Proverbs 20:27
Great Texts of the Bible
The Lamp of the Lord

The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord.—Proverbs 20:271. The picture which these words suggest is very simple. An unlighted candle is standing in the darkness, and some one comes to light it. A blazing bit of paper holds the fire at first, but it is vague and fitful. It flares and wavers, and at any moment may go out. But the vague, uncertain, flaring blaze touches the candle, and the candle catches fire, and at once you have a steady flame. It burns straight and clear and constant. The candle gives the fire a manifestation-point for all the room which is illuminated by it. The candle is glorified by the fire, and the fire is manifested by the candle. The two bear witness that they were made for one another by the way in which they fulfil each other’s life. That fulfilment comes by the way in which the inferior substance renders obedience to its superior. The candle obeys the fire. The docile wax acknowledges that the subtle flame is its master and it yields to his power; and so, like every faithful servant of a noble master, it at once gives its master’s nobility the chance to utter itself, and its own substance is clothed with a glory which is not its own. The disobedient granite, if you try to burn it, neither gives the fire a chance to show its brightness nor gathers any splendour to itself. It only glows with sullen resistance, and, as the heat increases, splits and breaks, but will not yield. But the candle obeys, and so in it the scattered fire finds a point of permanent and clear expression.

2. Now the text asserts that the spirit of man is the lamp of Jehovah. The phrase is strong and emphatic. It is not that the Lord has put a lamp in the spirit of man; it is much more than that; the spirit itself is the lamp. The spirit of man is a torch, a lighthouse, planted in the centre of the temple of his nature, shedding its sacred light upon the inmost abysses of his being, “searching all the inward parts of the moral nature.” This inward lamp “lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” The multitudes of our race destitute of the written revelation have nevertheless this inward revelation. The human spirit instinctively apprehends certain great spiritual truths without reasoning upon them. “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves; which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing one another.” The human spirit is a revelation from God and is itself a Divine Scripture as sacred as the written Word itself. It may be darkened by the mist and miasma arising from the corruptions of our nature, so also may the written revelation be perverted and beclouded by ignorance, prejudice, by selfish passions and unbelief, but this inward lamp is extinguished in none, not even in the most savage or debased of the human race. Under every possible condition of life, the spirit of man witnesses, with voices more or less distinct, to certain great fundamental verities relating to both God and man.

In the “Odes of Solomon,” we read (Ode 25): “Thou didst set me a lamp at my right hand, and at my left, and in me there shall be nothing without Light, and I was clothed with the covering of thy Spirit, and I have risen above that of skin, for thy right hand lifted me up, and removed sickness from me, and I became mighty in the truth, and holy by thy righteousness.” Again we read (Ode 40): “My spirit exults in His love, and in Him my soul shines.”


The Spirit of Man is a Lamp

The ancient world believed that fire and life were one and the same thing. Life was a flame, a lamp, a torch. The human soul was of the nature of fire; and fire, being the common element of the gods and their creatures, was the soul of the universe. Now the ancients were entirely right as regards animal life, for that depends upon the constant burning up of the food which we eat, by the help of the air which we breathe. Our bodies move about and are warm, just like so many locomotive steam-engines because of the fire that is always burning within them. Life is really a fire, and the food we eat is the fuel that feeds it. And so one of the heathen images for death, which we see sometimes on gravestones and cemetery gates, is a torch turned upside down.

But man is a complex, compound, mysterious being, possessing a threefold nature,—body, mind, spirit—these three, and the greatest of these is the spirit. The body demands light, air, food, clothing, a habitation to dwell in. The mind is the thinking, the reasoning power; with this he acquires knowledge of men, of things, of the universe, of its laws and forces. The spirit is the religious, the worshipping part of his nature. This renders him capable of receiving God, of enjoying God, of communing with God, and of resembling God. “There is a spirit in man: and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” God may pass through a rock, but that rock cannot be inspired, for it has no spirit. God may pass through the animal, but the animal cannot be inspired, for it has no spiritual nature. It would be out of place and unnatural to speak of an inspired dog or an inspired horse; but man, in the possession of spirit, may be conscious of the incoming, the indwelling of the Spirit of God. That Divine Spirit can, and does occasionally, communicate to the human spirit thoughts and feelings that can find full expression only in exclaiming with Paul “whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth.”

