Therefore I said, Surely these are poor; they are foolish: for they know not the way of the LORD, nor the judgment of their God.
Jeremiah recognizes and refers to these disadvantages as a well-known fact, and he tells, how he expected to find in them an explanation of the deplorable wickedness with which Jerusalem was filled. Therefore I said, Surely these are poor," etc. We note -
I. THAT THESE ARE THE REAL EVILS OF THE LOT OF THE POOR. At once all manner of other distresses which attend poverty arise to our minds, and therefore we would observe:
1. That we do not deny that their physical and social disadvantages are also evils. To be ill fed, ill housed, ill clothed, as so many of the poor are, - who can make light of a lot like theirs? Therefore:
2. Still less do we deny our duty to relieve their physical evils to the utmost of our power.
3. But we do deny that these are their chief evils. For:
(1) Many of these are more than counterbalanced by what is so commonly found amongst the rich. Dr. Channing says, "When I compare together different classes as existing at this moment in the civilized world, I cannot think the difference between the rich and the poor in regard to mere physical suffering so great as is sometimes imagined. That some of the indigent among us die of scanty food is undoubtedly true, but vastly more in this community die from eating too much than from eating too little, vastly more from excess than starvation. So as to clothing: many shiver from want of defenses against the cold; but there is vastly more suffering among the rich from absurd and criminal modes of dress, which fashion has sanctioned, than among the poor from deficiency of raiment. Our daughters are oftener brought to their grave by their rich attire than our beggars by their nakedness. So the poor are often overworked; but they suffer less than many among the rich, who have no work to do, no interesting object to fill up life, to satisfy the infinite cravings of man for action. According to our present modes of education, how many of our daughters are victims of ennui - a misery unknown to the poor, and more intolerable than the weariness of excessive toil! The idle young man, spending the day in exhibiting his person in the street, ought not to excite the envy of the overtasked poor; and this cumberer of the ground is found exclusively among the rich."
(2) And their intellectual disadvantages are nearly as great an evil as those that belong to their outward lot. "Knowledge is power," but to be without knowledge is to lack the power to lighten, to elevate, to refine, to cheer, and in ways manifold to ameliorate our lot in life. Therefore to lack knowledge and education deserves to be looked upon with even more compassion than the lack of physical comforts. But still, the chief evil of poverty is its moral disadvantage. Now -
II. THESE MORAL DISADVANTAGES OF THE POOR ARE SUCH AS ARISE FROM:
1. The difficulty of maintaining self-respect. All the world seems agreed to regard the poor as the "lower orders," and to confine the term "respectable" to those who have enough and to spare. And when poverty necessitates the receiving, and yet more the asking, of charity, how hard it is then to maintain that erect moral bearing, that spirit of independence, which is so essential to the formation of all true, worthy moral character 1
2. The almost impossibility of mental culture. How can the man who has to continue at prolonged and laborious bodily toil from morn to night, day after day all his life long, and only then can earn scarce sufficient to provide for his actual bodily necessities, be expected to be other than rough, rude, illiterate, and contented to be so? What mockery it seems to talk of mental cultivation to a man like that! But shut off from such cultivation, how utterly is the door closed upon him which leads to so much that would cheer and brighten his whole life, and would lift him up in the scale of moral being!
3. The risk to all moral delicacy and refinement which their crowded and wretched habitations involve. If men are obliged to herd like cattle, only less comfortably than they, how can "a man be better than a sheep" in such case?
4. The temptation to envy and sullen discontent at their beholding what seems to them the so much brighter tot of the well-to-do. The patience of the poor beneath the awful injustices and hardships which arise from the unequal distribution of wealth is a marvel. Especially, too, when they have daily to endure the supercilious and half-scornful treatment which the possession of wealth almost invariably begets towards those who have it not.
5. The hard struggle which faith in God and his goodness cannot but have amid the hardships of poverty. It is true that men would be far happier if they were better men, but it is also true that vast numbers of men would be better if they were only happier. When our children are happy they are good; it is unhappiness makes them cross and wrong. There is no more heartbreaking fact to a thoughtful and compassionate mind than this, that the-blessing of faith in God and the love of God, which the poor most of all need, is for them the hardest of all to win and keep.
6. The dread temptation to sensual indulgence which the hardships of their lot expose them to. Can we wonder that these men rush to the gin-shop, the tavern, and there in strong drink forget for a while the miseries of their common life? It is a piteous fact that it is the most wretched of the poor who- drink most desperately. (Let the reader turn to Dr. Channing's sermon on 'Ministry for the Poor,' to see many of these points worked out.) Such are the real evils of the lot of the poor, beside which their outward hardships are small in comparison.
III. FROM ALL THIS WE LEARN WHY WE SHOULD COMPASSIONATE THEIR LOT, AND WHAT IN IT WE SHOULD CHIEFLY ENDEAVOR TO RELIEVE. When their moral disadvantages move our compassion, as they should and as they did our Lord's, we shall strive most of all to counteract and remove them. How shall we do this? We reply, After the manner of our Lord. Chiefly by ministering to their souls. He went about everywhere preaching and teaching. The very greatest kindness that can be done to a poor man is to bring him to Christ, to get him by God's grace thoroughly converted. That will lift him up and bless him every way. It will not despise secondary means. Our Lord fed the poor, healed them, ministered to their temporal relief frequently. But he did not do this indiscriminately. They were by no means his chief works. That chief work was a ministry to their souls. And so those who copy his example will not despise secondary means - charity, wise sanitary laws, education. But all these will be put in the second place, not in point of time and attention, but in esteem and worth. They will be counted only as aids to what is far better than themselves. It may be that the Church has not availed herself of these aids as she should, but has left them to the care of the State more than she should. Still, it is ever those who are most intent on the moral well-being of the poor who are found to the front in all schemes for their physical and social well-being. So that the excellence of our Lord's method is that, whilst it aims at the highest good, it more than any other seeks to promote and indeed secures as a help to that highest, the lower and temporal good of those to whom it ministers. And it has a rich reward. "Blessed are ye poor," said our Lord, "rich in faith and heirs," etc. Not a few of the greatest saints, the martyrs, the heroes of the faith, have been drawn from the ranks of the poor. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ has come to them, and straightway they have been as it were transformed. They have risen up above the low levels of their old life - so mean, sordid, foul, godless oftentimes - and have come to be like the Lord himself. And today, how perpetually may we see amid the godly poor all the disadvantages of their lot which we have enumerated above, completely overcome! They reverence conscience; they envy not the rich; they cultivate and rejoice in the purest and tenderest home affections; though ignorant of most of human learning, they have the fear of God and the knowledge of his Word, and so are wise with a wisdom before which mere human wisdom dwindles into insignificance. They keep themselves from all vice, they love and trust God with a simplicity of utter trust and calm confidence, beautiful and blessed even to contemplate-how much more to possess! "Blessed are ye poor!" Thus, then, after the manner of our Lord, would we strive to meet and overcome the moral disadvantages of the poor. - C.
Parallel VersesKJV: Therefore I said, Surely these are poor; they are foolish: for they know not the way of the LORD, nor the judgment of their God.