'Our lamps are gone out."—Matthew Xxv. 8 (R. V.)
The rendering of the Revised Version is to be preferred to that of the Authorised, as more accurate and far more vivid. The sleeping five hastily looked to their lamps when they woke, and saw them flickering and dying down. A note of alarm as well as of surprise is audible in their startled exclamation. Their discovery and their dread were alike too late, and as they went on their hopeless search for what they might once have had in abundance, the last faint glimmer ceased, and they had to grope their way in the dark, with their lightless lamps hanging useless in their slack hands, while near at hand the torches of the bridal procession, in which they might have had a part, flashed through the night. The issue of the process of extinction does not concern us now; the process itself does.
The Old Testament symbolism is our best guide as to the significance of the oil. Throughout it, oil symbolises the divine influences that come down on men appointed by God to their several functions, and which are there traced to the Spirit of the Lord. So priests were set apart by unction with the holy oil; so Samuel poured oil on the black locks of Saul. So, too, the very name Messiah means anointed, and the great prophecy, which Jesus claimed for His own in His first sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, put into the Messiah's lips the declaration, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He hath anointed me." So Zechariah saw in vision a golden lamp-stand with seven lamps, and on either side of it an olive tree, from which oil flowed through golden pipes to feed the flame. The interpretation of the vision was given by the "angel that talked with" the prophet: "Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord."
So, then, we follow the plainly marked road of Scriptural use of a symbol, when we take the oil in this parable to be that which every listener to Jesus, who was instructed in the old things which He was bringing forth with new emphasis from the ancient treasure-house of the Word of God, would take it to be—namely, the sum of the influences from heaven which were bestowed through the Spirit of the Lord.
Such being the meaning of the oil, what is meant by the lamp? The interpretation of the oil as the influence of the Holy Spirit necessarily involves the explanation of the lamp which is fed by it, as being the spiritual life in the individual, which is nourished and made visible to the world as light, by the continual communication from God of these hallowing influences. The great seven-branched lamp which stood in the Tabernacle, and afterwards in the Temple, was the symbol of the collective Israel, as recipient of divine influences, and thereby made the light of a dark world. Its rays streamed out over the desert, beaming illumination and invitation to those who sat in darkness, to behold the great light and to walk in the light of the Lord. Zechariah's emblem was based on the Temple lamp. In accordance with the greater prominence given by the Old Testament to national than to individual religion, both of these represented the people as a whole. In accordance with the more advanced individualism of the New Testament, this parable so far varies the application of the emblem, that each of the ten virgins who, as a whole stand for the collective professing Church, has her own lamp. But that is the only difference between the Old and the New Testament uses of the symbol.
That life may gradually die out. All spiritual emotions, and the life of which they are the manifestation, die unless nourished. They have no guarantee of perpetuity except on plain conditions. We may live, and our life may die. We may trust, and our trust may tremble into unbelief. We may obey, and our obedience may be broken by mutinous risings of self-will. We may walk in paths of righteousness, and our feet may falter and turn aside. The lamp may be " kindled and (therefore) shining," but it will be but "for a season," unless it is fed from the source from which it was lit.
The process is slow. The flame of a lamp does not go out at once. The white part lessens, and the imperfectly consumed blue portion encroaches on it, then the flame flickers, and, as it were, shudders itself off the wick, and leaves a charred, red line, which soon breaks up into points, and these twinkle out one after another, and then all is blackness and the lamp has gone out. So slowly may the light in the soul die away. The process of extinction may be long protracted, like the reluctant close of a summer's day, like the slow dropping of the blood from a fatal wound.
That extinction of the light is brought about by simply doing nothing. The five foolish maidens did not stray into forbidden paths. They merely slept. True the other five also slept, and, if we were studying the parable as a whole, there would be much to say as to the difference between the slumbers of the two groups; but for our present purpose it is enough to note that nothing is alleged against the hapless five, except negligence deepening into slumber, and the consequent failure to provide oil. They did not wish their lamps to go out, nor of set purpose omit to provide for their keeping alight. They were simply negligent, and because of that negligence they earned the name of " foolish." If we do not look forward, and prepare for possible drains upon our powers, we shall deserve the same adjective. If we do not lay in stores for future use, we must be sent to school to the harvesting ant and the bee. That lesson applies to all departments of life; but it is eminently applicable to spiritual life, which is sustained only by communications from the Spirit of God. For these will be imperceptibly lessened, and may be altogether intercepted, unless diligent attention is given to keep the channels open by which they are poured into the spirit. Waterpipes are sometimes choked by a matted mass of trifles. Simple torpor has more shipwrecks of professing Christians to answer for than positive wickedness has. We have only to do what a great many of us are doing—that is, nothing—in order to quench the light in our lamps.
The way to ensure its continuance is to keep close to Jesus Christ in faith, love, communion, and obedience. When one of the patriarchs had committed a great sin, and had unbelievingly twitched his hand out of God's hand, and gone away down into Egypt to help himself instead of trusting to God, he was commanded, on his return to Palestine, to go to the place where he dwelt at the first, and begin again at that point where he began when he first entered the land. Which being translated is just this—the only way to keep our spirits vital and quick is by having recourse again and again to the same power which first imparted life to them, and that is done by the same means as at first, the means of simple reliance upon Christ, in the consciousness of our own deep need, and believingly waiting upon Him for the repeated communication of the gifts which we, alas! have so often misimproved. If we hold up our emptiness to Him, He will fill it with His fulness, and the light that seems to be flickering to extinction will flame up again. He "will not quench the dimly burning wick," but, as the priests walked all through the night to tend the golden lamps of the Temple, so He who walks amidst the seven candlesticks will see that each little lamp is fed according to its capacity and need.
The process of extinction may be going on and the lamp-bearer be quite ignorant of it. A sleeping woman could not tell if her lamp was alight. A drowsy Christian does not know that his is nearly out. To be unconscious of approximation to such a condition is one of the signs that it is ours. A frost-bitten limb is quite comfortable; it tingles only when life is coming back. No one was more surprised than these five witless women when they opened their sleepy eyes and saw the true state of affairs. It is wise for all of us to ask, Is it I? and to make sure that our loins are girt about and our lamps burning.