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Accusations and Penalties
These chapters are full of accusation. The point is, that the accusation was not directed against heathen nations; it is hurled against the chosen of God. There is a certain kind of accusation in which there is comfort. Where the indictment is severe, it is evident that the expectation has been high, and God never expects much except where he has sown much. Therefore it may come to pass that the very gravity and poignancy of the accusation may be suggestive of real comfort, and may form a ground of hope, provided that the divine conditions of return be acknowledged and realised. The collapse was almost fatal:
"Why then is this people of Jerusalem slidden back by a perpetual backsliding? they hold fast deceit, they refuse to return" ( Jer 8:5 ).
We can hardly tell how much is expressed in the original terms, "a perpetual backsliding," that is to say, a multiplication of backsliding; one within another, and one beyond another, the whole proceeding as if by geometrical figure and arithmetical progression. It is not a slip that is indicated, a momentary lapse; it is a banqueting in evil, a licking of the lips after a savoury feast at the table of the devil. We cannot tell how it looked to heaven. This we know, that the language of the text would never have been employed if the circumstances had not been provocative of so complete an impeachment. But the accusation is not in general terms only; it is therefore detailed; instead of the solid sentence we have the sharp line; we have the iniquity item by item, each like a pointed instrument. Let us see:
"I hearkened and heard [Lit. I listened to hear], but they spake not aright" ( Jer 8:6 ).
The figure is a graphic and vivid one; it is that of the divine Being stooping from heaven, and with inclined ear listening critically yet hopefully to human speech, if mayhap there be but one bright word, one tone of music, one sigh of contrition. The Lord did not listen generally, promiscuously, as if listening to a confused noise of sound; but he listened specifically, he tried every word, he detained every syllable, if haply he could detect in it one sound or sign that he might construe hopefully. But it was in vain. Even divinest kindness could make nothing but black ingratitude of all the energetic speech: it was a torrent cf iniquity; it was a river black, foul; it was a rain of poison. God does not bring these charges against the human family lightly. What he would have said had there been one sign of penitence or reverence or desire after the true worship! He would have forgotten all the blackness if he had seen one point of light. It is his delight to magnify that which is excellent. If any one man had prayed aright, he would have forgiven the world on that one man's account. If ten men had turned their faces hopefully to heaven, he would have spared the universe a century longer; he would have disappointed gaping hell. But there was no encouragement. God can see flowers if there are any. He can see them before they open their mystery, and proclaim in fragrance their gospel; he knows where they are sown and planted. But he looked, and there was none; he expected, and was struck to the heart with disappointment; "no man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done?" There was no self-cross-examination. When men cease to soliloquise they cease to pray. The hardest witness man undertakes to interrogate is his own soul. Yet philosophy has found out the advantages of self-inquest. The Pythagoreans asked themselves once a day, "What have I done?" The inquiry creates a space in the day for itself, makes one inch of piping-ground in the desert of the day's life. How few men dare probe themselves with that inquiry! It is a question double-edged. It is recorded of Cicero, in pressing one of his accusations against an adversary, that he told that adversary that if he had but put two words to himself he might have cooled his passion, controlled his desires, and turned his impulses to high utility. Said the orator, "If thou hadst said to thyself, Quid ego ? thou mightest have stopped thyself in this tremendous assault." That is, What have I done? What do I? What is my course? What are the facts of the case? A man has to fight the great battle for himself. It is useless to be holding great controversies outside whilst yet the heart itself is in tumult and rebellion and disorder of every kind. This is what Jesus Christ means when he says a man must hate his own life. The word that thus comes to point a climax might have been laid down as the foundation of an argument; for no man can hate his father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife until he first hates his own life puts it right within, gets hold of things by the right end, and governs all things by one dominant and solemn meaning. How stands the case now? Does any man put the question to himself once a day, What have I done? Every man should keep a diary not perhaps a written journal; that may be mechanical: but there should be a diurnal inquest into purpose, thought, desire, intention, what did it all mean? He who thus brings himself at dawn under discipline walks along a victor's path even until the sunset. But to have no right self-understanding, no grip of the soul itself, is to waste life, is to live a chance life, is to depend upon speculations and fortunes and accidents, and therefore to be stung by fatal disappointments.
What further occurred? The collapse was so complete that God asks this question,
"Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination?" ( Jer 8:12 )
"Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered" ( Jer 8:22 ).
