The just shall live by his faith.
We shall always find it most safe, as well as most reverent, to inquire first the literal and exact meaning of a text; to see under what circumstances it was written; what meaning it must have conveyed to those who heard it; and so to judge what it must have meant in the mind of him who spoke it. If we do so, we shall find that the simplest interpretation of Scripture is generally the deepest; and the most literal interpretation is also the most spiritual.
Let us examine the circumstances under which the prophet spake these words.
It was on the eve of a Chaldean invasion. The heathen were coming into Judea, as we see them still in the Assyrian sculptures -- civilizing, after their barbarous fashion, the nations round them -- conquering, massacring, transporting whole populations, building cities and temples by their forced labour; and resistance or escape was impossible.
The prophet's faith fails him a moment. What is this but a triumph of evil? Is there a Divine Providence? Is there a just Ruler of the world? And he breaks out into pathetic expostulation with God Himself: 'Wherefore lookest Thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest Thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he? And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, which have no ruler over them? They take up all of them with the line, they gather them with the net. Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense to their line; for by it their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous. Shall they therefore empty their net, and not spare to slay continually the nations?'
Then the Lord answers his doubts: 'Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.'
By his faith, plainly, in a just Ruler of the world, -- in a God who avenges wrong, and makes inquisition for innocent blood. He who will keep his faith in that just God, will remain just himself. The sense of Justice will be kept alive in him; and the just will live by his Faith.
The prophet believes that message; and a mighty change passes over his spirit. In a burst of magnificent poetry, he proclaims woe to the unjust Chaldean conqueror. All his greatness is a bubble which will burst; a suicidal mistake, which will work out its own punishment, and make him a taunt and a mockery to all nations round. 'Woe to him who increaseth that which is not his, and ladeth himself with thick clay! Woe to him that coveteth an evil covetousness to his house, that he may set his nest on high, and be delivered from the power of evil! Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city with iniquity! Behold, is it not of the Lord of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity?' There is a true civilization for man; but not according to the unjust and cruel method of those Chaldeans. The Law of the true Civilization, the prophet says, is this: 'The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.'
But what is this to us? Are we like the Chaldeans? God forbid. But are we not tried by the same temptations to which they blindly yielded? A nation, strong, rich, luxurious, prosperous in industry at home, and aggressive (if not in theory, certainly in practice) to less civilized races abroad -- are we not tempted daily to that habit of mind which the prophet calls -- with that tremendous irony in which the Hebrew prophets surpass all writers -- looking on men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things which have no ruler over them, born to devour each other, and be caught and devoured in their turn, by a race more cunning than themselves? There are those among us in thousands, thank God, who nobly resist that temptation; and they are the very salt of the land, who keep it from decay. But for the many- -for the public -- do not too many of them believe that the law of human society is, after all, only that internecine conflict of interests, that brute struggle for existence, which naturalists tell us (and truly) is the law of life for mere plants and animals? Are they not tempted to forget that men are not mere animals and things, but persons; that they have a Ruler over them, even God, who desires to educate them, to sanctify them, to develop their every faculty, that they may be His children, and not merely our tools; and do God's work in the world, and not merely their employer's work? Are they not -- are we not all -- tempted too often to forget this?
And, then, are we not tempted, all of us, to fall down like the Chaldeans and worship our own net, because by it our portion is fat, and our meat plenteous? Are we not tempted to say within ourselves, 'This present system of things, with all its anomalies and its defects, still is the right system, and the only system. It is the path pointed out by Providence for man. It is of the Lord; for we are comfortable under it. We grow rich under it; we keep rank and power under it: it suits us, pays us. What better proof that it is the perfect system of things, which cannot be amended?'
Meanwhile, we are sorry (for the English are a kindhearted people) for the victims of our luxury and our neglect. Sorry for the thousands whom we let die every year by preventible diseases, because we are either too busy or too comfortable to save their lives. Sorry for the savages whom we exterminate, by no deliberate evil intent, but by the mere weight of our heavy footstep. Sorry for the thousands who are used-up yearly in certain trades, in ministering to our comfort, even to our very luxuries and frivolities. Sorry for the Sheffield grinders, who go to work as to certain death; who count how many years they have left, and say, 'A short life and a merry one. Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.' Sorry for the people whose lower jaws decay away in lucifer-match factories. Sorry for all the miseries and wrongs which this Children's Employment Commission has revealed. Sorry for the diseases of artificial flower-makers. Sorry for the boys working in glass-houses whole days and nights on end without rest, 'labouring in the very fire, and wearying themselves with very vanity.' -- Vanity, indeed, if after an amount of gallant toil which nothing but the indomitable courage of an Englishman could endure, they grow up animals and heathens. We are sorry for them all -- as the giant is for the worm on which he treads. Alas! poor worm. But the giant must walk on. He is necessary to the universe, and the worm is not. So we are sorry -- for half an hour; and glad too (for we are a kind-hearted people) to hear that charitable persons or the government are going to do something towards alleviating these miseries. And then we return, too many of us, each to his own ambition, or to his own luxury, comforting ourselves with the thought, that we did not make the world, and we are not responsible for it.