1. The spirit is a lamp because it is endowed with the light of reason. The Book of Proverbs lays great stress upon instruction and understanding; it commends knowledge as one of the main paths that lead to a full and worthy life, and that because all true knowledge culminates in the knowledge of God. Religious people have not always had a fitting appreciation of the worth of knowledge: they have occasionally talked as if reason were the enemy of faith, and as though we had to choose between head and heart—or rather as though the head had to be cut off in order that the heart might beat the more strongly! But there is no conflict between faith and reason, between religion and science; we need not turn down the lamp of the understanding in order to luxuriate in some dim religious light, so-called. As the Apostle says, “Ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness.” All truth is from God—all truth leads to God; let us welcome it and trust it; let us “hear instruction, and refuse it not.”

2. The lamp burns with the light of conscience. Every human being has a conscience, yet few people know its nature; just as everybody drinks water, but few people understand its chemical composition. In the case of the water we drink, fortunately we are refreshed just as fully with the peasant’s ignorance as with the chemical knowledge of Michael Faraday. It is not so, however, with conscience. The more fully we understand its nature and laws—other things being equal—the better can we follow its guidance, and the nobler lives we may lead. So, in addition to the interest attaching to the subject as a fascinating problem in the science of mind, it has also a great interest as a question bearing directly upon practical life. For conscience will not tell us in every case just what is the right thing to do. We have often seen equally conscientious people on opposite sides. The first and most important thing is that there should shine and burn in us an unquenchable conviction that there is a right, and that we ought under all circumstances to follow the dictates of our awakened moral sense. We have to believe that these dictates are from God—not the variable rules of mere expediency and opportunism, but of Divine authority; and as in the symbolism of the older Churches a sacred lamp was kept alight in the sanctuary, which it was held sacrilege to extinguish, so we must beware of putting out or darkening, by sophisms and self-deception, that candle of the Lord which He has lit in our spirits.

Being convinced that the inner light was universal, Fox had the courage to believe that heathen people were led of the Spirit of God. Thus in America, when a doctor denied that the Indians possessed any such light, Fox called an Indian, and asked “Whether or not, when he lied or did wrong to any one, there was not something in him that reproved him for it?” The Indian said there was. Here Fox anticipated a view that has since been forced upon Christian thought by the comparative study of religions. He believed that God had not left Himself anywhere without witness, and he maintained this faith before the knowledge of non-Christian religions brought it into prominence. He did not hesitate to call this inner light the inward Christ, even among the heathen who knew not Christ’s name. For he assumed that the witness of God was one, and that this Spirit which reproved the Indian was the Spirit which would bring him to Christ. This may still be considered assumption, but it is an assumption the Christian must make.1 [Note: H. G. Wood, George Fox, 145.]

It would seem, indeed, as though the sense of sin did not reside in the act at all, but only in the sense that the act is committed in defiance of light and higher instinct. But however much we may philosophize about sin or attempt to analyse its essence, there is some dark secret there, of which from time to time we are grievously conscious. Who does not know the sense of failure to overcome, of lapsing from a hope or a purpose, the burden of the thought of some cowardice or unkindness which we cannot undo and which we need not have committed? No resolute determinism can ever avail us against the stern verdict of that inner tribunal of the soul, which decides, too, by some instinct that we cannot divine, to sting and torture us with the memory of deeds, the momentousness and importance of which we should utterly fail to explain to others. There are things in my own past which would be met with laughter and ridicule if I attempted to describe them, that still make me blush to recollect with a sense of guilt and shame, and seem indelibly branded upon the mind. There are things, too, of which I do not feel ashamed which, if I were to describe them to others, would be received with a sort of incredulous consternation, to think that I could have performed them. That is the strange part of the inner conscience, that it seems so wholly independent of tradition or convention.2 [Note: A. C. Benson, The Silent Isle, 133.]


