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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Lamentations 2

 

 

Verses 1-9

GOD AS AN ENEMY

Lamentations 2:1-9

THE elegist, as we have seen, attributes the troubles of the Jews to the will and. action of God. In the second poem he even ventures further, and with daring logic presses this idea to its ultimate issues. If God is tormenting His people in fierce anger it must be because He is their enemy-so the sad-hearted patriot reasons. The course of Providence does not shape itself to him as a merciful chastisement, as a veiled blessing; its motive seems to be distinctly unfriendly. He drives his dreadful conclusion home with great amplitude of details. In order to appreciate the force of it let us look at the illustrative passage in two ways-first, in view of the calamities inflicted on Jerusalem, all of which are here ascribed to God, and then with regard to those thoughts and purposes of their Divine Author which appear to be revealed in them.

First, then, we have the earthly side of the process. The daughter of Zion is covered with a cloud. [Lamentations 2:1] The metaphor would be more striking in the brilliant East than it is to us in our habitually sombre climate. There it would suggest unwonted gloom-the loss of the customary light of heaven, rare distress, and excessive melancholy. It is a general, comprehensive image intended to overshadow all that follows. Terrible disasters cover the aspect of all things from zenith to horizon. The physical darkness that accompanied the horrors of Golgotha is here anticipated, not indeed by any actual prophecy, but in idea.

But there is more than gloom. A mere cloud may lift, and discover everything unaltered by the passing shadow. The distress that has fallen on Jerusalem is not thus superficial and transient. She herself has suffered a fatal fall. The beauty of Israel has been cast down from heaven to earth. The language is now varied; instead of "the daughter of Zion" we have "the beauty of Israel." [Lamentations 2:1] The use of the larger title, "Israel," is not a little significant. It shews that the elegist is alive to the idea of the fundamental unity of his race, a unity which could not be destroyed by centuries of inter-tribal warfare. Although in the ungracious region of politics Israel stood aloof from Judah, the two peoples were frequently treated as one by poets and prophets when religious ideas were in mind. Here apparently the vastness of the calamities of Jerusalem has obliterated the memory of jealous distinctions. Similarly we may see the great English race-British and American-forgetting national divisions in pursuit of its higher religious aims, as in Christian missions; and we may be sure that this blood-unity would be felt most keenly under the shadow of a great trouble on either side of the Atlantic. By the time of the destruction of Jerusalem the northern tribes had been scattered, but the use of the distinctive name of these people is a sign that the ancient oneness of all who traced back their pedigree to the patriarch Jacob was still recognised. It is some compensation for the endurance of trouble to find it thus breaking down the middle wall of partition between estranged brethren.

It has been suggested with probability that by the expression "the beauty of Israel" the elegist intended to indicate the temple. This magnificent pile of buildings, crowning one of the hills of Jerusalem, arid shining with gold in "barbaric splendour," was the central object of beauty among all the people who revered the worship it enshrined. Its situation would naturally suggest the language here employed. Jerusalem rises among the hills of Judah, some two thousand feet above the sea-level; and when viewed from the wilderness in the south she looks indeed like a city built in the heavens. But the physical exaltation of Jerusalem and her temple was surpassed by exaltation in privilege, and prosperity, and pride. Capernaum, the vain city of the lake that would raise herself to heaven, is warned by Jesus that she shall be cast down to Hades. [Matthew 11:23] Now not only Jerusalem, but the glory of the race of Israel, symbolised by the central shrine of the national religion, is thus humiliated.

Still keeping in mind the temple, the poet tells us that God has forgotten His footstool. He seems to be thinking of the Mercy-Seat over the ark, the spot at which God was thought to shew Himself propitious to Israel on the great Day of Atonement, and which was looked upon as the very centre of the Divine presence. In the destruction of the temple the holiest places were outraged, and the ark itself carried off or broken up, and never more heard of. How different was this from the story of the loss of the ark in the days of Eli, when the Philistines were constrained to send it home of their own accord! Now no miracle intervenes to punish the heathen for their sacrilege. Yes, surely God must have forgotten His footstool! So it seems to the sorrowful Jew, perplexed at the impunity with which this crime has been committed.

But the mischief is not confined to the central shrine. It has extended to remote country regions and simple rustic folk. The shepherd’s hut has shared the fate of the temple of the Lord. All the habitations of Jacob-a phrase which in the original points to country cottages-have been swallowed up. [Lamentations 2:2] The holiest is not spared on account of its sanctity, neither is the lowliest on account of its obscurity. The calamity extends to all districts, to all things, to all classes.

If the shepherd’s cot is contrasted with the temple and the ark because of its simplicity, the fortress may be contrasted with this defenceless hut because of its strength. Yet even the strongholds have been thrown down. More than this, the action of the Jews’ army has been paralysed by the God who had been its strength and support in the glorious olden time. It is as though the right hand of the warrior had been seized from behind and drawn back at the moment when it was raised to strike a blow for deliverance. The consequence is that the flower of the army, "all that were pleasant to the eye," [Lamentations 2:4] are slain. Israel herself is swallowed up, while her palaces and fortresses are demolished.

The climax of this mystery of Divine destruction is reached when God destroys His own temple. The elegist returns to the dreadful subject as though fascinated by the terror of it. God has violently taken away His tabernacle. [Lamentations 1:6] The old historic name of the sanctuary of Israel recurs at this crisis of ruin; and it is particularly appropriate to the image which follows, an image which possibly it suggested. If we are to understand the metaphor of the sixth verse as it is rendered in the English Authorised and Revised Versions, we have to suppose a reference to some such booth of boughs as people were accustomed to put up for their shelter during the vintage, and which would be removed as soon as it had served its temporary purpose. The solid temple buildings had been swept away as easily as though they were just such flimsy structures, as though they had been "of a garden." But we can read the text more literally, and still find good sense in it. According to the strict translation of the original, God is said to have violently taken away His tabernacle "as a garden." At the siege of a city the fruit gardens that encircle it are the first victims of the destroyer’s axe. Lying out beyond the walls they are entirely unprotected, while the impediments they offer to the movements of troops and instruments of war induce the commander to order their early demolition. Thus Titus had the trees cleared from the Mount of Olives, so that one of the first incidents in the Roman siege of Jerusalem must have been the destruction of the Garden of Gethsemane. Now the poet compares the ease with which the great massive temple-itself a powerful fortress, and enclosed within the city walls-was demolished, with the simple process of scouring the outlying gardens. So the place of assembly disappears, and with it the assembly itself, so that even the sacred Sabbath is passed over and forgotten. Then the two heads of the nation-the king, its civil ruler, and the priest, its ecclesiastical chief are both despised in the indignation of God’s anger.

The central object of the sacred shrine is the altar, where earth seems to meet heaven in the high mystery of sacrifice. Here men seek to propitiate God; here too God would be expected to shew Himself gracious to men. Yet God has even cast off His altar, abhorring His very sanctuary. [Lamentations 2:7] Where mercy is most confidently anticipated, there of all places nothing but wrath and rejection are to be found. What prospect could be more hopeless?

The deeper thought that God rejects His sanctuary because His people have first rejected Him is not brought forward just now. Yet this solution of the mystery is prepared by a contemplation of the utter failure of the old ritual of atonement. Evidently that is not always effective, for here it has broken down entirely; then can it ever be inherently efficacious? It cannot be enough to trust to a sanctuary and ceremonies which God Himself destroys. But further, out of this scene which was so perplexing to the pious Jew, there flashes to us the clear truth that nothing is so abominable in the sight of God as an attempt to worship Him on the part of people who are living at enmity with Him. We can also perceive that if God shatters our sanctuary, perhaps He does so in order to prevent us from making a fetich of it. Then the loss of shrine and altar and ceremony may be the saving of the superstitious worshipper who is thereby taught to turn to some more stable source of confidence.

This, however, is not the line of reflections followed by the elegist in the present instance. His mind is possessed with one dark, awful, crushing thought. All this is God’s work. And why has God done it? The answer to that question is the idea that here dominates the mind of the poet. It is because God has become an enemy. There is no attempt to mitigate the force of this daring idea. It is stated in the strongest possible terms, and repeated again and again at every turn - Israel’s cloud is the effect of God’s anger; it has come in the day of His anger; God is acting with fierce anger, with a flaming fire of wrath. This must mean that God is decidedly inimical. He is behaving as an adversary; He bends His bow; He manifests violence. It is not merely that God permits the adversaries of Israel to commit their ravages with impunity; God commits those ravages; He is Himself the enemy. He shews indignation. He despises, He abhors. And this is all deliberate. The destruction is carried out with the same care and exactitude that characterise the erection of a building. It is as though it were done with a measuring line. God surveys to destroy.

