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ii. 9, 14

In deploring the losses suffered by the daughter of Zion the elegist bewails the failure of her prophets to obtain a vision from Jehovah. His language implies that these men were still lingering among the ruins of the city. Apparently they had not been considered by the invaders of sufficient importance to require transportation with Zedekiah and the princes. Thus they were within reach of inquirers, and doubtless they were more than ever in request at a time when many perplexed persons were anxious for pilotage through a sea of troubles. It would seem, too, that they were trying to execute their professional functions. They sought light; they looked in the right direction—to God. Yet their quest was vain; no vision was given to them; the oracles were dumb.

To understand the situation we must recollect the normal place of prophecy in the social life of Israel. The great prophets whose names and works have come down to us in Scripture were always rare and exceptional men—voices crying in the wilderness. Possibly they were not more scarce at this time than at other periods. Jeremiah had not been disappointed in his search for a Divine message.153153   See Jer. xlii. 4, 7. The greatest seer of157 visions ever known to the world, Ezekiel, had already appeared among the captives by the waters of Babylon. Before long the sublime prophet of the restoration was to sound his trumpet blast to awaken courage and hope in the exiles. Though pitched in a minor key, these very elegies bear witness to the fact that their gentle author was not wholly deficient in prophetic fire. This was not an age like the time of Samuel's youth, barren of Divine voices.154154   See 1 Sam. iii. 1. It is true that the inspired voices were now scattered over distant regions far from Jerusalem, the ancient seat of prophecy. Yet the idea of the elegist is that the prophets who might be still seen at the site of the city were deprived of visions. These must have been quite different men. Evidently they were the professional prophets, officials who had been trained in music and dancing to appear as choristers on festive occasions, the equivalent of the modern dervishes; but who were also sought after like the seer of Ramah, to whom young Saul resorted for information about his father's lost asses, as simple soothsayers. Such assistance as these men were expected to give was no longer forthcoming at the request of troubled souls.

The low and sordid uses to which every-day prophecy was degraded may incline us to conclude that the cessation of it was no very great calamity, and perhaps to suspect that from first to last the whole business was a mass of superstition affording large opportunities for charlatanry. But it would be rash to adopt this extreme view without a fuller consideration of the subject. The great messengers of Jehovah frequently speak of the professional prophets with the contempt of Socrates158 for the professional sophists; and yet the rebukes which they administer to these men for their unfaithfulness show that they accredit them with important duties and the gifts with which to execute them.

Thus the lament of the elegist suggests a real loss—something more serious than the failure of assistance such as some Roman Catholics try to obtain from St. Anthony in the discovery of lost property. The prophets were regarded as the media of communication between heaven and earth. It was because of the low and narrow habits of the people that their gifts were often put to low and narrow uses which savoured rather of superstition than of devotion. The belief that God did not only reveal His will to great persons and on momentous occasions helped to make Israel a religious nation. That there were humble gifts of prophecy within the reach of the many, and that these gifts were for the helping of men and women in their simplest needs, was one of the articles of the Hebrew faith. The quenching of a host of smaller stars may involve as much loss of life as that of a few brilliant ones. If prophecy fades out from among the people, if the vision of God is no longer perceptible in daily life, if the Church, as a whole, is plunged into gloom, it is of little avail to her that a few choice souls here and there pierce the mists like solitary mountain peaks so as to stand alone in the clear light of heaven. The perfect condition would be that in which "all the Lord's people were prophets." If this is not yet attainable, at all events we may rejoice when the capacity for communion with heaven is widely enjoyed, and we must deplore it as one of the greatest calamities of the Church that the quickening influence of the prophetic spirit should be absent from her assemblies. The Jews had not fallen so low that159 they could contemplate the cessation of communications with heaven unmoved. They were far from the practical materialism which leads its victims to be perfectly satisfied to remain in a condition of spiritual paralysis—a totally different thing from the theoretical materialism of Priestley and Tyndall. They knew that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God"; and therefore they understood that a famine of the word of God must result in as real a starvation as a famine of wheat. When we have succeeded in recovering this Hebrew standpoint we shall be prepared to recognise that there are worse calamities than bad harvests and seasons of commercial depression; we shall be brought to acknowledge that it is possible to be starved in the midst of plenty, because the greatest abundance of such food as we have lacks the elements requisite for our complete nourishment. According to reports of sanitary authorities, children in Ireland are suffering from the substitution of the less expensive and sweeter diet of maize for the more wholesome oatmeal on which their parents were brought up. Must it not be confessed that a similar substitution of cheap and savoury soul pabulum—in literature, music, amusements—for the "sincere milk of the word" and the "strong meat" of truth is the reason why so many of us are not growing up to the stature of Christ? The "liberty of prophesying" for which our fathers contended and suffered is ours. But it will be a barren heritage if in cherishing the liberty we lose the prophesying. There is no gift enjoyed by the Church for which she should be more jealous than that of the prophetic spirit.

As we look across the wide field of history we must160 perceive that there have been many dreary periods in which the prophets could find no vision from the Lord. At first sight it would even seem that the light of heaven only shone on a few rare luminous spots, leaving the greater part of the world and the longer periods of time in absolute gloom. But this pessimistic view results from our limited capacity to perceive the light that is there. We look for the lightning. But inspiration is not always electric. The prophet's vision is not necessarily startling. It is a vulgar delusion to suppose that revelation must assume a sensational aspect. It was predicted of the Word of God incarnate that He should not "strive, or cry, or lift up His voice";155155   Isa. xlii. 1. and when He came He was rejected because He would not satisfy the wonder-seekers with a flaring portent—a "sign from heaven." Still it cannot be denied that there have been periods of barrenness. They are found in what might be called the secular regions of the operation of the Spirit of God. A brilliant epoch of scientific discovery, artistic invention, or literary production is followed by a time of torpor, feeble imitation, or meretricious pretence. The Augustan and Elizabethan ages cannot be conjured back at will. Prophets of nature, poets, and artists can none of them command the power of inspiration. This is a gift which may be withheld, and which, when denied, will elude the most earnest pursuit. We may miss the vision of prophecy when the prophets are as numerous as ever, and unfortunately as vocal. The preacher possesses learning and rhetoric. We only miss one thing in him—inspiration. But, alas! that is just the one thing needful.

161 Now the question forces itself upon our attention, what is the explanation of these variations in the distribution of the spirit of prophecy? Why is the fountain of inspiration an intermittent spring, a Bethesda? We cannot trace its failure to any shortness of supply, for this fountain is fed from the infinite ocean of the Divine life. Neither can we attribute caprice to One whose wisdom is infinite, and whose will is constant. It may be right to say that God withholds the vision, withholds it deliberately; but it cannot be correct to assert that this fact is the final explanation of the whole matter. God must be believed to have a reason, a good and sufficient reason, for whatever He does. Can we guess what His reason may be in such a case as this? It may be conjectured that it is necessary for the field to lie fallow for a season in order that it may bring forth a better crop subsequently. Incessant cultivation would exhaust the soil. The eye would be blinded if it had no rest from visions. We may be overfed; and the more nutritious our diet is the greater will be the danger of surfeit. One of our chief needs in the use of revelation is that we should thoroughly digest its contents. What is the use of receiving fresh visions if we have not yet assimilated the truth that we already possess? Sometimes, too, no vision can be found for the simple reason that no vision is needed. We waste ourselves in the pursuit of unprofitable questions when we should be setting about our business. Until we have obeyed the light that has been given us it is foolish to complain that we have not more light. Even our present light will wane if it is not followed up in practice.

But while considerations such as these must be attended to if we are to form a sound judgment on the162 whole question, they do not end the controversy, and they scarcely apply at all to the particular illustration of it that is now before us. There is no danger of surfeit in a famine; and it is a famine of the word that we are now confronted with. Moreover, the elegist supplies an explanation that sets all conjectures at rest.

The fault was in the prophets themselves. Although the poet does not connect the two statements together, but inserts other matter between them, we cannot fail to see that his next words about the prophets bear very closely on his lament over the denial of visions. He tells us that they had seen visions of vanity and foolishness.156156   ii. 14. This is with reference to an earlier period. Then they had had their visions; but these had been empty and worthless. The meaning cannot be that the prophets had been subject to unavoidable delusions, that they had sought truth, but had been rewarded with deception. The following words show that the blame was attributed entirely to their own conduct. Addressing the daughter of Zion the poet says: "Thy prophets have seen visions for thee." The visions were suited to the people to whom they were declared—manufactured, shall we say?—with the express purpose of pleasing them. Such a degradation of sacred functions in gross unfaithfulness deserved punishment; and the most natural and reasonable punishment was the withholding for the future of true visions from men who in the past had forged false ones. The very possibility of this conduct proves that the influence of inspiration had not the hold upon these Hebrew prophets that it had obtained over the heathen prophet163 Balaam, when he exclaimed, in face of the bribes and threats of the infuriated king of Moab: "If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what the Lord speaketh, that will I speak."157157   Numb. xxiv. 13.

It must ever be that unfaithfulness to the light we have already received will bar the door against the advent of more light. There is nothing so blinding as the habit of lying. People who do not speak truth ultimately prevent themselves from perceiving truth, the false tongue leading the eye to see falsely. This is the curse and doom of all insincerity. It is useless to enquire for the views of insincere persons; they can have no distinct views, no certain convictions, because their mental vision is blurred by their long-continued habit of confounding true and false. Then if for once in their lives such people may really desire to find a truth in order to assure themselves in some great emergency, and therefore seek a vision of the Lord, they will have lost the very faculty of receiving it.

The blindness and deadness that characterise so much of the history of thought and literature, art and religion, are to be attributed to the same disgraceful cause. Greek philosophy decayed in the insincerity of professional sophistry. Gothic art degenerated into the florid extravagance of the Tudor period when it had lost its religious motive, and had ceased to be what it pretended. Elizabethan poetry passed through euphuism into the uninspired conceits of the sixteenth century. Dryden restored the habit of true speech,164 but it required generations of arid eighteenth century sincerity in literature to make the faculty of seeing visions possible to the age of Burns and Shelley and Wordsworth.

In religion this fatal effect of insincerity is terribly apparent. The formalist can never become a prophet. Creeds which were kindled in the fires of passionate conviction will cease to be luminous when the faith that inspired them has perished; and then if they are still repeated as dead words by false lips the unreality of them will not only rob them of all value, it will blind the eyes of the men and women who are guilty of this falsehood before God, so that no new vision of truth can be brought within their reach. Here is one of the snares that attach themselves to the privilege of receiving a heritage of teaching from our ancestors. We can only avoid it by means of searching inquests over the dead beliefs which a foolish fondness has permitted to remain unburied, poisoning the atmosphere of living faith. So long as the fact that they are dead is not honestly admitted it will be impossible to establish sincerity in worship; and the insincerity, while it lasts, will be an impassable barrier to the advent of truth.

The elegist has laid his finger on the particular form of untruth of which the Jerusalem prophets had been guilty. They had not discovered her iniquity to the daughter of Zion.158158   ii. 14. Thus they had hastened her ruin by keeping back the message that would have urged their hearers to repentance. Some interpreters have given quite a new turn to the last clause of the fourteenth verse. Literally this states that the prophets have165 seen "drivings away"; and accordingly it has been taken to mean that they pretended to have had visions about the captivity when this was an accomplished fact, although they had been silent on the subject, or had even denied the danger, at the earlier time when alone their words could have been of any use; or, again, the words have been thought to suggest that these prophets were now at the later period predicting fresh calamities, and were blind to the vision of hope which a true prophet like Jeremiah had seen and declared. But such ideas are over-refined, and they give a twist to the course of thought that is foreign to the form of these direct, simple elegies. It seems better to take the final clause of the verse as a repetition of what went before, with a slight variety of form. Thus the poet declares that the burdens, or prophecies, which these unfaithful men have presented to the people have been causes of banishment.

The crying fault of the prophets is their reluctance to preach to people of their sins. Their mission distinctly involves the duty of doing so. They should not shun to declare the whole counsel of God. It is not within the province of the ambassador to make selections from among the despatches with which he has been entrusted in order to suit his own convenience. There is nothing that so paralyses the work of the preacher as the habit of choosing favourite topics and ignoring less attractive subjects. Just in proportion as he commits this sin against his vocation he ceases to be the prophet of God, and descends to the level of one who deals in obiter dicta, mere personal opinions to be taken on their own merits. One of the gravest possible omissions is the neglect to give due weight to the tragic fact of sin. All the great prophets have166 been conspicuous for their fidelity to this painful and sometimes dangerous part of their work. If we would can up a typical picture of a prophet in the discharge of his task, we should present to our minds Elijah confronting Ahab, or John the Baptist before Herod, or Savonarola accusing Lorenzo de Medici, or John Knox preaching at the court of Mary Stuart. He is Isaiah declaring God's abomination of sacrifices and incense when these are offered by blood-stained hands, or Chrysostom seizing the opportunity that followed the mutilation of the imperial statues at Antioch to preach to the dissolute city on the need of repentance, or Latimer denouncing the sins of London to the citizens assembled at Paul's Cross.

The shallow optimism that disregards the shadows of life is trebly faulty when it appears in the pulpit. It falsifies facts in failing to take account of the stern realities of the evil side of them; it misses the grand opportunity of rousing the consciences of men and women by forcing them to attend to unwelcome truths, and thus encourages the heedlessness with which people rush headlong to ruin; and at the same time it even renders the declaration of the gracious truths of the gospel, to which it devotes exclusive attention, ineffectual, because redemption is meaningless to those who do not recognise the present slavery and the future doom from which it brings deliverance. On every account the rose-water preaching that ignores sin and flatters its hearers with pleasant words is thin, insipid, and lifeless. It tries to win popularity by echoing the popular wishes; and it may succeed in lulling the storm of opposition with which the prophet is commonly assailed. But in the end it must be sterile. When, "through fear or favour," the messenger of heaven167 thus prostitutes his mission to suit the ends of a low, selfish, worldly expediency, the very least punishment with which his offence can be visited is for him to be deprived of the gifts he has so grossly abused. Here, then, we have the most specific explanation of the failure of heavenly visions; it comes from the neglect of earthly sin. This is what breaks the magician's wand, so that he can no longer summon the Ariel of inspiration to his aid.x

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