The Literary Attractions of the Bible

God made the present earth as the home of man; but had He meant it as a mere lodging, a world less beautiful would have served the purpose. There was no need for the carpet of verdure or the ceiling of blue; no need for the mountains, and cataracts, and forests; no need for the rainbow, no need for the flowers. In fashioning the home of man, the Creator had an eye to something more than convenience, and built not a barrack, but a palace--not a Union workhouse, but as Alhambra; something which should not only be very comfortable, but very splendid and very fair; something which should inspire the soul of its inhabitants, and even draw forth the “very good” of complacent Deity. God also made the Bible as the guide and oracle of man; but had He meant it as a mere lesson book of duty, a volume less various and less attractive would have answered every end. A few plain paragraphs, announcing God’s own character and His disposition towards us sinners here on earth, mentioning the provision which He has made for our future happiness, and indicating the different duties which He would have us perform--a few simple sentences would have sufficed to tell what God is, and what He would have us do. There was no need for the picturesque narrative and the majestic poem--no need for the proverb, the story, and the psalm. A chapter of theology, and another of morals; a short account of the Incarnation and the great Atonement, and a few pages of rules and directions for the Christian life, might have contained the practical essence of Scripture, and have supplied us with a Bible of simplest meaning and smallest size. And in that case the Bible would have been consulted only by those rare and wistful spirits to whom the great hereafter is a subject of anxiety, who are really anxious to know what God is, and how themselves may please Him. But in giving that Bible, its Divine Author had regard to the mind of man. He knew that man has more curiosity than piety, more taste than sanctity; and that more persons are anxious to hear some new, or read some beauteous thing, than to read or hear about God and the great salvation. He knew that few would ever ask, What must I do to be saved? till they came in contact with the Bible itself; and, therefore, He made the Bible not only an instructive book, but an attractive one--not only true, but enticing. He filled it with marvellous incident and engaging history; with sunny pictures from Old-World scenery, and affecting anecdotes from the patriarch times. He replenished it with stately argument and thrilling verse, and sprinkled it over with sententious wisdom and proverbial pungency. He made it a book of lofty thoughts and noble images--a book of heavenly doctrine, but withal of earthly adaptation. In preparing a guide to immortality, Infinite Wisdom gave not a dictionary nor a grammar, but a Bible--a book which, in trying to catch the heart of man, should captivate his taste; and which, in transforming his affections, should also expand his intellect. The pearl is of great price; but even the casket is of exquisite beauty. The sword is of ethereal temper, and nothing cuts so keen as its double edge; but there are jewels on the hilt, and fine tracery on the scabbard. The shekels are of the purest ore; but even the scrip which contains them is of a texture more curious than that the artists of earth could fashion it. The apples are gold; but even the basket is silver. In speaking of the literary excellence of the Holy Scriptures, I am aware of a two-fold disadvantage. Some have never looked on the Bible as a readable book. They remember how they got long tasks from it at school, and spelled their arduous way through polysyllabic chapters and joyless genealogies. And in later life they have only heard it sounded forth monotonous from the drowsy desk, or freezing in the atmosphere of some sparse and wintry sanctuary. So irksome and insipid has every association made the book, that were they shut up in a parlour with an old directory, and an old almanac, and an old Bible, they would spend the first hour on the almanac, and the next on the directory, and would die of ennui before they opened the Bible. And then there are others in a happier case to whom that Bible is so sacred--who have found it so full of solemn import, and to whom its every sentence is so fraught with Divine significance, that they feel it wrong or revolting to read it with the critic’s eye. They would rather peruse it on their bended knees, praying God to show them the wonders in His Word, than, with the scholar’s pencil in their hand, ready to pounce on each happy phrase and exquisite figure. And with such persons we own a decided sympathy. But we trust that both will bear with us a little whilst we endeavour to show that if no book be so important as the Bible, so none is more interesting, and that the book which contains most of the beautiful is the one which must ever remain the standard of the good and the true. And here we would only add one remark which it is important to bear in memory. The rhetorical and poetical beauties of Scripture are merely incidental. Its authors wrote, not for glory nor display--not to astonish or amuse their brethren, but to instruct them and make them better. They wrote for God’s