The youngest reader of the Bible will be able to understand the words "They did not know." There is a theory which is known to-day by the difficult name Agnosticism. A great deal of worthless thinking may be hidden under that dark term. Let us understand what it means, and then inquire what it is worth. The meaning is supposed to be not-know-ism. Men do not now blatantly and vulgarly say, "There is no God"; that is generally considered now to be a fool"s peculiar speech: now men say, If there is a God, we do not know him; he does not come within the range of our observation, experience, or consciousness; we do not say there is no God, we simply say we do not know him. That is the meaning, in general terms, of the doctrine that is known under the name of Agnosticism. If it were an intellectual doctrine only, there might appear to be about it somewhat of the charm of modesty. How can a man look otherwise than blankly humble when he says he does not know? What attitude would befit such a declaration but an attitude of the profoundest self-distrust and self-disregard? But it is not only an intellectual doctrine; it is infinitely more. What great case does the intellect wholly cover? Is man all intellect, all intelligence; is he a repertory of information; is he well nourished and well furnished with mere news or facts or historical memories? Agnosticism cannot begin and end where it likes; even though it bear such a name as that, full of syllables, we must not let it have all its own way. Even Agnosticism must not be allowed to run riot over the church floor and the church altar, and put aside everything as if it alone represented the consummation of Wisdom of Solomon, speculation, and cherished thinking. "She did not know that I gave her corn": so Agnosticism was not only an intellectual deprivation; it was a moral insensibility.
Do not imagine that religion touches only the intellectual faculties. You cannot dismiss God, and then be as good and wise and true and beneficent as if you had acknowledged him in all the mystery of his triune personality. If you think you can thus treat religion, then religion is one of the things you have not begun to understand. God cannot be expelled from the intellect without the moral quality of the whole nature going down; without the heart also being as agnostic as the mind. Think of an agnostic heart! The life plucks all the grapes in the vineyard and all the flowers in the garden, and enjoys all the light of the sun, and when it is asked whence came they, it says, "I do not know." Song of Solomon, then, we have not only to deal with intellectual modesty, falsely Song of Solomon -called; we have to deal with a great moral deprivation; with the irrational case of a rational being eating, drinking, thriving on innumerable bounties, and not knowing whence they came, or whom to thank for a banquet so profuse. The great difficulties will lie in that direction. The dear, meek, modest, self-renouncing, self-humiliating, intellectual agnostic who sits down and says, "I do not know," does not end the case. We could get over his intellectual ignorance. Tell me that a dog does not know the hand that gives him food, and you will prove him to be but a dog; but do not tell me that rational, intelligent, educated, civilised, progressive beings can be eating, drinking, enjoying, yea, and taking the higher meanings of things in a certain poetic sense, without ever asking, What hand is behind, giving, controlling? That would be a miracle, exciting and justifying the incredulity of mankind. All persons, but especially the young, should guard themselves against the mock humility which says respecting God, "I do not know him"; because not to know the Eternal, is not to know the temporal; not to confess with adoring reverence the impenetrable metaphysic of theology, is not to know what hand painted the lily, or guides the fowls of the air in all their wanderings.
Agnosticism is a larger question than any that can be limited to the mere dry intellect. And Agnosticism of this kind means not only deprivation of moral sensibility, as expressed in the action of gratitude, but it makes responsibility at once frivolous and impossible. Responsible to whom? Let us say, responsible to society. Did society light the sun? Does society marshal the seasons in their order? Does society balance these wondrous lights that gleam in the infinite spaces? Does society make harvest? Let us put the case analogically thus: the captain, the officers in charge of the great vessel filled with passengers, say to these passengers, We ignore everything that does not come within our own control; we cannot be held responsible for things which lie immeasurably beyond us; we will therefore take you and do the best we can for you on the sea; you shall have good accommodation, you shall have an excellent table; we will do what we can to entertain you with conversation, and we will hold a very mirthful and exhilarating fellowship one with another; but as to guiding the ship by the north star, or having anything to do with any sort of star whatsoever, we do not dream of it—our responsibilities are social. Will you go with that agnostic captain? You would not send a dog with him that you value. There is a larger responsibility. Responsibility does not lie between one man and another alone; there are responsibilities that take in far-away views, grand considerations, immeasurable quantities, ministries and mysteries boundless and infinite. Responsibility never reaches its true realisation until it touches the point of reverence—simple, earnest, continual dependence upon God, otherwise responsibility will be a calculation—it will be an arrangement of postures and attitudes, it will take upon itself the form of a selfish reckoning, so that so much done shall mean so much returned: that responsibility may be represented by the balance; so much on the one side, so much on the other; such the total, such the dividend. When men talk so they do not know the meaning of responsibility. When a man denies God he cannot do his duty to his fellow man. Yet there is a sense in which he can be dutiful, honourable, beneficent, useful; but that is a limited sense; lacking the mystery of religion, it lacks its reverence; lacking reverence, it lacks depth; lacking depth, it will soon wither away.
So even Agnosticism is not the easy light-mannered method of getting rid of God and religious thought and religious obligation; a sweet new modest way of throwing off eternity. Do not misunderstand this not-know-ism. The man that does not know God does not know himself. A philosophy profound to infinity is that which says: All commandments sum themselves in two directions—love to God and love to man; the one being the root of the other. No man can love God without loving God"s image as seen in human kind. Theology—not formal and scientific, but spiritual and inspired—is the fount and origin of beneficence, and exalted morality. If any instances that indicate discrepancy should occur to the memory of criticism, these instances only prove that the religion is absent: not because of religion, but for want of it do men disregard social duties and human rights.
What is God"s reply to Agnosticism? His answer is given in these words:—
"Therefore will I return, and take away my corn in the time thereof, and my wine in the season thereof, and will recover my wool and my flax given to cover her nakedness" ( Hosea 2:9).
This is rational, this is just, this is simple, and it is impossible for it to escape the approval of mankind. Where God is not known, why should he continue his bounty? Who will throw life away? Who will throw flowers into the darkness? Is not that a wastefulness forbidden by every instinct,—not knowing the prohibition of a written law, but prohibited by the interdict of instinct, and bearing upon itself the approval of eternal righteousness? Is it a grateful exercise to be sending messages to people who do not know the writer or inquire for him, or reply to his communications? Is it a delightful and inspiring exercise to be giving bread, and the persons receiving it not knowing whence it came, or caring as to the name and character of the giver? It may be so; but where the giving of the bread is meant not to end in itself, but to lead to other, further, brighter, grander results, who can waste his energy in the conduct of processes which have no termination? God never gives bread by itself. Jesus Christ never healed a blind man merely that the blind man might see the wonderful things round about him—that would have been childish and frivolous; Jesus Christ opened the eyes of the blind that he might lead the man to think whether it would not be better still to have the vision of his soul illumined, so that he could see the mystery of the divine action in universe and history.
So when God gives bread to the body he does not want to keep our bones together, a mechanism anatomical; he only feeds the body that he may get at the soul. God has therefore determined that if men do not know him, or ask concerning him, or recognise the purpose of his ministry, he will come down and claim his corn and wine and wool and flax. This is just. God must keep some control over things. It is good of him now and then to send a bad harvest; it is excellent management to blight the wheat-field, and make the people mad with hunger. That is love. Presently they will begin to ask questions, to wonder; and there is a kind of amazement which nearly touches religion, approaching the mysterious line which separates the highest wonder from the beginning of the profoundest reverence. It was good of God to take away the one ewe lamb; it was infinitely merciful of him to strike down the only tree we had—one little tree, and God wrenched it out of the earth by its dry roots, and shook the black soil back, and burned the tree. What did he mean by it? To teach us that it was his tree, not ours. You have no children, except in a very secondary and temporary sense. The Lord looks down from heaven and says: My children; my corn, my wine, my wool, my flax; all souls are mine; the gold and the silver are mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. There is but one Proprietor. Yet we call ourselves landlords! It pleases us, poor babies; it gives a man importance in his own family, if nowhere else, to call himself a landlord. Not an inch of land does any one of us possess. There are no landlords; in fact, there are no lords at all. Not until we realise that we are stewards, servants, trustees, people occupying responsible positions, shall we begin to realise the true dignity of life. He is the landlord in veriest truth who holds the land in trust, for cultivation, for the feeding of the poor and the maintenance of the State. He is aristocratic with more than nominal profession who says, My strength belongs to the weak man; my wisdom is the refuge of the unintelligent; my experience is a bank; and I allow all men known to me, who care to do Song of Solomon, to trade upon my treasure, for I hold it on their account The Lord comes to take back the things that belong to him, and he takes them back with a weary and aching heart. The Lord does not like to take anything back; he meant us to have it when he gave it; he giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; he never means to reclaim in any sense of rebuke whatever he has bestowed upon us. He says to us rather, Use it, dear children; make the best of it; I mean it for your gladness, and he who eats my harvests with a thankful heart doubles them; he who blesses his bread before breaking it will find more at the end than there was at the beginning.
What is the issue of this Agnosticism?
"I will also cause all her mirth to cease, her feast days, her new moons, and her sabbaths, and all her solemn feasts. And I will destroy her vines and her fig trees, whereof she hath said, These are my rewards that my lovers have given me: and I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall eat them" ( Hosea 2:11-12).
This is not vengeance, this is reason; this is not arbitrary punishment, this is a natural consequence and necessity. Divine gifts are abused, are misunderstood, or in some sense resented: what if divine patience should be outworn, or if only through a temporary suspension of his fortunes man can be brought to consideration? Recognise the greatness of things, the manifold relationships of life, and understand that Providence is not an arbitrary beneficence, but a critical and discriminating ministry. And there comes a time when God will say to the cloud, Rain no more on that unthankful life; and to the sun, No longer shine on ingratitude so base and desperate. This is God"s method; it is not mysterious; it is simple, frank, direct, intelligible, and just. If there be any fat, prosperous, gross atheists, so there be fat beasts maturing for the knife and the poleaxe. Do not misunderstand the outward and temporary prosperity of wickedness. It has been the mystery of the ages, but the mystery has been again and again dissolved, and men have seen the action of the divine Sovereignty, even in instances that appeared to prosper without the altar and without the revelation of the Word.
Does it all end here? God cannot end at a point like this. There is a divine rhetoric that requires other syllables to complete the Gospel sentence; it would be poor reading if it ended here. God goes from judgment to Gospel:—
"Therefore [the critics say, Nevertheless], behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt" ( Hosea 2:14-15).
Song of Solomon, we repeat, God cannot be angry all day; he breaks down, he proposes reconciliation. The Cross is not a human thought; it is an eternal proposal of love. The Lamb of God was slain from before the foundation of the world. We have often had occasion to say, the atonement was rendered before the sin was committed. God cannot be second; we cannot surprise him into new movements. The Gospel, as we understand it, occupies a certain historic or chronological point as to its revelation and framework, but in its innermost thought—who is this that cometh up from eternity? It is the Son of God, who, ere the universe arose, either by divine fiat, or from fire-cloud, or how it might, was slain for the sin of the world. Gracious mystery! Blessed fact!
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Hosea 2". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany