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194

CHAPTER XII

THE UNFAILING GOODNESS OF GOD

iii. 22-4

Although the elegist has prepared us for brighter scenes by the more hopeful tone of an intermediate triplet, the transition from the gloom and bitterness of the first part of the poem to the glowing rapture of the second is among the most startling effects in literature. It is scarcely possible to conceive of darker views of Providence, short of a Manichæan repudiation of the God of the physical universe as an evil being, than those which are boldly set forth in the opening verses of the elegy; we shudder at the awful words, and shrink from repeating them, so near to the verge of blasphemy do they seem to come. And now those appalling utterances are followed by the very choicest expression of confidence in the boundless goodness of God! The writer seems to leap in a moment out of the deepest, darkest pit of misery into the radiance of more than summer sunlight. How can we account for this extraordinary change of thought and temper?

It is not enough to ascribe the sharpness of the contrast either to the clumsiness of the author in giving utterance to his teeming fancies just as they occur to him, without any consideration for their bearings one upon another; or to his art in designedly preparing an195 awakening shock. We have still to answer the question, How could a man entertain two such conflicting currents of thought in closest juxtaposition?

In their very form and structure these touching elegies reflect the mental calibre of their author. A wooden soul could never have invented their movements. They reveal a most sensitive spirit, a spirit that resembles a finely strung instrument of music, quivering in response to impulses from all directions. People of a mercurial temperament live in a state of perpetual oscillation between the most contrary moods, and the violence of their despair is always ready to give place to the enthusiasm of a new hope. We call them inconsistent; but their inconsistency may spring from a quick-witted capacity to see two sides of a question in the time occupied by slower minds with the contemplation of one. As a matter of fact, however, the revulsion in the mind of the poet may not have been so sudden as it appears in his work. We can scarcely suppose that so elaborate a composition as this elegy was written from beginning to end at a single sitting. Indeed, here we seem to have the mark of a break. The author composes the first part in an exceptionally gloomy mood, and leaves the poem unfinished, perhaps for some time. When he returns to it on a subsequent occasion he is in a totally different frame of mind, and this is reflected in the next stage of his work. Still the point of importance is the possibility of the very diverse views here recorded.

Nor is this wholly a matter of temperament. Is it not more or less the case with all of us, that since absorption with one class of ideas entirely excludes their opposites, when the latter are allowed to enter the mind they will rush in with the force of a pent-up196 flood? Then we are astonished that we could ever have forgotten them. We build our theories in disregard of whole regions of thought. When these occur to us it is with the shock of a sudden discovery, and in the flash of the new light we begin at once to take very different views of our universe. Possibly we have been oblivious of our own character, until suddenly we are awakened to our true state, to be overwhelmed with shame at an unexpected revelation of sordid meanness, of despicable selfishness. Or perhaps the vision is of the heart of another person, whose quiet, unassuming goodness we have not appreciated, because it has been so unvarying and dependable that we have taken it as a matter of course, like the daily sunrise, never perceiving that this very constancy is the highest merit. We have been more grateful for the occasional lapses into kindness with which habitually churlish people have surprised us. Then there has come the revelation, in which we have been made to see that a saint has been walking by our side all the day. Many of us are very slow in reaching a similar discovery concerning God. But when we begin to take a right view of His relations to us we are amazed to think that we had not perceived them before, so rich and full and abounding are the proofs of His exceeding goodness.

Still it may seem to us a strange thing that this most perfect expression of a joyous assurance of the mercy and compassion of God should be found in the Book of Lamentations of all places. It may well give heart to those who have not sounded the depths of sorrow, as the author of these sad poems had done, to learn that even he had been able to recognise the merciful kindness of God in the largest possible measure. A little197 reflection, however, should teach us that it is not so unnatural a thing for this gem of grateful appreciation to appear where it is. We do not find, as a rule, that the most prosperous people are the foremost to recognise the love of God. The reverse is very frequently the case. If prosperity is not always accompanied by callous ingratitude—and of course it would be grossly unjust to assert anything so harsh—at all events it is certain that adversity is far from blinding our eyes to the brighter side of the revelation of God. Sometimes it is the very means by which they are opened. In trouble the blessings of the past are best valued, and in trouble the need of God's compassion is most acutely felt. But this is not all. The softening influence of sorrow seems to have a more direct effect upon our sense of Divine goodness. Perhaps, too, it is some compensation for melancholy, that persons who are afflicted with it are most responsive to sympathy. The morbid, despondent poet Cowper has written most exquisitely about the love of God. Watts is enthusiastic in his praise of the Divine grace; but a deeper note is sounded in the Olney hymns, as, for example, in that beginning with the line—

"Hark, my soul, it is the Lord."

While reading this hymn to-day we cannot fail to feel the peculiar thrill of personal emotion that still quivers through its living words, revealing the very soul of their author. This is more than joyous praise; it is the expression of a personal experience of the compassion of God in times of deepest need. The same sensitive poet has given us a description of the very condition that is illustrated by the passage in the Hebrew elegist we are now considering, in lines which, familiar as198 they are, acquire a fresh meaning when read in this association—the lines—

"Sometimes a light surprises

The Christian while he sings:

It is the Lord who rises

With healing in His wings.

When comforts are declining,

He grants the soul, again,

A season of clear shining,

To cheer it after rain."

We may thank the Calvinistic poet for here touching on another side of the subject. He reminds us that it is God who brings about the unexpected joy of renewed trust in His unfailing mercy. The sorrowful soul is, consciously or unconsciously, visited by the Holy Spirit, and the effect of contact with the Divine is that scales fall from the eyes of the surprised sufferer. If it is right to say that one portion of Scripture is more inspired than another we must feel that there is more Divine light in the second part of this elegy than in the first. It is this surprising light from Heaven that ultimately accounts for the sudden revolution in the feelings of the poet.

In his new consciousness of the love of God the elegist is first struck by its amazing persistence. Probably we should follow the Targum and the Syriac version in rendering the twenty-second verse thus—

"The Lord's mercies, verily they cease not," etc.,

instead of the usual English rendering—

"It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed," etc.

There are two reasons for this emendation. First, the momentary transition to the plural "we" is harsh and improbable. It is true the author makes a somewhat199 similar change a little later;182182   iii. 40-8. but there it is in an extended passage, and one in which he evidently wishes to represent his people with ideas that are manifestly appropriate to the community at large. Here, on the other hand, the sentence breaks into the midst of personal reflections. Second—and this is the principal consideration—the balance of the phrases, which is so carefully observed throughout this elegy, is upset by the common rendering, but restored by the emendation. The topic of the triplet in which the disputed passage occurs is the amazing persistence of God's goodness to His suffering children. The proposed alteration is in harmony with this.

The thought here presented to us rests on the truth of the eternity and essential changelessness of God. We cannot think of Him as either fickle or failing; to do so would be to cease to think of Him as God. If He is merciful at all He cannot be merciful only spasmodically, erratically, or temporarily. For all that, we need not regard these heart-stirring utterances as the expressions of a self-evident truism. The wonder and glory of the idea they dilate upon are not the less for the fact that we should entertain no doubt of its truth. The certainty that the character of God is good and great does not detract from His goodness or His greatness. When we are assured that His nature is not fallible our contemplation of it does not cease to be an act of adoration. On the contrary, we can worship the immutable perfection of God with fuller praises than we should give to fitful gleams of less abiding qualities.

As a matter of fact, however, our religious experience200 is never the simple conclusion of bare logic. Our feelings, and not these only, but also our faith, need repeated assurances of the continuance of God's goodness, because it seems as though there were so much to absorb and quench it. Therefore the perception of the fact of its continuance takes the form of a glad wonder that God's mercies do not cease. Thus it is amazing to us that these mercies are not consumed by the multitude of the sufferers who are dependent upon them—the extent of God's family not in any way cramping His means to give the richest inheritance to each of his children; nor by the depth of individual need—no single soul having wants so extreme or so peculiar that his aid cannot avail entirely for them; nor by the shocking ill-desert of the most unworthy of mankind—even sin, while it necessarily excludes the guilty from any present enjoyment of the love of God, not really quenching that love or precluding a future participation in it on condition of repentance; nor by the wearing of time, beneath which even granite rocks crumble to powder.

The elegist declares that the reason why God's mercies are not consumed is that his compassions do not fail. Thus he goes behind the kind actions of God to their originating motives. To a man in the condition of the writer of this poem of personal confidences the Divine sympathy is the one fact in the universe of supreme importance. So will it be to every sufferer who can assure himself of the truth of it. But is this only a consolation for the sorrowing? The pathos, the very tragedy of human life on earth, should make the sympathy of God the most precious fact of existence to all mankind. Portia rightly reminds Shylock that "we all do look for mercy"; but if so, the spring201 of mercy, the Divine compassion, must be the one source of true hope for every soul of man. Whether we are to attribute it to sin alone, or whether there may be other dark, mysterious ingredients in human sorrow, there can be no doubt that the deepest need is that God should have pity on His children. The worship of heaven among the angels may be one pure song of joy; but here, even though we are privileged to share the gladness of the celestial praises, a plaintive note will mingle with our anthem of adoration, because a pleading cry must ever go up from burdened spirits; and when relief is acknowledged our thanksgiving must single out the compassion of God for deepest gratitude. It is much, then, to know that God not only helps the needy—that is to say, all mankind—but that He feels with His suffering children. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has taught us to see this reassuring truth most clearly in the revelation of God in His Son, repeatedly dwelling on the sufferings of Christ as the means by which He was brought into sympathetic, helpful relations to the sufferings of mankind.183183   Heb. ii. 18, iv. 15.

