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Bible Commentaries

Seiss' Lectures on Leviticus and Revelation

Leviticus 17

Verses 1-16

; Leviticus 18:1-30; Leviticus 19:1-37; Leviticus 20:1-27

Seventeenth Lecture.
Laws for Holy Living

Leviticus 17:1-16; Leviticus 18:1-30; Leviticus 19:1-37; Leviticus 20:1-27

The sense in which Salvation is altogether of Grace—The sense in which it is to be wrought out by Ourselves—What is a holy life—The means and elements of it—Keeping in view the blood-shedding of Jesus—Reformation of life—The cultivation of pure affections—Conformity to the Moral Law—A chapter of Penalties.

I have not undertaken the exposition of this book of Leviticus with a view to explain and refine upon everything which it contains. Too much commentary is sometimes worse than none at all. In order, therefore, to prevent this series of discourses from extending to wearisome length, I will collect the remaining chapters into groups, and treat only of their general significance. There is, at any rate, much in them unsuited for public or family reading, and which cannot with propriety be made the subject of particular elucidation.

The text for tonight will accordingly embrace four chapters, Leviticus 17:1-16, Leviticus 18:1-30, Leviticus 19:1-37, Leviticus 20:1-27; as their various provisions may be very conveniently comprehended in one view. All the laws in these several chapters relate to what is more or less personal and private. We do not again meet with any public services until we come to Leviticus 23:1-44. From Leviticus 16:1-34 to the Leviticus 23:1-44, everything relates to the duties, qualities, and associations of individuals in private life. This fact, coming as it does right after the great day of atonement, is very suggestive. It indicates that God contemplates much more respecting us than the mere pardon of our sins; that justification is not the whole intent of the Savior’s redemptive services; and that there is to be a personal righteousness and purification which rests upon our own exertions. The atonement has been made; reconciliation has been effected; and to every one who has faith to believe it, all past sins are for ever borne away, to be seen and heard of no more. But this does not include everything. It does by no means embrace the whole object which Christ had in view, when he, "through the eternal Spirit, offered himself without spot to God." Having thus purged our consciences from dead works, it is that we may now go on "to serve the living God." Having by his awful bloodshedding procured us hope, it is that every man may purify himself as He is pure. Having "delivered us out of the hands of our enemies," he intends that we should "serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life." Having bought us with a price, it hence devolves upon us to glorify him in our bodies and our spirits which are his.

There is a sense in which salvation is altogether of God—a matter of free bounty from him. Upon this point the words of the apostle are clear and conclusive. "By grace are ye saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus." I may illustrate this by the case of a vessel at sea, which has by some mismanagement anchored too near the shore, and which the receding tides have left aground in the deep mire. There lies the noble fabric, helpless, useless, and a wreck for ever. All the nautical skill and strength in the world cannot avail to save her. God must interpose and bring back the tides, or she must lie there and rot. This is a picture of the sad estate of man without Divine grace. He is aground in the deep morasses of sin. The tides have gone from him. He is nobly endowed and equipped; but it all avails nothing for his deliverance. God must send out his power, or he will stay there to perish without hope. But, there has been a mighty pulsation in the ocean of Jehovah’s love. We have seen the motion of it in the moving scenes of the day of atonement. It has raised a tide of mercy around the helpless sinner. Its majestic swell has lifted him up from the depths to which he had sunk. He is again made to feel the motion of the waters. He is once more erect upon the broad and even surface of the sea. He is saved from the terrible doom which impended over him. Now, to what would you ascribe the salvation of a ship in such circumstances? to the men on board, or to the tides? to the capacities and powers of the mariners, or to that God whose footsteps are in the sea, and his wonders in the great waters? There can be no doubt as to your answer. It was God, in those benevolent laws of his which are everywhere at work. And in this sense, salvation is altogether of God. It is the flood-tide of Almighty grace, gathered around and under the grounded ship, and setting the sinner afloat when there was no other help.

But, there is another sense in which salvation depends upon our own exertions. On this point, the same apostle is equally plain and positive. "Work out your own salvation," are his words. There is then something for us to do after all. Another apostle is still more specific. "What doth it profit," says he, "though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? ... Faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.... By works a man is justified, and not by faith only." The same figure will serve to illustrate this feature of our salvation. After the tides have come in and raised the grounded ship, and freed it from its helpless estate, then comes in the activity of those on board. If they do not weigh anchor, and spread the sails, and take hold of the helm, and exert themselves to get away from the spot, their case will be no better than if the tides had never come. So, as Christ has come and freed us from condemnation, and recovered to us our lost power and reconciled us to God; it is now for us to bestir ourselves to get away from the ugly spot, and to set sail for a voyage directly for the home-port of everlasting rest. The atonement is God’s work; and we become participants of its benefits only by the abundant outflowing of his unsearchable grace; but now that the tide of his mercy has reached us, we are gratefully and obediently to take advantage of it, and go to work ourselves. The day of atonement must be followed with a good life, for which that atonement was meant to prepare us, or we sink again into the same hopeless condition in which we were before atonement came; and with this augmentation of our wretchedness, that "there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin." Saved by grace, and created anew in Christ Jesus, it is "unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

And when I speak of good works and a holy life, I do not mean a life of melancholy asceticism, or retirement from the common cares, activities, affections and duties appertaining to our earthly estate. People are quite too much disposed to frame their ideas of sanctity from the cloister and the convent. Talk of holy men, and they at once begin to think of those who wear cowls, and tell beads, and keep solitary vigils, and devote themselves to an endless routine of prayers and fasts in monastic cells. But if they would ascertain God’s idea of holiness, let them come to Jesus and learn of him. The true pattern of a holy life was set in that divine man, who pleased God without making the wilderness his home, or interposing iron grates and massive doors between himself and the common world—who found it no contamination to mingle with publicans and sinners, but served his heavenly Father as he walked the fields of Galilee, and frequented the villages of fishermen by the sea, and kept up communication with those who dwelt in Judah’s towns and thronged Jerusalem’s busy streets. "In him was life," and his "life is the light of men," Without some degree of conformity to him, our religion is but a shadow and a name. For so it is written, "If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his."

Let me invite attention, then, more specifically to the means and elements of a good and holy life, as they are shadowed forth in the chapters before us.

I. The principal, and, perhaps, the only permanent provision contained in the seventeenth chapter, is that which respects the manner of treating blood. No matter how or from what animal it came, it was always to be looked upon with consideration. While the Jews were in the wilderness, they were not permitted to slay an animal even for food, except at the door of the tabernacle, where its blood had to be taken by the priest and sprinkled upon the altar of the Lord. It was by no means to be devoted to heathen gods, or demons, to appease their anger. Neither was it at any time, or in any form, to be eaten. Even the hunter, in the excitement of the chase, if he succeeded in taking an animal, was required to stop and drain out its blood, and then reverently cover up that blood with dust. There is also a reason assigned for all this. God says, "the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh atonement for the soul. Therefore no soul of you shall eat blood." The use of blood was not forbidden because it was unclean, but because it was sacred. It represents life. It is that by which life was redeemed. It is that, flowing about the altar, that reconciled between them and God. And for this reason they were to be particular about it, and reverence it. The simple fact that they were saved by blood in the sacrifices, was in their eyes to consecrate all blood; so that whenever they saw blood, they were to think how their own lives were forfeited by their transgressions, and how the blood of atonement sheltered them.

Now, it is easy to see how a law of this sort would work to solemnize, restrain and soften the heart of a conscientious Jew. It would keep the solemn atonement before him whithersoever he went. The very huntsman would be met by it in the deep recesses of the forest. And if we desire to learn what constitutes the deepest essence of a good Christian life, we here have it most beautifully typified. We must keep in view the blood of atonement. We must remember Calvary—the sacrifice which there was made for us—the love which there was lavished upon our souls—the condemnation due to our sins which there was met. We must never lose sight of that bleeding Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world. All Christian goodness finds its spring and fountain there. It is the lifting up of Christ that draws men from the ways of sin. It is the Savior’s love that subdues the rebellious heart to obedience, and constrains it to apostolic devotion and martyr constancy. It is our clear and continual recognition of what Jesus has done for us, that weakens temptation, disposes to duty, and prompts to the deeds of righteousness.

I remember to have met with an affecting little incident in Roman history connected with the death of Manlius Capitolinus, a renowned consul and general, who was once proudly hailed as the savior of Rome. It happened one night when the Gauls threatened to overwhelm the capitol, that he bravely took his stand upon the wall where they came on with their attack, and there fought singly and alone until he had repelled them, and so saved the city from destruction. It so occurred that this distinguished man was afterwards accused of some great public fault, and put upon trial for his life. But just as the judges were about to pass sentence upon him, he looked up at the walls of the capitol, which towered in view, and with tears in his eyes pointed to where he had fought for his accusers, and periled his life for their safety. The people remembered the heroic achievement, and wept. No one had the heart to say aught against him, and the judges were compelled to forbear. Again he was tried, and with the same result. Nor could he be convicted until his trial was removed to some low and distant point, from which the capitol was invisible. And so, while Calvary is in fall view, in vain will earth and hell seek to bring the Christian into condemnation. One serious look at the cross, and at the love which there, unaided and alone, when all was dark and lost, interposed for our salvation, is enough to break the power of passion at once, and to strike dead every guilty proceeding. Low must the believer sink, and blotted from his heart must be the recollection of that scene of suffering for him, before he can ever become faithless to his Redeemer, or perfidious to his Savior’s cause. There is a power in the bloody monument of redeeming love, which baffles all the allurements and accusations of hell. It is the great propelling motive to a holy life. It is the potent source of Christian loyalty and devotion. And if we would be virtuous and good, the first and grand requisite is, never to lose sight of Christ’s atoning blood.

II. Passing to the eighteenth chapter, we find sundry laws, but all bearing upon two general points. The first relates to the customs of the Egyptians, from among whom the Jews came, and of the Canaanites, whose land they were to inherit. God here says to them, "After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their ordinances." These were heathen and defiled nations. They are the types of all such people as are living in impenitence and sin. Israel was to be a holy nation, and therefore was not to follow the ways of the unclean, The greatest danger of a purified man, arises from his old habits and associations. It is not easy to turn a stream quite out of the channel in which it has been flowing for ages. It is a mighty work to revolutionize a character which has been forming for years, or to tear quite away from a long-continued routine which includes all our recollections of infancy, and in which our life took its chief attractions. It is like the leopard undertaking to change his spots, or the Ethiopian setting himself to whiten his dark skin. It cannot be done at all without the converting grace of God. And even after the divine finger has dispossest the unclean spirit, and swept and garnished the house, there is great danger of the return of that spirit with seven other spirits worse than himself. There is need that the doors of the soul be carefully watched and strongly barricaded against him. Even after Israel had crossed the sea in triumph, there rose up lusts after the flesh-pots of Egypt. The sow that has been washed, still has strong affections for the mire.

The second grand element of a good Christian life, therefore, is, a complete and thorough reformation with regard to old habits. If we have been in close intimacy with the vile, we must withdraw from their communion, and keep aloof from their wicked ways. If we have been giving way to bad passions, we must cut ourselves off from the occasions of our transgressions, and beware of putting ourselves into circumstances which invite temptation.

It is said of the elephant, that though he may be thoroughly subjugated and domesticated, if, in after years, his owners are so unfortunate as to bring him into the region where he was captured, the wild fire of his eye comes again, and he casts up his trunk in the air as if to throw off all his bonds, and with a shout bounds away to his native wilderness in spite of all the efforts of his keeper to retain him. And just such an elephantine nature do we carry with us, that the mere neighborhood of old vices will sometimes kindle it with ancient passion, so that despite all previous discipline and conviction, away it goes to the miserable haunts of its days of uncleanness. We must guard against old customs, and keep away from associations in which we were once in the habit of transgressing.

III. The other specifications of the eighteenth chapter, all relate to sexual purity. They typically refer to the necessity of a proper government of the affections. We are very much the creatures of feeling. God has endowed our nature with many tender susceptibilities, which impart a zest and warmth to life which it could not otherwise possess. He has also so constituted human society as to furnish abundant room for their healthful and happy play. Nor does it enter at all into religion to deaden, eradicate, or stint our natural affections. The Scriptures constantly class those who are destitute of natural affection, with the basest of mankind. It is only sin that acts as an astringent upon the warm feelings of our nature, and defiles, corrodes, shrivels and destroys them. It is one of the offices of piety to quicken the pulse of love, to soften our ruggedness, to expand the heart, to sweeten the ties of tender regard, and to fill all the arteries of the social system with a bounding stream of warm and zealous interest and fondness. If Christianity had been sent to extinguish social affections, it would be a blight instead of a blessing to the world.

But whilst piety does not seal or freeze up the flow of feeling, it rigidly requires that it be governed, modulated and controlled by principles of purity and righteousness. Like every other impulse or susceptibility, natural affection may be perverted and become the occasion of great sin and degradation. Our hearts must therefore be watched. We may love; but we must love virtuously. We may cherish the most tender regards; but they must not rest upon criminal hopes. Our warmest feelings may be enlisted and indulged; but we must be cautious that they do not betray us into sin and shame. All affections have their proper objects, and to these they must be confined and kept in healthful moderation; otherwise they become fires of ruin. Hence the precept of the apostle, "Mortify your members which are upon the the earth, fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry; for which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience." Even the secret thought of unchasteness, the hidden incontinent wish, the impure desire, the cherished hope of unclean gratifications, must be spurned and crucified as criminal before God, and crushed as an enemy to the peace and good of society. The heart must be kept with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. It is God who saith, "Defile not yourselves in any of these things."

