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277

CHAPTER XIX

LEPERS

iv. 13-16

Passing from the fate of the princes to that of the prophets and priests, we come upon a vividly dramatic scene in the streets of Jerusalem amid the terror and confusion that precede the final act of the national tragedy. The doom of the city is attributed to the crimes of her religious leaders, whose true characters are now laid bare. The citizens shrink from the guilty men with the loathing felt for lepers, and shriek to them to depart, calling them unclean, and warning them not to touch any one by the way, because there is blood upon them. Dreading the awful treatment measured out to the victims of lynch-law, they stagger through the streets in a state of bewilderment, and stumble like blind men. Fugitives and vagabonds, with the mark of Cain upon them, driven out at the gates by the impatient mob, they can find no refuge even in foreign lands, for none of the nations will receive them.

We do not know whether the poet is here describing actual events, or whether this is an imaginary picture designed to express his own feelings with regard to the persons concerned. The situation is perfectly natural, and what is narrated may very well have happened just278 as it is described. But if it is not history it is still a revelation of character, a representation of what the writer knows to be the conduct of the moral lepers, and their deserts; and as such it is most suggestive.

In the first place there is much significance in the fact that the overthrow of Jerusalem is unhesitatingly charged to the account of the sins of her prophets and priests. These once venerated men are not merely no longer protected by the sanctity of their offices from the accusations that are brought against the laity; they are singled out for a charge of exceptionally heinous wickedness which is regarded as the root cause of all the troubles that have fallen upon the Jews. The second elegy had affirmed the failure of the prophets and the vanity of their visions.251251   ii. 9, 14. This new and stronger accusation reads like a reminiscence of Jeremiah, who repeatedly speaks of the sins of the clerical class and the mischief resulting therefrom.252252   Jer. vi. 13; viii. 10; xxiii. 11, 14; xxvi. 7 ff. Evidently the terrible truth the prophet dwelt upon so much was felt by a disciple of his school to be of the most serious consequence.

The accusation is of the very gravest character. These religious leaders are charged with murder. If the elegist is recording historical occurrences he may be alluding to riots in which the feuds of rival factions had issued in bloodshed; or he may have had information of private acts of assassination. His language points to a condition in Jerusalem similar to that which was found in Rome at the Fifteenth Century, when popes and cardinals were the greatest criminals. The crimes were aggravated by the fact that the victims selected were the "righteous," perhaps men of the Jeremiah party, who had been persecuted by the officials279 of the State religion. But quite apart from these dark and tragic events, the record of which has not been preserved, if the wicked policy of their clergy had brought down on the heads of the citizens of Jerusalem the mass of calamities that accompanied the siege of the city by the Babylonians, this policy was in itself a cause of great bloodshed. The men who invited the ruin of their city were in reality the murderers of all who perished in that calamity. We know from Jeremiah's statements on the subject that the false, time-serving, popular prophets were deceivers of the people, who allayed alarm by means of lies, saying "peace, peace; when there was no peace."253253   Jer. vi. 14; viii. 11. When the deception was discovered their angry dupes would naturally hold them responsible for the results of their wickedness.

The sin of these religious leaders of Israel consists essentially in betraying a sacred trust. The priest is in charge of the Torah—traditional or written; he must have been unfaithful to his law or he could not have led his people astray. If the prophet's claims are valid this man is the messenger of Jehovah, and therefore he must have falsified his message in order to delude his audience; if, however, he has not himself heard the Divine voice he is no better than a dervish, and in pretending to speak with the authority of an ambassador from heaven he is behaving as a miserable charlatan. In the case now before us the motive for the practice of deceit is very evident. It is thirst for popularity. Truth, right, God's will—these imperial authorities count for nothing, because the favour of the people is reckoned as everything. No doubt there are times when the temptation to descend to untruthfulness280 in the discharge of a public function is peculiarly pressing. When party feeling is roused, or when a mad panic has taken possession of a community, it is exceedingly difficult to resist the current and maintain what one knows to be right in conflict with the popular movement. But in its more common occurrence this treachery cannot plead any such excuse. That truth should be trampled under foot and souls endangered merely to enable a public speaker to refresh his vanity with the music of applause is about the most despicable exhibition of selfishness imaginable. If a man who has been set in a place of trust prostitutes his privileges simply to win admiration for his oratory, or at most in order to avoid the discomfort of unpopularity or the disappointment of neglect, his sin is unpardonable.

The one form of unfaithfulness on the part of these religious leaders of Israel of which we are specially informed is their refusal to warn their reckless fellow-citizens of the approach of danger, or to bring home to their hearer's consciences the guilt of the sin for which the impending doom was the just punishment. They are the prototypes of those writers and preachers who smooth over the unpleasant facts of life. It is not easy for any one to wear the mantle of Elijah, or echo the stern desert voice of John the Baptist. Men who covet popularity do not care to be reckoned pessimists; and when the gloomy truth is not flattering to their hearers they are sorely tempted to pass on to more congenial topics. This was apparent in the Deistic optimism that almost stifled spiritual life during the Eighteenth Century. Our age is far from being optimistic; and yet the same temptation threatens to smother religion to-day. In an aristocratic age the sycophant flatters the great; in a democratic age he281 flatters the people—who are then in fact the great. The peculiar danger of our own day is that the preacher should simply echo popular cries, and voice the demands of the majority irrespective of the question of their justice. Thrust into the position of a social leader with more urgency than his predecessors of any time since the age of the Hebrew prophets, it is expected that he will lead whither the people wish to go, and if he declines to do so he is denounced as retrograde. And yet as the messenger of Heaven he should consider it his supreme duty to reveal the whole counsel of God, to speak for truth and righteousness, and therefore to condemn the sins of the democracy equally with the sins of the aristocracy. Brave labour-leaders have fallen into disfavour for telling working-men that their worst enemies were their own vices—such as intemperance. The wickedness of a responsible teacher who treasonably neglects thus to warn his brethren of danger is powerfully expressed by Ezekiel's clear, antithetical statements concerning the respective guilt of the watchman and his fellow-citizen, which show conclusively that the greatest burden of blame must rest on the unfaithful watchman.254254   Ezek. iii. 16-21.

In the hour of their exposure these wretched prophets and priests lose all sense of dignity, even lose their self-possession, and stumble about like blind men, helpless and bewildered. Their behaviour suggests the idea that they must be drunk with the blood they have shed, or overcome by the intoxication of their thirst for blood; but the explanation is that they cannot lift up their heads to look a neighbour in the face, because all their little devices have been torn to shreds,282 all their specious lies detected, all their empty promises falsified. This shame of dethroned popularity is the greatest humiliation. The unhappy man who has brought himself to live on the breath of fame cannot hide his fall in oblivion and obscurity as a private person may do. Standing in the full blaze of the world's observation which he has so eagerly focussed on himself, he has no alternative but to exchange the glory of popularity for the ignominy of notoriety.

Possibly the confusion consequent on their exposure is all that the poet is thinking of when he depicts the blind staggering of the prophets and priests. But it is not unreasonable to take this picture as an illustration of their moral condition, especially after the references to the faults of the prophets in the second elegy have directed our attention to their spiritual darkness and the vanity of their visions. When the refuge of lies in which they had trusted was swept away they would necessarily find themselves lost and helpless. They had so long worshipped falsehood, it had become so much their god that we might say, in it they had lived, and moved, and had their being. But now they have lost the very atmosphere of their lives. This is the penalty of deceit. The man who begins by using it as his tool becomes in time its victim. At first he lies with his eyes open; but the sure effect of this conduct is that his sight becomes dim and blurred, till, if he persist in the fatal course long enough, he is ultimately reduced to a condition of blindness. Joy continually mixing truth and falsehood together he loses the power of distinguishing between them. It may be supposed that at an earlier stage of their decline, if the religious leaders of Israel had been honest with regard to their own convictions they must have admitted the possible283 genuineness of those prophets of ruin whom they had persecuted in deference to popular clamour. But they had rejected all such unwelcome thoughts so persistently that in course of time they had lost the perception of them. Therefore when the truth was flashed upon their unwilling minds by the unquestionable revelation of events they were as helpless as bats and owls suddenly driven out into the daylight by an earthquake that has flung down the crumbling ruins in which they had been sheltering themselves.

The discovery of the true character of these men was the signal for a yell of execration on the part of the people by flattering whom they had obtained their livelihood, or at least all that they most valued in life. This too must have been another shock of surprise to them. Had they believed in the essential fickleness of popular favour, they would never have built their hopes upon so precarious a foundation, for they might as well have set up their dwelling on the strand that would be flooded at the next turn of the tide. History is strewn with the wreckage of fallen popular reputations of all degrees of merit, from that of the conscientious martyr who had always looked to higher ends than the applause which once encircled him, to that of the frivolous child of fortune who had known of nothing better than the world's empty admiration. We see this both in Savonarola martyred at the stake and in Beau Nash starved in a garret. There is no more pathetic scene to be gathered from the story of religion in the present century than that of Edward Irving, once the idol of society, subsequently deserted by fashion, stationing himself at a street corner to proclaim his message to a chance congregation of idlers; and his mistake was that of an honest man who had been284 misled by a delusion. Incomparably worse is the fate of the fallen favourite who has no honesty of conviction with which to comfort himself when frowned at by the heartless world that had recently fawned upon him.

