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The Parables Of Our Lord by William Arnot


|Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.| -- MATT. xiii.45, 46.

So closely allied are these two parables, that if we had regarded repetition as a formidable blemish in our lessons, we would not have proposed to expound them separately and successively. The two lines are coincident throughout their whole length, except at one point; but there the diversity is broadly marked, amounting in one aspect to a specific contrast. In view of this difference on the one hand, and of the example of the Lord on the other, I think it right to open and apply the parable of the pearl as fully as if the parable of the hidden treasure had not gone before it. We need and get not only different pictures of the same objects, but also the same pictures repeated in different colours and on different grounds. One eye may be more touched and taken by this colour, and another by that, although the outline of the objects be in both cases essentially the same. Thus, the conception of a treasure found may convey the meaning more impressively to one mind, and the conception of a pearl purchased may convey it more impressively to another; and so, although the lesson of the second parable had been more nearly identical with that of the first than it is, it would not have been expedient to dismiss it with a cursory notice. By a full examination of the principle under the picture of a precious pearl, we shall obtain the advantage which in moral questions, as in material operations, is often unspeakably great, of a second stroke on the same spot. The usefulness, and even the necessity of this method is acknowledged by all teachers, in whatever department they may be called to exercise their office. The same reasons, moreover, which induced the Master to reduplicate his lesson demands that we should also reduplicate ours: it is our part both in matter and in method to follow his steps.

Pearls seem to have borne a higher value in ancient times than they bear now, both absolutely and in comparison with other kinds of jewels. Romantic ideas prevailed regarding their origin and their nature; but it is well worthy of remark that the parable passes in silence all that was false or fanciful in the ideas of the ancients regarding the production and the medicinal virtue of pearls. There is not a word about their origin in a drop of dew, or the colour imparted to them by the brightness or darkness of the heavens at the moment of their conception: the only circumstance regarding the pearl which the Lord employs in his instructions is its high price. He seizes the obvious and universally known fact, taking no notice of the fanciful theories with which it was connected.

This fact possesses a value in relation to Apologetics which intelligent students will readily appreciate. It is instructive and suggestive to compare the Scriptures on such subjects with other books both ancient and modern. Take, for example, a passage from the comment of Benjamin Keach, which gives both the conceit of the ancients and the endorsement of it at a comparatively recent era. |Pearls,| naturalists tell us, |have a strange birth and original. Pliny saith, Shell fish is the wonderful geniture of a pearl congealed into a diaphanous stone, and the shell is called the mother of pearl. Now at a certain time of the year this shell fish opens itself, and takes in a certain moist dew, after which they grow big until they bring forth the pearl. By which it seems they have their birth from heaven in a marvellous manner.| Planting his foot upon this story, the worthy expositor gravely and devoutly prosecutes the parallel; but already, although it is only a century and a half old, his speculation serves only to provoke a smile. The comment, written in England a hundred and sixty years ago, is antiquated and set aside by the light of the present day; but the parable, spoken in Galilee eighteen hundred years ago, stands in the middle of the nineteenth century, enduring in safety the scrutiny of adversaries, and ministering to the delight of friends, as fair and fresh as on the day of its birth. |Whence hath this man this wisdom?|

For the sake of its bearing on the divine authority of the Scriptures, and the questions that are agitated at the present time, I subjoin a similar example, extracted from a lecture which I contributed to the Exeter Hall series of 1860-61: --

|A very remarkable expression occurs in the Apocalypse (xvi.18) bearing on the work of preparing the earth for man, before man was made: 'And there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake and so great.' There the advent of man, as an inhabitant of the earth, is formally given as an epoch after which great earthquakes did not occur. It is well known now that earthquakes must have rent this globe before the birth of man, which make all that have occurred since sink into insignificance; but how was John, the fisherman of Galilee, led to employ, eighteen hundred years ago, a phraseology which the researches of our own day have now for the first time shown to be philosophically exact? Speaking of this verse, and quoting it freely, John Bunyan (|Reign of Antichrist,|) says, 'For the earthquake, it is said to be such as never was, so mighty an earthquake and so great.' He thought the phrase, 'since men were upon the earth,' was equivalent to 'never:' so he wrote and fell into the blunder. Who led John the Apostle safely past the mistake into which John Bunyan fell?|

Pearls are the product of certain species of shell-fish, both marine and fluvial. The cause and manner of their formation have not even yet been completely ascertained. They do not constitute any part or organ of the creature that contains them. They are not found in every shell, nor of the same size and shape in any two. They are eccentric and accidental, probably also morbid excrescences, thrown out by some individuals of the species in irregular forms and at uncertain times. They probably owe their origin to the presence of some minute foreign substance within the shell, which is distasteful to its occupant. Not being able to cast out the intruder, the feeble but diligent inhabitant covers it with a sort of saliva, which hardens over it into a substance similar in consistency and sheen to the interior surface of its own shell. The act of covering a base substance of any shape with gold or silver by the process of electrotype is in human art an analogous operation. When the material, distilled in imperceptibly minute portions from the living mollusc, has chemically agglomerated round the original kernel, the pearl is made. The creature having covered the irritant atom with a coating at once hard and smooth, can now endure with equanimity its presence within the shell. Thus unconsciously it manufactures those indestructible and much coveted jewels, for the sake of which its own life is sought and taken by man.

In modern times pearl fishing has become a business, and is prosecuted on a great scale in several far separated regions. Perhaps the increase of production, through superior methods and instruments, may, here as elsewhere, have contributed to depreciate the value of the article.

I have been informed by a British merchant who, under license from the government of India, conducts the pearl fishing in the Bay of Kuratchee, that the method pursued is to bring the shells to shore as they are brought up from the bottom of the sea until a considerable quantity has been accumulated, disposed in a series of small contiguous heaps, and that then the men stand round the heaps, open the shells, and search for the pearls. So much loss accrues from the dishonesty of the men and the facility of secreting a treasure that lies in such a small bulk, that the proprietor of the fishing has had under consideration a suggestion to sell the heaps of shells by auction to the natives, and permit them then to make the best of their bargain. Whether this method of preventing peculation has been actually adopted, I have not learned.

Our own Scottish rivers are frequented by a large bivalve mollusc, which produces true pearls, although their size and number have never been sufficient to attract capitalists or sustain a steady trade. I do not know how others operate in other localities, but here is a method which I either invented for myself or borrowed from a neighbour, and practised with considerable success on the river Earn in Perthshire when I was a boy: -- Provide a long straight rod, thin and broad and rounded at the point after the manner of a paper-cutter. Jump into a light fishing-boat, and bring it right over the oyster bed when the sun shines brightly and no ripple disturbs the surface of the water. Bring the boat into such a position with respect to the sun that your own body, bending over the gunwale, will throw a shadow on the immediately subjacent surface. Through that shaded spot you see the bottom with great distinctness, and can distinguish there the objects of your search lying invitingly still, and open, and unconscious. The depth may be from six to twelve feet. The molluscs lie bedded in the mud, with one edge above the ground, and that edge slightly open. Push your rod now gently down in a perpendicular direction, -- for if you permit an angle the different degrees of refraction in the air and water will make your straight rod crooked, and you will egregiously miss your object at every stroke, -- until its point is within an inch or two of the opening between the shells of the mollusc, and then quickly plunge it in. Hold it still there for a few seconds until the creature has time to close and bite the rod, you may then pull it up at your leisure. Throw your capture into the bottom of the boat, and proceed in the same manner with the next. When you have collected a sufficient store, sit down and open them one by one with a knife, feeling carefully with your thumbs for the little hard round knots among the velvet folds. These knots, when extricated from the fleshy lobes that cover them, turn out to be pearls, in form more or less globular, and in sheen more or less bright. You rejoice more or less, accordingly, in your capture. The day on which a good pearl was found became a day to be remembered in the family group. The price of the finest never rose above a shilling or two; but as riches are relative, and must be estimated by comparison, these were treasures to us, and the sight of a large bright pearl suddenly shining out of the shell was enough to set a boy's heart a-beating in those early days.

During a drought in the summer of 1863 the small river Doon, in Ayr shire, fell so low that some pearl-beds in pools, that had not been noticed in other seasons, were exposed to view, and placed within reach: the consequence was that the people in the neighbourhood, old and young, betook themselves to pearl fishing, and that with considerable success. Among other facts circumstantially related in the local papers at the time, it was stated that one poor woman, during the sickness of her husband, gained as much by the sale of her pearls as made good the loss of her husband's wages for a whole month. In the course of this summer (1864), and since the preceding notes were written, a considerable amount of pearl fishing has been carried on in certain rivers in the northern districts of Scotland, and efforts have been made to organize a regular trade.

I suppose diamonds occupy now the place that was held by pearls in ancient times. While a vast number of goodly diamonds are in circulation, affording occupation to many dealers, here and there one is found which alone constitutes a fortune of almost fabulous amount for its owner. One that was brought from India a few years ago, and is now in the possession of the Queen, has a history extending upward several generations. It passed, like provinces, from potentate to potentate by natural inheritance or the fortunes of war. If it had fallen into the hands of any private person, it would have made him an object of wonder on account of his wealth, even in presence of modern accumulations. The history and fame of the Kooh-i-noor supply the best illustration of this parable that I know.

Conceive a merchant with a moderate capital setting out on a journey with the view of collecting diamonds for sale in the home market. In the course of his travels, in the interior of India it may be, he discovers a diamond such as the Kooh-i-noor in the hands of a countryman. The possessor may know generally the value of diamonds, and know that this one in particular is of greater value than any that had ever come into his hands; yet, because it is unique, and he has nothing in his experience wherewith to compare it, he may dispose of it for a tenth of its value. If the best diamond that the seller had ever seen were worth twenty thousand pounds, he might value this one at forty thousand; and that price the buyer might cheerfully pay down, although it constituted all his property, knowing that at home the prize will command four hundred thousand. Thus, without supposing ignorance on the one side or dishonesty on the other, you have a transaction which will enrich the merchant at once and enable him to retire in affluence. This is the sort of transaction that is supposed in the parable. It was a natural and probable supposition at a time when information did not spread so quickly as in our time, and when pearls held as to value the place which diamonds occupy in modern merchandise.

It is true that the merchant went abroad expressly for the purpose of seeking goodly pearls; yet this pearl was to him an unexpected and surprising discovery. He had provided funds sufficient to purchase many pearls; but when he met with this one, its value was such that he could not make an offer for it until he had returned to his home and converted all his property, including the pearls that he had previously purchased, into money. In this parable as well as in that of the hidden treasure, an object is discovered of a value hitherto unknown and unsuspected. But the lesson here is in one important respect different from that of the preceding parable, and the point of distinction is, that there a man stumbled upon a treasure when he was in search of meaner things, while here the merchant finds in kind the very object which he sought, but finds it in measure far surpassing all his expectation or desire.

Well might the merchant return and convert all his estate into money that he might purchase this jewel; for if it were once in his possession, as there could be no rival, he might command his own price. None but monarchs could aspire to the possession of such a treasure, and these would compete with each other at his desk for a gem that could not elsewhere be obtained.

Although their place is not the highest now, yet pearls even in our own day are sometimes found of a value so great that the history of an individual is recorded and its praises published through the world. The following, for example, are the terms of a paragraph taken from a British journal of last year: -- |One of the finest pearls in the world has been found in the bay of Panama. It is of a perfect pear shape, and of the finest water.|

* * * * *

The application of the parable is, intellectually at least, a short and easy process. It is not precisely the case of a man who finds the kingdom of God when he is seeking something else: neither is it the case of a man who first thoroughly knows the worth of that kingdom and then sets out in search of it. There is no such example: no man knows its worth before he obtains it. The merchant knew the value of pearls and set out in search of them, but such a pearl as that which he found he had never seen before, and never expected to see. So, although a man has some spiritual perceptions and spiritual desires; although by a deliberate judgment he determines to seek the life-eternal in preference to all the business and pleasures of the world, he does not at the outset understand how exceeding rich the forgiving grace of God is. Nay, he thinks, when he first begins his search for salvation, that it may be accomplished by the union of many attainments, such as men may possess. Precious pearls and a number of them indeed; but still such pearls as he has often seen in the possession of other merchants, and such as he has in former times had in his own store. He goes out with cash in hand to buy pearls, but he leaves his house and land still his own. He expects to acquire many excellent pearls and retain all his property besides. He did not conceive of one that should be worth all he had, until he saw it. It is thus that people under convictions set out in search of something that will make them right before God. They want to get righteousness and temperance, and a good case for the judgment to come. In their search they come to the Gospel; they get a glimpse beneath the surface; they see protruding from beneath the folds something that surprises them. Can that be a pearl? No; that is larger than any pearl ever was or can be, and brighter; surely that cannot be a true pearl. What? Pardon of sin to sinners without stipulating for a price in their own repentance and righteousness, -- peace with God and sonship given free to the chief of sinners before he has done anything to deserve it, -- all sin forgiven, and that now and that free, and no condemnation thenceforth, but the place and the favour of God's sons! and these not only to some who stand out from their fellows as great and good, but these to me, -- from God to me to-day as surely as if there never had been a human being on the earth but myself, and the errand of Christ had been only and all for me! These glimpses stagger the man at first; he thinks they are too good to be true. It is as if some one should tell a skilful pearl merchant that under yon covering lay a pearl a thousand times more precious than any he had ever seen before: of course the merchant is incredulous, and demands a sight of it. Then a portion of the covering is removed, and a glittering disc is partially revealed, so vast and so lustrous, that instantly and instinctively the merchant feels, If that be a pearl it is more precious a thousand-fold than any that I have ever seen: but at the same time he secretly fears it is not a pearl, and that, not for want of the true pearly lustre, which his eye has been well educated to detect, but because of its very greatness and goodness. The process in his mind is not that it does not seem a genuine pearl, but that if it were a pearl it would be so inconceivably great and precious that he must conclude there is some deception. But when it is more fully revealed and more thoroughly inspected, he finds that it is indeed a true pearl. Instantly he determines to part with all he has that he may obtain it: he parts with all that he has, and makes it his own. He has not only made a successful bargain, as other merchants may do, or as himself may have done at other times: he has in one moment enriched himself beyond all conception that he formerly entertained. His merchandise has been brought to an end. There is no need now for more buying and selling in order to acquire wealth; his fortune is made.

This is really very like the process that goes on in a human spirit when an anxious inquiry about salvation terminates in finding and closing with Christ the Saviour. The expectations with which the inquirer set out were very low. If he could get his sense of guilt somewhat lightened that he might begin anew and endeavour to please God; if he could get the fear of wrath diminished, and some assurance that the Judge would not visit him to the full extent for all his sins; -- he does not venture to expect more. Expressly he had no conception of all in one: he thought of a multitude of good religious attainments, which, when added together, would make him, if not rich enough, yet as good as any of his neighbours. Some low and little thing he went out to seek, and, lo! he came upon all the fulness of the Godhead bodily treasured up in Christ, and all that fulness offered in return for simple surrender of himself.

Surprised by the greatness of the treasure, he suspects at first that there must be some mistake; but when he becomes convinced of its reality, his resolution is instantly taken, and the transaction irrevocably closed. Like the merchant rejoicing in his fortune is a believer who has found peace with God: henceforth he is rich. He does not need now to huckster in small bargains between his conscience and the divine law every day, and struggle to diminish the ever-increasing amount of guilt by getting small entries of merit marked on the other side of the page. All this is past. He is in Christ Jesus, and to him, therefore, there is now no condemnation.

The treasurer of the Ethiopian Queen was precisely such a merchant. Before he left home he evidently counted himself poor, and longed to possess the true riches: before he left home he was aware that a man is not profited although he gain the whole world, if he lose his own soul. It was an oppressive sense of poverty that compelled him to travel. He occupied the highest office in a kingdom; he stood on the steps of the throne, and had charge of the royal treasury; but he counted himself poor notwithstanding. He must go in search of more precious pearls than these. Peace of conscience, righteousness, hope for eternity, -- these are goodlier pearls than any that can be found in Ethiopia; and the man undertakes a journey to Jerusalem to try if he can find them there. Disappointed there, he was on his way home, seeking still for the pearls, and seeking near the very spot in the Scriptures where the one priceless pearl lay, when Philip met him. By the Evangelist's skilful help he found it then and there; but when he found it at last, it was much more precious than he had ventured to expect. |He was led as a lamb to the slaughter.| |Of whom speaketh the prophet this?| inquired the Ethiopian, |of himself, or of some other man?| Some subordinate benefit he was contemplating, -- the suffering of some good man, perhaps, as an example to his brethren. Even that, as being something that might contribute to the peace of his soul, he was glad to hear of, and would gladly buy, that he might add it to his stock of goodly pearls. But when Philip, beginning from that scripture, |preached to him Jesus,| he found that the lamb led to the slaughter is the |Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world.| The worth of the pearl turned out to be immeasurably greater than the merchant had previously been able to conceive. He exchanged all for it on the spot, and went on his way rejoicing. He did not require to go from country to country any more in search of goodly pearls. He was rich, -- rich toward God.

Das ist Philippus element,
Er uebt sein Predigtamt,
Lebendig wird das Pergament,
Des Mohrenfuersten Herze brennt,
Sein dunkles Auge flammt.

Denn was er im Juwelenschrein
Kandaces nimmer sah,
Die eine Perle, himmlischrein
Die koestlicher als Edelstein,
Er fand am Weg sie da.

Kari Gerok.

I think all speculations about the whiteness and purity and lustre of the pearl as an ornament should be set aside, as being an attempt to bring a meaning out of the parable which its Author did not put into it. Obviously the merchant did not buy it in order to wear it. If after giving all that he had for the pearl, he had hung it on his neck, where could the poor man have found food and clothing? No; the pearl is presented here in one aspect only, -- as being |of great price.| It was worth much -- it was a fortune to a merchant; but when you speak of it as an ornament on the wearer's brow, you turn aside from the line of the parable, and miss its meaning.

The true lessons of the parable, as I understand them, are briefly these: --

1. It represents the experience, not of a careless or a profane man, who stumbles suddenly upon the Gospel when he was in search of other things, but of one who is awakened, and has begun to seek the true religion, endeavouring to add attainment to attainment sincerely, according to his light. His conscience is uneasy. He has tried the old specific, |All these have I kept from my youth up;| but it no longer avails to soothe his spirit. |What lack I yet?| burst from his breast in broken sighs. There is truth in the man, though not wisdom. He is honestly seeking the way, and the Lord leads him. He is seeking; he shall find.

2. It represents the unparalleled, inconceivable richness of God's mercy in Christ, taking away all a sinner's sin, and bestowing on him freely the place and privileges of a dear child.

3. It represents that these riches lie, not in an accumulation of goodly attainments, such as men are wont to traffic in, but in one undivided, indivisible, hitherto unknown and unimagined treasure.

4. It represents that the inquirer, the instant he discovers that this one incomparable, all-comprehending treasure exists and is offered to him, cheerfully, eagerly, unhesitatingly gives away all that he possesses, in order to acquire it. That is, he gives all for Christ, and then enjoys all in Christ.

Let me suppose myself a merchant, travelling in a foreign country in quest of pearls. I have found and secured several lots that I count good. I have still capital remaining sufficient to purchase many more; I therefore continue my search. One day I meet a man who shows me a pearl more precious than any that I had ever seen before. At a glance I perceive that it is worth all I possess twenty times told. I say to the owner, and say it with a beating heart, fearing that he will despise my offer, |I shall give you all I possess for this pearl.| He accepts my offer; he gives me the pearl into my own hands, and I consign over to him all that I have in the world: first, all the pearls that I have bought in my journey; next, all my remaining capital; then houses, lands, books, -- all. I sign the deed with a throbbing heart, not from fear, but from abounding joy. My act does not intimate that I value lightly my possessions and rights: it intimates that my new portion is, in my esteem, so greatly good, that it will repay all my outlay, and give me a fortune beside.

So when I abandon my repentance, and my prayers, and my services and gifts -- when I sign away all my expectations on account of all religious attainments, and accept Christ alone as my soul's portion -- my act does not intimate that I count little on the various graces of the Spirit in a disciple's life: it means that in Christ and with him I have all good things in measure infinite, in duration eternal.

If our suggestion regarding the cause and manner of the pearl's growth is correct, the kingdom of God in the Gospel of his Son was generated in the same way: the pearl and the pearl of great price have the same natural history.

Some foreign, hurtful thing falls on the creature's life. Forthwith the irritation which that invader produces causes the creature to throw out and over the disturber that which forms a covering round it -- hiding, smothering, annihilating the originating evil, and constituting over it and in place of it a gem of the tenderest, gentlest beauty -- impenetrable, imperishable, glorious.

So sin, a corroding drop, a dark, deadly, vexing, torturing thing, fell upon God's fair creation, threatening to inoculate it with a poison that should leaven the whole lump, and change its beauty into corruption. But around the dark sin-spot, and because the sin-spot was there, divine love showered down, like the impalpable silver gathering on its object in the electrotype, embracing, surrounding, covering, killing the evil and bitter thing that threatened to destroy the works of God. Death was swallowed up in victory. The Son of God came into the world because sin was on it. He, the Holy One, took sin into his bosom, that he might quench it in his own embrace. It was sin that summoned the Saviour to the world, and gave shape to the Gospel of God. To the devil's wile in Eden, as the occasion, though not the cause, unfallen angels and ransomed men will for ever be indebted for that specific work of their Creator which will most attract their eyes and inspire their songs. On one side they behold mercy, in spotless, unmingled white; and on the other side they behold judgment, darker, indeed, yet equally resplendent. But here in the midst, in the person of God incarnate, they see mercy and judgment meeting -- the pearl of great price -- where two different and apparently opposite glories mysteriously and beauteously mingle and play. Death swallowed up in victory; sin embraced and so destroyed in the person of Immanuel; sin lost in the holiness and love that agglomerated round it; -- this pearl will shine in heaven with a glory that excelleth, when the sun and stars shall have fallen like unripe figs from the sky.

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