IV. We come now to the nineteenth chapter. Here we have quite a list of moral precepts setting forth an extensive code of Christian righteousness. The provisions of the preceding chapter were negative; these are mostly positive. In the one God shows us how we are to "cease to do evil;" in the other he instructs us how to "do well." I have not time to comment upon all these precepts at length. Indeed it is hardly necessary to do more than state them in a general review of the sort now in hand. We have seen that we as Christians are to keep in view the atonement of Christ, to guard against old habits and associations, and to purge and purify our affections. We here have another general direction. And that is, to submit ourselves obediently to the moral law, of which this chapter is a sort of special and authoritative exposition.

We must be deferential to parents and authorities. God says, "Ye shall fear every man his mother and his father;" and of course all such as occupy corresponding relations to us. Disobedience in the family, is at the same time treason to the state, and rebellion against the sovereignty of heaven. Parental authority is part of God’s grand scheme of government, and it is sin to disregard it.

We must attend to the ordinances of worship. God says, "Ye shall every man keep my Sabbaths." As Paul expresses it, we are to be considerate, "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another." To neglect God’s rites of worship, is to neglect our souls, and to despise the most potent means of our sanctification.

We must worship God according to the simplicities of his own appointments. His word is, "Turn not," or rather, "look not unto idols (vanities), to make to yourselves molten gods." The idea is, that we are not to be captivated with the vain pomps or attractive elegances of heathen worship, to engraft them upon our worship of Jehovah. We must keep to what he has prescribed, and present and eat our peace-offerings as he has directed.

We are to be kind to the poor, and appropriate of cur abundance for their benefit. We are only the stewards of God in what we possess. Our harvests and our income are from his gracious hand. And he claims a portion of them for "the poor and stranger."

We must be rigidly honest in our transactions with our fellow-men. God says, "Ye shall not steal, neither deal falsely, neither lie one to another; neither swear falsely by my name, nor profane the name of God. Thou shalt not defraud thy neighbor, neither rob him. The wages of him that is hired shall not abide with thee all night until morning." Without obedience to these precepts there can be no social confidence; and without mutual confidence this world would be worse than a Bedouin desert, and all its population Ishmaelites. Unless man can trust in his fellow-man, business stagnates, the machinery of the world stops, and social peace is at an end.

We must pity the infirmities of the unfortunate, and not mock at or take advantage of their weaknesses. God says, "Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind." "Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh the dumb, or deaf, or the seeing, or the blind? have not I the Lord?" To make sport with those who suffer thus, is therefore to mock at God, and to revile his holy administrations. He hath put such afflicted ones in our world to teach us sympathy and gratitude, and it is wicked to amuse ourselves with their privations.

We must be just in our decisions, without predisposing affection for the poor, or desire to secure the fawning flattery of the rich and great. The ancient heathen pictured the goddess of justice as blind, that she might not see what parties were awaiting her decisions. And so Jehovah says, "Thou shalt not respect the persons of the poor, nor honor the persons of the mighty; but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbor."

We must put a bridle upon our tongues. God Bays, "Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people." It is the devil who is the accuser of the brethren. And I know of nothing more diabolical than the slander-monger. There are people

Whose hearts are gall—whose tongues are fire—

With souls too base for generous ire—

With swords too keen for noble use—

Whose shield and buckler are abuse.

And many who are not habitually malicious, and do not mean to do mischief, yet are so fond of retailing ill news of their neighbor that one can seldom hear them talk without trembling for the reputation of his friends. There are some souls like certain birds which seem to live only on what is vile. It was such, I suppose, that James had in view, when he said,

"The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity; it setteth on fire the course of nature... It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison." It needs taming beyond every other member.

We must be charitable. God says, "Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbor. Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart."

And yet, we must not connive at sin. "Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him." It is a charity to admonish him of his faults, that he may repent and be saved. But it must not be done in spite or malice. "Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." He is thy brother; and one God is the judge of us all.

We must refrain from any attempt to join together incongruous things, or what God has put asunder We cannot serve God and Mammon. Heathen lewdness and worldly folly must not be permitted to mingle with Christian profession. There is a distinctness in holiness which must be preserved against all commixtures.

We must not use power and station for sensual gratifications. It is high trespass against Almighty God.

We must put a check upon appetite, and accustom ourselves to self-denial. Israel was not permitted to eat fruit from any tree until the fourth year after it began to bear.

