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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

Jeremiah

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THE most exquisite sensibility of soul was Jeremiah's singular and sovereign distinction above all the other Hebrew prophets. It was Jeremiah's life-long complaint to his mother that she had borne him, a man with such an unearthly sensibility of soul, into a world so out of joint for such souls. Such another child for sensibility of soul was not born of woman until the Virgin Mary brought forth the Man of Sorrows Himself. Those men of Cæsarea Philippi showed their own sensibility of soul when some said John the Baptist; some, Elias; but they would have it that Jesus of Nazareth was none other than Hilkiah's son, come back again with his broken heart. Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me the man that I am! Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.

Jeremiah was far and away the most spiritually-minded of all the prophets. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. That is to say, it was the inborn, original, and unparalleled sensibility of Jeremiah's mind and heart that the Lord took up and turned to His own service both in the preaching of this prophet and in the production of this book, which stands to this day second only to the Psalms as the most spiritual book in the Old Testament. Some other prophets stand in time and in place nearer to the New Testament; but it is only in time and in place. No prophet of them all stands in reality so near to Jesus Christ. Jeremiah is the true forerunner of our Lord. Even Isaiah himself, evangelical as he is, still retains some of the shadowy and unspiritual elements of that imperfect economy in his prophecy. The restored kingdom of David and Solomon still haunts Isaiah's heart, and it still shapes and colours some of the finest pictures of his imperial imagination. But Jeremiah has nothing of that decayed economy either in himself or in his book. Jeremiah's extraordinary inwardness, and depth, and absolutely pure spirituality, have all combined to deliver both himself and his book from all those apocalyptic, secular, and unspiritual interpretations which have so infested the other prophets. Neither Peter nor the mother of Zebedee's children, could accuse Jeremiah of having misled them in one word of his, in any chapter of his, concerning the coming Kingdom of the Messiah. And more and more as his ministry went on, Jeremiah strove with all his might to draw both the hearts and the imaginations of his people not only off all alliance with the kingdoms that were around them, but also off the too pictorial Kingdom of the Messiah that had been hung up before them. And, for his pains, Jeremiah was cast into prison again and again, and was maltreated as only the offscourings of the city were maltreated. But his consolation and his hope always lay in that noble doctrine of the Kingdom of God, which he had been honoured to have revealed to him, and which he had preached for forty years at such a price. The depth, the purity, the beauty, the absolute heavenliness of his doctrine were the reward and the joy of his heart, let his fellow-citizens and his fellow-prophets and priests do to him what they pleased. Jeremiah was of all the prophets of the Old Testament the supreme prophet of the human heart. 'The heart is my haunt,' says Wordsworth. And again, 'My theme is no other than the heart of man.' But in an infinitely deeper sense than that, Jeremiah was the prophet of God to the human heart. Jeremiah would have nothing from his hearers and readers but their heart. Let other prophets negotiate and send embassies as they pleased; Jeremiah, in season and out of season, for a long lifetime, laid siege to the hearts of his hearers. The cure of all your famines, he cried, and all your plagues, and all your defeats, and all your captivities-the cause and the cure of them all is in your own heart: in the heart of each inhabitant of Jerusalem and each captive in Babylon. And your prophets who say Peace, peace!-like Law, he called all such preachers so many dancing-masters; and, like Leighton, he called them so many mountebanks, till they smote him, and imprisoned him in the dungeon, and put his feet in the stocks.

And this is the true way still to preach, even at the same price; if only we had been born of our mothers to preach like Jeremiah. If only we had something of his sensibility, and spirituality, and knowledge of the heart. The salvation of our hearers must always begin with our own salvation: and it must go on to perfection with our perfection. And we cannot be the salvation to any perfection either of ourselves or of our people unless we have a pervading, and prevailing, and increasing sensibility of what salvation is, and what the want of it is. He who has-I will not say a full sensibility of the evil of sin, for he would go mad if he had-but a true beginning of such sensibility, he has the making of a true minister of Jesus Christ in him; otherwise he has not, and should at once go to make his bread in some more lawful calling. 'They will be thankful for your telling them the particular times when the gospels were writ: for explaining the word Euroclydon, or anathema maranatha; they will be glad of such useless instruction; but if you touch upon such subjects as really concern them in a high degree, such subjects as try the state and way of their lives, these religious people cannot bear to be thus instructed.' Yes, morning lectures on Euroclydon: evidences of Christianity; defences and debates round and round the subject: whole cartloads of Bampton, and all like lectures: they are all so much lost time and strength in the pulpit. They have their place elsewhere, and among those who get any good from them, but they would get all that good, and would not need it any more, if we had taught them some real sensibility for spiritual things. It is Jeremiah's sensibility and spirituality that both preachers and hearers need, and then we would both have the evidence in ourselves. Speak to your hearer's heart and you will soon undermine his head. All his lofty imaginations, with all his high thoughts, will lie all around him as soon as he lies in the dust himself; but not till then, with all your artillery. Young preachers, with your great life still before you, study your own heart day and night. Watch every beat, and flutter, and creep of your own heart day and night. Seek sensibility of heart above all Latin, and Greek, and Hebrew: above all logic, and style, and delivery. Add all these things, and everything else, to sensibility of heart: but one thing is needful if you would not be a castaway in the end. Were you spiritually-sensible preachers you would soon get inside your people's hearts, and you would hold your people's hearts to the end. Deep answers to deep. And if one here and another there should smite you as Pashur smote Jeremiah, say to him, 'The Lord hath not called thy name Pashur, but Magor-missabib,' and go on with your heart-searching and heart-sanctifying preaching to other people. And your sensibility of heart and mind once well begun will grow till your name is as famous as you could wish it to be where fame and name is alone worth working for. With ever-increasing sensibility preach every day to them the meekness, and the humility, and the spirituality, and the obedience, and the whole mind of Christ, and you will surely see Christ formed in your people before you are compelled to bequeath your pulpit to your successor. And oh, believe me, the shame and the remorse of having to hand over your pulpit, and you only beginning to preach! And it all lies in a true and a timely sensibility, and in saying, The heart is my haunt, till you know the heart, and can preach to it to some purpose. Return, thou backsliding Israel, saith the Lord, and I will give you pastors after mine own heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.

Nazianzen says somewhere that Jeremiah was both by nature and by grace the most inclined to pity of all the prophets. Which is just to say over again that he was the most sensitive and the most spiritual. Take natural sensibility and supernatural spirituality together, and you will have the most exquisite sympathy and the most perfect pity possible. There is nothing like the Lamentations of Jeremiah in the whole world again. There has been plenty of sorrow in every age, and in every land; but such another preacher and author as Jeremiah, with such a heart for sorrow, has never again been born. Dante comes next to Jeremiah, and we know that Jeremiah was that great exile's favourite prophet. Both prophet and poet were full to all the height and depth of their great hearts of the most thrilling sensibility; while, at the same time, they were both high towers, and brazen walls, and iron pillars against all unrighteousness of men. And they wire alike in this also, that, just because of their combined strength, and sternness, and sensibility, no man in their day sympathised with them. They made all men's causes of suffering and sorrow their own, till all men hated them, and put a price on their heads. 'There is nothing in all Scripture,' says Isaac Williams, 'so eloquent of love and sorrow and consolation as the 31st and 33rd chapters of Jeremiah. No words can be found in any language of such touching beauty as all that strain.' So surely does natural sensibility, when it is steeped in the Spirit of God, become the most perfect pity and the most exquisite sympathy.

In an unaccountably silly passage in his Life of Erasmus, Froude actually prints it that 'Erasmus, like all men of real genius, had a light and elastic nature.' That senseless and impossible passage came back to my mind as I read this melancholy book of this man of real genius. And this also came to my mind out of North's Plutarch: 'Aristotle has a place where he says that the wisest men be ever melancholy, as Socrates, Plato, and Hercules were.' And I have read somewhere also on this matter that 'merely to say man is to say melancholy.' I wish it were. At any rate, to say 'man endued by nature with sufficient sensibility, and then by grace with sufficient spiritual sympathy,' is to say the most profoundly melancholy of men. 'O hear me,' says the profoundly intellectual and equally spiritual Jacob Behmen in a comforting passage. 'Hear me, for I know well myself what melancholy is! I also have lodged all my days in the melancholy inn!' As Jeremiah lodged also. And how could it have been done otherwise? In such a land: in such a city: among such a people with such a past and with such a present, and doing their best to make their future as bad as their past and their present-it was enough to make the glorified on their thrones melancholy. Jeremiah's inconsolable melancholy was the mark and the measure of his greatness both as a man and as a prophet. It was a divine melancholy that made his head waters and his eyes a fountain of tears. 'Tears gain everything,' says Santa Teresa in her autobiography. No: not everything,-much; but not everything. Tears, when bitter enough, and in secret enough, always gain forgiveness indeed, which is almost everything, and is on the way to everything. But while such tears will always avail under grace to blot out the past, they have no power to bring back the past. Nor do they bring in the sure future so much as one day before its time. All Jeremiah's tears did not keep back the Chaldeans for a single day's march. But his tears softened his heart and bowed his head till he was able to go out to meet the Chaldeans, and almost to welcome them to Jerusalem in the name of God. Neither his tears, nor his prayers, nor his resignations, nor his submissions, shortened by a single hour the seventy years' captivity. But his tears did far better for himself at least. They softened his heart to the very core. They perfected what both nature and grace had so well begun. For they made him not only an evangelical prophet, but an all but New Testament apostle. Jeremiah's tears were such that they gained the Holy Ghost for him before the Holy Ghost was given, and before Christ was glorified. Till Santa Teresa is amply justified when she says that tears gain everything. And till I am justified in saying that Jeremiah at any rate was not a man of a light and elastic nature.

'Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging-place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them!' The loneliness of a man's heart among his own people is one of the heaviest crosses that any man has to take up. Jeremiah, to borrow one of his own bitter words, had plenty of 'familiars' among his own people, but he had very few friends. And his familiars watched for his halting and rejoiced over it, and said, Report, said they, and we will report it. Had Jeremiah had a friend among all his familiars, that solitary friend would have proved himself such by refusing to report it. 'He has fallen away to the Chaldeans,' was the report made among his familiars. But Jeremiah had no friend who would take the risk to understand and to defend his friend. And it was among such familiars, and in the lack of such friends, that Jeremiah sighed the sigh that has been taken up and sighed so often since that day: 'O that I might leave my people!' Jeremiah never was a married man. And it was as well that he was not. Men, and especially ministers, of much sensibility, and spiritualtiy, and sympathy, and melancholy are not made to be married. A helpmeet for Jeremiah was not to be found in all the house of Israel. If his Master had seen it good for His servant to have a wife and children, He would have made Jeremiah's second self, and would have brought her to him till Jeremiah's melancholy would for the time have been somewhat abated. But whether it was that the Lord saw that His servant's sensibility was too exquisite, and his melancholy too extreme, or whatever it was, the Lord said to His servant, 'Thou shalt not take thee a wife, neither shalt thou have sons and daughters in this place.' And thus it was that what a sensitive and melancholy minister takes home and tells only to his wife, when he has a wife who is his friend, and not merely his familiar, all that Jeremiah took and told to God. Till his whole book before us is one long confidence, and conversation, and debate, and remonstrance; and, again, one long submission, and silence, and surrender, and service of God. And till he is home now where all men are friends, and where the familiars of Jerusalem, with their watching and their reporting, do not enter.

And, then, all that made Jeremiah the red-hot preacher that we still feel him to this day to have been. We see with what a fiery sensibility he both prepares and delivers his sermons. At one time we hear him groaning over his text as he stands beside the potter at his wheel, while the potter mars his vessel and casts it away. At another time he does not preach for many weeks. He is away at the Euphrates learning how to illustrate and enforce his next sermon, and he preaches it over and over to himself as he sees in the sand the footprints of his captive people. Another Sabbath morning he takes his elders out to the valley beyond the city, and dashes an earthen vessel to pieces before their amazed and angry eyes, and that is all the sermon they get that morning. A preacher-like a great preacher of our own land-to 'terrify even the godly.' A preacher for his familiars to take him and speak to him. And so they did, and almost succeeded. Pashur, the chief governor, was deputed on one occasion to tame, as we say, Jeremiah's pulpit. And of such sensibility and melancholy was the prophet at the visit of Pashur that the thing was almost done. Till the prophet appeared all of a sudden with a yoke of wood on his neck in his former pulpit next Sabbath, and with this apology to Pashur, and with this autobiographic introduction to his sermon that day: 'Then I said, I will not make mention of Him, or speak any more in His name. But His word was in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.' I suppose every preacher with any fire in his bones has a Pashur or two among his governors. A familiar or two who say among themselves, Report, and we will report it. But I do not read that Jeremiah spake as he was moved by Pashur, the governor. Let Pashur preach himself if Jeremiah has too much sensibility, and spirituality, and sympathy, and melancholy for him. And let Jeremiah go on and preach out all the fire that God has kindled in his prophet's bones. 'I could have used a more adorned style,' says John Bunyan, in his Grace Abounding, 'but I dared not. God did not play in tempting me; neither did I play when the pangs of hell gat hold on me. Wherefore I may not play in relating those pangs, but be plain and simple, and lay down the thing just as it was.'

Lo! this man's brow, like to a title-page,
Foretells the nature of a tragic volume.
Thou tremblest, and the whiteness in thy cheek
Is apter than thy tongue to tell thine errand.

When Jesus came into the coasts of Cæsarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elias; and others, Jeremias.


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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Jeremiah'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/j/jeremiah.html. 1901.

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Friday, November 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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