This may be read in two ways as an inquiry charged with pity, or as an inquiry which shows that even Gilead itself is unable to touch such wounds as have been self-inflicted. "Is there no balm in Gilead?" is first of all a local reference. There was a balsam tree in Gilead, the juice of which was supposed to be able to heal all wounds. In an early translation of the Bible the word "balm" is rendered "triacle," whence we have the English "treacle," is there no balsam, no triacle, no treacle, in Gilead? So precious was it that it was only to be found in the gardens of the king. The balm did not grow elsewhere in Gilead. It was a king's plant, a royal treasure, a peculiar blessing. A very sensitive plant, too. It did not know iron; if so much as iron touched it, it shrank like a wounded thing and died like: that which is afflicted with despair. This tree must be incised with wood or bone or glass; and so efficacious was the balm against contusions and wounds, that it obtained a reputation as the: healing balsam; and the voice now rings out, "Is there no balm in Gilead?" is the disease too bad for Gilead's balsam? That is possible. It is possible to foster the disease, to increase its virulence, that no mineral, no vegetable, no balm made of either or of both, can touch its deadliness. Surely that is a state of extremity in which a man has so treated his flesh that all the remedies of science fall back and say, We cannot touch so awful a disease as that. The figure is that we may outdo the very love of God in sin. Blessed be God, that is in one sense impossible; but only impossible because of God, not because of ourselves. We are cunning artificers in evil. We have written down numerous things we could do without man knowing that they are being done. We are wits in evil; we are sharp in all moral invention that tends towards the soul's destruction; we have a genius of apostasy; we can always do something worse. Then comes this word: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved" words that are often misunderstood. They mean that a time had been specially set for God's redemption and for providential deliverance, and the time prophesied had come and gone, and there was no sign from heaven. The words, however, are capable of a very tender moral application that may not be strictly grammatical and yet is strictly human and evangelical. It is possible to get through the summer without being saved.
It is possible so to trample underfoot the harvest as to have no bread in winter. The season comes like an offered gospel first a gospel of labour that should be profitable; then a gospel of result that should be hopeful, which soon will be realised for we must not reap or pluck too soon; then a gospel of fruition, abundance, a very harvest of realisation. The text may be so used as to represent a soul saying, I have had my seedtime chance, my summer opportunity, my harvest offers; I have let them all go by, and now I cannot eat the ice or drink the snow, or live upon the cold wind; it is gone, the opportunity is over: what can I do with the inhospitableness of winter?
Such being the accusation, what are the punishments?
"And death shall be chosen rather than life by all the residue of them that remain of this evil family, which remain in all the places whither I have driven them, saith the Lord of hosts" ( Jer 8:3 ).
Who can search the judgments of God? Who can set forth in order all the resources of penal justice? Better draw the curtain, better pray; for it is God's delight to chase away all such blackness, and to enthrone the sun in the meridian, and to give the earth all its dowry of light. Then again:
"Behold, I will send serpents, cockatrices, among you, which will not be charmed, and they shall bite you, saith the Lord" ( Jer 8:17 ).
"And they will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth: they have taught their tongue to speak lies, and weary themselves to commit iniquity" ( Jer 9:5 ).
In ancient fable one man rebukes another for building a house upon the ground rather than upon wheels; for, said he, suppose the time should ever come when you should distrust your neighbour, how can you get away from him if your house be rooted in the ground? whereas, had your house been erected upon wheels, you might have moved away from the circuit of his influence. The time will come when every one will deceive his own neighbour, play tricks with the man next door, cheat his own flesh and bone. We read of the Italians having a peculiar pocket-stone bow, which can be covered with a cloak, and behind it a man can be darting needles into the body of his adversary that should wound the. vitals and yet scarcely leave a distinguishable mark on the flesh. What is that but a common, vulgar species of murder or assassination compared with this: "They will deceive every one his neighbour, and will not speak the truth"? They will tell lies to their brethren, they will shoot out these deadly needles into the souls of men, and all the while look complacent, fraternal, benignant. Terrific is the power of human iniquity. "They have taught their tongue to speak lies;" they have become rhetoricians in falsehood; they have said, Speak this lie trippingly on the tongue. They know when to whisper their evil message, and when to thunder their false declarations, and when by over-positiveness to make their lie the more obvious. There are skilled tongues; there is a cultured eloquence of falsehood.
What is the punishment?
"Therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will feed them, even this people, with wormwood, and give them water of gall to drink. I will scatter them also among the heathen, whom neither they nor their fathers have known: and I will send a sword after them, till I have consumed them" ( Jer 9:15-16 ).
If there is to be challenge which God forbid heaven will not decline the combat. What can he do who fights a fire with straw? What can an arm of flesh do against heaven's artillery? Is the Church as wicked now? Who dare answer that question? Are punishments as numerous and solemn? Certainly. Is our harvest past, is our summer ended? No. We are in the very middle of our opportunities: "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation;" "If ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation, as in the day of temptation in the wilderness." May men pray this very moment? Yes. Is it needful to pray long? No. What prayer will do? This: "God be merciful to me a sinner." Is that enough? Quite: but only enough when spoken with the heart, when spoken at the Cross, when sobbed rather than articulated. Is the punishment now done? No:
"For death is come up into our windows, and is entered into our palaces, to cut off the children from without, and the young men from the streets"( Jer 9:21 ).
How graphic is this picture! We have bolted the doors so that death cannot enter; we have opened the windows so that we may not be without fresh air; and, behold, death is climbing towards the open casement. "Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished." God knows all our arrangements, and accommodates his penal visitations to them. Oh that men were wise, that they understood these things!
We might treat all this as ancient history, if we did not feet its modern application if we did not know that nothing can be changed here except it be the mere metaphor, the mere clothing of words. The inner meaning is the same. The accusation of shortcoming or falsehood, of hardness of heart, abides, and takes the expression of the language of every country as sufficient to indicate the gravity and completeness of the impeachment. The punishment is signified by Hebrew figures and local circumstances, but the punishment itself is not changed. There is still a cockatrice in the conscience; there is still a bite as of iron teeth through the very centre of the heart; there is still that spectre by the bedside at midnight which opens its armoury of teeth and says nothing, but looks looks looks! There is still that most terrible shadow that comes across the feast, so that the choicest mouthful is full of sickness and every enjoyment becomes a surfeit, and the banquet ends in satiety; there is still that dislike of solitude, because when we sit alone a black figure comes and sits by our side, and says nothing, but looks looks looks! There is that dead face, that broken heart, that lie half a century old, that fraud, so successful that we banked ten thousand pounds through it five-and-twenty years ago. The air is full of damnation. Fools are they who change the word and make a quarrel about adjectives and qualifying terms, when they are called upon to deal with the inner and unchangeable reality. God shall judge, thou whited sepulchre!
But does the whole speech end in accusation? It God has piled accusation heaven-high, it is that he may come over it as over a mountain to preach a gospel to us. Though your sins be as scarlet, though they be as crimson, though they be as blackest night sevenfold, they can be treated, they can be met; you can be born again, a little child, and taken by Christ into his arms, and kissed and blessed, and set down again to go about life's business with a new heart and a new hope. "Fly abroad, thou mighty gospel!"
Then no change can be made now "The harvest is past. We should like to increase it, we cannot "The harvest: is past." Then there are measured opportunities in life, times of limitation, times of beginning and ending. Even now there are little circles not complete. The universe is a circle, eternity is a circle, infinity is a circle; these can never be completed, they live in continual progress towards self-completion: but there are little circles, small as wedding-rings, that can be quite finished, the day is one, the year is one, the seasons constitute four little circles, each of which can be completed, turned off, sent forward with its gospel or its cry and confession of penitence and failure. "The harvest is past"; the barn door is shut, the granary is supplied: it is either full or empty; one or the other, there it is. We cannot get rid of these views of doom. We light a thousand candles, but we cannot illuminate the whole landscape of life. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast:" so the poet tells us, and so our own consciousness testifies; and yet we know behind all this illumination there is a voice of doom. The doom may be good: there is no reason why the word "doom" should always be held to be so solemn as to be appalling; by "doom" we mean settled, determined, fixed. There are those who would try to persuade the young that after all the sun is but a momentary blessing, and when he is gene there will be as good as he come up again. There is no authority for saying so; history does not confirm that foolish verdict, experience has nothing to say in corroboration of that wild suggestion. Scripture bases its appeals on a totally different view, saying, Work while it is called day, the night cometh wherein no man can work; in the morning sow thy seed, in the evening withhold not thy hand. The whole Biblical appeal is towards immediacy of action: "Buy up the opportunity" is the Gospel appeal to the common sense of the world.
"The harvest is past" Then we are or we are not provided for the winter. It is of no use repining now. Harvest finds the food, winter finds the hunger. We know this in nature: we have no difficulty about this in all practical matters, as we call them, as if spiritual matters were not practical, whereas they are the most practical and urgent of all. When the harvest is past the character of winter is settled, so far as enjoyment, security, plenteousness are concerned. There is a seedtime in life; there is in nature. Where men get authority for saying that you can neglect seedtime and still have an excellent harvest, or if you sow wild oats you will reap the most luscious grapes, where they get their authority for saying so we cannot tell. There is no authority for it in the Bible; we do not know that there is any authority for it in the fields. Neglect the fields, and the harvest will come up somehow! That is a fool's gospel. We are bounded by law, we are imprisoned by law, we are caged in by the bars of natural ordinance and inflexible appointment: what if all this be true in its wider and broader sense in all matters intellectual, spiritual, and eternal? The Bible says, He that neglects his spring shall have nothing in harvest, and nothing in winter. Is that true? It must be true: it is one of those things that are self-evidencing. We speak of the axioms of geometry, we say that an axiom is a self-evidencing truth; the moment it is stated, men say, That must be so. That is what we mean by an axiom in geometry; this is an axiom in natural life: He that neglects seedtime shall beg in harvest, and beg in winter. What is the good of turning nature into a mother or friend that can ripen and grow for us a harvest in December? Why not accept nature, and obey her annually published ordinances? Why not reason from nature to spirit, and say, If it be so in things natural, that there is a seedtime, and that the harvest depends upon it, there may also be a corresponding truth in the spiritual universe: hear it: "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." It is his own harvest, he must put into it his own sickle.
The harvest may be very plentiful, and yet very much may depend upon the way in which it is gathered. The farmer is a continual puzzle to the merchant. The merchant somehow imagines himself to be at all events a sharper man. His motto is to get things done. That is the motto. Whereas, the farmer seems to say, We will get in the corn by-and-by. He has; a week of beautiful sunshine, and still he never touches his hay, and in another week it rains deluges, and he complains of the uncertainty of the weather. He might have got all the hay in last week, but he did not. He is a man contemplative; he partakes of the nature of his environment, he is leisurely. To see a farmer in a hurry! Some people do not know when to gather the harvest in any department of life; they have their opportunities and never see them. Others spend so much time in whetting their sickle that the corn is never cut at all. Others spend so much time in contemplating the golden fields that they forget that the fields were intended to be cut down and the fruits thereof garnered for the winter. Many a man has had an excellent harvest who has never cut it down. He did not know the harvest when he saw it. God has given us everything we need, and all we want; but we must find the sagacity that discerns the situation, we must find the common-sense that notes the beginning, continuance, and culmination of the opportunity. Why have our little smart apothegms, as "Make hay while the sun shines"? Who would be wise in hay but a fool in spiritual education? Say of this poor idiot, None so clever in hay-gathering, but he lost his soul!
A meditation of this kind brings several points before us that may be regarded profitably and applied usefully to our whole life. For example, there is brought before us the time of vain regrets "The harvest is past." The coach has gone on, and we have missed it; the tide flowed, and we might have caught it, but we have waited so long that it has ebbed. We neglected our opportunities at home, we were disobedient, unfilial, hard-hearted, and now we stand at the gate-post and cry our hearts out, because we had not a chance of doing something for the father and the mother whom we neglected in their lifetime. Cry on! for such folly, madness, ingratitude, there is no repentance. We wish we had made more of God's minister: what times we might have enjoyed, what openings of heaven we might have seen, what upliftings of soul there were that would have carried us to heaven's beautiful gate; and we were in the house of God like oxen, dull, stupid, unresponsive; not knowing music, not understanding that in the words that were spoken to us there were more than human tones, a solemn ineffable music meant to reach the heart and redeem the life. Cry on! The old prophet-pastor is dead. You cared nothing for him while he was living. You can never hear him again. Oh the time of vain regrets! that we should have spoken that cruel word; that we should have been guilty of that base neglect; that we should have been lured away from paths of loveliness and peace by some urgent temptation; that we should have done a thousand things which now rise up against us as criminal memories! They are vain regrets. You can never repair a shattered crystal, so that it shall be as it was at first; you can never take the metal, the iron, out of the pierced wood, and really obliterate the wound. A nail cut is never cured. The old may hear these words with dismay, the young should hear them as voices of warning. If you sow neglect, you will reap vain regret. We always reap more than we sow. That is a mystery, but it is a fact. You sow an ear of corn, and it grows up quite a little field of wheat; you sow it again, and it multiplies itself, in some cases thirty, some sixty, and some an hundredfold. Every act we sow may come up a habit. An act is accidental, incidental, self-complete it may be, but a habit lays itself all over and all around the soul like a chain. You do not sow what you reap in quantity, but in quality you do. You threw in ever so little, and it has come up so much: why that is according to the very nature you profess to worship. If there were no Bible, that would be true. If a man sowed a handful of wheat and only got a handful of corn back again, he would never sow any more: it is because he got back so much more than he sowed that next year he will enlarge his acreage and sow more abundantly. If so in nature, if thus in the field, why complain if it be thus and so in the character, in the soul, in the destiny? You sowed but a handful of wicked deeds, and it will take you eternity to reap the black harvest. If in nature you had sowed a handful or two of corn, and a whole field of wheat had grown out of the sowing, you would have said, This is excellent: are you now going to turn round and say when your harvest exceeds your seedtime, This is unjust?
Such points bring before us also the times of honest satisfaction. Blessed be God, there are times when we may be really moved to tears and to joy by contemplating the results of a lifetime. The hard-working author says, I have written all this; God gave me strength and guided my hand, and now when I look back upon these pages it is like reading my own life over again; I do not know how it was done, God taught my fingers this mystery of labour. And the honest merchantman has a right to say in his old age, God has been good to me, he has enabled me to lay up for what is called a rainy day, he has prospered my industry, he has blessed me in basket and in store, praise God from whom all blessings flow! You have a right to enjoy your harvest. You have worked hard. No man ever found you going out after the clock struck. You were there on the spot; many a time you waited for the sun, and almost gave him a hint to be a little quicker in his action; and now the day of labour is closed you have a right to say, God gave me all these things; I am in the time of old age, and now that I see love, honour, obedience, and troops of friends, all the things that ought to accompany old age, I will rejoice as they rejoice who gather in the harvest.
How are we going to treat our own harvests? We can treat them in three different ways. There are men who treat everything as a mere matter of course. They are not men to be trusted; they are not men to be reverenced: keep no company with them, they will never elevate your thought, or expand and illuminate your mind, or give a richer bloom to your life. We dismiss them because we contemn them. There is another way of receiving the harvest which our Lord himself condemned parabolically: "I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry." And the Lord said unto him, "Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?" What about the barns? what about the stored granaries? The man never said what he would do for the poor, the famishing, and the sad-hearted; he never said, God has given me all these things, and to his glory I will consecrate them. Therefore he was called fool, and the granary that was filled in the morning was locked against its own owner in the nighttime; the man who was going to eat and drink abundantly tomorrow was drowned in the river of night. Are we going to receive our harvests in that way, or is there not a method more excellent? We may receive our harvests gratefully, claiming no property in them beyond the right of honest labour. See the harvestman: he says, I sowed for this; thank God I have got it; I meant my fields to be plentiful, I spent myself upon them, I did not work in them as a hireling, but I worked in them as a man who loved them, and here are the fruits, blessed be God: here, Lord, is thy tithe, thy half, here is God's dole; he shall have a handful of this wheat, anyhow; he won't take it, but the poor shall have it; the harvest is only mine to use in God's interest. "Honour the Lord with thy substance, and with the firstfruits of all thine increase: so shall thy barns be filled with plenty, and thy presses shall burst with new wine." "There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty." "He which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully." God has given me all this harvest, and I must give him his due. You will get more out of your fields if you cultivate them yourselves. A man cannot cultivate any other man's field. He can work in it, he can do a day's work in it, and get his wages when he has done, but he cannot cultivate it. It is wonderful how ingenious a man becomes when the thing he is doing is his own. You ask a friend to do something for you, and there are friends who have a genius in suggesting how the thing cannot be done. Their fertility in suggesting negatives is ineffable. Propose that if they do it they shall have a handful of money for every step that is successful, and they will say, "Yes well possibly I'll do it!" Oh, money is a wonderful power for waking people up! And it is natural, it is philosophical, it is morally right. You never do for another man what you could have done for yourself if the work had been yours. "The hireling fleeth because he is an hireling." The hireling soul is a cemetery. How much you could do if you liked! I hold that every man can do just what he has a mind to do. You could attend a church ten miles from your home every Sunday morning at 9 o'clock if you wanted to do it; but not wanting to do it oh! It would be perfectly amazing to see how a policy of the kind I am about to name would work. Five pounds will be given to every man who is in St. Paul's Cathedral next Sunday morning at 8 o'clock. How many men would be there? Will you guess two? Try again. What you could do if you wanted to do it, it your soul were in it!
Thank God we may turn wholly from this aspect of the case and say that with most of us it is only seedtime. Behold the young in the morning, the dewy dawn of their life: with them it is seedtime. Things done now will come up again, and you must face the upcoming. Every man must confront his own harvest And as for those of you who think that you have toiled for nothing and spent your strength in vain hush, man, the harvest is in heaven.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 8". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany