Here is one of the larger and grander pictures in this gallery of various glory. It is sublime in its ample outline, and exquisitely tender in its details. It is charged with many precious lessons, which flow freely at the gentlest touch; and it is cruel to put it to the torture to compel it to give meanings which it never received from its author.
The painful search for precisely identical customs in eastern countries and ancient times is here, for the most part, unnecessary and unprofitable. The usages incidentally photographed in such a parable as this are indeed true sections of the place and the time, but others, agreeing in general character though differing in detail, might have been substituted in perfect consistency with the circumstances. There is some elasticity even in Oriental manners. It is not probable that all marriages were conducted on precisely the same plan. There might, for aught I know, be a difference between a wedding among the rich and a wedding among the poor, and another difference between the method of celebrating a marriage in the city and the country, -- in Galilee and Judea. In examining analogous cases, I would look for similarity of style rather than identity of individual features. Looking on the parable of the ten virgins as a grand original, I don't trouble myself with the work of hunting for corroboration of its truth or explanations of its meaning in the form of identical observances recorded in other books.
The more important portion of the nuptial ceremonies were performed at night. They consisted in a great measure of processions along the road and festivals within the dwelling. The out-door part of the pageant is of course conducted by torch-light. A small cup, filled with rags and resin, is affixed to a rod, that it may be held aloft. At the proper time the rags are lighted, and the flame is fed from time to time by pouring oil into the cup. Each processionist carries such a lamp, and the many separate lights dancing and crossing each other, and changing places as the bearers advance on the undulating and tortuous path, impart great liveliness to the joyful nocturnal scene.
From the nature of the case there must be two successive processions, one in which the bridegroom with his friends goes for the bride to her father's house, and another in which bride and bridegroom, together with the friends of both families, march to the future home of the married pair. There was more or less of ceremonial and feasting in either mansion. It is not certainly known, and the knowledge would not be important although it were obtained, whether the principal feast was held in the home of the bride's father or in that of the bridegroom. It is probable that the practice in this matter varied according to the wealth of the parties and the capacities of the several mansions. In one case the father of the bride, and in another the bridegroom, might possess the more commodious dwelling, and be more able, in virtue of ampler resources, to entertain the company. I am not aware that there is any ascertained law or habit of the places and times demanding that the principal feast should be always given by the father or by the bridegroom.
In this case there is nothing in the narrative that determines with certainty whether the bridegroom, when the ten virgins waited for him, was on his way for the bride to her father's house or with her to his own. On the whole, the balance of probability inclines to the side of those who think that this is the procession coming for the bride rather than the procession returning with her. The particular expression, "The bridegroom cometh," among other circumstances, points in this direction. Lange's conception commends itself as probable that the virgins are in some sense representatives of the bride, that they go forth to meet the bridegroom, that he has come from afar, and that some unexpected delays have occurred on the journey.
The house whose door was shut ere the foolish five came up was obviously the house in which the grand marriage festival was held: to be shut out of that house was to be shut out from the marriage.
When the curtain rises and the scene is first displayed, we behold ten young women, adorned according to the fashion of the time, lingering in a group by the wayside at night in the warm climate of Palestine.
They may have been the young companions of the bride, a selected ten, specially invited to meet the bridegroom on the way, and enter with him into the festal hall, -- a group in character and constituents closely corresponding to the bridesmaids at our marriage feasts, -- or they may have been the daughters of neighbouring families, sent by their parents, or going of their own accord, in compliance with the custom of the place, to offer a tribute of respect and affection to the bride and bridegroom on their marriage-day.
This feature of the scene, although in itself subordinate and incidental, derives great importance from the subsequent development of the parable: it becomes the hinge on which the lesson turns. From the circumstance that a portion of the company neither came with the bridegroom nor waited in the house for his arrival, but went out to meet him, all the tender and solemn teaching of this parable has sprung.
 The closest analogue that I know of the fact which plays so great a part in the structure of this scriptural lesson may be found in a custom which prevails at funerals in the rural districts of Scotland. When the distance between the house of the deceased and the cemetery is considerable, a common, perhaps I should say a uniform, practice is, that those friends of the mourning family who reside in the neighbourhood of the burying place assemble in a group at a convenient turning of the road, and wait till the funeral procession reaches the spot; they then silently fall into their places and follow the corpse to the grave. I like the analogy none the less that it is taken, not from a time of mirth, but from a time of weeping. The two cases coincide in all their features except one. In either example we have an occasion of absorbing interest to one family, and the sympathy of neighbours expressed by means of large assemblies and public processions. In a minor but characteristic feature there is an exact coincidence, -- a portion of the sympathizing neighbours wait for the main body at a point on the path and fall into the line of march from that spot to the terminus. That the one is a joyful and the other a mournful group enhances rather than diminishes the value of the comparison.
