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300

CHAPTER XXI

THE DEBT OF GUILT EXTINGUISHED

iv. 21, 22

One after another the vain hopes of the Jews melt in mists of sorrow. But just as the last of these flickering lights is disappearing a gleam of consolation breaks out from another quarter, like the pale yellow streak that may sometimes be seen low on the western sky of a stormy day just before nightfall, indicating that the setting sun is behind the clouds, although its dying rays are too feeble to penetrate them. Hope is scarcely the word for so faint a sign of comfort as this melancholy fourth elegy affords in lifting the curtain of gloom for one brief moment; but the bare, negative relief which the prospect of an end to the accumulation of new calamities offers is a welcome change in itself, besides being a hint that the tide may be on the turn.

It is quite characteristic of our poet's sombre tones that even in an attempt to touch on brighter ideas than usually occupy his thoughts, he should illustrate the improving prospects of Israel by setting them in contrast to a sardonic description of the fate of Edom. This neighbouring nation is addressed in the time of her elation over the fall of Jerusalem. The extension of her territory to the land of Uz in Arabia—Job's301 country—is mentioned to show that she is in a position of exceptional prosperity. The poet mockingly encourages the jealous people to "rejoice and be glad" at the fate of their rival. The irony of his language is evident from the fact that he immediately proceeds to pronounce the doom of Edom. The cup of God's wrath that Israel has been made to drink shall pass to her also; and she shall drink deeply of it till she is intoxicated and, like Noah, makes herself an object of shame. Thus will God visit the daughter of Edom with the punishment of her sins. The writer says that God will discover them. He does not mean by this phrase that God will find them out. They were never hidden from God; there are no discoveries for Him to make concerning any of us, because He knows all about us every moment of our lives. The phrase stands in opposition to the common Hebrew expression for the forgiveness of sins. When sins are forgiven they are said to be covered; therefore when they are said to be uncovered it is as though we were told that God does the reverse of forgiving them—strips them of every rag of apology, lays them bare. That is their condemnation. Nothing is more ugly than a naked sin.

The selection of this one neighbour of the Jews for special attention is accounted for by what contemporary prophets tell us concerning the behaviour of the Edomites when Jerusalem fell. They flew like vultures to a carcass. Ezekiel writes: "Thus saith the Lord God, Because that Edom hath dealt against the house of Judah by taking vengeance, and hath greatly offended, and revenged himself upon them; therefore thus saith the Lord God, I will stretch out Mine hand upon Edom, and will cut off man and beast from it, and I will make it desolate from Teman; even unto Dedan302 shall they fall by the sword. And I will lay My vengeance upon Edom by the hand of My people Israel, and they shall do in Edom according to Mine anger and according to My fury, and they shall know My vengeance, saith the Lord God."263263   Ezek. xxv. 12-14. Isaiah xxxiv. is devoted to a vivid description of the coming punishment of Edom. This race of rough mountaineers had seldom been on friendly terms with their Hebrew neighbours. Nations like individuals, do not always find it easy to avoid quarrels with those who are closest to them. Neither blood relationship nor commerce prevents the outbreak of hostilities in a situation that gives many occasions for mutual jealousy. For centuries France and England, which should be the best friends of proximity generated friendship, regarded one another as natural enemies. Germany is even a nearer neighbour to France than England is, and the frontiers of the two great nations are studded with forts. It does not appear that the extension of the means of communication among the different countries is likely to close the doors of the temple of Janus. The greatest problem of sociology is to discover the secret of living in crowded communities among a variety of conflicting interests without any injustice, or any friction arising from the juxtaposition of different classes. It is far easier to keep the peace among backwoodsmen who live fifty miles apart in lonely forests. Therefore it is not a surprising thing that there were bitter feuds between Israel and Edom. But at the time of the Babylonian invasion these had taken a peculiarly odious turn on the side of the southern people, one that was doubly offensive. The various tribes whom the huge303 Babylonian empire was swallowing up with insatiable greed should have forgotten their mutual differences in face of their common danger. Besides, it was a cowardly thing for Edom to follow the example of the Bedouin robbers, who hovered on the rear of the great armies of conquest like scavengers. To settle old debts by wreaking vengeance on a fallen rival in the hour of her humiliation was not the way to win the honours of war. Even to a calm student of history in later ages this long-past event shews an ugly aspect. How maddening must it have been to the victims! Accordingly we are not astonished to see that the doom of the Edomites is pronounced by Hebrew prophets with undisguised satisfaction. The proud inhabitants of the rock cities, the wonderful remains of which amaze the traveller in the present day, had earned the severe humiliation so exultingly described.

In all this it is very plain that the author of the Lamentations, like the Hebrew prophets generally, had an unhesitating belief in a supremacy of God over foreign nations that was quite as effective as His supremacy over Israel. On the other hand, iniquity is ascribed to Israel in exactly the same terms that are applied to foreign nations. Jehovah is not imagined to be a mere tribal divinity like the Moabite Chemosh; and the Jews are not held to be so much His favourites that the treatment measured out to them in punishment of sin is essentially different from that accorded to their neighbours.

To Israel, however, the doom of Edom is a sign of the return of mercy. It is not merely that the passion of revenge is thereby satisfied—a poor consolation, even if allowable. But in the overthrow of their most annoying tormentor the oppressed people are at once304 liberated from a very appreciable part of their troubles. At the same time, they see in this event a clear sign that they are not selected for a solitary example of the vengeance of heaven against sin; that would have been indeed a hard destiny. But above all, this occurrence affords a reassuring sign that God who is thus punishing their enemies is ending the severe discipline of the Jews. In the very middle of the description of the coming doom of Edom we meet with an announcement of the conclusion of the long penance of Israel. This singular arrangement cannot be accidental; nor can it have been resorted to only to obtain the accentuation of contrast which we have seen is highly valued by the elegist. Since it is while contemplating the Divine treatment of the most spiteful of the enemies of Israel that we are led to see the termination of the chastisement of the Jews, we may infer that possibly the process in the mind of the poet took the same course. If so, the genesis of prophecy which is usually hidden from view here seems to come nearer the surface.

The language in which the improving prospect of the Jews is announced is somewhat obscure; but the drift of its meaning is not difficult to trace. The word rendered "punishment of iniquity" in our English versions—Revised as well as Authorised—at the beginning of the twenty-second verse, is one which in its original sense means simply "iniquity"; and in fact it is so translated further down in the same verse, where it occurs a second time, and where the parallel word "sins" seems to settle the meaning. But if it has this meaning when applied to Edom in the later part of the verse is it not reasonable to suppose that it must also have it when applied to the daughter of Zion in an immediately preceding clause? The Septuagint and305 Vulgate Versions give it as "iniquity" in both cases. And so does a suggestion in the margin of the Revised Version. But if we accept this rendering, which commends itself to us as verbally most correct, we cannot reconcile it with the evident intention of the writer. The promise that God will no more carry His people away into captivity, which follows as an echo of the opening thought of the verse, certainly points to a cessation of punishment. Then the very idea that the iniquity of the Jews is accomplished is quite out of place here. What could we take it to mean? To say that the Jews had sinned to the full, had carried out all their evil intentions, had put no restraint on their wickedness, is to give a verdict which should carry the heaviest condemnation; it would be absurd to bring this forward as an introduction to a promise of a reprieve. It would be less incongruous to suppose the phrase to mean, as is suggested in the margin of the Revised Version, that the sin has come to an end, has ceased. That might be taken as a ground for the punishment to be stayed also. But it would introduce a refinement of theology out of keeping with the extreme simplicity of the ideas of these elegies. Moreover, in another place, as we have seen already,264264   Page 269. the word "sins" seems to be used for the punishment of sins.265265   iii. 39. We have also met with the idea of the fulfilment, literally the finishing, of God's word of warning, with the necessary suggestion that there is to be no more infliction of the evil threatened.266266   ii. 17. Therefore, if it were not for the reappearance of the word in dispute where the primary meaning of it seems to be necessitated by the context, we should have no hesitation in306 taking it here in its secondary sense, as the punishment of iniquity. The German word schuld, with its double signification—debt and guilt—has been suggested as a happy rendering of the Hebrew original in both places; and perhaps this is the best that can be proposed. The debt of the Jews is paid; that of the Edomites has yet to be exacted.

We are brought then to the conclusion that the elegist here announces the extinction of the Jews' debt of guilt. Accordingly they are told that God will no more carry them away into captivity. This promise has occasioned much perplexity to people concerned for the literal exactness of Scripture. Some have tried to get it applied to the time subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, after which, it is said, the Jews were never again removed from their land. That is about the most extravagant instance of all the subterfuges to which literalists are driven when in a sore strait to save their theory. Certainly the Jews have not been exiled again—not since the last time. They could not be carried away from their land once more, for the simple reason that they have never been restored to it. Strictly speaking, it may be said indeed, something of the kind occurred on the suppression of the revolt under Bar-cochba in the second century of the Christian era. But all theories apart, it is contrary to the discovered facts of prophecy to ascribe to the inspired messengers of God the purpose of supplying exact predictions concerning the events of history in far-distant ages. Their immediate message was for their own day, although we have found that the lessons it contains are suitable for all times. What consolation would it be for the fugitives from the ravaging hosts of Nebuchadnezzar to know that six hundred years307 later an end would come to the successive acts of conquerors in driving the Jews from Jerusalem, even if they were not told that this would be because at that far-off time there would commence one long exile lasting for two thousand years? But if the words of the elegist are for immediate use as a consolation to his contemporaries, it is unreasonable to press their negative statement in an absolute sense, so as to make it serve as a prediction concerning all future ages. It is enough for these sufferers to learn that the last of the series of successive banishments of Jews from their land by the Babylonian government has at length taken place.

But with this information there comes a deeper truth. The debt is paid. Yet this is only at the commencement of the Captivity. Two generations must live in exile before the restoration will be possible. There is no reference to that event, which did not take place till the Babylonian power had been utterly destroyed by Cyrus. Still the deliverance into exile following the terrible sufferings of the siege and the subsequent flight is taken as the final act in the drama of doom. The long years of the captivity, though they constituted an invaluable period of discipline, did not bring any fresh kind of punishment at all comparable with the chastisements already inflicted.

Thus we are brought face to face with the question of the satisfaction of punishment. We have no right to look to a single line of a poem for a final settlement of the abstract problem itself. Whether, as St. Augustine maintained, every sin is of infinite guilt because it is an offence against an infinite Being; whether, therefore, it would take eternity to pay the debts contracted during one short life on earth, and other questions of the same character, cannot be308 answered one way or the other from the words before us. Still there are certain aspects of the problem of human guilt to which our attention is here drawn.

In the first place, we must make a distinction between the national punishment of national wickedness and the personal consequences of personal wrongdoing. The nation only exists on earth, and it can only be punished on earth. Then the nation outlasts generations of individual lives, and so remains on earth long enough for the harvest of its actions to be reaped. Thus national guilt may be wiped out while the separate accounts of individual men and women still remain unsettled. Next we must remember that the exaction of the uttermost farthing is not the supreme end of the Divine government of the world. To suggest any such idea is to assimilate this perfect government to that of corrupt Oriental monarchies, the chief object of which in dealing with their provinces seems to have been to drain them of tribute. The payment of the debt of guilt in punishment, though just and necessary, cannot be a matter of any satisfaction to God. Again, when, as in the case now before us, the punishment of sin is a chastisement for the reformation of the corrupt nation on whom it is inflicted, it may not be necessary to make it exactly equivalent to the guilt for which it is the remedy rather than the payment. Lastly, even when we think of the punishment as direct retribution, we cannot say what means God may provide for the satisfaction of the due claims of justice. The second Isaiah saw in the miseries inflicted upon the innocent at this very time, a vicarious suffering by the endurance of which pardon was extended to the guilty;267267   Isa. liii. 4-6. and from the days of the309 Apostles, Christians have recognised in his language on this subject the most striking prophecy the Bible contains concerning the atonement wrought by our Lord in His sufferings and death. When we put all these considerations together, and also call to our assistance the New Testament teachings about the character of God and the object of the work of Jesus Christ, we shall see that there are various possibilities lying behind the thought of the end of chastisement which no bare statement of the abstract relations of sin, guilt, and doom would indicate.

It may be objected that all such ideas as those just expressed tend to generate superficial views of sin. Possibly they may be employed so as to encourage this tendency. But if so, it will only be by misinterpreting and abusing them. Certainly the elegist does not belittle the rigour of the Divine chastisement. It must not be forgotten that the phrase which gives rise to these ideas concerning the debt of guilt occurs in the doleful Book of Lamentations, and at the close of an elegy that bewails the awful fate of Jerusalem in the strongest language. But in point of fact it is not the severity of punishment, beyond a certain degree, but the certainty of it that most affects the mind when contemplating the prospect of doom. Not only does the imagination fail to grasp that which is immeasurably vast in the pictures presented to it, but even the reason rises in revolt and questions the possibility of such torments, or the conscience ventures to protest against what appears to be unjust. In any of these cases the effect of the menace is neutralised by its very extravagance.

On the other hand, we have St. Paul's teaching about the goodness of God that leads us to repentance.310268268   Rom. ii. 4. Thus we understand how it can be said that Christ—who is the most perfect revelation of God's goodness—was raised up to give "repentance to Israel" as well as "remission of sins."269269   Acts v. 31. It is at Calvary, not at Sinai, that sin looks most black. When a man sees his guilt in the light of his Saviour's love he is in no mood to apologise for it or to minimise his ill desert. If he then contemplates the prospect of the full payment of the debt it is with a feeling of the impossibility of ever achieving so stupendous a task. The punishment from which he would revolt as an injustice if it were held over him in a threat now presents itself to him of its own accord as something quite right and reasonable. He cannot find words strong enough to characterise his guilt, as he lies at the foot of the cross in absolute self-abasement. There is no occasion to fear that such a man will become careless about sin if he is comforted by a vision of hope. This is just what he needs to enable him to rise up and accept the forgiveness in the strength of which he may begin the toilsome ascent towards a better life.


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