Further, the elegist declares that the special form taken by these unceasing mercies of God is daily renewal. The love of God is constant—one changeless Divine attribute; but the manifestations of that love are necessarily successive and various according to the successive and various needs of His children. We have not only to praise God for His eternal, immutable goodness, vast and wonderful as that is; to our perceptions, at all events, his immediate, present actions are even more significant because they202 shew His personal interest in individual men and women, and His living activity at the very crisis of need. There is a certain aloofness, a certain chillness, in the thought of ancient kindness, even though the effects of it may reach to our own day in full and abundant streams. But the living God is an active God, who works in the present as effectually as He worked in the past. There is another side to this truth. It is not sufficient to have received the grace of God once for all. If "He giveth more grace," it is because we need more grace. This is a stream that must be ever flowing into the soul, not the storage of a tank filled once for all and left to serve for a lifetime. Therefore the channel must be kept constantly clear, or the grace will fail to reach us, although in itself it never runs dry.

There is something cheering in the poet's idea of the morning as the time when these mercies of God are renewed. It has been suggested that he is thinking of renewals of brightness after dark seasons of sorrow, such as are suggested by the words of the psalmist—

"Weeping may come in to lodge at even,

But joy cometh in the morning."184184   Heb. ii. 18, iv. 15.

This idea, however, would weaken the force of the passage, which goes to shew that God's mercies do not fail, are not interrupted. The emphasis is on the thought that no day is without God's new mercies, not even the day of darkest trouble; and further, there is the suggestion that God is never dilatory in coming to our aid. He does not keep us waiting and wearying while He tarries. He is prompt and203 early with His grace. The idea may be compared with that of the promise to those who seek God early, literally, in the morning.185185   Prov. viii. 17. Or we may think of the night as the time of repose, when we are oblivious of God's goodness, although even through the hours of darkness He who neither slumbers nor sleeps is constantly watching over His unconscious children. Then in the morning there dawns on us a fresh perception of His goodness. If we are to realise the blessing sought in Sir Thomas Browne's prayer, and

"Awake into some holy thought,"

no more holy thought can be desired than a grateful recognition of the new mercies on which our eyes open with the new day. A morning so graciously welcomed is the herald of a day of strength and happy confidence.

To the notion of the morning renewal of the mercies of God the poet appends a recognition of His great faithfulness. This is an additional thought. Faithfulness is more than compassion. There is a strength and a stability about the idea that goes further to insure confidence. It is more than the fact that God is true to His word, that He will certainly perform what He has definitely promised. Fidelity is not confined to compacts—it is not limited to the question of what is "in the bond"; it concerns persons rather than phrases. To be faithful to a friend is more than to keep one's word to him. We may have given him no pledge; and yet we must confess to an obligation to be true—to be true to the man himself. Now while we are called upon to be loyal to God, there is a sense in which we may venture without irreverence to say204 that He may be expected to be faithful to us. He is our Creator, and He has placed us in this world by His own will; His relations with us cannot cease at this point. So Moses pleaded that God, having led His people into the wilderness, could not desert them there; and Jeremiah even ventured on the daring prayer—

"Do not disgrace the throne of Thy glory."186186   Jer. xiv. 21.

It is because we are sure the just and true God could never do anything so base that His faithfulness becomes the ground of perfect confidence. It may be said, on the other hand, that we cannot claim any good thing from God on the score of merit, because we only deserve wrath and punishment. But this is not a question of merit. Fidelity to a friend is not exhausted when we have treated him according to his deserts. It extends to a treatment of him in accordance with the direct claims of friendship, claims which are to be measured by need rather than by merit.

The conclusion drawn from these considerations is given in an echo from the Psalms—

"The Lord is my portion."187187   Psalm lxxiii. 26.

The words are old and well-worn; but they obtain a new meaning when adopted as the expression of a new experience. The lips have often chanted them in the worship of the sanctuary. Now they are the voice of the soul, of the very life. There is no plagiarism in such a quotation as this, although in making it the poet does not turn aside to acknowledge his obligation to the earlier author who coined the immortal phrase. The seizure of the old words205 by the soul of the new writer make them his own in the deepest sense, because under these circumstances it is not their literary form, but their spiritual significance, that gives them their value. This is true of the most frequently quoted words of Scripture. They are new words to every soul that adopts them as the expression of a new experience.

It is to be observed that the experience now reached is something over and above the conscious reception of daily mercies. The Giver is greater than His gifts. God is first known by means of His actions, and then being thus known He is recognised as Himself the portion of His people, so that to possess Him is their one satisfying joy in the present and their one inspiring hope for the future.


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