« Prev Chapter V. Sin and Suffering (i. 8-11) Next »




i. 8-11

The doctrinaire rigour of Judaism in its uncompromising association of moral and physical evils has led to an unreasonable disregard for the solid truth which lies behind this mistake. It can scarcely be said that men are now perplexed by the problem that inspired the Book of Job. The fall of the tower of Siloam or the blindness of a man from his birth would not start among us the vexatious questions which were raised in the days of our Lord. We have not accepted the Jewish theory that the punishment of sin always overtakes the sinner in this life, much less have we assented to the by no means necessary corollary that all calamities are the direct penalties of the misconduct of the sufferers, and therefore sure signs of guilt. The modern tendency is in the opposite direction; it goes to ignore the existence of any connection whatever between the course of the universe and human conduct. No interference with the uniformity of the laws of nature for retributive or disciplinary purposes can be admitted. The machinery runs on in its grooves never deflected by any regard for our good or bad deserts. If we dash ourselves against its wheels they will tear us to pieces, grind us to powder; and we may reasonably consider this treatment to be the natural109 punishment of our folly. But here we are not beyond physical causation, and the drift of thought is towards holding the belief in anything more to be a simple survival from primitive anthropomorphic ideas of nature, a pure superstition. Is it a pure superstition? It is time we turned to another side of the question.

Every strong conviction that has obtained wide recognition, however erroneous and mischievous it may be, can be traced back to the abuse of some solid truth. It is not the case that the universe is constructed without any regard for moral laws. Even the natural punishment of the violation of natural laws contains a certain ethical element. Other considerations apart, clearly it is wrong to injure one's health or endanger one's life by rushing headlong against the constituted order of the universe; therefore the consequences of such conduct may be taken as signs of its condemnation. In the case of the sufferings of the Jews lamented by our poet the calamities were not primarily of a physical origin; they grew out of human acts—the accompaniments of the Chaldæan invasion. When we come to the evolution of history we are introduced to a whole world of moral forces that are not at work in the material universe. Nebuchadnezzar did not know that he was the instrument of a Higher Power for the chastisement of Israel; but the corruptions of the Jews, so ruthlessly exposed by their prophets, had undermined the national vigour which is the chief safeguard of a state, as surely as at a later time the corruptions of Rome opened her gates to devastating hosts of Goths and Huns. May we not go further, and, passing beyond the region of common observation, discover richer indications of the ethical meanings of events in the application to them of a real faith in God? It was his110 profound theism that lay at the base of the Jew's conception of temporal retribution, crude, hard, and narrow as this was. If we believe that God is supreme over nature and history as well as over individual lives, we must conclude that He will use every province of His vast dominion so as to further His righteous purposes. If the same Spirit reigns throughout there must be a certain harmony between all parts of His government. The mistake of the Jew was his claim to interpret the details of this Divine administration with a sole regard for the minute fraction of the universe that came under his own eyes, with blank indifference to the vast realm of facts and principles of which he could know nothing. His idea of Providence was too shortsighted, too parochial, in every respect too small; yet it was true in so far as it registered the conviction that there must be an ethical character in the government of the world by a righteous God, that the divinely ordered course of events cannot be out of all relation to conduct.

It does not fall in with the plan of the Lamentations for this subject to be treated so fully in these poems as it is in the stirring exhortations of the great prophets. Yet it comes to the surface repeatedly. In the fifth verse of the first elegy the poet attributes the affliction of Zion to "the multitude of her transgressions"; and he introduces the eighth verse with the clear declaration—

"Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she has become an unclean thing."

