The Draw-Net.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." -- MATT. xiii.47-50.

Great variety obtains in the size and structure of fishing-nets; and great variety, too, in the manner of using them. Some are stationary, fixed to poles in the sea or the estuaries of rivers; some are dropped in a straight line into the water, and allowed to remain there suspended until a shoal of fish, endeavouring to pass, become entangled one by one in the meshes; others are shot in a semicircular form into the sea, and immediately drawn back by both extremities simultaneously to the shore.

It is this last mentioned species of net that is employed in the parable. Its depth is comparatively small, but its length is great. One side is kept close to the bottom by weights, and the other side drawn towards the surface by corks or bladders. Thus when spread it stands erect like a wall in the water, enclosing a large space. As soon as it has been spread, the fishermen begin to draw it at both ends slowly and steadily towards the land. As the enclosed semicircle gradually diminishes, the captured fishes, having still room for motion, retire before the advancing prison wall, until they are at length confined within a very narrow space, and drawn into shallow water. There is then a violent flutter for a few moments, and the whole are laid helpless on the sand.

Then begins that operation on which the Master has here mainly fixed his eye, and to which exclusively he directs attention in his own exposition. When the fishermen have at last drawn the net wholly out of the water and secured its contents on dry land, they sit down to examine leisurely the worth of their capture, and to separate the precious from the vile. The good they gather into vessels for preservation; the bad they simply throw away. The net surrounded and brought to land every living creature that fell within its sweep, and was not small enough to escape through its meshes. Some of these are in their own nature and at all times unfit for food; others are useless at particular seasons. Every one who has watched the operations of fishermen on the shore is familiar with the appearance of star-fish and other low forms of marine life, which are drawn out by the nets, and cast away upon the sand. Large predatory fishes of a low type are also sometimes caught, when they venture too near in search of prey. In some instances, moreover, fishes that are dead and partially decayed are brought up in company with the living, and these are of course cast out as vile.

The central figure of the parable, round which the other features congregate only as fore or back ground accessories -- the central figure is, A group of fishermen, panting from recent exertion, sitting on a knoll close by the sea-side, with the newly-drawn net lying in a soaking heap at their feet, picking up one by one the fishes that are fit for food, and putting them on one side into baskets, and casting the rest away. The men are skilful, experienced, and cool; they have no interest in forming an erroneous judgment, and they are not liable to fall into mistakes. The separation between good and bad is made without partiality and without hypocrisy; it is deliberate, accurate, inevitable. At the close, not one good fish has been cast away, and not a bad one has been admitted into the vessels.

It is of great importance to note that when the Lord undertakes to explain this parable, he determines for us the spiritual meaning of the last act only of the fishermen's labours, and passes in silence all the rest. I do not conclude from this fact that the earlier features of the scene possessed no spiritual significance, or that their meaning cannot be ascertained. But it is undeniable that when Christ himself gives the meaning of his own parable, the part that he leaves unexplained cannot be as surely and clearly understood as the part which he has explained: and further, the portion of a parable on which he maintained silence while he explained another part, is not for us in the same position as another parable of which he has not given an exposition at all. Some of them are so transparent that he did not count it needful to give the interpretation; in other cases, such as the sower, he gave the signification of the whole; in a third class of cases, to which this parable belongs, he explains one feature of the picture, and maintains silence regarding the rest. Now it is precisely the portions left without explanation in parables partially explained, that must in the nature of the case be to us most uncertain. It may be assumed regarding them that their spiritual meaning is either self-evident, and therefore required not a comment, or of subordinate importance, and therefore did not obtain one. In this case it is certain, from the diversity of opinion that prevails regarding them, that these portions are not easily understood: there remains only the other alternative, that they are not essential.

Our view of the grand lesson which the Master taught from the closing act of the fishermen, is very little affected by the opinion which we may form regarding the preparatory portions. Those who differ widely regarding the significance of trees and animals that occupy the background of a picture, may notwithstanding agree entirely regarding the meaning of the picture itself. Although we entertain various views in respect to the spreading and drawing of the net, we come all, under the Master's guidance, to substantially the same view of the separation between good and evil which was accomplished when the net was brought to shore. Upon this point the Lord fixed his eye and expressed his mind. He has made it so plain that there is not room among Christians for serious diversity concerning it.

A river in Africa is known and navigated in its lower reaches near the sea. Ships from many nations frequent the estuary, and obtain cargoes of oil, and wax, and fruit from the inhabitants on its shores. But a question, meantime, arises among geographers regarding the source of this river in the interior of the continent, and the direction of its current before it reaches the navigable portion near the ocean. One believes the river rises in the north, and flows mainly southward; another contends that it springs in a mountainous ridge far to the eastward, and flows in a westerly course to the Atlantic. In defect of an actual exploration, there is room for differences of opinion; and differences have accordingly sprung up. The right is better than the wrong even here; but the importance of the point is, in a commercial point of view, secondary. Waiting till time shall afford the materials for decision, the disputants meanwhile frequent the deep estuary in company, and grow rich by the merchandise which it supplies. Thus we all understand, from the Lord's own transparent, decisive exposition, the last, the deepest, the most profitable portion of the parable. While we endeavour reverently to investigate the portions that are still uncertain, we should rejoice with thankfulness that where agreement was most necessary, the Great Teacher has made it impossible to differ.

After this explanation, I need not hesitate to admit that the view of the parable, in its earlier and unexplained portions, which on the whole most commends itself to my judgment, differs essentially from the expositions that are generally given. With modest, grave, watchful spirit should one student of the Scripture suggest and another receive, an interpretation of any portion different from that which has been given by the earnest, accomplished, and devout scholars, who in various countries and times have sought to discover the mind of the Spirit. On the other hand, to suppress a judgment, in deference to human authority, would be disloyal to the Lord and contrary to the principles of Protestants.

The view commonly entertained is, that the net is the Church, or, as some express it, the Bible and the ordinances of religion; while the fishermen who spread and draw it are the apostles in the first instance, and afterwards the ordinary ministers of the word. If the net is the Church, and its drawers the Church's ministers, the whole question of discipline is immediately raised. This parable, accordingly, like that of the tares, has been impressed into their own service by the opponents of discipline both in ancient and modern times. We emphatically repeat here, what we formerly stated in connection with the cognate parable, that no consistent argument can be maintained in regard to discipline from this scripture, except an absolute and entire repudiation of all effort, by a human ministry and in this present world, to keep any person or class of persons without the pale of the visible Church on account of their opinions or their conduct. Very few, however, venture to take this ground. The ordinary method is to contend for some measure of Church order -- for the right and duty of excluding some of the worst -- and then to lean on this parable for an argument in favour of a lax and against a stringent administration. We submit that to take your stand on this parable, and thence contend for the exclusion to some extent of the evil from the pale of the Church, is to trample all logical and critical laws under foot. This scripture manifestly either forbids all effort to discriminate in this world, or says nothing at all on the subject.

I shall now state, as distinctly and fairly as I can, some of the difficulties and inconsistencies which adhere to the common interpretation of the net and its drawers, and convince me that it is not the true interpretation.

1. It makes those who draw the net through the water, and those who separate between good and evil on the shore, not the same, but different persons, and persons of different classes, -- the one representing men ministering to the Church in time, the other angels executing judgment in eternity; whereas, both from the terms of the narrative and the ordinary practice of fishermen, we know that the same persons who draw the net to shore afterwards divide between the worthless and vile of its contents. The net "was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away." There is no ambiguity here; the drawers are also the dividers. I suppose none will take advantage of the impersonal form in which the casting of the net is expressed, and assume that while one class, representing a human ministry, cast the net into the water, another class, representing ministering angels, drew it to land and divided its contents; for it would be, contrary to all analogy and propriety, to assume that the Lord introduced into his picture a feature that is never found in fact. There is no such thing in reality as one set of men throwing the net into the water, and then retiring from the scene, while another set of men draw it out.

The ordinary interpretation assumes, contrary both to the letter of Scripture and the custom of men, that when ministers of flesh and blood have spread the net, and drawn it toward the shore, enclosing a multitude good and bad of their brethren, they disappear and take no part further in the transaction. Another party, representing the angels, now fasten on the net, and pick out the good from the bad. A late German expositor, learned, suggestive, and devout, Olshausen, yielding to the inexorable logic of the case, concedes that the drawers of the net and the dividers of the fish are not diverse, but the same. He turns, however, to the other side for a solution of the difficulty. Instead of simply proceeding to determine the unknown by the known; -- instead of owning that as angels separate the good from the evil on the shore, they must have also thrown and drawn the net, he explains away the specific signification of angels, and supposes that those who minister the Gospel in time are employed, under the general designation of angels, to separate between good and evil in the world to come. This solution will not readily commend itself to British students of the Scripture. The fact therefore remains, that the ordinary exposition of the parable, in this part of its progress, is palpably at variance with the structure of the parable itself, and the facts on which it is founded.

2. In the visible Church, the profession, at the very least, is to enclose the good within the communion of saints, or to rescue the evil by making them new in the act of entrance; whereas the net is let down at a certain spot to sweep indiscriminately all within its circle to the shore. It makes absolutely no distinction between good and bad; it can discriminate only between great and small. The net is laid down in the sea along a certain line: twelve inches beyond that line fishes good and bad are swimming, which it does not touch; while an inch within that line are fishes good and bad which it draws indiscriminately to the shore. I can perceive no likeness between this and the kingdom of heaven, if you understand thereby the visible Church and the efforts of the ministry.

3. One of the chief practical lessons which expositors ancient and modern have drawn from the parable, under this view of its meaning, is extremely incongruous, and even grotesque. Churchmen cling to it as a sheet anchor in controversy with Nonconformists. If this notion were adopted only by mediaeval monks and modern Romanists, I would reckon it unworthy of notice; but it is received and uttered again as genuine at this day by grave and learned Protestant theologians of Germany, and notwithstanding the solidity and good sense which characterize his "Notes" generally, is formally reproduced in its boldest form by Dr. Trench.[26]

[26] "They [this and the parable of the tares] convey, too, the same further lesson, that this fact [the actual intermixture of evil in the visible Church] does not justify self-willed departure from the fellowship of the Church, and impatient leaping over or breaking through the nets, as here it has often been called; but the Lord's separation is patiently to be waited for, which shall surely arrive at the end of the present age." -- Dr. Trench, Notes on the Parables, p.133. This is a style far too loose for a critical exposition of Scripture. If the actual presence of tolerated impurity within the Church does not justify a "self-willed" departure from her communion, does it justify a departure that is not self-willed, but a solemn separation in order to carry out the will of the Lord? The assumption that the separation of the English Nonconformists was "self-willed," of course begs the whole question.

The practical lesson, then, which these expositors draw from the parable is, that disciples of Christ are not justified in leaving an organized Church with which they were connected, and forming a Christian community beyond its pale, on the ground that unworthy members are tolerated within its communion. This is, indeed, not the true state of the question as between the Established Episcopal Church in England and the early Nonconformists; the Puritans did not spontaneously retire, they were ejected by the hand of power because they refused to comply with new ordinances imposed upon the Church of Christ by human authority. But although the state of the question were conceded, the argument completely fails. If this lesson against separation is justly deduced from the parable, there must be in the natural object some parallel more or less distinct which suggests and supports it. What is that parallel, and where does it lie? Translate the spiritual lesson, which men profess to find, back into the material facts, and observe the straits into which your mistake has brought you. The parallel obviously must be, -- The good fishes that are enclosed within the net, or those that count themselves good, should not leap out because star-fish and molluscs are enclosed along with them. Either this is the parallel on which the lesson leans, or it has no foundation at all; but there is no such thing in nature, and no such representation in the parable. The fishes when they are once enclosed within the net cannot break out; and even if they could, they would break out not because they were confined in low company, but because they were confined. The good would fain be free; and the bad too. From first to last the net is to all its inmates and to all alike a dreaded prison. I do not descry a solitary feature of resemblance between the parable at this stage and the doctrine regarding Church discipline which the expositors deduce from it.[27]

[27] While Stier and Trench seem to start with the same principle of interpretation on this subject, they are led ultimately to opposite practical results. Trench, as we have seen, gathers from the parable that the pure, or those who consider themselves pure, are not justified in leaping out of the net at their own pleasure; that is, the Nonconformists should not go and constitute conventicles beyond the pale of the Establishment. Stier, on the contrary, represents the evil as endeavouring to break out of the net, but unable to accomplish their purpose: "Many a leviathan is caught, and although he would fain get out, yet cannot break the net." -- Stier in loc.

4. The sea, according to the interpreters, being the world, and the net being the Church, I want to know what is meant by drawing the net to land. To be drawn from the sea to the land must mean to be led, willing or unwilling, from this life into eternity; for both good and bad are brought to the shore; then and there the separation takes place which all acknowledge to be final. But are the members of the visible Church alone drawn out of this life into the other world? Do the ministers of the Gospel occupy themselves in dragging their brethren away from the world? Here, too, the interpretation is inconsistent with the facts of the case and the representations of the parable.

These difficulties in which the common interpretation is involved, go far to prove that it must be erroneous; a true principle of exposition would surely not lead its adherents into such straits. The real key, if it were found, might be expected to open the lock without wrenching its parts asunder.

Although for my own part I would be content to take the plain and undoubted doctrine which the closing scene of the parable contains, and leave the earlier stages of it as the Lord left them, without attaching to them any definite and distinct significance, I am prepared at the same time to suggest a totally different interpretation of the net drawing the fishes to land, for the consideration of those who love to search the Scriptures. I shall state the principle of interpretation which commends itself to my judgment, and leave everyone to judge for himself whether it will consistently and profitably explain all the facts.

The net is not the visible Church in the world, and the fishes good and bad within it do not represent the true and false members of the Church. The sea is the world. The net, almost or altogether invisible at first to those whom it surrounds, is that unseen bond which, by an invisible ministry, is stretched over the living, drawing them gradually, secretly, surely, towards the boundary of this life, and over it into another. As each portion, or generation of the human race, are drawn from their element in this world, ministering spirits, on the lip of eternity that lies nearest time, receive them and separate the good from the evil.

I shall enumerate here some of the reasons which commend this interpretation, and notice some of the objections which may be urged against it.

Among the reasons which commend it, --

1. It assumes, according to the facts of the case and the express terms of the scripture, that the same persons who draw the net also separate the worthy from the worthless of its contents on shore.

2. In owning this along with Olshausen, it owns also that the angels who separate the good from the evil at the end of the world are angels, and does not with him explain them away into the human ministry of the Gospel.

3. It is perfectly congruous with the habits of fishermen and the character of the instruments which they employ. As fishers drop the net over a certain space, and, without making any pretence of discriminating between good and bad, drag all within that space to shore; so the invisible agents whom God employs in his universal administration, whether laws or angelic spirits or both combined, make no distinction between good and bad, when by successive castings of the net, as it were, they enclose section after section, generation after generation of human kind, and draw them slowly, silently, but inevitably to the edge of this life, and over it into the unseen world. I scarcely know in the whole range of nature an analogy more true and touching than this. When you allow that the angels cast and draw the net as well as divide its contents, the incongruities disappear, and the picture starts into life, true to the original. The fishes, enclosed within the net when it is first thrown out, but still swimming in the sea, not aware that the net is round them, are intensely like a human generation, with the sentence of death hanging over them, yet living and moving freely, and looking for many days. As the circle of the net grows narrower the fishes gently give way before it, and so enjoy for a little longer the sensation of floating at liberty in the water; and it is not until they touch the ground that they become thoroughly alarmed. The struggle then is sudden, earnest, short, unavailing. Thus are mankind, without respect to their vice or their virtue, indiscriminately drawn to the margin of this world's life, and, willing or unwilling, thrown into an unknown state beyond.

4. If any struggles are made against the encircling net during the slow, solemn process of drawing -- any efforts on the part of the captives to leap out into freedom, they are made, not by one kind in displeasure at being shut up with another, but by every kind indifferently in displeasure at being shut up at all. Like the indefinite terror of mute fishes when they feel the net coming closer in, is the instinctive alarm of human beings when the hand of death is felt gradually contracting the space in which the pulses of life are permitted to play.

I shall now notice and endeavour to estimate the principal objections, as far as I am able to anticipate them, which may be urged against the interpretation that I have suggested.

