John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: January 19

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: January 19

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The Potsherd and the Ashes


It is related that, being reduced to the miserable and forlorn condition we have described, Job “took a potsherd to scrape himself withal, and he sat down among the ashes.” The first of these circumstances vividly and painfully impresses us with a sense of the wretched condition to which Job’s body was reduced by this awful and loathsome disorder. To say that his body was “covered with sores,” would have been with many a sufficient indication; but the imagination is not suitably affected by general statements, and requires to have the impression deepened by graphic incidents and circumstantial details; hence the sacred writer, wishing we should realize the picture of Job in his humiliation to our minds, sets him visibly before us, seated in the ashes, and scraping himself with a potsherd. We read this, and never more forget the picture these simple words print upon the mind. Nothing can surpass or approach the utter forlornness which this picture indicates. He who had been erewhile the greatest man in the east country, seems to have been left to himself—forsaken of all. The disease was so horrible, and so much dreaded, that when its nature appeared, neighbors, wife, and servants, fled from him as a pollution, and refused to render the usual offices of duty and affection. This species of leprosy has always been deemed contagious in the countries where it prevails, though learned physicians have doubted that it is so. This impression prevented even those most bound to him from coming near enough to attend his person or administer to his wants. The patient is here his own physician, the sick his own nurse. None would dress his sores—he is obliged to do it himself; no friend, no servant, no wife, will venture to touch his festering body; and then, again, a potsherd is the only instrument of relief he finds. We read of no fine linen to bind up his sores, no oil to supple them, no salves to cool their burning heat. A hard potsherd is the only instrument, and scraping the only surgery. The use of this may intimate that Job’s body had become so loathsome that he abhorred to touch it even with his bare hands, but must take something, and, for want of better, a potsherd, with which to scrape himself; or it may be, that his sore disease so overspread and envenomed his hands to his very nails, that it was a pain for him to touch himself; his fingers were so sore that he had scarcely any use of them, and he was therefore constrained to resort to this poor expedient. But this explanation is scarcely so good as the first; for if his hands were so sore that it pained them to touch his own person with them, it would have pained them more to touch the hard potsherd.

But why did he go and sit among the ashes?

The frequency with which sitting down among the ashes is mentioned in Scripture, as an act expressive of repentance and humiliation, will, at the first view, suggest that it was a voluntary act on his part, not necessitated by his condition. Job himself expresses this so clearly, after the Lord had spoken, as to show that the custom existed in his time: “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes,Job_42:6. So also, in a later age, the king of Nineveh, alarmed by the prophet’s denunciation, “rose from his throne, laid his robe from him, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes,Jon_3:6; see also Isa_61:3; Mat_11:21. The heathen, also, in times of great mourning and affliction, used to sprinkle themselves with ashes, and sat down in them. This occurs several times in Homer. So, when Achilles mourns for the slain Patroclus—

“Then clouds of sorrow fell on Peleus’ son,

And, grasping with both hands the ashes, down

He poured them on his head, his graceful beard

Dishonoring; and thick the sooty shower

Descending, settled on his fragrant vest;

Then, stretched in ashes, at the vast extent

Of his whole length he lay, disordering wild

With his own hands, and rending oft his hair.”

Iliad, xviii. 25-32.—Cowper.

So Laertes, in sorrow for his supposed lost son Ulysses—

“Then sorrow, as a sable cloud,

Involved Laertes; gathering with both hands

The dust, he poured it on his reverend head

With many a piteous groan.”

Odyssey, xxiv. 373-375.—Cowper.

This, therefore, may well have been a voluntary act of grief and repentance on the part of Job, intended to express that he abased and humbled himself before the Lord.

Yet, for all this, it is by no means certain that this act may not have been necessitated by his condition, and in some degree it heightens his misery to understand that this was the case. And here we may note, that the ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) interprets the text to mean, that he sat down upon a dunghill. The poverty and want to which he was now (some time after he had lost all) reduced, may have been so extreme, that he had no longer a house to shelter him, nor any of the conveniences of life; and as no neighbor would receive into their houses one thus loathsomely diseased, he had no choice but to go forth and sit among the ashes.

Or, his thus going forth may have been necessitated by the offensive nature of his disease, which filled the house with such noisome odors, that not himself nor any in the house could endure it—so that he was constrained to go forth into the open air.

Or, yet farther, he may have been constrained to go forth and separate himself as a leper—even as Miriam was compelled to go forth and remain without the camp so long as the leprosy was upon her; Note: Num_12:14. and as Uzziah, although a king, was constrained to dwell apart when smitten with leprosy. Note: 2Ch_26:21. This was enjoined by the law of Moses; Note: Lev_13:14; Lev_13:46. but the custom probably did not originate with that law, which seems to have sanctioned and regulated an earlier usage, and to have had the tendency to mitigate the severities of previous usages, if we may judge of the much more rigid treatment of lepers in heathen countries at the present day, than was possible under the law of Moses. See, for instance, Mr. Malcolm’s account of the condition of lepers in Burmah: “Leprosy, in several forms, is seen at the great cities, where its victims collect in a separate quarter, and live chiefly by begging—the only beggars in the country. The general form is that which attacks the smaller joints. I saw many who had lost all their fingers and toes, and some both hands and feet. In some cases the nose also disappears. It does not seem much to shorten life, and is not very painful, except in its first stages. Those with whom I conversed, declared they had not felt any pain for years. In many cases it ceases to increase after a time; the stumps of the limbs heal, and the disease is in fact cured. I could not hear of any effectual remedy—it seems to stop of itself. It can scarcely be considered contagious, although instances are sometimes given to prove it so. Persons suffering from it, are by law separated entirely from other society; but their families generally retire with there, mingling and cohabiting for life. The majority of the children are sound and healthy, but it is said frequently to reappear in the second or third generation. Lepers, and those who consort with them, are obliged to wear a peculiar and conspicuous hat, made like a shallow conical basket. The children; whether leprous or not, are allowed to intermarry only with their own class.”

The chief interest in the above passage lies in this, that it enables us to discover the object and motive of the minute regulations respecting leprosy contained in the thirteenth and fourteenth chapters of Leviticus. They are all framed upon the sacred principle, that none but such as were actually subject to a disease supposed to be contagious, should be placed under the disabilities and exclusion which it involved; and that, for the benefit of society, none who really suffered under the malady should be allowed unrestricted intercourse with their fellow-citizens. This discrimination could only proceed upon a clear apprehension of the signs of complete recovery, and these signs are accordingly pointed out in the chapters to which we have referred, with remarkable precision and distinctness. The want of some such rules as were by the Divine beneficence, imparted to the Hebrew people, would among them, as in Burmah, have had the effect of excluding whole generations of men from the free intercourse of life, on account of a disease which may at one time have affected an ancestor; and of preventing those who, from the impulse of natural affection, might place themselves in communication with a diseased relative, from evermore returning to the society of unafflicted men, although they may never, in their own persons, have known the leprous taint. How small, in comparison, would then have been the benefit conferred by our Lord upon the lepers whom he cured! It would, indeed, have relieved them from the disease, but he could not, by that act, also have restored there to their place in the commonwealth, or have enabled them henceforth to walk the highways and the streets with freedom, or to mingle with glad hearts with the multitudes that kept holiday in the courts of the Lord’s house.