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265

CHAPTER XVIII

CONTRASTS

iv. 1-12

IN form the fourth elegy is slightly different from each of its predecessors. Following the characteristic plan of the Book of Lamentations, it is an acrostic of twenty-two verses arranged in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In it we meet with the same curious transposition of two letters that is found in the second and third elegies; it has also the peculiar metre of Hebrew elegiac poetry—the very lengthy line, broken into two unequal parts. But, like the first and second, it differs from the third elegy, which repeats the acrostic letters in three successive lines, in only using each acrostic once—at the beginning of a fresh verse; and it differs from all the three first elegies, which are arranged in triplets, in having only two lines in each verse.

This poem is very artistically constructed in the balancing of its ideas and phrases. The opening section of it, from the beginning to the twelfth verse, consists of a pair of duplicate passages—the first from verse one to verse six, the second from verse seven to verse eleven, the twelfth verse bringing this part of the poem to a close by adding a reflection on the common subject of the twin passages. Thus the parallelism which we266 usually meet with in individual verses is here extended to two series of verses, we might perhaps say, two stanzas, except that there is no such formal division.

In each of these elaborately-wrought sections the elegist brings out a rich array of similes to enforce the tremendous contrast between the original condition of the people of Jerusalem and their subsequent wretchedness. The details of the two descriptions follow closely parallel lines, with sufficient diversity, both in idea and in illustration, though chiefly in illustration, to avoid tautology and to serve to heighten the general effect by mutual comparisons. Both passages open with images of beautiful and costly natural objects to which the élite of Jerusalem are compared. Next comes the violent contrast of their state after the overthrow of the city. Then turning aside to more distant scenes, each of which is more or less repellent—the lair of wild beasts in the first case, in the second the battle-field—the poet describes the much more degraded and miserable condition of his people. Both passages direct especial attention to the fate of children—the first to their starvation, the second to a perfectly ghastly scene. At this point in each part the previous daintiness of the upbringing of the more refined classes is contrasted with the condition of degradation worse than that of savages to which they have been reduced. Each passage concludes with a reference to those deeper facts of the case which make it a sign of the wrath of heaven against exceptionally guilty sinners.

The elegist begins with an evident allusion to the consequences of the burning of the temple, which we learn from the history was effected by the Babylonian general Nebuzar-adan.234234   2 Kings xxv. 9. The costly splendour with267 which this temple at Jerusalem was decorated allowed of a rare glitter of gold, such as Josephus describes when writing of the later temple; gold not like that of the domes of St. Mark's, mellowed by the climate of Venice to a sober depth of hue, but all ablaze with dazzling radiance. The first effect of the smoke of a great conflagration would be to cloud and soil this somewhat raw magnificence, so that the choice gold became dull. That the precious stones stolen from the temple treasury would be flung carelessly about the streets, as our Authorised Version would seem to suggest, is not to be supposed in the case of the sack of a city by a civilised army, whatever might happen if a Vandal host swept through it. "The stones of the sanctuary,"235235   iv. 1. however, might be the stones with which the building had been constructed. Still, even with this interpretation the statement seems very improbable that the invaders would take the trouble to cart these huge blocks about the city in order to distribute them in heaps at all the street corners. We are driven to the conclusion that the poet is speaking metaphorically, that he is meaning the Jews themselves, or perhaps the more favoured classes, "the noble sons of Zion" of whom he writes openly in the next verse.236236   iv. 2. This interpretation is confirmed when we consider the comparison with the parallel passage, which starts at once with a reference to the "princes."237237   iv. 7. It seems likely then that the gold that has been so sullied also represents the choicer part of the people. The writer deplores the destruction of his beloved sanctuary, and the image of that calamity is in his mind at the present time; and yet it is not this that he is most deeply268 lamenting. He is more concerned with the fate of his people. The patriot loves the very soil of his native land, the loyal citizen the very streets and stones of his city. But if such a man is more than a dreamer or a sentimentalist, flesh and blood must mean infinitely more to him than earth and stones. The ruin of a city is something else than the destruction of its buildings; an earthquake or a fire may effect this, and yet, like Chicago, the city may rise again in greater splendour. The ruin that is most deplorable is the ruin of human lives.

This somewhat aristocratic poet, the mouthpiece of an aristocratic age, compares the sons of the Jewish nobility to purest gold. Yet he tells us that they are treated as common earthen vessels, perhaps meaning in contrast to the vessels of precious metal used in the palaces of the great. They are regarded as of no more value than potter's work, though formerly they had been prized as the dainty art of a goldsmith. This first statement only treats of insult and humiliation. But the evil is worse. The jackals that he knows must be prowling about the deserted ruins of Jerusalem even while he writes suggests a strange, wild image to the poet's mind.238238   iv. 3. These fierce creatures suckle their young, though not in the tame manner of domestic animals. It is singular that the nurture of princes amid the refinements of wealth and luxury should be compared to the feeding of their cubs by scavengers of the wilderness. But our thoughts are thus directed to the wide extent, the universal exercise of maternal instincts throughout the animal world, even among the most savage and homeless creatures. Startling indeed269 is it to think that such instincts should ever fail among men, or even that circumstances should ever hinder the natural performance of the functions to which they point with imperious urgency. Although the second passage tells of the violent reversal of the natural feelings of maternity under the maddening influence of famine, here we read how starvation has simply stopped the tender ministry which mothers render to their infants, with a vague hint at some cruelty on the part of the Jewish mothers. A comparison with the supposed conduct of ostriches in leaving their eggs suggests that this is negative cruelty; their hearts being frozen with agony, the wretched mothers lose all interest in their children. But then there is not food for them. The calamities of the times have staunched the mother's milk; and there is no bread for the older children.239239   iv. 4. It is the extreme reversal of their fortunes that makes the misery of the children of princely homes most acute; even those who do not suffer the pangs of hunger are flung down to the lowest depths of wretchedness. The members of the aristocracy have been accustomed to live luxuriously; now they wander about the streets devouring whatever they can pick up. In the old days of luxury they used to recline on scarlet couches; now they have no better bed than the filthy dunghill.240240   iv. 5.

The passage concludes with a reflection on the general character of this dreadful condition of Israel.241241   iv. 6. It must be closely connected with the sins of the people. The drift of the context would lead us to judge that the poet does not mean to compare the guilt of Jerusalem with that of Sodom, but rather the270 fate of the two cities. The punishment of Israel is greater than that of Sodom. But this is punishment; and the odious comparison would not be made unless the sin had been of the blackest dye. Thus in this elegy the calamities of Jerusalem are again traced back to the ill-doings of her people. The awful fate of the cities of the plain stands out in the ancient narrative as the exceptional punishment of exceptional wickedness. But now in the race for a first place in the history of doom Jerusalem has broken the record. Even Sodom has been eclipsed in the headlong course by the city once most favoured by heaven. It seems well nigh impossible. What could be worse than total destruction by fire from heaven? The elegist considers that there are two points in the fate of Jerusalem that confer a gloomy pre-eminence in misery. The doom of Sodom was sudden, and man had no hand in it but Jerusalem fell into the hands of man—a calamity which David judged to be worse than falling into the hands of God; and she had to endure a long, lingering agony.

Passing on to the consideration of the parallel section, we see that the author follows the same lines, though with considerable freshness of treatment. Still directing especial attention to the tremendous change in the fortunes of the aristocracy, he begins again by describing the splendour of their earlier state. This had been advertised to all eyes by the very complexion of their countenances. Unlike the toilers who were necessarily bronzed by working under a southern sun, these delicately nurtured persons had been able to preserve fair skins in the shady seclusion of their cool palaces, so that in the hyperbole of the poem they could be described as "purer than snow" and "whiter271 than milk."242242   iv. 7. Yet they had no sickly pallor. Their health had been well attended to; so that they were also ruddy as "corals," while their dark hair243243   iv. 7. "Hair," According to a slight emendation of the text recommended by recent criticism. glistened "like sapphires." But now see them! Their faces are "darker than blackness."244244   iv. 8. We need not enquire after a literal explanation of an expression which is in harmony with the extravagance of Oriental language, although doubtless exposure to the weather, and the grime and smoke of the scenes these children of luxury had passed through, must have had a considerable effect on their effeminate countenances. The language here is evidently figurative. So it is throughout the passage. The whole aspect of the lives and fortunes of these delicately nurtured lordlings has been reversed. They tell their story by the gloom of their countenances and by the shrivelled appearance of their bodies. They can no longer be recognised in the streets, so piteous a change has their misfortunes wrought in them. Withered and wizen, they are reduced to skin and bone by sheer famine. Sufferers from such continuous calamities as these fallen princes are passing through are treated to a worse fate than that which overtook their brethren who fell in the war. The sword is better than hunger. The victims of war, stricken down in the heat of battle but in the midst of plenty, so that they leave the fruits of the field behind them untouched because no longer needed,245245   So perhaps we should understand ver. 9, applying the last clause to the fallen warriors. In the Revised Version, however, rendered so as to refer to the famished people who pine away for lack of the fruits of the earth. Yet another rendering is "fade away ... like the growth of the fields." are to be counted happy in being taken from the evil to come.

272The gruesome horror of the next scene is beyond description.246246   iv. 10. More than once history has had to record the absolute extinction, nay, we must say the insane reversal, of maternal instincts under the influence of hunger. We could not believe it possible if we did not know that it had occurred. It is a degradation of what we hold to be most sacred in human nature; perhaps it is only possible where human nature has been degraded already, for we must not forget that in the present case the women who are driven below the level of she-wolves are not children of nature, but the daughters of an effete civilisation who have been nursed in the lap of luxury. This is the climax. Imagination itself could scarcely go further. And yet according to his custom throughout, the elegist attributes these calamities of his people to the anger of God. Such things seem to indicate a very "fury" of Divine wrath; the anger must be fierce indeed to kindle such "a fire in Zion."247247   iv. 11. But now the very foundations of the city are destroyed even that terrible thirst for retribution must be satisfied.

