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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Jeremiah 7

 

 

Verses 1-34

Organisation and Responsibility

Jeremiah 7:10

That men are variously constituted is a fact not merely profoundly interesting to the speculative philosopher, but of the greatest practical consequence to the Christian philanthropist. While the genus, Prayer of Manasseh , is founded on a common basis, the individual is marked by characteristics singular to himself. We are rooted in the same soil, yet each seems to develop according to a law of his own. We have much in common, yet are individualised by the strongest contrasts. All men bear the same image, yet no two men are alike; the superscription upon all is the writing of God, yet the pronunciation of all that superscription is as varied as the dialects of Babel. We are one, yet many; we are many, yet one; distinct as the waves, yet one as the sea; lonely as the stars, yet united as the firmament; diversified as the mountains, yet one as the globe. In all this contrast and antithesis, all this many-coloured and many-toned variousness of humanity, we have distinctness and vitality of personal character. In this view of humanity we obtain an indistinct and incomplete, yet instructive hint of what is comprehended in the Infinite Life of God. While all men have a common life, each man appears to have a portion of life peculiarly and specially his own; and Song of Solomon , going through all the uncounted generations of humanity, and taking note not only of the common centre, but of all the individual radii, we feel how full, how vast, how infinite, must be the vitality of God!

Let us look at some special instances of peculiar organisation, and then consider them in relation to personal responsibility. For example, take the man whose dominating characteristic is Acquisitiveness. That man"s creed is a word, and that word is but a syllable: his creed is Get; nothing less, nothing more,—simply Get! His very hand is a crook that may be used for plucking fruit off the highest trees, or plunging into the deepest streams. He is ever seeing his way clear to more and more property. He would turn heaven itself into a market-place, and drive sharp bargains with the angels. While other men are inhaling the poetry which breathes around the mountain range, he sees how it could be drained and utilised up to the very top,—that solemn top which has heard no eloquence but the thunder, and known no plough but the lightning. He calls the gift of womanly devotion—"waste"; and being quick at mental arithmetic he soon finds that the ointment given by the hand of uncalculating and ungrudging love "might have been sold,"— think of that, "might have been sold, and given to the poor:" see how this man of dust puts the possibility,—he says it might have been "sold" and "given," as if it could not have been "given" without first being "sold": with him benevolence is a matter of weights and scales; with him the true way to heaven is over the counter; with him buying and selling and getting gain are the highest triumphs of mortal genius. Ask him why. Instantly he recurs to his organisation. He says: "God made me as I am; he did not consult me as to the constitution of my being; he made me acquisitive, and I must be faithful to my organisation; and I will go forward to meet him at the day of judgment, and tell him to his face that he has me as he made me, and I disclaim all responsibility."

The organisation of another man predominates in the direction of Combativeness. The man is litigious, quarrelsome, cantankerous, violent. He is "such a son of Belial, that a man cannot speak to him." His breast is a volcano. He alienates his friends; he thrice slays his foes. He is so sensitive as to be wounded by a passing shadow. He imagines that creation is continually pronouncing judgment upon him. In a moment the burning word of defiance is on his lips, and his wrath is expressed without restraint. Ask him why. He says: "I must be faithful to my constitution; my whole manhood is intensely combative; I did not make myself; God has me as he made me, and I disown all laws of obligation."

Here is a woman whose countenance expresses the most urgent curiosity; her face is a mark of interrogation; she is always prying into forbidden matters, and the moment any subject assumes mystery or secrecy her whole nature is stirred into the most anxious agitation. She puts forth her hand eagerly to the forbidden tree: if it had not been forbidden, she would not have troubled it; but the interdict enkindled every passion, and she cannot rest until her inquisitiveness is satisfied. The word "Why?" is continually on her tongue. She would cross-examine the angels, and open the sealed books of God. She feels the burning of a perpetual thirst; a thirst which cannot be slaked at vulgar streams, but must be quenched at the fountain which springs from the distant hills. Ask the reason; she answers: "I must be myself; God gave me my organisation; he determined the temperature of my blood; I shall cultivate his gifts, and if any injury arise the blame shall be charged upon himself.

