The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD.The Coming One
Jeremiah 22, Jeremiah 23
The particular reference is to Josiah, on the occasion of whose death Jeremiah had composed a grand and pathetic dirge. It is supposed from 2Chronicles 35:25 that this dirge was repeated annually in memory of Josiah's death. The injunction of the text puts an end to this annual commemoration. The weeping is forbidden in the case of Josiah, but it is ordered to continue in the case of Jehoahaz (Jehovah sustains.) Jehoahaz was probably a name assumed by Shallum on his accession to the throne. It would seem that the word Shallum had a peculiar significance attached to it from the fact that the name had been borne by one of the later kings of Israel, whose reign lasted only one month. The point which is immediately before us is that men may often be weeping for the wrong object, and neglecting to shed tears over men and memories that deserve nothing but lamentation. The prophet says: Weep not for Josiah, but lor Jehoahaz. So we may often say: Weep not for the dead, but for the living; weep not for the afflicted, but for the evil-hearted; weep not for those who pass away out of sight into the immortal state, but weep for those who linger here, and whose day is turned into night by hopelessness. Men will always persist in weeping for the wrong thing, or weeping at the wrong point. Who does not cry over death? whereas, the probability is, if we understood the economy of nature better, it would be wiser to weep over birth. It is certain that birth introduces us into a sphere of trial, difficulty, where we have to absorb much that is bitter, and undergo much that is distressing; whereas it is possible that death may introduce us into immortal and ineffable blessedness. Jesus Christ said to the woman who followed him to the cross, "Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children." Misspent tears exhaust or pervert the very emotion which they express. We are not to weep for the consequences of sin so much as for sin itself. If we were great enough in the realisation of our ideals and our aspirations, we should not so much weep that men are sent to perdition as that God's holiness is dishonoured, and God's law disobeyed, and the music of his creation thrown into discord by iniquity.
"Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning Jehoiakim the son of Josiah king of Judah; They shall not lament for him, saying, Ah my brother! or, Ah sister! they shall not lament for him, saying, Ah lord! or, Ah his glory! He shall be buried with the burial of an ass, drawn and cast forth beyond the gates of Jerusalem" (Jeremiah 22:18-19).
The description of Jehoiakim really begins in the thirteenth verse. Jehoiakim had revived forced labour, such as was known in the days of Solomon—a labour which pressed not only on strangers, but on the Israelites themselves. Jehoiakim went on building palaces when his kingdom was threatened with ruin, and when his subjects were overborne by burdens which it was impossible to sustain. In the thirteenth verse the prophet begins a description of a man without naming him; a man who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by ruin; a man who useth his neighbour's services without wages, and giveth him not for his work; a man who yields to the impulses of a foolish ambition, saying, I will build me a wide house and large chambers, and who gratifies himself by cutting out windows, and deling his chambers with cedars, and painting his retreats with vermilion. It is not until we come to the eighteenth verse that the prophet specially indicates the man against whom this accusation is levelled. Jehoiakim was king, and yet not one word of thanks do we find, nor one word of love, nor one word of regret, expressed concerning his fate. We should learn from this how possible it is to pass through the world without leaving behind us one sacred or loving memory. He that seeketh his life shall lose it. A man that sacrifices daily to his own ambition, and never sets before himself a higher ideal than his own gratification, may appear to have much whilst he actually has nothing, may even appear to be winning great victories when he is really undergoing disastrous defeats. What is a grand house if there be not in it a loving heart? What are walls but for the pictures that adorn them? What is life but for the trust which knits it into sympathetic unity? What is the night but for the stars that glitter in its darkness? Jehoiakim had only a magnificent mausoleum; his palaces were mortuaries; his pretensions were nightmares. Jehoiakim was dragged in chains with the other captives who were carried off to Babylon. The disappointed and mortified king died on the journey. See to what we may come after all the whirl of our excitement, all the mad dance and tumult of our ambition. It is better to begin at the other end of life, so that we may realise the proverb which speaks of men being born mud and dying marble. We all know men who are born marble but who die mud. There is an awful process of retrogression continually operating in life. Experienced men will tell us that the issue of life is one of two things: either advancement, or deterioration; continual improvement, or continual depreciation: we cannot remain just where we are, adding nothing, subtracting nothing, but realising a permanence of estate and faculty. The powers we do not use will fall into desuetude, and the abilities which might have made life easy may be so neglected as to become burdens too heavy to be carried. It lies within a man's power so to live that he may be buried with the burial of an ass: no mourners may surround his grave; no beneficiaries may recall his charities; no hidden hearts may conceal the tender story of his sympathy and helpfulness. A bitter sarcasm this, that a man should be buried like an ass! What may be honourable to the ass is an infinite dishonour to the man. We often do the animal creation injustice by comparison of wicked or foolish men with its creatures. We sometimes speak of a man as being "as drunk as a beast," a phrase in which we dishonour the beasts that perish. How mighty men may become, how noble, how helpful to his brother-men! How much of beauty and tenderness, purity and gentleness, may be brought within the limited scope of threescore years and ten; every year may be a gathering of jewels, every moment may glitter like a diamond. Happy he who sits down to calculate how much good he can do, and how much of honest labour and genuine helpfulness he can crowd into the little space which he calls his life.
'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth" (Jeremiah 23:5).
Still in these solemn pages we hear as it were the footfall of the Coming One. History never tells us in these ancient pages that the true man has descended to the earth, that the ideal man has breathed the common air, but still prophets and historians look forward and say, There is One coming whose right it is to reign; there is a sign upon the horizon of a Man who shall represent all other men, and in men shall glorify humanity. The words of the text point to an undefined future; yet they speak with certainty of the realisation of that distant age. It is thus we are drawn on from century to century: always the greater man is coming; always the greater discovery is to be made; always are we within sight of the horizon which is the threshold of heaven. That we never reach it is a joy rather than a regret, because our hope is never turned to despair, but always increased to an intenser brightness, so that whilst we are disappointed on the one hand we are elevated on the other, and the aching that is occasioned in our hearts by the literal non-fulfilment of promises is more than compensated for by the assurance that what is yet to come is worth waiting for, and that when it does come we shall forget all regrets and disappointments in its infinite satisfaction. We are told that there is to be raised unto David "a righteous Branch." The word literally means a sprout or scion, springing from the root of the tree after the tree itself has been cut down, and is not a branch which grows out of the mere trunk of the tree—beautiful indeed, but in a sense accidental; it is rather a growth that belongs to the root, that is so to say part and parcel of the tree itself: so when this Coming One shall have come, he will not belong to the trunk, he will not be a branch or part of a branch in any sense in which he can be amputated; he will express the idea that is hidden in the root; in other words, he shall represent the purpose of God concerning humanity and time. Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, is not one of ourselves; he has not come up from the root of Adam; he has rather come up from the root of Being, from the very fount and origin of Eternity, so that he will not be classed with ourselves or judged as we are; he will belong to us, and yet stand apart from us: we shall not be fellow-branches of the same tree; we shall be branches which grow out of him, for he is the root and the offspring of David.
"Am I a God at hand, saith the Lord, and not a God afar off? Can any hide himself in secret places that I shall not see him? saith the Lord. Do not I fill heaven and earth? saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:23-24).
All these questions depend, as to their effect upon the reader, upon the moral condition of the reader or hearer himself. Let the bad man hear these questions, and they will smite him as swords, sharp and heavy; let the good man hear these same inquiries, and he will receive them as so many assurances of protection and security. God is nigh at hand for judgment: the period of judgment, therefore, need not be postponed until a remote age; every man can now bring himself within sight of the great white throne, and can determine his destiny by his spirit and by his action. God is nigh at hand for protection: he is nearer to us than we can ever be to ourselves: though the chariots of the enemy are pressing hard upon us, there is an inner circle, made up of angels and ministering spirits, guarding us with infinite defences against the attacks of the foe. God is near us for inspiration: if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God: what time we are in doubt or perplexity as to the course we should take, let us whisper our weakness into the ear of the condescending and ever-accessible Father, and by the ministry of his Spirit he will tell us what we ought to do. It is an infinite mistake to suppose that God is enthroned far beyond the stars, in any sense which separates him from immediate contact with ourselves. If our heart be humble, it is God's temple; if our spirit be contrite, it is an altar whereat we may meet the Father day by day. This is the essential glory of God, and the mystery of his being, that he is far away, yet near at hand; near at hand, yet losing nothing through familiarity; far away, yet able to come at a moment's notice to guide, inspire, and sanctify his trustful children. We must never lose anything of the divine majesty: there is a purpose of the highest kind in a proper realisation of divine majesty, dignity, glory; but we shall be mere idolaters if we recognise these attributes or distinctions alone, and do not balance and chasten them with conceptions of sympathy, tenderness, nearness, such as our hearts delight in. Our religion should not be merely a sublime theology; it should be an actual friendship, an affectionate companionship with God.
"The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:28).
This is the grand characteristic of the Bible, that it fears no competition; that whilst it is not weak enough to be defiant, it is always strong enough to be competitive. The Bible would not merely silence false prophets by force or by arbitrary arrangement of any kind; it would not expel heresy by overwhelming majorities; it would not oppose opinion by mere numerical strength: the Bible says, If you have a message to deliver, let us hear what it is; if it is only a dream, tell us every line and syllable of it, that we may estimate its value; if it is only a theory or an imagination, submit it to the practical test of life; it is a poor faith that cannot bear the rude blasts of common intercourse, the criticism of the market-place, the testing of the sick-chamber, the pressure of life's daily need. The Bible would thus expel heresy by trying it; would thus condemn the spirits that are not of God by calling upon them to do godly work. In this way should all heresy be treated; in this way should all theories be momentarily entertained, as if they were duly qualified and well-accredited guests, worthy at least of temporary courtesy: let us give them house-room; let us ask them questions; let us create for them opportunities of self-revelation. Our confidence is expressed in the inquiry, "What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord." Men know the difference between the one and the other; if in some mood of mere intellectual ambition or hilarity they pretend that one is as good as the other, they will soon by tragical experience be brought to distinguish values, to see exactly what is what, what is valuable and what is worthless, what is strong and what is weak. We should allow time to work out its mystery upon all propositions, hypotheses, and speculations. If we cannot intellectually try the spirits whether they are of God, we can practically submit them to the most infallible tests.
"Thus shalt thou say to the prophet, What hath the Lord answered thee? and, What hath the Lord spoken? But since ye say, The burden of the Lord; therefore thus saith the Lord; Because ye say this word, The burden of the Lord, and I have sent unto you, saying, Ye shall not say, The burden of the Lord; therefore, behold, I, even I, will utterly forget you, and I will forsake you, and the city that I gave you and your fathers, and cast you out of my presence: and I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten" (Jeremiah 23:37-40).
This passage has justly been regarded as a protest against every form of pious cant. In these verses the prophet is denouncing the use of solemn words when they do not express really unaffected and solemn meanings. It is as if the prophet had heard men speak great swelling words of vanity, and had punctured them with the edge of a spear. He heard men talking as if they were great, as if they were the favourites of Heaven, as if they had been entrusted with a special vocabulary, arranged and dictated by Almighty God himself; and now the prophet challenges such speakers to reduce their words to action, he calls upon them to submit their lofty terms to the trial of actual life. The Lord sets himself against all hypocrisy. The Litany is an offence to him if it carry not with it the praise and trust of the heart. On the other hand, where the heart is right towards God the very simplest words will be accepted as if they were the most majestic tributes of thought and expression. The supreme consideration with God relates to the state of the heart. When men say to Christ, "Lord, Lord, have we not cast out devils in thy name?" he cares nothing for the miracle, but inquires into the state of the spirit. So today we may be performing miracles in Christ's name, even miracles of beneficence, in which we do but modify our own ambition: the Lord will look not at the great pile of gold and stones which we erect, he will look to the spirit which has inspired and assisted the industry of our hands; then though the pile be built of the poorest material, yet if it were the best material we could obtain it would be accepted as gold and silver, yea, and precious stones. Let us beware of the affectation of great words; let us beware of the impiety of religious polysyllables. Christianity has not been revealed to us, or has not been felt by us, in all its quality and divine dignity, if we do not realise its simplicity, its condescension, its self-sacrifice. Praise the Bible for its nobleness; recognise the spirit of challenge, yea, even of occasional defiance, which fills its immortal pages. "What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord." "With what likeness will ye compare me? saith the Lord"; and as for the idols, he scorns them, yea, he sets his feet upon them, and defies them to rise again. All this spirit of triumph and conscious supremacy, which is represented in the noblest rhetorical imagery, ought to find its counterpart and moral realisation in the behaviour of Christians; they are not to be as other men; Jesus Christ says when Christians do certain pious works, "Do not even the publicans the same?" He also says, "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." As the Bible is distinct from all other books, so Christian character should be distinct from all other behaviour. It is not enough to compare surfaces or external relations; there should be a solemn and exhaustive judgment of motive and purpose. The vital criticism should be conducted within the sanctuary of the heart. It is in vain that we compete with other men who have no God, if we cannot show that every action we do springs from a true conception of human nature and divine requirement All action is ultimately determinable as to its value and utility by the motive which inspires it.