In taking up the lessons of the dispensation of law, we must carefully distinguish two different and, in many respects, contrasted elements. As a trial of man, which, in the highest degree, it was, we have already seen it to be the working out (in a divine way, and therefore to a true result) of an experiment which was oman's thought, not God's. God could not need to make an experiment. Man needed it, because he would not accept God's judgment, already pronounced before (as a fallen being) he had been tried at all, in the proper sense of trial; "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart is only evil, and that continually." God's way of acceptance for him had been, therefore, from the beginning, by sacrifice, in which the death of a substitute covered the sinner before Him, closing his whole responsibility naturally - in the place in which he stood as a creature. The "way of Cain" was man's resistance to the verdict upon himself, and so to the way of grace proclaimed. God then undertook to prove him, taking him on his own ground, and bidding him justify his own thoughts of himself by actual experiment.
But this is only the law on one side of it. It was what made it law, and gave its character to the whole dispensation. Yet underneath, and in spite of all this, God necessarily kept to and maintained His own way, and to the ear of faith told out, more and more, that way of His, although in "dark Sayings," from which only Christianity has really lifted off the veil. Thus, and thus alone, a sacrificial worship was incorporated with the law, and circumcision, "a seal of the righteousness of faith," remained as the entrance into the new economy.
First, then, let us look at the law as law, and afterward as a typical system.
As law, or the trial of man, we find him put in the most favourable circumstances possible for its reception. The ten commandments appeal, at the very outset, to the fact of the people having been brought out of the land of Egypt; it was He who had brought them out who bade them "have no other gods" before Him. He had made Himself known in such a way as to manifest Himself God over all gods, His power being put forth in their behalf, so as to bind them by the tie of gratitude to Himself. How could they dispute His authority, or doubt His love? His holiness, too, was declared in a variety of precepts, wilich, if burdensome as ceremonial, appealed even the more powerfully on that account to the very sense of the most careless-hearted. There were severest penalties for disobedience, but also rewards for obedience, of all that man's heart sinlessly could enjoy. The providence of God was made apparent in continual miracles, by which their need in the wilderness was daily met. Who could doubt, and who refuse, the blessing of obedience to a law so given and so sanctified?
A wall of separation was built up between them and the nations round; and inside this inclosure the divinely guarded people were to walk together, all evil and rebellion excluded, the course of the world here set right, all ties of relationship combining their influence for good; duty not costing aught, but finding on every side its sweet, abundant recompense. Who, one would think, could stumble? and who could stray?
Surely the circumstances here were as favourable as possible to man's self-justification under this trial, if justify himself he could. If he failed now, how could he hope ever to succeed? That he did fail, we all know - openly and utterly he failed, not merely by unbidden lusts, which his will refused and denied, but in conscious, deliberate disobedience, equal to his father Adam's, and that before the tables of the law had come down to him out of the mount into which Moses had gone up to receive them.
The first trial of law was over. Judgment took its course, although mercy, sovereign in its exercise, interposed to limit it. Again God took the people up, upon the intercession of Moses-type of a greater and an effectual Mediator. Man was ungodly, but was hope irrecoverably gone? Could not mercy avail for man in a mingled system from which man's works should at least not wholly be excluded?
Now this, in fact, is the great question under law: rigidly enforced, it is easily allowed that man must fail, and be condemned. He does not love his neighbour as himself, still less love God with all his soul and strength. Is there nothing short of this that God can admit, then? He can show mercy; can He not abate something of this rigor, and give man opportunity to repent, and recover himself? And this is the thought that underlies much that is mistaken for the gospel now. A new baptism may give it a Christian name, and yet leave it unregenerate legalism after all. For this - only correcting some mistakes - is what the second giving of the law takes up. It is an old experiment, long since worked out, an anachronism in Christian times. "The law is not of faith;" these are two opposite principles, which do not modify, but de-stroy, one another.
A second time the tables of the law are given to Israel; and now, along with this, God speaks of and declares the mercy which He surely has: "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving inquity, transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." It is the conjunction of these two things that creates the dif-ficulty. We recognize the truth of both, but how shall they unite in the blessing of man? This doubt perplexes fatally all legal systems. How far will mercy extend? and where will righteousness draw the line beyond which it cannot pass? How shall we reconcile the day of grace and the day of judgment? The true answer is, that under law no reconciliation is at all possible. The experiment has been made, and the result proclaimed. It is of - the law thus given the second time, and not the first, that the apostle asserts that it is the "ministration of death" and "of condemnation."
One serious mistake that has to be rectified here is, that the law can be tolerant to a certain (undefined) measure of transgression. It is not so. It is not on legal ground that God "forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin." The law says, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them." If on other ground (in this case, as ever, that of sacrifice,) mercy can be extended, and even forgiveness,- if man be permitted to cancel the old leaf and turn over a new, yet the new must be kept unbiotted, as the old was not. "When the wicked man turneth away from his wicked-ness," he must do that which is lawful and right," to "Save his soul alive." And thus the commandments, Written the second time upon the tables of stone, though now by the mediator's hand, were identical with the first. Here, the law cannot give way by a jot or a tittle, and therefore man's case is hopeless. The law is the ministration of condemnation only.
That was the foreseen issue, and the divine purpose in it, and God, to make that issue plain, (that man might not, unless he would, be a moment deceived as to it) lets Moses know, as the people's representative, that His face cannot he seen. He does indeed see the glory after it has passed - His back parts, not His face. God is unknown: there is no way to clear the guilty, and therefore none by which man may stand before Him.
Thus the law, in any form of it, is the "ministration of condemnation" only. That it was the "ministration of death" also, implies its power, not to produce holiness, but, as the apostle calls it, "the strength of sin." His experience of it-" I was alive without the law once; but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died." Forbidding lust, it aroused and manifested it. "Sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of lust "- thus "deceived me, and by it slew me."
Of this state of hopeless condemnation and evil, that physical death which God had annexed to dispbedience at the first was the outward expression and seal. In it, man, made like the beasts that perish, passed out of the sphere of his natural responsibility and the scene for which he had been created, and passed out by the judgment of God, which cast, therefore, its awful shadow over all beyond death. The token of God's rejection of man as fallen is passed upon all men everywhere, with but one exception in the ages before Moses. Enoch had walked with God, and was not, for God took him. That made it only the plainer, if possible, what was its significance. It was actual sentence upon man for sin, and all men were under it as sentenced,- not under probation.
If God, therefore, took up man to put him under probation, as in the law He manifestly did, He must needs conditionally remove the sentence under which he lay. "The man who doth these things shall live in them" meant, not that he should die, and go to heaven, as people almost universally interpret it, but the contrary - that he should recover the place from which Adam had fallen, and stay on earth. Faith in Abraham, indeed, looked forward to a better country - that is, a heavenly. But the law is not of faith, nor was Abraham under it. Faith, owning man's hopelessness of ruin, was given in measure to prove the mystery of what, to all else, were God's dark sayings. To man as man, resisting God's sentence upon himself, the law spoke, not of death, and a world beyond, (which he might, as he listed, people with his own imaginings,) but of the lifting off of the sentence under which he lay - of the way by which he could plead his title to exemption from it.
Thus the issue of the trial could not be in the least doubtful. Every grey hair convicted him as, under law, ruined and hopeless. Every furrow on his brow was the confirmation of the old Adamnic sentence upon himself per-sonally; and the law, in this sense also, was the ministration of death, God using it to give distinct expression to what the fact itself should have graven upon men's consciences. It is this (so misunderstood as it is now) that gives the key to those expressions in the Psalms and elsewhere which materialism would pervert to its own purposes: "For in death there is no remembrance of Thee; in hades who shall give Thee thanks?"
God would have it so plain, that he might run that readeth it, that upon the ground of law, spite of God's mercy (which He surely has), man's case is hopeless. 'By deeds of law shall no flesh be justified in His sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin." Yet, God having declared His forgiveness of iniquity, transgression, and sin, the second trial by law could go on, as it did go on, for some eight hundred years, till the Babylonish captivity. Then the regal covenant really ended. The people were Lo-ammi, a sentence never yet recalled.
As law simply, then, the Mosaic system was the complete and formal trial of man as man; all possible assistance being given him, and every motive, whether of self-interest or of gratitude to God, being brought to bear on him; the necessity of faith almost, as it might seem, set aside by repeated manifestations of Jehovah's presence and power, such as must force conviction upon all.
