Leviticus 13:45. The leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.
The mercy of mercies is a Saviour given. But a Saviour given is a Saviour scorned until deep need is felt. Hence mercy superadds a gracious work. It paints a man’s malady in hideous tints. It drags a lurking monster into clear light. The conscious sufferer thus sees his plague and hastens to the healing fount. The leprosy subserved this end.
They err then who see nought but judgement in this foul disease. Keen was its woe. No cup of misery held more bitter drops. But still its voice allured to peace. It showed, in a long train of emblem, the complex loathsomeness of sin, that hence the evil might be more abhorred. Thus, when the time was come for Israel’s sons to gain new insight into redemption’s scheme, this malady appeared as an admonition to the soul. Thus too, when the great Healer trod our earth, the frequent leper received aid. The outward misery taught a deeper plague, while ready cure cast light on saving grace.
The malady crept on with stealthy step. It was not easily discerned. Here human skill was blind. The art most conversant in signs of sickness traced not these symptoms. Wisdom from on high was needed. The sanctuary must be sought. The anointed priest must search. His mind alone could ascertain. His lips alone could manifest the case.
Reader, turn now to that deep evil – sin. Its poison lurks within the veins. Its deadly venom spreads throughout the frame. Its deathful work is running on. But nature feels it not. The world has no detecting eye. Poor reason views it with no shuddering glance. The self-pleased fancy boasts of fancied health. Death is begun when all seems life. The plague devours, but ignorance sees not.
The dream must last until a power beyond man’s shall rouse the sleeper. This is the Spirit’s sole prerogative. He only can convince of sin. He only can reveal the inborn and defiling sore. He works this knowledge mainly by the Word. In sanctuary hours, or in the stillness of retired thought, He sets the soul before the mirror of God’s law. He tears away the blinding scales. He opens sightless eyes. What follows? The sinner starts. A frightful spectacle appears. It is the hideousness of polluted self. Soundness is fled. Health and fresh beauty lie as a withered leaf. He stands revealed as one noxious mass of widespread misery. The light from heaven shows leprosy throughout. The unsuspected filth is no more hid.
Through many years Paul boasted of his blameless life. He felt no conscience pains. He seemed some lovely tree, whose branches bowed with golden fruit. He thus portrays himself, “I was alive without the law once”. I knew not my leprous state. But the Priest searched me with a penetrating eye. “The commandment came.” It probed me to the soul. Then “sin revived”. The malady which slept started to giant life, “and I died”. He felt the leprosy’s entwining grasp. In agony he sighs, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24).
Reader, it may be that self-ignorance locks you in its dark cell. Listen, I pray you, to this warning voice. O perish not self-murdered! Reject the opiate of fancied soundness. Sleep not to death on pillows of false health. Think of the multitudes who knew not that the plague had seized them till they awoke in dungeons where cure never comes. Bring heart and thoughts and ways and life to the true standard of the Word. Sit down beneath its all-revealing beams. Consult not the world’s counsel. Take not its faulty measure. Call in the faithful witness which neither errs nor leads astray. View self in the Scripture mirror. What though the sight shall humble you to dust? Go on. Shrink not. Self-knowledge is a step towards Christ. The malady perceived leads to the malady being relieved. Sin, when thus felt, extorts the cry, “Heal me, and I shall be healed”.
The sufferer hears the priest’s condemning voice. He is pronounced unclean. He goes forth. He tastes no more the joy of social scenes. Shunning and shunned, he hides himself in gloom. His aspect, his whole manner, proclaim the misery of his downcast heart. Earth cannot find a picture of more woeful woe. His clothes are rent. His head is bare. A covering hides his upper lip. And when the hollow voice must speak, it sounds the plaintive knell, “Unclean, unclean”.
These marks write fearfully the wretchedness of sin. The clothes are rent. The meaning is distinct. It is the signal of the bitterest grief. The Scripture page gives many proofs. Jacob beholds the blood-stained coat of Joseph. His son, his much-beloved son, is surely slain. Did ever heart so bleed? All comfort fails. In token of his life-long woe, he rends his clothes. It was a mournful day when David and his subjects followed Abner’s bier. The public sorrow must be publicly displayed. The king’s command was, “Rend your clothes” (2 Sam 3:31). Message on message followed fast to Job, and each was burdened with a heavier note. His goods are a wild wreck, his sons all slain. Deep waters overflow his soul, and a rent mantle proves a heart forlorn (Job 1:20). Thus, where sorrow’s wounds were deep, the tattered robe proclaimed the inward state.
