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Title: Expositor's Bible: The Song of Solomon - and the Lamentations of Jeremiah
Author: Adeney, Walter F. (Walter Frederic), 1849-1920
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  _Editor of "The Expositor"_









  _Printed by Hazell, Watson, & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury._



  THE STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK                           3


  TRUE LOVE TESTED                                   15
    i.-v. i.


  LOVE UNQUENCHABLE                                  28
    v. i-viii.


  MYSTICAL INTERPRETATIONS                           41


  CANONICITY                                         53



  HEBREW ELEGIES                                     63


  THE ORIGIN OF THE POEMS                            75


  THE THEME                                          87


  DESOLATION                                         97
    i. 1-7.


  SIN AND SUFFERING                                 108
    i. 8-11.


  ZION'S APPEAL                                     120
    i. 12-22.


  GOD AS AN ENEMY                                   132
    ii. 1-9.


  THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN                           144
    ii. 10-17.


  PROPHETS WITHOUT A VISION                         156
    ii. 9, 14.


  THE CALL TO PRAYER                                168
    ii. 18-22.


    iii. 1-21.


  THE UNFAILING GOODNESS OF GOD                     194
    iii. 22-24.


  QUIET WAITING                                     206
    iii. 25-36.


  GOD AND EVIL                                      218
    iii. 37-39.


  THE RETURN                                        230
    iii. 40-42.


  GRIEVING BEFORE GOD                               242
    iii. 43-54.


  _DE PROFUNDIS_                                    253
     iii. 55-66.


  CONTRASTS                                         265
    iv. 1-12.


  LEPERS                                            277
    iv. 13-16.


  VAIN HOPES                                        288
    iv. 17-20.


  THE DEBT OF GUILT EXTINGUISHED                    300
    iv. 21, 22.


  AN APPEAL FOR GOD'S COMPASSION                    311
    v. 1-10.


  SIN AND SHAME                                     324
    v. 11-18.


  THE EVERLASTING THRONE                            335
    v. 19-22.




The Song of Solomon is a puzzle to the commentator. Quite apart from
the wilderness of mystical interpretations with which it has been
overgrown in the course of the ages,[1] its literary form and motive
are subjects of endless controversy. There are indications that it is
a continuous poem; and yet it is characterised by startling
kaleidoscopic changes that seem to break it up into incongruous
fragments. If it is a single work the various sections of it succeed
one another in the most abrupt manner, without any connecting links or
explanatory clauses.

  [1] To be considered later. See chap. iv.

The simplest way out of the difficulty presented by the many curious
turns and changes of the poem is to deny it any structural unity, and
treat it as a string of independent lyrics. That is to cut the knot in
a rather disappointing fashion. Nevertheless the suggestion to do so
met with some favour when it was put forth at the close of the last
century by Herder, a writer who seemed better able to enter into the
spirit of Hebrew poetry than any of his contemporaries. While
accepting the traditional view of the authorship of the book, this
critic described its contents as "Solomon's songs of love, the oldest
and sweetest of the East;" and Goethe in the world of letters, as
well as biblical students, endorsed his judgment. Subsequently it fell
into disfavour, and scholars who differed among themselves with
respect to their own theories, agreed in rejecting this particular
hypothesis. But quite recently it has reappeared in an altered form.
The book, it is now suggested, is just a chance collection of folk
songs from northern Palestine, an anthology of rustic love-poems.
These songs are denied any connection with Solomon or the court. The
references to royalty are accounted for by a custom said to be kept up
among the Syrian peasants in the present day, according to which the
week of wedding festivities is called "The king's week," because the
newly-married pair then play the part of king and queen, and are
playfully treated by their friends with the honours of a court. The
bridegroom is supposed to be named Solomon in acknowledgment of his
regal splendour--as an English villager might be so named for his
conspicuous wisdom; while perhaps the bride is called the Shulammite,
with an allusion to the famous beauty Abishag, the Shunammite of
David's time.[2]

  [2] 1 Kings i. 3.

Such a theory as this is only admissible on condition that the unity
of the poem has been disproved. But whether we can unravel it or not,
there is much that goes to show that one thread runs through the whole
book. The style is the same throughout, and it has no parallel in the
whole of Hebrew literature. Everywhere we meet with the same rich,
luxurious language, the same abundance of imagery, the same
picturesque habit of alluding to a number of plants and animals by
name, the same vivacity of movement, the same pleading tone, the same
suffused glow as of the light of morning. Then there are more peculiar
features that continually recur, such as the form of the dialogue,
certain recognisable characters, the part of chorus taken by the
daughters of Jerusalem, in particular the gentle, graceful portrait of
the Shulammite, the consistency of which is well preserved. But the
principal reason for believing in the unity of the work is to be found
in an examination of its plot. The difficulty of making this out has
encouraged the temptation to discredit its existence. But while there
are various ideas about the details, there is enough in common to all
the proposed schemes of the story to indicate the fact that the book
is one composition.

The question whether the work is a drama or an idyl has been discussed
with much critical acumen. But is it not rather pedantic? The sharply
divided orders of European poetry were not observed or even known in
Israel. It was natural, therefore, that Hebrew imaginative work should
partake of the characteristics of several orders, while too naïve to
trouble itself with the rules of any one. The drama designed for
acting was not cultivated by the ancient Jews. It was introduced as an
exotic only as late as the Roman period, when Herod built the first
theatre known to have existed in the Holy Land. Previous to his time
we have no mention of the art of play-acting among the Jews.
Nevertheless the dialogues in the Song of Solomon are certainly
dramatic in character; and we cannot call the poem an idyl when it is
rendered entirely in the form of speeches by different persons without
any connecting narrative. The Book of Job is also dramatic in form,
though, like Browning's dramatic poetry, not designed for acting; but
in that work each of the several speakers is introduced by a sentence
that indicates who he is, while in our poem no such indication is
given. Here we only get evidence of a change of speakers in the form
and contents of the utterances, and the transition from the masculine
to the feminine gender and from the singular number to the plural.
Even the chorus takes an active part in the movement of the dialogue,
instead of simply commenting on the proceedings of the principal
characters as in a Greek play. We seem to want a key to the story, and
the absence of anything of the kind is the occasion of the bewildering
variety of conjectures that confronts the reader. But the difficulty
thus occasioned is no reason for denying that there is any continuity
in the book, especially in view of numerous signs of unity that cannot
be evaded.

Among those who accept the dramatic integrity of the poem there are
two distinct lines of interpretation, each of them admitting some
differences in the treatment of detail. According to one scheme
Solomon is the only lover; according to the other, while the king is
seeking to win the affections of the country maiden, he has been
forestalled by a shepherd, fidelity to whom is shewn by the Shulammite
in spite of the fascinations of the court.

There is no denying the rural simplicity of much of the scenery;
evidently this is designed to be in contrast to the sensuous luxury
and splendour of the court. Those who take Solomon to be the one lover
throughout, not only admit this fact; they bring it into their version
of the story so as to heighten the effect. The king is out
holiday-making, perhaps on a hunting expedition, when he first meets
the country maiden. In her childlike simplicity she takes him for a
rustic swain; or perhaps, though she knows who he is, she sportively
addresses him as she would address one of her village companions.
Subsequently she shews no liking for the pomp of royalty. She cannot
make herself at home with the women of the harem. She longs to be back
in her mother's cottage among the woods and fields where she spent her
child days. But she loves the king and he dotes on her. So she would
take him with her away from the follies and temptations of the court
down to her quiet country retreat. Under the influence of the
Shulammite Solomon is induced to give up his unworthy habits and live
a healthier, purer life. Her love is strong enough to retain the king
wholly to herself. Thus the poem is said to describe a reformation in
the character of Solomon. In particular it is thought to celebrate the
triumph of true love over the degradation of polygamy.

It is impossible to find any time in the life of David's successor
when this great conversion might have taken place; and the occurrence
itself is highly improbable. Those however are not fatal objections to
the proposed scheme, because the poem may be entirely ideal; it may
even be written _at_ the king. Historical considerations need not
trouble us in dealing with an imaginative work such as this. It must
be judged entirely on internal grounds. But when it is so judged it
refuses to come into line with the interpretation suggested. Regarding
the matter only from a literary point of view, we must confess that it
is most improbable that Solomon would be introduced as a simple
peasant without any hint of the reason of his appearing in this novel
guise. Then we may detect a difference between the manner in which the
king addresses the Shulammite and that in which, on the second
hypothesis, the shepherd speaks to her. Solomon's compliments are
frigid and stilted; they describe the object of his admiration in the
most extravagant terms, but they exhibit no trace of feeling. The
heart of the voluptuary is withered, the fires of passion have burnt
themselves out and only the cold ashes remain, the sacred word "love"
has been so long desecrated that it has ceased to convey any meaning.
On the other hand, frequent practice has outstripped the clumsy wooing
of inexperienced lovers and developed the art of courtship to a high
degree. The royal bird-catcher knows how to lay his lines, though
fortunately for once even his consummate skill fails. How different is
the bearing of the true lover, a village lad who has won the maiden's
heart! He has no need to resort to the vocabulary of flattery, because
his own heart speaks. The English translations give an unwarrantable
appearance of warmth to the king's language where he is represented as
calling the Shulammite "My love."[3] The word in the Hebrew means no
more than _my friend_. When Solomon first appears he addresses the
Shulammite with this title, and then immediately tries to tempt her by
promising her presents of jewelry. Take another instance. In the
beginning of the fourth chapter Solomon enters on an elaborate series
of compliments describing the beauty of the Shulammite, without a
single word of affection. As she persists in withstanding his advances
her persecutor becomes abashed. He shrinks from her pure, cold gaze,
calls her terrible as an army with banners, prays her to turn away her
eyes from him. On the theory that Solomon is the accepted lover, the
beloved bridegroom, this position is quite unintelligible. Now turn
to the language of the true lover: "Thou hast ravished my heart, my
sister, my bride; thou hast ravished my heart with one look of thine

  [3] i. 9.

  [4] iv. 9.

A corresponding difference is to be detected in the bearing of the
maiden towards the rivals. Towards the king she is cool and repellent;
but no dream of poetry can equal the tenderness and sweetness of her
musing on her absent lover or the warmth of love with which she speaks
to him. These distinctions will be more apparent in detail as we
proceed with the story of the poem. It may be noticed here, that this
story is not at all consistent with the theory that Solomon is the
only lover. According to that hypothesis we have the highly improbable
situation of a separation of the newly married couple on their wedding
day. Besides, as the climax is supposed to be reached at the middle of
the book, there is no apparent motive for the second half. The modern
novel, which has its wedding at the middle of its plot, or even at the
very beginning, and then sets itself to develop the comedy or perhaps
the tragedy of married life, is not at all parallel to this old love
story. Time must be allowed for the development of matrimonial
complications; but here the scenes are all in close connection.

If we are thus led to accept what has been called "the shepherd
hypothesis" the value of the book will be considerably enhanced. This
is more than a mere love poem; it is not to be classed with erotics,
although a careless reading of some of its passages might incline us
to place it in the same category with a purely sensuous style of
poetry. We have here something more than Sappho's fire. If we are
tempted to compare it with Herrick's _Hesperides_ or Shakespeare's
_Sonnets_, we must recognise an element that lifts it above the sighs
of love-sick youths and maidens. Even on the "Solomon theory" pure
love and simple living are exalted in opposition to the luxury and
vices of the royal seraglio. A poem that sets forth the beauty of a
simple country life as the scene of the true love of husband and wife
in contrast to the degradation of a corrupt court is distinctly
elevating in tone and influence, and the more so for the fact that it
is not didactic in form. It is not only in kings' palaces and amid
scenes of oriental voluptuousness that the influence of such ideas as
are here presented is needed. Christian civilisation has not
progressed beyond the condition in which the consideration of them may
be resorted to as a wholesome corrective. But if we are to agree to
the "shepherd hypothesis" as on the whole the more probable, another
idea of highest importance emerges. It is not love, now, but fidelity,
that claims our attention. The simple girl, protected only by her
virtue, who is proof against all the fascinations of the most splendid
court, and who prefers to be the wife of the poor man whom she loves,
and to whom she has plighted troth, to accepting a queen's crown at
the cost of deserting her humble lover, is the type and example of a
loyalty which is the more admirable because it appears where we should
little expect to find it. It has been said that such a story as is
here depicted would be impossible in real life; that a girl once
enticed into the harem of an oriental despot would never have a chance
of escape. The eunuchs who guarded the doors would lose their heads if
they allowed her to run away; the king would never give up the prey
that had fallen into his trap; the shepherd lover who was mad enough
to pursue his lost sweetheart into her captor's palace would never
come out alive. Are we so sure of all these points? Most improbable
things do happen. It is at least conceivable that even a cruel tyrant
might be seized with a fit of generosity, and why should we regard
Solomon as a cruel tyrant? His fame implies that there were noble
traits in his character. But these questions are beside the mark. The
situation is wholly ideal. Then the more improbable the events
described would be in real life, the more impressive do the lessons
they suggest become.

Who wrote the book? The only answer that can be given to this question
is negative. Assuredly, Solomon could not have been the author of this
lovely poem in praise of the love and fidelity of a country lass and
her swain, and the simplicity of their rustic life. It would be
difficult to find a man in all history who more conspicuously
illustrated the exact opposites of these ideas. The exquisite eulogy
of love--perhaps the finest in any literature--which occurs towards
the end of the book, the passage beginning, "Set me as a seal upon
thine heart," etc.,[5] is not the work of this master of a huge
seraglio, with his "seven hundred wives" and his "three hundred
concubines."[6] It is impossible to find the source of this poetry in
the palace of the Israelite "Grand Monarch"; we might as soon light on
a bank of wild flowers in a Paris dancing saloon. There is quite a
library of Solomon literature, a very small part of which can be
traced to the king whose name it bears, the greatness of this name
having attracted attention and led to the ascription of various works
to the royal author, whose wisdom was as proverbial as his splendour.
It is difficult to resist the impression that in the present case
there is some irony in the singular inappropriateness of the title.

  [5] viii. 6, 7.

  [6] 1 Kings xi. 3.

The date of the poem can be conjectured with some degree of assurance,
although the language does not help us much in the determination of
this point. There are archaisms, and there are also terms that seem to
indicate a late date--Aramaic words and possibly even words of Greek
extraction. The few foreign terms may have crept in under the
influence of revisers. On the other hand the style and contents of the
book speak for the days of the Augustan age of Hebrew history. The
notoriety of Solomon's court and memories of its magnificence and
luxury seem to be fresh in the minds of people. These things are
treated in detail and with an amount of freedom that supposes
knowledge on the part of the readers as well as the writer. There is
one expression that helps to fix the date with more definiteness.
Tirzah is associated with Jerusalem as though the two cities were of
equal importance. The king says:--

  "Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah,
   Comely as Jerusalem."[7]

  [7] vi. 4.

Now this city was the northern capital for about fifty years after the
death of Solomon--from the time of Jeroboam, who made it his royal
residence,[8] till the reign of Omri, who abandoned the ill-omened
place six years after his vanquished predecessor Zimri had burnt the
palace over his own head.[9] The way in which the old capital is
mentioned here implies that it is still to the north what Jerusalem is
to the south. Thus we are brought to the half century after the death
of the king whose name the book bears.

  [8] 1 Kings xiv. 17.

  [9] 1 Kings xvi. 18, 23, 24.

The mention of Tirzah as the equal of Jerusalem is also an evidence of
the northern origin of the poem; for it is not at all probable that a
subject of the mutilated nation of the south would describe the beauty
of the rebel headquarters by the side of that of his own idolised
city, as something typical and perfect. But the poem throughout gives
indications of its origin in the country parts of the north. Shunem,
famous as the scene of Elisha's great miracle, seems to be the home of
the heroine.[10] The poet turns to all points of the compass for
images with which to enrich his pictures--Sharon on the western
coast,[11] Gilead across the Jordan to the east,[12] Engedi by the
wilderness of the Dead Sea,[13] as well as the northern districts. But
the north is most frequently mentioned. Lebanon is named over and over
again,[14] and Hermon is referred to as in the neighbourhood of the
shepherd's home.[15] In fact the poem is saturated with the fragrant
atmosphere of the northern mountains.

  [10] vi. 13.

  [11] ii. 1.

  [12] iv. 1.

  [13] i. 14.

  [14] iii. 9; iv. 8, 15; vii. 4.

  [15] iv. 8.

Now this has suggested a striking inference. Here we have a picture of
Solomon and his court from the not too friendly hand of a citizen of
the revolted provinces. The history in the Books of Kings is written
from the standpoint of Judah; it is curious to learn how the people of
the north thought of Solomon in all his glory. Thus considered the
book acquires a secondary and political meaning. It appears as a
scornful condemnation of the court at Jerusalem on the part of the
poorer and more simple inhabitants of the kingdom of Jeroboam and his
successors.[16] But it also stands for all time as a protest against
luxury and vice, and as a testimony to the beauty and dignity of pure
love, stanch fidelity, and quiet, wholesome, primitive country
manners. It breathes the spirit that reappears in Goldsmith's
_Deserted Village_, and inspires the muse of Wordsworth, as in the
poem which contrasts the dove's simple notes with the nightingale's
tumultuous song, saying of the homely bird,

  "He sang of love with quiet blending;
   Slow to begin, and never ending;
   Of serious faith and inward glee;
   That was the song--the song for me."

  [16] See _Ency. Brit._, Art. "Canticles," by Robertson Smith.



CHAPTER i.-v. 1

The poem opens with a scene in Solomon's palace. A country maiden has
just been introduced to the royal harem. The situation is painful
enough in itself, for the poor, shy girl is experiencing the miserable
loneliness of finding herself in an unsympathetic crowd. But that is
not all. She is at once the object of general observation; every eye
is turned towards her; and curiosity is only succeeded by
ill-concealed disgust. Still the slavish women, presumably acting on
command, set themselves to excite the new comer's admiration for their
lord and master. First one speaks some bold amorous words,[17] and
then the whole chorus follows.[18] All this is distressing and
alarming to the captive, who calls on her absent lover to fetch her
away from such an uncongenial scene; she longs to run after him; for
it is the king who has brought her into his chambers, not her own
will.[19] The women of the harem take no notice of this interruption,
but finish their ode on the charms of Solomon. All the while they are
staring at the rustic maiden, and she now becomes conscious of a
growing contempt in their looks. What is she that the attractions of
the king before which the dainty ladies of the court prostrate
themselves should have no fascination for her? She notices the
contrast between the swarthy hue of her sun-burnt countenance and the
pale complexion of these pampered products of palace seclusion. She is
so dark in comparison with them that she likens herself to the black
goats-hair tents of the Arabs.[20] The explanation is that her
brothers have made her work in their vineyards. Meanwhile she has not
kept her own vineyard.[21] She has not guarded her beauty as these
idle women, who have nothing else to do, have guarded theirs; but
perhaps she has a sadder thought--she could not protect herself when
out alone at her task in the country or she would never have been
captured and carried on to the prison where she now sits disconsolate.
Possibly the vineyard she has not kept is the lover whom she has
lost.[22] Still she is a woman, and with a touch of piqued pride she
reminds her critics that if she is dark--black compared with them--she
is comely. They cannot deny that. It is the cause of all her misery;
she owes her imprisonment to her beauty. She knows that their secret
feeling is one of envy of her, the latest favourite. Then their
affected contempt is groundless. But, indeed, she has no desire to
stand as their rival. She would gladly make her escape. She speaks in
a half soliloquy. Will not somebody tell her where he is whom her soul
loveth? Where is her lost shepherd lad? Where is he feeding his flock?
Where is he resting it at noon? Such questions only provoke mockery.
Addressing the simple girl as the "fairest among women," the court
ladies bid her find her lover for herself. Let her go back to her
country life and feed her kids by the shepherds' tents. Doubtless if
she is bold enough to court her swain in that way she will not miss
seeing him.

  [17] i. 2.

  [18] i. 3.

  [19] i. 4.

  [20] i. 5.

  [21] i. 6.

  [22] See viii. 12.

Hitherto Solomon has not appeared. Now he comes on the scene, and
proceeds to accost his new acquisition in highly complimentary
language, with the ease of an expert in the art of courtship. At this
point we encounter the most serious difficulty for the theory of a
shepherd lover. To all appearances a dialogue between the king and the
Shulammite here ensues.[23] But if this were the case, the country
girl would be addressing Solomon in terms of the utmost
endearment--conduct utterly incompatible with the "shepherd
hypothesis." The only alternative is to suppose that the hard-pressed
girl takes refuge from the importunity of her royal flatterer by
turning aside to an imaginary, half dream-like conversation with her
absent lover. This is not by any means a probable position, it must be
allowed; it seems to put a strained interpretation on the text.
Undoubtedly if the passage before us stood by itself, there would not
be any difference of opinion about it; everybody would take it in its
obvious meaning as a conversation between two lovers. But it does not
stand by itself--unless, indeed, we are to give up the unity of the
book. Therefore it must be interpreted so as not to contradict the
whole course of the poem, which shews that another than Solomon is the
true lover of the disconsolate maiden.

  [23] i. 9--ii. 6.

The king begins with the familiar device by which rich men all the
world over try to win the confidence of poor girls when there is no
love on either side,--a device which has been only too successful in
the case of many a weak Marguerite though her tempter has not always
been a handsome Faust; but in the present case innocence is fortified
by true love, and the trick is a failure. The king notices that this
peasant girl has but simple plaited hair and homely ornaments. She
shall have plaits of gold and studs of silver! Splendid as one of
Pharaoh's chariot horses, she shall be decorated as magnificently as
they are decorated! What is this to our stanch heroine? She treats it
with absolute indifference, and begins to soliloquise, with a touch of
scorn in her language. She has been loaded with scent after the manner
of the luxurious court, and the king while seated feasting at his
table has caught the odour of the rich perfumes. That is why he is now
by her side. Does he think that she will serve as a new dainty for the
great banquet, as a fresh fillip for the jaded appetite of the royal
voluptuary? If so he is much mistaken. The king's promises have no
attraction for her, and she turns for relief to dear memories of her
true love. The thought of him is fragrant as the bundle of myrrh she
carries in her bosom, as the henna-flowers that bloom in the vineyards
of far-off Engedi.

Clearly Solomon has made a clumsy move. This shy bird is not of the
common species with which he is familiar. He must aim higher if he
would bring down his quarry. She is not to be classed with the wares
of the matrimonial market that are only waiting to be assigned to the
richest bidder. She cannot be bought even by the wealth of a king's
treasury. But if there is a woman who can resist the charms of finery,
is there one who can stand against the admiration of her personal
beauty? A man of Solomon's experience would scarcely believe that such
was to be found. Nevertheless now the sex he estimates too lightly is
to be vindicated, while the king himself is to be taught a wholesome
lesson. He may call her fair; he may praise her dove-like eyes.[24]
His flattery is lost upon her. She only thinks of the beauty of her
shepherd lad, and pictures to herself the green bank on which they
used to sit, with the cedars and firs for the beams and roof of their
trysting-place.[25] Her language carries us away from the gilded
splendour and close, perfumed atmosphere of the royal palace to scenes
such as Shakespeare presents in the forest of Arden and the haunts of
Titania, and Milton in the Mask of _Comus_. Here is a Hebrew lady
longing to escape from the clutches of one who for all his glory is
not without some of the offensive traits of the monster Comus. She
thinks of herself as a wild flower, like the crocus that grows on the
plains of Sharon or the lily (literally the anemone) that is sprinkled
so freely over the upland valleys.[26] The open country is the natural
_habitat_ of such a plant, not the stifling court. Solomon catches at
her beautiful imagery. Compared with other maidens she is like a lily
among thorns.[27]

  [24] i. 15.

  [25] i. 16, 17.

  [26] ii. 1.

  [27] ii. 2.

And now these scenes of nature carry the persecuted girl away in a
sort of reverie. If she is like the tender flower, her lover resembles
the apple tree at the foot of which it nestles, a tree the shadow of
which is delightful and its fruit sweet.[28] She remembers how he
brought her to his banqueting house; that rustic bower was a very
different place from the grand divan on which she had seen Solomon
sitting at his table. No purple hangings like those of the king's
palace there screened her from the sun. The only banner her shepherd
could spread over her was love, his own love.[29] But what could be a
more perfect shelter?

  [28] ii. 3.

  [29] ii. 4.

She is fainting. How she longs for her lover to comfort her! She has
just compared him to an apple tree; now the refreshment she hungers
for is the fruit of this tree; that is to say, his love.[30] Oh that
he would put his arms round her and support her, as in the old happy
days before she had been snatched away from him![31]

  [30] ii. 5.

  [31] ii. 6.

Next follows a verse which is repeated later, and so serves as a sort
of refrain.[32] The Shulammite adjures the daughters of Jerusalem not
to awaken love. This verse is misrendered in the Authorised Version,
which inserts the pronoun "my" before "love" without any warrant in
the Hebrew text. The poor girl has spoken of apples. But the court
ladies must not misunderstand her. She wants none of their love
apples,[33] no philtre, no charm to turn her affections away from her
shepherd lover and pervert them to the importunate royal suitor. The
opening words of the poem which celebrated the charms of Solomon had
been aimed in that direction. The motive of the work seems to be the
Shulammite's resistance to various attempts to move her from loyalty
to her true love. It is natural, therefore, that an appeal to desist
from all such attempts should come out emphatically.

  [32] ii. 7.

  [33] See Gen. xxx. 14.

The poem takes a new turn. In imagination the Shulammite hears the
voice of her beloved. She pictures him standing at the foot of the
lofty rock on which the harem is built, and crying,--

  "Oh, my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the cover
        of the steep place,
  Let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice;
  For sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely."[34]

  [34] ii. 14.

He is like a troubadour singing to his imprisoned lady-love; and she,
in her soliloquys, though not by any means a "high-born maiden," may
call to mind the simile in Shelley's _Skylark_:--

                "Like a high-born maiden
                  In a palace tower,
                Soothing her love-laden
                  Soul in secret hour,
  With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower."

She remembers how her lover had come to her bounding over the hills
"like a roe or a young hart,"[35] and peeping in at her lattice; and
she repeats the song with which he had called her out--one of the
sweetest songs of spring that ever was sung.[36] In our own green
island we acknowledge that this is the most beautiful season of all
the round year; but in Palestine it stands out in more strongly
pronounced contrast to the three other seasons, and it is in itself
exceedingly lovely. While summer and autumn are there parched with
drought, barren and desolate, and while winter is often dreary with
snow-storms and floods of rain, in spring the whole land is one lovely
garden, ablaze with richest hues, hill and dale, wilderness and
farmland vying in the luxuriance of their wild flowers, from the red
anemone that fires the steep sides of the mountains to the purple and
white cyclamen that nestles among the rocks at their feet. Much of the
beauty of this poem is found in the fact that it is pervaded by the
spirit of an eastern spring. This makes it possible to introduce a
wealth of beautiful imagery which would not have been appropriate if
any other season had been chosen. Even more lovely in March than
England is in May, Palestine comes nearest to the appearance of our
country in the former month; so that this poem, that is so completely
bathed in the atmosphere of early spring, calls up echoes of the
exquisite English garden pictures in Shelley's _Sensitive Plant_ and
Tennyson's _Maud_. But it is not only beauty of imagery that our poet
gains by setting his work in this lovely season. His ideas are all in
harmony with the period of the year he describes so charmingly. It is
the time of youth and hope, of joy and love--especially of love, for,

  "In the spring a young man's fancy
  Lightly turns to thoughts of love."

  [35] ii. 9.

  [36] ii. 11-13.

There is even a deeper association between the ideas of the poem and
the season in which it is set. None of the freshness of spring is to
be found about Solomon and his harem, but it is all present in the
Shulammite and her shepherd; and spring scenes and thoughts powerfully
aid the motive of the poem in accentuating the contrast between the
tawdry magnificence of the court and the pure, simple beauty of the
country life to which the heroine of the poem clings so faithfully.

The Shulammite answers her lover in an old ditty about "the little
foxes that spoil the vineyards."[37] He would recognise that, and so
discover her presence. We are reminded of the legend of Richard's page
finding his master by singing a familiar ballad outside the walls of
the castle in the Tyrol where the captive crusader was imprisoned.
This is all imaginary. And yet the faithful girl knows in her heart
that her beloved is hers and that she is his, although in sober
reality he is now feeding his flocks in the far-off flowery fields of
her old home.[38] There he must remain till the cool of the evening,
till the shadows melt into the darkness of night, when she would fain
he returned to her, coming over the rugged mountains "like a roe or a
young hart."[39]

  [37] ii. 15.

  [38] ii. 16.

  [39] ii. 17.

Now the Shulammite tells a painful dream.[40] She dreamed that she had
lost her lover, and that she rose up at night and went out into the
streets seeking him. At first she failed to find him. She asked the
watchmen whom she met on their round, if they had seen him whom her
soul loved. They could not help her quest. But a little while after
leaving them she discovered the missing lover, and brought him safely
into her mother's house.

  [40] iii. 1-4.

After a repetition of the warning to the daughters of Jerusalem not to
awaken love,[41] we are introduced to a new scene.[42] It is by one of
the gates of Jerusalem, where the country maiden has been brought in
order that she may be impressed by the gorgeous spectacle of Solomon
returning from a royal progress. The king comes up from the wilderness
in clouds of perfume, guarded by sixty men-at-arms, and borne in a
magnificent palanquin of cedar-wood, with silver posts, a floor of
gold, and purple cushions, wearing on his head the crown with which
his mother had crowned him. Is the mention of the mother of Solomon
intended to be specially significant? Remember--she was Bathsheba!
The allusion to such a woman would not be likely to conciliate the
pure young girl who was not in the least degree moved by this attempt
to charm her with a scene of exceptional magnificence.

  [41] iii. 5.

  [42] iii. 6-11

Solomon now appears again, praising his captive in extravagant
language of courtly flattery. He praises her dove-like eyes, her
voluminous black hair, her rosy lips, her noble brow (not even
disguised by her veil), her towering neck, her tender bosom--lovely as
twin gazelles that feed among the lilies. Like her lover, who is
necessarily away with his flock, Solomon will leave her till the cool
of the evening, till the shadows melt into night; but he has no
pastoral duties to attend to, and though the delicate balancing and
assimilation of phrase and idea is gracefully manipulated, there is a
change. The king will go to "mountains of myrrh" and "hills of
frankincense,"[43] to make his person more fragrant, and so, as he
hopes, more welcome.

  [43] iv. 6.

If we adopt the "shepherd hypothesis" the next section of the poem
must be assigned to the rustic lover.[44] It is difficult to believe
that this peasant would be allowed to speak to a lady in the royal
harem. We might suppose that here and perhaps also in the earlier
scene the shepherd is represented as actually present at the foot of
the rock on which the palace stands. Otherwise this also must be taken
as an imaginary scene, or as a reminiscence of the dreamy girl.
Although a thread of unity runs through the whole poem, Goethe was
clearly correct in calling it "a medley." Scenes real and imaginary
melting one into another cannot take their places in a regular drama.
But when we grant full liberty to the imaginary element there is less
necessity to ask what is subjective and what objective, what only
fancied by the Shulammite and what intended to be taken as an actual
occurrence. Strictly speaking, nothing is actual; the whole poem is a
highly imaginative series of fancy pictures illustrating the
development of its leading ideas.

  [44] iv. 8-15.

Next--whether we take it as in imagination or in fact--the shepherd
lover calls his bride to follow him from the most remote regions. His
language is entirely different from that of the magnificent monarch.
He does not waste his breath in formal compliments, high-flown
imagery, wearisome lists of the charms of the girl he loves. That was
the clumsy method of the king; clumsy, though reflecting the finished
manners of the court, in comparison with the genuine outpourings of
the heart of a country lad. The shepherd is eloquent with the
inspiration of true love; his words throb and glow with genuine
emotion; there is a fine, wholesome passion in them. The love of his
bride has ravished his heart. How beautiful is her love! He is
intoxicated with it more than with wine. How sweet are her words of
tender affection, like milk and honey! She is so pure, there is
something sisterly in her love with all its warmth. And she is so near
to him that she is almost like part of himself, as his own sister.
This holy and close relationship is in startling contrast to the only
thing known as love in the royal harem. It is as much more lofty and
noble as it is more strong and deep than the jaded emotions of the
court. The sweet pure maiden is to the shepherd like a garden the gate
of which is barred against trespassers, like a spring shut off from
casual access, like a sealed fountain--sealed to all but one, and,
happy man, he is that one. To him she belongs, to him alone. She is a
garden, yes, a most fragrant garden, an orchard of pomegranates full
of rich fruit, crowded with sweet-scented plants--henna and spikenard
and saffron, calamus and cinnamon and all kinds of frankincense, myrrh
and aloes and the best of spices. She is a fountain in the garden,
sealed to all others, but not stinted towards the one she loves. To
him she is as a well of living waters, like the full-fed streams that
flow from Lebanon.

The maiden is supposed to hear the song of love. She replies in
fearless words of welcome, bidding the north wind awake, and the south
wind too, that the fragrance of which her lover has spoken so
enthusiastically may flow out more richly than ever. For his sake she
would be more sweet and loving. All she possesses is for him. Let him
come and take possession of his own.[45]

  [45] iv. 16.

What lover could turn aside from such a rapturous invitation? The
shepherd takes his bride; he enters his garden, gathers his myrrh and
spice, eats his honey and drinks his wine and milk, and calls on his
friends to feast and drink with him.[46] This seems to point to the
marriage of the couple and their wedding feast; a view of the passage
which interpreters who regard Solomon as the lover throughout for the
most part take, but one which has this fatal objection, that it leaves
the second half of the poem without a motive. On the hypothesis of the
shepherd lover it is still more difficult to suppose the wedding to
have occurred at the point we have now reached, for the distraction
of the royal courtship still proceeds in subsequent passages of the
poem. It would seem, then, that we must regard this as quite an ideal
scene. It may, however, be taken as a reminiscence of an earlier
passage in the lives of the two lovers. It is not impossible that it
refers to their wedding, and that they had been married before the
action of the whole story began. In that case we should have to
suppose that Solomon's officers had carried off a young bride to the
royal harem. The intensity of the love and the bitterness of the
separation apparent throughout the poem would be the more intelligible
if this were the situation. It is to be remembered that Shakespeare
ascribes the climax of the love and grief of Romeo and Juliet to a
time after their marriage. But the difficulty of accepting this view
lies in the improbability that so outrageous a crime would be
attributed to Solomon, although it must be admitted that the guilty
conduct of his father and mother had gone a long way in setting an
example for the violation of the marriage tie. In dealing with vague
and dreamy poetry such as that of the Song of Solomon, it is not
possible to determine a point like this with precision; nor is it
necessary to do so. The beauty and force of the passage now before us
centre in the perfect mutual love of the two young hearts that here
show themselves to be knit together as one, whether already actually
married or not yet thus externally united.

  [46] v. 1.



CHAPTER v. 1-viii

We have seen how this strange poem mingles fact and fancy, memory and
reverie, in what would be hopeless confusion if we could not detect a
common prevailing sentiment and one aim towards which the whole is
tending, with all its rapidly shifting scenes and all its perplexingly
varying movements. The middle of the poem attains a perfect climax of
love and rapture. Then we are suddenly transported to an entirely
different scene. The Shulammite recites a second dream, which somewhat
resembles her former dream, but is more vivid and intense, and ends
very painfully.[47] The circumstances of it will agree most readily
with the idea that she is already married to the shepherd. Again it is
a dream of the loss of her lover, and of her search for him by night
in the streets of Jerusalem. But in the present case he was first
close to her, and then he deserted her most unaccountably; and when
she went to look for him this time she failed to find him, and met
with cruel ill-treatment. In her dream she fancies she hears the
bridegroom knocking at her chamber door and calling upon her as his
sister, his love, his dove, his undefiled, to open to him. He has
just returned from tending his flock in the night, and his hair is wet
with the dew. The bride coyly excuses herself, on the plea that she
has laid aside her mantle and washed her feet; as though it would vex
her to put her feet to the ground again. This is but the playful
reluctance of love; for no sooner is her beloved really lost than she
undertakes the greatest trouble in the search for him. When he puts in
his hand to lift the latch, her heart is moved towards him, and she
rises to open the door. On touching the lock she finds it covered with
liquid myrrh. It has been ingeniously suggested that we have here a
reference to the construction of an eastern lock, with a wooden pin
dropped into the bolt, which is intended to be lifted by a key, but
which may be raised by a man's finger if he is provided with some
viscid substance, such as the ointment here mentioned, to adhere to
the pin. The little detail shews that the lover or bridegroom had come
with the deliberate intention of entering. How strange, then, that
when the bride opens the door he is not to be seen! Why has he fled?
The shock of this surprise quite overwhelms the poor girl, and she is
on the point of fainting. She looks about for her vanished lover, and
calls him by name; but there is no answer. She goes out to seek for
him in the streets, and there the watchmen cuff and bruise her, and
the sentry on the city walls rudely tear off her veil.

  [47] v. 2-7.

Returning from the distressing recollection of her dream to the
present condition of affairs, the sorrowful Shulammite adjures the
daughters of Jerusalem to tell her if they have found her love.[48]
They respond by asking, what is her beloved more than any other
beloved?[49] This mocking question of the harem women rouses the
Shulammite, and affords an opportunity for descanting on the beauty of
her love.[50] He is both fair and ruddy, the chiefest among ten
thousand. For this is what he is like: a head splendid as finest gold;
massive, curling, raven locks; eyes like doves by water brooks, and
looking as though they had been washed in milk--an elaborate image in
which the soft iris and the sparkling light on the pupils suggest the
picture of the gentle birds brooding on the bank of a flashing stream,
and the pure, healthy eyeballs a thought of the whiteness of milk;
cheeks fragrant as spices; lips red as lilies (the blood-red
anemones); a body like ivory, with blue veins as of sapphire; legs
like marble columns on golden bases. The aspect of him is like great
Lebanon, splendid as the far-famed cedars; and when he opens his lips
his voice is ravishingly sweet. Yes, he is altogether lovely. Such is
her beloved, her dearest one.

  [48] v. 8.

  [49] v. 9.

  [50] v. 10-16.

The mocking ladies ask their victim where then has this paragon
gone?[51] She would have them understand that he has not been so cruel
as really to desert her. It was only in her dream that he treated her
with such unaccountable fickleness. The plain fact is that he is away
at his work on his far-off farm, feeding his flock, and perhaps
gathering a posy of flowers for his bride.[52] He is far away,--that
sad truth cannot be denied; and yet he is not really lost, for love
laughs at time and distance; the poor lonely girl can say still that
she is her beloved's and that he is hers.[53] The reappearance of this
phrase suggests that it is intended to serve as a sort of refrain.
Thus it comes in with admirable fitness to balance the other refrain
to which reference has been made earlier.[54] In the first refrain the
daughters of Jerusalem are besought not to attempt to awaken the
Shulammite's love for Solomon; this is well balanced by the refrain in
which she declares the constancy of the mutual love that exists
between herself and the shepherd.

  [51] vi. 1.

  [52] vi. 2.

  [53] vi. 3.

  [54] Page 20.

Now Solomon reappears on the scene, and resumes his laudation of the
Shulammite's beauty.[55] But there is a marked change in his manner.
This most recent capture is quite unlike the sort of girls with whom
his harem was stocked from time to time. He had no reverence for any
of them; they all considered themselves to be highly honoured by his
favour, all adored him with slavish admiration, like that expressed by
one of them in the first line of the poem. But he is positively afraid
of the Shulammite. She is "terrible as an army with banners." He
cannot bear to look at her eyes; he begs her to turn them away from
him, for they have overcome him. What is the meaning of this new
attitude on the part of the mighty monarch? There is something awful
in the simple peasant girl. The purity, the constancy, the cold scorn
with which she regards the king, are as humiliating as they are novel
in his experience. Yet it is well for him that he is susceptible to
their influence. He is greatly injured and corrupted by the manners of
a luxurious oriental court. But he is not a seared profligate. The
vision of goodness startles him; then there is a better nature in him,
and its slumbering powers are partly roused by this unexpected

  [55] vi. 4-7.

We have now reached a very important point in the poem. It is almost
impossible to reconcile this with the theory that Solomon is the one
and only lover referred to throughout. But on the "shepherd
hypothesis" the position is most significant. The value of constancy
in love is not only seen in the steadfast character of one who is
sorely tempted to yield to other influences; it is also apparent in
the effects on a spectator of so uncongenial a nature as king Solomon.
Thus the poet brings out the great idea of his work most vividly. He
could not have done so more forcibly than by choosing the court of
Solomon for the scene of the trial, and shewing the startling effect
of the noble virtue of constancy on the king himself.

Here we are face to face with one of the rescuing influences of life,
which may be met in various forms. A true woman, an innocent child, a
pure man, coming across the path of one who has permitted himself to
slide down towards murky depths, arrests his attention with a painful
shock of surprise. The result is a revelation to him, in the light of
which he discovers, to his horror, how far he has fallen. It is a sort
of incarnate conscience warning him of the still lower degradation
towards which he is sinking. Perhaps it strikes him as a beacon light,
shewing the path up to purity and peace; an angel from heaven sent to
help him retrace his steps and return to his better self. Few men are
so abandoned as never to be visited by some such gleam from higher
regions. To many, alas, it comes but as the temporary rift in the
clouds through which for one brief moment the blue sky becomes visible
even on a wild and stormy day, soon to be lost in deeper darkness.
Happy are they who obey its unexpected message.

The concluding words of the passage which opens with Solomon's praises
of the Shulammite present another of the many difficulties with which
the poem abounds. Mention is made of Solomon's sixty queens, his
eighty concubines, his maidens without number; and then the Shulammite
is contrasted with this vast seraglio as "My dove, my undefiled," who
is "but one"--"the only one of her mother."[56] Who is speaking here?
If this is a continuation of Solomon's speech, as the flow of the
verses would suggest, it must mean that the king would set his newest
acquisition quite apart from all the ladies of the harem, as his
choice and treasured bride. Those who regard Solomon as the lover,
think they see here what they call his conversion, that is to say, his
turning away from polygamy to monogamy. History knows of no such
conversion; and it is hardly likely that a poet of the northern
kingdom would go out of his way to whitewash the matrimonial
reputation of a sovereign from whom the house of Judah was descended.
Besides, the occurrence here represented bears a very dubious
character when we consider that all the existing denizens of the harem
were to be put aside in favour of a new beauty. It would have been
more like a genuine conversion if Solomon had gone back to the love of
his youth, and confined his affections to his neglected first wife.

  [56] vi. 8, 9.

On the shepherd hypothesis it is most natural to attribute the passage
to the shepherd himself. But since it is difficult to imagine him
present at this scene between Solomon and the Shulammite, it seems
that we must fall back on the idealising character of the poem. In
this figurative way the true lover expresses his contempt for the
monstrous harem at the palace. He is content with his one ewe lamb;
nay, she is more to him than all Solomon's bevy of beauties; even
these ladies of the court are now constrained to praise the noble
qualities of his bride.

Solomon's expression of awe for the terrible purity and constancy of
the Shulammite is repeated,[57] and then she tells the story of her
capture.[58] She had gone down to the nut garden to look at the fresh
green on the plants, and to see whether the vines were budding and the
pomegranates putting forth their lovely scarlet blossoms, when
suddenly, and all unawares, she was pounced upon by the king's people
and whisked away in one of his chariots. It is a vivid scene, and,
like other scenes in this poem, the background of it is the lovely
aspect of nature in early spring.

  [57] vi. 10.

  [58] Vers. 11, 12.

The Shulammite now seems to be attempting a retreat, and the ladies of
the court bid her return; they would see the performance of a
favourite dance, known as "The Dance of Mahanaim."[59] Thereupon we
have a description of the performer, as she was seen during the
convolutions of the dance, dressed in a transparent garment of red
gauze,--perhaps such as is represented in Pompeian frescoes,--so that
her person could be compared to pale wheat surrounded by crimson
anemones.[60] It is quite against the tenor of her conduct to suppose
that the modest country girl would degrade herself by ministering to
the amusement of a corrupt court in this shameless manner. It is more
reasonable to conclude that the entertainment was given by a
professional dancer from among the women of the harem. We have a hint
that this is the case in the title applied to the performer, in
addressing whom Solomon exclaims, "O prince's daughter,"[61]] an
expression never used for the poor Shulammite, and one from which we
should gather that she was a captive princess who had been trained as
a court dancer. The glimpse of the manners of the palace helps to
strengthen the contrast of the innocent, simple country life in which
the Shulammite delights.

  [59] vi. 13. This is obscured in the Authorised Version.

  [60] vii. 1-9.

  [61] vii 1.

It has been suggested, with some degree of probability, that the
Shulammite is supposed to make her escape while the attention of the
king and his court is diverted by this entrancing spectacle. It is to
be observed, at all events, that from this point onwards to the end of
the poem, neither Solomon nor the daughters of Jerusalem take any part
in the dialogue, while the scene appears to be shifted to the
Shulammite's home in the country, where she and the shepherd are now
seen together in happy companionship. The bridegroom has come to fetch
his bride. Again she owns that she is his, and delights in the glad
thought that his heart goes out to her.[62] She bids him come with her
into the field, and lodge in the villages. They will get them early
into the vineyards and see whether the vines are blooming, and whether
the pomegranates are in blossom.[63] It is still early spring. It was
early spring when she was snatched away. Unless she had been a whole
year at the palace,--an impossible situation with the king continuing
his ineffectual courtship for so long a time,--we have no movement of
time. But the series of events from the day when the Shulammite was
seized in her nut garden, till she found herself back again in her
home in the north country, after the trying episode of her temporary
residence in the royal palace, must have occupied some weeks. And yet
the conclusion of the story is set in precisely the same stage of
spring, the time when people look for the first buds and blossoms, as
the opening scenes. It has been proposed to confine the whole action
to the northern district, where Solomon might have had a country house
adjoining his vineyard.[64] The presence of the "daughters of
Jerusalem," and allusions to the streets of the city, its watchmen,
and the guard upon the walls, are against this notion. It is better to
conclude that we have here another instance of the idealism of the
poem. Since early spring is the season that harmonises most perfectly
with the spirit of the whole work, the author does not trouble himself
with adapting its scenes in a realistic manner to the rapidly changing
aspects of nature.

  [62] vii. 10.

  [63] vii. 11-13.

  [64] viii. 11.

The shepherd has addressed the Shulammite as his sister;[65] she now
reciprocates the title by expressing her longing that he had been as
her brother.[66] This singular mode of courtship between two lovers
who are so passionately devoted to one another that we might call them
the Hebrew Romeo and Juliet, is not without significance. Its
recurrence, now on the lips of the bride, helps to sharpen still more
the contrast between what passes for love in the royal harem, and the
true emotion experienced by a pair of innocent young people, unsullied
by the corruptions of the court--illustrating, as it does at once, its
sweet intimacy and its perfect purity.

  [65] viii. 1.

  [66] viii. 1.

The proud bride would now lead her swain to her mother's house.[67]
There is no mention of her father; apparently he is not living. But
the fond way in which this simple girl speaks of her mother reveals
another lovely trait in her character. She has witnessed the wearisome
magnificence of Solomon's palace. It was impossible to associate the
idea of home with such a place. We never hear the daughters of
Jerusalem, those poor degraded women of the harem, speaking of their
mothers. But to the Shulammite no spot on earth is so dear as her
mother's cottage. There her lover shall have spiced wine and
pomegranate juice--simple home-made country beverages.[68] Repeating
one of the early refrains of the poem, the happy bride is not afraid
to say that there too her husband shall support her in his strong
embrace.[69] She then repeats another refrain, and for the last
time--surely one would say now, quite superfluously--she adjures the
daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken any love for Solomon in her, but
to leave love to its spontaneous course.[70]

  [67] viii. 2.

  [68] viii. 2.

  [69] viii. 3.

  [70] viii. 4.

Now the bridegroom is seen coming up from the wilderness with his
bride leaning upon him, and telling how he first made love to her when
he found her asleep under an apple tree in the garden of the cottage
where she was born.[71] As they converse together we reach the richest
gem of the poem, the Shulammite's impassioned eulogy of love.[72] She
bids her husband set her as a seal upon his heart in the inner
sanctuary of his being, and as a seal upon his arm--always owning her,
always true to her in the outer world. She is to be his closely, his
openly, his for ever. She has proved her constancy to him; now she
claims his constancy to her. The foundation of this claim rests on the
very nature of love. The one essential characteristic here dwelt upon
is strength--"Love is strong as death." Who can resist grim death? who
escape its iron clutches? Who can resist mighty love, or evade its
power? The illustration is startling in the apparent incompatibility
of the two things drawn together for comparison. But it is a stern and
terrible aspect of love to which our attention is now directed. This
is apparent as the Shulammite proceeds to speak of jealousy which is
"hard as the grave." If love is treated falsely, it can flash out in a
flame of wrath ten times more furious than the raging of hatred--"a
most vehement flame of the Lord." This is the only place in which the
name of God appears throughout the whole poem. It may be said that
even here it only comes in according to a familiar Hebrew idiom, as
metaphor for what is very great. But the Shulammite has good reason
for claiming God to be on her side in the protection of her love from
cruel wrong and outrage. Love as she knows it is both unquenchable and
unpurchasable. She has tested and proved these two attributes in her
own experience. At the court of Solomon every effort was made to
destroy her love for the shepherd, and all possible means were
employed for buying her love for the king. Both utterly failed. All
the floods of scorn which the harem ladies poured over her love for
the country lad could not quench it; all the wealth of a kingdom could
not buy it for Solomon. Where true love exists, no opposition can
destroy it; where it is not, no money can purchase it. As for the
second idea--the purchasing of love--the Shulammite flings it away
with the utmost contempt. Yet this was the too common means employed
by a king such as Solomon for replenishing the stock of his harem.
Then the monarch was only pursuing a shadow; he was but playing at
love-making; he was absolutely ignorant of the reality.

  [71] viii. 5.

  [72] viii. 6, 7.

The vigour, one might say the rigour, of this passage distinguishes it
from nearly all other poetry devoted to the praises of love. That
poetry is usually soft and tender; sometimes it is feeble and sugary.
And yet it must be remembered that even the classical Aphrodite could
be terribly angry. There is nothing morbid or sentimental in the
Shulammite's ideas. She has discovered and proved by experience that
love is a mighty force, capable of heroic endurance, and able, when
wronged, to avenge itself with serious effect.

Towards the conclusion of the poem fresh speakers appear in the
persons of the Shulammite's brothers, who defend themselves from the
charge of negligence in having permitted their little sister to be
snatched away from their keeping, explaining how they have done their
best to guard her. Or perhaps they mean that they will be more careful
in protecting a younger sister. They will build battlements about her.
The Shulammite takes up the metaphor. She is safe now, as a wall well
embattled; at last she has found peace in the love of her husband.
Solomon may have a vineyard in her neighbourhood, and draw great
wealth from it with which to buy the wares in which he delights.[73]
It is nothing to her. She has her own vineyard. This reference to the
Shulammite's vineyard recalls the mention of it at the beginning of
the poem, and suggests the idea that in both cases the image
represents the shepherd lover. In the first instance she had not kept
her vineyard,[74] for she had lost her lover. Now she has him, and she
is satisfied.[75] He calls to her in the garden, longing to hear her
voice there,[76] and she replies, bidding him hasten and come to her
as she has described him coming before,--

  "Like to a roe or a young hart
  Upon the mountains of spices."[77]

  [73] viii. 11.

  [74] i. 6.

  [75] viii. 12.

  [76] viii. 13.

  [77] viii. 14.

And so the poem sinks to rest in the happy picture of the union of the
two young lovers.



Thus far we have been considering the bare, literal sense of the text.
It cannot be denied that, if only to lead up to the metaphorical
significance of the words employed, those words must be approached
through their primary physical meanings. This is essential even to the
understanding of pure allegory such as that of _The Faerie Queen_ and
_The Pilgrim's Progress_; we must understand the adventures of the Red
Cross Knight and the course of Christian's journey before we can learn
the moral of Spenser's and Bunyan's elaborate allegories. Similarly it
is absolutely necessary for us to have some idea of the movement of
the Song of Solomon as a piece of literature, in its external form,
even if we are persuaded that beneath this sensuous exterior it
contains the most profound ideas, before we can discover any such
ideas. In other words, if it is to be considered as a mass of
symbolism the symbols must be understood in themselves before their
significance can be drawn out of them.

But now we are confronted with the question whether the book has any
other meaning than that which meets the eye. The answers to this
question are given on three distinct lines:--First, we have the
_allegorical_ schemes of interpretation, according to which the poem
is not to be taken literally at all, but is to be regarded as a
purely metaphorical representation of national or Church history,
philosophical ideas, or spiritual experiences. In the second place, we
meet with various forms of double interpretation, described as
_typical_ or _mystical_, in which a primary meaning is allowed to the
book as a sort of drama or idyl, or as a collection of Jewish
love-songs, while a secondary signification of an ideal or spiritual
character is added. Distinct as these lines of interpretation are in
themselves, they tend to blend in practice, because even when two
meanings are admitted the symbolical signification is considered to be
of so much greater importance than the literal that it virtually
occupies the whole field. In the third place there is the _purely
literal_ interpretation, that which denies the existence of any
symbolical or mystical intention in the poem.

Allegorical interpretations of the Song of Solomon are found among the
Jews early in the Christian era. The Aramaic Targum, probably
originating about the sixth century A.D., takes the first half of the
poem as a symbolical picture of the history of Israel previous to the
captivity, and the second as a prophetic picture of the subsequent
fortunes of the nation. The recurrence of the expression "the
congregation of Israel" in this paraphrase wherever the Shulammite
appears, and other similar adaptations, entirely destroy the fine
poetic flavour of the work, and convert it into a dreary, dry-as-dust

Symbolical interpretations were very popular among Christian
Fathers--though not with universal approval, as the protest of
Theodore of Mopsuestia testifies. The great Alexandrian Origen is the
founder and patron of this method of interpreting the Song of Solomon
in the Church. Jerome was of opinion that Origen "surpassed himself"
in his commentary on the poem--a commentary to which he devoted ten
volumes. According to his view, it was originally an epithalamium
celebrating the marriage of Solomon with Pharaoh's daughter; but it
has secondary mystical meanings descriptive of the relation of the
Redeemer to the Church or the individual soul. Thus "the little foxes
that spoil the grapes" are evil thoughts in the individual, or
heretics in the Church. Gregory the Great contributes a commentary of
no lasting interest. Very different is the work of the great mediæval
monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who threw himself into it with all the
passion and rapture of his enthusiastic soul, and in the course of
eighty-six homilies only reached the beginning of the third chapter in
this to him inexhaustible mine of spiritual wealth, when he died,
handing on the task to his faithful disciple Gilbert Porretanus, who
continued it on the same portentous scale, and also died before he had
finished the fifth chapter. Even while reading the old monkish Latin
in this late age we cannot fail to feel the glowing devotion that
inspires it. Bernard is addressing his monks, to whom he says he need
not give the milk for babes, and whom he exhorts to prepare their
throats not for this milk but for bread. As a schoolman he cannot
escape from metaphysical subtleties--he takes the kiss of the
bridegroom as a symbol of the incarnation. But throughout there burns
the perfect rapture of love to Jesus Christ which inspires his
well-known hymns. Here we are at the secret of the extraordinary
popularity of mystical interpretations of the Song of Solomon. It has
seemed to many in all ages of the Christian Church to afford the best
expression for the deepest spiritual relations of Christ and His
people. Nevertheless, the mystical method has been widely disputed
since the time of the Reformation. Luther complains of the "many wild
and monstrous interpretations" that are attached to the Song of
Solomon, though even he understands it as symbolical of Solomon and
his state. Still, not a few of the most popular hymns of our own day
are saturated with ideas and phrases gathered from this book, and
fresh expositions of what are considered to be its spiritual lessons
may still be met with.

It is not easy to discover any justification for the rabbinical
explanation of the Song of Solomon as a representation of successive
events in the history of Israel, an explanation which Jewish scholars
have abandoned in favour of simple literalism. But the mystical view,
according to which the poem sets forth spiritual ideas, has pleas
urged in its favour that demand some consideration. We are reminded of
the analogy of Oriental literature, which delights in parable to an
extent unknown in the West. Works of a kindred nature are produced in
which an allegorical signification is plainly intended. Thus the
Hindoo Gilagovinda celebrates the loves of Chrishna and Radha in
verses that bear a remarkable resemblance to the Song of Solomon.
Arabian poets sing of the love of Joseph for Zuleikha, which mystics
take as the love of God towards the soul that longs for union with
Him. There is a Turkish mystical commentary on the Song of Hafiz.

The bible itself furnishes us with suggestive analogies. Throughout
the Old Testament the idea of a marriage union between God and His
people occurs repeatedly, and the most frequent metaphor for religious
apostasy is drawn from the crime of adultery.[78] This symbolism is
especially prominent in the writings of Jeremiah[79] and Hosea.[80]
The forty-fifth psalm is an epithalamium commonly read with a
Messianic signification. John the Baptist describes the coming Messiah
as the Bridegroom,[81] and Jesus Christ accepts the title for
Himself.[82] Our Lord illustrates the blessedness of the Kingdom of
Heaven in a parable of a wedding feast.[83] With St. Paul the union of
husband and wife is an earthly copy of the union of Christ and his
Church.[84] The marriage of the Lamb is a prominent feature in the
Book of the Revelation.[85]

  [78] _E.g._ Exod. xxxiv. 15, 16; Numb. xv. 39; Psalm lxxiii. 27; Ezek.
  xvi. 23, etc.

  [79] _E.g._ Jer. iii. 1-11.

  [80] Hosea ii. 2.; iii. 3.

  [81] John iii. 29.

  [82] Mark. ii. 19.

  [83] Matt. xxii. 1-14.

  [84] Eph. v. 22-33.

  [85] Rev. xxi. 9.

Further, it may be maintained that the experience of Christians has
demonstrated the aptness of the expression of the deepest spiritual
truths in the imagery of the Song of Solomon. Sad hearts disappointed
in their earthly hopes have found in the religious reading of this
poem as a picture of their relation to their Saviour the satisfaction
for which they have hungered, and which the world could never give
them. Devout Christians have read in it the very echo of their own
emotions. Samuel Rutherford's _Letters_, for example, are in perfect
harmony with the religious interpretation of the Song of Solomon; and
these letters stand in the first rank of devotional works. There is
certainly some force in the argument that a key which seems to fit the
lock so well must have been designed to do so.

On the other hand, the objections to a mystical, religious
interpretation are very strong. In the first place, we can quite
account for its appearance apart from any justification of it in the
original intention of the author. Allegory was in the air at the time
when, as far as we know, secondary meanings were first attached to the
ideas of the Song of Solomon. They sprang from Alexandria, the home of
allegory. Origen, who was the first Christian writer to work out a
mystical explanation of this book, treated other books of the Old
Testament in exactly the same way; but we never dream of following him
in his fantastical interpretations of those works. There is no
indication that the poem was understood allegorically or mystically as
early as the first century of the Christian era. Philo is the prince
of allegorists; but while he explains the narratives of the Pentateuch
according to his favourite method, he never applies that method to
this very tempting book, and never even mentions the work or makes any
reference to its contents. The Song of Solomon is not once mentioned
or even alluded to in the slightest way by any writer of the New
Testament. Since it is never noticed by Christ or the Apostles, of
course we cannot appeal to their authority for reading it mystically;
and yet it was undoubtedly known to them as one of the books in the
canon of the sacred Scriptures to which they were in the habit of
appealing repeatedly. Consider the grave significance of this fact.
All secondary interpretations of which we know anything, and, as far
as we can tell, all that ever existed, had their origin in
post-apostolic times. If we would justify this method by authority it
is to the Fathers that we must go, not to Christ and or his apostles,
not to the sacred Scriptures. It is a noteworthy fact, too, that the
word _Eros_, the Greek name for the love of man and woman, as
distinguished from _Agape_, which stands for love in the widest sense
of the word, is first applied to our Lord by Ignatius. Here we have
the faint beginning of the stream of erotic religious fancies which
sometimes manifests itself most objectionably in subsequent Church
history. There is not a trace of it in the New Testament.

If the choice spiritual ideas which some people think they see in the
Song of Solomon are not imported by the reader, but form part of the
genuine contents of the book, how comes it that this fact was not
recognised by one of the inspired writers of the New Testament? or, if
privately recognised, that it was never utilised? In the hands of the
mystical interpreter this work is about the most valuable part of the
Old Testament. He finds it to be an inexhaustible mine of the most
precious treasures. Why, then, was such a remunerative lode never
worked by the first authorities in Christian teaching? It may be
replied that we cannon prove much from a bare negative. The apostles
may have had their own perfectly sufficient reasons for leaving to the
Church of later ages the discovery of this valuable spiritual store.
Possibly the converts of their day were not ripe for the comprehension
of the mysteries here expounded. Be that as it may, clearly the onus
_probandi_ rests with those people of a later age who introduce a
method of interpretation for which no sanction can be found in

Now the analogies that have been referred to are not sufficient to
establish any proof. In the case of the other poems mentioned above
there are distinct indications of symbolical intentions. Thus in the
_Gitagovinda_ the hero is a divinity whose incarnations are
acknowledged in Hindoo mythology; and the concluding verse of that
poem points the moral by a direct assertion of the religious meaning
of the whole composition. This is not the case with the Song of
Solomon. We must not be misled by the chapter-headings in our English
Bibles, which of course are not to be found in the original Hebrew
text. From the first line to the last there is not the slightest hint
in the poem itself that it was intended to be read in any mystical
sense. This is contrary to the analogy of all allegories. The parable
may be difficult to interpret, but at all events it must suggest that
it is a parable; otherwise it defeats its own object. If the writer
never drops any hint that he has wrapped up spiritual ideas in the
sensuous imagery of his poetry, what right has he to expect that
anybody will find them there, so long as his poem admits of a
perfectly adequate explanation in a literal sense? We need not be so
dense as to require the allegorist to say to us in so many words:
"This is a parable." But we may justly expect him to furnish us with
some hint that his utterance is of such a character. Æsop's fables
carry their lessons on the surface of them, so that we can often
anticipate the concluding morals that are attached to them. When
Tennyson announced that the _Idyls of the King_ constituted an
allegory most people were taken by surprise; and yet the analogy of
_The Faerie Queen_, and the lofty ethical ideas with which the poems
are inspired, might have prepared us for the revelation. But we have
no similar indications in the case of the Song of Solomon. If somebody
were to propound a new theory of _The Vicar of Wakefield_, which
should turn that exquisite tale into a parable of the Fall, it would
not be enough for him to exercise his ingenuity in pointing out
resemblances between the eighteenth-century romance and the ancient
narrative of the serpent's doings in the Garden of Eden. Since he
could not shew that Goldsmith had the slightest intention of teaching
anything of the kind, his exploit could be regarded as nothing but a
piece of literary trifling.

The Biblical analogies already cited, in which the marriage relation
between God or Christ and the Church or the soul are referred to, will
not bear the strain that is put upon them when they are brought
forward in order to justify a mystical interpretation of the Song of
Solomon. At best they simply account for the emergence of this view of
the book at a later time, or indicate that such a notion might be
maintained if there were good reasons for adopting it. They cannot
prove that in the present case it should be adopted. Moreover, they
differ from it on two important points. _First_, in harmony with all
genuine allegories and metaphors, they carry their own evidence of a
symbolical meaning, which as we have seen the Song of Solomon fails to
do. _Second_, they are not elaborate compositions of a dramatic or
idyllic character in which the passion of love is vividly illustrated.
Regarded in its entirety, the Song of Solomon is quite without
parallel in Scripture. It may be replied that we cannot disprove the
allegorical intention of the book. But this is not the question. That
intention requires to be proved; and until it is proved, or at least
until some very good reasons are urged for adopting it, no statement
of bare possibilities counts for anything.

But we may push the case further. There is a positive improbability of
the highest order that the spiritual ideas read into the Song of
Solomon by some of its Christian admirers should have been originally
there. This would involve the most tremendous anachronism in all
literature. The Song of Solomon is dated among the earlier works of
the Old Testament. But the religious ideas now associated with it
represent what is regarded as the fruit of the most advanced
saintliness ever attained in the Christian Church. Here we have a flat
contradiction to the growth of revelation manifested throughout the
whole course of Scripture history. We might as well ascribe the
Sistine Madonna to the fresco-painters of the catacombs; or, what is
more to the point, our Lord's discourse with his disciples at the
paschal meal to Solomon or some other Jew of his age.

No doubt the devoted follower of the mystical method will not be
troubled by considerations such as these. To him the supposed fitness
of the poem to convey his religious ideas is the one sufficient proof
of an original design that it should serve that end. So long as the
question is approached in this way, the absence of clear evidence only
delights the prejudiced commentator with the opportunity it affords
for the exercise of his ingenuity. To a certain school of readers the
very obscurity of a book is its fascination. The less obvious a
meaning is, the more eagerly do they set themselves to expound and
defend it. We could leave them to what might be considered a very
harmless diversion if it were not for other considerations. But we
cannot forget that it is just this ingenious way of interpreting the
Bible in accordance with preconceived opinions that has encouraged the
quotation of the Sacred Volume in favour of absolutely contradictory
propositions, an abuse which in its turn has provoked an inevitable
reaction leading to contempt for the Bible as an obscure book which
speaks with no certain voice.

Still, it may be contended, the analogy between the words of this poem
and the spiritual experience of Christians is in itself an indication
of intentional connection. Swedenborg has shewn that there are
correspondences between the natural and the spiritual, and this truth
is illustrated by the metaphorical references to marriage in the Bible
which have been adduced for comparison with the Song of Solomon. But
their very existence shows that analogies between religious experience
and the love story of the Shulammite may be traced out by the reader
without any design on the part of the author to present them. If they
are natural they are universal, and any love song will serve our
purpose. On this principle, if the Song of Solomon admits of mystical
adaptation, so do Mrs. Browning's _Sonnets from the Portuguese_.

We have no alternative, then, but to conclude that the mystical
interpretation of this work is based on a delusion. Moreover, it must
be added that the delusion is a mischievous one. No doubt to many it
has been as meat and drink. They have found in their reading of the
Song of Solomon real spiritual refreshment, or they believe they have
found it. But there is another side. The poem has been used to
minister to a morbid, sentimental type of religion. More than any
other influence, the mystical interpretation of this book has imported
an effeminate element into the notion of the love of Christ, not one
trace of which can be detected in the New Testament. The Catholic
legend of the marriage of St. Catherine is somewhat redeemed by the
high ascetic tone that pervades it; and yet it indicates a decline
from the standpoint of the apostles. Not a few unquestionable
revelations of immorality in convents have shed a ghastly light on the
abuse of erotic religious fervour. Among Protestants it cannot be said
that the most wholesome hymns are those which are composed on the
model of the Song of Solomon. In some cases the religious use of this
book is perfectly nauseous, indicating nothing less than a disease of
religion. When--as sometimes happens--frightful excesses of sensuality
follow close on seasons of what has been regarded as the revival of
religion, the common explanation of these horrors is that in some
mysterious way spiritual emotion lies very near to sensual appetite,
so that an excitement of the one tends to rouse the other. A more
revolting hypothesis, or one more insulting to religion, cannot be
imagined. The truth is, the two regions are separate as the poles. The
explanation of the phenomena of their apparent conjunction is to be
found in quite another direction. It is that their victims have
substituted for religion a sensuous excitement which is as little
religious as the elation that follows indulgence in alcoholism. There
is no more deadly temptation of the devil than that which hoodwinks
deluded fanatics into making this terrible mistake. But it can
scarcely be denied that the mystical reading of the Song of Solomon by
unspiritual persons, or even by any persons who are not completely
fortified against the danger, may tend in this fatal direction.



It is scarcely to be expected that the view of the Song of Solomon
expounded in the foregoing pages will meet with acceptance from every
reader. A person who has been accustomed to resort to this book in
search of the deepest spiritual ideas cannot but regard the denial of
their presence with aversion. While, however, it is distressing to be
compelled to give pain to a devout soul, it may be necessary. If there
is weight in the considerations that have been engaging our attention,
we cannot shut our eyes to them simply because they may be
disappointing. The mystical interpreter will be shocked at what he
takes for irreverence. But, on the other hand, he should be on his
guard against falling into this very fault from the opposite side.
Reverence for truth is a primary Christian duty. The iconoclast is
certain to be charged with irreverence by the devotee of the popular
idol which he feels it his duty to destroy; and yet, if his action is
inspired by loyalty to truth, reverence for what he deems highest and
best may be its mainspring.

If the Song of Solomon were not one of the books of the Bible,
questions such as these would never arise. It is its place in the
sacred canon that induces people to resent the consequences of the
application of criticism to it. It is simply owing to its being a part
of the Bible that it has come to be treated mystically at all.
Undoubtedly this is why it was allegorised by the Jews. But, then, the
secondary signification thus acquired reacted upon it, and served as a
sort of buoy to float it over the rocks of awkward questions. The
result was that in the end the book attained to an exceptionally high
position in the estimation of the rabbis. Thus the great Rabbi Akiba
says: "The course of the ages cannot vie with the day on which the
Song of Songs was given to Israel. All the _Kethubim_ (_i.e._, the
_Hagiographa_) are holy, but the Song of Songs is a holy of holies."

Such being the case, it is manifest that the rejection of the mystical
signification of its contents must revive the question of the
canonicity of the book. We have not, however, to deal with the problem
of its original insertion in the canon. We find it there. Some doubts
as to its right to the place it holds seem to have been raised among
the Jews during the first century of the Christian era; but these
doubts were effectually borne down. As far as we know, the Song of
Solomon has always been a portion of the Hebrew Scriptures from the
obscure time when the collection of those Scriptures was completed. It
stands as the first of the five _Megilloth_, or sacred rolls--the
others being Ruth, Lamentations, Esther, and Ecclesiastes. We are not
now engaged in the difficult task of constructing a new canon. The
only possibility is that of the expulsion of a book already in the old
canon. But the attempt to disturb in any way such a volume as the Old
Testament, with all its incomparable associations, is not one to be
undertaken lightly or without adequate reason.

In order to justify this radical measure it would not be enough to
shew that the specific religious meanings that some have attached to
the Song of Solomon do not really belong to it. If it is said that the
secular tone it acquires under the hands of criticism shews it to be
unworthy of a place in the sacred Scriptures, this assertion goes upon
an unwarrantable assumption. We have no reason to maintain that all
the books of the Old Testament must be of equal value. The Book of
Esther does not reach a very high level of moral or religious worth;
the pessimism of Ecclesiastes is not inspiring; even the Book of
Proverbs contains maxims that cannot be elevated to a first place in
ethics. If we could discover no distinctively enlightening or
uplifting influence in the Song of Solomon, this would not be a
sufficient reason for raising a cry against it; because if it were
simply neutral in character, like nitrogen in the atmosphere, it would
do no harm, and we could safely let it be. The one justification for a
radical treatment of the question would be the discovery that the book
was false in doctrine or deleterious in character. As to doctrine, it
does not trench on that region at all. It would be as incongruous to
associate it with the grave charge of heresy as to bring a similar
accusation against the _Essays of Elia_ or Keats's poetry. And if the
view expressed in these pages is at all correct, it certainly cannot
be said that the moral tendency of the book is injurious; the very
reverse must be affirmed.

Since there is no reason to believe that the Song of Solomon had
received any allegorical interpretation before the commencement of the
Christian era, we must conclude that it was not on the ground of some
such interpretation that it was originally admitted into the Hebrew
collection of Scripture. It was placed in the canon before it was
allegorised. It was only allegorised because it had been placed in
the canon. Then why was it set there? The natural conclusion to arrive
at under these circumstances is that the scribes who ventured to put
it first among the sacred _Megilloth_ saw that there was a distinctive
value in it. Perhaps; however, it is too much to say this of them. The
word "Solomon" being attached to the book would seem to justify its
inclusion with other literature which had received the hall-mark of
that great name. Still we can learn to appreciate it on its own
merits, and in so doing perceive that there is something in it to
justify its right to a niche in the glorious temple of scripture.

Assuredly it was much to make clear in the days of royal polygamy
among the Jews that this gross imitation of the court life of heathen
monarchies was a despicable and degrading thing, and to set over
against it an attractive picture of true love and simple manners. The
prophets of Israel were continually protesting against a growing
dissoluteness of morals: the Song of Solomon is a vivid illustration
of the spirit of their protest. If the two nations had been content
with the rustic delight so beautifully portrayed in this book, they
might not have fallen into ruin as they did under the influence of the
corruptions of an effete civilisation. If their people had cherished
the graces of purity and constancy that shine so conspicuously in the
character of the Shulammite they might not have needed to pass through
the purging fires of the captivity.

But while this can be said of the book as it first appeared among the
Jews, a similar estimate of its function in later ages may also be
made. An ideal representation of fidelity in love under the greatest
provocation to surrender at discretion has a message for every age. We
need not shrink from reading it in the pages of the Bible. Our Lord
teaches us that next to the duty of love to God comes that of love to
one's neighbour. But a man's nearest neighbour is his wife. Therefore
after his God his wife has the first claim upon him. But the whole
conception of matrimonial duty rests on the idea of constancy in the
love of man and woman.

If this book had been read in its literal signification and its
wholesome lesson absorbed by Christendom in the Middle Ages, the
gloomy cloud of asceticism that then hung over the Church would have
been somewhat lightened, not to give place to the outburst of
licentiousness that accompanied the _Renaissance_, but rather to allow
of the better establishment of the Christian home. The absurd legends
that follow the names of St. Anthony and St. Dunstan would have lost
their motive. Hildebrand would have had no occasion to hurl his
thunderbolt. The Church was making the huge mistake of teaching that
the remedy for dissoluteness was unnatural celibacy. This book taught
the lesson--truer to nature, truer to experience, truer to the God who
made us--that it was to be found in the redemption of love.

Can it be denied that the same lesson is needed in our own day? The
realism that has made itself a master of a large part of popular
literature reveals a state of society that perpetuates the manners of
the court of Solomon, though under a thin veil of decorum. The remedy
for the awful dissoluteness of large portions of society can only be
found in the cultivation of such lofty ideas on the relation of the
sexes that this abomination shall be scouted with horror. It is
neither necessary, nor right, nor possible to contradict nature. What
has to be shewn is that man's true nature is not bestial, that satyrs
and fauns are not men, but degraded caricatures of men. We cannot
crush the strongest passion of human nature. The moral of the Song of
Solomon is that there is no occasion to attempt to crush it, because
the right thing is to elevate it by lofty ideals of love and

This subject also deserves attention on its positive side. The
literature of all ages is a testimony to the fact that nothing in the
world is so interesting as love. What is so old as love-making? and
what so fresh? At least ninety-nine novels out of a hundred have a
love-story for plot; and the hundredth is always regarded as an
eccentric experiment. The pedant may plant his heel on the perennial
flower; but it will spring up again as vigorous as ever. This is the
poetry of the most commonplace existence. When it visits a dingy soul
the desert blossoms as the rose. Life may be hard, and its drudgery a
grinding yoke; but with love "all tasks are sweet." "And Jacob served
seven years for Rachel; and they seemed unto him but a few days, for
the love he had to her."[86] That experience of the patriarch is
typical of the magic power of true love in every age, in every clime.
To the lover it is always "the time of the singing of birds." Who
shall tell the value of the boon that God has given so freely to
mankind, to sweeten the lot of the toiler and shed music into his
heart? But this boon requires to be jealously guarded and sheltered
from abuse, or its honey will be turned into gall. It is for the
toiler--the shepherd whose locks are wet with the dew that has fallen
upon him while guarding his flock by night, the maiden who has been
working in the vineyard; it is beyond the reach of the pleasure-seeking
monarch and the indolent ladies of his court. This boon is for the pure
in heart; it is utterly denied to the sensual and dissolute. Finally, it
is reserved for the loyal and true as the peculiar reward of constancy.

  [86] Gen. xxix. 20.

But while a poem that contains these principles must be allowed to
have an important mission in the world, it does not follow that it is
suitable for public or indiscriminate reading. The fact that the key
to it is not easily discovered is a warning that it is liable to be
misunderstood. When it is read superficially, without any
comprehension of its drift and motive, it may be perverted to
mischievous ends. The antique Oriental pictures with which it abounds,
though natural to the circumstances of its origin, are not in harmony
with the more reserved manners of our own conditions of society. As
all the books of the Bible are not of the same character, so also they
are not all to be used in the same way.




The book which is known by the title "The Lamentations of Jeremiah" is
a collection of five separate poems, very similar in style, and all
treating of the same subject--the desolation of Jerusalem and the
sufferings of the Jews after the overthrow of their city by
Nebuchadnezzar. In our English Bible it is placed among the
prophetical works of the Old Testament, standing next to the
acknowledged writings of the man whose name it bears. This arrangement
follows the order in the Septuagint, from which it was accepted by
Josephus and the Christian Fathers. And yet the natural place for such
a book would seem to be in association with the Psalms and other
poetical compositions of a kindred character. So thought the Rabbis
who compiled the Jewish canon. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of
Lamentations is assigned to the third collection, that designated
_Hagiographa_, not to the part known as the _Prophets_.

In form as well as in substance this book is a remarkable specimen of
a specific order of poetry. The difficulty of recovering the original
pronunciation of the language has left our conception of Hebrew metres
in a state of obscurity. It has been generally supposed that the
rhythm was more of sight than of sound, but that it consisted
essentially in neither, depending mainly on the balance of ideas. The
metre, it has been stated, might strike the eye in the external aspect
of the sentences; it was designed much more to charm the mind by the
harmony and music of the thoughts. But while these general principles
are still acknowledged, some further progress has been made in the
examination of the structure of the verses, with the result that both
more regularity of law and more variety of metre have been discovered.
The elegy in particular is found to be shaped on special lines of its
own. It has been pointed out that a peculiar metre is reserved for
poems of mournful reflection.

The first feature of this metre to be noted is the unusual length of
the line. In Hebrew poetry, according to the generally accepted
pronunciation, the lines vary from about six syllables to about
twelve. In the elegy the line most frequently runs to the extreme
limit, and so acquires a slow, solemn movement.

A second feature of elegiac poetry is the breaking of the lengthy line
into two unequal parts--the first part being about as long as a whole
line in an average Hebrew lyric, and the second much shorter, reading
like another line abbreviated, and seeming to suggest that the weary
thought is waking up and hurrying to its conclusion. Sometimes this
short section is a thin echo of the fuller conception that precedes,
sometimes the completion of that conception. In the English version,
of course, the effect is frequently lost; still occasionally it is
very marked, even after passing through this foreign medium. Take, for
example, the lines,

  "Her princes are become like harts--that find no pasture,
  And they are gone without strength--before the pursuer;"[87]

or again the very long line,

  "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed--because His
        compassions fail not."[88]

  [87] i. 6.

  [88] iii. 22.

Now although this is only a structural feature it points to inferences
of deeper significance. It shews that the Hebrew poets paid special
attention to the elegy as a species of verse to be treated apart, and
therefore that they attached a peculiar significance to the ideas and
feelings it expresses. The ease with which the transition to the
elegiac form of verse is made whenever an occasion for using it occurs
is a hint that this must have been familiar to the Jews. Possibly it
was in common use at funerals in the dirge. We meet with an early
specimen of this verse in Amos, when, just after announcing that he is
about to utter a _lamentation_ over the house of Israel, the herdsman
of Tekoa breaks into elegiacs with the words,

  "The virgin daughter of Israel is fallen--she shall no more rise:
  She is cast down upon her land--there is none to raise her up."[89]

  [89] Amos v. 2.

Similarly constructed elegiac pieces are scattered over the Old
Testament scriptures from the eighth century B.C. onwards. Several
illustrations of this peculiar kind of metre are to be found in the
Psalms. It is employed ironically with terrible effect in the Book of
Isaiah, where the mock lament over the death of the king of Babylon is
constructed in the form of a true elegy. When the prophet made a
sudden transition from his normal style to sombre funereal measures
his purpose would be at once recognised, for his words would sound
like the tolling bell and the muffled drums that announce the march
of death; and yet it would be known that this solemn pomp was not
really a demonstration of mourning or a symbol of respect, but only
the pageantry of scorn and hatred and vengeance. The sarcasm would
strike home with the more force since it fell on men's ears in the
heavy, lingering lines of the elegy, as the exultant patriot

  "How hath the oppressor ceased--the golden city ceased!
  The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked--the sceptre of the
        rulers," etc.[90]

  [90] Isa. xiv. 4 _ff._

A special characteristic of the five elegies that make up the Book of
Lamentations is their alphabetical arrangement. Each elegy consists of
twenty-two verses, the same number as that of the letters in the
Hebrew alphabet. All but the last are acrostics, the initial letter of
each verse following the order of the alphabet. In the third elegy
every line in the verse begins with the same letter. According to
another way of reckoning, this poem consists of sixty-six verses
arranged in triplets, each of which not only follows the order of the
alphabet with its first letter, but also has this initial letter
repeated at the beginning of each of its three verses. Alphabetical
acrostics are not unknown elsewhere in the Old Testament; there are
several instances of them in the Psalms.[91] The method is generally
thought to have been adopted as an expedient to assist the memory.
Clearly it is a somewhat artificial arrangement, cramping the
imagination of the poet; and it is regarded by some as a sign of
literary decadence. Whatever view we may take of it from the
standpoint of purely artistic criticism, we can derive one important
conclusion concerning the mental attitude of the writer from a
consideration of the elaborate structure of the verse. Although this
poetry is evidently inspired by deep emotion--emotion so profound that
it cannot even be restrained by the stiffest vesture--still the author
is quite self-possessed: he is not at all over-mastered by his
feelings; what he says is the outcome of deliberation and reflection.

  [91] _E.g._, Psalms ix., x., xxv., xxxiv., xxxvii., cxix., cxlv.

Passing from the form to the substance of the elegy, our attention is
arrested on the threshold of the more serious enquiry by another link
of connection between the two. In accordance with a custom of which we
have other instances in the Hebrew Bible, the first word in the text
is taken as the title of the book. The haphazard name is more
appropriate in this case than it sometimes proves to be, for the first
word of the first chapter--the original Hebrew for which is the Jewish
title of the book--is "How." Now this is a characteristic word for the
commencement of an elegy. Three out of the five elegies in
Lamentations begin with it; so does the mock elegy in Isaiah.
Moreover, it is not only suggestive of the form of a certain kind of
poetry; it is a hint of the spirit in which that poetry is conceived;
it strikes the key-note for all that follows. Therefore it may not be
superfluous for us to consider the significance of this little word in
the present connection.

In the first place, it is a sort of note of exclamation prefixed to
the sentence it introduces. Thus it infuses an emotional element into
the statements which follow it. The word is a relic of the most
primitive form of language. Judging from the sounds produced by
animals and the cries of little children, we should conclude that the
first approach to speech would be a simple expression of
excitement--a scream of pain, a shout of delight, a yell of rage, a
shriek of surprise. Next to the mere venting of feeling comes the
utterance of desire--a request, either for the possession of some
coveted boon, or for deliverance from something objectionable. Thus
the dog barks for his bone, or barks again to be freed from his chain;
and the child cries for a toy, or for protection from a terror. If
this is correct it will be only at the third stage of speech that we
shall reach statements of fact pure and simple. Conversely, it may be
argued that as the progress of cultivation develops the perceptive and
reasoning faculties and corresponding forms of speech, the primitive
emotional and volitional types of language must recede. Our phlegmatic
English temperament predisposes us to take this view. It is not easy
for us to sympathise with the expressiveness of an excitable Oriental
people. What to them is perfectly natural and not at all inconsistent
with true manliness strikes us as a childish weakness. Is not this a
trifle insular? The emotions constitute as essential a part of human
nature as the observing and reasoning faculties, and it cannot be
proved that to stifle them beneath a calm exterior is more right and
proper than to give them a certain adequate expression. That this
expression may be found even among ourselves is apparent from the
singular fact that the English, who are the most prosaic people in
their conduct, have given the world more good poetry than any other
nation of modern times; a fact which, perhaps, may be explained on the
principle that the highest poetry is not the rank outgrowth of
irregulated passions, but the cultivated fruit of deep-rooted ideas.
Still these ideas must be warmed with feeling before they will
germinate. Much more, when we are not merely interested in poetic
literature, when we are in earnest about practical actions, an
artificial restraint of the emotions must be mischievous. No doubt the
unimpassioned style has its mission--in allaying a panic, for example.
But it will not inspire men to attempt a forlorn hope. Society will
never be saved by hysterics; but neither will it ever be saved by
statistics. It may be that the exclamation _how_ is a feeble survival
of the savage _howl_. Nevertheless the emotional expression, when
regulated as the taming of the sound suggests, will always play a very
real part in the life of mankind, even at the most highly developed
stage of civilisation.

In the second place, it is to be observed that this word introduces a
tone of vagueness into the sentences which it opens. A description
beginning as these elegies begin would not serve the purpose of an
inventory of the ruins of Jerusalem such as an insurance society would
demand in the present day. The facts are viewed through an atmosphere
of feeling, so that their chronological order is confused and their
details melt one into another. That is not to say that they are robbed
of all value. Pure impressionism may reveal truths which no hard,
exact picture can render clear to us. These elegies make us see the
desolation of Jerusalem more vividly than the most accurate
photographs of the scenes referred to could have done, because they
help us to enter into the passion of the event.

With this idea of vagueness, however, there is joined a sense of
vastness. The note of exclamation is also a note of admiration. The
language is indefinite in part for the very reason that the scene
beggars description. The cynical spirit which would reduce all life
to the level of a Dutch landscape is here excluded by the
overwhelming mass of the troubles bewailed. The cataract of sorrow
awes us with the greatness of its volume and the thunder of its fall.

From suggestions thus rising out of a consideration of the opening
word of the elegy we may be led on to a perception of similar traits
in the body of this poetry. It is emotional in character; it is vague
in description; and it sets before us visions of vast woe.

But now it is quite clear that poetry such as this must be something
else than the wild expression of grief. It is a product of reflection.
The acute stage of suffering is over. The writer is musing upon a sad
past; or if at times he is reflecting on a present state of distress,
still he is regarding this as the result of more violent scenes, in
the midst of which the last thing a man would think of doing would be
to sit down and compose a poem. This reflective poetry will give us
emotion, still warm, but shot with thought.

The reflectiveness of the elegy does not take the direction of
philosophy. It does not speculate on the mystery of suffering. It does
not ask such obstinate questions, or engage in such vexatious
dialectics, as circle about the problem of evil in the Book of Job.
Leaving those difficult matters to the theologians who care to wrestle
with them, the elegist is satisfied to dwell on his theme in a quiet,
meditative mood, and to permit his ideas to flow on spontaneously as
in a reverie. Thus it happens that, artificial as is the form of his
verse, the underlying thought seems to be natural and unforced. In
this way he represents to us the afterglow of sunset which follows the
day of storm and terror.

The afterglow is beautiful--that is what the elegy makes evident. It
paints the beauty of sorrow. It is able to do so only because it
contemplates the scene indirectly, as portrayed in the mirror of
thought. An immediate vision of pain is itself wholly painful. If the
agony is intense, and if no relief can be offered, we instinctively
turn aside from the sickening sight. Only a brutalised people could
find amusement in the ghastly spectacle of the Roman amphitheatre. It
is cited as a proof of Domitian's diabolical cruelty that the emperor
would have dying slaves brought before him in order that he might
watch the facial expression of their last agonies. Such scenes are not
fit subjects for art. The famous group of the _Laocoon_ is considered
by many to have passed the boundaries of legitimate representation in
the terror and torment of its subject; and _Ecce Homos_ and pictures
of the crucifixion can only be defended from a similar condemnation
when the profound spiritual significance of the subjects is made to
dominate the bare torture. Faced squarely, in the glare of day, pain
and death are grim ogres, the ugliness of which no amount of sentiment
can disguise. You can no more find poetry in a present Inferno than
flowers in the red vomit of a live volcano. Men who have seen war tell
us they have discovered nothing attractive in its dreadful scenes of
blood and anguish and fury. What could be more revolting to
contemplate than the sack of a city,--fire and sword in every street,
public buildings razed to the ground, honoured monuments defaced,
homes ravaged, children torn from the arms of their parents, young
girls dragged away to a horrible fate, lust, robbery, slaughter
rampant without shame or restraint, the wild beast in the conquerors
let loose, and a whole army, suddenly freed from all rules of
discipline, behaving like a swarm of demons just escaped from hell.
To think of cultivating art or poetry in the presence of such scenes
would be as absurd as to attempt a musical entertainment among the
shrieks of lost souls.

The case assumes another aspect when we pass from the region of
personal observation to that of reflection. There is no beauty in the
sight of a captured castle immediately after the siege which ended in
its fall, its battlements shattered, its walls seamed with cracks,
here and there a breach, rough and ragged, and strewn with stones and
dust. And yet, by slow degrees and in imperceptible ways, time and
nature will transform the scene until moss-grown walls and ivy-covered
towers acquire a new beauty only seen among ruins. Nature heals and
time softens, and between them they throw a mantle of grace over the
scars of what were once ugly, gaping wounds. Pain as it recedes into
memory is transmuted into pathos; and pathos always fascinates us with
some approach to beauty. If it is true that

  "Poets learn in sorrow what they teach in song,"

must it not be also the fact that sorrow while inspiring song is
itself glorified thereby? To use suffering merely as the food of
æstheticism would be to degrade it immeasurably. We should rather put
the case the other way. Poetry saves sorrow from becoming sordid by
revealing its beauty, and in epic heroism even its sublimity. It helps
us to perceive how much more depth there is in life than was apparent
under the glare and glamour of prosperity. Some of us may recollect
how shallow and shadowy our own lives were felt to be in the simple
days before we had tasted the bitter cup. There was a hunger then for
some deeper experience which seemed to lie beyond our reach. While we
naturally shrank from entering the _via dolorosa_, we were dimly
conscious that the pilgrims who trod its rough stones had discovered a
secret that remained hidden from us, and we coveted their attainment,
although we did not envy the bitter experience by which it had been
acquired. This feeling may have been due in part to the foolish
sentimentality that is sometimes indulged in by extreme youth; but
that is not the whole explanation of it, for when our path conducts us
from the flat, monotonous plain of ease and comfort into a region of
chasms and torrents, we do indeed discover an unsuspected depth in
life. Now it is the mission of the poetry of sorrow to interpret this
discovery to us. At least it should enable us to read the lessons of
experience in the purest light. It is not the task of the poet to
supply a categorical answer to the riddle of the universe; stupendous
as that task would be, it must be regarded as quite a prosaic one.
Poetry will not fit exact answers to set questions, for poetry is not
science; but poetry will open deaf ears and anoint blind eyes to
receive the voices and visions that haunt the depths of experience.
Thus it leads on to--

                  "that blessed mood,
  In which the burden of the mystery,
  In which the heavy and the weary weight
  Of all this unintelligible world
  Is lightened."

It may not be obvious to the reader of an elegy that this function is
discharged by such a poem, for elegiac poetry seems to aim at nothing
more than the thoughtful expression of grief. Certainly it is neither
didactic nor metaphysical. Nevertheless in weaving a wreath of
imagination round the sufferings it bewails it cannot but clothe them
with a rich significance. It would seem to be the mission of the five
inspired elegies contained in the Book of Lamentations thus to
interpret the sorrows of the Jews, and through them the sorrows of



As we pass out of Jerusalem by the Damascus Gate, and follow the main
north road, our attention is immediately arrested by a low hill of
grey rock sprinkled with wild flowers, which is now attracting
peculiar notice because it has been recently identified with the
"Golgotha" on which our Lord was crucified. In the face of this hill a
dark recess--faintly suggestive of the eye-socket, if we may suppose
the title "Place of a skull" to have arisen from a fancied resemblance
to a goat's skull--is popularly known as "Jeremiah's grotto," and held
by current tradition to be the retreat where the prophet composed the
five elegies that constitute our Book of Lamentations. Clambering with
difficulty over the loose stones that mark the passage of winter
torrents, and reaching the floor of the cave, we are at once struck by
the suspicious aptness of the "sacred site." In a solitude singularly
retired, considering the proximity of a great centre of population,
the spectator commands a full view of the whole city, its embattled
walls immediately confronting him, with clustered roofs and domes in
the rear. What place could have been more suitable for a poetic lament
over the ruins of fallen Jerusalem? Moreover, when we take into
account the dread associations derived from the later history of the
Crucifixion, what could be more fitting than that the mourning
patriot's tears for the woes of his city should have been shed so near
to the very spot where her rejected Saviour was to suffer? But
unfortunately history cannot be constructed on the lines of harmonious
sentiments. When we endeavour to trace the legend that attributes the
Lamentations to Jeremiah back to its source we lose the stream some
centuries before we arrive at the time of the great prophet. No doubt
for ages the tradition was undisputed; it is found both in Jewish and
in Christian literature--in the Talmud and in the Fathers. Jerome
popularised it in the Church by transferring it to the Vulgate, and
before this Josephus set it down as an accepted fact. It is pretty
evident that each of these parallel currents of opinion may have been
derived from the Septuagint, which introduces the book with the
sentence, "And it came to pass, after Israel had been carried away
captive, and Jerusalem had become desolate, that Jeremiah sat weeping,
and lamented with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and said," etc.
Here our upward progress in tracking the tradition is stayed; no more
ancient authority is to be found. Yet we are still three hundred years
from the time of Jeremiah! Of course it is only reasonable to suppose
that the translators of the Greek version did not make their addition
to the Hebrew text at random, or without what they deemed sufficient
grounds. Possibly they were following some documentary authority, or,
at least, some venerable tradition. Of this we know nothing.
Meanwhile, it must be observed that no such statement exists in the
Hebrew Bible; and it would never have been omitted if it had been
there originally.

One other witness has been adduced, but only to furnish testimony of
an obscure and ambiguous character. In 2 Chron. xxxv. 25 we read,
"And Jeremiah lamented for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing
women spake of Josiah in their lamentations, unto this day; and they
made them an ordinance in Israel; and, behold, they are written in the
lamentations." Josephus, and Jerome after him, appear to assume that
the chronicler is here referring to our Book of Lamentations. That is
very questionable; for the words describe an elegy on Josiah, and our
book contains no such elegy. Can we suppose that the chronicler
assumed that inasmuch as Jeremiah was believed to have written a
lament for the mourners to chant in commemoration of Josiah, this
would be one of the poems preserved in the collection of Jerusalem
elegies familiar to readers of his day? Be that as it may, the
chronicler wrote in the Grecian period, and therefore his statements
come some long time after the date of the prophet.

In this dearth of external testimony we turn to the book itself for
indications of origin and authorship. The poems make no claim to have
been the utterances of Jeremiah; they do not supply us with their
author's name. Therefore there can be no question of genuineness, no
room for an ugly charge of "forgery," or a delicate ascription of
"pseudonymity," The case is not comparable to that of 2 Peter, or even
to that of Ecclesiastes--the one of which directly claims apostolic
authority, and the other a "literary" association with the name of
Solomon. It is rather to be paralleled with the case of the Epistle to
the Hebrews, a purely anonymous work. Still there is much which seems
to point to Jeremiah as the author of these intensely pathetic
elegies. They are not like MacPherson's _Ossian_; nobody can question
their antiquity. If they were not quite contemporaneous with the
scenes they describe so graphically they cannot have originated much
later; for they are like the low wailings with which the storm sinks
to rest, reminding us how recently the thunder was rolling and the
besom of destruction sweeping over the land. Among the prophets of
Israel Jeremiah was the voice crying in the wilderness of national
ruin; it is natural to suppose that he too was the poet who poured out
sad thoughts of memory in song at a later time when sorrow had leisure
for reflection. His prophecies would lead us to conclude that no Jew
of those dark days could have experienced keener pangs of grief at the
incomparable woes of his nation. He was the very incarnation of
patriotic mourning. Who then would be more likely to have produced the
national lament? Here we seem to meet again none other than the man
who exclaimed, "Oh that I could comfort myself against sorrow! my
heart is faint within me"[92] and again, "Oh that my head were waters,
and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for
the slain of the daughter of my people."[93] Many points of
resemblance between the known writings of Jeremiah and these poems may
be detected. Thus Jeremiah's "Virgin daughter" of God's people
reappears as the "Virgin daughter of Judah." In both the writer is
oppressed with fear as well as grief; in both he especially denounces
clerical vices, the sins of the two rival lines of religious leaders,
the priests and the prophets; in both he appeals to God for
retribution. There is a remarkable likeness in tone and temper
throughout between the two series of writings. It would be possible to
adduce many purely verbal marks of similarity; the commentator on
Lamentations most frequently illustrates the meaning of a word by
referring to a parallel usage in Jeremiah.

  [92] Jer. viii. 18.

  [93] Jer. ix. 1.

On the other hand, several facts raise difficulties in the way of our
accepting of the hypothesis of a common authorship. The verbal
argument is precarious at best; it can only be fully appreciated by
the specialist, and if accepted by the general reader, it must be
taken on faith. Of course this last point is no valid objection to the
real worth of the argument in itself; it cannot be maintained that
nothing is true which may not be reduced to the level of the meanest
intelligence, or the "differential calculus" would be a baseless
fable. But when the specialists disagree, even the uninitiated have
some excuse for holding the case to be not proved for either side; and
it is thus with the resemblances and the differences between Jeremiah
and Lamentations, long lists of phrases used in common being balanced
with equally long lists of peculiarities found in one only of the two
books in question. The strongest objection to the theory that Jeremiah
was the author of the Lamentations, however, is one that can be more
readily grasped. These poems are most elaborately artistic in form,
not to say artificial. Now the objection which is roused by that fact
is not simply due to the loose and less shapely construction of the
prophecies; for it may justly be urged that the literary designs
entertained by the prophet in the leisure of his later years may have
led him to cultivate a style which would have been quite unsuitable
for his practical preaching or for the political pamphlets he used to
fling off in the heat of conflict. It originates in deeper
psychological contradictions. Is it possible that the man who had shed
bitterest tears, as from his very heart, in the dismal reality of
misery, could play with his troubles in fanciful acrostics? Can we
imagine a leading actor in the tragedy turning the events through
which he had passed into materials for æsthetic treatment? Can we
credit this of so intense a soul as Jeremiah? The composition of _In
Memoriam_ may be cited as an instance of the production of highly
artistic poetry under the influence of keen personal sorrow. But the
case is not parallel; for Tennyson was a passive mourner over the loss
of a friend under circumstances with which he had no connection, while
Jeremiah had contended strenuously for years on the field of action.
Could a man with such a history have set himself to work up its most
doleful experiences into the embroidery of a peculiarly artificial
form of versification? That is the gravest difficulty. Other
objections of minor weight follow. In the third elegy Jeremiah would
seem to be giving more prominence to his own personality than we
should have expected of the brave, unselfish prophet. In the fourth
the writer appears to associate himself with those Jews who were
disappointed in expecting deliverance from an Egyptian alliance, when
he complains--

  "Our eyes do yet fail in looking for our vain help:
  In watching we have watched for a nation that could not save."[94]

  [94] iv. 17.

Would Jeremiah, who bade the Jews bow to the scourge of Jehovah's
chastisement and look for no earthly deliverer, thus confess
participation in the worldly policy which he, in common with all the
true prophets, had denounced as faithless and disobedient? Then, while
sharing Jeremiah's condemnation of the priests and prophets, the
writer appears to have only commiseration for the fate of the poor
weak king Zedekiah.[95] This is very different from Jeremiah's
treatment of him.[96]

  [95] iv. 20.

  [96] Jer. lii. 2, 3.

It is not a serious objection that our poet says of Zion,

  "Yea, her prophets find no vision from the Lord,"[97]

while we know that Jeremiah had visions after the destruction of
Jerusalem,[98] because the general condition may still have been one
characterised by the silencing of the many prophets with whose oracles
the Jews had been accustomed to solace themselves in view of
threatened calamities; nor that he exclaims,

  "Shall the priest and the prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the

although Jeremiah makes no mention of this twofold assassination,
because we have no justification for the assumption that he recorded
every horror of the great tragedy; nor, again, that the author is
evidently familiar with the Book of Deuteronomy, and refers frequently
to the "Song of Moses" in particular, for this is just what we might
have expected of Jeremiah; and yet these and other similar but even
less conclusive points have been brought forward as difficulties.
Perhaps it is a more perplexing in view of the traditional hypothesis,
that the poet appears to have made use of the writings of Ezekiel.
Thus the allusion to the prophets who have "seen visions ... of vanity
and foolishness,"[100] points to the fuller description of these men
in the writings of the prophet of the exile, where the completeness of
the picture shews that the priority is with Ezekiel.[101] Similarly
the "perfection of beauty" ascribed to the daughter of Jerusalem in
the second elegy[102] reminds us of the similar phrase that occurs
more than once in Ezekiel.[103] Still, that prophet wrote before the
time to which the Lamentations introduce us, and it cannot be affirmed
that Jeremiah could not have seen his writings, or would not have
condescended to echo a phrase from them. A difficulty of a broader
character must be felt in the fact that the poems themselves give us
no hint of Jeremiah. The appearance of the five elegies in the
_Hagiographa_ without any introductory notice is a grave objection to
the theory of a Jeremiah authorship. If so famous a prophet had
composed them, would not this have been recorded? Even in the
Septuagint, where they are associated with Jeremiah, they are not
translated by the same hand as the version of the prophet's
acknowledged works. It may be that none of the objections which have
been adduced against the later tradition can be called final; nor when
regarded in their total force do they absolutely forbid the
possibility that Jeremiah was the author of the Lamentations. But then
the question is not so much one of possibility as one of probability.
We must remember that we are dealing with anonymous poems that make no
claim upon any particular author, and that we have no pleas whatever,
special or more general, on which to defend the guesses of a much
later and quite uncritical age, when people cultivated a habit of
attaching every shred of literature that had come down from their
ancestors to some famous name.

  [97] ii. 9.

  [98] _E.g._ Jer. xlii. 7.

  [99] ii. 20.

  [100] ii. 14.

  [101] _E.g._ Ezek. xii. 24, xiii. 6, 7, xxii. 28.

  [102] Lam. ii. 15.

  [103] Ezek. xxvii. 3, xxviii. 12.

Failing Jeremiah, it is not possible to hit upon any other known
person with the least assurance. Some have followed Bunsen in his
conjecture that Baruch the scribe may have been the author of the
poems. Others have suggested a member of the family of Shaphan, in
which Jeremiah found his most loyal friends.[104]

  [104] See Jer. xxvi. 24, xxix. 3_ff_, xl. 5.

It is much questioned whether the five elegies are the work of one
man. The second, the third, and the fourth follow a slightly different
alphabetical arrangement from that which is employed in the first--in
reversing the order of two letters,[105] while the internal structure
of the verses in the third shews another variation--the threefold
repetition of the acrostic. Then the personality of the poet emerges
more distinctly in the third elegy as the centre of interest--a marked
contrast to the method of the other poems. Lastly, the fifth differs
from its predecessors in several respects. Its lines are shorter; it
is not an acrostic; it is chiefly devoted to the insults heaped upon
the Jews by their enemies; and it seems to belong to a later time, for
while the four previous poems treat of the siege of Jerusalem and its
accompanying troubles, this one is concerned with the subsequent state
of servitude, and reflects on the ruin of the nation across some
interval of time. Thus the poet cries--

  "Wherefore doest thou forget us for ever,
  And forsake us _so long time_?"[106]

  [105] ע and פ.

  [106] v. 20.

A recent attempt to assign the last two elegies to the age of the
Maccabees has entirely broken down. The points of agreement with that
age which have been adduced will fit the Babylonian period equally
well, and the most significant marks of the later time are entirely
absent. Is it conceivable that a description of the persecution by
Antiochus Epiphanes would contain no hint of the martyr fidelity of
the devout Jews to their law which was so gloriously maintained under
the Maccabees? The fourth and fifth elegies are as completely silent
on this subject as the earlier elegies.

The evidence that points to any diversity of authorship is very
feeble. The fifth elegy may have been written years later than the
rest of the book, and yet it may have come from the same source, for
the example of Tennyson shews that the gift of poetry is not always
confined to but a brief interval in the poet life. The other
distinctions are not nearly so marked as some that may be observed in
the recognised poems of a single author--for example, the amazing
differences between the smooth style of _The Idylls of the King_ and
the quaint dialect of _The Northern Farmer_. Though some differences
of vocabulary have been discovered, the resemblances between all the
five poems are much more striking. In motive and spirit and feeling
they are perfectly agreed. While therefore in our ignorance of the
origin of the Lamentations, and in recognition of the variations that
have been indicated, we cannot deny that they may have been collected
from the utterances of two or even three inspired souls, neither are
we by any means forced to assent to this opinion; and under these
circumstances it will be justifiable as well as convenient to refer to
the authorship of Lamentations in terms expressive of a single
individual. One thing is fairly certain. The author was a
contemporary, an eye-witness of the frightful calamities he bewailed.
With all their artificiality of structure these elegies are the
outpourings of a heart moved by a near vision of the scenes of the
Babylonian invasion. The swift, vivid pictures of the siege and its
accompanying miseries force upon our minds the conclusion that the
poet must have moved in the thick of the events he narrates so
graphically, although, unlike Jeremiah, he does not seem to have been
a leading actor in them. Children cry to their mothers for bread, and
faint with hunger at every street corner; the ghastly rumour goes
forth that a mother has boiled her baby; elders sit on the ground in
silence; young maidens hang their heads despairing; princes tremble in
their helplessness; the enemy break through the walls, carry havoc
into the city, insolently trample the sacred courts of the temple;
even the priest and the prophet do not escape in the indiscriminate
carnage; wounded people are seen, with blood upon their garments,
wandering aimlessly like blind men; the temple is destroyed, its rich
gold bedimmed with smoke, and the city herself left waste and
desolate, while the exultant victors pour ridicule over the misery of
their prey. A later generation would have blurred the outline of these
scenes, regarding them through the shifting mists of rumour, with more
or less indistinctness. Besides, the motive for the composition of
such elegies would vanish with the lapse of time. Still some few years
must be allowed for the patriot's brooding over the scenes he had
witnessed, until the memory of them had mellowed sufficiently for them
to become the subjects of song. The fifth elegy, at all events,
implies a considerable interval. Jerusalem was destroyed in the year
B.C. 587; therefore we may safely date the poems from about B.C. 550
onwards--_i.e._, at some time during the second half of the sixth
century. What is of more moment for us to know is that we have here no
falsetto notes, such as we may sometimes detect in Virgil's exquisite
descriptions of the siege of Troy, for the poet has witnessed the
fiery ordeal the recollection of which now inspires his song. Thus out
of the unequalled woes of Jerusalem destroyed he has provided for all
ages the typical, divinely inspired expression of sorrow--primarily
the expression of sorrow--and then associated with this some pregnant
hints both of its dark relationship to sin and of its higher
connection with the purposes of God.



No more pathetic subject ever inspired a poet than that which became
the theme of the Lamentations. Wave after wave of invasion had swept
over Jerusalem, until at length the miserable city had been reduced to
a heap of ruins. After the decisive defeat of the Egyptians at the
great battle of Carchemish during the reign of Jehoiakim,
Nebuchadnezzar broke into Jerusalem and carried off some of the sacred
vessels from the temple, leaving a disorganised country at the mercy
of the wild tribes of Bedouin from beyond the Jordan. Three months
after the accession of Jehoiakin, the son of Jehoiakim, the Chaldæans
again visited the city, pillaged the temple and the royal palace, and
sent the first band of captives, consisting of the very élite of the
citizens, with Ezekiel among them, into captivity at Babylon. This was
only the beginning of troubles. Zedekiah, who was set up as a mere
vassal king, intrigued with Pharaoh Hophra, a piece of folly which
called down upon himself and his people the savage vengeance of
Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem now suffered all the horrors of a siege,
which lasted for a year and a half. Famine and pestilence preyed upon
the inhabitants; and yet the Jews were holding out with a stubborn
resistance, when the invaders effected an entrance by night, and were
encamped in the temple court before the astonished king was aware of
their presence. Zedekiah then imitated the secrecy of his enemies.
With a band of followers he crept out of one of the eastern gates, and
fled down the defile towards the Jordan; but he was overtaken near
Jericho, and conveyed a prisoner to Riblah; his sons were killed in
his very presence, his eyes were burnt out, and the wretched man sent
in chains to Babylon. The outrages perpetrated against the citizens at
Jerusalem as well as the sufferings of the fugitives were such as are
only possible in barbarous warfare. Finally the city was razed to the
ground and her famous temple burnt.

The Lamentations bewail the fall of a city. In this respect they are
unlike the normal type of elegiac poetry. As a rule, the elegy is
personal in character and individualistic, mourning the untimely death
of some one beloved friend of the writer. It is the revelation of a
private grief, although with a poet's privilege its author calls upon
his readers to share his sorrow. In the classic model of this order of
verse Milton justifies the intrusion of his distress upon the peace of
nature by exclaiming--

  "For Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,
  Young Lycidas, and hath not left his peer.
  Who would not sing for Lycidas?"

And Shelley, while treating his theme in an ethereal, fantastic way,
still represents Alastor, the Spirit of Solitude, in the person of one
who has just died, when he cries--

                            "But thou art fled,
  Like some frail exhalation which the dawn
  Robes in its golden beams,--ah! thou hast fled!
  The brave, the gentle, and the beautiful,
  The child of grace and genius."

Gray's well-known elegy, it is true, is not confined to the fate of a
single individual; the churchyard suggests the pathetic reflections of
the poet on the imaginary lives and characters of many past
inhabitants of the village. Nevertheless these cross the stage one by
one; the village itself has not been destroyed, like Goldsmith's
"Sweet Auburn." Jeremiah's lamentation on the death of Josiah must
have been a personal elegy; so was the scornful lament over the king
of Babylon in Isaiah. But now we have a different kind of subject in
the Book of Lamentations. Here it is the fate of Jerusalem, the fate
of the city itself as well as that of its citizens, that is deplored.
To rouse the imagination and awaken the sympathy of the reader Zion is
personified, and thus the poetry is assimilated in form to the normal
elegy. Still it is important for us to take note of this
distinguishing trait of the Lamentations; they bewail the ruin of a

Poetry inspired with this intention must acquire a certain breadth not
found in more personal effusions. Too much indulgence in private grief
cannot but produce a narrowing effect upon the mind. Intense pain is
as selfish as intense pleasure. We may mourn our dead until we have no
room left in our sympathies for the great ocean of troubles among the
living that surges round the little island of our personal interests.

This misfortune is escaped in the Lamentations. Close as is the poet's
relations with the home of his childhood, there is still some approach
to altruism in his lament over the desolation of Jerusalem viewed as a
whole, rather than over the death of his immediate friends alone.
There is a largeness, too, in it. We find it difficult to recover the
ancient feeling for the city. Our more important towns are so huge
and shapeless that the inhabitants fail to grasp the unity, the
wholeness of the wilderness of streets and houses; and yet they so
effectually overshadow the smaller towns that these places do not
venture to assume much civic pride. Besides, one general tendency of
modern life is individualistic. Even the more recent attempts to rouse
interest in comprehensive social questions are conceived in a spirit
of sympathy for the individual rights and needs of the people, and do
not spring from any great concern for the prosperity of the
corporation as such. No doubt this is an indication of a movement in a
right direction. The old civic idea was too abstract; it sacrificed
the citizens to the city, beautifying the public buildings in the most
costly manner, while the people were crowded in miserable dens to rot
and die unseen and unpitied. We substitute sanitation for splendour.
This is more sensible, more practical, more humane, if it is more
prosaic; for life is something else than poetry. Still it may be worth
while asking whether in aiming at a useful, homely object it is so
essential to abandon the old ideal altogether, because it cannot be
denied that the price we pay is seen in a certain dinginess and
commonness of living. Is it necessary that philanthropy should always
remain Philistine?

The largeness of view which breaks upon us when we begin to think of
the city as a whole rather than only of a number of isolated
individuals is more than a perception of mass and magnitude. The city
is an organism; and not like an animal of the lower orders, such as
the _anelids_ or _centipedes_, in which every segment is simply a
_replica_ of its neighbour, it is an organism maintained in efficiency
by means of a great variety of mutual ministeries. Thus it is a unit
in itself more elaborately differentiated, and therefore in a sense
higher in the scale of being than its constituent elements, the
individual inhabitants. The destruction of a city constituted in this
way is a serious loss to the world. Even if no one inhabitant is
killed, and quite apart from the waste of property and the ruin of
commerce, the dissolution of the organism leaves a tremendous gap. The
scattered people may acquire a new prosperity in the land of their
exile, but still the city will have vanished. The Jews survived the
destruction of Jerusalem; yet who shall estimate the loss that this
destruction of their national capital involved?

Then the city being a definite organic unit has its own history, a
history which is immensely more than the sum of the biographies of its
inhabitants--stretching down from remote ages, and joining the distant
past with present days. Here, then, time adds to the largeness of the
city idea. The brevity of life seems to assign a petty part to the
individual. But that brevity vanishes in the long, continuous story of
an ancient city. A man may well be proud of his connection with such a
record, unless it be one of wickedness and shame; and even in that
case his relations to a great city deepen and widen his life, though
the result may be, as it was with the devout Jew, to induce grief and
humiliation. But Jerusalem had her records of glory as well as her
tales of shame. The city of David and Solomon held garnered stores of
legend and history, in the rich memories of which each of her children
had a heritage. The overthrow of Jerusalem was the dissipation of a
great inheritance.

And this is not all. The city has its own peculiar character--a
character which is not only more than a summary of the morals and
manners of the men and women who live in it, but also unique when
compared with other cities. Every city that can boast of real civic
life has its distinctive individuality; and often this is as striking
as the individuality of any private person. Birmingham is very unlike
Manchester; nobody could mistake Glasgow for Edinburgh. London, Paris,
Berlin, Rome, Melbourne, New York--each of these cities is unique. The
particular city may be said to be the only specimen of its kind. If
one is blotted out the type is lost; there is no duplicate. Athens and
Sparta, Rome and Carthage, Florence and Venice, were rivals which
could never take the place of one another. Most assuredly Jerusalem
stood alone, stamped with a character which no other place in the
world approached, and charged with a perfectly unique mission. For
such a city to vanish off the face of the earth was the impoverishment
of the world in the loss of what no nation in all the four continents
could ever supply.

In saying this we must be careful to avoid the anachronism of reading
into the present situation the after history of the sacred city and
the character therein evolved. In the days before the exile Jerusalem
was not the holy place that Ezra and Nehemiah subsequently laboured to
make of it. Still looking back across the centuries we can see what
perhaps the contemporaries could not discover, that the peculiar
destiny of Jerusalem was already shaping itself in history. At the
time, to the patriotic devotion of the mourning Jews, she was their
old home, the happy dwelling-place of their childhood, the shrine of
their fathers' sepulchres--Nehemiah's thought about the city even at a
later date;[107] in a word, the ancient centre of national life and
union, strength and glory. But another and a higher meaning was
beginning to gather about the word Jerusalem, a meaning which has come
in course of time to give this city a place quite solitary and
unrivalled in all history. Jerusalem is now revered as the religious
centre of the world's life. Even in this early age she was beginning
to earn her lofty character. Josiah's reformation had so far succeeded
that the temple of Solomon had been pronounced the centre of the
worship of Jehovah. Then these elegies bear witness to the importance
of the national festivals, which were all held at the capital, and
which were all of a religious nature. It is impossible to conjecture
what would have been the course of the religious history of the world
if Jerusalem had been blotted out for ever at this period of the life
of the city. More than five centuries later Jesus Christ declared that
the _time_ had come when neither at the Samaritan mountain nor at
Jerusalem should men worship the Father, because God is spirit and can
only be worshipped in spirit and in truth. Thus the possibility of
this spiritual worship which was independent of the sanctity of any
place was a question of time. The time for it had only just arrived
when our Lord made His great declaration. Of course the calendar could
not rule this matter; it was not essentially an affair of dates. But
the world required all those intervening ages to ripen into fitness
for the lofty act of purely spiritual worship; and even then the great
advance was not made by a process of simple development. It was
necessary for Christ to come, both to reveal the higher nature of
worship by revealing the higher nature of Him who was the object of
worship, and also to bestow the spiritual grace through which men and
women could practise the true worship. Therefore these very words of
our Lord which proclaim the absolute spirituality of worship for those
who have attained to His teaching most plainly imply that such worship
must have been beyond the reach of average people, at all events, in
earlier ages. Jerusalem, then, was needed to serve as the cradle of
the religion revealed through her prophets. When her wings had grown
religion could dispense with the nest; but in her unfledged condition
the destruction of the local shelter threatened the death of the

  [107] Neh. ii. 3.

There is a hopeful side to these reflections. A city with such a
character may be said to bear the seeds of her own revival. Her
individuality has that within it which fights against extinction. To
put it another way, the idea of the city is too marked and too
attractive for its privileged custodians to let it fade out of their
minds, or to rest satisfied without attempting once more to have it
realised in visible form. Carthage might perish; for Carthage had few
graces wherewith to stir the enthusiasm of her citizens. Rome, on the
other hand, had developed a character and a corresponding destiny of
her own; and therefore she could not be blotted out by savage Huns or
Vandal hosts. The genius for government, unapproached by any other
city, could not be suppressed by the worst ravages of the invader.
Even when political supremacy had passed away in consequence of the
vices and weakness of the degenerate citizens, the power that had
ruled the world simply took another shape and ruled the Church, the
supremacy of Rome in the papacy succeeding to the supremacy of Rome in
the empire. So was it with Jerusalem. There was immortality in this
wonderful city.

We may look at the subject from two points of view. First, faith in
God encourages the hope that such a destiny as is here foreshadowed
should not be allowed to fail. So felt the prophets who were permitted
to read the counsels of God by inspired insight into the eternal
principles of His nature. These men were sure that Jerusalem must rise
again from her ashes because they knew for a certainty that her Lord
would not let His purposes concerning her be frustrated.

Then even with the limited vision which is all that can be attained
from the lower platform of historical criticism, we may see that
Jerusalem had acquired such an immortal place in the estimation of the
Jews, that the people must have clung to the idea of a restoration
till it was realised. To say this is to shew that the realisation
could not but be accomplished. Such passionate regrets as those of the
Lamentations are seeds of hope.

May we go one step further? Is not every true and deep regret a
prophecy of restoration? There is an irrecoverable past, it must be
owned. That is to say, the days that are gone cannot return, nor can
deeds once done ever be undone; the future will never be an exact
repetition of the past. But all this does not forbid the assurance
that there may be genuine restoration. Jerusalem restored was very
unlike the city whose fate the elegist bewailed; nevertheless she was
restored, and that with her essential characteristics more pronounced
than ever. Henceforth she was to be most completely what her earlier
history had only faintly adumbrated--the typical seat of religion.
Thus, though the Lamentations are not at all cheering or prophetic in
tone, or even in intention, but the very reverse, wholly mournful and
despondent, we may still detect, in the very intensity and
persistence of the sorrow they portray, gleams of hope for better
days. There is no hope in stolid indifference; it is in the penitent's
tears that we discover the prospect of his amendment. Repentance weeps
for the past, but at the same time it looks forward with a changed
mind that is the promise of better things to come. Why should not we
apply these ideas that spring from a consideration of the five Hebrew
elegies to other elegies--to the dirges that mourn the loved and dead?
If we could willingly let the departed drop out of thought we might
have little ground for believing we should ever see them again. But
sorrow for the dead immortalises them in memory. In a materialistic
view of the universe that might mean nothing but the perpetuity of a
sentiment. But then it may by itself help us to perceive the
superficiality, the utter falseness of such a view. Thus Tennyson sees
the answer to the crushing doubts of materialism and the assurance of
immortality for the departed in the strength of the love with which
they are cherished:

  "What is it all if we all of us end but in being our own corpse
        coffins at last,
  Swallowed in Vastness, lost in Silence, drowned in the deeps of
        a meaningless Past!
  What but a murmur of gnats in the gloom, or a moment's anger of bees
        in their hive?

     .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

  Peace, let it be! for I loved him, and love him for ever. The dead are
        not dead, but alive."



i. 1-7.

The first elegy is devoted to moving pictures of the desolation of
Jerusalem and the sufferings of her people. It dwells upon these
disasters themselves, with fewer references to the causes of them or
the hope of any remedy than are to be found in the subsequent poems,
simply to express the misery of the whole story. Thus it is in the
truest sense of the word a "Lamentation." It naturally divides itself
into two parts--one with the poet speaking in his own person,[108] the
other representing the deserted city herself appealing to passing
strangers and neighbouring nations, and lastly to God, to take note of
her woes.[109]

  [108] i. 1-11.

  [109] i. 12-22.

The poem opens with a very beautiful passage in which we have a
comparison of Jerusalem to a widow bereft of her children, sitting
solitary in the night, weeping sorely. It would not be just to read
into the image of widowhood ideas collected from utterances of the
prophets about the wedded union of Israel and her Lord; we have no
hint of anything of the sort here. Apparently the image is selected in
order to express the more vividly the utter lonesomeness of the city.
It is clear that the attribute "solitary" has no bearing on the
external relations of Jerusalem--her isolation among the Syrian hills,
or the desertion of her allies, mentioned a little later;[110] it
points to a more ghostly solitude, streets without traffic, tenantless
houses. The widow is solitary because she has been robbed of her
children. And in this, her desolation, _she sits_. The attitude, so
simple and natural and easy under ordinary circumstances, here
suggests a settled continuance of wretchedness; it is helpless and
hopeless. The first wild agony of the severance of the closest natural
ties has passed, and with it the stimulus of conflict; now there has
supervened the dull monotony of despair. This is the lowest depth of
misery, because it allows leisure when leisure is least welcome,
because it gives the reins to the imagination to roam over regions of
heart-rending memory or sombre apprehension, above all because there
is nothing to be done, so that the whole range of consciousness is
abandoned to pain. Many a sufferer has been saved by the healing
ministry of active duties, sometimes resented as an intrusion. It is a
fearful thing simply to sit in sorrow.

  [110] i. 2.

The mourner sits _in the night_, while the world around lies in the
peace of sleep. The darkness has fallen, yet she does not stir, for
day and night are alike to her--both dark. She is statuesque in
sorrow, petrified by pain, and yet unhappily not dead; benumbed, but
alive in every sensitive fibre of her being and terribly awake. In
this dread night of misery her one occupation is weeping. The mourner
knows how the hidden fountains of tears which have been sealed to the
world for the day will break out in the silent solitude of night;
then the bravest will "wet his couch with his tears." The forlorn
woman "weepeth sore"; to use the expressive Hebraism, "weeping she
weepeth." "Her tears are on her cheeks"; they are continually flowing;
she has no thought of drying them; there is no one else to wipe them
away. This is not the frantic torrent of youthful tears, soon to be
forgotten in sudden sunshine, like a spring shower; it is the dreary
winter rain, falling more silently, but from leaden clouds that never
break. The Hebrew poet's picture is illustrated with singular aptness
by a Roman coin, struck off in commemoration of the destruction of
Jerusalem by the army of Titus, which represents a woman seated under
a palm tree with the legend _Judæa capta_. Is it too much to imagine
that some Greek artist attached to the court of Vespasian may have
borrowed the idea for the coin from the Septuagint version of this
very passage?

The woe of Jerusalem is intensified by reason of its contrast with the
previous splendour of the proud city. She had not always appeared as a
lonely widow. Formerly she had held a high place among the
neighbouring nations--for did she not cherish memories of the great
days of her shepherd king and Solomon the magnificent? Then she ruled
provinces; now she is herself tributary. She had lovers in the old
times--a fact which points to faults of character not further pursued
at present. How opposite is the utterly deserted state into which she
is now sunk! This thought of a tremendous fall gives the greatest
force to the portrait. It is Rembrandtesque; the black shadows on the
foreground are the deeper because they stand sharply out against the
brilliant radiance that streams in from the sunset of the past. The
pitiableness of the comfortless present lies in this, that there had
been lovers whose consolations would now have been a solace; the
bitterness of the enmity now experienced is its having been distilled
from the dregs of poisoned friendship. Against the protests of her
faithful prophets Jerusalem had courted alliance with her heathen
neighbours, only to be cruelly deserted in her hour of need. It is the
old story of friendship with the world, keenly accentuated in the life
of Israel, because this favoured people had already seen glimpses of a
rich, rare privilege, the friendship of Heaven. This is the irony of
the situation; it is the tragic irony of all Hebrew history. Why were
these people so blindly infatuated that they would be perpetually
forsaking the living waters, and hewing out to themselves broken
cisterns that could hold no water? The question is only surpassed by
that of the similar folly on the part of those of us who follow their
example in spite of the warning their fate affords, failing to see
that true friendship is too exacting for ties spun from mere
convenience or superficial pleasantness to bear the strain of its more
serious claims.

Passing on from the poetic image to a more direct view of the drear
facts of the case, the author describes the hardships of the
fugitives--people who had fled to Egypt, the retreat of Jeremiah and
his companions. This must be the bearing of the passage which our
translators render--

  "Judah is gone into captivity because of affliction, and because of
        great servitude."

For if the topic were the captivity at Babylon it would be difficult
to see how "affliction" and "great servitude" could be treated as the
_causes_ of that disaster; were they not rather its effects? Two
solutions of this difficulty have been proposed. It has been suggested
that the captivity is here presented as a consequence of the
misconduct of the Jews in oppressing peoples subject to them. But the
abstract words will not readily bear any such meaning; we should have
expected some more explicit charge. Then it has been proposed to read
the words "out of affliction," etc., in place of the phrase "because
of affliction," etc., as though in escaping from trouble at home the
Jews had only passed into a new misfortune abroad. This is not so
simple an explanation of the poet's language as that at which we
arrive by the perfectly legitimate substitution of the word "exile"
for "captivity." It may seem strange that the statement should be
affirmed of "Judah," as though the whole nation had escaped to Egypt;
but it would be equally inexact to say that "Judah" was carried
captive to Babylon, seeing that only a selection from the upper
classes was deported, while the majority of the people was probably
left in the land. But so many of the Jews, especially those best known
to the poet, were in voluntary exile, that it was quite natural for
him to regard them as virtually the nation. Now upon these refugees
three troubles fall. First, the asylum is a heathen country,
abominable to pious Israelites. Second, even here the fugitives have
no rest; they are not allowed to settle down; they are perpetually
molested. Third, on the way thither they are harassed by the enemy.
They are overtaken by pursuers "within the straits," a statement which
may be read literally; bands of Chaldæans would hover about the
mountains, ready to pounce upon the disorganised groups of fugitives
as they made their way through the narrow defiles that led out of the
hill country to the southern plains. But the phrase is a familiar
Hebraism for difficulties generally. No doubt it was true of the Jews
in this larger sense that their opponents took advantage of their
straitened circumstances to vex them in every possible way. This is
just in accordance with the common experience of mankind all the world
over. But while the fact of the experience is obvious, the inference
to which it points like an arrow is obstinately eluded. Thus a
commercial man in financial straits loses his credit at the very
moment when he most needs it. We cannot say that this is a proof of
spite, or even a sign of cynical indifference; because the needy
person is really most untrustworthy, though his moral integrity may be
unshaken, seeing that his circumstances make it probable that he will
be unable to fulfil his obligations. But now it is the deeper
significance of this fact that is so persistently ignored. There is
perceptible at times in nature a law of compensation by the operation
of which misfortune is mitigated; but that merciful law is frequently
thwarted by the overbearing influence of the terrible law of the
"survival of the fittest," the gospel of the fortunate, but the
death-knell for all failures. If this is so in nature, much more does
it obtain in human society so long as selfish greed is unchecked by
higher principles. Then the world, the Godless world, can be no asylum
for the miserable and unfortunate, because it will be hard upon them
in exact proportion to the extremity of their necessities. Moreover,
the perception that this bitter truth is not a fruit of temporary
passions which may be restrained by education, but the outcome of
certain persistent principles which cannot be set aside while society
retains its present constitution, gives to it the adamantine strength
of destiny.

Coming nearer to the city in his mental vision, the poet next bewails
deserted roads; "those ways of Zion" up which the holiday folks used
to troop, clad in gay garments, with songs of rejoicing, are left so
lonely that it seems as though they themselves must be mourning. It is
in keeping with the imagery of these poems which personify the city,
to endow the very roads with fancied consciousness. This is a natural
result of intense emotion, and therefore a witness to its very
intensity. It seems as though the very earth must share in the
feelings of the man whose heart is stirred to its depths; as though
all things must be filled with the passion the waves of which flow out
to the horizon of his consciousness, till the very stones cry out.

As he approaches the city, the poet is struck with a strange, sad
sight. There are no people about the gates; yet here, if anywhere, we
should expect to meet not only travellers passing through, but also
groups of men, merchants at their traffic, arbitrators settling
disputes, friends exchanging confidences, idlers lounging about and
chewing the cud of the latest gossip, beggars winning for alms; for by
the gates are markets, _al fresco_ tribunals, open spaces for public
meetings. Formerly the life of the city was here concentrated; now no
trace of life is to be seen even at these social ganglia. The
desertion and silence of the gateways gives a shock of distress to the
visitor on entering the ruined city. More disappointments await him
within the walls. Still keeping in mind the idea of the national
festivals, and accompanying the course of them in imagination, the
poet goes up to the temple. No services are proceeding; any priests
who may be found still haunting the precincts of the charred ruins can
only sigh over their enforced idleness; the girl-choristers whose
voices would ring through the porticoes in the old times, are silent
and desolate, for their mother, Jerusalem, is herself "in bitterness."

In this part of the elegy our attention is directed to the cessation
of the happy national assemblies with their accompaniment of public
worship in songs of praise for harvest and vintage and in the awful
symbolism of the altar. The name "Zion" was associated with two
things, festivity and worship. It was a happy privilege for Israel to
have had the inspired insight as well as the courage of faith to
realise the conjunction. Even with the fuller light and larger liberty
of Christianity it is rarely acknowledged among us. Our services have
too much of the funeral dirge about them. The devout Israelite
reserved his dirge for the death of his worship. It does not seem to
have occurred to the poet that anybody could come to regard worship as
an irksome duty from which he would gladly be liberated. Are we, then,
to suppose that the Israelites who practised the crude cult that was
prevalent before the Exile, even among the true servants of Jehovah,
were indeed more devout than Christians who enjoy the privileges of
their richer revelation? Scarcely so; for it must be remembered that
we are called to a more spiritual and therefore a more difficult
worship. Inward sincerity is here of supreme importance; if this is
missing there is no worship, and without it the miserable unreality
becomes inexpressibly wearisome. No doubt it is the failure to reach
the rare altitude of its lofty ideal that makes Christian worship to
appear in the eyes of many to be a melancholy performance. But this
explanation should not be permitted to obscure the fact that true,
living, spiritual worship must be a very delightful exercise of the
soul. Perhaps one reason why this truth is not sufficiently
appreciated may be found in the very facility with which the outward
means of worship are presented to us. People who are seldom out of the
sound of church bells are inclined to grow deaf to their significance.
The Roman Christian hunted in the catacombs, the Waldensian hiding in
his mountain cave, the Covenanter meeting his fellow members of the
kirk in a remote highland glen, the backwoodsman walking fifty miles
to attend Divine service once in six months, are led by difficulty and
deprivation to perceive the value of public worship in a degree which
is surprising to people among whom it is merely an incident of
every-day life. When Zion was in ashes the memory of her festivals was
encircled with a halo of regret.

In accordance with the principle of construction which he follows
throughout--the heightening of the effect of the picture by presenting
a succession of contrasts--the poet next sets the prosperity of the
enemies of Jerusalem in close juxtaposition to the misery of those of
her people in whom it is most pitiable and startling, the children and
the princes. Men with any heart in them would wish above all things
that the innocent young members of their families should be spared;
yet the captives carried off to Babylon consisted principally of boys
and girls torn from their homes, conveyed hundreds of miles across the
desert, many of them dragged down to hideous degradation by the vices
that luxuriated in the corrupt empire of the Euphrates. The other
class of victims specially commented on is that of the princes. Not
only is the present humiliation of the nobility in sharp contrast to
their former elevation of rank, and therefore their sufferings the
more acute, but it is also to be observed that their old position of
leadership has been completely reversed. The reference must be to
Zedekiah and his courtiers.[111] These proud princes who formerly
exercised command over the multitude have become a shameful flock of
fugitives. In the expressive image of the poet, they are compared to
"harts that find no pasture"; they are like fleet wild deer, so cowed
by hunger that they meekly permit themselves to be driven by their
enemies just as if they were a herd of tame cattle.

  [111] Jer. xxxix. 4, 5.

In the middle of this comparison between the success of the conquerors
and the fate of their victims the poet inserts a pregnant sentence
which suddenly carries us off to regions of far more profound
reflection, touching upon the two sources of the ruin of Jerusalem
that lie behind the visible hand of Nebuchadnezzar and his hosts, her
own sin and the consequent wrath of her God. It flashes out as a
momentary thought, and then retires with equal suddenness, permitting
the previous current of reflections to be resumed as though unaffected
by the startling interruption. This thought will reappear, however,
with increasing fulness, shewing that it is always present to the mind
of the poet and ready to come to the surface at any moment, even when
it would seem to be inappropriate, although it can never be really
inappropriate, because it is the key to the mystery of the whole

Lastly, while the sense of a strong contrast is excited objectively by
a comparison of the placid security of the invaders with the
degradation of the fugitives, subjectively it is most vividly realised
by the sufferers themselves when they call to mind their former
happiness. Jerusalem is supposed to fall into a reverie in which she
follows the recollection of the whole series of her pleasant
experiences from far-off bygone times through an the succeeding ages
flown to the present era of calamities. This is to indulge in the
pains of memory--pains which are decidedly more acute than the
corresponding pleasures celebrated by Samuel Rogers. These pains are
doubly intense owing to the inevitable fact that the contrast is
unnaturally strained. Viewed in the softened lights of memory, the
past is strangely simplified, its mixed character is forgotten, and
many of its unpleasant features are smoothed out, so that an idyllic
charm hovers over the dream, and lends it an unearthly beauty. This is
why so many people foolishly damp the hopes of children, who, if they
are healthily constituted, ought to be anticipating the future with
eagerness, by solemnly exhorting them to make hay while the sun
shines, with the gloomy warning that the sunny season must soon pass.
Their application of the motto _carpe diem_ is not only pagan in
spirit; it is founded on an illusion. Happily there is some unreality
about most of our yearning regrets for the days that have gone. That
sweet, fair past was not so radiant as its effigy in the dreamland of
memory now appears to be; nor is the hard present so free from
mitigating circumstances as we suppose. And yet, when all is said, we
cannot find the consolation we hunger after in hours of darkness among
bare conclusions of common-sense. The grave is not an illusion, at
least when only viewed in the light of the past though even this
chill, earthy reality begins to melt into a shadow immediately the
light of the eternal future falls upon it. The melancholy that laments
the lost past can only be perfectly mastered by that Christian grace,
the hope which presses forward to a better future.



i. 8-11

The doctrinaire rigour of Judaism in its uncompromising association of
moral and physical evils has led to an unreasonable disregard for the
solid truth which lies behind this mistake. It can scarcely be said
that men are now perplexed by the problem that inspired the Book of
Job. The fall of the tower of Siloam or the blindness of a man from
his birth would not start among us the vexatious questions which were
raised in the days of our Lord. We have not accepted the Jewish theory
that the punishment of sin always overtakes the sinner in this life,
much less have we assented to the by no means necessary corollary that
all calamities are the direct penalties of the misconduct of the
sufferers, and therefore sure signs of guilt. The modern tendency is
in the opposite direction; it goes to ignore the existence of any
connection whatever between the course of the universe and human
conduct. No interference with the uniformity of the laws of nature for
retributive or disciplinary purposes can be admitted. The machinery
runs on in its grooves never deflected by any regard for our good or
bad deserts. If we dash ourselves against its wheels they will tear us
to pieces, grind us to powder; and we may reasonably consider this
treatment to be the natural punishment of our folly. But here we are
not beyond physical causation, and the drift of thought is towards
holding the belief in anything more to be a simple survival from
primitive anthropomorphic ideas of nature, a pure superstition. Is it
a pure superstition? It is time we turned to another side of the

Every strong conviction that has obtained wide recognition, however
erroneous and mischievous it may be, can be traced back to the abuse
of some solid truth. It is not the case that the universe is
constructed without any regard for moral laws. Even the natural
punishment of the violation of natural laws contains a certain ethical
element. Other considerations apart, clearly it is wrong to injure
one's health or endanger one's life by rushing headlong against the
constituted order of the universe; therefore the consequences of such
conduct may be taken as signs of its condemnation. In the case of the
sufferings of the Jews lamented by our poet the calamities were not
primarily of a physical origin; they grew out of human acts--the
accompaniments of the Chaldæan invasion. When we come to the evolution
of history we are introduced to a whole world of moral forces that are
not at work in the material universe. Nebuchadnezzar did not know that
he was the instrument of a Higher Power for the chastisement of
Israel; but the corruptions of the Jews, so ruthlessly exposed by
their prophets, had undermined the national vigour which is the chief
safeguard of a state, as surely as at a later time the corruptions of
Rome opened her gates to devastating hosts of Goths and Huns. May we
not go further, and, passing beyond the region of common observation,
discover richer indications of the ethical meanings of events in the
application to them of a real faith in God? It was his profound
theism that lay at the base of the Jew's conception of temporal
retribution, crude, hard, and narrow as this was. If we believe that
God is supreme over nature and history as well as over individual
lives, we must conclude that He will use every province of His vast
dominion so as to further His righteous purposes. If the same Spirit
reigns throughout there must be a certain harmony between all parts of
His government. The mistake of the Jew was his claim to interpret the
details of this Divine administration with a sole regard for the
minute fraction of the universe that came under his own eyes, with
blank indifference to the vast realm of facts and principles of which
he could know nothing. His idea of Providence was too shortsighted,
too parochial, in every respect too small; yet it was true in so far
as it registered the conviction that there must be an ethical
character in the government of the world by a righteous God, that the
divinely ordered course of events cannot be out of all relation to

It does not fall in with the plan of the Lamentations for this subject
to be treated so fully in these poems as it is in the stirring
exhortations of the great prophets. Yet it comes to the surface
repeatedly. In the fifth verse of the first elegy the poet attributes
the affliction of Zion to "the multitude of her transgressions"; and
he introduces the eighth verse with the clear declaration--

  "Jerusalem hath grievously sinned; therefore she has become an
        unclean thing."

The powerful Hebrew idiom according to which the cognate substance
follows the verb is here employed. Rendered literally, the opening
phrase is, "sinned sin." The experience of the chastisement leads to a
keen perception of the guilt that precedes it. This is more than a
consequence of the application of the accepted doctrine of the
connection of sin with suffering to a particular case. No intellectual
theory is strong enough by itself to awaken a slumbering conscience.
The logic may be faultless; and yet even though the point of the
syllogism is not evaded it will be coolly ignored. Trouble arouses a
torpid conscience in a much more direct and effectual way. In the
first place, it shatters the pride which is the chief hindrance to the
confession of sin. Then it compels reflection; it calls a halt, and
makes us look back over the path we may have been following too
heedlessly. Sometimes it seems to exercise a distinctly illuminating
influence. It is as though scales had fallen from the sufferer's eyes;
he sees all things in a new light, and some ugly facts which had been
lying at his side for years disregarded suddenly glare upon him as
horrible discoveries. Thus the "Prodigal Son" perceives that he has
sinned both against Heaven and against his father when he is in the
lowest depths of misery, not so much because he recognises a penal
character in his troubles, but more on account of the fact that he has
_come to himself_. This subjective, psychological connection between
suffering and sin is independent of any dogma of retribution; for the
ends of practical discipline it is the most important connection. We
may waive all discussion of the ancient Jewish problem, and still be
thankful to recognise the Elijah-like ministry of adversity.

The immediate effect of this vision of sin is that a new colour is
given to the picture of the desolation of Jerusalem. The image of a
miserable woman is preserved, but the dignity of the earlier scene is
missing here. Pathos and poetry gather round the picture of the
forlorn widow weeping for the loss of her children. Neglected and
humbled as she is in worldly estate, the tragic vastness of her sorrow
has exalted her to an altitude of moral sublimity. Such suffering
breaks through those barriers of conventional experience which make
many lives look mean and trivial. It is so awful that we cannot but
regard it with reverence. But all this is altered in the aspect of
Jerusalem which follows the confession of her great sin. In the
freedom of ancient language the poet ventures on an illustration that
would be regarded as too gross for modern literature. The limits of
our art exclude subjects which excite a sensation of disgust; but this
is just the sensation the author of the elegy deliberately aims at
producing. He paints a picture which is simply intended to sicken his
readers. The utter humiliation of Jerusalem is exhibited in the
unavoidable exposure of a condition which natural modesty would
conceal at any cost. Another contrast between the reserve of our
modern style and the rude bluntness of antiquity is here apparent. It
is not only that we have grown more refined in language--a very
superficial change which might be no better than the whitewashing of
sepulchres; over and above this civilising of mere manners, the effect
of Teutonic habits, strengthened by Christian sentiments, has been to
develop a respect for woman undreamed of in the old Eastern world. It
may be added that the scientific temper of recent times has taught us
that there is nothing really dishonouring in purely natural processes.
The ancient world could not distinguish between delicacy and shame. We
should regard a poor suffering woman whose modesty had been grievously
wounded with simple commiseration; the ancient Jews treated such a
person with disgust as an unclean creature, quite unable to see that
their conduct was simply brutal.

The new aspect of the misery of Jerusalem is thus set forth as one of
degradation and ignominy. The vision of sin is immediately followed by
a scene of shame. Commentators have been divided over the question
whether this picture of the humiliated woman is intended to apply to
the sin of the city or only to her misfortunes. In favour of the
former view, it may be remarked that uncleanness is distinctly
associated with moral corruption: the connection is the more
appropriate here inasmuch as a confession of sin immediately precedes.
On the other hand, the attendant circumstances point to the second
interpretation. It is the humiliation of the condition of the
sufferer, rather than that condition itself, which is dwelt upon.
Jerusalem is despised, "she sigheth," "is come down wonderfully,"
"hath no comforter," and is generally afflicted and oppressed by her
enemies. But while we are led to regard the pitiable picture as a
representation of the woful plight into which the proud city has
fallen, we cannot conclude it to be an accident that this particular
phase of her misery succeeds the mention of her great guilt. After
all, it is only the underlying guilt that can justify a verdict which
carries disgrace as well as suffering for its penalty. Even when the
judgments of men are too confused to recognise this truth with regard
to other people, it should be apparent to the conscience of the
humiliated person himself. The humiliation which follows nothing worse
than a fall into external misfortunes is but a superficial trouble,
and the consciousness of innocence can enable one to submit to it
without any sense of inward shame. The sting of contempt lies in the
miserable consciousness that it is deserved.

Thus we see the punishment of sin consisting in exposure. The exposure
which simply hurts natural modesty is acutely painful to a refined,
sensitive spirit; and yet the very dignity which it outrages is a
shield against the point of the insult. But where the exposure follows
sin this shield is absent. In that case the degradation of it is
without any mitigation. Nothing more may be necessary to constitute a
very severe punishment. When the secrets of all hearts are revealed
the very revelation will be a penal process. To lay bare the quivering
nerves of memory to the searching sunlight must be to torture the
guilty soul with inconceivable horrors. Nevertheless it is a matter
for profound thankfulness that there is no question of a surprising
revelation of the sinner's guilt being made to God at some future
time, some shocking discovery which might turn His lovingkindness into
wrath or contempt. We cannot have a firmer ground of joy and hope than
the fact that God knows everything about us, and yet loves us at our
worst, patiently waiting for repentance with His offer of unlimited
forgiveness. Exposure before God is like a surgical examination; the
hope of a cure, if it does not dispel the sense of humiliation--and
that is impossible in the case of guilt, the disgrace of which to a
healthy conscience is more intense before the holiness of God than
before the eyes of fellow-sinners--still encourages confidence.

The recognition of a moral lapse at the root of the shame of
Jerusalem, though not perhaps in the shame itself, is confirmed by a
phrase which reflects on the culpable heedlessness of the Jews. The
elegy deplores how the city has "come down wonderfully" on account of
the fact that "she remembered not her latter end." It is quite
confusing and incorrect to render this expression in the present
tense as it stands in the Authorised English Version. The poet cannot
mean that the Jews in exile and captivity have already forgotten the
recent horrors of the siege of Jerusalem. This would be flatly
contrary to the motive of the elegy, which is to give tongue to the
sufferings of the Jews flowing out of that disaster. It would be
impossible to say that the calamity that inspired the elegy was no
longer even remembered by its victims. What an anti-climax this would
be! Clearly the poet is bewailing the culpable folly of the people in
not giving a thought to the certain consequences of such a course as
they were following; a course that had been denounced by the faithful
prophets of Jehovah, who, alas! had been but voices crying in the
wilderness, unnoted, or even scouted and suppressed, like the stormy
petrels hated by sailors as birds of ill-omen. In her ease and
prosperity, her self-indulgence and sin, the doomed city had failed to
recollect what must be the end of such things. The idea of remembrance
is peculiarly apt and forcible in this connection, although it has a
relation to the future, because the Jews had been through experiences
which should have served as warnings if they had duly reflected on
them. This was not a matter for wild guesses or vague apprehensions.
Not only were there the distinct utterances of Jeremiah and his
predecessors to rouse the thoughtless; events had been speaking louder
than words. Jerusalem was already a city with a history, and that
history had even by this time accumulated some tragic lessons. These
were subjects for memory. Thus memory can become prophecy, because the
laws which are revealed in the past will govern the future. We are
none of us so wholly inexperienced but that in the knowledge of what
we have already been through we may gain wisdom to anticipate the
consequences of our present actions. The heedless person is one who
forgets, or at all events one who will not attend to his own memories.
Such recklessness is its own condemnation; it cannot plead the excuse
of ignorance.

But now it may be objected that this reference to the mere thought of
consequences suggests considerations that are too low to furnish the
reasons for the ruin of Jerusalem. Would the city have been spared if
only her inhabitants had been a little more foreseeing? It should be
observed that though mere prudence is never a very lofty virtue,
imprudence is sometimes a very serious fault. It cannot be right to be
simply reckless, to ignore all lessons of the past and fling oneself
blindly into the future. The hero who is sure that he is inspired by a
lofty motive may walk straight into the very jaws of death, and be all
the stronger for his noble indifference to his fate; but he who is no
hero, he who is not influenced by any great or unselfish ideas, has no
excuse for neglecting the warnings of common prudence. All wise
actions must be more or less guided with a view to their issues in the
future, although in the case of the best of them the aims will be pure
and unselfish. It is our prerogative to "look before and after"; and
just in proportion as we take long views do our deeds acquire gravity
and depth. Our Lord characterised the two ways by their ends. While
the example of the careless Jews is followed on all sides--and who of
us can deny that he has ever fallen into the negligence?--is it not a
little superfluous to discuss abstract, unpractical problems about a
remote altruism?

Intermingled with his painful picture of the humiliation and shame of
the fallen city, the poet supplies indications of the effect of all
this on the suffering citizens. Despised by all who had formerly
honoured her, Jerusalem sighs and longs to retire into obscurity, away
from the rude gaze of her oppressors.

In particular, two further signs of her distress are here given.

The first is _spoliation_. Her enemies have laid hands on "all her
pleasant things." It may strike us that, after the miseries just
narrated, this is but a minor trouble. Job's calamities began with the
loss of his property, and rose from this by degrees to the climax of
agony. If his first trouble had been the sudden death of all his
children, stunned by that awful blow, he would have cared little about
the fate of his flocks and herds. It is not according to the method of
the Lamentations, however, to move on to any climax. The thoughts are
set forth as they well up in the mind of the poet, now passionate and
intense, then again of a milder cast, yet altogether combining to
colour one picture of intolerable woe. But there is an aspect of this
idea of the robbery of the "pleasant things" which heightens the sense
of misery. It is another instance of the force of contrast so often
manifested in these elegies. Jerusalem had been a home of wealth and
luxury in the merry old days. But hoarded money, precious jewellery,
family heirlooms, products of art and skill, accumulated during
generations of prosperity and treated as necessaries of life--all had
been swept away in the sack of the city, and scattered among strangers
who could not prize them as they had been prized by their owners; and
now these victims of spoliation, stripped of everything, were in want
of daily bread. Even what little could be saved from the wreck they
had to give up in exchange for common food, bought dearly in the
market of necessity.

The second sign of the great distress here noted is _desecration_.
Gentiles invade the sacred precincts of the temple. Considering that
the sanctuary had been already much more effectually desecrated by the
blood-stained hands and lustful hearts of impious worshippers, such as
those "rulers of Sodom" denounced by Isaiah for "trampling" the courts
of Jehovah with their "vain oblations,"[112] we do not find it easy to
sympathise with this horror of a supposed defilement from the mere
presence of heathen persons. Yet it would be unjust to accuse the
shocked Israelites of hypocrisy. They ought to have been more
conscious of the one real corruption of sin; but we cannot add that
therefore their notions of external uncleanness were altogether
foolish and wrong. To judge the Jews of the age of the Captivity by a
standard of spirituality which few Christians have yet attained to
would be a cruel anachronism. The Syrian invasion of the temple in the
time of the Maccabees was called by a very late prophet an
"abomination of desolation,"[113] and a similar insult to be offered
to the sacred place by the Romans is described by our Lord in the same
terms.[114] All of us must be conscious at times of the sacredness of
associations. To botanise on his mother's grave may be a proof of a
man's freedom from superstition, but it cannot be taken as an
indication of the fineness of his feelings. The Israelite
exclusiveness which shunned the intrusion of foreigners simply because
they were foreigners was combined both with a patriotic anxiety to
preserve the integrity of the nation, and in some cases with a
religious dread of idolatry. It is true the nominal contamination of
the mere presence of Gentiles was generally more dreaded than the real
contagion of their corrupt examples. Still the very idea of
desecration, even when it is superficial, together with a sense of
pain at its presence, is higher than the materialism which despises it
not because this materialism has the grace to sanctify everything, but
for the opposite reason, because it counts nothing holy, because to it
all things are common and unclean.

  [112] Isa. i. 10-17.

  [113] Dan. xi. 31.

  [114] Mark xiii. 14.

Before we pass from this portion of the elegy there is one curious
characteristic of it which calls for notice. The poet suddenly drops
the construction in the third person and writes in the first person.
This he does twice--at the end of the ninth verse, and again at the
end of the eleventh. He might be speaking in his own person, but the
language points to the personified city. Yet in each case the outburst
is quite abrupt, sprung upon us without any introductory formula.
Possibly the explanation of this anomaly must be sought in the
liturgical use for which the poem was designed. If it was to be sung
antiphonally we may conjecture that at these places a second chorus
would break in. The result would be a startling dramatic effect--as
though the city had sat listening to the lament over her woes until
the piteous tale had compelled her to break her silence and cry aloud.
In each case the cry is directed to heaven. It is an appeal to God;
and it simply prays for His attention--"Behold, O Lord," "See, O Lord,
and behold." In the first case the Divine attention is called to the
insolence of the enemy, in the second to the degradation of Jerusalem.
Still it is only an appeal for notice. Will God but look upon all this
misery? That is sufficient.



i. 12-22

In the latter part of the second elegy Jerusalem appears as the
speaker, appealing for sympathy, first to stray, passing travellers,
then to the larger circle of the surrounding nations, and lastly to
her God. Already the suffering city has spoken once or twice in brief
interruptions of the poet's descriptions of her miseries, and now she
seems to be too impatient to permit herself to be represented any
longer even by this friendly advocate; she must come forward in person
and present her case in her own words.

There is much difference of opinion among commentators about the
rendering of the phrase with which the appeal begins. The Revisers
have followed the Authorised Version in taking it as a question--"Is
it nothing to you, all ye that pass by?"[115] But it may be treated as
a direct negative--"It is nothing," etc., or, by a slightly different
reading of the Hebrew text, as a simple call for attention--"O all ye
that pass by," etc., as in the Vulgate "_O vos_," etc. The usual
rendering is the finest in literary feeling, and it is in accordance
with a common usage. Although the sign of an interrogation, which
would set this meaning beyond dispute, is absent, there does not seem
to be sufficient reason for rejecting it in favour of one of the
proposed alternatives. But in any case the whole passage evidently
expresses a deep yearning for sympathy. Mere strangers, roving
Bedouin, any people who may chance to be passing by Jerusalem, are
implored to behold her incomparable woes. The wounded animal creeps
into a corner to suffer and die in secret, perhaps on account of the
habit of herds, in tormenting a suffering mate. But among mankind the
instinct of a sufferer is to crave sympathy, from a friend, if
possible; but if such be not available, then even from a stranger. Now
although where it is possible to give effectual aid, merely to cast a
pitying look and pass by on the other side, like the priest and the
Levite in the parable, is a mockery and a cruelty, although
unpretentious indifference is better than that hypocrisy, it would be
a great mistake to suppose that in those cases for which no direct
relief can be given sympathy is of no value. This sympathy, if it is
real, would help if it could; and under all circumstances it is the
reality of the sympathy that is most prized, not its issues.

  [115] i. 12.

It should be remembered, further, that the first condition of active
aid is a genuine sense of compassion, which can only be awakened by
means of knowledge and the impressions which a contemplation of
suffering produce. Evil is wrought not only from want of thought, but
also from lack of knowledge; and good-doing is withheld for the same
reason. Therefore the first requisite is to arrest attention. A royal
commission is the reasonable precursor of a state remedy for some
public wrong. Misery is permitted to flourish in the dark because
people are too indolent to search it out. No doubt the knowledge of
sufferings which we might remedy implies a grave responsibility; but
we cannot escape our obligations by simply closing our eyes to what we
do not wish to see. We are responsible for our ignorance and its
consequences wherever the opportunity of knowledge is within our

The appeal to all who pass by is most familiar to us in its later
association with our Lord's sufferings on the cross. But this is not
in any sense a Messianic passage; it is confined in its purpose to the
miseries of Jerusalem. Of course there can be no objection to
illustrating the grief and pain of the Man of Sorrows by using the
classic language of an ancient lament if we note that this is only an
illustration. There is a kinship in all suffering, and it is right to
consider that He who was tried in all points as we are tried passed
through sorrows which absorbed all the bitterness even of such a cup
of woe as that which was drunk by Jerusalem in the extremity of her
misfortunes. If never before there had been sorrow like unto her
sorrow, at length that was matched, nay, surpassed at Gethsemane and
Golgotha. Still it would be a mistake to confine these words to their
secondary application--not only an exegetical mistake, but one of
deeper significance. Jesus Christ restrained the wailing of the women
who offered Him their compassion on His way to the cross, bidding them
weep not for Him, but for themselves and their children.[116] Much
more when His passion is long past and He is reigning in glory must it
be displeasing to Him for His friends to be wasting idle tears over
the sufferings of His earthly life. The morbid sentimentality which
broods over the ancient wounds of Christ, the nail prints and the
spear thrust, but ignores the present wounds of society--the wounds
of the world for which He bled and died, or the wounds of the Church
which is His body now, must be wrong in His sight. He would rather we
gave a cup of cold water to one of His brethren than an ocean of tears
to the memory of Calvary. If then we would make use of the ruined
city's appeal for sympathy by applying it to some later object it
would be more in agreement with the mind of Christ to think of the
miseries of mankind in our own day, and to consider how a sympathetic
regard for them may point to some ministry of alleviation.

  [116] Luke xxiii. 28.

In order to impress the magnitude of her miseries on the minds of the
strangers whose attention she would arrest, the city, now personified
as a suppliant, describes her dreadful condition in a series of brief,
pointed metaphors. Thus the imagination is excited; and the
imagination is one of the roads to the heart. It is not enough that
people know the bald facts of a calamity as these may be scheduled in
an inspector's report. Although this preliminary information is most
important, if we go no further the report will be replaced in its
pigeon-hole, and lie there till it is forgotten. If it is to do
something better than gather the dust of years it must be used as a
foundation for the imagination to work upon. This does not imply any
departure from truth, any false colouring or exaggeration; on the
contrary, the process only brings out the truth which is not really
seen until it is imagined. Let us look at the various images under
which the distress of Jerusalem is here presented.

It is like a fire in the bones.[117] It burns, consumes, pains with
intolerable torment; it is no skin-deep trouble, it penetrates to the
very marrow. This fire is overmastering; it is not to be quenched,
neither does it die out; it "prevaileth" against the bones. There is
no getting such a fire under.

  [117] i. 13.

It is like a net.[118] The image is changed. We see a wild creature
caught in the bush, or perhaps a fugitive arrested in his flight and
flung down by hidden snares at his feet. Here is the shock of
surprise, the humiliation of deceit, the vexation of being thwarted.
The result is a baffled, bewildered, helpless condition.

  [118] i. 13.

It is like faintness.[119] The desolate sufferer is ill. It is bad
enough to have to bear calamities in the strength of health. Jerusalem
is made sick and kept faint all the day--with a faintness that is not
a momentary collapse, but a continuous condition of failure.

  [119] _Ibid._

It is like a yoke[120] which is wreathed upon the neck--fixed on, as
with twisted withes. The poet is here more definite. The yoke is made
out of the transgressions of Jerusalem. The sense of guilt does not
lighten its weight; the band that holds it most closely is the feeling
that it is deserved. It is natural that the sinful sufferer should
exclaim that God, who has bound this terrible yoke upon her, has made
her strength to fail. As there is nothing so invigorating as the
assurance that one is suffering for a righteous cause, so there is
nothing so wretchedly depressing as the consciousness of guilt.

  [120] i. 14.

Lastly, it is like a winepress.[121] This image is elaborated with
more detail, although at the expense of unity of design. God is said
to have called a "solemn assembly" to oppress the Jews, by an ironical
reversal of the common notion of such an assembly. The language
recalls the idea of one of the great national festivals of Israel. But
now instead of the favoured people their enemies are summoned, and the
object is not the glad praise of God for his bounties in harvest or
vintage, but the crushing of the Jews. They are to be victims, not
guests as of old. They are themselves the harvest of judgment, the
vintage of wrath. The wine is to be made, but the grapes crushed to
produce it are the people who were accustomed to feast and drink of
the fruits of God's bounty in the happy days of their prosperity. So
the mighty men are set at nought, their prowess counting as nothing
against the brutal rush of the enemy; and the young men are crushed,
their spirit and vigour failing them in the great destruction.

  [121] i. 15.

The most terrible trait in these pictures, one that is common to all
of them, is the Divine origin of the troubles. It was God who sent
fire into the bones, spread the net, made the sufferer desolate and
faint. The yoke was bound by His hands. It was He who set at nought
the mighty men, and summoned the assembly of foes to crush His people.
The poet even goes so far as to make the daring statement that it was
the Lord Himself who trod the virgin daughter of Judah as in a
winepress. It is a ghastly picture--a dainty maiden trampled to death
by Jehovah as grapes are trampled to squeeze out their juice! This
horrible thing is ascribed to God! Yet there is no complaint of
barbarity, no idea that the Judge of all the earth is not doing right.
The miserable city does not bring any railing accusation against her
Lord; she takes all the blame upon herself. We must be careful to bear
in mind the distinction between poetic imagery and prosaic narrative.
Still it remains true that Jerusalem here attributes her troubles to
the will and action of God. This is vital to the Hebrew faith. To
explain it away is to impoverish the religion of Israel, and with it
the Old Testament revelation. That revelation shews us the absolute
sovereignty of God, and at the same time it brings out the guilt of
man, so that no room is allowed for complaints against the Divine
justice. The grief is all the greater because there is no thought of
rebellion. The daring doubts that struggle into expression in Job
never obtrude themselves here to check the even flow of tears. The
melancholy is profound, but comparatively calm, since it does not once
give place to anger. It is natural that the succession of images of
misery conceived in this spirit should be followed by a burst of
tears. Zion weeps because the comforter who should refresh her soul is
far away, and she is left utterly desolate.[122]

  [122] i. 16.

Here the supposed utterance of Jerusalem is broken for the poet to
insert a description of the suppliant making her piteous appeal.[123]
He shews us Zion spreading out her hands, that is to say, in the
well-known attitude of prayer. She is comfortless, oppressed by her
neighbours in accordance with the will of her God, and treated as an
unclean thing; she who had despised the idolatrous Gentiles in her
pride of superior sanctity has now become foul and despicable in their

  [123] i. 17.

The semi-dramatic form of the elegy is seen in the reappearance of
Jerusalem as speaker without any formula of introduction. After the
poet's brief interjection describing the suppliant, the personified
city continues her plaintive appeal, but with a considerable
enlargement of its scope. She makes the most distinct acknowledgment
of the two vital elements of the case--God's righteousness and her own
rebellion.[124] These carry us beneath the visible scenes of trouble
so graphically illustrated earlier, and fix our attention on
deep-seated principles. It cannot be supposed that the faith and
penitence unreservedly confessed in the elegy were truly experienced
by all the fugitive citizens of Jerusalem, though they were found in
the devout "remnant" among whom the author of the poem must be
reckoned. But the reasonable interpretation of these utterances is
that which accepts them as the inspired expressions of the thoughts
and feelings which Jerusalem ought to possess, as ideal expressions,
suitable to those who rightly appreciate the whole situation. This
fact gives them a wide applicability. The ideal approaches the
universal. Although it cannot be said that all trouble is the direct
punishment of sin, and although it is manifestly insincere to make
confession of guilt one does not inwardly admit, to be firmly settled
in the conviction that God is right in what he does even when it all
looks most wrong, that if there is a fault it must be on man's side,
is to have reached the centre of truth. This is very different from
the admission that God has the right of an absolute sovereign to do
whatever He chooses, like mad Caligula when intoxicated with his own
divinity; it even implies a denial of that supposed right, for it
asserts that He acts in accordance with something other than His will,
viz., righteousness.

  [124] i. 18.

Enlarging the area of her appeal, no longer content to snatch at the
casual pity of individual travellers on the road, Jerusalem now calls
upon all the "peoples"--i.e., all neighbouring tribes--to hear the
tale of her woes.[125] This is too huge a tragedy to be confined to
private spectators; it is of national proportions, and it claims the
attention of whole nations. It is curious to observe that foreigners,
whom the strict Jews sternly exclude from their privileges, are
nevertheless besought to compassionate their distresses. These
uncircumcised heathen are not now thrust contemptuously aside; they
are even appealed to as sympathisers. Perhaps this is meant to
indicate the vastness of the misery of Jerusalem by the suggestion
that even aliens should be affected by it; when the waves spread far
in all directions there must have been a most terrible storm at the
centre of disturbance. Still it is possible to find in this widening
outlook of the poet a sign of the softening and enlarging effects of
trouble. The very need of much sympathy breaks down the barriers of
proud exclusiveness, and prepares one to look for gracious qualities
among people who have been previously treated with churlish
indifference or positive animosity. Floods and earthquakes tame savage
beasts. On the battlefield wounded men gratefully accept relief from
their mortal enemies. Conduct of this sort may be self-regarding,
perhaps weak and cowardly; still it is an outcome of the natural
brotherhood of all mankind, any confession of which, however
reluctant, is a welcome thing.

  [125] i. 18.

The appeal to the nations contains three particulars. It deplores the
captivity of the virgins and young men; the treachery of
allies--"lovers" who have been called upon for assistance, but in
vain; and the awful fact that men of such consequence as the elders
and priests, the very aristocracy of Jerusalem, had died of
starvation after an ineffectual search for food--a lurid picture of
the horrors of the siege.[126] The details repeat themselves with but
very slight variations. It is natural for a great sufferer to revolve
his bitter morsel continuously. The action is a sign of its
bitterness. The monotony of the dirge is a sure indication of the
depth of the trouble that occasions it. The theme is only too
interesting to the mourner, however wearisome it may become to the

  [126] i. 18, 19.

In drawing to a close the appeal goes further, and, rising altogether
above man, seeks the attention of God.[127] It is not enough that
every passing traveller is arrested, nor even that the notice of all
the neighbouring nations is sought; this trouble is too great for
human shoulders to bear. It will absorb the largest mass of sympathy,
and yet thirst for more. Twice before in the first part of the elegy
the language of the poet speaking in his own person was interrupted by
an outcry of Jerusalem to God.[128] Now the elegy closes with a fuller
appeal to Heaven. This is an utterance of faith where faith is tried
to the uttermost. It is distinctly recognised that the calamities
bewailed have been sent by God; and yet the stricken city turns to God
for consolation. And the appeal is not at all in the form of a cry to
a tormentor for mercy; it seeks friendly sympathy and avenging
actions. Nothing could more clearly prove the consciousness that God
is not doing any wrong to His people. Not only is there no complaint
against the justice of His acts; in spite of them all He is still
regarded as the greatest Friend and Helper of the victims of His

  [127] i. 20-2.

  [128] i. 9, 11.

This apparently paradoxical position issues in what might otherwise be
a contradiction of thought. The ruin of Jerusalem is attributed to the
righteous judgment of God, against which no shadow of complaint is
raised; and yet God is asked to pour vengeance on the heads of the
human agents of His wrath! These people have been acting from their
own evil, or at all events their own inimical motives. Therefore it is
not held that they deserve punishment for their conduct any the less
on account of the fact that they have been the unconscious instruments
of Providence. The vengeance here sought for cannot be brought into
line with Christian principles; but the poet had never heard the
Sermon on the Mount. It would not have occurred to him that the spirit
of revenge was not right, any more than it occurred to the writers of
maledictory Psalms.

There is one more point in this final appeal to God which should be
noticed, because it is very characteristic of the elegy throughout.
Zion bewails her friendless condition, declaring, "there is none to
comfort me."[129] This is the fifth reference to the absence of a
comforter.[130] The idea may be merely introduced in order to
accentuate the description of utter desolation. And yet when we
compare the several allusions to it the conclusion seems to be forced
upon us that the poet has a more specific intention. In some cases, at
least, he seems to have one particular comforter in mind, as, for
example, when he says, "The comforter that should refresh my soul is
far from me."[131] Our thoughts instinctively turn to the Paraclete of
St. John's Gospel. It would not be reasonable to suppose that the
elegist had attained to any definite conception of the Holy Spirit
such as that of the ripe Christian revelation. But we have his own
words to witness that God is to him the supreme Comforter, is the Lord
and Giver of life who refreshes his soul. It would seem, then, that
the poet's thought is like that of the author of the twenty-second
Psalm, which was echoed in our Lord's cry of despair on the
cross.[132] When God our Comforter hides the light of His countenance
the night is most dark. Yet the darkness is not always perceived, or
its cause recognised. Then to miss the consolations of God
consciously, with pain, is the first step towards recovering them.

  [129] i. 21.

  [130] See i. 2, 9, 16, 17, 21.

  [131] i. 16.

  [132] Mark xv. 34.



ii. 1-9

The elegist, as we have seen, attributes the troubles of the Jews to
the will and action of God. In the second poem he even ventures
further, and with daring logic presses this idea to its ultimate
issues. If God is tormenting His people in fierce anger it must be
because He is their enemy--so the sad-hearted patriot reasons. The
course of Providence does not shape itself to him as a merciful
chastisement, as a veiled blessing; its motive seems to be distinctly
unfriendly. He drives his dreadful conclusion home with great
amplitude of details. In order to appreciate the force of it let us
look at the illustrative passage in two ways--first, in view of the
calamities inflicted on Jerusalem, all of which are here ascribed to
God, and then with regard to those thoughts and purposes of their
Divine Author which appear to be revealed in them.

First, then, we have the earthly side of the process. The daughter of
Zion is covered with a cloud.[133] The metaphor would be more striking
in the brilliant East than it is to us in our habitually sombre
climate. There it would suggest unwonted gloom--the loss of the
customary light of heaven, rare distress, and excessive melancholy.
It is a general, comprehensive image intended to overshadow all that
follows. Terrible disasters cover the aspect of all things from zenith
to horizon. The physical darkness that accompanied the horrors of
Golgotha is here anticipated, not indeed by any actual prophecy, but
in idea.

  [133] ii. 1.

But there is more than gloom. A mere cloud may lift, and discover
everything unaltered by the passing shadow. The distress that has
fallen on Jerusalem is not thus superficial and transient. She herself
has suffered a fatal fall. The beauty of Israel has been cast down
from heaven to earth. The language is now varied; instead of "the
daughter of Zion" we have "the beauty of Israel."[134] The use of the
larger title, "Israel," is not a little significant. It shews that the
elegist is alive to the idea of the fundamental unity of his race, a
unity which could not be destroyed by centuries of inter-tribal
warfare. Although in the ungracious region of politics Israel stood
aloft from Judah, the two peoples were frequently treated as one by
poets and prophets when religious ideas were in mind. Here apparently
the vastness of the calamities of Jerusalem has obliterated the memory
of jealous distinctions. Similarly we may see the great English
race--British and American--forgetting national divisions in pursuit
of its higher religious aims, as in Christian missions; and we may be
sure that this blood-unity would be felt most keenly under the shadow
of a great trouble on either side of the Atlantic. By the time of the
destruction of Jerusalem the northern tribes had been scattered, but
the use of the distinctive name of these people is a sign that the
ancient oneness of all who traced back their pedigree to the
patriarch Jacob was still recognised. It is some compensation for the
endurance of trouble to find it thus breaking down the middle wall of
partition between estranged brethren.

  [134] ii. 1.

It has been suggested with probability that by the expression "the
beauty of Israel" the elegist intended to indicate the temple. This
magnificent pile of buildings, crowning one of the hills of Jerusalem,
and shining with gold in "barbaric splendour," was the central object
of beauty among all the people who revered the worship it enshrined.
Its situation would naturally suggest the language here employed.
Jerusalem rises among the hills of Judah, some two thousand feet above
the sea-level; and when viewed from the wilderness in the south she
looks indeed like a city built in the heavens. But the physical
exaltation of Jerusalem and her temple was surpassed by exaltation in
privilege, and prosperity, and pride. Capernaum, the vain city of the
lake that would raise herself to heaven, is warned by Jesus that she
shall be cast down to Hades.[135] Now not only Jerusalem, but the
glory of the race of Israel, symbolised by the central shrine of the
national religion, is thus humiliated.

  [135] Matt. xi. 23.

Still keeping in mind the temple, the poet tells us that God has
forgotten His footstool. He seems to be thinking of the Mercy-Seat
over the ark, the spot at which God was thought to shew Himself
propitious to Israel on the great Day of Atonement, and which was
looked upon as the very centre of the Divine presence. In the
destruction of the temple the holiest places were outraged, and the
ark itself carried off or broken up, and never more heard of. How
different was this from the story of the loss of the ark in the days
of Eli, when the Philistines were constrained to send it home of their
own accord! Now no miracle intervenes to punish the heathen for their
sacrilege. Yes, surely God must have forgotten His footstool! So it
seems to the sorrowful Jew, perplexed at the impunity with which this
crime has been committed.

But the mischief is not confined to the central shrine. It has
extended to remote country regions and simple rustic folk. The
shepherd's hut has shared the fate of the temple of the Lord. All the
habitations of Jacob--a phrase which in the original points to country
cottages--have been swallowed up.[136] The holiest is not spared on
account of its sanctity, neither is the lowliest on account of its
obscurity. The calamity extends to all districts, to all things, to
all classes.

  [136] ii. 2.

If the shepherd's cot is contrasted with the temple and the ark
because of its simplicity, the fortress may be contrasted with this
defenceless hut because of its strength. Yet even the strongholds have
been thrown down. More than this, the action of the Jews' army has
been paralysed by the God who had been its strength and support in the
glorious olden time. It is as though the right hand of the warrior had
been seized from behind and drawn back at the moment when it was
raised to strike a blow for deliverance. The consequence is that the
flower of the army, "all that were pleasant to the eye,"[137] are
slain. Israel herself is swallowed up, while her palaces and
fortresses are demolished.

  [137] ii. 4.

The climax of this mystery of Divine destruction is reached when God
destroys His own temple. The elegist returns to the dreadful subject
as though fascinated by the terror of it. God has violently taken away
His tabernacle.[138] The old historic name of the sanctuary of Israel
recurs at this crisis of ruin; and it is particularly appropriate to
the image which follows, an image which possibly it suggested. If we
are to understand the metaphor of the sixth verse as it is rendered in
the English Authorised and Revised Versions, we have to suppose a
reference to some such booth of boughs as people were accustomed to
put up for their shelter during the vintage, and which would be
removed as soon as it had served its temporary purpose. The solid
temple buildings had been swept away as easily as though they were
just such flimsy structures, as though they had been "of a garden."
But we can read the text more literally, and still find good sense in
it. According to the strict translation of the original, God is said
to have violently taken away His tabernacle "as a garden." At the
siege of a city the fruit gardens that encircle it are the first
victims of the destroyer's axe. Lying out beyond the walls they are
entirely unprotected, while the impediments they offer to the
movements of troops and instruments of war induce the commander to
order their early demolition. Thus Titus had the trees cleared from
the Mount of Olives, so that one of the first incidents in the Roman
siege of Jerusalem must have been the destruction of the Garden of
Gethsemane. Now the poet compares the ease with which the great,
massive temple--itself a powerful fortress, and enclosed within the
city walls--was demolished, with the simple process of scouring the
outlying gardens. So the place of assembly disappears, and with it
the assembly itself, so that even the sacred Sabbath is passed over
and forgotten. Then the two heads of the nation--the king, its civil
ruler, and the priest, its ecclesiastical chief--are both despised in
the indignation of God's anger.

  [138] ii. 6.

The central object of the sacred shrine is the altar, where earth
seems to meet heaven in the high mystery of sacrifice. Here men seek
to propitiate God; here too God would be expected to shew Himself
gracious to men. Yet God has even cast off His altar, abhorring His
very sanctuary.[139] Where mercy is most confidently anticipated,
there of all places nothing but wrath and rejection are to be found.
What prospect could be more hopeless?

  [139] ii. 7.

The deeper thought that God rejects His sanctuary because His people
have first rejected Him is not brought forward just now. Yet this
solution of the mystery is prepared by a contemplation of the utter
failure of the old ritual of atonement. Evidently that is not always
effective, for here it has broken down entirely; then can it ever be
inherently efficacious? It cannot be enough to trust to a sanctuary
and ceremonies which God Himself destroys. But further, out of this
scene which was so perplexing to the pious Jew, there flashes to us
the clear truth that nothing is so abominable in the sight of God as
an attempt to worship Him on the part of people who are living at
enmity with Him. We can also perceive that if God shatters our
sanctuary, perhaps He does so in order to prevent us from making a
fetich of it. Then the loss of shrine and altar and ceremony may be
the saving of the superstitious worshipper who is thereby taught to
turn to some more stable source of confidence.

This, however, is not the line of reflections followed by the elegist
in the present instance. His mind is possessed with one dark, awful,
crushing thought. All this is God's work. And why has God done it? The
answer to that question is the idea that here dominates the mind of
the poet. It is because _God has become an enemy_! There is no attempt
to mitigate the force of this daring idea. It is stated in the
strongest possible terms, and repeated again and again at every
turn--Israel's cloud is the effect of God's anger; it has come in the
day of His anger; God is acting with fierce anger, with a flaming fire
of wrath. This must mean that God is decidedly inimical. He is
behaving as an adversary; He bends His bow; He manifests violence. It
is not merely that God permits the adversaries of Israel to commit
their ravages with impunity; God commits those ravages; He is Himself
the enemy. He shews indignation, He despises, He abhors. And this is
all deliberate. The destruction is carried out with the same care and
exactitude that characterise the erection of a building. It is as
though it were done with a measuring line. God surveys to destroy.

The first thing to be noticed in this unhesitating ascription to God
of positive enmity is the striking evidence it contains of faith in
the Divine power, presence, and activity. These were no more visible
to the mere observer of events in the destruction of Jerusalem than in
the shattering of the French empire at Sedan. In the one case as in
the other all that the world could see was a crushing military defeat
and its fatal consequences. The victorious army of the Babylonians
filled the field as completely in the old time as that of the Germans
in the modern event. Yet the poet simply ignores its existence. He
passes it with sublime indifference, his mind filled with the thought
of the unseen Power behind. He has not a word for Nebuchadnezzar,
because he is assured that this mighty monarch is nothing but a tool
in the hands of the real Enemy of the Jews. A man of smaller faith
would not have penetrated sufficiently beneath the surface to have
conceived the idea of Divine enmity in connection with a series of
occurrences so very mundane as the ravages of war. A heathenish faith
would have acknowledged in this defeat of Israel a triumph of the
might of Bel or Nebo over the power of Jehovah. But so convinced is
the elegist of the absolute supremacy of his God that no such idea is
suggested to him even as a temptation of unbelief. He knows that the
action of the true God is supreme in everything that happens, whether
the event be favourable or unfavourable to His people. Perhaps it is
only owing to the dreary materialism of current thought that we should
be less likely to discover an indication of the enmity of God in some
huge national calamity.

Still, although this idea of the elegist is a fruit of his unshaken
faith in the universal sway of God, it startles and shocks us, and we
shrink from it almost as though it contained some blasphemous
suggestion. Is it ever right to think of God as the enemy of any man?
It would not be fair to pass judgment on the author of the
Lamentations on the ground of a cold consideration of this abstract
question. We must remember the terrible situation in which he
stood--his beloved city destroyed, the revered temple of his fathers a
mass of charred ruins, his people scattered in exile and captivity,
tortured, slaughtered; these were not circumstances to encourage a
course of calm and measured reflection. We must not expect the
sufferer to carry out an exact chemical analysis of his cup of woe
before uttering an exclamation on its quality; and if it should be
that the burning taste induces him to speak too strongly of its
ingredients, we who only see him swallow it without being required to
taste a drop ourselves should be slow to examine his language too
nicely. He who has never entered Gethsemane is not in a position to
understand how dark may be the views of all things seen beneath its
sombre shade. If the Divine sufferer on the cross could speak as
though His God had actually deserted Him, are we to condemn an Old
Testament saint when he ascribes unspeakably great troubles to the
enmity of God?

Is this, then, but the rhetoric of misery? If it be no more, while we
seek to sympathise with the feelings of a very dramatic situation, we
shall not be called upon to go further and discover in the language of
the poet any positive teaching about God and His ways with man. But
are we at liberty to stop short here? Is the elegist only expressing
his own feelings? Have we a right to affirm that there can be no
objective truth in the awful idea of the enmity of God?

In considering this question we must be careful to dismiss from our
minds the unworthy associations that only too commonly attach
themselves to notions of enmity among men. Hatred cannot be ascribed
to One whose deepest name is Love. No spite, malignity, or evil
passion of any kind can be found in the heart of the Holy God. When
due weight is given to these negations very much that we usually see
in the practice of enmity disappears. But this is not to say that the
idea itself is denied, or the fact shown to be impossible.

In the first place, we have no warrant for asserting that God will
never act in direct and intentional opposition to any of His
creatures. There is one obvious occasion when He certainly does this.
The man who resists the laws of nature finds those laws working
against Him. He is not merely running his head against a stone wall;
the laws are not inert obstructions in the path of the transgressor;
they represent forces in action. That is to say, they resist their
opponent with vigorous antagonism. In themselves they are blind, and
they bear him no ill-will. But the Being who wields the forces is not
blind or indifferent. The laws of nature are, as Kingsley said, but
the ways of God. If they are opposing a man God is opposing that man.
But God does not confine His action to the realm of physical
processes. His providence works through the whole course of events in
the world's history. What we see evidently operating in nature we may
infer to be equally active in less visible regions. Then if we believe
in a God who rules and works in the world, we cannot suppose that His
activity is confined to aiding what is good. It is unreasonable to
imagine that He stands aside in passive negligence of evil. And if He
concerns Himself to thwart evil, what is this but manifesting Himself
as the enemy of the evildoer?

It may be contended, on the other side, that there is a world of
difference between antagonistic actions and unfriendly feelings, and
that the former by no means imply the latter. May not God oppose a man
who is doing wrong, not at all because He is his Enemy, but just
because He is his truest Friend? Is it not an act of real kindness to
save a man from himself when his own will is leading him astray? This
of course must be granted, and being granted, it will certainly affect
our views of the ultimate issues of what we may be compelled to
regard in its present operation as nothing short of Divine antagonism.
It may remind us that the motives lying behind the most inimical
action on God's part may be merciful and kind in their aims. Still,
for the time being, the opposition is a reality, and a reality which
to all intents and purposes is one of enmity, since it resists,
frustrates, hurts.

Nor is this all. We have no reason to deny that God can have real
anger. Is it not right and just that He should be "angry with the
wicked every day"?[140] Would He not be imperfect in holiness, would
He not be less than God if He could behold vile deeds springing from
vile hearts with placid indifference? We must believe that Jesus
Christ was as truly revealing the Father when He was moved with
indignation as when He was moved with compassion. His life shows quite
clearly that He was the enemy of oppressors and hypocrites, and He
plainly declared that He came to bring a sword.[141] His mission was a
war against all evil, and therefore, though not waged with carnal
weapons, a war against evil men. The Jewish authorities were perfectly
right in perceiving this fact. They persecuted Him as their enemy; and
He was their enemy. This statement is no contradiction to the gracious
truth that He desired to save all men, and therefore even these men.
If God's enmity to any soul were eternal it would conflict with His
love. It cannot be that He wishes the ultimate ruin of one of His own
children. But if He is at the present time actively opposing a man,
and if He is doing this in anger, in the wrath of righteousness
against sin, it is only quibbling with words to deny that for the
time being He is a very real enemy to that man.

  [140] Psalm vii. 11.

  [141] Matt. x. 34.

The current of thought in the present day is not in any sympathy with
this idea of God as an Enemy, partly in its revulsion from harsh and
un-Christlike conceptions of God, partly also on account of the modern
humanitarianism which almost loses sight of sin in its absorbing love
of mercy. But the tremendous fact of the Divine enmity towards the
sinful man so long as he persists in his sin is not to be lightly
brushed aside. It is not wise wholly to forget that "our God is a
consuming fire."[142] It is in consideration of this dread truth that
the atonement wrought by His Son according to His own will of love is
discovered to be an action of vital efficacy, and not a mere scenic

  [142] Heb. xii. 29.



ii. 10-17

Passion and poetry, when they fire the imagination, do more than
personify individual material things. By fusing the separate objects
in the crucible of a common emotion which in some way appertains to
them all, they personify this grand unity, and so lift their theme
into the region of the sublime. Thus while in his second elegy the
author of the Lamentations first dwells on the desolation of inanimate
objects,--the temple, fortresses, country cottages,--these are all of
interest to him only because they belong to Jerusalem, the city of his
heart's devotion, and it is the city herself that moves his deepest
feelings; and when in the second part of the poem he proceeds to
describe the miserable condition of living persons--men, women, and
children--profoundly pathetic as the picture he now paints appears to
us in its piteous details, it is still regarded by its author as a
whole, and the people's sufferings are so very terrible in his eyes
because they are the woes of Jerusalem.

Some attempt to sympathise with the large and lofty view of the
elegist may be a wholesome corrective to the intense individualism of
modern habits of thought. The difficulty for us is to see that this
view is not merely ideal, that it represents a great, solid truth,
the truth that the perfect human unit is not an individual, but a more
or less extensive group of persons, mutually harmonised and organised
in a common life, a society of some sort--the family, the city, the
state, mankind. By bearing this in mind we shall be able to perceive
that sufferings which in themselves might seem sordid and degrading
can attain to something of epic dignity.

It is in this spirit that the poet deplores the exile of the king and
the princes. He is not now concerned with the private troubles of
these exalted persons. Judah was a limited monarchy, though not after
the pattern of government familiar to us, but rather in the style of
the Plantagenet rule, according to which the sovereign shared his
authority with a number of powerful barons, each of whom was lord over
his own territory. The men described as "the princes of Israel" were
not, for the most part, members of the royal family; they were the
heads of tribes and families. Therefore the banishment of these
persons, together with the king, meant for the Jews who were left
behind the loss of their ruling authorities. Then it seems most
reasonable to connect the clause which follows the reference to the
exile with the sufferings of Jerusalem rather than with the hardships
of the captives, because the whole context is concerned with the
former subject. This phrase read literally is, "The law is not."[143]
Our Revisers have followed the Authorised Version in connecting it
with the previous expression, "among the nations," which describes the
place of exile, so as to lead us to read it as a statement that the
king and the princes were enduring the hardship of residence in a land
where their sacred _Torah_ was not observed. If, however, we take the
words in harmony with the surrounding thoughts, we are reminded by
them that the removal of the national rulers involved to the Jews the
cessation of the administration of their law. The residents still left
in the land were reduced to a condition of anarchy; or, if the
conquerors had begun to administer some sort of martial law, this was
totally alien to the revered _Torah_ of Israel. Josiah had based his
reformation on the discovery of the sacred law-book. But the mere
possession of this was little consolation if it was not administered;
for the Jews had not fallen to the condition of the Samaritans of
later times who came to worship the roll of the Pentateuch as an idol.
They were not even like the scribes and Talmudists among their own
descendants, to whom the law itself was a religion, though only read
in the cloister of the student. The loss of good government was to
them a very solid evil. In a civilised country, in times of peace and
order, we breathe law as we breathe air, unconsciously, too familiar
with it to appreciate the immeasurable benefits it confers upon us.

  [143] ii. 9.

With the banishment of the custodians of law the poet associates the
accompanying silence of the voice of prophecy. This, however, is so
important and significant a fact, that it must be reserved for
separate and fuller treatment.[144]

  [144] See next chapter.

Next to the princes come the elders, to whom was intrusted the
administration of justice in the minor courts. These were not sent
into captivity; for at first only the aristocracy was considered
sufficiently important to be carried off to Babylon. But though the
elders were left in the land, the country was too disorganised for
them to be able to hold their local tribunals. Perhaps these were
forbidden by the invaders; perhaps the elders had no heart to decide
cases when they saw no means of getting their decisions executed.
Accordingly instead of appearing in dignity as the representatives of
law and order among their neighbours the most respected citizens sit
in silence on the ground, girded in sackcloth, and casting dust over
their heads, living pictures of national mourning.[145]

  [145] ii. 10.

The virgins of Jerusalem are named immediately after the elders. Their
position in the city is very different from that of the "grave and
reverend signiors"; but we are to see that while the dignity of age
and rank affords no immunity from trouble, the gladsomeness of youth
and its comparative irresponsibility are equally ineffectual as
safeguards. The elders and the virgins have one characteristic in
common. They are both silent. These young girls are the choristers
whose clear, sweet voices used to ring out in strains of joy at every
festival. Now both the grave utterances of magistrates and the blithe
singing of maidens are hushed into one gloomy silence. Formerly the
girls would dance to the sound of song and cymbal. How changed must
things be that the once gay dancers sit with their heads bowed to the
ground, as still as the mourning elders!

But now, like Dante when introduced by his guide to some exceptionally
agonising spectacle in the infernal regions, the poet bursts into
tears, and seems to feel his very being melting away at the
contemplation of the most heart-rending scene in the many mournful
tableaux of the woes of Jerusalem. Breaking off from his recital of
the facts to express his personal distress in view of the next item,
he prepares us for some rare and dreadful exhibition of misery; and
the tale that he has to tell is quite enough to account for the start
of horror with which it is ushered in. The poet makes us listen to the
cry of the children. There are babies at the breast fainting from
hunger, and older children, able to speak, but not yet able to
comprehend the helpless circumstances in which their miserable parents
are placed, calling to their mothers for food and drink--a piercing
appeal, enough to drive to the madness of grief and despair. Crying in
vain for the first necessaries of life, these poor children, like the
younger infants, faint in the streets, and cast themselves on their
mothers' bosoms to die.[146] This, then, is the picture in
contemplation of which the poet completely breaks down--children
swooning in sight of all the people, and dying of hunger in their
mothers' arms! He must be recalling scenes of the late siege. Then the
fainting little ones, as they sank down pale and ill, resembled the
wounded men who crept back from the fight by the walls to fall and die
in the streets of the beleaguered city.

  [146] ii. 11, 12.

This is just the sharpest sting in the sufferings of the children.
They share the fearful fate of their seniors, and yet they have had no
part in the causes that led to it. We are naturally perplexed as well
as distressed at this piteous spectacle of childhood. The beauty, the
simplicity, the weakness, the tenderness, the sensitiveness, the
helplessness of infancy appeal to our sympathies with peculiar force.
But over and above these touching considerations there is a mystery
attaching to the whole subject of the presence of pain and sorrow in
young lives that battles all reasoning. It is not only hard to
understand why the bud should be blighted before it has had time to
open to the sunshine: this haste in the march of misery to meet her
victims on the threshold of life is to our minds a very amazing sight.
And yet it is not the most perplexing part of the problem raised by
the mystery of the suffering of children.

When we turn to the moral elements of the case we encounter its most
serious difficulties. Children may not be accounted innocent in the
absolute sense of the word. Even unconscious infants come into the
world with hereditary tendencies to the evil habits of their
ancestors; but then every principle of justice resists the attachment
of guilt or responsibility to an unsought and undeserved inheritance.
And although children soon commit offences on their own account, it is
not the consequences of these youthful follies that here trouble us.
The cruel wrongs of childhood that overshadow the world's history with
its darkest mystery have travelled on to their victims from quite
other regions--regions of which the poor little sufferers are ignorant
with the ignorance of perfect innocence. Why do children thus share in
evils they had no hand in bringing upon the community?

It is perhaps well that we should acknowledge quite frankly that there
are mysteries in life which no ingenuity of thought can fathom. The
suffering of childhood is one of the greatest of these apparently
insoluble riddles of the universe. We have to learn that in view of
such a problem as is here raised we too are but infants crying in the

Still there is no occasion for us to aggravate the riddle by adding
to it manufactured difficulties; we may even admit such mitigation of
its severity as the facts of the case suggest. When little children
suffer and die in their innocence they are free at least from those
agonies of remorse for the irrecoverable past, and of apprehension
concerning the doom of the future, that haunt the minds of guilty men,
and frequently far exceed the physical pains endured. Beneath their
hardest woes they have a peace of God that is the counterpart of the
martyr's serenity.

Nevertheless, when we have said all that can be said in this
direction, there remains the sickening fact that children do suffer
and pine and die. Still though this cannot be explained away, there
are two truths that we should set beside it before we attempt to form
any judgment on the whole subject. The first is that taught so
emphatically by our Lord when He declared that the victims of an
accident or the sufferers in an indiscriminate slaughter were not to
be accounted exceptional sinners.[147] But if suffering is by no means
a sign of sin in the victim we may go further, and deny that it is in
all respects an evil. It may be impossible for us to accept the Stoic
paradox in the case of little children whom even the greatest pedant
would scarcely attempt to console with philosophic maxims. In the
endurance of them, the pain and sorrow and death of the young cannot
but seem to us most real evils, and it is our plain duty to do all in
our power to check and stay everything of the kind. We must beware of
the indolence that lays upon Providence the burden of troubles that
are really due to our own inconsiderateness. In pursuing the policy
that led to the disastrous siege of their city the Jews should have
known how many innocent victims would be dragged into the vortex of
misery if the course they had chosen were to fail. The blind obstinacy
of the men who refused to listen to the warnings so emphatically
pronounced by the great prophets of Jehovah, the desperate self-will
of these men, pitted against the declared counsel of God, must bear
the blame. It is monstrous to charge the providence of God with the
consequences of actions that God has forbidden.

  [147] Luke xiii 1-5.

A second truth must be added, for there still remains the difficulty
that children are placed, by no choice of their own, in circumstances
that render them thus liable to the effects of other people's sins and
follies. We can never understand human life if we persist in
considering each person by himself. That we are members one of
another, so that if one member suffers all the members suffer, is the
law of human experience as well as the principle of Christian
churchmanship. Therefore we must regard the wrongs of children that so
disturb us as part of the travail and woe of mankind. Bad as it is in
itself that these innocents should be thus involved in the
consequences of the misconduct of their elders, it would not be any
improvement for them to be cut off from all connection with their
predecessors in the great family of mankind. Taken on the whole, the
solidarity of man certainly makes more for the welfare of childhood
than for its disadvantage. And we must not think of childhood alone,
deeply as we are moved at the sight of its unmerited sufferings. If
children are part of the race, whatever children endure must be taken
as but one element in the vast experience that goes to make up the
life-history of mankind.

All this is very vague, and if we offer it as a consolation to a
mother whose heart is torn with anguish at the sight of her child's
pain, it is likely she will think our balm no better than the wormwood
of mockery. It would be vain for us to imagine that we have solved the
riddle, and vainer to suppose that any views of life could be set
against the unquestionable fact that innocent children suffer, as
though they in the slightest degree lessened the amount of this pain
or made it appreciably easier to endure. But then, on the other hand,
the mere existence of all this terrible agony does not justify us in
bursting out into tremendous denunciations of the universe. The
thoughts that rise from a consideration of the wider relations of the
facts should teach us lessons of humility in forming our judgment on
so vast a subject. We cannot deny the existence of evils that cry
aloud for notice; we cannot explain them away. But at least we can
follow the example of the elders and virgins of Israel, and be silent.

The portrait of misery that the poet has drawn in describing the
condition of Jerusalem during the siege is painful enough when viewed
by itself; and yet he proceeds further, and seeks to deepen the
impression he has already made by setting the picture in a suitable
frame. So he directs attention to the behaviour of surrounding
peoples. Jerusalem is not permitted to hide her grief and shame. She
is flung into an arena while a crowd of cruel spectators gloat over
her agonies. These are to be divided into two classes, the unconcerned
and the known enemies. There is not any great difference between them
in their treatment of the miserable city. The unconcerned "hiss and
wag their heads";[148] the enemies "hiss and gnash their teeth."[149]
That is to say, both add to the misery of the Jews--the one class in
mockery, the other in hatred. But what are these men at their worst?
Behind them is the real Power that is the source of all the misery. If
the enemy rejoices it is only because God has given him the occasion.
The Lord has been carrying out His own deliberate intentions; nay,
these events are but the execution of commands He issued in the days
of old.[150] This reads like an anticipation of the Calvinistic
decrees. But perhaps the poet is referring to the solemn threatening
of Divine Judgment pronounced by a succession of prophets. Their
message had been unheeded by their contemporaries. Now it has been
verified by history. Remembering what that message was--how it
predicted woes as the punishment of sins, how it pointed out a way of
escape, how it threw all the responsibility upon those people who were
so infatuated as to reject the warning--we cannot read into the poet's
lines any notion of absolute predestination.

  [148] ii. 15.

  [149] ii. 16.

  [150] ii. 17.

In the midst of this description of the miseries of Jerusalem the
elegist confesses his own inability to comfort her. He searches for an
image large enough for a just comparison with such huge calamities as
he has in view. His language resembles that of our Lord when He
exclaims, "Whereunto shall I liken the kingdom of God?"[151] a
similarity which may remind us that if the troubles of man are great
beyond earthly analogy, so also are the mercies of God. Compare these
two, and there can be no question as to which way the scale will turn.
Where sin and misery abound grace much more abounds. But now the poet
is concerned with the woes of Jerusalem, and he can only find one
image with which these woes are at all comparable. Her breach, he
says, "is great like the sea,"[152] meaning that her calamities are
vast and terrible as the sea; or perhaps that the ruin of Jerusalem is
like that produced by the breaking in of the sea--a striking image in
its application to an inland mountain city; for no place was really
safer from any such cataclysm than Jerusalem. The analogy is
intentionally far-fetched. What might naturally happen to Tyre, but
could not possibly reach Jerusalem, is nevertheless the only
conceivable type of the events that have actually befallen this
ill-fated city. The Jews were not a maritime people. To them the sea
was no delight such as it is to us. They spoke of it with terror, and
shuddered to hear from afar of its ravages. Now the deluge of their
own troubles is compared to the great and terrible sea.

  [151] Luke xiii. 20.

  [152] ii. 13.

The poet can offer no comfort for such misery as this. His confession
of helplessness agrees with what we must have perceived already,
namely, that the Book of Lamentations is not a book of consolations.
It is not always easy to see that the sympathy which mourns with the
sufferer may be quite unable to relieve him. The too common mistake of
the friend who comes to show sympathy is Bildad's and his companions'
notion that he is called upon to offer advice. Why should one who is
not in the school of affliction assume the function of pedagogue to a
pupil of that school, who by reason of the mere fact of his presence
there should rather be deemed fit to instruct the outsider?

If he cannot comfort Jerusalem, however, the elegist will pray with
her. His latest reference to the Divine source of the troubles of the
Jews leads him on to a cry to God for mercy on the miserable people.
Though he may not yet see the gospel of grace which is the only thing
greater than the sin and misery of man, he can point towards the
direction in which that glorious gospel is to dawn on the eyes of
weary sufferers. Here, if anywhere, is the solution of the mystery of



ii. 9, 14

In deploring the losses suffered by the daughter of Zion the elegist
bewails the failure of her prophets to obtain a vision from Jehovah.
His language implies that these men were still lingering among the
ruins of the city. Apparently they had not been considered by the
invaders of sufficient importance to require transportation with
Zedekiah and the princes. Thus they were within reach of inquirers,
and doubtless they were more than ever in request at a time when many
perplexed persons were anxious for pilotage through a sea of troubles.
It would seem, too, that they were trying to execute their
professional functions. They sought light; they looked in the right
direction--to God. Yet their quest was vain; no vision was given to
them; the oracles were dumb.

To understand the situation we must recollect the normal place of
prophecy in the social life of Israel. The great prophets whose names
and works have come down to us in Scripture were always rare and
exceptional men--voices crying in the wilderness. Possibly they were
not more scarce at this time than at other periods. Jeremiah had not
been disappointed in his search for a Divine message.[153] The
greatest seer of visions ever known to the world, Ezekiel, had
already appeared among the captives by the waters of Babylon. Before
long the sublime prophet of the restoration was to sound his trumpet
blast to awaken courage and hope in the exiles. Though pitched in a
minor key, these very elegies bear witness to the fact that their
gentle author was not wholly deficient in prophetic fire. This was not
an age like the time of Samuel's youth, barren of Divine voices.[154]
It is true that the inspired voices were now scattered over distant
regions far from Jerusalem, the ancient seat of prophecy. Yet the idea
of the elegist is that the prophets who might be still seen at the
site of the city were deprived of visions. These must have been quite
different men. Evidently they were the professional prophets,
officials who had been trained in music and dancing to appear as
choristers on festive occasions, the equivalent of the modern
dervishes; but who were also sought after like the seer of Ramah, to
whom young Saul resorted for information about his father's lost
asses, as simple soothsayers. Such assistance as these men were
expected to give was no longer forthcoming at the request of troubled

  [153] See Jer. xlii. 4, 7.

  [154] See 1 Sam. iii. 1.

The low and sordid uses to which every-day prophecy was degraded may
incline us to conclude that the cessation of it was no very great
calamity, and perhaps to suspect that from first to last the whole
business was a mass of superstition affording large opportunities for
charlatanry. But it would be rash to adopt this extreme view without a
fuller consideration of the subject. The great messengers of Jehovah
frequently speak of the professional prophets with the contempt of
Socrates for the professional sophists; and yet the rebukes which
they administer to these men for their unfaithfulness show that they
accredit them with important duties and the gifts with which to
execute them.

Thus the lament of the elegist suggests a real loss--something more
serious than the failure of assistance such as some Roman Catholics
try to obtain from St. Anthony in the discovery of lost property. The
prophets were regarded as the media of communication between heaven
and earth. It was because of the low and narrow habits of the people
that their gifts were often put to low and narrow uses which savoured
rather of superstition than of devotion. The belief that God did not
only reveal His will to great persons and on momentous occasions
helped to make Israel a religious nation. That there were humble gifts
of prophecy within the reach of the many, and that these gifts were
for the helping of men and women in their simplest needs, was one of
the articles of the Hebrew faith. The quenching of a host of smaller
stars may involve as much loss of life as that of a few brilliant
ones. If prophecy fades out from among the people, if the vision of
God is no longer perceptible in daily life, if the Church, as a whole,
is plunged into gloom, it is of little avail to her that a few choice
souls here and there pierce the mists like solitary mountain peaks so
as to stand alone in the clear light of heaven. The perfect condition
would be that in which "all the Lord's people were prophets." If this
is not yet attainable, at all events we may rejoice when the capacity
for communion with heaven is widely enjoyed, and we must deplore it as
one of the greatest calamities of the Church that the quickening
influence of the prophetic spirit should be absent from her
assemblies. The Jews had not fallen so low that they could
contemplate the cessation of communications with heaven unmoved. They
were far from the practical materialism which leads its victims to be
perfectly satisfied to remain in a condition of spiritual paralysis--a
totally different thing from the theoretical materialism of Priestley
and Tyndall. They knew that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by
every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God"; and therefore
they understood that a famine of the word of God must result in as
real a starvation as a famine of wheat. When we have succeeded in
recovering this Hebrew standpoint we shall be prepared to recognise
that there are worse calamities than bad harvests and seasons of
commercial depression; we shall be brought to acknowledge that it is
possible to be starved in the midst of plenty, because the greatest
abundance of such food as we have lacks the elements requisite for our
complete nourishment. According to reports of sanitary authorities,
children in Ireland are suffering from the substitution of the less
expensive and sweeter diet of maize for the more wholesome oatmeal on
which their parents were brought up. Must it not be confessed that a
similar substitution of cheap and savoury soul pabulum--in literature,
music, amusements--for the "sincere milk of the word" and the "strong
meat" of truth is the reason why so many of us are not growing up to
the stature of Christ? The "liberty of prophesying" for which our
fathers contended and suffered is ours. But it will be a barren
heritage if in cherishing the liberty we lose the prophesying. There
is no gift enjoyed by the Church for which she should be more jealous
than that of the prophetic spirit.

As we look across the wide field of history we must perceive that
there have been many dreary periods in which the prophets could find
no vision from the Lord. At first sight it would even seem that the
light of heaven only shone on a few rare luminous spots, leaving the
greater part of the world and the longer periods of time in absolute
gloom. But this pessimistic view results from our limited capacity to
perceive the light that is there. We look for the lightning. But
inspiration is not always electric. The prophet's vision is not
necessarily startling. It is a vulgar delusion to suppose that
revelation must assume a sensational aspect. It was predicted of the
Word of God incarnate that He should not "strive, or cry, or lift up
His voice";[155] and when He came He was rejected because He would not
satisfy the wonder-seekers with a flaring portent--a "sign from
heaven." Still it cannot be denied that there have been periods of
barrenness. They are found in what might be called the secular regions
of the operation of the Spirit of God. A brilliant epoch of scientific
discovery, artistic invention, or literary production is followed by a
time of torpor, feeble imitation, or meretricious pretence. The
Augustan and Elizabethan ages cannot be conjured back at will.
Prophets of nature, poets, and artists can none of them command the
power of inspiration. This is a gift which may be withheld, and which,
when denied, will elude the most earnest pursuit. We may miss the
vision of prophecy when the prophets are as numerous as ever, and
unfortunately as vocal. The preacher possesses learning and rhetoric.
We only miss one thing in him--inspiration. But, alas! that is just
the one thing needful.

  [155] Isa. xlii. 1.

Now the question forces itself upon our attention, what is the
explanation of these variations in the distribution of the spirit of
prophecy? Why is the fountain of inspiration an intermittent spring, a
Bethesda? We cannot trace its failure to any shortness of supply, for
this fountain is fed from the infinite ocean of the Divine life.
Neither can we attribute caprice to One whose wisdom is infinite, and
whose will is constant. It may be right to say that God withholds the
vision, withholds it deliberately; but it cannot be correct to assert
that this fact is the final explanation of the whole matter. God must
be believed to have a reason, a good and sufficient reason, for
whatever He does. Can we guess what His reason may be in such a case
as this? It may be conjectured that it is necessary for the field to
lie fallow for a season in order that it may bring forth a better crop
subsequently. Incessant cultivation would exhaust the soil. The eye
would be blinded if it had no rest from visions. We may be overfed;
and the more nutritious our diet is the greater will be the danger of
surfeit. One of our chief needs in the use of revelation is that we
should thoroughly digest its contents. What is the use of receiving
fresh visions if we have not yet assimilated the truth that we already
possess? Sometimes, too, no vision can be found for the simple reason
that no vision is needed. We waste ourselves in the pursuit of
unprofitable questions when we should be setting about our business.
Until we have obeyed the light that has been given us it is foolish to
complain that we have not more light. Even our present light will wane
if it is not followed up in practice.

But while considerations such as these must be attended to if we are
to form a sound judgment on the whole question, they do not end the
controversy, and they scarcely apply at all to the particular
illustration of it that is now before us. There is no danger of
surfeit in a famine; and it is a famine of the word that we are now
confronted with. Moreover, the elegist supplies an explanation that
sets all conjectures at rest.

The fault was in the prophets themselves. Although the poet does not
connect the two statements together, but inserts other matter between
them, we cannot fail to see that his next words about the prophets
bear very closely on his lament over the denial of visions. He tells
us that they had seen visions of vanity and foolishness.[156] This is
with reference to an earlier period. Then they had had their visions;
but these had been empty and worthless. The meaning cannot be that the
prophets had been subject to unavoidable delusions, that they had
sought truth, but had been rewarded with deception. The following
words show that the blame was attributed entirely to their own
conduct. Addressing the daughter of Zion the poet says: "Thy prophets
have seen visions _for thee_." The visions were suited to the people
to whom they were declared--manufactured, shall we say?--with the
express purpose of pleasing them. Such a degradation of sacred
functions in gross unfaithfulness deserved punishment; and the most
natural and reasonable punishment was the withholding for the future
of true visions from men who in the past had forged false ones. The
very possibility of this conduct proves that the influence of
inspiration had not the hold upon these Hebrew prophets that it had
obtained over the heathen prophet Balaam, when he exclaimed, in face
of the bribes and threats of the infuriated king of Moab: "If Balak
would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond
the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; what
the Lord speaketh, that will I speak."[157]

  [156] ii. 14.

  [157] Numb. xxiv. 13.

It must ever be that unfaithfulness to the light we have already
received will bar the door against the advent of more light. There is
nothing so blinding as the habit of lying. People who do not speak
truth ultimately prevent themselves from perceiving truth, the false
tongue leading the eye to see falsely. This is the curse and doom of
all insincerity. It is useless to enquire for the views of insincere
persons; they can have no distinct views, no certain convictions,
because their mental vision is blurred by their long-continued habit
of confounding true and false. Then if for once in their lives such
people may really desire to find a truth in order to assure themselves
in some great emergency, and therefore seek a vision of the Lord, they
will have lost the very faculty of receiving it.

The blindness and deadness that characterise so much of the history of
thought and literature, art and religion, are to be attributed to the
same disgraceful cause. Greek philosophy decayed in the insincerity of
professional sophistry. Gothic art degenerated into the florid
extravagance of the Tudor period when it had lost its religious
motive, and had ceased to be what it pretended. Elizabethan poetry
passed through euphuism into the uninspired conceits of the sixteenth
century. Dryden restored the habit of true speech, but it required
generations of arid eighteenth century sincerity in literature to make
the faculty of seeing visions possible to the age of Burns and Shelley
and Wordsworth.

In religion this fatal effect of insincerity is terribly apparent. The
formalist can never become a prophet. Creeds which were kindled in the
fires of passionate conviction will cease to be luminous when the
faith that inspired them has perished; and then if they are still
repeated as dead words by false lips the unreality of them will not
only rob them of all value, it will blind the eyes of the men and
women who are guilty of this falsehood before God, so that no new
vision of truth can be brought within their reach. Here is one of the
snares that attach themselves to the privilege of receiving a heritage
of teaching from our ancestors. We can only avoid it by means of
searching inquests over the dead beliefs which a foolish fondness has
permitted to remain unburied, poisoning the atmosphere of living
faith. So long as the fact that they are dead is not honestly admitted
it will be impossible to establish sincerity in worship; and the
insincerity, while it lasts, will be an impassable barrier to the
advent of truth.

The elegist has laid his finger on the particular form of untruth of
which the Jerusalem prophets had been guilty. They had not discovered
her iniquity to the daughter of Zion.[158] Thus they had hastened her
ruin by keeping back the message that would have urged their hearers
to repentance. Some interpreters have given quite a new turn to the
last clause of the fourteenth verse. Literally this states that the
prophets have seen "drivings away"; and accordingly it has been taken
to mean that they pretended to have had visions about the captivity
when this was an accomplished fact, although they had been silent on
the subject, or had even denied the danger, at the earlier time when
alone their words could have been of any use; or, again, the words
have been thought to suggest that these prophets were now at the later
period predicting fresh calamities, and were blind to the vision of
hope which a true prophet like Jeremiah had seen and declared. But
such ideas are over-refined, and they give a twist to the course of
thought that is foreign to the form of these direct, simple elegies.
It seems better to take the final clause of the verse as a repetition
of what went before, with a slight variety of form. Thus the poet
declares that the burdens, or prophecies, which these unfaithful men
have presented to the people have been causes of banishment.

  [158] ii. 14.

The crying fault of the prophets is their reluctance to preach to
people of their sins. Their mission distinctly involves the duty of
doing so. They should not shun to declare the whole counsel of God. It
is not within the province of the ambassador to make selections from
among the despatches with which he has been entrusted in order to suit
his own convenience. There is nothing that so paralyses the work of
the preacher as the habit of choosing favourite topics and ignoring
less attractive subjects. Just in proportion as he commits this sin
against his vocation he ceases to be the prophet of God, and descends
to the level of one who deals in _obiter dicta_, mere personal
opinions to be taken on their own merits. One of the gravest possible
omissions is the neglect to give due weight to the tragic fact of sin.
All the great prophets have been conspicuous for their fidelity to
this painful and sometimes dangerous part of their work. If we would
can up a typical picture of a prophet in the discharge of his task, we
should present to our minds Elijah confronting Ahab, or John the
Baptist before Herod, or Savonarola accusing Lorenzo de Medici, or
John Knox preaching at the court of Mary Stuart. He is Isaiah
declaring God's abomination of sacrifices and incense when these are
offered by blood-stained hands, or Chrysostom seizing the opportunity
that followed the mutilation of the imperial statues at Antioch to
preach to the dissolute city on the need of repentance, or Latimer
denouncing the sins of London to the citizens assembled at Paul's

The shallow optimism that disregards the shadows of life is trebly
faulty when it appears in the pulpit. It falsifies facts in failing to
take account of the stern realities of the evil side of them; it
misses the grand opportunity of rousing the consciences of men and
women by forcing them to attend to unwelcome truths, and thus
encourages the heedlessness with which people rush headlong to ruin;
and at the same time it even renders the declaration of the gracious
truths of the gospel, to which it devotes exclusive attention,
ineffectual, because redemption is meaningless to those who do not
recognise the present slavery and the future doom from which it brings
deliverance. On every account the rose-water preaching that ignores
sin and flatters its hearers with pleasant words is thin, insipid, and
lifeless. It tries to win popularity by echoing the popular wishes;
and it may succeed in lulling the storm of opposition with which the
prophet is commonly assailed. But in the end it must be sterile. When,
"through fear or favour," the messenger of heaven thus prostitutes
his mission to suit the ends of a low, selfish, worldly expediency,
the very least punishment with which his offence can be visited is for
him to be deprived of the gifts he has so grossly abused. Here, then,
we have the most specific explanation of the failure of heavenly
visions; it comes from the neglect of earthly sin. This is what breaks
the magician's wand, so that he can no longer summon the Ariel of
inspiration to his aid.



ii. 18-22

It is not easy to analyse the complicated construction of the
concluding portion of the second elegy. If the text is not corrupt its
transitions are very abrupt. The difficulty is to adjust the relations
of three sections. First we have the sentence, "Their heart cried unto
the Lord." Next comes the address to the wall. "O wall of the daughter
of Zion," etc. Lastly, there is the prayer which extends from verse 20
to the end of the poem.

The most simple grammatical arrangement is to take the first clause in
connection with the preceding verse. The last substantive was the word
"adversaries." Therefore in the rigour of grammar the pronoun should
represent that word. Read thus, the sentence relates an action of the
enemies of Israel when their horn has been exalted. The word rendered
"cried" is one that would designate a loud shout, and that translated
"Lord" here is not the sacred name _Jehovah_ but _Adonai_, a general
term that might very well be used in narrating the behaviour of the
heathen towards God. Thus the phrase would seem to describe the
insolent shout of triumph which the adversaries of the Jews fling at
the God of their victims.

On the other hand, it is to be observed that the general title "Lord"
(_Adonai_) is also employed in the very next verse in the direct call
to prayer. The heart, too, is mentioned again there as it is here, and
that to express the inner being and deepest feelings of the afflicted
city. It seems unlikely that the elegist would mention a heart-cry of
the enemies and describe this as addressed to "The Lord."

Probably then we should apply this opening clause to the Jews,
although they had not been named in the near context, a construction
favoured by the abrupt transitions in which the elegist indulges
elsewhere. It is the heart of the Jews that cried unto the Lord. Now
the question arises, How shall we take this assertion in view of the
words that follow? The common reading supposes that it introduces the
immediately succeeding sentences. The heart of the Jews calls to the
wall of the daughter of Zion, and bids it arise and pray. But with
this construction we should look for another word (such as "saying")
to introduce the appeal, because the Hebrew word rendered "cried" is
usually employed absolutely, and not as the preface to quoted speech.
Besides, the ideas would be strangely involved. Some people,
indefinitely designated "they," exhort the wall to weep and pray! How
can this exhortation to a wall be described as a calling to the Lord?
The complication is increased when the prayer follows sharply on the
anonymous appeal without a single connecting or explanatory clause.

A simpler interpretation is to follow Calvin in rendering the first
clause absolutely, but still applying it to the Jews, who, though they
are not named here, are supposed to be always in mind. We may not
agree with the stern theologian of Geneva in asserting that the cry
thus designated is one of impatient grief flowing not "from a right
feeling or from the true fear of God, but from the strong and turbid
impulse of nature." The elegist furnishes no excuse for this somewhat
ungracious judgment. After his manner, already familiar to us, the
poet interjects a thought--viz., that the distressed Jews cried to
God. This suggests to him the great value of the refuge of prayer, a
topic on which he forthwith proceeds to enlarge first by making an
appeal to others, and then by himself breaking out into the direct
language of petition.

This is not the first occasion on which the elegist has shown his
faith in the efficacy of prayer. But hitherto he has only uttered
brief exclamations in the middle of his descriptive passages. Now he
gives a solemn call to prayer, and follows this with a deliberate,
full petition, addressed to God. We must feel that the elegy is lifted
to a higher plane by the new turn that the thought of its author takes
at this place. Grief is natural; it is useless to pretend to be
impassive; and, although our Teutonic habits of reserve may make it
difficult for us to sympathise with the violent outbursts that an
Oriental permits himself without any sense of shame, we must admit
that a reasonable expression of the emotions is good and wholesome.
Tennyson recognises this in the well-known lyric where he says of the
dead warrior's wife--

  "She must weep or she will die."

Nevertheless, an unchecked rush of feeling, not followed by any
action, cannot but evince weakness; it has no lifting power. Although,
if the emotion is distressful, such an expression may give relief to
its subject, it is certainly very depressing to the spectator. For
this reason the Book of Lamentations strikes us as the most depressing
part of the Bible--would it not be just to say, as the _only_ part
that can be so described? But it would not be fair to this Book to
suppose that it did nothing beyond realising the significance of its
title. It contains more than a melancholy series of laments. In the
passage before us the poet raises his voice to a higher strain.

This new and more elevated turn in the elegy is itself suggestive. The
transition from lamentation to prayer is always good for the sufferer.
The first action may relieve his pent-up emotions; it cannot destroy
the source from which they flow. But prayer is more practical, for it
aims at deliverance. That, however, is its least merit. In the very
act of seeking help from God the soul is brought into closer relations
with Him, and this condition of communion is a better thing than any
results that can possibly follow in the form of answers to the prayer,
great and helpful as these may be. The trouble that drives us to
prayer is a blessing because the state of a praying soul is a blessed

Like the _muezzin_ on his minaret, the elegist calls to prayer. But
his exhortation is addressed to a strange object--to the _wall_ of the
daughter of Zion. This wall is to let its tears flow like a river. It
is so far personified that mention is made of the apple of its eye; it
is called upon to arise, to pour out its heart, to lift up its hands.
The license of Eastern poetry permits the unflinching application of a
metaphor to an extent that would be considered extravagant and even
absurd in our own literature. It is only in a travesty of melodrama
that Shakespeare permits the Thisbe of _A Midsummer Night's Dream_ to
address a wall. Browning has an exquisitely beautiful little poem
apostrophising an old wall; but this is not done so as to leave out of
account the actual form and nature of his subject. Walls can not only
be beautiful and even sublime, as Mr. Ruskin has shewn in his _Stones
of Venice_; they may also wreathe their severe outlines in a multitude
of thrilling associations. This is especially so when, as in the
present instance, it is the wall of a city that we are contemplating.
Not a new piece of builder's work, neat and clean and bald, bare of
all associations, as meaningless as in too many cases it is ugly, but
an old wall, worn by the passing to and fro of generations that have
turned to dust long years ago, bearing the bruises of war on its
battered face, crumbling to powder, or perhaps half buried in
weeds--such a wall is eloquent in its wealth of associations, and
there is pathos in the thought of its mere age when this is considered
in relation to the many men and women and children who have rested
beneath its shadow at noon, or sheltered themselves behind its solid
masonry amid the terrors of war. The walls that encircle the ancient
English city of Chester and keep alive memories of mediæval life, the
bits of the old London wall that are left standing among the
warehouses and offices of the busy mart of modern commerce, even the
remote wall of China for quite different reasons, and many another
famous wall, suggest to us multitudinous reflections. But the walls of
Jerusalem surpass them all in the pathos of the memories that cling to
their old grey stones. It does not require a great stretch of
imagination to picture these walls as once glowing and throbbing with
an intense life, and now dreaming over the unfathomable depths of
age-long memories.

In personifying the wall of Zion, however, the Hebrew poet does not
indulge in reflections such as these, which are more in harmony with
the mild melancholy of Gray's _Elegy_ than with the sadder mood of the
mourning patriot. He names the wall to give unity and concreteness to
his appeal, and to clothe it in an atmosphere of poetic fancy. But his
sober thought in the background is directed towards the citizens whom
that historic wall once enclosed. Herein is his justification for
carrying his personification so far. This is more than a wild
apostrophe, the outburst of an excited poet's fancy. The imaginative
conceit wings the arrow of a serious purpose.

Let us look at the appeal in detail. First the elegist encourages a
free outflow of grief, that tears should run like a river, literally,
like a torrent--the allusion being to one of those steep watercourses
which, though dry in summer, become rushing floods in the rainy
season. This introduction shews that the call to prayer is not
intended in any sense as a rebuke for the natural expression of grief,
nor as a denial of its existence. The sufferers cannot say that the
poet does not sympathise with them. It might seem needless to give
this assurance. But anybody who has attempted to offer exhortation to
a person in trouble must have discovered how delicate his task is. Let
him approach the subject as carefully as he may, it is almost certain
that he will chafe the quivering nerves he desires to soothe, so
sensitive is the soul in pain to any interference from without. Under
these circumstances, the one method by which it is at all possible to
smooth the way of approach is an expression of genuine sympathy.

There may be a deeper reason for this encouragement of the expression
of grief as a preliminary to a call to prayer. The helplessness which
it so eloquently proclaims is just the condition in which the soul is
most ready to cast itself on the mercy of God. Calm fortitude must
always be better than an undisciplined abandonment to grief. But
before this has been attained there may come an apathy of despair,
under the influence of which the feelings are simply benumbed. That
apathy is the very opposite to drying up the fountain of grief as it
may be dried in the sunshine of love; it is freezing it. The first
step towards deliverance will be to melt the glacier. The soul must
feel before it can pray. Therefore the tears are encouraged to run
like torrents, and the sufferer to give himself no respite, nor let
the apple of his eye cease from weeping.

Next the poet exhorts the object of his sympathy--this strange
personification of the "wall of the daughter of Zion," under the image
of which he is thinking of the Jews--to arise. The weeping is but a
preliminary to more promising acts. The sufferer is not to spend the
long night in an unbroken flow of grief, like the psalmist "watering
his couch with his tears."[159] The very opposite attitude is now
suggested. Grief must not be treated as a normal condition, to be
acquiesced in or even encouraged. The victim is tempted to cherish his
sorrow as a sacred charge, to feel hurt if any mitigation of it is
suggested, or ashamed of confessing that relief has been received.
When he has reached this condition it is obvious that the substance of
grief has passed; the ghost of it that remains is fast becoming a
harmless sentiment. If, however, the trouble should be still
maintaining the tightness of its grip on the heart, there is positive
danger in permitting it to be indulged without intermission. The
sufferer must be roused if he is to be saved from the disease of

  [159] Psalm vi. 6.

He must be roused also if he would pray. True prayer is a strenuous
effort of the soul, requiring the most wakeful attention and taxing
the utmost energy of will. The Jew stood up to pray with hands
outstretched to heaven. The relaxed and feeble devotions of a
somnolent worshipper must fall flat and fruitless. There is no value
in the length of a prayer, but there is much in its depth. It is the
weight of its earnestness, not the comprehensiveness of its topics,
that gives it efficacy. Therefore we must gird up our loins to pray
just as we would to work, or run, or fight.

Now the awakened soul is urged to cry out in the night, and in the
beginning of the night watches--that is to say, not only at the
commencement of the night, for this would require no rousing, but at
the beginning of each of the three watches into which the Hebrews
divided the hours of darkness--at sunset, at ten o clock, and at two
in the morning. The sufferer is to keep watch with prayer--observing
his vespers, his nocturns, and his matins, not of course to fulfil
forms, but because, since his grief is continuous, his prayer also
must not cease. This is all assigned to the night, perhaps because
that is a quiet, solemn season for undisturbed reflection, when
therefore the grief that requires the prayer is most acutely felt; or
perhaps because the time of sorrow is naturally pictured as a night,
as a season of darkness.

Proceeding with our consideration of the details of this call to
prayer, we come upon the exhortation to pour out the heart like water
before the face of the Lord. The image here used is not without
parallel in scripture. Thus a psalmist exclaims--

  "I am poured out like water,
  And all my bones are out of joint;
  My heart is like wax;
  It is melted in the midst of my bowels."[160]

  [160] Psalm xxii. 14.

But the ideas are not just the same in the two cases. While the
psalmist thinks of himself as crushed and shattered, as though his
very being were dissolved, the thought of the elegist has more action
about it, with a deliberate intention and object in view. His image
suggests complete openness before God. Nothing is to be withheld. It
is not so much that the secrets of the soul are to be disclosed. The
end aimed at is not confession, but confidence. Therefore what the
writer would urge is that the sufferer should tell the whole tale of
his grief to God, quite freely, without any reserve, trusting
absolutely to the Divine sympathy.

This confidence is a primary requisite in prayer. Until we can trust
our Father it is useless to petition for his aid; we could not avail
ourselves of it if it were offered us. Indeed, the soul must come into
relations of sympathy with God before any real prayer is at all

We may go further. The attitude of soul that is here recommended is in
itself the very essence of prayer. The devotions that consist in a
series of definite petitions are of secondary worth, and superficial
in comparison with this outpouring of the heart before God. To enter
into relations of sympathy and confidence with God is to pray in the
truest, deepest way possible, or even conceivable. Prayer in the
heart of it is not petition; that is the beggar's resort. It is
communion--the child's privilege. We must often be as beggars, empty
of everything before God; yet we may also enjoy the happier
relationship of sonship with our Father. Even in the extremity of need
perhaps the best thing we can do is to spread out the whole case
before God. It will certainly relieve our own minds to do so, and
everything will appear changed when viewed in the light of the Divine
presence. Perhaps we shall then cease to think ourselves aggrieved and
wronged; for what are our deserts before the holiness of God? Passion
is allayed in the stillness of the sanctuary, and the indignant
protest dies upon our lips as we proceed to lay our case before the
eyes of the All-Seeing. We cannot be impatient any longer; He is so
patient with us, so fair, so kind, so good. Thus when we cast our
burden upon the Lord we may be surprised with the discovery that it is
not so heavy as we supposed. There are times when it is not possible
for us to go any further. We do not know what relief to ask for, or
even whether we should request to be in any way delivered from a load
which it may be our duty to bear, or the endurance of which may be a
most wholesome discipline for us. These possibilities must always put
a restraint upon the utterance of positive petitions. But they do not
apply to the prayer that is a simple act of confidence in God. The
secret of failure in prayer is not that we do not ask enough; it is
that we do not pour out our hearts before God, the restraint of
confidence rising from fear or doubt simply paralysing the energies of
prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray not only because He gives us a model
prayer, but much more because He is in Himself so true and full and
winsome a revelation of God, that as we come to know and follow Him
our lost confidence in God is restored. Then the heart that knows its
own bitterness, and that shrinks from permitting the stranger even to
meddle with its joy--how much more then with its sorrow?--can pour
itself out quite freely before God, for the simple reason that He is
no longer a stranger, but the one perfectly intimate and absolutely
trusted Friend.

It is to be noted that the elegist points to a definite occasion for
the outpouring of the heart before God. He singles out specifically
the sufferings of the starving children--a terrible subject that
appears more than once in this elegy, shewing how the horror of it has
fastened on the imagination of the poet. This was the most
heart-rending and mysterious ingredient in the bitter cup of the woes
of Jerusalem. If we may bring any trouble to God we may bring the
worst trouble. So this becomes the main topic of the prayer that
follows. Here the cases of the principal victims are cited. Priest and
prophet, notwithstanding the dignity of office, young man and maiden,
old man and little child--all alike have fallen victims. The ghastly
incident of a siege, where hunger has reduced human beings to the
level of savage beasts, women devouring their own children, is here
cited, and its cause, as well as that of all the other scenes of the
great tragedy, boldly ascribed to God. It is God who has summoned His
Terrors as at other times He had summoned His people to the festivals
of the sacred city. But if God mustered the whole army of calamities
it seems right to lay the story of the havoc they have wrought before
His face; and the prayer reads almost like an accusation, or at least
an expostulation, a remonstrance. It is not such, however; for we
have seen that elsewhere the elegist makes full confession of the
guilt of Jerusalem and admits that the doom of the wretched city was
quite merited. Still if the dire chastisement is from the hand of God
it is God alone who can bring deliverance. That is the final point to
be reached.



iii. 1-21

Whether we regard it from a literary, a speculative, or a religious
point of view, the third and central elegy cannot fail to strike us as
by far the best of the five. The workmanship of this poem is most
elaborate in conception and most finished in execution, the thought is
most fresh and striking, and the spiritual tone most elevated, and, in
the best sense of the word, evangelical. Like Tennyson, who is most
poetic when he is most artistic, as in his lyrics, and like all the
great sonneteers, the author of this exquisite Hebrew melody has not
found his ideas to be cramped by the rigorous rules of composition. It
would seem that to a master the elaborate regulations that fetter an
inferior mind are no hindrances, but rather instruments fitted to his
hand, and all the more serviceable for their exactness. Possibly the
artistic refinement of form stimulates thought and rouses the poet to
exert his best powers; or perhaps--and this is more probable--he
selects the richer robe for the purpose of clothing his choicer
conceptions. Here we have the acrostics worked up into triplets, so
that they now appear at the beginning of every line, each letter
occurring three times successively as an initial, and the whole poem
falling into sixty-six verses or twenty-two triplets. Yet none of the
other four poems have any approach to the wealth of thought or the
uplifting inspiration that we meet with in this highly finished
product of literary art.

This elegy differs from its sister poems in another respect. It is
composed, for the most part, in the first person singular, the writer
either speaking of his own experience or dramatically personating
another sufferer. Who is this "man that hath seen affliction?" On the
understanding that Jeremiah is the author of the whole book, it is
commonly assumed that the prophet is here revealing his own feelings
under the multitude of troubles with which he has been overwhelmed.
But if, as we have seen, this hypothesis is, to say the least,
extremely dubious, of course the assumption that has been based upon
it loses its warranty. No doubt there is much in the touching picture
of the afflicted person that agrees with what we know of the
experience of the great prophet. And yet, when we look into it, we do
not find anything of so specific a character as to settle us in the
conclusion that the words could have been spoken by no one else. There
is just the possibility that the poet is not describing himself at
all; he may be representing somebody well known to his contemporaries--
perhaps even Jeremiah, or just a typical character, in the manner of
Browning's _Dramatis Personæ_.

While some mystery hangs over the personality of this man of sorrows
the power and pathos of the poem are certainly heightened by the
concentration of our attention upon one individual. Few persons are
moved by general statements. Necessarily the comprehensive is all
outline. It is by the supply of the particular that we fill up the
details; and it is only when these details are present that we have a
full-bodied picture. If an incident is typical it is illustrative of
its kind. To know one such fact is to know all. Thus the science
lecturer produces his specimen, and is satisfied to teach from it
without adding a number of duplicates. The study of abstract reports
is most important to those who are already interested in the subjects
of these dreary documents; but it is useless as a means of exciting
interest. Philanthropy must visit the office of the statistician if it
would act with enlightened judgment, and not permit itself to become
the victim of blind enthusiasm; but it was not born there, and the
sympathy which is its parent can only be found among individual
instances of distress.

In the present case the speaker who recounts his own misfortunes is
more than a casual witness, more than a mere specimen picked out at
random from the heap of misery accumulated in this age of national
ruin. He is not simply a man who has seen affliction, one among many
similar sufferers; he is the man, the well-known victim, one
pre-eminent in distress even in the midst of a nation full of misery.
Yet he is not isolated on a solitary peak of agony. As the supreme
sufferer, he is also the representative sufferer. He is not selfishly
absorbed in the morbid occupation of brooding over his private
grievances. He has gathered into himself the vast and terrible woes of
his people. Thus he foreshadows our Lord in His passion. We cannot but
be struck with the aptness of much in this third elegy when it is read
in the light of the last scenes of the gospel history. It would be a
mistake to say that these outpourings from the heart of the Hebrew
patriot were intended to convey a prophetic meaning with reference to
another Sufferer in a far-distant future. Nevertheless the application
of the poem to the Man of Sorrows is more than a case of literary
illustration; for the idea of representative suffering which here
emerges, and which becomes more definite in the picture of the servant
of Jehovah in Isa. liii., only finds its full realisation and
perfection in Jesus Christ. It is repeated, however, with more or less
distinctness wherever the Christ spirit is revealed. Thus in a noble
interpretation of St. Paul, the Apostle is represented as

  "Desperate tides of the whole world's anguish
  Forced through the channel of a single heart."[161]

  [161] _St. Paul_, by Frederick Myers.

The portrait of himself drawn by the author of this elegy is the more
graphic by reason of the fact that the present is linked to the past.
The striking commencement, "I _am_ the man," etc., sets the speaker in
imagination before our eyes. The addition "who _has_ seen" (or rather,
experienced) "affliction" connects him with his present sufferings.
The unfathomable mystery of personal identity here confronts us. This
is more than memory, more than the lingering scar of a previous
experience; it is, in a sense, the continuance of that experience, its
ghostly presence still haunting the soul that once knew it in the glow
of life. Thus we are what we have thought and felt and done, and our
present is the perpetuation of our past. The man who has seen
affliction does not only keep the history of his distresses in the
quiet chamber of memory. His own personality has slowly acquired a
depth, a fulness, a ripeness that remove him far from the raw and
superficial character he once was. We are silenced into awe before
Job, Jeremiah, and Dante, because these men grew great by suffering.
Is it not told even of our Lord Jesus Christ that He was made perfect
by the things that He suffered?[162] Unhappily it cannot be said that
every hero of tragedy climbs to perfection on the rugged steps of his
terrible life-drama; some men are shattered by discipline which proves
to be too severe for their strength. Christ rose to His highest glory
by means of the cruelty of His enemies and the treason of one of His
trusted disciples; but cruel wrongs drove Lear to madness, and a
confidant's treachery made a murderer of Othello. Still all who pass
through the ordeal come out other than they enter, and the change is
always a growth in some direction, even though in many cases we must
admit with sorrow that this is a downward direction.

  [162] Heb. v. 8, 9.

It is to be observed that here in his self-portraiture--just as
elsewhere when describing the calamities that have befallen his
people--the elegist attributes the whole series of disastrous events
to God. This characteristic of the Book of Lamentations throughout is
nowhere more apparent than in the third chapter. So close is the
thought of God to the mind of the writer, he does not even think it
necessary to mention the Divine name. He introduces his pronouns
without any explanation of their objects, saying "_His_ wrath" and
"_He_ hath led me," and so on through the succeeding verses. This
quiet assumption of a recognised reference of all that happens to one
source, a source that is taken to be so well known that there is no
occasion to name it, speaks volumes for the deep-seated faith of the
writer. He is at the antipodes of the too common position of those
people who habitually forget to mention the name of God because He is
never in their thoughts. God is always in the thoughts of the elegist,
and that is why He is not named. Like Brother Lawrence, this man has
learnt to "practise the presence of God."

In amplifying the account of his sufferings, after giving a general
description of himself as the man who has experienced affliction, and
adding a line in which this experience is connected with its
cause--the rod of the wrath of Him who is unnamed, though ever in
mind--the stricken patriot proceeds to illustrate and enforce his
appeal to sympathy by means of a series of vivid metaphors. This is
the most crisp and pointed writing in the book. It hurries us on with
a breathless rush of imagery, scene after scene flashing out in
bewildering speed like the whirl of objects we look at from the
windows of an express train.

Let us first glance at the successive pictures in this rapidly moving
panorama of similes, and then at the general import and unit of the

The afflicted man was under the Divine guidance; he was not the victim
of blind self-will; it was not when straying from the path of right
that he fell into this pit of misery. The strange thing is that God
led him straight into it--led him into darkness, not into light as
might have been expected with such a Guide.[163] The first image,
then, is that of a traveller misled. The perception of the terrible
truth that is here suggested prompts the writer at once to draw an
inference as to the relation in which God stands to him, and the
nature and character of the Divine treatment of him throughout. God,
whom he has trusted implicitly, whom he has followed in the simplicity
of ignorance, God proves to be his Opponent! He feels like one duped
in the past, and at length undeceived as he makes the amazing
discovery that his trusted Guide has been turning His hand against him
repeatedly all the day of his woful wanderings.[164] For the moment he
drops his metaphors, and reflects on the dreadful consequences of this
fatal antagonism. His flesh and skin, his very body is wasted away; he
is so crushed and shattered, it is as though God had broken his
bones.[165] Now he can see that God has not only acted as an enemy in
guiding him into the darkness; God's dealings have shewn more overt
antagonism. The helpless sufferer is like a besieged city, and God,
who is conducting the assault, has thrown up a wall round him. With
that daring mixture of metaphors, or, to be more precise, with that
freedom of sudden transition from the symbol to the subject symbolised
which we often meet with in this Book, the poet calls the rampart with
which he has been girdled "gall and travail,"[166] for he has felt
himself beset with bitter grief and weary toil.[167]

  [163] iii. 2.

  [164] iii. 3.

  [165] iii. 4.

  [166] The Authorised Version has "travel," a mere variation in
  spelling. The word means painful labour, toil.

  [167] iii. 4.

Then the scene changes. The victim of Divine wrath is a captive
languishing in a dungeon, which is as dark as the abodes of the dead,
as the dwellings of those who have been _long_ dead.[168] The horror
of this metaphor is intensified by the idea of the antiquity of Hades.
How dismal is the thought of being plunged into a darkness that is
already aged--a stagnant darkness, the atmosphere of those who long
since lost the last rays of the light of his life! There the prisoner
is bound by a heavy chain.[169] He cries for help; but he is shut down
so low that his prayer cannot reach his Captor.[170]

  [168] iii. 6.

  [169] iii. 7.

  [170] iii. 8.

Again we see him still hampered, though in altered circumstances. He
appears as a traveller whose way is blocked, and that not by some
accidental fall of rock, but of set purpose, for he finds the
obstruction to be of carefully prepared masonry, "hewn stones."[171]
Therefore he has to turn aside, so that his paths become crooked. Yet
more terrible does the Divine enmity grow. When the pilgrim is thus
forced to leave the highroad and make his way through the adjoining
thickets his Adversary avails Himself of the cover to assume a new
form, that of a lion or a bear lying in ambush.[172] The consequence
is that the hapless man is torn as by the claws and fangs of beasts of
prey.[173] But now these wild regions in which the wretched traveller
is wandering at the peril of his life suggest the idea of the chase.
The image of the savage animals is defective in this respect, that man
is their superior in intelligence, though not in strength. But in the
present case the victim is in every way inferior to his Pursuer. So
God appears as the Huntsman, and the unhappy sufferer as the poor
hunted game. The bow is bent, and the arrow directed straight for its
mark.[174] Nay, arrow after arrow has already been let fly, and the
dreadful Huntsman, too skilful ever to miss His mark, has been
shooting "the sons of His quiver" into the very vitals of the object
of His pursuit.[175]

  [171] iii. 9.

  [172] iii. 10.

  [173] iii. 11.

  [174] iii. 12.

  [175] iii. 13.

Here the poet breaks away from his imagery for a second time to tell
us that he has become an object of derision to all his people, and the
theme of their mocking songs.[176] This is a striking statement. It
shews that the afflicted man is not simply one member of the smitten
nation of Israel, sharing the common hardships of the race whose
"badge is servitude." He not merely experiences exceptional
sufferings. He meets with no sympathy from his fellow-countrymen. On
the contrary, these people so far dissociate themselves from his case
that they can find amusement in his misery. Thus, while even a
misguided Don Quixote is a noble character in the rare chivalry of his
soul, and while his very delusions are profoundly pathetic, many
people can only find material for laughter in them, and pride
themselves in their superior sanity for so doing, although the truth
is, their conduct proves them to be incapable of understanding the
lofty ideals that inspire the object of their empty derision; thus
Jeremiah was mocked by his unthinking contemporaries, when, whether in
error, as they supposed, or wisely, as the event shewed, he preached
an apparently absurd policy; and thus a greater than Jeremiah, One as
supreme in reasonableness as in goodness, was jeered at by men who
thought Him at best a Utopian dreamer, because they were grovelling in
earthly thoughts far out of reach of the spiritual world in which He

  [176] iii. 14.

Returning to imagery, the poet pictures himself as a hardly used guest
at a feast. He is fed, crammed, sated; but his food is bitterness, the
cup has been forced to his lips, and he has been made drunk--not with
pleasant wine, however, but with wormwood.[177] Gravel has been mixed
with his bread, or perhaps the thought is that when he has asked for
bread stones have been given him. He has been compelled to masticate
this unnatural diet, so that his teeth have been broken by it. Even that
result he ascribes to God, saying, "He hath broken my teeth."[178] It is
difficult to think of the interference with personal liberty being
carried farther than this. Here we reach the extremity of crushed misery.

  [177] iii. 15.

  [178] iii. 16.

Reviewing the whole course of his wretched sufferings from the climax
of misery, the man who has seen all this affliction declares that God
has cast him on from peace.[179] The Christian sufferer knows what a
profound consolation there is in the possession of the peace of God,
even when he is passing through the most acute agonies--a peace which
can be maintained both amid the wildest tempests of external adversity
and in the presence of the fiercest paroxysms of personal anguish. Is
it not the acknowledged secret of the martyrs' serenity? Happily many
an obscure sufferer has discovered it for himself, and found it better
than any balm of Gilead. This most precious gift of heaven to
suffering souls is denied to the man who here bewails his dismal fate.
So too it was denied to Jesus in the garden, and again on the cross.
It is possible that the dark day will come when it will be denied to
one or another of His people. Then the experience of the moment will
be terrible indeed. But it will be brief. An angel ministered to the
Sufferer in Gethsemane. The joy of the resurrection followed swiftly
on the agonies of Calvary. In the elegy we are now studying a burst of
praise and glad confidence breaks out almost immediately after the
lowest depths of misery have been sounded, shewing that, as Keats
declares in an exquisite line--

  "There is a budding morrow in midnight."

  [179] iii. 17.

It is not surprising, however, that, for the time being, the exceeding
blackness of the night keeps the hope of a new day quite out of sight.
The elegist exclaims that he has lost the very idea of prosperity. Not
only has his strength perished, his hope in God has perished
also.[180] Happily God is far too good a Father to deal with His
children according to the measure of their despair. He is found by
those who are too despondent to seek Him, because He is always seeking
His lost children, and not waiting for them to make the first move
towards Him.

  [180] iii. 18.

When we come to look at the series of pictures of affliction as a
whole we shall notice that one general idea runs through them. This is
that the victim is hindered, hampered, restrained. He is led into
darkness, besieged, imprisoned, chained, driven out of his way, seized
in ambuscade, hunted, even forced to eat unwelcome food. This must all
point to a specific character of personal experience. The troubles of
the sufferer have mainly assumed the form of a thwarting of his
efforts. He has not been an indolent, weak, cowardly creature,
succumbing at the first sign of opposition. To an active man with a
strong will resistance is one of the greatest of troubles, although it
will be accepted meekly, as a matter of course, by a person of servile
habits. If the opposition comes from God, may it not be that the
severity of the trouble is just caused by the obstinacy of self-will?
Certainly it does not appear to be so here; but then we must remember
the writer is stating his own case.

Two other characteristics of the whole passage may be mentioned. One
is the _persistence_ of the Divine antagonism. This is what makes the
case look so hard. The pursuer seems to be ruthless; He will not let
his victim alone for a moment. One device follows sharply on another.
There is no escape. The second of these characteristics of the passage
is a gradual _aggravation_ in the severity of the trials. At first God
is only represented as a guide who misleads; then He appears as a
besieging enemy; later like a destroyer. And correspondingly the
troubles of the sufferer grow in severity, till at last he is flung
into the ashes, crushed and helpless.

All this is peculiarly painful reading to us with our Christian
thoughts of God. It seems so utterly contrary to the character of our
Father revealed in Jesus Christ. But then it is not a part of the
Christian revelation, nor was it uttered by a man who had received the
benefits of that highest teaching. That, however, is not a complete
explanation. The dreadful thoughts about God that are here recorded
are almost without parallel even in the Old Testament. How contrary
they are to such an idea as that of the pitiful Father in Psalm ciii.!
On the other hand, it should be remembered that if ever we have to
make allowance for the personal equation we must be ready to do so
most liberally when we are listening to the tale of his wrongs as this
is recounted by the sufferer himself. The narrator may be perfectly
honest and truthful, but it is not in human nature to be impartial
under such circumstances. Even when, as in the present instance, we
have reason to believe that the speaker is under the influence of a
Divine inspiration, we have no right to conclude that this gift would
enable him to take an all-round vision of truth. Still, can we deny
that the elegist has presented to our minds but one facet of truth? If
we do not accept it as intended for a complete picture of God, and if
we confine it to an account of the Divine action under certain
circumstances as this appears to one who is most painfully affected by
it, without any assertion concerning the ultimate motives of God--and
this is all we have any justification for doing--it may teach us
important lessons which we are too ready to ignore in favour of less
unpleasant notions. Finally it would be quite unfair to the elegist,
and it would give us a totally false impression of his ideas, if we
were to go no further than this. To understand him at all we must hear
him out. The contrast between the first part of this poem and the
second is startling in the extreme, and we must not forget that the
two are set in the closest juxtaposition, for it is plain that the one
is intended to balance the other. The harshness of the opening words
could be permitted with the more daring, because a perfect corrective
to any unsatisfactory inferences that might be drawn from it was about
to be immediately supplied.

The triplet of verses 19 to 21 serves as a transition to the picture
of the other side of the Divine action. It begins with prayer. Thus a
new note is struck. The sufferer knows that God is not at heart his
enemy. So he ventures to beseech the very Being concerning whose
treatment of him he has been complaining so bitterly, to remember his
affliction and the misery it has brought on him, the wormwood, the
gall of his hard lot. Hope now dawns on him out of his own
recollections. What are these? The Authorised Version would lead us to
think that when he uses the expression, "This I recall to my
mind,"[181] the poet is referring to the encouraging ideas of the
verses that immediately follow in the next section. But it is not
probable that the last line of a triplet would thus point forward to
another part of the poem. It is more consonant with the method of the
composition to take this phrase in connection with what precedes it in
the same triplet, and a perfectly permissible change in the
translation of the 20th verse gives good sense in that connection. We
may read this:

  "Thou (O God) wilt surely remember, for my soul is bowed down within me."

Thus the recollection that God too has a memory and that He will
remember His suffering servant becomes the spring of a new hope.

  [181] iii. 21.



iii. 22-4

Although the elegist has prepared us for brighter scenes by the more
hopeful tone of an intermediate triplet, the transition from the gloom
and bitterness of the first part of the poem to the glowing rapture of
the second is among the most startling effects in literature. It is
scarcely possible to conceive of darker views of Providence, short of
a Manichæan repudiation of the God of the physical universe as an evil
being, than those which are boldly set forth in the opening verses of
the elegy; we shudder at the awful words, and shrink from repeating
them, so near to the verge of blasphemy do they seem to come. And now
those appalling utterances are followed by the very choicest
expression of confidence in the boundless goodness of God! The writer
seems to leap in a moment out of the deepest, darkest pit of misery
into the radiance of more than summer sunlight. How can we account for
this extraordinary change of thought and temper?

It is not enough to ascribe the sharpness of the contrast either to
the clumsiness of the author in giving utterance to his teeming
fancies just as they occur to him, without any consideration for their
bearings one upon another; or to his art in designedly preparing an
awakening shock. We have still to answer the question, How could a man
entertain two such conflicting currents of thought in closest

In their very form and structure these touching elegies reflect the
mental calibre of their author. A wooden soul could never have
invented their movements. They reveal a most sensitive spirit, a
spirit that resembles a finely strung instrument of music, quivering
in response to impulses from all directions. People of a mercurial
temperament live in a state of perpetual oscillation between the most
contrary moods, and the violence of their despair is always ready to
give place to the enthusiasm of a new hope. We call them inconsistent;
but their inconsistency may spring from a quick-witted capacity to see
two sides of a question in the time occupied by slower minds with the
contemplation of one. As a matter of fact, however, the revulsion in
the mind of the poet may not have been so sudden as it appears in his
work. We can scarcely suppose that so elaborate a composition as this
elegy was written from beginning to end at a single sitting. Indeed,
here we seem to have the mark of a break. The author composes the
first part in an exceptionally gloomy mood, and leaves the poem
unfinished, perhaps for some time. When he returns to it on a
subsequent occasion he is in a totally different frame of mind, and
this is reflected in the next stage of his work. Still the point of
importance is the possibility of the very diverse views here recorded.

Nor is this wholly a matter of temperament. Is it not more or less the
case with all of us, that since absorption with one class of ideas
entirely excludes their opposites, when the latter are allowed to
enter the mind they will rush in with the force of a pent-up flood?
Then we are astonished that we could ever have forgotten them. We
build our theories in disregard of whole regions of thought. When
these occur to us it is with the shock of a sudden discovery, and in
the flash of the new light we begin at once to take very different
views of our universe. Possibly we have been oblivious of our own
character, until suddenly we are awakened to our true state, to be
overwhelmed with shame at an unexpected revelation of sordid meanness,
of despicable selfishness. Or perhaps the vision is of the heart of
another person, whose quiet, unassuming goodness we have not
appreciated, because it has been so unvarying and dependable that we
have taken it as a matter of course, like the daily sunrise, never
perceiving that this very constancy is the highest merit. We have been
more grateful for the occasional lapses into kindness with which
habitually churlish people have surprised us. Then there has come the
revelation, in which we have been made to see that a saint has been
walking by our side all the day. Many of us are very slow in reaching
a similar discovery concerning God. But when we begin to take a right
view of His relations to us we are amazed to think that we had not
perceived them before, so rich and full and abounding are the proofs
of His exceeding goodness.

Still it may seem to us a strange thing that this most perfect
expression of a joyous assurance of the mercy and compassion of God
should be found in the Book of Lamentations of all places. It may well
give heart to those who have not sounded the depths of sorrow, as the
author of these sad poems had done, to learn that even he had been
able to recognise the merciful kindness of God in the largest possible
measure. A little reflection, however, should teach us that it is not
so unnatural a thing for this gem of grateful appreciation to appear
where it is. We do not find, as a rule, that the most prosperous
people are the foremost to recognise the love of God. The reverse is
very frequently the case. If prosperity is not always accompanied by
callous ingratitude--and of course it would be grossly unjust to
assert anything so harsh--at all events it is certain that adversity
is far from blinding our eyes to the brighter side of the revelation
of God. Sometimes it is the very means by which they are opened. In
trouble the blessings of the past are best valued, and in trouble the
need of God's compassion is most acutely felt. But this is not all.
The softening influence of sorrow seems to have a more direct effect
upon our sense of Divine goodness. Perhaps, too, it is some
compensation for melancholy, that persons who are afflicted with it
are most responsive to sympathy. The morbid, despondent poet Cowper
has written most exquisitely about the love of God. Watts is
enthusiastic in his praise of the Divine grace; but a deeper note is
sounded in the Olney hymns, as, for example, in that beginning with
the line--

  "Hark, my soul, it is the Lord."

While reading this hymn to-day we cannot fail to feel the peculiar
thrill of personal emotion that still quivers through its living
words, revealing the very soul of their author. This is more than
joyous praise; it is the expression of a personal experience of the
compassion of God in times of deepest need. The same sensitive poet
has given us a description of the very condition that is illustrated
by the passage in the Hebrew elegist we are now considering, in lines
which, familiar as they are, acquire a fresh meaning when read in
this association--the lines--

  "Sometimes a light surprises
    The Christian while he sings:
  It is the Lord who rises
    With healing in His wings.
  When comforts are declining,
    He grants the soul, again,
  A season of clear shining,
    To cheer it after rain."

We may thank the Calvinistic poet for here touching on another side of
the subject. He reminds us that it is God who brings about the
unexpected joy of renewed trust in His unfailing mercy. The sorrowful
soul is, consciously or unconsciously, visited by the Holy Spirit, and
the effect of contact with the Divine is that scales fall from the
eyes of the surprised sufferer. If it is right to say that one portion
of Scripture is more inspired than another we must feel that there is
more Divine light in the second part of this elegy than in the first.
It is this surprising light from Heaven that ultimately accounts for
the sudden revolution in the feelings of the poet.

In his new consciousness of the love of God the elegist is first
struck by its amazing persistence. Probably we should follow the
Targum and the Syriac version in rendering the twenty-second verse

  "The Lord's mercies, verily they cease not," etc.,

instead of the usual English rendering--

  "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed," etc.

There are two reasons for this emendation. _First_, the momentary
transition to the plural "we" is harsh and improbable. It is true the
author makes a somewhat similar change a little later;[182] but there
it is in an extended passage, and one in which he evidently wishes to
represent his people with ideas that are manifestly appropriate to the
community at large. Here, on the other hand, the sentence breaks into
the midst of personal reflections. _Second_--and this is the principal
consideration--the balance of the phrases, which is so carefully
observed throughout this elegy, is upset by the common rendering, but
restored by the emendation. The topic of the triplet in which the
disputed passage occurs is the amazing persistence of God's goodness
to His suffering children. The proposed alteration is in harmony with

  [182] iii. 40-8.

The thought here presented to us rests on the truth of the eternity
and essential changelessness of God. We cannot think of Him as either
fickle or failing; to do so would be to cease to think of Him as God.
If He is merciful at all He cannot be merciful only spasmodically,
erratically, or temporarily. For all that, we need not regard these
heart-stirring utterances as the expressions of a self-evident truism.
The wonder and glory of the idea they dilate upon are not the less for
the fact that we should entertain no doubt of its truth. The certainty
that the character of God is good and great does not detract from His
goodness or His greatness. When we are assured that His nature is not
fallible our contemplation of it does not cease to be an act of
adoration. On the contrary, we can worship the immutable perfection of
God with fuller praises than we should give to fitful gleams of less
abiding qualities.

As a matter of fact, however, our religious experience is never the
simple conclusion of bare logic. Our feelings, and not these only, but
also our faith, need repeated assurances of the continuance of God's
goodness, because it seems as though there were so much to absorb and
quench it. Therefore the perception of the fact of its continuance
takes the form of a glad wonder that God's mercies do not cease. Thus
it is amazing to us that these mercies are not consumed by the
multitude of the sufferers who are dependent upon them--the extent of
God's family not in any way cramping His means to give the richest
inheritance to each of his children; nor by the depth of individual
need--no single soul having wants so extreme or so peculiar that his
aid cannot avail entirely for them; nor by the shocking ill-desert of
the most unworthy of mankind--even sin, while it necessarily excludes
the guilty from any present enjoyment of the love of God, not really
quenching that love or precluding a future participation in it on
condition of repentance; nor by the wearing of time, beneath which
even granite rocks crumble to powder.

The elegist declares that the reason why God's mercies are not
consumed is that his compassions do not fail. Thus he goes behind the
kind actions of God to their originating motives. To a man in the
condition of the writer of this poem of personal confidences the
Divine sympathy is the one fact in the universe of supreme importance.
So will it be to every sufferer who can assure himself of the truth of
it. But is this only a consolation for the sorrowing? The pathos, the
very tragedy of human life on earth, should make the sympathy of God
the most precious fact of existence to all mankind. Portia rightly
reminds Shylock that "we all do look for mercy"; but if so, the
spring of mercy, the Divine compassion, must be the one source of
true hope for every soul of man. Whether we are to attribute it to sin
alone, or whether there may be other dark, mysterious ingredients in
human sorrow, there can be no doubt that the deepest need is that God
should have pity on His children. The worship of heaven among the
angels may be one pure song of joy; but here, even though we are
privileged to share the gladness of the celestial praises, a plaintive
note will mingle with our anthem of adoration, because a pleading cry
must ever go up from burdened spirits; and when relief is acknowledged
our thanksgiving must single out the compassion of God for deepest
gratitude. It is much, then, to know that God not only helps the
needy--that is to say, all mankind--but that He feels with His
suffering children. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews has
taught us to see this reassuring truth most clearly in the revelation
of God in His Son, repeatedly dwelling on the sufferings of Christ as
the means by which He was brought into sympathetic, helpful relations
to the sufferings of mankind.[183]

  [183] Heb. ii. 18, iv. 15.

Further, the elegist declares that the special form taken by these
unceasing mercies of God is daily renewal. The love of God is
constant--one changeless Divine attribute; but the manifestations of
that love are necessarily successive and various according to the
successive and various needs of His children. We have not only to
praise God for His eternal, immutable goodness, vast and wonderful as
that is; to our perceptions, at all events, his immediate, present
actions are even more significant because they shew His personal
interest in individual men and women, and His living activity at the
very crisis of need. There is a certain aloofness, a certain
chillness, in the thought of ancient kindness, even though the effects
of it may reach to our own day in full and abundant streams. But the
living God is an active God, who works in the present as effectually
as He worked in the past. There is another side to this truth. It is
not sufficient to have received the grace of God once for all. If "He
giveth more grace," it is because we need more grace. This is a stream
that must be ever flowing into the soul, not the storage of a tank
filled once for all and left to serve for a lifetime. Therefore the
channel must be kept constantly clear, or the grace will fail to reach
us, although in itself it never runs dry.

There is something cheering in the poet's idea of the morning as the
time when these mercies of God are renewed. It has been suggested that
he is thinking of renewals of brightness after dark seasons of sorrow,
such as are suggested by the words of the psalmist--

  "Weeping may come in to lodge at even,
  But joy cometh in the morning."[184]

  [184] Heb. ii. 18, iv. 15.

This idea, however, would weaken the force of the passage, which goes
to shew that God's mercies do not fail, are not interrupted. The
emphasis is on the thought that no day is without God's new mercies,
not even the day of darkest trouble; and further, there is the
suggestion that God is never dilatory in coming to our aid. He does
not keep us waiting and wearying while He tarries. He is prompt and
early with His grace. The idea may be compared with that of the
promise to those who seek God early, literally, _in the morning_.[185]
Or we may think of the night as the time of repose, when we are
oblivious of God's goodness, although even through the hours of
darkness He who neither slumbers nor sleeps is constantly watching
over His unconscious children. Then in the morning there dawns on us a
fresh perception of His goodness. If we are to realise the blessing
sought in Sir Thomas Browne's prayer, and

  "Awake into some holy thought,"

no more holy thought can be desired than a grateful recognition of the
new mercies on which our eyes open with the new day. A morning so
graciously welcomed is the herald of a day of strength and happy

  [185] Prov. viii. 17.

To the notion of the morning renewal of the mercies of God the poet
appends a recognition of His great faithfulness. This is an additional
thought. Faithfulness is more than compassion. There is a strength and
a stability about the idea that goes further to insure confidence. It
is more than the fact that God is true to His word, that He will
certainly perform what He has definitely promised. Fidelity is not
confined to compacts--it is not limited to the question of what is "in
the bond"; it concerns persons rather than phrases. To be faithful to
a friend is more than to keep one's word to him. We may have given him
no pledge; and yet we must confess to an obligation to be true--to be
true to the man himself. Now while we are called upon to be loyal to
God, there is a sense in which we may venture without irreverence to
say that He may be expected to be faithful to us. He is our Creator,
and He has placed us in this world by His own will; His relations with
us cannot cease at this point. So Moses pleaded that God, having led
His people into the wilderness, could not desert them there; and
Jeremiah even ventured on the daring prayer--

  "Do not disgrace the throne of Thy glory."[186]

  [186] Jer. xiv. 21.

It is because we are sure the just and true God could never do
anything so base that His faithfulness becomes the ground of perfect
confidence. It may be said, on the other hand, that we cannot claim
any good thing from God on the score of merit, because we only deserve
wrath and punishment. But this is not a question of merit. Fidelity to
a friend is not exhausted when we have treated him according to his
deserts. It extends to a treatment of him in accordance with the
direct claims of friendship, claims which are to be measured by need
rather than by merit.

The conclusion drawn from these considerations is given in an echo
from the Psalms--

  "The Lord is my portion."[187]

  [187] Psalm lxxiii. 26.

The words are old and well-worn; but they obtain a new meaning when
adopted as the expression of a new experience. The lips have often
chanted them in the worship of the sanctuary. Now they are the voice
of the soul, of the very life. There is no plagiarism in such a
quotation as this, although in making it the poet does not turn aside
to acknowledge his obligation to the earlier author who coined the
immortal phrase. The seizure of the old words by the soul of the new
writer make them his own in the deepest sense, because under these
circumstances it is not their literary form, but their spiritual
significance, that gives them their value. This is true of the most
frequently quoted words of Scripture. They are new words to every soul
that adopts them as the expression of a new experience.

It is to be observed that the experience now reached is something over
and above the conscious reception of daily mercies. The Giver is
greater than His gifts. God is first known by means of His actions,
and then being thus known He is recognised as Himself the portion of
His people, so that to possess Him is their one satisfying joy in the
present and their one inspiring hope for the future.



iii. 25-36

Having struck a rich vein, our author proceeds to work it with energy.
Pursuing the ideas that flow out of the great truth of the endless
goodness of God, and the immediate inference that He of whom so
wonderful a character can be affirmed is Himself the soul's best
possession, the poet enlarges upon their wider relations. He must
adjust his views of the whole world to the new situation that is thus
opening out before him. All things are new in the light of the
splendid vision before which his gloomy meditations have vanished like
a dream. He sees that he is not alone in enjoying the supreme
blessedness of the Divine love. The revelation that has come to him is
applicable to other men if they will but fulfil the conditions to
which it is attached.

In the first place, it is necessary to perceive clearly what those
conditions are on which the happy experience of God's unfailing
mercies may be enjoyed by any man. The primary requisite is
affirmed to be _quiet waiting_.[188] The passivity of this attitude
is accentuated in a variety of expressions. It is difficult for
us of the modern western world to appreciate such teaching.
No doubt if it stood by itself it would be so one-sided as to be
positively misleading. But this is no more than must be said of any of
the best lessons of life. We require the balancing of separate truths
in order to obtain truth, as we want the concurrence of different
impulses to produce the resultant of a right direction of life. But in
the present case the opposite end of the scale has been so much
overweighted that we sorely need a very considerable addition on the
side to which the elegist here leans. Carlyle's gospel of work--a most
wholesome message as far as it went--fell on congenial Anglo-Saxon
soil; and this and the like teaching of kindred minds has brought
forth a rich harvest in the social activity of modern English life.
The Church has learnt the duty of working--which is well. She does not
appear so capable of attaining the blessedness of waiting. Our age is
in no danger of the dreaminess of quietism. But we find it hard to
cultivate what Wordsworth calls "wise passiveness." And yet in the
heart of us we feel the lack of this spirit of quiet. Charles Lamb's
essay on the "Quakers' Meeting" charms us, not only on account of its
exquisite literary style, but also because it reflects a phase of life
which we own to be most beautiful.

  [188] iii. 26.

The waiting here recommended is more than simple passiveness, however,
more than a bare negation of action. It is the very opposite of
lethargy and torpor. Although it is quiet, it is not asleep. It is
open-eyed, watchful, expectant. It has a definite object of
anticipation, for it is a waiting for God and His salvation; and
therefore it is hopeful. Nay, it has a certain activity of its own,
for it seeks God. Still, this activity is inward and quiet; its
immediate aim is not to get at some visible earthly end, however much
this may be desired, nor to attain some inward personal experience,
some stage in the soul's culture, such as peace, or purity, or power,
although this may be the ultimate object of the present anxiety;
primarily it seeks God--all else it leaves in His hands. Thus it is
rather a change in the tone and direction of the soul's energies than
a state of repose. It is the attitude of the watchman on his lonely
tower--calm and still, but keen-eyed and alert, while down below in
the crowded city some fret themselves with futile toil and others
slumber in stupid indifference.

To this waiting for Him and definite seeking of Him God responds in
some special manifestation of mercy. Although, as Jesus Christ tells
us, our Father in heaven "maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the
good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust,"[189] the fact here
distinctly implied, that the goodness of God is exceptionally enjoyed
on the conditions now laid down, is also supported by our Lord's
teaching in the exhortations, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek,
and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you; for every one
that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that
knocketh it shall be opened."[190] St. James adds, "Ye have not
because ye ask not."[191] This, then, is the method of the Divine
procedure. God expects His children to wait on Him as well as to wait
for Him. We cannot consider such an expectation unreasonable. Of
course it would be foolish to imagine God piquing Himself on His own
dignity, so as to decline aid until He had been gratified by a due
observance of homage. There is a deeper motive for the requirement.
God's relations with men and women are personal and individual; and
when they are most happy and helpful they always involve a certain
reciprocity. It may not be necessary or even wise to demand definite
things from God whenever we seek His assistance; for He knows what is
good, while we often blunder and ask amiss. But the seeking here
described is of a different character. It is not seeking things; it is
seeking God. This is always good. The attitude of trust and expectancy
that it necessitates is just that in which we are brought into a
receptive state. It is not a question of God's willingness to help; He
is always willing. But it cannot be fitting that He should act towards
us when we are distrustful, indifferent, or rebellious, exactly as He
would act if He were approached in submission and trustful

  [189] Matt. v. 45.

  [190] vii. 7, 8.

  [191] James iv. 2.

Quiet waiting, then, is the right and fitting condition for the
reception of blessing from God. But the elegist holds more than this.
In his estimation the state of mind he here commends is itself good
for a man. It is certainly good in contrast with the unhappy
alternatives--feeble fussiness, wearing anxiety, indolent negligence,
or blank despair. It is good also as a positive condition of mind. He
has reached a happy inward attainment who has cultivated the faculty
of possessing his soul in patience. His eye is clear for visions of
the unseen. To him the deep fountains of life are open. Truth is his,
and peace and strength also. When we add to this calmness the distinct
aim of seeking God we may see how the blessedness of the condition
recommended is vastly enhanced. We are all insensibly moulded by our
desires and aims. The expectant soul is transformed into the image of
the hope it pursues. When its treasure is in heaven its heart is
there also, and therefore its very nature becomes heavenly.

To his reflections on the blessedness of quiet waiting the elegist
adds a very definite word about another experience, declaring that "it
is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth."[192] This
interesting assertion seems to sound an autobiographical note,
especially as the whole poem treats of the writer's personal
experience. Some have inferred that the author must have been a young
man at the time of writing. But if, as seems probable, he is calling
to mind what he has himself passed through, this may be a recollection
of a much earlier period of his life. Thus he would seem to be
recognising, in the calm of subsequent reflection, what perhaps he may
have been far from admitting while bearing the burdens, that the
labours and hardships of his youth prove to have been for his own
advantage. This truth is often perceived in the meditations of mature
life, although it is not so easily acknowledged in the hours of strain
and stress.

  [192] iii. 27.

It is impossible to say what particular yoke the writer is thinking
about. The persecutions inflicted on Jeremiah have been cited in
illustration of this passage; and although we may not be able to
ascribe the poem to the great prophet, his toils and troubles will
serve as instances of the truth of the words of the anonymous writer,
for undoubtedly his sympathies were quickened while his strength was
ripened by what he endured. If we will have a definite meaning the
yoke may stand for one of three things--for instruction, for labour,
or for trouble. The sentence is true of either of these forms of yoke.
We are not likely to dispute the advantages of youthful education
over that which is delayed till adult age; but even if the acquisition
of knowledge is here suggested, we cannot suppose it to be book
knowledge, it must be that got in the school of life. Thus we are
brought to the other two meanings. Then the connection excludes the
notion of pleasant, attractive work, so that the yoke of labour comes
near to the burden of trouble. This seems to be the essential idea of
the verse. Irksome work, painful toil, forced labour partaking of the
nature of servitude--these ideas are most vividly suggested by the
image of a yoke. And they are what we most shrink from in youth.
Inactivity is then by no means sought or desired. The very exercise of
one's energies is a delight at the time of their fresh vigour. But
this exercise must be in congenial directions, in harmony with one's
tastes and inclinations, or it will be regarded as an intolerable
burden. Liberty is sweet in youth; it is not work that is dreaded, but
compulsion. Youth emulates the bounding energies of the war horse, but
it has a great aversion to the patient toil of the ox. Hence the yoke
is resented as a grievous burden; for the yoke signifies compulsion
and servitude. Now, as a matter of fact, this yoke generally has to be
borne in youth. People might be more patient with the young if they
would but consider how vexatious it must be to the shoulders that are
not yet fitted to wear it, and in the most liberty-loving age. As time
passes custom makes the yoke easier to be borne; and yet then it is
usually lightened. In our earlier days we must submit and obey, must
yield and serve. This is the rule in business, the drudgery and
restraint of which naturally attach themselves to the first stages. If
older persons reflected on what this must mean at the very time when
the appetite for delight is most keen, and the love of freedom most
intense, they would not press the yoke with needless harshness.

But now the poet has been brought to see that it was for his own
advantage that he was made to bear the yoke in his youth. How so?
Surely not because it prevented him from taking too rosy views of
life, and so saved him from subsequent disappointment. Nothing is more
fatal to youth than cynicism. The young man who professes to have
discovered the hollowness of life generally is in danger of making his
own life a hollow and wasted thing. The elegist could never have
fallen to this miserable condition, or he would not have written as he
has done here. With faith and manly courage the yoke has the very
opposite effect. The faculty of cherishing hope in spite of present
hardships, which is the peculiar privilege of youth, may stand a man
in stead at a later time, when it is not so easy to triumph over
circumstances, because the old buoyancy of animal spirits, which means
so much in early days, has vanished; and then if he can look back and
see how he has been cultivating habits of endurance through years of
discipline without his soul having been soured by the process, he may
well feel profoundly thankful for those early experiences which were
undoubtedly very hard in their rawness.

The poet's reflections on the blessedness of quiet waiting are
followed by direct exhortations to the behaviour which is its
necessary accompaniment--for such seems to be the meaning of the next
triplet, verses 28 to 30. The Revisers have corrected this from the
indicative mood, as it stands in the Authorised Version, to the
imperative--"Let him sit alone," etc., "Let him put his mouth in the
dust," etc., "Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him," etc.
The exhortations flow naturally out of the preceding statements, but
the form they assume may strike us as somewhat singular. Who is the
person thus indirectly addressed? The grammar of the sentences would
invite our attention to the "man" of the twenty-seventh verse. If it
is good for everybody to bear the yoke in his youth, it might be
suggested further that it would be well for everybody to act in the
manner now indicated--that is to say, the advice would be of universal
application. We must suppose, however, that the poet is thinking of a
sufferer similar to himself.

Now the point of the exhortation is to be found in the fact that it
goes beyond the placid state just described. It points to solitude,
silence, submission, humiliation, non-resistance. The principle of
calm, trustful expectancy is most beautiful; and if it were regarded
by itself it could not but fascinate us, so that we should wonder how
it would be possible for anybody to resist its attractions. But
immediately we try to put it in practice we come across some harsh and
positively repellent features. When it is brought down from the
ethereal regions of poetry and set to work among the gritty facts of
real life, how soon it seems to lose its glamour! It can never become
mean or sordid; and yet its surroundings may be so. Most humiliating
things are to be done, most insulting things endured. It is hard to
sit in solitude and silence--a Ugolino in his tower of famine, a
Bonnivard in his dungeon; there seems to be nothing heroic in this
dreary inactivity. It would be much easier to attempt some deed of
daring, especially if that were in the heat of battle. Nothing is so
depressing as loneliness--the torture of a prisoner in solitary
confinement. And yet now there must be no word of complaint because
the trouble comes from the very Being who is to be trusted for
deliverance. There is a call for action, however, but only to make the
submission more complete and the humiliation more abject. The sufferer
is to lay his mouth in the dust like a beaten slave.[193] Even this he
might brace himself to do, stifling the last remnant of his pride
because he is before the Lord of heaven and earth. But it is not
enough. A yet more bitter cup must be drunk to the dregs. He must
actually turn his cheek to the smiter, and quietly submit to
reproach.[194] God's wrath may be accepted as a righteous retribution
from above. But it is hard indeed to manifest the same spirit of
submission in face of the fierce malignity or the petty spite of men.
Yet silent waiting involves even this. Let us count the cost before we
venture on the path which looks so beautiful in idea, but which turns
out to be so very trying in fact.

  [193] iii. 29.

  [194] iii. 30.

We cannot consider this subject without being reminded of the teaching
and--a more helpful memory--the example also of our Lord. It is hard
to receive even from His lips the command to turn the other cheek to
one who has smitten us on the right cheek. But when we see Jesus doing
this very thing the whole aspect of it is changed. What before looked
weak and cowardly is now seen to be the perfection of true courage and
the height of moral sublimity. By His own endurance of insult and
ignominy our Lord has completely revolutionised our ideas of
humiliation. His humiliation was His glorification. What a Roman
would despise as shameful weakness He has proved to be the triumph of
strength. Thus, though we may not be able to take the words of the
Lamentations as a direct prophecy of Jesus Christ, they so perfectly
realise themselves in the story of His Passion, that to Christendom
they must always be viewed in the light of that supreme wonder of a
victory won through submission; and while they are so viewed they
cannot fail to set before us an ideal of conduct for the sufferer
under the most trying circumstances.

This advice is not so paradoxical as it appears. We are not called
upon to accept it merely on the authority of the speaker. He follows
it up by assigning good reasons for it. These are all based on the
assumption which runs through the elegies, that the sufferings therein
described come from the hand of God. They are most of them the
immediate effects of man's enmity. But a Divine purpose is always to
be recognised behind the human instrumentality. This fact at once
lifts the whole question out of the region of miserable, earthly
passions and mutual recriminations. In apparently yielding to a tyrant
from among his fellow-men the sufferer is really submitting to his

Then the elegist gives us three reasons why the submission should be
complete and the waiting quiet. The _first_ is that the suffering is
but temporary. God seems to have cast off His afflicted servant. If so
it is but for a season.[195] This is not a case of absolute desertion.
The sufferer is not treated as a reprobate. How could we expect
patient submission from a soul that had passed the portals of a hell
over which Dante's awful motto of despair was inscribed? If they who
entered were to "forsake all hope" it would be a mockery to bid them
"be still." It would be more natural for these lost souls to shriek
with the fury of madness. The first ground of quiet waiting is hope.
The _second_ is to be found in God's unwillingness to afflict.[196] He
never takes up the rod, as we might say, _con amore_. Therefore the
trial will not be unduly prolonged. Since God Himself grieves to
inflict it, the distress can be no more than is absolutely necessary.
The _third_ and last reason for this patience of submission is the
certainty that God cannot commit an injustice. So important is this
consideration in the eyes of the elegist that he devotes a complete
triplet to it, illustrating it from three different points of
view.[197] We have the conqueror with his victims, the magistrate in a
case at law, and the private citizen in business. Each of these
instances affords an opportunity for injustice. God does not look with
approval on the despot who crushes all his prisoners--for
Nebuchadnezzar's outrages are by no means condoned, although they are
utilised as chastisements; nor on the judge who perverts the solemn
process of law, when deciding, according to the Jewish theocratic
idea, in place of God, the supreme Arbitrator, and, as the oath
testifies, in His presence; nor on the man who in a private capacity
circumvents his neighbour. But how can we ascribe to God what He will
not sanction in man? "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do
right?"[198] exclaims the perplexed patriarch; and we feel that his
plea is unanswerable. But if God is just we can afford to be patient.
And yet we feel that while there is something to calm us and allay
the agonising terrors of despair in this thought of the unswerving
justice of God, we must fall back for our most satisfying assurance on
that glorious truth which the poet finds confirmed by his daily
experience, and which he expresses with such a glow of hope in the
rich phrase, "Yet will He have compassion according to the multitude
of His mercies."[199]

  [195] iii. 31, 32

  [196] iii. 33.

  [197] iii. 34-6.

  [198] Gen. xviii. 25.

  [199] iii. 32.



iii. 37-9

The eternal problem of the relation of God to evil is here treated
with the keenest discrimination. That God is the supreme and
irresistible ruler, that no man can succeed with any design in
opposition to His will, that whatever happens must be in some way an
execution of His decree, and that He, therefore, is to be regarded as
the author of evil as well as good--these doctrines are so taken for
granted that they are neither proved nor directly affirmed, but thrown
into the form of questions that can have but one answer, as though to
imply that they are known to everybody, and cannot be doubted for a
moment by any one. But the inference drawn from them is strange and
startling. It is that not a single living man has any valid excuse for
complaining. That, too, is considered to be so undeniable that, like
the previous ideas, it is expressed as a self-answering question. But
we are not left in this paradoxical position. The evil experienced by
the sufferer is treated as the punishment of his sin. What right has
he to complain of that? A slightly various rendering has been proposed
for the thirty-ninth verse, so as to resolve into a question and its
answer. Read in this way, it asks, why should a living man complain?
and then suggests the reply, that if he is to complain at all it
should not be on account of his sufferings, treated as wrongs. He
should complain against himself, his own conduct, his sin. We have
seen, however, in other cases, that the breaking of a verse in this
way is not in harmony with the smooth style of the elegiac poetry in
which the words occur. This requires us to take the three verses of
the triplet as continuous, flowing sentences.

Quite a number of considerations arise out of the curious
juxtaposition of ideas in this passage. In the first place, it is very
evident that by the word "evil" the writer here means trouble and
suffering, not wickedness, because he clearly distinguishes it from
the sin the mention of which follows. That sin is a man's own deed,
for which he is justly punished. The poet, then, does not attribute
the causation of sin to God; he does not speculate at all on the
origin of moral evil. As far as he goes in the present instance, he
would seem to throw back the authorship of it upon the will of man.
How that will came to turn astray he does not say. This awful mystery
remains unsolved through the whole course of the revelation of the Old
Testament, and even through that of the New also. It cannot be
maintained that the story of the Fall in Genesis is a solution of the
mystery. To trace temptation back to the serpent is not to account for
its existence, nor for the facility with which man was found to yield
to it. When, at a later period, Satan appears on the stage, it is not
to answer the perplexing question of the origin of evil. In the Old
Testament he is nowhere connected with the Fall--his identification
with the serpent first occurring in the Book of Wisdom,[200] from
which apparently it passed into current language, and so was adopted
by St. John in the Apocalypse.[201] At first Satan is the adversary
and accuser of man, as in Job[202] and Zechariah;[203] then he is
recognised as the tempter, in Chronicles, for example.[204] But in no
case is he said to be the primary cause of evil. No plummet can sound
the depths of that dark pit in which lurks the source of sin.

  [200] Wisdom ii. 23 ff.

  [201] Rev. xii. 9.

  [202] Job i. 6-12, ii. 1-7.

  [203] Zech. iii. 1, 2.

  [204] 1 Chron. xxi. 1.

Meanwhile a very different problem, the problem of suffering, is
answered by attributing this form of evil quite unreservedly and even
emphatically to God. It is to be remembered that our Lord, accepting
the language of His contemporaries, ascribes this to Satan, speaking
of the woman afflicted with a spirit of infirmity as one whom Satan
had bound;[205] and that similarly St. Paul writes of his thorn in the
flesh as a messenger of Satan,[206] to whom he also assigns the
hindrance of a projected journey.[207] But in these cases it is not in
the least degree suggested that the evil spirit is an irresistible and
irresponsible being. The language only points to his immediate agency.
The absolute supremacy of God is never called in question. There is no
real concession to Persian dualism anywhere in the Bible. In difficult
cases the sacred writers seem more anxious to uphold the authority of
God than to justify His actions. They are perfectly convinced that
those actions are all just and right, and not to be called in
question, and so they are quite fearless in attributing to His direct
commands occurrences that we should perhaps think more satisfactorily
accounted for in some other way. In such cases theirs is the language
of unfailing faith, even when faith is strained almost to breaking.

  [205] Luke xiii. 16.

  [206] 2 Cor. xii. 7.

  [207] 1 Thess. ii. 18.

The unquestionable fact that good and evil both come from the mouth of
the Most High is based on the certain conviction that He _is_ the Most
High. Since it cannot be believed that His decrees should be thwarted,
it cannot be supposed that there is any rival to His power. To speak
of evil as independent of God is to deny that He is God. This is what
a system of pure dualism must come to. If there are two mutually
independent principles in the universe neither of them can be God.
Dualism is as essentially opposed to the idea we attach to the name
"God" as polytheism. The gods of the heathen are no gods, and so also
are the imaginary twin divinities that divide the universe between
them, or contend in a vain endeavour to suppress one another. "God,"
as we understand the title, is the name of the Supreme, the Almighty,
the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Zend-Avesta escapes the
logical conclusion of atheism by regarding its two principles, Ormuzd
and Ahriman, as two streams issuing from a common fountain, or as two
phases of one existence. But then it saves its theism at the expense
of its dualism. In practice, however, this is not done. The dualism,
the mutual antagonism of the two powers, is the central idea of the
Parsee system; and being so, it stands in glaring contrast to the
lofty monism of the Bible.

Nevertheless, it may be said, although it is thus necessary to
attribute evil as well as good to God if we would not abandon the
thought of His supremacy, a thought that is essential to our
conception of His very nature, this is a perplexing necessity, and not
one to be accepted with any sense of satisfaction. How then can the
elegist welcome it with acclamation and set it before us with an air
of triumph? That he does so is undeniable, for the spirit and tone of
the poem here become positively exultant.

We may reply that the writer appears as the champion of the Divine
cause. No attack on God's supremacy is to be permitted. Nothing of the
kind, however, has been suggested. The writer is pursuing another aim,
for he is anxious to still the murmurs of discontent. But how can the
thought of the supremacy of God have that effect? One would have
supposed the ascription to God of the trouble complained of would
deepen the sense of distress and turn the complaint against Him. Yet
it is just here that the elegist sees the unreasonableness of a
complaining spirit.

Of course the uselessness of complaining, or rather the uselessness of
attempting resistance, may be impressed upon us in this way. If the
source of our trouble is nothing less than the Almighty and Supreme
Ruler of all things it is stupid to dream of thwarting His purposes.
If a man will run his head like a battering-ram against a granite
cliff the most he can effect by his madness will be to bespatter the
rock with his brains. It may be necessary to warn the rebel against
Providence of this danger by shewing him that what he mistakes for a
flimsy veil or a shadowy cloud is an immovable wall. But what will he
find to exult over in the information? The hopelessness of resistance
is no better than the consolation of pessimism, and its goal is
despair. Our author, on the other hand, evidently intends to be

Now, is there not something reassuring in the thought that evil and
good come to us from one and the same source? For, consider the
alternative. Remember, the evil exists as surely as the good. The
elegist does not attempt to deny this, or to minimise the fact. He
never calls evil good, never explains it away. There it stands before
us, in all its ugly actuality, speculations concerning its origin
neither aggravating the severity of its symptoms nor alleviating them.
Whence, then, did this perplexing fact arise? If we postulate some
other source than the Divine origin of good, what is it? A dreadful
mystery here yawns at our feet. If evil came from an equally potent
origin it would contend with good on even terms, and the issue would
always hang in the balance. There could be nothing reassuring in that
tantalising situation. The fate of the universe would be always
quivering in uncertainty. And meanwhile we should have to conclude,
that the most awful conflict with absolutely doubtful issues was
raging continually. We could only contemplate the idea of this vast
schism with terror and dismay. But now assuredly there is something
calming in the thought of the unity of the power that distributes our
fortunes; for this means that a man is in no danger of being tossed
like a shuttlecock between two gigantic rival forces. There must be a
singleness of aim in the whole treatment of us by Providence, since
Providence is one. Thus, if only as an escape from an inconceivably
appalling alternative, this doctrine of the common source of good and
evil is truly reassuring.

We may pursue the thought further. Since good and evil spring from one
and the same source, they cannot be so mutually contradictory as we
have been accustomed to esteem them. They are two children of a common
parent; then they must be brothers. But if they are so closely related
a certain family likeness may be traced between them. This does not
destroy the actuality of evil. But it robs it of its worst features.
The pain may be as acute as ever in spite of all our philosophising.
But the significance of it will be wholly changed. We can now no
longer treat it as an accursed thing. If it is so closely related to
good, we may not have far to go in order to discover that it is even
working for good.

Then if evil and good come from the same source it is not just to
characterise that source by reference to one only of its effluents. We
must not take a rose-coloured view of all things, and relapse into
idle complacency, as we might do if we confined our observation to the
pleasant facts of existence, for the unpleasant facts--loss,
disappointment, pain, death--are equally real, and are equally derived
from the very highest Authority. Neither are we justified in denying
the existence of the good when overwhelmed with a sense of the evil in
life. At worst we live in a very mixed world. It is unscientific, it
is unjust to pick out the ills of life and gibbet them as specimens of
the way things are going. If we will recite the first part of such an
elegy as that we are now studying, at least let us have the honesty to
read on to the second part, where the surpassingly lovely vision of
the Divine compassion so much more than counterbalances the preceding
gloom. Is it only by accident that the poet says "evil and good," and
not, as we usually put the phrase, "good and evil"? Good shall have
the last word. Evil exists; but the finality and crown of existence is
not evil, but good.

The conception of the primary unity of causation which the Hebrew poet
reaches through his religion is brought home to us to-day with a vast
accumulation of proof by the discoveries of science. The uniformity
of law, the co-relation of forces, the analyses of the most diverse
and complex organisms into their common chemical elements, the
evidence of the spectroscope to the existence of precisely the same
elements among the distant stars, as well as the more minute
homologies of nature in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, are all
irrefutable confirmations of this great truth. Moreover, science has
demonstrated the intimate association of what we cannot but regard as
good and evil in the physical universe. Thus, while carbon and oxygen
are essential elements for the building up of all living things, the
effect of perfectly healthy vital functions working upon them is to
combine them into carbonic acid, which is a most deadly poison; but
then this noxious gas becomes the food of plants, from which the
animal life in turn derives its nourishment. Similarly microbes, which
we commonly regard as the agents of corruption and disease, are found
to be not only nature's scavengers, but also the indispensable
ministers of life, when clustering round the roots of plants in vast
crowds they convert the organic matter of the soil, such as manure,
into those inorganic nitrates which contain nitrogen in the form
suitable for absorption by vegetable organisms. The mischief wrought
by germs, great as it is, is infinitely outweighed by the necessary
service existences of this kind render to all life by preparing some
of its indispensable conditions. The inevitable conclusion to be drawn
from facts such as these is that health and disease, and life and
death, interact, are inextricably blended together, and mutually
transformable--what we call disease and death in one place being
necessary for life and health in another. The more clearly we
understand the processes of nature the more evident is the fact of
her unity, and therefore the more impossible is it for us to think of
her objectionable characteristics as foreign to her being--alien
immigrants from another sphere. Physical evil itself looks less
dreadful when it is seen to take its place as an integral part of the
complicated movement of the whole system of the universe.

But the chief reason for regarding the prospect with more than
satisfaction has yet to be stated. It is derived from the character of
Him to whom both the evil and the good are attributed. We can go
beyond the assertion that these contrarieties spring from one common
origin to the great truth that this origin is to be found in God. All
that we know of our Father in heaven comes to our aid in reflecting
upon the character of the actions thus attributed to Him. The account
of God's goodness that immediately precedes this ascription of the two
extreme experiences of life to Him would be in the mind of the writer,
and it should be in the mind of the reader also. The poet has just
been dwelling very emphatically on the indubitable justice of God.
When, therefore, he reminds us that both evil and good come from the
Divine Being, it is as though he said that they both originated in
justice. A little earlier he was expressing the most fervent
appreciation of the mercy and compassion of God. Then these gracious
attributes should be in our thoughts while we hear that the mixed
experiences of life are to be traced back to Him of whom so cheering a
view can be taken.

We know the love of God much more fully since it has been revealed to
us in Jesus Christ. Therefore we have a much better reason for
building our faith and hope on the fact of the universal Divine origin
of events. In itself the evil exists all the same whether we can
trace its cause or not, and the discovery of the cause in no way
aggravates it. But this discovery may lead us to take a new view of
its issues. If it comes from One who is as just and merciful as He is
mighty we may certainly conclude that it will lead to the most blessed
results. Considered in the light of the assured character of its
purpose, the evil itself must assume a totally different character.
The child who receives a distasteful draught from the hand of the
kindest of parents knows that it cannot be a cup of poison, and has
good reason for believing it to be a necessary medicine.

The last verse of the triplet startles the reader with an unexpected
thought. The considerations already adduced are all meant to check any
complaint against the course of Providence. Now the poet appends a
final argument, which is all the more forcible for not being stated as
an argument. At the very end of the passage, when we are only
expecting the language to sink into a quiet conclusion, a new idea
springs out upon us, like a tiger from its lair. This trouble about
which a man is so ready to complain, as though it were some
unaccountable piece of injustice, is simply _the punishment of his
sin_! Like the other ideas of the passage, the notion is not
tentatively argued; it is boldly taken for granted. Once again we see
that there is no suspicion in the mind of the elegist of the
perplexing problem that gives its theme to the Book of Job. But do we
not sometimes press that problem too far? Can it be denied that, to a
large extent, suffering is the direct consequence and the natural
punishment of sin? Are we not often burnt for the simple reason that
we have been playing with fire? At all events, the whole course of
previous prophecy went to shew that the national sins of Israel must
be followed by some dreadful disasters; and when the war-cloud was
hovering on the horizon Jeremiah saw in it the herald of approaching
doom. Then the thunderbolt fell; and the wreck it caused became the
topic of this Book of Lamentations. After such a preparation, what was
more natural, and reasonable, and even inevitable, than that the
elegist should calmly assume that the trouble complained of was no
more than was due to the afflicted people? This is clear enough when
we think of the nation as a whole. It is not so obvious when we turn
our attention to individual cases; but the bewildering problem of the
sufferings of innocent children, which constitutes the most prominent
feature in the poet's picture of the miseries of the Jews, is not here

We must suppose that he is thinking of a typical citizen of Jerusalem.
If the guilty city merited severe punishment, such a man as this would
also merit it; for the deserts of the city are only the deserts of her
citizens. It will be for everybody to say for himself how far the
solution of the mystery of his own troubles is to be looked for in
this direction. A humble conscience will not be eager to repudiate the
possibility that its owner has not been punished beyond his deserts,
whatever may be thought of other people, innocent children in
particular. There is one word that may bring out this aspect of the
question with more distinctness--the word "living." The poet asks,
"Wherefore doth a _living_ man complain?" Why does he attach this
attribute to the subject of his question? The only satisfactory
explanation that has been offered is that he would remind us that
while the sufferer has his life preserved to him he has no valid
ground of complaint. He has not been overpaid; he has not even been
paid in full; for it is an Old Testament doctrine which the New
Testament repeats when it declares that "the wages of sin is

  [208] Rom. vi. 23.



iii. 40-42

When prophets, speaking in the name of God, promised the exiles a
restoration to their land and the homes of their fathers, it was
always understood and often expressly affirmed that this reversal of
their outward fortunes must be preceded by an inner change, a return
to God in penitent submission. Expulsion from Canaan was the
chastisement of apostasy from God; it was only right and reasonable
that the discipline should be continued as long as the sin that
necessitated it remained. It would be a mistake, however, to relegate
the treatment of this deadly sin to a secondary place, as only the
cause of a more serious trouble. There could be no more serious
trouble. The greatest evil from which Israel suffered was not the
Babylonian exile; it was her self-inflicted banishment from God. The
greatest blessing to be sought for her was not liberty to return to
the hills and cities of Palestine; it was permission and power to come
back to God. It takes us long to learn that sin is worse than
punishment, and that to be brought home to our Father in heaven is a
more desirable good than any earthly recovery of prosperity. But the
soul that can say with the elegist, "The Lord is my portion," has
reached the vantage ground from which the best things can be seen in
their true proportions; and to such a soul no advent of temporal
prosperity can compare with the gaining of its one prized possession.
In the triplet of verses that follows the pointed phrase which rebukes
complaint for suffering by attributing it to sin the poet conducts us
to those high regions where the more spiritual truth concerning these
matters can be appreciated.

The form of the language here passes into the plural. Already we have
been made to feel that the man who has seen affliction is a
representative sufferer, although he is describing his own personal
distresses. The immediately preceding clause seems to point to the
sinful Israelite generally, in its vague reference to a "living
man."[209] Now there is a transition in the movement of the elegy, and
the solitary voice gives place to a chorus, the Jews as a body
appearing before God to pour out their confessions in common.
According to his usual method the elegist makes the transition quite
abruptly, without any explanatory preparation. The style resembles
that of an oratorio, in which solo and chorus alternate with close
sequence. In the present instance the effect is not that of dramatic
variety, because we feel the vital sympathy that the poet cherishes
for his people, so that their experience is as his experience. It is a
faint shadow of the condition of the great Sin-bearer, of whom it
could be said, "In all their affliction He was afflicted."[210]

  [209] iii. 39.

  [210] Isa. lxiii. 9.

Before it is possible to return to God, before the desire to return is
even awakened, a much less inviting action must be undertaken. The
first and greatest hindrance to reconciliation with our Father is our
failure to recognise that any such reconciliation is necessary. The
most deadening effect of sin is seen in the fact that it prevents the
sinner from perceiving that he is at enmity with God at all, although
by everything he does he proclaims his rebellion. The Pharisee of the
parable cannot be justified, cannot really approach God at all,
because he will not admit that he needs any justification, or is
guilty of any conduct that separates him from God. Just as the most
hopeless state of ignorance is that in which there is a serene
unconsciousness of any deficiency of knowledge, so the most abandoned
condition of guilt is the inability to perceive the very existence of
guilt. The sick man who ignores his disease will not resort to a
physician for the cure of it. If the soul's quarrel with her Lord is
ever to be ended it must be discovered. Therefore the first step will
be in the direction of self-examination.

We are led to look in this direction by the startling thought with
which the previous triplet closes. If the calamities bewailed are the
chastisements of sin it is necessary for this sin to be sought out.
The language of the elegist suggests that we are not aware of the
nature of our own conduct, and that it is only by some serious effort
that we can make ourselves acquainted with it, for this is what he
implies when he represents the distressed people resolving to "search
and try" their ways. Easy as it may seem in words, experience proves
that nothing is more difficult in practice than to fulfil the precept
of the philosopher, "Know thyself." The externalism in which most of
our lives are spent makes the effort to look within a painful
contradiction of habit. When it is attempted pride and prejudice face
the inquirer, and too often quite hide the true self from view. If
the pursuit is pushed on in spite of these hindrances the result may
prove to be a sad surprise. Sometimes we see ourselves unexpectedly
revealed, and then the sight of so great a novelty amazes us. The
photographer's proof of a portrait dissatisfies the subject, not
because it is a bad likeness, but rather because it is too faithful to
be pleasing. A wonderful picture of Rossetti's represents a young
couple who are suddenly confronted in a lonely forest by the
apparition of their two selves as simply petrified with terror at the
appalling spectacle.

Even when the effort to acquire self-knowledge is strenuous and
persevering, and accompanied by an honest resolution to accept the
results, however unwelcome they may be, it often fails for lack of a
standard of judgment. We compare ourselves with ourselves--our present
with our past, or at best our actual life with our ideals. But this is
a most illusory process, and its limits are too narrow. Or we compare
ourselves with our neighbours--a possible advance, but still a most
unsatisfactory method; for we know so little of them, all of us
dwelling more or less like stars apart, and none of us able to sound
the abysmal depths of another's personality. Even if we could fix this
standard it too would be very illusory, because those people with whom
we are making the comparison, quite as much as we ourselves, may be
astray, just as a whole planetary system, though perfectly balanced in
the mutual relations of its own constituent worlds, may yet be out of
its orbit, and rushing on all together towards some awful common

A more trustworthy standard may be found in the heart-searching words
of Scripture, which prove to be as much a revelation of man to
himself as one of God to man. This Divine test reaches its perfection
in the historical presentation of our Lord. We discover our actual
characters most effectually when we compare our conduct with the
conduct of Jesus Christ. As the Light of the world, He leads the world
to see itself. He is the great touchstone of character. During His
earthly life hypocrisy was detected by His searching glance; but that
was not admitted by the hypocrite. It is when He comes to us
spiritually that His promise is fulfilled, and the Comforter convinces
of sin as well as of righteousness and judgment. Perhaps it is not so
eminently desirable as Burns would have us believe, that we should see
ourselves as others see us; but it is supremely important to behold
ourselves in the pure, searching light of the Spirit of Christ.

We may be reminded, on the other hand, that too much introspection is
not wholesome, that it begets morbid ways of thought, paralyses the
energies, and degenerates into insipid sentimentality. No doubt it is
best that the general tendency of the mind should be towards the
active duties of life. But to admit this is not to deny that there may
be occasions when the most ruthless self-examination becomes a duty of
first importance. A season of severe chastisement, such as that to
which the Book of Lamentations refers, is one that calls most
distinctly for the exercise of this rare duty. We cannot make our
daily meal of drugs; but drugs may be most necessary in sickness.
Possibly if we were in a state of perfectly sound spiritual health it
might be well for us never to spare a thought for ourselves from our
complete absorption with the happy duties of a full and busy life. But
since we are far from being thus healthy, since we err and fail and
sin, time devoted to the discovery of our faults may be exceedingly
well spent.

Then while a certain kind of self-study is always mischievous--the
sickly habit of brooding over one's feelings, it is to be observed
that the elegist does not recommend this. His language points in quite
another direction. It is not emotion but action that he is concerned
with. The searching is to be into our "ways," the course of our
conduct. There is an objectivity in this inquiry, though it is turned
inward, that contrasts strongly with the investigation of shadowy
sentiments. Conduct, too, is the one ground of the judgment of God.
Therefore the point of supreme importance to ourselves is to determine
whether conduct is right or wrong. With this branch of self-examination
we are not in so much danger of falling into complete delusions as when
we are considering less tangible questions. Thus this is at once the most
wholesome, the most necessary, and the most practicable process of

The particular form of conduct here referred to should be noted. The
word "ways" suggests habit and continuity. These are more
characteristic than isolated deeds--short spasms of virtue or sudden
falls before temptation. The final judgment will be according to the
life, not its exceptional episodes. A man lives his habits. He may be
capable of better things, he may be liable to worse; but he is what he
does habitually. The world will applaud him for some outburst of
heroism in which he rises for the moment above the sordid level of his
every-day his, or execrate him for his shameful moment of
self-forgetfulness; and the world will have this amount of justice in
its action, that the capacity for the occasional is itself a permanent
attribute, although the opportunity for the active working of the
latent good or evil is rare. The startling outburst may be a
revelation of old but hitherto hidden "ways." It must be so to some
extent; for no man wholly belies his own nature unless he is
mad--beside himself, as we say. Still it may not be so entirely, or
even chiefly; the surprised self may not be the normal self, often is
not. Meanwhile our main business in self-examination is to trace the
course of the unromantic beaten track, the long road on which we
travel from morning to evening through the whole day of life.

The result of this search into the character of their ways on the part
of the people is that it is found to be necessary to forsake them
forthwith; for the next idea is in the form of a resolution to turn
out of them, nay, to turn back, retracing the footsteps that have gone
astray, in order to come to God again. These ways are discovered,
then, to be bad--vicious in themselves, and wrong in their direction.
They run downhill, away from the home of the soul, and towards the
abodes of everlasting darkness. When this fact is perceived it becomes
apparent that some complete change must be made. This is a case of
ending our old ways, not mending them. Good paths may be susceptible
of improvement. The path of the just should "shine more and more unto
the perfect day." But here things are too hopelessly bad for any
attempt at amelioration. No engineering skill will ever transform the
path that points straight to perdition into one that conducts us up to
the heights of heaven. The only chance of coming to walk in the right
way is to forsake the wrong way altogether, and make an entirely new
start. Here, then, we have the Christian doctrine of conversion--a
doctrine which always appears extravagant to people who take
superficial views of sin, but one that will be appreciated just in
proportion to the depth and seriousness of our ideas of its guilt.
Nothing contributes more to unreality in religion than strong language
on the nature of repentance apart from a corresponding consciousness
of the tremendous need of a most radical change. This deplorable
mischief must be brought about when indiscriminate exhortations to the
extreme practice of penitence are addressed to mixed congregations. It
cannot be right to press the necessity of conversion upon young
children and the carefully sheltered and lovingly trained youth of
Christian homes in the language that applies to their unhappy brothers
and sisters who have already made shipwreck of life. This statement is
liable to misapprehension; doubtless to some readers it will savour of
the light views of sin deprecated above, and point to the excuses of
the Pharisee. Nevertheless it must be considered if we would avoid the
characteristic sin of the Pharisee, hypocrisy. It is unreasonable to
suppose that the necessity of a complete conversion can be felt by the
young and comparatively innocent as it should be felt by abandoned
profligates, and the attempt of the preacher to force it on their
relatively pure consciences is a direct incentive to cant. The
fifty-first Psalm is the confession of his crime by a murderer;
Augustine's _Confessions_ are the outpourings of a man who feels that
he has been dragging his earlier life through the mire; Bunyan's
_Grace Abounding_ reveals the memories of a rough soldier's shame and
folly. No good can come of the unthinking application of such
utterances to persons whose history and character are entirely
different from those of the authors.

On the other hand, there are one or two further considerations which
should be borne in mind. Thus it must not be forgotten that the
greatest sinner is not necessarily the man whose guilt is most
glaringly apparent; nor that sins of the heart count with God as
equivalent to obviously wicked deeds committed in the full light of
day; nor that guilt cannot be estimated absolutely, by the bare evil
done, without regard to the opportunities, privileges, and temptations
of the offender. Then, the more we meditate upon the true nature of
sin, the more deeply must we be impressed with its essential evil even
when it is developed only slightly in comparison with the hideous
crimes and vices that blacken the pages of history--as, for example,
in the careers of a Nero or a Cæsar Borgia. The sensitive conscience
does not only feel the exact guilt of its individual offences, but
also, and much more, "the exceeding sinfulness of sin." When we
consider their times and the state of the society in which they lived,
we must feel that neither Augustine nor Bunyan had been so wicked as
the intensity of the language of penitence they both employed might
lead us to suppose. It is quite foreign to the nature of heartfelt
repentance to measure degrees of guilt. In the depth of its shame and
humiliation no language of contrition seems to be too strong to give
it adequate expression. But this must be entirely spontaneous; it is
most unwise to impose it from without in the form of an indiscriminate
appeal to abject penitence.

Then it is also to be observed that while the fundamental change
described in the New Testament as a new birth cannot well be regarded
as a thing of repeated occurrence, we may have occasion for many
conversions. Every time we turn into the wrong path we put ourselves
under the necessity of turning back if ever we would walk in the
right path again. What is that but conversion? It is a pity that we
should be hampered by the technicality of a term. This may lead to
another kind of error--the error of supposing that if we are once
converted we are converted for life, that we have crossed our Rubicon,
and cannot recross it. Thus while the necessity of a primary
conversion may be exaggerated in addresses to the young, the greater
need of subsequent conversions may be neglected in the thoughts of
adults. The "converted" person who relies on the one act of his past
experience to serve as a talisman for all future time is deluding
himself in a most dangerous manner. Can it be asserted that Peter had
not been "converted," in the technical sense, when he fell through
undue self-confidence, and denied his Master with "oaths and curses?"

Again--a very significant fact--the return is described in positive
language. It is a coming back to God, not merely a departure from the
old way of sin. The initial impulse towards a better life springs more
readily from the attraction of a new hope than from the repulsion of a
loathed evil. The hopeful repentance is exhilarating, while that which
is only born of the disgust and horror of sin is dismally depressing.
Lurid pictures of evil rarely beget penitence. The _Newgate Calendar_
is not to be credited with the reformation of criminals. Even Dante's
_Inferno_ is no gospel. In prosecuting his mission as the prophet of
repentance John the Baptist was not content to declare that the axe
was laid at the root of the tree; the pith of his exhortation was
found in the glad tidings that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." St.
Paul shows that it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance.
Besides, the repentance that is induced by this means is of the best
character. It escapes the craven slavishness of fear; it is not a
merely selfish shrinking from the lash; it is inspired by the pure
love of a worthy end. Only remorse lingers in the dark region of
regrets for the past. Genuine repentance always turns a hopeful look
towards a better future. It is of little use to exorcise the spirit of
evil if the house is not to be tenanted by the spirit of good. Thus
the end and purpose of repentance is to be reunited to God.

Following up his general exhortation to return to God, the elegist
adds a particular one, in which the process of the new movement is
described. It takes the form of a prayer from the heart. The
resolution is to lift up the heart with the hands. The erect posture,
with the hands stretched out to heaven, which was the Hebrew attitude
in prayer, had often been assumed in meaningless acts of formal
worship before there was any real approach to God or any true
penitence. Now the repentance will be manifested by the reality of the
prayer. Let the heart also be lifted up. The true approach to God is
an act of the inner life, to which in its entirety--thought,
affection, and will--the Jewish metaphor of the heart points.

Lastly, the poet furnishes the returning penitents with the very
language of the heart's prayer, which is primarily confession. The
doleful fact that God has not pardoned His people is directly stated,
but not in the first place. This statement is preceded by a clear and
unreserved confession of sin. Repentance must be followed by
confession. It is not a private matter concerning the offender alone.
Since the offence was directed against another, the amendment must
begin with a humble admission of the wrong that has been done. Thus,
immediately the prodigal son is met by his father he sobs out his
confession;[211] and St. John assigns confession as an essential
preliminary to forgiveness, saying: "If we confess our sins, He is
faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from
all unrighteousness."[212]

  [211] Luke xv. 21.

  [212] 1 John i. 9.



iii. 43-54

As might have been expected, the mourning patriot quickly forsakes the
patch of sunshine which lights up a few verses of this elegy. But the
vision of it has not come in vain; for it leaves gracious effects to
tone the gloomy ideas upon which the meditations of the poet now
return like birds of the night hastening back to their darksome
haunts. In the first place, his grief is no longer solitary. It is
enlarged in its sympathies so as to take in the sorrows of others.
Purely selfish trouble tends to become a mean and sordid thing. If we
are not yet freed from our own pain some element of a nobler nature
will be imported into it when we can find room for the larger thoughts
that the contemplation of the distresses of others arouses. But a
greater change than this has taken place. The "man who hath seen
affliction" now feels himself to be in the presence of God. Speaking
for others as well as for himself he pours out his lamentations before
God. In the first part of the elegy he had only mentioned the Divine
name as that of his great Antagonist; now it is the name of his close

Then the elegist is here giving voice to the people's penitent
confession and prayer. This is another feature of the changed
situation. An unqualified admission of the truth that the sufferings
of Israel are just the merited punishment of the people's sin has come
between the complaints with which the poem opens, and the renewed
expressions of grief.

Still, when all due allowance is made for these improvements, the
renewed outburst of grief is sufficiently dismal. The people are
supposed to represent themselves as being hunted down like helpless
fugitives, and slain without pity by God, who has wrapped Himself in a
mantle of anger, which is as a cloud impenetrable to the prayers of
His miserable victims.[213] This description of their helpless state
follows immediately after an outpouring of prayer. It would seem,
therefore, that the poet conceived that this particular utterance was
hindered from reaching the ear of God. Now in many cases it may be
that a feeling such as is here expressed is purely subjective and
imaginary. The soul's cry of agony passes out into the night, and dies
away into silence, without eliciting a whisper of response. Yet it is
not necessary to conclude that the cry is not heard. The closest
attention may be the most silent. But, it may be objected, this
possibility only aggravates the evil; for it is better not to hear at
all than to hear and not to heed. Will any one attribute such stony
indifference to God? God may attend, and yet He may not speak to
us--speech not being the usual form of Divine response. He may be
helping us most effectually in silence, unperceived by us, at the very
moment when we imagine that He has completely deserted us. If we were
more keenly alive to the signs of His coming we should be less hasty
to despair at the failure of our prayers. The priests of Baal may
scream, "O Baal, hear us!" from morning to night till their phrensy
sinks into despair; but that is no reason why men and women who
worship a spiritual God should come to the conclusion that their
inability to wrest a sign from Heaven is itself a sign of desertion by
Him to whom they call. The oracle may be dumb; but the God whom we
worship is not limited to the utterance of prophetic voices for the
expression of His will. He hears, even if in silence; and, in truth,
He also answers, though we are too deaf in our unbelief to discern the
still small voice of His Spirit.

  [213] iii. 44.

But can we say that the idea of the Divine disregard of prayer is
always and only imaginary? Are the clouds that come between us and God
invariably earthborn? Does He never really wrap Himself in the garment
of wrath? Surely we dare not say so much. The anger of God is as real
as His love. No being can be perfectly holy and not feel a righteous
indignation in the presence of sin. But if God is angry, and while He
is so, He cannot at the same time be holding friendly intercourse with
the people who are provoking His wrath. Then the Divine anger must be
as a thick, impervious curtain between the prayers of the sinful and
the gracious hearing of God. The universal confession of the need of
an atonement is a witness to the perception of this condition by
mankind. Whether we are dealing with the crude notions of ancient
sacrifice, or with the high thoughts that circle about Calvary, the
same spiritual instinct presses for recognition. We may try to reason
it down, but it persistently reasserts itself. Most certainly it is
not the teaching of Scripture that the only condition of salvation is
prayer. The Gospel is not to the effect that we are to be saved by our
own petitions. The penitent is taught to feel that without Christ and
the cross his prayers are of no avail for his salvation. Even if they
knew no respite still they would never atone for sin. Is not this an
axiom of evangelical doctrine? Then the prayers that are offered in
the old unreconciled condition must fall back on the head of the vain
petitioner unable to penetrate the awful barrier that he has himself
caused to be raised between his cries and the heavens where God

Turning from the contemplation of the hopeless failure of prayer the
lament naturally falls into an almost despairing wail of grief. The
state of the Jews is painted in the very darkest colours. God has made
them as no better than the refuse people cast out of their houses, or
the very sweepings of the streets--not fit even to be trampled under
foot of men.[214] This is their position among the nations. The poet
seems to be alluding to the exceptional severity with which the
obstinate defenders of Jerusalem had been treated by their exasperated
conquerors. The neighbouring tribes had been compelled to succumb
beneath the devastating wave of the Babylonian invasion; but since
none of them had offered so stubborn a resistance to the armies of
Nebuchadnezzar none of them had been punished by so severe a scourge
of vengeance. So it has been repeatedly with the unhappy people who
have encountered unparalled persecutions through the long weary ages
of their melancholy history. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes the
Jews were the most insulted and cruelly outraged victims of Syrian
tyranny. When their long tragedy reached a climax at the final siege
of Jerusalem by Titus, the more liberal-minded Roman government laid
on them harsh punishments of exile, slavery, torture, and death, such
as it rarely inflicted on a fallen foe--for with statesmanlike wisdom
the Romans preferred, as a rule, conciliation to extermination; but in
the case of this one unhappy city of Jerusalem the almost unique fate
of the hated and dreaded city of Carthage was repeated. So it was in
the Middle Ages, as _Ivanhoe_ vividly shows; and so it is to-day in
the East of Europe, as the fierce _Juden-hetze_ is continually
proving. The irony of history is nowhere more apparent than in the
fact that the "favoured" people, the "chosen" people of Jehovah,
should have been treated so continuously as "the offscouring and
refuse in the midst of the peoples." As privilege and responsibility
always go hand in hand, so also do blessing and suffering--the Jew
hated, the Church persecuted, the Christ crucified. We cannot say that
this paradox is simply "a mysterious dispensation of Providence;"
because in the case of Israel, at all events in the early ages, the
unparalleled misery was traced to the abuse of unparalleled favour.
But this does not exhaust the mystery, for in the most striking
instances innocence suffers. We can have no satisfaction in our view
of these contradictions till we see the glory of the martyr's crown
and the even higher glory of the triumph of Christ and His people over
failure, agony, insult, and death; but just in proportion as we are
able to lift up the eyes of faith to the blessedness of the unseen
world, we shall be able also to discover that even here and now there
is a pain that is better than pleasure, and a shame that is truest

  [214] iii. 45.

These truths, however, are not readily perceived at the time of
endurance, when the iron is entering into the soul. The elegist feels
the degradations of his people most keenly, and he represents them
complaining how their enemies rage at them as with open
mouths--belching forth gross insults, shouting curses, like wild
beasts ready to devour their hapless victims.[215] There seems to be
nothing in store for them but the terrors of death, the pit of

  [215] iii. 46.

  [216] iii. 47.

At the contemplation of this extremity of hopeless misery the poet
drops the plural number, in which he has been personating his people,
as abruptly as he assumed it a few verses earlier, and bewails the
dread calamities in his own person.[217] Then, in truly Jeremiah-like
fashion, he describes his incessant weeping for the woes of the
wretched citizens of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. The
reference to "the daughters of my city"[218] seems to be best
explained as a figurative expression for the neighbouring places, all
of which it would seem had shared in the devastation produced by the
great wave of conquest which had overwhelmed the capital. But the
previous mention of "the daughter of my people,"[219] followed as it
is by this phrase about "the daughters of my city," strikes a deeper
note of compassion. These places contained many defenceless women, the
indescribable cruelty of whose fate when they fell into the hands of
the brutal heathen soldiery was one of the worst features of the whole
ghastly scene; and the wretchedness of the once proud city and its
dependencies when they were completely overthrown is finely
represented so as to appeal most effectually to our sympathy by a
metaphor that pictures them as hapless maidens, touching us like
Spenser's piteous picture of the forlorn Una, deserted in the forest
and left a prey to its savage denizens. Like Una, too, the daughters
in this metaphor claim the chivalry which our English poet has so
exquisitely portrayed as awakened even in the breast of a wild animal.
The woman of Europe is far removed from her sister in the East, who
still follows the ancient type in submitting to the imputation of
weakness as a claim for consideration. But this is because Europe has
learnt that strength of character--in which woman can be at least the
equal of man--is more potent in a community civilised in the Christian
way than strength of muscle. Where the more brutal forces are let
loose the duties of chivalry are always in requisition. Then it is
apparent that deference to the claims of women for protection produces
a civilising effect in softening the roughness of men. It is difficult
to say it to-day in the teeth of the just claims that women are
making, and still more difficult in face of what women are now
achieving, in spite of many relics of barbarism in the form of unfair
restrictions, but yet it must be asserted that the feebleness of
femininity--in the old-fashioned sense of the word--pervades these
poems, and is their most touching characteristic, so that much of the
pathos and beauty of poetry such as that of these elegies is to be
traced to representations of woman wronged and suffering and calling
for the sympathy of all beholders.

  [217] iii. 48 ff.

  [218] iii. 51.

  [219] iii. 48.

The poet is moved to tears--quite unselfish tears, tears of patriotic
grief, tears of compassion for helpless suffering. Here again the
modern Anglo-Saxon habit makes it difficult for us to appreciate his
conduct as it deserves. We think it a dreadful thing for a man to be
seen weeping; and a feeling of shame accompanies such an outburst of
unrestrained distress. But surely there are holy tears, and tears
which it is an honour for any one to be capable of shedding. If mere
callousness is the explanation of dry eyes in view of sorrow, there
can be no credit for such a condition. This is not the restraint of
tears. Nothing is easier than for the unfeeling not to weep. Nor can
it be maintained that it is always necessary to restrain the outward
expression of sympathy in accordance with its most natural impulses.
Our Lord was strong; yet we could never wish that the evangelist had
not had occasion to write the ever memorable sentence, "Jesus wept."
Sufferers lose much, not only from lack of sympathy, but also from a
shy concealment of the fellow-feeling that is truly experienced. There
are seasons of keenest agony, when to weep with those who weep is me
only possible expression of brotherly kindness; and this may be a very
real act of love, appreciably alleviating suffering. A little courage
on the part of Englishmen in daring to weep would knit the ties of
brotherhood more closely. At present a chill reserve rather than any
actual coldness of heart separates people who might be much more
helpful to one another if they could but bring themselves to break
down this barrier.

But while the poet is thus expressing his large patriotic grief he
cannot forget his own private sorrows. They are all parts of one
common woe. So he returns to his personal experience, and adds some
graphic details that enable us to picture him in the midst of his
misery.[220] Though he had never provoked the enemy, he was chased
like a bird, flung into a dungeon, where a stone was hurled down upon
him, and where the water was lying so deep that he was completely
submerged. There is no reason to question that definite statements
such as these represent the exact experience of the writer. At the
first glance they call to our minds the persecutions inflicted on
Jeremiah by his own people. But the allusion would be peculiarly
inappropriate, and the cases do not quite fit together. The poet has
been bewailing the sufferings of the Jews at the hands of the
Chaldæans, and he seems to identify his own troubles in the closest
way with the general flood of calamities that swept over his nation.
It would be quite out of place for him to insert here a reminder of
earlier troubles which his own people had inflicted upon him. Besides,
the particulars do not exactly agree with what we learn of the
prophet's hardships from his own pen. The dungeon into which he was
flung was very foul, and he sank in the mire, but it is expressly
stated that there was no water in it, and there is no mention of
stoning.[221] There were many sufferers in that dark time of tumult
and outrage whose fate was as hard as that of Jeremiah.

  [220] iii. 52 ff.

  [221] Jer. xxxviii. 6.

A graphic picture like this helps us to imagine the fearful
accompaniments of the destruction of Jerusalem much better than any
general summary. As we gaze at this one scene among the many miseries
that followed the siege--the poet hunted out and run down, his capture
and conveyance to the dungeon, apparently without a shadow of a trial,
the danger of drowning and the misery of standing in the water that
had gathered in a place so utterly unfit for human habitation, the
needless additional cruelty of the stone-throwing--there rises before
us a picture which cannot but impress our minds with the unutterable
wretchedness of the sufferers from such a calamity as the siege of
Jerusalem. Of course there must have been some special reason for the
exceptionally severe treatment of the poet. What this was we cannot
tell. If the same patriotic spirit burned in his soul in the midst of
the war as we now find at the time of later reflection, it would be
most reasonable to conjecture that the ardent lover of his country had
done or said something to irritate the enemy, and possibly that as he
devoted his poetic gifts at a subsequent time to lamenting the
overthrow of his city, he may have employed them with a more practical
purpose among the battle scenes to write some inspiring martial ode in
which we may be sure he would not have spared the ruthless invader.
But then he says his persecution was without a cause. He may have been
undeservedly suspected of acting as a spy. It is only by chance that
now and again we get a glimpse of the backwaters of a great flood such
as that which was now devastating the land of Judah; most of the
dreary scene is shrouded in gloom.

Lastly, we must not fail to remember, in reading these expressions of
patriotic and personal grief, that they are the outpourings of the
heart of the poet before God. They are all addressed to God's ear;
they are all part of a prayer. Thus they illustrate the way in which
prayer takes the form of confiding in God. It is a great relief to be
able simply to tell Him everything. Perhaps, however, here we may
detect a note of complaint; but if so it is not a note of rebellion or
of unbelief. Although the evils from which the elegist and his people
are suffering so grievously are attributed to God in the most
uncompromising manner, the writer does not hesitate to look to God for
deliverance. Thus in the very midst of his lamentations he says that
his weeping is to continue "till the Lord look down, and behold from
heaven."[222] He will not cease weeping until this happens; but he
does not expect to have to spend all the remainder of his days in
tears. He is assured that God will hear, and answer, and deliver. The
time of the Divine response is quite unknown to him; it may be still
far off, and there may be much weary waiting to be endured first. But
it will come, and if no one can tell how long the interval of trial
may be, so also no one can say but that the deliverance may arrive
suddenly and with a surprise of mercy. Thus the poet weeps on, but in
undying hope.

  [222] iii. 50.

This is the right attitude of the Christian mourner. We cannot
penetrate the mystery of God's times; but that they are in His own
hands is not to be denied. Therefore the test of faith is often given
in the necessity for indefinite waiting. To the man who trusts God
there is always a future. Whatever such a man may have to endure he
should find a place in his plaint for the word "until." He is not
plunged into everlasting night. He has but to endure until the day



iii. 55-66

As this third elegy--the richest and the most elaborate of the five
that constitute the Book of Lamentations--draws to a close it retains
its curious character of variability, not aiming at any climax, but
simply winding on till its threefold acrostics are completed by the
limits of the Hebrew alphabet, like a river that is monotonous in the
very succession of its changes, now flowing through a dark gorge, then
rippling in clear sunlight, and again plunging into gloomy caverns.
The beauty and brightness of this very variegated poem is found at its
centre. Sadder thoughts follow. But these are not so wholly
complaining as the opening passages had been. There is one thread of
continuity that may be traced right through the series of changes
which occupy the latter part of the poem. The poet having once turned
to the refuge of prayer never altogether forsakes it. The meditations
as much as the petitions that here occur are all directed to God.

A peculiarity of the last portion of the elegy that claims special
attention is the interesting reminiscence with which the poet finds
encouragement for his present prayers. He is recalling the scenes of
that most distressing period of his life, the time when he had been
cast into a flooded dungeon. If ever he had come near to death it must
have been then; though his life was spared the misery of his condition
had been extreme. While in this most wretched situation the persecuted
patriot cried to God for help, and as he now recollects for his
present encouragement, he received a distinct and unmistakable answer.
The scene is most impressive. As it shapes itself to his memory, the
victim of tyranny is in _the lowest dungeon_. This phrase suggests the
thought of the awful Hebrew Sheol. So dark was his experience, and so
near was the sufferer to death, it seems to him as though he had been
indeed plunged down into the very abode of the dead. Yet here he found
utterance for prayer. It was the prayer of utter extremity, almost the
last wild cry of a despairing soul, yet not quite, for that is no
prayer at all, all prayer requiring some real faith, if only as a
grain of mustard seed. Moreover, the poet states that he called upon
the _name_ of God. Now in the Bible the name always stands for the
attributes which it connotes. To call on God's name is to make mention
of some of His known and revealed characteristics. The man who will do
this is more than one "feeling after God;" he has a definite
conception of the nature and disposition of the Being to whom he is
addressing himself. Thus it happens that old, familiar ideas of God,
as He had been known in the days of light and joy, rise up in the
heart of the miserable man, and awaken a longing desire to seek the
help of One so great and good and merciful. Just in proportion to the
fulness of the meaning of the name of God as it is conceived by us,
will our prayers win definiteness of aim and strength of wing. The
altar to "an unknown god" can excite but the feeblest and vaguest
devotion. Inasmuch as our Lord has greatly enriched the contents of
the name of God by His full revelation of the Divine Father, to us
Christians there has come a more definite direction and a more
powerful impulse for prayer. Even though this is a prayer _de
profundis_ it is an enlightened prayer. We may believe that, like a
star seen from the depths of a well which excludes the glare of day,
the significance of the sacred Name shone out to the sufferer with a
beauty never before perceived when he looked up to heaven from the
darkness of his pit of misery.

It has been suggested that in this passage the elegist is following
the sixty-ninth psalm, and that perhaps that psalm is his own
composition and the expression of the very prayer to which he is here
referring. At all events, the psalm exactly fits the situation; and
therefore it may be taken as a perfect illustration of the kind of
prayer alluded to. The psalmist is "in deep mire, where there is no
standing;" he has "come into deep waters, where the floods overthrow"
him; he is persecuted by enemies who hate him "without a cause;" he
has been weeping till his eyes have failed. Meanwhile he has been
waiting for God, in prayers mingled with confessions. It is his zeal
for God's house that has brought him so near to death. He beseeches
God that the flood may not be allowed to overwhelm him, nor "the pit
shut her mouth upon him." He concludes with an invocation of curses
upon the heads of his enemies. All these as well as some minor points
agree very closely with our poet's picture of his persecutions and the
prayer he here records.

Read in the light of the elegist's experience, such a prayer as that
of the psalm cannot be taken as a model for daily devotion. It is a
pity that our habitual use of the Psalter should encourage this
application of it. The result is mischievous in several ways. It tends
to make our worship unreal, because the experience of the psalmist,
even when read metaphorically, as it was probably intended to be read,
is by no means a type of the normal condition of human life. Besides,
in so far as we bring ourselves to sympathise with this piteous outcry
of a distressed soul, we reduce our worship to a melancholy plaint,
when it should be a joyous anthem of praise. At the same time, we
unconsciously temper the language we quote with the less painful
feelings of our own experience, so that its force is lost upon us.

Yet the psalm is of value as a revelation of a soul's agony relieved
by prayer; and there are occasions when its very words can be repeated
by men and women who are indeed overwhelmed by trouble. If we do not
spoil the occasional by attempting to make it habitual it is wonderful
to see how rich the Bible is in utterances to suit all cases and all
conditions. Such an outpouring of a distressed heart as the elegist
hints at and the psalmist illustrates, is itself full of profound
significance. The stirring of a soul to its depths is a revelation of
its depths. This revelation prevents us from taking petty views of
human nature. No one can contemplate the Titanic struggle of Laocoon
or the immeasurable grief of Niobe without a sense of the tragic
greatness of which human life is capable. We live so much on the
surface that we are in danger of forgetting that life is not always a
superficial thing. But when a volcano bursts out of the quiet plain of
everyday existence, we are startled into the perception that there
must be hidden fires which we may not have suspected before. And,
further, when the soul in its extremity is seen to be turning for
refuge to God, the revelation of its Gethsemane gives a new meaning to
the very idea of prayer. Here is prayer indeed, and at the sight of
such a profound reality we are shamed into doubting whether we have
ever begun to pray at all, so stiff and chill do our utterances to the
Unseen now appear to be in comparison with this Jacob-like wrestling.

Immediately after mentioning the fact of his prayer the elegist adds
that this was heard by God. His cry rose up from "the lowest dungeon"
and reached the heights of heaven. And yet we cannot credit this to
the inherent vigour of prayer. If a petition can thus wing its way to
heaven, that is because it is of heavenly origin. There is no
difficulty in making air to rise above water; the difficulty is to
sink it; and if any could be taken to the bottom of the sea, the
greater the depth descended the swifter would it shoot up. Since all
true prayer is an inspiration it cannot spend itself until it has, so
to speak, restored the equilibrium by returning to its natural sphere.
But the elegist puts the case another way. In His great condescension
God stoops to the very lowest depths to find one of His distressed
children. It is not hard to make the prayer of the dungeon reach the
ear of God, because God is in the dungeon. He is most near when He is
most needed.

The prayer was more than heard; it was answered--there was a Divine
voice in response to this cry to God, a voice that reached the ear of
the desolate prisoner in the silence of his dungeon. It consisted of
but two words, but those two words were clear and unmistakable, and
quite sufficient to satisfy the listener. The voice said, "Fear
not."[223] That was enough.

  [223] iii. 57.

Shall we doubt the reality of the remarkable experience that the
elegist here records? Or can we explain it away by reference to the
morbid condition of the mind of a prisoner enduring the punishment of
solitary confinement? It is said that this unnatural punishment tends
to develop insanity in its miserable victims. But the poet is now
reviewing the occurrence, which made so deep an impression on his mind
at the time, in the calm of later reflection; and evidently he has no
doubt of its reality. It has nothing in it of the wild fancy of a
disordered brain. Lunacy raves; this simple message is calm. And it is
just such a message as God might be expected to give if He spoke at
all--just like Him, we may say. To this remark some doubting critic
may reply, "Exactly; and therefore the more likely to have been
imagined by the expectant worshipper." But such an inference is not
psychologically correct. The reply is not in harmony with the tone of
the prayer, but directly opposed to it. Agony and terror cannot
generate an assurance of peace and safety. The poison does not secrete
its own antidote. Here is an indication of the presence of another
voice, because the words breathe another spirit. Besides, this is not
an unparalleled experience.

Most frequently, no doubt, the answer to prayer is not vocal, and yet
the reality of it may not be any the less certain to the seeking soul.
It may be most definite, although it comes in a deed rather than in a
word. Then the grateful recipient can exclaim with the psalmist--

  "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him,
  And saved him out of all his troubles."[224]

  [224] Psalm xxxiv. 6.

Here is an answer, but not a spoken one, only an action, in saving
from trouble. In other cases, however, the reply approaches nearer the
form of a message from heaven. When we remember that God is our Father
the wonder is not that at rare intervals these voices have been heard,
but rather that they are so infrequent. It is so easy to become the
victim of delusions that some caution is requisite to assure ourselves
of the existence of Divine utterances. The very idea of the occurrence
of such phenomena is discredited by the fact that those persons who
profess most eagerly to have heard supernatural voices are commonly
the subjects of hysteria; and when the voices become frequent this
fact is taken by physicians as a symptom of approaching insanity.
Among semi-civilised people madness is supposed to be closely allied
to inspiration. The mantis is not far from the mad man. Such a man is
not the better off for the march of civilisation. The ancients would
have honoured him as a prophet; we shut him up in a lunatic asylum.
But these discouraging considerations do not exhaust the question.
Delusions are not in themselves disproofs of the existence of the
occurrences they emulate. Each case must be taken on its own merits;
and when, as in that which is now under our consideration, the
character of the incident points to a conviction of its solid reality,
it is only a mark of narrowness of thought to refuse to lift it out of
the category of idle fancies.

But, quite apart from the question of the sounding of Divine voices in
the bodily ear, the more important truth to be considered is that in
some way, if only by spiritual impression, God does most really speak
to His children, and that He speaks now as surely as He spoke in the
days of Israel. We have no new prophets and apostles who can give us
fresh revelations in the form of additions to our Bible. But that is
not what is meant. The elegist did not receive a statement of doctrine
in answer to his prayer, nor, on this occasion, even help for the
writing of his inspired poetry. The voice to which he here alludes was
of quite a different character.

This was in the olden times; but if then, why not also now? Evidently
the elegist regarded it as a rare and wonderful occurrence--a single
experience to which he looked back in after years with the interest
one feels in a vivid recollection which rises like a mountain, clean
cut against the sky, above the mists that so quickly gather on the low
plains of the uneventful past. Perhaps it is only in one of the crises
of life that such an indubitable message is sent--when the soul is in
the lowest dungeon, _in extremis_, crying out of the darkness,
helpless if not yet hopeless, overwhelmed, almost extinguished. But if
we listened for it, who can tell but that the voice might not be so
rare? We do not believe in it; therefore we do not hear it. Or the
noise of the world's great loom and the busy thoughts of our own
hearts drown the music that still floats down from heaven to ears that
are tuned to catch its notes; for it does not come in thunder, and we
must ourselves be still if we would hear the still small voice,
inwardly still, still in soul, stifling the chatter of self, stopping
our ears to the din of the world. There are those to-day who tell us
with calm assurance, not at all in the visionary's falsetto notes,
that they have known just what is here described by the poet--in the
silence of a mountain valley, in the quiet of a sick chamber, even in
the noisy crowd at a railway station.

When this is granted it is still well for us to remember that we are
not dependent for Divine consolation on voices which to many must ever
be as dubious as they are rare. This short message of two words is in
effect the essence of teachings that can be gathered as freely from
almost every page of the Bible as flowers from a meadow in May. We
have the "more sure word of prophecy," and the burden of it is the
same as the message of the voice that comforted the poet in his

That message is wholly reassuring--"Fear not." So said God to the
patriarch: "Fear not, Abram; I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great
reward;"[225] and to His people through the prophet of the
restoration: "Fear not, thou worm Jacob;"[226] and Jesus to His
disciples in the storm: "Be of good cheer: it is I: be not
afraid";[227] and our Lord again in His parting address: "Let not your
heart be troubled, neither let it be fearful";[228] and the glorified
Christ to His terrified friend John, when He laid His right hand on
him with the words: "Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the
Living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive for ever more, and
I have the keys of death and of Hades."[229] This is the word that God
is continually speaking to His faint-hearted children. When "the
burthen of the mystery," and

          "the heavy and the weary weight
  Of all this unintelligible world"

oppress, when the greater sorrows threaten to crush outright,
listening for the voice of God, we may hear the message of love from a
Father's heart as though spoken afresh to each of us; for we have but
to acquaint ourselves with Him to be at peace.

  [225] Gen. xv. 1.

  [226] Isa. xli. 14.

  [227] Mark vi. 50.

  [228] John xiv. 27.

  [229] Rev. i. 17, 18.

The elegist does not recall this scene from his past life merely in
order to indulge in the pleasures of memory--generally rather
melancholy pleasures, and even mocking if they are in sharp contrast
to the present. His object is to find encouragement for renewed hope
in the efficacy of prayer. In the complaint that he has put into the
mouth of His people He has just been depicting the failure of prayer.
But now he feels that if for a time God has wrapped Himself in a
mantle of wrath this cannot be for ever, for He who was so gracious to
the cry of His servant on that ever-memorable occasion will surely
attend again to the appeal of distress. This is always the greatest
encouragement for seeking help from God. It is difficult to find much
satisfaction in what is called with an awkward inconsequence of
diction the "philosophy of prayer"; the spirit of philosophy is so
wholly different from the spirit of prayer. The great justification
for prayer is the experience of prayer. It is only the prayerless man
who is wholly sceptical on this subject. The man of prayer cannot but
believe in prayer; and the more he prays and the oftener he turns to
this refuge in all times of need the fuller is his assurance that God
hears and answers him.

Considering how God acted as his advocate when he was in danger in the
earlier crisis, and then redeemed his life, the poet points to this
fact as a plea in his new necessity.[230] God will not desert the
cause He has adopted. Men feel a peculiar interest in those whom they
have already helped, an interest that is stronger than the sense of
gratitude, for we are more attracted to our dependants than to our
benefactors. If God shares this feeling, how strongly must He be drawn
to us by His many former favours! The language of the elegist gains a
great enrichment of meaning when read in the light of the Christian
Gospel. In a deep sense, of which he could have had but the least
glimmering of apprehension, we can appeal to God as the Redeemer of
our life, for we can take the Cross of Christ as our plea. St. Paul
makes use of this strongest of all arguments when He urges that if God
gave His Son, and if Christ died for us, all other needful blessings,
since they cannot involve so great a sacrifice, will surely follow.
Accordingly, we can pray in the language of the _Dies Iræ_--

  "Wearily for me Thou soughtest,
  On the Cross my life Thou boughtest,
  Lose not all for which Thou wroughtest."

  [230] iii. 58.

Rising from the image of the advocate to that of the magistrate the
distressed man begs God to judge his cause.[231] He would have God
look at his enemies--how they wrong him, insult him, make him the
theme of their jesting songs.[232]

  [231] iii. 59.

  [232] iii. 60-3.

It would have been more to our taste if the poem had ended here, if
there had been no remaining letters in the Hebrew alphabet to permit
the extension of the acrostics beyond the point we have now reached.
We cannot but feel that its tone is lowered at the close. The writer
here proceeds to heap imprecations on the heads of his enemies. It is
vain for some commentator to plead the weak excuse that the language
is "prophetic." This is certainly more than the utterance of a
prediction. No unprejudiced reader can deny that it reveals a desire
that the oppressors may be blighted and blasted with ruin, and even if
the words were only a foretelling of a divinely-decreed fate they
would imply a keen sense of satisfaction in the prospect, which they
describe as something to be gloated over. We cannot expect this Jewish
patriot to anticipate our Lord's intercession and excuse for His
enemies. Even St. Paul so far forgot himself as to treat the High
Priest in a very different manner from his Master's behaviour. But we
may see here one of the worst effects of tyranny--the dark passion of
revenge that it rouses in its victims. The provocation was maddening,
and not only of a private nature. Think of the situation--the beloved
city sacked and destroyed, the sacred temple a heap of smouldering
ruins, village homesteads all over the hills of Judah wrecked and
deserted; slaughter, outrage, unspeakable wrongs endured by wives and
maidens, little children starved to death. Is it wonderful that the
patriot's temper was not the sweetest when he thought of the authors
of such atrocities? There is no possibility of denying the fact--the
fierce fires of Hebrew hatred for the oppressors of the much-suffering
race here burst into a flame, and towards the end of this finest of
elegies we read the dark imprecation, "Thy curse upon them!"[233]

  [233] iii. 65.



iv. 1-12

IN form the fourth elegy is slightly different from each of its
predecessors. Following the characteristic plan of the Book of
Lamentations, it is an acrostic of twenty-two verses arranged in the
order of the Hebrew alphabet. In it we meet with the same curious
transposition of two letters that is found in the second and third
elegies; it has also the peculiar metre of Hebrew elegiac poetry--the
very lengthy line, broken into two unequal parts. But, like the first
and second, it differs from the third elegy, which repeats the
acrostic letters in three successive lines, in only using each
acrostic once--at the beginning of a fresh verse; and it differs from
all the three first elegies, which are arranged in triplets, in having
only two lines in each verse.

This poem is very artistically constructed in the balancing of its
ideas and phrases. The opening section of it, from the beginning to
the twelfth verse, consists of a pair of duplicate passages--the first
from verse one to verse six, the second from verse seven to verse
eleven, the twelfth verse bringing this part of the poem to a close by
adding a reflection on the common subject of the twin passages. Thus
the parallelism which we usually meet with in individual verses is
here extended to two series of verses, we might perhaps say, two
_stanzas_, except that there is no such formal division.

In each of these elaborately-wrought sections the elegist brings out a
rich array of similes to enforce the tremendous contrast between the
original condition of the people of Jerusalem and their subsequent
wretchedness. The details of the two descriptions follow closely
parallel lines, with sufficient diversity, both in idea and in
illustration, though chiefly in illustration, to avoid tautology and
to serve to heighten the general effect by mutual comparisons. Both
passages open with images of beautiful and costly natural objects to
which the _élite_ of Jerusalem are compared. Next comes the violent
contrast of their state after the overthrow of the city. Then turning
aside to more distant scenes, each of which is more or less
repellent--the lair of wild beasts in the first case, in the second
the battle-field--the poet describes the much more degraded and
miserable condition of his people. Both passages direct especial
attention to the fate of children--the first to their starvation, the
second to a perfectly ghastly scene. At this point in each part the
previous daintiness of the upbringing of the more refined classes is
contrasted with the condition of degradation worse than that of
savages to which they have been reduced. Each passage concludes with a
reference to those deeper facts of the case which make it a sign of
the wrath of heaven against exceptionally guilty sinners.

The elegist begins with an evident allusion to the consequences of the
burning of the temple, which we learn from the history was effected by
the Babylonian general Nebuzar-adan.[234] The costly splendour with
which this temple at Jerusalem was decorated allowed of a rare glitter
of gold, such as Josephus describes when writing of the later temple;
gold not like that of the domes of St. Mark's, mellowed by the climate
of Venice to a sober depth of hue, but all ablaze with dazzling
radiance. The first effect of the smoke of a great conflagration would
be to cloud and soil this somewhat raw magnificence, so that the
choice gold became dull. That the precious stones stolen from the
temple treasury would be flung carelessly about the streets, as our
Authorised Version would seem to suggest, is not to be supposed in the
case of the sack of a city by a civilised army, whatever might happen
if a Vandal host swept through it. "The stones of the sanctuary,"[235]
however, might be the stones with which the building had been
constructed. Still, even with this interpretation the statement seems
very improbable that the invaders would take the trouble to cart these
huge blocks about the city in order to distribute them in heaps at all
the street corners. We are driven to the conclusion that the poet is
speaking metaphorically, that he is meaning the Jews themselves, or
perhaps the more favoured classes, "the noble sons of Zion" of whom he
writes openly in the next verse.[236] This interpretation is confirmed
when we consider the comparison with the parallel passage, which
starts at once with a reference to the "princes."[237] It seems likely
then that the gold that has been so sullied also represents the
choicer part of the people. The writer deplores the destruction of his
beloved sanctuary, and the image of that calamity is in his mind at
the present time; and yet it is not this that he is most deeply
lamenting. He is more concerned with the fate of his people. The
patriot loves the very soil of his native land, the loyal citizen the
very streets and stones of his city. But if such a man is more than a
dreamer or a sentimentalist, flesh and blood must mean infinitely more
to him than earth and stones. The ruin of a city is something else
than the destruction of its buildings; an earthquake or a fire may
effect this, and yet, like Chicago, the city may rise again in greater
splendour. The ruin that is most deplorable is the ruin of human

  [234] 2 Kings xxv. 9.

  [235] iv. 1.

  [236] iv. 2.

  [237] iv. 7.

This somewhat aristocratic poet, the mouthpiece of an aristocratic
age, compares the sons of the Jewish nobility to purest gold. Yet he
tells us that they are treated as common earthen vessels, perhaps
meaning in contrast to the vessels of precious metal used in the
palaces of the great. They are regarded as of no more value than
potter's work, though formerly they had been prized as the dainty art
of a goldsmith. This first statement only treats of insult and
humiliation. But the evil is worse. The jackals that he knows must be
prowling about the deserted ruins of Jerusalem even while he writes
suggests a strange, wild image to the poet's mind.[238] These fierce
creatures suckle their young, though not in the tame manner of
domestic animals. It is singular that the nurture of princes amid the
refinements of wealth and luxury should be compared to the feeding of
their cubs by scavengers of the wilderness. But our thoughts are thus
directed to the wide extent, the universal exercise of maternal
instincts throughout the animal world, even among the most savage and
homeless creatures. Startling indeed is it to think that such
instincts should ever fail among men, or even that circumstances
should ever hinder the natural performance of the functions to which
they point with imperious urgency. Although the second passage tells
of the violent reversal of the natural feelings of maternity under the
maddening influence of famine, here we read how starvation has simply
stopped the tender ministry which mothers render to their infants,
with a vague hint at some cruelty on the part of the Jewish mothers. A
comparison with the supposed conduct of ostriches in leaving their
eggs suggests that this is negative cruelty; their hearts being frozen
with agony, the wretched mothers lose all interest in their children.
But then there is not food for them. The calamities of the times have
staunched the mother's milk; and there is no bread for the older
children.[239] It is the extreme reversal of their fortunes that makes
the misery of the children of princely homes most acute; even those
who do not suffer the pangs of hunger are flung down to the lowest
depths of wretchedness. The members of the aristocracy have been
accustomed to live luxuriously; now they wander about the streets
devouring whatever they can pick up. In the old days of luxury they
used to recline on scarlet couches; now they have no better bed than
the filthy dunghill.[240]

  [238] iv. 3.

  [239] iv. 4.

  [240] iv. 5.

The passage concludes with a reflection on the general character of
this dreadful condition of Israel.[241] It must be closely connected
with the sins of the people. The drift of the context would lead us to
judge that the poet does not mean to compare the guilt of Jerusalem
with that of Sodom, but rather the fate of the two cities. The
punishment of Israel is greater than that of Sodom. But this is
punishment; and the odious comparison would not be made unless the sin
had been of the blackest dye. Thus in this elegy the calamities of
Jerusalem are again traced back to the ill-doings of her people. The
awful fate of the cities of the plain stands out in the ancient
narrative as the exceptional punishment of exceptional wickedness. But
now in the race for a first place in the history of doom Jerusalem has
broken the record. Even Sodom has been eclipsed in the headlong course
by the city once most favoured by heaven. It seems well nigh
impossible. What could be worse than total destruction by fire from
heaven? The elegist considers that there are two points in the fate of
Jerusalem that confer a gloomy pre-eminence in misery. The doom of
Sodom was sudden, and man had no hand in it but Jerusalem fell into
the hands of man--a calamity which David judged to be worse than
falling into the hands of God; and she had to endure a long, lingering

  [241] iv. 6.

Passing on to the consideration of the parallel section, we see that
the author follows the same lines, though with considerable freshness
of treatment. Still directing especial attention to the tremendous
change in the fortunes of the aristocracy, he begins again by
describing the splendour of their earlier state. This had been
advertised to all eyes by the very complexion of their countenances.
Unlike the toilers who were necessarily bronzed by working under a
southern sun, these delicately nurtured persons had been able to
preserve fair skins in the shady seclusion of their cool palaces, so
that in the hyperbole of the poem they could be described as "purer
than snow" and "whiter than milk."[242] Yet they had no sickly
pallor. Their health had been well attended to; so that they were also
ruddy as "corals," while their dark hair[243] glistened "like
sapphires." But now see them! Their faces are "darker than
blackness."[244] We need not enquire after a literal explanation of an
expression which is in harmony with the extravagance of Oriental
language, although doubtless exposure to the weather, and the grime
and smoke of the scenes these children of luxury had passed through,
must have had a considerable effect on their effeminate countenances.
The language here is evidently figurative. So it is throughout the
passage. The whole aspect of the lives and fortunes of these
delicately nurtured lordlings has been reversed. They tell their story
by the gloom of their countenances and by the shrivelled appearance of
their bodies. They can no longer be recognised in the streets, so
piteous a change has their misfortunes wrought in them. Withered and
wizen, they are reduced to skin and bone by sheer famine. Sufferers
from such continuous calamities as these fallen princes are passing
through are treated to a worse fate than that which overtook their
brethren who fell in the war. The sword is better than hunger. The
victims of war, stricken down in the heat of battle but in the midst
of plenty, so that they leave the fruits of the field behind them
untouched because no longer needed,[245] are to be counted happy in
being taken from the evil to come.

  [242] iv. 7.

  [243] iv. 7. "Hair," According to a slight emendation of the text
recommended by recent criticism.

  [244] iv. 8.

  [245] So perhaps we should understand ver. 9, applying the last clause
to the fallen warriors. In the Revised Version, however, rendered so
as to refer to the famished people who pine away for lack of the
fruits of the earth. Yet another rendering is "fade away ... like the
growth of the fields."

The gruesome horror of the next scene is beyond description.[246] More
than once history has had to record the absolute extinction, nay, we
must say the insane reversal, of maternal instincts under the
influence of hunger. We could not believe it possible if we did not
know that it had occurred. It is a degradation of what we hold to be
most sacred in human nature; perhaps it is only possible where human
nature has been degraded already, for we must not forget that in the
present case the women who are driven below the level of she-wolves
are not children of nature, but the daughters of an effete
civilisation who have been nursed in the lap of luxury. This is the
climax. Imagination itself could scarcely go further. And yet
according to his custom throughout, the elegist attributes these
calamities of his people to the anger of God. Such things seem to
indicate a very "fury" of Divine wrath; the anger must be fierce
indeed to kindle such "a fire in Zion."[247] But now the very
foundations of the city are destroyed even that terrible thirst for
retribution must be satisfied.

  [246] iv. 10.

  [247] iv. 11.

These are thoughts which we as Christians do not care to entertain;
and yet it is in the New Testament that we read that "our God is a
consuming fire;"[248] and it is of our Lord that John the Baptist
declares: "He will throughly purge His threshing-floor."[249] If God
is angry at all His anger cannot be light; for no action of His is
feeble or ineffectual. The subsequent restoration of Israel shows that
the fires to which the elegist here calls our attention were
purgatorial. This fact must profoundly affect our view of their
character. Still they are very real, or the Book of Lamentations would
not have been written.

  [248] Heb. xii. 29.

  [249] Matt. iii. 12.

In view of the whole situation so graphically portrayed by means of
the double line of illustrations the poet concludes this part of his
elegy with a device that reminds us of the function of the chorus in
the Greek drama. We see the kings of all other nations in amazement at
the fate of Jerusalem.[250] The mountain city had the reputation of
being an impregnable fortress, at least so her fond citizens imagined.
But now she has fallen. It is incredible! The news of this wholly
unexpected disaster is supposed to send a shock through foreign
courts. We are reminded of the blow that stunned St. Jerome when a
rumour of the fall of Rome reached the studious monk in his quiet
retreat at Bethlehem. Men can tell that a severe storm has been raging
out in the Atlantic if they see unusually great rollers breaking on
the Cornish crags. How huge a calamity must that be the mere echo of
which can produce a startling effect in far countries! But could these
kings really be so astonished seeing that Jerusalem had been captured
twice before? The poet's language rather points to the overweening
pride and confidence of the Jews, and it shows how great the shock to
them must have been since they could not but regard it as a wonder to
the world. Such then is the picture drawn by our poet with the aid of
the utmost artistic skill in bringing out its striking effects. Now
before we turn away from it let us ask ourselves wherein its true
significance may be said to be. This is a study in black and white.
The very language is such; and when we come to consider the lessons
that language sets forth with so much sharpness and vigour, we shall
see that they too partake of the same character.

  [250] iv. 12.

The force of contrasts--that is the first and most obvious
characteristic of the scene. We are very familiar with the heightening
of effects by this means, and it is needless to repeat the trite
lessons that have been derived from the application of it to life. We
know that none suffer so keenly from adversity as those who were once
very prosperous. Marius in the Mamertine dungeon, Napoleon at St.
Helena, Nebuchadnezzar among the beasts, Dives in Hell, are but
notorious illustrations of what we may all see on the smaller canvas
of every-day life. Great as are the hardships of the children of the
"slums," it is not to them, but to the unhappy victims of a violent
change of circumstances, that the burden of poverty is most heavy. We
have seen this principle illustrated repeatedly in the Book of
Lamentations. But now may we not go behind it, and lay hold of
something more than an indubitable psychological law? While looking
only at the reversals of fortune which may be witnessed on every hand,
we are tempted to hold life to be little better than a gambling bout
with high stakes and desperate play. Further consideration, however,
should teach us that the stakes are not so high as they appear; that
is to say, that the chances of the world do not so profoundly affect
our fate as surface views would lead us to suppose. Such things as the
pursuit of mere sensation, the life of external aims, the surrender to
the excitement of the moment, are doubtless subject to the
vicissitudes of contrast; but it is the teaching of our Lord that the
higher pursuits are free from these evils. If the treasure is in
heaven no thief can steal it, no moth or rust can corrupt it; and
therefore since where the treasure is there will the heart be also, it
is possible to keep the heart in peace even among the changes that
upset a purely superficial life with earthquake shocks. Sincere as is
the lament of the elegist over the fate of his people, a subtle thread
of irony seems to run through his language. Possibly it is quite
unconscious; but if so it is the more significant, for it is the irony
of fact which cannot be excluded by the simplest method of statement.
It suggests that the grandeur which could be so easily turned to
humiliation must have been somewhat tawdry at best.

But unhappily the fall of the pampered youth of Jerusalem was not
confined to a reversal of external fortune. The elegist has been
careful to point out that the miseries they endured were the
punishments of their sins. Then there had been an earlier and much
greater collapse. Before any foreign enemy had appeared at her gates
the city had succumbed to a fatal foe bred within her own walls.
Luxury had undermined the vigour of the wealthy; vice had blackened
the beauty of the young. There is a fine gold of character which will
be sullied beyond recognition when the foul vapours of the pit are
permitted to break out upon it. The magnificence of Solomon's temple
is poor and superficial in comparison with the beauty of young souls
endowed with intellectual and moral gifts, like jewels of rarest
worth. Man is not treated in the Bible as a paltry creature. Was he
not made in the image of God? Jesus would not have us despise our own
native worth. Hope and faith come from a lofty view of human nature
and its possibilities. Souls are not swine; and therefore by all the
measure of their superiority to swine souls are worth saving. The
shame and sorrow of sin lie just in this fact, that it is so foul a
degradation of so fair a thing as human nature. Here is the contrast
that heightens the tragedy of lost souls. But then we may add, in its
reversal this same contrast magnifies the glory of redemption--from so
deep a pit does Christ bring back His ransomed, to so great a height
does He raise them!



iv. 13-16

Passing from the fate of the princes to that of the prophets and
priests, we come upon a vividly dramatic scene in the streets of
Jerusalem amid the terror and confusion that precede the final act of
the national tragedy. The doom of the city is attributed to the crimes
of her religious leaders, whose true characters are now laid bare. The
citizens shrink from the guilty men with the loathing felt for lepers,
and shriek to them to depart, calling them unclean, and warning them
not to touch any one by the way, because there is blood upon them.
Dreading the awful treatment measured out to the victims of lynch-law,
they stagger through the streets in a state of bewilderment, and
stumble like blind men. Fugitives and vagabonds, with the mark of Cain
upon them, driven out at the gates by the impatient mob, they can find
no refuge even in foreign lands, for none of the nations will receive

We do not know whether the poet is here describing actual events, or
whether this is an imaginary picture designed to express his own
feelings with regard to the persons concerned. The situation is
perfectly natural, and what is narrated may very well have happened
just as it is described. But if it is not history it is still a
revelation of character, a representation of what the writer knows to
be the conduct of the moral lepers, and their deserts; and as such it
is most suggestive.

In the first place there is much significance in the fact that the
overthrow of Jerusalem is unhesitatingly charged to the account of the
sins of her prophets and priests. These once venerated men are not
merely no longer protected by the sanctity of their offices from the
accusations that are brought against the laity; they are singled out
for a charge of exceptionally heinous wickedness which is regarded as
the root cause of all the troubles that have fallen upon the Jews. The
second elegy had affirmed the failure of the prophets and the vanity
of their visions.[251] This new and stronger accusation reads like a
reminiscence of Jeremiah, who repeatedly speaks of the sins of the
clerical class and the mischief resulting therefrom.[252] Evidently
the terrible truth the prophet dwelt upon so much was felt by a
disciple of his school to be of the most serious consequence.

  [251] ii. 9, 14.

  [252] Jer. vi. 13; viii. 10; xxiii. 11, 14; xxvi. 7 ff.

The accusation is of the very gravest character. These religious
leaders are charged with murder. If the elegist is recording
historical occurrences he may be alluding to riots in which the feuds
of rival factions had issued in bloodshed; or he may have had
information of private acts of assassination. His language points to a
condition in Jerusalem similar to that which was found in Rome at the
Fifteenth Century, when popes and cardinals were the greatest
criminals. The crimes were aggravated by the fact that the victims
selected were the "righteous," perhaps men of the Jeremiah party, who
had been persecuted by the officials of the State religion. But quite
apart from these dark and tragic events, the record of which has not
been preserved, if the wicked policy of their clergy had brought down
on the heads of the citizens of Jerusalem the mass of calamities that
accompanied the siege of the city by the Babylonians, this policy was
in itself a cause of great bloodshed. The men who invited the ruin of
their city were in reality the murderers of all who perished in that
calamity. We know from Jeremiah's statements on the subject that the
false, time-serving, popular prophets were deceivers of the people,
who allayed alarm by means of lies, saying "peace, peace; when there
was no peace."[253] When the deception was discovered their angry
dupes would naturally hold them responsible for the results of their

  [253] Jer. vi. 14; viii. 11.

The sin of these religious leaders of Israel consists essentially in
betraying a sacred trust. The priest is in charge of the
_Torah_--traditional or written; he must have been unfaithful to his
law or he could not have led his people astray. If the prophet's
claims are valid this man is the messenger of Jehovah, and therefore
he must have falsified his message in order to delude his audience;
if, however, he has not himself heard the Divine voice he is no better
than a dervish, and in pretending to speak with the authority of an
ambassador from heaven he is behaving as a miserable charlatan. In the
case now before us the motive for the practice of deceit is very
evident. It is thirst for popularity. Truth, right, God's will--these
imperial authorities count for nothing, because the favour of the
people is reckoned as everything. No doubt there are times when the
temptation to descend to untruthfulness in the discharge of a public
function is peculiarly pressing. When party feeling is roused, or when
a mad panic has taken possession of a community, it is exceedingly
difficult to resist the current and maintain what one knows to be
right in conflict with the popular movement. But in its more common
occurrence this treachery cannot plead any such excuse. That truth
should be trampled under foot and souls endangered merely to enable a
public speaker to refresh his vanity with the music of applause is
about the most despicable exhibition of selfishness imaginable. If a
man who has been set in a place of trust prostitutes his privileges
simply to win admiration for his oratory, or at most in order to avoid
the discomfort of unpopularity or the disappointment of neglect, his
sin is unpardonable.

The one form of unfaithfulness on the part of these religious leaders
of Israel of which we are specially informed is their refusal to warn
their reckless fellow-citizens of the approach of danger, or to bring
home to their hearer's consciences the guilt of the sin for which the
impending doom was the just punishment. They are the prototypes of
those writers and preachers who smooth over the unpleasant facts of
life. It is not easy for any one to wear the mantle of Elijah, or echo
the stern desert voice of John the Baptist. Men who covet popularity
do not care to be reckoned pessimists; and when the gloomy truth is
not flattering to their hearers they are sorely tempted to pass on to
more congenial topics. This was apparent in the Deistic optimism that
almost stifled spiritual life during the Eighteenth Century. Our age
is far from being optimistic; and yet the same temptation threatens to
smother religion to-day. In an aristocratic age the sycophant flatters
the great; in a democratic age he flatters the people--who are then
in fact the great. The peculiar danger of our own day is that the
preacher should simply echo popular cries, and voice the demands of
the majority irrespective of the question of their justice. Thrust
into the position of a social leader with more urgency than his
predecessors of any time since the age of the Hebrew prophets, it is
expected that he will lead whither the people wish to go, and if he
declines to do so he is denounced as retrograde. And yet as the
messenger of Heaven he should consider it his supreme duty to reveal
the whole counsel of God, to speak for truth and righteousness, and
therefore to condemn the sins of the democracy equally with the sins
of the aristocracy. Brave labour-leaders have fallen into disfavour
for telling working-men that their worst enemies were their own
vices--such as intemperance. The wickedness of a responsible teacher
who treasonably neglects thus to warn his brethren of danger is
powerfully expressed by Ezekiel's clear, antithetical statements
concerning the respective guilt of the watchman and his
fellow-citizen, which show conclusively that the greatest burden of
blame must rest on the unfaithful watchman.[254]

  [254] Ezek. iii. 16-21.

In the hour of their exposure these wretched prophets and priests lose
all sense of dignity, even lose their self-possession, and stumble
about like blind men, helpless and bewildered. Their behaviour
suggests the idea that they must be drunk with the blood they have
shed, or overcome by the intoxication of their thirst for blood; but
the explanation is that they cannot lift up their heads to look a
neighbour in the face, because all their little devices have been torn
to shreds, all their specious lies detected, all their empty promises
falsified. This shame of dethroned popularity is the greatest
humiliation. The unhappy man who has brought himself to live on the
breath of fame cannot hide his fall in oblivion and obscurity as a
private person may do. Standing in the full blaze of the world's
observation which he has so eagerly focussed on himself, he has no
alternative but to exchange the glory of popularity for the ignominy
of notoriety.

Possibly the confusion consequent on their exposure is all that the
poet is thinking of when he depicts the blind staggering of the
prophets and priests. But it is not unreasonable to take this picture
as an illustration of their moral condition, especially after the
references to the faults of the prophets in the second elegy have
directed our attention to their spiritual darkness and the vanity of
their visions. When the refuge of lies in which they had trusted was
swept away they would necessarily find themselves lost and helpless.
They had so long worshipped falsehood, it had become so much their god
that we might say, in it they had lived, and moved, and had their
being. But now they have lost the very atmosphere of their lives. This
is the penalty of deceit. The man who begins by using it as his tool
becomes in time its victim. At first he lies with his eyes open; but
the sure effect of this conduct is that his sight becomes dim and
blurred, till, if he persist in the fatal course long enough, he is
ultimately reduced to a condition of blindness. Joy continually mixing
truth and falsehood together he loses the power of distinguishing
between them. It may be supposed that at an earlier stage of their
decline, if the religious leaders of Israel had been honest with
regard to their own convictions they must have admitted the possible
genuineness of those prophets of ruin whom they had persecuted in
deference to popular clamour. But they had rejected all such unwelcome
thoughts so persistently that in course of time they had lost the
perception of them. Therefore when the truth was flashed upon their
unwilling minds by the unquestionable revelation of events they were
as helpless as bats and owls suddenly driven out into the daylight by
an earthquake that has flung down the crumbling ruins in which they
had been sheltering themselves.

The discovery of the true character of these men was the signal for a
yell of execration on the part of the people by flattering whom they
had obtained their livelihood, or at least all that they most valued
in life. This too must have been another shock of surprise to them.
Had they believed in the essential fickleness of popular favour, they
would never have built their hopes upon so precarious a foundation,
for they might as well have set up their dwelling on the strand that
would be flooded at the next turn of the tide. History is strewn with
the wreckage of fallen popular reputations of all degrees of merit,
from that of the conscientious martyr who had always looked to higher
ends than the applause which once encircled him, to that of the
frivolous child of fortune who had known of nothing better than the
world's empty admiration. We see this both in Savonarola martyred at
the stake and in Beau Nash starved in a garret. There is no more
pathetic scene to be gathered from the story of religion in the
present century than that of Edward Irving, once the idol of society,
subsequently deserted by fashion, stationing himself at a street
corner to proclaim his message to a chance congregation of idlers; and
his mistake was that of an honest man who had been misled by a
delusion. Incomparably worse is the fate of the fallen favourite who
has no honesty of conviction with which to comfort himself when
frowned at by the heartless world that had recently fawned upon him.

The Jews show their disgust and horror for their former leaders by
pelting them with the leper call. According to the law the leper must
go with rent clothes and flowing hair, and his face partly covered,
crying, "Unclean, unclean."[255] It is evident that the poet has this
familiar mournful cry in his mind when he describes the treatment of
the prophets and priests. And yet there is a difference. The leper is
to utter the humiliating word himself; but in the case now before us
it is flung after the outcast leaders by their pitiless
fellow-citizens. The alteration is not without significance. The
miserable victim of bodily disease could not hope to disguise his
condition. "White as snow," his well-known complaint was patent to
every eye. But it is otherwise with the spiritual leprosy, sin. For a
time it may be disguised, a hidden fire in the breast. When it is
evident to others, too often the last man to perceive it is the
offender himself; and when he himself is inwardly conscious of guilt
he is tempted to wear a cloak of denial before the world. More
especially is this the case with one who has been accustomed to make a
profession of religion, and most of all with a religious leader. While
the publican who has no character to sustain will smite his breast
with self-reproaches and cry for mercy, the professional saint is
blind to his own sins, partly no doubt because to admit their
existence would be to shatter his profession.

  [255] Lev. xiii. 45.

But if the religious leader is slow to confess or even perceive his
guilt, the world is keen to detect it and swift to cast it in his
teeth. There is nothing that excites so much loathing; and justly so,
for there is nothing that does so much harm. Such conduct is the chief
provocative of practical scepticism. It matters not that the logic is
unsound; men will draw rough and ready conclusions. If the leaders are
corrupt the hasty inference is that the cause which is identified with
their names must also be corrupt. Religion suffers more from the
hypocrisy of some of her avowed champions than from the attacks of all
the hosts of her pronounced foes. Accordingly a righteous indignation
assails those who work such deadly mischief. But less commendable
motives urge men in the same direction. Evil itself steals a triumph
over good in the downfall of its counterfeit. If they knew themselves
there must have been some hypocrisy on the side of the persecutors in
the demonstrative zeal with which they hounded to death the once
pampered children of fortune the moment they had fallen from the
pedestal of respectability; for could these indignant champions of
virtue deny that they had been willing accomplices in the deeds they
so loudly denounced? or at least that they had not been reluctant to
be pleasantly deceived, had not enquired too nicely into the
credentials of the flatterers who had spoken smooth things to them?
Considering what their own conduct had been, their eagerness in
execrating the wickedness of their leaders was almost indecent. There
is a Pecksniffian air about it. It suggests a sly hope that by thus
placing themselves on the side of outraged virtue they were putting
their own characters beyond the suspicion of criticism. They seem to
have been too eager to make scapegoats of their clergy. Their action
appears to show that they had some idea that even at the eleventh hour
the city might be spared if it were rid of this plague of the
blood-stained prophets and priests. And yet however various and
questionable the motives of the assailants may have been, there is no
escape from the conclusion that the wickedness they denounced so
eagerly richly deserved the most severe condemnation. Wherever we meet
with it, this is the leprosy of society. Disguised for a time, a
secret canker in the breast of unsuspected men, it is certain to break
out at length; and when it is discovered it merits a measure of
indignation proportionate to the previous deception.

Exile is the doom of these guilty prophets and priests. But even in
their banishment they can find no place of rest. They wander from one
foreign nation to another; they are permitted to stay with none of
them. Unlike our English pretenders who were allowed to take up their
abode among the enemies of their country, these Jews were suspected
and disliked wherever they went. They had been unfaithful to Jehovah;
yet they could not proclaim themselves devotees of Baal. The heathen
were not prepared to draw fine distinctions between the various
factions in the Israelite camp. The world only scoffs at the quarrels
of the sects. Moreover, these false, worthless leaders had been the
zealots of national feeling in the old boastful days when Jeremiah had
been denounced by their party as a traitor. Then they had been the
most exclusive of the Jews. As they had made their bed so must they
lie on it. The poet suggests no term to this melancholy fate. Perhaps
while he was writing his elegy the wretched men were to his own
knowledge still journeying wearily from place to place. Thus like the
fratricide Cain, like the wandering Jew of mediæval legend, the
fallen leaders of the religion of Israel find their punishment in a
doom of perpetual homelessness. Is it too severe a penalty for the
fatal deceit that wrought death, and so was equivalent to murder of
the worst sort, cold-blooded, deliberate murder? There is a perfectly
Dantesque appropriateness in it. The Inferno of the popularity-mongers
is a homeless desert of unpopularity. Quiet, retiring souls and dreamy
lovers of nature might derive rest and refreshment from a hermit life
in the wilderness. Not so these slaves of society. Deprived of the
support of their surrounding element--like jelly-fish flung on to the
beach to shrivel up and perish--in banishment from city life such men
must experience a total collapse. Just in proportion to the hollowness
and unreality with which a man has made the pursuit of the world's
applause the chief object of his life, is the dismal fate he will have
to endure when, having sown the wind of vanity, he reaps the whirlwind
of indignation. The ill-will of his fellow-men is hard to bear; but
behind it is the far more terrible wrath of God, whose judgment the
miserable time-server has totally ignored while sedulously cultivating
the favour of the world.



iv. 17-20

The first part of the fourth elegy was specially concerned with the
fate of the gilded youth of Jerusalem; the second and closely parallel
part with that of the princes; the third introduced us to the dramatic
scene in which the fallen priests and prophets were portrayed; now in
the fourth part of the elegy the king and his courtiers are the
prominent figures. While all the rest of the poem is written in the
third person, this short section is composed in the first person
plural. The arrangement is not exactly like that of the third elegy,
in which, after speaking in his own person, the poet appears as the
representative and spokesman of his people. The more simple form of
the composition now under consideration would lead us to suppose that
the pronoun "we" comes in for the most natural reason--viz., because
the writer was himself an actor in the scene which he here describes.
We must conclude, then, that he was one of the group of Zedekiah's
personal attendants, or at least a member of a company of Jews which
escaped at the time of the royal flight and took the same road when
the citizens were scattered by the sack of the city.

The picture, however, is somewhat idealised. Events that could only
have taken place in succession are described as though they were all
occurring in the present. We have first the anxious watching of the
besieged for the advent of an army of relief; then the chase of their
victims through the streets by the invaders--which must have been
after they had broken into the city; next the flight and pursuit over
the mountains; and lastly, the capture of the king. This setting of a
succession of events in one scene as though they were contemporaneous
is so far an imaginary arrangement that we must be on our guard
against a too literal interpretation of the details. Evidently we have
here a poetic picture, not the bare deposition of a witness.

The burden of the passage is the grievous disappointment of the court
party at the failure of their fond hopes. But Jeremiah was directly
opposed to that party, and though our author was not the great prophet
himself we have abundant evidence that he was a faithful disciple who
echoed the very thoughts and shared the deepest convictions of his
master. How then can he now appear as one of the court party? It is
just possible that he was no friend of Jeremiah at the time he is now
describing. He may have been converted subsequently by the logic of
facts, or by the more potent influence of the discipline of adversity,
a possibility which would give peculiar significance to the personal
confessions contained in the previous elegy, with its account of "the
man who had seen affliction." But the poetic form of the section
dealing with the court, and the fact that all it describes is
expressed in the present tense, prevent us from pressing this
conjecture to a definite conclusion. It would be enough if we could
suppose, as there is no difficulty in doing, that in the general
confusion our poet found himself in unexpected companionship with the
flying court. Thus he would witness their experiences.

We have, then, in this place an expression of the attitude of the
court party in the midst of the great calamities that have overtaken
them. It is emphatically one of profound disappointment. These deluded
people had been sanguine to the last, and proudly sceptical of danger,
with an infatuation almost amounting to insanity which had blinded
them to the palpable lessons of defeats already endured--for we must
not forget that Jerusalem had been taken twice before this. Naturally
their disappointment was proportionate to their previous elation.

The hopes that had been thus rudely dashed to the ground had been
based on a feeling of the sacred inviolability of Jerusalem. This
feeling had been sedulously nurtured by a bastard form of religion.
Like the worship of Rome in Virgil's day, a sort of cult of Jerusalem
had now grown up. Men who had no faith in Jehovah put their trust in
Jerusalem. The starting-point and excuse of this singular creed are to
be traced to the deep-rooted conviction of the Jews that their city
was the chosen favourite of Jehovah, and that therefore her God would
certainly protect her. But this idea was treated most inconsistently
when people coolly ignored the Divine will while boldly claiming
Divine favour. In course of time even that position was abandoned, and
Jerusalem became practically a fetich. Then, while faith in the
destiny of the city was cherished as a superstition, prophets such as
Jeremiah, who directed men's thoughts to God, were silenced and
persecuted. This folly of the Jews has its counterpart in the
exaltation of the papacy during the Middle Ages. The Pope claimed to
be seated on his throne by the authority of Christ; but the papacy
was really put in the place of Christ. Similarly people who trust in
the Church, their City of God, rather than in her Lord, have fallen
into an error like that of the Jews, who put confidence in their city
rather than in their God. So have those who confide in their own
election instead of looking to the Divine Sovereign who, they declare,
has named them in His eternal decrees; and those again who set
reliance on their religion, its rites and creeds; and lastly, those
who trust in their very faith as itself a saving power. In all these
cases, the city, the Pope, the election, the Church, the religion, the
faith are simply idols, no more able to protect the superstitious
people who put them in the place of God than the ark that was captured
in battle when the Jews tried to use it as a talisman, or even the
fish-god Dagon that lay shattered before it in the Philistine temple.

But now we find the old-established faith in Jerusalem so far
undermined that it has to be supplemented by other grounds of hope. In
particular there are two of these--the king and a foreign ally. The
ally is mentioned first because the poet starts from the time when men
still hoped that the Egyptians would espouse the cause of Israel, and
come to the help of the little kingdom against the hosts of Babylon.
There was much to be said in favour of this expectation. In the past
Egypt had been in alliance with the people now threatened. The two
great kingdoms of the Nile and the Euphrates were rivals; and the
aggressive policy of Babylon had brought her into conflict with Egypt.
The Pharaohs might be glad to have Israel preserved as a "buffer
state." Indeed, negotiations had been carried on with that end in
view. Nevertheless the dreams of deliverance built on this foundation
were doomed to disappointment. The poet shows us the anxious Jews on
their city towers straining their eyes till they are weary in watching
for the relief that never comes. They could look down through the gap
in the hills towards Bethlehem and the south country, and the dust of
an army would be visible from afar in the clear Syrian atmosphere;
but, alas! no distant cloud promises the approach of the deliverer. We
are reminded of the siege of Lucknow; but in the hour of the Jews'
great need there is no sign corresponding to the welcome music of the
Scotch air that ravished the ears of the British garrison.

Faithful prophets had repeatedly warned the Jews against this false
ground of hope. In a former generation Isaiah had cautioned his
contemporaries not to lean on "this broken reed"[256] Egypt; and at
the present crisis Jeremiah had followed with similar advice,
predicting the failure of the Egyptian alliance, and replying to the
messengers of Zedekiah who had come to solicit the prophet's prayers:
"Thus saith the Lord, the God of Israel: Thus shall ye say to the king
of Judah, that sent you unto me to enquire of me; Behold, Pharaoh's
army, which is come forth to help you, shall return to Egypt into
their own land. And the Chaldæans shall come again, and fight against
this city; and they shall take it, and burn it with fire."[257] Though
regarded at the time as unpatriotic and even treasonable, this advice
proved to be sound, and the predictions of the messenger of Jehovah
correct. Now that we can read the events in the light of history we
have no difficulty in perceiving that even as a matter of state
policy the counsel of Isaiah and Jeremiah was wise and statesmanlike.
Babylon was quite irresistible. Even Egypt could not stand against the
powerful empire that was making itself master of the world. Besides,
alliance with Egypt involved the loss of liberty, for it had to be
paid for, and the weak ally of a great kingdom was no better than a
tributary state. Meanwhile Israel was embroiled in quarrels from which
she should have tried, as far as possible, to keep herself aloof.

  [256] Isa. xxxvi. 6.

  [257] Jer. xxxvii. 7, 8.

But the prophets shewed that deeper questions than such as concern
political diplomacy were at stake. In happier days the arm of
Providence had been laid bare, and Jerusalem saved without a blow,
when the destroying angel of pestilence swept through the Assyrian
host. It is true Jerusalem had to submit soon after this; but the
lesson was being taught that her safety really consisted in
submission. This was the kernel of Jeremiah's unpopular message.
Historically and politically that too was justified. It was useless to
attempt to stem the tide of one of the awful marches of a
world-conquering army. Only the obstinacy of a fanatical patriotism
could have led the Jews of this period to hold out so long against the
might of Babylon, just as the very same obstinacy encouraged their mad
descendants in the days of Titus to resist the arms of Rome. But then
the prophets were constantly preaching to heedless ears that there was
real safety in submission, that a humble measure of escape was to be
had by simply complying with the demands of the irresistible
conquerors. Proud patriots might despise this consolation, preferring
to die fighting. But that was scarcely the case with the fugitives;
these people had neither the relief that is the reward of a quiet
surrender, nor the glory that accompanies death on the battle-field.
To those who could hear the deeper notes of prophetic teaching the
safety of surrender meant a much more valuable boon. The submission
recommended was not merely to be directed to King Nebuchadnezzar;
primarily it consisted in yielding to the will of God. People who will
not turn to this one true refuge from all danger and trouble are
tempted to substitute a variety of vain hopes. Most of us have our
Egypt to which we look when the vision of God has become dim in the
soul. The worldly cynicism that echoes and degrades the words of the
Preacher, "Vanity of vanities; all is vanity," is really the product
of the decay of dead hopes. It would not be so sour if it had not been
disappointed. Yet so persistent is the habit of castle-building, that
the cloudland in which many previous structures of fancy have melted
away is resorted to again and again by an eager throng of fresh aerial
architects. After experience has confirmed the warning that riches
take to themselves wings and flee away, and in face of our Lord's
advice not to lay up treasures where thieves break through and steal,
and where moth and rust consume, we see men as eager as ever to scrape
wealth together, as ready to put all their trust in it when it has
come to them, as astonished and dismayed when it has failed them.
Ambition was long ago proved to be a frail bubble; yet ambition never
wants for slaves. The cup of pleasure has been drained so often that
the world should know by this time how very nauseous its dregs are;
and still feverish hands are held out to grasp it.

Now this obstinate disregard of the repeated lessons of experience is
too remarkable a habit of life to be reckoned as a mere accident.
There must be some adequate causes to account for it. In the first
place, it testifies with singular force to the vitality of what we
may call the faculty of hope itself. Disappointment does not kill the
tendency to reach forth to the future, because this tendency comes
from within, and is not a mere response to impressions. In persons of
a sanguine temperament this may be taken to be a constitutional
peculiarity; but it is too widespread to be disposed of as nothing
more than a freak of nature. It is rather to be considered an
instinct, and as such a part of the original constitution of man. How
then has it come to be? Must we not attribute the native hopefulness
of mankind to the deliberate will and purpose of the Creator? But in
that case must we not say of this, as we can say with certainty of
most natural instincts: He who has given the hunger will also supply
the food with which to satisfy it? To reject that conclusion is to
land ourselves in a form of pessimism that is next door to atheism.
Schopenhauer rests the argument by means of which he thinks to
establish a pessimistic view of the universe largely on the
delusiveness of natural instincts which promise a satisfaction never
attained; but in reasoning in this way he is compelled to describe the
supreme Will that he believes to be the ultimate principle of all
things as a non-moral power. The mockery of human existence to which
his philosophy reduces us is impossible in view of the Fatherhood of
God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Shelley, contrasting our fears and
disappointments with the "clear keen joyance" of the skylark, bewails
the fact that

  "We look before and after,
  And pine for what is not."

If this is the end of the matter, evolution is a mocking progress,
for it leads to the pit of despair. If the large vision that takes in
past and future only brings sorrow, it would have been better for us
to have retained the limited range of animal perceptions. But faith
sees in the very experience of disappointment a ground for fresh hope.
The discovery that the height already attained is not the summit of
the mountain, although it appeared to be when viewed from the plain,
is a proof that the summit is higher than we had supposed. Meanwhile,
the awakening of desires for further climbing is a sign that the
disappointments we have experienced hitherto are not occasions for
despair. If, as Shelley goes on to say--

  "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought,"

the sadness cannot be without mitigation, for there must be an element
of sweetness in it from the first; and if so this must point to a
future when this sadness itself shall pass away. The author of the
Epistle to the Hebrews argues on these lines when he draws the
conclusion from the repeated disappointments of the hopes of Israel in
conjunction with the repeated promises of God that "there remaineth
therefore a rest for the people of God."[258] Instincts are God's
promises written in the Book of Nature. Seeing that our deepest
instincts are not satisfied by any of the common experiences of life,
they must point to some higher satisfaction.

  [258] Heb. iv. 9.

Here we are brought to the explanation of the disappointment itself.
We must confess, in the first instance, that it arises from the
perverse habit of looking for satisfaction in objects that are too
low, objects that are unworthy of human nature. This is one of the
strongest evidences of a fall. The more mind and heart are corrupted
by sin the more will hope be dragged down to inferior things. But the
story does not end at this point. God is educating us through
illusions. If all our aspirations were fulfilled on earth we should
cease to hope for what was higher than earth. Hope is purged and
elevated by the discovery of the vanity of its pursuits.

These considerations will be confirmed when we follow the elegist in
his treatment of the disappointment of the second ground of hope, that
which was found in the royalist's confidence in his sovereign. The
poetic account of the events which ended in the capture of Zedekiah
seems to consist in a blending of metaphor with history. The image of
the chase underlies the whole description. It has been pointed out
that with the narrowness of eastern streets and the simplicity of the
weapons of ancient warfare, it would be impossible for the Chaldæans
to pick out their victims and shoot them down from outside the walls.
But when they had effected an entrance they would not simply make the
streets dangerous, for then they would be breaking into the houses
where the people are here supposed to be hiding. The language seems
more fit for the description of a faction fight, such as often
occurred in Paris at the time of the French Revolution, than an
account of the sack of a city by a foreign enemy. But the hunting
image is in the poet's mind, and the whole picture is coloured by it.
After the siege the fugitives are pursued over the mountains. Taking
the route across the Mount of Olives and so down to the Jordan, that
which David had followed in his flight from Absalom, they would soon
find themselves in a difficult wilderness country. They had despaired
of their lives in the city, exclaiming: "Our end is near, our days
are fulfilled; for our end is come."[259] Now they are in sore
extremities. The swift pursuit suggests Jeremiah's image of the eagles
on the wing overtaking their quarry. "Behold, he shall come up as
clouds," said the prophet, "and his chariots shall be as the
whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles."[260] There was no
possibility of escape from such persistent foes. At the same time,
ambuscades were in waiting among the many caves that honeycomb these
limestone mountains--in the district where the traveller in the
parable of "The good Samaritan" fell among thieves. The king himself
was taken like a hunted animal caught in a trap, though, as we learn
from the history, not till he had reached Jericho.[261]

  [259] iv. 18.

  [260] Jer. iv. 13

  [261] 2 Kings xxv. 4, 5; Jer. xxxix. 4, 5.

The language in which Zedekiah is described is singularly strong. He
is "the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord." The hope of
the fugitives had been "to live under his shadow among the
nations."[262] It is startling to find such words applied to so weak
and worthless a ruler. It cannot be the expression of sycophancy; for
the king and his kingdom had disappeared before the elegy was written.
Zedekiah was not so bad as some of his predecessors. Like Louis XVI.,
he reaped the long accumulating retribution of the sins of his
ancestors. Yet after making due allowance for the exuberance of the
Oriental style, we must feel that the language is out of proportion to
the possibilities of the most courtly devotion of the time. Evidently
the kingly idea means more than the prosaic personality of any
particular monarch. The romantic enthusiasm of Cavaliers and Nonjurors
for the Stuarts was not to be accounted for by the merits and
attractions of the various successive sovereigns and pretenders
towards whom it was directed. The doctrine of the Divine right of
kings is always associated with vague thoughts of power and glory that
are never realised in history. This is most strikingly evident in the
Hebrew conception of the status and destiny of the line of David. But
in that one supreme case of devotion to royalty the dream of the ages
ultimately came to be fulfilled, and more than fulfilled, though in a
very different manner from the anticipation of the Jews. There is
something pathetic in the last shred of hope to which the fugitives
were clinging. They had lost their homes, their city, their land; yet
even in exile they clung to the idea that they might keep together
under the protection of their fallen king. It was a delusion. But the
strange faith in the destiny of the Davidic line that here passes into
fanaticism is the seed-bed of the Messianic ideas which constitute the
most wonderful part of Old Testament prophecy. By a blind but divinely
guided instinct the Jews were led to look through the failure of their
hopes on to the appointed time when One should come who only could
give them satisfaction.

  [262] iv. 20.



iv. 21, 22

One after another the vain hopes of the Jews melt in mists of sorrow.
But just as the last of these flickering lights is disappearing a
gleam of consolation breaks out from another quarter, like the pale
yellow streak that may sometimes be seen low on the western sky of a
stormy day just before nightfall, indicating that the setting sun is
behind the clouds, although its dying rays are too feeble to penetrate
them. Hope is scarcely the word for so faint a sign of comfort as this
melancholy fourth elegy affords in lifting the curtain of gloom for
one brief moment; but the bare, negative relief which the prospect of
an end to the accumulation of new calamities offers is a welcome
change in itself, besides being a hint that the tide may be on the

It is quite characteristic of our poet's sombre tones that even in an
attempt to touch on brighter ideas than usually occupy his thoughts,
he should illustrate the improving prospects of Israel by setting them
in contrast to a sardonic description of the fate of Edom. This
neighbouring nation is addressed in the time of her elation over the
fall of Jerusalem. The extension of her territory to the land of Uz in
Arabia--Job's country--is mentioned to show that she is in a position
of exceptional prosperity. The poet mockingly encourages the jealous
people to "rejoice and be glad" at the fate of their rival. The irony
of his language is evident from the fact that he immediately proceeds
to pronounce the doom of Edom. The cup of God's wrath that Israel has
been made to drink shall pass to her also; and she shall drink deeply
of it till she is intoxicated and, like Noah, makes herself an object
of shame. Thus will God visit the daughter of Edom with the punishment
of her sins. The writer says that God will _discover_ them. He does
not mean by this phrase that God will find them out. They were never
hidden from God; there are no discoveries for Him to make concerning
any of us, because He knows all about us every moment of our lives.
The phrase stands in opposition to the common Hebrew expression for
the forgiveness of sins. When sins are forgiven they are said to be
covered; therefore when they are said to be uncovered it is as though
we were told that God does the reverse of forgiving them--strips them
of every rag of apology, lays them bare. That is their condemnation.
Nothing is more ugly than a naked sin.

The selection of this one neighbour of the Jews for special attention
is accounted for by what contemporary prophets tell us concerning the
behaviour of the Edomites when Jerusalem fell. They flew like vultures
to a carcass. Ezekiel writes: "Thus saith the Lord God, Because that
Edom hath dealt against the house of Judah by taking vengeance, and
hath greatly offended, and revenged himself upon them; therefore thus
saith the Lord God, I will stretch out Mine hand upon Edom, and will
cut off man and beast from it, and I will make it desolate from Teman;
even unto Dedan shall they fall by the sword. And I will lay My
vengeance upon Edom by the hand of My people Israel, and they shall do
in Edom according to Mine anger and according to My fury, and they
shall know My vengeance, saith the Lord God."[263] Isaiah xxxiv. is
devoted to a vivid description of the coming punishment of Edom. This
race of rough mountaineers had seldom been on friendly terms with
their Hebrew neighbours. Nations like individuals, do not always find
it easy to avoid quarrels with those who are closest to them. Neither
blood relationship nor commerce prevents the outbreak of hostilities
in a situation that gives many occasions for mutual jealousy. For
centuries France and England, which should be the best friends of
proximity generated friendship, regarded one another as natural
enemies. Germany is even a nearer neighbour to France than England is,
and the frontiers of the two great nations are studded with forts. It
does not appear that the extension of the means of communication among
the different countries is likely to close the doors of the temple of
Janus. The greatest problem of sociology is to discover the secret of
living in crowded communities among a variety of conflicting interests
without any injustice, or any friction arising from the juxtaposition
of different classes. It is far easier to keep the peace among
backwoodsmen who live fifty miles apart in lonely forests. Therefore
it is not a surprising thing that there were bitter feuds between
Israel and Edom. But at the time of the Babylonian invasion these had
taken a peculiarly odious turn on the side of the southern people, one
that was doubly offensive. The various tribes whom the huge
Babylonian empire was swallowing up with insatiable greed should have
forgotten their mutual differences in face of their common danger.
Besides, it was a cowardly thing for Edom to follow the example of the
Bedouin robbers, who hovered on the rear of the great armies of
conquest like scavengers. To settle old debts by wreaking vengeance on
a fallen rival in the hour of her humiliation was not the way to win
the honours of war. Even to a calm student of history in later ages
this long-past event shews an ugly aspect. How maddening must it have
been to the victims! Accordingly we are not astonished to see that the
doom of the Edomites is pronounced by Hebrew prophets with undisguised
satisfaction. The proud inhabitants of the rock cities, the wonderful
remains of which amaze the traveller in the present day, had earned
the severe humiliation so exultingly described.

  [263] Ezek. xxv. 12-14.

In all this it is very plain that the author of the Lamentations, like
the Hebrew prophets generally, had an unhesitating belief in a
supremacy of God over foreign nations that was quite as effective as
His supremacy over Israel. On the other hand, iniquity is ascribed to
Israel in exactly the same terms that are applied to foreign nations.
Jehovah is not imagined to be a mere tribal divinity like the Moabite
Chemosh; and the Jews are not held to be so much His favourites that
the treatment measured out to them in punishment of sin is essentially
different from that accorded to their neighbours.

To Israel, however, the doom of Edom is a sign of the return of mercy.
It is not merely that the passion of revenge is thereby satisfied--a
poor consolation, even if allowable. But in the overthrow of their
most annoying tormentor the oppressed people are at once liberated
from a very appreciable part of their troubles. At the same time, they
see in this event a clear sign that they are not selected for a
solitary example of the vengeance of heaven against sin; that would
have been indeed a hard destiny. But above all, this occurrence
affords a reassuring sign that God who is thus punishing their enemies
is ending the severe discipline of the Jews. In the very middle of the
description of the coming doom of Edom we meet with an announcement of
the conclusion of the long penance of Israel. This singular
arrangement cannot be accidental; nor can it have been resorted to
only to obtain the accentuation of contrast which we have seen is
highly valued by the elegist. Since it is while contemplating the
Divine treatment of the most spiteful of the enemies of Israel that we
are led to see the termination of the chastisement of the Jews, we may
infer that possibly the process in the mind of the poet took the same
course. If so, the genesis of prophecy which is usually hidden from
view here seems to come nearer the surface.

The language in which the improving prospect of the Jews is announced
is somewhat obscure; but the drift of its meaning is not difficult to
trace. The word rendered "punishment of iniquity" in our English
versions--Revised as well as Authorised--at the beginning of the
twenty-second verse, is one which in its original sense means simply
"iniquity"; and in fact it is so translated further down in the same
verse, where it occurs a second time, and where the parallel word
"sins" seems to settle the meaning. But if it has this meaning when
applied to Edom in the later part of the verse is it not reasonable to
suppose that it must also have it when applied to the daughter of Zion
in an immediately preceding clause? The Septuagint and Vulgate
Versions give it as "iniquity" in both cases. And so does a suggestion
in the margin of the Revised Version. But if we accept this rendering,
which commends itself to us as verbally most correct, we cannot
reconcile it with the evident intention of the writer. The promise
that God will no more carry His people away into captivity, which
follows as an echo of the opening thought of the verse, certainly
points to a cessation of punishment. Then the very idea that the
iniquity of the Jews is accomplished is quite out of place here. What
could we take it to mean? To say that the Jews had sinned to the full,
had carried out all their evil intentions, had put no restraint on
their wickedness, is to give a verdict which should carry the heaviest
condemnation; it would be absurd to bring this forward as an
introduction to a promise of a reprieve. It would be less incongruous
to suppose the phrase to mean, as is suggested in the margin of the
Revised Version, that the sin has come to an end, has ceased. That
might be taken as a ground for the punishment to be stayed also. But
it would introduce a refinement of theology out of keeping with the
extreme simplicity of the ideas of these elegies. Moreover, in another
place, as we have seen already,[264] the word "sins" seems to be used
for the _punishment_ of sins.[265] We have also met with the idea of
the _fulfilment_, literally the _finishing_, of God's word of warning,
with the necessary suggestion that there is to be no more infliction
of the evil threatened.[266] Therefore, if it were not for the
reappearance of the word in dispute where the primary meaning of it
seems to be necessitated by the context, we should have no hesitation
in taking it here in its secondary sense, as the punishment of
iniquity. The German word _schuld_, with its double signification--_debt_
and _guilt_--has been suggested as a happy rendering of the Hebrew
original in both places; and perhaps this is the best that can be proposed.
The debt of the Jews is paid; that of the Edomites has yet to be exacted.

  [264] Page 269.

  [265] iii. 39.

  [266] ii. 17.

We are brought then to the conclusion that the elegist here announces
the extinction of the Jews' debt of guilt. Accordingly they are told
that God will no more carry them away into captivity. This promise has
occasioned much perplexity to people concerned for the literal
exactness of Scripture. Some have tried to get it applied to the time
subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, after which,
it is said, the Jews were never again removed from their land. That is
about the most extravagant instance of all the subterfuges to which
literalists are driven when in a sore strait to save their theory.
Certainly the Jews have not been exiled again--not since the last
time. They could not be carried away from their land once more, for
the simple reason that they have never been restored to it. Strictly
speaking, it may be said indeed, something of the kind occurred on the
suppression of the revolt under _Bar-cochba_ in the second century of
the Christian era. But all theories apart, it is contrary to the
discovered facts of prophecy to ascribe to the inspired messengers of
God the purpose of supplying exact predictions concerning the events
of history in far-distant ages. Their immediate message was for their
own day, although we have found that the lessons it contains are
suitable for all times. What consolation would it be for the fugitives
from the ravaging hosts of Nebuchadnezzar to know that six hundred
years later an end would come to the successive acts of conquerors in
driving the Jews from Jerusalem, even if they were not told that this
would be because at that far-off time there would commence one long
exile lasting for two thousand years? But if the words of the elegist
are for immediate use as a consolation to his contemporaries, it is
unreasonable to press their negative statement in an absolute sense,
so as to make it serve as a prediction concerning all future ages. It
is enough for these sufferers to learn that the last of the series of
successive banishments of Jews from their land by the Babylonian
government has at length taken place.

But with this information there comes a deeper truth. The debt is
paid. Yet this is only at the commencement of the Captivity. Two
generations must live in exile before the restoration will be
possible. There is no reference to that event, which did not take
place till the Babylonian power had been utterly destroyed by Cyrus.
Still the deliverance into exile following the terrible sufferings of
the siege and the subsequent flight is taken as the final act in the
drama of doom. The long years of the captivity, though they
constituted an invaluable period of discipline, did not bring any
fresh kind of punishment at all comparable with the chastisements
already inflicted.

Thus we are brought face to face with the question of the satisfaction
of punishment. We have no right to look to a single line of a poem for
a final settlement of the abstract problem itself. Whether, as St.
Augustine maintained, every sin is of infinite guilt because it is an
offence against an infinite Being; whether, therefore, it would take
eternity to pay the debts contracted during one short life on earth,
and other questions of the same character, cannot be answered one way
or the other from the words before us. Still there are certain aspects
of the problem of human guilt to which our attention is here drawn.

In the first place, we must make a distinction between the national
punishment of national wickedness and the personal consequences of
personal wrongdoing. The nation only exists on earth, and it can only
be punished on earth. Then the nation outlasts generations of
individual lives, and so remains on earth long enough for the harvest
of its actions to be reaped. Thus national guilt may be wiped out
while the separate accounts of individual men and women still remain
unsettled. Next we must remember that the exaction of the uttermost
farthing is not the supreme end of the Divine government of the world.
To suggest any such idea is to assimilate this perfect government to
that of corrupt Oriental monarchies, the chief object of which in
dealing with their provinces seems to have been to drain them of
tribute. The payment of the debt of guilt in punishment, though just
and necessary, cannot be a matter of any satisfaction to God. Again,
when, as in the case now before us, the punishment of sin is a
chastisement for the reformation of the corrupt nation on whom it is
inflicted, it may not be necessary to make it exactly equivalent to
the guilt for which it is the remedy rather than the payment. Lastly,
even when we think of the punishment as direct retribution, we cannot
say what means God may provide for the satisfaction of the due claims
of justice. The second Isaiah saw in the miseries inflicted upon the
innocent at this very time, a vicarious suffering by the endurance of
which pardon was extended to the guilty;[267] and from the days of
the Apostles, Christians have recognised in his language on this
subject the most striking prophecy the Bible contains concerning the
atonement wrought by our Lord in His sufferings and death. When we put
all these considerations together, and also call to our assistance the
New Testament teachings about the character of God and the object of
the work of Jesus Christ, we shall see that there are various
possibilities lying behind the thought of the end of chastisement
which no bare statement of the abstract relations of sin, guilt, and
doom would indicate.

  [267] Isa. liii. 4-6.

It may be objected that all such ideas as those just expressed tend to
generate superficial views of sin. Possibly they may be employed so as
to encourage this tendency. But if so, it will only be by
misinterpreting and abusing them. Certainly the elegist does not
belittle the rigour of the Divine chastisement. It must not be
forgotten that the phrase which gives rise to these ideas concerning
the debt of guilt occurs in the doleful Book of Lamentations, and at
the close of an elegy that bewails the awful fate of Jerusalem in the
strongest language. But in point of fact it is not the severity of
punishment, beyond a certain degree, but the certainty of it that most
affects the mind when contemplating the prospect of doom. Not only
does the imagination fail to grasp that which is immeasurably vast in
the pictures presented to it, but even the reason rises in revolt and
questions the possibility of such torments, or the conscience ventures
to protest against what appears to be unjust. In any of these cases
the effect of the menace is neutralised by its very extravagance.

On the other hand, we have St. Paul's teaching about the goodness of
God that leads us to repentance.[268] Thus we understand how it can
be said that Christ--who is the most perfect revelation of God's
goodness--was raised up to give "_repentance_ to Israel" as well as
"remission of sins."[269] It is at Calvary, not at Sinai, that sin
looks most black. When a man sees his guilt in the light of his
Saviour's love he is in no mood to apologise for it or to minimise his
ill desert. If he then contemplates the prospect of the full payment
of the debt it is with a feeling of the impossibility of ever
achieving so stupendous a task. The punishment from which he would
revolt as an injustice if it were held over him in a threat now
presents itself to him of its own accord as something quite right and
reasonable. He cannot find words strong enough to characterise his
guilt, as he lies at the foot of the cross in absolute self-abasement.
There is no occasion to fear that such a man will become careless
about sin if he is comforted by a vision of hope. This is just what he
needs to enable him to rise up and accept the forgiveness in the
strength of which he may begin the toilsome ascent towards a better

  [268] Rom. ii. 4.

  [269] Acts v. 31.



v. 1-10

Unlike its predecessors, the fifth and last elegy is not an acrostic.
There is little to be gained by a discussion of the various
conjectures that have been put forth to account for this change of
style: as that the _crescendo_ movement which reached its climax in
the third elegy was followed by a _decrescendo_ movement, the
conclusion of which became more prosaic; that the feelings of the poet
having been calmed down during the composition of the main part of his
work, he did not require the restraints of an exceptionally artificial
method any longer; that such a method was not so becoming in a prayer
to God as it had been in the utterance of a lament. In answer to these
suggestions, it may be remarked that some of the choicest poetry in
the book occurs at the close of this last chapter, that the acrostic
was taken before as a sign that the writer had his feelings well under
command, and that prayers appear repeatedly in the alphabetical poems.
Is it not enough to say that in all probability the elegies were
composed on different occasions, and that when they were put together
it was natural that one in which the author had not chosen to bind
himself down to the peculiarly rigorous method employed in the rest
of the book should have been placed at the end? Even here we have a
reminiscence of the acrostic; for the poem consists of twenty-two
verses--the number of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

It is to be observed, further, as regards the form of this elegy, that
the author now adopts the parallelism which is the characteristic note
of most Hebrew poetry. The Revisers break up the poem into two-line
verses. But, more strictly considered, each verse consists of one long
line divided into two mutually balancing parts. Thus, while the third
elegy consists of triplets, and the fourth of couplets, the fifth is
still more brief, with its single line verses. In fact, while the
ideas and sentiments are still elegiac and very like those found in
the rest of the book, in structure this poem is more assimilated to
the poetry contained in other parts of the Bible.

From beginning to end the fifth elegy is directly addressed to God.
Brief ejaculatory prayers are frequent in the earlier poems, and the
third elegy contains two longer appeals to God; but this last poem
differs from the others in being entirely a prayer. And yet it does
not consist of a string of petitions. It is a meditation in the
presence of God, or, more accurately described, an account of the
condition of the Jews spread out before God in order to secure His
compassion. In the freedom and fulness of his utterance the poet
reveals himself as a man who is not unfamiliar with the habit of
prayer. It is of course only the delusion of the Pharisees to suppose
that a prayer is valuable in proportion to its length. But on the
other hand, it is clear that a person who is unaccustomed to prayer
halts and stumbles because he does not feel at home in addressing
God. It is only with a friend that we can converse in perfect freedom.
One who has treated God as a stranger will be necessarily stiff and
constrained in the Divine presence. It is not enough to assure such a
person that God is His Father. A son may feel peculiarly uncomfortable
with his own father if he has lived long in separation and alienation
from his home. Freedom in the expression of confidences is a sure
measure of the extent to which friendship is carried. Of course some
people are more reserved than others; but still as in the same person
his different degrees of openness or reserve with different people
will mark his relative intimacy of friendship with them, so when a man
has long accustomed himself to believe in the presence and sympathy of
God, and has cultivated the habit of communing with his Father in
heaven, his prayers will not be confined to set petitions; he will
tell his Father whatever is in his heart. This we have already seen
was what the elegist had learnt to do. But in the last of his poems he
expresses more explicit and continuous confidences. He will have God
know everything.

The prayer opens with a striking phrase--"Remember, O Lord," etc. The
miserable condition of the Jews suggests to the imagination, if not to
the reason, that God must have forgotten His people. It cannot be
supposed that the elegist conceived of his God as Elijah mockingly
described their silent, unresponsive divinity to the frantic priests
of Baal, or that he imagined that Jehovah was really indifferent,
after the manner of the denizens of the Epicurean Olympus.
Nevertheless, neither philosophy nor even theology wholly determines
the form of an earnest man's prayers. In practice it is impossible not
to speak according to appearances. The aspect of affairs is sometimes
such as to force home the feeling that God must have deserted the
sufferer, or how could He have permitted the misery to continue
unchecked? A dogmatic statement of the Divine omniscience, although it
may not be disputed, will not remove the painful impression, nor will
the most absolute demonstration of the goodness of God, of His love
and faithfulness; because the overwhelming influence of things visible
and tangible so fully occupies the mind that it has not room to
receive unseen, spiritual realities. Therefore, though not to the
reason still to the feelings, it is as though God had indeed forgotten
His children in their deep distress.

Under such circumstances the first requisite is the assurance that God
should remember the sufferers whom He appears to be neglecting. He
never really neglects any of His creatures, and His attention is the
all-sufficient security that deliverance must be at hand. But this is
a truth that does not satisfy us in the bare statement of it. It must
be absorbed, and permitted to permeate wide regions of consciousness,
in order that it may be an actual power in the life. That, however, is
only the subjective effect of the thought of the Divine remembrance.
The poet is thinking of external actions. Evidently the aim of his
prayer is to secure the attention of God as a sure preliminary to a
Divine interposition. But even with this end in view the fact that God
remembers is enough.

In appealing for God's attention the elegist first makes mention of
the _reproach_ that has come upon Israel. This reference to
humiliation rather than to suffering as the primary ground of
complaint may be accounted for by the fact that the glory of God is
frequently taken as a reason for the blessing of His people. That is
done for His "name's sake."[270] Then the ruin of the Jews is
derogatory to the honour of their Divine Protector. The peculiar
relation of Israel to God also underlies the complaint of the second
verse, in which the land is described as "our inheritance," with an
evident allusion to the idea that it was received as a donation from
God, not acquired in any ordinary human fashion. A great wrong has
been done, apparently in contravention of the ordinance of Heaven. The
Divine inheritance has been turned over to strangers. The very homes
of the Jews are in the hands of aliens. From their property the poet
passes on to the condition of the persons of the sufferers. The Jews
are orphans; they have lost their fathers, and their mothers are
widows. This seems to indicate that the writer considered himself to
belong to the younger generation of the Jews,--that, at an events, he
was not an elderly man. But it is not easy to determine how far his
words are to be read literally. No doubt the slaughter of the war had
carried off many heads of families, and left a number of women and
children in the condition here described. But the language of poetry
would allow of a more general interpretation. All the Jews felt
desolate as orphans and widows. Perhaps there is some thought of the
loss of God, the supreme Father of Israel. Whether this was in the
mind of the poet or not, the cry to God to remember His people plainly
implies that His sheltering presence was not now consciously
experienced. Our Lord foresaw that His departure would smite His
disciples with orphanage if He did not return to them.[271] Men who
have hardened themselves in a state of separation from God fail to
recognise their forlorn condition; but that is no occasion for
congratulation, for the family that never misses its father can never
have known the joys of true home life. Children of God's house can
have no greater sorrow than to lose their heavenly Father's presence.

  [270] For example, Jer. xiv. 7.

  [271] John xiv. 18.

A peculiarly annoying injustice to which the Jews were subjected by
their harsh masters consisted in the fact that they were compelled to
buy permission to collect firewood from their own land and to draw
water from their own wells.[272] The elegist deplores this grievance
as part of the reproach of his people. The mere pecuniary fine of a
series of petty exactions is not the chief part of the evil. It is not
the pain of flesh that rouses a man's indignation on receiving a slap
in the face; it is the insult that stings. There was more than insult
in this grinding down of the conquered nation; and the indignities to
which the Jews were subjected were only too much in accord with the
facts of their fallen state. This particular exaction was an
unmistakable symptom of the abject servitude into which they had been

  [272] v. 4.

The series of illustrations of the degradation of Israel seems to be
arranged somewhat in the order of time and in accordance with the
movements of the people. Thus, after describing the state of the Jews
in their own land, the poet next follows the fortunes of his people
in exile. There is no mercy for them in their flight. The words in
which the miseries of this time are referred to are somewhat obscure.
The phrase in the Authorised Version, "Our necks are under
persecution,"[273] is rendered by the Revisers, "Our pursuers are
upon our necks." It would seem to mean that the hunt is so close that
fugitives are on the point of being captured; or perhaps that they are
made to bow their heads in defeat as their captors seize them. But a
proposed emendation substitutes the word "yoke" for "pursuers." If we
may venture to accept this as a conjectural improvement--and later
critics indulge themselves in more freedom in the handling of the text
than was formerly permitted--the line points to the burden of
captivity. The next line favours this idea, since it dwells on the
utter weariness of the miserable fugitives. There is no rest for them.
Palestine is a difficult country to travel in, and the wilderness
south and east of Jerusalem is especially trying. The hills are steep
and the roads rocky; for a multitude of famine-stricken men, women,
and children, driven out over this homeless waste, a country that
taxes the strength of the traveller for pleasure could not but be most
exhausting. But the worst weariness is not muscular. Tired souls are
more weary than tired bodies. The yoke of shame and servitude is more
crushing than any amount of physical labour. On the other hand the
yoke of Jesus is easy not because little work is expected of
Christians, but for the more satisfactory reason that, being given in
exchange for the fearful burden of sin, it is borne willingly and even
joyously as a badge of honour.

  [273] v. 5.

Finally, in their exile the Jews are not free from molestation. In
order to obtain bread they must abase themselves before the people of
the land. The fugitives in the south must do homage to the Egyptians;
the captives in the east to me Assyrians.[274] Here, then, at the
very last stage of the series of miseries, shame and humiliation are
the principal grievances deplored. At every point there is a reproach,
and to this feature of the whole situation God's attention is
especially directed.

  [274] v. 6.

Now the elegist turns aside to a reflection on the cause of all this
evil. It is attributed to the sins of previous generations. The
present sufferers are bearing the iniquities of their fathers. Here
several points call for a brief notice. In the first place, the very
form of the language is significant. What is meant by the phrase to
_bear iniquity_? Strange mystical meanings are sometimes imported into
it, such as an actual transference of sin, or at least a taking over
of guilt. This is asserted of the sin-offering in the law, and then of
the sin-bearing of Jesus Christ on the cross. It would indicate
shallow ways of thinking to say that the simple and obvious meaning of
an expression in one place is the only signification it is ever
capable of conveying. A common process in the development of language
is for words and phrases that originally contained only plain physical
meanings to acquire in course of time deeper and more spiritual
associations. We can never fathom all that is meant by the statement
that Christ "His own self bare our sins in His body upon the
tree."[275] Still it is well to observe that there is a plain sense in
which the Hebrew phrase was used. It is clear in the case now before
us, at all events, that the poet had no mystical ideas in mind. When
he said that the children bore the sins of their fathers he simply
meant that they reaped the consequences of those sins. The expression
can mean nothing else here. It would be well, then, to remember this
very simple explanation of it when we are engaged with the discussion
of other and more difficult passages in which it occurs.

  [275] 1 Peter ii. 24.

But if the language is perfectly unambiguous the doctrine it implies
is far from being easy to accept. On the face of it, it seems to be
glaringly unjust. And yet whether we can reconcile it with our ideas
of what is equitable or not there can be no doubt that it states a
terrible truth; we gain nothing by blinking the fact. It was perfectly
clear to people of the time of the captivity that they were suffering
for the persistent misconduct of their ancestors during a succession
of generations. Long before this the Jews had been warned of the
danger of continued rebellion against the will of God. Thus the nation
had been treasuring up wrath for the day of wrath. The forbearance
which permitted the first offenders to die in peace before the day of
reckoning would assume another character for the unhappy generation on
whose head the long-pent-up flood at length descended. It is not
enough to urge in reply that the threat of the second commandment to
visit the sins of the fathers upon the children to the third and
fourth generation was for _them that hate God_; because it is not
primarily their own conduct, but the sins of their ancestors, in which
the reason for punishing the later generations is found. If these sins
were exactly repeated the influence of their parents would make the
personal guilt of the later offenders less, not more, than that of the
originators of the evil line. Besides, in the case of the Jews there
had been some amendment. Josiah's reformation had been very
disappointing; and yet the awful wickedness of the reign of Manasseh
had not been repeated. The gross idolatry of the earlier times and the
cruelties of Moloch worship had disappeared. At least, it must be
admitted, they were no longer common practices of court and people.
The publication of so great an inspired work as the Book of
Deuteronomy had wrought a marked effect on the religion and morals of
the Jews. The age which was called upon to receive the payment for the
national sins was not really so wicked as some of the ages that had
earned it. The same thing is seen in private life. There is nothing
that more distresses the author of these poems than the sufferings of
innocent children in the siege of Jerusalem. We are frequently
confronted with evidences of the fact that the vices of parents
inflict poverty, dishonour, and disease on their families. This is
just what the elegist means when he writes of children bearing the
iniquities of their fathers. The fact cannot be disputed.

Often as the problem that here starts up afresh has been discussed, no
really satisfactory solution of it has ever been forthcoming. We must
admit that we are face to face with one of the most profound mysteries
of providence. But we may detect some glints of light in the darkness.
Thus, as we have seen on the occasion of a previous reference to this
question,[276] the fundamental principle in accordance with which
these perplexing results are brought about is clearly one which on the
whole makes for the highest welfare of mankind. That one generation
should hand on the fruit of its activity to another is essential to
the very idea of progress. The law of heredity and the various
influences that go to make up the evil results in the case before us
work powerfully for good under other circumstances; and that the
balance is certainly on the side of good, is proved by the fact that
the world is moving forward, not backward, as would be the case if the
balance of hereditary influence was on the side of evil. Therefore it
would be disastrous in the extreme for the laws that pass on the
punishment of sin to successive generations to be abolished; the
abolition of them would stop the chariot of progress. Then we have
seen that the solidarity of the race necessitates both mutual
influences in the present and the continuance of influence from one
age to another. The great unit _Man_ is far more than the sum of the
little units _men_. We must endure the disadvantages of a system which
is so essential to the good of man. This, however, is but to fall back
on the Leibnitzian theory of the best of all _possible_ worlds. It is
not an absolute vindication of the justice of whatever happens--an
attainment quite beyond our reach.

  [276] Page 151.

But another consideration may shed a ray of light on the problem. The
bearing of the sins of others is for the highest advantage of the
sufferers. It is difficult to think of any more truly elevating
sorrows. They resemble our Lord's passion; and of Him it was said that
He was made perfect through suffering.[277] Without doubt Israel
benefited immensely from the discipline of the Captivity, and we may
be sure that the better "remnant" was most blessed by this experience
although it was primarily designed to be the chastisement of the more
guilty. The Jews were regenerated by the baptism of fire. Then they
could not ultimately complain of the ordeal that issued in so much

  [277] Heb. ii. 10.

It is to be observed, however, that there were two currents of thought
with regard to this problem. While most men held to the ancient
orthodoxy, some rose in revolt against the dogma expressed in the
proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth
are set on edge." Just at this time the prophet Ezekiel was inspired
to lead the Jews to a more just conception, with the declaration: "As
I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use
this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the
father, so also the soul of the son is mine: _the soul that sinneth,
it shall die_."[278] This was the new doctrine. But how could it be
made to square with the facts? By strong faith in it the disciples of
the advanced school might bring themselves to believe that the course
of events which had given rise to the old idea would be arrested. But
if so they would be disappointed; for the world goes on in its
unvarying way. Happily, as Christians, we may look for the final
solution in a future life, when all wrongs shall be righted. It is
much to know that in the great hereafter each soul will be judged
simply according to its own character.

  [278] Ezek. xviii. 3, 4.

In conclusion, as we follow out the course of the elegy, we find the
same views maintained that were presented earlier. The idea of
ignominy is still harped upon. The Jews complain that they are under
the rule of servants.[279] Satraps were really the Great King's
slaves, often simply household favourites promoted to posts of honour.
Possibly the Jews were put in the power of inferior servants. The
petty tyranny of such persons would be all the more persistently
annoying, if, as often happens, servility to superiors had bred
insolence in bullying the weak; and there was no appeal from the
vexatious tyranny. This complaint would seem to apply to the people
left in the land, for it is the method of the elegist to bring
together scenes from different places as well as scenes from different
times in one picture of concentrated misery. The next point is that
food is only procured at the risk of life "because of the sword of the
wilderness;"[280] which seems to mean that the country is so
disorganised that hordes of Bedouins hover about and attack the
peasants when they venture abroad to gather in their harvest. The
fever of famine is seen on these wretched people; their faces burn as
though they had been scorched at an oven.[281] Such is the general
condition of the Jews, Such is the scene on which God is begged to
look down!

  [279] v. 8.

  [280] v. 9.

  [281] v. 10.



v. 11-18

The keynote of the fifth elegy is struck in its opening verse when the
poet calls upon God to remember the _reproach_ that has been cast upon
His people. The preceding poems dwelt on the sufferings of the Jews;
here the predominant thought is that of the humiliations to which they
have been subjected. The shame of Israel and the sin which had brought
it on are now set forth with point and force. If, as some think, the
literary grace of the earlier compositions is not fully sustained in
the last chapter of Lamentations--although in parts of it the feeling
and imagination and art all touch the high-water mark--it cannot be
disputed that the spiritual tone of this elegy indicates an advance on
the four earlier poems. We have sometimes met with wild complaints,
fierce recriminations, deep and terrible curses that seem to require
some apology if they are to be justified. Nothing of the kind ruffles
the course of this faultless meditation. There is not a single jarring
note from beginning to end, not one phrase calling for explanation by
reference to the limited ideas of Old Testament times or to the
passion excited by cruelty, insult, and tyranny, not a line that reads
painfully even in the clear light of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
The vilest outrages are deplored; and yet, strange to say, no word of
vindictiveness towards the perpetrators escapes the lips of the
mourning patriot! How is this? The sin of the people has been
confessed before as the source of all their misery; but since with it
shame is now associated as the principal item in their affliction, we
can see in this fresh development a decided advance towards higher
views of the whole position.

May we not take this characteristic of the concluding chapter of the
Book of Lamentations to be an indication of progress in the spiritual
experience of its author? Perhaps it is to be partially explained by
the fact that the poem throughout consists of a prayer addressed
directly to God. The wildest, darkest passions of the soul cannot live
in the atmosphere of prayer. When men say of the persecutor, "Behold
he prayeth," it is certain that he cannot any longer be "breathing
threatening and slaughter." Even the feelings of the persecuted must
be calmed in the presence of God. The serenity of the surroundings of
the mercy-seat cannot but communicate itself to the feverish soul of
the suppliant. To draw near to God is to escape from the tumults of
earth and breathe the still, pure air of heaven. He is Himself so calm
and strong, so completely sufficient for every emergency, that we
begin to enter into His rest as soon as we approach His presence. All
unawares, perhaps unsought, the peace of God steals into the heart of
the man who brings his troubles to his Father in prayer.

Then the reflections that accompany prayer tend in the same direction.
In the light of God things begin to assume their true proportions. We
discover that our first fierce outcries were unreasonable, that we had
been simply maddened by pain so that our judgment had been confused.
A psalmist tells us how he understood the course of events which had
previously perplexed him by taking his part in the worship of the
sanctuary, when referring to his persecutors, the prosperous wicked,
he exclaims, "Then understood I their end."[282] In drawing near to
God we learn that vengeance is God's prerogative, that He will repay;
therefore we can venture to be still and leave the vindication of our
cause in His unerring hands. But, further, the very thirst for revenge
is extinguished in the presence of God, and that in several ways: we
see that the passion is wrong in itself; we begin to make some
allowance for the offender; we learn to own kinship with the man while
condemning his wickedness; above all, we awake to a keen consciousness
of our own guilt.

  [282] Psalm lxxiii. 17.

This, however, is not a sufficient explanation of the remarkable
change in tone that we have observed in the fifth elegy. The earlier
poems contain prayers, one of which degenerates into a direct
imprecation.[283] If the poet had wholly given himself to prayer in
that case as he has done here very possibly his tone would have been
mollified. Still, we must look to other factors for a complete
explanation. The writer is himself one of the suffering people. In
describing their wrongs he is narrating his own, for he is "the man
who has seen affliction." Thus he has long been a pupil in the school
of adversity. There is no school at which a docile pupil learns so
much. This man has graduated in sorrow. It is not surprising that he
is not just what he was when he matriculated. We must not press the
analogy too far, because, as we have seen, there is good reason to
believe that none of the elegies were written until some time after
the occurrence of the calamities to which they refer, that therefore
they all represent the fruit of long brooding over their theme. And
yet we may allow an interval to have elapsed between the composition
of the earlier ones and that of the poem with which the book closes.
This period of longer continued reflection may have been utilised in
the process of clearing and refining the ideas of the poet. It is not
merely that the lessons of adversity impart fresh knowledge or a truer
way of looking at life and its fortunes. They do the higher work of
education--they develop culture. This, indeed, is the greatest
advantage to be gained by the stern discipline of sorrow. The soul
that has the grace to use it aright is purged and pruned, chastened
and softened, lifted to higher views, and at the same time brought
down from self-esteem to deep humiliation. Here we have a partial
explanation of the mystery of suffering. This poem throws light on the
terrible problem by its very existence, by the spirit and character
which it exhibits. The calmness and self-restraint of the elegy, while
it deepens the pathos of the whole scene, helps us to see as no direct
statement would do, that the chastisement of Israel has not been
inflicted in vain. There must be good even in the awful miseries here
described in such patient language.

  [283] Lam. iii. 65.

The connection of shame with sin in this poem is indirect and along a
line which is the reverse of the normal course of experience. The poet
does not pass from sin to shame; he proceeds from the thought of shame
to that of sin. It is the humiliating condition in which the Jews are
found that awakens the idea of the shocking guilt of which this is the
consequence. We often have occasion to acknowledge the fatal
hindrance of pride to the right working of conscience. A lofty
conception of one's own dignity is absolutely inconsistent with a due
feeling of guilt. A man cannot be both elated and cast down at the
same moment. If his elation is sufficiently sustained from within it
will effectually bar the door to the entrance of those humbling
thoughts which cannot but accompany an admission of sin. Therefore
when this barrier is first removed, and the man is thoroughly humbled,
he is open to receive the accusations of conscience. All his
fortifications have been flung down. There is nothing to prevent the
invading army of accusing thoughts from marching straight in and
taking possession of the citadel of his heart.

The elegy takes a turn at the eleventh verse. Up to this point it
describes the state of the people generally in their sufferings from
the siege and its consequences. But now the poet directs attention to
separate classes of people and the different forms of cruelty to which
they are severally subjected in a series of intensely vivid pictures.
We see the awful fate of matrons and maidens, princes and elders,
young men and children. Women are subjected to the vilest abuse,
neither reverence for motherhood nor pity for innocence affording the
least protection. Men of royal blood and noble birth are killed and
their corpses hung up in ignominy--perhaps impaled or crucified in
accordance with the vile Babylonian custom. There is no respect for
age or office. Neither is there any mercy for youth. In the East
grinding is women's work; but, like Samson among the Philistines, the
young men of the Jews are put in charge of the mills. The poet seems
to indicate that they have to carry the heavy mill-stones in the
march of the returning army with the spoils of the sacked city. The
children are set to the slave task of Gibeonites. The Hebrew word here
translated _children_ might stand for young people who had reached
adult years.[284] But in the present case the condition is that of
immature strength, for the burden of wood they are required to bear is
too heavy for them and they stumble under it. This is the
scene--outrage for the girls and women, slaughter for the leading men,
harsh slavery for the children.

  [284] v. 13.

Next, passing from these exact details, the poet again describes the
condition of the people more generally, and this time under the image
of an interrupted feast, which is introduced by one more reference to
the changes that have come upon certain classes. The elders are no
longer to be seen at the gate administering the primitive forms of law
entrusted to them. The young men are no longer to be heard performing
on their musical instruments.[285] Still speaking for the people, the
poet declares that the joy of their heart has ceased. Then the aspect
of all life must be changed to them. Instead of the gay pictures of
dancers in their revelry we have the waiting of mourners. The guest at
a feast would be crowned with a garland of flowers. Such was once the
appearance of Jerusalem in her merry festivities. But now the garland
has fallen from her head.[286]

  [285] v. 14.

  [286] v. 15, 16.

This imagery is a relief after the terrible realism of the immediately
preceding pictures. We cannot bear to look continuously at scenes of
agony, nor is it well that we should attempt to do so, because if we
could succeed it would only be by becoming callous. Then the final
result would be not to excite deeper sympathy, but the very reverse,
and at the same time a distinctly lowering and coarsening effect would
be produced in us. And yet we may not smother up abuses in order to
spare our own feelings. There are evils that must be dragged out to
the light in order that they may be execrated, punished, and
destroyed. _Uncle Tom's Cabin_ broke the back of American slavery
before President Lincoln attacked it. Where, then, shall we find the
middle position between repulsive realism and guilty negligence? We
have the model for this in the Biblical treatment of painful subjects.
Scripture never gloats over the details of crimes and vices; yet
Scripture never flinches from describing such things in the plainest
possible terms. If these subjects are ever to become the theme of
art--and art claims the whole of life for her domain--imagination must
carry us away to the secondary effects rather than vivify the hideous
occurrences themselves. The passage before us affords an excellent
illustration of this method. With a few keen, clear strokes the poet
sketches in the exact situation. But he shows no disposition to linger
on ghastly details. Though he does not shrink from setting them before
us in unmistakable truth of form and colour, he hastens to a more
ideal treatment of the subject, and relieves us with the imaginary
picture of the spoiled banquet. Even Spenser sometimes excites a
feeling of positive nausea when he enlarges on some most loathsome
picture. It would be unendurable except that the great Elizabethan
poet has woven the witchery of his dainty fancy into the fabric of his
verse. Thus things can be said in poetry which would be unbearable in
prose, because poetry refines with the aid of imagination the tale
that it does not shrink from telling quite truly and most forcibly.

The change in the poet's style prepares for another effect. While we
are contemplating the exact details of the sufferings of the different
classes of outraged citizens, the insult and cruelty and utter
abomination of these scenes rouse our indignation against the
perpetrators of the foulest crimes, and leave nothing but pity for
their victims. It is not in the presence of such events that the sins
of Israel can be brought home to the people or even called to mind.
The attempt to introduce the thought of them there would seem to be a
piece of heartless officiousness. And yet it is most important to
perceive the connection between all this misery and the previous
misconduct of the Jews which was its real cause. Accordingly
intermediate reflections, while they let the scenes of blood and
terror recede, touch on the general character of the whole in a way
that permits of more heart-searching self-examination. Thus out of the
brooding melancholy of this secondary grief we are led to a distinct
confession of sin on the part of the people.[287]

  [287] v. 16.

This is the main result aimed at throughout the whole course of
chastisement. Until it has been reached little good can be effected.
When it is attained the discipline has already wrought its greatest
work. As we saw at the outset, it is the shame of the situation that
awakens a consciousness of guilt. Humbled and penitent, the chastened
people are just in the position at which God can meet them in gracious
pardon. Strictly speaking, perhaps we should say that this is the
position to which the elegist desires to lead them by thus appearing
as their spokesman. And yet we should not make too sharp a distinction
between the poet and his people. The elegy is not a didactic work; the
flavour of its gentle lines would be lost directly they lent
themselves to pedagogic ends. It is only just to take the words before
us quite directly, as they are written in the first person plural, for
a description of the thoughts of at least the group of Jews with whom
their author was associated.

The confession of sin implies in the first place a recognition of its
existence. This is more than a bare, undeniable recollection that the
deed was done. It is possible by a kind of intellectual jugglery even
to come to a virtual denial of this fact in one's own consciousness.
But to admit the deed is not to admit the sin. The casuistry of
self-defence before the court of self-judgment is more subtle than
sound, as every one who has found out his own heart must be aware. In
this matter "the heart is deceitful above all things."[288] Now it is
not difficult to take part in a decorous service where all the
congregation are expected to denominate themselves miserable
offenders, but it is an entirely different thing to retreat into the
silent chamber of our own thought, and there calmly and deliberately,
with full consciousness of what the words mean, confess to ourselves,
"We have sinned." The sinking of heart, the stinging humiliation, the
sense of self-loathing which such an admission produces, are the most
miserable experiences in life. The wretchedness of it all is that
there is no possibility of escaping the accuser when he is self. We
can do nothing but let the shame of the deed burn in the conscience
without any mollifying salve--until the healing of Divine forgiveness
is received.

  [288] Jer. xvii. 9.

But, in the second place, confession of sin goes beyond the secret
admission of it by the conscience, as in a case heard _in camerâ_.
Chiefly it is a frank avowal of guilt before God. This is treated by
St. John as an essential condition of forgiveness by God, when He
says, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive
us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."[289] How far
confession should also be made to our fellow-men is a difficult
question. In bidding us confess our "faults one to another,"[290] St.
James may be simply requiring that when we have done anybody a wrong
we should own it to the injured person. The harsh discipline of the
white sheet is not found in apostolic times, the brotherly spirit of
which is seen in the charity which "covereth a multitude of
sins."[291] And yet, on the other hand, the true penitent will always
shrink from sailing under false colours. Certainly public offences
call for public acknowledgment, and all sin should be so far owned
that whether the details are known or not there is no actual
deception, no hypocritical pretence at a virtue that is not possessed,
no willingness to accept honours that are quite unmerited. Let a man
never pretend to be sinless, nay, let him distinctly own himself a
sinner, and, in particular, let him not deny or excuse any specific
wickedness with which he is justly accused; and then for the rest, "to
his own lord he standeth or falleth."[292]

  [289] 1 John i. 9.

  [290] James v. 16.

  [291] 1 Peter iv. 8.

  [292] Rom. xiv. 4.

When the elegist follows his confession of sin with the words, "For
this our heart is faint," etc.,[293] it is plain that he attributes
the sense of failure and impotence to the guilt that has led to the
chastisement. This faintness of heart and the dimness of sight that
accompanies it, like the condition of a swooning person, suggest a
very different situation from that of the hero struggling against a
mountain of difficulties, or that of the martyr triumphing over
torture and death. The humiliation is now accounted for, and the
explanation of it tears to shreds the last rag of pride with which the
fallen people might have attempted to hide it. The abject wretchedness
of the Jews is admitted to be the effect of their own sins. No thought
can be more depressing. The desolation of Mount Zion, where jackals
prowl undisturbed as though it were the wilderness,[294] is a standing
testimony to the sin of Israel. Such is the degradation to which the
people whom the elegist here represents are reduced. It is a condition
of utter helplessness; and yet in it will rise the dawn of hope; for
when man is most empty of self he is most ready to receive God. Thus
it is that from the deepest pit of humiliation there springs the
prayer of trust and hope with which the Book of Lamentations closes.

  [293] v. 17.

  [294] ver. 18.

Chapter XXIV


v. 19-22

We have lingered long in the valley of humiliation.

At the eleventh hour we are directed to look up from this scene of
weary gloom to heavenly heights, radiant in sunlight. It is not by
accident that the new attitude is suggested only at the very end of
the last elegy. The course of the thought and the course of experience
that underlies it have been preparing for the change. On entering the
valley the traveller must look well to his feet; it is not till he has
been a denizen of it for some time that he is able to lift up his eyes
to other and brighter realms.

Thus at last our attention is turned from earth to heaven, from man to
God. In this change of vision the mood which gave rise to the
Lamentations disappears. Since earthly things lose their value in view
of the treasures in heaven, the ruin of them also becomes of less
account. Thus we read in the _Imitatio_:

  "The life of man is always looking on the things of time,
  Pleased with the pelf of earth,
  Gloomy at loss,
  Pricked by the least injurious word;
  Life touched by God looks on the eternal,--
  With it no cleaving unto time,
  No frown when property is lost,
  No sneer when words are harsh,--
  Because it puts its treasure and its joy in heaven,
  Where nothing fades."

The explanation of this sudden turn is to be found in the fact that
for the moment the poet forgets himself and his surroundings in a rapt
contemplation of God. This is the glory of adoration, the very highest
form of prayer, that prayer in which a man comes nearest to the
condition ascribed to angels and the spirits of the blessed who
surround the throne and gaze on the eternal light. It is not to be
thought of as an idle dreaming like the dreary abstraction of the
Indian fanatic who has drilled himself to forget the outside world by
reducing his mind to a state of vacancy while he repeats the
meaningless syllable Om, or the senseless ecstasy of the monk of Mount
Athos, who has attained the highest object of his ambition when he
thinks he has beheld the sacred light within his own body. It is
self-forgetful, not self-centred; and it is occupied with the
contemplation of those great truths of the being of God, absorption in
which is an inspiration. Here the worshipper is at the river of the
water of life, from which if he drinks he will go away refreshed for
the battle like the Red-cross knight restored at the healing fountain.
It is the misfortune of our own age that it is impractical in the
excess of its practicalness when it has not patience for those quiet,
calm experiences of pure worship which are the very food of the soul.

The continuance of the throne of God is the idea that now lays hold of
the elegist as he turns his thoughts from the miserable scenes of the
ruined city to the glory above. This is brought home to his
consciousness by the fleeting nature of all things earthly. He has
experienced what the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes as
"the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that have
been made, that those things which are not shaken may remain."[295]
The throne of David has been swept away; but above the earthly wreck
the throne of God stands firm, all the more clearly visible now that
the distracting influence of the lower object has vanished, all the
more valuable now that no other refuge can be found. Men fall like
leaves in autumn; one generation follows another in the swift march to
death; dynasties which outlive many generations have their day, to be
succeeded by others of an equally temporary character; kingdoms reach
their zenith, decline and fall. God only remains, eternal,
unchangeable. His is the only throne that stands secure above every

  [295] Heb. xii. 27.

The unwavering faith of our poet is apparent at this point after it
has been tried by the most severe tests. Jerusalem has been destroyed,
her king has fallen into the hands of the enemy, her people have been
scattered; and yet the elegist has not the faintest doubt that her God
remains and that His throne is steadfast, immovable, everlasting. This
faith reveals a conviction far in advance of that of the surrounding
heathen. The common idea was that the defeat of a people was also the
defeat of their gods. If the national divinities were not exterminated
they were flung down from their thrones, and reduced to the condition
of _jins_--demons who avenged themselves on their conquerors by
annoying them whenever an opportunity for doing so arose, but with
greatly crippled resources. No such notion is ever entertained by the
author of these poems nor by any of the Hebrew prophets. The fall of
Israel in no way affects the throne of God; it is even brought about
by His will; it could not have occurred if He had been pleased to
hinder it.

Thus the poet was led to find his hope and refuge in the throne of
God, the circumstances of his time concurring to turn his thoughts in
this direction, since the disappearance of the national throne, the
chaos of the sacked city, and the establishment of a new government
under the galling yoke of slaves from Babylon, invited the man of
faith to look above the shifting powers of earth to the everlasting
supremacy of heaven.

This idea of the elegist is in line with a familiar stream of Hebrew
thought, and his very words have many an echo in the language of
prophet and psalmist, as, for example, in the forty-fifth psalm, where
we read, "Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever."

The grand Messianic hope is founded on the conviction that the
ultimate establishment of God's reign throughout the world will be the
best blessing imaginable for all mankind. Sometimes this is associated
with the advent of a Divinely anointed earthly monarch of the line of
David. At other times God's direct sovereignty is expected to be
manifested in the "Day of the Lord." The failure of the feeble
Zedekiah seems to have discredited the national hopes centred in the
royal family. For two generations they slumbered, to be awakened in
connection with another disappointing descendant of David, Zerubbabel,
the leader of the return. No king was ever equal to the satisfaction
of these hopes until the Promised One appeared in the fulness of the
times, until Jesus was born into the world to come forth as the Lord's
Christ. Meanwhile, since the royal house is under a cloud, the
essential Messianic hope turns to God alone. He can deliver His
people, and He only. Even apart from personal hopes of rescue, the
very idea of the eternal, just reign of God above the transitory
thrones of men is a calming, reassuring thought.

It is strange that this idea should ever have lost its fascination
among Christian people, who have so much more gracious a revelation of
God than was given to the Jews under the old covenant; and yet our
Lord's teachings concerning the Fatherhood of God have been set forth
as the direct antithesis of the Divine sovereignty, while the latter
has been treated as a stern and dreadful function from which it was
natural to shrink with fear and trembling. But the truth is the two
attributes are mutually illustrative; for he is a very imperfect
father who does not rule his own house, and he is a very inadequate
sovereign who does not seek to exercise parental functions towards his
people. Accordingly, the gospel of Christ is the gospel of the
kingdom. Thus the good news declared by the first evangelists was to
the effect that the kingdom of God was at hand, and our Lord taught us
to pray, "Thy kingdom come." For Christians, at least as much as for
Jews, the eternal sovereignty of God should be a source of profound
confidence, inspiring hope and joy.

Now the elegist ventures to expostulate with God on the ground of the
eternity of His throne. God had not abdicated, though the earthly
monarch had been driven from his kingdom. The overthrow of Zedekiah
had left the throne of God untouched. Then it was not owing to
inability to come to the aid of the suffering people that the eternal
King did not intervene to put an end to their miseries. A long time
had passed since the siege, and still the Jews were in distress. It
was as though God had forgotten them or voluntarily forsaken them.
This is a dilemma to which we are often driven. If God is almighty can
He be also all-merciful? If what we knew furnished all the possible
data of the problem this would be indeed a serious position. But our
ignorance silences us.

Some hint of an explanation is given in the next phrase of the poet's
prayer. God is besought to turn the people to Himself. Then they had
been moving away from him. It is like the old popular ideas of sunset.
People thought the sun had forsaken the earth, when, in fact, their
part of the earth had forsaken the sun. But if the wrong is on man's
side on man's side must be the amendment. Under these circumstances it
is needless and unjust to speculate as to the cause of God's supposed
neglect or forgetfulness.

There can be no reasonable doubt that the language of the elegy here
points to a personal and spiritual change. We cannot water it down to
the expression of a desire to be restored to Palestine. Nor is it
enough to take it as a prayer to be restored to God's favour. The
double expression,

  "Turn Thou us unto Thee, O Lord, _and we shall be turned_,"

points to a deeper longing, a longing for real conversion, the turning
round of the heart and life to God, the return of the prodigal to his
Father. We think of the education of the race, the development of
mankind, the culture of the soul; and in so thinking we direct our
attention to important truths which were not so well within the reach
of our forefathers. On the other hand, are we not in danger of
overlooking another series of reflections on which they dwelt more
persistently? It is not the fact that the world is marching straight
on to perfection in an unbroken line of evolution. There are breaks in
the progress and long halts, deviations from the course and retrograde
movements. We err and go astray, and then continuance in an evil way
does not bring us out to any position of advance; it only plunges us
down deeper falls of ruin. Under such circumstances, a more radical
change than anything progress or education can produce is called for
if ever we are even to recover our lost ground, not to speak of
advancing to higher attainments. In the case of Israel it was clear
that there could be no hope until the nation made a complete moral and
religious revolution. The same necessity lies before every soul that
has drifted into the wrong way. This subject has been discredited by
being treated too much in the abstract, with too little regard for the
actual condition of men and women. The first question is, What is the
tendency of the life? If that is away from God, it is needless to
discuss theories of conversion; the fact is plain that in the present
instance some conversion is needed. There is no reason to retain a
technical term, and perhaps it would be as well to abandon it if it
were found to be degenerating into a mere cant phrase. This is not a
question of words. The urgent necessity is concerned with the actual
turning round of the leading pursuits of life.

In the next place, it is to be observed that the turning here
contemplated is positive in its aims, not merely a flight from the
wrong way. It is not enough to cast out the evil spirit, and leave the
house swept and garnished, but without a tenant to take care of it.
Evil can only be overcome by good. To turn from sin to blank vacancy
and nothingness is an impossibility. The great motive must be the
attraction of a better course rather than revulsion from the old life.
This is the reason why the preaching of the gospel of Christ succeeds
where pure appeals to conscience fail.

By his _Serious Call to the Unconverted_ William Law started a few
earnest men thinking; but he could not anticipate the Methodist
revival although he prepared the way for it. The reason seems to be
that appeals to conscience are depressing, necessarily and rightly so;
but some cheering encouragement is called for if energy is to be found
for the tremendous effort of turning the whole life upon its axle.
Therefore it is not the threat of wrath but the gospel of mercy that
leads to what may be truly called conversion.

Then we may notice, further, that the particular aim of the change
here indicated is to turn back to God. As sin is forsaking God, so the
commencement of a better life must consist in a return to Him. But
this is not to be regarded as a means towards some other end. We must
not have the home-coming made use of as a mere convenience. It must be
an end in itself, and the chief end of the prayer and effort of the
soul, or it can be nothing at all. It appears as such in the passage
now under consideration. The elegist writes as though he and the
people whom he represents had arrived at the conviction that their
supreme need was to be brought back into near and happy relations with
God. The hunger for God breathes through these words. This is the
truest, deepest, most Divine longing of the soul. When once it is
awakened we may be sure that it will be satisfied. The hopelessness of
the condition of so many people is not only that they are estranged
from God, but that they have no desire to be reconciled to Him. Then
the kindling of this desire is itself a great step towards the

And yet the good wish is not enough by itself to attain its object.
The prayer is for God to turn the people back to Himself. We see here
the mutual relations of the human and the Divine in the process of the
recovery of souls. So long as there is no willingness to return to God
nothing can be done to force that action on the wanderer. The first
necessity, therefore, is to awaken the prayer which seeks restoration.
But this prayer must be for the action of God. The poet knows that it
is useless simply to resolve to turn. Such a resolution may be
repeated a thousand times without any result following, because the
fatal poison of sin is like a snake bite that paralyses its victims.
Thus we read in the _Theologia Germanica_, "And in this bringing back
and healing, I can, or may, or shall do nothing of myself, but simply
yield to God, so that He alone may do all things in me and work, and I
may suffer Him and all His work and His Divine will." The real
difficulty is not to change our own hearts and lives; that is
impossible. And it is not expected of us. The real difficulty is
rather to reach a consciousness of our own disability. It takes the
form of unwillingness to trust ourselves entirely to God for Him to do
for us and in us just whatever He will.

The poet is perfectly confident that when God takes His people in hand
to lead them round to Himself He will surely do so. If He turns them
they will be turned. The words suggest that previous efforts had been
made from other quarters, and had failed. The prophets, speaking from
God, had urged repentance, but their words had been ineffectual. It is
only when God undertakes the work that there is any chance of
success. But then success is certain. This truth was illustrated in
the preaching of the cross by St. Paul at Corinth, where it was found
to be the _power_ of God. It is seen repeatedly in the fact that the
worst, the oldest, the most hardened are brought round to a new life
by the miracle of redeeming power. Herein we have the root principle
of Calvinism, the secret of the marvellous vigour of a system which,
at the first blush of it, would seem to be depressing rather than
encouraging. Calvinism directed the thoughts of its disciples away
from self, and man, and the world, for the inspiration of all life and
energy. It bade them confess their own impotence and God's
almightiness. All who could trust themselves to such a faith would
find the secret of victory.

Next, we see that the return is to be a renewal of a previous
condition. The poet prays, "Renew our days as of old"--a phrase which
suggests the recovery of apostates. Possibly here we have some
reference to more external conditions. There is a hope that the
prosperity of the former times may be brought back. And yet the
previous line, which is concerned with the spiritual return to God,
should lead us to take this one also in a spiritual sense. We think of
Cowper's melancholy regret--

  "Where is the blessedness I knew
  When first I saw the Lord?"

The memory of a lost blessing makes the prayer for restoration the
more intense. It is of God's exceeding lovingkindness that His
compassions fail not, so that He does not refuse another opportunity
to those who have proved faithless in the past. In some respects
restoration is more difficult than a new beginning. The past will not
come back. The innocence of childhood, when once it is lost, can never
be restored. That first, fresh bloom of youth is irrecoverable. On the
other hand, what the restoration lacks in one respect may be more than
made up in other directions. Though the old paradise will not be
regained, though it has withered long since, and the site of it has
become a desert, God will create new heavens and a new earth which
shall be better than the lost past. And this new state will be a real
redemption, a genuine recovery of what was essential to the old
condition. The vision of God had been enjoyed in the old, simple days,
and though to weary watchers sobered by a sad experience, the vision
of God will be restored in the more blessed future.

In our English Bible the last verse of the chapter reads like a final
outburst of the language of despair. It seems to say that the prayer
is all in vain, for God has utterly forsaken His people. So it was
understood by the Jewish critics who arranged to repeat the previous
verse at the end of the chapter to save the omen, that the Book should
not conclude with so gloomy a thought. But another rendering is now
generally accepted, though our Revisers have only placed it in the
margin. According to this we read, "_Unless_ Thou hast utterly
rejected us," etc. There is still a melancholy tone in the sentence,
as there is throughout the Book that it concludes; but this is
softened, and now it by no means breathes the spirit of despair. Turn
it round, and the phrase will even contain an encouragement. If God
has not utterly rejected His people assuredly He will attend to their
prayer to be restored to Him. But it cannot be that He has quite cast
them off. Then it must be that He will respond and turn them back to
Himself. If our hope is only conditioned by the question whether God
has utterly forsaken us it is perfectly safe, because the one
imaginable cause of shipwreck can never arise. There is but one thing
that might make our trust in God vain and fruitless; and that one
thing is impossible, nay, inconceivable. So wide and deep is our
Father's love, so firm is the adamantine strength of His eternal
fidelity, we may be absolutely confident that, though the mountains be
removed and cast into the sea, and though the solid earth melt away
beneath our feet, He will still abide as the internal Refuge of His
children, and therefore that He will never fail to welcome all who
seek His grace to help them return to Him in true penitence and filial
trust. Thus we are led even by this most melancholy book in the Bible
to see, as with eyes purged by tears, that the love of God is greater
than the sorrow of man, and His redeeming power more mighty than the
sin which lies at the root of the worst of that sorrow, the eternity
of His throne, in spite of the present havoc of evil in the universe,
assuring us that the end of all will be not a mournful elegy, but a
pæan of victory.

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       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's note:

Page 45: A missing footnote anchor has been inserted after "union of
Christ and his Church".

Page 267: Footnote 224 refers to Psalm xx. 6. This appears to be a
printer error which has been changed to read Psalm xxxiv. 6.

Page 324: "... Old Testament times of to the passion excited by cruelty".
"of" has been changed to "or".

Minor typographical errors and inconsistencies have been silently
normalized. Archaic and variable spellings and hyphenation have been

One advertising page has been moved from the beginning to the end
of the book.

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