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Seven More Questions
A terrible fate is indicated by these inquiries. The rejection was awful in its completeness and sternness; the tempest of the Lord seemed to break upon the rejected people from all the points of the compass: "I will appoint over them four kinds, saith the Lord: the sword to slay, and the dogs to tear, and the fowls of the heaven, and the beasts of the earth, to devour and destroy" ( Jer 15:3 ). How much it took to make God utter these words the imagination of man can never discover. Wo read them as if they were rhetorical terms, but they are words of the heart, saturated with tears, expressions of an inconceivable and inexpressible agony. And Jerusalem has come into such state that none shall turn aside "to ask how thou doest." None shall have pity upon Jerusalem. Where Western nations say, "How do you do?" Eastern peoples said, "Is it peace?" The salutation in the East was always one of "Peace be with you," and the inquiry addressed from friend to friend was, "Is it peace?" None would inquire after the peace of Jerusalem, none would concern himself to know what pain was at her heart, what darkness beclouded her vision. Have we not had experience of the same kind in some degree? Have we not been outcasts, and as the off-scouring of all things? Men that once took: an interest in us take an interest no longer; it is no more any concern of theirs how we are, where we are, what we are. We: could explain the indifference if we were faithful to ourselves: is there not a cause? The cause is not known to the very men. who adopt the policy of indifference, but there is a ministry always acting upon the human mind, directing it and inspiring it, although the mind itself be unconscious of the mysterious action. Sad beyond all sadness is it when no man says to us with his heart, How are you? is it peace? are you at peace? have you joy? when we feel ourselves suddenly in a crowd, surging and hastening onward, not caring whether we live or die. It is worse than useless, it is impious, to mourn this condition of affairs as if it were a great mystery, when we know in our heart of hearts that we deserve to be scouted, abandoned, forgotten. The Lord does not inflict this punishment upon Jerusalem without revealing the reason. It is as usual a moral reason, a spiritual explanation. When the heart goes wrong all the circumference of which it is the centre is enfeebled, loses pith and forcefulness of pulse and energy, and collapses like a thing that has been depleted and exhausted.
"Shall iron break the northern iron and the steel?" ( Jer 15:12 ).
It is impossible to explain these words to the unanimous satisfaction of all men. The general explanation, according to a large consensus of opinion, is that the prayer of the prophet cannot break the inflexible purpose of Jehovah. Jeremiah is still concerned for Jerusalem, for his countrymen, and he will still pray, though, as we have just seen, he has been forbidden to pray, and has been told that if the mightiest intercessors that ever lived were to lift up their heads in devoutest argument they would not be listened to, for heaven was offended and mighty in just indignation. Now the question is put, not by Jeremiah, but by another: "Shall iron break the northern iron and the steel?" Is there any iron in the south that can stand against the iron of the north? Has not the iron of the north been proved in a thousand controversies, and has it ever failed? Who will smite that northern iron with straw? Who will break it with a weapon of wood? Who will set his own frail hand against an instrument so tremendous? The argument, then, would seem to be Why pray to me for these people? It is as iron applied to the iron of the north, which has been seen to fail in innumerable instances: all the prayers that can now be offered to heaven would be broken upon the threshold of that sanctuary and fall back in fragments upon the weary intercessor; the day has closed, the door is shut, the offended angel of grace has flown away on eagle pinions, and the sister angel of mercy can no longer be found: pray no more for Jerusalem. Thus the Lord dramatically represents himself; and in all this dramatic reply to the interrogations and pleadings of earth there is a great principle indicated; that principle is that the day closes "My Spirit shall not always strive with men." We may mortally offend the very love of God. In this way only can God represent the exhaustion of his patience, the termination of his pity. Do not imagine, the Lord would say, that you can fight fire with straw; do not suppose that your puny arm can successfully controvert omnipotence. There is a time when prayer is wasted breath, when the intercession of all the suppliants that ever took the kingdom of heaven by violence shall fail of its effect. These are awful words. If a man had invented them, we should have denied their truthfulness and their force; but when we hear them as from above we confirm them, we say, It is right, we do not deserve to be heard; if we had to assign ourselves to a fate, we dare not plant in the wilderness of our solitude one single flower; we have done the things we ought not to have done, we have left undone the things we ought to have done; all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way. Even the claims of nature are exhausted. Once we should have thrust our very flesh into the presence of Jehovah and said, Thou didst make it, and therefore thou art bound to take care of it. But we have deprived ourselves of any ground even from that natural argument. We have sinned at every point, we have left no finger clean; no hair upon the head but is a witness against us that we have tried to debase and diabolise the temple of God.
