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If we would work our way up to this text, it will be through a very dreary course of reflection. Probably there is nothing like this chapter in all the elegies of the world. For what is there here more than elegy? There is a death deeper than death. The blank verse is noble, but the moral sentiment is horrible. Let us not deceive ourselves by blank verse. We do not know anything finer than these lines, or many of them, regarded simply as poetry; but when we look into the morality, the poetry is a facial sheen that dies. There is no substance in it. Here is a prayer that never got itself into heaven. Blessed be God, there are some prayers that never get higher than the clouds. Perhaps they ease the uttering heart for the passing moment evaporation lessens the volume of water; but in reality there are some prayers that have no answer. This may be one of them. Look at it Behold how internally rotten it is.
"Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us" ( Lam 5:1 ).
No man can pray who begins in that tone. There is not one particle of devotion in such an utterance. "What is come upon us." It is a falsehood. It is putting the suppliant into a wrong position at the very first. The cry is not "Remember, O Lord, what we have done, what we have brought upon ourselves, what fools we have been, and how we have broken all thy commandments"; then out of such sorrow there would have arisen the noble music of supplication that would have been answered. But these poor creatures come as if they were quite the injured parties. Behold us; thou knowest our excellence, thou knowest that we deserve all heaven, and yet by some curious action of circumstances here we are, little better than beasts of burden, crushed into this humiliation by Egyptian or Assyrian or other tyranny: Lord, see what has happened to the excellent of the earth! So long as men talk in that tone they are a long way from the only tone that prevails in heaven "God be merciful to me a sinner."
"Consider, and behold our reproach" ( Lam 5:1 ).
How possible it is for penitence to have a lie in the heart of it; how possible it is for petitions addressed to heaven to be inspired by the meanest selfishness! Our prayers need to be taken to pieces, to be reduced to their elements by a fine analysis; then I think we should never offer them we ourselves should deem them worthless, and cast them away to be forgotten. But let us take the statement as it is here written, and let us note well the inventory which is particularised by these persons, who are very careful to note all that they have lost. Let us see what claim they make upon the bank of heaven to restore to them the property that has been taken away. Read the bill; it is a bill of particulars:
"Our inheritance is turned to strangers, our houses to aliens" ( Lam 5:2 ).
Here is material dispossession. If the inheritance had been retained, would the prayer have been offered? Probably not. If the houses, well-built, and well-furnished, and well-pictured, had been retained, would there have been any cry of distress? Perhaps not; for it is always difficult to pray in a palace. A palace has gilt enough and paint enough to stifle any prayer. It is when men get dispalaced and disrobed that they begin to wonder whether it is not time to be religious.
"We are orphans and fatherless, our mothers are as widows" ( Lam 5:3 ).
Here is personal desolation. If the fathers had lived, would the prayers have been offered? If the husbands had lived, would the desire of the heart have turned towards God? Why, all this is rottenness. This is poetry without argument; this is not logic on fire, this is not morality going up in incense: this is a self-reproaching and self-condemnatory plea.
"We have drunken our water for money; our wood is sold unto us" ( Lam 5:4 ).
Here is social humiliation. The emphasis is upon the pronoun, "Our" water, the water that we have in our own gardens, water taken out of the wells which our own fathers did dig. We have to buy our own wood, to go to our own forest, and actually lay down money for the timber that has been growing on the estate for countless generations! What an awful lot! what a sad doom! If it had been otherwise, where would the prayer have been? where would the confession, such as it is, have been? If the water had been plentiful and the timber had been untouched, where would these vain wretches have been? Would they have been at church?
"Our necks are under persecution; we labour, and have no rest" ( Lam 5:5 ).
Here is a sense of grievous oppression. What do the men complain of? They complain of the yoke; it is on the neck, and it excoriates them, it chafes them; they cannot bear this unfamiliar burden. We labour who were never meant to toil; our backs were never made to stoop we were made to stand upright and look round and see that other people laboured; and, behold, we we have to work for our bread!
"Servants have ruled over us" ( Lam 5:8 ).
Here is an inversion of natural position. The greater the man, the greater the ruler, should be the law in social administration. Let me have a great man to direct me, superintend me, and revise my doings, and it shall be well with me at eventide. Men will judge according to their quality. The great judge will be gracious, the noble soul will be pitiful, though I bring him but a bungling return at the closing of the day; he knows my weakness, he will remember that I have been working under a spirit of fear and under the stress of great difficulty, and he will cheer me, though I am ashamed to look upon my own work. But the servant will be hard upon me, the slave will not pity me. He is a slave though he wear the golden chain; he never could rise above the level of servility. He is a mean hound to begin with, not because of what he is officially, but because of what he is naturally. Some kings have been slaves; some noblemen have been servants. We are only speaking of the soul that is a slave, and whenever the slave mounts his horse he gallops to the devil.
