The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Thus saith the LORD unto me, Go and get thee a linen girdle, and put it upon thy loins, and put it not in water.Divine Punishments
These words should be spoken with tears. It is a great mistake in doctrine as well as in practice to imagine that the imprecations of Holy Scripture should be spoken loudly, and, as it were, ruthlessly. They are words that should choke the speaker with emotion; they should be wet with the dew of pity. When Jesus came near the city he wept over it He was never so eloquent in speech as in feeling. He said he would have gathered the city together: he meant to do so: he loved it, he yearned over it; it would have been a kind of heaven to him; he would have made it the home of the world: but it rejected him; it said No to his tenderest appeal, and it thrust its hand into his very life. The words before us would seem to require the thunder for their utterance; but they do not. They were not spoken willingly, but the speaker was bound to utter them. They are the security of creation; they have in them the bonds which bind heaven together in eternal unity and safety. This power of destruction goes commensurately with the power of creation. Let us in this spirit study the words.
Divine punishments are possible. If we are not destroyed, it is not for want of power on the part of the offended Creator. The universe is very sensitively put together in this matter; everywhere there are lying resources which under one touch or breath would spring up and avenge an outraged law. The weapons lie very handy; we are walking upon a thin crust: it may give way, and none can save us or put the surface through which we have plunged together again. Now and then God does bring us to see how near death is to every life. For a long while we pass on as if the earth were a solid rock, the heaven an infinite solidity that could not move; and we forget that every breath we draw is a struggle with death, every throb of the heart a narrow escape from destruction. Life is critical. It may be blown away, stopped suddenly, rebuked, and die as it were in a cloud of wrath. It is a wonderful life, with great powers of endurance, great capacities; and yet it is not stopped slowly because of its greatness: it may be cut in twain in the twinkling of an eye; the greatest life and pulse could be stopped in a moment. The air waits but a word from God to suffocate the race; the obedient earth, swinging like a censer around the altar, needs but a hint from heaven, and it will drop infinite fathoms into space, and be lost for ever. Understand, therefore, that we are not living this kind of riotous life simply because God cannot punish us. We do not escape the rod because there is no rod. It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed. Think of that. Do let it enter into our minds and make us sober, sedate—if not religious and contrite. How soon we are frightened! Whilst things go on regularly in their monotonous course, we take no heed of them; but sometimes a meteor of unusual size is seen to fall, and then we feel how powerless we are: the lightning strikes the forest and writes in scorching heat some dread signature upon the wood, and we run away as if we would try to be religious: an epidemic vexes the wind, enters into every open door, searches the apertures in the casements, and then we ask for the Bible and begin to count our sins, as if to count were to repent and to destroy. Let us remember that we are walking, as it were, through an armoury filled with weapons which are only waiting the divine hand, and every one of which, or any one of which, would bring our life to a painful close.
Divine punishments are humiliating. In the thirteenth verse the Lord says that he will make the people, as it were, drunk:—
"I will fill all the inhabitants of this land, even the kings that sit upon David's throne, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, with drunkenness." (Jeremiah 13:13)
It is a humiliating punishment Some punishments have a kind of dignity about them: sometimes a man dies almost heroically, and turns death itself into a kind of victory; and we cannot but consent that the time is well chosen, and the method the best for giving to the man's reputation completeness, and to his influence stability and progress. God can bring us to our latter end, as it were, nobly: we may die like princes; death may be turned into a kind of coronation; our death-bed may be the picture of our life—the most consummately beautiful and exquisite revelation of character—or the Lord can drive us down like mad beasts to an unconsecrated grave. Close your eyes, let the vision of your imagination have full play, and you may see the Lord driving whole cities down to ruin without one ray of lurid glory to mitigate the horror and the gloom of the overthrow. God will make the inhabitants of cities sinning against him as if they were drunken men, and then he will make them kill one another; they will be dashed together, head against head, by invisible hands, and none will be able to explain the tumult. How contemptuous he can be! How bitter, how intolerable the sarcasm of God! "I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh." The Lord seems now and again to take a kind of delight in showing how utterly our pride can he stained and broken up and trampled underfoot. He will send a worm to eat up the harvest: would he but send an angel with a gleaming sickle to cut it down we might see somewhat of glory in the disaster; but he will make a little worm, and say to it, Go and eat up their fields. If an army of men were to invade our vineyards, we might watch the gates and repel the foe; but the Lord sends a little black beetle upon the vine, and says, Wither it; and no fingers are dainty enough or industrious enough to overtake the plague and stay the ruin. Thus God comes into our life along a line that may be designated as a line of contempt and humiliation. We rise in the morning as if it were still night; we put our hand to our head as if to find the brain which we have consciously lost; we attempt to pronounce the name of dearest friend or youngest child, and it is gone from us as if we had never heard it; we look for our crops in the great broad acres lying a thousand thick together, and, behold, the locust has devoured every green thing; the roots have been eaten by unbidden guests, and no blessing was pronounced upon the horrible repast. To what ends we may come! The strong mind may be bowed down in weakness which a child will pity; the gifted man may lose all his talents in a moment; and he who led the sentiments of nations may have to ask to be conducted across one of the thoroughfares of his own city,—power gone, ability withered, self-reliance dissolved like a vapour in the wind. O that men were wise, that they would hold themselves as God's and not their own, as divine property rather than personal possession! then would they walk soberly and recruit themselves in many a prayer, and bring back their youth because they trust in God.
Divine punishments are not only possible and humiliating, but when they do come they are complete—"I will destroy them." We cannot tell the meaning of this word; we do not know what is meant by "destruction"; we have our own ideas of it, we use the term as if we knew its meaning,—and possibly we do know its meaning according to the breadth of our own intention and purpose; but the word as used by God has divine meanings upon which we can lay no measuring line. We cannot destroy anything: we can destroy its form, its immediate relation, its temporary value; but the thing itself in its substance or in its essence we can never destroy. No atom of sand has been lost from the basket of the universe; no drop of dew has escaped from the account of God. The scales of the sanctuary are silver, and in them are weighed all worlds and lives, all spaces and substances: forms change, correlation takes place, transmutation, rapid development of power, and change of relationship; but the things themselves are still there, and God needs light no candle nor sweep the house diligently until he find it. Things are lost to us, but they are present to the hand of God. When the Lord says he will take up this matter of destruction we cannot tell what he means; we dare not think of it. We use the word "nothing," but cannot tell what he means by the nothingness of nothing, by the negativeness of negation, by the sevenfold darkness, by the heaped-up midnight of gloom. My soul, come not thou into that secret!
Divine punishments are avoidable.
"Give glory to the Lord your God, before he cause darkness" (Jeremiah 13:16).
The pity of the Lord is thus magnified because all these resources lie within the reach of his hand. He will not touch them if he can possibly help it. The hatefulness of sin is thus shown; nothing that is not infinitely hateful could extort from God the word destroy as applied to the formations of his own hand. The clemency of God is thus declared—"Give glory to the Lord your God, before he cause darkness." He may yet be appeased: the Cross is not yet taken down; the Cross means opportunity to return—a basis of righteousness upon which to settle the reconciliation of the human with the divine, and the divine with the human. The meaning of the blood of Jesus Christ is, that what we cannot do for ourselves God has done for us; and what we are asked to do is to throw ourselves in an exercise of loving faith upon mysteries we cannot understand, upon grace that astounds the imagination and turns our boldest speech into science.
The Book of Jeremiah is full of questions. They are questions indicative of bewilderment, amazement, ignorance, hopefulness; they stand often in place of that silence which is more eloquent than speech, as if the prophet would tempt the Lord himself into reply by asking questions. Thus we tempt little children, and thus we would tempt the wisest scholars with whom we come into momentary contact, and thus adoringly would we seek to lure God into audible speech.
"Where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?" (Jeremiah 13:20).
Let this stand as an inquiry from God himself. The prophet often personates God: sometimes it is almost impossible to tell who is speaking, whether it is God, or whether it is the prophet speaking in the divine name; but we can always tell by its quality and by its music whence the question comes. "What wilt thou say when he shall punish thee?" Here is a flock that is being inquired about, not a flock only, but a beautiful flock. The question comes into our family life, and asks us where all the children are, those lovely children, that banished the silence of the house and made it ring with music. They were fair, they were charming, they were affectionate; what a sweet, merry little fellowship they made!—where are they? The parent ought to be able to give some answer to that inquiry. Have they been spoiled into evil, flattered into self-idolatry, neglected into atheism? Have they been over-instructed, over-disciplined, wholly overborne, so that the will has not been only broken but shattered? Where are they? Are children likely to grow up of themselves? Flowers do not, fruits do not, horses do not. There is more man in a horse than there is horse. Will children turn out to be saints and psalmists and preachers by your enjoying yourselves and letting them go their own way? Nature does not submit to that philosophy of life; she says: "You must watch me—mother Nature; you must be up in the morning almost as early as I am, and you must begin your training whilst the dew is upon me, or I will uproot your flowers and set a weed where every one of them grew." Oh, the cruelty of kindness! the madness of neglect! A good example should be supported by good instruction. He is no shepherd, but a tyrant, who does not co-operate with his children, lure them, fascinate them, and give them sacred instruction without appearing to do so, and who when offering religious privileges offers them as if offering coronation, yea, and all heaven.
The question enters also into our Church life, saying to every pastor, "Where is the flock that was given thee, thy beautiful flock?"—not large, perhaps, but so expectant, so sympathetic, so co-operative. It is possible for preachers to be always in their places, and yet always out of them. What the flock wants is pastoral preaching. The difficulty is to overcome the temptation to preach to somebody who is not there. There is another difficulty almost impossible to escape, and that is to preach to the one man rather than to all souls—the one man being the critic, the intolerable man, who does not understand human nature, who is cursed with a competence, and cursed by knowing so many books—as to their title-pages. The preacher will be ruined by that man, unless that man is ruined by the preacher; a great controversy, though not always patent to the public eye, must take place, and the preacher must oust the critic. The people must have pastoral prayer, prayer often all tears, always trembling with sympathy, always indicative of the open eye that sees human life in its most tragic features and relations. The preacher must always know himself to be set for the healing and nurture of men. In every congregation there are the brokenhearted, those who are shattered in fortune, feeble in health, spiritually-minded; women who have great home cares; souls that cannot thrive on criticism; lives that need all nourishment and comfort and loving sympathy. The pastor who so recognises his duty and conducts his function will be able to tell where the flock is, the beautiful flock, the sheep and the lambs; he will carry the lambs in his bosom. Preaching of that sort will never need any foolish assistance in gathering together a flock. Men soon know the physicians who can heal broken hearts. It is marvellous how the poor and the weary and the sad come to know that somewhere there is a man who has the divine touch, the shepherd's voice, the pastoral enthusiasm. Let it be known by father, mother, preacher, king, queen, that the time will come when the question will be asked, "Where is the flock, the beautiful flock?" Nor will it be sufficient to return a vague and multitudinous reply. The Lord knows every one of his flock. You cannot offer him thirty-nine instead of forty; you cannot persuade him to look upon the flock as a whole, a moving crowd; he counts while he looks, he numbers all his flock, and each passes under the rod. We must be careful for the individual. There is an abundance of public benevolence; a wonderful desire to preside at public meetings, and a shameful disregard of the one little crushed life, the one half-sobbed intercession, which asks for pity, which begs for bread.
Question follows question in this prophet: "And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me?" (Jeremiah 13:22), thou wilt assume the role of the hypocrite, thou wilt talk for talking' sake; for thou knowest right well that God's judgments come upon human sin. The Lord never punishes for the sake of punishing. It is not to test the quality of his rod, but to develop the character of man, that God smites any living creature. When he drowned the world, he first drowned his own heart in tears. He suffered more than you suffered when he took the one little ewe lamb away from you because you were turning it into an idol or a temptation. In all our affliction he is afflicted.
"Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?" (Jeremiah 13:23). There is no pathos in that inquiry. Perhaps there is a little cadence of satire; there may be some hint of mockery. It is a moral inquiry, ending in this conclusion—"Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil." Man cannot do a little of each, and do both with indifference or reluctance, and have the good set down to him as a positive virtue. Habit becomes second nature, according to the assurance of the proverb. There is a use in evil; it is easy to get into the skill of evildoing; verily we seem to the manner born; it is easier to do wrong than to do right. That, however, is but a partial view, because when proper discipline has been undergone it becomes impossible to do evil. How is it that men do go astray? Why is not one child born that stands up and says, "I will never budge, I will be inflexible in virtue, heroic in suffering, valiant in testimony: I will be the man the ages have been sighing and groaning for." Where is that child? If we speak of original sin we are mocked. We dare scarcely mention the name of Adam, though—mystery of mysteries—we have a doctrine of heredity. This doctrine as now understood seems to go no farther back than the grandfather. That is a poor heredity, and laying tremendous responsibility upon that venerable gentleman. What has he done to be the fountain and origin of heredity? he never heard the word; he would need to have it explained to him if he returned to these earthly schools. If we once acknowledge the doctrine of heredity, then there is no Adam, though he were born millions of ages ago, who can escape the responsibility of being the first. We do nothing with this doctrine but aggravate the responsibilities of our own immediate ancestors. The larger doctrine takes in all humanity. There I will stand by the doctrine of heredity. It is a historical fact; it is a philosophy; it is a science by itself; it deserves the devoutest, calmest study: but the doctrine of heredity must not be terminated at a certain point, it must cover the whole ground, otherwise it is partial, whimsical, fanciful, and misleading. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin?" That question ought to be answerable. "Or the leopard his spots?" There ought to be no difficulty about that inquiry. The prophet means by these interrogations that sooner shall these miracles be wrought than that habitual evil shall turn to the ways of light and wisdom and pureness. Then, is it impossible? With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. That is the open door. We must be born again. It is easy to sneer at the doctrine, to call it ancient, and to regard it as metaphysical; but it does take place in every advancing life, and sometimes when we even disown the name we accept the process. We are not to be limited by human definitions. We do not go to some great theologian to tell us the meaning of regeneration; we go into our own experience, and through that we read the divine word, and by the reciprocal action of the divine word and the human consciousness we begin to see what is meant by the Ethiopian changing his skin and the leopard his spots, what is meant by rejuvenation, the offcasting of the old man, and the blooming of the new life, the regenerated soul. This cannot be explained in words, it can be felt in the heart.
"Wilt thou not be made clean? when shall it once be?" (Jeremiah 13:27).
"O the Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man that turneth aside to tarry for a night?" (Jeremiah 14:8).
Here we reach a deeper pathos. The prophet is conscious of the absence of God. A great change has taken place in the divine relation to Jeremiah and to the world. He who once came to reside, to abide, now called in like a wayfaring man, and passed on. What does the pilgrim care for the politics of the city? He came but yesternight, tomorrow he will be gone; he cannot entangle himself with the politics, or the social life, or the family life of the city; he says, I can tarry but a night, I may not unsandal my feet, and my staff I had better have in my hand whilst I sleep a little; I must be up with the dawn. Why art thou as a pilgrim, a wayfaring man, one who can turn aside but to tarry for a night? Almighty One, gracious One, thou didst live with us once; thou wert as part of us, our very home lift depended upon thee, we breathed the atmosphere of thy fellowship, and now we hardly ever see thee; thou dost come sandalled, thou dost come with the staff in thine hand, thou dost scarcely ask a question, or express a sympathy, or disclose a solicitude; thou art no sooner here than gone. O the Hope of Israel, the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, our hearts ache when we think of thee coming as a stranger—thou once a friend!
"Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul loathed Zion? why hast thou smitten us, and there is no healing for us?" (Jeremiah 14:19).
The Lord had told the prophet it was useless to pray for the offender, but the prophet scarcely believed it. It is hard for those who know God to believe that he will resort to judgment. Jonah said: "I knew thou wouldst not destroy Nineveh, I knew I was on a fool's errand; I knew thy mercy, thy love, thy pity; I had been calling, In forty days Nineveh should be destroyed, and I knew that if Nineveh but whimpered thou wouldst humiliate me and spare the city." So it is, the individual must go down, the personal consciousness must be rebuked; the city must be saved, the man must be redeemed, and the redeeming God will presently talk to the complaining prophet, and mayhap reconcile him.
"Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles that can cause rain? or can the heavens give showers?" (Jeremiah 14:22).
Remember it was a time of dearth. The question turned upon the presence of grass; there was no grass, and therefore the hind calved in the field and forsook its own offspring, that it might abate its own hunger, seeking grass in some far-away place. Natural instincts were subdued and overcome, and the helpless offspring was left in helplessness, that the poor dying mother, hunger smitten, might find a mouthful of green herbage somewhere. And the ground was dust; the ploughmen were ashamed, they resorted to that last sign of Oriental desperation and grief, to cover their heads, because there was no rain, no grass; and now the prophet asks, "Are there any among the vanities of the Gentiles than can cause rain?" What can the idols do? If they can give rain, let them give it now. Can the heavens themselves give showers—the blue heavens that look so kind—can they of themselves and as it were by their own motion pour a baptism of water upon the earth? No. This is the act of the living God, the providence of the redeeming Father, the miracle of love. Thus we are driven in various ways to pray. You never know what a man is religiously, until he has been well tried, hungry a long time, and had no water to drink, until his tongue is as a burning sting in his mouth, until it hardens like metal, and if he can then move his lips you may find the coward trying to pray.
Almighty God, thou art always asking for the absent. Thou canst not be satisfied because many are in thy banqueting-house; every vacant seat troubles thine heart: God is love. Thou art always saying, If ye will return, I will receive you. Yea, thou dost say more—I will receive you graciously and love you freely. The hospitality of God is boundless. Once we were as sheep going astray, but now we have returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls, by the grace of God. Wondrous grace! all-including love! Behold, the mercy of the Lord endureth for ever. By the grace of God we are what we are,—still bad, imperfect, unwise, yet having some sense of the invisible, the eternal, the divine; having some sense of the sinfulness of sin, and some hatred of the abominable thing, and some desire to throw our arms around the Cross and cry our hearts out for very shame and penitence. This is thy doing. We love the agony; it is a blessed pain; this is woe which is the beginning of joy; this is godly sorrow which worketh repentance not to be repented of, the liberty of full access to God, the liberty of pardon. May we know it more and more, and pass through all paroxysms and rendings of life into the infinite calm. There is no other way. Every kingdom worth having is entered by a strait gate and a narrow road. This is thine appointment, and it is good, for we have experienced it in all lower things. That which comes easily goes easily. Behold, our agony of heart is in the pledge of our sonship, and is the assurance that thou art going to do great things. When all the discipline is done, when all the piercing and beating and moulding shall be accomplished, when all the firing shall be over, when the poor furnace shall cool down because there is no more dross to burn, then we shall thank thee for every pang; our memory shall treasure somewhat of the pains we bore, and we shall bless God that having come out of great tribulation we can never know it any more. We have done wickedly, we have excited our fears, we have misused our faculties, we have shown genius in crime, yea, inspiration in wickedness. God pity the lives that repent; the Lord weep over our tears himself, and so sweeten them. We come with these petitions. We know how great they are, how large is our request: but what are they compared with thine infinity! Amen