The Jews show their disgust and horror for their former leaders by pelting them with the leper call. According to the law the leper must go with rent clothes and flowing hair, and his face partly covered, crying, "Unclean, unclean."255255   Lev. xiii. 45. It is evident that the poet has this familiar mournful cry in his mind when he describes the treatment of the prophets and priests. And yet there is a difference. The leper is to utter the humiliating word himself; but in the case now before us it is flung after the outcast leaders by their pitiless fellow-citizens. The alteration is not without significance. The miserable victim of bodily disease could not hope to disguise his condition. "White as snow," his well-known complaint was patent to every eye. But it is otherwise with the spiritual leprosy, sin. For a time it may be disguised, a hidden fire in the breast. When it is evident to others, too often the last man to perceive it is the offender himself; and when he himself is inwardly conscious of guilt he is tempted to wear a cloak of denial before the world. More especially is this the case with one who has been accustomed to make a profession of religion, and most of all with a religious leader. While the publican who has no character to sustain will smite his breast with self-reproaches and cry for mercy, the professional saint is blind to his own sins, partly no doubt because to admit their existence would be to shatter his profession.

285 But if the religious leader is slow to confess or even perceive his guilt, the world is keen to detect it and swift to cast it in his teeth. There is nothing that excites so much loathing; and justly so, for there is nothing that does so much harm. Such conduct is the chief provocative of practical scepticism. It matters not that the logic is unsound; men will draw rough and ready conclusions. If the leaders are corrupt the hasty inference is that the cause which is identified with their names must also be corrupt. Religion suffers more from the hypocrisy of some of her avowed champions than from the attacks of all the hosts of her pronounced foes. Accordingly a righteous indignation assails those who work such deadly mischief. But less commendable motives urge men in the same direction. Evil itself steals a triumph over good in the downfall of its counterfeit. If they knew themselves there must have been some hypocrisy on the side of the persecutors in the demonstrative zeal with which they hounded to death the once pampered children of fortune the moment they had fallen from the pedestal of respectability; for could these indignant champions of virtue deny that they had been willing accomplices in the deeds they so loudly denounced? or at least that they had not been reluctant to be pleasantly deceived, had not enquired too nicely into the credentials of the flatterers who had spoken smooth things to them? Considering what their own conduct had been, their eagerness in execrating the wickedness of their leaders was almost indecent. There is a Pecksniffian air about it. It suggests a sly hope that by thus placing themselves on the side of outraged virtue they were putting their own characters beyond the suspicion of criticism. They seem to have been too eager to make scapegoats of286 their clergy. Their action appears to show that they had some idea that even at the eleventh hour the city might be spared if it were rid of this plague of the blood-stained prophets and priests. And yet however various and questionable the motives of the assailants may have been, there is no escape from the conclusion that the wickedness they denounced so eagerly richly deserved the most severe condemnation. Wherever we meet with it, this is the leprosy of society. Disguised for a time, a secret canker in the breast of unsuspected men, it is certain to break out at length; and when it is discovered it merits a measure of indignation proportionate to the previous deception.

Exile is the doom of these guilty prophets and priests. But even in their banishment they can find no place of rest. They wander from one foreign nation to another; they are permitted to stay with none of them. Unlike our English pretenders who were allowed to take up their abode among the enemies of their country, these Jews were suspected and disliked wherever they went. They had been unfaithful to Jehovah; yet they could not proclaim themselves devotees of Baal. The heathen were not prepared to draw fine distinctions between the various factions in the Israelite camp. The world only scoffs at the quarrels of the sects. Moreover, these false, worthless leaders had been the zealots of national feeling in the old boastful days when Jeremiah had been denounced by their party as a traitor. Then they had been the most exclusive of the Jews. As they had made their bed so must they lie on it. The poet suggests no term to this melancholy fate. Perhaps while he was writing his elegy the wretched men were to his own knowledge still journeying wearily from place to place. Thus like the fratricide Cain, like the287 wandering Jew of mediæval legend, the fallen leaders of the religion of Israel find their punishment in a doom of perpetual homelessness. Is it too severe a penalty for the fatal deceit that wrought death, and so was equivalent to murder of the worst sort, cold-blooded, deliberate murder? There is a perfectly Dantesque appropriateness in it. The Inferno of the popularity-mongers is a homeless desert of unpopularity. Quiet, retiring souls and dreamy lovers of nature might derive rest and refreshment from a hermit life in the wilderness. Not so these slaves of society. Deprived of the support of their surrounding element—like jelly-fish flung on to the beach to shrivel up and perish—in banishment from city life such men must experience a total collapse. Just in proportion to the hollowness and unreality with which a man has made the pursuit of the world's applause the chief object of his life, is the dismal fate he will have to endure when, having sown the wind of vanity, he reaps the whirlwind of indignation. The ill-will of his fellow-men is hard to bear; but behind it is the far more terrible wrath of God, whose judgment the miserable time-server has totally ignored while sedulously cultivating the favour of the world.


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