Thus said the LORD, Stand you in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein…
Men are surrounded from their earliest years with various religious systems, the claims of which conflict. To a conscientious mind, intellectual disquietude is the first result of this; in those less in earnest it produces and justifies indifference. All religious tend, under these circumstances, to assume the aspect of speculative questions, and the moral life is increasingly detached from religious sanctions. Morality must thereby be impaired, if it do not ultimately disappear. The prophet, therefore, recalls the people to the consideration of religion as a practical question. It is with him a question not of pure theory, but of conduct and experience. He urges the settlement of the conflict upon these grounds, and furnishes certain criteria by which to determine it.
I. ANTIQUITY IS A TEST OF TRUE RELIGION. Man is a religions being by nature, and God has never left himself without a witness in the world. There has been no generation in which some have not sought and found him. From the very first, therefore, there must have been religions conditions observed, which from their nature must be, as they were intended to be, permanent. The argument for the existence of God, for instance, is greatly strengthened by the evidence of the recognition of him by primitive and ancient peoples. Even in their errors and mistakes, when their views and observances are collated and compared, witness is given to fundamental truths. But the argument is stronger still when the people appealed to are those who, like Israel, have an historical faith. Ages of faith were behind them, illustrated by mighty heroes and saintly men of God, For ages a certain communion had been observed between the nation and its theocratic Head. What was the secular character of those' ages? Were they marked by political strength, social order and purity, and commercial prosperity? Were the leaders of the people men whose ideal of life and actual behavior commended themselves to the general conscience of the world? Was it to be supposed that any essential truth for the spiritual guidance of men had to be discovered thus late in the day? Were men to be always on tiptoe to learn what the last finding of research might be? There were paths that had been tried by holy men. When the nation was at its best, it acknowledged God in these ways. The vast majority of those who were holiest and best had tried them and found them satisfactory.
II. BUT DISCRIMINATION IS REQUIRED, The children of Israel were to "stand in the ways," i.e. to examine the different systems of religion and morals that laid claim to their attention. Critical and historical judgment had to be exercised. It is not simply the oldest religion that is to be retained and followed, but that in the religious history of the past which has most evidently conduced to noble action, spiritual health, and well-being. The' heathenisms of the world are self-condemned; immorality has ever tended to destruction. The Englishman, therefore, is not to look to the Druids for infallible teaching; nor Christians to the saints of the Old Testament times. The dictum of Ignatius is sound: Nobis vera antiquitas est Jesus Christus. But the teaching and personality of Jesus were commended by their essential agreement with Mosaicism in its most ancient form; as that in turn was but a confirmation and elaboration of patriarchal convictions, experiences, and revelations. The truth that has been held in all ages is retained in each new development of revelation and history, but it is spiritualized and grounded upon deeper and wider sanctions.
III. THE NATURAL HUMAN DESIRE FOR MERE NOVELTY HAS TO BE OVERCOME. True religion is not to be despised because it is old. The truth, when carefully studied and spiritually realized, is ever new and fresh. And the "new truths" to which advancing time introduces us are justified only as we can organically and spiritually evolve them from their archaic predecessors. Obligations which are merely relative will change or disappear with the relations upon which they are founded, but the cardinal truths of heart and life must ever retain their authority, and new experience will but tend to deepen and strengthen their hold upon the religious nature. If, on the other hand, the teachings of experience and the warnings of prophets are despised, new heinousness will be added to the wickedness of the wicked. It will be willful disobedience, and as such will be more severely punished.
IV. OBEDIENCE TO THESE DOCTRINES OF EXPERIENCE WILL CONFIRM AND SATISFY THE SOUL. If, in spite of these corroborations, the doctrines were productive of misery and spiritual unrest, then they would go for nothing. But this is the final and absolute criterion - Do they tend to the welfare and increase of spiritual life, and to the satisfaction of the deepest longings of the soul? - M.
Parallel VersesKJV: Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.