The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.The Gods of the Heathen
Before coming to the exact subject of these verses, two or three particular points in the chapter as a whole will be found to be worthy of attention. The chapter is an address delivered to the house of Israel, which had been told that it was uncircumcised in heart, or on a level with the heathen nations around it; the writer proceeds from a general indictment against Israel to prefer a special complaint—namely, that Israel was disposed to adopt the customs of heathen nations, and was not indisposed to accept the work of astrologers, stargazers, and monthly prognosticators (Isaiah 47:13), and to find in all these phenomena portents of divine protection or judgment. "The customs of the people" is an expression which must not be supposed to refer merely to common usages: the reference is exclusively to religious institutions; and by the words "the people "must not be understood Israel, but the heathen nations around them. When the gods are described as "upright as the palm tree" (Jeremiah 10:5), the meaning is literally—"A pillar in a garden of gourds are they." The Hebrew word translated "pillar" we have already seen illustrated in Exodus 25:18, Exodus 25:31, Exodus 25:36. The reference is to the twisted palm-like columns of the Temple, and to these columns the stiff, formal figure of the idol is compared. The sixth verse opens with the words "forasmuch as"; but the literal Hebrew is "none is there like unto thee." In the seventh verse we come upon the expression "king of nations," which ought to be rendered "king of the heathen," which expresses the universal sovereignty of Jehovah, in contrast with the mistaken impression that Jehovah was the God of the religious only. Again and again in Holy Scripture an effort is made to enlarge the idea of God so as to include within it infinite and universal sovereignty, and not the mere patronage or defence of any particular people. In the eighth verse we find the words "the stock is a doctrine of vanities," which is somewhat obscure. The literal rendering would seem to be, "The teaching of vanities, or of idols, is a word, or is a log:" the meaning is—that is really all that vanities or idols come to; it is but a breath at the best; it is but a log of wood, dumb and useless, and for religious purposes to be despised. In the tenth verse the words "the Lord is the true God" are better rendered "Jehovah is the God that is Truth,"—truth in its sublimest and completest form. Jesus Christ says concerning himself, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." Christ's application of many Old Testament titles and designations to himself is difficult to account for on the ground that he was a man only. The same verse gives the expression "an everlasting king": whilst this is not wrong, it is certainly inferior to the Hebrew idiom—"king of eternity." In the fifteenth verse the expression "the work of errors" should be amended by "a work of mockery."
Coming now to the section Exodus 25:3-5, we are reminded that it is often said of God that he is unknowable. It would seem as if this was advanced as a kind of reason for not concerning ourselves about him. The form into which this thought would be thrown is something like—If there is a God, he cannot be known by the human mind, and therefore we need not try to know him. It is remarkable, however, that the Bible distinctly warns us against gods which can be known; and, indeed, the very fact that they can be known is the strong reason given for distrusting and avoiding them. It is said that if we could know the true God it would be our duty to worship him; but the true God distinctly warns us that any god that can be known is by that very fact proved to be no god at all. The Bible even makes merry over all the gods that can be known. It takes up one, and says, with a significant tone, This is wood; another, and laughs at it as a clever contrivance in iron; another it takes up, and setting it down smiles at it as a pretty trick in goldsmithery: "One cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not." This is the Bible estimate of gods that can be known! "The carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth with the hammer him that smote the anvil, saying, It is ready for the sodering: and he fastened it with nails, that it should not be moved." Concerning the false gods of his time, Isaiah says (Isaiah 46:7), "They bear him upon the shoulder, they carry him, and set him in his place, and he standeth." Thus everything can be known about the false gods: we can walk round them; we can tell the very day of their manufacture; we can give their exact weight in pounds and ounces; we can set down their stature in feet and inches; we can measure them for a suit of clothes; we can change their complexion with a brush: because they are known they are contemptible. "They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: they have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat." "Woe unto him that saith to the wood, Awake; to the dumb stone, Arise, it shall teach! Behold, it is laid over with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in the midst of it."
In opposition to all this view of heathen deities stands the glorious revelation of the personality and nature of the true God. "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." "This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." A conviction of the vital difference between the God of the Hebrews and the god of the heathen seems to have forced itself into the minds even of those to whom the true revelation had not come: "Their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges"—Power is ascribed unto God—"Who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the Lord?"—Holiness also is ascribed unto the God of Israel—"Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy:... thy judgments are made manifest"—There would be nothing noteworthy in the ascription of mere power to God; but when his character is described, and is throughout a character of righteousness, holiness, purity, mercy, we come into the real difference as between the true God and all manufactured or imagined deities.
All human history would seem to show that men must have either a knowable or an unknowable God. Nearly all nations have gods of some kind. That is a fact which must not be lightly passed over in thinking deeply upon this subject. Even the meanest gods must be accounted for. They are not among the a priori probabilities of life. They trouble men; they turn down the light suddenly at the feast; they put a drag on the fast chariot; they are seldom welcome. Yet there they are, and men will have them, as if though they are troubled with them they would be infinitely more troubled without them. What is it that clings to some god-form? An easy answer is the word "Superstition"; but there is nothing in such a reply except its ease and flippancy. Superstition itself must be accounted for. Every thinking man has what to him is equivalent to a god. His thought stretched to the point of perplexity—because so much appeals to it that is beyond absorption or reconciliation—becomes to man a species of deity, or in other terms an unknown and bewildering quantity, which will not allow him to put a fullstop to his thinking, saying, Human life ends here, and beyond it there is no field of legitimate inquiry. On the other hand, a child loved to idolatry becomes very near to occupying the position of a god: or the expectation excited into a hope which throws a light upon the whole life, and oftentimes sets things in a wrong relation to one another, or alters the just perspective of life, may exercise such a fascinating influence upon thought and action as to usurp the place of personal sovereignty and intelligence: or there may be but a dream radiant with poetry, which a man accepts as a species of revelation, and by which he at least secretly hopes to realise great ambitions or sacred purposes: or there may be an intent in the heart so earnest as to exclude all other thoughts and to reign in the heart with religious influence, difficult to distinguish from profound and sacrificial worship: sometimes there is an enthusiasm which is akin to inspiration, which lifts men up into high raptures, and constrains them to enter into arduous endeavours of the most costly kind; an enthusiasm which almost challenges danger, which smiles at peril, and which counts a road to be right because there is a lion upon it at every turn: or we may go farther down, and amongst another quality of people find a totally different indication of religious instinct and desire: we find lucky chance, the vulgar toss-up, and the vulgar desire that the right side may come down. Be it what it may, either a high conception or a low, it would seem as if we must find some equivalent to God, either in the fog of chance, the temple of art, or the sanctuary of revelation.
Even false gods put their devotees to great expense in their service. Take the man who gives himself up to the pursuit of an Idea, chimerical or practical, but large enough to be to him a religion. He lives no idle life; he does not rise with the sluggard, or lull his brain with opiates; he sees a beckoning spirit on the high hills, and hears a voice bidding him make haste whilst the light lasts; he writhes under many an inexplicable inspiration; he dares the flood that affrights the coward; he cannot spare himself: he is not his own. Such men are not to be despised. They give life a higher meaning, and service a bolder range. I only say of them in this connection that their worship is neither easy nor inexpensive. There is a popular delusion to the effect that give up the Bible and give up the church, life would become easy, pleasant, divesting itself of every spiritual trouble, enjoying the passing feast, and allowing tomorrow to come as it may and to bring with it its own care for its own duties. This is indeed a popular delusion. Examine the expenses-book of the mere pleasure-seeker; see what he has laid out for travelling, for objects which appeal to the eye, for the satisfaction of his lowest desires, for the gratification of perverted taste; add up the pages one by one, and totalise them at the last, and see whether the sensualist has lived an inexpensive life. On the other hand, there are men of a very different caste, who, having renounced what is known as orthodox religion and all its institutions, have yet found that success of the most honourable and legitimate kind is associated with daily crosses and self-denial. Whosoever would follow Jesus Christ must take up his Cross. That is often thought to be an expression limited exclusively to the Christian religion. We find, however, that it is nothing of the kind. Take out the word "Christ," and put in its place any other object worthy in some degree of human pursuit, and it will be found that the cross must be taken up in following that object with constancy and devotion. Men have to rise early, to run great risks, to deny themselves many temporary gratifications, to say No where often they would be glad to say Yes; they have to abandon the society of wife and children and the security and joy of home that they may go afar to learn new languages, face new conditions, and endeavour to subdue oppositions of the most stubborn kind. Why all this devotion to a purpose? why this determined resolution to succeed? Surely the object must account for all the expenditure which is lavished upon it. But the point now to be noted is that whoever would secure great results must undergo great self-denials. The highest application of this doctrine is found in the religion of Jesus Christ. Whoever would gain immortality must hate his present life,—whoever would seize heaven in its highest interpretations and uses must hold in contempt, as to mere permanence of satisfaction, this little earth and its vain appeals.
The service of the true God includes all the grandest ideas of the human mind. This is the supreme advantage which Christianity has over every phase of human thought. It keeps men back from no service that is good: on the contrary, it compels them to adopt and pursue it It is but just to deny that the men who ignore or neglect the God of the Bible are doing the great work of the world. Everything that is good is included in the programme of Christianity. Is the question one of international peace? The whole spirit of the Bible moves in this direction, and compels its believers to denounce war, to hold back the sword until the last possible moment, and to take such views of human nature as will develop its best aspects. Christianity shows all that is good in human life,—not only good as a matter of fact, but good as to probability; and believing that even the most warlike men may be subdued in many instances by argument, persuasion, and highmindedness on the part of opponents, Christianity insists that the sword shall not be unsheathed so long as one word remains to be spoken in the interests of righteous peace. Is it a question of high ideals? Then we may boldly ask what ideal can be higher, and morally completer, than that which is presented by the religion of Jesus Christ? That ideal may be expressed as peace on earth, and goodwill toward men,—an idea involving personal righteousness, international honour, the recognition of the broadest human rights, and the possibility of all nations, peoples, kindreds, and tongues being consolidated into one Christian brotherhood, not as to mere accidents, but as to supremacy of purpose and pureness of motive. The followers of Bible godliness are not mere dreamers. They do more for the world's progress than any other men in society can do. We are willing that they should be judged by any standard which even their opponents may erect: in the teaching of the young, in the support of the poor, in the devotion of time, in the donation of money, in the suffering of personal inconvenience—a position of unapproachable supremacy may be claimed for them. And in proportion to their godliness are they unconscious of their sacrifices. The Cross of Christ is not a pillar on which men carve the memory of their good deeds; on that sacred tree are no incisions made by boastful hands; the service is rendered because of love, and it seeks no immortality of itself other than the witness of lives redeemed and blessed.
The faith and service of the true God should express themselves in the character of believers. Every man represents his god. It would be easy to find your god by analysing your character. It would surely be enough to describe some men in order to have their god instantly named by those who have listened to the description. Take an instance: here is a man whose eyes are aflame with hot blood; his cheeks are swollen and pimpled; his lips are purple; his hands are unsteady, his voice is husky; he drinks wine in the morning, and tarries long at the drink; he is known in every house of pleasure and self-indulgence; his appetite grows by what it feeds on. Now name the god at whose altar that man worships! We cannot hesitate for a moment to write upon that altar the word Sensuality. Take another instance: here is a person whose one study is personal dress; the most anxious looks of inquiry are addressed to the mirror; the question always turns upon the fashion of the passing hour; there can be no rest whilst a colour is wrong, or a ribbon is wanting, or some readjustment is needed to bring the clothing into harmony with the established custom of the day; the papers perused are those which relate to dress, decoration, ornamentation of every kind; the news brought from every assembly relates to dress, carriage, manner, complexion. Who can hesitate to name the god worshipped in such an instance as this? Even the least instructed as to the words of men would not hesitate to describe persons so interested in such questions as the worshippers or the victims of Vanity. The Christian ought to be able to stand the same examination. Where we cannot understand his theology, we may at least inquire into his character; and where the character is pure, high, noble, it would be impossible to deny a high religious motive and a noble religious consecration; at all events, the mention of such motive and consecration would be in strict harmony with the character, and by so much would be presumably true. The advantage which the Christian worshipper has over all the heathen round about him is in the fact that he himself was converted from social heathenism and from trust in false gods. "Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led." Although this has literally no application to us, its spiritual reference is abundantly clear: we have followed the customs of the world; we have drunk at its fountains; we have wandered in its gardens; we have bought its delights; we have sacrificed at its altars; and today we stand up to testify that the gods of the heathen can neither hear prayer nor answer it, can neither pity human distress nor relieve it. We know also with equal certainty, on the other hand, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ covers our whole life, answers all its deepest necessities, is a sovereign balm for every wound, and cordial for our fears. As for the gods of the heathen, they that make them are like unto them, so is every one that trusteth in them; and whilst the Christian apologist delights in this method of inquiry, he ought to be ready to submit himself to it, and in the degree of his readiness for such submission will occur to him the idea of solemn and vast responsibility. Let us continually exclaim under circumstances which excite the world's amazement at our fortitude and hope, "The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance and of my cup: thou maintainest my lot;" "My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever." Such testimony will in due time become an argument.
