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The Book of Jeremiah is full of questions. They are questions indicative of bewilderment, amazement, ignorance, hopefulness; they stand often in place of that silence which is more eloquent than speech, as if the prophet would tempt the Lord himself into reply by asking questions. Thus we tempt little children, and thus we would tempt the wisest scholars with whom we come into momentary contact, and thus adoringly would we seek to lure God into audible speech.
"Where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?" ( Jer 13:20 ).
Let this stand as an inquiry from God himself. The prophet often personates God: sometimes it is almost impossible to tell who is speaking, whether it is God, or whether it is the prophet speaking in the divine name; but we can always tell by its quality and by its music whence the question comes. "What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee?" Here is a flock that is being inquired about, not a flock only, but a beautiful flock. The question comes into our family life, and asks us where all the children are, those lovely children, that banished the silence of the house and made it ring with music. They were fair, they were charming, they were affectionate; what a sweet, merry little fellowship they made! where are they? The parent ought to be able to give some answer to that inquiry. Have they been spoiled into evil, flattered into self-idolatry, neglected into atheism? Have they been over-instructed, over-disciplined, wholly overborne, so that the will has not been only broken but shattered? Where are they? Are children likely to grow up of themselves? Flowers do not, fruits do not, horses do not. There is more man in a horse than there is horse. Will children turn out to be saints and psalmists and preachers by your enjoying yourselves and letting them go their own way? Nature does not submit to that philosophy of life; she says: "You must watch me mother Nature; you must be up in the morning almost as early as I am, and you must begin your training whilst the dew is upon me, or I will uproot your flowers and set a weed where every one of them grew." Oh, the cruelty of kindness! the madness of neglect! A good example should be supported by good instruction. He is no shepherd, but a tyrant, who does not co-operate with his children, lure them, fascinate them, and give them sacred instruction without appearing to do so, and who when offering religious privileges offers them as if offering coronation, yea, and all heaven.
The question enters also into our Church life, saying to every pastor, "Where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?" not large, perhaps, but so expectant, so sympathetic, so co-operative. It is possible for preachers to be always in their places, and yet always out of them. What the flock wants is pastoral preaching. The difficulty is to overcome the temptation to preach to somebody who is not there. There is another difficulty almost impossible to escape, and that is to preach to the one man rather than to all souls the one man being the critic, the intolerable man, who does not understand human nature, who is cursed with a competence, and cursed by knowing so many books as to their title-pages. The preacher will be ruined by that man, unless that man is ruined by the preacher; a great controversy, though not always patent to the public eye, must take place, and the preacher must oust the critic. The people must have pastoral prayer, prayer often all tears, always trembling with sympathy, always indicative of the open eye that sees human life in its most tragic features and relations. The preacher must always know himself to be set for the healing and nurture of men. In every congregation there are the brokenhearted, those who are shattered in fortune, feeble in health, spiritually-minded; women who have great home cares; souls that cannot thrive on criticism; lives that need all nourishment and comfort and loving sympathy. The pastor who so recognises his duty and conducts his function will be able to tell where the flock is, the beautiful flock, the sheep and the lambs; he will carry the lambs in his bosom. Preaching of that sort will never need any foolish assistance in gathering together a flock. Men soon know the physicians who can heal broken hearts. It is marvellous how the poor and the weary and the sad come to know that somewhere there is a man who has the divine touch, the shepherd's voice, the pastoral enthusiasm. Let it be known by father, mother, preacher, king, queen, that the time will come when the question will be asked, "Where is the flock, the beautiful flock?" Nor will it be sufficient to return a vague and multitudinous reply. The Lord knows every one of his flock. You cannot offer him thirty-nine instead of forty; you cannot persuade him to look upon the flock as a whole, a moving crowd; he counts while he looks, he numbers all his flock, and each passes under the rod. We must be careful for the individual. There is an abundance of public benevolence; a wonderful desire to preside at public meetings, and a shameful disregard of the one little crushed life, the one half-sobbed intercession, which asks for pity, which begs for bread.
Question follows question in this prophet: "And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me?" ( Jer 13:22 ), thou wilt assume the role of the hypocrite, thou wilt talk for talking' sake; for thou knowest right well that God's judgments come upon human sin. The Lord never punishes for the sake of punishing. It is not to test the quality of his rod, but to develop the character of man, that God smites any living creature. When he drowned the world, he first drowned his own heart in tears. He suffered more than you suffered when he took the one little ewe lamb away from you because you were turning it into an idol or a temptation. In all our affliction he is afflicted.
"Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" ( Jer 13:23 ). There is no pathos in that inquiry. Perhaps there is a little cadence of satire; there may be some hint of mockery. It is a moral inquiry, ending in this conclusion "Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." Man cannot do a little of each, and do both with indifference or reluctance, and have the good set down to him as a positive virtue. Habit becomes second nature, according to the assurance of the proverb. There is a use in evil; it is easy to get into the skill of evildoing; verily we seem to the manner born; it is easier to do wrong than to do right. That, however, is but a partial view, because when proper discipline has been undergone it becomes impossible to do evil. How is it that men do go astray? Why is not one child born that stands up and says, "I will never budge, I will be inflexible in virtue, heroic in suffering, valiant in testimony: I will be the man the ages have been sighing and groaning for." Where is that child? If we speak of original sin we are mocked. We dare scarcely mention the name of Adam, though mystery of mysteries we have a doctrine of heredity. This doctrine as now understood seems to go no farther back than the grandfather. That is a poor heredity, and laying tremendous responsibility upon that venerable gentleman. What has he done to be the fountain and origin of heredity? he never heard the word; he would need to have it explained to him if he returned to these earthly schools. If we once acknowledge the doctrine of heredity, then there is no Adam, though he were born millions of ages ago, who can escape the responsibility of being the first. We do nothing with this doctrine but aggravate the responsibilities of our own immediate ancestors. The larger doctrine takes in all humanity. There I will stand by the doctrine of heredity. It is a historical fact; it is a philosophy; it is a science by itself; it deserves the devoutest, calmest study: but the doctrine of heredity must not be terminated at a certain point, it must cover the whole ground, otherwise it is partial, whimsical, fanciful, and misleading. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin?" That question ought to be answerable. "Or the leopard his spots?" There ought to be no difficulty about that inquiry. The prophet means by these interrogations that sooner shall these miracles be wrought than that habitual evil shall turn to the ways of light and wisdom and pureness. Then, is it impossible? With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. That is the open door. We must be born again. It is easy to sneer at the doctrine, to call it ancient, and to regard it as metaphysical; but it does take place in every advancing life, and sometimes when we even disown the name we accept the process. We are not to be limited by human definitions. We do not go to some great theologian to tell us the meaning of regeneration; we go into our own experience, and through that we read the divine word, and by the reciprocal action of the divine word and the human consciousness we begin to see what is meant by the Ethiopian changing his skin and the leopard his spots, what is meant by rejuvenation, the offcasting of the old man, and the blooming of the new life, the regenerated soul. This cannot be explained in words, it can be felt in the heart.
"Wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be?" ( Jer 13:27 ).
"O the Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night?" ( Jer 14:8 ).
Here we reach a deeper pathos. The prophet is conscious of the absence of God. A great change has taken place in the divine relation to Jeremiah and to the world. He who once came to reside, to abide, now called in like a wayfaring man, and passed on. What does the pilgrim care for the politics of the city? He came but yesternight, tomorrow he will be gone; he cannot entangle himself with the politics, or the social life, or the family life of the city; he says, I can tarry but a night, I may not unsandal my feet, and my staff I had better have in my hand whilst I sleep a little; I must be up with the dawn. Why art thou as a pilgrim, a wayfaring man, one who can turn aside but to tarry for a night? Almighty One, gracious One, thou didst live with us once; thou wert as part of us, our very home lift depended upon thee, we breathed the atmosphere of thy fellowship, and now we hardly ever see thee; thou dost come sandalled, thou dost come with the staff in thine hand, thou dost scarcely ask a question, or express a sympathy, or disclose a solicitude; thou art no sooner here than gone. O the Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, our hearts ache when we think of thee coming as a stranger thou once a friend!
"Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul loathed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us?" ( Jer 14:19 ).
The Lord had told the prophet it was useless to pray for the offender, but the prophet scarcely believed it. It is hard for those who know God to believe that he will resort to judgment. Jonah said: "I knew thou wouldst not destroy Nineveh, I knew I was on a fool's errand; I knew thy mercy, thy love, thy pity; I had been calling, In forty days Nineveh should be destroyed, and I knew that if Nineveh but whimpered thou wouldst humiliate me and spare the city." So it is, the individual must go down, the personal consciousness must be rebuked; the city must be saved, the man must be redeemed, and the redeeming God will presently talk to the complaining prophet, and mayhap reconcile him.
"Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers?" ( Jer 14:22 ).
Remember it was a time of dearth. The question turned upon the presence of grass; there was no grass, and therefore the hind calved in the field and forsook its own offspring, that it might abate its own hunger, seeking grass in some far-away place. Natural instincts were subdued and overcome, and the helpless offspring was left in helplessness, that the poor dying mother, hunger smitten, might find a mouthful of green herbage somewhere. And the ground was dust; the ploughmen were ashamed, they resorted to that last sign of Oriental desperation and grief, to cover their heads, because there was no rain, no grass; and now the prophet asks, "Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles than can cause rain?" What can the idols do? If they can give rain, let them give it now. Can the heavens themselves give showers the blue heavens that look so kind can they of themselves and as it were by their own motion pour a baptism of water upon the earth? No. This is the act of the living God, the providence of the redeeming Father, the miracle of love. Thus we are driven in various ways to pray. You never know what a man is religiously, until he has been well tried, hungry a long time, and had no water to drink, until his tongue is as a burning sting in his mouth, until it hardens like metal, and if he can then move his lips you may find the coward trying to pray.
Almighty God, thou art always asking for the absent. Thou canst not be satisfied because many are in thy banqueting-house; every vacant seat troubles thine heart: God is love. Thou art always saying, If ye will return, I will receive you. Yea, thou dost say more I will receive you graciously and love you freely. The hospitality of God is boundless. Once we were as sheep going astray, but now we have returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, by the grace of God. Wondrous grace! all-including love! Behold, the mercy of the Lord endureth for ever. By the grace of God we are what we are, still bad, imperfect, unwise, yet having some sense of the invisible, the eternal, the divine; having some sense of the sinfulness of sin, and some hatred of the abominable thing, and some desire to throw our arms around the Cross and cry our hearts out for very shame and penitence. This is thy doing. We love the agony; it is a blessed pain; this is woe which is the beginning of joy; this is godly sorrow which worketh repentance not to be repented of, the liberty of full access to God, the liberty of pardon. May we know it more and more, and pass through all paroxysms and rendings of life into the infinite calm. There is no other way. Every kingdom worth having is entered by a strait gate and a narrow road. This is thine appointment, and it is good, for we have experienced it in all lower things. That which comes easily goes easily. Behold, our agony of heart is in the pledge of our sonship, and is the assurance that thou art going to do great things. When all the discipline is done, when all the piercing and beating and moulding shall be accomplished, when all the firing shall be over, when the poor furnace shall cool down because there is no more dross to burn, then we shall thank thee for every pang; our memory shall treasure somewhat of the pains we bore, and we shall bless God that having come out of great tribulation we can never know it any more. We have done wickedly, we have excited our fears, we have misused our faculties, we have shown genius in crime, yea, inspiration in wickedness. God pity the lives that repent; the Lord weep over our tears himself, and so sweeten them. We come with these petitions. We know how great they are, how large is our request: but what are they compared with thine infinity! Amen
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 13". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany