Paul at Malta



The general belief of mankind that the -aiorld is umier a just providential government.

Malta.—Its inhabitants.—Their reception of the shipwrecked.—The viper.— Supposition respecting Paul.—Genera! sense among men of Divine justice in the punishment of crime.—The feeling is natural to man.—Is found in all moral codes.—Is traced in early usages.—Is embodied in all laws.— General belief in a Divine arrangement for the discovery of crime.— "Murder will out."—Awakened vigilance.—Difficulty of concealment . —Dr. Webster.—Minute evidences.— Self-betrayal.—General conviction that punishment ought to follow crime.—Theories of punishment.—Often morbid.—It is not for reformation.—Nor for mere restraint.—But a requirement of justice.—And one to which society assents.—The handwriting of God himself on the heart.—The sinner lives in a world of justice.—Justice will follow him wherever he goes.—The universe will acquiesce in his doom.—But there is a way of escape.

"And when Paul had gathered a bundle pt sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand. And when the barbarians saw the venemous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to l1ve."

Acts xxviii. 4.

THE small island of Melita, or Malta, has a history of its own, not uninteresting or unimportant in the annals of the world. The Knights of Malta, by their exploits, have made its name celebrated; the siege of Malta was one of the most memorable that has occurred in all history. But its principal interest now to us, and to the world at large, is the fact that it is the island on which the great Christian apostle was cast, in his voyage to Rome.

It is situated to the south of Sicily, frcm the nearest point of which it is about fifty-eight miles distant. Its greatest length is seventeen and a half miles; its greatest breadth nine and a quarter. It was well known to the Romans as "a dependency on the province of Sicily;" and the principal harbour, Valetta, must have been familiar to the ancient navigators in the times when the rich productions of India were conveyed by way of the Mediterranean to Europe. Its population was originally of Phenician origin, intermingled at later periods with Greeks; and its language was a mixture of Greek, Phenician, and Latin, having "the same relation to Latin and Greek which modern Maltese has to English and Italian." By the Greeks they were called "barbarians," (iapfiapo1—the word barbarian (fiipfiapos) meaning properly a foreigner, or one who does not understand or speak the language of a particular people. The word was used by the Greeks to denote all who did not speak Greek (comp. Rom. i. 14; CoL iii. 11). As, however, those nations which did not speak Greek were, in general, less civilized than the Greeks themselves, the word came to denote, as it does with us, those who were rude, uncultivated, and savage in their manners.

It is to be observed, however, that although the name barbarian is given to the inhabitants of Malta, they were a people who, in some respects, were an example to more civilized nations, and their conduct is most favourably contrasted with that of many, even in Christian lands, in regard to such as are driven on their shores. To these shipwrecked strangers they "showed no little kindness." They "kindled a fire," and welcomed them "every one" to its warmth, drenched as they were by the sea, and shivering with cold. Indeed an illustration of human nature might be derived from the manifestation of such kindness by these "barbarians," showing what gentleness, kindness, and compassion may exist in the human bosom though man is fallen, and suggesting the bearing of these virtues on social order, domestic peace, and the general happiness of the world.

But I do not propose to consider that point now. There is another subject presented by the narrative, equally illustrating what there is in man in his fallen condition, and important as relating to the government of God, bearing alike on the course of this world and the world to come. It is founded on the statement that "when the barbarians saw the venemous beast" hang on the hand of Paul, "they said among themselves, 'No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.'" The word rendered "vengeance"—Sf1cn—means properly custom, manner; prescription, right; a judicial process, lawsuit, trial; then, judgment or sentence of condemnation; then penalty, punishment, vengeance. Here it is the personification of justice or vengeance, and probably has reference to the heathen goddess Vengeance, or Nemesis. The idea is, that there was a sense of justice in the case; that, in their apprehension, such a punishment must have been the consequence of some remarkable crime; that there was a belief among them in an order or course of events on earth which makes it certain that due punishment will overtake the guilty; and that such a punishment is, in itself, proper. Why they supposed that the crime which had been committed was murder, is not known. It is probable, however, that it was because mankind universally believe murder to be the most atrocious crime that can be committed, and the most certain to be followed by deserved punishment.

From the incident as thus explained, I shall deduce the following propositions:—I. That there is, in the bosoms of men, a general sense of Divine justice; a belief that the world is under a moral government, and that crime is to be punished. II. That, under that government, there is an arrangement by which it is believed that crime will be detected. III. That there is a prevalent conviction among men that it is right and proper that this slwuld be so.

I. There is a general sense of Divine justice among men, even among those who are the most barbarous and uncivilized. Such a belief existed among the people of Malta, as one of the promptings of their nature; on this belief they acted without hesitation or doubt; and they may, without impropriety, be regarded as representing mankind at large.

(1.) This conviction, with more or less distinctness, exists in all nations, often imperfect indeed, and often perverted, but still so manifesting itself, as it did on this occasion, as to show that it lies deep in thc human mind. Man is, indeed, fallen; and his faculties of mind, and his views of moral subjects, are sadly deranged. But still there are things remaining in fallen man— fragments, so to speak, of what he was—sympathies, tendencies, aspirations, affections, sensibilities, perceptions of what is right, and promptings to what is right, which show what he originally was, and which show, at the same time, what is the character of the government under which he is placed. There was not probably an original virtue in the heart of man when he was created, of which there is not in him something even now that reminds us of it, and that tells us what he was designed to be. These things which fallen human nature still retains, resemble, in some respects, the half-effaced inscriptions found on ancient*tombs and monuments. The letters of the name have, in part, been worn away by time; the dates are half-obliterated; the dignity of the sleeper within can be only imperfectly proven by the defaced emblems of rank. But skill, and care, and sagacity, may enable us to fill up the partially-lost inscription; to put in a letter here, and a letter there, that shall so completely supply the chasm as to leave no doubt that the true words are restored. In like manner, there are in the soul, half-effaced records of man's original nature and dignity. We cannot read them perfectly. From them alone we never could know entirely what man originally was. Yet they are there; and when they are filled up with the knowledge imparted by revelation, the record becomes complete. The knowledge thus imparted fits in to the rest, as the letters added do to the inscription on the tomb; and we have a correct understanding of what man was.

Among these traces left upon the hearts of men, though fallen, and even though barbarians, I have at present to mention the following:—(a.) The belief in some form of a Divinity, or Divine government, as was indicated in the case of these islanders. (6.) A sense of justice, and a feeling that the guilty deserve to be punished. These are things which tend to illustrate the nature of the administration under which man lives, and the character of that great Being who presides over all. If it should be said, in objection to this remark, that man is conscious of other tendencies, in an opposite direction, and that there are things in his nature quite as universal which seem to indicate the contrary, the reply is obvious. These things, though they exist, are not regarded as matters of obligation, or of right. They are not looked upon with approbation. The nature of man does not teach him to cherish and cultivate them, but to overcome, to resist, to destroy them.

(2.) Wherever men have embodied their sentiments in codes of morals, it has been done in accordance with this view. These codes of morals among men are remarkably harmonious in the main points. They differ in regard to the degree of intelligence, and to the range of subjects; not in the principles on which they are founded.. Men are to do certain things because they are right; they are to abstain from certain things, because they are wrong. To a great extent, also, those things, in both respects, are substantially the rame. If they do not come up to the full measure of the ten commandments of Moses, or of the Sermon of Christ on the Mount (as they, in fact, do not), yet they do not, in the main, violate the principles of either, or enjoin things which are there forbidden. There are no books on the subject of morals, in any language, or in any age, which do not make a distinction between right and wrong; and for the most part, in regard to the same actions. With most striking coincidences, and with no very palpable divergencies, the same things are found on these subjects in Seneca, in Pliny, in Plato, in Confucius, and in Lord Herbert; in the laws of the Republics of Greece, in the Assyrian and Babylonian laws, in the laws of China, in the laws of the twelve tables of Rome, and in the New Testament. This fact may, therefore, also be regarded as an illustration of what mankind considers the government of the world to be.

(3.) The same views are found in a community before there are regular laws in regard to the administration of justice. There never has been a nation or a tribe of men which had not some notions that the guilty should be punished, and especially, as on the island of Malta, that a murderer ought not to escape.

In the earliest ages it was a universal conviction that the duty of avenging the blood of the slain devolved on the "nearest of kin" to the murdered man, and that he was not only at liberty, but was bound to avenge the blood thus shed. Among the Hebrews such a person was known as "the avenger of blood" (Num. xxxv. 19, seq.; Deut. xix. 6, 12; Josh. xx. 3; 2 Sam. xiv. 11). His business was to see that the offender should not escape, but that he who slew should himself be slain. Such a person was recognized in all Oriental nations; such a person is found everywhere in the rude stages of society. Among American savages this duty devolved, as elsewhere, on the nearest kinsman; and, among these tribes, it became the business of life to pursue the guilty, to seek him out, and to accomplish his death,—or if vengeance could not be wrought by the kinsman himself, and on the offender, the duty devolved on his descendant in the next generation to take such revenge on some one of the tribe to which the offender belonged.

It was not easy to regulate this matter, so as to save from the outburst of passion an innocent man who might be suspected. Nor was it easy to abolish the custom, because the principle was deeply laid in the structure of ancient society. Moses, therefore, who could not at once abrogate it among the Hebrews, sought to control and restrain it, so that the guilty only should suffer. He appointed "Cities of Refuge" to which the manslayer might flee (Num. xxxv. 10—15), and where he would be safe until the case could be properly determined by the forms of law. Subsequently, also, the horns of the altar became a place of reiuge, from which even the guilty could not be torn by violence for the satisfaction of private vengeance (1 Kings ii. 28). Thus, too, in the middle ages, the altar in the sanctuary was regarded as a place of safety from popular violence.

It is manifest, from all this, that there is in the bosom of man a deep conviction of the necessity of punishment, even when that punishment cannot be regulated by law. The "avenger of blood" was the minister of justice,—one who represented what every man felt to be a carrying out of the Divine purpose in the infliction of vengeance.

(4.) The same thing is true in regard to the laws of men. As the world advances in civilization, arrangements for the punishment of crime enter into all laws, and are essential to the organization of civil society. No civil government would be complete without courts, and prisons, and instruments of punishment; or without an array of officers whose business it is to ferret out the guilty, and to bring them to trial. Arrangements for detecting the guilty, and for punishing them, are as universal, and as essential, as houses, and barns, and roads, and bridges, and legislative halls, and graveyards; and we should as soon expect to find a civilized community without the one as the other.

As civilization has made progress in the world, numerous arrangements have also been adopted on the same principle as the appointment of cities of refuge to be places of safety from the avenger of blood. The whole matter of punishment has been taken from the hands of those related to the injured or murdered man, and placed in the hands of independent and impartial men,—the appointed officers of the law; and it is required that those who occupy that position shall be impartial, upright, incorruptible men, who can be confided in alike by the accuser and the accused.

It is material to observe that, while society has made constant advances, still the same principle is recognized, that all this is demanded as connected with the Divine government over the world. The judge, the subordinate officers of justice, the jurymen, are alike the "ministers of God." Each one is appointed under the idea of a general sense of justice implanted in the soul of man; thus carrying out the sentiment in the minds of these barbarians, that justice should be done; and that there is, and should be, an arrangement in the world to secure the punishment of the guilty. This was my first proposition.

II. The second point proposed to be considered was, that there is a process or arrangement under the Divine government by which crime will be detected and punished. This was evidently the belief of these islanders; and it is my purpose now to show that this belief was founded on a state of things which was then open to observation, and which exists everywhere; and that it is not of human invention, but that it lies in the very structure of society —in the very nature of man.

This might be proved in reference to all crime; all forms of guilt. The boy at school who does a wrong to another boy on the supposition that it will be undiscovered, or the boy who in the same way robs an orchard at night, is often surprised to find that the act was known,—that there was some silent observer of what he was doing,—or that some circumstance of which he was not aware has brought his deed out to the light of noonday.

But it will be more appropriate to illustrate this in reference to the particular subject referred to in the narrative,—the commission of an act of murder. These islanders believed that the "goddess of vengeance" would not suffer the murderer to go undetected and unpunished; and that, though the offender had survived one peril—the danger of the sea—yet that another method of punishment had been in reserve, making it impossible that he should escape. They were in error in supposing that this particular thing was proof on the point; but they were in the right in believing that there is an arrangement designed to find out the murderer, and to ensure his punishment. It has passed into a proverb that "murder will out." The following things may in few words be referred to,—all of which are to be regarded as a part of the Divine arrangement for that purpose; that is, as things which cannot be explained on any other supposition than that.

(1.) There is the awakened vigilance in every community on the commission of an act of murder, making every man feel that he has a personal interest and a personal responsibility in securing, if he can, the detection and punishment of the murderer; in the fact that every man is at once—so to speak—turned into a "detective," to find out the criminal, and to bring him to justice.

(2.) The difficulty of covering up or concealing the crime, so that it shall not be discovered,—a difficulty which is often so palpable, and so wonderful, as to lead to the belief that there is some special Divine agency in preventing the obliteration of all the marks and evidences of guilt. In itself considered, it would not seem to be difficult to obliterate all traces of a murder; to place the knife where it could not be found; to cleanse the axe so that it should not betray the blood upon it; to burn a garment so that it should not reveal the stain; or to consume a body by fire or by some chemical agency, or to hide it by burial, so that no traces of it could be found. Yet nothing is more difficult. Dr. Webster, an accomplished chemist, undertook to hide the evidence of murder by destroying, by chemical process, the body of his victim;—yet it was done in a manner so unskilful and so unscientif1c as to lead to detection, and to elicit the profane remark of another chemist that "he could forgive him for the murder, but not for the want of chemical skill in disposing of the body."

(3.) The very slight circumstances through which detection occurs may be referred to as another illustration of this point. A lock of hair; a footprint in the snow or on the sand; an unguarded remark; the possession of some article of little or no value;—any one of a thousand things in themselves apparently trifling may lead to the discovery.

