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Jeremiah by William Smith

1. God.

Among the surprises which Jeremiah's own Oracles have for the student is the discovery of how little they dwell upon the transcendent and infinite aspects of the Divine Nature. On these Jeremiah adds almost nothing to what his predecessors or contemporaries revealed. Return to his original visions and contrast them with those, for example, of Isaiah and Ezekiel.

Isaiah's vision was of the Lord upon a Throne, high and lifted up, surrounded by Seraphim crying to one another, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts! the whole earth is full of His Glory! And their voices rocked the Temple and filled it with smoke. Here are a Presence, Awful Majesty, Infinite Holiness and Glory, blinding the seer and crushing his heart contrite. Or take the inaugural vision of Ezekiel -- the storm-wind out of the North, the vast cloud, the fire infolding itself, the brightness round about and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber; the rush and whirl of life that followed, wheels and wings and rings full of eyes; and over this the likeness of a firmament of the colour of the terrible ice and the sound of wings like the noise of many waters, as the Voice of the Almighty and above the firmament a Throne and on the Throne the Appearance of a Man, the Appearance of the likeness of the Glory of the Lord. And I, when I saw it, fell upon my face.

In the inaugural visions of Jeremiah there is none of this Awfulness -- only What art thou seeing Jeremiah? the branch of an almond tree ... a caldron boiling. That was characteristic of his encounters and intercourse with the Deity throughout. They were constant and close, but in them all we are aware only of a Voice and an Argument. There is no Throne, no Appearance, no Majesty, no overwhelming sense of Holiness and Glory, no rush of wings nor floods of colour or of song.(748) Jeremiah takes for granted what other prophets have said of God. But the Deity whose Power and Glory they revealed is his Familiar. The Lord talks with Jeremiah as a man with his fellow.

For this there were several reasons, and first the particular quality of the Prophet's imagination. His native powers of vision were not such as soar, or at any rate easily soar, to the sublime. He was a lyric poet and his revelations of God are subjective and given to us by glimpses in scattered verses, which, however intimate and exquisite, have not the adoring wonder of his prophetic peers.

Again there were the startled recoil of his nature from the terrible office of a prophet in such times, and those born gifts of questioning and searching which fitted him for his allotted duty as Tester of his people,(749) but which he also turned upon the Providence and Judgments of the Lord Himself.(750) His religious experience, as we have seen, was largely a struggle with the Divine Will, and it left him not adoring but amazed and perplexed. Such wrestling man's spirit has to encounter like Jacob of old in the dark, and if like the Patriarch it craves the Name, which is the Nature, of That with which it struggles, all the answer it may get is another question, Wherefore askest thou after My Name? Morning may break, as it broke on Jacob by Jabbok with the assurance of blessing or as on Jeremiah with a firmer impression of the Will not his own; but no strength is left to glory in the Nature behind the Will. There is a horrified breathlessness about his lines --

Thou wast stronger than I and hast conquered,
The Lord is with me as a Mighty and Terrible.(751)

From his struggles he indeed issues more sure of God and finally more trustful in Him, as is testified by his fair song on the beauty and fruitfulness of faith, beginning

Blessed the wight that trusts in the Lord,
And the Lord is his trust.(752)

But even here is none of the awe and high wonder which fall upon Israel through other prophets. Lyrist as he is and subjective, Jeremiah dwells not so much upon the attributes of God on which faith rests as upon the effects of faith in man.

Again by the desperate character of the times he was starved of hope, the hope by which the Apostle says we are saved, which not only braces the will but clears the inner eyes of men and liberates the imagination. As the years went on he was ever more closely bound to the prediction of his people's ruin, and, when this came, to the sober counsel to accept their fate and settle down to a long exile in patience for the Lord's time of deliverance. As we have seen, his intervals of release from so grim a ministry were brief, and his Oracles of a bright future but few. Even in these he does not rise, like the Evangelist of the Exile whom he inspired, to exultation in the Almighty Power of God or to visions of vast spaces of the Divine Providence, or of Israel's service wide as the world. His happy peasant-heart is content to foresee his restored people tending their vineyards again, enjoying their village dances and festivals, and sharing with their long divided tribes the common national worship upon Sion.(753)

Like those of all the prophets Jeremiah's most immediate convictions of God are that He has done, and is always doing or about to do, things.(754) From the first Yahweh of Israel had been to the faith of his people a God of Deeds. He delivered them from Egypt, led them through the desert, ever ready to avenge them on any who molested them, and He had brought them to a land of delight.(755) By his creative and guiding Word, always clear and potential,(756) He had planted them and built them up to be a nation. These were the proofs of Him -- ever operative, effective and victorious both over their foes and over every natural obstacle which their life encountered. And being the Living God He still works and is ready to work, would His people only seek where!(757) He is awake, watching over His Word to perform it and controlling the nations.(758) It is He who has made the earth and gives it to whom He will,(759) who prepares the destroyers of His people, who calls for the kingdoms of the North, even for the far Scythians beyond the edge of the world, to execute His purposes.(760) He brings the King of Babylon against Jerusalem, and recalls the Chaldeans to their interrupted siege of the city, gives it into their hands and Himself banishes its people.(761) He moulds the nations for his own ends, and if they fail Him, decrees their destruction.(762) His Word builds and plants but also pulls up and tears down.(763) He is always near to guide or to argue with nations and individuals, and to give directions and suggestions of practical detail to His servants for the interpretation and fulfilment of His purposes.(764)

It was all this activity and effectiveness, with their sure results in history, which distinguished Him from other gods, the gods of the nations, who were ineffective, or as Jeremiah puts it unprofitable -- no-gods, nothings and do-nothings, the work of men's hands, lies or frauds, and mere bubbles.(765) On this line Jeremiah's monotheism marks a notable advance; for alongside of faith in the Divine Unity and Sovereignty there had lingered even in Deuteronomy a belief in the existence of other gods.(766) With Jeremiah every vestige of this superstition is gone, and other gods consigned to limbo once and for all.

Yet Jeremiah's monotheism, like that of all the Hebrew prophets, is even more due to convictions of the character of the God of Israel. We have seen how he dwells on the Divine Love, faithful and yearning for love in return, pleading and patient even with its delinquent sons and daughters;(767) but equal to this is his emphasis on the righteousness of the Most High, by all His deeds working troth, justice, and judgment on the earth, which are His delight and the knowledge of which is man's only glory.(768) He demands from His people not sacrifices, which He never commanded to their fathers, nor vows but a better life, justice between man and man, and care for the weak and the innocent.(769) To know Him is to do justice and right.(770) Because the present generation have fallen away from these, and practise and love falsehood, slander, impurity, treacherous and greedy violence, therefore God, being justice and truth, must judge and condemn them: What else can I do?(771) The ethical necessity of the doom of the people is clear to the Prophet from a very early stage of his ministry,(772) and throughout, though his heart struggles against it. But, if possible, even more abhorrent to God than these sins against domestic and civic piety in themselves, is the fact that they are committed in the very face of His Love and despite all its pleading. With Jeremiah as with Hosea the sin against love is the most hopeless and unpardonable, and this people have sinned it to the utmost.

As a woman is false to her fere,
Have ye been false to me.(773)

Hence most deeply springs the Wrath of the Lord, a Wrath on which Jeremiah broods and explodes more frequently and fiercely than any other prophet: I am full of the rage of the Lord; the glow of His wrath; take the cup of the wine of this fury at My hand and give all nations to whom I send thee to drink of it; the fierce anger of the Lord shall not turn until He have executed it.(774) And He does execute it. God's Wrath breaks out in His spurning of His nation, in the hot names He calls it, adulteress and harlot, and in hating it.(775) He will not relent nor pardon it, nor listen to prayer for it.(776) He says, I must myself take vengeance upon them. I shall not spare nor pity them.(777) They will reel in the day of their visitation. He will feed them with wormwood and drug them with poison; He will suddenly let fall on them anguish and terrors; He will take His fan and winnow them out in the gates of the land and as the passing chaff strew them on the wind of the desert; the garden-land withers to wilderness and its cities break down at His presence and before His fierce anger; He will make Jerusalem heaps and cast out the people before His face. He will give them to be tossed among the nations for a consternation, a reproach and a proverb, for a taunt and a curse, in all places whither He drives them: and will send after them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence till they be consumed.(778)

The modern mind deems arbitrary such immediate linking of physical and political disasters with the Wrath of God against sin. But we have to ponder the following. The Prophet was convinced of the ethical necessity of that Wrath and of its judgments on Judah -- he was convinced before they came to pass and he predicted them accurately, from close observation of the political conditions of his world and the character of his people. Granted these and God's essential and operative justice, the connection was natural: What else can I do? It was clear that Judah both deserved and needed punishment and equally clear that the boiling North held the potentialities of this, which were gradually shaping and irresistibly approaching. Moreover, as Jeremiah insists, and as the history both of nations and individuals has frequently illustrated, there is a natural sequence of disaster upon wrong-doing. Be thy scourge thine own sin! Thy ways and thy deeds have done to thee these things. Is it Me they provoke, saith the Lord, Is it not themselves to the confusion of their faces? Wherefore have these things come upon thee? -- for the mass of thy wickedness.(779) As St. Paul says the wages of sin, not the judge's penalty on sin but the thing it naturally earns, is death. Now one of Jeremiah's most acute and convincing experiences as the Tester of his people,(780) is his observation of how all this worked out upon his own generation. Not only were the war, the pestilence, and the captivity, which were about to fall upon Jerusalem, directly and obviously due to the perjury and stupid pride of her rulers; but, as he more subtly saw, the immorality of the whole people had been disabling them, for years before, from meeting these or any disasters except as sheer punishment without place for repentance. Their previous troubles had failed to sober or humble them or rouse them. They would not accept correction, he says of them more than once.(781) To the Prophet's warnings that God will judge them, they answer carelessly or defiantly Not He! Instead of yielding to the power which lies in all adversity to cleanse the heart and brace the will they became incapable of shame, indifferent to consequences, and so past praying for.(782) And in this they were fortified by the specious dreams and lies of their false prophets, continued to sin, and so fell to their doom, abashed at last but unassoilable.(783) If at any time they were startled by disaster, this found them too enfeebled even for repentance by their habitual insincerity or self-indulgence; which made them incapable of truth even under pain, and of a real conversion to God.(784) All this is discovered to us by the eyes and the mouth of Jeremiah. What in it is arbitrary? The record is awful, nothing like it in literature. Yet every step is real. We follow a master of observation.

But perhaps the chief glory of our Prophet is that while thus delivering, as no other prophet so fully or so ethically does, the just wrath of God upon sin, he reveals at the same time that His people's sin costs God more pain than anger. This no doubt Jeremiah learned through his own heart. As we have seen, with his whole heart he loved the people whom he was called to test and expose, and that heart was wracked and torn by thoughts of the Doom which he had to pronounce upon them. So also, he was given to feel, was the heart of their God. In the following questions there is poignant surprise; an insulted, a wounded love beats through them.

What wrong found your fathers in Me,
That so far they broke from Me?
Have I been a desert to Israel,
Or land of thick darkness?
Why say my folk, |We are off,
No more to meet Thee!|
Can a maiden forget her adorning
Or her girdle the bride?
Yet Me have My people forgotten
Days without number.(785)

So, too, when the deserved doom threatens, and in hate He has cast off His heritage, His love still wonders how that can be --

Is My heritage to Me a speckled wild-bird
With the wild-birds round and against her?
Is Israel a slave,
Or house-born serf?
Why he for a prey?(786)

All the desolation of Judah is on Him alone: no man lays it to heart, upon Me is the waste.(787) And what we have seen to be the most human touch of all, the surprise of an outraged father at feeling, beneath His wrath against a prodigal son, the instincts of the ancient love which no wrath can quench,

Is Ephraim My dearest son,
The child of delights?
That as oft as against him I speak
I must think of him still!(788)

That these instincts are so scattered rather increases their cumulative effect.

Thus whether upon the Wrath or upon the Love of God Jeremiah speaks home to the heart of his own, and of our own and of every generation which loves lies and lets itself be lulled by them. Sin, he says, is no fiction nor a thing to be lightly taken.(789) Time for repentance is short; doom comes quickly. Habits of evil are not carelessly parted with, but have their long and necessary consequences moral and physical. No wash of words nor worship nor sacrament can cleanse the heart or redeem from guilt. It is not the flagrant sinner whom he chiefly warns, but those who harden themselves softly. And -- very firmly this -- forgiveness is not easily granted by God nor cheaply gained by men; God has not only set our sins before His face but carries them on His heart. And therefore, in view both of the Just Wrath of the Most High and of His suffering Love, only repentance can avail, the repentance which is not the facile mood offered by many in atonement for their sins, but arduous, rigorous and deeply sincere in its anguish. All of which carries our prophet, six centuries before Christ came, very far into the fellowship of His sufferings.

I have already spoken sufficiently of Jeremiah's other original contributions to theology, on the Freedom and the Patience of the Providence of God, and his hope that God would be to Israel what the prophet had bravely tried to be -- no transient guest but a dweller in their midst.(790) The titles for God which we may assume to have first come from himself are few, perhaps only three: The Fountain of Living Waters, the Hope of Israel and the Saviour thereof in time of trouble, and Hasidh, or Loyal-in-Love,(791) a term elsewhere applied only to men. Sometimes, but not nearly so often as the copyists of our Hebrew text have made him do, he uses the title Yahweh of Hosts, doubtless in the other prophets' sense of the forces of history and of the Universe (the original meaning having been the armies of Israel), sometimes he borrows the deuteronomic Yahweh thy God, or a similar form. But most often (as the Greek faithfully shows us) it is simply the personal name Yahweh (Jehovah) by which he addresses or describes the Deity: significant of the long struggle between them as individuals.

Passing now from the world of nations to the world of nature we observe how little the genuine Oracles of Jeremiah have to tell us of the Divine Power over this; yet the little is proclaimed with as firm assurance as of God's control of the history of mankind. Both worlds are His: the happenings in the one are the sacraments, the signs and seals, of His purposes and tempers towards the other: the winter blossom of the almond, of His wakefulness in a world where all seems asleep; the sun by day and the moon and stars by night, of His everlasting faithfulness to His own.(792) All things in nature obey His rule though His own people do not; it is He who rules the stormy sea and can alone bring rain.

Even the stork in the heavens
Knoweth her seasons,
And dove, swift and swallow
Keep time of their coming.
But My people -- they know not
The Rule of the Lord.

I have set the sand as a bound for the sea,
An eternal decree that cannot be crossed.
Are there makers of rain 'mong the bubbles of the heathen? Art Thou not He? ... all these Thou hast made.(793)

After all neither Nature nor the courses of the Nations but the single human heart is the field which Jeremiah most originally explores for visions of the Divine Working and from which he has brought his most distinctive contributions to our knowledge of God. But that leads us up to the second part of this lecture, his teaching about man. Before beginning that, however, we must include under his teaching about God, two elements of this to which his insight into the human heart directly led him.

First this great utterance of the Divine Omnipresence:

I am a God who is near,
Not a God who is far.
Can any man hide him in secret,
And I not see him?
Do I not fill heaven and earth? --
Rede of the Lord.(794)

These verses have been claimed as the earliest expression in Israel of the Divine Omnipresence.(795) Amos, however, had given utterance to the same truth though on a different plane of life.(796)

Second, and partly in logical sequence from the preceding, but also stimulated by thoughts of the best of Judah(797) banished to a long exile, Jeremiah was the first in Israel to assure his people that the sense of God's presence, faith in His Providence, His Grace, and Prayer to Him were now free both of Temple and Land -- as possible on distant and alien soil, without Ark or Altar, as they had been with these in Jerusalem. See his Letter to the Exiles, and recall all that lay behind it in his predictions of the ruin of the Temple, and abolition of the Ark, and in his rejection of sacrifices.(798) To Deuteronomy exile was the people's punishment; to Jeremiah it is a fresh opportunity of grace.

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