by Daniel March
"Tarry all night." "Escape for thy life."
The words of man and the words of angels. The man, a master of courtesy and hospitality; the angels, ministers of mercy and of vengeance. The man speaks of house and home and feasting and rest; the angels speak of impending wrath and swift destruction. The man persuades to the enjoyment of a quiet evening in a luxurious clime, and promises the return of a beautiful day; the angels would hasten an escape from the scene of enchantment and delight, at the sacrifice of all earthly possessions. The man speaks from mere feeling and a vivid impression of things as they are passing before his eyes; the angels speak of things as they are--and behind the calm and peaceful aspect of the closing day, they see the fiery tempest of the coming morn.
Such is the contrast between feeling and fact, shadow and substance, appearance and reality. So unlike and so allied to each other are the sensual and the spiritual; the earthly and the heavenly; the aspect of peace and safety, and the near approach of danger and destruction. Such is the difference between the judgment of man, who is all involved in the cares and toils and pleasures of the passing day, and judgment of beings who stand outside the range of our mistakes and temptations, and who see the affairs of time and the light of eternity.
The scene which arrests our attention is one of quietness and security. It is evening. A fair city lies upon the border of a plain that looks like a garden in beauty and fertility. A bright lake stretches away northward between dark frowning hills, and the steep wall of the eastern shore is reflected in perfect outline beneath the mirror-like surface of the water. Laborers are coming in from the vineyards and fields on the plain, and shepherds are folding their flocks on the distant hills. There are no signs of wrath in the sky no voices of wailing in the air, no tremor in the "sure and firm-set earth." And yet the last night is casting its shadows upon the walls and battlements of the doomed city.
According to the custom of the land and the time, the chief men are sitting in the gate. Old and young are all abroad in the open air. The idle multitude is coming and going to gather the gossip of the day, and enjoy the cool wind that comes up from the lake outside of the walls. The sun has gone down behind the western hills, and the brief twilight lingers as if loathe to go, like a purple fringe on the dusky garments of the coming night. So lingers the crimson flush of health upon the pale cheek of the consumptive, while the fires of fever are draining the fountains of life within. So the deluded youth, enticed by the siren voice of pleasure, hesitates at the threshold of the house of death, and then sets his feet in the way to hell with a smile.
The evening is so mild and beautiful in the cloudless clime of the East that the idle and pleasure-loving population give themselves up with childish freedom to its bewitching charm, and the streets of the city and its walks outside the gates resound with the voices of the gay, and the loud laugh of the "vacant mind." Theirs is the land of the olive and the vine. The flowers blossom through all the year. The air is loaded with perfume. The light clothes the landscape with dreamy fascination. The evening air woos to voluptuous ease. The night persuades to passion and pleasure.
The plains surrounding the city are like the garden of the Lord in fertility. The most indolent culture secures an abundance for the supply of every want. The distant hills are covered with flocks. The merchants of the East bring their treasures from afar. The camels and dromedaries of the desert lay down their burdens at her gates. And the fair city in the vale of Siddim revels in the profusion of everything that nature and art can produce.
The chief men display the luxury and the pride of princes. The common people make a holiday of the whole year. The multitude looks as if they were strangers equally to want and to work. Like birds in summer, they enjoy the season as it passes, and they take no thought for the morrow. Idleness and riches stimulate the appetite for pleasure, and they go to every excess in indulgence. They have everything that the sensual can desire, and their only study is to find new ways of gratifying the coarsest and basest passion. According to the testimony of One who knew all history, they eat and drink, they buy and sell, they plant and build, and their whole thought and effort and desire is given to a life of the senses, denying God and debasing the soul. And they are so passionate and haughty in their devotion to earthly possessions and sensual pleasures as to count it a mockery for one to say that there may be guilt or danger in such a life.
Such is the throng of the thoughtless and the gay around the gate of the beautiful city in the vale of Siddim, while for them the shadows of evening are deepening into night for the last time. It would only provoke a smile of incredulity or derision if they were told that they were sporting upon their funeral pile, and that the breath of the divine wrath was just ready to kindle the pile into devouring flame.
Two strangers were seen approaching the city. The softened radiance of the evening light shows nothing unusual in their appearance. They seem to be only common travelers coming down from the hill country, and turning in for shelter by night, that they may rise up early in the morning and go on their journey.
There was but one man at the gate of Sodom sufficiently attentive to notice the strangers and invite them to his own house. He did not know who they were, nor did he suspect the awful errand upon which they came. But by treating them with such courtesy as was due to the character of strangers, in which they came, he secured for himself such help as angels alone could give in the time of his greatest need.
The idle throng in the streets deride the hospitable old man for taking the two strangers home to his own house. They see nothing in them worthy of such attention. They are much more ready to treat them with rudeness and contempt, or to make them the subjects of the passion which has given their city a name of infamy throughout all generations. They hoot and jeer at the venerable patriarch when he rises up from his seat in the gate to meet the travelers, and bows himself with his face to the ground, and says with eastern courtesy, "Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night." The vilest suggestions are passed to and fro among the lewd and leering rabble as the old man leads his guests away. The hour of rest has not come before a crowd gathers in the streets and besets the house where the strangers have gone to repose. They become more clamorous, with infamous outcries and rude assault, as night wears on. They are so blinded and besotted in their sensuality that they would do violence to God's mighty angels, who can wrap their city in flames and open the pit of destruction beneath their habitations in a moment.
