Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 5:8 - 5:8

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Great Texts of the Bible by James Hastings - Matthew 5:8 - 5:8

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The Pure in Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.—Mat_5:8.

If there be in the bright constellation of the Beatitudes one particular star, it is this text. If in blessedness there be a crown of blessedness, it is here. If there be a character that in its very quintessence is spiritual, it is this. And if there be a delight above all conceivable delights, it is that which is promised in these well-known words. So lofty a verse is this, that it is one of the texts which the preacher trembles to take, and yet is continually impelled to take, that at least he may teach himself if he cannot teach other people, and that preacher and congregation together may do a little towards climbing up to summits which seem like the far-off Alpine heights.

Oh, snow so pure, Oh, peak so high,

I shall not reach you till I die.

Yet lofty and remote as they seem, these words are in truth among the most hopeful and radiant that ever came even from Christ’s lips. For they offer the realization of an apparently impossible character. They promise the possession of an apparently impossible vision. They soothe fears, and tell us that the sight from which, were it possible, we should sometimes shrink, is the source of our purest gladness.


The Vision

“They shall see God”; what do these words mean? In their widest and fullest significance they must remain to us an eternal mystery. They express the object around which all the hopes and fears of the best men of the human race have always gathered, and around which they are gathering still. To see God has been the ultimate aim of all philosophy; it is the ultimate hope of all science, and it will ever remain the ultimate desire of all nations.

In all the nobler religions which the world has seen, we can trace an endeavour to rise to a vision of God. The Brahmin on the burning plains of the East gave up all the present charm of life, and, renouncing ease and love, passed his years in silent thought, hoping to be absorbed into the Eternal. The Greek philosopher spoke of passions that clogged the soul’s wings, and desires that darkened its piercing eye, and he strove to purge his spirit from them by philosophy, that he might free its pinions and quicken its sight for beholding the Infinite. And in this light we can understand how the monks in the Middle Ages became so marvellously earnest. These men felt a Presence around their path which at one time appeared to reveal itself like a dream of splendour, and at another swept like a vision of terror across the shuddering heart; and to behold Him they crushed their longings for fellowship, steeled their hearts to the calls of affection, and alone, in dens and deserts, hoped, by mortifying the body, to see God in the soul. In a word, the dream which has haunted the earnest of our world, has ever been this—to be blessed, man must know the Eternal. Christ proclaims that dream to be a fact—they are blessed who see God.1 [Note: E. L. Hull, Sermons, i. 155.]

1. To see God is to stand on the highest point of created being. Not until we see God—no partial and passing embodiment of Him, but the abiding Presence—do we stand upon our own mountain-top, the height of the existence which God has given us, and up to which He is leading us. That there we should stand is the end of our creation. This truth is at the heart of everything, means all kinds of completions, may be uttered in many ways; but language will never compass it, for form will never contain it. Nor shall we ever see, that is, know, God perfectly. We shall indeed never absolutely know man or woman or child; but we may know God as we never can know human being, as we never can know ourselves. We not only may, but we must, so know Him, and it can never be until we are pure in heart.

Religion largely lies in the consciousness of our true relation to Him who made us; and the yearning for the realization of this consciousness found constant expression in Tennyson’s works and conversation. Perhaps its clearest expression is to be found in his instructions to his son: “Remember, I want ‘Crossing the Bar’ to be always at the end of all my works.”

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crossed the Bar.

When in answer to the question, What was his deepest desire of all? he said, “A clearer vision of God,” it exactly expressed the continued strivings of his spirit for more light upon every possible question, which so constantly appear in his poems.1 [Note: Tennyson and His Friends, 305.]

Is not the Vision He? tho’ He be not that which He seems?

Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?

Earth, these solid stars, this weight of body and limb,

Are they not sign and symbol of thy division from Him?

Dark is the world to thee: thyself art the reason why;

For is He not all but that which has power to feel “I am I”?

Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,

Making Him broken gleams, and a stifled splendour and gloom.

And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;

But if we could see and hear, this Vision—were it not ?Hebrews 2 [Note: Tennyson, The Higher Pantheism.]

2. To see God is to be admitted into His immediate presence and friendship. In the court language of ancient Oriental despotisms, where the Sovereign was revered as if he were the vicegerent of Heaven, to “see the king’s face” stood for the highest felicity of the most favoured subjects. It was the petition of the disgraced prince Absalom, after he had for two full years resided in the capital without being received at his father’s palace: “Now therefore let me see the king’s face; and if there be iniquity in me, let him kill me!” “Happy are these thy servants,” said the African queen to Solomon; happy in this, that they “stand continually before thee.” So the seven chief princes of the Medo-Persian Empire who sat first in the kingdom of Ahasuerus were they “which saw the king’s face.” The same magnificent phraseology passed from the court to the temple. In the Hebrew State, Jehovah was the national Sovereign; and the reigning king was, in no flattering hyperbole, but in constitutional law, His elected vicegerent. The temple was His palace, the most holy place His chamber of presence and of audience; and the one thing desired by His devout and favoured servants was to behold His beauty; their prayer, that His face would shine on them; their hope, to see His face in righteousness, and one day to be satisfied with His likeness.

In prayer there would sometimes come upon me such a sense of the Presence of God that I seemed to be all engulfed in God. I think the learned call this mystical experience; at any rate, it so suspends the ordinary operations of the soul that she seems to be wholly taken out of herself. This tenderness, this sweetness, this regale is nothing else but the Presence of God in the praying soul. God places the soul in His immediate Presence, and in an instant bestows Himself upon the soul in a way she could never of herself attain to. He manifests something of His greatness to the soul at such times: something of His beauty, something of His special and particular grace. And the soul enjoys God without dialectically understanding just how she so enjoys Him. She burns with love without knowing what she has done to deserve or to prepare herself for such a rapture. It is the gift of God, and He gives His gifts to whomsoever and whensoever He will.1 [Note: Saint Teresa.]

3. The theophany, or visible discovery of the Divine Being, which was given to the best period of Hebrew history, was a prefigure of the Incarnation—the chief theophany of all time—in which, through a human character and life, there has been discovered to us all the ethical beauty and splendour of the Godhead. To “see God” must now for ever mean nothing else than this: to see His “truth and grace” mirrored in the face of that Man, who alone of all men on earth “is of God, and hath seen the Father.”

We are in the world to see God. That is the final spiritual purpose of life. Across the cradle of the babe and the playtime of the girls and boys this purpose ever falls. It can be forgotten and frustrated, but as life’s highest possibility and truest destiny it is always with us. It follows the prodigal in his wandering, the fool in his folly, the strong man in his wilfulness. It is all-inclusive. It waits men in the quiet places of thought, and in the clangour of the world’s work. The student, the book-writer, the weaver at his loom, the buyer and seller, the woman mid her household cares—the vision is close to them all. It is before us in the sunlight and the green earth, it is about us in all the grace and trust and intimacy of home life. In youth and age, in gladness and in grieving, the vision waits. And most of all the vision draws near to us in the life of Him who said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.”1 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, The Blessed Life, 132.]

Through all the complexities of Christ’s mind and mission, how essentially single His spirit and simple His method—rare as morning air, limpid as spring water, clear as a running brook, ever standing in the truth, utterly veracious and sublimely superior to worldly policy! Is not this, indeed, the meaning of that choice beatitude—among those beatitudes with their sevenfold colours like a rainbow round the throne of Christ—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”? Not the “immaculate”—it would be superfluous to say, “Blessed are the holy”—but rather those of pure intent and single spirit, free from duplicities in their motives. “Blessed” in that trueness of spirit which gives vision, that honest and unadulterated child-heart which enables us to see our Father-God and the Good everywhere.2 [Note: R. E. Welsh, Man to Man, 90.]

If clearer vision Thou impart,

Grateful and glad my soul shall be;

But yet to have a purer heart

Is more to me.

Yea, only as the heart is clean

May larger vision yet be mine,

For mirrored in its depths are seen

The things divine.3 [Note: Walter C. Smith, Poetical Works, 478.]


The Condition of the Vision

There are three distinct kinds of sight. There is, first of all, physical sight, which depends chiefly on bodily organs, and which merely enables us to distinguish material objects from one another. Then, secondly, there is mental sight—the sight of the scientist and the poet. This faculty helps men to discover analogies and resemblances and connexions between dissimilar and distant things; and hence it gives rise to the metaphors and similes of poetry, and leads to the discovery of the laws of nature. It was the faculty of mental vision, for example, that led to the establishment of the widest scientific generalization, by suggesting to Newton that perhaps the earth might exercise the same influence of attraction upon the moon as it did upon a falling apple. Then, thirdly, there is spiritual sight, which belongs to the man of faith and pure heart. Spiritual vision enables men to see Him who is invisible.

I care not whether God’s self-revelation in the conscience be called an immediate vision of God in the experiences of conscience, or whether it be taken as an inference drawn from the data they supply. It is the truth contained in them; with one man it may be only implicitly felt in their solemn and mystic character; with another, explicitly and immediately seen emerging from them as they come, and making him the Seer of God rather than the reasoner about Him. In any case, the constitution of our moral nature is unintelligible, except as living in response to an objective Perfection pervading the universe with Holy Law.1 [Note: James Martineau, A Study of Religion, ii. 28.]

1. God cannot be seen by the eye of sense. Of course, we know that; we admit it at once; and yet men have an idea that God was nearer to the patriarchs, and the people in the early days who, in a vision or in some way or other—we hardly know how—did see God; and though they do not know what heaven is, they think that somehow or other, by and by, in another state, they will see and consciously have a sensible vision. It cannot be. “Eye hath not seen,” and eye can never see. And God is not seen by reason. Doubtless if reason were freed from all clogs and hindrances and drawbacks, if it worked with perfect clearness and completeness, we might reason about God; but even so we should conclude and argue and infer; we should not see. Nor by imagination. Imagination may do a great deal, but the danger with regard to it is that we deceive ourselves, that we worship our own fancies, and that the image below us is one which we see in a mirror, and which we ourselves have, so to speak, created. And God cannot be seen by means of traditional knowledge, though that is very good. One hopes that religious knowledge will continually be handed on from parents to children, and that the children are being taught in all that is good, and that they learn that God is infinite and eternal and omniscient; and well indeed that so they should learn. But they do not see Him by that process. And faith—faith can do a great deal. It has a marvellous power of transporting us beyond ourselves, and beyond the world of the seen and tangible; but faith itself is opposed to sight, and though faith can trust and obey, it cannot see.

You know that your friend is never seen by the eye of the body; you can discern a form, a figure, a countenance, by which you know that he is near; but that is not the friend you love; you discern him spiritually; you understand his inner character; you know his truth, his nobleness, his affection, his charity—all these the eye of sense cannot see. A stranger does not see him thus; he sees only the visible form and feature which imperfectly represent the qualities of mind and heart which you know; but you see in that friend things which were invisible to the other. It is in this sense—in understanding the truth and goodness, in feeling the pity and charity, in holding communion with the loving spirit of the Father—that Christ speaks of seeing God.1 [Note: E. L. Hull, Sermons, i. 159.]

Science is teaching us now that at each end of the spectrum, beyond the red rays and the violet rays, there are rays of light which our eyes cannot perceive. We know perfectly well that there are notes of music too acute or too grave for our ears to apprehend them. Do they not exist, then, though the ear cannot hear them? And so in religious matters, even though we are regular worshippers in the Lord’s house, and profess to know a great deal about Christianity, we may be as blind men walking in a gallery of pictures or—I will not say as deaf men, but—as a large number of those who go to a Beethoven concert.2 [Note: W. T. Davison.]

