And to this people you shall say, Thus said the LORD; Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death.…
The surrender of a part to save the whole. This was the "way of life" the prophet put before the people. The way of death would be their refusal "If they would submit to the irresistible pressure of the Babylonian power, then whatever blessings were bound up in the preservation of the house of David and of the holy city would remain intact" (cf. Stanley, 'Lectures on the Jewish Church,' Lect. 11. vol. 2. p. 533). But to resist would not merely be useless, but mischievous in the extreme. It would rouse the rage of their conquerors and involve the destruction of all they held most precious. It would be "a way of death." At the final siege of Jerusalem the Christians retired, but the Zealots drew down upon themselves the rage of the armies of Vespasian and Titus, and so hurried on the ruin of the whole Jewish state. Stanley says of Jeremiah, "It was not indifference to his country, but attachment to its permanent interests, with the yet larger consequences wrapped up in them, which induced him to counsel submission. It was his sense of the inestimable importance of that sacred spot, with its sacred institutions, which caused him to advise every sacrifice for the sake of retaining it. He had the courage, so rare in political leaders, to surrender a part for the sake of preserving the whole-to embrace in his view the complete relations of the great scheme of the world, rather than fix his attention exclusively on the one pressing question of the moment. As there are times when the constitution must be broken to save the commonwealth, when the interests of particular nations or doctrines must give way to the preponderating claims of mankind or of truth at large, so Jeremiah staked the eternal value of the truths which Jerusalem represented against the temporary evils of the Chaldean dominion. It was a bitter pang, but the result seemed to him worth the cost,"
"To steel his melting heart,
To act the martyr's sternest part;
To watch with firm, unshrinking eye
His darling visions as they die;
Too happy if, that dreadful day,
His life be given him for a prey."
I. THIS DREAD NECESSITY IS ONE WHICH MAY BE SEEN CONTINUALLY PRESSING ON MEN. Illustrations are numerous: the throwing over the cargo in storm at sea; the abandonment of outposts to concentrate strength on the key of the position; the cutting off a limb to save the life; the giving up a less important branch of trade to safeguard one more so. And in the religious life we are perpetually summoned to such sacrifice. "Whoso loveth his life shall lose it, but he that loveth his life for my sake shall find it;" "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die," etc. All ventures of faith. And death - " for corruption cannot inherit incorruption," and therefore that the true life may be ours, the fleshly life must die. And our Lord represents the awful doom of the wicked to be a "cutting off of a diseased part," a κολλασις, that - so it should seem - entire destruction may not be needed. It is an awful process, but sternly necessary. God save us from it! And what is the submission of our will to God, the self-surrender for which he ever asks, but the prudent conduct of that king who feels that with his puny force of ten thousand he cannot meet the king who comes against him with twenty thousand, and therefore straightway sends an embassage desiring conditions of peace? But -
II. MEN SHRINK FROM IT. Those before whom Jeremiah placed this "way of life" shrank from it. They would not listen to him. They cruelly persecuted their farseeing and God-inspired prophet. And it is so still. In common life the proverbial saying, "Nothing venture, nothing have," implies that men are loath to venture. Many a craft hugs the shore, thinking to find safety there, and is driven on the rocks and wrecked, when by putting boldly out to sea the storm might have been safely weathered. The historian of the Crimean War finds fault, once and again, with our generals for their timid policy, which he maintains brought so great sufferings and losses on our army, whilst had a more daring strategy been adopted - as in our recent Egyptian campaign at Tel-el-Kebir - the war might have been speedily and gloriously ended. And in the religious life, how men shrink from this self-surrender! What frantic but futile efforts there are to serve God and mammon, notwithstanding our Savior has said, "There is no man that hath left house, or lands," etc. (Mark 10:29)! But men cannot be-persuaded to believe this. The young ruler who had great possessions (Matthew 19.) went away sorrowful, because he could not make the great venture. And the feeble religious life of so many, the absence of all joy in God's service, is owing to this same cause. Men are ever trying to find a via media between the "way of life" and "way of death." The husbandman does not refuse to cast into the earth all he has left of last year's corn, in the trust that it will yield him a bounteous harvest. But we are slow to believe in the wisdom of such sowing in spiritual things.
III. BUT THE REFUSAL TO SUBMIT IS FATAL. It was so in case of those to whom Jeremiah preached, and it has been so a thousand times since. A ship was sinking. A man leaped from her deck into the sea. He was a good swimmer, but he had fastened round him a belt containing gold, which he could not bring himself to abandon, and its weight sank him ere he could reach the beat for which he was making. Our Lord bade him who should be on the housetops when Jerusalem was besieged "not go down to fetch his clothes." Such carefulness might cost him his life. Our Lord tells of many of the Pharisees who believed on him, but were afraid to confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue. And perhaps there are few of the worldly and irreligious amongst us who have not sunk down to where they are now, and will sink down to lower depths still, through this same refusal to give up all for Christ. It may be humiliating and involve present loss, and therefore men let go the eternal gain. To refuse such sacrifice is the way of death. But -
IV. To CONSENT TO IT IS LIFE. Take our Lord as the supreme example, who, not for himself but for us, threw away that infinite glory, that equality with God, which, being in "the form of God," was ever his; but St. Paul tells us (Philippians 2:6) he counted it not a thing to be grasped at, a prize which he should cling to with eagerness and retain with tenacity, but "emptied himself of it, and made himself of no reputation." Thus for the time of his incarnation submitting himself to the cruel might of sin and Satan, he gained thereby that infinite exaltation, that salvation of mankind upon which his loving heart was set. "Let this mind," therefore, "be in us which was also in Christ Jesus." And whenever it is found, God rewards it. Self-sacrifice, the cross, is the way to supreme reward. The shepherds were told, at the Nativity, that there was born to them "a Savior, Christ the Lord." And when they came to Bethlehem they found a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. What correspondence was there between that saying of the angels and that sight of the infant Jesus? To the outward eye none, but to the eye instructed by God's Word and God's providence, there is every correspondence. For those outward signs of poverty and humiliation which were the characteristic of his life, have formed his title-deeds, his royal right, to the homage of every human heart. "Blessed are the meek," etc.; "He that humbleth himself shall," etc. It is ever so; and especially when we humble ourselves before God, giving up self and sin, giving up and losing, as the world would say, our very life, - then it is we find it, as God grant we may. - C.
Parallel VersesKJV: And unto this people thou shalt say, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I set before you the way of life, and the way of death.