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The Woes of the Unjust
The whole law is contained in these words, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself'. These two parts cannot be separated. God places us among our own kind, and our character cannot be formed and our souls saved without doing justly and loving mercy, while we walk humbly with our God. If we are servants, we are to do honest work for our masters; and if we are masters, we are to give equitable wages to our servants. The text denounces woe against those who deal unrighteously. An unjust man may, as the Psalmist complains, prosper in life, and have no bands in his death, and leave his substance to his children; still there are subtle woes which he cannot escape.
I. The Woe of Estrangement from God. God says, 'Woe to him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness'. He is the Father of the fatherless and the shield of the widow; and it cannot be that the man who is conscious of defrauding any weak creature of his bare rights will enjoy God's blessing and communion. Many an unjust man, it is true, affects, and in a spurious way feels, devotion towards God and love to Christ. They rob widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers. But what real communion can light have with darkness? the God of perfect righteousness with the man whose every possession, the house in which he lives, the clothes he wears, the sumptuous fare on which he exists, speak of oppression and wrong? 'When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst with him.' 'What hast thou to do to declare My statutes, or that thou shouldest take My covenant in thy mouth?' 'I hate robbery for a burnt-offering.' Must not the dishonest man strive hard in his fancied communion with God to forget many a stern feature in God's character? It is a god of his own imagining and moulding as really as the man's which is hewn by him out of the stock of a tree, whom the unjust man serves. He who lives in a house built by unrighteousness can never feel the exquisite joy of him who may, like his Saviour, have nowhere of his own to lay his head, but who can say, 'Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling-place in all generations'.
II. The Woe of the Curses of those who are Oppressed. The man who buildeth his house by unrighteousness and his chambers by wrong, is like one who builds his house in the heart of a poisonous swamp. He is like the old Norman tyrants who built their fortresses (which were really prisons in which they immured themselves, and from which they fought often for bare existence) among the people whom they had wronged, and whom they despised. How unlike the sweet experience of Job 'When the eye saw me, then it blessed me. I was eyes to the blind, feet was I to the lame; I was a father to the poor, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy.'
III. The Woe of an Accusing Conscience. The accusation may not be loud or very persistent. But surely there must be times in which the hoarse voice of the hireling defrauded of his wages mingles with the songs and merriment of the feast; in which 'the stone shall cry out of the wall, and the beam out of the timber shall answer it': 'Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city in iniquity '. If men would but believe that 'a little that a righteous man hath is more and better than the wealth of many wicked,' what woes would be averted from the heads of their fellow-men, and from their own hearts!
IV. The Woe of a Perverted Nature and Deadened Heart. As men's hands are dyed by the colours they work in, as the bodies of those who work daily in some constrained and unnatural position get gradually distorted, as the speech of the child reproduces that which his ear perpetually drinks in, so the heart of the man who, for the sake of gain, defrauds his neighbour and oppresses those who are under him, is gradually deteriorated and benumbed. This, it is true, may be hailed as a relief by the man whose heart is too pitiful by nature, and his conscience too tender for the work he chooses to do. But, all the same, it is the ear which is quick to hear God's voice, and the heart which is alive and which thrills at His touch, that alone can know what the joy of the Lord, which is the only true joy, means. 'The blessing of the Lord maketh rich and addeth no sorrow.'
References. XXII. 13-19. A. Ramsay, Studies in Jeremiah, p. 93. XXII. 15, 16. Ibid. p. 71. XXII. 19. T. De Witt Talmage, Sermons, p. 291. XXII. 21. "Plain Sermons "by contributors to the Tracts for the Times, vol. i. p. 118. XXII. 23. R. Allen, The Words of Christ, p. 274. XXII. 24, 27. A. Ramsay, Studies in Jeremiah, p. 179. XXIII. 1-32. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlii. No. 2460. XXIII. 5. C. Kingsley, Sermons on National Subjects, p. 298. XXIII. 5, 6. R. W. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. ii. p. 301.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Jeremiah 22". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany