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Here we have a wonderful portrayal of wickedness. Some men attach great importance to antiquity: why should the theologian be excluded from that field of interest and study? Literary men often have a passion for antiquity, to discover a new word, or to be able to discover possible relations of old words, makes them wild with delight; to know that some book has been exhumed which only scholars can read is indeed a festival to the truly literary mind. This love of antiquity operates in various ways. Some men are fond of old coins. Half-crowns have been purchased by numismatists for as much as fifty sovereigns. So old age has some advantages. We must have antiquity. This love of antiquity shows itself sometimes in quite frivolous ways; but, still, there it is. There are persons who write their names with two little fs. They think it has quite a Plantagenet sort of look about it, not knowing that in the antiquity which they all but adore men wrote two little f's because they did not know how to write a capital. What matter? There is an antiquity about it that is quite soothing, and deeply satisfactory. Some persons like to trace their origin far back into historical times; others are bold enough to go back as far even as Adam and Eve; and there are others of another mental metal who are not content with that origin, and who go immeasurably beyond it, sacrificing family pride with the most abject humbleness. But what does it amount to, so long as there is the charm of antiquity, the hoar of countless ages, the moss which only rocks could gather? Why, then, should the theologian be excluded, let us ask again, from this field of inquiry, so broad and charming?
The Book of Job is confessedly one of the most ancient books in all literature; it cannot, therefore, fail to be interesting to know the character of wickedness as drawn by so ancient a portrayer of manners and customs. Is wickedness the same yesterday, today, and for ever? Did it begin quite innocently, so to say, and as it were by incalculable accidents fall into evil behaviour? Is its evil reputation rather a misfortune than a fault? Or was it always as bad as the devil could make it? Did it start badly? Is it a hell-flower? Are its roots fed by forces that minister in perdition? If some modern man had sketched the character of evil we should have said, History is against him: if you search back into the far-away ages you will find that the portraiture is overdrawn, it is an exaggeration amounting almost to an injustice. Here, however, we have Job as a witness. As to the antiquity of this testimony, there is no doubt amongst any body of intelligent men. It is something, therefore, to have a worm-eaten document, the ink almost faded, and yet the letters quite traceable, so that there can be no dispute as to what it really says. It comes to us with the authority of thousands of years. Let us look at it a little.
Though the testimony is ancient, yet it is modern. See what wicked men did long ago
"Some remove the landmarks: they violently take away flocks, and feed thereof. They drive away the ass of the fatherless, they take the widow's ox for a pledge. They turn the needy out of the way: the poor of the earth hide themselves together.... They reap every one his corn in the field: and they gather the vintage of the wicked. They cause the naked to lodge without clothing, that they have no covering in the cold. They are wet with the showers of the mountains, and embrace the rock for want of shelter. They pluck the fatherless from the breast, and take a pledge of the poor" ( Job 24:2-9 ).
And so the evil testimony rolls on like a black and pestilent stream. In all our development we keep closely to this line. We know it. We do not turn from this portrait as from a caricature that shocks our sense of justice and truth; we read the words as if we had written them. Who ever stands aghast at the delineation, and protests in the name of human nature that such things are impossible to man? No critic has ever done so; no etymologist has ever so changed the terms as to change the reputation; no moralist has ever said that he could not read the delineation of wickedness in the Book of Job without feeling that it was overwrought, untrue, and unjust. Let us see what they did. "They drive away the ass of the fatherless." The sting is in that last dreary word. They would not have ventured to drive away the ass of those whose father was living, A beautiful word is the word "father." It has been traced back to two little letters pronounced by sweet children now, and sometimes unwisely smiled at or put down. The root of the word is pa. Let us be etymologically correct. What does "father" mean? It does not signify mere descent of a physiological kind, as father and son, but it signifies protector, defender; it bears with it the meaning of might that can resist all assault, security that will itself die before the thing secured can be violated. But in ancient times wicked men drove away the ass of the fatherless: the protector was gone, so the property must follow; there was no strong man to stand in the front, and say, No: not until you have overthrown me can you touch that which belongs to my children. The great hedge of security was broken down, and strong wicked men had rushed in upon the defenceless, and wrought havoc amongst those whose father was dead. Is that done now? Are any liberties taken now with the fatherless? Has a child to pay for orphanage? Has the devil changed his character? Then again "They turn the needy out of the way." It is always the needy man who has to suffer: he cannot conduct a long fight; he cannot run a long race; his poverty always comes to stop him, entangle him, and otherwise render him a prey to those who are rich and proud. This miracle of poverty, this eternal mystery of want, what is it? We cannot be lectured out of it, economised out of it, scientifically conducted out of it; there stands the ghastly spectre, age after age, an apparently immovable and indestructible presence. A man may be wise, but he suffers through his want of means; he may have genius to plan a bridge that should span a broad river, but he has no money with which to dig foundations and throw the arch across the running flood. A poor man may have books in his head, whole libraries of thought and poetry, vision and dream that would bless the world; but the publisher politely, time permitting, shows him to the door because he cannot pay for paper and print. The needy man must have his day. Surely there will come a time when he will be able to stand up and state his cause, and plead it, and show that he could have done greater things in the world but for his poverty. Is any advantage taken of the needy now? Are they all spoken to with courteous civility? Do men move to them as to equals? Are they invited to the feast? When thou makest a feast, who are thy guests, thou Christian man? Is there boundless room outside, in the snow of the winter and the floods of the autumn, for the needy, and must they make their bed in the morass and cling to the rock for shelter? Has the Ethiopian changed his skin? Is wickedness the same now as it was in ancient days? Let facts bear witness. There is no originality in wickedness; in substance it is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. The Bible has named every sin. Invention is dead; novelty is impossible; you cannot originate a new sin. If there is one man above another, prince of the philologists of the day, it is Professor Max Müller. He says that language as to its root and core has never changed. Whoever the first speaker was, we are speaking his language now. Say Adam was our ancestor in speech; then, says the Professor, we are speaking Adam's language now. Say that we trace our language back to Shem, Ham, and Japheth; then we are speaking their language at this day. There is no novelty in the roots of the language. Declensions, conjugations, variations, accidental changes many, showing themselves fruitfully in all advancing civilisation; but the root is the same; there is no substantial novelty. You may have thrust the accent forward or backward; you may have added syllables; you may have twisted words, and changed their momentary colour or their passing value: but as to the root of the language, he who spoke first speaks now. There is a great moral in that philological lesson. The core of wickedness never changes. We can invent new accidents, new circumstances which endure but for a moment, we are cleverer in secondary matters; but we cannot invent a new sin, as to its root and core and plasmic meaning; these you will find in the Bible, and when the Bible reports them, it does not appear to be making a new language, but simply to be taking down a speech which filled the air even in the remotest days of biblical antiquity. It is something to know, therefore, that we have testimony to go upon that is irrefragable. We are not leaning to broken evidence, or to a chain of events in which there are faulty links; every link is faultless, strong, distinct, in its right place; so that he who would rise now and make an impeachment against wickedness has evidence enough: if he fail, blame his ineloquent tongue, and do not charge the failure upon want of proof.
How noticeable it is that crime has from the beginning been perpetrated by men from whom better things might have been expected! Take critical notice of this one fact, that the crimes which are set down here are crimes which only rich men could have committed. Such a fact is not to be passed by lightly. Only the strong men of the time could have removed the landmark, or taken away violently the flocks, or turned the needy out of the way, and driven the poor of the earth to huddle in some cold and barren obscurity. Let that fact always be remembered in speaking about the crimes of any civilisation. The greatest crimes of the world have been done by the strong, the rich, and the proud. That these crimes would have been done by the weak and the poor and the abject had circumstances been different is perfectly indisputable; the question is one of human nature and not of accidental circumstances. Is this true today? Are our rich men all refuges to which the poor may flee with hope of asylum? Are our strong men always alert, self-surrendering, never considering themselves when the cause of oppression is to be treated, and when those who would assail liberty make their boastful voices heard? Can we gather ourselves together in sacred counsel and say, Whatever happens our rich men will be at the front, and our strong men; all the men who lead us by social status, and ought to lead us by generous example, will be in the van, so that before any of us who are blind, halt, maimed, can be touched, all our foremost men must be mowed down by the scythe of the enemy. Has wickedness changed its character?
How several popular fallacies fall before such testimony as is to be found in these chapters, for example, such a fallacy as that good circumstances make good character. Give a man plenty of wealth, give him flock and herds, give him ample estates, and he will be good; he will make his fields churches, he will make his piles of gold altars, at which he will fall, that he may there offer praise to the Giver of every good gift: men would be better if they were richer, stronger. That is a deadly sophism. Look at the Bible for proof to the contrary, and at the Bible not as a professedly theological book but as a literary history, as something written by the pen of man, no matter who that man was as to his religious relations. That such wickedness as this which is detailed in the Book of Job could be dreamed, and then could be published without the author being torn to pieces by an outraged public, is a fact to be reckoned with in all this historical estimate. Then there is the fallacy that poverty and ill-behaviour always go together. There again the poor man is at a great disadvantage. It is supposed that if a man cannot read and write, therefore he must be vicious. Young reformers arise, and say, Put a schoolhouse at the corner of every street, and then the magistrate will have nothing to do. It is a misrepresentation of the poor. The rich man can do more mischief by one inscription of his pen than all the little thieves of a city can do in seven years. But how we spring at the poor man when he does anything wrong, how we hale him before the judge, and how we suppose that because his coat is torn therefore his character is bad. It is not so. The men who have most intellect and least morality can do most harm in the world. Then there is the sophism that justice is a natural instinct. It may be said to us, who are religious moralists, Trust the justice of humanity: man knows right from wrong; natural instinct will guide him: let a man yield to his instincts, and you will have no oppression of the poor, no driving of the needy into desert places, no removal of the landmarks: justice is a natural instinct; trust it. It may be a natural instinct, but it has been greatly depraved. Who has known an instance in which it has stood well to the front without having a background sufficiently mysterious to be designated religious? No, not until he came who touched the sphere of motive, the region of spiritual thought, were men really just to one another. Even those who profess his name and pray at his cross often fail now, but what would they have done but for such association with his kingdom and such sacrifice at the tree on which he died! We have no justice. If we ever had it we have lost, so to say, its very instinct and use. We need to be recovered from the error of our ways. Our very morality may have been an arrangement, an investment, a new game in doing the work of life. To be real we must be born again; to be truly just we must adjust our relations with God and to God. No man can love his neighbour as himself until he loves God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. Prosperity divorced from morality is the curse of any age and people. Riches are only blessings when they are held by the hand of justice and controlled by the spirit of benevolence.
Here, then, is the character of wickedness. An old character. Who will adopt it? Who will wear these ancient clothes? Come, ye who are fond of antiquity; you like old hoary time: who will adopt this moral antiquity, and wear it, and be proud of it? Who will set this cap upon his head, and say, Behold me, venerable in unrighteousness? Is there any man who will voluntarily take up this character and say it is his? Do we not rather seem to read it as an old piece of literature, a very vivid and graphic story, with which, however, we would have no connection, further than a mere perusal of the dreary tale? When the wicked man plays his evil pranks, let him know what his character is; it is not for him to write it history has undertaken that work for him: every line of his character is already written, and he cannot change it. Why, as we have just seen, we cannot change a word radically and substantially: how then can we change a moral act? In law the sound rule is, that which was bad at the beginning is bad through all the process, and in theology and morals the same law holds good. Wickedness cannot change itself, cannot invent for itself a new speech or a new hypocrisy; from the beginning the father of the wicked was a liar and a murderer. A very broad and true saying that which is found on the highest authority in the Book of God: from the beginning he was a murderer: he could not become a murderer; he was at the beginning, in his very genesis, in his very protoplasm, a man-slayer, an enemy of human life. Behold the chivalry of wicked men, the bravery, the generous civility, the signature of heaven, this, as recorded in history, is what they are and what they have done! The Ethiopian cannot change his skin, nor the leper his spots, and if ever this wickedness is to be rubbed out it must be by the blood the life of God with us. Can we overturn old history in one day? Is all this ancient stream to be cleansed out of human history by some majestic waving of the hand on the part of some inexperienced or adventurous reformer? Why dwell upon this iniquity, upon the blackness and the depth of this horrid stream? To show that the gospel spreads itself over the whole occasion, and comes to it clothed with the almightiness of God. Blessed be God, if we speak of the antiquity of sin we can also speak of the antiquity of grace: where sin abounded grace did much more abound, even in this matter of antiquity. We know that antiquity, and its value; we are not about to dispute it; old age must always be spoken of with carefulness, and sometimes it may prove itself to be worthy of honour: therefore, make it a question of antiquity, and how well the gospel stands! Does sin abound in antiquity? Grace aboundeth much more. How can that be proved? Because the Lamb was slain from before the foundation of the world. He died in the unreckoned eternity. He foresaw all the evil. He anticipated it. The cross was a historical event, but the sacrifice was old as eternity as venerable as unbeginning time.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Job 24". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany