“The Prisoner Released” on Proverbs 20:9, is written by Charlotte Maria Tucker (A.L.O.E.) is from “Precepts in Practice,” and is about man’s sinful nature.
“Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?”—Proverbs 20:9.
There were many bright young faces in the daily school which was taught by Willy Thorn, but there was one face which, though young, never wore a smile. In play-time many an orange, apple, or cake, was given by the school boys to each other; but there was one of whom no one ever seemed to think, one who never received even a look of kindness. Many of the boys returned to cheerful homes to repeat to their parents what they had heard from their teacher; but one felt desolate and alone in the world,—there was none to welcome him to his wretched dwelling, for such a place cannot be called a home. Why did his companions dislike sitting next in school to the pale boy with the sunken cheek and the drooping eye, and why in the merry hours of play did they seek to exclude him from their circle? Alas! there was a stain on the character of Seth Delmar,—he had once been in prison for stealing bread from a baker,—he was now shunned and despised as a thief!
The poor boy had deeply repented of his sin, and now bitterly felt its consequences. In vain he showed himself ever ready to oblige, bore meekly the taunts and neglect of his companions, and was most watchful over his own conduct. Thorn remarked the painful position of the child, and feeling that to drive him into despair might be to drive him further into sin, and that not a little self-righteousness was at the bottom of the scorn with which his school-fellows treated the unhappy Seth, he resolved to take the first opportunity of speaking to them upon the subject, and of showing to them their conduct in its true light.
Seth, who was patient and persevering with his tasks, had gained from his teacher the prize of a small book; and the first gleam of pleasure which any one present had ever seen on his wan features, lighted them up for a moment as he received it. It immediately faded away, however, as he glanced timidly round on his companions, and saw that no one cared for his success, that perhaps it would only add to the dislike felt towards him.
The next day Thorn observed the boy bending over this book, while large drops, in spite of his efforts to stop them, forced their way from his eyes as he looked on it. Seeing that something must have occurred, Thorn walked up to the spot, and found out at once the cause of Seth’s distress. On the title-page of the book Thorn had written his name; but just under it now appeared, in a very different hand, the single terrible word THIEF!
“This has been a most thoughtless,—I wish that I could say only thoughtless act,” said Thorn, with an expression grave almost to sternness. “I will not ask who is the author of this cruel insult, but we must suppose that he who thus condemns another, notwithstanding the warning, Judge not, that ye be not judged, is at least conscious that his own heart is pure, that he never has sinned.”
The children looked at each other in silence, and then one of the elder boys, Bat Nayland, muttered, half aloud, “Conscious of never having stolen a farthing!”
“I did not say, conscious of never having stolen, but of never having sinned. All sin is disobedience to the Most High, as sin to be repented of, and as sin to be punished, whether it be theft, falsehood, or unkindness to an other. The law forbidding us to covet in our secret hearts was as solemnly given amid the terrors of Sinai, is as binding upon man as Thou shalt do no murder. If the chain-cable upon which the safety of a vessel depends be snapped asunder in a storm, no matter how small be the link that gives way, the chain is as truly broken, and the vessel as certainly in danger, as if it had been dashed into a thousand pieces.”
“Still, I do think,” said Bat Nayland, “that there are some greater sinners, and greater commandments, and that we are not to be put on a level with thieves.”
“Do you remember,” said Thorn, mildly, turning to a boy who was near him, “which our blessed Lord himself said were the two great commandments of the law?”
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
“And those who break the great commandants must, of course, be great sinners?”
There was a general murmur of assent.
“And now tell me,” said Thorn, speaking more earnestly, and looking around him as he spoke, “which of us can plead not guilty to the charge of having broken these great commandments,—broken them often,—broken them every day of our lives?”
No voice was raised in reply,—conscience was bearing silent witness against all. Thorn continued: “The Almighty has a claim to our greatest love,—he has created us, preserved us, redeemed us,—he has deigned to say, My son, give me thy heart! but which of us have obeyed the heavenly call? Has it been our delight to serve him, to praise him, to pray to him? have we thought on him with reverence, gratitude, and love; seeking his glory before our own pleasure, making his will the law of our lives? This it is, my children, to keep the first commandment: if any one present feels in his heart that he never has wilfully broken it, let him now raise up his hand in token that he can say Not guilty to this charge!”
