“Mary Magdalene represents those who have come under the tormenting and distracting power of Satan, and whose lamp of joy is quenched in tenfold night. They are imprisoned not so much in the dens of sin as in the dungeons of sorrow, not so criminal as they are wretched, nor so depraved as they are desolate. We do not with any certainty understand the precise nature of being possessed with the devil. Holy Scripture has not been pleased to acquaint us with the philosophy of possessions, but we know what the outward symptoms were. Persons possessed with devils were unhappy; they found the gloom of the sepulchre to be their most congenial resort. They were unsocial and solitary. If they were permitted, they broke away from all those dear associations of the family circle which give half the charms to life: they delighted to wander in dry places, seeking rest and finding none: they were pictures of misery, images of woe. Such was the seven times unhappy Magdalene, for into her there had entered a complete band of devils. She was overwhelmed with seven seas of agony, loaded with seven manacles of despair, encircled with seven walls of fire. Neither day nor night afforded her rest, her brain was on fire, and her soul foamed like a boiling caldron. Miserable soul! No dove of hope brought the olive branch of peace to her forlorn spirit, she sat in the darkness and saw no light—her dwelling was in the valley of the shadow of death. Among all the women of Magdala there was none more wretched than she, the unhappy victim of restless and malicious demons. Those who were possessed with these evil spirits, were defiled thereby, as well as made unhappy; for a heart cannot become a kennel for the hounds of hell without being rendered filthy and polluted. I suppose that in addition to the natural corruptions which would be in Mary as well as in ourselves, there would be a more than human nimbleness to evil, a vivacity, an outspokenness about all her sinful propensities, which only the indwelling fiend could give. Satan being within, would be sure to stir up the coals of impure thoughts and evil desires, so that the fire of sin would burn vehemently. Her inner self may have been sorely troubled with such excess of wickedness, but she was without power to damp the furnace of her mind. She would be incessantly assaulted by unearthly profanities and hideous suggestions; not as with us, proceeding from the devil without, who is a dreaded antagonist, but from seven devils within, who had entrenched themselves upon a dreadful vantage ground. She was in that sense, no doubt, greatly polluted, although it would be difficult to say how far she was accountable for it, on account of the dislodgment of her reason. In addition to the unhappiness and the defilement occasioned by Satanic possession, these persons were frequently dangerous to others and to themselves. Sometimes, we read, they were cast into the fire, and anon into the water; some cut themselves with knives or sharp stones, others tore their garments in pieces, and even when bound in chains—according to the old fashioned method of controlling lunatics—they burst their bonds. Such persons must have been very undesirable inmates of any house, however remote their chamber. It must frequently have been necessary to confine them apart, for in their madness they were not to be trusted; for, as is often the case, those who had been nearest and dearest to them, became the first objects of their enmity. To give a spiritual turn to the subject, let me remark that it is one of the most dreadful things about some of those who are plunged in unbelief, that the mischief of their misery is not confined to themselves, but extends to their families and connections. Their example drips like the upas tree, with poison; they are like the clouds that gathered over Sodom, full of fiery hail; they bring sadness and sorrow wherever their influence is felt. The man who has laid in beds of spices, spreads perfume on all sides; but the man who has familiar intercourse with horrors, like one fresh come from the lazar house, bears all the seeds of death about him in the gloom and melancholy which he spreads abroad. To sum up much in a few words, there is no doubt that Mary Magdalene would have been considered by us to be demented—she was, practically, a maniac. Reason was unshipped, and Satan stood at the helm instead of reason, and the poor barque was hurried hither and thither under the guidance of demons. What a dreadful state to be in! And yet, dear friends, though actual Satanic possession is unknown among us now, we have seen several cases extremely like it, and we know at this hour some who baffle altogether all attempts to comfort them, and make us feel that only the good Physician can give them rest. I remember a man of excellent character, well beloved by his family and esteemed by his neighbours, who was for twenty years enveloped in unutterable gloom. He ceased to attend the house of God, because he said it was of no use; and although always ready to help in every good word and work, yet he had an abiding conviction upon him that, personally, he had no part nor lot in this matter, and never could have. The more you talked to him, the worse he became; even prayer seemed but to excite him to more fearful despondency. In the providence of God I was called to preach the word in his neighbourhood; he was induced to attend, and, by God’s gracious power, under the sermon he obtained a joyful liberty. After twenty years of anguish and unrest, he ended his weary roamings at the foot of the cross, to the amazement of his neighbours, the joy of his household, and the glory of God. Nor did his peace of mind subside, for until the Lord gave him a happy admission into eternal rest, he remained a vigorous believer, trusting and not being afraid. Others are around us for whom we earnestly pray that they also may be brought out of prison to praise the name of the Lord.
Magdalene’s case was a perfectly helpless one; men could do nothing for her. All the surgery and physic in the world would have been wasted upon her singular malady. Had it been any form of physical disease or purely mental derangement, help might have been attainable, but who is a match for the crafty and cruel fiends of the pit? No drugs can lull them to sleep, no knife can tear them from the soul. The loving friend and the skilful adviser stood equally powerless, nonplussed, bewildered, dismayed. Mary was in a hopeless condition. There was nothing known by any, even the wise men of the east, of any method by which seven evil spirits could be dislodged. However expensive the remedy, her relatives would have resorted to it; but who can cope with devils? Doubtless all who knew her thought that death would be a great relief to her, and would relieve her family of wearisome anxiety and fear. Although willing to help, they could not aid in the slightest degree, and had the hourly sorrow of seeing her endure an agony which they could not alleviate. Magdalene was the victim of Satanic influence in a most fearful form: sevenfold were the spirits which possessed her; and there are men and women nowadays who are tempted by the great enemy of souls to a most awful degree. Some of us have endured temporary seasons of frightful depression, which have qualified us to sympathise with those who are more constantly lashed by the fury of the infernal powers. We too have had our horror of great darkness. We have groaned with David, ‘I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long . . . I am feeble and sore broken: I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart . . . My heart panteth, my strength faileth me: as for the light of mine eyes, it also is gone from me.’ We have been, though only for a few days or hours at a time, reduced to such an utter prostration of heart, that our soul chose strangling rather than life, for the sorrows of death compassed us, and the pains of hell gat hold upon us—we found trouble and sorrow. Believe me, brethren, this is no child’s play, but a thing to turn the hair grey, and plough deep furrows on the brow. It is no trivial sorrow to lament with the weeping prophet. ‘Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger. From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day. The yoke of my transgressions is bound by his hand: they are wreathed, and come up upon my neck: he hath made my strength to fall, the Lord hath delivered me into their hands, from whom I am not able to rise up.’
It is a melancholy fact that some persons continue for months and years to drink this cup of trembling. John Bunyan’s case is to the point, for he floundered in the Slough of Despond as long as any of the pilgrims whom he has so graphically described. In his instance, those succeeding shadows, those variations of unbelief, those recurring glooms all arose from the same fruitful source of ill: Satan was afraid that he was about to lose a bondslave, and therefore aroused himself to prevent his captive’s escape. Like the city of Mansoul when besieged by the troops of Immanuel, when Diabolus was loath to leave, the evil one barricades the doors, and strengthens the walls, so that there may be no entrance for the word of truth. Moreover, as we are told in the Revelation, the devil hath great wrath when he knoweth that his time is short; and he takes care, like a bad tenant, to do all the mischief he can before he is ejected. I may be addressing some such persons here, or in after days my words may meet the eye of poor tortured souls, O that they might find rest! It is painful in the extreme to meet with such unhappy minds, they are the great difficulty of a pastor’s work; so great indeed is the difficulty, that workers with little faith are ready to give up the task, and to leave the matter as impracticable. We have known those who have felt that they could pray no longer for their inconsolable friends: verily, beloved, we must not yield to so heartless a suggestion. As we said the other Sabbath morning, until the gate of hell is shut upon a man, we must not cease to pray for him; and if we see him hugging the very door-posts of damnation, we must go to the mercy-seat and beseech the arm of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life there is hope, and, although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the almighty arm. The case of the Magdalene is a looking-glass in which many souls wrung with anguish may see themselves.” C. H. Spurgeon, “Mary Magdalene,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. 14. Originally preached on January 26, 1868. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1868), 50-53.