Great Texts of the Bible
The Call of Life
Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them!—Jeremiah 9:2.
Jeremiah is the most human of all the prophets. He takes us into the secrets of his inner life, and we are made to know his misgivings and questionings. He had to be a prophet of God in the saddest and darkest day. It fell to him to speak for God when Jerusalem was hastening to its doom. His ministry is as the bright evening sun, which amid the gathering darkness sheds a glory over Judah, as it sinks into the night. We cannot imagine a situation more pathetic and painful. He has to watch the lingering agony of his exhausted land, to tend it during the alternate fits of despair and futile hope which precede the end. He is as the minister who has to accompany the condemned criminal to the scaffold, and who knows that the criminal is his own brother, flesh of his flesh. His heart is at war with his duty. He is in the cruellest dilemma. He would give all he has to make Judah happy and Jerusalem prosperous, and yet he has to declare their inevitable fate. How thankful he would be if he had never known the truth and if it had not been his to speak it. He is full of pity for the miseries of the people and the unhappy fate of his beloved fatherland, and yet he foresees the end and must declare it; and, truest patriot who ever lived though he be, he must bear the stigma of a traitor to his country for the sake of God and of truth.
No wonder that in all the fellowship of the prophets Jeremiah is by far the most unwilling and reluctant. Other prophets, like Isaiah, with his “Here am I—send me,” stand boldly forward, exulting in their gifts; but Jeremiah is always shrinking, protesting, craving leave to retire. Unassisted by circumstance, by nature timid, easily wearied and impatient, distrustful of his own gifts, he was kept to his great career solely and wholly by the sense that God had called him and predestined him. And that sense was so generally one of unmixed labour and pain that he is almost constantly found praying to be released from it. If Isaiahs watchword was: “Here am I—send me,” Jeremiahs might have been, “I would be anywhere else but here—let me go.” It was out of this besetting mood that the cry arose: “Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men!”
Let us look, first, at the prophets wish to escape from lifes stern demands; and, secondly, at the obligation to persevere in the path of duty.
The Wish to Escape
1. “Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men; that I might leave my people, and go from them!” That is not a prayer for solitude. It is some wayside caravanserai or hotel that Jeremiah longs for; and there he would have been far less alone than in his unshared home at Jerusalem. No, it is not a prayer for solitude, but a prayer to be set where a man can enjoy all the interest of life without having any of its responsibility; where all men are wayfarers and come and go, like the river past the bank on which you lie the long summer afternoon, and rouse your pity and help you to muse and perhaps to sing, but never touch your conscience; where you may be an artist or a poet, or only a good fellow, but cannot possibly be required to be a prophet. It was so terrible to have to look below the surface of life, to know people long enough both to judge them with a keener conscience than themselves and to love them with a breaking heart. Oh, to have no other work in life than to watch the street from the balcony window, than to feel the interest and glitter of life, and to achieve your duty towards your fellows by a kindliness and a courtesy that are never put to the strain of prolonged acquaintance!
The trade-routes had such places dotted along their course, where travellers and traders could put up for the night. The caravanserai was often a busy place, for all its cheerless furnishing; there would be men coming and going, hurrying on their pleasure or their business, merchants, court-officials, or ordinary travellers, full of news and alive with interests of every kind. There, thought Jeremiah, I could feel at home; I could content myself with letting things go unchallenged. He wanted evidently to be no more than a looker-on at life. He was tired, not so much of human beings as of responsibility for any of them. Out on the steppes, in a khan, he could still keep in touch with some currents of existence, and yet be no more than a cool, indifferent spectator.
Thoreau, that singular American who has written some beautiful essays, who went and lived in the woods, says that he chose so to spend his days, “on the promenade deck of the world, an outside passenger, where I have freedom in my thought and in my soul am free.”1 [Note: A. Ramsay, Studies in Jeremiah, 61.]
Pythagoras was once asked contemptuously by a Greek tyrant who he was and what was his particular business in the world. The philosopher replied that at the Olympic games some people came to try for the prizes, some to dispose of their merchandise, some to enjoy themselves and meet their friends, and some to look on. “I,” said Pythagoras, “am one of those who come to look on at life.” Bacon, in telling the story, adds: “But men must know that in this theatre of mans life it is reserved only for God and angels to be lookers-on.”2 [Note: J. Moffatt, Reasons and Reasons, 45.]
2. What moved Jeremiah to harbour this wish?
(1) He tells us himself that it was because he was so out of touch with the people, and because they had, as by a national apostasy, departed from God. He felt often as if he alone stood for God amid a faithless generation. “Run ye to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, and see now, and know, and seek in the broad places thereof, if you can find a man, if there be any that doeth justly, that seeketh truth.” And again he says, “From the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.” It was a terrible isolation in which he stood: in the crowded market-place this man was as much alone as in the widest solitudes. One faithful disciple we know he had, and a few there must have been who listened to his voice; but these were so few and far between, and they were so little in evidence, that they did not affect the universal antipathy with which he was regarded. None shared his ideals; none offered to God the worship of righteousness.
There are moments and moods when even a strong nature will feel tempted to escape, or to wish to escape, from the pressure of responsibility into a position where it would only be necessary to look on. Such was Jeremiahs case at this period of his career. He felt disappointed and disquieted with his age. He was at that critical phase of life when the first flush of enthusiasm, which throws men into eager contact with their fellows, has been succeeded by a profound sense of the corruption and self-will and greed which sometimes thwart an enterprise of religious or national reform. He had failed to carry the people with him; he was unpopular; and he was disheartened. At one moment he was ready to weep for his land. “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.” That is the anguish of a true patriot over evils which are being allowed to eat away the heart of a nation, over the rampant selfishness which forgets the rights and claims of God or of ones fellow-men, over the indifference of people to human pain and to Divine appeals.
When a preacher has to say, “Who hath received our report?” a true mans heart knows its own bitterness. The hopes of his day of ordination and the meagre results attained by all his labours go not well together.
In the glory of youth the young man went,
His heart with pride was stirred.
They should yield, he cried, to the message sent
And force of the burning word.
The long years passed, and a wearied man
Crept back to the old home door;
I have spoken my word and none has heard,
And the great world rolls as before.1 [Note: A. Ramsay, Studies in Jeremiah , 35.]
(2) He had none of the ordinary solaces by which such loneliness is relieved. He had neither wife nor child; he had not the interest of any occupation outside of his prophetic career; he was shut off from mingling in the social life of the people. Regretfully he tells us that he was not permitted to rejoice with the joyful or to sorrow with the sorrowful. What, then, is left to this lonely man? Is not this a moment of general dissolution and shipwreck, when the terrible cry may be raised, “Let each man look to himself; let him save himself who can”? The State was being broken up: monarchy, nation, ritual, temple were all being thrown into the whirlpool of ruin. The individual was being left to his own resources; the best that could be hoped was that men might escape with their lives.
We live in groups, in societies; but these, after all, touch only upon our upper levels. Rarely do they reach the realm where we dwell. We live in crowded cities, but you can be lonelier in Fleet Street than in the centre of Sahara. Nature introduces us, at different stages of our career, to successive phases and varieties of loneliness. With many of us she begins early. Is there an acuter experience than that of the boy, away from the home he has never before left, on his first night at school? To many a sensitive soul it has been the first night in hell. He will have many more nights there—to find what an excellent place hell is as a school of culture. Later on, he will meet his other lonelinesses. The higher his nature the more acute they will be. Think of the solitude of the man of genius; of the leader, the teacher in advance of his age! His followers have got a living personality in front of them; the sight of him warms their hearts, stirs their enthusiasm. But what has he in front of him—Luther on his way to Worms, Jesus treading the road to Jerusalem? No visible leader for them; nothing for them but the invisible! Who is there to comprehend them, who to share their inmost thought? Their cry is that of Confucius of old: “Alas! there is no one that knows me, … but there is Heaven—that knows me.” Solitude is the lot of all the teachers, of all the originals. Says Newman in one of his letters: “God intends me to be lonely. He has so framed my mind that I am in a great measure beyond the sympathies of other people, and thrown upon Himself.” There he speaks for all who have trodden the higher pathways.1 [Note: J. Brierley, Religion and To-Day, 153.]
