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288

CHAPTER XX

VAIN HOPES

iv. 17-20

The first part of the fourth elegy was specially concerned with the fate of the gilded youth of Jerusalem; the second and closely parallel part with that of the princes; the third introduced us to the dramatic scene in which the fallen priests and prophets were portrayed; now in the fourth part of the elegy the king and his courtiers are the prominent figures. While all the rest of the poem is written in the third person, this short section is composed in the first person plural. The arrangement is not exactly like that of the third elegy, in which, after speaking in his own person, the poet appears as the representative and spokesman of his people. The more simple form of the composition now under consideration would lead us to suppose that the pronoun "we" comes in for the most natural reason—viz., because the writer was himself an actor in the scene which he here describes. We must conclude, then, that he was one of the group of Zedekiah's personal attendants, or at least a member of a company of Jews which escaped at the time of the royal flight and took the same road when the citizens were scattered by the sack of the city.

The picture, however, is somewhat idealised. Events that could only have taken place in succession are289 described as though they were all occurring in the present. We have first the anxious watching of the besieged for the advent of an army of relief; then the chase of their victims through the streets by the invaders—which must have been after they had broken into the city; next the flight and pursuit over the mountains; and lastly, the capture of the king. This setting of a succession of events in one scene as though they were contemporaneous is so far an imaginary arrangement that we must be on our guard against a too literal interpretation of the details. Evidently we have here a poetic picture, not the bare deposition of a witness.

The burden of the passage is the grievous disappointment of the court party at the failure of their fond hopes. But Jeremiah was directly opposed to that party, and though our author was not the great prophet himself we have abundant evidence that he was a faithful disciple who echoed the very thoughts and shared the deepest convictions of his master. How then can he now appear as one of the court party? It is just possible that he was no friend of Jeremiah at the time he is now describing. He may have been converted subsequently by the logic of facts, or by the more potent influence of the discipline of adversity, a possibility which would give peculiar significance to the personal confessions contained in the previous elegy, with its account of "the man who had seen affliction." But the poetic form of the section dealing with the court, and the fact that all it describes is expressed in the present tense, prevent us from pressing this conjecture to a definite conclusion. It would be enough if we could suppose, as there is no difficulty in doing, that in the general confusion our poet found290 himself in unexpected companionship with the flying court. Thus he would witness their experiences.

We have, then, in this place an expression of the attitude of the court party in the midst of the great calamities that have overtaken them. It is emphatically one of profound disappointment. These deluded people had been sanguine to the last, and proudly sceptical of danger, with an infatuation almost amounting to insanity which had blinded them to the palpable lessons of defeats already endured—for we must not forget that Jerusalem had been taken twice before this. Naturally their disappointment was proportionate to their previous elation.

The hopes that had been thus rudely dashed to the ground had been based on a feeling of the sacred inviolability of Jerusalem. This feeling had been sedulously nurtured by a bastard form of religion. Like the worship of Rome in Virgil's day, a sort of cult of Jerusalem had now grown up. Men who had no faith in Jehovah put their trust in Jerusalem. The starting-point and excuse of this singular creed are to be traced to the deep-rooted conviction of the Jews that their city was the chosen favourite of Jehovah, and that therefore her God would certainly protect her. But this idea was treated most inconsistently when people coolly ignored the Divine will while boldly claiming Divine favour. In course of time even that position was abandoned, and Jerusalem became practically a fetich. Then, while faith in the destiny of the city was cherished as a superstition, prophets such as Jeremiah, who directed men's thoughts to God, were silenced and persecuted. This folly of the Jews has its counterpart in the exaltation of the papacy during the Middle Ages. The Pope claimed to be seated on his291 throne by the authority of Christ; but the papacy was really put in the place of Christ. Similarly people who trust in the Church, their City of God, rather than in her Lord, have fallen into an error like that of the Jews, who put confidence in their city rather than in their God. So have those who confide in their own election instead of looking to the Divine Sovereign who, they declare, has named them in His eternal decrees; and those again who set reliance on their religion, its rites and creeds; and lastly, those who trust in their very faith as itself a saving power. In all these cases, the city, the Pope, the election, the Church, the religion, the faith are simply idols, no more able to protect the superstitious people who put them in the place of God than the ark that was captured in battle when the Jews tried to use it as a talisman, or even the fish-god Dagon that lay shattered before it in the Philistine temple.

But now we find the old-established faith in Jerusalem so far undermined that it has to be supplemented by other grounds of hope. In particular there are two of these—the king and a foreign ally. The ally is mentioned first because the poet starts from the time when men still hoped that the Egyptians would espouse the cause of Israel, and come to the help of the little kingdom against the hosts of Babylon. There was much to be said in favour of this expectation. In the past Egypt had been in alliance with the people now threatened. The two great kingdoms of the Nile and the Euphrates were rivals; and the aggressive policy of Babylon had brought her into conflict with Egypt. The Pharaohs might be glad to have Israel preserved as a "buffer state." Indeed, negotiations had been carried on with that end in view.292 Nevertheless the dreams of deliverance built on this foundation were doomed to disappointment. The poet shows us the anxious Jews on their city towers straining their eyes till they are weary in watching for the relief that never comes. They could look down through the gap in the hills towards Bethlehem and the south country, and the dust of an army would be visible from afar in the clear Syrian atmosphere; but, alas! no distant cloud promises the approach of the deliverer. We are reminded of the siege of Lucknow; but in the hour of the Jews' great need there is no sign corresponding to the welcome music of the Scotch air that ravished the ears of the British garrison.

Faithful prophets had repeatedly warned the Jews against this false ground of hope. In a former generation Isaiah had cautioned his contemporaries not to lean on "this broken reed"256256   Isa. xxxvi. 6. Egypt; and at the present crisis Jeremiah had followed with similar advice, predicting the failure of the Egyptian alliance, and replying to the messengers of Zedekiah who had come to solicit the prophet's prayers: "Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Thus shall ye say to the king of Judah, that sent you unto me to enquire of me; Behold, Pharaoh's army, which is come forth to help you, shall return to Egypt into their own land. And the Chaldæans shall come again, and fight against this city; and they shall take it, and burn it with fire."257257   Jer. xxxvii. 7, 8. Though regarded at the time as unpatriotic and even treasonable, this advice proved to be sound, and the predictions of the messenger of Jehovah correct. Now that we can read the events in the light of history we have no difficulty in perceiving that even as a matter293 of state policy the counsel of Isaiah and Jeremiah was wise and statesmanlike. Babylon was quite irresistible. Even Egypt could not stand against the powerful empire that was making itself master of the world. Besides, alliance with Egypt involved the loss of liberty, for it had to be paid for, and the weak ally of a great kingdom was no better than a tributary state. Meanwhile Israel was embroiled in quarrels from which she should have tried, as far as possible, to keep herself aloof.

But the prophets shewed that deeper questions than such as concern political diplomacy were at stake. In happier days the arm of Providence had been laid bare, and Jerusalem saved without a blow, when the destroying angel of pestilence swept through the Assyrian host. It is true Jerusalem had to submit soon after this; but the lesson was being taught that her safety really consisted in submission. This was the kernel of Jeremiah's unpopular message. Historically and politically that too was justified. It was useless to attempt to stem the tide of one of the awful marches of a world-conquering army. Only the obstinacy of a fanatical patriotism could have led the Jews of this period to hold out so long against the might of Babylon, just as the very same obstinacy encouraged their mad descendants in the days of Titus to resist the arms of Rome. But then the prophets were constantly preaching to heedless ears that there was real safety in submission, that a humble measure of escape was to be had by simply complying with the demands of the irresistible conquerors. Proud patriots might despise this consolation, preferring to die fighting. But that was scarcely the case with the fugitives; these people had neither the relief that is the reward of a quiet surrender, nor the glory that accompanies death on the battle-field.294 To those who could hear the deeper notes of prophetic teaching the safety of surrender meant a much more valuable boon. The submission recommended was not merely to be directed to King Nebuchadnezzar; primarily it consisted in yielding to the will of God. People who will not turn to this one true refuge from all danger and trouble are tempted to substitute a variety of vain hopes. Most of us have our Egypt to which we look when the vision of God has become dim in the soul. The worldly cynicism that echoes and degrades the words of the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," is really the product of the decay of dead hopes. It would not be so sour if it had not been disappointed. Yet so persistent is the habit of castle-building, that the cloudland in which many previous structures of fancy have melted away is resorted to again and again by an eager throng of fresh aerial architects. After experience has confirmed the warning that riches take to themselves wings and flee away, and in face of our Lord's advice not to lay up treasures where thieves break through and steal, and where moth and rust consume, we see men as eager as ever to scrape wealth together, as ready to put all their trust in it when it has come to them, as astonished and dismayed when it has failed them. Ambition was long ago proved to be a frail bubble; yet ambition never wants for slaves. The cup of pleasure has been drained so often that the world should know by this time how very nauseous its dregs are; and still feverish hands are held out to grasp it.

Now this obstinate disregard of the repeated lessons of experience is too remarkable a habit of life to be reckoned as a mere accident. There must be some adequate causes to account for it. In the first place,295 it testifies with singular force to the vitality of what we may call the faculty of hope itself. Disappointment does not kill the tendency to reach forth to the future, because this tendency comes from within, and is not a mere response to impressions. In persons of a sanguine temperament this may be taken to be a constitutional peculiarity; but it is too widespread to be disposed of as nothing more than a freak of nature. It is rather to be considered an instinct, and as such a part of the original constitution of man. How then has it come to be? Must we not attribute the native hopefulness of mankind to the deliberate will and purpose of the Creator? But in that case must we not say of this, as we can say with certainty of most natural instincts: He who has given the hunger will also supply the food with which to satisfy it? To reject that conclusion is to land ourselves in a form of pessimism that is next door to atheism. Schopenhauer rests the argument by means of which he thinks to establish a pessimistic view of the universe largely on the delusiveness of natural instincts which promise a satisfaction never attained; but in reasoning in this way he is compelled to describe the supreme Will that he believes to be the ultimate principle of all things as a non-moral power. The mockery of human existence to which his philosophy reduces us is impossible in view of the Fatherhood of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Shelley, contrasting our fears and disappointments with the "clear keen joyance" of the skylark, bewails the fact that

"We look before and after,

And pine for what is not."

If this is the end of the matter, evolution is a mocking296 progress, for it leads to the pit of despair. If the large vision that takes in past and future only brings sorrow, it would have been better for us to have retained the limited range of animal perceptions. But faith sees in the very experience of disappointment a ground for fresh hope. The discovery that the height already attained is not the summit of the mountain, although it appeared to be when viewed from the plain, is a proof that the summit is higher than we had supposed. Meanwhile, the awakening of desires for further climbing is a sign that the disappointments we have experienced hitherto are not occasions for despair. If, as Shelley goes on to say—

"Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,"

the sadness cannot be without mitigation, for there must be an element of sweetness in it from the first; and if so this must point to a future when this sadness itself shall pass away. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews argues on these lines when he draws the conclusion from the repeated disappointments of the hopes of Israel in conjunction with the repeated promises of God that "there remaineth therefore a rest for the people of God."258258   Heb. iv. 9. Instincts are God's promises written in the Book of Nature. Seeing that our deepest instincts are not satisfied by any of the common experiences of life, they must point to some higher satisfaction.

Here we are brought to the explanation of the disappointment itself. We must confess, in the first instance, that it arises from the perverse habit of looking for satisfaction in objects that are too low, objects that are unworthy of human nature. This is one of the297 strongest evidences of a fall. The more mind and heart are corrupted by sin the more will hope be dragged down to inferior things. But the story does not end at this point. God is educating us through illusions. If all our aspirations were fulfilled on earth we should cease to hope for what was higher than earth. Hope is purged and elevated by the discovery of the vanity of its pursuits.

These considerations will be confirmed when we follow the elegist in his treatment of the disappointment of the second ground of hope, that which was found in the royalist's confidence in his sovereign. The poetic account of the events which ended in the capture of Zedekiah seems to consist in a blending of metaphor with history. The image of the chase underlies the whole description. It has been pointed out that with the narrowness of eastern streets and the simplicity of the weapons of ancient warfare, it would be impossible for the Chaldæans to pick out their victims and shoot them down from outside the walls. But when they had effected an entrance they would not simply make the streets dangerous, for then they would be breaking into the houses where the people are here supposed to be hiding. The language seems more fit for the description of a faction fight, such as often occurred in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, than an account of the sack of a city by a foreign enemy. But the hunting image is in the poet's mind, and the whole picture is coloured by it. After the siege the fugitives are pursued over the mountains. Taking the route across the Mount of Olives and so down to the Jordan, that which David had followed in his flight from Absalom, they would soon find themselves in a difficult wilderness country. They had despaired of298 their lives in the city, exclaiming: "Our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come."259259   iv. 18. Now they are in sore extremities. The swift pursuit suggests Jeremiah's image of the eagles on the wing overtaking their quarry. "Behold, he shall come up as clouds," said the prophet, "and his chariots shall be as the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles."260260   Jer. iv. 13 There was no possibility of escape from such persistent foes. At the same time, ambuscades were in waiting among the many caves that honeycomb these limestone mountains—in the district where the traveller in the parable of "The good Samaritan" fell among thieves. The king himself was taken like a hunted animal caught in a trap, though, as we learn from the history, not till he had reached Jericho.261261   2 Kings xxv. 4, 5; Jer. xxxix. 4, 5.

The language in which Zedekiah is described is singularly strong. He is "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord." The hope of the fugitives had been "to live under his shadow among the nations."262262   iv. 20. It is startling to find such words applied to so weak and worthless a ruler. It cannot be the expression of sycophancy; for the king and his kingdom had disappeared before the elegy was written. Zedekiah was not so bad as some of his predecessors. Like Louis XVI., he reaped the long accumulating retribution of the sins of his ancestors. Yet after making due allowance for the exuberance of the Oriental style, we must feel that the language is out of proportion to the possibilities of the most courtly devotion of the time. Evidently the kingly idea means more than the prosaic personality of any particular monarch. The romantic enthusiasm of Cavaliers and Nonjurors for299 the Stuarts was not to be accounted for by the merits and attractions of the various successive sovereigns and pretenders towards whom it was directed. The doctrine of the Divine right of kings is always associated with vague thoughts of power and glory that are never realised in history. This is most strikingly evident in the Hebrew conception of the status and destiny of the line of David. But in that one supreme case of devotion to royalty the dream of the ages ultimately came to be fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, though in a very different manner from the anticipation of the Jews. There is something pathetic in the last shred of hope to which the fugitives were clinging. They had lost their homes, their city, their land; yet even in exile they clung to the idea that they might keep together under the protection of their fallen king. It was a delusion. But the strange faith in the destiny of the Davidic line that here passes into fanaticism is the seed-bed of the Messianic ideas which constitute the most wonderful part of Old Testament prophecy. By a blind but divinely guided instinct the Jews were led to look through the failure of their hopes on to the appointed time when One should come who only could give them satisfaction.


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