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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

the Ethiopian Eunuch


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OUR Lord gave the Pharisees of His day this praise, that they would compass sea and land to make one proselyte. Now, this Ethiopian eunuch was one of their proselytes. Like the Scotch and English of our own day, the Jews of our Lord's day compassed sea and land to make money; but, almost more, to make converts to Moses and Aaron. Bent as their hearts were on making a fortune, the Jews of that day were almost more bent on spreading the faith of Abraham, and the hope of their fathers. And it would be in his business relations with the heads of some of the trading and banking houses that the Jewish merchants had set up in Ethiopia, that Queen Candace's treasurer came into contact with the worshippers of Jehovah, till it all ended in his becoming a proselyte of the gate. Think, then, of this Ethiopian treasurer and his royal retinue coming up all the way from the far south to pay his vow, and to seek the face of the Lord in His holy temple. Think you see his conversion in Ethiopia, his sojourning for a season in Jerusalem, and then his returning home; and these pictures of him in your mind will greatly help you to understand and appreciate this remarkable man and his remarkable story.

Now, what the Ethiopian eunuch saw and heard in Jerusalem, and took home with him from Jerusalem, would almost entirely depend on the introductions he brought with him, and on the houses to which he took those introductions. If an eastern prince were to come, say at an Assembly time, to our own city, his impressions of the city and of the country would entirely depend on the hands into which he fell. We are so partitioned off into churches, and sects, and sub-sects; into professions, and political parties, and social castes; into likes and dislikes; into sympathies and into antipathies; that, if the Ethiopian eunuch had his first introduction into any of those hot-beds of ours, he would return home a total stranger, and almost an enemy, to many of the best men and to much of the best life of our city and our country. Unless indeed, he had brought from his bitter experience of controversy, and faction, and party spirit in Ethiopia, that open and liberal mind, and that humble and loving heart, which no designed introduction will mislead, and no invidious patronage or privilege will poison.

Had this been an ordinary Ethiopian eunuch he would have spent his holiday among the theatres, and circuses, and bazaars, and other Roman amusements, of Pilate's procuratorship. As it was, he may, for anything we know, have brought an introduction to the Roman Procurator, and may have been entertained by Pilate's wife herself in the Roman Prætorium. On the other hand, it is much more likely that he was directed and recommended to some of the heads of the Temple: to Annas, or to Caiaphas, or to some other ecclesiastical dignitary. You may make use of your own knowledge of the condition of Jerusalem, and of the rank of the eunuch, and of his religious errand, to choose for yourselves just where the Ethiopian eunuch was lodged, and just in what light he saw the life of Jerusalem. Only, I fear, with all his ability, and with all his insight, and with all his seriousness of mind, the eunuch's furlough came to an end before he had well begun to see daylight on the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Herodians, the Zelots and the Publicans, the devotees of Moses, and the disciples of Jesus Christ.

Was the Book of the prophet Isaiah the parting gift of his Jerusalem host to this eastern prince on the day of his departure home? And did the donor of the sacred book, with an earnest look and with delicate kindness, point out to his guest as he mounted his chariot steps, the fifty-third and fifty-sixth chapters of the evangelical and ecumenical prophet? Or was the sacred book this good eunuch's own selection? After he had purchased some of the rarest specimens of recent Roman art for his royal mistress, did he seek out the sacred scriptorium and price for himself the richest-set roll of the prophet Esaias that the scribes possessed? In whatever way he had come by the fascinating book, he was away out of the city, and well on to the border of the land, before he was able to take his eyes off his purchase. The Ethiopian eunuch will be summoned forward with his Isaiah in his hand at the last day to witness against us all for the books we buy and read, and for the way we murder time, both at home and on our holidays, as well as on our long journeys. Did you ever see any one reading his Bible in a railway carriage, or on the deck of a steamboat? Did you ever see Isaiah, or Paul, in text or in commentary, exposed for sale on a railway bookstall? Oh, no! the very thought is profanity. We load our bookstalls, and our newsboys' baskets, and our travellingbags, with all the papers of the morning and the evening; and with piles of novels of all colours; and with our well-known Protestant reticence and reverence for divine things, we reserve our Bibles for home, and give up our Sabbath-days to Paul and Isaiah. One in a thousand will break through and will re-read on a railway journey his Homer or his Virgil; his Milton or his Shakespeare; his Bacon or his Hooker; his λ Kempis or his Bunyan; while one in a hundred thousand will venture to take out his Psalms or his New Testament. "The great number of books and papers of amusement, which of one kind or another, daily come in one's way, have in part occasioned, and most perfectly fall in with, and humour, this idle way of reading and considering things. By this means time, even in solitude, is happily got rid of, without the pain of attention. Neither is any part of it more put to the account of idleness-one can scarce forbear saying is spent with less thought, than great part of that which is spent in reading." If that accusation was laid against the readers of 1792, how much more have we laid ourselves open to it in 1899?

But, all this time Philip is wandering up and down the wilderness, thinking that he must have mistaken his own imagination for the voice of the Lord. Caravans of pilgrims come and go: merchants of Egypt and of Arabia and cohorts of Roman soldiers. but all that only makes the evangelist the more lonely and the more idle. But, at last, a chariot of distinction comes in sight, and as it comes within earshot Philip hears with the utmost astonishment the swarthy master of the chariot reading aloud. Philip was not astonished at the distinguished man reading aloud, but his astonishment and admiration were unbounded when he began to make out at a distance what the dark-skinned stranger was reading. "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a Iamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth." "Understandest thou what thou readest?" said Philip, as the chariot came to a standstill. All this took place in the simple, unsophisticated, hospitable East; and it must not be measured by our hard and unbending habits of intercourse in the West; and, especially, in dour-faced Scotland. It would be taken as the height of intrusion, and, indeed, impudence, among us if one man said to another sitting over his book on a journey, "Are you understanding what you are reading?" But if we sat beside a foreigner who was struggling with one of our complicated guide-books, and was just about to start off in a wrong direction, it would be no intrusion if we leaned over and said to him, 'I fear, sir, that our barbarous language is not easily mastered by foreign scholars; but English is my native tongue, and I belong to this country. Can I be of any use to you?' "How can I," said the eunuch, "except some man should guide me?" And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. Had the eunuch come to Jerusalem last year at this passover time, as he had been urged to come, and as he had at one time intended to come, he might have had Philip's Master sitting beside him today and reading Isaiah with him. But the eunuch had missed that opportunity by putting off paying his vow for another year. He was a year too late for ever seeing Jesus Christ in the flesh, and hearing Him open up Isaiah concerning Himself. But, better late than never. Better meet the meanest of His servants, than miss the Master altogether.

Was it the eunuch's own serious instincts, I wonder, that led him to the fifty-third of Isaiah? Or had he heard that profound and perplexing chapter disputed over by Stephen and Saul in one of the synagogues of Jerusalem? I cannot tell. Only, it strikes me, and it struck Philip, as a remarkable fact that out of the whole Old Testament this utter stranger to the Old Testament was pondering over its most central chapter, and its most profound prophecy, as he rode home in his chariot. When Augustine was a catechumen in Milan, and was just at the eunuch's stage in the truth, Ambrose directed his pupil to the study of Isaiah. "But I, not understanding my first lesson in that prophet, laid it by to be resumed when I was better practised." Bunyan also tells us that when he was beginning to read his Bible he much preferred the adventures of Joshua and Samson and Gideon to Isaiah or Paul. But, explain it as we may, this Ethiopian neophyte was already far ahead of Bunyan, and even of Augustine. For he held in his hands the most Pauline page in all the Old Testament, and he would not lay it down till he got to the bottom of it. "I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other mar?" What struck the imagination and the conscience of the eunuch was this: the absolutely unearthly picture that the prophet draws of his own character and conduct: if indeed it is of his own character and conduct the prophet speaks. "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter," the eunuch read again, "and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth." The eunuch knew not a few good, and humble, and patient, and silently-suffering, men in Ethiopia, but he knew no one of whom the half of these things could be said. And, if this was the prophet himself, no wonder then at the reverence in which both the name of the prophet, and the name of his book, were held in Jerusalem. 'Oh, no!' said Philip. 'Oh, no, no! the prophet did not speak of himself, nor of any other mortal man. Oh, no, no! far from that! The prophet was a man of like passions with other men. He was a man of unclean lips, like all other men. Oh, no! the prophet did not speak of himself, but of another manner of man altogether. Thou art a stranger in Jerusalem, but thou must have heard something of the things that have come to pass there in these last days. Thou must surely have heard the name of Jesus of Nazareth?' 'I did hear that name,' answered the eunuch. 'I often heard it. Sometimes I heard that name blessed, and sometimes I heard it cursed. And I was warned that all the time I was in Jerusalem I must not once speak that name, nor listen to any one speaking it to me. But we are far from Jerusalem here; and of whom speaketh the prophet this?' "Should we make it our first aim in the pulpit to do full justice to the subject we have in hand; or should our immediate and sole endeavour be to do good to our hearers?" said one of my most thoughtful friends to me the other day. What do you do yourself? was my reply to him. But we had to part before we had time to argue it out. Philip, at any rate, set himself in the first place, and with all his might, to do full justice to his great subject. And it was in the progress of that full justice that the eunuch got all the good that the best hearer even in our day could get from the best preacher. Sometimes the one way is best, in some hands, and sometimes the other, according to the preacher, according to the hearer, and according to the subject. For the most part surely, first the subject thoroughly studied down, and handled with our utmost ability and finish, and then application made with our utmost skill and urgency and love. "Mix your exhortation with doctrine," said Goodwin to the divinity students of Oxford. Better still, in our day at any rate, begin your exhortation well with doctrine, and then end your doctrine with its proper exhortation springing out of it. Only, the eunuch did not wait for Philip's exhortation. He did not give Philip time to wind up and round off his doctrine. Philip's sermon on the fifty-third of Isaiah is not finished to this day. "See, here is water!" broke in the eunuch. "I see it!" broke in a young Forfarshire farmer in the middle of my prayer with him in the minister's study late that night after a fine revival meeting conducted by Mr. Low of Fountain-bridge, and Dr. Macphail of Liverpool. And my prayer lies there to this day, like Philip's sermon, never finished, and that is five-and-twenty years ago. "I see it!" and we both sprang to our feet; and, instead of the rest of my prayer to God I said to the farmer, "Never lose sight of it, then. Never lose sight of it all your days!" He did lose sight of it, and went back, to the breaking of his minister's heart. But the backslider returned, and, as I was told, died in raptures, exclaiming, "I see it! I see it!" "See, here is water!" exclaimed the eunuch, cutting short Philip's sermon. "I see it!" exclaimed the farmer, cutting short my prayer.

"And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing." Rejoicing that those Jewish merchants had ever opened their warehouse in Ethiopia Regretting that ho bad not come up sooner to Jerusalem, when he might have seen his Saviour's face, and heard His voice. But, all the more rejoicing that he had not put off coming to the passover altogether. Rejoicing also that he had not talked about the sights of Jerusalem all the way to Gaza, but had read all the way in the prophet Isaiah. And rejoicing, above all, that he had said it the moment it came into his heart to say it, "See, here is water!" And, still, as the chariot travelled its long stages toward far Ethiopia, the eunuch thought with a humble and a holy joy of all the way his God had led him, and of the singular grace that had at last apprehended him. And who can tell but that Queen Candace, and a great multitude of her black, but comely people, will yet be seen by us stretching out their hands and casting their crowns at His feet of whom Isaiah spake, and of whom Philip preached!

Let it no longer be a forlorn hope
To wash an Ethiope;
He's washed: his gloomy skin a peaceful shade
For his white soul is made.
And now, I doubt not, the Eternal Dove,
A black-faced house will love.

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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'the Ethiopian Eunuch'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/t/the-ethiopian-eunuch.html. 1901.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 24th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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