The celestial messengers had come to see whether there were any, in all that city, who could be persuaded to escape from the impending doom. And the iniquity of the inhabitants was full; the last drop was added to the fiery cup of wrath to be poured upon their heads, when they received the warning as an idle tale and treated the messengers with contempt.
The men of Sodom did not think they were doing anything unusual when they beset the house of Lot and came near to break the door. They were no more riotous or dissolute on this last night than they had been many nights before. But there is a point beyond which the divine forbearance cannot go. And they had reached that point, when they clamored against Lot, and would have beaten him down in the streets for protecting his angel-guests. When blindness fell upon them, and they wearied themselves to find the door, they had already passed "The hidden boundary between God's patience and His wrath."
For the sake of the righteous man, Lot, there was just one thing more to be done. The aged father is permitted to go out and urge his sons-in-law to flee from the doomed city. He makes his way to their houses through the blinded rabble in the streets, and gives the warning. But he seems to them as one that mocked. They cannot think it possible that he is in his right mind, to be coming to them at that late hour of the night with such an alarming message. They only tell him to go home and quiet his fears by dismissing the suspicious strangers and going to sleep in his own house. They cannot think of troubling themselves about the anxieties of a wakeful and weakminded old man, when nothing is wanted but a little rest to dismiss his fears. They will sleep on till morning, and tomorrow they will laugh at the kindhearted old father about his midnight call.
When the disappointed father comes back to his own house, the angels of rescue are waiting for him. And now the first streaks of dawn begin to appear in the east. As yet there is no apparent change in the earth or the sky. No trumpet of wrath has blown through the midnight. No earthquake has shaken the hills. No sulphurous fires have flamed up from the bed of the peaceful valley. No threatening wave has rolled upon the shore of the quiet lake. No cloud of vengeance darkens the coming day. The morning star shines with its customary brightness over the mountains of Moab. The cool air, mingled with the perfume of flowers, comes up like refreshing incense from the placid sea, and the song of birds welcomes the returning light. There is nothing to fear save that one word of the angels: "The Lord will destroy this city." The beautiful skies speak peace and safety. The teeming earth promises riches and abundance. The sleeping city dreams of long life and continued pleasure. The coming day looks down from the eastern hills with a smile. But the angels have said, "The Lord will destroy this city," and that is reason enough for alarm and for immediate flight.
It is hard for the old man to go and leave a part of his own family and all his worldly possessions behind to perish. But go he must, or even he cannot be saved. He lingers with divided heart and hesitating mind, while the door of doom is fast coming on. The angels urge him to hasten, but he lingers still. With merciful violence, they lay hold upon his hands and upon the hands of those of his family that are with him in the house, and hurry them forth out of the city. And then comes the startling and vehement charge: "Escape for thy life! Look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain. Escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed."
A few moments' delay will cost him his life. If he only turn to take one longing, lingering look of house and home, and of all that his heart holds dearest on earth--if he only wait to see what will become of the city--he will be consumed in the coming storm. The overthrow is delayed only to give the fugitives time to escape. Their steps across the plain are counting out the last moments of the doomed city. Still the weary and distracted old man begs to be permitted to rest at a little town short of the safe mountains. It is so small that he thinks it need not be involved in the ruin of the greater and guiltier city below. The fond and fearful request is granted, but with a solemn reiteration of the charge to hasten, for the fiery storm cannot long be restrained from its outbreaking wrath. One of the four fugitives pauses to look back, with a vain curiosity to see what would become of the city, and so fails to escape.
The sun is already risen upon the earth, and the bright morning promises a beautiful day. The early risers in Sodom are making themselves merry about the frightened old man who has fled with his family to the mountains. The sons-in-law are on the way to his house, to laugh at him for walking in his sleep the night before. The idle and voluptuous are devising new pleasures for the day; and the profligate are sleeping through the fresh hours of the morning to compensate for the late revels of the night.
And just now the hour of doom strikes. The Lord rains fire and brimstone out of heaven upon the city, and upon the beautiful plain that seemed like Paradise the day before; and the smoke of the burning goes up as the smoke of a great furnace; and the glare of the mighty conflagration is seen far off by shepherds on the hills of Hebron and the mountains of Moab. In one moment the fair vale, which had been as the garden of the Lord in beauty and fertility, becomes a desolation--a place never to be inhabited from generation to generation--a valley of desolation and of death, where the wandering Arab shall never dare to pitch his tent, nor the shepherd to make his fold--a horrible region, doleful in reality, and clothed with additional terrors by gloomy superstition and evil imaginations. And God made this great desolation in His own beautiful and glorious work because the sin of Sodom was great and the cry of its iniquity had come up to heaven. The last night, as serene and beautiful as ever, hung its starry curtain over the sleeping world. And when the golden dawn broke into day, the rising sun had not seen a fairer city than Sodom in all the "gorgeous East." In one moment her last cry went up to heaven amid tempests of fire that rained down from above, and fountains of fire that burst up from the deep. And Sodom has become a name of infamy for all generations; and its awful doom stands forth as a perpetual sign that God's patience with sin has a bound beyond which it will not go.
The Scriptures expressly declare that the fiery fate of this doomed city in ancient time is set forth as an example, to warn men in all subsequent ages against leading ungodly lives. The lurid flame of this great act of the divine justice sends its warning light through all the centuries of human history, to show there is a God in heaven, before whom the cry of man's iniquity goes up day and night. The things that are told of Sodom may be said of many a city that has not shared in Sodom's doom. The Prophet Ezekiel says the sin of that city was "pride and fulness of bread and abundance of idleness." Millions would count it happiness to revel in abundance and have nothing to do. Thus far in the world's history the highest rank in human society has been conceded to those who have the greatest revenues secured to them without effort on their part, and who never touch the common burdens of humanity with one of their fingers. And we all know how naturally pride enthrones itself as the master-passion in the heart, when all fear of want and all necessity to work are taken away.
The sin of Sodom, however gross in reputation and in reality, was the offspring of wealth and leisure--the two things which the worldly heart most desires, and of which, when possessed, the worldly heart :s most proud. If men could have all that they desire of both, how hard it would be for them to think or care at all for the life to come. Many are ashamed of work--all are afraid of want. And yet it is work which makes worth in men, and the deepest sense of want is the beginning of immortal life in the soul.
This awful lesson in sacred history may be all summed up in two messages. The one is from man and the world--the other is from heaven and God. One says to the careless and the worldly, "Tarry, be at ease, enjoy yourself while you can"--the other says, "Escape for thy life." One says, "Wait, be not alarmed: make yourself comfortable where you are"--the other says, "Haste, look not behind thee; flee to the mountain, lest thou be consumed." One says, "Soul, take thine ease; eat, drink, and be merry"--the other says, "Thou fool! this night thy soul may be required of thee."
The question which everyone must answer for himself is always this, Which of these two voices shall I obey? Shall I sit down in that seductive and false security which is all absorbed in earthly things, and fears no evil because at present there is no appearance of danger? Or shall I obey the voice from heaven, which commands me to arise and shake off the dangerous lethargy of the world and escape for my life? Shall I listen to the voice of earth, which cries peace and safety, or the voice of heaven, which says that destruction lies in the path of souls that are at ease without God?
To many it seems like mockery to talk of danger to the young and the gay, the healthful and the happy. But who was the mocker on the peaceful night when the cities of the plain rioted in pleasure for the last time--the righteous man, Lot, who exposed himself to the jeers of the mob and made his way through the darkened streets to warn his sons-in-law, and fled himself for his life; or the sons-in-law themselves, who laughed at the warning and perished in the flames?
All the seductions and falsehoods of temptation, and all the dangers and sorrows of perdition, are bound up in that one word-- wait. The voice of love speaks to the careless in terms of terror and alarm. God's patience will not always last. The day of grace must have an end. And with many it is much shorter than they expect. The God who rained a fiery tempest upon the cities of the plain, and destroyed them, is the God who holds our everlasting destiny in His hands. He will not always be mocked. He will not long be trifled with.
And the loving and compassionate Jesus Himself declares that there is a greater sin than that for which Sodom and Gomorrah were overthrown. It is the sin of those who hear the Gospel call to repentance, and heed it not. It is the sin of those who sea the Son of God agonizing in the garden and dying on the cross for their salvation, and who still refuse to give Him their hearts. It is the sin of those who have been many times warned and entreated, and who nevertheless spend their lives in waiting for a more convenient season to repent and turn to God. It is the sin of those who put off the first great work of life to the dying hour, and death finds them with the work all undone. It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for those who spent their lives in such utter neglect of the great salvation.
The blessed and merciful Jesus gave forth that solemn warning to the neglecters and despisers in His day, that the echo of His voice might resound through all time, and that all who hear might be saved from such a doom. His most awful threatening involves and includes an invitation of equal extent. He would awaken fear that He may kindle hope. He commands effort that He may save from despair. He draws back the veil from the pit of darkness that we may be constrained to look up when He unfolds the glories of paradise.
The angels hastened Lot while he lingered and was loathe to go. The voices of divine mercy are ever repeating the cry, HASTE, ESCAPE FOR THY LIFE. Wait not for better opportunities to begin a better life. Any opportunity to secure infinite and eternal blessing is a good one. And a better one than the present may never come. Look not behind to see what will become of our worldly pleasures and vanities. When the soul is in peril, no earthly interest can be a sufficient reason for an hour's delay. The solemn monitions of conscience, the uncertain tenure of all earthly possessions, the embittered and transitory nature of all earthly joys, the admonitions of divine providence in affliction and death, the sweet and mighty constraint of the love of Christ, and all the perils and sorrows and necessities of the soul, continually say to the hesitating and the halting: Haste thee; escape for thy life; make sure thy flight to the stronghold of hope before the voice of mercy shall cease to call, and the wrath that is ready to burn, burst in an endless storm.