We must not trust to signs and omens, or resort to auguries and fortune-telling. "Thou shalt not use enchantment," saith the Lord. Jehovah, he is God; and on his good providence must we rely.

We must be moderate in our griefs when bereavement comes. God says, "Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you." Tears may flow; for Jesus wept; but we must not sorrow as those who have no hope. God reigneth.

Nor are we to seek communication with the dead, or fellowship with those who pretend to bring us messages from the departed. God says, "Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them." There always have been people who profess to communicate at will with beings of another world—to be inspired by demons—and to do wonders by compact with the devil or his angels. Nor am I prepared to say that their pretence is false. But whether false or true, God’s people are to have nothing to do with them. They can only defile. Jehovah says, "The soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people."

In addition to all this, we must be respectful to age, kind to strangers, honest in our weights and measures, and obedient to all God’s statutes and judgments. So shall we be holy and good. And the Lord Jehovah shall be our God, and we shall be his people.

A remark or two, now, upon the twentieth chapter, and I will close this discourse.

We have been contemplating the laws of holy living. In this chapter we have God’s threatenings against those who violate them. It is a chapter of penalties God is not only our adviser, but our Lord and Judge. His commands are not only gracious counsels, but authoritative laws. They are not without penal sanctions. A law, from its very nature, must have penalties attached to it. God’s commandments are laws, and hence he who will not obey them, but sets at naught the authority by which they are given, must meet a doom commensurate with his crime. Sinai still thunders and smokes against those who live in unrighteousness, notwithstanding the atonement-work of Christ. The axe is laid at the root of the tree, and if it bringeth not forth good fruit, it shall be hewn down, and given to the flames. The Gospel is indeed glad tidings—glad tidings of great joy. It is a call of mercy from the heavens to the suffering and the lost. But, it is a call to holiness. And whilst it is a glorious savor of life unto life to them that yield to it, and walk in its light, it is a fearful savor of death unto death to those who despise or disobey it. I know of no responsibility so awful as that which the Gospel itself imposes. The Holy Ghost tells us, that we had better never known the way of righteousness, than after we have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto us. It opens to us a sublime heaven, and a safe and easy way of entering into it; but at a cost so great, that the deepest hell is for him who despises and disobeys. The very grace that has brought salvation to man, must needs become a curse to deepen the perdition of those who refuse to accept and obey it. As to the disobedient Jew, God says, "I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people—he shall be put to death—his blood shall be upon him—he shall be burnt with fire." Did Jehovah mean what he said? Literally were these penalties meant for the faithless son of Abraham; and typically are they meant for us. And if they seem terrific as they applied anciently to this world, still more terrific are they as a type of what is to come upon the faithless and impenitent hearer of the Gospel. What saith the Scripture? "Indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile." Brethren, God is merciful. His grace is unspeakable. But he also is just, and must support the honor of his throne. Let men disguise it as they may, the day of atonement does not supersede the day of retribution. There is one question on this subject, put by the Spirit of God, that is enough to make the soul shudder. "He that despised Moses’ aw, died without mercy under two or three witnesses: of how much soever punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite to the Spirit of grace?" Brethren, there is terror enough predicted in this Bible to make one’s hair lift. When David looked in upon the portion of the wicked, he was appalled beyond measure, and cried, "Horror—horror hath taken hold upon me!" When that dauntless man of Tarsus, "who shook his chain in the face of kings—whose spirit no sufferings could subdue or dangers disconcert—who stood as unmoved amid a thousand perils as ever rock amid a thousand billows," surveyed the doom of the faithless, his hand trembled, and the big tears dropped from his manly cheeks, as he wrote down their end. Jeremiah seems overcome with emotion when thinking of the portion of the wicked. "O that my head were waters," said he, "and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain!" Ah, that lake—that lake! Explain it as you please, it is awful to think of. That worm that never dies—those fires that are never quenched—that blackness of darkness for ever—refine upon the words as you will, there is something there which makes my heart ache, and my soul tremble.

Brethren, the gates of salvation stand open to us to-day. The arms of gracious heaven are stretched oat to embrace us. The mansions of eternity are ready to receive us to them. The prayers of the great Intercessor have joined with his blood to secure for us a home in the New Jerusalem. The fruits of immortality are waving for us on the everlasting branches of the tree of life. But, between us and them lies a path of good deeds and consecration to God. Jesus says, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments." And if we are not willing to obey, we must let go our hope. There is no other alternative. God be our helper! Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Seiss, Joseph A. "Commentary on Leviticus 17". Seiss' Lectures on Leviticus and Revelation. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/sei/leviticus-17.html.