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168

CHAPTER X

THE CALL TO PRAYER

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.

169On 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 asserting170 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.171 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 state.

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 a172 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.

173In 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 a174 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."159159   Psalm vi. 6. 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 on175 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 melancholia.

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 the176 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."160160   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 possible.

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 heart177 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,178 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 have179 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.


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