2. The vision of God is possible only to the pure in heart. The word “pure” as ordinarily used, in Hebrew, in Greek, and in English, means “without alloy,” “clean,” “clear,” “simple,” “single.” It is applied, in the Bible, to virgin gold, to a clean table or candlestick, to flawless glass, to unmixed oil, and to water that is only water. It does not necessarily involve a moral element. It never stands for absolute sinlessness of being. Hence it is to be taken, in the Sermon on the Mount as well as elsewhere, when connected with “heart,” or “mind,” as meaning “single,” “simple,” “unmixed.” The “pure in heart” are those whose minds, or very selves, are single, simple, undivided and unalloyed in one aim and purpose.

Single-mindedness, or simple-mindedness, is a characteristic of childhood. A child is all attent to one thing at a time, looking at that one thing with single eye and simpleness of mind; while double-mindedness, or divided thinking, is the peril of the full-grown person. How many things a keen-eyed child will see in an everyday walk that are unnoticed by the father whom he accompanies! The father has too many things in his mind, or on his mind, to observe that which, for the moment, is the all in all to the single-eyed and simple-minded—or, as the Bible would call it, the pure-hearted—child. Therefore it is that our Lord said to His maturer disciples: “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein” (Luk_18:17). The pure in heart are the child-minded. They shall see God, because when they are looking for Him they are not looking for anything else. Their eyes are single, their minds are undivided, and their whole being goes out towards the object of their search. They seek for God, and they find Him when they search for Him with all their mind.

He returned to the Abbey, and preached his sermon on the words, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” The short, simple discourse contained the last words that he spoke in Westminster Abbey. By one of those strange coincidences that seem more than chance, the subject of his sermon was the blessedness of purity of heart and life, which those who knew him best considered to be the distinguishing quality of his character and career. “The words,” he said, “may bear a twofold meaning—pure, disinterested love of truth, and pure and clean aversion to everything that defiles.” He goes on to give three examples of the blessedness of purity in men whose hearts and writings were pure, and who not only abstained from anything which could defile the soul, but fixed their eyes intently on those simple affections and those great natural objects of beauty which most surely guard the mind from corrupting influences. “And what,” he asks in the words which conclude his last sermon, “is the reason that our Saviour gives for this blessedness of the pure in heart? It is that they shall see God. What is the meaning of this connexion? It is because, of all the obstacles which can intervene between us and an insight into the invisible and the Divine, nothing presents so coarse and thick a veil as the indulgence of the impure passions which lower our nature, and because nothing can so clear up our better thoughts, and nothing leaves our minds so open to receive the impression of what is good and high, as the single eye and pure conscience, which we may not, perhaps, be able to reach, but which is an indispensable condition of having the doors of our mind kept open and the channel of communication kept free between us and the Supreme and Eternal Fountain of all purity and of all goodness.”1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, Life of Dean Stanley, ii. 567.]

I hardly know whether Dean Stanley’s last words will make an adequate impression upon the public. The Dean had begun on Saturday afternoons a course of sermons on the Beatitudes. In great weakness he finished the fourth sermon a little more than a week before his death, and for his text on that occasion he took two of the benedictions together, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” He illustrated his discourse from conspicuous monuments in the Abbey, taking sometimes one instance, and sometimes another, but I think that the Dean himself was the best instance of these two benedictions, for he was a merciful man, and as pure in heart as a little child. In some aspects of his character he was more like a little child than a full-grown man who had lived sixty-five years in the midst of this wicked world. In many aspects of its wickedness the world had never tainted his pure soul.2 [Note: Bishop Fraser’s Lancashire Life, 257.]

