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by Joseph Parker
I have sometimes most clearly seen the whole tragedy of Job in a waking dream, the whole passing before me in twilight shadows, losing itself in thick darkness, reappearing in light like the dawn, always changing, always solemn, always instructive: a thing that surely happened, because a thing now happening in all the substance of its eternal meaning.
Is it a pillar grand in height, and finished all over with the dainty care of an artist whose life has been spent in learning and applying the art of colour? How stately! How heaven-seeking because heaven-worthy! Whilst I admire, I wonder religiously. I see the hosts of darkness gathering around the erewhile flashing capital, and resting over it like midnight sevenfold in blackness; then the lightning gleams from the centre of the gloom, then the fire-bolt flies forth and smites the coronal once so glorious, and dashes it in hot dust to the earth, and the tall stalk so upright, so delicate, so like a well-trained life, reels, totters, falls in an infinite crash! Is it true? Every word of it! True now may be true in thee and me, O man, so assured of stability and immovable-ness. There is danger in high places. Is there a Spirit which hates all noble-mindedness and seeks to level the spiritual pile with mean things? Evil Spirit! The very Devil, hating all goodness because hating God! But stop. After all, who smote the pillar? Whose lightning was used to overthrow the fair masonry? O God of gods, the devil's Creator and Master, without whom Satan could not be, nor hell, nor trees forbidden, nor blast of death, O Mystery of Being, what can our souls say in their groaning, and how through anguish so intolerable can they pray? I am afraid to build, because the higher the tower the deadlier the fall. Dost thou watch our rising towers and delight to rain thy fire upon them, lest our pride should abound and our damnation be aggravated by our vanity? And God's own Book it is that tells the good man's pain, and revels in swelling rhetoric over the rottenness and despair of the man who feared God and eschewed evil! And what unguided hands, if hands unguided, set the tale of wrong and woe and sorrow next to the very Psalter? Is not the irony immoral because cruel? Or is there meaning in all this? Is it life's story down to the very letter and jot of reality? How better to come out of the valley than to the harping and song of musicians who have known the way of the Almighty and tasted the counsels of heaven! Cheer thee, O poor soul! thou art today miserable as Job, but tomorrow thou mayest dance to the music of David, tomorrow thou mayest have a harp of thine own!
A tree of the Lord's right hand planting arises loftily and broadly in the warm air. Birds twitter and sing as they flit through its warp and woof of light and shade a tree whose leaves might heal the nations. What sudden wind makes it writhe? What spirit torments every branch and leaf? What demon yells in triumph as the firm trunk splits and falls in twain? Was it grown for such a fate as this? Better if the seed had been crushed and thrown into the fire, than that it should have been thus reared and perfected and then put to shame amongst the trees of the field.
Who can give speech to this flood as it plunges from rock to rock in the black night-time? Hush! There is a man's voice in the infinite storm: " Let the day perish in which I was born: let it be darkness; let that night be joyless, let no song enter into it; let them who curse the day stigmatise it who are ready to stir up the leviathan; why died I not from the womb? then had I lain down and been quiet; I had slept;... there the wicked cease from troubling, and there the wearied mighty rest; the prisoners sweetly repose together, they hear not the voice of the exactor, and the slave is free from his lord." These are human words, but are they not too strong, too rhetorical to be true? No; for who can mechanise the rhetoric of woe?" Why is life given to the miserable, and to one who would be blithe to find a grave? I have no quiet, no repose, for trouble on trouble came, and my sighs gush out like waters long dammed back." No doubt the rhetoric is lofty, yet with a strange familiarity it touches with happy expressiveness all that is most vivid in our own remembrance of woe. "I loathe my life: I will give loose to my complaint: I will speak in the bitterness of my soul: to God I will say, Condemn me not, show me why thou contendest with me. As the clay thou hast fashioned me, and to dust thou causest me to return: thou hast poured me as milk and compacted me as cheese. As a fierce lion thou huntest me, then thou turnest again and showest thyself marvellous." Job has found fit words for all mourning souls; so they borrow of him when their own words fail like a stream which the sun has dried up. What woe the poor little heart can feel! Herein is its greatness: it is in its own way as the heart of God. "Truly, now, he hath worn me out: thou hast made all my household desolate, and thou hast shrivelled me up. God giveth me up to the ungodly, and flingeth me over into the hands of the wicked. He seized me by the throat and shook me. He breacheth me with breach on breach. He rusheth on me like a man of war."
In what good man's sick chamber is not Job welcome? Welcome because he can utter the whole gamut of human woe? He can find words for the heart that is ill at ease, and prayers for lips which have been chilled and silenced by unbelief. His woe belongs to the whole world. All other woe is as the dripping of an icicle compared with the rush of stormy waters. "Even today is my complaint bitter; my hand is heavy because of my sighing. Behold I go forward, but he is not discernible; and backward, but I perceive him not; on the left hand in his operations I perceive him, but I comprehend him not; on the right hand he is veiled, and I see him not."
Let us now go into the tragedy in detail. We may learn how to bear the ills we cannot escape. We may answer the apparently unanswerable question of Lear:
Lord Jesus, we pray thee to continue to heal on the Sabbath day, the day was made for healing: we are healed by its calm; the spirit of peace is the spirit of that holy time. May our hearts be tranquil with God's peace; may Sabbath dawn upon the weariest heart; may all lives know that this is the day which the Lord hath made, and may we be full of gladness during its golden hours. Is not this a little of heaven sent down to earth? Is not this the entrance to eternity? Thou knowest what the week is, with all its six days' roughness and tumult, disappointment, misery, mocking unrest, painted triumph; yet thou hast set us in the battle, and thou art watching the fight; thou art training us by contention, and making us pure by well-accepted controversy. May nothing of thy purpose be lost because of the blinding details of the conflict; may we lay to our hearts the solemn truth that thou dost mean to make us men; by loss or gain, by sunshine or shadow, by laughter or by tears, thou wilt make us men. This thou didst mean from eternity; when the Lamb was slain there, and when all thy purpose of love was written in thy book, it was that we might become perfect men in Christ Jesus, the image and likeness of God, the very reflection of thy glory. If we can keep this in mind, then labour is rest, every day is Sabbath day, and every woe comes to make us purer souls. But we so soon lose the thought, and wander away into idle dream and pointless speculation, and vex ourselves with questions and mystery which can never be solved. Would God we were wiser, simpler, truer to the divine purpose of life! then should the summer come sooner, and the golden harvest, and thou shouldst have satisfaction in our fruitfulness. When we confess our sin we take hope again: if we never confessed we never could hope; to know ourselves to be sinners is to begin to feel after the cross, to ask questions at Calvary, to put serious inquiries to our souls. Help us to feel the burden of sin, that we may feel the gospel of mercy. Save Us from indifference, callousness, all manner of carelessness regarding the altar, the truth, and the destiny of men; quicken us that we may ask thee questions respecting ourselves, and consult thee with regard to this gnawing worm, this unquenchable fire, this perdition of sin. For all thy lovingkindness how can we praise thee in hymns sweet enough? Thy compassions are new every morning, are conceived on purpose for us, are earlier upon the earth than the dew is; thy faithfulness continueth every evening, it is out among the earliest stars, nay, it leads the host and brings them forth. How good is God! Thy goodness draws forth our tears, and stops our speech with the emotion of thankfulness. Where thou art most needed thou wilt be most present The Lord hear us at the Saviour's cross, tree of sacrifice, tree of blood, the altar-tree, where no man ever prayed and was then sent away empty. Amen.
the First Week of Advent