These are thoughts which we as Christians do not care to entertain; and yet it is in the New Testament that we read that "our God is a consuming fire;"248248   Heb. xii. 29. and it is of our Lord that John the Baptist declares: "He will throughly purge His threshing-floor."249249   Matt. iii. 12. If God is angry at all His anger cannot be light; for no action of His is feeble or ineffectual. The subsequent restoration of Israel shows that the fires to which the elegist here calls our attention were purgatorial. This273 fact must profoundly affect our view of their character. Still they are very real, or the Book of Lamentations would not have been written.

In view of the whole situation so graphically portrayed by means of the double line of illustrations the poet concludes this part of his elegy with a device that reminds us of the function of the chorus in the Greek drama. We see the kings of all other nations in amazement at the fate of Jerusalem.250250   iv. 12. The mountain city had the reputation of being an impregnable fortress, at least so her fond citizens imagined. But now she has fallen. It is incredible! The news of this wholly unexpected disaster is supposed to send a shock through foreign courts. We are reminded of the blow that stunned St. Jerome when a rumour of the fall of Rome reached the studious monk in his quiet retreat at Bethlehem. Men can tell that a severe storm has been raging out in the Atlantic if they see unusually great rollers breaking on the Cornish crags. How huge a calamity must that be the mere echo of which can produce a startling effect in far countries! But could these kings really be so astonished seeing that Jerusalem had been captured twice before? The poet's language rather points to the overweening pride and confidence of the Jews, and it shows how great the shock to them must have been since they could not but regard it as a wonder to the world. Such then is the picture drawn by our poet with the aid of the utmost artistic skill in bringing out its striking effects. Now before we turn away from it let us ask ourselves wherein its true significance may be said to be. This is a study in black and white. The very language is such; and274 when we come to consider the lessons that language sets forth with so much sharpness and vigour, we shall see that they too partake of the same character.

The force of contrasts—that is the first and most obvious characteristic of the scene. We are very familiar with the heightening of effects by this means, and it is needless to repeat the trite lessons that have been derived from the application of it to life. We know that none suffer so keenly from adversity as those who were once very prosperous. Marius in the Mamertine dungeon, Napoleon at St. Helena, Nebuchadnezzar among the beasts, Dives in Hell, are but notorious illustrations of what we may all see on the smaller canvas of every-day life. Great as are the hardships of the children of the "slums," it is not to them, but to the unhappy victims of a violent change of circumstances, that the burden of poverty is most heavy. We have seen this principle illustrated repeatedly in the Book of Lamentations. But now may we not go behind it, and lay hold of something more than an indubitable psychological law? While looking only at the reversals of fortune which may be witnessed on every hand, we are tempted to hold life to be little better than a gambling bout with high stakes and desperate play. Further consideration, however, should teach us that the stakes are not so high as they appear; that is to say, that the chances of the world do not so profoundly affect our fate as surface views would lead us to suppose. Such things as the pursuit of mere sensation, the life of external aims, the surrender to the excitement of the moment, are doubtless subject to the vicissitudes of contrast; but it is the teaching of our Lord that the higher pursuits are free from these evils. If the treasure is in heaven no thief can steal it, no275 moth or rust can corrupt it; and therefore since where the treasure is there will the heart be also, it is possible to keep the heart in peace even among the changes that upset a purely superficial life with earthquake shocks. Sincere as is the lament of the elegist over the fate of his people, a subtle thread of irony seems to run through his language. Possibly it is quite unconscious; but if so it is the more significant, for it is the irony of fact which cannot be excluded by the simplest method of statement. It suggests that the grandeur which could be so easily turned to humiliation must have been somewhat tawdry at best.

But unhappily the fall of the pampered youth of Jerusalem was not confined to a reversal of external fortune. The elegist has been careful to point out that the miseries they endured were the punishments of their sins. Then there had been an earlier and much greater collapse. Before any foreign enemy had appeared at her gates the city had succumbed to a fatal foe bred within her own walls. Luxury had undermined the vigour of the wealthy; vice had blackened the beauty of the young. There is a fine gold of character which will be sullied beyond recognition when the foul vapours of the pit are permitted to break out upon it. The magnificence of Solomon's temple is poor and superficial in comparison with the beauty of young souls endowed with intellectual and moral gifts, like jewels of rarest worth. Man is not treated in the Bible as a paltry creature. Was he not made in the image of God? Jesus would not have us despise our own native worth. Hope and faith come from a lofty view of human nature and its possibilities. Souls are not swine; and therefore by all the measure of their superiority to swine souls are276 worth saving. The shame and sorrow of sin lie just in this fact, that it is so foul a degradation of so fair a thing as human nature. Here is the contrast that heightens the tragedy of lost souls. But then we may add, in its reversal this same contrast magnifies the glory of redemption—from so deep a pit does Christ bring back His ransomed, to so great a height does He raise them!


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