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242

CHAPTER XVI

GRIEVING BEFORE GOD

iii. 43-54

As might have been expected, the mourning patriot quickly forsakes the patch of sunshine which lights up a few verses of this elegy. But the vision of it has not come in vain; for it leaves gracious effects to tone the gloomy ideas upon which the meditations of the poet now return like birds of the night hastening back to their darksome haunts. In the first place, his grief is no longer solitary. It is enlarged in its sympathies so as to take in the sorrows of others. Purely selfish trouble tends to become a mean and sordid thing. If we are not yet freed from our own pain some element of a nobler nature will be imported into it when we can find room for the larger thoughts that the contemplation of the distresses of others arouses. But a greater change than this has taken place. The "man who hath seen affliction" now feels himself to be in the presence of God. Speaking for others as well as for himself he pours out his lamentations before God. In the first part of the elegy he had only mentioned the Divine name as that of his great Antagonist; now it is the name of his close Confidant.

Then the elegist is here giving voice to the people's penitent confession and prayer. This is another243 feature of the changed situation. An unqualified admission of the truth that the sufferings of Israel are just the merited punishment of the people's sin has come between the complaints with which the poem opens, and the renewed expressions of grief.

Still, when all due allowance is made for these improvements, the renewed outburst of grief is sufficiently dismal. The people are supposed to represent themselves as being hunted down like helpless fugitives, and slain without pity by God, who has wrapped Himself in a mantle of anger, which is as a cloud impenetrable to the prayers of His miserable victims.213213   iii. 44. This description of their helpless state follows immediately after an outpouring of prayer. It would seem, therefore, that the poet conceived that this particular utterance was hindered from reaching the ear of God. Now in many cases it may be that a feeling such as is here expressed is purely subjective and imaginary. The soul's cry of agony passes out into the night, and dies away into silence, without eliciting a whisper of response. Yet it is not necessary to conclude that the cry is not heard. The closest attention may be the most silent. But, it may be objected, this possibility only aggravates the evil; for it is better not to hear at all than to hear and not to heed. Will any one attribute such stony indifference to God? God may attend, and yet He may not speak to us—speech not being the usual form of Divine response. He may be helping us most effectually in silence, unperceived by us, at the very moment when we imagine that He has completely deserted us. If we were more keenly alive to the signs of His coming we should be less hasty to244 despair at the failure of our prayers. The priests of Baal may scream, "O Baal, hear us!" from morning to night till their phrensy sinks into despair; but that is no reason why men and women who worship a spiritual God should come to the conclusion that their inability to wrest a sign from Heaven is itself a sign of desertion by Him to whom they call. The oracle may be dumb; but the God whom we worship is not limited to the utterance of prophetic voices for the expression of His will. He hears, even if in silence; and, in truth, He also answers, though we are too deaf in our unbelief to discern the still small voice of His Spirit.

But can we say that the idea of the Divine disregard of prayer is always and only imaginary? Are the clouds that come between us and God invariably earthborn? Does He never really wrap Himself in the garment of wrath? Surely we dare not say so much. The anger of God is as real as His love. No being can be perfectly holy and not feel a righteous indignation in the presence of sin. But if God is angry, and while He is so, He cannot at the same time be holding friendly intercourse with the people who are provoking His wrath. Then the Divine anger must be as a thick, impervious curtain between the prayers of the sinful and the gracious hearing of God. The universal confession of the need of an atonement is a witness to the perception of this condition by mankind. Whether we are dealing with the crude notions of ancient sacrifice, or with the high thoughts that circle about Calvary, the same spiritual instinct presses for recognition. We may try to reason it down, but it persistently reasserts itself. Most certainly it is not the teaching of Scripture that the only condition of245 salvation is prayer. The Gospel is not to the effect that we are to be saved by our own petitions. The penitent is taught to feel that without Christ and the cross his prayers are of no avail for his salvation. Even if they knew no respite still they would never atone for sin. Is not this an axiom of evangelical doctrine? Then the prayers that are offered in the old unreconciled condition must fall back on the head of the vain petitioner unable to penetrate the awful barrier that he has himself caused to be raised between his cries and the heavens where God dwells.

