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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Lamentations 3

 

 

Verses 1-21

THE MAN THAT HATH SEEN AFFLICTION

Lamentations 3:1-21

WHETHER we regard it from a literary, a speculative, or a religious point of view, the third and central elegy cannot fail to strike us as by far the best of the five. The workmanship of this poem is most elaborate in conception and most finished in execution, the thought is most fresh and striking, and the spiritual tone most elevated, and, in the best sense of the word, evangelical. Like Tennyson, who is most poetic when he is most artistic, as in his lyrics, and like all the great sonneteers, the author of this exquisite Hebrew melody has not found his ideas to be cramped by the rigorous rules of composition. It would seem that to a master the elaborate regulations that fetter an inferior mind. are no hindrances, but rather instruments fitted to his hand, and all the more serviceable for their exactness. Possibly the artistic refinement of form stimulates thought and rouses the poet to exert his best powers: or perhaps-and this is more probable-he selects the richer robe for the purpose of clothing his choicer conceptions. Here we have the acrostics worked up into triplets, so that they now appear at the beginning of every line, each letter occurring three times successively as an initial, and the whole poem falling into sixty-six verses or twenty-two triplets. Yet none of the other four poems have any approach to the wealth of thought or the uplifting inspiration that we meet with in this highly finished product of literary art.

This elegy differs from its sister poems in another respect. It is composed, for the most part, in the first person singular, the writer either speaking of his own experience or dramatically personating another sufferer. Who is this "man that hath seen affliction"? On the understanding that Jeremiah is the author of the whole book, it is commonly assumed that the prophet is here revealing his own feelings under the multitude of troubles with which he has been overwhelmed. But if, as we have seen, this hypothesis is, to say the least, extremely dubious, of course the assumption that has been based upon it loses its warranty. No doubt there is much in the touching picture of the afflicted person that agrees with what we know of the experience of the great prophet. And yet, when we look into it, we do not find anything of so specific a character as to settle us in the conclusion that the words could have been spoken by no one else. There is just the possibility that the poet is not describing himself at all; he may be representing somebody well known to his contemporaries-perhaps even Jeremiah, or just a typical character, in the manner in Browning’s "Dramatis Personae."

While some mystery hangs over the personality of this man of sorrows the power and pathos of the poem are certainly heightened by the concentration of our attention upon one individual. Few persons are moved by general statements. Necessarily the comprehensive is all outline. It is by the supply of the particular that we fill up the details; and it is only when these details are present that we have a full-bodied picture. If an incident is typical it is illustrative of its kind. To know one such fact is to know all. Thus the science lecturer produces his specimen, and is satisfied to teach from it without adding a number of duplicates. The study of abstract reports is most important to those who are already interested in the subjects of these dreary documents; but it is useless as a means of exciting interest. Philanthropy must visit the office of the statistician if it would act with enlightened judgment, and not permit itself to become the victim of blind enthusiasm; but it was not born there, and the sympathy which is its parent can only be found among individual instances of distress.

In the present case the speaker who recounts his own misfortunes is more than a casual witness, more than a mere specimen picked out at random from the heap of misery accumulated in this age of national ruin. He is not simply a man who has seen affliction, one among many similar sufferers; he is the man, the well-known victim, one pre-eminent in distress even in the midst of a nation full of misery. Yet he is not isolated on a solitary peak of agony. As the supreme sufferer, he is also the representative sufferer. He is not selfishly absorbed in the morbid occupation of brooding over his private grievances. He has gathered into himself the vast and terrible woes of his people. Thus he foreshadows our Lord in His passion. We cannot but be struck by the aptness of much in this third elegy when it is read in the light of the last scenes of the gospel history. It would be a mistake to say that these outpourings from the heart of the Hebrew patriot were intended to convey a prophetic meaning with reference to another Sufferer in a far-distant future. Nevertheless the application of the poem to the Man of Sorrows is more than a case of literary illustration; for the idea of representative suffering which here emerges, and which becomes more definite in the picture of the servant of Jehovah in Isaiah 53:1-12, only finds its full realisation and perfection in Jesus Christ. It is repeated, however, with more or less distinctness wherever the Christ spirit is revealed. Thus in a noble interpretation of St. Paul, the Apostle is represented as experiencing-

"Desperate tides of the whole world’s anguish

Forced through the channel of a single heart."

The portrait of himself drawn by the author of this elegy is the more graphic by reason of the fact that the present is linked to the past. The striking commencement, "I am the man," etc., sets the speaker in imagination before our eyes. The addition "who has seen" (or rather, experienced) "affliction" connects him with his present sufferings. The unfathomable mystery of personal identity here confronts us. This is more than memory, more than the lingering scar of a previous experience; it is, in a sense, the continuance of that experience, its ghostly presence still haunting the soul that once knew it in the glow of life. Thus we are what we have thought and felt and done, and our present is the perpetuation of our past. The man who has seen affliction does not only keep the history of his distresses in the quiet chamber of memory. His own personality has slowly acquired a depth, a fulness, a ripeness that remove him far from the raw and superficial character he once was. We are silenced into awe before Job, Jeremiah, and Dante, because these men grew great by suffering. Is it not told even of our Lord Jesus Christ that He was made perfect by the things that He suffered? [Hebrews 5:8-9] Unhappily it cannot be said that every hero of tragedy climbs to perfection on the rugged steps of his terrible life-drama; some men are shattered by discipline which proves to be too severe for their strength. Christ rose to His highest glory by means of the cruelty of His enemies and the treason of one of His trusted disciples; but cruel wrongs drove Lear to madness, and a confidant’s treachery made a murderer of Othello. Still all who pass through the ordeal come out other than they enter, and the change is always a growth in some direction, even though in many cases we must admit with sorrow that this is a downward direction.

It is to be observed that here in his self-portraiture-just as elsewhere when describing the calamities that have befallen his people-the elegist attributes the whole series of disastrous events to God. This characteristic of the Book of Lamentations throughout is nowhere more apparent than in the third chapter. So close is the thought of God to the mind of the writer, he does not even think it necessary to mention the Divine name. He introduces his pronouns without any explanation of their objects, saying "His wrath" and "He hath led me," and so on through the succeeding verses. This quiet assumption of a recognised reference of all that happens to one source, a source that is taken to be so well known that there is no occasion to name it, speaks volumes for the deep-seated faith of the writer. He is at the antipodes of the too common position of those people who habitually forget to mention the name of God because He is never in their thoughts. God is always in the thoughts of the elegist, and that is why He is not named. Like Brother Lawrence, this man has learnt to "practise the presence of God."

In amplifying the account of his sufferings, after giving a general description of himself as the man who has experienced affliction, and adding a line in which this experience is connected with its cause-the rod of the wrath of Him who is unnamed, though ever in mind-the stricken patriot proceeds to illustrate and enforce his appeal to sympathy by means of a series of vivid metaphors. This is the most crisp and pointed writing in the book. It hurries us on with a breathless rush of imagery, scene after scene flashing out in bewildering speed like the whirl of objects we look at from the windows of an express train.

Let us first glance at the successive pictures in this rapidly moving panorama of similes, and then at the general import and drift of the whole.

The afflicted man was under the Divine guidance; he was not the victim of blind self-will; it was not when straying from the path of right that he fell into this pit of misery. The strange thing is that God led him straight into it - led him into darkness, not into light as might have been expected with such a Guide. [Lamentations 3:2] The first image, then, is that of a traveller misled. The perception of the first terrible truth that is here suggested prompts the writer at once to draw an inference as to the relation in which God stands to him, and the nature and character of the Divine treatment of him throughout. God, whom he has trusted implicitly, whom he has followed in the simplicity of ignorance, God proves to be his Opponent! He feels like one duped in the past, and at length undeceived as he makes the amazing discovery that his trusted Guide has been turning His hand against him repeatedly all the day of his woful wanderings. [Lamentations 3:3] For the moment he drops his metaphors, and reflects on the dreadful consequences of this fatal antagonism. His flesh and skin, his very body is wasted away; he is so crushed and shattered, it is as though God had broken his bones. [Lamentations 3:4] Now he can see that God has not only acted as an enemy in guiding him into the darkness; God’s dealings have shewn more overt antagonism. The helpless sufferer is like a besieged city, and God, who is conducting the assault, has thrown up a wall round him. With that daring mixture of metaphors, or, to be more precise, with that freedom of sudden transition from the symbol to the subject symbolised which we often meet with in this Book, the poet calls the rampart with which he has been girdled "gall and travail," for he has felt himself beset with bitter grief and weary toil. [Lamentations 3:4]

Then the scene changes. The victim of Divine wrath is a captive languishing in a dungeon, which is as dark as the abodes of the dead, as the dwellings of those who have been long dead. [Lamentations 3:6] The horror of this metaphor is intensified by the idea of the antiquity of Hades. How dismal is the thought of being plunged into a darkness that is already aged-a stagnant darkness, the atmosphere of those who long since lost the last rays of the light of life! There the prisoner is bound by a heavy chain. [Lamentations 3:7] He cries for help; but he is shut down so low that his prayer cannot reach his Captor. [Lamentations 3:8]

Again we see him still hampered, though in altered circumstances. He appears as a traveller whose way is blocked, and that not by some accidental fall of rock, but of set purpose, for he finds the obstruction to be of carefully prepared masonry, "hewn stones." [Lamentations 3:9] Therefore he has to turn aside, so that his paths become crooked. Yet more terrible does the Divine enmity grow. When the pilgrim is thus forced to leave the highroad and make his way through the adjoining thickets his Adversary avails Himself of the cover to assume a new form, that of a lion or a bear lying in ambush. [Lamentations 3:10] The consequence is that the hapless man is torn as by the claws and fangs of beasts of prey. [Lamentations 3:11] But now these wild regions in which the wretched traveller is wandering at the peril of his life suggests the idea of the chase. The image of the savage animals is defective in this respect, that man is their superior in intelligence, though not in strength. But in the present case the victim is in every way inferior to his Pursuer. So God appears as the Huntsman, and the unhappy sufferer as the poor hunted game. The bow is bent, and the arrow directed straight for its mark. [Lamentations 3:12] Nay, arrow after arrow has already been let fly, and the dreadful Huntsman, too skilful ever to miss His mark, has been shooting "the sons of His quiver into the very vitals of the object of His pursuit." [Lamentations 3:13]

Here the poet breaks away from his imagery for a second time to tell us that he has become an object of derision to all his people, and the theme of their mocking songs. [Lamentations 3:14] This is a striking statement. It shews that the afflicted man is not simply one member of the smitten nation of Israel, sharing the common hardships of the race whose "badge is servitude." He not merely experiences exceptional sufferings. He meets with no sympathy from his fellow-countrymen. On the contrary, these people so far dissociate themselves from his case that they can find amusement in his misery. Thus, while even a misguided Don Quixote is a noble character in the rare chivalry of his soul, and while his very delusions are profoundly pathetic, many people can only find material for laughter in them, and pride themselves in their superior sanity for so doing, although the truth is, their conduct proves them to be incapable of understanding the lofty ideals that inspire the object of their empty derision; thus Jeremiah was mocked by his unthinking contemporaries, when, whether in error, as they supposed, or wisely, as the event shewed, he preached an apparently absurd policy; and thus a greater than Jeremiah, One as supreme in reasonableness as in goodness, was jeered at by men who thought Him at best a Utopian dreamer, because they were grovelling in earthly thoughts far out of reach of the spiritual world in which He moved.

Returning to imagery, the poet pictures himself as a hardly used guest at a feast. He is fed, crammed, sated; but his food is bitterness, the cup has been forced to his lips, and he has been made drunk-not with pleasant wine, however, but with wormwood. [Lamentations 3:15] Gravel has been mixed with his bread, or perhaps the thought is that when he has asked for bread stones had been given him. He has been compelled to masticate this unnatural diet, so that his teeth have been broken by it. Even that result he ascribes to God, saying, "He hath broken my teeth." [Lamentations 3:16] It is difficult to think of the interference with personal liberty being carried farther than this. Here we reach the extremity of crushed misery.

Reviewing the whole course of his wretched sufferings from the climax of misery, the man Who has seen all this affliction declares that God has cast him off from peace. [Lamentations 3:17] The Christian sufferer knows what a profound consolation there is in the possession of the peace of God, even when he is passing through the most acute agonies-a peace which can be maintained both amid the wildest tempests of external adversity and in the presence of the fiercest paroxysms of personal anguish. Is it not the acknowledged secret of the martyrs’ serenity? Happily many an obscure sufferer has discovered it for himself, and found it better than any balm of Gilead. This most precious gift of heaven to suffering souls is denied to the man who here bewails his dismal fate. So too it was denied to Jesus in the garden, and again on the cross. It is possible that the dark day will come when it will be denied to one or another of His people. Then the experience of the moment will be terrible indeed. But it will be brief. An angel ministered to the Sufferer in Gethsemane. The joy of the resurrection followed swiftly on the agonies of Calvary. In the elegy we are now studying a burst of praise and glad confidence breaks out almost immediately after the lowest depths of misery have been sounded, shewing that, as Keats declares in an exquisite line-

"There is a budding morrow in midnight."

It is not surprising, however, that, for the time being, the exceeding blackness of the night keeps the hope of a new day quite out of sight. The elegist exclaims that he has lost the very idea of prosperity. Not only has his strength perished, his hope in God has perished also. [Lamentations 3:18] Happily God is far too good a Father to deal with His children according to the measure of their despair. He is found by those who are too despondent to seek Him, because He is always seeking His lost children; and not waiting for them to make the first move towards Him.

When we come to look at the series of pictures of affliction as a whole we shall notice that one general idea runs through them. This is that the victim is hindered, hampered, restrained. He is led into darkness, besieged, imprisoned, chained, driven out of his way, seized in ambuscade, hunted, even forced to eat unwelcome food. This must all point to a specific character of personal experience. The troubles of the sufferer have mainly assumed the form of a thwarting of his efforts. He has not been an indolent, weak, cowardly creature, succumbing at the first sign of opposition. To an active man with a strong will resistance is one of the greatest of troubles, although it will be accepted meekly, as a matter of course, by a person of servile habits. If the opposition comes from God, may it not be that the severity of the trouble is just caused by the obstinacy of self-will? Certainly it does not appear to be so here; but then we must remember the writer is stating his own case.

Two other characteristics of the whole passage may be mentioned. One is the persistence of the Divine antagonism. This is what makes the Case look so hard. The pursuer seems to be ruthless; He will not let His victim alone for a moment. One device follows sharply on another. There is no escape. The second of these characteristics of the passage is a gradual aggravation in the severity of the trials. At first God is only represented as a guide who misleads; then He appears as a besieging enemy; later like a destroyer. And correspondingly the troubles of the sufferer grow in severity, till at last he is flung into the ashes, crushed and helpless.

All this is peculiarly painful reading to us with our Christian thoughts of God. It seems so utterly contrary to the character of our Father revealed in Jesus Christ. But then it is not a part of the Christian revelation, nor was it uttered by a man who had received the benefits of that highest teaching. That, however, is not a complete explanation. The dreadful thoughts about God that are here recorded are almost without parallel even in the Old Testament. How contrary they are to such an idea as that of the pitiful Father in Psalms 103:1-22! On the other hand, it should be remembered that if ever we have to make allowance for the personal equation we must be ready to do so most liberally when we are listening to the tale of his wrongs as this is recounted by the sufferer himself. The narrator may be perfectly honest and truthful, but it is not in human nature to be impartial under such circumstances. Even when, as in the present instance, we have reason to believe that the speaker is under the influence of a Divine inspiration, we have no right to conclude that this gift would enable him to take an all-round vision of truth. Still, can we deny that the elegist has presented to our minds but one facet of truth? If we do not accept it as intended for a complete picture of God, and if we confine it to an account of the Divine action under certain circumstances as this appears to one who is most painfully affected by it, without any assertion concerning the ultimate motives of God-and this is all we have any justification for doing-it may teach us important lessons which we are too ready to ignore in favour of less unpleasant notions. Finally it would be quite unfair to the elegist, and it would give us a totally false impression of his ideas, if we were to go no further than this. To understand him at all we must hear him out. The contrast between the first part of this poem and the second is startling in the extreme, and we must not forget that the two are set in the closest juxtaposition, for it is plain that the one is intended to balance the other. The harshness of the opening words could be permitted with the more daring, because a perfect corrective to any unsatisfactory inferences that might be drawn from it was about to be immediately supplied.

The triplet of Lamentations 3:19-21 serves as a transition to the picture of the other side of the Divine action. It begins with prayer. Thus a new note is struck. The sufferer knows that God is not at heart his enemy. So he ventures to beseech the very Being concerning whose treatment of him he has been complaining so bitterly, to remember his affliction and the misery it has brought on him, the wormwood, the gall of his hard lot. Hope now dawns on him out of his own recollections. What are these? The Authorised Version would lead us to think that when he uses the expression, "This I recall to my mind," [Lamentations 3:21] the poet is referring to the encouraging ideas of the verses that immediately follow in the next section. But it is not probable that the last line of a triplet would thus point forward to another part of the poem. It is more consonant with the method of the composition to take this phrase in connection with what precedes it in the same triplet, and a perfectly permissible change in the translation of Lamentations 3:20 gives good sense in that connection. We may read this:

"Thou (O God) wilt surely remember, for my soul is bowed down within me."

Thus the recollection that God too has a memory and that He will remember His suffering servant becomes the spring of a new hope.


Verses 22-24

THE UNFAILING GOODNESS OF GOD

Lamentations 3:22-24

ALTHOUGH the elegist has prepared us for brighter scenes by the more hopeful tone of an intermediate triplet, the transition from the gloom and bitterness of the first part of the poem to the glowing rapture of the second is among the most startling effects in literature. It is scarcely possible to conceive of darker views of Providence, short of a Manichaean repudiation of the God of the physical universe as an evil being, than those which are boldly set forth in the opening verses of the elegy; we shudder at the awful words, and shrink from repeating them, so near to the verge of blasphemy do they seem to come. And now those appalling utterances are followed by the very choicest expression of confidence in the boundless goodness of God! The writer seems to leap in a moment out of the deepest, darkest pit of misery into the radiance of more than summer sunlight. How can we account for this extraordinary change of thought and temper?

It is not enough to ascribe the sharpness of the contrast either to the clumsiness of the author in giving utterance to his teeming fancies just as they occur to him, without any consideration for their bearings one upon another; or to his art in designedly preparing an awakening shock. We have still to answer the question, How could a man entertain two such conflicting currents of thought in closest juxtaposition?

In their very form and structure these touching elegies reflect the mental calibre of their author. A wooden soul could never have invented their movements. They reveal a most sensitive spirit, a spirit that resembles a finely strung instrument of music, quivering in response to impulses from all directions. People of a mercurial temperament live in a state of perpetual oscillation between the most contrary moods, and the violence of their despair is always ready to give place to the enthusiasm of a new hope. We call them inconsistent; but their inconsistency may spring from a quick-witted capacity to see two sides of a question in the time occupied by slower minds with the contemplation of one. As a matter of fact, however, the revulsion in the mind of the poet may not have been so sudden as it appears in his work. We can scarcely suppose that so elaborate a composition as this elegy was written from beginning to end at a single sitting. Indeed, here we seem to have the mark of a break. The author composes the first part in an exceptionally gloomy mood, and leaves the poem unfinished, perhaps for some time. When he returns to it on a subsequent occasion he is in a totally different frame of mind, and this is reflected in the next stage of his work. Still the point of importance is the possibility of the very diverse views here recorded.

Nor is this wholly a matter of temperament. Is it not more or less the case with all of us, that since absorption with one class of ideas entirely excludes their opposites, when the latter are allowed to enter the mind they will rush in with the force of a pent-up flood? Then we are astonished that we could ever have forgotten them. We build our theories in disregard of whole regions of thought. When these occur to us it is with the shock of a sudden discovery, and in the flash of the new light we begin at once to take very different views of our universe. Possibly we have been oblivious of our own character, until suddenly we are awakened to our true state, to be overwhelmed with shame at an unexpected revelation of sordid meanness, of despicable selfishness. Or perhaps the vision is of the heart of another person, whose quiet, unassuming goodness we have not appreciated, because it has been so unvarying and dependable that we have taken it as a matter of course, like the daily sunrise, never perceiving that this very constancy is the highest merit. We have been more grateful for the occasional lapses into kindness with which habitually churlish people have surprised us. Then there has come the revelation, in which we have been made to see that a saint has been walking by our side all the day. Many of us are very slow in reaching a similar discovery concerning God. But when we begin to take a right view of His relations to us we are amazed to think that we had not perceived them before, so rich and full and abounding are the proofs of His exceeding goodness.

Still it may seem to us a strange thing that this most perfect expression of a joyous assurance of the mercy and compassion of God should be found in the Book of Lamentations of all places. It may well give heart to those who have not sounded the depths of sorrow, as the author of these sad poems had done, to learn that even he had been able to recognise the merciful kindness of God in the largest possible measure. A little reflection, however, should teach us that it is not so unnatural a thing for this gem of grateful appreciation to appear where it is. We do not find, as a rule, that the most prosperous people are the foremost to recognise the love of God. The reverse is very frequently the case. If prosperity is not always accompanied by callous ingratitude-and of course it would be grossly unjust to assert anything so harsh-at all events it is certain that adversity is far from blinding our eyes to the brighter side of the revelation of God. Sometimes it is the very means by which they are opened. In trouble the blessings of the past are best valued, and in trouble the need of God’s compassion is most acutely felt. But this is not all. The softening influence of sorrow seems to have a more direct effect upon our sense of Divine goodness. Perhaps, too, it is some compensation for melancholy, that persons who are afflicted with it are most responsive to sympathy. The morbid, despondent poet Cowper has written most exquisitely about the love of God. Watts is enthusiastic in his praise of the Divine grace; but a deeper note is sounded in the Olney hymns, as, for example, in that beginning with the line-

"Hark, my soul, it is the Lord."

While reading this hymn today we cannot fail to feel the peculiar thrill of personal emotion that still quivers through its living words, revealing the very soul of their author. This is more than joyous praise; it is the expression of a personal experience of the compassion of God in times of deepest need. The same sensitive poet has given us a description of the very condition that is illustrated by the passage in the Hebrew elegist we are now considering, in lines which, familiar as they are, acquire a fresh meaning when read in this association-the lines-

"Sometimes a light surprises

The Christian while he sings:

It is the Lord who rises

With healing in His wings".

"When comforts are declining,

He grants the soul, again,

A season of clear shining,

To cheer it after rain."

We may thank the Calvinistic poet for here touching on another side of the subject. He reminds us that it is God who brings about the unexpected joy of renewed trust in His unfailing mercy. The sorrowful soul is, consciously or unconscionsly, visited by the Holy Spirit, and the effect of contact with the Divine is that scales fall from the eyes of the surprised sufferer. If it is right to say that one portion of Scripture is more inspired than another we must feel that there is more Divine light in the second part of this elegy than in the first. It is this surprising light from Heaven that ultimately accounts for the sudden revolution in the feelings of the poet.

In his new consciousness of the love of God the elegist is first struck by its amazing persistence. Probably we should follow the Targum and the Syriac version in rendering the twenty-second verse thus-

"The Lord’s mercies, verily they cease not," etc.

instead of the usual English rendering-

"It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed," etc.

There are two reasons for this emendation. First, the momentary transition to the plural "we" is harsh and improbable. It is true the author makes a somewhat similar change a little later; [Lamentations 3:40-48] but there it is in an extended passage, and one in which he evidently wishes to represent his people with ideas that are manifestly appropriate to the community at large. Here, on the other hand, the sentence breaks into the midst of personal reflections. Second- and this is the principal consideration-the balance of the phrases, which is so carefully observed throughout this elegy, is upset by the common rendering, but restored by the emendation. The topic of the triplet in which the disputed passage occurs is the amazing persistence of God’s goodness to His suffering children. The proposed alteration is in harmony with this.

The thought here presented to us rests on the truth of the eternity and essential changelessness of God. We cannot think of Him as either fickle or failing; to do so would be to cease to think of Him as God. If He is merciful at all He cannot be merciful only spasmodically, erratically, or temporarily. For all that, we need not regard these heart-stirring utterances as the expressions of a self-evident truism. The wonder and glory of the idea they dilate upon are not the less for the fact that we should entertain no doubt of its truth. The certainty that the character of God is good and great does not detract from His goodness or His greatness. When we are assured that His nature is not fallible our contemplation of it does not cease to be an act of adoration. On the contrary, we can worship the immutable perfection of God with fuller praises than we should give to fitful gleams of less abiding qualities.

As a matter of fact, however, our religious experience is never the simple conclusion of bare logic. Our feelings, and not these only, but also our faith need repeated assurances of the continuance of God’s goodness, because it seems as though there were so much to absorb and quench it. Therefore the perception of the fact of its continuance takes the form of a glad wonder that God’s mercies do not cease. Thus it is amazing to us that these mercies are not consumed by the multitude of the sufferers who are dependent upon them-the extent of God’s family not in any way cramping His means to give the richest inheritance to each of His children; nor by the depth of individual need-no single soul having wants so extreme or so peculiar that His aid cannot avail entirely for them; nor by the shocking ill-desert of the most unworthy of mankind-even sin, while it necessarily excludes the guilty from any present enjoyment of the love of God, not really quenching that love or precluding a future participation in it on condition of repentance; nor by the wearing of time, beneath which even granite rocks crumble to powder.

The elegist declares that the reason why God’s mercies are not consumed is that His compassions do not fail. Thus he goes behind the kind actions of God to their originating motives. To a man in the condition of the writer of this poem of personal confidences the Divine sympathy is the one fact in the universe of supreme importance. So will it be to every sufferer who can assure himself of the truth of it. But is this only a consolation for the sorrowing? The pathos, the very tragedy of human life on earth, should make the sympathy of God the most precious fact of existence to all mankind. Portia rightly reminds Shylock that "we all do look for mercy"; but if so, the spring of mercy, the Divine compassion, must be the one source of true hope forevery soul of man. Whether we are to attribute it to sin alone, or whether there may be other dark, mysterious ingredients in human sorrow, there can be no doubt that the deepest need is that God should have pity on His children. The worship of heaven among the angels may be one pure song of joy; but here, even though we are privileged to share the gladness of the celestial praises, a plaintive note will mingle with our anthem of adoration, because a pleading cry must ever go up from burdened spirits; and when relief is acknowledged our thanksgiving must single out the compassion of God for deepest gratitude. It is much, then, to know that God not only helps the needy-that is to say, all mankind-but that He feels with His suffering children. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has taught us to see this reassuring truth most clearly in the revelation of God in His Son, repeatedly dwelling on the sufferings of Christ as the means by which He was brought into sympathetic, helpful relations to the sufferings of mankind. [Hebrews 2:18;, Hebrews 4:15]

Further, the elegist declares that the special form taken by these unceasing mercies of God is daily renewal. The love of God is constant-one changeless Divine attribute; but the manifestations of that love are necessarily successive and various according to the successive and various needs of His children. We have not only to praise God for His eternal, immutable goodness, vast and wonderful as that is; to our perceptions, at all events, His immediate, present actions are even more significant because they shew His personal interest in individual men and women, and His living activity at the very crisis of need. There is a certain aloofness, a certain chillness, in the thought of ancient kindness, even though the effects of it may reach to our own day in full and abundant streams. But the living God is an active God, who works in the present as effectually as He worked in the past. There is another side to this truth. It is not sufficient to have received the grace of God once for all If "He giveth more grace," it is because we need more grace. This is a stream that must be ever flowing into the soul, not the storage of a tank filled once for all and left to serve for a lifetime. Therefore the channel must be kept constantly clear, or the grace will fail to reach us, although in itself it never runs dry.

There is something cheering in the poet’s idea of the morning as the time when these mercies of God are renewed. It has been suggested that he is thinking of renewals of brightness after dark seasons of sorrow, such as are suggested by the words of the psalmist-

"Weeping may come in to lodge at even But joy cometh in the morning." {Psalms 30:5. R. V Marg.}

This idea, however, would weaken the force of the passage, which goes to shew that God’s mercies do not fail, are not interrupted. The emphasis is on the thought that no day is without God’s new, mercies, not even the day of darkest trouble; and further, there is the suggestion that God is never dilatory in coming to our aid. He does not keep us waiting and wearying while He tarries. He is prompt and early with His grace. The idea may be compared with that of the promise to those who seek God early, literally, in the morning. [Proverbs 8:17] Or we may think of the night as the time of repose, when we are oblivious of God’s goodness, although even through the hours of darkness He who neither slumbers nor sleeps is constantly watching over His unconscious children. Then in the morning there dawns on us a fresh perception of His goodness. If we are to realise the blessing sought in Sir Thomas Browne’s prayer, and

"Awake into some holy thought, "

no more holy thought can be desired than a grateful recognition of the new mercies on which our eyes open with the new day. A morning so graciously welcomed is the herald of a day of strength and happy confidence.

To the notion of the morning renewal of the mercies of God the poet appends a recognition of His great faithfulness. This is an additional thought. Faithfulness is more than compassion. There is a strength and a stability about the idea that goes further to insure confidence. It is more than the fact that God is true to His word, that He will certainly perform what He has definitely promised. Fidelity is not confined to compacts-it is not limited to the question of what is "in the bond"; it concerns persons rather than phrases. To be faithful to a friend is more than to keep one’s word to him. We may have given him no pledge; and yet we must confess to an obligation to be true-to be true to the man himself. Now while we are called upon to be loyal to God, there is a sense in which we may venture without irreverence to say that He may be expected to be faithful to us. He is our Creator, and He has placed us in this world by His own will; His relations with us cannot cease at this point. So Moses pleaded that God, having led His people into the wilderness, could not desert them there; and Jeremiah even ventured on the daring prayer-

"Do not disgrace the throne of Thy glory." [Jeremiah 14:21]

It is because we are sure the just and true God could never do anything so base that His faithfulness becomes the ground of perfect confidence. It may be said, on the other hand, that we cannot claim any good thing from God on the score of merit, because we only deserve wrath and punishment. But this is not a question of merit. Fidelity to a friend is not exhausted when we have treated him according to his deserts. It extends to a treatment of him in accordance with the direct claims of friendship, claims which are to be measured by need rather than by merit.

The conclusion drawn from these considerations is given in an echo from the Psalms-

"The Lord is my portion.". [Psalms 73:26]

The words are old and well-worn; but they obtain a new meaning when adopted as the expression of a new experience. The lips have often chanted them in the worship of the sanctuary. Now they are the voice of the soul, of the very life. There is no plagiarism in such a quotation as this, although in making it the poet does not turn aside to acknowledge his obligation to the earlier author who coined the immortal phrase. The seizure of the old words by the soul of the new writer makes them his own in the deepest sense, because under these circumstances it is not their literary form, but their spiritual significance, that gives them their value. This is true of the most frequently quoted words of Scripture. They are new words to every soul that adopts them as the expression of a new experience.

It is to be observed that the experience now reached is something over and above the conscious reception of daily mercies. The Giver is greater than His gifts. God is first known by means of His actions, and then being thus known He is recognised as Himself the portion of His people, so that to possess Him is their one satisfying joy in the present and their one inspiring hope for the future.


Verses 25-36

QUIET WAITING

Lamentations 3:25-36

HAVING struck a rich vein, our author proceeds to work it with energy. Pursuing the ideas that flow out of the great truth of the endless goodness of God, and the immediate inference that He of whom so wonderful a character can be affirmed is Himself the soul’s best possession, the poet enlarges upon their wider relations. He must adjust his views of the whole world to the new situation that is thus opening out before him. All things are new in the light of the splendid vision before which his gloomy meditations have vanished like a dream. He sees that he is not alone in enjoying the supreme blessedness of the Divine love. The revelation that has come to him is applicable to other men if they will but fulfil the conditions to which it is attached.

In the first place, it is necessary to perceive clearly what those conditions are on which the happy experience of God’s unfailing mercies may be enjoyed by any man. The primary requisite is affirmed to be quiet waiting. [Lamentations 3:26] The passivity of this attitude is accentuated in a variety of expressions. It is difficult for us of the modern western world to appreciate such teaching. No doubt if it stood by itself it would be so one-sided as to be positively misleading. But this is no more than must be said of any of the best lessons of life. We require the balancing of separate truths in order to obtain truth, as we want the concurrence of different impulses to produce the resultant of a right direction of life. But in the present case the opposite end of the scale has been so much overweighted that we sorely need a very considerable addition on the side to which the elegist here leans. Carlyle’s gospel of work-a most wholesome message as far as it went-fell on congenial Anglo-Saxon soil; and this and the like teaching of kindred minds has brought forth a rich harvest in the social activity of modern English life. The Church has learnt the duty of working - which is well. She does not appear so capable of attaining the blessedness of waiting. Our age is in no danger of the dreaminess of quietism. But we find it hard to cultivate what Wordsworth calls "wise passiveness." And yet in the heart of us we feel the lack of this spirit of quiet. Charles Lamb’s essay on the "Quakers’ Meeting" charms us, not only on account of its exquisite literary style, but also because it reflects a phase of life which we own to be most beautiful.

The waiting here recommended is more than simple passiveness, however, more than a bare negation of action. It is the very opposite of lethargy and torpor. Although it is quiet, it is not asleep. It is open-eyed, watchful, expectant. It has a definite object of anticipation, for it is a waiting for God and His salvation; and therefore it is hopeful. Nay, it has a certain activity of its own, for it seeks God. Still, this activity is inward and quiet; its immediate aim is not to get at some visible earthly end, however much this may be desired, nor to attain some inward personal experience, some stage in the soul’s culture, such as peace, or purity, or power, although this may be the ultimate object of the present anxiety; primarily it seeks God-all else it leaves in His hands. Thus it is rather a change in the tone and direction of the soul’s energies than a state of repose. It is the attitude of the watchman on his lonely tower-calm and still, but keen-eyed and alert, while down below in the crowded city some fret themselves with futile toil and others slumber in stupid indifference.

To this waiting for Him and definite seeking of Him God responds in some special manifestation of mercy. Although, as Jesus Christ tells us, our Father in heaven "maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust," [Matthew 5:45] the fact here distinctly implied, that the goodness of God is exceptionally enjoyed on the conditions now laid down, is also supported by our Lord’s teaching in the exhortations, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you; forevery one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." St. James adds, "Ye have not because ye ask not." [James 4:2] This, then, is the method of the Divine procedure. God expects His children to wait on Him as well as to wait for Him. We cannot consider such an expectation unreasonable. Of course it would be foolish to imagine God piquing Himself on His own dignity, so as to decline aid until He had been gratified by a due observance of homage. There is a deeper motive for the requirement. God’s relations with men and women are personal and individual; and when they are most happy and helpful they always involve a certain reciprocity. It may not be necessary or even wise to demand definite things from God whenever we seek His assistance; for He knows what is good, while we often blunder and ask amiss. But the seeking here described is of a different character. It is not seeking things; it is seeking God. This is always good. The attitude of trust and expectancy that it necessitates is just that in which we are brought into a receptive state. It is not a question of God’s willingness to help; He is always willing. But it cannot be fitting that He should act towards us when we are distrustful, indifferent, or rebellious, exactly as He would act if He were approached in submission and trustful expectation.

Quiet waiting, then, is the right and fitting condition for the reception of blessing from God. But the elegist holds more than this. In his estimation the state of mind he here commends is itself good for a man. It is certainly good in contrast with the unhappy alternatives-feeble fussiness, wearing anxiety, indolent negligence, or blank despair. It is good also as a positive condition of mind. He has reached a happy inward attainment who has cultivated the faculty of possessing his soul in patience. His eye is clear for visions of the unseen. To him the deep fountains of life are open. Truth is his, and peace and strength also. When we add to this calmness the distinct aim of seeking God we may see how the blessedness of the condition recommended is vastly enhanced. We are all insensibly moulded by our desires and aims. The expectant soul is transformed into the image of the hope it pursues. When its treasure is in heaven its heart is there also, and therefore its very nature becomes heavenly.

To his reflections on the blessedness of quiet waiting the elegist adds a very definite word about another experience, declaring that "it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." [Lamentations 3:27] This interesting assertion seems to sound an autobiographical note, especially as the whole poem treats of the writer’s personal experience. Some have inferred that the author must have been a young man at the time of writing. But if, as seems probable, he is calling to mind what he has himself passed through, this may be a recollection of a much earlier period of his life. Thus he would seem to be recognising, in the calm of subsequent reflection, what perhaps he may have been far from admitting while bearing the burdens, that the labours and hardships of his youth prove to have been for his own advantage. This truth is often perceived in the meditations of mature life, although it is not so easily acknowledged in the hours of strain and stress.

It is impossible to say what particular yoke the writer is thinking about. The persecutions inflicted on Jeremiah have been cited in illustration of this passage; and although we may not be able to ascribe, the poem to the great prophet, his toils and troubles will serve as instances of the truth of the words of the anonymous writer, for undoubtedly his sympathies were quickened while his strength was ripened by what he endured. If we will have a definite meaning the yoke may stand for one of three things-for instruction, for labour, or for trouble. The sentence is true of either of these forms of yoke. We are not likely to dispute the advantages of youthful education over that which is delayed till adult age; but even if the acquisition of knowledge is here suggested, we cannot suppose it to be book knowledge, it must be that got in the school of life. Thus we are brought to the other two meanings. Then the connection excludes the notion of pleasant, attractive work, so that the yoke of labour comes near to the burden of trouble. This seems to be the essential idea of the verse. Irksome work, painful toil, forced labour partaking of the nature of servitude-these ideas are most vividly suggested by the image of a yoke. And they are what we most shrink from in youth. Inactivity is then by no means sought or desired. The very exercise of one’s energies is a delight at the time of their fresh vigour. But this exercise must be in congenial directions, in harmony with one’s tastes and inclinations, or it will be regarded as an intolerable burden. Liberty is sweet in youth; it is not work that is dreaded, but compulsion. Youth emulates the bounding energies of the war horse, but it has a great aversion to the patient toil of the ox. Hence the yoke is resented as a grievous burden; for the yoke signifies compulsion and servitude. Now, as a matter of fact, this yoke generally has to be borne in youth. People might be more patient with the young if they would but consider how vexatious it must be to the shoulders that are not yet fitted to wear it, and in the most liberty-loving age. As time passes custom makes the yoke easier to be borne; and yet then it is usually lightened. In our earlier days we must submit and obey, must yield and serve. This is the rule in business, the drudgery and restraint of which naturally attach themselves to the first stages. If older persons reflected on what this must mean at the very time when the appetite for delight is most keen, and the love of freedom most intense, they would not press the yoke with needless harshness.

But now the poet has been brought to see that it was for his own advantage that he was made to bear the yoke in his youth. How so? Surely not because it prevented him from taking too rosy views of life, and so saved him from subsequent disappointment. Nothing is more fatal to youth than cynicism. The young man who professes to have discovered the hollowness of life generally is in danger of making his own life a hollow and wasted thing. The elegist could never have fallen to this miserable condition, or he would never have written as he has done here. With faith and manly courage the yoke has the very opposite effect. The faculty of cherishing hope in spite of present hardships, which is the peculiar privilege of youth, may stand a man in stead at a later time, when it is not so easy to triumph over circumstances, because the old buoyancy of animal spirits, which means so much in early days, has vanished; and then if he can look back and see how he has been cultivating habits of endurance through years of discipline without his soul having been soured by the process, he may well feel profoundly thankful for those early experiences which were undoubtedly very hard in their rawness.

The poet’s reflections on the blessedness of quiet waiting are followed by direct exhortations to the behaviour which is its necessary accompaniment-for such seems to be the meaning of the next triplet, Lamentations 3:28-30. The Revisers have corrected this from the indicative mood, as it stands in the Authorised Version, to the imperative-"Let him sit alone," etc., "Let him put his mouth in the dust," etc., "Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him," etc. The exhortations flow naturally out of the preceding statements, but the form they assume may strike us as somewhat singular. Who is the person thus indirectly addressed? The grammar of the sentences would invite our attention to the "man" of the twenty-seventh verse. [Lamentations 3:27] If it is good for everybody to bear the yoke in his youth, it might be suggested further that it would be well for everybody to act in the manner now indicated-that is to say, the advice would be of universal application. We must suppose, however, that the poet is thinking of a sufferer similar to himself.

Now the point of the exhortation is to be found in the fact that it goes beyond the placid state just described. It points to solitude, silence, submission, humiliation, non-resistance. The principle of calm, trustful expectancy is most beautiful; and if it were regarded by itself it could not but fascinate us, so that we should wonder how it would be possible for anybody to resist its attractions. But immediately we try to put it in practice we come across some harsh and positively repellent features. When it is brought down from the ethereal regions of poetry and set to work among the gritty facts of real life, how soon it seems to lose its glamour! It can never become mean or sordid; and yet its surroundings may be so. Most humiliating things are to be done, most insulting things endured. It is hard to sit in solitude and silence - a Ugolino in his tower of famine, a Bonnivard in his dungeon; there seems to be nothing heroic in this dreary inactivity. It would be much easier to attempt some deed of daring, especially if that were in the heat of battle. Nothing is so depressing as loneliness-the torture of a prisoner in solitary confinement. And yet now there must be no word of complaint because the trouble comes from the very Being who is to be trusted for deliverance. There is a call for action, however, but only to make the submission more complete and the humiliation more abject. The sufferer is to lay his mouth in the dust like a beaten slave. [Lamentations 3:29] Even this he might brace himself to do, stifling the last remnant of his pride because he is before the Lord of heaven and earth. But it is not enough. A yet more bitter cup must be drunk to the dregs. He must actually turn his cheek to the smiter, and quietly submit to reproach. [Lamentations 3:30] God’s wrath may be accepted as a righteous retribution from above. But it is hard indeed to manifest the same spirit of submission in face of the fierce malignity or the petty spite of men. Yet silent waiting involves even this. Let us count the cost before we venture on the path which looks so beautiful in idea, but which turns out to be so very trying in fact.

We cannot consider this subject without being reminded of the teaching and-a more helpful memory-the example also of our Lord. It is hard to receive even from His lips the command to turn the other cheek to one who has smitten us on the right cheek. But when we see Jesus doing this very thing the whole aspect of it is changed. What before looked weak and cowardly is now seen to be the perfection of true courage and the height of moral sublimity. By His own endurance of insult and ignominy our Lord has completely revolutionised our ideas of humiliation. His humiliation was His glorification. What a Roman would despise as shameful weakness He has proved to be the triumph of strength. Thus, though we may not be able to take the words of the Lamentations as a direct prophecy of Jesus Christ, they so perfectly realise themselves in the story of His Passion, that to Christendom they must always be viewed in the light of that supreme wonder of a victory won through submission; and while they are so viewed they cannot fail to set before us an ideal conduct for the sufferer under the most trying circumstances.

This advice is not so paradoxical as it appears. We are not called upon to accept it merely on the authority of the speaker. He follows it up by assigning good reasons for it. These are all based on the assumption which runs through the elegies, that the sufferings therein described come from the hand of God. They are most of them the immediate effects of man’s enmity. But a Divine purpose is always to be recognised behind the human instrumentality. This fact at once lifts the whole question out of the region of miserable, earthly passions and mutual recriminations. In apparently yielding to a tyrant from among his fellow men the sufferer is really submitting to his God.

Then the elegist gives us three reasons why the submission should be complete and the waiting quiet. The first is that the suffering is but temporary. God seems to have cast off His afflicted servant. If so it is but for a season. [Lamentations 3:31-32] This is not a case of absolute desertion. The sufferer is not treated as a reprobate. How could we expect patient submission from a soul that had passed the portals of a hell over which Dante’s awful motto of despair was inscribed? If they who entered were to "forsake all hope" it would be a mockery to bid them "be still." It would be more natural for these lost souls to shriek with the fury of madness. The first ground of quiet waiting is hope. The second is to be found in God’s unwillingness to afflict. [Lamentations 3:33] He never takes up the rod, as we might say, con amore. Therefore the trial will not be unduly prolonged. Since God Himself grieves to inflict it, the distress can be no more than is absolutely necessary. The third and last reason for this patience of submission is the certainty that God cannot commit an injustice. So important is this consideration in the eyes of the elegist that he devotes a complete triplet to it, illustrating it from three different points of Lamentations 3:34-36. We have the conqueror with his victims, the magistrate in a case at law, and the private citizen in business. Each of these instances affords an opportunity for injustice. God does not look with approval on the despot who crushes all his prisoners-for Nebuchadnezzar’s outrages are by no means condoned, although they are utilised as chastisements; nor on the judge who perverts the solemn process of law, when deciding, according to the Jewish theocratic idea, in place of God, the supreme Arbitrator, and, as the oath testifies, in His presence; nor on the man who in a private capacity circumvents his neighbour. But how can we ascribe to God what He will not sanction in man? "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" [Genesis 18:25] exclaims the perplexed patriarch; and we feel that his plea is unanswerable. But if God is just we can afford to be patient. And yet we feel that while there is something to calm us and allay the agonising terrors of despair in this thought of the unswerving justice of God, we must fall back for our most satisfying assurance on that glorious truth which the poet finds confirmed by his daily experience, and which he expresses with such a glow of hope in the rich phrase, "Yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies." [Lamentations 3:32]


Verses 37-39

GOD AND EVIL

Lamentations 3:37-39

THE eternal problem of the relation of God to evil is here treated with the keenest discrimination. That God is the supreme and irresistible ruler, that no man can succeed with any design in opposition to His will, that whatever happens must be in some way an execution of His decree, and that He, therefore, is to be regarded as the author of evil as well as good-these doctrines are so taken for granted that they are neither proved nor directly affirmed, but thrown into the form of questions that can have but one answer, as though to imply that they are known to everybody, and cannot be doubted for a moment by any one. But the inference drawn from them is strange and startling. It is that not a single living man has any valid excuse for complaining. That, too, is considered to be so undeniable that, like the previous ideas, it is expressed as a self-answering question. But we are not left in this paradoxical position. The evil experienced by the sufferer is treated as the punishment of his sin. What right has he to complain of that? A slightly various rendering has been proposed for the thirty-ninth verse [Lamentations 3:39], so as to resolve into a question and its answer. Read in this way, it asks, why should a living man complain? and then suggests the reply, that if he is to complain at all it should not be on account of his sufferings, treated as wrongs. He should complain against himself, his own conduct, his sin. We have seen, however, in other cases, that the breaking of a verse in this way is not in harmony with the smooth style of the elegiac poetry in which the words occur. This requires us to take the three verses of the triplet as continuous, flowing sentences.

Quite a number of considerations arise out of the curious juxtaposition of ideas in this passage. In the first place, it is very evident that by the word "evil" the writer here means trouble and suffering, not wickedness, because he clearly distinguishes it from the sin the mention of which follows. That sin is a man’s own deed, for which he is justly punished. The poet, then, does not attribute the causation of sin to God; he does not speculate at all on the origin of moral evil. As far as he goes in the present instance, he would seem to throw back the authorship of it upon the will of man. How that will came to turn astray he does not say. This awful mystery remains unsolved through the whole course of the revelation of the Old Testament, and even through that of the New also. It cannot be maintained that the story of the Fall in Genesis is a solution of the mystery. To trace temptation back to the serpent is not to account for its existence, nor for the facility with which man was found to yield to it. When, at. a later period, Satan appears on the stage, it is not to answer the perplexing question of the origin of evil. In the Old Testament he is nowhere connected with the Fall-his identification with the serpent first occurring in the Book of Wisdom, (2:23 ff.) from which apparently it passed into current language, and so was adopted by St. John in the Apocalypse. [Revelation 12:9] At first Satan is the adversary and accuser of man, as Job 1:6-12;, Job 2:1-7 and Zechariah 3:1-2. then he is recognised as the tempter, in 1 Chronicles 21:1, for example. But in no case is he said to be the primary cause of evil. No plummet can sound the depths of that dark pit in which lurks the source of sin.

Meanwhile a very different problem, the problem of suffering, is answered by attributing this form of evil quite unreservedly and even emphatically to God. It is to be remembered that our Lord, accepting the language of his contemporaries, ascribes this to Satan, speaking of the woman afflicted with a spirit of infirmity as one whom Satan had bound [Luke 13:16] and that similarly St. Paul writes of his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan, [2 Corinthians 12:7] to whom he also assigns the hindrance of a projected journey. [1 Thessalonians 2:18] But in these cases it is not in the least degree suggested that the evil spirit is an irresistible and irresponsible being. The language only points to his immediate agency. The absolute supremacy of God is never called in question. There is no real concession to Persian dualism anywhere in the Bible. In difficult cases the sacred writers seem more anxious to uphold the authority of God than to justify His actions. They are perfectly convinced that those actions are all just and right, and not to be called in question, and so they are quite fearless in attributing to His direct commands occurrences that we should perhaps think more satisfactorily accounted for in some other way. In such cases theirs is the language of unfailing faith, even when faith is strained almost to breaking.

The unquestionable fact that good and evil both come from the mouth of the Most High is based on the certain conviction that He is the Most High. Since it cannot be believed that His decrees should be thwarted, it cannot be supposed that there is any rival to His power. To speak of evil as independent of God is to deny that He is God. This is what a system of pure dualism must come to. If there are two mutually independent principles in the universe neither of them can be God. Dualism is as essentially opposed to the idea we attach to the name "God" as polytheism. The gods of the heathen are no gods, and so also are the imaginary twin divinities that divide the universe between them, or contend in a vain endeavour to suppress one another. "God," as we understand the title, is the name of the Supreme, the Almighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Zend-Avesta escapes the logical conclusion of atheism by regarding its two principles, Ormuzd and Ahriman, as two streams issuing from a common fountain, or as two phases of one existence. But then it saves its theism at the expense of its dualism. In practice, however, this is not done. The dualism, the mutual antagonism of the two powers, is the central idea of the Parsee system; and being so, it stands in glaring contrast to the lofty monism of the Bible.

Nevertheless, it may be said, although it is thus necessary to attribute evil as well as good to God if we would not abandon the thought of His supremacy, a thought that is essential to our conception of His very nature, this is a perplexing necessity, and not one to be accepted with any sense of satisfaction. How then can the elegist welcome it with acclamation and set it before us with an air of triumph? That he does so is undeniable, for the spirit and tone of the poem here become positively exultant.

We may reply that the writer appears as the champion of the Divine cause. No attack on God’s supremacy is to be permitted. Nothing of the kind, however, has been suggested. The writer is pursuing another aim, for he is anxious to still the murmurs of discontent. But how can the thought of the supremacy of God have that effect? One would have supposed the ascription to God of the trouble complained of would deepen the sense of distress and turn the complaint against Him. Yet it is just here that the elegist sees the unreasonableness of a complaining spirit.

Of course the uselessness of complaining, or rather the uselessness of attempting resistance, may be impressed upon us in this way. If the source of our trouble is nothing less than the Almighty and Supreme Ruler of all things it is stupid to dream of thwarting His purposes. If a man will run his head like a battering-ram against a granite cliff the most he can expect by his madness will be to bespatter the rock with his brains. It may be necessary to warn the rebel against Providence of this danger by shewing him that what he mistakes for a flimsy veil or a shadowy cloud is an immovable wall. But what will he find to exult over in the information? The hopelessness of resistance is no better than the consolation of pessimism, and its goal of despair. Our author, on the other hand, evidently intends to be reassuring.

Now, is there not something reassuring in the thought that evil and good come to us from one and the same source? For, consider the alternative. Remember, the evil exists as surely as the good. The elegist does not attempt to deny this, or to minimise the fact. He never calls evil good, never explains it away. There it stands before us, in all its ugly actuality, speculations concerning its origin neither aggravating the severity of its symptoms nor alleviating them. Whence, then, did this perplexing fact arise? If we postulate some other source than the Divine origin of good, what is it? A dreadful mystery here yawns at our feet. If evil came from an equally potent origin it would contend with good on even terms, and the issue would always hang in the balance. There could be nothing reassuring in that tantalising situation. The fate of the universe would be always quivering in uncertainty. And meanwhile we should have to conclude, that the most awful conflict with absolutely doubtful issues was raging continually. We could only contemplate the idea of this vast schism with terror and dismay. But now assuredly there is something calming in the thought of the unity of the power that distributes our fortunes; for this means that a man is in no danger of being tossed like a shuttlecock between two gigantic rival forces. There must be a singleness of aim in the whole treatment of us by Providence, since Providence is one. Thus, if only as an escape from an inconceivably appalling alternative, this doctrine of the common source of good and evil is truly reassuring.

We may pursue the thought further. Since good and evil spring from one and the same source, they cannot be so mutually contradictory as we have been accustomed to esteem them. They are two children of a common parent; then they must be brothers. But if they are so closely related a certain family likeness may be traced between them. This does not destroy the actuality of evil. But it robs it of its worst features. The pain may be as acute as ever in spite of all our philosophising. But the significance of it will be wholly changed. We can now no longer treat it as an accursed thing. If it is so closely related to good, we may not have far to go in order to discover that it is even working for good.

Then if evil and good come from the same source it is not just to characterise that source by reference to one only of its effluents. We must not take a rose-coloured view of all things, and relapse into idle complacency, as we might do if we confined our observation to the pleasant facts of existence, for the unpleasant facts-loss, disappointment, pain, death-are equally real, and are equally derived from the highest Authority. Neither are we justified in denying the existence of. the good when overwhelmed with a sense of the evil in life. At worst we live in a very mixed world. It is unscientific, it is unjust to pick out the ills of life and gibbet them as specimens of the way things are going. If we will recite the first part of such an elegy as that we are now studying, at least let us have the honesty to read on to the second part, where the surpassingly lovely vision of the Divine compassion so much more than counterbalances the preceding gloom. Is it only by accident that the poet says "evil and good," and not, as we usually put the phrase, "good and evil"? Good shall have the last word. Evil exists; but the finality and crown of existence is not evil, but good.

The conception of the primary unity of causation which the Hebrew poet reaches through his religion is brought home to us today with a vast accumulation of proof by the discoveries of science. The uniformity of law, the co-relation of forces, the analyses of the most diverse and complex organisms into their common chemical elements, the evidence of the spectroscope to the existence of precisely the same elements among the distant stars, as well as the more minute homologies of nature in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, are all irrefutable confirmations of this great truth. Moreover, science has demonstrated the intimate association of what we cannot but regard as good and evil in the physical universe. Thus, while carbon and oxygen are essential elements for the building up of all living things, the effect of perfectly healthy vital functions working upon them is to combine them into carbonic acid, which is a most deadly poison; but then this noxious gas becomes the food of plants, from which the animal life in turn derives its nourishment. Similarly microbes, which we commonly regard as the agents of corruption and disease, are found to be not only nature’s scavengers, but also the indispensable ministers of life, when, clustering round the roots of plants in vast crowds, they convert the organic matter of the soil, such as manure, into those inorganic nitrates which contain nitrogen in the form suitable for absorption by vegetable organisms. The mischief wrought by germs, great as it is, is infinitely outweighed by the necessary service existences of this kind render to all life by preparing some of its indispensable conditions. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from facts such as these is that health and disease, and life and death, interact, are inextricably blended together, and mutually transformable-what we call disease and death in one place being necessary for life and health in another. The more clearly we understand the processes of nature the more evident is the fact of her unity, and therefore the more impossible is it for us to think of her objectionable characteristics as foreign to her being-alien immigrants from another sphere. Physical evil itself looks less dreadful when it is seen to take its place as an integral part of the complicated movement of the whole system of the universe.

But the chief reason for regarding the prospect with more than satisfaction has yet to be stated. It is derived from the character of Him to whom both the evil and the good are attributed. We can go beyond the assertion that these contrarieties spring from one common origin to the great truth that this origin is to be found in God. All that we know of our Father in heaven comes to our aid in reflecting upon the character of the actions thus attributed to Him. The account of God’s goodness that immediately precedes this ascription of the two extreme experiences of life to Him would be in the mind of the writer, and it should be in the mind of the reader also. The poet has just been dwelling very emphatically on the indubitable justice of God. When, therefore, he reminds us that both evil and good come from the Divine Being, it is as though he said that they both originated in justice. A little earlier he was expressing the most fervent appreciation of the mercy and compassion of God. Then these gracious attributes should be in our thoughts while we hear that the mixed experiences of life are to be traced back to Him of whom so cheering a view can be taken.

We know the love of God much more fully since it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Therefore we have a much better reason for building our faith and hope on the fact of the universal Divine origin of events. In itself the evil exists all the same, whether we can trace its cause or not, and the discovery of the cause in no way aggravates it. But this discovery may lead us to take a new view of its issues. If it comes from One who is as just and merciful as He is mighty we may certainly conclude that it will lead to the most blessed results. Considered in the light of the assured character of its purpose, the evil itself must assume a totally different character. The child who receives a distasteful draught from the hand of the kindest of parents knows that it cannot be a cup of poison, and has good reason for believing it to be a necessary medicine.

The last verse of the triplet startles the reader with an unexpected thought. The considerations already adduced are all meant to check any complaint against the course of Providence. Now the poet appends a final argument, which is all the more forcible for not being stated as an argument. At the very end of the passage, when we are only expecting the language to sink into a quiet conclusion, a new idea springs out upon us, like a tiger from its lair. This trouble about which a man is so ready to complain, as though it were some unaccountable piece of injustice, is simply the punishment of his sin! Like the other ideas of the passage, the notion is not tentatively argued; it is boldly taken for granted. Once again we see that there is no suspicion in the mind of the elegist of the perplexing problem that gives its theme to the Book of Job. But do we not sometimes press that problem too far? Can it be denied that, to a large extent, suffering is a direct consequence and the natural punishment of sin? Are we not often burnt for the simple reason that we have been playing with fire? At all events, the whole course of previous prophecy went to shew that the national sins of Israel must be followed by some dreadful disasters; and when the war-cloud was hovering on the horizon Jeremiah saw in it the herald of approaching doom. Then the thunderbolt fell; and the wreck it caused became the topic of this Book of Lamentations. After such a preparation, what was more natural, and reasonable, and even inevitable, than that the elegist should calmly assume that the trouble complained of was no more than was due to the afflicted people? This is clear enough when we think of the nation as a whole. It is not so obvious when we turn our attention to individual cases; but the bewildering problem of the sufferings of innocent children, which constitutes the most prominent feature in the poet’s picture of the miseries of the Jews, is not here revived.

We must suppose that he is thinking of a typical citizen of Jerusalem. If the guilty city merited severe punishment, such a man as this would also merit it; for the deserts of the city are only the deserts of her citizens. It will be for everybody to say for himself how far the solution of the mystery of his own troubles is to be looked for in this direction. A humble conscience will not be eager to repudiate the possibility that its owner has not been punished beyond his deserts whatever may be thought of other people, innocent children in particular. There is one word that may bring out this aspect of the question with more distinctness-the word "living." The poet asks. "Wherefore doth a living man complain?" Why does he attach this attribute to the subject of his question? The only satisfactory explanation that has been offered is that he would remind us that while the sufferer has his life preserved to him he has no valid ground of complaint. He has not been overpaid; he has not even been paid in full; for it is an Old Testament doctrine which the New Testament repeats when it declares that "the wages of sin is death.". [Romans 6:23]


Verses 40-42

THE RETURN

Lamentations 3:40-42

WHEN prophets, speaking in the name of God, promised the exiles a restoration to their land and the homes of their fathers, it was always understood and often expressly affirmed that this reversal of their outward fortunes must be preceded by an inner change, a return to God in penitent submission. Expulsion from Canaan was the chastisement of apostasy from God; it was only right and reasonable that the discipline should be continued as long as the sin that necessitated it remained. It would be a mistake, however, to relegate the treatment of this deadly sin to a secondary place, as only the cause of a more serious trouble. There could be no more serious trouble. The greatest evil from which Israel suffered was not the Babylonian exile; it was her self-inflicted banishment from God. The greatest blessing to be sought for her was not liberty to return to the hills and cities of Palestine; it was permission and power to come back to God. It takes us long to learn that sin is worse than punishment, and that to be brought home to our Father in heaven is a more desirable good than any earthly recovery of prosperity. But the soul that can say with the elegist, "The Lord is my portion," has reached the vantage ground from which the best things can be seen in their true proportions; and to such a soul no advent of temporal prosperity can compare with the gaining of its one prized possession. In the triplet of verses that follows the pointed phrase which rebukes complaint for suffering by attributing it to sin the poet conducts us to those high regions where the more spiritual truth concerning these matters can be appreciated.

The form of the language here passes into the plural. Already we have been made to feel that the man who has seen affliction is a representative sufferer, although he is describing his own personal distresses. The immediately preceding clause seems to point to the sinful Israelite generally, in its vague reference to a "living man." [Lamentations 3:39] Now there is a transition in the movement of the elegy, and the solitary voice gives place to a chorus, the Jews as a body appearing before God to pour out their confessions in common. According to his usual method the elegist makes the transition quite abruptly, without any explanatory preparation. The style resembles that of an oratorio, in which solo and chorus alternate with close sequence. In the present instance the effect is not that of dramatic variety, because we feel the vital sympathy that the poet cherishes for his people, so that their experience is as his experience. It is a faint shadow of the condition of the great Sin-bearer, of whom it could be said, "In all their affliction He was afflicted." [Isaiah 63:9] Before it is possible to return to God, before the desire to return is even awakened, a much less inviting action must be undertaken. The first and greatest hindrance to reconciliation with our Father is our failure to recognise that any such reconciliation is necessary. The most deadening effect of sin is seen in the fact that it prevents the sinner from perceiving that he is at enmity with God at all, although by everything he does he proclaims his rebellion. The Pharisee of the parable cannot be justified, cannot really approach God at all, because he will not admit that he needs any justification, or is guilty of any conduct that separates him from God. Just as the most hopeless state of ignorance is that in which there is a serene unconsciousness of any deficiency of knowledge, so the most abandoned condition of guilt is the inability to perceive the very existence of guilt. The sick man who ignores his disease will not. resort to a physician for the cure of it. If the soul’s quarrel with her Lord is ever to be ended it must be discovered. Therefore the first step will be in the direction of self-examination.

We are led to look in this direction by the startling thought with which the previous triplet closes. If the calamities bewailed are the chastisements of sin it is necessary for this sin to be sought out. The language of the elegist suggests that we are not aware of the nature of our own conduct, and that it is only by some serious effort that we can make ourselves acquainted with it, for this is what he implies when he represents the distressed people resolving to "search and try" their ways. Easy as it may seem in words, experience proves that nothing is more difficult in practice than to fulfil the precept of the philosopher, "Know thyself." The externalism in which most of our lives are spent makes the effort to look within a painful contradiction of habit. When it is attempted pride and prejudice face the inquirer, and too often quite hide the true self from view. If the pursuit is pushed on in spite of these hindrances the result may prove to be a sad surprise. Sometimes we see ourselves unexpectedly revealed, and then the sight of so great a novelty amazes us. The photographer’s proof of a portrait dissatisfies the subject, not because it is a bad likeness, but rather because it is too faithful to be pleasing. A wonderful picture of Rossetti’s represents a young couple who are suddenly confronted in a lonely forest by the apparition of their two selves as simply petrified with terror at the appalling spectacle.

Even when the effort to acquire self-knowledge is strenuous and persevering, and accompanied by an honest resolution to accept the results, however unwelcome they may be, it often fails for lack of a standard of judgment. We compare ourselves with ourselves-our present with our past. or at best our actual life with our ideals. But this is a most illusory process, and its limits are too narrow. Or we compare ourselves with our neighbours-a possible advance, but still a most unsatisfactory method; for we know so little of them, all of us dwelling more or less like stars apart, and none of us able to sound the abysmal depths of another’s personality. Even if we could fix this standard it too would be very illusory, because those people with whom we are making the comparison, quite as much as we ourselves, may be astray, just as a whole planetary system, though perfectly balanced in the mutual relations of its own constituent worlds, may yet be our of its orbit, and rushing on all together towards some awful common destruction.

A more trustworthy standard may be found in the heart-searching words of Scripture, which prove to be as much a revelation of man to himself as one of God to man. This Divine test reaches its perfection in the historical presentation of our Lord. We discover our actual characters most effectually when we compare our conduct with the conduct of Jesus Christ. As the Light of the world, He leads the world to see itself. He is the great touchstone of character. During His earthly life hypocrisy was detected by His searching glance; but that was not admitted by the hypocrite. It is when He comes to us spiritually that His promise is fulfilled, and the Comforter convinces of sin as well as of righteousness and judgment. Perhaps it is not so eminently desirable as Burns would have us believe, that we should see ourselves as others see us; but it is supremely important to behold ourselves in the pure, searching light of the Spirit of Christ.

We may be reminded, on the other hand, that too much introspection is not wholesome, that it begets morbid ways of thought, paralyses the energies, and degenerates into insipid sentimentality. No doubt it is best that the general tendency of the mind should be towards the active duties of life. But to admit this is not to deny that there may be occasions when the most ruthless self-examination becomes a duty of first importance. A season of severe chastisement such as that to which the Book of Lamentations refers, is one that calls most distinctly for the exercise of this rare duty. We cannot make our daily meal of drugs; but drugs may be most necessary in sickness. Possibly, if we were in a state of perfectly sound spiritual health, it might be well for us never to spare a thought for ourselves from our complete absorption with the happy duties of a full and busy life. But since we are far from being thus healthy, since we err and fail and sin, time devoted to the discovery of our faults may be exceedingly well spent.

Then while a certain kind of self-study is always mischievous-the sickly habit of brooding over one’s feelings-it is to be observed that the elegist does not recommend this. His language points in quite another direction. It is not emotion but action that he is concerned with. The searching is to be into our "ways," the course of our conduct. There is an objectivity in this inquiry, though it is turned inward, that contrasts strongly with the investigation of shadowy sentiments. Conduct, too, is the one ground of the judgment of God. Therefore the point of supreme importance to ourselves is to determine whether conduct is right or wrong. With this branch of self-examination we are not in so much danger of falling into complete delusions as when we are considering less tangible questions. Thus this is at once the most wholesome, the most necessary, and the most practicable process of introspection.

The particular form of conduct here referred to should be noted. The word "ways" suggests habit and continuity. These are more characteristic than isolated deeds-short spasms of virtue or sudden falls before temptation. The final judgment will be according to the life, not its exceptional episodes. A man lives his habits. He may be capable of better things, he may be liable to worse; but he is what he does habitually. The world will applaud him for some outburst of heroism in which he rises for the moment above the sordid level of his everyday life, or execrate him for his shameful moment of self-forgetfulness; and the world will have this amount of justice in its action, that the capacity for the occasional is itself a permanent attribute, although the opportunity for the active working of the latent good or evil is rare. The startling outburst may be a revelation of old but hitherto hidden "ways." It must be so to some extent; for no man wholly belies his own nature unless he is mad-beside himself, as we say. Still it may not be so entirely, or even chiefly; the surprised self may not be the normal self, often is not. Meanwhile our main business in self-examination is to trace the course of the unromantic beaten track, the long road on which we travel from morning to evening through the whole day of life.

The result of this search into the character of their ways on the part of the people is that it is found to be necessary to forsake them forthwith; for the next idea is in the form of a resolution to turn out of them, nay, to turn back, retracing the footsteps that have gone astray, in order to come to God again. These ways are discovered, then, to be bad-vicious in themselves, and wrong in their direction. They run down-hill, away from the home of the soul, and towards the abodes of everlasting darkness. When this fact is perceived it becomes apparent that some complete change must be made. This is a case of ending our old ways, not mending them. Good paths may be susceptible of improvement. The path of the just should "shine more and more unto the perfect day." But here things are too hopelessly bad for any attempt at amelioration. No engineering skill will ever transform the path that points straight to perdition into one that conducts us up to the heights of heaven. The only chance of coming to walk in the right way is to forsake the wrong way altogether, and make an entirely new start. Here, then, we have the Christian doctrine of conversion - a doctrine which always appears extravagant to people who take superficial views of sin, but one that will be appreciated just in proportion to the depth and seriousness of our ideas of its guilt. Nothing contributes more to unreality in religion than strong language on the nature of repentance apart from a corresponding consciousness of the tremendous need of a most radical change. This deplorable mischief must be brought about when indiscriminate exhortations to the extreme practice of penitence are addressed to mixed congregations. It cannot be right to press the necessity of conversion upon young children and the carefully sheltered and lovingly trained youth of Christian homes in the language that applies to their unhappy brothers and sisters who have already made shipwreck of life. This statement is liable to misapprehension; doubtless to some readers it will savour of the light views of sin deprecated above, and point to the excuses of the Pharisee. Nevertheless it must be considered if we would avoid the characteristic sin of the Pharisee, hypocrisy. It is unreasonable to suppose that the necessity of a complete conversion can be felt by the young and comparatively innocent as it should be felt by abandoned profligates, and the attempt of the preacher to force it on their relatively pure consciences is a direct incentive to cant. The fifty-first Psalm is the confession of his crime by a murderer; Augustine’s "Confessions" are the outpourings of a man who feels that he has been dragging his earlier life through the mire; Bunyan’s "Grace Abounding" reveals the memories of a rough soldier’s shame and folly. No good can come of the unthinking application of such utterances to persons whose history and character are entirely different from those of the authors.

On the other hand, there are one or two further considerations which should be borne in mind. Thus it must not be forgotten that the greatest sinner is not necessarily the man whose guilt is most glaringly apparent; nor that sins of the heart count with God as equivalent to obviously wicked deeds committed in the full light of day; nor that guilt cannot be estimated absolutely, by the bare evil done, without regard to the opportunities, privileges, and temptations of the offender. Then, the more we meditate upon the true nature of sin, the more deeply must we be impressed with its essential evil even when it is developed only slightly in comparison with the hideous crimes and vices that blacken the pages of history-as, for example, in the careers of a Nero or a Caesar Borgia. The sensitive conscience does not only feel the exact guilt of its individual offences, but also, and much more, "the exceeding sinfulness of sin." When we consider their times and the state of the society in which they lived, we must feel that neither Augustine nor Bunyan had been so wicked as the intensity of the language of penitence they both employed might lead us to suppose. It is quite foreign to the nature of heartfelt repentance to measure degrees of guilt. In the depth of its shame and humiliation no language of contrition seems to be too strong to give it adequate expression. But this must be entirely spontaneous; it is most unwise to impose it from without in the form of an indiscriminate appeal to abject penitence.

Then it is also to be observed that while the fundamental change described in the New Testament as a new birth cannot well be regarded as a thing of repeated occurrence, we may have occasion for many conversions. Every time we turn into the wrong path we put ourselves under the necessity of turning back if ever we would walk in the right path again. What is that but conversion? It is a pity that we should be hampered by the technicality of a term. This may lead to another kind of error-the error of supposing that if we are once converted we are converted for life, that we have crossed our Rubicon, and cannot recross it. Thus while the necessity of a primary conversion may be exaggerated in addresses to the young, the greater need of subsequent conversions may be neglected in the thoughts of adults. The "converted" person who relies on the one act of his past experience to serve as a talisman for all future time is deluding himself in a most dangerous manner. Can it be asserted that Peter had not been "converted," in the technical sense, when he fell through undue self-confidence, and denied his Master with "oaths and curses?"

Again-a very significant fact-the return is described in positive language. It is a coming back to God, not merely a departure from the old way of sin. The initial impulse towards a better life springs more readily from the attraction of a new hope than from the repulsion of a loathed evil. The hopeful repentance is exhilarating, while that which is only born of the disgust and horror of sin is dismally depressing. Lurid pictures of evil rarely beget penitence. The "Newgate Calendar" is not to be credited with the reformation of criminals. Even Dante’s "Inferno" is no gospel. In prosecuting his mission as the prophet of repentance John the Baptist was not content to declare that the axe was laid at the root of the tree; the pith of his exhortation was found in the glad tidings that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." St. Paul shows that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance. Besides, the repentance that is induced by this means is of the best character. It escapes the craven slavishness of fear; it is not a merely selfish shrinking from the lash; it is inspired by the pure love of a worthy end. Only remorse lingers in the dark region of regrets for the past. Genuine repentance always turns a hopeful look towards a better future. It is of little use to exorcise the spirit of evil if the house is not to be tenanted by the spirit of good. Thus the end and purpose of repentance is to be reunited with God.

Following up his general exhortation to return to God, the elegist adds a particular one, in which the process of the new movement is described. It takes the form of a prayer from the heart. The resolution is to lift up the heart with the hands. The erect posture, with the hands stretched out to heaven, which was the Hebrew attitude in prayer, had often been assumed in meaningless acts of formal worship before there was any real approach to God or any true penitence. Now the repentance will be manifested by the reality of the prayer. Let the heart also be lifted up. The true approach to God is an act of the inner life, to which in its entirety-thought, affection, and will-the Jewish metaphor of the heart points.

Lastly, the poet furnishes the returning penitents with the very language of the heart’s prayer, which is primarily confession. The doleful fact that God has not pardoned His people is directly stated, but not in the first place. This statement is preceded by a clear and unreserved confession of sin. Repentance must be followed by confession. It is not a private matter concerning the offender alone. Since the offence was directed against another, the amendment must begin with a humble admission of the wrong that has been done. Thus, immediately the prodigal son is met by his father he sobs out his confession; [Luke 15:21] and St. John assigns confession as an essential preliminary to forgiveness, saying: "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.". [1 John 1:9]


Verses 43-54

GRIEVING BEFORE GOD

Lamentations 3:43-54

AS might have been expected, the mourning patriot quickly forsakes the patch of sunshine which lights up a few verses of this elegy. But the vision of it has not come in vain; for it leaves gracious effects to tone the gloomy ideas upon which the meditations of the poet now return, like birds of the night hastening back to their darksome haunts. In the first place, his grief is no longer solitary. It is enlarged in its sympathies so as to take in the sorrows of others. Purely selfish trouble tends to become a mean and sordid thing. If we are not yet freed from our own pain some element of a nobler nature will be imported into it when we can find room for the larger thoughts that the contemplation of the distresses of others arouses. But a greater change than this has taken place. The "man who hath seen affliction" now feels himself to be in the presence of God. Speaking for others as well as for himself he pours out his lamentations before God. In the first part of the elegy he had only mentioned the Divine name as that of his great Antagonist; now it is the name of his close Confidant.

Then the elegist is here giving voice to the people’s penitent confession and prayer. This is another feature of the changed situation. An unqualified admission of the truth that the sufferings of Israel are just the merited punishment of the people’s sin has come between the complaints with which the poem opens, and the renewed expressions of grief.

Still, when all due allowance is made for these improvements, the renewed outburst of grief is sufficiently dismal. The people are supposed to represent themselves as being hunted down like helpless fugitives, and slain without pity by God, who has wrapped Himself in a mantle of anger, which is as a cloud impenetrable to the prayers of His miserable victims. [Lamentations 3:44] This description of their helpless state follows immediately after an. outpouring of prayer. It would seem, therefore, that the poet conceived that this particular utterance was hindered from reaching the ear of God. Now in many cases it may be that a feeling such as is here expressed is purely subjective and imaginary. The soul’s cry of agony passes out into the night, and dies away into silence, without eliciting a whisper of response. Yet it is not necessary to conclude that the cry is not heard. The closest attention may be the most silent. But, it may be objected, this possibility only aggravates the evil; for it is better not to hear at all than to hear and not to heed. Will any one attribute such stony indifference to. God? God may attend, and yet He may not speak to us-speech not being the usual form of: Divine response. He may be helping us most effectually in silence, unperceived by us, at the very moment when we imagine that He has completely deserted us. If we were more keenly alive to the signs of His coming we should be less hasty to despair at the failure of our prayers. The priests of Baal may scream, "O Baal, hear us!" from morning to night till their frenzy sinks into despair; but that is no reason why men and women who worship a spiritual God should come to the conclusion that their inability to wrest a sign from heaven is itself a sign of desertion by Him to whom they call. The oracle may be dumb; but the God whom we worship is not limited to the utterance of prophetic voices for the expression of His will. He hears, even if in silence; and, in truth, He also answers, though we are too deaf in our unbelief to discern the still small voice of His Spirit.

But can we say that the idea of the Divine disregard of prayer is always and only imaginary? Are the clouds that come between us and God invariably earth-born? Does He never really wrap Himself in the garment of wrath? Surely we dare not say so much. The anger of God is as real as His love. No being can be perfectly holy and not feel a righteous indignation in the presence of sin. But if God is angry, and while He is so, He cannot at the same time be holding friendly intercourse with the people who are provoking His wrath. Then the Divine anger must be as a thick, impervious curtain between the prayers of the sinful and the gracious hearing of God. The universal confession of the need of an atonement is a witness to the perception of this condition by mankind. Whether we are dealing with the crude notions of ancient sacrifice, or with the high thoughts that circle about Calvary, the same spiritual instinct presses for recognition. We may try to reason it down, but it persistently reasserts itself. Most certainly it is not the teaching of Scripture that the only condition of salvation is prayer. The Gospel is not to the effect that we are to be saved by our own petitions. The penitent is taught to feel that without Christ and the cross his prayers are of no avail for his salvation. Even if they knew no respite still they would never atone for sin. Is not this an axiom of evangelical doctrine? Then the prayers that are offered in the old unreconciled condition must fall back on the head of the vain petitioner, unable to penetrate the awful barrier that he has himself caused to be raised between his cries and the heavens where God dwells.

Turning from the contemplation of the hopeless failure of prayer the lament naturally falls into an almost despairing wail of grief. The state of the Jews is painted in the very darkest colours. God has made them as no better than the refuse people cast out of their houses, or the very sweepings of the streets-not fit even to be trampled under foot of men. [Lamentations 3:45] This is their position among the nations. The poet seems to be alluding to the exceptional severity with which the obstinate defenders of Jerusalem had been treated by their exasperated conquerors. The neighbouring tribes had been compelled to succumb beneath the devasting wave of the Babylonian invasion; but since none of them had offered so stubborn a resistance to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar none of them had been punished by so severe a scourge of vengeance. So it has been repeatedly with the unhappy people who have encountered unparalleled persecutions through the long weary ages of their melancholy history. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes the Jews were the most insulted and cruelly outraged victims of Syrian tyranny. When their long tragedy reached a climax at the final siege of Jerusalem by Titus, the more liberal-minded Roman government laid on them harsh punishments of exile, slavery, torture, and death, such as it rarely inflicted on a fallen foe-for with statesmanlike wisdom the Romans preferred, as a rule, conciliation to extermination; but in the case of this one unhappy city of Jerusalem the almost unique fate of the hated and dreaded city of Carthage was repeated. So it was in the Middle Ages, as "Ivanhoe" vividly shows: and so it is today in the East of Europe, as the fierce Juden-hetze is continually proving. The irony of history is nowhere more apparent than in the fact that the "favoured" people, the "chosen" people of Jehovah, should have been treated so continuously as "the offscouring and refuse in the midst of the peoples." As privilege and responsibility always go hand in hand, so also do blessing and suffering-the Jew hated, the Church persecuted, the Christ crucified. We cannot say that this paradox is simply "a mysterious dispensation of Providence": because in the case of Israel, at all events in the early ages, the unparalleled misery was traced to the abuse of unparalleled favour. But this does not exhaust the mystery, for in the most striking instances innocence suffers. We can have no satisfaction in our view of these contradictions till we see the glory of the martyr’s crown and the even higher glory of the triumph of Christ and His people over failure, agony, insult, and death; but just in proportion as we are able to lift up the eyes of faith to the blessedness of the unseen world, we shall be able to discover that even here and now there is a pain that is better than pleasure, and a shame that is truest glory. These truths, however, are not readily perceived at the time of endurance, when the iron is entering into the soul. The elegist feels the degradations of his people most keenly, and he represents them complaining how their enemies rage at them as with open mouths-belching forth gross insults, shouting curses, like wild beasts ready to devour their hapless victims. [Lamentations 3:46] There seems to be nothing in store for them but the terrors of death, the pit of destruction. [Lamentations 3:47]

At the contemplation of this extremity of hopeless misery the poet drops the plural number, in which he has been personating his people, as abruptly as he assumed it a few verses earlier, and bewails the dread calamities in his own person. [Lamentations 3:48] Then, in truly Jeremiah-like fashion, he describes his incessant weeping for the woes of the wretched citizens of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. The reference to "the daughters of my city" [Lamentations 3:51] seems to be best explained as a figurative expression for the neighbouring places, all of which it would seem had shared in the devastation produced by the great wave of conquest which had overwhelmed the capital. But the previous mention of "the daughter of my people," [Lamentations 3:48] followed as it is by this phrase about "the daughters of my city," strikes a deeper note of compassion. These places contained many defenceless women, the indescribable cruelty of whose fate when they fell into the hands of the brutal heathen soldiery was one of the worst features of the whole ghastly scene; and the wretchedness of the once proud city and its dependencies when they were completely overthrown is finely represented so as to appeal most effectually to our sympathy by a metaphor that pictures them as hapless maidens, touching us like Spenser’s piteous picture of the forlorn Una, deserted in the forest and left a prey to its savage denizens. Like Una, too, the daughters in this metaphor claim the chivalry which our English poet has so exquisitely portrayed as awakened even in the breast of a wild animal. The woman of Europe is far removed from her sister in the East, who still follows the ancient type in submitting to the imputation of weakness as a claim for consideration. But this is because Europe has learnt that strength of character - in which woman can be at least the equal of man - is more potent in a community civilised in the Christian way than strength of muscle. Where the more brutal forces are let loose the duties of chivalry are always in requisition. Then it is apparent that deference to the claims of women for protection produces a civilising effect in softening the roughness of men. It is difficult to say it today in the teeth of the just claims that women are making, and still more difficult in face of what women are now achieving, in spite of many relics of barbarism in the form of unfair restrictions, but yet it must be asserted that the feebleness of femininity-in the old-fashioned sense of the word-pervades these poems, and is their most touching characteristic, so that much of the pathos and beauty of poetry such as that of these elegies is to be traced to representations of woman wronged and suffering and calling for the sympathy of all beholders.

The poet is moved to tears-quite unselfish roars, tears of patriotic grief, tears of compassion for helpless suffering. Here again the modern Anglo-Saxon habit makes it difficult for us to appreciate his conduct as it deserves. We think it a dreadful thing for a man to be seen weeping; and a feeling of shame accompanies such an outburst of unrestrained distress. But surely there are holy tears, and tears which it is an honour for any one to be capable of shedding. If mere callousness is the explanation of dry eyes in view of sorrow, there can be no credit for such a condition. This is not the restraint of tears. Nothing is easier than for the unfeeling not to weep. Nor can it be maintained that it is always necessary to restrain the outward expression of sympathy in accordance with its most natural impulses. Our Lord was strong; yet we could never wish that the evangelist had not had occasion to write the ever memorable sentence, "Jesus wept." Sufferers lose much, not only from lack of sympathy, but also from a shy concealment of the fellow-feeling that is truly experienced. There are seasons of keenest agony, when to weep with those who weep is the only possible expression of brotherly kindness; and this may be a very real act of love, appreciably alleviating suffering. A little courage on the part of Englishmen in daring to weep would knit the ties of brotherhood more closely. At present a chill reserve rather than any actual coldness of heart separates people who might be much more helpful to one another if they could but bring themselves to break down this barrier.

But while the poet is thus expressing his large patriotic grief he cannot forget his own private sorrows. They are all parts of one common woe. So he returns to his personal experience, and adds some graphic details that enable us to picture him in the midst of his misery. [Lamentations 3:52] Though he had never provoked the enemy, he was chased like a bird, flung into a dungeon, where a stone was hurled down upon him, and where the water was lying so deep that he was completely submerged. There is no reason to question that definite statements such as these represent the exact experience of the writer. At the first glance they call to our minds the persecutions inflicted on Jeremiah by his own people. But the allusion would be peculiarly inappropriate, and the cases do not quite fit together.

The poet has been bewailing the sufferings of the Jews at the hands of the Chaldaeans, and he seems to identify his own troubles in the closest way with the general flood of calamities that swept over his nation. It would be quite out of place for him to insert here a reminder of earlier troubles which his own people had inflicted upon him. Besides, the particulars do not exactly agree with what we learn of the prophet’s hardships from his own pen. The dungeon into which he was flung was very foul, and he sank in the mire, but it. is expressly stated that there was no water in it, and there is no mention of stoning. [Jeremiah 38:6] There were many sufferers in that dark time of tumult and outrage whose fate was as hard as that of Jeremiah.

A graphic picture like this helps us to imagine the fearful accompaniments of the destruction of Jerusalem much better than any general summary. As we gaze at this one scene among the many miseries that followed the siege - the poet hunted out and run down, his capture and conveyance to the dungeon, apparently without a shadow of a trial, the danger of drowning and the misery of standing in the water that had gathered in a place so utterly unfit for human habitation, the needless additional cruelty of the stone throwing-there rises before us a picture which cannot but impress our minds with the unutterable wretchedness of the sufferers from such a calamity as the siege of Jerusalem. Of course there must have been some special reason for the exceptionally severe treatment of the poet. What this was we cannot tell. If the same patriotic spirit burned in his soul in the midst of the war as we now find at the time of later reflection, it would be most reasonable to conjecture that the ardent lover of his country had done or said something to irritate the enemy, and possibly that as he devoted his poetic gifts at a subsequent time to lamenting the overthrow of his city, he may have employed them with a more practical purpose among the battle scenes to write some inspiring martial ode in which we may be sure he would not have spared the ruthless invader. But then he says his persecution was without a cause. He may have been undeservedly suspected of acting as a spy. It is only by chance that now and again we get a glimpse of the backwaters of a great flood such as that which was now devastating the land of Judah; most of the dreary scene is shrouded in gloom.

Lastly, we must not fail to remember, in reading these expressions of patriotic and personal grief, that they are the outpourings of the heart of the poet before God. They are all addressed to God’s ear; they are all part of a prayer. Thus they illustrate the way in which prayer takes the form of confiding in God. It is a great relief to be able simply to tell Him everything. Perhaps, however, here we may detect a note of complaint; but if so it is not a note of rebellion or of unbelief. Although the evils from which the elegist and his people are suffering so grievously are attributed to God in the most uncompromising manner, the writer does not hesitate to look to God for deliverance. Thus in the very midst of his lamentations he says that his weeping is to continue "till the Lord look down, and behold from heaven." [Lamentations 3:50] He will not cease weeping until this happens; but he does not expect to have to spend all the remainder of his days in tears. He is assured that God will hear, and answer, and deliver. The time of the Divine response is quite unknown to him; it may be still far off, and there may be much weary waiting to be endured first. But it will come, arid if no one can tell how long the interval of trial may be, so also no one can say but that the deliverance may arrive suddenly and with a surprise of mercy. Thus the poet weeps on, but in undying hope.

This is the right attitude of the Christian mourner. We cannot penetrate the mystery of God’s times; but that they are in His own hands is not to be denied. Therefore the test of faith is often given in the necessity for indefinite waiting. To the man who trusts God there is always a future. Whatever such a man may have to endure he should find a place in his plaint for the word "until." He is not plunged into everlasting night. He has but to endure until the day dawn.


Verses 55-66

DE PROFUNDIS

Lamentations 3:55-66

As this third elegy-the richest and the most elaborate of the five that constitute the Book of Lamentations-draws to a close it retains its curious character of variability, not aiming at any climax, but simply winding on till its threefold acrostics are completed by the limits of the Hebrew alphabet, like a river that is monotonous in the very succession of its changes, now flowing through a dark gorge, then rippling in clear sunlight, and again plunging into gloomy caverns. The beauty and brightness of this very variegated poem are found at its centre. Sadder thoughts follow. But these are not so wholly complaining as the opening passages had been. There is one thread of continuity that may be traced right through the series of changes which occupy the latter part of the poem. The poet having once turned to the refuge of prayer never altogether forsakes it. The meditations as much as the petitions that here occur are all directed to God.

A peculiarity of the last portion of the elegy that claims special attention is the interesting reminiscence with which the poet finds encouragement for his present prayers. He is recalling the scenes of that most distressing period of his life, the time when he had been cast into a flooded dungeon. If ever he had come near to death it must have been then: though his life was spared the misery of his condition had been extreme. While in this most wretched situation the persecuted patriot cried to God for help, and as he now recollects for his present encouragement, he received a distinct and unmistakable answer. The scene is most impressive. As it shapes itself to his memory, the victim of tyranny is in the lowest dungeon. This phrase suggests the thought of the awful Hebrew Sheol. So dark was his experience and so near was the sufferer to death, it seems to him as though he had, been indeed plunged down into the very abode of the dead. Yet here he found utterance for prayer. It was the prayer of utter extremity, almost the last wild cry of a despairing soul, yet not quite, for that is no prayer at all, all prayer requiring some real faith, if only as a grain of mustard seed. Moreover, the poet states that he called upon the name of God.

Now in the Bible the name always stands for the attributes which it connotes. To call on God’s name is to make mention of some of His known and revealed characteristics. The man who will do this is more than one "feeling after God"; he has a definite conception of the nature and disposition of the Being to whom he is addressing himself. Thus it happens that old, familiar ideas of God, as He had been known in the days of light and joy, rise up in the heart of the miserable man, and awaken a longing desire to seek the help of One so great and good and merciful. Just in proportion to the fulness of the meaning of the name of God as it is conceived by us, will our prayers win definiteness of aim and strength of wing. The altar to "an unknown god" can excite but the feeblest and vaguest devotion. Inasmuch as our Lord has greatly enriched the contents of the name of God by His full revelation of the Divine Father, to us Christians there has come a more definite direction and a more powerful impulse for prayer. Even though this is a prayer de profundis it is an enlightened prayer. We may believe that, like a star seen from the depths of a well which excludes the glare of day, the significance of the sacred Name shone out to the sufferer with a beauty never before perceived when he looked up to heaven from the darkness of his pit of misery.

It has been suggested that in this passage the elegist is following the sixty-ninth psalm, and that perhaps that psalm is his own composition and the expression of the very prayer to which he is here referring. At all events, the psalm exactly fits the situation; and therefore it may be taken as a perfect illustration of the kind of prayer alluded to. The psalmist is "in deep mire, where there is no standing"; he has "come into deep waters, where the floods overthrow" him; he is persecuted by enemies who hate him "without a cause"; he has been weeping till his eyes have failed. Meanwhile he has been waiting for God, in prayers mingled with confessions. It is his zeal for God’s house that has brought him so near to death. He beseeches God that the flood may not be allowed to overwhelm him, nor "the pit shut her mouth upon him." He concludes with an invocation of curses upon the heads of his enemies. All these as well as some minor points agree very closely with our poet’s picture of his persecutions and the prayer he here records.

Read in the light of the elegist’s experience, such a prayer as that of the psalm cannot be taken as a model for daily devotion. It is a pity that our habitual use of the Psalter should encourage this application of it. The result is mischievous in several ways. It tends to make our worship unreal, because the experience of the psalmist, even when read metaphorically, as it was probably intended to be read, is by no means a type of the normal condition of human life. Besides, in so far as we bring ourselves to sympathise with this piteous outcry of a distressed soul, we reduce our worship to a melancholy plaint, when it should be a joyous anthem of praise. At the same time, we unconsciously temper the language we quote with the less painful feelings of our own experience, so that its force is lost upon us.

Yet the psalm is of value as a revelation of a soul’s agony relieved by prayer; and there are occasions when its very words can be repeated by men and women who are indeed overwhelmed by trouble. If we do not spoil the occasional by attempting to make it habitual it is wonderful to see how rich the Bible is in utterances to suit all cases and all conditions. Such an outpouring of a distressed heart as the elegist hints at and the psalmist illustrates, is itself full of profound significance. The stirring of a soul to its depths is a revelation of its depths. This revelation prevents us from taking petty views of human nature. No one can contemplate the Titanic struggle of Laocoon or the immeasurable grief of Niobe without a sense of the tragic greatness of which human life is capable. We live so much on the surface that we are in danger of forgetting that life is not always a superficial thing. But when a volcano bursts out of the quiet plain of everyday existence, we are startled into the perception that there must be hidden fires which we may not have suspected before. And, further, when the soul in its extremity is seen to be turning for refuge to God, the revelation of its Gethsemane gives a new meaning to the very idea of prayer. Here is prayer indeed, and at the sight of such a profound reality we are shamed into doubting whether we have ever begun to pray at all, so stiff and chill do our utterances to the Unseen now appear to be in comparison with this Jacob-like wrestling.

Immediately after mentioning the fact of his prayer the elegist adds that this was heard by God. His cry rose up from "the lowest dungeon" and reached the heights of heaven. And yet we cannot credit this to the inherent vigour of prayer. If a petition can thus wing its way to heaven, that is because it is of heavenly origin. There is no difficulty in making air to rise above water; the difficulty is to sink it; and if any could be taken to the bottom of the sea, the greater the depth descended the swifter would it shoot up. Since all true prayer is an inspiration it cannot spend itself until it has, so to speak, restored the equilibrium by returning to its natural sphere. But the elegist puts the case another way. In His great condescension God stoops to the very lowest depths to find one of His distressed children. It is not hard to make the prayer of the dungeon reach the ear of God, because God is in the dungeon. He is most near when He is most needed.

The prayer was more than heard; it was answered there was a Divine voice in response to this cry to God, a voice that reached the ear of the desolate prisoner in the silence of his dungeon. It consisted of but two words, but those two words were clear and unmistakable, and quite sufficient to satisfy the listener. The voice said, "Fear not." [Lamentations 3:57] That was enough.

Shall we doubt the reality of the remarkable experience that the elegist here records? Or can we explain it away by reference to the morbid condition of the mind of a prisoner enduring the punishment of solitary confinement? It is said that this unnatural punishment tends to develop insanity in its miserable victims. But the poet is now reviewing the occurrence, which made so deep an impression on his mind at the time, in the calm of later reflection; and evidently he has no doubt of its reality. It has nothing in it of the wild fancy of a disordered brain. Lunacy raves; this simple message is calm. And it is just such a message as God might be expected to give if He spoke at all-just like Him, we may say. To this remark some doubting critic may reply, "Exactly; and therefore the more likely to have been imagined by the expectant worshipper." But such an inference is not psychologically correct. The reply is not in harmony with the tone of the prayer, but directly opposed to it. Agony and terror cannot generate an assurance of peace and safety. The poison does not secrete its own antidote. Here is an indication of the presence of another voice, because the words breathe another spirit. Besides, this is not an unparalleled experience.

Most frequently, no doubt, the answer to prayer is not vocal, and yet the reality of it may not be any the less certain to the seeking soul. It may be most definite, although it comes in a deed rather than in a word. Then the grateful recipient can exclaim with the psalmist-

"This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,

And saved him out of all his troubles.". [Psalms 34:6]

Here is an answer, but not a spoken one, only an action, in saving from trouble. In other cases, however, the reply approaches nearer the form of a message from heaven. When we remember that God is our Father the wonder is not that at rare intervals these voices have been heard, but rather that they are so infrequent. It is so easy to become the victim of delusions that some caution is requisite to assure ourselves of the existence of Divine utterances. The very idea of the occurrence of such phenomena is discredited by the fact that those persons who profess most eagerly to have heard supernatural voices are commonly the subjects of hysteria; and when the voices become frequent this fact is taken by physicians as a symptom of approaching insanity. Among semi-civilised people madness is supposed to be closely allied to inspiration. The mantis is not far from the mad man. Such a man is not the better off for the march of civilisation. The ancients would have honoured him as a prophet; we shut him up in a lunatic asylum. But these discouraging considerations do not exhaust the question. Delusions are not in themselves disproofs of the existence of the occurrences they emulate. Each case must be taken on its own merits; and when, as in that which is now under our consideration, the character of the incident points to a conviction of its solid reality, it is only a mark of narrowness of thought to refuse to lift it out of the category of idle fancies.

But, quite apart from the question of the sounding of Divine voices in the bodily ear, the more important truth to be considered is that in some way, if only by spiritual impression, God does most really speak to His children, and that He speaks now as surely as He spoke in the days of Israel. We have no new prophets and apostles who can give us fresh revelations in the form of additions to our Bible. But that is not what is meant. The elegist did not receive a statement of doctrine in answer to his prayer, nor, on this occasion, even help for the writing of his inspired poetry. The voice to which he here alludes was of quite a different character.

This was in the olden times; but if then, why not also now? Evidently the elegist regarded it as a rare and wonderful occurrence-a single experience to which he looked back in after years with the interest one feels in a vivid recollection which rises like a mountain, clean cut against the sky, above the mists that so quickly gather on the low plains of the uneventful past. Perhaps it is only in one of the crises of life that such an indubitable message is sent-when the soul is in the lowest dungeon, in extremis, crying out of the darkness, helpless if not yet hopeless, overwhelmed, almost extinguished. But if we listened for it, who can tell but that the voice might not be so rare? We do not believe in it; therefore we do not hear it. Or the noise of the world’s great loom and the busy thoughts of our own hearts drown the music that still floats down from heaven to ears that are tuned to catch its notes; for it does not come in thunder, and we must ourselves be still if we would hear the still small voice, inwardly still, still in soul, stifling the chatter of self, stopping our ears to the din of the world. There are those today who tell us with calm assurance, not at all in the visionary’s falsetto notes, that they have known just what is here described by the poet-in the silence of a mountain valley, in the quiet of a sick chamber, even in the noisy crowd at a railway station.

When this is granted it is still well for us to remember that we are not dependent for Divine consolation on voices which to many must ever be as dubious as they are rare. This short message of two words is in effect the essence of teachings that can be gathered as freely from almost every page of the Bible as flowers from a meadow in May. We have the "more sure word of prophecy," and the burden of it is the same as the message of the voice that comforted the poet in his dungeon.

That message is wholly reassuring-"Fear not." So said God to the patriarch: "Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward"; [Genesis 15:1] and to His people through the prophet of the restoration: "Fear not, thou worm Jacob"; [Isaiah 41:14] and Jesus to His disciples in the storm: "Be of good cheer: it is I: be not afraid"; [Mark 6:50] and our Lord again in His parting address: "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful"; [John 14:27] and the glorified Christ to His terrified friend John, when He laid His right hand on him with the words: "Fear not; I am the first and the last; and the Living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever more, and I have the keys of death and of Hades." [Revelation 1:17-18] This is the word that God is continually speaking to His faint-hearted children. When "the burthen of the mystery," and

"the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world"

oppress, when the greater sorrows threaten to crush outright, listening for the voice of God, we may hear the message of love from a Father’s heart as though spoken afresh to each of us; for we have but to acquaint ourselves with Him to be at peace.

The elegist does not recall this scene from his past life merely in order to indulge in the pleasures of memory-generally rather melancholy pleasures, and even mocking if they are in sharp contrast to the present. His object is to find encouragement for renewed hope in the efficacy of prayer. In the complaint that he has put into the mouth of His people He has just been depicting the failure of prayer. But now he feels that if for a time God has wrapped Himself in a mantle of wrath this cannot be forever, for He who was so gracious to the cry of His servant on that ever memorable occasion will surely attend again to the appeal of distress. This is always the greatest encouragement for seeking help from God. It is difficult to find much satisfaction in what is called with an awkward inconsequence of diction the "philosophy of prayer"; the spirit of philosophy is so wholly different from the spirit of prayer. The great justification for prayer is the experience of prayer. It is only the prayerless man who is wholly sceptical on this subject. The man of prayer cannot but believe in prayer; and the more he prays and the oftener he turns to this refuge in all times of need the fuller is his assurance that God hears and answers him.

Considering how God acted as his advocate when he was in danger in the earlier crisis, and then redeemed his life, the poet points to this fact as a plea in his new necessity. [Lamentations 3:58] God will not desert the cause He has adopted. Men feel a peculiar interest in those whom they have already helped, an interest that is stronger than the sense of gratitude, for we are more attracted to our dependants than to our benefactors. If God shares this feeling, how strongly must He be drawn to us by His many former favours. The language of the elegist gains a great enrichment of meaning when read in the light of the Christian Gospel. In a deep sense, of which he could have had but the least glimmering of apprehension, we can appeal to God as the Redeemer of our life, for we can take the Cross of Christ as our plea. St. Paul makes use of this strongest of all arguments when He urges that if God gave His Son, and if Christ died for us, all other needful blessings, since they cannot involve so great a sacrifice, will surely follow. Accordingly, we can pray in the language of the "Dies Irae"-

"Wearily for me Thou soughtest,

On the Cross my life Thou boughtest.

Lose not all for which Thou wroughtest."

Rising from the image of the advocate to that of the magistrate the distressed man begs God to judge his cause. [Lamentations 3:59] He would have God look at his enemies-how they wrong him, insult him, make him the theme of their jesting songs. [Lamentations 3:60-63]

It would have been more to our taste if the poem had ended here, if there had been no remaining letters in the Hebrew alphabet to permit the extension of the acrostics beyond the point we have now reached. We cannot but feel that its tone is lowered at the close. The writer here proceeds to heap imprecations on the heads of his enemies. It is vain for some commentators to plead the weak excuse that the language is "prophetic." This is certainly more than the utterance of a prediction. No unprejudiced reader can deny that it reveals a desire that the oppressors may be blighted and blasted with rum, and even if the words were only a foretelling of a divinely-decreed fate they would imply a keen sense of satisfaction in the prospect, which they describe as something to be gloated over. We cannot expect this Jewish patriot to anticipate our Lord’s intercession and excuse for His enemies. Even St. Paul so far forgot himself as to treat the High Priest in a very different manner from his Master’s behaviour. But we may see here one of the worst effects of tyranny-the dark passion of revenge that it rouses in its victims. The provocation was maddening, and not only of a private nature. Think of the situation-the beloved city sacked and destroyed, the sacred temple a heap of smouldering ruins, village homesteads all over the hills of Judah wrecked and deserted; slaughter, outrage, unspeakable wrongs endured by wives and maidens, little children starved to death. Is it wonderful that the patriot’s temper was not the sweetest when he thought of the authors of such atrocities? There is no possibility of denying the fact-the fierce fires of Hebrew hatred for the oppressors of the much-suffering race here burst into a flame, and towards the end of this finest of elegies we read the dark imprecation, "Thy curse upon them!" [Lamentations 3:65]

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Lamentations 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/lamentations-3.html.

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