The issue of the trial, as foreseen and designed of God, was to bring out the perfect hopelessness of man's condition, as ungodly, and without strength, unable to stand - before Him for a moment. But then, the truth of his helplessness exposed, the mercy of God could not permit his being left there without the assurance of effectual help provided for him. In this way, another element than that of law entered into the law, and the tabernacle and temple services, taking up the principles of circumcision and of sacrifice (of older date than law) incorporated them in a ritual of most striking character, which spread before the eye opened to take it in lessons of spiritual wisdom, which in our day we turn back to read with deeper interest and delight the more we know of them.
The language of type and parable God had used from the beginning. As yet, He could not speak plainly of what filled His heart ever, as these bear abundant witness. Unbelief in man had dammed back the living stream of divine goodness, which was gathering behind the barrier all the while for its overflow. In the meanwhile, the Psalms - the very heart of the Old Testament - declare what faith could already realize of the blessedness of "the man whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered." Faith tasted and declared, as the apostle could take up such words afterward, to show, not the blessedness of keeping law, but of divine forgiveness. "It shall be forgiven him" was indeed said, with perfect plainness, in connection with that shedding of blood for man, which testified at once to his utter failure, and of resource in God for his extremest need. It was not, and could not be, perfect peace or justification that could yet be preached or known, but a "forbearance," of which none could predict the limits. Still, faith had here its argument, and, in fact, found ever its fullest confidence sustained.
Very striking it is, when once this dealing of God with faith is seen, how the very burdensomeness of the rigid ceremonial changes its charater, and becomes only the urgency of an appeal to the conscience, which, if entertained, would open the way to the knowledge of the blessedness of which the psalmist speaks. These continual sacrifices, if they did indeed, as the apostle urges, by their frequent repetition, proclaim their own insufficiency, nevertheless, by the very fact, became continual preachers, in the most personal way, to the men of Israel, of their ruin, and of its sole remedy. How the constant shedding of blood would keep them in mind of that divine commentary, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar, to make atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul." (Lev. xvii. ii.) How striking, too, that circumcision, which was clearly before the law, was expressly the only way by which even the Israelite-born could claim Jehovah as his covenant-God, or keep the memorial feast of national redemption! For, as the apostle says, it was "the seal of the righteousness of faith," not law-keeping, as the covenant of which it was the token was "of promise "-the promise of an "almighty God," when in Abraham, almost a hundred years old, all natural hope was dead forever. To walk before that omnipotent God in confessed impotence, trusting and proving His power, was that to which he was called. As yet, there was no law to saddle that with conditions; and in memory of this, in token of its abiding significance, the Gentile "stranger" could still be circumcised, with all his males, and keep the passover as an Israelite-born.
How tender, too, the goodness which had provided that -whoever of Abraham's seed should turn to the history of - his forefather after the flesh, should find written there, - and of this very depositary of all the promises, such plain, unambiguous words of divine testimony as these: "He believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness." Of no other was this in the same way written. What hand inscribed it therein just where it should speak most plainly, and to those most in need? Just where, on the incoming of Christianity, it should be ready with its unmistakable testimony to the central principle of Christianity itself. Such is the prophetic character of the inspired Word. The same presaging Spirit who dictated to Peter - in men's thoughts, the first authority in the church - those two doctrines which are the death-blow of ritualism, new birth through the word of the gospel, and the common priesthood of all believers (i Pet. 23-25; ii. 5-9), recorded by Moses this testimony as to Abraham. Blessed be God for His infinitely precious Word!
It was in connection with law that all the books of the Old Testament were given, and Israel, as is plain, were they to whom all was committed. It seems, therefore, here the place to speak briefly of their general character as aff ted by this. There are certain things, at least, that one may indicate as of special importance, in view of many things around us at the present time.