God Kindles the Lamp

1. All nature tells us that God is light, and that He ever seeks for opportunities of manifesting that light which is so often imprisoned and only waiting to be released by the touch of man. We are constantly finding that there are great resources for light in this world of ours, more than we had ever imagined. Not even at night, when this hemisphere is in the shade and does not enjoy the light of the sun, does God leave it to darkness. Then the moon and stars shine forth: but beyond all that, then does man draw upon the resources of light which lie buried or hidden in nature till he learns how to call them forth. In the history of the ages there is no progress greater than in the discovery of the possibilities on the part of man of producing light. This age supplies exceptional illustrations of this. Man is finding, as he never did before, that nature has light-giving capacities which need only be touched to be brought forth; that God has filled even the material world with possibilities of grand outbursts of light. What would God have us learn from all this? That there is more light in His universe than we had ever thought; that He, true to His own nature, has placed in it capacities for outshining which are chained up for the present, but which He calls men to unloose, so that they may burst forth into light.

It is not surprising that, prominent among the idolatries of the world, there should be found the worship of fire and of light. Once become an idolater, and it becomes easy to worship fire—that wonderful thing in nature which we find everywhere and in every object, even in ice; that which you can strike out of everything, especially when you strike with a suddenness that seems to take it unawares. The old flint and tinder were but an outward visible sign of an inward visible presence everywhere. God’s fire is to be found in all nature; often latent, but at such times it seems to be watching for opportunities of manifestation. Deep beneath the surface of the earth there is a lake of fire which is checked only by mighty forces, and which, here and there, finds an outlet for its seething, restless waves in volcanoes that heave, and groan, and belch out liquid lava. The heavens, too, are full of kindling orbs. Fire is well-nigh omnipresent, and omnipresence is one of the attributes of Deity.1 [Note: 1 D. Davies, Talks with Men, Women and Children, vi. 211.]

2. God’s favourite method of letting His light shine is through man. Man’s spirit kindles more brightly with God’s light than all the suns in the heavens. God’s favourite method of making Himself known is through man. The choice lamp of the Lord is the spirit of man. He has lit up tapers in suns which flame in the heavens, but when God would use His best lamp, He comes to men—“The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord.” For only a person can truly utter a person. Only from a character can a character be echoed. You might write it all over the skies that God is just, but it would not burn there. It would be, at best, only a bit of knowledge, never a gospel, never something which it would gladden the hearts of men to know. That comes only when a human life, capable of a justice like God’s, made just by God, glows with His justice in the eyes of men, a candle of the Lord.

We have seen monuments, tablets, tombstones with names, dates, events recorded that were not readable on account of the dust and moss of years which had accumulated and covered the inscription. It is not necessary to engrave the stone afresh; only sweep away the accumulation of years, and you shall know to whose memory that stone was raised. So if you will rub off the incrustations of sin and error gathered over the human soul you will find the Great Name—God—written deep and large in the very depth of the spirit. Just as the flower has an instinctive tendency to turn towards the sun, so man, even in his lowest estate, has certain instincts which impel him towards God and to cry, “My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: When shall I come and appear before God?” You possess capacities, you have wants which the Infinite alone can fill and satisfy. Until the God you have lost is restored to His rightful Sovereignty in your heart, the deepest cry of your spirit will be, “O that I knew where I might find him!”1 [Note: R. Roberts.]

(1) God lets His light shine in ordinary human life. He transfigures even the physical in man. You have seen many a human face that has become angelic through the outshining of the Divine presence. You have seen God’s light in a man’s heart shine forth through his countenance, though that countenance has been by no means naturally beautiful. Some wondrous brightness in the eye or radiance in the face told us that there was a lamp inside. But where God shines most is through the spiritual in man. Look at the history of Divine revelation—for there we have the greatest outshining of God, from the earliest age until now—and say whether there was anything that revealed so much of God throughout the old dispensation as the inspired utterances of Divinely enlightened men? God set their hearts aflame; thus they spoke to men in melting words. They were the lamps of God to their age and generation. God has never been without witness; He has never been without His chosen lights, His messengers who have testified of His truth, His love, and His purity. Take away from this world and from the record of it the lives of holy men, brilliant because consecrated by a Divine touch that kindled them into a flame, and what have you left?

The benighted traveller in the snow has sometimes caught sight of a candle in a shepherd’s hut. It has been to him the most joyful of all moments; it is the promise of rest. Even such, I think, is the thought of the proverb. The man who uttered it knew well the saying of the old book of Genesis that when God had wandered six days through creation He rested in man. He had been led on by the glimmer of one candle—the light of a human soul. It was the only place of rest the Father saw in all the vast expanse. There was no other dwelling for the spirit of my Father but my spirit. He could not find shelter in any other home. Not “where the bee sucks” could my Father dwell. Not where the bird sings could His heart be glad. Not where the cattle browse could His life repose. Not where the stars shine could He find His household fire. One far-off candle alone gave the sign of home. It was my spirit.1 [Note: G. Matheson, Leaves for Quiet Hours, 144.]

(2) When at length God gave the greatest of revelations, a revelation which was the consummation of all preceding ones; when the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in His wings; then when the morning stars which heralded the light had disappeared in the brightness of His rising, when the Son of God came He took not on Him the nature of angels, but the seed of Abraham. When God would shine forth in all the brightness of His grace, thank God, it was in human form. His greatest gift was in the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”: a man though God: human though Divine. He who came thus in human form was “the effulgence of the Father’s glory, the express image of his person.”

One of the heroes of the old Greek legends of whom the Greeks were very fond was called Prometheus. His name means “forethought.” He was the friend of the human race, and the inventor and teacher of the arts which adorn life. The Greeks believed that Prometheus took away from man the evil gift of being able to foresee the future; and that he was the first who brought fire to men, and taught its use. Pitying the misery of men, who knew not how to cook, he stole fire from heaven, and gave it to them. He also formed men out of clay or mud, and made them alive by putting in a spark of fire, or causing the winds to breathe life into them. But we who have the Bible in our hands know that the Lord Jesus Christ is the real Prometheus. His human soul, indeed, is a lamp which God kindled at Bethlehem nearly nineteen hundred years ago. But as the God-man, He is a Fire,—“the Dayspring from on high,”—“the true Light which, coming into the world, lighteth every man.” “In him is life; and the life is the light of men.” He is “come to send fire on the earth”—the fire of grace, and refining fire, as well as the fire of judgment. He baptizes “with the Holy Ghost and with fire”—to enlighten the mind, and purify the conscience, and warm the heart with the Divine love.1 [Note: C. Jerdan, Messages to the Children, 38.]

I think I am beginning to feel something of the intense pride and atheism of my own heart, of its hatred to truth, of its utter lovelessness; and something I do hope, that I have seen very dimly of the way in which Christ, by being the Light and Truth manifested, shines into the heart and puts light there, even while we feel that the Light and Truth is still all in Him, and that in ourselves there is nothing but thick darkness. I do not know whether you have been led to think as much as I have lately about all those texts which represent Him as Light, as shining into the heart, and in connexion therewith, as wrestling with the powers of darkness. “There was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” He that “caused the light to shine out of darkness shine into your heart.” They afforded me very great delight some time ago when nothing else would; an intense thick darkness, darkness that might be felt, brooding over my mind, till the thought that had been brought to me as if from Heaven—“the light of the Sun is not in you but out of you, and yet you can see everything by it if you will open your eyes”—gave me more satisfaction than any other could. Since then another train of feeling led me to experience the intense misery of pride and self, as if that were the seal of the darkness, and that I could find no relief but in joining the two thoughts together: it was pride, it was self, it was sin, which separated between me and God, which produced the darkness. Christ had taken that away, and therefore the true Light shineth.2 [Note: The Life of Frederick Denison Maurice, i. 119.]


