How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street.…
In describing and deploring the sad condition of the favoured and once holy and famous city of Jerusalem, the prophet employs a familiar symbol. We all know what gold is, and only by precision of statement does the dictionary help us with its information that "Gold is a precious metal, remarkable on account of its unique and beautiful yellow colour, lustre, high specific gravity, and freedom from liability to rust or tarnish when exposed to the air." — Century Dictionary. Men have been talking and thinking about gold as they never have before in the history of our country, possibly as never before in the history of the world. And men are coming to understand and appreciate as perhaps never before the importance of this most valuable of the precious metals to the commercial interest of the world, the distribution of commodities, the remuneration of labour, the stability of institutions, the progress of civilisation, and the weal of humanity; aye, and to recognise and admire the Divine wisdom and goodness in providing this important agent, giving it just the qualities it has, supplying it in just such quantity, and making it just so acquirable, and just so difficult of acquisition, that there has ever been enough and never too much for the world's use, and its value has been more sure and stable than that of any other material thing that man uses. Gold is valuable for many uses. It is exceedingly serviceable in the arts, particularly the arts of adornment, not only from its beautiful, brilliant, and permanent colour, but also from its extreme malleability, ductility, elasticity, and tenacity. It is easily shaped by hammer, graving tool, mould, or die. It will receive the most delicate impression, and embody the effects of the most exquisite skill. It is the appropriate setting for the most costly gems, and the suitable material for crowns and sceptres and signets, and all the insignia of eminent and sacred office. It seems designed to express the splendour and glory of goodliest things. But its most important use is as a universal and unvarying medium of commercial exchange and standard of material values, representing and converting all the varied and countless products of human labour. All this is in a measure true of the other precious metal, silver, but in a less degree. Indeed, the old notion that gold was related to the sun, and silver to the moon corresponds well with their actual importance. It has not been left for us at this late day to discover the value and use of gold. These have been understood from the earliest ages. "I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich"; but allusions to gold are frequent in the earliest as well as the latest books. Gold has a prominent place in Biblical symbolism and metaphor. The ark of the covenant was overlaid with pure gold. The furnishings of the ark, the cherubim upon its cover, the altar of incense before it, the sacred candlestick, the high priest's breastplate in which the twelve jewels were set, and the plate in "his tiara bearing the inscription, Holiness unto the Lord," were all of gold. Everywhere it is the symbol of what is sacred, and of highest special excellence and value. As the prophet here uses the symbol he may have had in mind gold as money; or, if his thought were more general, that will serve to help us realise the imagery.
1. A gold coin fresh from the mint is an object of beauty as well as of value. It has, in the first place, an actual and intrinsic value, the same, or about the same, as its nominal value as money. Real, as distinguished from representative money, must have this quality, that its actual and intrinsic value is equal to its nominal or representative value, so that it can pass freely from hand to hand throughout the community in final discharge of debts and in full payment for commodities, and be accepted without a reference to the character or credit of the person who offers it. It is this that makes gold so preeminently adapted for use as money, that in it this element of value obtains without too great bulk, and with the stability which is necessary in the commercial interchanges of civilised peoples. That which is of comparatively low value, so that great bulk and weight are involved, or that is of fluctuating value, so that it cannot meet the requirement of stability, does not, and cannot, so well serve this important use. Besides its intrinsic value, gold coin has impressed upon it some design and legend, authoritatively attesting its value; this minting being now, among civilised nations, an exclusively governmental function. But, along with these characteristics, it has also great beauty. The metal, with its rich colour, is capable of beautiful effects; and the process of minting develops the capability, bringing out the rich and brilliant hue, and the image and superscription which it receives being impressed with artistic skill and the most perfect mechanical aids. Such the prophet's figure of Jerusalem in its better days. It was an embodiment of eminent civic excellence. It owned the sway, and bore the image and superscription of the King of kings. There the Temple stood in its stately splendour. There the worship of God was celebrated with devout and elaborate pomp. There the Law of God was recognised and honoured, and the ideal of the holy city, the city of God, the earthly dwelling place of the Most High, was sustained by a befitting government and order, and had effect in a peaceful and happy prosperity. Hence the admiring and rejoicing eulogies of Hebrew poets: "Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth is Mount Zion: the city of the great King." But we are in a world where even fine gold becomes dim. This is true literally. Notwithstanding its freedom from liability to rust or tarnish, and its resistance to the agents which produce these effects, even gold win lose its pristine lustre. An old gold coin does not have the sheen and splendour of a newly minted one. It becomes dulled and dimmed by circulation. Also, there is an abrasion as it passes to and fro in the uses of the