This strain differs, as in the triple alliteration of its structure, so also in its more distinctly personal plaintiveness. The prophet expresses his own sense of sorrow, no longer representing Zion but speaking for himself, while at the same time his grief is bound up with the people, and none the less because he was an object of derision and hatred to them for his love to them in faithfulness to Jehovah. Other prophets may have been exempted for special ends of God, but none tasted the bitterness of Israel's portion more keenly than Jeremiah. His desire is that others should bear the grief of the people's state as here expressed for the heart in order to final comfort and blessing from God. In the opening verses he tells out his experiences in trouble. "I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath." He hath led me and brought me into darkness, but not into light. Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day." (Ver. 1-3.) He owns it to be from Jehovah's hand and rod. Indignation was gone forth from God against Israel, and a true-hearted prophet was the last one to screen himself or wish it. There was affliction; this too in darkness, not light; and again with oft-recurring visitation of His hand.
Next (ver. 4-6) Jeremiah recounts his wearing away; the preparations of Jehovah against him; and his evidently doomed estate. "My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones. He hath builded against me, and compassed me with gall and travel. He hath set me in dark places, as they that be dead of old," (Ver. 4-6.)
In verses 7-9, the prophet shows that his portion was not only in imprisonment with heavy chain, but with the awful aggravation that entreaty and prayer could not avail to effect deliverance, the way being fenced, not to protect but to exclude and baffle.
Then Jeremiah draws imagery from the animal kingdom to tell how God spared him in nothing. "He was unto me as a bear lying in wait, and as a lion in secret places. He hath turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces: he hath made me desolate. He hath bent his bow, and set me as a mark for the arrow." (Ver. 10-12.)
Nor does he content himself with telling us how he had been the object of divine attack, as game to the hunter, but lets us see that the mockery of his brethren was not the least part of his trial and bitterness. "He hath caused the arrows of his quiver to enter into my reins. I was a derision to all my people; and their song all the day. He hath filled me with bitterness, he hath made me drunken with wormwood." (Ver. 13-15.)
Inwardly and outwardly there was every sign of disappointment and humiliation; and expectation of improved circumstances cut off even from Him who is the believer's one resource. "He hath also broken my teeth with gravel stones, he hath covered me with ashes. And thou hast removed my soul far off from peace: I forgat prosperity. And I said, My strength peace and my hope is perished from Jehovah. (Ver. 16-18.)
Yet there is the very point of change. From verse 19 he spreads out all before Jehovah, whom he asks to remember it; and from the utter prostration of his soul he begins to conceive confidence. "Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall. My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me. This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope." (Ver. 19-21.) It is not Christ, but assuredly the Spirit of Christ leading on an afflicted and broken heart. Weeping may endure for a night; but joy cometh in the morning.
In what sense then are we to account for language so strong uttered by a holy man, and this not about the persecutions of strangers or the enmity of the Jews, but mostly indeed about Jehovah's ways with him? Certainly not what Calvin and the mass of commentators before and since make of it, as if it were the pressure of the hand of God on the sufferers as Christians when their minds were in a state of confusion, and their lips uttered much that is intemperate. Such an interpretation does little honour to God, not to speak of Jeremiah, and makes the Spirit to be a reporter, not merely of a few words or deeds which betray the earthen vessel in its weakness, but of outpourings considerable and minute, which, according to such a view, would consist of scarce anything but complaints spoken according to the judgment of the flesh under feelings so little moderated as to let fill too often things worthy of blame. Can such a view with such results satisfy a thoughtful child of God, who understands the gospel?
I believe, on the contrary, that the language is not hyberbolical, but the genuine. utterance of a sensitive heart in the midst of the crushing calamities of Israel, or rather now also of Judah and Jerusalem; that they are the sorrows of one who loved the people according to God, who suffered with them all the more because they did not feel and he did that it was Jehovah Himself who was behind and above their miseries and shame, inflicting all because of their sins, with the added and yet keener fact of his own personal and poignant grief because of what his prophetic office exposed him to, not so much from the Chaldeans as from the people of God, his brethren after the flesh. It was in no way the expression of his own relation to God is a saint or consequently of God's feelings towards himself individually; it was the result of being called of God to take part in Israel for Him at a time so corrupt and so calamitous. I am far from meaning that personally Jeremiah did not know what failure was in that awful crisis. It is plain from his own prophecy that his timidity did induce him to sanction or allow on one occasion the deceit of another, adopting if not inventing it. But he seems to have been, take him all in all, a rare man, even among the holy line of the prophets; and, though morbidly acute in his feelings by nature, singularly sustained of God with as little sympathy from others as ever fell to the lot of a servant of God among His people. Even Elijah's experience fell far short of his, both on the side of the people's wickedness among whom lay his ministry, and on the score of suffering inwardly and outwardly as a prophet who shared all the chastening which the righteous indignation heaped on his guilty people, with his own affliction to boot as a rejected prophet. He appears indeed in this to have the most nearly approached our blessed Lord, though certainly there was a climax in His case peculiar to Himself, hardly more in the intensely evil and degraded state of Jerusalem then than in the perfection with which He fathomed and felt all before God as one who had deigned to be of them and their chief, their Messiah, who must therefore have so much the deeper interest and the truer sense of what they deserved as a people from God through the instrumentality of their enemies. As a fact this came on them soon after under the last and most terrible siege by Titus; but Jesus went beforehand through all before the cross as well as on it, this apart from making atonement, with which nothing but the densest ignorance could confound it, and mere malice attack others for avoiding its own palpable error.
There is no doubt, I think, that the ground of hope which the prophet lays to heart, as he said in verse 21, is stated in the following verses: "It is of Jehovah's mercies that we are not consumed, because his mercies fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness. Jehovah is my portion; therefore will I hope in him." The last clause confirms the thought that verse 21 is anticipative, and that here the spring is touched.
For the turn given by the Targum, and the older versions, save the Vulgate, namely, "The mercies of Jehovah are not consumed, for his compassions fail not," I see no sufficient reason, though Calvin considers this sense more suitable. The Latin and our own version seem to me preferable, not only as being clearer but as giving greater prominence to the persons of His people, and yet maintaining in the last clause what the others spread over both clauses. His mercies then have no end; "they are renewed every morning: great is thy faithfulness. Jehovah is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him." It is a goodly portion without doubt, though unbelief thinks it nothing and pines after some one to show any good after a tangible sort, the corn and wine and oil of this creation. But to have Him who has all things and who is Himself infinitely more than all He has is beyond comparison a better portion, as he must own who by grace believes it.
"Jehovah is good to them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that one should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of Jehovah. It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth." Confident expectation is thus cherished, while an illusive profession of waiting for Him is detected and judged. For though a careless spirit might pretend to wait for Him, could it be thought of such a one that he is a soul which seeks Him! Activity is implied in this. The next clause asserts the value of patient looking to Him. But it is not tolerable to infer that we err in looking for the continual light of God's favour. For to this redemption entitles us; and Christ is risen the spring and pattern of life in resurrection, on which the Father ever looks with complacency. The last good here contemplated is that one bear the yoke in his youth. Subjection to God's will and to the trials He sends is ever blessed, and this from tender years.
"He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him. He putteth his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach." Thus God's ways are accepted in silence; and humiliation is complete unto death in conscience, yet not without hope; and man's contemptuous persecution and reproach are submitted to.
"For Jehovah will not cast off for ever: but though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies. For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men." Hope is thus confirmed, without which indeed there is no power of endurance any more than of comfort. His judicial chastenings of Israel are measured and will have an end, as is equally true of His righteous government of ourselves now.
The next triplet is peculiar in its structure, each verse beginning with the infinitive, as is fairly presented in the common Authorized Version. "To crush under his feet all the prisoners of the earth, to turn aside the right of a man before the face of the most high, to subvert a man in his cause Jehovah, approveth not." They are acts of oppression, cruelty, and wrong: should the Lord not see this? Certainly they have no sanction from Him.
The utter ignorance of the future on man's part is next set before us. "Who is he that saith, and it cometh to pass, when Jehovah commandeth it not? Out of the mouth of the most High proceedeth not evil and good? Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins?" All is plainly declared by God. But complainers are never satisfied nor otherwise right. It were better to complain of ourselves, yea every man because of his sins.
Then in verses 40-42 self-judgment is the word of exhortation. "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to Jehovah. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens. We have transgressed and have rebelled: thou hast not pardoned." It was just but tremendous thus to find no sign of pardon in His ways.
Next the prophet sets forth without disguise or attenuation the ways of God's displeasure with His people. This was true; and it was right both to feel and to own it, though the owning it to such a God makes it far more painful. "Thou hast covered with anger, and persecuted us; thou hast slain, thou hast not pitied. Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through. Thou hast made us as the off-scouring and refuse in the midst of the people." (Ver. 43-45.) There are times when it does not become the saint to seek a deprecation of a chastening - where, if prayer were ignorantly so made, it were a mercy that it should not be heard, And so it was for Jerusalem then. The divine sentence must take its course, however truly God would prove His care of the godly under such sorrowful circumstances.
Then in verses 46-48 he expresses his sense of the reproach heaped on them by their enemies; so that between inward fear and outward desolation the wretchedness was unparalleled. "All our enemies have opened their mouths against us. Fear and a snare is come upon us, desolation and destruction. Mine eye runneth down with rivers of water for the destruction of the daughter of my people." Only those could know it who had been favoured of God as they had been; only one who knew Him as Jeremiah could feel and tell it out as he does, It is but to be expected that some should feel his lamentations to be excessive, as others do the glowing anticipations of the prophets; faith would receive and appreciate both, without criticizing either.
In the next stanza he repeats the words of the last in order to bring Jehovah in. Faith does not hinder but increases grief because of the deplorable state of that which is near to God, when its state is so evil as to be the object of His judgments; yet it is assured that such grief is not unavailing but that He will surely intervene. "Mine eye trickleth down, and ceaseth not, without any intermission, till Jehovah look down, and behold from heaven. Mine eye affecteth mine heart because of all the daughters of my city." (Ver. 49-51.)
In verses 52-54 the prophet sets forth by various figures the calamities which fall on the Jews from their enemies. "Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird, without cause. They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and cast a stone upon me. Waters flowed over mine head; then I said, I am cut off." They were no more than as a bird before skilful fowlers, as one shut up in dungeons secured by a stone overhead, as one actually overwhelmed in waters rolling over him.
But prayer may be and has been proved effectual even in their distresses; and so the following verses show as with Jeremiah. "I called upon Thy name, O Jehovah, out of the low dungeon. Thou hast heard my voice: hide not thine ear at my breathing, at my cry. Thou drewest near in the day that I called upon thee; thou saidst, Fear not." (Ver. 55-57.)
And here it may be as well to point out the danger of those who cite Psa_22:1, as an ordinary saint's experience, despising or at least failing to use the lesson scripture gives us, that those words suited Jesus on the cross, and certainly no Christian since. He was thus forsaken then that we might never be. It is not then true that the believer under any circumstance is forsaken of God. Jesus only could say in the fulness of the truth, both "My God" and "Why hast thou forsaken me?" And even He never did nor could, I believe, have said these words save as atoning for sin. To suppose that, because David wrote the words, he must have said them as his own experience, is to make the Psalms of private interpretation, instead of recognizing the power of the Spirit who inspired them. Psalm 16 might as well or better be David's experience; yet it needs little discrimination to see that both in their full import belong to Christ exclusively, but in wholly different circumstances.
"O Jehovah, thou hast pleaded the causes of my soul; thou hast redeemed my life. O Jehovah, thou hast seen my wrong; judge thou my cause. Thou hast seen all their vengeance and all their imaginations against me." (Ver. 58 60.) The prophet is confident that He will appear for vindication and deliverance. The deep and deserved humiliation put on His people does not weaken his assurance or stifle his cry. On the one hand, if He has seen the wrong of the righteous, He would judge his cause; on the other, He had seen all the foe's vengeance and imaginations against him.
This is repeated in the next verses, in connection with what Jehovah had heard. "Thou hast heard their reproach, O Jehovah, and all their imaginations against me: the lips of those that rose up against me, and their device against me all the day. Behold their sitting down, and their rising up; I am their music." (Ver. 61-63.) At all times throughout their daily life his sorrow was their desired object and liveliest pleasure.
In the closing strain the prophet prays according to the righteous government of God for the earth. "Render unto them a recompense, O Jehovah! according to the work of their hands. Give them sorrow of heart, thy curse unto them. Persecute and destroy them in anger from under the heavens of Jehovah." (Ver. 64-66.) It is no light thing in God's eye that His enemies should find only a matter for mirth in the sufferings and sorrows of those who were under His mighty hand. If the righteous are thus saved with difficulty, what will it be when judgment falls on the ungodly? Even under the gospel we may love and should rejoice in the prospect of the Lord's appearing, though we know what fiery indignation must consume the adversaries. Here of course the prayer is according to a Jewish measure, though none the less just. We are called to higher and heavenly things.