Great Texts of the Bible
The Old Paths
Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.—Jeremiah 6:16.
In the Pilgrims Progress we are told that Christian and Hopeful “as they went on they wished for a better way. Now, a little before them, there was on the left hand of the road a meadow, and a stile to go over into it; and that meadow is called By-path Meadow. Then said Christian to his fellow, If this meadow lieth along by our wayside, lets go over into it. Then he went to the stile to see; and, behold, a path lay along by the way on the other side of the fence. Tis according to my wish, said Christian; here is the easiest going: come, good Hopeful, and let us go over. Hopeful: But how if this path should lead us out of the way? Thats not like, said the other. Look, doth it not go along by the wayside? So Hopeful, being persuaded by his fellow, went after him over the stile. When they were gone over, and were got into the path, they found it very easy for their feet; and withal they, looking before them, espied a man walking as they did (and his name was Vain-Confidence); so they called after him, and asked him whither that way led. He said, To the Celestial Gate. Look, said Christian, did not I tell you so? By this you may see we are right. So they followed, and he went before them. But, behold, the night came on, and it grew very dark; so that they that went behind lost the sight of him that went before. He, therefore, that went before (Vain-Confidence by name), not seeing the way before him, fell into a deep pit, which was on purpose there made by the prince of those grounds to catch vain-glorious fools withal, and was dashed in pieces with his fall.” We need not be reminded how the story goes on to tell of the finding of the two pilgrims by Giant Despair, and all they suffered at his hands, nor how they did not recover their full joy and rest of soul again until, as Bunyan has it, “they came to the Kings highway again, and so were safe.”
1. “See, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.” We know quite well how ninety-nine people out of every hundred interpret this passage. It is one of the great texts of the Bible, and it has been appealed to again and again through all the generations. There are many who say that the old paths are the paths in which our fathers and forefathers walked, and they say to us, “If we are to do the right thing, and if we are to realize the great end of life, we must follow closely in the footsteps of those who have gone before us. There must be no change in our theological belief; we must believe just what our fathers before us believed. If we do not do that we are leaving the old paths. And there must be no change in our forms of worship; we must worship God precisely as our fathers did.”
Is that the meaning of the text? There are reasons for believing that it is not.
(1) Jeremiah himself is the first reason. Jeremiah was the great religious reformer of his day. In the midst of a stolid and stiff-necked generation, he was the great mouthpiece of progress. He was a religious agitator. He gave neither king, nor priest, nor people any rest. He was probably a priest himself. He was what we should call a regularly ordained minister. It is true he got very little support from his brethren. They looked askance at him, and asked where this young man was going to lead them. He was very unsparing in his denunciation of their cold and hard formalism and their worse sins of covetousness. They were willing to condone the sins of their people for the sake of a pecuniary consideration. Now, Jeremiah was a very thorn in the side of these men, who, no doubt, called themselves old-fashioned Jews. He was intensely social and political in his teaching. He dealt with subjects that were startlingly modern. He was interested in the present-day life of the people. When he began to prophesy, he was, apparently, just a young man in close touch with his time: with his fingers on the nations pulse, prescribing Divine remedies for her slackness and dulness of spiritual life as well as for the fevered restlessness of her outward and sensuous life. He was severely practical. It was not doctrine he was concerned for so much as life. He knew perfectly well that if you cross-questioned this people, you would find them orthodox. Indeed, he himself says as much. He says: “Though they say, the Lord liveth; surely they swear falsely.” They say it, but they do not believe it. It is their creed, it is not their faith. Their doctrine is true, but it is not living. It has no relation to their life. They do not believe it. They hold it as a convenient intellectual formula and national creed—but they do not honour it with their own personal loyalty. Their orthodoxy is lifeless, barren, soulless. It has become a hollow sham and a miserable falsehood. It is worn as spotless clothing to veil the hideous corruption of the spirit. It is separable from the soul; and if you tear it off, you find the life it covers is foul and loathsome and false. These men, who boasted that they stood where their fathers did and held to the old paths, were aliens to the spirit and life of the sons of God; and Jeremiah felt that in the name of righteousness it was well that they should know.
We cannot but believe that in the future the whole conception of orthodoxy is destined to grow less and less prominent. Less and less men will ask of any opinion, “Is it orthodox?” More and more they will ask, “Is it true?” More and more the belief in the absolute safety of the freest truth-seeking, in truth-seeking as the only safe work of the human mind, will deepen and increase. Truth will come to seem not a deposit, fixed and limited, but an infinite domain wherein the soul is bidden to range with insatiable desire, guarded only by the care of God above it and the Spirit of God within it, educated by its mistakes, and attaining larger knowledge only as it attains complete purity of purpose and thoroughness of devotion and energy of hope. As that truer understanding of what truth is grows wide and clear, men will cease to talk or think much of orthodoxy, and the humble service which it is made to render it will render all the better when it is stripped of the purple and the sceptre, the dominion and tyranny, to which it has no right.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Essays and Addresses, 196.]
(2) Another reason is the Bible. For if there is a book in the world that illustrates on every page of it the principle of development, the principle of evolution, the principle of change, it is this book that we call the Bible. Take, for example, the name of God. Go to the Book of Genesis, and you find that the old Hebrews called God “Elohim,” the strong one. That was their idea of the Creator—not a bad idea, not a wrong idea. It is a great and glorious truth. But come down the stream, come down to the time when the Lord Jesus Christ clothed Himself in our humanity, and listen to His teaching. Is it the teaching of the Book of Genesis regarding God? Not at all. Jesus tells us that God is our Father. He taught His disciples to pray, “Our Father which art in heaven.” What a difference—almost as far as the East is from the West—between the “Elohim” of Genesis and the “our Father” of the gospel!
At first, faith need not be more than the acceptance of a few central facts of revelation. These will be sufficient to illuminate and justify that primitive, deep-seated instinct of kinship with God which we recognized at the beginning as the raw material of religion, and which we saw giving expression to itself in an imperfectly understood ritual of sacrifice and communion. Such a faith, again, will be sufficient to illuminate and justify the obstinate conviction that the values which we blindly pursue and cherish are perfectly realized and eternally conserved in Him who is the Word and Wisdom of the Father.
What an unlimited opening does faith thus provide for the development of religion; for the garnering of religious experience in prayer and meditation; for the confident quest of the true, the beautiful, and the good; for the practice of fellowship with all who share the clansmens sacrificial feast and are pledged thereby to mutual service!1 [Note: A. Chandler, Faith and Experience, 102.]
(3) A third reason is the history of the Church. For when we come down the history of the Christian Church we find precisely the same thing; change is stamped on every age and generation. We do not worship as our fathers worshipped fifty years ago, and we do not think as our fathers did in theological matters fifty years ago. “The thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.” We cannot stand still. Why, if men acted on that principle the world would never have developed at all; there would have been no Christianity, no Reformation, no change whatever in mens thoughts and ideas through the ages. That is not Gods purpose. We are all children, and all in Gods school, and God is teaching us every day; and if we are true children of the Father we are coming to know Him more and more intimately and fully. We cannot stand in the old paths in that sense.
There is no saint in the Congregational denomination held—and deservedly held—in higher honour than Richard Baxter, who suffered imprisonment for his loyalty to the truth. Yet no man was more fiercely assailed by the rigid doctrinaires of his day as being a heretic. And his biographer, in defending him, uses this quaint illustration. “The discussion of truth and the agitation of doctrines have always resulted in good to the Church and to the world. Even the waters of Bethesda in the very house of mercy itself needed to be agitated and disturbed to renew their healing power. It is, therefore, unseemly in theologians that, when some Doctor Angelicus descends among them and agitates the settled waters of their dull and stagnant orthodoxy, then always a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, and withered, creep from the five points of their five porches to brandish their crutches against the intruder, or to mutter their anathemas against the innovation, instead of welcoming the benignant visitor, sharing in the healthiness of the agitation, and becoming healed of whatsoever disease they had.” You see, then, that if you are brave enough to trouble the settled waters of the theological Bethesda, you must expect to be threatened with the crutches of the very men you are anxious to heal. But you will remember that, long centuries ago, the Apostle Paul had to defend himself to the governor of the Jews because, as he said, “After the way that they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers.” And you will remember that, when the Catholic Church excommunicated Wycliffe, he was bold enough to say that, when they had first made Christ a heretic, it was a little matter to call His followers by the same name. Yes, there are men who would make a heretic of Christ. Some of the saintliest heroes who ever lived have been driven out of the Churches because, “after the Way that men called heresy, so worshipped they the God of their fathers.” It may be the highest honour to be called a heretic, if it comes from your loyalty to the living Christ and your impatience of phrases and forms that have concealed His reality, instead of expressing His relation to God and Man 1:1 [Note: C. Silvester Horne.]
2. What, then, is the old way? It is simply the way of rightness. It is the good way because it is the way of goodness; it is the way of the keeping of the commandments of God. What Jeremiah meant was this: if the children of Israel were to be redeemed they must go back to the old paths of righteousness. They would never be saved by mere forms of ritual. They must go back to the old paths of right doing. “Do justly,” says the prophet Micah, “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” And Jeremiah comes to the people in their distress, in their moral and spiritual degradation, and he says to them: “There is just one hope for you, you must begin to do right, you must abandon all your unfaithful ways, you must go back to the old paths God has laid down from all eternity for mans life—the paths of justice and truth.”
Even an old house has a haunting grace enough, as a place where men have been born and died, have loved and enjoyed and suffered; but a road like this, ceaselessly trodden by the feet of pilgrims, all of them with some pathetic urgency of desire in their hearts, some hope unfulfilled, some shadow of sickness or sin to banish, some sorrow making havoc of home, is touched by that infinite pathos that binds all human hearts together in the face of the mystery of life. What passionate meetings with despair, what eager upliftings of desirous hearts, must have thrilled the minds of the feeble and travel-worn companies that made their slow journeys along the grassy road! And one is glad to think, too, that there must doubtless have been many that returned gladder than they came, with the burden shifted a little, the shadow lessened, or at least with new strength to carry the familiar load. For of this we may be sure, that, however harshly we may despise what we call superstition, or however firmly we may wave away what we hold to have been all a beautiful mistake, there is some fruitful power that dwells and lingers in places upon which the hearts of men have so concentrated their swift and poignant emotions—for all, at least, to whom the soul is more than the body, and whose thoughts are not bounded and confined by the mere material shapes among which, in the days of our earthly limitations, we move uneasily to and fro.1 [Note: A. C. Benson, The Silent Isle, 381.]
3. This is the very truth which Christ always uttered. When the scribe came to Him demanding “What must I do to have eternal life?” He answered at once, “Keep the commandments.” And the Apostles after Him used the same language. “Circumcision is nothing,” said St. Paul, “and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.” Nothing can take the place of that. And if the gospel was new, it was new only in this that it made possible the keeping of the commandments of God. It made it possible for men to find the old paths, the good way, and to walk therein.
And so Jeremiah is at one with Jesus in offering rest of soul to those who find the old paths and walk in them. Only Jesus had the power, which Jeremiah had not, of giving the rest. Jeremiah could only recall the people to the way which their fathers found good; Jesus could call them to Himself. “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; and ye shall find rest unto your souls.” And how great is the difference between the memory of the past and the power of the present; how great is the difference between the thought of the law that is dead and the thought of the living, loving, self-sacrificing Redeemer.
David said long ago when his heart had been ill at ease, and he had felt the burden of his sin, My soul, O God, can find rest only in Thee. “Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” And when you have found it, and when by-and-by you come to pass through the valley of the shadow, you will be able, like David of old, and with full assurance, to say: “I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”1 [Note: R. Borland.]
The desire of rest planted in the heart is no sensual nor unworthy one, but a longing for renovation and for escape from a state whose every phase is mere preparation for another equally transitory, to one in which permanence shall have become possible through perfection. Hence the great call of Christ to men, that call on which St. Augustine fixed as the essential expression of Christian hope, is accompanied by the promise of rest; and the death bequest of Christ to men is peace.2 [Note: Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. ii. sec. i. chap. vi. (Works, iv. 114).]
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the days journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at the door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.1 [Note: Christina G. Rossetti, Poetical Works, 339.]
The Old Paths
Aitken (W. H. M. H.), Mission Sermons, iii. 163.
Cremer (F. D.), The Swing of the Pendulum, 1.
Denny (C.), The Validity of Christian Experience, 1.
Fox (W. J.), Collected Works, iii. 317.
Gibbon (J. M.), in Sermons by Welshmen in English Pulpits, 147.
Gibson (E. C. S.), The Old Testament and Its Messages, 238.
Gray (W. H.), Old Creeds and New Beliefs, 1.
Greenhough (J. G.), Half-Hours in God’s Older Picture Gallery, 202.
Gutch (C.), Sermons, 18.
Horne (C. S.), in Sermons and Addresses, 24.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 205.
Montefiore (C. G.), in Jewish Addresses, 149.
Ryle (J. C.), The Upper Room, 72.
Sandford (C. W.), Words of Counsel, 38.
Schulman (S.), in Sermons by American Rabbis, 36.
Shelford (L. E.), By Way of Remembrance, 143.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xlvii. (1901), No. 2748.
Steffe (T.), Sermons on Several Subjects, 88.
Christian Age, xxv. 148 (T. de W. Talmage); xxxiii. 34 (D. F. Lancing).
Christian World Pulpit, vii. 170 (H. W. Beecher); xxxii. 257 (C. H. Spurgeon); lxxvii. 7 (R. Borland); lxxx. 409 (H. W. Slader).
Church Pulpit Year Book, 1904, p. 13.
Homiletic Review, lv. 294 (T. Spurgeon).