world. Its edges become worn; the design and legend upon it grow indistinct; and its very quantity is reduced, so that in the course of about twenty years, on an average, gold coin needs to be reminted. And there are even yet more serious processes of deterioration conducted with fraudulent design in the various forms of counterfeiting and coin debasement. This is even yet more true of those embodiments of moral excellence of which gold is the symbol. It would seem that this ought not to be, but that moral goodness, excellence, and worth should be the most stable and persistent qualities in the world; that they would be stronger than the opposite qualities and the forces arrayed against them, and that they would resist and subdue them; and also that their good effects would be so apparent and approved that the world would be friendly and favourable to them, and that individuals and communities would cherish and foster them; and so that every virtuous attainment would be a happy and lasting gain. Thus we should expect that truthfulness would become ever more truthful, and more manifestly excellent and beautiful with the wear of use; and that the friction of the world would not dim its lustre, wear down its fine precision, and render its Divine impress less distinct, but give its sheen and splendour and intrinsic worth more superb and glorious effect. We should expect a corresponding history of honesty, fidelity, courage, honour, purity, patriotism, philanthropy, and generosity. This is what ought to be, as every moral intuition affirms. It is what might be, as every revelation and provision, precept and promise, guiding law and gracious succour, assures us. But it is not what actually and uniformly is. Virtue is militant, and maintains itself only by victorious warfare. There is the possibility of deterioration in every nature that is capable of virtue, and innumerable occasions, influences, and agents press to develop the possibility into actual fact. Of nothing perhaps did men ever feel more sure than Jewish patriots did of the stability of Jerusalem, both in its sacred and civil glory. Yet Jerusalem declined into an indescribable corruption and depravity, and the devastation and desolation resulting from Nebuchadnezzar's siege were but the sequel of its moral decadence. How many other institutions and societies have had a similar history! How to nations, churches, and other social federations and organisations there have been what are fitly named "Golden Ages!" And how these have been followed by ages of decline. And by what recastings and renovations the progress of humanity has been realised! This further is to be noted, and it is the great lesson of history, that material decadence has been the sequel of moral deterioration. History teems with illustrations of this truth. But we are more interested in applications and illustrations lying nearer to common life. One of the most beautiful and precious things our human life can know is friendship — I mean real friendship — the alliance for good, and fellowship in good, of congenial souls, and not mere modish or faddish attachments. What help and solace these companioned souls afford each other! What interest and worth they find in each other! In success the joy is insipid until the other shares it. In misfortune the pang is softened by the other's sympathy. And each life is unfolded and enriched by its interest in the other. How sad to see such gold become dim, such fine gold change! And yet how common the instance! So with other relations growing out of our social aptitudes and needs. And yet how poor, and base, even, in actual fact they become!
2. But the most impressive correspondence to this imagery is in the sphere of character and the processes of individual life. With what interest, admiration, and hope we contemplate the splendid possibilities and goodly promise of a fair opening life! Childhood has passed under favourable conditions and good influences, youth has unfolded under judicious nurture and with only the faults incident to youth, and manhood has been attained with no dark stain upon the character and no vitiating habit in the life. Grand equipment for life's work has been won by the processes of general and special education. "Here," we say, "is fine gold. This one will make his mark. This life will count for something, and be among the grander facts and forces in the life of the world." The hope, thank God, is often realised. Notwithstanding debasing influences grand lives are being lived. But it is not always so. In some instances the following years do not fulfil the promises of life's splendid opening. The character, subjected to the hard wear of the world, loses the lustre of its glorious prime. The high ideals, the noble and generous aims, the principled integrity, the delicacy of conscience, and the fine sense of honour, fade under the rough impact of coarser lives. Thus the gold that shone with such noble brilliancy becomes dim. So it is sometimes with a life that has come under the influence of religion, and connected itself with, and set itself to, the highest and best. Sometimes even such a life shows deterioration. The faith, the love, the zeal, the devotion which marked its opening, and made it bright with Divine lustre, decline. By some truancy to duty, some neglect of spiritual culture, or some looseness of living, the heaven-born soul loses the fine quality of its life, the Divine image and superscription upon it are defaced. When gold coin has ceased to be what it ought, by loss of weight, or defacement of its impression, it must be reminted. By that process what is deficient is made up, and what is defaced is restored. This is what deteriorated characters, deteriorated souls, deteriorated lives, need; and this is precisely what Christianity provides for. This is the distinctive feature of Christianity, that it is a converting, transforming, renewing religion. It restores in man the faded image and superscription of God, and it makes the debased nature worthy of the impress.
(J. W. Earnshaw.)
Parallel VersesKJV: How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street.