glory, not their own; they wrote for the world’s advantage, not to aggrandise themselves. Remembering then that the Bible contains no ornamental passages, nothing written for mere display, that its steadfast purpose is, “Glory to God in the highest,” and the truest blessedness of man--I repeat that that Bible abounds in passages of the purest beauty and stateliest grandeur, all the grander and all the more beautiful because they are casual and unsought. It has the gracefulness of a high utility; it has the majesty of intrinsic power; it has the charm of its own sanctity; it never labours, never strives, but instinct with great realities, and bent on blessed ends, has all the translucent beauty and unstudied power which you might expect from its lofty object and all-wise Author. There is no phenomenon in nature so awful as a thunderstorm; and almost every poet has described it. In the Bible, too, we have a thunder storm (Psalm 29)--the description of a tempest, which, rising from the Mediterranean, and travelling by Lebanon and along the inland mountains, reaches Jerusalem, and sends the people into the temple porticoes for refuge. And, besides those touches of terror in which the geographical progress of the tornado is described, it derives a sacred vitality and power from the presence of Jehovah in each successive peal. Amongst those who have expressly written on the Sublime, it is agreed that the most thrilling spectacle is one whose obscure outline or vague presence at once suggests the supernatural. Of this Sublime in terror Job 4, supplies an acknowledged instance. But perhaps the poetic beauty in which the Bible most excels all other books is description of the world around us. A better idea of the poetic susceptibility was never given than when John Foster called it physiopathy, “the faculty of pervading all nature with one’s own being, so as to have a perception, a life, an agency, in all things.” But perhaps the sublime, though the highest order of literary effort, is not, after all, the most popular. Were we putting it to the world at large, we should, probably, find that the books they like best are those which are less exalted above the everyday level, and whose simple incidents, and cheerful glimpses, and human pathos, bring them home to every man’s comprehension and feeling. In this sort of narrative that world’s book, the Bible, abounds. I could very willingly have extended these remarks to other species of composition, and would have liked to show particularly how many models of eloquent argument and engaging discourse are contained in the New Testament. But on the wide field of revelation, with its intellectual opulence, I forbear to enter. I can easily understand how the Bible was one of the four volumes which always lay on Byron’s table; and it would be easy to fill a lecture with the testimonies, witting or unwitting, which painters, sculptors, orators, and poets, have rendered to the most thought-suggesting book in all the universe. It never aims at fine writing. It never steps aside for a moment for the sake of a felicitous expression or a good idea. It has only one end--to tell the world about God’s great salvation; and yet the wonder is, that it has incidentally done more to supply the world with powerful and happy diction, and literature with noble thoughts and images, and the fine arts with memorable subjects, than perhaps all other books that have been written. The world’s Maker is the Bible’s Author, and the same profusion which furnished so lavishly the abode of man, has filled so richly and adorned so brilliantly the book of man. And just as that Bible is the great storehouse and repertory of intellectual wealth, so I must add that its vital truth is the grand source of intellectual power. When Sir Samuel Romilly visited Paris immediately after the first French Revolution, he remarked, “Everything I saw convinced me that, independently of our future happiness and our sublimest enjoyments ha this life, religion is necessary to the comforts, the conveniences, and even the elegancies and lesser pleasures of life. Not only I never met with a writer truly eloquent who did not at least affect to believe in religion, but I never met with one in whom religion was not the richest source of his eloquence.” And I am persuaded that in things intellectual the rule will hold, that piety is power. I am persuaded that no productions of genius will survive to the end of all things in which there is not something of God; and I am further persuaded, that no book can exercise a lasting ascendancy over mankind on which His blessing has not been implored, and in which His Spirit does not speak. What is modern learning, and the march of intellect, and the reading million, but one great monument of the gospel’s quickening power? Three hundred years ago the classics were revived; but three hundred years ago the gospel was restored. Digging in the Pompeii of the Middle Ages, Lorenzo and Leo found the lamps in which the old classic fires had burned; but there was no oil in the lamps, and they had long since gone out. For models of candelabra and burners there could not be better than Livy, and Horace, and Plato, and Pindar; but the faith which once filled them--the old Pagan fervour--was long since extinct, and the lamps were only fit for the shelf of the antiquary. But it was then that, in the crypt of the convent, Luther, and Zuingle, and Melancthon, observed a line of supernatural light, and with lever and mattock lifted the gravestone, and found the gospel which the Papist had buried. There it had flamed, “a light shining in a dark place,” through unsuspected ages--unquenchable in its own immortality--the long lost lamp in the sepulchre. Jupiter was dead, and Minerva had melted into ether, and Apollo was grey with old, and the most elegant idols of antiquity had gone to the moles and the bats. But there is One who cannot die and does not change--and the Fountain of Scriptural Learning is He who is also the Fountain of Life--the Alpha and Omega--Jesus, the Son of God. From His gospel it was that the old classic lamps, when filled with fresh oil, were kindled again; and at that gospel it was that Bacon, and Locke, and Milton, and Newton, and all the mighty spirits of modern Europe, caught the fire which made them blaze the meteors of our firmament, the marvels of our favoured time. Theology has not yet turned to sufficient account the Bible’s marvellous diversity. You know how opposite are the turns, and how various the temperaments, of different people, and how unequal their capacities. One has a logician’s intellect, and delights in dialectic subtilty. Another has a prompt intuition, and deprecates as so much bamboozlement every ingenious or protracted argument. Some have the ideal faculty so strong, that they never understand a proposition rightly till it sparkles as a sentiment; poet-wise, their eyes are in their apex; they cannot descry matters of fact and homely truths, which creep along the ground or travel on all fours; but in order to arrest a vision so sublime as theirs, thoughts must spread the wings of metaphor and soar into the zenith: whilst others are so prosaic, that they are offended at all imagery, and grudge the time it takes to translate a trope or figure. Some minds are concrete, and cannot understand a general statement till they see a particular example. Others are so abstract, that an illustration is an interruption, and an example a waste of time. Most men love history, and nearly all men live much in the future. Some minds are pensive, stone are cheerful; some are ardent, and some are singularly phlegmatic. And had an angel penned the Bible, even though he could have condescended to the capacity of the lowliest reader, he could not have foreseen the turn and fitted the taste of every child of Adam. And had a mortal penman been employed, however versatile his talent, however many-faced his mind, he could not have made himself all things to all his brethren, nor produced Styles enow to mirror the mental features of all mankind. In His wisdom and goodness the Most High has judged far better for our world; and using the agency of forty authors--transfusing through the peculiar tastes and temperaments of so many individuals (and these “men of like passions with ourselves”) the self-same truths, the Spirit of God has secured for the Bible universal adaptation. For the pensive, there is the dirge of Jeremiah and the cloud-shadowed drama of Job. For the sanguine and hopeful, there sounds the blithe voice and there beats the warm pulse of old Galilean Peter. And for the calm, the contemplative, the peacefully loving, there spreads like a molten melody, or an abysmal joy, the page--sunny, ecstatic, boundless--of John the Divine. The most homely may find the matter of fact, the unvarnished wisdom and plain sense, which is the chosen aliment of their sturdy understandings, in James’s blunt reasonings; and the most heroic can ask no higher standard, no loftier feats, no consecration more intense, no spirituality more ethereal, than they will find in the Pauline Epistles. Those who love the sparkling aphorism and the sagacious paradox are provided with food convenient in the Proverbs; and for those whose poetic fancy craves a banquet more sublime, there is the dew of Hermon and Bozrah’s red wine--the tender freshness of pastoral hymns, and the purple tumult of triumphal psalms. But here, gentlemen, a thought comes over me compunctiously. It seems as if we had this evening come, a large party of us, to view a famous palace, and we have stood on the lawn in front, or looked up from the quadrangle, and told its towers and marked its bulwarks, and sketched some of its ornaments; but however commanding the elevation, however graceful the details and various styles, after all, the glory is within. Oh, my brethren, there is a loveliness even in its letter; but there is life for our souls in its Divine significance. Be you not only Bible visitors but Bible occupants. That Book which God has made the monument of the great redemption, and where He has put His own perpetual Shekinah, do you choose it as the gymnasium where you may nourish a youth truly sublime; the castle where, in a world of impiety and an age of peril, you may find entrenchment for your faith and protection for your principles; the sanctuary at whose oracle you may find answers to your doubts and light upon your path; the spirit’s home, whither your affections shall every day return, and where your character shall progressively ennoble into a conformity with such a royal residence. (James Hamilton, D. D.)