"Why is my pain perpetual, and my wound incurable, which refuseth to be healed? wilt thou be altogether unto me as a liar, and as waters that fail?" ( Jer 15:18 ).
Here it is that the prophet would say, Wilt thou be unto me as a winter torrent, as water that has utterly dried up in the summer-time when I need it most? art thou a capricious God? art thou to be looked upon as men look upon waterfalls after a great rain, hastening to scenic landscapes that they may see the cascade in its fulness? and when I am thirsty wilt thou be unto me as a dried-up brook, a torrent channel, in which no cup of cold water can be found? wilt thou be unto me as a liar? And may not the Lord himself apply this very inquiry to us in another but still related sense? Are we not fickle in our religion? Are we not as a winter torrent that is dried up in the summer? Are we not sometimes enthusiastic? Does not our feeling flow, cascade-like, in great abundance, and make music by its very fall and rush and energy? At other times are we not like a dried-up torrent bed, without emotion, without heart, without response to the desire of God? Are we not as trees that are laden with leaves only? and that have no figs for him who is weary and hungry? Turn the questions round, look at them in every phase and aspect, make each one an inquiry of a direct kind addressed to the heart as well as addressed to heaven, and thus out of the questions as out of grapes press the last drop of wine.
"Shall a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods?" ( Jer 16:20 ).
Is not that impossible? From a certain point of view it is utterly impossible, and yet from another point of view it is the very thing men are doing every day in the week. Questions cannot always be answered literally. There may be a moral explanation under the literary definition. Sometimes we are in what may be termed theoretical moods, and then we would pronounce it impossible that any man could be so impiously foolish as to try to make a god. Sometimes we laugh an ignorant laugh at the idols of the heathen. They may be better men than we are; their idols may be more to them than our God is to us. There is an idolatry of the letter, an idolatry of formal doctrine, an idolatry of times and circumstances and ceremonies a mockery never to be forgiven. Who does not make himself gods as he needs them? not visible gods, otherwise they might bring down upon themselves the contempt of observers, and the contempt of their very makers; but ambitions, purposes, policies, programmes, methods of procedure, all these may be looked upon as refuges and defences and hidden sanctuaries into which the soul would go for defence and protection when the tempest rages loudly and fiercely. A subtle thing is this god-making. Every man is at times a polytheist that is, a possessor or a worshipper of many gods. The Lord could never bring the mind of his people directly and lovingly to the reception of the One Deity. It would seem to be the last thought of man that there can be, by metaphysical necessity, only one God. There cannot be a divided Deity. Yet it is this very miracle that the imagination of man has performed. He has set all round the household innumerable idols which he takes down according to the necessity of the hour. He knows he is intellectually foolish, morally the victim of self-delusion, practically an utterly unwise and impracticable man; yet somehow, by force not to be put into equivalent words, he will do this again and again, yea he takes to himself power to fill up vacancies, so that if any clay god or imagined idol has failed him he puts another in the place of the one that did not fulfil his prayer.
These are the charges that are brought against men, these are the bitter accusations with which God tests and tries the heart of the world. The difficulty is that we are not the same practically as we are theoretically. We seem to believe in theory, and every day to violate our theory by our practice. This is the unpardonable heterodoxy the heterodoxy of schism in the soul, of divorce of things that belong to one another by eternal right and claim. Who would deny the existence of God? Hardly any man. Yet he may be a more honest man who denies God than he who only theoretically affirms him. Men who deny God have to pay for their non-belief today. It cannot be a pleasant thing to them from a social point of view that they deny God, for their very denial costs them daily bread, social repute, high standing amongst their fellows, yea, and keeps them out of office and out of promotion and out of human confidence. Let us be just to every man, though he may differ from us by the width of infinity. It may be the easiest thing in the world to confess God, to be sure that he exists; and to live every moment of our life as if the heavens were empty, and as if destiny were but another term for the grave. We do not believe in God: if we believed in God, we should have no fear, no anxiety, we should have no difficulty; every battle would be but the beginning of victory, every suffering would be the cloud behind which is hidden a glory that would be otherwise intolerable, every step would be the step of a conqueror to his crown. We only believe in God somewhere in the head, in a theoretical sense, and we shudder when other men deny him, forgetting that in their denying they may be exhibiting a completer faith than we ourselves are displaying. Will a man make gods unto himself, and they are no gods? The answer is, Yes, he will do so; he has done it; every day he repeats the mischievous miracle.
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked [incurably diseased]: who can know it?" ( Jer 17:9 ).
It is a singular thing that these men knew so much about the human heart. They were marvellous dreamers and metaphysicians, and analysts of human motive and impulse and purpose, to come to such definite conclusions about the heart It is not a man talking about his own heart, limiting his doctrine by his personal consciousness; it is an accuser standing up in heaven's brightest light and charging the earth with apostasy. We want to deny it, but our denial is contradicted by facts; not by vulgar facts, that is, open, patent, obvious facts, but by very subtle, recondite, remote facts. All men do not show the heart disease in the same way; yea, there are some who would seek to cover up their own disease by a liberal criticism of other men. The inquiry, however, is, "Who can know it?" Can the man himself know it? Only in a certain sense. Who can know it? No observer, no critic, no judge. The heart was never seen in action. It has been felt, it has been known to be there, it has been the most eminent fact in the whole situation, and yet it has the curtaining power by which it shuts out brightest, keenest eyes, and laughs behind the arras at the fool who seeks to peer into the mystery. Men do not know themselves: hence the vanity of boasting; hence the impiety of being assured that whoever else may fall we can never fall. There is no man, woman, or child on earth that may not fall tomorrow: hence the brutality as well as the ignorance of pedantic Pharisaism, of saying what we have done, of indicating our superiority, and telling God that we are the patterns of all virtue and honour. Man needs to have the heart revealed unto him. Where is that revelation? Only in Holy Scripture. "The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." It can find an interstice where interstice there seems to be none, and the hand that uses that double-edged sword sometimes turns it so as to be assured that the iniquity has been found out and the disease has been discovered. Let us shut ourselves up with our Bible, and then we shall know ourselves, we shall hear our inmost thoughts expressed in definite terms, and we shall catch sight of ourselves in a mirror, and be affrighted by the ghastly revelation. Not until we get this view of human nature can we have any real gospel work. The gospel is a mistake if human nature be not in a condition of apostasy. The instrument which seeks the elevation of man is ill-adapted to its purpose if man can lift so much as one hand to help himself: "The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." Let the weary heart exclaim Lord, I am lost: pity me I then will begin the upper, diviner life.
"O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord ( Jer 18:6 ).
The answer is Yes and No. The prophet was sent down to a potter's house: he says, "I went down to the potter's house, and, behold, he wrought a work on the wheels. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hands of the potter: so he made it again another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to make it. Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying, O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord." Yes No. So far as all physical energy is concerned, the Lord can do with us as the potter does with the clay; but the Lord himself cannot make a little child love him: there is a point at which the clay lives, thinks, reasons, defies. The potter can only work upon the clay up to a given point; so long as it is soft he can make it a vessel of honour or a vessel of dishonour, he can make it this shape or that; but once let him burn it, and it is clay no longer in the sense in which he can fashion it according to model or design. A marvellous thing is this, that the Lord has made any creature that can defy him; and that we can all defy him is the testimony of every day's experience. Let the Lord say, Can I not crush the universe? and the answer must be, Yes, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye; thou hast but to close thy fingers upon it, and it is dead, and thou canst throw the ashes away. But almightiness has its limits. There is no almightiness in the moral region. Here is what is not often clearly understood. Men say the Lord cannot be almighty, or he would not have any bad men in the world. That is a mistaken definition of almightiness. So far as physical effort is concerned; almightiness is supreme, the constellations are nothing, the phalanx and army of the world amount to nothing, the Lord bloweth upon them and they wither away; but when we come into the moral region every man by virtue of his being a man can defy the Creator that fashioned him. The Lord cannot conquer the human will by any exercise of mere omnipotence: the will is to be conquered by instruction, persuasion, grace, moral inducement, spiritual ministry, exhibition cf love upon love, till the exhibition rises into sacrifice and indicates itself in the Cross of Christ. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock." Why does he not go in? Because he has no key of that door that can open it by force. Why does he not break it with one tremendous blow? Because then the heart would be crushed and killed, and would not be persuaded into becoming a guest-chamber for the king. We have it in our power to say No to God, to defy the Lord, to withdraw ourselves from the counsel and guidance of heaven.
"Will a man leave the snow of Lebanon which cometh from the rock of the field? or shall the cold flowing waters that come from another place be forsaken?" ( Jer 18:14 ).
Can a man be such a fool as this? The historical answer is Yes, he can; the experimental answer is, We ourselves do this very thing. "My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water." Is that possible? Theoretically, no; practically, yes, not possible only, but actual. Who would be all the year round away from the snow-stream? Who would go into wildernesses where there is no water? unto deserts where there are no fountains and springs and wells? Who would not keep near the spring? who would not say, Presently Lebanon will send us down water, melted snow? "Lebabon" itself means white. It is said, poetically as well as historically, that the summit of Lebanon is faithful to its snow, and that the snow is faithful to the summit of Lebanon. Let the sun do what he may elsewhere create paradises, tropical luxuriance of plant and flower and fruit yet Lebanon is faithful to the snow, and the snow is faithful to Lebanon. There are times when we can run away from Lebanon, saying, There is an abundance of water everywhere. There are other times when we must come back and say, We want what help we can now get from the snow-white summits of Lebanon. So it is with God. We run away from him so easily; but let the child sicken, let the life tremble, let strength be displaced by weakness, let prosperity flee away, and dark adversity settle upon the rooftree; then we say, Where is Lebanon, where is the fountain of living water, where are the streams that make glad our poor human life? Thus poverty, dearth, drought, bring in more believers than are brought in by an abundant harvest, and by vineyards purple with luscious grapes. Look at that road: how sunny! how rich on either side are the fields, wheatfields, and fruitful orchards, and abounding harvests of every kind: who comes along that way to the church? Nobody. Look at that other road bleak, barren, desolate; a place where death might live, a God-forsaken spot of earth: are there travellers there? Yes, a thousand strong, and a thousand more are coming down the hillside yonder. What is their destiny? The sanctuary. Why? They are in trouble, in poverty, in distress; they are friendless, homeless, hopeless. Will there be room for them in the sanctuary? There may be: his mercy endureth for ever: none can tell what his mercy may do: there may be. Will those rich velvet-clad people never come? Not in velvet. If they do come, how will they come? Nakedly, forsakenly, self-accusingly, broken-heartedly. Will they not try to feast the Lord with their wheat? If they did they would but mock him, and he would consume it, and make the black soot fall upon their hypocritical faces. Have they not heaven enough in their vineyards and oliveyards? There is no heaven there. So it ever has been in all human history. When the water has failed men have tried to pray; when the harvest has broken down men have wondered whether they could not find in the church some comfort for their disappointment and their poverty. Blessed be God for that idea after all. We need it; we could not have borne the things we have endured but for religious help, religious sympathy, and religious hope. Christ never received the rich full prosperous man, saying to him, Your riches make you welcome, and your prosperity will make your religion sit easily upon you. Never! he has said, "How hardly" that is, with what infinite difficulty and struggle "shall a rich man enter the kingdom of heaven." But brokenhearted men, contrite souls, penitents that had no excuse to offer, these he has received in abundance: and let it be said everywhere, in every tongue, in every tone of music, loud as thunder, softly as a whispered confidence "This man receiveth sinners."
How wondrous are thy words, thou Lord of hosts, God of all the earth, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection? There is no searching of his understanding. Thou dost lead the blind by a way that they know not; yet thou dost bring them into light and liberty ere they are fully aware that thine hand is upon them. Thou art leading all men: thy purpose cannot fail of accomplishment; the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord; every heart shall be loyal to Christ; the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. Thou hast set forth life and immortality in the light of the Cross; to all men thou hast given the reward of faith; thou wilt not withhold from faith any blessing of heaven. Thou delightest in faith; without faith it is impossible to please thee: Lord, increase our faith, that we may make our Father glad because he sees our hearts ascending to himself. We would no longer walk by sight; it is a false leader: we cannot see anything as it really is; we are deluded by appearances and passing aspects; we do not see the innermost essence and real meaning of all that is about us: give us the eyes of faith, the sensitiveness of love, the responsiveness of gratitude; make us spiritual rather than material, may we have more soul than flesh: and thus may we live in continual communion with God, feeling thy going and thy coming as the going and the coming of a summer warmth. We bless thee for all we know of thy nature, for all we have partaken of thy grace: it is good to live in God, without him there is no life. May we, through Jesus Christ our Saviour who loved us and gave himself for us, know thee more truly and really and helpfully, that so we may disdain the heavens and the earth, and seek for their Creator, and know no rest until we worship him who made them all. At present we are overwhelmed by them, we speak of their vastness and dignity and glory, not knowing that all these things shall be dissolved and end with a great noise. We seek the King, we come by the way of the Cross; we walk over Calvary that we may reach Bethany, and from Bethany we would ascend with our ascending Lord, and enjoy with him what we may of the throne on which he is seated. Thou hast given us great promises, thou hast held out a great light before us, the whole horizon is aflame with glory: may we see beyond, and because of the glory that is to come may we despise the shame of the Cross. Bind us to thyself; work in us a new kinship with thine own nature; give us the new birth, the joy of its peace, the rapture of its liberty. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 15". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Epiphany