEM; and what Moses actually saw, as the mediator of that dispensation, was: GOD WITH HIS FACE TURNED AWAY.

And that remained the feature of that old economy. It was what the veil before the holiest declared: the way into the holiest was not yet manifested. None could stand in His presence. All had sinned, and having sinned, came short of the glory of God. Death, not life, — condemnation, not righteousness, was the ministration of the law.

God might forgive iniquity, transgression and sin. But He could by no means clear the guilty. He could make known His long-suffering, and say, "When the wicked man turneth from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive" (Ezek. 18:27). But who ever did what was lawful, as measured by a law, to break one commandment of which was to be "guilty of all"? Who ever broke off his sins so as to be fit for the presence of a "holy, holy, holy" God? Never one: not one. "There is none righteous, no, not one" was the law's verdict; "there is none that doeth good, no, not one." And the veil hung before God's presence unlifted, save as once a year the typical blood was put upon the mercy-seat and then it dropped again, impenetrable as ever, for "the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin."

Thus, through all the old economy: until one day, marked out from other days by a darkness such as never was. And when that passed, the darkness in which God dwelt had also passed. "The veil of the temple was rent in the midst."

God was no more "in the darkness"; He was "in the light" (1 Kings 8:12; 1 John 1:7).

The way into God's presence was no more barred up: Christ was "the Way" (John 14:6).

And instead of, as heretofore, One who could not clear the guilty, there was revealed the glory of divine grace, justifying the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).

One would gladly enlarge upon this unspeakable loving-kindness; — would gladly apply this healing assurance to any soul conscious of the double character of evil attaching to man. He is "ungodly"; true, but he is more, much more, than that: he is "without strength" also. Christ died for him as having that character (Rom. 5:6). As having it, he is welcome at once to the blood which cleanses from sin, and the grace which strengthens and enables for holiness. But our subject is now the character of the law rather: let us turn back to consider what this involves as to the Old Testament.

God was, then, by a dispensation of law, shutting man up to mercy. He was running the plough-share into the soil to prepare it for the seed of the gospel. He was not by it saving: He was convicting and condemning. The New Testament constantly asserts this as the object of the law. The apostle speaks of it as what all Christians were well aware of: "We know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth might be stopped, and all the world become guilty before God." "By the law is the knowledge of sin." "The law worketh wrath." "The law entered that the offence might abound." "If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the Scripture hath concluded (shut up together) all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe." I need not quote more than this.

But now, if such was the scope and object of the law, if God by it was seeking to produce conviction of a sinful and helpless condition, and to cast men thus upon His mercy, — how simple that He should take up in it the solemn reality of that death which had entered in by sin, and which was constantly appealing to man in every possible way, — the broad seal of condemnation — wide as humanity — upon the fallen creature! How irresistible the conviction of what man was, and where he was, in the eye of a holy God, if He should come in and say to him, meaning just what it would mean when heard in connection with the first threatening of death so literally carried out, "the man that doeth these things shall live in them," "the soul that sinneth, it shall die."

The strangeness of this interpretation to many is just its perfect consistency with the whole design and meaning of the law. If no one under it ever escaped death (with one exception evidently on another ground) people think it impossible that death (in the ordinary sense) could have been meant. They forget that no one ever did fulfil it, that there was none righteous, no, not even one. How could they then escape it? And if God in the law were not judging for eternity, but as a present thing, to cast men in the conviction of their lost condition upon His mercy, how consistent with this plan that He should make the judgment upon that condition a thing apparent to every one under it, instead of something yet unseen, and which eternity alone should too late reveal!

Had God said, as we have made Him say, "the soul that sinneth shall die the second death," they might have comforted themselves with the assurance that no one could know much about that, and written placid lies upon the gravestones, and lost the whole reality of the ruin they were in. Doubtless many did do so in spite of all, for light never yet opened eyes closed to it, but still God had borne witness, none the less, if they rejected it as men still reject, that they were fallen creatures, and who had confirmed by their own act and deed the original sentence under which they lay. Every white hair in a man's head, every wrinkle in his brow, was thus God's witness in a double way, a solemn appeal which one would think irresistible. Death was not that for which man was created; no, it was God "turning man to destruction." "Thou halt set our iniquities before Thee, our secret sins in the light of Thy countenance. For all our days are passed away in Thy wrath; we spend our years as a tale that is told. . . So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Ps. 90:8, 9, 12).

But not only in this way was man's lost condition manifest, but the judgment of the law still left God free to the grace which was under the veil, while yet the veil was not removed. Had God said, "The soul that sinneth, It shall die the second death," none could contest with Him the justice of that sentence; but surely it would seem to bind Him to eternal judgment, to universal justice, but divorced from grace. As it was He did not bind Himself so that to the broken and contrite He could not show mercy, outside of law and its penalty altogether. It could do its work as convicting man of sin, and on the ground of human effort and human righteousness shut him up in condemnation, bring him to hopeless self-despair, and yet leave him in that world beyond the grave into which the full light yet had not and could not come, to a mercy which He could be free to exercise, where man's hope was in His mercy. It could in short tie man's hands, as to all working out of claim upon God. It could not tie God's hands as to mercy shown to man.

As to the fact itself, that the law does really speak of the first and not the second death (and there is no death between) is a thing which, when we examine it, seems impossible to question. That he that honored father and mother should "live long in the land" of Canaan, is imbedded in the heart of the ten commandments. And in Deut. 4:40, where Moses is urging the people to keep these very commandments, what does he put before them as the result of their being kept, but "that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth which the Lord thy God giveth thee, forever."