Who would not fear thee, O King of nations? for to thee doth it appertain: forasmuch as among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like unto thee.Jeremiah's Study of Providence
The prophet is now in the midst of a review of the whole situation of which he himself constituted a living part; he is looking round and making notes; we have the advantage of reading his journal. It is an advantage to read what a man of such large mental capacity had to say respecting the religion and politics and the general civilisation of his day. We are accustomed to speak of the tears of Jeremiah; sometimes his tears were sparks of fire. He did more than weep. There was no sharper critic of the day. Few men could take in more horizon than Jeremiah when he fairly looked things in the face. It may be profitable to follow him, therefore, in his review, to see where human nature was long ago, and to compare its ancient condition with its immediate circumstances and purposes. The prophets were always wrathful when they came in presence of idols—clay, wooden, metallic gods. They then writhed with splendid scorn; their satire was inspired; the gods withered away before their intelligent and holy sarcasm. They spat upon the gods, lifted them up, set them down, walked around them, defied them; but never for the sake of doing so; always for the purpose of bringing in a clear revelation of the true God. Here is the function of satire. We are not called upon merely to mock one another. It was not enough for the prophet that he should mock the worshippers of Baal: he must reveal the true God. All mockery, all sarcasm, all jibing and sneering at other men's religion, how much soever they may be mistaken, should lead up to positive instruction, direct revelation, a very vision of heaven and God. So it is in the great prophets of the Old Testament. They scorned magnificently, or they revealed lucidly and tenderly, and exhorted with poignant and experimental eloquence.
This chapter opens with a desperate attack upon the customs of the people—that is to say, upon the religious ceremonies and rites of the nation; and then the prophet exclaims, "Who would not fear thee, O King of nations?" Even suppose this were: a poetical image, it is full of the finest suggestiveness. The image is that of a man who has been going up and down the idol temples to see if he could find a god, and having failed to find what lay upon his heart with all the tenderness of kinship and appealed to his intelligence with all the vigour of omniscience, he lifted up his eyes and said, There must be something better than all this. He must needs in his imagining make a King of nations, rather than be without one. This makes plain a good deal of the theology of the ages. Men did not create it merely for the sake of showing mechanical or literary cleverness, but for the sake of expressing the only possible satisfaction to certain moral and spiritual instincts and deep religious necessities. We, therefore, should respect all honest broad-minded theologians. They were pioneers in the higher civilisation; they began to build and were not able to finish: but every age is not called to build a separate temple; enough it one age builds partly, then ceases, making room for another generation; all the while the living temple, often invisible and mystic, is rising solidly and eternally to the skies. We may, therefore, not mock our forerunners even in theology. We have profited by their mistakes: if they blundered they suffered part of the penalty, and if we have seized the advantages they secured we should forget a good many of the mistakes into which they fell. They prayed bravely; by the very tone of their prayers they surpassed many of their theological conceptions. They were always ahead of their intelligence by the fervour of their moral nature. That is the true test of orthodoxy. As to what we may think, what does the universe care? We do not know what we thought six months ago; we cannot tell what we may think six months hence: but this we know, that love never changes but by increase, that devotion is never in any other attitude than on its knees, that the soul lives by homage, and disciplines itself by obedience. Along that line, radiant yet stern, we make our best progress. As for opinions, we ventilate them, we exchange them, we modify them; and by this very transition from opinion to opinion we purify our thinking and gain a little, it may be a very little, in an upward intellectual ascent.
A bold title is this to give to the living God—namely, "King of nations." There should be no other king but God. All kings are mistakes. Israel never wanted a king until Israel forgot to pray. The king was granted, for God does answer some imperfect and almost vicious prayers. He has no other way of teaching us. To give us a little of our own way is to make us feel quite a change of climate; is to bring us back again to loyalty and homage. As education advances kings will go down; the Son of man will come, the glorious Humanity. Meanwhile, even kings may serve great purposes, but only so far as they are great men. Every man now stands on good behaviour. The inefficient man, though he may be amiable, must go. We are taught that lesson first in commerce. Heads of firms do not increase the salary of amiability, but of efficiency. They never say that an employe is so amiable, and obliging, and civil, and modest, and unobtrusive, that they will double his income. What, then, is honoured? Intelligence, energy, capacity; the man who can do the work, and yet sustain the character; that man shall stand before kings, and sometimes get beyond them. There are kings the world would not willingly part with, monarchs that could ill be spared, so wise, so beneficent, so gracious, so altogether comely that the world says they must live on: would they could live for ever! What riots they spare, what difficulties they prevent, of what healing are they the conscious or unconscious ministers! And what is true of kings is only true of them because it is true of all men. Even preachers must go down if they cannot preach. That is very hard! Surely an exception ought to be made of them; but the public will make no exception; and the public therein affirms a right principle. Kings are only good, and all men are only to be tolerated and to be honoured, in proportion as they are higher than their office, better and more than their function—in proportion as they live capably for the good of others. Nothing is to be hurried in any direction. We gain rather by growth than by violence. He puts his watch right instantly who puts it right by the hands; but he is much mistaken if he thinks the whole process is over and done by that manipulation. There is an interior work to be done. So with all civilisation, and all its functions and offices. We do nothing by merely smiting, striking; but we do everything by concession, by conciliation, by generous trust, by large education, by magnanimous hopefulness of one another. Sometimes we do everything by doing nothing. There is a time to stand still as to all outward demonstrativeness; but whilst standing still in that sense we may be advancing very steadily and surely, though without noise or ostentation. The ages move towards brotherhood, towards the kingliness of humanity; yea the ages move towards the supersession of all mere office. The time will come when the preacher and teacher will not be needed; no man shall say to his brother, Know the Lord: for every man shall know him, from the least even unto the greatest. Then will come the time of worship, of adoration, of singing, of that broader service of sympathy that is now almost impossible to forecast and to express in words.
The prophet acquires the greater confidence in God in proportion as he sees the utter weakness and worthlessness of all the gods which men have made. Thus by experience men. are brought to the true religion. Let men shed their gods, as they shed some infantile disease. Do not hurry them in this matter. Let them really have time to know how little their gods are. If you make too much haste in detaching men from their idols, they may have a lingering suspicion that if they had tarried longer they would have been better satisfied. Let them have large experience; let them know exactly what their man-made or hand-made gods can do, in winter, in night, in affliction, in the churchyard; and when they have tested them so thoroughly as to take them into their hands and dash them to the ground as worthless and intrusive, they are one step nearer the true altar.
The prophet, having seen what the gods could do, turned with a new cry and with a profounder adoration to the King of kings, the King of nations. A beautiful expression is that,—"King of nations," an expression which takes up the whole nation as if it were a unit, as if it were one line, and that blesses the national life. There is an ideality in that conception which is worthy of the finest imagination. Why should there not be a national unit as well as an individual unit? We speak of the national debt, the national health, the national character, the national standing; therein we recognise the unity of the nation, the singularity and solidarity of the whole people: there is no man that liveth unto himself; we are not isolations, but parts of a great commonwealth. So when we pray for one another we should pray also for the whole nation. Then we extend the idea until we see what is known as a concert of nations, an international amity or comity; then beyond that conception we have a still larger one—namely, the conception of the unity of the whole earth. Our geography should never make us enemies. Friendship should never end at a red line or a blue definition of territory: these lines and boundaries are useful and convenient, and within certain limits are indispensable for present purposes, so that there may be no confusion amongst the peoples, but they should be so laid down as never to interfere with the full vision which nation should have of nation, and the full recognition which one country should have of the excellences of another. Christianity alone can take the sting out of geography, and make the whole human family one in sympathy and trust and love. If ever Christianity has appeared to do the contrary, it was by travesty and blasphemy, not by fair honest enlightened interpretation of principle and duty.
Jeremiah turns once more to the worthless gods, and from Jeremiah 10:11-15 he shows the relation of the false to the true, and the true to the false:—
"Thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens. He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion. When he uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures. Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are vanity, and the work of errors: in the time of their visitation they shall perish."
This being the case, is man to turn to himself? Ashamed of the gods, is man to take up with the idea of self-idolatry or self-instruction? The prophet replies to that inquiry:—
"O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps" (Jeremiah 10:23).
This is a very apt interposition, for whilst the prophet was denouncing the hand-made gods, who did not think of turning to himself as a refuge and a defence? It was well, therefore, to say something about man himself. What can man do when thrown upon his own resources, when he is called upon to tackle the great problems and the solemn questions of life and destiny?