Waiting long without employment, the group of maidens would stand, and sit, and recline by turns. Each holds a tiny torch in her hand, or has laid it on the ground by her side. As the night wears on, the conversation that had at first been animated, gradually dies away, and one by one the wearied damsels drop over into snatches of slumber. Before midnight they have all sunk into a continuous sleep. At midnight a cry arose, apparently from some more wakeful watcher in the neighbourhood, "Behold the Bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him." At this alarm the whole band awake simultaneously and spring to their feet. Each maiden hastily snatches up her torch; not one of them burns brightly now; some are flickering low, and some are altogether extinguished. In a moment, all those nimble young hands begin to ply the work of trimming the expired or expiring lamps. All alike are able to touch them skilfully, but the main want with every lamp is a new supply of oil. Some can supply that want at the moment on the spot, while others cannot. Those who had brought from home a supply of oil in separate vessels, found it easy to make the flame of their torches burn up as brightly as ever; but those who had neglected to provide such a supply could not with all their efforts revive the dead or dying light. "Give us," said the five improvident maidens, "give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out." The more thoughtful, and therefore more fortunate watchers, while they pitied their sisters, were afraid to part with any portion of their own stores, lest they should be left in the same hapless condition ere the procession should close: "Go to them that sell, and buy for yourselves." Alas, this was now the only alternative! Away went those foolish virgins at the dead of night on the hopeless errand of buying oil for immediate use in the shops of the neighbouring town. The folly, however, lay not in this latest act; this was now their only resource. The foolish deed was done in the day time, and before the cry arose, Behold the bridegroom cometh.
As soon as the foolish five had gone, the procession came up, and they that were ready fell into their places. The new accession, each bearing a flaming torch aloft, increased the grandeur of the scene. When the company reached the house, they all entered with the bridegroom, and the door was shut. Some time afterwards the five who had gone away in search of oil, returned and pleaded for admission; but they pleaded in vain. Within the house the glad festival went forward; but those who came too late were not admitted.
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The story at its close is indebted for its deep pathos, not to anything inherent in itself, but to the sublime lesson which it conveys. The Lord's great parable, like the Lord's great apostle, is "weak and contemptible" in its bodily presence; but the letters in which it writes its meaning are like his, "weighty and powerful." A few country girls arriving too late for a marriage, and being therefore excluded from the festival, is not in itself a great event: but I know not any words in human language that teach a more piercing lesson than the conclusion of this similitude. The frame is constructed of common materials; the sublimity lies in the spiritual truth which that frame sustains. This conception, like that of the hen gathering her chickens under her wing, seems so common and so common-place, that we would not have ventured in dignified discourse to employ it; in the hands of Jesus the similitude becomes at once tender and terrible in the highest degree. At his word the world sprang from nothing; we need not be surprised to find that under his touch small things become great.
I think no symbolic character should be attributed to the virgins, as such, in the interpretation of the parable; it is when they take their lamps and go forth to meet the bridegroom that they first acquire a spiritual significance. The whole group represent that portion of any community who hear the Gospel, accept its terms, and profess to be the disciples of Christ. The sincerity and depth of their profession will be tested afterwards; but in the meantime, both in their own opinion and that of their neighbours, they are all alike Christians. The structure of the parable required virgins in this place, in order that the picture might be true to nature; in the customs apparently of all times and all countries, this position at a marriage feast is assigned to young unmarried women. The ancient practice of the East is, in its essential features, reproduced among ourselves from day to day in the troop of virgins, dressed in white, who attend the bride on her bridal day. I cannot acquiesce in the view of those who see in the special condition of these watchers a symbol of the purity which becomes the followers of Christ, for I find, as I read onward in the parable, that while the ten were in respect to condition all equal, in as far as they represent spiritual relations, five are symbols of sincerity, and five are symbols of deceit. The condition of virgins which was common to all, cannot, without complete confusion of ideas, be made, within the compass of the same allegory, to signify both the true and the false. From the procession of virgins, therefore, I obtain no more than I would have obtained from a procession of men or matrons, if the habits of society had permitted such a representation to have been made.
 Lange's view on this point seems sound and consistent; while both Olshausen and Stier endeavour with much pain but little fruit, to prove that the foolish represent true but defective disciples. "One part of the Church is living, while the other lives only in appearance, because it lives only to appearance." -- Lange.
They took their lamps and went forth to meet the bridegroom; this represents an open, intelligent, and seemly profession of faith in Christ. As all the lamps burned at first with equal brightness, and no suspicion of a defect occurred either to the wise or the unwise, we learn that the profession which never had life may appear so well favoured for a time, that neither the false professor nor his converted neighbour may be aware of its shallowness.
"To meet the bridegroom;" the parable and the discourse which precedes it, bear upon Christ's second coming, and the attitude, which becomes his disciples in prospect of that decisive event. They who have been washed in his blood love his appearing.
No difference between class and class was as yet manifest; but already the causes which subsequently wrought the separation had begun to operate in secret, and here accordingly they are recorded by the Lord; "five of them were wise, and five of them were foolish." I stand in awe of this dividing word. While the whole band take part in the loyal exodus, and all seem equal in zeal and love, the Searcher of hearts already perceives and pronounces that some of them are wise unto salvation, and some are so foolish that they are throwing away their souls. That same Lord looks on the ten thousand times ten thousand who in our times go out to meet the bridegroom. There is not a more grand or a more beautiful spectacle on earth than a great assembly reverently worshipping God together. No line visible to human eye divides into two parts the goodly company; yet the goodly company is divided into two parts. The Lord reads our character, and marks our place. The Lord knoweth them that are his, and them also that are not his, in every assembly of worshippers.
The distinguishing feature is now specifically set down, -- the wise carried each a separate vessel containing a supply of oil, that they might keep the flame of their lamps alive, however long the bridegroom might tarry: the foolish, satisfied that their lamps were burning at the moment, laid in no supply for future need. This is the turning-point of the parable, and in the light of subsequent events its spiritual import may be determined with precision and certainty. The oil in the lamp, and the flame which it sustained, indicate a seemly Christian profession; this the virgins all possessed, and all alike. The quality that tested and divided them, lay not in the burning lamps but in the supply vessels. The oil, whether employed to anoint a person or to feed a flame, represents, in Old Testament typology, the Holy Spirit. That which the wise virgins carried in their vessels, as distinguished from that which burned in their lamps, points to the Spirit as a spirit of grace and supplication dwelling in a believer's heart. All experienced convictions, and made profession, as is indicated by the lamps lighted and borne aloft; but some had nothing more than convictions and professions, while others had passed from death unto life and had gotten their life, through the Spirit's ministry, "hid with Christ in God." This will more fully appear as we proceed stage by stage with the interpretation.
"The bridegroom tarried." For a special purpose, the Lord represents that the bridegroom lingered till a much later hour than that at which the virgins expected him. The disciples, during their Master's ministry and long afterwards, cherished a belief that the coming of the Lord and the end of the world would take place in their own generation. This expectation was, in its literal sense, incorrect; but it could not be corrected by an explicit announcement that for more than a thousand years all things should continue as they were; for such an intimation would have destroyed the expectant watchfulness which in the circumstances was salutary and even necessary. By that watchfulness the Christians of the immediately succeeding generation escaped the disasters which befell the Jews at the destruction of Jerusalem, and by it believers in subsequent times were kept more loose to the world and more close to Christ. In this parable, however, and elsewhere in the Scriptures, prophecies are recorded, which events subsequently explained, -- prophecies which showed the Christians of a later age that while their Lord desires to keep them in an expectant attitude through all generations, his intention from the beginning was to permit a long period to intervene between his ascension and his return. The preparation which Christ desires and true Christians attain, pertains more to the inner spirit than to the anticipation of the external advent.
While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. At this point many interpreters endeavour to grasp a lesson regarding the tendency of even true disciples to slumber sinfully at their post, like their worldly neighbours. The lesson is in itself good, and comes readily to hand, but it is not taught in this text. Calvin has correctly conceived and clearly expressed the meaning of the sleep that oppressed the waiting virgins; it intimates the necessity that lies on all of going down into the ordinary affairs of this life. Disciples in the body cannot be occupied always and only with the expectation of their Lord's appearing. Sleep and food, family and business, make demands on them as well as on others, -- demands which they cannot and should not resist. If the coming of the bridegroom be delayed till midnight, the virgins must slumber; this is not a special weakness of individuals, it is the common necessity of nature. So, when life is lengthened in the body, we must attend to the affairs of this world.
The coming of the Son of man may surprise one at his farm and another at his merchandise, but it does not follow, on that account, that it will surprise them unprepared. Now and then in the history of the Church a Christian has been found dead in his closet and on his knees. A few years ago, in a rural district of Scotland, an elder who was leading the devotions of a district prayer-meeting suddenly ceased to speak, -- ceased in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a prayer. The worshippers opened their eyes, and observed that his head and breast leant heavily on the desk; they approached and found him dead. At the moment when the bridegroom came this watcher was wide awake, standing on tiptoe, and straining forward to catch the first glimpse of the glory that should herald his approach. When the bridegroom came this watcher went out to meet him, and went in with him to the feast: safe and happy he, but not he only.
On the other side we hear sometimes of a merchant who died in his counting-house, his ledger, not the Bible, the last book he had read; of a miner killed in an instant by an explosion while he was picking coals in the bowels of the earth; of a soldier falling on a battle-field, while his right hand raised the sword to strike a foe; these were all slumbering and off guard when the bridegroom came. What of them? were they all shut out? Nay, verily. Some of them were shut out, and some were let in, according as they were carnal or spiritual when the decisive moment came. The new creature in Christ, who is surprised amid the toils of his daily calling, goes as safely into rest as his brother of the same family who is summoned over in the very act of prayer. The five wise virgins were stretched on the ground asleep, with their lamp fires dead or dying, when the cry arose, Behold the bridegroom cometh, and yet there was no surprise, and no damage. Although they were only awakened by his coming, they were ready to meet him when he came, and to enter with him into his rest.
When the cry was heard all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. When life is closing behind, and eternity opening before us, we are all aroused. Every one who has a lamp hastens then to examine its condition and stimulate its flame: all who have borne Christ's name search themselves to see whether they are ready for his presence. There is no visible distinction at this stage between those who have only a name that they live, and those who have attained also the new nature: all bestir themselves to examine the ground of their hope, and the state of their preparation.
At this point the decisive difference which existed in secret long before emerges into view. The foolish virgins, having no oil in separate vessels, could not keep the flame of their lamps any longer alive. Both classes had a profession; the formalists had a profession and nothing more. Finding in the hour of their extremity that they had neglected their souls while the day of grace was running, they make a piteous appeal to believing neighbours for help, "Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out." How true to nature is this picture! He who draws it knows "what is in man." How fondly the empty, in such a crisis, lean on the full. Alas, even the full is but a little vessel filled by Christ. That vessel is not a spring; this saved sinner is not a saviour of sinners. He has gotten from his Lord all that himself needs; but he cannot supply a neighbour's want. Brother, if the call come to you while you are not in Christ reconciled and renewed, though all the saints in heaven and earth stood weeping at your bedside they could not save you. If you neglect the Son of God while he stands at the door and knocks, in vain will you apply to a godly neighbour, after the day of grace is done.
Taking into view generally the intimate relations which subsisted among that group of maidens, and in particular the unselfish tenderness which must have characterized the wiser five, we should expect to learn that they had generously resolved, at all hazards, to share their oil to the last drop with their unfortunate companions. But this, though consonant with nature in the external body of the parable, would have been incongruous with the spiritual truth which the parable has been framed to convey. In the structure of the parable provision is made for defining sharply the spiritual lesson, even at the expense of some measure of harshness left on one feature of the story. True Christians cannot impart a share of the grace that dwells in their own hearts to deluded formalists in their departing hour. On the spiritual side such a distinction cannot be made, and therefore the Master represents the wise virgins as distinctly and peremptorily refusing to share their store of oil with their improvident companions.
 They turn themselves to the wise, whom, perhaps, they had lately laughed at, with the prayer: "Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out." They betake themselves, if they are Catholics, to the dead saints, if they are Protestants, to the living, whom they have been accustomed to revere as their guides on account of their wisdom and grace, and plead, Help us, comfort us, pray for us, that we may be brought into a state of grace. In vain. They answer: Not so, lest there be not enough for us and you. What you desire is impossible. None of us has any surplus merit out of which he could give a portion to another. -- Arndt, ii.177.
"Go to them that sell, and buy for yourselves." The advice was the best that in the circumstances could be given. The mention of "them that sell" calls up all the scene of the preceding day. Oil was plentiful in the town; the five wise virgins having gone by daylight to the stores with their vessels, had experienced no difficulty in obtaining a supply. The same method was open to the rest: they failed to secure a store in the daytime, and then they tried in vain to make good the deficiency at midnight, after the merchants had retired to rest. This feature of the parable intimates that those who are found destitute at the coming of the Lord, enjoyed their day and their opportunity, but neglected them: they allowed the day of mercy to run out, and cried frantically for mercy after the merciful Saviour had wearied waiting and gone away.
While the foolish virgins are absent on this errand, the bridegroom comes up. They that are ready go in with him to the wedding, and the door is shut. Christ calls away his own at some midnight hour when they are off their guard; but though surprised, they are not hurt. The five wise virgins were asleep when the approach of the bridegroom was announced, and yet they were ready to meet him. Their safety resulted not from their fluttering activity at that moment in the trimming of the lamps, but from their wise foresight on the preceding day. The salvation of a soul depends not on frightened earnestness in the moment of departure, but on faith's calm closing with Christ, before the moment of departure comes. In the vessels of the wise there was store of oil, and it was easy for them at any time or place to refresh the fading fire of the torches which they bore. Deep in the hearts of those disciples dwelt the spirit of Christ, and the light of their profession which had shone brightly in a time of ease, burst into greater brightness in the hour of their extremity. An abundant entrance was administered to them, -- an entrance into the joy of their Lord. The door was shut! Suffering, sorrowing believers, do you hear the clang of that closing gate! Be of good cheer, disciples; when your Lord and you go in, the door is shut behind you, and nothing shall enter that defileth. Heaven is for the holy, and for them alone; if it were open for all it would not be heaven.
The foolish virgins went away after midnight to seek a supply of oil; but we are not informed whether or not they obtained it. The omission is significant; this word of Jesus gives no encouragement to delay in the matter of the soul's salvation; not a ray of hope is permitted to burst through the gloom that shrouds these hapless wanderers. The sole lesson of the parable is a simple, sublime warning that sinners should close with Christ now, lest they should be left to invoke his name in vain at the hour of their departure. This parable is a voice from an open heaven promising all grace now, but refusing to promise any then.
They came afterwards to the door and cried bitterly for admission, but the Lord answered from within, I know you not. As the omniscient he knew them; he was acquainted with all their ways. He knew them, for they had crucified him afresh by their neglect. But he did not know them, as he knew the poor bashful woman who crept near in the crowd and by her touch drew saving grace from his overflowing heart; he did not know them by feeling their weight, like John's, leaning on his breast.
 The concluding application is well expressed by Arndt: -- "Perhaps the breaking heart grasps at the Bible; it has only spikes and nails, but no balm of consolation. Perhaps the dying man calls in those who have the care of souls; the words of comfort slide over the ears, while the Holy Spirit seals none of them upon the heart. Perhaps he partakes of the Holy Supper: ah, the feast is to him not a feast of blessings, but an eating of judgment. Perhaps he prays to the Lord himself: the Lord answers, I know you not.
"Oh, it is sad to be so near heaven, and yet to be lost -- to be almost saved, and yet altogether lost. Were it not the Lord who speaks here, Jesus Christ, the Life Eternal, the Judge of the living and the dead, our feeling would be mightily to resist the terrible conclusion of this parable, which cuts all and every hope clean away, and leaves not an If or a But behind, nor any other possible interpretation. But he speaks; and before his words every mouth is silent in fear and adoration. He writes into our breast, with a glowing iron pen, the warning word -- therefore watch, &c.
"Short is life; fleeting is time; quick is death; long is eternity. Therefore what thou desirest to do, do it quickly." -- Gleichnisse.
After the parable is finished the marrow of its meaning is given in one short sentence by the Lord: "Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh." Let us take heed here, lest after all the pains we have bestowed on this scripture, we should miss the portion for ourselves with which it is charged. This parable was not spoken for the purpose of kindling an agony of repentance in the hour of death. It describes a sudden call, and an eager upstarting, and a fruitless effort, and a right prayer uttered too late, and final rejection, and a fearful doom, -- but it reveals this dreadful close of a life, in order to show us what we should be and do before the close of life comes on. The end of the foolish five is unveiled in order that we may be wise unto salvation in the beginning of our days. The lighthouse reared on a sunken reef flings its lurid glare far through a stormy air and over a stormy sea, not to teach the mariner how to act with vigour when he is among the breakers, but to warn him back, so that he may never fall among the breakers at all. Even so, the end of the lost is revealed in the word of God, not to urge us to utter a very loud cry when the door is shut, but to compel us to enter now while the door is open.
"Behold I stand at the door and knock." His word to-day runs, Soul, soul, open for me: if that tender plea is echoed back from your closed heart in a beseeching Saviour's face to-day, your cry, "Lord, Lord, open to me" will come back to you in empty echoes from a closed heaven.
The foolish five came to the door only a little too late, but it was not a little damage that they suffered thereby. In the matter of fleeing to take refuge in Christ, to be late by a little is the loss of all.