The Uses of History
"Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery" ( Nahum 3:1).
The city was Nineveh. The city is every city under the sun. There is something in the very word "city" suggestive of this kind of prosperity. It would seem as if city-building were a practical blasphemy. We cannot account for this, but the light of history seems to direct our attention in this unhappy direction. Nineveh had repented under the preaching of Jonah; Nineveh had forgotten her penitence and her prayers, and had gone back to riot and revel, idolatry, self-indulgence, and enervating luxury. She had thrown her arms around embodied evil, and loved it with all her wicked passion. Nahum succeeded Jonah, and he pronounces the fate of the backslider. He came from the village to rebuke the city; he brought the fresh air of the country with him, the mountain breeze, the village simplicity, the rustic frankness, sanctified and inspired by the Holy Ghost. Even a village is the germ of a city; but the village is better. There is less thickness of iniquity. Evil is still there; we cannot get rid of evil in time. Who can blot out the evil mark in so short a day as poor little empty time? The fate of backsliders is always the same. Backsliding hardens the heart of the apostate. He puts his fingers into his ears, and will not hear the voice of the divine judgment; he places his hands over his eyes when he does not want to see the light of holiness, and reasons within himself that because he has created the darkness God is purposely concealing his own righteousness. Wickedness is able, subtle, clever, sagacious, inventive. If there is any way into enjoyment wickedness will find it out; if there is any gate by which wickedness can escape final judgment, wickedness is quick enough to discover that way. But there is none. Though hand join in hand, though there be a plot, a conspiracy a confederacy of evil, it shall be burned like stubble.
Of Nineveh the prophet says, "It is a city of bloods": that is the literal translation of the words which Nahum used; a Hebraism, as of one blood upon another, great coatings of blood. Nineveh was painted in that vermilion. Everything Nineveh had was bought with blood; Nineveh was an Aceldama, a field of blood. Its prosperity was laid in blood. It had nothing that had not on it that red spot, that brand of condemnation. It is difficult to have a city built on any other foundation; such is the rush, the fury, the competition: such is the result of friction, collision, conflict, that man cuts the throat of Prayer of Manasseh, and cuts so many throats that he knows not he is a murderer: the number makes him a kind of hero. How is it to be otherwise? Great cities require great self-restraint, profound and prolonged processes of education. If the moral element once gets loose, if it begins to trifle and to tamper with the realities of life, then the battle is to the strong; let the weak go where they may. It is only Christianity that can save any city. Man ought not to trust himself when he becomes only part of a multitude. He may be but trusted or chastened or highly utilised when he is but one or a unit amongst a few; but when he becomes a million thick on the ground it would seem as if a kind of miasma rose from the sweltering mass and poisoned the men that breathed it. It is sad. It is true. "Oh, it was pitiful, near a whole city full, hope, health, strength, joy she had none." What is this mystery of numbers? What is this miracle of continuing, increasing in numerical force? An evil passion comes along with it. Things are concealed, or are so perplexed, embarrassed, and wrapped up, that it is difficult to find the central line of justice and right and truth. What mercy can there be in a crowd? The centre has been lost, the guiding, dominating, uplifting principle is for the time being in abeyance. It is easy for a crowd to become mad.
The city, saith Nahum, "is all full of lies": literally, the city is a lie. They spoke cannon-balls in the olden time. We cannot tell in our softened language what the prophet really said, or how the prophet truly said it; but the opening of his lips was the utterance of a great storm. Is our property a lie? Dare we really analyse our possessions? Was every sixpence taken honestly? Did we not tell the victim that we were his friend, and whilst the tears were in his eyes, expressive of gratitude, did we not put our hands into his pockets, and rob him of his earnings? Nahum saw that in his day there was an organised oppression—"The noise of a whip, and the noise of the rattling of the wheels, and of the prancing horses, and of the jumping chariots." All this pointed in the direction of forbidden organisation. No Hebrew believer had any right to a horse. The horse was a forbidden animal; the very suggestion brought with it the idea of self-reliance, pomp, pride, War. As Solomon increased in horses he decreased in piety. It is not so with us, because of our different relations; but we must take the typology of the Old Testament as indicating possibilities along the line of our own civilisation. To have an army is to fight, to want to fight An army is itself a provocation to war. Would God all civilised countries could simultaneously disarm themselves, and thus cut off the devil at one source. But the argument is of course only indicated by particular instances; it is not exhausted. All power is dangerous. Wealth without humility, true rational piety, is the horse that tempts the owner, is the army that incites the possessor to defiance, to war, to contempt, which is worse than either. Yet what genius we lavish in our organisations of oppression! How we set actions and policies and movements in such relations that we cannot put our fingers upon the guilty spot, and say, That is it—burn it. We have put evil into the kaleidoscope, and whilst we are looking at one image, we are turning it round into another, and we cannot say which is the guilty combination. What if God should deal with us in our corporate capacity, and burn the city? When men begin to divide up evil, and say, "You shall take a part, and you shall take another part, and a third man shall come in and share both the parts with us, and we shall play into one another"s hands in such a manner as that nobody shall be able to say exactly how we came by anything we have,"—man cannot handle such knavery, but God will burn it.
"The horseman lifteth up both the bright sword and the glittering spear: and there is a multitude of slain, and a great number of carcases; and there is none end of their corpses; they stumble upon their corpses" ( Nahum 3:3).
And men say, What havoc is this? How awful is pestilence; how terrible is war; how saddening and sickening is the sight of the overthrow of a great city! This Isaiah, or may easily become, wasted sentiment. What are corpses, what are carcases, what are dead bodies, compared with starved souls, depleted minds, cheated hearts, blighted opportunities? Reserve your tears for the true tragedy. What of this crying over bleached bones? Who has spent his tears so? On the other side there are murdered souls; minds robbed of their education; hearts enthralled that ought to be at liberty: there let your head be a fountain of tears. Men will not weep at the right sights. They are touched by the bodily, the physical, the concrete, the tangible. They see some poor little white-faced waif on the road, and they are properly touched by that sight; but they might see next to that poor little pilgrim some mighty Prayer of Manasseh, gold-bedizened and feathered and coloured, or riding in some chariot of pomp, and they ought to cry over him. He may be the true object of pity. He does not look it; he has covered up the dead bones well; he has hidden his mental and moral poverty under a veil of plucked flowers, costly enough; but what we pluck we kill, and they shall wither away. There is no need to undervalue, or to pass by in contempt, or neglect things that are obviously in want of attention; at the same time we ought not to dismiss from our mind the doctrine that moral poverty, spiritual destitution, heartache and heartbreak are the things that should constrain our intensest attention, and draw forth our most influential activity.
What is God"s relation to all this evil prosperity, this horrible progress, founded upon hellish policy? When cities have given themselves over to whoredoms and witchcrafts and forbidden luxuries, what does God say? He says, "I am against thee." Is God ever so terrible as when he is quiet? There is no thunder in this declaration, and yet it is all lightning: "I am against thee." What miracle is this? The Creator against the creature, God against Prayer of Manasseh, all heaven against the city, the metropolis that ought to be the mother city, and the fairest among the daughters of cities. Yet this is right, this is the very sun in the heavens; without this sun of righteousness we can grow no flowers of morality, no plants of good conduct: this is the sun that warms the roots of virtue. Here is an eternal principle; we may run into it and be restful and glad. God is against all evil. The bad man who has succeeded for a time shall have a miserable end; the ox knee-deep in succulent pasture knows not (for he is a beast) that he is being fatted for the knife. These hard things must be said; we would rather not say them; it would be easier to sing some lullaby, to tell some tale that would lure and delight the fancy; it would be intellectually easier to weave some little fancy network that men would admire because skilfully done, outdoing the cobweb in fineness, and outdoing the bloom upon the flowers in exquisiteness: but this would be wasting time, this would be shutting the eyes to facts, this would be ignoring the tragedy that is killing the world. So there must be times of thunder and lightning and judgment and terrible pestilence; there must be hours of disinfection.