Turning from the contemplation of the hopeless failure of prayer the lament naturally falls into an almost despairing wail of grief. The state of the Jews is painted in the very darkest colours. God has made them as no better than the refuse people cast out of their houses, or the very sweepings of the streets—not fit even to be trampled under foot of men.214214   iii. 45. This is their position among the nations. The poet seems to be alluding to the exceptional severity with which the obstinate defenders of Jerusalem had been treated by their exasperated conquerors. The neighbouring tribes had been compelled to succumb beneath the devastating wave of the Babylonian invasion; but since none of them had offered so stubborn a resistance to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar none of them had been punished by so severe a scourge of vengeance. So it has been repeatedly with the unhappy people who have encountered unparalled persecutions through the long weary ages of their melancholy history. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes the Jews were the most insulted and cruelly outraged victims of Syrian tyranny. When their246 long tragedy reached a climax at the final siege of Jerusalem by Titus, the more liberal-minded Roman government laid on them harsh punishments of exile, slavery, torture, and death, such as it rarely inflicted on a fallen foe—for with statesmanlike wisdom the Romans preferred, as a rule, conciliation to extermination; but in the case of this one unhappy city of Jerusalem the almost unique fate of the hated and dreaded city of Carthage was repeated. So it was in the Middle Ages, as Ivanhoe vividly shows; and so it is to-day in the East of Europe, as the fierce Juden-hetze is continually proving. The irony of history is nowhere more apparent than in the fact that the "favoured" people, the "chosen" people of Jehovah, should have been treated so continuously as "the offscouring and refuse in the midst of the peoples." As privilege and responsibility always go hand in hand, so also do blessing and suffering—the Jew hated, the Church persecuted, the Christ crucified. We cannot say that this paradox is simply "a mysterious dispensation of Providence;" because in the case of Israel, at all events in the early ages, the unparalleled misery was traced to the abuse of unparalleled favour. But this does not exhaust the mystery, for in the most striking instances innocence suffers. We can have no satisfaction in our view of these contradictions till we see the glory of the martyr's crown and the even higher glory of the triumph of Christ and His people over failure, agony, insult, and death; but just in proportion as we are able to lift up the eyes of faith to the blessedness of the unseen world, we shall be able also to discover that even here and now there is a pain that is better than pleasure, and a shame that is truest glory.

These truths, however, are not readily perceived at247 the time of endurance, when the iron is entering into the soul. The elegist feels the degradations of his people most keenly, and he represents them complaining how their enemies rage at them as with open mouths—belching forth gross insults, shouting curses, like wild beasts ready to devour their hapless victims.215215   iii. 46. There seems to be nothing in store for them but the terrors of death, the pit of destruction.216216   iii. 47.

At the contemplation of this extremity of hopeless misery the poet drops the plural number, in which he has been personating his people, as abruptly as he assumed it a few verses earlier, and bewails the dread calamities in his own person.217217   iii. 48 ff. Then, in truly Jeremiah-like fashion, he describes his incessant weeping for the woes of the wretched citizens of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. The reference to "the daughters of my city"218218   iii. 51. seems to be best explained as a figurative expression for the neighbouring places, all of which it would seem had shared in the devastation produced by the great wave of conquest which had overwhelmed the capital. But the previous mention of "the daughter of my people,"219219   iii. 48. followed as it is by this phrase about "the daughters of my city," strikes a deeper note of compassion. These places contained many defenceless women, the indescribable cruelty of whose fate when they fell into the hands of the brutal heathen soldiery was one of the worst features of the whole ghastly scene; and the wretchedness of the once proud city and its dependencies when they were completely overthrown is finely represented so as to appeal most effectually to our sympathy by a metaphor that pictures them as hapless maidens, touching us like Spenser's248 piteous picture of the forlorn Una, deserted in the forest and left a prey to its savage denizens. Like Una, too, the daughters in this metaphor claim the chivalry which our English poet has so exquisitely portrayed as awakened even in the breast of a wild animal. The woman of Europe is far removed from her sister in the East, who still follows the ancient type in submitting to the imputation of weakness as a claim for consideration. But this is because Europe has learnt that strength of character—in which woman can be at least the equal of man—is more potent in a community civilised in the Christian way than strength of muscle. Where the more brutal forces are let loose the duties of chivalry are always in requisition. Then it is apparent that deference to the claims of women for protection produces a civilising effect in softening the roughness of men. It is difficult to say it to-day in the teeth of the just claims that women are making, and still more difficult in face of what women are now achieving, in spite of many relics of barbarism in the form of unfair restrictions, but yet it must be asserted that the feebleness of femininity—in the old-fashioned sense of the word—pervades these poems, and is their most touching characteristic, so that much of the pathos and beauty of poetry such as that of these elegies is to be traced to representations of woman wronged and suffering and calling for the sympathy of all beholders.

The poet is moved to tears—quite unselfish tears, tears of patriotic grief, tears of compassion for helpless suffering. Here again the modern Anglo-Saxon habit makes it difficult for us to appreciate his conduct as it deserves. We think it a dreadful thing for a man to be seen weeping; and a feeling of shame accompanies such an outburst of unrestrained distress.249 But surely there are holy tears, and tears which it is an honour for any one to be capable of shedding. If mere callousness is the explanation of dry eyes in view of sorrow, there can be no credit for such a condition. This is not the restraint of tears. Nothing is easier than for the unfeeling not to weep. Nor can it be maintained that it is always necessary to restrain the outward expression of sympathy in accordance with its most natural impulses. Our Lord was strong; yet we could never wish that the evangelist had not had occasion to write the ever memorable sentence, "Jesus wept." Sufferers lose much, not only from lack of sympathy, but also from a shy concealment of the fellow-feeling that is truly experienced. There are seasons of keenest agony, when to weep with those who weep is me only possible expression of brotherly kindness; and this may be a very real act of love, appreciably alleviating suffering. A little courage on the part of Englishmen in daring to weep would knit the ties of brotherhood more closely. At present a chill reserve rather than any actual coldness of heart separates people who might be much more helpful to one another if they could but bring themselves to break down this barrier.

But while the poet is thus expressing his large patriotic grief he cannot forget his own private sorrows. They are all parts of one common woe. So he returns to his personal experience, and adds some graphic details that enable us to picture him in the midst of his misery.220220   iii. 52 ff. Though he had never provoked the enemy, he was chased like a bird, flung into a dungeon, where a stone was hurled down upon him, and where250 the water was lying so deep that he was completely submerged. There is no reason to question that definite statements such as these represent the exact experience of the writer. At the first glance they call to our minds the persecutions inflicted on Jeremiah by his own people. But the allusion would be peculiarly inappropriate, and the cases do not quite fit together. The poet has been bewailing the sufferings of the Jews at the hands of the Chaldæans, and he seems to identify his own troubles in the closest way with the general flood of calamities that swept over his nation. It would be quite out of place for him to insert here a reminder of earlier troubles which his own people had inflicted upon him. Besides, the particulars do not exactly agree with what we learn of the prophet's hardships from his own pen. The dungeon into which he was flung was very foul, and he sank in the mire, but it is expressly stated that there was no water in it, and there is no mention of stoning.221221   Jer. xxxviii. 6. There were many sufferers in that dark time of tumult and outrage whose fate was as hard as that of Jeremiah.

A graphic picture like this helps us to imagine the fearful accompaniments of the destruction of Jerusalem much better than any general summary. As we gaze at this one scene among the many miseries that followed the siege—the poet hunted out and run down, his capture and conveyance to the dungeon, apparently without a shadow of a trial, the danger of drowning and the misery of standing in the water that had gathered in a place so utterly unfit for human habitation, the needless additional cruelty of the stone-throwing—there rises before us a picture which cannot but impress our251 minds with the unutterable wretchedness of the sufferers from such a calamity as the siege of Jerusalem. Of course there must have been some special reason for the exceptionally severe treatment of the poet. What this was we cannot tell. If the same patriotic spirit burned in his soul in the midst of the war as we now find at the time of later reflection, it would be most reasonable to conjecture that the ardent lover of his country had done or said something to irritate the enemy, and possibly that as he devoted his poetic gifts at a subsequent time to lamenting the overthrow of his city, he may have employed them with a more practical purpose among the battle scenes to write some inspiring martial ode in which we may be sure he would not have spared the ruthless invader. But then he says his persecution was without a cause. He may have been undeservedly suspected of acting as a spy. It is only by chance that now and again we get a glimpse of the backwaters of a great flood such as that which was now devastating the land of Judah; most of the dreary scene is shrouded in gloom.

Lastly, we must not fail to remember, in reading these expressions of patriotic and personal grief, that they are the outpourings of the heart of the poet before God. They are all addressed to God's ear; they are all part of a prayer. Thus they illustrate the way in which prayer takes the form of confiding in God. It is a great relief to be able simply to tell Him everything. Perhaps, however, here we may detect a note of complaint; but if so it is not a note of rebellion or of unbelief. Although the evils from which the elegist and his people are suffering so grievously are attributed to God in the most uncompromising manner, the writer does not hesitate to look to God for deliverance. Thus252 in the very midst of his lamentations he says that his weeping is to continue "till the Lord look down, and behold from heaven."222222   iii. 50. He will not cease weeping until this happens; but he does not expect to have to spend all the remainder of his days in tears. He is assured that God will hear, and answer, and deliver. The time of the Divine response is quite unknown to him; it may be still far off, and there may be much weary waiting to be endured first. But it will come, and if no one can tell how long the interval of trial may be, so also no one can say but that the deliverance may arrive suddenly and with a surprise of mercy. Thus the poet weeps on, but in undying hope.

This is the right attitude of the Christian mourner. We cannot penetrate the mystery of God's times; but that they are in His own hands is not to be denied. Therefore the test of faith is often given in the necessity for indefinite waiting. To the man who trusts God there is always a future. Whatever such a man may have to endure he should find a place in his plaint for the word "until." He is not plunged into everlasting night. He has but to endure until the day dawn.


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