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iii. 37-9

The eternal problem of the relation of God to evil is here treated with the keenest discrimination. That God is the supreme and irresistible ruler, that no man can succeed with any design in opposition to His will, that whatever happens must be in some way an execution of His decree, and that He, therefore, is to be regarded as the author of evil as well as good—these doctrines are so taken for granted that they are neither proved nor directly affirmed, but thrown into the form of questions that can have but one answer, as though to imply that they are known to everybody, and cannot be doubted for a moment by any one. But the inference drawn from them is strange and startling. It is that not a single living man has any valid excuse for complaining. That, too, is considered to be so undeniable that, like the previous ideas, it is expressed as a self-answering question. But we are not left in this paradoxical position. The evil experienced by the sufferer is treated as the punishment of his sin. What right has he to complain of that? A slightly various rendering has been proposed for the thirty-ninth verse, so as to resolve into a question and its answer. Read in this way, it asks, why should a living man complain? and then suggests the reply, that if he is to complain219 at all it should not be on account of his sufferings, treated as wrongs. He should complain against himself, his own conduct, his sin. We have seen, however, in other cases, that the breaking of a verse in this way is not in harmony with the smooth style of the elegiac poetry in which the words occur. This requires us to take the three verses of the triplet as continuous, flowing sentences.

Quite a number of considerations arise out of the curious juxtaposition of ideas in this passage. In the first place, it is very evident that by the word "evil" the writer here means trouble and suffering, not wickedness, because he clearly distinguishes it from the sin the mention of which follows. That sin is a man's own deed, for which he is justly punished. The poet, then, does not attribute the causation of sin to God; he does not speculate at all on the origin of moral evil. As far as he goes in the present instance, he would seem to throw back the authorship of it upon the will of man. How that will came to turn astray he does not say. This awful mystery remains unsolved through the whole course of the revelation of the Old Testament, and even through that of the New also. It cannot be maintained that the story of the Fall in Genesis is a solution of the mystery. To trace temptation back to the serpent is not to account for its existence, nor for the facility with which man was found to yield to it. When, at a later period, Satan appears on the stage, it is not to answer the perplexing question of the origin of evil. In the Old Testament he is nowhere connected with the Fall—his identification with the serpent first occurring in the Book of Wisdom,200200   Wisdom ii. 23 ff. from which220 apparently it passed into current language, and so was adopted by St. John in the Apocalypse.201201   Rev. xii. 9. At first Satan is the adversary and accuser of man, as in Job202202   Job i. 6-12, ii. 1-7. and Zechariah;203203   Zech. iii. 1, 2. then he is recognised as the tempter, in Chronicles, for example.204204   1 Chron. xxi. 1. But in no case is he said to be the primary cause of evil. No plummet can sound the depths of that dark pit in which lurks the source of sin.

Meanwhile a very different problem, the problem of suffering, is answered by attributing this form of evil quite unreservedly and even emphatically to God. It is to be remembered that our Lord, accepting the language of His contemporaries, ascribes this to Satan, speaking of the woman afflicted with a spirit of infirmity as one whom Satan had bound;205205   Luke xiii. 16. and that similarly St. Paul writes of his thorn in the flesh as a messenger of Satan,206206   2 Cor. xii. 7. to whom he also assigns the hindrance of a projected journey.207207   1 Thess. ii. 18. But in these cases it is not in the least degree suggested that the evil spirit is an irresistible and irresponsible being. The language only points to his immediate agency. The absolute supremacy of God is never called in question. There is no real concession to Persian dualism anywhere in the Bible. In difficult cases the sacred writers seem more anxious to uphold the authority of God than to justify His actions. They are perfectly convinced that those actions are all just and right, and not to be called in question, and so they are quite fearless in attributing to His direct commands occurrences that we should perhaps think more satisfactorily accounted for in some other221 way. In such cases theirs is the language of unfailing faith, even when faith is strained almost to breaking.

The unquestionable fact that good and evil both come from the mouth of the Most High is based on the certain conviction that He is the Most High. Since it cannot be believed that His decrees should be thwarted, it cannot be supposed that there is any rival to His power. To speak of evil as independent of God is to deny that He is God. This is what a system of pure dualism must come to. If there are two mutually independent principles in the universe neither of them can be God. Dualism is as essentially opposed to the idea we attach to the name "God" as polytheism. The gods of the heathen are no gods, and so also are the imaginary twin divinities that divide the universe between them, or contend in a vain endeavour to suppress one another. "God," as we understand the title, is the name of the Supreme, the Almighty, the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Zend-Avesta escapes the logical conclusion of atheism by regarding its two principles, Ormuzd and Ahriman, as two streams issuing from a common fountain, or as two phases of one existence. But then it saves its theism at the expense of its dualism. In practice, however, this is not done. The dualism, the mutual antagonism of the two powers, is the central idea of the Parsee system; and being so, it stands in glaring contrast to the lofty monism of the Bible.