Nineveh said she was strong. She walked around her walls and said, They are all bastions; the enemy would bruise himself against these fortifications—more drink, more revelry, more gluttony, more devilry! What did the Lord say? "Art thou better than populous No, that was situate among the rivers, that had the waters round about it, whose rampart was the sea, and her wall was from the sea?" Let us attend to the uses of history. Do not throw away the precedents that make up our recollections. He is wise who is rich in precedents, who knows what has happened, what has been done, who lives in the temple of history. No-Ammon fell; the sacred name of the capital of Upper Egypt was rubbed out as the merest speck upon the page of Time. We know the city referred to by the more modern name of Thebes—a city of a hundred gates and twenty thousand chariots—and the Pharaohs of this great capital warred and conquered riotously from the Soudan to Mesopotamia; trampling down everything, and showing their pride and pomp and power in all manner of ridiculousness of ostentation and wickedness and infamy of royal display. But God blotted out the city. He can do without any city; he can make a metropolis in heaven. He would fain educate us by association; he would turn our relationship to one another into a method of education, healthful progress he would make us co-contributors to one another"s highest well-being: but when we come and spoil God"s idea, though we may have as many gates and as many chariots as Thebes a thousand times multiplied, he can destroy us, throw us into the sea, that we may be swallowed up as stones. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Then the Lord applies history, and says, "Thou also." That is the voice of all history. God never does anything that is complete in itself, final in its processes; whatever he does refers to the next century, the next city, the next man. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. Who died there? The richest man in the world—thou also shalt die. What, did that black shadow called the funeral pass through all these terraces of flowers, parterres of choice plants? Did that blighting shadow fall upon the blooming beauty of the full summer day? Yes—thou also shalt be carried to thy last resting-place. Has pride been rebuked? Has vanity been snubbed; has self-trust been defeated and overwhelmed? Yes—"Thou also." These are the lessons of history. They thought to build out God with clay; they had walls that they erected against him, and he said they should be eaten up as by a cankerworm. How contemptuous can God be! He said that in their pride and haughtiness they should be as the "first-ripe figs," so that if a man should shake the tree the figs would fall into his mouth. He needs no ladder to climb, he needs no elaborate machinery by which to get at the fruit; if he will put his hand upon the bark and shake it, the figs will fall down upon the ground. So easily does God hold us in the grip of his almightiness; so that he shakes down tower and temple and town and mountain; so that he dries up seas and rivers and turbulent streams; he sends a blight upon the brain, and the wise man who was all genius yesterday is asking a child to take him home; the man who yesterday commanded listening senates or directed great enterprises, or was the envy, the joy, and the pride of all who knew him, so stalwart in mind, so capable in action, so hospitable in the entertainment of all weakness,—he does not know his own child. There is but a step between thee and death. Oh, proud Prayer of Manasseh, thou art but a proud fool. Pride and progress can never go together. Pride and education are sworn enemies. Self-trust and reality of character can never cohere. We live our greatest life in our humility, in our reverence, in our aspiration. Why fight against this God? If the cities have outwitted him, where are they? You should be able to find them. Where is old Babylon? Where the mocking, mighty, pompous, overbearing Rome? Where are those cities that have threatened God and lived? You ought to be able to find them if they have been victorious. Now we are called upon to acquaint ourselves, and be at peace with him; we are called into harmony, and the way by which this harmony is attained is one way and only one, and unchangeable and complete, and that is the way we call the Gospel of Christ, the doctrine of the Cross, the doctrine of atonement, the doctrine of something being done for man that man could never do for himself, and which he lays hold of by the energy called faith. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved. You may reform the city, but you cannot regenerate it That is a divine Acts, and if the city is ever to become a sanctuary of progress, education, liberty, and independence, it must be wrought out by spiritual methods; our life must come from the quarter called true religion,—not conventional religion, not ecclesiastical religion, but the Cross, the mighty power of love, the mighty power of sacrifice. I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; and when all our reformers and ameliorators and improvers and decorators have done their utmost, they have only painted the devil, they have not destroyed him; they have hidden momentarily his innate and everlasting hideousness under a coating of foolish ornamentation. We can only do this work by going right back to Jesus Christ, and living as he lived. Let us try that method.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Nahum 3". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/
Second Sunday after Epiphany