Here is a man with little Hope. He sees a lion on every way; he dreads that ruin will be the end of every enterprise; he knows not the sweetness of contentment or the repose of an intelligent hope; he is always mourning, always repining; his voice is an unceasing threnody, his face a perpetual winter. He sees no angel-forms in the glad, laughing spring; summer itself is chilled into winter by his icy breath; he reads no writing of God in the rainbow; there is no dimple of joy in the soft young cheek of May; and all June"s wealth of light shows him nothing but corresponding shadows. His life is a mournful plaint. No lyric charms him from his sadness; no minstrelsy tempts his sullen heart into rhythmic throbs. Ask him why. He says: "God so made me; if he had put within me the angel of Hope, I should have been sharer of your gladness; I should have been your companion in the choir; I should have been a happier man: he covered me with night that owns no star; he gave my fingers no cunning art of music; he meant me to look at him through tears and to offer my poor worship in sighs."

These instances may suffice to show, from one point of view, the relation of organisation to responsibility. The argument in brief Isaiah , that men must be faithful to their constitution; that if God meant men to be poets, they would be poets; if soldiers, soldiers; if accumulators, accumulators; and so forth, the question being simply one of organisation,—organisation for which the men themselves are not responsible.

We cannot enter into all the questions which may lie between God and man on the subject of organisation. Let us take one or two such cases as have just been outlined. We found the acquisitive man getting gold, getting at all risks; getting till his conscience was seared and his understanding darkened. In that case ought we to sympathise with the Prayer of Manasseh , saying, "We are sorry for you; we lament that your organisation compels you to be avaricious: we know you cannot help it, so we exempt you from all responsibility"? No! we would say as in thunder; No! we do not find fault with the organisation of the acquisitive man; but if he pleads the excuse already citied, we openly charge him with having degraded, prostituted, and diabolised that constitution; he has not used it, but abused it; he has not been faithful, but faithless, and must be branded as a criminal. The man"s organisation is acquisitive; be it so: that circumstance in itself does not necessitate crime. There are two courses open to the acquisitive man. He can rake in the mud and burrow in the drains of the city; he can covet the one ewe lamb or the poor man"s acre of vineyard; he can grind the face of honest poverty, and oppress him who has no helper; he may leave no "handfuls of purpose" for the needy gleaner; he may "go over" the olive boughs until not one particle of fruit remains for "the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow:" all that he may do; the course is open—the choice is his own! But is that all? Truly, blessedly, No! He may carry the full force of his acquisitions in another direction; he may listen to the invitations of wisdom; he may enrich himself with heavenly spoil. To him we say, Do be faithful to your organisation, do get, get money by right means, get exaltation by legitimate processes; but with all thy getting, get understanding, "for the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and the gain thereof than fine gold; she is more precious than rubies, and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her."

Here there are two courses: the one goes downward into dust, into mire, into hell; the other goes upward, into Wisdom of Solomon , into light, into heaven. We are not responsible for our organisation, but for the use we make of it; we are not responsible for the faculty of speech, but we are responsible for the manner in which we employ it; we can use it in unholy communications, such as "defile the Prayer of Manasseh ," or we can "open our mouth for the dumb," and "plead the cause of the poor and needy."

The combative man; what of him? We found him fighting, storming, raging. His life was hot with passion, and his eye glared with a murderous intent. Do we sympathise with him? " Sirach , your case demands commiseration, inasmuch as you must be faithful to your organisation, and that organisation happens to be a dreadful one? "No! to the combative man we say: There are two courses open to you: you can fight with muscle, and steel, and gunpowder; you may train yourself to be pitiless as a tiger; you may be petulant, resentful, hard-hearted: the choice is before you to pronounce the elective word! Or, there is another course open: you may choose weapons that are not carnal; you may resist the devil; you may "wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, again:;t the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." You need not throw off the panoply of war and assume the attire of peace. Put on the whole armour of God. Helmet, breastplate, sword, shield, girdle, sandals,—put it on! and shout the war-cry through the devil"s camp. There is scope enough for combativeness—your organisation need not be dormant. Which course do you adopt? You are not responsible for your organisation, but you are responsible for the use you make of it; you can make yourself a plague and a terror, or you may become a valiant champion, whose foot shall be upon the neck of the enemies of God! Take the case of inordinate inquisitiveness. There are two courses open to the inquisitive person; to him we say: You can meanly pry into concerns which are not your own; you can be found under the eaves overhearing the sacred words of confidence; you can be hunting for forbidden prey within the hallowed enclosure of social trust;—in that ignoble way you may display the chief characteristic of your mental nature, prowling about in the darkness, robbing your friends of their innermost treasures. There is another course open; God has set before every man an ample domain, in which he may exercise inquiry: you may watch the worlds and inquire into the mysteries of their relations, how they warm themselves and others by revolution, and brighten themselves by continual activity; ask them questions, plead for answers; sit down by the side of summer, and inquire diligently of her wondrous cunning and inexhaustible fertility; ask how she weaves the garland, or moulds the blossom, or covers the nakedness of the forest; acquaint yourself with all the minstrels which fill the air with truest music; interrogate the sea, ask the secret of its eternal sob, and inquire concerning its palace-caves, fashioned without craft or cunning of man: or exercise your inquisitiveness in other directions; go from nature to humanity; inquire after your brother"s well-being; seek out the lurking places of guilt, and go in search of the balm which can heal the soreness of the heart; and when men ask you how you employ your inquisitive faculty, you can answer: "I inquired for Wisdom of Solomon , and sought out the dwelling-place of understanding; I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame; I was a father to the poor; and the cause which I knew not, I searched out."

The argument which the fatalist bases upon organisation is self-annihilating when applied to the common relations of life. The fatalist himself does not believe in his own doctrine; in speculative reasoning he is eager to charge moral crime upon organic defect; yet, in practical magistracy, he arraigns and condemns the criminal to punishment. But how monstrous an outrage is this upon his own creed! The criminal was compelled through stress of organisation to commit the crime, yet the fatalist punishes him for doing what he could not help! Let the principle of the fatalist be admitted, and there is an end to all legislation—an end, indeed, to the social compact itself. All associated life is regulated by a system of restraints; but restraint implies self-control, and self-control is directly opposed to fatalism. Let a criminal plead that he could not help committing a certain crime; and if the judge allow the plea, he will at once treat the criminal as a lunatic, and instruct the officers of justice accordingly. Magistracy proceeds upon the principle that men can "help" committing crime. All human legislation assumes man"s power of self-regulation, and grounds itself on the grand doctrine of man"s responsibility to man. At this point, then, divine revelation meets human reason, and insists upon the same principle in relation to God. Theology says, You hold yourselves responsible to one another on all social matters; you punish the criminal; you ignore the plea of fatalism on all questions of property, order, and security; now go farther, heighten your own social base, carry out to their logical issues your own principles and methods, and you will reach all that God requires of man.

If it be urged that God gave the criminal his organisation, the objection does not touch the argument. The argument Isaiah , that in human consciousness the plea of fatalism is ignored on all practical matters; away beyond all written statutes there is a conviction that man can regulate his actions, and ought to be held responsible for such regulation: man himself thus, by his own conduct and his own laws, acquits God of all charge upon this matter; the very recognition by the magistrate, of man"s responsibility, is itself a direct acquittal of God from the accusations of fatalism. God need not be interrogated upon the subject, for the magistrate himself, faithful to the consciousness of universal humanity, treats the fatalistic theory as an absurdity.

The practical issue of the argument, then, is that in human consciousness and experience it is a settled principle that men are responsible to each other, and that the doctrine of social irresponsibility is a lie; so that without opening the Bible, we find this principle recognised by man the individual, man the proprietor, and man the magistrate. Revelation does not establish a new law—does not impose upon man an obligation foreign to his nature; but, on the contrary, takes human consciousness as it Isaiah , and educates and sanctifies the moral instincts. Where, then, is the unreasonableness of the scriptural doctrine of responsibility? Any other doctrine would directly antagonise the consciousness, the experience, and the magisterial instincts of the race, and therefore must presumptively be untrue; but this doctrine appeals to the profoundest consciousness of human nature, finds in that a witness to its own reasonableness, and is therefore presumptively true. It may be concluded, then, that on the question of moral obligation to God, revelation simply interprets, exalts, and sanctifies the consciousness and experience of the world.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jeremiah 7:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/jeremiah-7.html. 1885-95.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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