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In these verses we have two distinct aspects of human experience. Even supposing, as some critics do, that there is some dislocation as to their exact sequence, still we have a disparity which we ourselves can attest as being real and not imaginary. Within this brief section Jeremiah is on the hill-top and in the deepest valley of spiritual dejection. It may be that Jer 20:14 and onward should have come in connection with the previous paragraph, should have continued or gone before Jeremiah 20:7 . But that does not touch the reality of the case; we are not now dealing with literal criticism, but with a very tragical and solemn experience.
How much depends upon circumstances for man's estimate of life! That estimate varies with climate, with incidents of a very trivial nature, and with much that is only superficial and transitory. A man's health will affect his whole view of life, will give him a new philosophy of things, will bring down the brightest mind to fear, doubt, dejection, almost despair. Find a man who is well, robust, quite ardent in health, and ask him what life is: and it is a lofty sky, a green landscape, a daily prosperity, a continual victory to live is to be blessed. Ask a man who is very ill, who has no physical energy, pith, or confidence, and his view of life is that this is a vale of tears, that there is more darkness than light in life, and more misery than joy in the world. He does not speak from his higher faculties; he speaks from a basis of circumstances which may change tomorrow, and then his whole philosophy and his whole theology will change along with it. Life is one thing to the successful man, and another to the man whose life is one continual series of defeats and disappointments. It is well, therefore, that all men should have a touch of failure, and spend a night or two now and then in deepest darkness that cannot be relieved: such experience teaches sympathy, develops the noblest faculties, brings into beneficent exercise many generous emotions, and in the morning, after a long night's struggle with doubt, there may be tears in the eyes; but those tears denote the end of weakness and the beginning of strength. The sun has much to do with our theology, and can cause us to fall into dejection or rise into triumph. The sun changes our civilisation, tells us what we shall wear and what we shall not wear, and will always have his own way. Reasoning goes no distance with the sun. Summer comes with its philosophy of life, and turns upside down all the counsels of winter; and winter in its turn comes and puts to confusion all the mellow, genial, happy, songful views and experiences of summer. The year is not one season, but four, and we must pass through all the four before we can know what the year is. So with life: we must be with Jeremiah on the mountain-top, or with him in the deep valley; we must join his song, and fall into the solemn utterance of his sorrow, before we can know what the whole gamut of life is. They are little, narrow, selfish, and wholly insufficient, who have only lived on one side of the hill.
How religiously triumphant is Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20:11 :
"But the Lord is with me as a mighty terrible one: therefore my persecutors shall stumble, and they shall not prevail: they shall be greatly ashamed; for they shall not prosper: their everlasting confusion shall never be forgotten."
Then how profoundly despondent this same man is in Jeremiah 20:14-15 :
"Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad."
This cannot be the same voice. We should doubt it if we had not experience of a kindred scope and quality ourselves. The game fountain can send forth praises and curses; the same heart marvellously expresses the consistency of its feeling in its very variety. We may sometimes doubt the piety that is monotonous: may it not be monotonous because it is mechanical? All the wheels move regularly; they are all lubricated at certain times, and the whole motion is fluent, noiseless. In such circumstances it may not be unlawful to doubt the vitality of the piety. Machinery does not suffer consciously. Life is suffering, life is death, and death is birth. How seldom we find any man who can understand any other two men when those two men express a total difference of experience. Each man has his own foot-rule by which he measures the case that comes before him; each man has his ready calculator to which he turns to see what one sum multiplied by another sum comes to. But how difficult to distinguish minute differences! How easy to discriminate broadly, but how difficult to come to close quarters, to microscopic ministries, to fibrous examinations, to all the finest analyses of thought and feeling and condition, so that each shall have a portion of meat in due season, and each shall feel that the table was spread for him. Here we have a man in two absolutely contrary states of experience. He is not the only man who represented contrariety in moral and spiritual feeling and condition. We must not be cast down with sorrow overmuch. Some who are melancholy are not forsaken of God; there is something physically wrong with them. Some who suppose they have committed the unpardonable sin may only have committed some sin against what are called the laws of nature or the laws of health, or they may be suffering in a physical hell which has been created for them by thoughtless or vicious progenitors. The night side should always be recognised. Men should speak of the night, for the night is a reality: but they should not forget to say that the morning cometh; and though the night hasten upon its heels, night shall fail in the race, and morning shall go alone on its eternal passage. There is enough to justify a certain measure of despondency.
Consider the vanity of life, and by its vanity understand its brevity, its uncertainty, its fickleness. We have no gift of time, we have no assurance of continuance; we have a thousand yesterdays, we have not one tomorrow. Then how things disappoint us that were going to make us glad! The flowers have been blighted, or the insects have fallen upon them, or the cold wind has chilled them, and they have never come to fall fruition or bloom or beauty; and the child that was going to comfort us in our old age died first, as if frightened by some ghost invisible to us. Then the collisions of life, its continual competitions and rivalries and jealousies; its mutual criticisms, its backbitings and slanderings; its censures, deserved and undeserved: who can stand the rush and tumult of this life? Who has not sometimes longed to lay it down and begin some better, sunnier state of existence? Who has wholly escaped sighing, weariness, yearning that means, This is not our rest; there must be a city to complete this, a city which brings to completeness of significance and joy all the symbols and hints which make this present life-stage so bewildering? And the sufferings of life, who shall number them? not the great sufferings that are published, not the great woes that draw the attention even of the whole household to us in tender regard; but sufferings we never mention, spiritual sufferings, yea, even physical sufferings; sufferings that we dare not mention, sufferings that would be laughed at by unsympathetic contempt but still sufferings. Add all these elements and possibilities together, and then say who has not sometimes been almost anxious to "shuffle off this mortal coil," and pass into the liberty of rest.
Only they who are in spiritual service, only pastors who have won the friendship of a thousand hearts, can really tell how much melancholy there is in the world. The most of people never escape the limits of private individuality, so that they do not know what is passing around them; but the pastor who has the touch of sympathy, and who has evidently the ear of attention, hears and knows by numberless means whisperings, open communications, letters well attested, and whole volumes of family history how much misery there is in the world. We know to whom to tell the tale of our grief. Men do not care to whisper their confidences to the unheeding rock; but let them find a man who is akin to their souls, and who can listen in a way that amounts to a reply, then how they will pour into his ear the sad and saddening story, and get out of their very speech some hope at least of mitigation. Some men are not to be consulted upon anything, because they know nothing but the sky of their own little life, the horizon of their own contracted outlook, and they cannot understand any other kind of nature than their own. Jesus Christ understands us all. We can all tell Jesus, as the disciples did, what has happened. He can listen to each of us as if his interest were entranced and enthralled. He knows every quiver of the life, every throb of the heart, every palpitation of fear, and every shout of joy. Withhold nothing from him. You can tell him all, and when you have ended you will find that you may begin life again. In your hope is his answer.
Judged by the grave being the end of things, we may well be despondent. If life ends in death, as we understand that term death, then it is a failure in many serious respects. Now Christianity would improve upon this estimate of life, even if the grave were its goal. Christianity has a wonderful message to our melancholy. Christianity would say to us, If it could be proved that all life is a gallop to the grave, still life might be made beautiful, useful, valuable, and precious beyond all possible possessions. There is much selfishness in Christian piety so miscalled. What does some people's religion amount to but a sighing for heaven, a sighing for rest, for some form of luxury? They are always saying what it will be to escape life and earth, and time and sense, and pass into the invisible and the eternal. It is all selfishness and vanity; it is not piety; it has nothing to do with the Spirit of Christ. We should be as pure, generous, industrious, faithful, if tomorrow's sun is to set upon our grave, from which there is no resurrection of any kind. That is what Christianity would teach us. Christianity says, A noble life is worth living, even for its effect upon itself, and its influence upon others. Your mother is not dead; yea, though there be nothing beyond the grave, the good woman is not dead; she is with you in memory and inspiration and influence and secret benediction, and many a time you recover yourself from dejection and fear by a remembrance of her chivalry: how then can she be quite dead? Besides, even if the grave ended all things as to human consciousness, we are making a contribution to the general advancement of mankind. That is unselfishness. But tell persons that there is nothing beyond, that they must find the reward in the virtue, the heaven in the goodness, and they will say they want something in both hands, something they can lay hold upon, a very tangible and real and most visible heaven. That is selfishness. It is not piety, it is not even aspiration; it is self-consciousness and preparation for selfish enjoyment. Why not treat the soul as we treat the body in these respects? Herein we convict ourselves, and answer our own foolish logic; for we know that the body will not survive many days, yet how wise men care for it, how they nourish and cherish it, how they subject it to wise discipline! Know ye not that your bodies may drop to pieces tomorrow? Yes, says the student of health, that may be so, but today I must care for my body as if it were going to live for ever; my body has an effect upon other bodies, and by my discipline and self-control and regularity, by my temperance and my proper development, I am helping on the good of society. That is piety, though it may not be uttered in the church; that is the large religion; that is the religion of Jesus Christ, which is not seeking some golden-paved Jerusalem for itself, but is doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God, that the soul itself may be comforted, and the souls of others may be blessed.
See how it is with regard to this matter of the body. This analogon I will not part with, for it sustains a larger argument. We know that the body in a few years will be in the grave, and yet we cleanse it, and sustain it, and discipline it, as if it were to live for ever on the earth. That is wisdom. Even if the soul were to die with the body and be buried in the same grave, why not attend to it with the same diligence, with the same constancy and hopefulness? why not find pleasure in discipline? why not find advancement in self-suppression? Now you may change the point of view, and proceed upon an argument that grows because of the admission which has been made with regard to the body. Christianity says that the soul is to survive, that the spirit is not to be extinguished; that through processes known in connection with the name of Christ, and the mighty energy of God the Holy Ghost, it is to live for ever. It so, how much more attention, how much more discipline, how much more zealous, tender, and exacting care should be bestowed upon its development! We do this for the body, and the body dies; it may die immediately: why not do the same for the soul, even if it were to go into annihilation the moment the body falls? But if the soul is not to go into annihilation at that time, but is to bid farewell to the flesh that it may pass on to a nobler tenancy, how much more does it deserve patience, and care, and watchfulness in its development!
Jeremiah has a word that is practical:
"All my familiars watched for my halting, saying, Peradventure he will be enticed, and we shall prevail against him, and we shall take our revenge on him" ( Jer 20:10 ).
"All my familiars watched for my halting": the original word does not mean my innermost friends, for true friendship can never be guilty of such treason, but the Hebrew word means, The men of my peace; the men who used to accost me on the highway with, "Is it peace?" the men who salaamed me out of civility, but who never really cared for me in their souls: these men, behind their painted masks, watched for my halting; they all watched. Some men take pleasure when other men fall. What is the answer to all this watching of others? It is a clear, plain, simple, useful answer: Watch yourselves; be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. It is not enough that others watch you watch yourselves; be critical about yourselves; be severe with yourselves; penetrate the motive of every action, and say: Is it healthy? Is it honest? Is it such as could bear the criticism of God? Dare we take up this motive and look at it when the sun burns upon it in its revealing glory? If a man so watch himself he need not mind who else watches him. He will follow the advice of the Lord Jesus advice which amounts to a solemn command: "What I say unto you I say unto all, Watch." Watch the secret places; watch the out-of-the-way doors, the postern gates, the places that are supposed to be secure against the approach of the burglar; be very careful about all these, and then the result may be left with God. He who does not watch will be worsted in the fray. He who does not watch cannot pray. He who watches others and does not watch himself is a fool.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 20". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26