Reader, should he not grieve who feels the burden of his guilt? What sorrow is like his? The loss of righteousness is more than loss of property and friends. There is no ruin like the frown of God. Shall his eyes not then weep who hates himself, who dares not look to God, who has no resting-place on earth, no resting-place beyond? There is no leprosy like sin. There is no leper like the sinner. Shall the leprosy be clad in tattered garments, and shall sin not sit mourning in the dust?
The head must bend uncovered. This was the attitude of lowly shame. Job felt abasement and bewailed, “He hath stripped me of my glory, and taken the crown from my head” (Job 19:9). The bereaved Aaron may show no sign of degradation. Therefore the command is, “Uncover your heads” (Lev 10:6). In the poor leper thus despoiled, we see how sin inflicts an ignominious brand. Should not shame’s home be on the sinner’s brow? Hear Ezra’s piteous wail, “O my God, I am ashamed, and blush to lift up myself to Thee, my God”. But why this shame? “Our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).
Is there disgrace in folly, in rebellion, in ingratitude, in disobedience, to a tender Father’s rule? These lines all centre in the sinner’s heart. His life is one mistake. Is not that folly? His rebel hands are raised against the King of kings. His hardness hates a blessing God. His impious feet tread down a loving Father’s will. Thus sin and shame are linked. Our guilty parents haste to hide themselves; and Paul’s bold challenge is, “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?” (Rom 6:21).
A covering hides his upper lip. The muffled mouth is sign that silence is enjoined. The sorrowing and the shame-stricken find their utterance choked. This marked the prophets from whom God withdrew. “Then shall the seers be ashamed, and the diviners confounded; yea, they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer of God” (Mic 3:7). Sin should be mute. While faithful lips abound in prayer and send forth songs of praise and tell in gladsome strains the wonders of redeeming grace, what are the sinner’s sounds? His throat is an open sepulchre. Let then that sepulchre be closed. His words sow seeds of evil. Let those words be checked.
But if some passing steps draw near, a piteous warning must be heard. A doleful mutter sounds the repelling note, “Unclean, unclean”. Approach not. There is pollution here: “Unclean, unclean”.
Reader, close not your eyes to sin’s intense malignity. It is unutterable filth. See the priest Joshua before iniquity passed from him. He stood filth-soiled before the angel (Zec 3:3). A true word paints our nature state: “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (Is 64:6). The heart is every foul bird’s cage – the spring of every impure desire. The waters which flow forth are rank pollution. The hands touch but to soil. The feet leave impress of defilement. The sinner speaks, and noxious blight flies round. His words, his looks, his ways, his life, bear one black stamp: “Unclean, unclean”.
The leper is cast out from social life. No home may welcome him. No friendly hearth may cheer. His dwelling is far from men. In solitary loneliness he pines. No station gains exemption. A Miriam must be shut out (Num 12:14). Kingly Uzziah must dwell apart (2 Kings 15:5). Ah sin, what thou hast done! Let sinning angels, driven from heaven’s light, reply. Let multitudes who know not the ecstasy of close communion with their God, who walk not in sweet company with Zion’s sons, whose hearts ascend not on the wing of social praise, who share not the holy fellowship of common prayer, who come not delighted to the consecrated table – let these sad exiles from the heaven-bound flock tell the lone miseries of their desert-life.
But is this all? Death is at hand. Eternity is near – a gulf will then for ever part the filthy sinner from salvation’s blessed throng. God is afar off; He cannot be reached. Jesus is high above. There is no longer access to His arms. Heaven’s gates are barred. The saved are all within – within for ever. The lost are all without – without for ever. Thus the leper stands an emblem of sin’s deathful plague.
Reader, why are these frightful colours laid? Why is the sight thus brought before our eyes? Is it that hopeless horror may affright? Is it to sink you in despair’s abyss? Far otherwise. Mercy here scares you; but it is to mercy’s arms. The great High Priest is near. He comes to earth with “healing in His wings”. He cries to every weary, heavy-laden soul, “Come unto Me . . . and I will give you rest”. You need not be an outcast from His flock. He bids you nestle in His wounded side. He gives His blood to purify each taint. His remedy is ready and is sure. Take and be whole. Turn not from His outstretched hand. Hearken to His cry, I will make you clean. Rest not till adoring lips reply, Great Lord, Thy touch has touched me, and my plague is stayed. Endnotes:
1. Another chapter from Law’s The Gospel in Leviticus. It has been edited.