(4.) We might advert to the madness and folly of him who has committed the crime,—as if abandoned by God. Remorse, compelling him to confess the crime; indications of guilt in sleep, too,—troubled dreams, the language of a guilty conscience;—the fear of every man (" I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond on the earth," said the first murderer; "and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me shall slay me"),—such things as these betray the murderer, and justify the deep feeling of men everywhere, that, under the Divine government, such crime is sure to be detected and punished.

III. We are prepared now to consider the third point which was to be illustrated,—that there is a general conviction among men that it is proper and right that this should be so. Beyond all doubt these barbarian islanders acquiesced in the arrangement. They not only saw in the fastening of the viper on the hand of the stranger what they regarded as proof that he was a guilty man, but what they regarded as a proof of that which was just and right in the case. On no subject have the sentiments of men been more decided and unanimous than on the conviction that the guilty SHOULD be punished. It would be necessary that the whole structure of society should be altered, and a universal change made in the affairs of men, if this should cease to be the belief of mankind. The belief is equally universal, (when men express themselves freely), that punishment should be for crime; that it is designed to be an expression of the evil of the crime as such; and that, as far as it can be, it is a just measure of the evil of the crime committed. This point is material to the subject; and the views entertained on this affect the whole question of justice and punishment.

There are, indeed, prevailing theories in regard to punishment, which are directly in conflict with this view; but these theories are at variance with human nature as God has made it. They are the results of a morbid sensibility; of false compassion for the guilty; of the aversion of the heart to the idea of punishment,— especially of punishment in the future world. They proceed on the supposition that all the objects of punishment can be accomplished in this life, and that punitive suffering will not extend beyond the grave.

(a) We may observe here, that punishment is not primarily for the reformation of the guilty. Whether it contemplates that at all, or is fitted to secure that, is a secondary question. It is never the direct and immediate object. Certainly this is not, and cannot be, the purpose in inflicting capital punishment; and as capital punishment has been practised in all nations, this fact proves that in the estimation of mankind such is not the design of punishment. Such punishment has not in itself a tendency to reform the guilty. There is no evidence that such result is ever secured by stripes, and chains, and manacles, and hard fare, and excessive toil. It is by the introduction of moral influences; by the self-sacrifices of Howard, not by the stern sentence of law, as pronounced by Jeffries.

(b.) In like manner the design of punishment is not mere restraint; not the mere securing of a community against the commission of crime. That this may be one object of punishment is to be admitted; but it is not the main purpose. The moral sense of mankind would not be met and satisfied by this.

(c.) There is, then, a higher idea of punishment than either of these. It is founded on the fact that it is deserved; that justice demands it; that it would be wrong not to inflict it, even though there might be the most abundant security that the crime would not be repeated if the offender were allowed to go at large.

(d.) When punishment is inflicted,—when the murderer dies, the world at large acquiesces in it as right. Men may have no ill-will toward the murderer; no desire that he should suffer; no personal wrong to be revenged; no private feelings to be gratified; no pleasure in his sufferings as such; but they would not dare to interpose to rescue him from the hands of the officers of the law. They do not feel that these officers have done wrong, or stained their hands with guilt in condemning him and in putting him to death. Those officers of the law have done what law appointed; what justice demanded. Vengeance, justice, God, and the sense of right in man, required that it should be done.

In conclusion I remark,

(1.) That these things have been written in the human heart by the hand of God Himself. They would not have been implanted in man, they would not have been found everywhere, if they had not been founded on truth,—if there were not such a thing as justice; if justice did not demand punishment; if punishment were not right. The feelings are a counterpart—a transcript of the mind of God. We cannot believe that the Creator has implanted false and delusive notions in the heart of man; that He intends to make use of a falsehood in order to govern the world ; or that He designs great arrangements in society to be made and perpetuated on illusion and deception.

(2.) The sinner lives in a world over which a just Being presides, and where punishment of guilt is a part of His arrangement as essential as any other thing that pertains to moral government. This is not a world of mere mercy. It is not a world of mere benevolence. It is a world where there is justice, and where justice demands punishment.

(3.) Wherever the sinner goes, this demand will follow him. If he escapes one danger, it will follow him still. If he is rescued from the perils of the sea, the demand follows him when he places his foot on the land, whether the land be barbarous or civilized. If he escapes from this world and flees to another, it will follow him there.

(4.) The universe will assent to the final punishment of the sinner. "Even so, Lord God Almighty," will be their language, "true and righteous are Thy judgments" (Rev. xvi. 7). In the fearful doom of the wicked all worlds will acquiesce, for all the inhabitants of those worlds will yet see it to be right.

(5.) Finally. There is a way in which the guilty may escape from impending judgment. The Son of God— the Lord Jesus—has died for men, "the just for the unjust." He "has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we, like sheep, have gone astray; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. liii. 4—6). In Him the guilty may find pardon and peace; through Him the pardoned sinner will be safe on sea or land; whoso believeth on Him will be no more exposed to wrath in this world or in the world to come.