Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 012. The Punishment

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 012. The Punishment

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The Punishment

My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the ground; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that whosoever findeth me shall slay me.… And the Lord appointed a sign for Cain, lest any finding him should smite him.- Gen_4:13-15.

1. When Cain said, “My punishment is greater than I can bear,” what was the situation? What was the principal element in it? Mainly this-the presence of God with Cain after his sin. This, then, is the explanation of the sinner's suffering and pain. It is one and the same thing which creates the pain of the punishment and provides the hope of a happy issue-the presence of God with the sinner after he has sinned. And the first evidence of the presence of God is the acknowledgment of sin.

O crueller far than Cain,

Cain, ignorant of death

Till Abel lay there slain,

Who had not heard

The yet unuttered word

From God's great breath,

“Thou shalt not kill:”-

O crueller far than Cain

Am I who still,

All knowing, stain the Rood

With innocent Blood.1 [Note: Wilfrid Meynell, Verses and Reverses (1913), 45.]

2. In the punishment of Cain there is mercy mingled with judgment. “The brand of Cain” has become an almost proverbial expression, but the sinister significance of the term is derived from a partial misapprehension of the episode related in the text. The Authorized Version of the Old Testament suggested that the fratricide was branded with some stigma which was at once a sign of his offence and a protection against the violence of the avenger of blood. This mark has been interpreted as being both a talisman against injury and a badge of disgrace, the stamp-mark of a wandering criminal for whom the death-sentence had been commuted into a decree of perpetual banishment. But the record of Genesis does not speak of the brand of Cain, but of a sign appointed by God. It was not a mark for the identification of the murderer, but a token of redemptive compassion and consideration on the part of God. What the token was we are not told, but its general character may be inferred from the records of guarantees of a similar nature which are given in the Old Testament. These signs of God's mercy were of various forms, but they all indicated His condescending presence and promise. The most universal of such tokens was the appointment of the rainbow as a sign that God would no more destroy all flesh with the waters of a flood. Gideon and others obtained signs from God as the assurance of His assistance and protection. In the same manner God appointed a sign for Cain which assured him that his life should be preserved inviolate by the shielding hand of God. The narrative also seems to imply that this sign of God's guardianship would assume, when occasion required, a perceptible and effectual shape, to warn the avenger that Cain's life was safeguarded by the mercy of God. We are familiar with the expression “the brand of Cain,” and we are familiar with the bitter meaning of it as expressed by Newman, but we must not think that that is its meaning as the word occurs in Genesis.

I bear upon my brow the sign

Of sorrow and of pain;

Alas! no hopeful cross is mine,

It is the brand of Cain.

The course of passion, and the fret

Of Godless hope and fear,-

Toil, care, and guilt,-their hues have set,

And fix'd their sternness there.

Saviour! wash out the imprinted shame;

That I no more may pine,

Sin's martyr, though not meet to claim

Thy cross, a saint of Thine.1 [Note: J. H. Newman, Verses on Various Occasions.]

3. The wonder of God's grace is shown in the granting of a special redemptive sign to a murderer. It is difficult to conceive of a more startling representation of God's relation to a sinner. Here is one guilty of such an unspeakable crime that he is cursed from the fruit-bearing ground to be a fugitive and a vagabond on the face of the earth. The ground is still red with his brother's life which he has spilt. Yet the echoes of God's awful words, “The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground,” have scarcely died away when we find God making a covenant of mercy with him, and hedging His judgment round with reassuring signs of redemptive interposition. The gracious God is already making a covenant of mercy with Cain. It is the glory of God's grace to follow and pardon and save the chief of sinners. The redeeming God does not shrink from the touch of the grossly polluted soul, but rather is ready to receive it without delay into the fellowship of grace.

We are, perhaps, inclined to take a too superficial view of this matter; to work it out on the analogy of the law-courts and their processes. The sinner is in the dock; God, representing the law of righteousness, is on the bench; and one by one the man's sins pass before the Judge and the sinner and bear witness against him; and then the verdict: let him be beaten with many stripes. That is something like what we think; but that is to see the Divine method mirrored in an earthly mirror, and to forget what manner of men we are, and what is the nature of Him who sits in judgment over us. The world could never thus be saved from sin; this method is too superficial, too legalistic, too formalistic; it is not spiritual. You cannot idealize the process of the law-courts, and so reach the Divine method of dealing with sin; it is not the whole truth to say that God deals with the sinner as a judge would deal with a criminal, supposing the judge to embody perfect wisdom and perfect justice, and the man's crime to be utterly disclosed. Indeed it is very little of the truth to say that; for the most important elements in the situation as between God and the sinner are omitted. God is not simply an external authority sitting on a throne like a king, or on a judgment seat like a judge. He is the Divine Life that inheres in all that He has made; and therefore in a most real sense He Himself is in the sinner who is to be judged and punished for his sin. Again, a judge sits upon the bench simply as the embodiment of justice; he is there simply to see that the claims of justice are satisfied; his position means that; God, on the other hand, is perfect Justice; but God's perfect justice is simply an expression of perfect Love; and He judges, and punishes the sinner not simply that the claims of justice may be satisfied, but that the claims of love also may be satisfied. Again, when a judge gives a verdict he does so in the name of the law, and his function is ended when satisfaction has been rendered to the violated law; the ends of his office are served when the dignity of the violated law has been vindicated, whatever may happen to the criminal; but when God judges a sinner He does so in the name of Love, and His ends are not realized until the sinner is cleansed from his sin, and is worthily reconciled to the Father.

If you feel in your conscience that you are as guilty as Cain, and if sins clamour around you which are as dangerous as his, and which cry out for judgment upon you, accept the assurance that the blood of Christ has a yet louder cry for mercy. If you had been Abel's murderer, would you have been justly afraid of God's anger? Be as sure of God's mercy now. If you had stood over his lifeless body and seen the earth refusing to cover his blood; if you felt the stain of it crimson on your conscience, and if by night you started from your sleep striving vainly to wash it from your hands; if by every token you felt yourself exposed to a just punishment, your fear would be just and reasonable, were nothing else revealed to you. But there is another blood equally indelible, equally clamorous. In it you have in reality what is elsewhere pretended in fable, that the blood of the murdered man will not wash out, but through every cleansing oozes up again a dark stain on the oaken floor. This blood can really not be washed out, it cannot be covered up and hid from God's eye, its voice cannot be stifled, and its cry is all for mercy.1 [Note: Marcus Dods.]

In the wound of Thy right Hand

Each earthly toil I view;

By Thee my efforts stand,

Thine arm doth bring me through.

Hail, Holy Blood! Life-spring of every nerve,

Strengthen my heart to worship, will, and serve.

In Thy left Hand's purple stream

Each deed of love I lave,

Till of them all I deem

As steeped in that bright wave:

Hail, Holy Wounds, my worthless actions fill:

Upon their lifelessness Thy dews distil.

In Thy right Foot's holy scar

My spirit-vision sees

Dimly and from afar,

Thy human sympathies.

Lord, may Thy sacred Footprints day by day

Mark for our feet the true and perfect way!

In Thy left Foot's crimson track

Thy fainting steps I trace,

When Thou didst fetch me back,

A wanderer, from the waste:

Hail, sacred Feet that did the wine-press tread

Of Heaven's fierce wrath, and healing virtue shed.

In Thy loving Heart's red wound

Thy Church her cares may steep;-

Within its depths inhumed

May wait, and watch, and weep.

O, bleeding Lamb, our Saviour and our Guide,

Our all Thou art, and there is none beside!