3. It is not enongh to be clean outside. In our Lord’s days much attention was paid by religious people to external purity. They had many ceremonies of washing. They washed nearly everything they used—not to make it clean, but to make it holy. They were quick to condemn any one who failed to observe all the rules for outward cleansing. Yet Jesus reproved them for their insincerity, for while they made clean the outside of the cup and the platter, within they were full of extortion and excess. He said they were like whited sepulchres, which appeared beautiful without, but within were full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. It is not enough to have a fair exterior; the heart must be pure. It is in the heart that God would live. The heart, too, is the centre of the life. If the heart be not holy, the life cannot be holy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” There is no fault in our Authorized Version in this passage, but the words “pure in heart” should be rendered in modern English, “clear in their affections.” These are the truly simple, who read Dante’s Ben del Intelletto—the vision of the Godhead. To be truly pure in heart is to search for one’s main duty and to set oneself to do it, subordinating to this life-task all other desires and all distractions of a more or less material kind.1 [Note: H. B. Garrod, Dante, Goethe’s Faust, and Other Lectures, 376.]

Bernard made signal to me with a smile

To look above; but of myself had I

Anticipated his desire the while;

For now my vision, clearer than before,

Within that Beam of perfect Purity

And perfect Truth was entering more and more.

From this time forward that which filled my sight

Became too lofty for our mortal strains;

And memory fails to take so vast a flight.2 [Note: Dante, Paradiso, xxxiii. 49–57 (trans. by Wright).]

In the Middle Ages, and sometimes since, men who desired earnestly to see the vision of God strove to attain it by asceticism—that is, by a sort of forced, mechanical purity. The mechanism, we believe, failed, for it was not appointed of God, but was a clumsy contrivance of men. Yet the attempt showed a recognition, however perverse, of the truth which Christ puts here so beautifully and simply. The same truth inspired the chivalrous legend of the Holy Grail. Many brave and worthy knights addressed themselves to the quest of the Sangreal, yearning to see the vision of the chalice that brimmed red with the very blood of God Incarnate, and to win the mysterious blessings which that vision brought. But to none was it given to accomplish the quest save to the pure in heart. The knight who could sing,

My strength is as the strength of ten,

Because my heart is pure—

he it was who was sanctified and consoled by the mystic vision

A gentle sound, an awful light!

Three angels bear the Holy Grail:

With folded feet, in stoles of white,

On sleeping wings they sail.

Ah, blessed vision! blood of God!

My spirit beats her mortal bars,

As down dark tides the glory slides,

And star-like mingles with the stars.

Sir Galahad no longer rides in harness on quests of knight-errantry; he labours without fame in the byways of life. But he is still consoled by the reward of purity, and endures as seeing Him who is invisible.1 [Note: C. A. Vince.]

4. There is no true purity apart from the absolute enthronement of God in the affections. It is not the absence of unholy affections, it is the presence of a holy and surpassing earnest love, that makes us really pure. Man is not made by negatives. It is not what the heart loves not, but what it loves, that makes the man: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” The soul is so supremely an altar that it must worship something in its inmost shrine; and unless it worship God there, it cannot be pure.

Jesus saw God reflected in His own soul. His own pure soul was a mirror in which spiritual imageship to the Heavenly Father was perfectly revealed. For us His thoughts were God’s thoughts. His love was God’s love. His will was God’s will. So perfectly at one with the holy Father was His pure heart that, when He looked into the depths of His own being, He had His profoundest revelations of the moral nature of His Father. There was no blur upon His soul. The cloudless likeness of the Heavenly Father was there. Alas, that upon our hearts the breath of sin has condensed itself so that we see in ourselves only a foggy image of God!

The truth in God’s breast

Lies trace upon trace on ours imprest:

Tho’ He is so bright, and we are so dim,

We were made in His image to witness Him.