The first thing to be noticed in this unhesitating ascription to God of positive enmity is the striking evidence it contains of faith in the Divine power, presence, and activity. These were no more visible to the mere observer of events in the destruction of Jerusalem than in the shattering of the French empire at Sedan. In the one case as in the other all that the world could see was the crushing military defeat and its fatal consequences. The victorious army of the Babylonians filled the field as completely in the old time as that of the Germans in the modern event. Yet the poet simply ignores its existence. He passes it with sublime indifference, his mind filled with the thought of the unseen Power behind. He has not a word for Nebuchadnezzar, because he is assured that this mighty monarch is nothing but a tool in the hands of the real Enemy of the Jews. A man of smaller faith would not have penetrated sufficiently beneath the surface to have conceived the idea of Divine enmity in connection with a series of occurrences so very mundane as the ravages of war. A heathenish faith would have acknowledged in this defeat of Israel a triumph of the might of Bel or Nebo over the power of Jehovah. Rut so convinced is the elegist of the absolute supremacy of his God that no such idea is suggested to him even as a temptation of unbelief. He knows that the action of the true God is supreme in everything that happens, whether the event be favourable or unfavourable to His people. Perhaps it is only owing to the dreary materialism of current thought that we should he less likely to discover an indication of the enmity of God in some huge national calamity.

Still, although this idea of the elegist is a fruit of his unshaken faith in the universal sway of God, it startles and shocks us, and we shrink from it almost as though it contained some blasphemous suggestion. Is it ever right to think of God as the enemy of any man? It would not be fair to pass judgment on the author of the Lamentations on the ground of a cold consideration of this abstract question. We must remember the terrible situation in which he stood-his beloved city destroyed, the revered temple of his fathers a mass of charred ruins, his people scattered in exile and captivity, tortured, slaughtered; these were not circumstances to encourage a course of calm and measured reflection. We must not expect the sufferer to carry out an exact chemical analysis of his cup of woe before uttering an exclamation on its quality; and if it should be that the burning taste induces him to speak too strongly of its ingredients, we who only see him swallow it without being required to taste a drop ourselves should be slow to examine his language too nicely. He who has never entered Gethsemane is not in a position to understand how dark may be the views of all things seen beneath its sombre shade. If the Divine sufferer on the cross could speak as though His God had actually deserted Him, are we to condemn an Old Testament saint when he ascribes unspeakably great troubles to the enmity of God?

Is this, then, but the rhetoric of misery? If it be no more, while we seek to sympathise with the feelings of a very dramatic situation, we shall not be called upon to go further and discover in the language of the poet any positive teaching about God and His ways with man. But are we at liberty to stop short here? Is the elegist only expressing his own feelings? Have we a right to affirm that there can be no objective truth in the awful idea of the enmity of God.

In considering this question we must be careful to dismiss from our minds the unworthy associations that only too commonly attach themselves to notions of enmity among men. Hatred cannot be ascribed to One whose deepest name is Love. No spite, malignity, or evil passion of any kind can be found in the heart of the Holy God. When due weight is given to these negations very much that we usually see in the practice of enmity disappears. But this is not to say that the idea itself is denied, or the fact shown to be impossible.

In the first place, we have no warrant for asserting that God will never act in direct and intentional opposition to any of His creatures. There is one obvious occasion when He certainly does this. The man who resists the laws of nature finds those laws working against him. He is not merely running his head against a stone wall; the laws are not inert obstructions in the path of the transgressor; they represent forces in action. That is to say, they resist their opponent with vigorous antagonism. In themselves they are blind, and they bear him no ill-will. But the Being who wields the forces is not blind or indifferent. The laws of nature are, as Kingsley said, but the ways of God. If they are opposing a man God is opposing that man. But God does not confine His action to the realm of physical processes. His providence works through the whole course of events in the world’s history. What we see evidently operating in nature we may infer to be equally active in less visible regions. Then if. we believe in a God who rules and works in the world, we cannot suppose that His activity is confined to aiding what is good. It is unreasonable to imagine that He stands aside in passive negligence of evil. And if He concerns Himself to thwart evil, what is this but manifesting Himself as the enemy of the evildoer?

It may be contended, on the other side, that there is a world of difference between antagonistic actions and unfriendly feelings, and that the former by no means imply the latter. May not God oppose a man who is doing wrong, not at all because He is his Enemy, but just because He is his truest Friend? Is it not an act of real kindness to save a man from himself when his own will is leading him astray? This of course must be granted, and being granted, it will certainly affect our views of the ultimate issues of what we may be compelled to regard in its present operation as nothing short of Divine antagonism. It may remind us that the motives lying behind the most inimical action on God’s part may be merciful and kind in their aims. Still, for the time being, the opposition is a reality, and a reality which to all intents and purposes is one of enmity, since it resists, frustrates, hurts.

Nor is this all. We have no reason to deny that God can have real anger. Is it not right and just that He should be "angry with the wicked every day"? [Psalms 7:11] Would He not be imperfect in holiness, would He not be less than God, if He could behold vile deeds springing from vile hearts with placid indifference? We must believe that Jesus Christ was as truly revealing the Father when He was moved with indignation as when He was moved with compassion. His life shows quite clearly that He was the enemy of oppressors and hypocrites, and He plainly declared that He came to bring a sword. [Matthew 10:34] His mission was a war against all evil, and therefore, though not waged with carnal weapons, a war against evil men. The Jewish authorities were perfectly right in perceiving this fact. They persecuted Him as their enemy; and He was their enemy. This statement is no contradiction to the gracious truth that He desired to save all men, and therefore even these men. If God’s enmity to any soul were eternal it would conflict with His love. It cannot be that He wishes the ultimate ruin of one of His own children. But if He is at the present time actively opposing a man, and if He is doing this in anger, in the wrath of righteousness against sin, it is only quibbling with words to deny that for the time being He is a very real enemy to that man.

The current of thought in the present day is not in any sympathy with this idea of God as an Enemy, partly in its revulsion from harsh and un-Christlike conceptions of God, partly also on account of the modern humanitarianism which almost loses sight of sin in its absorbing love of mercy. But the tremendous fact of the Divine enmity towards the sinful man so long as he persists in his sin is not to be lightly brushed aside. It is not wise wholly to forget that "our God is a consuming fire." [Hebrews 12:29] It is in consideration of this dread truth that the atonement wrought by His Son according to His own will of love.is discovered to be an action of vital efficacy, and not a mere scenic display.


Verse 9

PROPHETS WITHOUT A VISION

Lamentations 2:9; Lamentations 2:14

IN deploring the losses suffered by the daughter of Zion the elegist bewails the failure of her prophets to obtain a vision from Jehovah. His language implies that these men were still lingering among the ruins of the city. Apparently they had not been considered by the invaders of sufficient importance to require transportation with Zedekiah and the princes. Thus they were within reach of inquirers, and doubtless they were more than ever in request at a time when many perplexed persons were anxious for pilotage through a sea of troubles. It would seem, too, that they were trying to execute their professional functions. They sought light; they looked in the right direction-to God. Yet their quest was vain: no vision was given to them; the oracles were dumb.

To understand the situation we must recollect the normal place of prophecy in the social life of Israel. The great prophets whose names and works have come down to us in Scripture were always rare and exceptional men-voices crying in the wilderness. Possibly they were not more scarce at this time than at other periods. Jeremiah had not been disappointed in his search for a Divine message. {See Jeremiah 42:4; Jeremiah 42:7} The greatest seer of visions ever known to the world, Ezekiel, had already appeared among the captives by the waters of Babylon. Before long the sublime prophet of the restoration was to sound his trumpet blast to awaken courage and hope in the exiles. Though pitched in a minor key, these very elegies bear witness to the fact that their gentle author was not wholly deficient in prophetic fire. This was not an age like the time of Samuel’s youth, barren of Divine voices. {See 1 Samuel 3:1} It is true that the inspired voices were now scattered over distant regions far from Jerusalem, the ancient seat of prophecy. Yet the idea of the elegist is that the prophets who might be still seen at the site of the city were deprived of visions. These must have been quite different men. Evidently they were the professional prophets, officials who had been trained in music and dancing to appear as choristers on festive occasions, the equivalent of the modern dervishes; but who were also sought after like the seer of Ramah, to whom young Saul resorted for information about his father’s lost asses, as simple soothsayers. Such assistance as these men were expected to give was no longer forthcoming at the request of troubled souls.

The low and sordid uses to which everyday prophecy was degraded may incline us to conclude that the cessation of it was no very great calamity, and perhaps to suspect that from first to last the whole business was a mass of superstition affording large opportunities for charlatanry. But it would be rash to adopt this extreme view without a fuller consideration of the subject. The great messengers of Jehovah frequently speak of the professional prophets with the contempt of Socrates for the professional sophists; and yet the rebukes which they administer to these men for their unfaithfulness show that they accredit them with important duties and the gifts with which to execute them.

