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by Joseph Parker
This book abounds in human character, and thus differs very happily (torn the books of ritual through which we have just passed. Innumerable men come and go on this busy stage, each leaving a distinct impress on the memory, even the humblest having some touch of distinction which gives him importance. Think of Ehud the ambidexter, Shamgar the wielder of rough weapons, Deborah the mother in Israel, Barak woman-led, Gideon so majestic in self-control and patient simplicity, of Abimelech the hateful self-seeker, Jotham the father of fabulists, Jephthah despised yet crowned, Manoah domestic and melancholy, his wife quick at spiritual interpretation, Samson an elephant in strength a babe in weakness, Micah the priest, and Benjamin dissolute yet missed and lamented. Then there are innumerable little names, glittering like asteroids on that distant sky, as Othniel and Heber, Sisera and Jael, Tolah and Jair, the woman who stunned Abimelech with a millstone, and the old man who came out of the field at eventide and blessed the wayfarers. A book abounding in character truly! History, Romance, Song, War, Tumult, gather in this array, and it is our business to observe and ponder, consider and learn what we can. The study of this book has been most profitable to my own mind, as a study of human nature under conditions which severely test it at every point, and also a study of that spiritual and mysterious action which we justly name Providence. Though the tumult is great the central line never changes. An unseen but mighty Hand guides the tremendous storm, and is never more evident as to omnipotence than when the history is most confused and bewildering. How many are the servants of Jehovah, and how various in faculty, disposition, and capacity! Who could hold them together in one happy service but the Lord God omnipotent? This consideration opens up the whole subject of the Providence which governs and unites the infinite mass which we call Society. Think of it as a Society that has been kept together thousands upon thousands of years and yet has always seemed to be upon the point of dissolution! Always about to be dissolved yet never dissolving. The dispute never ceases; collision and contention occur every moment; yet in the midst of continual contention there is continual progress. Society has come again and again to the point of ruin, yet it has always escaped the last peril; again and again Might has seemed to have Right utterly in its power, yet the Right has thriven in adversity, and clothed itself with new beauty even in the fire; in a word, human history is a constant crisis, yet it never reaches the point of extinction. Society is marked by the widest contrasts, such as master and servant, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, refined and vulgar; and the moral distinctions are endless, you have every variety of temper, purpose, desire, sensibility, and service; you have the brave and the timid, the generous and the mean, the unsuspecting and the distrustful, the man who faces the world with high courage, and the coward who shrinks in darkness; you have the earnest soul who prays for his race like an intercessor, and near him (or born of the same mother) one to whom the light gives pain. The nursery is full of infant life, and the hillside alive with childish movement and glee, and on the other side of the same hill you have the dying child, the good man sighing for home, and the bad man ending a wild day in a wilder night. Look abroad still. Yonder are the blind, who know only of morning by hearsay; the dumb, the imbecile, the mad, and on and on the exciting panorama stretches and palpitates, until the eye is tired by the endless spectacle. Realise, as far as you can, all distances, differences, contrasts, and antagonisms, and then ask, How can all this be accounted for?
I hold that this is as purely a matter of scientific interest as the formation of rocks or the distribution of plants. I am interested in social man as much as the naturalist is interested in physical man.
This in passing. Now look at your own individual life, and thus bring the mystery nearer home. You had no control over your birth. You had no control over your constitution. You come into a world and assume responsibilities of the most appalling magnitude. You come in a helpless infant, you go out either to heaven or to hell. You learn, you work, you suffer; you fight, and lose the battle; you run, and lose the race; you are just going to drink the cup of joy, and behold it is thrown out of your hand; the child that is to be your mainstay and comfort dies first; the man who never prays succeeds in this world better than you, though you pray seven times a day. You cannot get a footing anywhere. The rock melts into water the moment you touch it, and the water becomes a rock again when some other man puts his foot upon it. You are confounded, bewildered, lost.
Now account for all this. Suppose we say that it is all a matter of chance, would that satisfy any thinking, reasonable man? Look how the suggestion degrades us! It contradicts the very instincts that make us human. Have we not power to protect ourselves against chance? We protect ourselves against infection, and against fire and water; we build bridges, lay telegraphs, and do all manner of wonderful things: how is it that we cannot overcome so contemptible an agent as chance? Why do we not assemble in solemn congress and get the upper hand of a power that makes everything else so uncertain? If we could bring chance under our control nine-tenths of our troubles would be at an end.
Suppose we say that it is the operation of the law of averages, we have only used a long word for a short one, for after all it comes back to chance put down in figures. Is any sensible man really satisfied with that explanation? Is it enough for me, looking at my disappointments and losses, my trials and griefs, my heart-breaks and temptations, to say that they all fall under the law of averages? We, feel that the answer is insufficient. It does not go to the root of the matter. It is a reply that would be put down in politics as a fool's answer, and that would be regarded in business as the road to bankruptcy. How, then, to account for the facts? Suppose that it should be suggested that above all and around all there is an Almighty Providence, that all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do? Does not the heart leap at that suggestion and say it is true?
I accept the doctrine of Providence not because I am told to do so without any reason being given, but because the facts of my own daily life make such a doctrine essential; they demand it; they fall to pieces without it; they are lifted up into coherence and meaning and expectation by it Observe how this method of reasoning operates. If you start from the point which says, There is a Providence, go and find it; you will meet with many things in the course of your study which will appear to contradict and destroy the theory, and because you have started to prove a theory the difficulties will be all the greater. But if you begin at the point which says, There is human history with all its ups and downs, its ambitions and limitations, its ebbings and flowings, go and account for it, you will be compelled to attribute it to chance or to Providence, and I leave it to any sensible man to say which is the more probable, not to say the more satisfactory, solution.
If we say chance, the answer not only insults our intellectual dignity, it positively contradicts and stultifies itself, for the chance which is so regular, so consistent, so uniform, that in many departments of life it can be made the basis of arithmetical calculation, proves that it is no chance at all. Chance is capricious. Chance is unmanageable. Chance is treacherous. If chance has become law, law is no chance, and it has to be shown how chance chanced to become law, and how having become law it has lost the chance of becoming chance again. No, no. The theory of chance is absurd and untenable. But if we make Providence our answer we still have to face the many difficulties of human history; children die; good men suffer; bad men prosper; the scroll in the hand of pensive Time is written all over with mourning, lamentation, and woe. Let us now note the action.
the Fifth Week after Easter