Nevertheless, it may be said, although it is thus necessary to attribute evil as well as good to God if we would not abandon the thought of His supremacy, a thought that is essential to our conception of His very nature, this is a perplexing necessity, and not one to be accepted with any sense of satisfaction. How222 then can the elegist welcome it with acclamation and set it before us with an air of triumph? That he does so is undeniable, for the spirit and tone of the poem here become positively exultant.

We may reply that the writer appears as the champion of the Divine cause. No attack on God's supremacy is to be permitted. Nothing of the kind, however, has been suggested. The writer is pursuing another aim, for he is anxious to still the murmurs of discontent. But how can the thought of the supremacy of God have that effect? One would have supposed the ascription to God of the trouble complained of would deepen the sense of distress and turn the complaint against Him. Yet it is just here that the elegist sees the unreasonableness of a complaining spirit.

Of course the uselessness of complaining, or rather the uselessness of attempting resistance, may be impressed upon us in this way. If the source of our trouble is nothing less than the Almighty and Supreme Ruler of all things it is stupid to dream of thwarting His purposes. If a man will run his head like a battering-ram against a granite cliff the most he can effect by his madness will be to bespatter the rock with his brains. It may be necessary to warn the rebel against Providence of this danger by shewing him that what he mistakes for a flimsy veil or a shadowy cloud is an immovable wall. But what will he find to exult over in the information? The hopelessness of resistance is no better than the consolation of pessimism, and its goal is despair. Our author, on the other hand, evidently intends to be reassuring.

Now, is there not something reassuring in the thought that evil and good come to us from one and the same source? For, consider the alternative. Remember,223 the evil exists as surely as the good. The elegist does not attempt to deny this, or to minimise the fact. He never calls evil good, never explains it away. There it stands before us, in all its ugly actuality, speculations concerning its origin neither aggravating the severity of its symptoms nor alleviating them. Whence, then, did this perplexing fact arise? If we postulate some other source than the Divine origin of good, what is it? A dreadful mystery here yawns at our feet. If evil came from an equally potent origin it would contend with good on even terms, and the issue would always hang in the balance. There could be nothing reassuring in that tantalising situation. The fate of the universe would be always quivering in uncertainty. And meanwhile we should have to conclude, that the most awful conflict with absolutely doubtful issues was raging continually. We could only contemplate the idea of this vast schism with terror and dismay. But now assuredly there is something calming in the thought of the unity of the power that distributes our fortunes; for this means that a man is in no danger of being tossed like a shuttlecock between two gigantic rival forces. There must be a singleness of aim in the whole treatment of us by Providence, since Providence is one. Thus, if only as an escape from an inconceivably appalling alternative, this doctrine of the common source of good and evil is truly reassuring.

We may pursue the thought further. Since good and evil spring from one and the same source, they cannot be so mutually contradictory as we have been accustomed to esteem them. They are two children of a common parent; then they must be brothers. But if they are so closely related a certain family likeness may be traced between them. This does not destroy224 the actuality of evil. But it robs it of its worst features. The pain may be as acute as ever in spite of all our philosophising. But the significance of it will be wholly changed. We can now no longer treat it as an accursed thing. If it is so closely related to good, we may not have far to go in order to discover that it is even working for good.

Then if evil and good come from the same source it is not just to characterise that source by reference to one only of its effluents. We must not take a rose-coloured view of all things, and relapse into idle complacency, as we might do if we confined our observation to the pleasant facts of existence, for the unpleasant facts—loss, disappointment, pain, death—are equally real, and are equally derived from the very highest Authority. Neither are we justified in denying the existence of the good when overwhelmed with a sense of the evil in life. At worst we live in a very mixed world. It is unscientific, it is unjust to pick out the ills of life and gibbet them as specimens of the way things are going. If we will recite the first part of such an elegy as that we are now studying, at least let us have the honesty to read on to the second part, where the surpassingly lovely vision of the Divine compassion so much more than counterbalances the preceding gloom. Is it only by accident that the poet says "evil and good," and not, as we usually put the phrase, "good and evil"? Good shall have the last word. Evil exists; but the finality and crown of existence is not evil, but good.