Thus the lament of the elegist suggests a real loss-something more serious than the failure of assistance such as some Roman Catholics try to obtain from St. Anthony in the discovery of lost property. The prophets were regarded as the media of communication between heaven and earth. It was because of the low and narrow habits of the people that their gifts were often put to low and narrow uses which savoured rather of superstition than of devotion. The belief that God did not only reveal His will to great persons and on momentous occasions helped to make Israel a religious nation. That there were humble gifts of prophecy within the reach of the many, and that these gifts were for the helping of men and women in their simplest needs, was one of the articles of the Hebrew faith. The quenching of a host of smaller stars may involve as much loss of life as that of a few brilliant ones. If prophecy fades out from among the people, if the vision of God is no longer perceptible in daily lift, if the Church as a whole, is plunged into gloom, it is of little avail to her that a few choice souls here and there pierce the mists like solitary mountain peaks so as to stand alone in the clear light of heaven. The perfect condition would be that in which "all the Lord’s people were prophets." If this is not yet attainable, at all events we may rejoice when the capacity for communion with heaven is widely enjoyed, and we must deplore it as one of the greatest calamities of the Church that the quickening influence of the prophetic spirit should be absent from her assemblies. The Jews had not fallen so low that they could contemplate the cessation of communications with heaven unmoved. They were far from the practical materialism which leads its victims to be perfectly satisfied to remain in a condition of spiritual paralysis-a totally different thing from the theoretical materialism of Priestley and Tyndall. They knew that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God"; and therefore they understood that a famine of the word of God must result in as real a starvation as a famine of wheat. When we have succeeded in recovering this Hebrew standpoint we shall be prepared to recognise that there are worse calamities than bad harvests and seasons of commercial depression; we shall be brought to acknowledge that it is possible to be starved in the midst of plenty, because the greatest abundance of such food as we have lacks the elements requisite for our complete nourishment. According to reports of sanitary authorities, children in Ireland are suffering from the substitution of the less expensive and sweeter diet of maize for the more wholesome oatmeal on which their parents were brought up. Must it not be confessed that a similar substitution of cheap and savoury soul pabulum-in literature, music, amusements-for the "sincere milk of the word" and the "strong meat" of truth is the reason why so many of us are not growing up to the stature of Christ? The "liberty of prophesying" for which our fathers contended and suffered is ours. But it will be a barren heritage if in cherishing the liberty we lose the prophesying. There is no gift enjoyed by the Church for which she should be more jealous than that of the prophetic spirit.

As we look across the wide field of history we must perceive that there have been many dreary periods in which the prophets could find no vision from the Lord. At first sight it would even seem that the light of heaven only shone on a few rare luminous spots, leaving the greater part of the world and the longer periods of time in absolute gloom. But this pessimistic view results from our limited capacity to perceive the light that is there. We look for the lightning. But inspiration is not always electric. The prophet’s vision is not necessarily startling. It is a vulgar delusion to suppose that revelation must assume a sensational aspect. It was predicted of the Word of God incarnate that He should "not strive, or cry, or lift up His voice"; [Isaiah 42:2] and when He came He was rejected because He would not satisfy the wonder-seekers with a flaring portent-a "sign from heaven." Still it cannot be denied that there have been periods of barrenness. They are found in what might be called the secular regions of the operation of the Spirit of God. A brilliant epoch of scientific discovery, artistic invention, or literary production is followed.by a time of torpor, feeble imitation, or meretricious pretence. The Augustan and Elizabethan ages cannot be conjured back at will. Prophets of nature, poets, and artists can none of them command the power of inspiration. This is a gift which may be withheld, and which, when denied, will elude the most earnest pursuit. We may miss the vision of prophecy when the prophets are as numerous as ever, and unfortunately as vocal. The preacher possesses learning and rhetoric. We only miss one thing in him-inspiration. But, alas! that is just the one thing needful.

Now the question forces itself upon our attention, what is the explanation of these variations in the distribution of the spirit of prophecy? Why is the fountain of inspiration an intermittent spring, a Bethesda? We cannot trace its failure to any shortness of supply, for this fountain is fed from the infinite ocean of the Divine life. Neither can we attribute caprice to One whose wisdom is infinite, and whose will is constant. It may be right to say that God withholds the vision, withholds it deliberately; but it cannot be correct to assert that this fact is the final explanation of the whole matter. God must be believed to have a reason, a good and sufficient reason, for whatever He does. Can we guess what His reason may be in such a case as this? It may be conjectured that it is necessary for the field to lie fallow for a season in order that it may bring forth a better crop subsequently. Incessant cultivation would exhaust the soil. The eye would be blinded if it had no rest from visions. We may be overfed; and the more nutritions our diet is the greater will be the danger of surfeit. One of our chief needs in the use of revelation is that we should thoroughly digest its contents. What is the use of receiving fresh visions if we have not yet assimilated the truth that we already possess? Sometimes, too, no vision can be found for the simple reason that no vision is needed. We waste ourselves in the pursuit of unprofitable questions when we should be setting about our business. Until we have obeyed the light that has been given us it is foolish to complain that we have not more light. Even our present light will wane if it is not followed up in practice.

But while considerations such as these must be attended to if we are to form a sound judgment on the whole question, they do not end the controversy, and they scarcely apply at all to the particular illustration of it that is now before us. There is no danger of surfeit in a famine; and it is a famine of the world that we are now confronted with. Moreover, the elegist supplies an explanation that sets all conjectures at rest.

The fault was in the prophets themselves. Although the poet does not connect the two statements together, but inserts other matter between them, we cannot fail to see that his next words about the prophets bear very closely on his lament over the denial of visions. He tells us that they had seen visions of vanity and foolishness. [Lamentations 2:14] This is with reference to an earlier period. Then they had had their visions; but these had been empty and worthless. The meaning cannot be that the prophets had been subject to unavoidable delusions, that they had sought truth, but had been rewarded with deception. The following words show that the blame was attributed entirely to their own conduct. Addressing the daughter of Zion the poet says: "Thy prophets have seen visions for thee." The visions were suited to the people to whom they were declared-manufactured, shall we say?-with the express purpose of pleasing them. Such a degradation of sacred functions in gross unfaithfulness deserved punishment; and the most natural and reasonable punishment was the withholding for the future of true visions from men who in the past had forged false ones. The very possibility of this conduct proves that the influence of inspiration had not the hold upon these Hebrew prophets that it had obtained over the heathen prophet Balaam, when he exclaimed, in face of the bribes and threats of the infuriated king of Moab: "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what the Lord speaketh, that will I speak.". [Numbers 24:13]

It must ever be that unfaithfulness to the light we have already received will bar the door against the advent of more light. There is nothing so blinding as the habit of lying. People who do not speak truth ultimately prevent themselves from perceiving truth, the false tongue leading the eye to see falsely. This is the curse and doom of all insincerity. It is useless to enquire for the views of insincere persons; they can have no distinct views, no certain convictions, because their mental vision is blurred by their long-continued habit of confounding true and false. Then if for once in their lives such people may really desire to find a truth in order to assure themselves in some great emergency, and therefore seek a vision of the Lord, they will have lost the very faculty of receiving it.

The blindness and deadness that characterise so much of the history of thought and literature, art and religion, are to be attributed to the same disgraceful cause. Greek philosophy decayed in the insincerity of professional sophistry. Gothic art degenerated into the florid extravagance of the Tudor period when it had lost its religious motive, and had ceased to be what it pretended. Elizabethan poetry passed through euphuism into the uninspired conceits of the sixteenth century. Dryden restored the habit of true speech, but it required generations of arid eighteenth-century sincerity in literature to make the faculty of seeing visions possible to the age of Burns and Shelley and Wordsworth.

In religion this fatal effect of insincerity is terribly apparent. The formalist can never become a prophet. Creeds which were kindled in the fires of passionate conviction will cease to be luminous when the faith that inspired them has perished; and then if they are still repeated as dead words by false lips the unreality of them will not only rob them of all value, it will blind the eyes of the men and women who are guilty of this falsehood before God, so that no new vision of truth can be brought within their reach. Here is one of the snares that attach themselves to the privilege of receiving a heritage of teaching from our ancestors. We can only avoid it by means of searching inquests over the dead beliefs which a foolish fondness has permitted to remain unburied, poisoning the atmosphere of living faith. So long as the fact that they are dead is not honestly admitted it will be impossible to establish sincerity in worship; and the insincerity, while it lasts, will be an impassable barrier to the advent of truth.

The elegist has laid his finger on the particular form of untruth of which the Jerusalem prophets had been guilty. They had not discovered her iniquity to the daughter of Zion. [Lamentations 2:14] Thus they had hastened her ruin by keeping back the message that would have urged their hearers to repentance. Some interpreters have given quite a new turn to the last clause of the fourteenth verse. Literally this states that the prophets have seen "drivings away"; and accordingly it has been taken to mean that they pretended to have had visions about the captivity when this was an accomplished fact, although they had been silent on the subject, or had even denied the danger, at the earlier time when alone their words could have been of any use; or, again, the words have been thought to suggest that these prophets were now at the later period predicting fresh calamities, and were blind to the vision of hope which a true prophet like Jeremiah had seen and declared. But such ideas are overrefined, and they give a twist to the course of thought that is foreign to the form of these direct, simple elegies. It seems better to take the final clause of the verse as a repetition of what went before, with a slight variety of form. Thus the poet declares that the burdens, or prophecies, which these unfaithful men have presented to the people have been causes of banishment.

