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God’s Steadfast Love Endures

 3

I am one who has seen affliction

under the rod of God’s wrath;

2

he has driven and brought me

into darkness without any light;

3

against me alone he turns his hand,

again and again, all day long.

 

4

He has made my flesh and my skin waste away,

and broken my bones;

5

he has besieged and enveloped me

with bitterness and tribulation;

6

he has made me sit in darkness

like the dead of long ago.

 

7

He has walled me about so that I cannot escape;

he has put heavy chains on me;

8

though I call and cry for help,

he shuts out my prayer;

9

he has blocked my ways with hewn stones,

he has made my paths crooked.

 


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The word, עברה obere, properly means assault, passing over limits; but what is peculiar to man is often in Scripture ascribed to God. Here also he changes the person, for he spoke before of the people under the person of a woman, as it is often done; but now the Prophet himself comes before us. At the same time there is no doubt but that by his own example he exhorted all others to lamentation, which was to be connected with true repentance. And this chapter, as we shall see, is full of rich instruction, for it contains remarkable sentiments which we shall consider in their proper places.

Some think that this Lamentation was written by Jeremiah when he was cast into prison; but this opinion seems not probable to me; and the contents of the chapter sufficiently shew that this ode was composed to set forth the common calamity of the whole people. Jeremiah, then, does not here plead his own private cause, but shews to his own nation what remedy there was for them in such a state of despair, even to have an immediate recourse to God, and on the one hand to consider their sins, and on the other to look to the mercy of God, so that they might entertain hope, and exercise themselves in prayer. All these things we shall see in their due order.

The Prophet then says that he was an afflicted man, or a man who saw affliction. This mode of speaking, we know, is common in Scripture — to see affliction — to see good and evil — to see life and death. He then says that he had experienced many afflictions, and not only so, but that he had been given up as it were to miseries, — how? by the rod of his fury. He does not mention the name of God, but Jeremiah speaks of him as of one well known, using only a pronoun. Now, then, at the very beginning, he acknowledges that whatever he suffered had been inflicted by God’s hand. And as all the godly ought to be convinced of this, that God is never angry without just reasons, there is included in the word wrath a brief confession, especially when it is added, by the rod, or staff. In short, the Prophet says that he was very miserable, and he also expresses the cause, for he had been severely chastised by an angry God.

The letters of the alphabet are tripled in this chapter, which I had omitted to mention. In the first two chapters each verse begins with the successive letters of the alphabet, except that in the last chapter there is one instance of inversion, for Jeremiah has put פ, phi, before ע, oin; or it may be that the order has been changed by the scribes; but this is uncertain. Here then, as I have said, each letter is thrice repeated. Then the first, the second, and the third verse begins with א aleph; and the fourth begins with ב, beth, and so he goes on to the end. 174174     The verses in this chapter are needlessly multiplied. It would have been better had each verse contained a letter, for the length of this chapter is the same with the two foregoing; the only difference is, that the lines, or alternate lines, begin with the same letter three times, as follows, —
   א I am the man who hath seen affliction,
Through the rod of his indignation;
א Me hath he led and caused to walk
In darkness, and not in light;
א Surely against me he turns,
Upset me does his hand all the day.

   The three next lines, or alternate lines, begin with ב, and so on to the end of the alphabet — Ed

He confirms here the last verse, for lie shews the cause or the manner of his afflictions, for he had been led into darkness and not into light. This kind of contrast has not the same force in other languages as it has in Hebrew. But when the Hebrews said that they were in darkness and not in the light, they amplified that obscurity, as though they had said that there was not even a spark of light in that darkness, it being so thick and obscure. This is what the Prophet now means. And we know what is everywhere understood in Scripture by darkness, even every kind of Lamentation: for the appearance of light exhilarates us, yea, the serenity of heaven cheers and revives the minds of men. Then darkness signifies all sorts of adversities and the sorrow which proceeds from them. He afterwards adds, —

Now he says that God was an adversary to him; for this is what the verb ישב, isheb, means, he is turned against me. As an enemy, when intending to fight, comes to meet one from the opposite side, so the Prophet says of God, who had become an enemy to him; and he teaches the same thing in another way when he says that he perceived that the hand of God was against him: He turns, he says, against me his hand daily, or all the day, כל-היום, cal-eium. But the Prophet simply means constancy, as though he had said that there was no truce, no cessation, because God manifested the rigor of his vengeance without limit or end. He afterwards adds, —