How shall we conquer this temptation to laziness, selfishness, heartlessness? By faith in God, such as the prophet had. By faith in God as the eternal enemy of evil, the eternal helper of those who try to overcome evil with good; the eternal avenger of all the wrong which is done on earth. By faith in God, as not only our Father, our Saviour, our Redeemer, our Protector: but the Father, Saviour, Redeemer, Protector, and if need be, Avenger, of every human being. By faith in God, which believes that His infinite heart yearns over every human soul, even the basest and the worst; that He wills that not one little one should perish, but that all should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.
We must believe that, if we wish that it should be true of us, that the just shall live by his faith. If we wish our faith to keep us just men, leading just lives, we must believe that God is just, and that He shows His justice by the only possible method -- by doing justice, sooner or later, for all who are unjustly used.
If we lose that faith, we shall be in danger -- in more than danger -- of becoming unjust ourselves. As we fancy God to be, so shall we become ourselves. If we believe that God cares little for mankind, we shall care less and less for them ourselves. If we believe that God neglects them, we shall neglect them likewise.
And then the sense of justice -- justice for its own sake, justice as the likeness and will of God -- will die out in us, and our souls will surely not live, but die.
For there will die out in our hearts, just the most noble and God- like feelings which God has put into them. The instinct of chivalry; horror of cruelty and injustice; pity for the weak and ill-used; the longing to set right whatever is wrong; and, what is even more important, the Spirit of godly fear, of wholesome terror of God's wrath, which makes us say, when we hear of any great and general sin among us, 'If we do not do our best to set this right, then God, who does not make men like creeping things, will take the matter into His own hands, and punish us easy, luxurious people, for allowing such things to be done.'
And when a man loses that spirit of chivalry, he loses his own soul. For that spirit of chivalry, let worldlings say what they will, is the very spirit of our spirit, the salt which keeps our characters from utter decay -- the very instinct which raises us above the selfishness of the brute. Yea, it is the Spirit of God Himself. For what is the feeling of horror at wrong, of pity for the wronged, of burning desire to set wrong right, save the Spirit of the Father and the Son, the Spirit which brought down the Lord Jesus out of the highest heaven, to stoop, to serve, to suffer and to die, that He might seek and save that which was lost?
Some say that the age of chivalry is past: that the spirit of romance is dead. The age of chivalry is never past, as long as there is a wrong left unredressed on earth, and a man or woman left to say, 'I will redress that wrong, or spend my life in the attempt.'
The age of chivalry is never past, as long as men have faith enough in God to say, 'God will help me to redress that wrong; or if not me, surely he will help those that come after me. For His eternal will is, to overcome evil with good.'
The spirit of romance will never die, as long as there is a man left to see that the world might and can be better, happier, wiser, fairer in all things, than it is now. The spirit of romance will never die, as long as a man has faith in God to believe that the world will actually be better and fairer than it is now; as long as men have faith, however weak, to believe in the romance of all romances; in the wonder of all wonders; in that, of which all poets' dreams have been but childish hints, and dumb forefeelings -- even
'That one far-off divine event
that wonder of which prophets and apostles have told, each according to his light; that wonder which Habakkuk saw afar off, and foretold how that the earth should be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea; that wonder which Isaiah saw afar off, and sang how the Lord should judge among the nations, and rebuke among many people; and they should beat their swords into plough- shares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation should not rise against nation, neither should they learn war any more; that wonder of which St Paul prophesied, and said that Christ should reign till He had put all His enemies under His feet; that wonder of which St. John prophesied; and said, 'I saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven. And the nations of them that are saved shall walk in the light of it, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and their honour unto it;' that wonder, finally, which our Lord Himself bade us pray for, as for our daily bread, and say, 'Father, thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
'Thy will be done on earth.' He who bade us ask that boon for generations yet unborn, was very God of very God. Do you think that He would have bidden us ask a blessing, which He knew would never come?