The Sleuths

The Sleuths

What quests the world has witnessed! In my boyhood days we were thrilled every now and again by the daring attempt of some gallant explorer to reach one or other of the Poles. The adventure was invariably whelmed in failure, if not in disaster; and few of us really believed that the Poles would ever be discovered.

Think of the forty expeditions that set out, one after another, to ascertain what had become of Sir John Franklin and his companions, who, in their endeavour to open up a passage through the ice from the Atlantic into the Pacific, had vanished into the eternal silences!

Think, too, of the efforts of ancient and modern peoples to find the head-waters of the Nile! Is there anything more affecting, in the annals of geographical research, than the story of the anguish of Livingstone on realizing that, with his strength spent and the sands of existence running out, the object of his passionate quest still eluded him? ‘The fountains!’ he murmured, in his last delirium, as he threw himself down to die in old Chitambo’s village at Ilala in East Africa, ‘The fountains of Herodotus! The sources of the Nile!’ But it was not within his power to find them.

And think of the long and tireless searches for lost ships! Before the introduction of wireless, a great liner would lose her propeller or break her shaft; and scores of other vessels would comb the vast oceanic spaces for weeks and months looking for the drifting and helpless steamer. And in many cases, as in the case of the Waratah, the search was all in vain.

But, of all such searches, the strangest and most intriguing is the search of which the prophet Jeremiah tells. “ ‘In those days, and in the that time,’ saith the Lord, ‘the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for and there shall be none; and the sons of Judah, and they shall not be found: for I will pardon them.’ ” (Jeremiah 50:20)

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It will ransack the loftiest mountains and scour the loneliest valleys; it will comb the sands of the endless deserts, traverse the labyrinths of the darkest mines, pierce the tangle of the densest jungles, penetrate the silence of the eternal snows. It will search the dizziest heights above and the dreariest depths beneath; it will climb the steep ascent of heaven and rattle at the gates of hell. The immensities, the infinities and the eternities will all be sifted and scanned.

The thought fills me with some such terror as Tom Hood describes in his Dream of Eugene Aram. The guilty schoolmaster tried to conceal his horrid crime beneath the water of the rivulet; but, when he returned to the spot, ‘he saw the dead in the river bed, for the faithless steam was dry’. Frantically he hastened to hide it among the debris of the forest; but, when he came once more to the spot, ‘a might wind had swept the leaves and still the course was bare’. It could not and would not be hid.

I tremble lest my experience should be a duplicate of his. Where are my sins – the sins for which that celestial or infernal expedition will so tirelessly and exhaustively search? Are they secreted where no hound of heaven or sleuth of hell can find them, though, by night and by day, he search never so diligently?

 

Where are my sins? In my anxiety I determined to inquire. I opened my Bible. I found that the Old Testament is dominated by the Prophets – the Minor Prophets and the Major Prophets. I decided to ask one of each. I found that the New Testament is dominated by the Apostles, among whom Peter and Paul stand out conspicuously. I would address my earnest question to each of them.

I

As a representative of the Minor Prophets, I consulted Micah. Micah has a good deal to say about sin, and I somehow felt that he would sympathize. ‘Where are my sins?’ I asked him. And he replied without a moment’s hesitation. ‘They are in the depths of the sea!’ he averred. He has cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.

The depths of the sea! The scientists tell me that there are profundities of ocean that have never been plumbed. Those depths are so dark that the water is as black as ink; they are so cold that the poles are warm in comparison: the pressure is so great that nothing will sink to them. If a battleship could be forced into that watery abyss, it would be crushed to pieces like a child’s toy. Nothing can exist there. The depths of the sea! He has cast all our sins into the depths of the sea!

Sheila O’Gahagan was a factory girl in Ireland. Her health was very frail and she was advised to try the effect of a holiday by the side of the sea. But, in her heart of hearts, she was perplexed by matter that struck much deeper than the matter of her health. She was troubled by that very ancient problem, that very modern problem, that universal problem, that individual problem – the problem of human sin. One day, as she sat, with her Bible on her knee, looking out on the wilderness of waves as they broke upon the basalt cliffs of the Giants’ Causeway, she came upon this passage in Micah. ‘The depths of the sea!’ she said to herself as she surveyed the blue horizon, ‘the depths of the sea! My sins are all cast in the depths of the sea!’ And when, a few months later, she passed peacefully away, some verses were found in her desk. Until then none of her friend had the slightest suspicion that she possessed any gift for poetry. But Micah’s great proclamation had set her soul singing:

I will cast in the depths of the fathomless sea
All thy sins and transgressions, whatever they be;
Though they mount up to heaven, though they sink down to hell,
They shall sink in the depths and above them shall swell
All the waves of My mercy, so mighty and free!’
I will cast all thy sins in the depths of the sea.

There are several verses, but they are all to the same effect. Our sins, once forgiven, are hidden where they can never be found. They are in the fathomless depths of the sea!

II

As a representative of the Major Prophets, I sought the counsel of the most evangelistic of them all. I vaguely felt that Isaiah would probably have something to say that would comfort me. Nor was I mistaken. “Where are my sins?’ I asked him. ‘Are they where they can never be found?’ And Isaiah replied, as Micah had done, without a second’s delay. ‘They are behind God’s back,’ he declared. Thou hast cast all my sins behind thy back.

Behind God’s back! And where is that? I seem familiar with the realm before God’s face. The angels are there. And, looking into that divine countenance they behold the celestial gladness excited by a prodigal’s return. There is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner that repenteth. But behind God’s back! What does that mean?

What does it mean if a man suddenly turns his back upon me and angrily walks away? It means, of course, that he wishes to have nothing further to do with me. And that is precisely what Almighty God means when He turns His back on my transgressions. He means that He never wants to see them or hear of them again: He will have nothing further to do with them. He cuts them dead. He snubs them out of existence.

‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’ He says. ‘Get thee behind me, Sin!’ It is the proper place for Satan and for Sin – behind God’s back. It is the chaotic and abysmal limbo reserved for all the flotsam and the jetsam, all the rubbish and the refuse, all the scum and the scourings of the spiritual universe – the bottomless vacuum to which He relegates all the things that He does not wish to see, indeed, that He wish not to see again for ever and for evermore. And there, behind His back, are all my sins! No place, Isaiah tells me, could be more secure.

III

Crossing the frontier from the Old Testament to the New, I sought to avail myself of the consecrated wisdom of the Apostles, Peter first of all. ‘Where are my sins?’ I asked him. Peter looked at me in surprise. ‘Your sins!’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, they have been borne away – borne into the oblivion of everlasting forgetfulness – borne away by the Lamb of God, who, in His own person, bore our sins in His own body up to the Tree!’

With one, the authorities agree that Peter’s phrase is an allusion to the impressive symbolism of the dismissal and dereliction of the Scapegoat. It happened on the great Day of Atonement. The High Priest took two goats. Having sacrificed one of them upon the altar, he laid both his hands upon the other, confessing over it the transgressions of the people. He put their sins upon the head of the goat, as the Levitical phrase expressively puts it. And then he committed the goat into the custody of a trustworthy person, to be driven away into the wild desolate country at the back of the wilderness, where it would never, never, never be seen or heard of again.

‘He shall put their sins upon the head of the goat,’ says the Levitical record. ‘The Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all,’ echoes the fifty-third of Isaiah. My sins, Peter assures me, have been borne away – carried to some weird never-never country, some mysterious no-man’s-land – a land not inhabited – a land where neither angels nor devils, neither God nor man, will find the slightest trace of them any more.

IV

From Peter I turn to Paul. ‘Where are my sins?’ I asked him. One of these days, I explained, they will be searched for: are they where neither heaven nor hell can find them?

‘Your sins!’ Paul exclaimed. “Why, they are nailed to the Cross! The Son of God took the whole list of them – the handwriting that was against you – and nailed it to His Cross, glorying as He did so, in its utter extinction and complete annihilation!

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Nailed to His Cross! There are, in the churches and convent, the monasteries and the museums of the world, enough fragment of the Holy Cross to build a forest of crosses. Sort them out; sift the true (if any) from the false; fit the genuine pieces together like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle; and when you have completed the restoration of the original Cross, then, but not till then, you will find my sins!

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin; not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to His cross; and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord; oh, my soul!

V

When I was a small boy I often spent an hour on Sunday evening in poring over the pages of a magnificent copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The immense volume was profusely and attractively illustrated. The pictures divided themselves in my mind into two groups. There were the pictures that represented Christian in rags and tatters, groaning beneath the heavy burden of his sins, and there were the pictures that represented him striding along the pilgrim path in his broidered suit and with the dreadful burden gone. How, I used to wonder, did he lose that crushing load?

Amidst the jeers of his old companions, he left the City of Destruction; but that did not relieve his back of the burden. You do not get rid of your sins by breaking with your former habits and associates.

Meeting Mr. Evangelists, he had long talks with him as to the way of salvation; but that did not loose the load from his shoulders. You do not get rid of your sins by getting into touch with the Church.

He spent some time in Mr. Interpreter’s house, probing the deeper mysteries of the kingdom of God. But that did not free him from his burden. You do not get rid of your sins by an exhaustive study of prophecy or theology or philosophy.

But at length he came to the Cross. ‘And I saw in my dream that, just as Christian came up with the Cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in and I saw it no more!’

‘I saw it no more,’ says Bunyan. Nor has anybody else. For when a man loses his sins, as Christian lost his, they are cast into the depths of the sea; they are hurled behind God’s back; they are borne away by the heavenly Scapegoat to a land not inhabited; they are nailed to the Cross; they are dead and done with to all eternity. And though the hounds of heaven and sleuth of hell, with eyes behind and before, search without ceasing, and search through all the ages, their search must be futile. Those sins will never be found, for God Himself has forgiven and forgotten them: He has expunged them from His very memory: my sins and iniquities will He remember no more

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