The crying fault of the prophets is their reluctance to preach to people of their sins. Their mission distinctly involves the duty of doing so. They should not shun to declare the whole counsel of God. It is not within the province of the ambassador to make selections from among the despatches with which he has been entrusted in order to suit his own convenience. There is nothing that so paralyses the work of the preacher as the habit of choosing favourite topics and ignoring less attractive subjects. Just in proportion as he commits this sin against his vocation he ceases to be the prophet of God, and descends to the level of one who deals in obiter dicta, mere personal opinions to be taken on their own merits. One of the gravest possible omissions is the neglect to give due weight to the tragic fact of sin. All the great prophets have been conspicuous for their fidelity to this painful and sometimes dangerous part of their work. If we would call up a typical picture of a prophet in the discharge of his task, we should present to our minds Elijah confronting Ahab, or John the Baptist before Herod, or Savonarola accusing Lorenzo de Medici, or John Knox preaching at the court of Mary Stuart. He is Isaiah declaring God’s abomination of sacrifices and incense when these are offered by blood-stained bands, or Chrysostom seizing the opportunity that followed the mutilation of the imperial statues at Antioch to preach to the dissolute city on the need of repentance, or Latimer denouncing the sins of London to the citizens assembled at Paul’s Cross.

The shallow optimism that disregards the shadows of life is trebly faulty when it appears in the pulpit. It falsifies facts in failing to take account of the stern realities of the evil side of them; it misses the grand opportunity of rousing the consciences of men and women by forcing them to attend to unwelcome truths, and thus encourages the heedlessness with which people rush headlong to ruin: and at the same time it even renders the declaration of the gracious truths of the gospel, to which it devotes exclusive attention, ineffectual, because redemption is meaningless to those who do not recognise the present slavery and the future doom from which it brings deliverance. On every account the rose-water preaching that ignores sin and flatters its hearers with pleasant words is thin, insipid, and lifeless. It tries to win popularity by echoing the popular wishes; and it may succeed in lulling the storm of opposition with which the prophet is commonly assailed. But in the end it must be sterile. When, "through fear or favour," the messenger of heaven thus prostitutes his mission to suit the ends of a low, selfish, worldly expediency, the very least punishment with which his offence can be visited is for him to be deprived of the gifts he has so grossly abused. Here, then, we have the most specific explanation of the failure of heavenly visions; it comes from the neglect of earthly sin. This is what breaks the magician’s wand, so that he can no longer summon the Ariel of inspiration to his aid.


Verses 10-17

THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN

Lamentations 2:10-17

PASSION and poetry, when they fire the imagination, do more than personify individual material things. By fusing the separate objects in the crucible of a common emotion which in some way appertains to them all, they personify this grand unity, and so lift their theme into the region of the sublime. Thus while in his second elegy the author of the Lamentations first dwells on the desolation of inanimate objects, -the temple, fortresses, country cottages, -these are all of interest to him only because they belong to Jerusalem, the city of his heart’s devotion, and it is the city herself that moves his deepest feelings; and when in the second part of the poem he proceeds to describe the miserable condition of living persons-men, women, and children-profoundly pathetic as the picture he now paints appears to us in its piteous details, it is still regarded by its author as a whole, and the people’s sufferings are so very terrible in his eyes because they are the woes of Jerusalem.

Some attempt to sympathise with the large and lofty view of the elegist may be a wholesome corrective to the intense individualism of modern habits of thought. The difficulty for us is to see that this view is not merely ideal, that it represents a great, solid truth, the truth that the perfect human unit is not an individual, but a more or less extensive group of persons, mutually harmonised and organised in a common life, a society of some sort-the family, the city, the state, mankind. By bearing this in mind we shall be able to perceive that sufferings which in themselves might seem sordid and degrading can attain to something of epic dignity.

It is in this spirit that the poet deplores the exile of the king and the princes. He is not now concerned with the private troubles of these exalted persons. Judah was a limited monarchy, though not after the pattern of. government familiar to us, but rather in the style of the Plantagenet rule, according to which the soverign shared his authority with a number of powerful barons, each of whom was lord over his own territory. The men described as "the princes of Israel" were not, for the most part, members of the royal family; they were the heads of tribes and families. Therefore the banishment of these persons, together with the king, meant for the Jews who were left behind the loss of their ruling authorities. Then it seems most reasonable to connect the clause which follows the reference to the exile with the sufferings of Jerusalem rather than with the hardships of the captives, because the whole context is concerned with the former subject. This phrase read literally is, "The law is not." [Lamentations 2:9] Our Revisers have followed the Authorised Version in connecting it with the previous expression, "among the nations," which describes the place of exile, so as to lead us to read it as a statement that the king and the princes were enduring the hardship of residence in a land where their sacred Torah was not observed. If, however, we take the words in harmony with the surrounding thoughts, we are reminded by them that the removal of the national rulers involved to the Jews the cessation of the administration of their law. The residents still left in the land were reduced to a condition of anarchy; or, if the conquerors had begun to administer some sort of martial law, this was totally alien to the revered Torah of Israel. Josiah had based his reformation on the discovery of the sacred law-book. But the mere possession of this was little consolation if it was not administered, for the Jews had not fallen to the condition of the Samaritans of later times who came to worship the roll of the Pentateuch as an idol. They were not even like the scribes and Talmudists among their own descendants, to whom the law itself was a religion, though only read in the cloister of the student. The loss of good government was to them a very solid evil. In a civilised country, in times of peace and order, we breathe law as we breathe air, unconsciously, too familiar with it to appreciate the immeasurable benefits it confers upon us.

With the banishment of the custodians of law the poet associates the accompanying silence of the voice of prophecy. This, however, is so important and significant a fact, that it must be reserved for separate and fuller treatment. (See next chapter.)

Next to the princes come the elders, to whom was intrusted the administration of justice in the minor courts. These were not sent into captivity; for at first only the aristocracy was considered sufficiently important to be carried off to Babylon. But though the elders were left in the land, the country was too disorganised for them to be able to hold their local tribunals. Perhaps these were forbidden by the invaders; perhaps the elders had no heart to decide cases when they saw no means of getting their decisions executed. Accordingly, instead of appearing in dignity as the representatives of law and order among their neighbours, the most respected citizens sit in silence on the ground, girded in sackcloth, and casting dust over their heads, living pictures of national mourning. [Lamentations 2:10]

The virgins of Jerusalem are named immediately after the elders. Their position in the city is very different from that of the "grave and reverend signiors"; but we are to see that while the dignity of age and rank affords no immunity from trouble, the gladsomeness of youth and its comparative irresponsibility are equally ineffectual as safeguards. The elders and the virgins have one characteristic in common. They are both silent. These young girls are the choristers whose clear, sweet voices used to ring out in strains of joy at every festival. Now both the grave utterances of magistrates and the blithe singing of maidens are hushed into one gloomy silence. Formerly the girls would dance to the sound of song and cymbal. How changed must things be that the once gay dancers sit with their heads bowed to the ground, as still as the mourning elders!

But now, like Dante when introduced by his guide to some exceptionally agonising spectacle in the infernal regions, the poet bursts into tears, and seems to feel his very being melting away at the contemplation of the most heart-rending scene in the many mournful tableaux of the woes of Jerusalem. Breaking off from his recital of the facts to express his personal distress in view of the next item, he prepares us for some rare and dreadful exhibition of misery; and the tale that he has to tell is quite enough to account for the start of horror with which it is ushered in. The poet makes us listen to the cry of the children. There are babies at the breast fainting from hunger, and older children, able to speak, but not yet able to comprehend the helpless circumstances in which their miserable parents are placed, calling to their mothers for food and drink-a piercing appeal, enough to drive to the madness of grief and despair. Crying in vain for the first necessaries of life, these poor children, like the younger infants, faint in the streets, and cast themselves on their mothers’ bosoms to die. [Lamentations 2:11-12] This, then, is the picture in contemplation of which the poet completely breaks down-children swooning in sight of all the people, and dying of hunger in their mothers’ arms! He must be recalling scenes of the late siege. Then the fainting little ones, as they sank down pale and ill, resembled the wounded men who crept back from the fight by the walls to fall and die in the streets of the beleaguered city.

This is just the sharpest sting in the sufferings of the children. They share the fearful fate of their seniors, and yet they have had no part in the causes that led to it. We are naturally perplexed as well as distressed at this piteous spectacle of childhood. The beauty, the simplicity, the weakness, the tenderness, the sensitiveness, the helplessness of infancy appeal to our sympathies with peculiar force. But over and above these touching considerations there is a mystery attaching to the whole subject of the presence of pain and sorrow in young lives that baffles all reasoning. It is not only hard to understand why the bud should be blighted before it has had time to open to the sunshine: this haste in the march of misery to meet her victims on the threshold of life is to our minds a very amazing sight. And yet it is not the most perplexing part of the problem raised by the mystery of the suffering of children.

When we turn to the moral elements of the case we encounter its most serious difficulties. Children may not be accounted innocent in the absolute sense of the word. Even unconscious infants come into the world with hereditary tendencies to the evil habits of their ancestors; but then every principle of justice resists the attachment of guilt or responsibility to an unsought and undeserved inheritance. And although children soon commit offences on their own account, it is not the consequences of these youthful follies that here trouble us. The cruel wrongs of childhood that overshadow the world’s history with its darkest mystery have travelled on to their victims from quite other regions-regions of which the poor little sufferers are ignorant with the ignorance of perfect innocence. Why do children thus share in evils they had no hand in bringing upon the community?

It is perhaps well that we should acknowledge quite frankly that there are mysteries in life which no ingenuity of thought can fathom. The suffering of childhood is one of the greatest of these apparently insoluble riddles of the universe. We have to learn that in view of such a problem as is here raised we too are but infants crying in the night.

Still there is no occasion for us to aggravate the riddle by adding to it manufactured difficulties; we may even admit such mitigation of its severity as the facts of the case suggest. When little children suffer and die in their innocence they are free at least from those agonies of remorse for the irrecoverable past, and of apprehension concerning the doom of the future, that haunt the minds of guilty men, and frequently far exceed the physical pains endured. Beneath their hardest woes they have a peace of God that is the counterpart of the martyr’s serenity.

Nevertheless, when we have said all that can be said in this direction, there remains the sickening fact that children do suffer and pine and die. Still, though this cannot be explained away, there are two truths that we should set beside it before we attempt to form any judgment on the whole subject. The first is that taught so emphatically by our Lord when He declared that the victims of an accident or the sufferers in an indiscriminate slaughter were not to be accounted exceptional sinners. [Luke 13:1-5] But if suffering is by no means a sign of sin in the victim we may go further, and deny that it is in all respects an evil. It may be impossible for us to accept the Stoic paradox in the case of little children whom even the greatest pedant would scarcely attempt to console with philosophic maxims. In the endurance of them, the pain and sorrow and death of the young cannot but seem to us most real evils, and it is our plain duty to do all in our power to check and stay everything of the kind, We must beware of the indolence that lays upon Providence the burden of troubles that are really due to our own inconsiderateness. In pursuing the policy that led to the disastrous siege of their city the Jews should have known how many innocent victims would be dragged into the vortex of misery if the course they had chosen were to fail. The blind obstinacy of the men who refused to listen to the warnings so emphatically pronounced by the great prophets of Jehovah, the desperate self-will of these men, pitted against the declared counsel of God, must bear the blame. It is monstrous to charge the providence of God with the consequences of actions that God has forbidden.

A second truth must be added, for there still remains the difficulty that children are placed, by no choice of their own, in circumstances that render them thus liable to the effects of other people’s sins and follies. We can never understand human life if we persist in considering each person by himself. That we are members one of another, so that if one member suffers all the members suffer, is the law of human experience as well as the principle of Christian churchmanship. Therefore we must regard the wrongs of children that so disturb us as part of the travail and woe of mankind. Bad as it is in itself that these innocents should be thus involved in the consequences of the misconduct of their elders, it would not be any improvement for them to be cut off from all connection with their predecessors in the great family of mankind. Taken on the whole, the solidarity of man certainly makes more for the welfare of childhood than for its disadvantage. And we must not think of childhood alone, deeply as we are moved at the sight of its unmerited sufferings. If children are part of the race, whatever children endure must be taken as but one element in the vast experience that goes to make up the life-history of mankind. All this is very vague, and if we offer it as a consolation to a mother whose heart is torn with anguish at the sight of her child’s pain, it is likely she will think our balm no better than the wormwood of mockery. It would be vain for us to imagine that we have solved the riddle, and vainer to suppose that any views of life could be set against the unquestionable fact that innocent children suffer, as though they in the slightest degree lessened the amount of this pain or made it appreciably easier to endure. But then, on the other hand, the mere existence of all this terrible agony does not justify us in bursting out into tremendous denunciations of the universe. The thoughts that rise from a consideration of the wider relations of the facts should teach us lessons of humility in forming our judgment on so vast a subject. We cannot deny the existence of evils that cry aloud for notice; we cannot explain them away. But at least we can follow the example of the elders and virgins of Israel, and be silent.

The portrait of misery that the poet has drawn in describing the condition of Jerusalem during the siege is painful enough when viewed by itself; and yet he proceeds further, and seeks to deepen the impression he has already made by setting, the picture in a suitable frame. So he directs attention to the behaviour of surrounding peoples. Jerusalem is not permitted to hide her grief and shame. She is flung into an arena while a crowd of cruel spectators gloat over her agonies. These are to be divided into two classes, the unconcerned and the known enemies. There is not any great difference between them in their treatment of the miserable city. The unconcerned "hiss and wag their heads"; [Lamentations 2:15] the enemies "hiss and gnash their teeth." [Lamentations 2:16] That is to say, both add to the misery of the Jews-the one class in mockery, the other in hatred. But what are these men at their worst? Behind them is the real Power that is the source of all the misery. If the enemy rejoices it is only because God has given him the occasion. The Lord has been carrying out His own deliberate intentions; nay, these events are but the execution of commands He issued in the days of old. [Lamentations 2:17] This reads like an anticipation of the Calvinistic decrees. But perhaps the poet is referring to the solemn threatening of Divine Judgment pronounced by a succession of prophets. Their message had been unheeded by their contemporaries. Now it has been verified by history. Remembering what that message was-how it predicted woes as the punishment of sins, how it pointed out a way of escape, how it threw all the responsibility upon those people who were so infatuated as to reject the warning-we cannot read into the poet’s lines any notion of absolute predestination.

In the midst of this description of the miseries of Jerusalem the elegist confesses his own inability to comfort her. He searches for an image large enough for a just comparison with such huge calamities as he has in view. His language resembles that of our Lord when He exclaims, "Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God?" [Luke 13:20] a similarity which may remind us that if the troubles of man are great beyond earthly analogy, so also are the mercies of God. Compare these two, and there can be no question as to which way the scale will turn. Where sin and misery abound grace much more abounds. But now the poet is concerned with the woes of Jerusalem, and he can only find one image with which these woes are at all comparable. Her breach, he says, "is great like the sea," [Lamentations 2:12] meaning that her calamities are vast and terrible as the sea; or perhaps that the ruin of Jerusalem is like that produced by the breaking in of the sea-a striking image in its application to an inland mountain city; for no place was really safer from any such cataclysm than Jerusalem. The analogy is intentionally far-fetched. What might naturally happen to Tyre, but could not possibly reach Jerusalem, is nevertheless the only conceivable type of the events that have actually befallen this ill-fated city. The Jews were not a maritime people. To them the sea was no delight such as it is to us. They spoke of it with terror, and shuddered to hear from afar of its ravages. Now the deluge of their own troubles is compared to the great and terrible sea.

The poet can offer no comfort for such misery as this. His confession of helplessness agrees with what we must have perceived already, namely, that the Book of Lamentations is not a book of consolations. It is not always easy to see that the sympathy which mourns with the sufferer may be quite unable to relieve him. The too common mistake of the friend who comes to show sympathy is Bildad’s and his companions’ notion that he is called upon to offer advice. Why should one who is not in the school of affliction assume the function of pedagogue to a pupil of that school, who by reason of the mere fact of his presence there should rather be deemed fit to instruct the outsider?

If he cannot comfort Jerusalem, however, the elegist will pray with her. His latest reference to the Divine source of the troubles of the Jews leads him on to a cry to God for mercy on the miserable people. Though he may not yet see the gospel of grace which is the only thing greater than the sin and misery of man, he can point towards the direction in which that glorious gospel is to dawn on the eyes of weary sufferers. Here, if anywhere, is the solution of the mystery of misery.


Verse 14

PROPHETS WITHOUT A VISION

Lamentations 2:9; Lamentations 2:14

IN deploring the losses suffered by the daughter of Zion the elegist bewails the failure of her prophets to obtain a vision from Jehovah. His language implies that these men were still lingering among the ruins of the city. Apparently they had not been considered by the invaders of sufficient importance to require transportation with Zedekiah and the princes. Thus they were within reach of inquirers, and doubtless they were more than ever in request at a time when many perplexed persons were anxious for pilotage through a sea of troubles. It would seem, too, that they were trying to execute their professional functions. They sought light; they looked in the right direction-to God. Yet their quest was vain: no vision was given to them; the oracles were dumb.

To understand the situation we must recollect the normal place of prophecy in the social life of Israel. The great prophets whose names and works have come down to us in Scripture were always rare and exceptional men-voices crying in the wilderness. Possibly they were not more scarce at this time than at other periods. Jeremiah had not been disappointed in his search for a Divine message. {See Jeremiah 42:4; Jeremiah 42:7} The greatest seer of visions ever known to the world, Ezekiel, had already appeared among the captives by the waters of Babylon. Before long the sublime prophet of the restoration was to sound his trumpet blast to awaken courage and hope in the exiles. Though pitched in a minor key, these very elegies bear witness to the fact that their gentle author was not wholly deficient in prophetic fire. This was not an age like the time of Samuel’s youth, barren of Divine voices. {See 1 Samuel 3:1} It is true that the inspired voices were now scattered over distant regions far from Jerusalem, the ancient seat of prophecy. Yet the idea of the elegist is that the prophets who might be still seen at the site of the city were deprived of visions. These must have been quite different men. Evidently they were the professional prophets, officials who had been trained in music and dancing to appear as choristers on festive occasions, the equivalent of the modern dervishes; but who were also sought after like the seer of Ramah, to whom young Saul resorted for information about his father’s lost asses, as simple soothsayers. Such assistance as these men were expected to give was no longer forthcoming at the request of troubled souls.

The low and sordid uses to which everyday prophecy was degraded may incline us to conclude that the cessation of it was no very great calamity, and perhaps to suspect that from first to last the whole business was a mass of superstition affording large opportunities for charlatanry. But it would be rash to adopt this extreme view without a fuller consideration of the subject. The great messengers of Jehovah frequently speak of the professional prophets with the contempt of Socrates for the professional sophists; and yet the rebukes which they administer to these men for their unfaithfulness show that they accredit them with important duties and the gifts with which to execute them.

Thus the lament of the elegist suggests a real loss-something more serious than the failure of assistance such as some Roman Catholics try to obtain from St. Anthony in the discovery of lost property. The prophets were regarded as the media of communication between heaven and earth. It was because of the low and narrow habits of the people that their gifts were often put to low and narrow uses which savoured rather of superstition than of devotion. The belief that God did not only reveal His will to great persons and on momentous occasions helped to make Israel a religious nation. That there were humble gifts of prophecy within the reach of the many, and that these gifts were for the helping of men and women in their simplest needs, was one of the articles of the Hebrew faith. The quenching of a host of smaller stars may involve as much loss of life as that of a few brilliant ones. If prophecy fades out from among the people, if the vision of God is no longer perceptible in daily lift, if the Church as a whole, is plunged into gloom, it is of little avail to her that a few choice souls here and there pierce the mists like solitary mountain peaks so as to stand alone in the clear light of heaven. The perfect condition would be that in which "all the Lord’s people were prophets." If this is not yet attainable, at all events we may rejoice when the capacity for communion with heaven is widely enjoyed, and we must deplore it as one of the greatest calamities of the Church that the quickening influence of the prophetic spirit should be absent from her assemblies. The Jews had not fallen so low that they could contemplate the cessation of communications with heaven unmoved. They were far from the practical materialism which leads its victims to be perfectly satisfied to remain in a condition of spiritual paralysis-a totally different thing from the theoretical materialism of Priestley and Tyndall. They knew that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God"; and therefore they understood that a famine of the word of God must result in as real a starvation as a famine of wheat. When we have succeeded in recovering this Hebrew standpoint we shall be prepared to recognise that there are worse calamities than bad harvests and seasons of commercial depression; we shall be brought to acknowledge that it is possible to be starved in the midst of plenty, because the greatest abundance of such food as we have lacks the elements requisite for our complete nourishment. According to reports of sanitary authorities, children in Ireland are suffering from the substitution of the less expensive and sweeter diet of maize for the more wholesome oatmeal on which their parents were brought up. Must it not be confessed that a similar substitution of cheap and savoury soul pabulum-in literature, music, amusements-for the "sincere milk of the word" and the "strong meat" of truth is the reason why so many of us are not growing up to the stature of Christ? The "liberty of prophesying" for which our fathers contended and suffered is ours. But it will be a barren heritage if in cherishing the liberty we lose the prophesying. There is no gift enjoyed by the Church for which she should be more jealous than that of the prophetic spirit.

As we look across the wide field of history we must perceive that there have been many dreary periods in which the prophets could find no vision from the Lord. At first sight it would even seem that the light of heaven only shone on a few rare luminous spots, leaving the greater part of the world and the longer periods of time in absolute gloom. But this pessimistic view results from our limited capacity to perceive the light that is there. We look for the lightning. But inspiration is not always electric. The prophet’s vision is not necessarily startling. It is a vulgar delusion to suppose that revelation must assume a sensational aspect. It was predicted of the Word of God incarnate that He should "not strive, or cry, or lift up His voice"; [Isaiah 42:2] and when He came He was rejected because He would not satisfy the wonder-seekers with a flaring portent-a "sign from heaven." Still it cannot be denied that there have been periods of barrenness. They are found in what might be called the secular regions of the operation of the Spirit of God. A brilliant epoch of scientific discovery, artistic invention, or literary production is followed.by a time of torpor, feeble imitation, or meretricious pretence. The Augustan and Elizabethan ages cannot be conjured back at will. Prophets of nature, poets, and artists can none of them command the power of inspiration. This is a gift which may be withheld, and which, when denied, will elude the most earnest pursuit. We may miss the vision of prophecy when the prophets are as numerous as ever, and unfortunately as vocal. The preacher possesses learning and rhetoric. We only miss one thing in him-inspiration. But, alas! that is just the one thing needful.

Now the question forces itself upon our attention, what is the explanation of these variations in the distribution of the spirit of prophecy? Why is the fountain of inspiration an intermittent spring, a Bethesda? We cannot trace its failure to any shortness of supply, for this fountain is fed from the infinite ocean of the Divine life. Neither can we attribute caprice to One whose wisdom is infinite, and whose will is constant. It may be right to say that God withholds the vision, withholds it deliberately; but it cannot be correct to assert that this fact is the final explanation of the whole matter. God must be believed to have a reason, a good and sufficient reason, for whatever He does. Can we guess what His reason may be in such a case as this? It may be conjectured that it is necessary for the field to lie fallow for a season in order that it may bring forth a better crop subsequently. Incessant cultivation would exhaust the soil. The eye would be blinded if it had no rest from visions. We may be overfed; and the more nutritions our diet is the greater will be the danger of surfeit. One of our chief needs in the use of revelation is that we should thoroughly digest its contents. What is the use of receiving fresh visions if we have not yet assimilated the truth that we already possess? Sometimes, too, no vision can be found for the simple reason that no vision is needed. We waste ourselves in the pursuit of unprofitable questions when we should be setting about our business. Until we have obeyed the light that has been given us it is foolish to complain that we have not more light. Even our present light will wane if it is not followed up in practice.

But while considerations such as these must be attended to if we are to form a sound judgment on the whole question, they do not end the controversy, and they scarcely apply at all to the particular illustration of it that is now before us. There is no danger of surfeit in a famine; and it is a famine of the world that we are now confronted with. Moreover, the elegist supplies an explanation that sets all conjectures at rest.

The fault was in the prophets themselves. Although the poet does not connect the two statements together, but inserts other matter between them, we cannot fail to see that his next words about the prophets bear very closely on his lament over the denial of visions. He tells us that they had seen visions of vanity and foolishness. [Lamentations 2:14] This is with reference to an earlier period. Then they had had their visions; but these had been empty and worthless. The meaning cannot be that the prophets had been subject to unavoidable delusions, that they had sought truth, but had been rewarded with deception. The following words show that the blame was attributed entirely to their own conduct. Addressing the daughter of Zion the poet says: "Thy prophets have seen visions for thee." The visions were suited to the people to whom they were declared-manufactured, shall we say?-with the express purpose of pleasing them. Such a degradation of sacred functions in gross unfaithfulness deserved punishment; and the most natural and reasonable punishment was the withholding for the future of true visions from men who in the past had forged false ones. The very possibility of this conduct proves that the influence of inspiration had not the hold upon these Hebrew prophets that it had obtained over the heathen prophet Balaam, when he exclaimed, in face of the bribes and threats of the infuriated king of Moab: "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what the Lord speaketh, that will I speak.". [Numbers 24:13]

It must ever be that unfaithfulness to the light we have already received will bar the door against the advent of more light. There is nothing so blinding as the habit of lying. People who do not speak truth ultimately prevent themselves from perceiving truth, the false tongue leading the eye to see falsely. This is the curse and doom of all insincerity. It is useless to enquire for the views of insincere persons; they can have no distinct views, no certain convictions, because their mental vision is blurred by their long-continued habit of confounding true and false. Then if for once in their lives such people may really desire to find a truth in order to assure themselves in some great emergency, and therefore seek a vision of the Lord, they will have lost the very faculty of receiving it.

The blindness and deadness that characterise so much of the history of thought and literature, art and religion, are to be attributed to the same disgraceful cause. Greek philosophy decayed in the insincerity of professional sophistry. Gothic art degenerated into the florid extravagance of the Tudor period when it had lost its religious motive, and had ceased to be what it pretended. Elizabethan poetry passed through euphuism into the uninspired conceits of the sixteenth century. Dryden restored the habit of true speech, but it required generations of arid eighteenth-century sincerity in literature to make the faculty of seeing visions possible to the age of Burns and Shelley and Wordsworth.

In religion this fatal effect of insincerity is terribly apparent. The formalist can never become a prophet. Creeds which were kindled in the fires of passionate conviction will cease to be luminous when the faith that inspired them has perished; and then if they are still repeated as dead words by false lips the unreality of them will not only rob them of all value, it will blind the eyes of the men and women who are guilty of this falsehood before God, so that no new vision of truth can be brought within their reach. Here is one of the snares that attach themselves to the privilege of receiving a heritage of teaching from our ancestors. We can only avoid it by means of searching inquests over the dead beliefs which a foolish fondness has permitted to remain unburied, poisoning the atmosphere of living faith. So long as the fact that they are dead is not honestly admitted it will be impossible to establish sincerity in worship; and the insincerity, while it lasts, will be an impassable barrier to the advent of truth.

The elegist has laid his finger on the particular form of untruth of which the Jerusalem prophets had been guilty. They had not discovered her iniquity to the daughter of Zion. [Lamentations 2:14] Thus they had hastened her ruin by keeping back the message that would have urged their hearers to repentance. Some interpreters have given quite a new turn to the last clause of the fourteenth verse. Literally this states that the prophets have seen "drivings away"; and accordingly it has been taken to mean that they pretended to have had visions about the captivity when this was an accomplished fact, although they had been silent on the subject, or had even denied the danger, at the earlier time when alone their words could have been of any use; or, again, the words have been thought to suggest that these prophets were now at the later period predicting fresh calamities, and were blind to the vision of hope which a true prophet like Jeremiah had seen and declared. But such ideas are overrefined, and they give a twist to the course of thought that is foreign to the form of these direct, simple elegies. It seems better to take the final clause of the verse as a repetition of what went before, with a slight variety of form. Thus the poet declares that the burdens, or prophecies, which these unfaithful men have presented to the people have been causes of banishment.

The crying fault of the prophets is their reluctance to preach to people of their sins. Their mission distinctly involves the duty of doing so. They should not shun to declare the whole counsel of God. It is not within the province of the ambassador to make selections from among the despatches with which he has been entrusted in order to suit his own convenience. There is nothing that so paralyses the work of the preacher as the habit of choosing favourite topics and ignoring less attractive subjects. Just in proportion as he commits this sin against his vocation he ceases to be the prophet of God, and descends to the level of one who deals in obiter dicta, mere personal opinions to be taken on their own merits. One of the gravest possible omissions is the neglect to give due weight to the tragic fact of sin. All the great prophets have been conspicuous for their fidelity to this painful and sometimes dangerous part of their work. If we would call up a typical picture of a prophet in the discharge of his task, we should present to our minds Elijah confronting Ahab, or John the Baptist before Herod, or Savonarola accusing Lorenzo de Medici, or John Knox preaching at the court of Mary Stuart. He is Isaiah declaring God’s abomination of sacrifices and incense when these are offered by blood-stained bands, or Chrysostom seizing the opportunity that followed the mutilation of the imperial statues at Antioch to preach to the dissolute city on the need of repentance, or Latimer denouncing the sins of London to the citizens assembled at Paul’s Cross.

The shallow optimism that disregards the shadows of life is trebly faulty when it appears in the pulpit. It falsifies facts in failing to take account of the stern realities of the evil side of them; it misses the grand opportunity of rousing the consciences of men and women by forcing them to attend to unwelcome truths, and thus encourages the heedlessness with which people rush headlong to ruin: and at the same time it even renders the declaration of the gracious truths of the gospel, to which it devotes exclusive attention, ineffectual, because redemption is meaningless to those who do not recognise the present slavery and the future doom from which it brings deliverance. On every account the rose-water preaching that ignores sin and flatters its hearers with pleasant words is thin, insipid, and lifeless. It tries to win popularity by echoing the popular wishes; and it may succeed in lulling the storm of opposition with which the prophet is commonly assailed. But in the end it must be sterile. When, "through fear or favour," the messenger of heaven thus prostitutes his mission to suit the ends of a low, selfish, worldly expediency, the very least punishment with which his offence can be visited is for him to be deprived of the gifts he has so grossly abused. Here, then, we have the most specific explanation of the failure of heavenly visions; it comes from the neglect of earthly sin. This is what breaks the magician’s wand, so that he can no longer summon the Ariel of inspiration to his aid.


Verses 18-22

THE CALL TO PRAYER

Lamentations 2:18-22

IT is not easy to analyse the complicated construction of the concluding portion of the second elegy. If the text is not corrupt its transitions are very abrupt. The difficulty is to adjust the relations of three sections. First we have the sentence, "Their heart cried unto the Lord." Next comes the address to the wall, "O wall of the daughter of Zion," etc. Lastly there is the prayer which extends from verse 20 to the end of the poem. [Lamentations 2:20-22]

The most simple grammatical arrangement is to take the first clause in connection with the preceding verse. The last substantive was the word "adversaries." Therefore in the rigour of grammar the pronoun should represent that word. Read thus, the sentence relates an action of the enemies of Israel when their horn has been exalted. The word rendered "cried" is one that would designate a loud shout, and that translated "Lord" here is not the sacred name Jehovah but Adonai, a general term that might very well be used in narrating the behaviour of the heathen towards God. Thus the phrase would seem to describe the insolent shout of triumph which the adversaries of the Jews fling at the God of their victims.

On the other hand, it is to be observed that the general title "Lord" (Adonai) is also employed in the very next verse in the direct call to prayer. The heart, too, is mentioned again there as it is here, and that to express the inner being and deepest feelings of the afflicted city. It seems unlikely that the elegist would mention a heart-cry of the enemies and describe this as addressed to "The Lord."

Probably then we should apply this opening clause to the Jews, although they had not been named in the near context, a construction favoured by the abrupt transitions in which the elegist indulges elsewhere. It is the heart of the Jews that cried unto the Lord. Now the question arises, How shall we take this assertion in view of the words that follow? The common reading supposes that it introduces the immediately succeeding sentences. The heart of the Jews calls to the wall of the daughter of Zion, and bids it arise and pray. But with this construction we should look for another word (such as "saying") to introduce the appeal, because the Hebrew word rendered "cried" is usually employed absolutely, and not as the preface to quoted speech. Besides, the ideas would be strangely involved. Some people, indefinitely designated "they," exhort the wall to weep and pray! How can this exhortation to a wall be described as calling to the Lord? The complication is increased when the prayer follows sharply on the anonymous appeal without a single connecting or explanatory clause.

A simpler interpretation is to follow Calvin in rendering the first clause absolutely, but still applying it to the Jews, who, though they are not named here, are supposed to be always in mind. We may not agree with the stern theologian of Geneva in asserting that the cry thus designated is one of impatient grief flowing not "from a right feeling or from the true fear of God, but from the strong and turbid impulse of nature." The elegist furnishes no excuse for this somewhat ungracious judgment. After his manner, already familiar to us, the poet interjects a thought-viz., that the distressed Jews cried to God. This suggests to him the great value of the refuge of prayer, a topic on which he forthwith proceeds to enlarge first by making an appeal to others, and then by himself breaking out into the direct language of petition.

This is not the first occasion on which the elegist has shown his faith in the efficacy of prayer. But hitherto he has only uttered brief exclamations in the middle of his descriptive passages. Now he gives a solemn call to prayer, and follows this with a deliberate full petition, addressed to God. We must feel that the elegy is lifted to a higher plane by the new turn that the thought of its author takes at this place. Grief is natural; it is useless to pretend to be impassive; and, although our Teutonic habits of reserve may make it difficult for us to sympathise with the violent outbursts that an Oriental permits himself without any sense of shame, we must admit that a reasonable expression of the emotions is good and wholesome. Tennyson recognises this in the well-known lyric where he says of the dead warrior’s wife-

"She must weep or she will die."

Nevertheless, an unchecked rush of feeling, not followed by any action, cannot but evince weakness; it has no lifting power. Although, if the emotion is distressful, such an expression may give relief to the subject, it is certainly very depressing to the spectator. For this reason the Book of Lamentations strikes us as the most depressing part of the Bible-would it not be just to say, as the only part that can be so described? But it would not be fair to this Book to suppose that it did nothing beyond realising the significance of its title. It contains more than a melancholy series of laments. In the passage before us the poet raises his voice to a higher strain.

This new and more elevated turn in the elegy is itself suggestive. The transition from lamentation to prayer is always good for the sufferer. The first action may relieve his pent-up emotions; it cannot destroy the source from which they flow. But prayer is more practical, for it aims at deliverance. That, however, is its least merit. In the very act of seeking help from God the soul is brought into closer relations with Him, and this condition of communion is a better thing than any results that can possibly follow in the form of answers to the prayer, great and helpful as these may be. The trouble that drives us to prayer is a blessing because the state of a praying soul is a blessed state.

Like the muezzin on his minaret, the elegist calls to prayer. But his exhortation is addressed to a strange object-to the wall of the daughter of Zion. This wall is to let its tears flow like a river. It is so far personified that mention is made of the apple of its eye; it is called upon to arise, to pour out its heart, to lift up its hands. The license of Eastern poetry permits the unflinching application of a metaphor to an extent that would be considered extravagant and even absurd in our own literature. It is only in a travesty of melodrama that Shakespeare permits the Thisbe of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" to address a wail. Browning has an exquisitely beautiful little poem apostrophising an old wall; but this is not done so as to leave out of account the actual form and nature of his subject. Walls can not only be beautiful and even sublime, as Mr. Ruskin has shewn in his "Stones of Venice"; they may also wreathe their severe outlines in a multitude of thrilling associations. This is especially so when, as in the present instance, it is the wall of a city that we are contemplating. Not a new piece of builder’s work, neat and clean and bald, bare of all associations, as meaningless as in too many cases it is ugly, but an old wall, worn by the passing to and fro of generations that have turned to dust long years ago, bearing the bruises of war on its battered face, crumbling to powder, or perhaps half buried in weeds-such a wall is eloquent in its wealth of associations, and there is pathos in the thought of its mere age when this is considered in relation to the many men and women and children who have rested beneath its shadow at noon, or sheltered themselves behind its solid masonry amid the terrors of war. The walls that encircle the ancient English city of Chester and keep alive memories of mediaeval life, the bits of the old London wall that are left standing among the warehouses and offices of the busy mart of modern commerce, even the remote wall of China for quite different reasons, and many another famous wall, suggest to us multitudinous reflections. But the walls of Jerusalem surpass them all in the pathos of the memories that cling to their old grey stones. It does not require a great stretch of imagination to picture these walls as once glowing and throbbing with an intense life, and now dreaming over the unfathomable depths of age-long memories.

