Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 91

Three Times in a Nation’s History

Preached December 1, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eves. For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and keep thee in on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.” - Luke 19:41-44


The event of which we have just read took place in the last year of our Redeemer’s life. For nearly four years He had been preaching the Gospel. His pilgrim life was drawing to a close; yet no one looking at the outward circumstances of that journey would have imagined that He was on His way to die. It was far more like a triumphal journey, for a rejoicing multitude heralded His way to Jerusalem with shouts - “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He trod, too, a road green with palm branches, and strewn with their garments; and yet in the midst of all this joy, as if rejoicing were not for Him, the Man of Sorrows paused to weep.

There is something significant and characteristic in that peculiar tone of melancholy which pervaded the Redeemer’s intercourse with man. We read of but one occasion on which He rejoiced, and then only in spirit. He did not shrink from occasions of human joy, for He attended the marriage-feast; yet even there the solemn remark, apparently out of place, was heard-“Mine hour is not yet come.” There was in Him that peculiarity which we find more or less in all the purest, most thoughtful minds - a shade of melancholy; much of sadness; though none of austerity. For, after all, when we come to look at this life of ours, whatever may be its outward appearance, in the depths of it there, is great seriousness: the externalities of it may seem to be joy and brightness, but in the deep beneath there is a strange, stern aspect. It may be that the human race is on its way to good, but the victory hitherto gained is so small that we can scarcely rejoice over it. It may be that human nature is progressing, but that progress has been but slowly making, through years and centuries of blood. And therefore contemplating all this, and penetrating beyond the time of the present joy, the Redeemer wept, not for Himself, but for that devoted city.

He was then on the Mount of Olives; beneath Him there lay the metropolis of Judea, with the Temple in full sight; the towers and the walls of Jerusalem flashing back the brightness of an Oriental sky. The Redeemer knew that she was doomed, and therefore with tears He pronounced her coining fate: “The days shall come that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and shall not leave in thee one stone upon another.” These words, which rang the funeral knell of Jerusalem, tell out in our ears this day a solemn lesson; they tell us that in the history of nations, and also, it may be, in the personal history of individuals, there are three times-a time of grace, a time of blindness, and a time of judgment.

This then, is our subject - the three times in a nation’s history. When the Redeemer spake, it was for Jerusalem the time of blindness; the time of grace was past; that of judgment was to come.

We take these three in order: first, the time of grace. We find it expressed here in three different modes: first, “in this thy day;” then, “the things which belong to thy peace;” and thirdly, “the time of thy visitation.” And from this we understand the meaning of a time of grace; it was Jerusalem’s time of opportunity. The time in which the Redeemer appeared was that in which faith was almost worn out. He found men with their faces turned backward to the past, instead of forward to the future. They were as children clinging to the garments of a relation they have lost; life there was not, faith there was not - only the garments of a past belief He found them groaning under the dominion of Rome; rising up against it, and thinking it their worst evil.

The coldest hour of all the night is that which immediately precedes the dawn, and in that darkest hour of Jerusalem’s night her light beamed forth; her wisest and greatest came in the midst, of her, almost unknown, born under the law, to emancipate those who were groaning under the law. His life, the day of His preaching, was Jerusalem’s time of grace.

During that time the Redeemer spake the things which belonged to her peace: those things were few and simple. He found her people mourning under political degradation. He told them that political degradation does not degrade the man; the only thing that can degrade a man is slavery to sin. He told men who were looking merely to the past, no longer to look thither and say that Abraham was their father, for that God could raise up out of those stones children to Abraham, and a greater than Abraham was there. He told them also not to look for some future deliverer, for deliverance was already come. They asked Him when the kingdom of God should come; He told them they were not to cry, Lo here! or, lo there! for the kingdom of God was within; that they were to begin the kingdom of God now, by each man becoming individually more holy, that if each man so reformed his own soul, the reformation of the kingdom would soon spread around them. They came to Him complaining, of the Roman tribute; He asked for a piece of money, and said, “Render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s, and to God the things that be God’s;” - plainly telling them that the bondage from which men were to be delivered was not an earthly, but a spiritual bondage. He drew the distinction sharply between happiness and blessedness-the two things are opposite, although not necessarily contrary. He told them, “Blessed are the meek! Blessed are the poor in spirit!” The mourning man, and the poor man, and the persecuted man-these were not happy, if happiness consists in the gratification of all our desires; but they were blessed beyond all earthly blessedness, for happiness is but the contentment of desire, while blessedness is the satisfaction of those aspirations which have God alone for their end and aim.

All these things were rejected by the nation. They were rejected first by the priests. They knew not that the mind of the age in which they lived was in advance of the traditional Judaism, and, therefore, they looked upon the Redeemer as an irreverent, ungodly man, a sabbath-breaker. He was rejected by the rulers, who did not understand that in righteousness alone are governments to subsist, and, there fore, when He demanded of them justice, mercy, truth, they looked upon Him as a revolutionizer. He was rejected likewise by the people-that people ever ready to listen to any demagogue promising them earthly grandeur. They who on this occasion called out, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and were content to do so, so long as they believed He intended to lead them to personal comfort and enjoyment, afterwards cried out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” “His blood be on us, and on our children;” so that His rejection was the act of the whole nation. Now, respecting this day of grace we have two remarks to make.

First: in this advent of the Redeemer there was nothing outwardly remarkable to the men of that day. It was almost nothing. Of all the historians of that period, few indeed are found to mention it. This is a thing which we at this day can scarcely understand; for to us the blessed advent of our Lord is the brightest page in the world’s history: but to them it was far otherwise. I remember, for one moment, what the advent of our Lord was to all outward appearance. He seemed, let it be said reverently, to the rulers of those days, a fanatical freethinker. They heard of His miracles, but they appeared nothing remarkable to them; there was nothing there on which to fasten their attention. They heard that some of the populace had been led away, and now and then, it may be, some of His words reached their cars, but to them they were hard to be understood-full of mystery, or else they roused every evil passion in their hearts, so stern and uncompromising was the morality they taught. They put aside these words in that brief period, and the day of grace passed.

And just such as this is God’s visitation to us. Generally, the day of God’s visitation is not a day very remarkable outwardly. Bereavements, sorrows-no doubt, in these God speaks; but there are other occasions far more quiet and unobtrusive, but which are yet plainly days of grace. A scruple which others do not see, a doubt coming into the mind respecting some views held sacred by the popular creed, a sense of heart-loneliness and solitariness, a feeling of awful misgiving when the future lies open before us, the dread feeling of an eternal godlessness, for men who are living godless lives now-these silent moments unmarked, these are the moments in which the Eternal is speaking to our souls.

Once more: that day of Jerusalem’s visitation - her day of grace - was short. It was narrowed up into the short space of three years and a half. After that, God still pleaded with individuals; but the national cause, as a cause, was, gone. Jerusalem’s doom was sealed when He pronounced those words. Again, there is a lesson, a principle for us: God’s day of visitation is frequently short. A few actions often decide the destiny of individuals, because they give a destination and form to habits; they settle the tone and form of the mind from which there will be in this life no alteration. So it is in the earliest history of our species. In those mysterious chapters at the commencement of the book of Genesis, we are told that it was one act which sealed the destiny of a demand of all the human race. What was it but a very few actions, done in a very short time, that settled the destiny of those nations through which the children of Israel passed on their way to Canaan? The question for them was simply whether they would show Israel mercy or not; this was all.

Once more: we see it again in the case of Saul. One circumstance, at the most, two, marked out his destiny. Then came those solemn words, “The strength of Israel can not lie nor repent. The Lord hath rent the kingdom from thee this day.” From that hour his course was downward, his day of grace was past.

Brethren, the truth is plain. The day of visitation is awfully short. We say not that God never pleads a long time, but we say this, that sometimes God speaks to a nation or to a man but once. If not heard then, His voice is heard no more.

We pass on now to consider Israel’s day of blindness. Judicial blindness is of a twofold character. It may be produced by removing the light, or by incapacitating the eye to receive that light. Sometimes men do not see because there is no light for them to see; and this was what was done to Israel - the Saviour was taken away from her. The voice of the apostles declared this truth: “It was necessary that the word should first have been spoken to you; but seeing ye put it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, lo, we turn to the Gentiles.”

There is a way of blindness by hardening the heart. Let us not conceal this truth from ourselves. God blinds the eye, but it is in the appointed course of His providential dealings. If a man will not see, the law is he shall not see; if he will not do what is right when be knows the right, then right shall become to him wrong, and wrong shall seem to be right. We read that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart; that He blinded Israel. It is impossible to look at these cases of blindness without perceiving in them something of Divine action. Even at the moment when the Romans were at their gates, Jerusalem still dreamed of security; and when the battering ram was at the tower of Antonia, the priests were celebrating, in fancied safety, their daily sacrifices. From the moment when our Master spake, there was deep stillness over her until her destruction; like the strange and unnatural stillness before the thunderstorm, when every breath seems bushed, and every leaf may be almost heard moving in the motionless air; and all this calm and stillness is but the prelude to the moment when the east and west are lighted up with the red flashes, and the whole creation seems to reel. Such was the blindness of that nation which would not know the day of her visitation.

We pass on now to consider, lastly, her day of judgment. Her beautiful morning was clouded, her sun had gone down in gloom, and she was left in darkness. The account of the siege is one of the darkest passages in Roman history. In the providence of God, the history of that belongs, not to a Christian, but to a Jew. We all know the account that he has given us of the eleven hundred thousand who perished in that siege, of the thousands crucified along the sea-shore. We have all heard of the two factions that divided the city, of the intense hatred that made the cruelty of Jew towards Jew more terrible than even the vengeance of the Romans. This was the destruction of Jerusalem - the day of her ruin.

And now, brethren, let us observe, this judgment came in the way of natural consequences. We make a great mistake respecting judgments. God’s judgments are not arbitrary, but the results of natural laws. The historians tell us that Jerusalem owed her ruin to the fanaticism and obstinate blindness of her citizens; from all of which her Redeemer came to emancipate her. Had they understood, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “Blessed are the meek,” and “Blessed are the peacemakers;” had they understood that, Jerusalem’s day of ruin might never have come.

Now let us apply this to the day we are at present celebrating. We all know that this destruction of Jerusalem is connected with the second coming of Christ. In St. Matthew the two advents are so blended together that it is hard to separate one from the other; nay, rather, it is impossible, because we have our Master’s words, “Verily, I say unto you, this generation shall not pass till all be fulfilled.”’ Therefore this prophecy, in all its fullness, came to pass in the destruction of Jerusalem. But it is impossible to look at it without perceiving there is also something farther included; we shall understand it by turning to the elucidation given by our Lord Himself When the apostles asked, Where shall all these things be? His reply was, in effect, this: Ask you where? I tell you, nowhere in particular, or rather, everywhere; for wheresoever there is corruption, there will be destruction - ”where the carcass is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.” So that this first coming of the Son of Man to judgment was the type, the specimen of what shall be hereafter.

And now, brethren, let us apply this subject still more home. Is there no such thing as blindness among ourselves? May not this be our day of visitation? First, there is among us priestly blindness; the blindness of men who know not that the demands of this age are in advance of those that have gone before. There is no blindness greater than that of those who think that the panacea for the evils of a country is to be found in ecclesiastical union. But let us not be mistaken: it is not here, we think, that the great danger lies. We dread not Rome. No man can understand the signs of the times, who does not feel that the day of Rome, passing away, as that of Jerusalem once did. But the danger lies in this consideration-we find that where the doctrines of Rome have been at all successful, it has been among the clergy and upper classes; while, when presented to the middle and lower classes, they have been at once rejected. There is, then, apparently, a gulf between the two. If there be added to the difference of position a still further and deeper difference of religion, then who shall dare to say what the end shall be?

Once more: we look at the blindness of men talking of intellectual enlightenment. It is true that we have more enlightened civilization and comfort. What then? will that retard our day of judgment? Jerusalem was becoming more enlightened, and Rome was at its most civilized point, when the destroyer was at their gates.

Therefore, let us know the day of our visitation. It is not the day of refinement, nor of political liberty, nor of advancing intellect. We must go again in the old, old way; we must return to simpler manners and to a purer life. We want more faith, more love. The life of Christ and the death of Christ must be made the law of our life. Reject that, and we reject our own salvation; and, in rejecting that, we bring on in rapid steps, for the nation and for ourselves, the day of judgment and of ruin.