These, as it evidently appears, are metaphorical words. Illness often makes people to look old, for from pain proceeds leanness: thus the skin is contracted, and the wrinkles of old age appear even in youths. As, then, sorrows exhaust moisture and strength, hence he is said to grow old who pines away in mourning. This is what the Prophet now means. God, he says, has made my flesh and my skin, to grow old, that is, he hath worn me out, within and without, so that I am almost wasted away.

He then adds, He hath broken my bones This seems to be hyperbolical; but we have said elsewhere that this simile does not in every instance express the greatness of the sorrow which the faithful feel under a sense of God’s wrath. Both David and Hezekiah spoke in this way; nay, Hezekiah compares God to a lion,

“As a lion,” he says, “has he broken my bones.”
(Isaiah 38:13.)

And David says at one time that his bones wasted away, at another that they were broken, and at another that they were reduced to ashes; for there is nothing more dreadful than to feel that God is angry with us. The Prophet, then, did not only regard outward calamities, but the evidence of God’s vengeance; for the people could see nothing else in their distresses except that God was their enemy — and this was true; for God had often exhorted them to repentance; but upon those whom he had found incurable, he at length, as it was just, poured forth his vengeance to the uttermost. This, then, was the reason why the Prophet said, that God had broken his bones. He then adds, —

The words, as translated, may seem harsh, yet they have no common beauty in Hebrew. The Prophet says he was blocked up and straitened as it were by walls; and as we shall see, he repeats this comparison three times; in other words, indeed, but for the same purpose.

God, he says, hath built against me, as, when we wish to besiege any one, we build mounds, so that there may be no escape. This, then, is the sort of building of which the Prophet now speaks: God, he says, holds me confined all around, so that there is no way of escape open to me.

He then gives a clearer explanation, that he was surrounded by gall 175175     The Sept., the Targ., and the Arab. render this “my head;” but the Vulg. and the Syr., “gall.” It occurs again in Lamentations 2:19, and is rendered “gall” by the Targ. and all the versions. He was “surrounded with gall,” with what was bitter to him, and “with faintness,” with what made him to faint. Hence, in the next verse, he represents himself as being like the dead. — Ed. or poison and trouble. He mentions poison first, and then, without a figure, he shews what that poison was, even that he was afflicted with many troubles. He afterwards adds, —

Here he amplifies what he had before said of poison and trouble; he says that he was placed in darkness, not that he might be there for a little while, but remain there for a long time; he hath made me, he says, to dwell in darkness. But the comparison which follows more clearly explains the Prophet’s meaning, as the dead of ages. The word עולם, oulam, may refer to future or past time. Some say, as the dead for ever, who are perpetually dead. But the Scripture elsewhere calls those the dead of ages who have been long buried, and have decayed, and whose memory has become nearly extinct. For as long as the dead body retains its form, it seems more like a living being; but when it is reduced to ashes, when no bone appears, when the whole skin and nerves and blood have perished, and no likeness to man remains, there can then be no hope of life. The Scripture then calls those the dead of ages, who have wholly decayed. So also in this place the Prophet says, that he dwelt in darkness, into which he had been cast by God’s hand, and that he dwelt there as though he had been long dead, and his body had become now putrid.

This way of speaking appears indeed hyperbolical; but we must always remember what I have reminded you of, that it is not possible sufficiently to set forth the greatness of that sorrow which the faithful feel when terrified by the wrath of God. He then adds, —

Here he says, first, that he was held shut up; for גדר, gidar, is to enclose, and גדרה, gidare, means a fence or a mound, or an enclosure of any kind. He then says, that he was shut up as it were by a fence, so that he could not go forth; literally, it is, and I shall not go forth; but the conjunction here is to be taken as denoting the end. He has shut me up, he says, or he has enclosed me, that I might not get out.

It then follows, He hath made heavy my fetter. His meaning is, that he was not only bound with fetters, but so bound that he could not raise up his feet, as though he had said, that he not only had fetters, but that they were so heavy that he could not even move his feet.

The Prophet describes here the extremity of all evils, that it availed him nothing to cry and to pray. And yet we know that we are called to do this in all our miseries.

“The strongest tower is the name of the Lord, to it will the righteous flee and shall be safe.” (Proverbs 18:10.)

Again,

“Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
(Joel 2:32.)

And Scripture is full of testimonies of this kind; that is, that God graciously invites all the faithful to himself:

“He shall call upon me, and I will hear him.” (Psalm 91:15.)

“In the day when I call, answer me speedily.”
(Psalm 102:2.)

“Before they call, I will answer.” (Isaiah 65:24.)

In short, there is no need to collect all the passages; but we may be content with this one thing, that when God claims to himself this prerogative, that he answers prayers, he intimates that it is what cannot be separated from his eternal essence and godhead; that is, that he is ready to hear prayer. And hence the Psalmist concludes,

“To thee shall all flesh come.” (Psalm 65:3.)

When, therefore, Jeremiah complains that his prayers were in vain, and without any fruit or effect., it seems strange and inconsistent. But we know that God holds the faithful in suspense, and so hears as to prove and try their patience, sometimes for a long time. This is the reason why he defers and delays his aid.

It is no wonder, then, that God did not hear the prayers of his servant, that is, according to the judgment of the flesh. For God never rejects his own, nor is he deaf to their prayers and their sighs; but the faithful often speak according to what the flesh judges. As, then, the Prophet found that he obtained nothing by prayer, he says that his prayer was shut out, or that the door was closed against him, so that his prayer did not come to God.

Now, this passage is worthy of special notice; for except God immediately meets us, we become languid, and not only our ardor in prayer is cooled but almost extinguished. Let us, then, bear in mind, theft though God may not help us soon, yet our prayers are never repudiated by him; and since we see that the holy fathers experienced the same thing, let us not wonder, if the Lord at this day were to try our faith in the same manner. Let us, therefore, persevere hi calling on Him; and should there be a longer delay, and our complaint be that we are not heard, yet let us proceed in the same course, as we shall see the Prophet did. It follows, —

Other metaphors are used. Some think that the Prophet refers to the siege of Jerusalem, but such a view is not suitable. The metaphors correspond with one another, though they are somewhat different. He had said before, that he was enclosed by God, or surrounded as with a mound; and now he transfers this idea to his ways. When the life of man is spoken of, it is, we know, compared to a way. Then the Prophet includes under this word all the doings of his life, as though he had said, that all his plans were brought into straits, as though his way was shut up, so that he could not proceed: “Were I to proceed ill any direction, an obstacle is set before me; I am compelled to remain as it were fixed.” So the Prophet now says, his ways were enclosed, because God allowed none of His counsels or His purposes to be carried into effect.

And to the same purpose he adds, that. God had perverted his ways, that is, that he had confounded all his doings, and all his counsels.

But these words are added, with a squared stone The verb גזז gizaz, means to cut; hence the word גזית, gizit, signifies a polished stone, or one trimmed by the hammer. And we know that such stones are more durable and firmer than other stones. For when unpolished stones are used, the building is not so strong as when the stones are squared, as they fit together better. Then the Prophet intimates that the enclosures were such that he could by no means break through them, as they could not be broken. He, in short, means that he was so oppressed by God’s hand, that whatever he purposed God immediately reversed it. We now, then, perceive what he means by saying, that all his ways were subverted or overturned by God. 176176     “Subverted” is the Vulg., “obstructed” the Sept., and “rendered oblique” the Syr. The meaning is, “turned aside.” he had built as it were a wall of hewn stones across his way, and thus he turned aside his goings or his paths, so that he was constrained to take some other course. — Ed. This is not to be understood generally, for it is God who directs our ways. But he is said to pervert our ways, when he disconcerts our counsels, when all our purposes and efforts are rendered void; in a word, when God as it were meets us as an adversary, and impedes our course; it is then that he is said to pervert our ways. But this ought not to be understood as though God blinded men unjustly, or as though he led them astray. The Prophet only means that he could find no success in all his counsels, in all his efforts and doings, because he had God opposed to him. here I stop.




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