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Bunyan Characters First Series: 7. THE INTERPRETER

By Alexander Whyte


      'An interpreter, one among a thousand.'--Elihu.

      We come to-night to the Interpreter's House. And since every minister of the gospel is an interpreter, and every evangelical church is an interpreter's house, let us gather up some of the precious lessons to ministers and to people with which this passage of the Pilgrim's Progress so much abounds.

      1. In the first place, then, I observe that the House of the Interpreter stands just beyond the Wicket Gate. In the whole topography of the Pilgrim's Progress there lies many a deep lesson. The church that Mr. Worldly-Wiseman supported, and on the communion roll of which he was so determined to have our pilgrim's so unprepared name, stood far down on the other side of Goodwill's gate. It was a fine building, and it had an eloquent man for its minister, and the whole service was an attraction and an enjoyment to all the people of the place; but our Interpreter was never asked to show any of his significant things there; and, indeed, neither minister nor people would have understood him had he ever done so. And had any of the parishioners from below the gate ever by any chance stumbled into the Interpreter's house, his most significant rooms would have had no significance to them. Both he and his house would have been a mystery and an offence to Worldly-Wiseman, his minister, and his fellow-worshippers. John Bunyan has the clear warrant both of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul for the place on which he has planted the Interpreter's house. 'It is given to you,' said our Lord to His disciples, 'to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given.' And Paul tells us that 'the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.' And, accordingly, no reader of the Pilgrim's Progress will really understand what he sees in the Interpreter's House, unless he is already a man of a spiritual mind. Intelligent children enjoy the pictures and the people that are set before them in this illustrated house, but they must become the children of God, and must be well on in the life of God, before they will be able to say that the house next the gate has been a profitable and a helpful house to them. All that is displayed here--all the furniture and all the vessels, all the ornaments and all the employments and all the people of the Interpreter's House--is fitted and intended to be profitable as well as interesting to pilgrims only. No man has any real interest in the things of this house, or will take any abiding profit out of it, till he is fairly started on the upward road. In his former life, and while still on the other side of the gate, our pilgrim had no interest in such things as he is now to see and hear; and if he had seen and heard them in his former life, he would not, with all the Interpreter's explanation, have understood them. As here among ourselves to-night, they who will understand and delight in the things they hear in this house to-night are those only who have really begun to live a religious life. The realities of true religion are now the most real things in life--to them; they love divine things now; and since they began to love divine things, you cannot entertain them better than by exhibiting and explaining divine things to them. There is no house in all the earth, after the gate itself, that is more dear to the true pilgrim heart than just the Interpreter's House. 'I was glad when it was said to me, Let us go into the house of the Lord. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.'

      2. And besides being built on the very best spot in all the land for its owner's purposes, every several room in that great house was furnished and fitted up for the entertainment and instruction of pilgrims. Every inch of that capacious and many-chambered house was given up to the delectation of pilgrims. The public rooms were thrown open for their convenience and use at all hours of the day and night, and the private rooms were kept retired and secluded for such as sought retirement and seclusion. There were dark rooms also with iron cages in them, till Christian and his companions came out of those terrible places, bringing with them an everlasting caution to watchfulness and a sober mind. There were rooms also given up to vile and sordid uses. One room there was full of straws and sticks and dust, with an old man who did nothing else day nor night but wade about among the straws and sticks and dust, and rake it all into little heaps, and then sit watching lest any one should overturn them. And then, strange to tell it, and not easy to get to the full significance of it, the bravest room in all the house had absolutely nothing in it but a huge, ugly, poisonous spider hanging to the wall with her hands. 'Is there but one spider in all this spacious room?' asked the Interpreter. And the water stood in Christiana's eyes; she had come by this time thus far on her journey also. She was a woman of a quick apprehension, and the water stood in her eyes at the Interpreter's question, and she said: 'Yes, Lord, there is here more than one. Yea, and spiders whose venom is far more destructive than that which is in her.' The Interpreter then looked pleasantly on her, and said: 'Thou hast said the truth.' This made Mercy blush, and the boys to cover their faces, for they all began now to understand the riddle. 'This is to show you,' said the Interpreter, 'that however full of the venom of sin you may be, yet you may, by the hand of faith, lay hold of, and dwell in the best room that belongs to the King's House above.' Then they all seemed to be glad, but the water stood in their eyes. A wall also stood apart on the grounds of the house with an always dying fire on one side of it, while a man on the other side of the wall continually fed the fire through hidden openings in the wall. A whole palace stood also on the grounds, the inspection of which so kindled our pilgrim's heart, that he refused to stay here any longer, or to see any more sights--so much had he already seen of the evil of sin and of the blessedness of salvation. Not that he had seen as yet the half of what that house held for the instruction of pilgrims. Only, time would fail us to visit the hen and her chickens; the butcher killing a sheep and pulling her skin over her ears, and she lying still under his hands and taking her death patiently; also the garden with the flowers all diverse in stature, and quality, and colour, and smell, and virtue, and some better than some, and all where the gardener had set them, there they stand, and quarrel not with one another. The robin-red-breast also, so pretty of note and colour and carriage, but instead of bread and crumbs, and such like harmless matter, with a great spider in his mouth. A tree also, whose inside was rotten, and yet it grew and had leaves. So they went on their way and sang:

      'This place hath been our second stage,
      Here have we heard and seen
      Those good things that from age to age
      To others hid have been.
      The butcher, garden, and the field,
      The robin and his bait,
      Also the rotten tree, doth yield
      Me argument of weight;
      To move me for to watch and pray,
      To strive to be sincere,
      To take my cross up day by day,
      And serve the Lord with few.'

      The significant rooms of that divine house instruct us also that all the lessons requisite for our salvation are not to be found in any one scripture or in any one sermon, but that all that is required by any pilgrim or any company of pilgrims should all be found in every minister's ministry as he leads his flock on from one Sabbath-day to another, rightly dividing the word of truth. Our ministers should have something in their successive sermons for everybody. Something for the children, something for the slow-witted and the dull of understanding, and something specially suited for those who are of a quick apprehension; something at one time to make the people smile, at another time to make them blush, and at another time to make the water stand in their eyes.

      3. And, then, the Interpreter's life was as full of work as his house was of entertainment and instruction. Not only so, but his life, it was well known, had been quite as full of work before he had a house to work for as ever it had been since. The Interpreter did nothing else but continually preside over his house and all that was in it and around it, and it was all gone over and seen to with his own eyes and hands every day. He had been present at the laying of every stone and beam of that solid and spacious house of his. There was not a pin nor a loop of its furniture, there was not a picture on its walls, nor a bird nor a beast in its woods and gardens, that he did not know all about and could not hold discourse about. And then, after he had taken you all over his house, with its significant rooms and woods and gardens, he was full all supper-time of all wise saws and witty proverbs. 'One leak will sink a ship,' he said that night, 'and one sin will destroy a sinner.' And all their days the pilgrims remembered that word from the Interpreter's lips, and they often said it to themselves as they thought of their own besetting sin. Now, if it is indeed so, that every gospel minister is an interpreter, and every evangelical church an interpreter's house, what an important passage this is for all those who are proposing and preparing to be ministers. Let them reflect upon it: what a house this is that the Interpreter dwells in; how early and how long ago he began to lay out his grounds and to build his house upon them; how complete in all its parts it is, and how he still watches and labours to have it more complete. Understandest thou what thou here readest? it is asked of all ministers, young and old, as they turn over John Bunyan's pungent pages. And every new room, every new bird, and beast, and herb, and flower makes us blush for shame as we contrast our own insignificant and ill-furnished house with the noble house of the Interpreter. Let all our students who have not yet fatally destroyed themselves and lost their opportunity lay the Interpreter's House well to heart. Let them be students not in idle name only, as so many are, but in intense reality, as so few are. Let them read everything that bears upon the Bible, and let them read nothing that does not. They have not the time nor the permission. Let them be content to be men of one book. Let them give themselves wholly to the interpretation of divine truth as its riddles are set in nature and in man, in scripture, in providence, and in spiritual experience. Let them store their memories at college with all sacred truth, and with all secular truth that can be made sacred. And if their memories are weak and treacherous, let them be quiet under God's will in that, and all the more labour to make up in other ways for that defect, so that they may have always something to say to the purpose when their future people come up to church hungry for instruction and comfort and encouragement. Let them look around and see the sin that sinks the ship of so many ministers; and let them begin while yet their ship is in the yard and see that she is fitted up and furnished, stored and stocked, so that she shall in spite of sure storms and sunken rocks deliver her freight in the appointed haven. When they are lying in bed of a Sabbath morning, let them forecast the day when they shall have to give a strict account of their eight years of golden opportunity among the churches, and the classes, and the societies, and the libraries of our university seats. Let them be able to name some great book, ay, more than one great book, they mastered, for every year of their priceless and irredeemable student life. Let them all their days have old treasure-houses that they filled full with scholarship and with literature and with all that will minister to a congregation's many desires and necessities, collected and kept ready from their student days. 'Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly up to them, that thy profiting may appear unto all.'

      4. And then with a sly stroke at us old ministers, our significant author points out to us how much better furnished the Interpreter's House was by the time Christiana and the boys visited it compared with that early time when Christian was entertained in it. Our pilgrim got far more in the Interpreter's House of delight and instruction than he could carry out of it, but that did not tempt the Interpreter to sit down and content himself with taking all his future pilgrims into the same room, and showing them the same pictures, and repeating to them the same explanations. No, for he reflected that each coming pilgrim would need some new significant room to himself, and therefore, as soon as he got one pilgrim off his hands, he straightway set about building and furnishing new rooms, putting up new pictures, and replenishing his woods and his waters with new beasts and birds and fishes. I am ashamed, he said, that I had so little to show when I first opened my gates to receive pilgrims, and I do not know why they came to me as they did. I was only a beginner in these things when my first visitor came to my gates. Let every long-settled, middle-aged, and even grey-headed minister read the life of the Interpreter at this point and take courage and have hope. Let it teach us all to break some new ground in the field of divine truth with every new year. Let it teach us all to be students all our days. Let us buy, somehow, the poorest and the oldest of us, some new and first-rate book every year. Let us not indeed shut up altogether our old rooms if they ever had anything significant in them, but let us add now a new wing to our spiritual house, now a new picture to its walls, and now a new herb to its gardens. 'Resolved,' wrote Jonathan Edwards, 'that as old men have seldom any advantage of new discoveries, because these are beside a way of thinking they have been long used to; resolved, therefore, if ever I live to years, that I will be impartial to hear the reasons of all pretended discoveries, and receive them, if rational, how long soever I have been used to another way of thinking.'

      5. The fickle, frivolous, volatile character of so many divinity students is excellently hit off by Bunyan in our pilgrim's impatience to be out of the Interpreter's House. No sooner had he seen one or two of the significant rooms than this easily satisfied student was as eager to get out of that house as he had been to get in. Twice over the wise and learned Interpreter had to beg and beseech this ignorant and impulsive pilgrim to stop and get another lesson in the religious life before he left the great school-house. All our professors of divinity and all our ministers understand the parable at this point only too well. Their students are eager to get into their classes; like our pilgrim, they have heard the fame of this and that teacher, and there is not standing-room in the class for the first weeks of the session. But before Christmas there is room enough for strangers, and long before the session closes, half the students are counting the weeks and plotting to petition the Assembly against the length and labour of the curriculum. Was there ever a class that was as full and attentive at the end of the session as it was at the beginning? Never since our poor human nature was so stricken with laziness and shallowness and self-sufficiency. But what is the chaff to the wheat? It is the wheat that deserves and repays the husbandman's love and labour. When Plato looked up from his desk in the Academy, after reading and expounding one of his greatest Dialogues, he found only one student left in the class-room, but then, that student was Aristotle. 'Now let me go,' said Christian. 'Nay, stay,' said the Interpreter, 'till I have showed thee a little more.' 'Sir, is it not time for me to go?' 'Do tarry till I show thee just one thing more.'

      6. 'Here have I seen things rare and profitable,

      . . . Then let me be

      Thankful, O good Interpreter, to thee.'

      Sydney Smith, with his usual sagacity, says that the last vice of the pulpit is to be uninteresting. Now, the Interpreter's House had this prime virtue in it, that it was all interesting. Do not our children beg of us on Sabbath nights to let them see the Interpreter's show once more; it is so inexhaustibly and unfailingly interesting? It is only stupid men and women who ever weary of it. But, 'profitable' was the one and universal word with which all the pilgrims left the Interpreter's House. 'Rare and pleasant,' they said, and sometimes 'dreadful;' but it was always 'profitable.' Now, how seldom do we hear our people at the church door step down into the street saying, 'profitable'? If they said that oftener their ministers would study profit more than they do. The people say 'able,' or 'not at all able'; 'eloquent,' or 'stammering and stumbling'; 'excellent' in style and manner and accent, or the opposite of all that; and their ministers, to please the people and to earn their approval, labour after these approved things. But if the people only said that the prayers and the preaching were profitable and helpful, even when they too seldom are, then our preachers would set the profit of the people far more before them both in selecting and treating and delivering their Sabbath-day subjects. A lady on one occasion said to her minister, 'Sir, your preaching does my soul good.' And her minister never forgot the grave and loving look with which that was said. Not only did he never forget it, but often when selecting his subject, and treating it, and delivering it, the question would rise in his heart and conscience, Will that do my friend's soul any good? 'Rare and profitable,' said the pilgrim as he left the gate; and hearing that sent the Interpreter back with new spirit and new invention to fill his house of still more significant, rare, and profitable things than ever before. 'Meditate on these things,' said Paul to Timothy his son in the gospel, 'that thy profiting may appear unto all.' 'Thou art a minister of the word,' wrote the learned William Perkins beside his name on all his books, 'mind thy business.'

      * LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH

Back to Alexander Whyte index.

See Also:
   INTRODUCTORY
   1. EVANGELIST
   2. OBSTINATE
   3. PLIABLE
   4. HELP
   5. MR. WORLDLY-WISEMAN
   6. GOODWILL, THE GATEKEEPER
   7. THE INTERPRETER
   8. PASSION
   9. PATIENCE
   10. SIMPLE, SLOTH, AND PRESUMPTION
   11. THE THREE SHINING ONES AT THE CROSS
   12. FORMALIST AND HYPOCRISY
   13. TIMOROUS AND MISTRUST
   14. PRUDENCE
   15. CHARITY
   16. SHAME
   17. TALKATIVE
   18. JUDGE HATE-GOOD
   19. FAITHFUL IN VANITY FAIR
   20. BY-ENDS
   21. GIANT DESPAIR
   22. KNOWLEDGE
   23. EXPERIENCE
   24. WATCHFUL
   25. SINCERE

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