To understand this parable we must know something of Jewish marriage customs. The bridegroom, accompanied by his friends, proceeded to the house of the bride to conduct her to her new abode, with pomp and circumstance becoming the occasion. Her youthful companions followed in her train from her father’s house, and a party – represented by the ten in the parable – met the procession by the way to proceed with the rest to the hall of feasting. Should the bridal party be detained by the tardiness of the bridegroom or the bride, or by any other cause, the delay exposed the waiting party to weariness; and it was such a case that suggested the slumbering and sleeping of the virgins. They were wearied with watching and sank into sleep.
Such a marriage party and waiting virgins are described almost to the letter in the following sentences from a recent traveller: “We went to view the nocturnal procession which always accompanies the bridegroom in escorting his betrothed spouse from the paternal roof to that of her future husband. This consisted of nearly 100 of the first persons in Joannina, with a great crowd of torch-bearers and a band of music. After having received the lady, they returned but were joined by an equal number of ladies who paid this compliment to the bride.” (2) Again, we read about an Indian marriage: “After waiting two or three hours, at length, near midnight, it was announced as in the very words of Scripture, ‘Behold, the bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him’. All the persons now lit their lamps, and ran carrying them in their hands to fill up their places in the procession. Some of them had lost their lights and were unprepared, but it was then too late to seek them, and the cavalcade moved forward.” These things then enable us to understand the passage now before us. It was always at night, and therefore by lamplight, that marriages took place.
Ten virgins waited for the marriage party, according to the custom just described. “And five of them were wise and five were foolish.” They might all seem to be honouring the bridegroom and his bride, but they were not all equally devoted and accordingly half of the party fell asleep. But how often it is the same at a more solemn scene, the hour of death! How many are then found fast asleep, their souls uncared for, having made no preparation for Him who is both the Bridegroom of the Church and the righteous Judge of all! How foolish thus to miss the very purpose of our existence here, which is preparation for hereafter – as these foolish women missed the very object of their going forth!
But what distinguished the wise from the foolish? The one class took oil in their lamps; the other took none. Whatever we may regard the oil to represent, it is certain that many similar cases occur in every department of life. There is one young man entering upon his life-work. He takes the Bible as his guide, and the Bible’s God for his. Now he has oil in his lamp. But there is another youth starting, perhaps the brother of the former, but he forgets his Bible or he shuts it up; it is unread; he is asleep – and worse, has no oil in his lamp – and when an emergency arrives he is at once undone!
Or a minister of Christ – one professedly so – leaves Christ out of his preaching; it contains no atonement, no God our Saviour, no Holy Spirit. That man has certainly no oil in his lamp. But there is another: he has learned to say like a noted minister of old, “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and his lamp is full of oil. It is overflowing; and more than that, it will never run dry. Its fountain is under the throne; it is connected with the fulness that is in Christ. And so in countless cases.
But circumstances speedily arose to test the party. The bridegroom tarried, and “they all slumbered and slept”. All of them. This seems to tell that they were all in some respects, or up to a certain point, alike. Trials test, and sometimes overcome, the wise as well as the foolish. But in this case the wise had provided for any emergency. The others, however, who should have been conscious of the risk which they ran, ought to have watched with sleepless eyes. But their folly began in not bringing oil; it went a step further when, in spite of that, they fell asleep. Few stop short at a single trespass; few are guilty of only one act of foolishness.
But they had a sudden awakening. It was at midnight that the usual cry was heard: “The bridegroom, the bridegroom! Go ye out to meet him.” Yet how could they? They were all asleep, and now even the wise must have blushed for shame and felt as if they had done foolishly, to be thus detected; while, on the other hand, the foolish ones are soon to discover their folly. They all began to trim their lamps, but five were just going out. All was hastening to darkness; and why attempt to bring light out of either midnight or an exhausted lamp? But O how often are the unwise sons of men thus caught in their folly! They know that death, for example, is coming. They are not more certain that tomorrow’s sun will rise than that they will die. And yet how unprepared! No life hid with Christ in God. No preparation to cross the swellings of Jordan. And the summons comes crashing far more loudly than thunder heard at midnight.
But the foolish women had one alternative left; they would apply to their wise and prudent companions: “Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out”. It is a common case. The honest man is expected to uphold the thief. The law-keeper must provide for the law-breaker. The temperate man must supply the wants of the intemperate. In their emergency, men grasp at whatever is likely to save them from ruin, though their way is often their folly. It is like the cry of the dying for help when the day of mercy is gone and when vain is the help of man. How like a knell must it be to many when they are told, however tenderly, “Your case is past hope” – when life has been squandered on trifles, and folly added to folly! Such feelings can be surpassed only when the archangel’s trump shall ring out the final summons.
The wise could not spare oil for their foolish companions. What sufficed for five might not be enough for ten. And in desperation or dread the women with the lightless lamps had to rush to the oil merchant to replenish their cruse. “Buy for yourselves”, that was the counsel. And in regard to spiritual things, is it not wise? Buy for yourselves! Do not depend upon your fellow-creatures; that were a vain confidence. Get your own supply from the great Fountain. Do not try to pass in a crowd, or live secure because you are ten. Nay, let each one apart make sure for herself, and so shall she prosper; the true light will enlighten. Now some live upon the religion of their forefathers, some upon the good name of their Church, some upon the mere semblance of religion. But till they have it for themselves, they are deceived. When the midnight cry is heard, their awakening will be their death-knell. “Follow thou Me.” The five then turned away to replenish their lamps, but meanwhile the procession passed on. They that were ready went in with the bridegroom, and the door was shut.
“They that were ready.” My reader, are you? To be ready in the highest sense of all – that is, for the advent of the Church’s Bridegroom – is to have sin pardoned, the Saviour for yours, the heart renewed, the soul justified and sanctified. Now, are you that? You may slumber or be slothful now, but you do not know when the cry may be heard. Is it wise then – can that soul be self-loving – when all is periled on the surprise of a moment? The procession swept on regardless of the five who were rushing to the oil-merchant, and the scene was prophetical of what is coming to myriads. “The door was shut.” No marriage-feast or marriage-music for the foolish five! They might be clamorous for admission. “Lord, Lord, open,” might be their cry; but the time was past. For a sleep they lost their opportunity, and now they must take their place among “them who are without”. “I know you not”, at least as friends of mine. And is not the whole scene a picture of what is coming? Men squander their time; they indulge themselves without restraint; and at last by some spasmodic, or half-frantic, efforts they try to do in a few breaths what should have been the work of years, or of life.
The answer accordingly was, “Verily . . . I know you not”. Not know those who had waited for him! Not know the friends of at least five who were at that moment at the marriage supper! “Verily”, no. Their self-chosen place is among those who are without. An hour before, they might have been prepared to be happy amid the festivities of the night, but the opportunity passed. They could not embrace it and now, as the tide has ebbed, they are stranded. Is not this parable then full of truth which is as profound as it is simple? Since the great Teacher sums up the whole with a warning, “Watch!” are we wise or are we foolish to neglect the words of the Son of man? “Be sober, be vigilant.” Ten thousand sad examples enforce these counsels, and he is on the way to the second death who neglects them.
Finally, what did the oil in the lamps signify? Was it faith or love or something else? No one can certainly decide. The parable shows that the five were not ready for the midnight cry, and whatever is requisite to fit us for the coming of the Lord may be represented by the oil. The free grace of God comprehends all that is needed.
1. Taken, slightly edited, from Tweedie’s book, Parables of Our Lord, published in 1865. This article is based on Matthew 25:1-13.
2. This and some other quotations are from Trench’s Notes on the Parables.