Every hand remained motionless and still.
“And who has loved his neighbor as himself? Who has never done an unjust action, nor spoken an ill-natured word, nor harboured an envious thought in his heart? Guilty, all guilty we stand before our God! we have broken his commands, we have offended against his holiness; alas! who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin!”
“And now,” continued Thorn, after another solemn pause, “which of you here can give me a verse from the word of God which tells us the just punishment of sin?”
Seth answered, in a very low voice, which would not have been heard but for the great silence which prevailed through the room, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!”
“Then what is to become of us all?” cried William Browne, who had but lately joined the school; “must all be punished, as all have sinned? is there no hope of escape?”
“Our hope is in the blessed Son of God, who came down to earth that he might raise us to heaven,—who bore our punishment that we might share his bliss. Through faith in him even the chief of sinners may be saved,—the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin.”
“But then,” said Nayland, “if those who have sinned much, and those who have sinned less, may all go to heaven if they only believe, it seems as if it did not matter whether we tried to obey or not,—as though, the Lord having done all, we have nothing left to do.”
“God forbid that you should think so,” hastily interrupted Thorn. “All must strive for holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. The Bible abounds in passages that show that for the wilfully disobedient, who will not repent, the Lord’s despised mercy will but add to the punishment of their sin!”
“I do not quite understand this,” said William Browne.
“In order to explain to you how our salvation is only from the Lord, and yet that we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, I will repeat to you a little allegory or parable. Remember that my tale is intended to convey a deeper meaning than what may at first sight appear; exert your minds to discover that meaning,—I am telling you the history of man,—I am telling you the history of yourselves.”
All the school listened with silence and attention, as, after a minute’s consideration, the teacher began.
“There was a great and powerful Sovereign, who ruled over an extensive kingdom. But wise and just as were his laws, formed to make all happy who obeyed them, there were rebels who rose against their King, broke his commands, despised his statutes, and most justly deserved the sentence of death pronounced upon them as traitors. Amongst these was a youth, whom I need not name, who, after having had judgment passed upon him, was confined in a prison named Condemnation, until the executioner, Justice, should be sent to carry out the sentence of the law.
“Very strong was his prison, very thick its walls; the grated window, through which the light scarcely came, forbade all hope of release. Sometimes the youth tried to flatter himself with the idea that his Sovereign was too merciful to destroy him; but then the sentence of the judge rose in his mind,—he felt that Justice demanded his punishment. Then he sought amusement to drive away the fear of death, and sometimes succeeded in his miserable efforts to be gay; but still the thought of what was before him forced itself on his mind, and he never could be really happy.”
“A wretched state to be in,” observed Nayland.
“It is by nature the state of us all,” said Thom. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; we are all sentenced, and justly sentenced; and but for the hopes of a better life beyond, what would this world be but a prison! But to return to the rebel in my story:—
“One night as, clothed in his dark and ragged attire, he was reflecting upon his unhappy fate, a bright light shone in his prison, and he beheld coming towards him a Friend,—one whose kindness he had long neglected, but who had not forgotten him in his adversity. The garments worn by that Friend were white and spotless; there was no stain upon them; they were such as befitted one of high estate,—of one of such rank that it might have been little expected that his foot would ever tread the dungeon of Condemnation!
“He addressed the young rebel in terms of love and pity. He told the condemned one that he had quitted everything, risked every thing from pure love, to save him from the death which he had deserved. He warned him that Justice was about to enter that prison, to shed the blood of the prisoner within; that there was but one way of escape. If the rebel changed garments with his merciful visitor, put off his own rags to wear that white robe, he might yet make his way from the prison of Condemnation, and pass Justice himself in security! The Friend, moreover, told the rebel that by using the watchword Faith, even the guards at the outer door would suffer him to go free; and that he would find outside a guide most trusty and safe, who would lead him to a place of security. Then, as the prisoner, with trembling haste, made the needful exchange of dress, his heart throbbing with the hope of freedom, and, we may also trust, with gratitude to the merciful Being who was content to remain and suffer death in his stead, his Friend placed in his hand a paper, containing his last dying request to the sinner whom he had saved, and charged the youth, if not for his Preserver’s sake yet for his own, to shun for ever those rebels who had led him into the guilt which was now to be atoned for at so fearful a price.”