The conception of the primary unity of causation which the Hebrew poet reaches through his religion is brought home to us to-day with a vast accumulation of proof by the discoveries of science. The uniformity225 of law, the co-relation of forces, the analyses of the most diverse and complex organisms into their common chemical elements, the evidence of the spectroscope to the existence of precisely the same elements among the distant stars, as well as the more minute homologies of nature in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, are all irrefutable confirmations of this great truth. Moreover, science has demonstrated the intimate association of what we cannot but regard as good and evil in the physical universe. Thus, while carbon and oxygen are essential elements for the building up of all living things, the effect of perfectly healthy vital functions working upon them is to combine them into carbonic acid, which is a most deadly poison; but then this noxious gas becomes the food of plants, from which the animal life in turn derives its nourishment. Similarly microbes, which we commonly regard as the agents of corruption and disease, are found to be not only nature's scavengers, but also the indispensable ministers of life, when clustering round the roots of plants in vast crowds they convert the organic matter of the soil, such as manure, into those inorganic nitrates which contain nitrogen in the form suitable for absorption by vegetable organisms. The mischief wrought by germs, great as it is, is infinitely outweighed by the necessary service existences of this kind render to all life by preparing some of its indispensable conditions. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn from facts such as these is that health and disease, and life and death, interact, are inextricably blended together, and mutually transformable—what we call disease and death in one place being necessary for life and health in another. The more clearly we understand the processes of nature the more evident is the fact of her226 unity, and therefore the more impossible is it for us to think of her objectionable characteristics as foreign to her being—alien immigrants from another sphere. Physical evil itself looks less dreadful when it is seen to take its place as an integral part of the complicated movement of the whole system of the universe.

But the chief reason for regarding the prospect with more than satisfaction has yet to be stated. It is derived from the character of Him to whom both the evil and the good are attributed. We can go beyond the assertion that these contrarieties spring from one common origin to the great truth that this origin is to be found in God. All that we know of our Father in heaven comes to our aid in reflecting upon the character of the actions thus attributed to Him. The account of God's goodness that immediately precedes this ascription of the two extreme experiences of life to Him would be in the mind of the writer, and it should be in the mind of the reader also. The poet has just been dwelling very emphatically on the indubitable justice of God. When, therefore, he reminds us that both evil and good come from the Divine Being, it is as though he said that they both originated in justice. A little earlier he was expressing the most fervent appreciation of the mercy and compassion of God. Then these gracious attributes should be in our thoughts while we hear that the mixed experiences of life are to be traced back to Him of whom so cheering a view can be taken.

We know the love of God much more fully since it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Therefore we have a much better reason for building our faith and hope on the fact of the universal Divine origin of events. In itself the evil exists all the same whether227 we can trace its cause or not, and the discovery of the cause in no way aggravates it. But this discovery may lead us to take a new view of its issues. If it comes from One who is as just and merciful as He is mighty we may certainly conclude that it will lead to the most blessed results. Considered in the light of the assured character of its purpose, the evil itself must assume a totally different character. The child who receives a distasteful draught from the hand of the kindest of parents knows that it cannot be a cup of poison, and has good reason for believing it to be a necessary medicine.

The last verse of the triplet startles the reader with an unexpected thought. The considerations already adduced are all meant to check any complaint against the course of Providence. Now the poet appends a final argument, which is all the more forcible for not being stated as an argument. At the very end of the passage, when we are only expecting the language to sink into a quiet conclusion, a new idea springs out upon us, like a tiger from its lair. This trouble about which a man is so ready to complain, as though it were some unaccountable piece of injustice, is simply the punishment of his sin! Like the other ideas of the passage, the notion is not tentatively argued; it is boldly taken for granted. Once again we see that there is no suspicion in the mind of the elegist of the perplexing problem that gives its theme to the Book of Job. But do we not sometimes press that problem too far? Can it be denied that, to a large extent, suffering is the direct consequence and the natural punishment of sin? Are we not often burnt for the simple reason that we have been playing with fire? At all events, the whole course of previous prophecy went to shew228 that the national sins of Israel must be followed by some dreadful disasters; and when the war-cloud was hovering on the horizon Jeremiah saw in it the herald of approaching doom. Then the thunderbolt fell; and the wreck it caused became the topic of this Book of Lamentations. After such a preparation, what was more natural, and reasonable, and even inevitable, than that the elegist should calmly assume that the trouble complained of was no more than was due to the afflicted people? This is clear enough when we think of the nation as a whole. It is not so obvious when we turn our attention to individual cases; but the bewildering problem of the sufferings of innocent children, which constitutes the most prominent feature in the poet's picture of the miseries of the Jews, is not here revived.

We must suppose that he is thinking of a typical citizen of Jerusalem. If the guilty city merited severe punishment, such a man as this would also merit it; for the deserts of the city are only the deserts of her citizens. It will be for everybody to say for himself how far the solution of the mystery of his own troubles is to be looked for in this direction. A humble conscience will not be eager to repudiate the possibility that its owner has not been punished beyond his deserts, whatever may be thought of other people, innocent children in particular. There is one word that may bring out this aspect of the question with more distinctness—the word "living." The poet asks, "Wherefore doth a living man complain?" Why does he attach this attribute to the subject of his question? The only satisfactory explanation that has been offered is that he would remind us that while the sufferer has his life preserved to him he has no valid ground of229 complaint. He has not been overpaid; he has not even been paid in full; for it is an Old Testament doctrine which the New Testament repeats when it declares that "the wages of sin is death."208208   Rom. vi. 23.

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