In personifying the wall of Zion, however, the Hebrew poet does not indulge in reflections such as these, which are more in harmony with the mild melancholy of Gray’s "Elegy" than with the sadder mood of the mourning patriot. He names the wall to give unity and concreteness to his appeal, and to clothe it in an atmosphere of poetic fancy. But his sober thought in the background is directed towards the citizens whom that historic wall once enclosed. Herein is his justification for carrying his personification so far. This is more than a wild apostrophe, the outburst of an excited poet’s fancy. The imaginative conceit wings the arrow of a serious purpose. Let us look at the appeal in detail. First the elegist encourages a free outflow of grief, that tears should run like a river, literally, like a torrent-the allusion being to one of those steep watercourses which, though dry in summer, become rushing floods in the rainy season. This introduction shews that the call to prayer is not intended in any sense as a rebuke for the natural expression of grief, nor as a denial of its existence. The sufferers cannot say that the poet does not sympathise with them. It might seem needless to give this assurance. But anybody who has attempted to offer exhortation to a person in trouble must have discovered how delicate his task is. Let him approach the subject as carefully as he may, it is almost certain that he will chafe the quivering nerves he desires to soothe, so sensitive is the soul in pain to any interference from without. Under these circumstances, the one method by which it is at all possible to smooth the way of approach is an expression of genuine sympathy. There may be a deeper reason for this encouragement of the expression of grief as a preliminary to a call to prayer. The helplessness which it so eloquently proclaims is just the condition in which the soul is most ready to cast itself on the mercy of God. Calm fortitude must always be better than an undisciplined abandonment to grief. But before this has been attained there may come an apathy of despair, under the influence of which the feelings are simply benumbed. That apathy is the very opposite to drying up the fountain of grief as it may be dried in the sunshine of love; it is freezing it. The first step towards deliverance will be to melt the glacier. The soul must feel before it can pray. Therefore the tears are encouraged to run like torrents, and the sufferer to give himself no respite, nor let the apple of his eye cease from weeping. Next the poet exhorts the object of his sympathy-this strange personification of the "wall of the daughter of Zion," under the image of which he is thinking of the Jews-to arise. The weeping is but a preliminary to more promising acts. The sufferer is not to spend the long night in an unbroken flow of grief, like the psalmist "watering his couch with his tears." [Psalms 6:6] The very opposite attitude is now suggested. Grief must not be treated as a normal condition to be acquiesced in or even encouraged. The victim is tempted to cherish his sorrow as a sacred charge, to feel hurt if any mitigation of it is suggested, or ashamed of confessing that relief has been received. When he has reached this condition it is obvious that the substance of grief has passed; the ghost of it that remains is fast becoming a harmless sentiment. If, however, the trouble should be still maintaining the tightness of its grip on the heart, there is positive danger in permitting it to be indulged without intermission. The sufferer must be roused if he is to be saved from the disease of melancholia. He must be roused also if he would pray. True prayer is a strenuous effort of the soul, requiring the most wakeful attention and taxing the utmost energy of will. The Jew stood up to pray with hands outstretched to heaven. The relaxed and feeble devotions of a somnolent worshipper must fall flat and fruitless. There is no value in the length of a prayer, but there is much in its depth. It is the weight of its earnestness, not the comprehensiveness of its topics, that gives it efficacy. Therefore we must gird up our loins to pray just as we would to work, or run, or fight.

Now the awakened soul is urged to cry out in the night, and in the beginning of the night watches-that is to say, not only at the commencement of the night, for this would require no rousing, but at the beginning of each of the three watches into which the Hebrews divided the hours of darkness-at sunset, at ten o’clock, and at two in the morning. The sufferer is to keep watch with prayer-observing his vespers, his nocturns, and his matins, and of course to fulfil forms, but because, since his grief is continuous, his prayer also must not cease. The is all assigned to the night, perhaps because it is a quiet, solemn season for undisturbed reflection, when therefore the grief that requires the prayer is most acutely felt; or perhaps because the time of sorrow is naturally pictured as a night, as a season of darkness.

Proceeding with our consideration of the details of this call to prayer, we come upon the exhortation to pour out the heart like water before the face of the Lord. The image here used is not without parallel in scripture. Thus a psalmist exclaims-

"I am poured out like water,

And all my bones are out of joint:

My heart is like wax;

It is melted in the midst of my bowels." [Psalms 22:14]

But the ideas are not just the same in the two cases. While the psalmist thinks of himself as crushed and shattered, as though his very being were dissolved, the thought of the elegist has more action about it, with a deliberate intention and object in view. His image suggests complete openness before God. Nothing is to be withheld. It is not so much that the secrets of the soul are to be disclosed. The end aimed at is not confession, but confidence. Therefore what the writer would urge is that the sufferer should tell the whole tale of his grief to God, quite freely, without any reserve, trusting absolutely to the Divine sympathy.

This confidence is a primary requisite in prayer. Until we can trust our Father it is useless to petition for His aid; we could not avail ourselves of it if it were offered us. Indeed, the soul must come into relations of sympathy with God before any real prayer is at all possible.

We may go further. The attitude of soul that is here recommended is in itself the very essence of prayer. The devotions that consist in a series of definite petitions are of secondary worth, and superficial in comparison with this outpouring of the heart before God. To enter into relations of sympathy and confidence with God is to pray in the truest, deepest way possible, or. even conceivable. Prayer in the heart of it is not petition; that is the beggar’s resort. It is communion-the child’s privilege. We must often be as beggars, empty of everything before God; yet we may also enjoy the happier relationship of sonship with our Father. Even in the extremity of need perhaps the best thing we can do is to spread out the whole case before God. It will certainly relieve our own minds to do so, and everything will appear changed when viewed in the light of the Divine presence. Perhaps we shall then cease to think ourselves aggrieved and wronged; for what are our deserts before the holiness of God? Passion is allayed in the stillness of the sanctuary, and the indignant protest dies upon our lips as we proceed to lay our case before the eyes of the All-Seeing. We cannot be impatient any longer; He is so patient with us so fair, so kind, so good. Thus, when we cast our burden upon the Lord, we may be surprised with the discovery that it is not so heavy as we supposed. There are times when it is not possible for us to go any further. We do not know what relief to ask for, or even whether we should request to be in any way delivered from a load which it may be our duty to bear, or the endurance of which may be a most wholesome discipline for us. These possibilities must always put a restraint upon the utterance of positive petitions. But they do not apply to the prayer that is a simple act of confidence with God. The secret of failure in prayer is not that we do not ask enough; it is that we do not pour out our hearts before God, the restraint of confidence rising from fear or doubt simply paralysing the energies of prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray not only because He gives us a model prayer, but much more because He is in Himself so true and full and winsome a revelation of God, that as we come to know and follow Him our lost confidence in God is restored. Then the heart that knows its own bitterness, and that shrinks from permitting the stranger even to meddle with its joy-how much more then with its sorrow?-can pour itself out quite freely before God, for the simple reason that He is no longer a stranger, but the one perfectly intimate and absolutely trusted Friend.

It is to be noted that the elegist points to a definite occasion for the outpouring of the heart before God. He singles out specifically the sufferings of the starving children-a terrible subject that appears more than once in this elegy, shewing how the horror of it has fastened on the imagination of the poet. This was the most heart-rending and mysterious ingredient in the bitter cup of the woes of Jerusalem. If we may bring any trouble to God we may bring the worst trouble. So this becomes the mare topic of the prayer that follows. Here the cases of the principal victims are cited. Priest and prophet, notwithstanding the dignity of office, young man and maiden, old man and little child all alike have fallen victims. The ghastly incident of a siege, where hunger has reduced human beings to the level of savage beasts, women devouring their own children, is here cited, and its cause, as well as that of all the other scenes of the great tragedy, boldly ascribed to God. It is God who has summoned His Terrors as at other times He had summoned His people to the festivals of the sacred city. But if God mustered the whole army of calamities it seems right to lay the story of the havoc they have wrought before His face; and the prayer reads almost like an accusation, or at least an expostulation, a remonstrance. It is not such, however; for we have seen that elsewhere the elegist makes full confession of the guilt of Jerusalem and admits that the doom of the wretched city was quite merited. Still, if the dire chastisement is from the hand of God, it is God alone who can bring deliverance. That is the final point to be reached.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Lamentations 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/lamentations-2.html.

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Friday, December 13th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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