1. The Lord at another time, in calling some of his apostles, said, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matt. iv.19). He did; and I think it is by a mistake in instituting an analogy between that fact and this parable that interpreters have been led into a wrong track.

Some expositors have made a similar mistake in regard to the parable of the leaven, and the one error will throw light upon the origin and nature of the other. Observing that the Lord in another place represents the doctrines of the Pharisees and the Sadducees as a leaven, some have concluded that the leaven in the parable also must point to the spread of error, and have expounded it accordingly. All judicious critics, however, clearly see and distinctly explain in that case, that the leaven which was in other instances employed to represent the diffusion of evil, was in the parable employed to represent the prevalence of good. Although leaven in one of the Lord's discourses pointed to hypocrisy and unbelief, they teach, and teach correctly, that leaven in another of his discourses points to the progress of saving truth.

The same discrimination should be exercised here. It is quite true that the Lord at one time, and in one discourse, compared the ministry of apostles in winning souls to the labour of fishers in the ordinary exercise of their craft; but that does not prevent him from employing at another time the universal sweep of the draw-net to represent the silent, slow, and sure encompassing of human kind, which draws them, good and bad alike, by instruments and agencies which they do not see and cannot resist, from this troubled sea of time toward the shore of the unknown eternity. Because the conception of capturing fishes in the Sea is at one time in the Lord's discourses employed to indicate the benevolent labour of the Gospel ministry, it does not follow that you are compelled to construe that conception in the same way wherever it occurs, although the circumstances manifestly render the application incongruous and contradictory.

Let it be observed, moreover, that when the apostles in respect of their work are called fishers of men, not one feature in the process of fishing is specified in detail. Nothing is introduced but the general conception of a fisherman catching fishes in the sea. This conception in the abstract contains nothing incongruous with the labour of the apostles. As long as you abide by the bare general term "fisher," the analogy, as applied to "apostle," is obvious and the meaning easily recognised; but the moment you descend into the details of a net, and the mixture of good and evil, you plunge into inextricable confusion, if you persist in maintaining an analogy between the detailed process of fishing and the labour of apostles for the kingdom of Christ.

The general conception of fishing, as it appeared to the mind of speaker and hearers on the margin of the Lake of Galilee, diverged into two dissimilar branches as soon as it descended into practical detail. The fishermen prosecuted their avocation sometimes with line and baited hooks, sometimes with boat and nets. Fishing with line and hook, a process of watching, selecting, discriminating, whereby the fishes are one by one enticed and taken, readily spontaneously leaps up before the imagination as a line parallel with the work of an evangelist, bent on winning souls; but fishing by the draw-net absolutely refuses to be fashioned into an analogue of the evangelistic work. The Lord in his teaching said that fishers were like apostles; but he never said that the process of fishing by the draw-net resembles the efforts of his ministers for the conversion of the world. Of the two methods of fishing which were familiar to the parties, one is in some of its main features analogous to the new employment into which Jesus called the twelve, and the other is totally dissimilar. When I read, therefore, that an apostle is a fisher of men, I shall think of the selecting, discriminating method of casting a hook into the water; and when I learn from this parable that the separation between the good and bad of the net's contents upon the shore represents the separation between good and bad men by the ministry of angels in the unseen world, I am not compelled -- I am not permitted to believe, contrary to all analogy, that the Church encloses all, like the net, without an effort, a hope, a desire to discriminate, and that the ministers of the Church, like the fishermen, drag their brothers unwilling out of the world to the judgment-seat.

2. But has not the Lord said in this parable, as in all the rest of the group, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net that was cast into the sea? He has; yet the fact does not prove that he meant to represent the Church by the net, and the labour of apostles by the spreading and drawing of the net. The formula, "The kingdom of heaven is like," relates to the parable as a whole, and not specifically to that feature of the parable which lies next to it in the record. For the evidence of this proposition it is not necessary to go further than the two immediately preceding parables. In one, "the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure;" in the other, it "is like unto a merchant-man." If, instead of looking to the picture as a whole, you insist on finding the analogue of the kingdom or the Church specifically in the net, you must, in like manner, in the parable of the pearl, find that the Church is specifically compared to a man, whereas in the preceding example it was compared to a treasure. In these examples it is demonstrated that the analogy instituted refers to the picture as a whole, and not to the single feature that first occurs in the narrative.[28]

[28] The argument on this point is well stated by Limburg Brouwer. His conclusion is: "Accedit quod [Greek: promythion] illud, ([Greek: homoiothe he Basileia, k.t.l.]) saepe ita comparatum est, ut proprie non conferendum sit cum solo illo subjecto, quocum ab auctore connectatur, sed potius cum universa re narrata." -- De Parabolis Jesu Christi, 153.