Jeremiah ventured an opinion upon this. Is it a true one?—"O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." Now, that is either true, or it is not true; and we ought to be in a position to say whether it is the one or the other. It is most true; for we have tried to direct our way, and we have failed, we have made more mistakes than we have ever confessed; sometimes with a modesty that is difficult to distinguish from self-conceit, we have owned that we have fallen into occasional error; but who has ever taken out the tablet of his heart, held it up within reading distance, that others might peruse the record of miscarriage, misadventure, and mistake? On the other hand, how many are. there who would hesitate to stand forth and say, In proportion to trustfulness, docility, obedience, has real prosperity come? How many are there who would confess that they had been stronger after prayer than they were before it, readier to deal with rough life after they have had long communion with God? These are experimental matters; we do not call fancy to our aid in these discussions. Here is the hold which Christ has upon us. We are called upon to say what we were before we saw him, what we were after he wrought the mystery of grace within us; and the change is so complete and definite and absolute that there can be no mistaking it: it is the change from death to life. Who ever mistook summer for winter? Who is there that knows not the eloquence of the sun, the persuasiveness of light, the allurement of all heaven's singing ministry? On experience we stand. Experience is our argument. If Christianity were a question of grammar against grammar, interpretation against interpretation, who could maintain that he alone was right? The moment we leave our conflicting interpretations and come into a common experience, we feel that, explain it as we may, there is now a daily inspiration of the individual life. Sometimes we are surprised by its action, and we exclaim, That was an inspiration! How did we come to do so? Our purpose lay in another direction, but suddenly we changed the whole plan, pursued another policy, and on the road we have met angels, and opening heavens, and welcoming hospitalities. If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and begrudgeth not, upbraideth not. Christians should be more definite in their statements upon these matters. They should not hesitate to use such words as "inspired by God," "guided by Heaven," directed by the loving Father of creation. Were we more frank, definite, and fearless about these matters, we should make a deeper impression upon the age in which we live.
The prophet recognises the need of another ministry which for the present is never joyous, but grievous:—
"O Lord, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing" (Jeremiah 10:24).
He would have judgment with measure; he would have chastisement apportioned to him, not indiscriminately inflicted upon him. Indiscriminateness of justice often becomes injustice. Penalty becomes instructive and even hopeful in proportion to its being critically measured, so that there should not be one stroke too many. It is well to have an odd number of stripes, for they need the more careful counting. The law says, "forty stripes, save one." It is not, Shall be smitten, scourged, leaving the number of strokes to the smiter; the law was made before it was broken, and the law was made before the penalty was thought of. Before the offender had committed trespass, punishment was meted out to the offence. Here we have philosophy, forethought, the economy of strength, the wise outlay of ministerial and penal activity. But who prays to be corrected? Who prays to be judged? We should get great advantage if we could begin at that point. If we could ask for the penalty, we should take out of it a good deal of its sting. It is resistance to penalty that makes the punishment the heavier. If we could invite the stroke, we must kiss the hand that deals it. We should say, We deserve thy wrath; if we do not suffer from its smart, we should lose much instruction, yea, and much spiritual strength,—Lord, we have come this day to be smitten; we have not come with outstretched hands to seize heavenly treasures, but we have come with bowed heads that thy lash may be laid upon our back. Correction that is prayed for becomes a means of grace; it is received in the right spirit because asked for in the right spirit; but to accept it dumbly, sullenly, or in the spirit of fatefulness, is to lose the advantage of chastisement. He holds all things wisely and profitably who holds them loosely—that is, who holds them only at God's bidding. The man who says, "I am but a tenant-at-will," holds his house, his body, on the right conditions. He says: "I may be dismissed tomorrow, I cannot tell, I am not the freeholder; I am but a tenant-at-will; I am ready to go, because the universe is so governed that an obedient soul is never called away from a house until he is called to some larger habitation; but to leave this poor little house I am perfectly willing, I shall be clothed upon with the house from heaven; you should congratulate me when I tell you that the Lord Jesus hath showed me that I must shortly put off this tabernacle; we should have a feast to-night, yea a banquet, and music, and singing all round, for tomorrow I am to be liberated." But we are, meanwhile, the victims of the body; we are the prisoners of time; we are scourged by the very limitations we sometimes scorn. It is a strange life, it is a tragic comedy; we laugh and cry in the same breath; we worship and blaspheme within the same hour. Yet all the while, as we have just seen, there is what is called the law of tendency, and amid all the laughter and crying, praying and blaspheming, the shout of triumph and the groan of defeat, there is steady progress. Men cannot see it. We cannot see it ourselves. But we are made conscious of it now and again, and in those moments of high consciousness we claim to have been under the inspiration of God, and to be in very deed his children, in the sense of having been created by his power, redeemed by his grace, and directed by his Spirit.