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253

CHAPTER XVII

DE PROFUNDIS

iii. 55-66

As this third elegy—the richest and the most elaborate of the five that constitute the Book of Lamentations—draws to a close it retains its curious character of variability, not aiming at any climax, but simply winding on till its threefold acrostics are completed by the limits of the Hebrew alphabet, like a river that is monotonous in the very succession of its changes, now flowing through a dark gorge, then rippling in clear sunlight, and again plunging into gloomy caverns. The beauty and brightness of this very variegated poem is found at its centre. Sadder thoughts follow. But these are not so wholly complaining as the opening passages had been. There is one thread of continuity that may be traced right through the series of changes which occupy the latter part of the poem. The poet having once turned to the refuge of prayer never altogether forsakes it. The meditations as much as the petitions that here occur are all directed to God.

A peculiarity of the last portion of the elegy that claims special attention is the interesting reminiscence with which the poet finds encouragement for his present prayers. He is recalling the scenes of that254 most distressing period of his life, the time when he had been cast into a flooded dungeon. If ever he had come near to death it must have been then; though his life was spared the misery of his condition had been extreme. While in this most wretched situation the persecuted patriot cried to God for help, and as he now recollects for his present encouragement, he received a distinct and unmistakable answer. The scene is most impressive. As it shapes itself to his memory, the victim of tyranny is in the lowest dungeon. This phrase suggests the thought of the awful Hebrew Sheol. So dark was his experience, and so near was the sufferer to death, it seems to him as though he had been indeed plunged down into the very abode of the dead. Yet here he found utterance for prayer. It was the prayer of utter extremity, almost the last wild cry of a despairing soul, yet not quite, for that is no prayer at all, all prayer requiring some real faith, if only as a grain of mustard seed. Moreover, the poet states that he called upon the name of God. Now in the Bible the name always stands for the attributes which it connotes. To call on God's name is to make mention of some of His known and revealed characteristics. The man who will do this is more than one "feeling after God;" he has a definite conception of the nature and disposition of the Being to whom he is addressing himself. Thus it happens that old, familiar ideas of God, as He had been known in the days of light and joy, rise up in the heart of the miserable man, and awaken a longing desire to seek the help of One so great and good and merciful. Just in proportion to the fulness of the meaning of the name of God as it is conceived by us, will our prayers win definiteness of aim and strength of wing. The altar255 to "an unknown god" can excite but the feeblest and vaguest devotion. Inasmuch as our Lord has greatly enriched the contents of the name of God by His full revelation of the Divine Father, to us Christians there has come a more definite direction and a more powerful impulse for prayer. Even though this is a prayer de profundis it is an enlightened prayer. We may believe that, like a star seen from the depths of a well which excludes the glare of day, the significance of the sacred Name shone out to the sufferer with a beauty never before perceived when he looked up to heaven from the darkness of his pit of misery.

It has been suggested that in this passage the elegist is following the sixty-ninth psalm, and that perhaps that psalm is his own composition and the expression of the very prayer to which he is here referring. At all events, the psalm exactly fits the situation; and therefore it may be taken as a perfect illustration of the kind of prayer alluded to. The psalmist is "in deep mire, where there is no standing;" he has "come into deep waters, where the floods overthrow" him; he is persecuted by enemies who hate him "without a cause;" he has been weeping till his eyes have failed. Meanwhile he has been waiting for God, in prayers mingled with confessions. It is his zeal for God's house that has brought him so near to death. He beseeches God that the flood may not be allowed to overwhelm him, nor "the pit shut her mouth upon him." He concludes with an invocation of curses upon the heads of his enemies. All these as well as some minor points agree very closely with our poet's picture of his persecutions and the prayer he here records.