The powerful Hebrew idiom according to which the cognate substance follows the verb is here employed. Rendered literally, the opening phrase is, "sinned sin." The experience of the chastisement leads to a keen111 perception of the guilt that precedes it. This is more than a consequence of the application of the accepted doctrine of the connection of sin with suffering to a particular case. No intellectual theory is strong enough by itself to awaken a slumbering conscience. The logic may be faultless; and yet even though the point of the syllogism is not evaded it will be coolly ignored. Trouble arouses a torpid conscience in a much more direct and effectual way. In the first place, it shatters the pride which is the chief hindrance to the confession of sin. Then it compels reflection; it calls a halt, and makes us look back over the path we may have been following too heedlessly. Sometimes it seems to exercise a distinctly illuminating influence. It is as though scales had fallen from the sufferer's eyes; he sees all things in a new light, and some ugly facts which had been lying at his side for years disregarded suddenly glare upon him as horrible discoveries. Thus the "Prodigal Son" perceives that he has sinned both against Heaven and against his father when he is in the lowest depths of misery, not so much because he recognises a penal character in his troubles, but more on account of the fact that he has come to himself. This subjective, psychological connection between suffering and sin is independent of any dogma of retribution; for the ends of practical discipline it is the most important connection. We may waive all discussion of the ancient Jewish problem, and still be thankful to recognise the Elijah-like ministry of adversity.

The immediate effect of this vision of sin is that a new colour is given to the picture of the desolation of Jerusalem. The image of a miserable woman is preserved, but the dignity of the earlier scene is missing here. Pathos and poetry gather round the picture of112 the forlorn widow weeping for the loss of her children. Neglected and humbled as she is in worldly estate, the tragic vastness of her sorrow has exalted her to an altitude of moral sublimity. Such suffering breaks through those barriers of conventional experience which make many lives look mean and trivial. It is so awful that we cannot but regard it with reverence. But all this is altered in the aspect of Jerusalem which follows the confession of her great sin. In the freedom of ancient language the poet ventures on an illustration that would be regarded as too gross for modern literature. The limits of our art exclude subjects which excite a sensation of disgust; but this is just the sensation the author of the elegy deliberately aims at producing. He paints a picture which is simply intended to sicken his readers. The utter humiliation of Jerusalem is exhibited in the unavoidable exposure of a condition which natural modesty would conceal at any cost. Another contrast between the reserve of our modern style and the rude bluntness of antiquity is here apparent. It is not only that we have grown more refined in language—a very superficial change which might be no better than the whitewashing of sepulchres; over and above this civilising of mere manners, the effect of Teutonic habits, strengthened by Christian sentiments, has been to develop a respect for woman undreamed of in the old Eastern world. It may be added that the scientific temper of recent times has taught us that there is nothing really dishonouring in purely natural processes. The ancient world could not distinguish between delicacy and shame. We should regard a poor suffering woman whose modesty had been grievously wounded with simple commiseration; the ancient Jews treated such a person with disgust113 as an unclean creature, quite unable to see that their conduct was simply brutal.

The new aspect of the misery of Jerusalem is thus set forth as one of degradation and ignominy. The vision of sin is immediately followed by a scene of shame. Commentators have been divided over the question whether this picture of the humiliated woman is intended to apply to the sin of the city or only to her misfortunes. In favour of the former view, it may be remarked that uncleanness is distinctly associated with moral corruption: the connection is the more appropriate here inasmuch as a confession of sin immediately precedes. On the other hand, the attendant circumstances point to the second interpretation. It is the humiliation of the condition of the sufferer, rather than that condition itself, which is dwelt upon. Jerusalem is despised, "she sigheth," "is come down wonderfully," "hath no comforter," and is generally afflicted and oppressed by her enemies. But while we are led to regard the pitiable picture as a representation of the woful plight into which the proud city has fallen, we cannot conclude it to be an accident that this particular phase of her misery succeeds the mention of her great guilt. After all, it is only the underlying guilt that can justify a verdict which carries disgrace as well as suffering for its penalty. Even when the judgments of men are too confused to recognise this truth with regard to other people, it should be apparent to the conscience of the humiliated person himself. The humiliation which follows nothing worse than a fall into external misfortunes is but a superficial trouble, and the consciousness of innocence can enable one to submit to it without any sense of inward shame. The sting of contempt lies in the miserable consciousness that it is deserved.

114Thus we see the punishment of sin consisting in exposure. The exposure which simply hurts natural modesty is acutely painful to a refined, sensitive spirit; and yet the very dignity which it outrages is a shield against the point of the insult. But where the exposure follows sin this shield is absent. In that case the degradation of it is without any mitigation. Nothing more may be necessary to constitute a very severe punishment. When the secrets of all hearts are revealed the very revelation will be a penal process. To lay bare the quivering nerves of memory to the searching sunlight must be to torture the guilty soul with inconceivable horrors. Nevertheless it is a matter for profound thankfulness that there is no question of a surprising revelation of the sinner's guilt being made to God at some future time, some shocking discovery which might turn His lovingkindness into wrath or contempt. We cannot have a firmer ground of joy and hope than the fact that God knows everything about us, and yet loves us at our worst, patiently waiting for repentance with His offer of unlimited forgiveness. Exposure before God is like a surgical examination; the hope of a cure, if it does not dispel the sense of humiliation—and that is impossible in the case of guilt, the disgrace of which to a healthy conscience is more intense before the holiness of God than before the eyes of fellow-sinners—still encourages confidence.

The recognition of a moral lapse at the root of the shame of Jerusalem, though not perhaps in the shame itself, is confirmed by a phrase which reflects on the culpable heedlessness of the Jews. The elegy deplores how the city has "come down wonderfully" on account of the fact that "she remembered not her latter end." It is quite confusing and incorrect to render this expression115 in the present tense as it stands in the Authorised English Version. The poet cannot mean that the Jews in exile and captivity have already forgotten the recent horrors of the siege of Jerusalem. This would be flatly contrary to the motive of the elegy, which is to give tongue to the sufferings of the Jews flowing out of that disaster. It would be impossible to say that the calamity that inspired the elegy was no longer even remembered by its victims. What an anti-climax this would be! Clearly the poet is bewailing the culpable folly of the people in not giving a thought to the certain consequences of such a course as they were following; a course that had been denounced by the faithful prophets of Jehovah, who, alas! had been but voices crying in the wilderness, unnoted, or even scouted and suppressed, like the stormy petrels hated by sailors as birds of ill-omen. In her ease and prosperity, her self-indulgence and sin, the doomed city had failed to recollect what must be the end of such things. The idea of remembrance is peculiarly apt and forcible in this connection, although it has a relation to the future, because the Jews had been through experiences which should have served as warnings if they had duly reflected on them. This was not a matter for wild guesses or vague apprehensions. Not only were there the distinct utterances of Jeremiah and his predecessors to rouse the thoughtless; events had been speaking louder than words. Jerusalem was already a city with a history, and that history had even by this time accumulated some tragic lessons. These were subjects for memory. Thus memory can become prophecy, because the laws which are revealed in the past will govern the future. We are none of us so wholly inexperienced but that in the knowledge of what we have already116 been through we may gain wisdom to anticipate the consequences of our present actions. The heedless person is one who forgets, or at all events one who will not attend to his own memories. Such recklessness is its own condemnation; it cannot plead the excuse of ignorance.

But now it may be objected that this reference to the mere thought of consequences suggests considerations that are too low to furnish the reasons for the ruin of Jerusalem. Would the city have been spared if only her inhabitants had been a little more foreseeing? It should be observed that though mere prudence is never a very lofty virtue, imprudence is sometimes a very serious fault. It cannot be right to be simply reckless, to ignore all lessons of the past and fling oneself blindly into the future. The hero who is sure that he is inspired by a lofty motive may walk straight into the very jaws of death, and be all the stronger for his noble indifference to his fate; but he who is no hero, he who is not influenced by any great or unselfish ideas, has no excuse for neglecting the warnings of common prudence. All wise actions must be more or less guided with a view to their issues in the future, although in the case of the best of them the aims will be pure and unselfish. It is our prerogative to "look before and after"; and just in proportion as we take long views do our deeds acquire gravity and depth. Our Lord characterised the two ways by their ends. While the example of the careless Jews is followed on all sides—and who of us can deny that he has ever fallen into the negligence?—is it not a little superfluous to discuss abstract, unpractical problems about a remote altruism?

Intermingled with his painful picture of the humiliation117 and shame of the fallen city, the poet supplies indications of the effect of all this on the suffering citizens. Despised by all who had formerly honoured her, Jerusalem sighs and longs to retire into obscurity, away from the rude gaze of her oppressors.

In particular, two further signs of her distress are here given.

The first is spoliation. Her enemies have laid hands on "all her pleasant things." It may strike us that, after the miseries just narrated, this is but a minor trouble. Job's calamities began with the loss of his property, and rose from this by degrees to the climax of agony. If his first trouble had been the sudden death of all his children, stunned by that awful blow, he would have cared little about the fate of his flocks and herds. It is not according to the method of the Lamentations, however, to move on to any climax. The thoughts are set forth as they well up in the mind of the poet, now passionate and intense, then again of a milder cast, yet altogether combining to colour one picture of intolerable woe. But there is an aspect of this idea of the robbery of the "pleasant things" which heightens the sense of misery. It is another instance of the force of contrast so often manifested in these elegies. Jerusalem had been a home of wealth and luxury in the merry old days. But hoarded money, precious jewellery, family heirlooms, products of art and skill, accumulated during generations of prosperity and treated as necessaries of life—all had been swept away in the sack of the city, and scattered among strangers who could not prize them as they had been prized by their owners; and now these victims of spoliation, stripped of everything, were in want of daily bread. Even what little could be saved from the118 wreck they had to give up in exchange for common food, bought dearly in the market of necessity.

The second sign of the great distress here noted is desecration. Gentiles invade the sacred precincts of the temple. Considering that the sanctuary had been already much more effectually desecrated by the blood-stained hands and lustful hearts of impious worshippers, such as those "rulers of Sodom" denounced by Isaiah for "trampling" the courts of Jehovah with their "vain oblations,"112112   Isa. i. 10-17. we do not find it easy to sympathise with this horror of a supposed defilement from the mere presence of heathen persons. Yet it would be unjust to accuse the shocked Israelites of hypocrisy. They ought to have been more conscious of the one real corruption of sin; but we cannot add that therefore their notions of external uncleanness were altogether foolish and wrong. To judge the Jews of the age of the Captivity by a standard of spirituality which few Christians have yet attained to would be a cruel anachronism. The Syrian invasion of the temple in the time of the Maccabees was called by a very late prophet an "abomination of desolation,"113113   Dan. xi. 31. and a similar insult to be offered to the sacred place by the Romans is described by our Lord in the same terms.114114   Mark xiii. 14. All of us must be conscious at times of the sacredness of associations. To botanise on his mother's grave may be a proof of a man's freedom from superstition, but it cannot be taken as an indication of the fineness of his feelings. The Israelite exclusiveness which shunned the intrusion of foreigners simply because they were foreigners was combined both with a patriotic anxiety to preserve the integrity of the nation, and in119 some cases with a religious dread of idolatry. It is true the nominal contamination of the mere presence of Gentiles was generally more dreaded than the real contagion of their corrupt examples. Still the very idea of desecration, even when it is superficial, together with a sense of pain at its presence, is higher than the materialism which despises it not because this materialism has the grace to sanctify everything, but for the opposite reason, because it counts nothing holy, because to it all things are common and unclean.

Before we pass from this portion of the elegy there is one curious characteristic of it which calls for notice. The poet suddenly drops the construction in the third person and writes in the first person. This he does twice—at the end of the ninth verse, and again at the end of the eleventh. He might be speaking in his own person, but the language points to the personified city. Yet in each case the outburst is quite abrupt, sprung upon us without any introductory formula. Possibly the explanation of this anomaly must be sought in the liturgical use for which the poem was designed. If it was to be sung antiphonally we may conjecture that at these places a second chorus would break in. The result would be a startling dramatic effect—as though the city had sat listening to the lament over her woes until the piteous tale had compelled her to break her silence and cry aloud. In each case the cry is directed to heaven. It is an appeal to God; and it simply prays for His attention—"Behold, O Lord," "See, O Lord, and behold." In the first case the Divine attention is called to the insolence of the enemy, in the second to the degradation of Jerusalem. Still it is only an appeal for notice. Will God but look upon all this misery? That is sufficient.

« Prev Chapter V. Sin and Suffering (i. 8-11) Next »

VIEWNAME is workSection