3. We can all understand why such a wish, with all the power of an enchantment, should arise in this mans heart, for it has had a place in our own. Without a tithe of his reasons and excuse, there can be few of us who have not felt the impulse to a self-regarding life. Why should we not limit our interests to our own concerns? What hinders that we look only to our own ease and comfort and personal salvation? Kingdom of God, Church of Jesus Christ, nation, city, condition of the people, cause of freedom and righteousness—all this that stands for what is beyond the individual and the selfish—why should we have a care for such things? “Oh that I had in the wilderness a lodging place of wayfaring men!”
(1) We yearn for an escape from the responsibilities of life—not “all the weary weight of this unintelligible world,” but just the burdens that lie at our own door. For as life advances—if it is being well lived—responsibilities are bound to gather. Business increases, influence extends, the life of the home is larger and fuller and deeper. In hours of high courage, too, and when the heart is strong, men enter on the public service of their city, and that weight must be carried through many a thankless day. So again is the prophets mood begotten. Men long for release—to lay the burden down. They think how supremely happy life would be without the black care that sits behind the horseman. That thought was not a stranger to Jeremiah.
(2) We long to escape from monotony. When day after day men rise to the same task, when morning by morning—spring, summer, autumn, winter—the hands have to take up the same weary drudgery, then sooner or later comes the rebellious hour when the heart craves passionately for escape. That hour comes sometimes through the reading of books which bring home to us the rich and varied action of humanity; sometimes when other lives that seem so unrestrained are brought into bitter contrast with our own; and sometimes when the first signs of spring have come, when the awakening earth woos us to liberty, when the warmth of the sun and the breath of the wind are on us. In such ways the mood of rebellion is begotten. We fret and chafe at the dulness of our days. The dreary monotony of daily work grows odious. There surges within us the longing for release. That very longing surged in the noble heart of Jeremiah.
(3) There are hours when we wish to escape from ourselves. We begin by thinking that if we could change our lot we should be very happy and contented. We imagine that if we could only get away into new scenes, it would be infinitely restful. But as we grow older, and perhaps wiser, we discover that, go where we will, we carry our own hearts with us, and that what we really craved for—although we did not know it—was not a change of scene but change of self. We come to know ourselves so well as life proceeds—our weaknesses, our limitations. There are men who have everything to make them happy, yet somehow they have not the genius to be happy. Hence springs the strange rebellion of unrest; the wish for the wings of the morning that we may fly away, not merely from the burden of our lot, but from the heavier burden of ourselves.
Men often blind themselves to facts, and weave theories to make the burden lighter. They speak of sin and death and poverty and care in a way that is irreconcilable with facts. It is not truth they are seeking, it is ease. It is not actuality, it is relief. They want the world to be golden, and they make it so, though it is full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despair—and remember, there is a cowardice of mind, no less than a cowardice upon the field of battle. When men turn away from the straight gaze of Christ, and when they run to philosophies and theories which have no cry in them, no cross, no blood—only harmonious and flattering music—that is another betrayal of the strange yet quenchless longing to escape.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Unlighted Lustre, 109.]
I suppose that the most exalted and least “casual” of worldly joys consists in the adequate recognition by the world of high achievement by ourselves. Yet it is notorious that—
It is by God decreed
Fame shall not satisfy the highest need.
It has been my lot to know not a few of the famous men of our generation, and I have always observed that this is profoundly true. Like all other “moral” satisfactions, this soon palls by custom, and as soon as one end of distinction is reached another is pined for. There is no finality to rest in, while disease and death are always standing in the background. Custom may even blind men to their misery so far as not to make them realize what is wanting; yet the want is there. I take it, then, as unquestionably true that this whole negative side of the subject proves a vacuum in the soul of man which nothing can fill save faith in God.2 [Note: G. J. Romanes, Thoughts on Religion.]
In the ancient orderly places, with a blank and orderly mind,
We sit in our green walled gardens and our corn and oil increase;
Sunset nor dawn can wake us, for the face of the heavens is kind;
We light our taper at even and call our comfort peace.
Peaceful our clear horizon, calm as our sheltered days
Are the lilied meadows we dwell in, the decent highways we tread.
Duly we make our offerings, but we know not the God we praise,
For He is the God of the living, but we, His children, are dead.
I will arise and get me beyond this country of dreams,
Where all is ancient and ordered and hoar with the frost of years,
To the land where loftier mountains cradle their wilder streams,
And the fruitful earth is blessed with more bountiful smiles and tears,—
There in the home of the lightnings, where the fear of the Lord is set free,
Where the thunderous midnights fade to the turquoise magic of morn,
The days of man are a vapour, blown from a shoreless sea,
A little cloud before sunrise, a cry in the void forlorn—
I am weary of men and cities and the service of little things,
Where the flamelike glories of life are shrunk to a candles ray.
Smite me, my God, with Thy presence, blind my eyes with Thy wings,
In the heart of Thy virgin earth show me Thy secret way!1 [Note: John Buchan, A Lodge in the Wilderness.]
The Obligation to Persevere
1. The day came when Jeremiah could gratify his wish. After Jerusalem was taken and everything was lost, a home in Babylon was offered to him. He could have had dignified ease. He had friends at court; the Babylonian general was ready to secure for him all his heart could wish. He could enjoy well-earned repose. Now at the end of the long day it was fitting that rest be appointed to the labourer. Twenty years before, the longing had been strong within him for just such an opportunity as this, and he had resisted it; but now at the long last, the chance has come his way. Will he put it past him, or will he eagerly seize it? He is dragged along as a prisoner, and there, while the manacles are struck off his wrists, this tempting future is opened up before him. And yet the issue is not for a moment in doubt. He cannot even now find it in his heart to leave his people. The bald narrative cannot hide from us the heroism and renunciation involved in the act. “Then went Jeremiah unto Gedaliah the son of Ahikam to Mizpah, and dwelt with him among the people that were left in the land.” In a passion of despair he broke out with the cry, “Oh that I might leave my people!” But he did not leave them. He was too noble and generous at heart to become a mere looker-on. For this craving is a moral weakness. The heroic natures in every age are not seated on the balcony; they are down among their fellow-men, bearing the strain and stress of their position, identifying themselves willingly with the people among whom it may have pleased God to cast their lot, and brave enough to meet
The fierce confederate storm
Of sorrow, barricaded evermore
Within the walls of cities.
There is a little childrens hymn which goes like this—
Had I the wings of a dove I would fly,
Far, far away, far away.
If that is the use to which we would put our wings, it is an infinite mercy that they have never grown. We are here as stewards, and a steward must be faithful. We are called to be soldiers, not to be deserters. We are set here by an ordering God not to fly away, but to hold on and fight on and trust on to the end.1 [Note: G. H. Morrison, The Unlighted Lustre, 111.]
2. What was it that moored and anchored Jeremiah to his hard life in Jerusalem? Why could he not tear himself away from it? The whole secret is out when you emphasize these words “that I might leave my people!” There rested on his spirit a sense of his oneness with his people far more stringent than ever prophet had felt before, a sympathy with their sufferings which breaks forth in some of the most pathetic cries in all literature, a consciousness of their sins which makes him feel their guilt to the depths of his being.
God had not sent him to earth to be as separate from the life of man as a musing man is from the river flowing past his feet. God had sent him, not to watch life from a balcony, but leaping down to share it: not to live in an inn, where a man is not even responsible for the housekeeping, but has only his way to pay. God had begotten Jeremiah into a nation. He had made him a citizen. He had given him a patriots lot, with the patriots conscience and heart. Jeremiah had been forced to grow familiar with men, to find them out by living on their own level, to see habit slowly grow and falsehood surely betray itself, and fathers evil descend to children, and policies reap their fruits, and systems get tried by events, and, moreover, death come down. This was his destiny through all the mingled sin and pity of the linked generations—to feel at once his judgment upon men grow keener and more hopeless and his love for them deeper and more yearning.
Under the power of such a union Jeremiah lived all his days. He acknowledged it; he sought more and more to feel the force of it. He was an Israelite indeed. Israel in him struggled against its doom. The dumb, inarticulate mind of the people found a voice in him. He wept over them; he palliated their offences; he confessed for them their sins. He overflowed with human sympathies; he had a very rich and tender heart, and with all the wealth of love with which it was dowered he loved the people. These dull, impenitent people felt nothing; their sins, which drew hot, scalding tears from Jeremiah, did not cost them a thought; but the spiritual distress, the keener conscience, the agony of estrangement from God, the knowledge of His judgment upon sin—all this was in Jeremiah heavy as lead, and he bore it for the people.
Sir Leslie Stephen contributes some interesting recollections as well as a sympathetic appreciation of his friend Lowell, whom he knew intimately for many years. “Lowells patriotism,” he writes, “was not the belief that the country which had produced him must be the first in the world; or that the opinions which he happened to have imbibed in his childhood must be obviously true to every one but fools; or a simple disposition to brag, engendered out of sheer personal vanity by a thirst for popularity. It was clearly the passion which is developed in a pure and noble nature with strong domestic affections; which loves all that is best in the little circle of home and early surroundings; which recognizes spontaneously in later years the higher elements of the national life; and which, if it lead to some erroneous beliefs, never learns to overlook or to estimate too lightly the weaker and baser tendencies of a people. Most faiths, I fear, are favourable to some illusions, and I will not suggest that Lowell had none about his countrymen. But such illusions are at worst the infirmity of a noble mind, and Lowells ardent belief in his nation was, to an outsider, a revelation of greatness both in the object of his affections and in the man who could feel them.”1 [Note: Letters of James Russell Lowell, ii. 497.]
It has been said that the Bible, especially the New Testament, does not recognize patriotism. M. Renan says that Christianity kills patriotism. “Religion,” he says, “is the organization of self-devotement and renunciation—the State-patriotism is the organization of egoism.”
One answer to this is by reference to facts. Have the most religious nations and times been the most unpatriotic? Or the most religious men? On the contrary, the grandest national movements have had the inspiration of religion. The Commonwealth and Puritans in England, the Covenanters in Scotland, Cromwell, Milton, Rutherfurd, James Guthrie, had an intense national feeling. The Cavaliers, with Church and King, associated the two. Abraham Lincoln was a religious man, and there was a deep feeling of religion in Stonewall Jackson. How it ranged them on opposite sides is another question; but that the sentiments can unite, and generally have done so, is written in all history.
It is quite true that religion gives a man something he cannot sacrifice to what some call patriotism—meaning by patriotism national pride or material advantage. But this is not patriotism. Unless a man loves something higher than these he cannot love his country wisely and worthily. He must do for his country what he would do for himself, love truth and justice most, seeking these for his country and himself at the cost of lower and passing interests.2 [Note: John Ker, Thoughts for Heart and Life, 115.]
3. This heroic identification of himself with the interests of a faulty people marks out Jeremiah as a prototype of Jesus. When our Lord was on earth, some of His contemporaries were reminded of Jeremiah. “Whom do men say that I am? Some say, Jeremiah.” Why, we are not told. But for us Jesus resembles Jeremiah in this at least, that He did identify Himself, though in a far deeper degree, with the interests of a self-willed and rebellious people. He, too, shared their reproach and put up with their misunderstandings and ingratitude, in order to carry out Gods purpose. He, too, had to meet and master the temptation to decline further association with their unfaithfulness. “O faithless and perverse generation,” He once broke out, “how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you?” There were moments when the incredulity and obstinacy of men were almost too much even for His great patience. But He triumphed over all such inclinations to disavow responsibility for His race.
When Jesus set His face steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, He knew that He was going to be betrayed and crucified there, and He was speaking to His disciples about it all. And Peter said to Him, “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” And Jesus, in a flash, turned upon Peter—“Get thee behind me, Satan.” Why that intensity, that burning word as if from a heart stirred to its very centre? Why, but because Christ had been tempted like Jeremiah to throw the burden down and flee away: and the intensity and strength of the rebuke, which broke like a sea wave on Simons heart tells how the temptation to escape was crushed.
But thou wouldst not alone
Be saved, my father! alone
Conquer and come to thy goal,
Therefore to thee it was given
Many to save with thyself;
And, at the end of thy day,
O faithful shepherd! to come,
Bringing thy sheep in thy hand.
The Call of Life
Gillies (J. R.), Jeremiah: The Man and his Message, 104.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 84.
Moffatt (J.), Reasons and Reasons, 45.
Morrison (G. H.), The Unlighted Lustre, 102.
Ramsay (A.), Studies in Jeremiah , 47.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, xxi, (1898), No. 1.
Williams (I.), The Characters of the Old Testament, 255.
British Weekly Pulpit, ii. 309 (G. A. Smith).
Christian World Pulpit, xxxvi. 273 (G. A. Smith); lxxxi. 301 (J. L. Munro).
Marylebone Presbyterian Church Pulpit, ii., No. 8 (G. C. Lorimer).