Read in the light of the elegist's experience, such a256 prayer as that of the psalm cannot be taken as a model for daily devotion. It is a pity that our habitual use of the Psalter should encourage this application of it. The result is mischievous in several ways. It tends to make our worship unreal, because the experience of the psalmist, even when read metaphorically, as it was probably intended to be read, is by no means a type of the normal condition of human life. Besides, in so far as we bring ourselves to sympathise with this piteous outcry of a distressed soul, we reduce our worship to a melancholy plaint, when it should be a joyous anthem of praise. At the same time, we unconsciously temper the language we quote with the less painful feelings of our own experience, so that its force is lost upon us.

Yet the psalm is of value as a revelation of a soul's agony relieved by prayer; and there are occasions when its very words can be repeated by men and women who are indeed overwhelmed by trouble. If we do not spoil the occasional by attempting to make it habitual it is wonderful to see how rich the Bible is in utterances to suit all cases and all conditions. Such an outpouring of a distressed heart as the elegist hints at and the psalmist illustrates, is itself full of profound significance. The stirring of a soul to its depths is a revelation of its depths. This revelation prevents us from taking petty views of human nature. No one can contemplate the Titanic struggle of Laocoon or the immeasurable grief of Niobe without a sense of the tragic greatness of which human life is capable. We live so much on the surface that we are in danger of forgetting that life is not always a superficial thing. But when a volcano bursts out of the quiet plain of everyday existence, we are startled into the perception257 that there must be hidden fires which we may not have suspected before. And, further, when the soul in its extremity is seen to be turning for refuge to God, the revelation of its Gethsemane gives a new meaning to the very idea of prayer. Here is prayer indeed, and at the sight of such a profound reality we are shamed into doubting whether we have ever begun to pray at all, so stiff and chill do our utterances to the Unseen now appear to be in comparison with this Jacob-like wrestling.

Immediately after mentioning the fact of his prayer the elegist adds that this was heard by God. His cry rose up from "the lowest dungeon" and reached the heights of heaven. And yet we cannot credit this to the inherent vigour of prayer. If a petition can thus wing its way to heaven, that is because it is of heavenly origin. There is no difficulty in making air to rise above water; the difficulty is to sink it; and if any could be taken to the bottom of the sea, the greater the depth descended the swifter would it shoot up. Since all true prayer is an inspiration it cannot spend itself until it has, so to speak, restored the equilibrium by returning to its natural sphere. But the elegist puts the case another way. In His great condescension God stoops to the very lowest depths to find one of His distressed children. It is not hard to make the prayer of the dungeon reach the ear of God, because God is in the dungeon. He is most near when He is most needed.

The prayer was more than heard; it was answered—there was a Divine voice in response to this cry to God, a voice that reached the ear of the desolate prisoner in the silence of his dungeon. It consisted of but two words, but those two words were clear and258 unmistakable, and quite sufficient to satisfy the listener. The voice said, "Fear not."223223   iii. 57. That was enough.

Shall we doubt the reality of the remarkable experience that the elegist here records? Or can we explain it away by reference to the morbid condition of the mind of a prisoner enduring the punishment of solitary confinement? It is said that this unnatural punishment tends to develop insanity in its miserable victims. But the poet is now reviewing the occurrence, which made so deep an impression on his mind at the time, in the calm of later reflection; and evidently he has no doubt of its reality. It has nothing in it of the wild fancy of a disordered brain. Lunacy raves; this simple message is calm. And it is just such a message as God might be expected to give if He spoke at all—just like Him, we may say. To this remark some doubting critic may reply, "Exactly; and therefore the more likely to have been imagined by the expectant worshipper." But such an inference is not psychologically correct. The reply is not in harmony with the tone of the prayer, but directly opposed to it. Agony and terror cannot generate an assurance of peace and safety. The poison does not secrete its own antidote. Here is an indication of the presence of another voice, because the words breathe another spirit. Besides, this is not an unparalleled experience.

Most frequently, no doubt, the answer to prayer is not vocal, and yet the reality of it may not be any the less certain to the seeking soul. It may be most definite, although it comes in a deed rather than in a word. Then the grateful recipient can exclaim with the psalmist—

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"This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,

And saved him out of all his troubles."224224   Psalm xxxiv. 6.

Here is an answer, but not a spoken one, only an action, in saving from trouble. In other cases, however, the reply approaches nearer the form of a message from heaven. When we remember that God is our Father the wonder is not that at rare intervals these voices have been heard, but rather that they are so infrequent. It is so easy to become the victim of delusions that some caution is requisite to assure ourselves of the existence of Divine utterances. The very idea of the occurrence of such phenomena is discredited by the fact that those persons who profess most eagerly to have heard supernatural voices are commonly the subjects of hysteria; and when the voices become frequent this fact is taken by physicians as a symptom of approaching insanity. Among semi-civilised people madness is supposed to be closely allied to inspiration. The mantis is not far from the mad man. Such a man is not the better off for the march of civilisation. The ancients would have honoured him as a prophet; we shut him up in a lunatic asylum. But these discouraging considerations do not exhaust the question. Delusions are not in themselves disproofs of the existence of the occurrences they emulate. Each case must be taken on its own merits; and when, as in that which is now under our consideration, the character of the incident points to a conviction of its solid reality, it is only a mark of narrowness of thought to refuse to lift it out of the category of idle fancies.

But, quite apart from the question of the sounding of Divine voices in the bodily ear, the more important260 truth to be considered is that in some way, if only by spiritual impression, God does most really speak to His children, and that He speaks now as surely as He spoke in the days of Israel. We have no new prophets and apostles who can give us fresh revelations in the form of additions to our Bible. But that is not what is meant. The elegist did not receive a statement of doctrine in answer to his prayer, nor, on this occasion, even help for the writing of his inspired poetry. The voice to which he here alludes was of quite a different character.

This was in the olden times; but if then, why not also now? Evidently the elegist regarded it as a rare and wonderful occurrence—a single experience to which he looked back in after years with the interest one feels in a vivid recollection which rises like a mountain, clean cut against the sky, above the mists that so quickly gather on the low plains of the uneventful past. Perhaps it is only in one of the crises of life that such an indubitable message is sent—when the soul is in the lowest dungeon, in extremis, crying out of the darkness, helpless if not yet hopeless, overwhelmed, almost extinguished. But if we listened for it, who can tell but that the voice might not be so rare? We do not believe in it; therefore we do not hear it. Or the noise of the world's great loom and the busy thoughts of our own hearts drown the music that still floats down from heaven to ears that are tuned to catch its notes; for it does not come in thunder, and we must ourselves be still if we would hear the still small voice, inwardly still, still in soul, stifling the chatter of self, stopping our ears to the din of the world. There are those to-day who tell us with calm assurance, not at all in the visionary's falsetto notes, that they have261 known just what is here described by the poet—in the silence of a mountain valley, in the quiet of a sick chamber, even in the noisy crowd at a railway station.

When this is granted it is still well for us to remember that we are not dependent for Divine consolation on voices which to many must ever be as dubious as they are rare. This short message of two words is in effect the essence of teachings that can be gathered as freely from almost every page of the Bible as flowers from a meadow in May. We have the "more sure word of prophecy," and the burden of it is the same as the message of the voice that comforted the poet in his dungeon.

That message is wholly reassuring—"Fear not." So said God to the patriarch: "Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward;"225225   Gen. xv. 1. and to His people through the prophet of the restoration: "Fear not, thou worm Jacob;"226226   Isa. xli. 14. and Jesus to His disciples in the storm: "Be of good cheer: it is I: be not afraid";227227   Mark vi. 50. and our Lord again in His parting address: "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful";228228   John xiv. 27. and the glorified Christ to His terrified friend John, when He laid His right hand on him with the words: "Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the Living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for ever more, and I have the keys of death and of Hades."229229   Rev. i. 17, 18. This is the word that God is continually speaking to His faint-hearted children. When "the burthen of the mystery," and

"the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world"

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oppress, when the greater sorrows threaten to crush outright, listening for the voice of God, we may hear the message of love from a Father's heart as though spoken afresh to each of us; for we have but to acquaint ourselves with Him to be at peace.

The elegist does not recall this scene from his past life merely in order to indulge in the pleasures of memory—generally rather melancholy pleasures, and even mocking if they are in sharp contrast to the present. His object is to find encouragement for renewed hope in the efficacy of prayer. In the complaint that he has put into the mouth of His people He has just been depicting the failure of prayer. But now he feels that if for a time God has wrapped Himself in a mantle of wrath this cannot be for ever, for He who was so gracious to the cry of His servant on that ever-memorable occasion will surely attend again to the appeal of distress. This is always the greatest encouragement for seeking help from God. It is difficult to find much satisfaction in what is called with an awkward inconsequence of diction the "philosophy of prayer"; the spirit of philosophy is so wholly different from the spirit of prayer. The great justification for prayer is the experience of prayer. It is only the prayerless man who is wholly sceptical on this subject. The man of prayer cannot but believe in prayer; and the more he prays and the oftener he turns to this refuge in all times of need the fuller is his assurance that God hears and answers him.

Considering how God acted as his advocate when he was in danger in the earlier crisis, and then redeemed his life, the poet points to this fact as a plea in his new necessity.230230   iii. 58. God will not desert the cause He has263 adopted. Men feel a peculiar interest in those whom they have already helped, an interest that is stronger than the sense of gratitude, for we are more attracted to our dependants than to our benefactors. If God shares this feeling, how strongly must He be drawn to us by His many former favours! The language of the elegist gains a great enrichment of meaning when read in the light of the Christian Gospel. In a deep sense, of which he could have had but the least glimmering of apprehension, we can appeal to God as the Redeemer of our life, for we can take the Cross of Christ as our plea. St. Paul makes use of this strongest of all arguments when He urges that if God gave His Son, and if Christ died for us, all other needful blessings, since they cannot involve so great a sacrifice, will surely follow. Accordingly, we can pray in the language of the Dies Iræ

"Wearily for me Thou soughtest,

On the Cross my life Thou boughtest,

Lose not all for which Thou wroughtest."

Rising from the image of the advocate to that of the magistrate the distressed man begs God to judge his cause.231231   iii. 59. He would have God look at his enemies—how they wrong him, insult him, make him the theme of their jesting songs.232232   iii. 60-3.

It would have been more to our taste if the poem had ended here, if there had been no remaining letters in the Hebrew alphabet to permit the extension of the acrostics beyond the point we have now reached. We cannot but feel that its tone is lowered at the close. The writer here proceeds to heap imprecations on the heads of his enemies. It is vain for some commentator264 to plead the weak excuse that the language is "prophetic." This is certainly more than the utterance of a prediction. No unprejudiced reader can deny that it reveals a desire that the oppressors may be blighted and blasted with ruin, and even if the words were only a foretelling of a divinely-decreed fate they would imply a keen sense of satisfaction in the prospect, which they describe as something to be gloated over. We cannot expect this Jewish patriot to anticipate our Lord's intercession and excuse for His enemies. Even St. Paul so far forgot himself as to treat the High Priest in a very different manner from his Master's behaviour. But we may see here one of the worst effects of tyranny—the dark passion of revenge that it rouses in its victims. The provocation was maddening, and not only of a private nature. Think of the situation—the beloved city sacked and destroyed, the sacred temple a heap of smouldering ruins, village homesteads all over the hills of Judah wrecked and deserted; slaughter, outrage, unspeakable wrongs endured by wives and maidens, little children starved to death. Is it wonderful that the patriot's temper was not the sweetest when he thought of the authors of such atrocities? There is no possibility of denying the fact—the fierce fires of Hebrew hatred for the oppressors of the much-suffering race here burst into a flame, and towards the end of this finest of elegies we read the dark imprecation, "Thy curse upon them!"233233   iii. 65.


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