The Office of the Lamp is to Shine

1. The lamp of God in our nature gives forth a self-searching light.—It searches the hidden recesses of a man’s own nature. It is that by which God seeks to make it impossible for us to sin with impunity. It is the Lord’s light in man that protests against the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, and brings to view life’s privileges and responsibilities. It is the flame in the heart that claims relationship with Him who is light and in whom is no darkness at all.

“I cannot do this,” said a Christian merchant, in reference to some business operations in which he was asked to take part, “I cannot do this. There is a man inside of me that won’t let me do it. He talks to me of nights about it, and I have to do business in a different way.” Thank God for the restraining testimony of conscience! Let us always listen to the witness, and follow its guidance. Let Lord Erskine’s rule be ours. That rule he stated publicly at the bar in these unmistakable words: “It was the first command and counsel of my youth, always to do what my conscience told me to be my duty, and leave the consequence to God. I have hitherto followed it, and have no reason to complain that any obedience to it has been even a temporal sacrifice; I have found it, on the contrary, the road to prosperity and wealth, and I shall point it out as such to my children.” Akin to this was John Wesley’s rule: “To follow my own conscience, without any regard to consequences, or prudence, so called, is a rule which I have followed for many years, and hope to follow to my life’s end.”1 [Note: J. T. Whitley.]

2. The lamp is to be God’s witness in the world.—God says to each of us: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” The Christian, wherever he goes, is to show forth certain clear-shining qualities which will commend his Christianity, and so lead men, whether consciously or unconsciously, to Christ. Lives are the best preachers; and many an obscure Christian man or woman, filled with the constraining love of Christ, practising day by day the dear simplicities of the gospel, preaches a sermon which he who runs may read, or listen to, and whose closing notes are not heard on this earth at all. Lives are the best preachers; it is they alone that “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.”

You remember those lovely lines which Shakespeare places in Portia’s mouth when she returns from Venice to her home in Belmont:

That light we see is burning in my hall.

How far that little candle throws his beams!

So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

And we are candles—our spirits the candles of the Lord; lights whose clear shining may haply show to some perplexed soul the absolute worth of right-doing, the glory of steadfastness, the reward of trust, the joy of self-giving, self-forgetting love, the infinite affection of God—the way home to Him who is ready to receive the soul that longs for Him.1 [Note: J. Warschauer, The Way of Understanding, 177.]

When I was a boy and lived on a farm in the North-Western frontier, we used to go to church in an old log schoolhouse in the woods. Evening meetings in those days were always announced to begin “at early candle-light.” There were not even oil-lamps in the old schoolhouse. There was an unwritten rule in the neighbourhood that each family attending the service should bring at least one candle. The first man who arrived lighted his candle and put it up in one of the wooden candlesticks, or set it on the window-sill, fastened at the base in a little tallow-drip, dripping the tallow hot and then steadying the candle in it before it cooled. So every man who came in lighted his candle, and as the congregation grew the light grew. If there was a small congregation, there was what might be called “a dim religious light,” and if there was a large congregation, the place was illuminated by the light of many candles. Now it should be like that in the spiritual illumination which we give in the world. Every one of us should add our own light to the combined illumination of all other faithful souls.2 [Note: L. A. Banks, The Problems of Youth, 298.]

In Athens, long ago, games used to be held in honour of the Grecian gods and heroes. One of these was a torch-race—that is, a race of torch-bearers—which was run at night in honour of Prometheus. The starting-point was a mile and a half out of the city, in the olive grove where Plato had his “Academy,” this spot being chosen because Prometheus had a sanctuary there. The winning-post was within the city; and the runner who reached it first with his torch still burning gained the prize. In like manner our Christian life here on earth is “the race that is set before us.” We shall have run that race well, if, when we come at last into God’s presence, our lights are still burning. “They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.”1 [Note: C. Jerdan, Messages to the Children, 40.]