The Lord intimates in the introductory formula that he intends by this parable to give yet another lesson regarding the kingdom of heaven; and it must be determined otherwise than by the mere juxtaposition of the clauses, on what aspect or period of the kingdom he will by this similitude throw light. Six consecutive lessons on the subject have already been given. He has taught already what hinders the kingdom in the deceitfulness of human hearts, and the machinations of the wicked one; what its inherent power is, and what its contagious all-pervading influence; what is its value in the estimate of those who know it, and how much they willingly part with in order to obtain the treasure. What new and additional characteristic of the kingdom does the Master teach his disciples in the seventh and last parable of the group -- the parable of the draw-net? The closing lesson about the kingdom relates to the closing scene of the kingdom -- the separation of the wicked from the good on the great day. From the order of the subjects in the series you might expect this; from the picture actually presented you are logically led to infer this; but, especially, you know this from the spontaneous explanation then and there given by the Lord. Although, according to his usual method, he completed the parabolic picture, filling up the fore and back grounds with the objects that naturally lay there, yet when he comes to the interpretation, he passes in silence all these preparatory features, and tells the meaning of the last only -- the separation of the wicked from the just through the ministry of angels at the end of the world. Yes, as the Lord said, this parable sheds light on the kingdom, but the portion of the kingdom on which the light falls is the close. It brings out in strong relief the final separation between those who remain distant and those who are brought nigh.

In view of the decisive fact that the Lord gives an interpretation, and does not interpret the casting and drawing of the net to mean the visible Church and its operations -- does not interpret the casting and drawing of the net at all, I cannot assent to the demand that the general formula of introduction common to all the seven parables should be held to determine what specific portion of the extended picture, or whether any, represents the Church in relation to the character of its members and the duty of its ministers.

When God in his work of creation determined to give this globe a "lesser light," to mitigate the necessary darkness of its night in the absence of the sun, he provided an orb which serves that purpose, and more. Although only one of its sides is turned towards the earth, the moon has another side formed in full. For light to the earth the Creator needed only a disc; but in order to provide it he made a sphere. In a similar manner the Lord has acted in the parable, when he desired to give his disciples a lesson upon the separation which takes place at the close of the dispensation; He made the orb full, although he illumined only one side of it by his own interpretation.

If any one is disposed to hold me to the letter of this similitude, and say that the uninterpreted portion of the parable is left, like the further hemisphere of the moon, deep in the shade, and beyond our view, I frankly consent to be so held. I agree that those portions of the parable should be considered to us of uncertain significance. We may lawfully and profitably examine them, and test every proposed explanation, and profit by every good lesson that may be obtained; but we ought absolutely to abandon all attempts to find there an authority for any doctrine or any duty. I think when the Lord has explained a part of one of his own parables, the portion of it which he has left unexplained is in a different position from a parable which he has not explained at all. When he gives any interpretation, his silence has a meaning as well as his words. If he had meant to determine by a particular feature of this parable any important doctrine or duty, we may rest assured, when he did undertake to give an explanation, he would not have left that part altogether unexplained. On the whole, I think the earlier portion of the parable is debatable ground; it is left in the shade; there is room for difference of opinion in regard to it. In some aspects it may suggest useful reflections as a picture of the good and evil mingled in the Church; in other aspects it may suggest solemn thoughts as a picture of successive generations being gradually drawn from life's moving sea to eternity's stable unknown shore. I believe that profitable lessons may be obtained from it in both of these, and perhaps in other aspects; I believe that the disciples do not sin, and the Master is not displeased, when to one inquirer it suggests this lesson, and to another it suggests that, as long as all is done in charity, and according to the analogy of the faith. I have suggested a line of thought, which I believe to be relevant and profitable; but I would not dare to plant my foot on this exposition as the ground of any doctrine or any duty. It is because others, both in ancient and modern times, have pretended to find on the unillumined side of this parable a light to guide Christians authoritatively in points that vitally affect the kingdom of Christ, that I have entered at so great length into the inquiry.

I confess frankly that I count it a good and necessary work to wrench this scripture from the hands of those who, whether in ignorance or conscious partiality, use it as an instrument practically to blot out the line which the Lord has elsewhere drawn between the Church and the world.

It is not necessary now to refute formally the fond, feeble notion, that this parable proves the sinfulness of dissenting from the Church of England, established by the State and prelatic in its government. Even although we should concede that the visible Church and the character of its constituents are the subjects with which the parable deals, it would be childish trifling on the part of a Churchman to quote it as of authority against Nonconformists. In the same Bible stands the precept, "Come out from among them and be ye separate;" and the Nonconformist has as good a right, that is, no right at all, to quote it as of authority by itself against a Churchman. The matter cannot be settled, on either side, by general announcements like these, although they are selected from the Scriptures. Every case must be judged upon its own merits. The question whether a dissenter has separated from a corrupt community in order to obey his Lord, or has rent the Church to gratify his own pride, must be determined in each case by an appeal to the facts: no solution satisfactory to intelligent Christians, or to grown men, can be reached by superciliously throwing a text in your neighbour's face. This remark is made upon the supposition that the parable bears upon the point, which I think is more than doubtful. Those who gravely counsel the fishes to abide peacefully within the net, and not to leap out pharisaically and schismatically because foul fish abound within the same enclosure, certainly show themselves incapable of appreciating the analogies of nature, whatever may be their familiarity with ecclesiastical affairs.

We subjoin two practical lessons; the first, though in itself self-evidently true, depending for its suggestion here on the special view of the net which we have submitted; the second founded directly on the word and enforced by the authority of the Lord.

1. We of this generation, a miscellaneous multitude of old and young, good and evil, move about at liberty in the wide expanse of life, as fishes move about in the deep broad sea; but certain mysterious, invisible lines, have been let down into the water, and are silently, slowly creeping near, and winding round us. The net at first has a vast compass: a fish within its circle has as much room as it needs, and cares not for distant danger. Even when the cords begin to come near, he moves out of their way, and for his own comfort embraces warmly the opinion that these cords do not constitute a net. They are some loose things, -- certain species of sea-weed, such as he has often seen before. He has gone round them or through them often and easily: he will do so again. But these approach persistently, and still from the same side: they lie between him and the open sea: to avoid them he must move in-shore. Getting now a nearer view, he descries some new features of the danger. These lines are crossed and knitted in a manner all unlike the sea-weed threads that streamed so long and straight and loose in the tide-way. A secret foreboding of some unknown doom arises: the alarmed captive, having now no further room to retire, darts wildly sea-ward, and is caught in the inevitable meshes of the encircling net. After a moment of violent but feeble struggle, he is laid still and dumb on the shore.

It is a picture touchingly, terribly exact of our own state. The net has been spread around us: the sharp knitted lines gradually approach and touch us. Shrinking from the clammy contact as we would from living snakes, we retire before them, and still find room. But the lines appear again, always on the same side. Our space grows narrower as we recede, from year to year, from week to week, from day to day, until at length we graze the ground and strike upon the eternal world.

That net cannot be removed or evaded; but it may be changed, so that you would not fear its approach. When we become new creatures in Christ, death approaching us becomes a new creature too, as the image in a mirror changes with the object that stands before it. This dreaded net becomes like a warm, soft, encircling arm, pressing a frightened infant closer to a mother's breast.

2. Good and bad alike are drawn in company toward the shore, but the good and bad are separated when they reach it.

No lesson can be addressed to men more touching, more piercing than this. Nor is its penetrating power diminished by any deficiency of authority in the word that presses it home. It is the word of the Lord; not spoken in parables, but expressly given as the meaning of the parable that had been spoken. Its force is not weakened by any quiver of doubt in the Christian brotherhood as to the Master's mind. All Christians hear this word and understand it alike: the whole assembly, when they hear it, bow the head and worship. On the authority of our Redeemer, and in terms so transparent that they afford no room for doubt, we learn that on the shore to which we are silently, surely moving, a separation infallibly exact and irrevocably final will be made between the evil and the good. As to the positive punishment into which the impenitent will be cast, while I simply receive all the words of the Lord, I shall take care not to obtrude many of my own. He spoke of matters beyond the cognizance of sense, and beyond even the range of imagination, and therefore in the nature of the case we cannot fully understand his words. But He who utters this solemn warning knows what we understand by "a furnace of fire," and by "wailing and gnashing of teeth:" he intends to convey to us, regarding sufferings that are not only unknown, but in our present condition to us unknowable, as clear and deep and awe-inspiring an impression as our minds are capable of receiving. He leads our minds in that direction as far as they can follow; and, for the rest, darkness will cover it until "that day." In the direction downward unto death, as well as upward unto life, the word holds good, "What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter." Either line, when it crosses the border of this life, "passeth all understanding." I suppose it is as completely impossible for a human heart to conceive what God hath prepared for them that hate him, as to conceive what he hath prepared for them that love him.

It is eminently noteworthy here, that the clearest, most articulate, and most emphatic announcements regarding the positive punishment of the wicked in a future world which the Scriptures contain, were spoken, and spoken repeatedly, by the lips of the Lord Jesus. Wherefore? Did the love of the Redeemer sometimes wax cold? Did even he, through the provocations that he met in his ministry, sometimes forget to be gracious? No; never at any time did his heart melt more with tenderness for men than when he proclaimed that the wicked shall be cast into outer darkness. He not only intimated, as in this parable, that such sentence would be pronounced, but declared that himself would pronounce it: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory ... then shall he say unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. xxv.31-41). He who uttered these words pitied and loved sinners; he loved them while he spoke these words; he loved them although he spoke these words; -- because he loved them, he spoke these words. The thing which these words declare is true: Christ did not change the eternal law of God that evil shall not dwell in his presence: since this law remains beyond the line of the present world to meet every man as he enters eternity, it was kind to give us warning. It would have been unkind, and therefore unlike the Lord, to conceal the dreadful fact, and leave unwarned sinners to learn it first by feeling it. It was love, overflowing love in the heart of our Brother, that drew these warnings repeatedly from his lips. The reason why he tells us that the wicked shall be cast away, is that we may never be cast away. The good Shepherd would compel the sheep to flee to the fold by sending out his terrors, when they refused to be more gently led.

There is a machine in the Bank of England which receives sovereigns, as a mill receives grain, for the purpose of determining wholesale whether all are of full weight. As they pass through, the machinery, by unerring laws, throws all that are light to one side, and all that are of full weight to another. That process is a silent but solemn parable for me. Founded as it is upon the laws of nature, it affords the most vivid similitude of the certainty which characterizes the judgment of the great day. There are no mistakes or partialities to which the light may trust: the only hope lies in being of standard weight before they go in.

I gratefully recognise tender, overflowing love, in the faithful testimony of Christ regarding the punishment of the wicked: it is meant to compel sinners now to take refuge in his righteousness.[29]

[29] Arndt closes his exposition of this parable with a hymn, which I subjoin, not only for the sake of the doctrinal statement regarding the ground of a sinner's hope contained in the first verse, but also, and still more, for the union of simplicity and solemnity in the conception of future punishment contained in the second: --

Christi Blut und Gerechtigkeit,
Das ist mein Schmuck und Ehrenkleid;
Damit will ich vor Gott besteh'n
Und zu der Himmelsfreud' eingeh'n.

Hilf, Gott, dass yeder kommen mag,
Wo tausend Yahr' ist wie ein Tag:
Vor dem Ort uns, O Gott, bewahr',
Wo ein Tag ist wie tausend Yahr'!

Christ's blood and righteousness
Shall be the marriage-dress,
In which I'll stand
At God's right hand
And enter rest
Among the blest
In heaven.

Help, Lord, that we may come
To thy saints' happy home,
Where a thousand years
As one day appears,
Nor go,
Where one day appears
As a thousand years
For woe.

vi the pearl
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