In the first place, it was not yet the time for that "plainness of speech " which, as the apostle says, belongs to Christianity. This we have already seen, but it is not superfluous to insist on it still further. The veil between man and God neccessitated a veiled speech also - not, indeed, altogether impenetrable to faith, but requiring, in the words of Solomon, "to understand proverb and strange speech, the words of the wise and their dark sayings. Even as to man himself, while his trial was yet going on, there could not be the full discovery of his condition. We have not yet the New Testament doctrine of "the flesh," nor of new birth, although there was that which should have prepared an Israelitish teacher for the understanding of it when announced. Election was only yet national, not individual, and therefore to privilege only, not eternal life. Adoption, too, was national: the true children of God could not yet claim or know their place as such. No cry of "Abba, Father," was or could be raised. The heirs differed not as yet from servants, being under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the Father. (Gal. iv.) As to all these things, there were preparatory utterances, and all the more as the ruin of man came out, therefore, in those prophetical books which fittingly closed the canon of the Old Testament.
Even the types had in them the character which the apostle ascribes to the law: "having a shadow of good things to come, but not the very image of the things." The unrent veil, the repetition of the sacrifices, the successional priesthood, as he points out, had all this character. They were the necessary witnesses that the "law made nothing perfect,"-that under it "the way into the holiest was not yet made manifest." Of these was the intermediate priesthood of Aaron's sons, which was the provision for a people unable themselves to draw near to God; which, with all else, the Judaizing ritualism of the day copies, and maintains as Christian. The apostle's answer to it is, "By one offering He hath perfected for, ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us; for after that He had said before, 'Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.' Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. Having, therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which He hath consecrated for us through the veil, that is to say, His flesh, and having a High-Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart, in full assurance of faith." (Heb. X. 14-22.) Sin put away, and distance from God removed, ritualism, in all its forms, becomes an impossibility.
In the second place, as the law dealt with man here and now, and did not relegate the issue of its own trial to another time and place, where its verdict could not be known by men in this life; the earth is that upon which man's attention is fixed, and that whether for judgment or reward. There are hints here also of the fuller truths which the New Testament unfolds; but manifestly there is no promise of heaven to the keeper of the law, nor even threat of hell - that is, of the lake of fire - to the transgressors of it. Judgment there is, and eternal judgment, but death is rather the stroke of it - the horror of this shadowing the eternity beyond. Job speaks of resurrection, and the prophets also, though in them it is only applied figuratively to national restoration; yet this shows they held it as admitted truth. Outside of the Old Testament we learn, from the epistle to the Hebrews, that the patriarchs expected "a better country - that is, a heavenly;" but we should not know it from Genesis. Faith penetrated, in some measure, it is clear, the "dark sayings," and found all not dark. A recognized body of truth was received by the Pharisees, which embraced, not only resurrection for the just, but of the unjust also, and spoke, not merely of hades, but of gehenna also - the true hell.
This only makes the more remarkable the constant style even of the prophets. The confounding of judgments upon the living, by which the earth will be rid of its destroyers and prepared for blessing, with the judgment of the dead at the "great white throne," is one of the errors under which annihilationism shelters itself most securely. On the other hand, this earthly blessing, still further confused by Israel being (as commonly) interpreted to mean the Church, has been by current "adventism" made to take the place of the true Christian expectation of an inheritance in heaven. And this, too, has linked itself with annihilationism in its extremest and most materialistic forms. We must keep the stand-points of the Old and New Testaments - of Israel and the Church, earthly and heavenly - clear in our minds, and there is no difficulty. "My kinsmen according to the flesh," says the apostle; "to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises." (Rom. ix. 3, 4.) All of these for them earthly blessings. Christians are "blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." (Eph. i. 3.)
If this should seem at all to take the Old Testament away from us who belong to another dispensation, we must remember two things: first, that if it has not so directly to do with us, it has, most assuredly, with Christ no less on that account. His glories run through the whole; history, psalm, and prophecy are full of Him. But what reveals Him is ever of truest blessing for the soul. Oh to be simpler in taking in all this, in which the Father gives us communion with His own thoughts of His Son! And then, when we look at the typical teaching, now fully for the first time disclosed, when even the things that happened to the favoured nation, and are recorded in their history, "happened to them for types," we find what is in the fullest way ours -"written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come." (i Cor. x. ii.) How wonderful this! and how sad to think, on the one hand of the disuse, on the other of the reckless abuse, of that precious teaching!
We have now look at the history of the age of law.