The heart where “Christ dwells” is, so far as His residence there is unhindered and entire, the purified heart. Let Him be welcomed not into its vestibule only but into its interior chambers, and the Presence will itself be purity. Before Him so coming, so abiding, the strife of passion cannot but subside. Flowing out from His intimate converse there, the very love of God will mix itself with the motives and the movements of the will. The heart thus made the chamber of His life will by a sure law reflect His character; nay, it will find itself shaped and dilated by His heart, not from its exterior or circumference, but from its centre.1 [Note: H. C. G. Moule, Faith, 156.]

Mark Rutherford says, “The love of the beautiful is itself moral. What we love in it is virtue. A perfect form or a delicate colour is the expression of something which is destroyed in us by subjugation to the baser desires or meanness; and he who has been unjust to man or woman misses the true interpretation of a cloud or a falling wave.” In the light of this beatitude I think he is right. Sin does not cheat a man out of the fragrance of a rose, but it cheats him out of that sweeter soul-fragrance of Divine love that is folded in every petal. Sin does not veil from our eyes the fashion of things seen, but it obscures their eternal and spirit-satisfying meaning. The impure shall see all—except God. That is to say, they shall see nothing as it is. For the pure-hearted all the mystery of the waking earth tells something of the soul’s immortal story. Through the avenues of sight the pure heart goes on and finds insight. Through all that the ear can hear and the hand can touch, it passes into that real world that is so near to us all, if we but knew it, where failing voices utter unfailing messages and where beneath the ephemeral the soul finds the eternal.2 [Note: P. C. Ainsworth, The Blessed Life, 137.]

5. The vision of the pure in heart is its own exceeding blessedness. Holiness has in itself the elements of happiness. It frees us from a thousand sources of pain, the inward strife of the heart with itself, the condemning voice of conscience, the fret and worry of anxious worldly care, the bitterness of passion, anger, envy, jealousy, discontent, and a thousand thorns that spring in the soil of the natural heart—these roots are all removed and the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding,” keeps the heart and mind, and makes life a heaven below.

Horace Bushnell gives his own experience in these words: “Clear of all the vices, having a naturally active-minded, inquiring habit, never meaning to get away from the truth, one has yet relapsed into such doubt as to find that he has nearly lost the conviction of God, and cannot, if he would, say with emphasis that God exists. Such a one pacing in his chamber, comes some day suddenly upon the question—Is there then no truth that I do believe? Yes, there is one; there is a distinction of right and wrong, that I never doubted, and can see not how I can. Nay, I am even quite sure of this. Then forthwith starts up the question—Have I ever taken the principle of right for my law? Have I ever thrown my life out on it, to become all that it requires of me? No matter what becomes of my difficulties, if I cannot take a first principle so inevitably true and live in it. Here, then, will I begin, If there is a God, as I rather hope than dimly believe there is, then He is a right God. If I have lost Him in wrong, perhaps I shall find Him in right. Will He not help me, or, perchance, even be discovered to me? Then he prays to the dim God so dimly felt. It is an awfully dark prayer in the first look of it; but it is the truest and best that he can; the better and more true that he puts no orthodox colours on it; and the prayer and the vow are so profoundly meant that his soul is borne up with God’s help, as it were by some unseen chariot, and permitted to see the opening of heaven. He rises, and it is as if he had gotten wings. The whole sky is luminous about him. It is the morning of a new eternity. After this all troublesome doubt of God’s reality is gone. A being so profoundly felt must inevitably be.”1 [Note: C. H. Parkhurst, The Blind Man’s Creed, 215.]

The Pure in Heart


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Barrett (G. S.), Musings for Quiet Hours, 110.

Dykes (J. O.), The Manifesto of the King, 119.

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Wray (J. J.), Honey in the Comb, 59.

British Congregationalist, February 2, 1911 (J. H. Jowett).

Cambridge Review, v. Supplement No. 126 (G. Salmon).

Christian World Pulpit, xxix. 238 (J. Lloyd); xxxix. 12 (C. A. Vince); Ixvi. 337 (W. T. Davison); lxxxiii. 33 (J. S. Holden).