3. This lamp needs continual tending.—Man is selfish and disobedient, and will not let his life burn at all. Man is wilful and passionate, and kindles his life with ungodly, fire. Man is narrow and bigoted, and makes the light of God shine with his own special colour. In certain lands, for certain holy ceremonies, they prepare the candles with most anxious care. The very bees which distil the wax are sacred. They range in gardens planted with sweet flowers for their use alone. The wax is gathered by consecrated hands; and then the shaping of the candles is a holy task, performed in holy places, to the sound of hymns, and in the atmosphere of prayers. All this is done because the candles are to burn in the most lofty ceremonies on most sacred days. With what care must the man be made whose spirit is to be the candle of the Lord! It is his spirit which God is to kindle with Himself. Therefore the spirit must be the precious part of him. The body must be valued only for the protection and the education which the soul may gain by it. And the power by which his spirit shall become a candle is obedience. Therefore obedience must be the struggle and desire of his life; obedience not hard and forced, but ready, loving, and spontaneous; the obedience of the child to the father, of the candle to the flame; the doing of duty not merely that duty may be done, but that the soul in doing it may become capable of receiving and uttering God; the bearing of pain not merely because the pain must be borne, but in order that the bearing of it may make the soul able to burn with the Divine fire which found it in the furnace; the repentance of sin and acceptance of forgiveness, not merely that the soul may be saved from the fire of hell, but that it may be touched with the fire of heaven, and shine with the love of God, as the stars, for ever.

You are a part of God! You have no place or meaning in this world but in relationship to Him. The full relationship can be realized only by obedience. Be obedient to Him, and you shall shine by His light, not your own. Then you cannot be dark, for He shall kindle you. Then you shall be as incapable of burning with false passion as you shall be quick to answer with the true. Then the devil may hold his torch to you, as he held it to the heart of Jesus in the desert, and your heart shall be as uninflammable as His. But as soon as God touches you, you shall burn with a light so truly your own that you shall reverence your own mysterious life, and yet so truly His that pride shall be impossible. What a philosophy of human life is that! “O, to be nothing, nothing!” cries the mystic singer in his revival hymn, desiring to lose himself in God. “Nay, not that; O to be something, something,” remonstrates the unmystical man, longing for work, ardent for personal life and character. Where is the meeting of the two? How shall self-surrender meet that high self-value without which no man can justify his living and honour himself in his humanity? Where can they meet but in this truth? Man must be something that he may be nothing. The something which he must be consists in simple fitness to utter the Divine life which is the only original power in the universe. And then man must be nothing that he may be something. He must submit himself in obedience to God, that so God may use him, in some way in which his special nature only could be used, to illuminate and help the world.1 [Note: P. Brooks, The Candle of the Lord, 17.]

Long ago one could have seen, in not a few churches, upon Christmas Eve, two small lights, symbolizing the Divine and human natures, being gradually brought together until they blended in one brilliant flame. This truth was also typified in the cloven tongues of fire that hovered over the disciples’ heads upon the day of Pentecost. So with the restoration of the vital connexions between man and God through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit shall commingle with our spirit, intensifying the holy flame, so that it shall penetrate to the farthest reaches of life and character. Our moral vision shall be corrected, so that truth and error, right and wrong shall appear to us in sharply-defined contrast. He shall lead us into all truth.

Come, Light serene and still,

Our inmost bosoms fill;

Dwell in each breast:

We know no dawn but Thine;

Send forth Thy beams divine,

On our dark souls to shine,

And make us blest.2 [Note: W. King.]


Banks (L. A.), The Problems of Youth, 298.

Brooks (P.), The Candle of the Lord, 1.

Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, vi. 211.

Jerdan (C.), Messages to the Children, 36.

Matheson (G.), Leaves for Quiet Hours, 144.

Parkhurst (C. H.), Three Gates on a Side, 35.

Roberts (R.), My Jewels, 245.

Robinson (W. V.), Sunbeams for Sundays, 160.

Warschauer (J.), The Way of Understanding, 166.

Waylen (H.), Mountain Pathways, 95.

Christian World Pulpit, lxxv. 311 (W. King).

Homiletic Review, xx. 137 (J. T. Whitley).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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