“And did he really escape, and did his merciful Friend really stay and die for him?” cried young Browne.
“You may turn to your Bibles for an answer to that question, and there see who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities; who came to us when we lay in deep condemnation, and saved us by giving his life for us!”
“I begin to understand your meaning,” said Nayland, thoughtfully; “but I never dreamed before that I was a rebel, that I was in any danger of punishment, or needed such a Friend to suffer what my sins had deserved.”
“And the white robe is the garment of the Lord’s righteousness?” murmured Seth.
“Yes,” said Thorn, “that which we must wear if we would quit the prison or pass safely the executioner, Justice. And this brings me to the point which I wished to explain, that salvation is only from the Lord, and that yet we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Who can deny that the prisoner owed his escape wholly and entirely to the mercy of his Friend?”
“No one,” exclaimed several voices; “he had no power to help himself at all.”
“But now, suppose that the prisoner, while yet beneath the shadow of his dungeon, should throw away his disguise as something quite unneeded, should forget his watchword, turn away from his guide, and, notwithstanding the last earnest warning from his Deliverer, hasten to join the rebels again?”
“He would be ungrateful, wicked, mad to do so!” cried the boys; and Nayland added, “He would deserve to be dragged back to his dungeon, and suffer a worse fate than if he never had left it.”
“It is so,” said Thorn; “and so it will be when the Lord comes to judge the earth. Those who, having tasted of the Saviour’s mercy, still persist in joining his foes,—who put aside his perfect righteousness, and choose the ways that he has condemned,—not repenting of or forsaking those sins which cost his precious life,—will be more severely judged than the heathen who have never known him or his laws.”
“There is one thing which I should like to know,” lisped the youngest child in the school: “What was put in the paper which the kind Friend gave to the poor prisoner just as he set him free?”
“His dying request, doubtless,” said Nayland.
“What words would you say were to be found in that paper?” said Thorn to Edmund Butler, an intelligent boy, who was usually at the head of the school.
Edmund reflected for a moment, and then said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”
Thorn saw that an answer was trembling on the lips of poor Seth, and encouraged him by a glance to say it aloud: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”
“Here, then,” said the teacher, “is the motive of love. Remember,” he continued, impressively, “that this was our Saviour’s dying request, when he who was innocence itself was about to suffer shame, agony, and death for our sakes. Is there one heart here so cold that it would slight the last wish of a dying Friend,—so ungrateful that it would seek to make no return for love so exceeding great? Can we think on his mercy, and yet be unmerciful; and, by our unkind, ungenerous conduct towards our fellow-creatures, show that the highest motive has no power over our souls, and that we choose heartlessly and ungratefully to neglect the only way by which we can prove our love to him who loved us and gave himself for us?”
There was no immediate answer to this question,—perhaps the teacher did not expect to receive one; but as the boys passed out of the school-room, when the lessons were over, Thorn saw with a feeling of pleasure young Nayland walk up to Seth Delmar, and, while his cheek flushed crimson, whisper something in his ear, to which the poor boy replied by warmly grasping his hand. And Seth was no longer persecuted in the school, despised by his companions, or taunted with his sin. The boys had learned to show more indulgence to the failings of others, from having a truer knowledge of their own; and finding that they had all broken the great commandment, and had no hope but from the merits and mercy of their Lord, they looked with more pity upon a poor fellow-sinner, whose transgression had been repented of and for given.
No heart is pure from evil; none
Can say before the Holy One,
“I in my strength the race have run,
Have fought the fight successfully!
“In faith and virtue I have dwelt;
No proud, unholy feelings felt,
Nor mocked my Maker when I knelt,
By wandering thoughts of vanity.
“My first desire, in all things seen,
To glorify my trod hath been;
My lips are pure, my heart is clean;—
Thou know’st my soul’s integrity!”
Ah, no! far other plea be mine,
As at thy cross, O Lamb divine,
For thy dear sake, and only thine,
I ask for mercy tremblingly!
My sins are more than I can count,
Each day is swelling the amount;
All stained with guilt, I seek the Fount
Of holiness and purity.
Forgive the debt that I confess,—
Wash out my sins, my efforts bless;
And clothe me with thy righteousness,
In time and through eternity!