Read this fifth chapter and look upon it as a garden which sin has planted. This is what sin does for the world. This is what sin always does. This is what sin must do. Here we are not dealing with accidents or casualties, very singular and unexpected occurrences; we are dealing with the great philosophy of cause and effect, sowing and reaping: Be not deceived, whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap; and man would complain if that law were inverted. It is the sinner that would complain if that law were not a statutory law of the universe. No, quoth he, we must have something more solid than to sow one thing and not know what other is going to be reaped: if I am to live in this universe, I must know what the statutory law is. And the Lord says, The statutory law is, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Good! quoth the sinner. He goes out to sow his seed, and he reaps his harvest accordingly; but when this great law is applied to morals he complains. He wants to get drunk, and have no headache; he wants to steal, and not to be imprisoned; he wants to do wrong, and then to have his own way, and to be accounted an excellent man. Thus souls trifle with themselves. In the common field they will have statutory regulations, or they will complain of the eccentricity of Providence; but in morals they want to have their own way in everything in the matter of personal gratification and indulgence, and to escape all the penalties of enormity. God will not have it so. This is the garden which sin has planted. All these black flowers, all these awful trees of poison, sin planted. God did not plant one of them. It is so with all our pains and penalties. It is so with this halting mind, that cannot keep steadfast to its own logic and remember its own conclusions, to obey them in all their force and urgency. It is so with this treacherous memory. Once it remembered everything, now it remembers nothing; it has forgotten the mother's name. It is so with that bad luck in business, with that misfortune in the open way of life. What is all this? All this goes back to a moral seed-time. Why not lace that fact? We are reaping what has been sown by ourselves or by our forerunners. It is quite right to remember our ancestors in this particular. The men who made this plaint did hot forget that element. Said they, "Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and we have borne their iniquities." That is too much; that is making religion irreligious; that is committing the falsehood of exaggeration. It is quite true that our fathers have sinned, and that we in a sense bear their iniquities, and cannot help it, for manhood is one; but it is also true that we ourselves have adopted all they did. To adopt what Adam did is to have sinned in Adam and through Adam. Why theologise about some immemorially historic Adam when we have taken up all his bad doings and endorsed them every one? We need not go behind our own signature; we have signed the catalogue, we have adopted it, and therefore we have to account for our own lapse in our own religion.
Wondrous it is how men turn to God in their distresses. The Lord said it would be so "In their affliction they will seek me early," So we have God in this great plaint, and what position does God occupy in it? He occupies the position of the only Helper of man. "Remember, O Lord, what is come upon us." There are times when we know that there is only one God. When we begin theologising, we can do wonders with the Deity, but when we are all cut to pieces and have no more help left in us, then we simplify our theology and go direct to the Eternal himself. There is no calling out here for sacraments and for connecting links with the divine throne. When the soul is mad with self-accusation, it finds God or creates him. We know men best in their agony.
Here God is represented, in a sense, as being the only possible Source of such punishment. No mere man could have inflicted a penalty so vast, so penetrating, so immeasurable as this. We may know God by the vastness of the hell which he digs, or which he permits us to dig. Here the men are afflicted at every point; there is not one little spot left on which the stinging thong has not fallen. All gone! The inheritance has gone, and the houses are gone; orphanage and fatherlessness and widowhood are present; water is bought and wood is sold, the neck is under the yoke and the hands are given to toiling; the Assyrian claims every finger, and the Egyptian has a lien upon every energy. Who could have inflicted so vast a punishment? Only God. And God is represented as the only eternal Power "Thou, O Lord, remainest for ever; thy throne from generation to generation." How great we are in adoration or reverence! How poor we are in obedience! Let it be a question of exalting God, and even the mouth of a sinner may be opened in blank verse, even the tongue of a liar may forge great polysyllables; but let it become a question of acquiescence in the divine will, obedience to the divine law, then selfishness triumphs over righteousness.
Then comes the cry for old days "Renew our days as of old." There is a sense in which the old days were better than these. What is that peculiar religious fascination which acts upon the mind and leads us back again into the nursery? We cry for the days of childhood, when we were unconscious of sin, when we played in the wood, when we gathered the primroses, when we came back from bird-nesting and summer joys. Oh that these days would come back again in all their blueness, in all their simple joyousness! sometimes the soul says. "Renew our days as of old" when our bread was honest. Since then we have become tradesmen, merchants, adventurers, gamblers, speculators, and now there is not a loaf in the cupboard that has not poison in the very middle of it. Our bread is a lie; the bed on which we rest at night is a bed full of thorns. We are richer at the bank, but we are poorer in heaven. God pity us! "Renew our days as of old" when our prayers were unhindered, when we never doubted their going to heaven and coming back again with blessings; when we used to pray at our mother's knee we never thought that the prayer could fail of heaven. We were quite sure when we said "God bless father and mother, and brother and sister," that God blessed them straight up into heaven, and all the angels smiled when they heard the cry, and God moved all the heavens to bring the blessing down. Now we are theorising about it, and doubting, speculating, and controversialising about it. Oh for the old child-days, when God was in every flower and in every bird, and when all the sky was a great open Bible, written all over in capitals of love! The old days will not come. Still we can have a new youth; we can be born again. That is the great cry of Christ's gospel. "Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again" and thus get the true childhood. He who is in Christ Jesus is a new creature, a little child; old things have passed away, and all things have become new; we have a new heaven and a new earth, in which dwelleth righteousness. When we have passed the touch of God the Holy Ghost, when we have been washed in his laver of regeneration, oh, how green the earth is, and how blue the kind heaven! The poorest beggar becomes a brother because our overflowing love shuts nobody out. If we would have back our old times we must have back our old selves, when we were in our low esteem, consciously poor, broken-hearted on account of sin. When we get these old experiences we shall get back all the lost love of God.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Lamentations 5". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany