"We know—things that we cannot say;
We soar—where we could never map our flight;
We see—flashes and colorings too quick and bright
For any hand to paint. We hear—
Strange, far-off mental music, all too sweet,
Too great for any earthly instrument;
Gone, if we strive to bring it near."
F. R. Havergal.
If the days of David and Solomon may be compared to spring and summer in the history of the kingdom of Israel, it was late autumn when our story opens. The influence of the spiritual revival under Hezekiah and Isaiah, which had for a brief interval arrested the process of decline, had spent itself; and not even the reforms of the good King Josiah, which affected rather the surface than the heart of the people, could avail to avert inevitable judgment.
The northern tribes were captive on the plains of Mesopotamia, whence, in the dawn of history, their race had sprung. And Judah, unwarned by the fate of her sister Israel, was rapidly pursuing the same path, to be presently involved in a similar catastrophe. King and court, princes and people, prophets and priests, were infected with the abominable vices for committing which the Canaanites had been expelled from the Promised Land centuries before.
Every high hill had its thick grove of green trees, within whose shadow the idolatrous rites and abominable license of nature-worship were freely practiced. The face of the country was thickly covered with temples erected for the worship of Baal and Astarte, and all the host of heaven, and with lewd idols. In the cities, the black-robed chemarim, the priests of these unhallowed practices, flitted to and fro in strange contrast to the white-stoled priests of Jehovah. The people were taught to consider vice as part of their religion, and to frequent houses dedicated to impurity. All kinds of evil throve unchecked. The poor were plundered, the innocent falsely accused; wicked men lay in wait to catch men; theft and murder, adultery and idolatry, like spores of corruption, filled the fetid air and flourished on the tainted soil (2:20,27,34; 5:7,8,26; 9:2).
But it was in Jerusalem that these evils came to a head. In the streets of the Holy City the children were taught to gather wood, while the fathers kindled the fire, and the women kneaded dough to make cakes for Astarte, "the queen of heaven," and to pour out drink-offerings unto other gods. The Temple, with so many sacred associations, was the headquarters of Baal-worship; its courts were desecrated by monstrous images and symbols, and its precincts were the abode of infamous men and women. It seemed as though the king of Sodom had dispossessed Melchizedek in his ancient home. Below the Temple battlements, deep down in the Valley of Hinnom, scenes were constantly witnessed that recalled the darkest cruelties of heathendom. There was the high place of Tophet, which derived its name from the clamor of the drums that drowned the cries of the babes flung into the fires. It was an awful combination. "The Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord!" was the cry of the heartless formalist, while below the sacred shrine such scenes of devilry were rife. Ah me! would that it had been the last time in the world's history when the profession of true religion had been accompanied by the license of vice and the service of the devil!
In such a Sodom God's voice must be heard. The Judge of all the earth must warn the ungodly of a certain retribution, only to be averted by swift repentance. The Good Shepherd must seek his wayward sheep. Better believe that there is no God than think that he could be speechless in the presence of sins that frustrated his election and long education of Israel and threatened to terminate its very existence as a people.
Yet if God speak, it must be through the yielded lips of man. For if his voice struck the ear of sinful man directly, it would either paralyze him with dread, or seem indistinct, like the mutterings of thunder. Therefore in every age the Divine Spirit has gone through the world seeking for the prepared lip of elect souls through which to utter himself. He seeks such to-day. Men are still the vehicles of his communications to men. To us, as to Ezekiel, the Divine Spirit says, "Son of man, thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me."
In the call of Jeremiah we may discover the sort of man whom God chooses as the medium for his speech. And our discovery will greatly startle us. We shall find the heavenly treasure in a simple earthen vessel; not in the metropolis, but in the poor village of Anathoth, three miles to the north; not in an elder, but in a youth; not among the high and noble, but in the family of an undistinguished priest; not in a man mighty as Elijah, eloquent as Isaiah, or seraphic as Ezekiel; but in one who was timid and shrinking, conscious of his helplessness, yearning for a sympathy and love he was never to know. Such was the chosen organ through which the word of the Lord came to that corrupt and degenerate age.
It is not to be expected that a superficial gaze will discern the special qualifications that attracted the divine choice to Jeremiah. But that is no wonder. The instruments of the divine purpose in all ages have not been such as man would have selected. God has always chosen "the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, yea, and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God." Your family may be poor in Manasseh, and yourself the least in your father's house—nothing more than a cake of barley-bread; yet if God lay hold of you he will work a wonderful deliverance. But there were several reasons why Jeremiah might have been passed over:
He was young. How young we do not know; but young enough for him to start back at the divine proposal, with the cry, "Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child." Without doubt, as a boy he had enjoyed peculiar advantages. He came of a priestly family; his father, Hilkiah, may have been the high priest who, in the discharge of his sacred office in the Temple, discovered the manuscript roll which proved to be a copy of the Book of the Law and led to the reformation under Josiah. His uncle, Shallum, was the husband of Huldah, the prophetess, in whom the fire of the old Hebrew faith was burning brightly, even in those days of almost universal degeneracy. Shaphan, Baruch, and Hanameel were probably the companions of his youth, and afterward formed a little band who nourished the noblest traditions of the national life. Still, Jeremiah was but as a child.
God has often selected the young for posts of eminent service: Samuel and Timothy, Joseph and David, Daniel and Jeremiah; Calvin, who wrote his "Institutes" before he was twenty-four; and Wesley, who was only twenty-five when he inaugurated the great system of Methodism. In every age of the Church young eyes have eagerly scanned this paragraph, and have dared to cherish the hope that since youth did not disqualify Jeremiah, so it would not render them unfit for the special service of God. The only thing to. be sure of is that God has really called you; and this can only be ascertained after very careful consideration. There is, first, the consciousness of a strong inward impulse, which is most present in the holiest hours, but which is never far away, and often surges up pure and strong in the soul. There is, next, a certain concurrence of Providence, by which other doors seem closed, and that opened which conducts to the desired goal. Besides these there is a natural adaptation, a consensus of opinion among friends and advisers, and the constant voice of the Spirit through the Word.
He was naturally timid and sensitive. By nature he seemed cast in too delicate a mold to be able to combat the dangers and difficulties of his time. He reminds us of a denizen of the sea, accustomed to live within its shell, but suddenly deprived of its strong incasement, and thrown without covering on the sharp edges of the rocks. The bitter complaint of his after-life was that his mother had brought him into a world of strife and contention. And it was in allusion to the natural shrinking of his disposition that Jehovah promised to make him a "defenced city, and an iron pillar, and brazen walls against the whole land."
Many are molded upon this type. They have the sensitiveness of a girl, and the nervous organism of a gazelle. They love the shallows, with their carpet of silver sand, rather than the strong billows that test a man's endurance. For them it is enough to run with footmen; they have no desire to contend with horses. They love the land of peace in which they are secure, and have no heart for the swelling of Jordan. Yet such, like Jeremiah, may play an heroic part on the world's stage, if only they will let God lay down the iron of his might along the lines of their natural weakness. His strength is only made perfect in weakness. It is to those who have no might that he increaseth strength. Happy is the soul that can look up from its utter helplessness and say with Jeremiah, "O Lord, my strength" in the day of affliction; "or with Micah, in yet earlier times, "Truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the Lord, and of judgment, and of might, to declare unto Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin."
He specially shrank from the burden he was summoned to bear. His chosen theme would have been God's mercy—the boundlessness of his compassion, the tenderness of his pity. In the earlier chapters, when pleading with the people to return to God, there is a tenderness in his voice and a pathos in his speech, which prove how thoroughly his heart was in this part of his work. Some of his choicest allusions to natural scenes are intended to set forth the love of God to backsliding and penitent souls. God's mercy is like "a fountain of living waters," as contrasted to the brackish contents of the rock-hewn cisterns; or like the ocean waves lapping on the bank of soft sand they may not pass; or like a husband's great love, which cannot forget the day of espousal amid the unfaithfulness which has ruined the peace of his home.
But to be charged with a message of judgment; to announce the woful day; to oppose every suggestion of heroic resistance; to charge home on the prophetic and the priestly orders, to each of which he belonged, and the anger of each of which he incurred, the crimes by which they were disgraced—this was the commission that was furthest from his choice. "As for me," he cried, "I have not hastened from being a shepherd after thee: neither have I desired the woful day; thou knowest" (17:16).
He was conscious of his deficiency in speech. Like Moses he could say, "O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant; but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue." Like Isaiah he might cry, "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." Like the Apostle Paul he could affirm, "My speech and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom." "Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child."
The best speakers for God are frequently they who are least gifted with human eloquence; for if that be richly present—the mighty power of moving men—there is an imminent peril of relying on it and attributing the results to its magnetic spell. God cannot give his glory to another. He may not share his praise with man. He dare not expose his servants to the temptation of sacrificing to their own net or trusting their own ability. And so he often chooses uneloquent lips, and touches them with his finger, and leaves his words trembling there, the meet vehicles of his thoughts that burn on the altar of the soul. Of him, and through him, and to him must be all things, that the glory may be his forever.
Do not then despair because of these apparent disqualifications. None of them will shut out from thee the accents of the voice of God. Notwithstanding all, the word of the Lord shall come to thee; not for thy sake alone, but for those to whom thou shalt be sent. The one thing that God demands of thee is absolute consecration to his purpose, and willingness to go on any errand on which he may send thee. If these are thine all else will be given thee. He will hush thine alarm—"Be not afraid!" He will assure thee of his presence—"I am with thee to deliver thee." He will equip thee—"Then the Lord put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lord said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth." How the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah we cannot tell; whether audibly as to Samuel, or in the deep chambers of his soul. But when it came he knew it. And we shall know it. Oh for the circumcised ear and the loyal, obedient heart!