Let any one who doubts read on and on through the entire Pentateuch, if he will, and let him find if he can any penalty pronounced, or any reward promised, of which he has got the least proof that it refers to a future state at all. Doubtless death as the result of Him who had created man turning Him to destruction cast its shadow over the state beyond, which as certainly the people of the old dispensation had knowledge of. That I have affirmed. It is the very thing which gives significance to it such as I am speaking of. But everywhere the legal promise is a life of blessing in the land, and everywhere the legal curse is the perishing from the earth.

Pass on to the New Testament, and look at that which is the very central feature in the whole scene, and what is the "curse of the law" which the Lord of glory bore? "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us, as it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree." The hanging on a tree was only the outward expression surely of the curse, and not the whole thing; and so, as I have urged, is death. This is death in its most shameful form; but it is not the second death, nor does the law speak of that.

Mr. Constable has endeavored to show that the Old Testament announces death as the punishment of the wicked in the future state. It is not to be supposed that he has brought forward the worst passages to prove this position. Let us then see what he produces. He says: —

"There [in the Old Testament] the word must be taken in the sense God has stamped upon it, and left unchanged. It is there over and over again described as the end, in the future age, of obstinate transgressors. For such God declares He has 'provided the instruments of death'; of such as hate divine Wisdom that Wisdom says, 'they that hate me love death'; to the wicked God saith, thou shalt surely die,' 'the soul that sinneth it shall die.'"

He adds: "No one, we suppose, will apply the death pronounced in the above passages upon unrepented and unpardoned sin to that death which all men alike, whether saved or lost, undergo as children of Adam. They can only apply it to future punishment. Death, then, is, according to the Old Testament, to be after judgment the result of sin, as life is the result of righteousness."

I have shown how directly this doctrine is opposed to Scripture. Death after judgment is Mr. Constable's version; "after death the judgment" is that of Scripture. And of course all he says upon this is his own conjecture. What proof has he that this death is after judgment? None. What proof that it is in the future state? None really. He has only a very weak argument that all men alike, saved or lost, undergo the first death But does he mean to say that it never comes upon men therefore as direct judgment for sin? If so, he is at direct issue with fact and Scripture alike.

What would he say, for instance, to these statements of Elihu? "He shall break in pieces mighty men without number, and set others in their stead. Therefore He knoweth their works, and He overturneth them in the night, so that they are destroyed. He striketh them as wicked men in the open sight of others, because they turned back from Him, and would not consider any of His ways" (Job 34:24-27).

Or again: "And if they be bound in fetters, and be holden in cords of affliction; then He sheweth them their work, and their transgressions that they have exceeded. He openeth also their ear to discipline, and commandeth that they return from iniquity. If they obey and serve Him they shall spend their days in prosperity and their years in pleasures; but if they obey not, they shall perish by the sword, and they shall die without knowledge. But the hypocrites in heart heap up wrath; they cry not when He bindeth them: they die in youth, and their life is among the unclean" (Job 36:8-14; comp. also Job 33:18-30).

This is indeed the great lesson of all this part of Job. The thorough and complete exemplification of the principle we shall shortly have occasion to consider, in that great day, the day of the Lord upon the earth, when it shall be cleared by judgment that the meek may inherit it (Ps. 37). Of this the Old Testament is full, and the principle is, as we have seen, the principle of the law; to substitute for it the New Testament complete revelation is to lose the understanding of the old dispensation.

Strange as it may seem, and inconsistent too with the known belief of the Jews before our Lord's time, there is not really one passage in the Old Testament in which either heaven is spoken of as the abode of the righteous, or hell (in our present sense of it) as the abode of the lost. The word "hell" is always in it that word "Sheol" which we have already looked at, and which is the equivalent of fades, "the unseen," and applied always and only to the death state. This abundantly confirms the belief that the death threatened, even to impenitence and unbelief, was death in our ordinary understanding of it, but death as the judgment of God, and throwing its awful shadow over the eternity beyond. With this Mr. Constable's texts completely harmonize. Nor does he indeed attempt to show that the death they speak of is judgment in a future state. It would be impossible for him to prove this, for it is not true.

The legal dispensation was intended as a means of reaching on a broad scale (and with a still broader after-purpose) the consciences of men. It was part of a method of grace to prepare for the coming Christ by convicting men of guilt and of helplessness, shutting them up to the grace which was then to be revealed. And thus it was that there was a "due time" for Christ to come, as the apostle declares; and that when this purpose of the law should be accomplished. Thus "when we were yet without strength in due time Christ died for the ungodly" (Rom. 5:6). In the meanwhile for individual need was provided a way of cleansing and forgiveness (typical largely, of necessity) in which broken and contrite souls found hope of mercy. But the system was, as a whole, a ministration of death and condemnation.

And for this purpose the death which was the broad seal of condemnation upon universal man was taken up and used in the penal code of the divine government in Israel: man thus having under his eyes a temporal retribution which would witness to the most carnal God's wrath upon sin, and his own condition as a sinner under it.

But that was not all the light shed upon the future, and we must look at what yet remains in some little detail: first, the prophetic landscape of the Old Testament, which is important many ways with regard to our present subject, and then the meaning and character of its typical teaching.