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iii. 1-21

Whether we regard it from a literary, a speculative, or a religious point of view, the third and central elegy cannot fail to strike us as by far the best of the five. The workmanship of this poem is most elaborate in conception and most finished in execution, the thought is most fresh and striking, and the spiritual tone most elevated, and, in the best sense of the word, evangelical. Like Tennyson, who is most poetic when he is most artistic, as in his lyrics, and like all the great sonneteers, the author of this exquisite Hebrew melody has not found his ideas to be cramped by the rigorous rules of composition. It would seem that to a master the elaborate regulations that fetter an inferior mind are no hindrances, but rather instruments fitted to his hand, and all the more serviceable for their exactness. Possibly the artistic refinement of form stimulates thought and rouses the poet to exert his best powers; or perhaps—and this is more probable—he selects the richer robe for the purpose of clothing his choicer conceptions. Here we have the acrostics worked up into triplets, so that they now appear at the beginning of every line, each letter occurring three times successively as an initial, and the whole poem181 falling into sixty-six verses or twenty-two triplets. Yet none of the other four poems have any approach to the wealth of thought or the uplifting inspiration that we meet with in this highly finished product of literary art.

This elegy differs from its sister poems in another respect. It is composed, for the most part, in the first person singular, the writer either speaking of his own experience or dramatically personating another sufferer. Who is this "man that hath seen affliction?" On the understanding that Jeremiah is the author of the whole book, it is commonly assumed that the prophet is here revealing his own feelings under the multitude of troubles with which he has been overwhelmed. But if, as we have seen, this hypothesis is, to say the least, extremely dubious, of course the assumption that has been based upon it loses its warranty. No doubt there is much in the touching picture of the afflicted person that agrees with what we know of the experience of the great prophet. And yet, when we look into it, we do not find anything of so specific a character as to settle us in the conclusion that the words could have been spoken by no one else. There is just the possibility that the poet is not describing himself at all; he may be representing somebody well known to his contemporaries—perhaps even Jeremiah, or just a typical character, in the manner of Browning's Dramatis Personæ.

While some mystery hangs over the personality of this man of sorrows the power and pathos of the poem are certainly heightened by the concentration of our attention upon one individual. Few persons are moved by general statements. Necessarily the comprehensive is all outline. It is by the supply of the particular182 that we fill up the details; and it is only when these details are present that we have a full-bodied picture. If an incident is typical it is illustrative of its kind. To know one such fact is to know all. Thus the science lecturer produces his specimen, and is satisfied to teach from it without adding a number of duplicates. The study of abstract reports is most important to those who are already interested in the subjects of these dreary documents; but it is useless as a means of exciting interest. Philanthropy must visit the office of the statistician if it would act with enlightened judgment, and not permit itself to become the victim of blind enthusiasm; but it was not born there, and the sympathy which is its parent can only be found among individual instances of distress.

In the present case the speaker who recounts his own misfortunes is more than a casual witness, more than a mere specimen picked out at random from the heap of misery accumulated in this age of national ruin. He is not simply a man who has seen affliction, one among many similar sufferers; he is the man, the well-known victim, one pre-eminent in distress even in the midst of a nation full of misery. Yet he is not isolated on a solitary peak of agony. As the supreme sufferer, he is also the representative sufferer. He is not selfishly absorbed in the morbid occupation of brooding over his private grievances. He has gathered into himself the vast and terrible woes of his people. Thus he foreshadows our Lord in His passion. We cannot but be struck with the aptness of much in this third elegy when it is read in the light of the last scenes of the gospel history. It would be a mistake to say that these outpourings from the heart of the Hebrew patriot were intended to convey a prophetic183 meaning with reference to another Sufferer in a far-distant future. Nevertheless the application of the poem to the Man of Sorrows is more than a case of literary illustration; for the idea of representative suffering which here emerges, and which becomes more definite in the picture of the servant of Jehovah in Isa. liii., only finds its full realisation and perfection in Jesus Christ. It is repeated, however, with more or less distinctness wherever the Christ spirit is revealed. Thus in a noble interpretation of St. Paul, the Apostle is represented as experiencing—

"Desperate tides of the whole world's anguish

Forced through the channel of a single heart."161161   St. Paul, by Frederick Myers.

The portrait of himself drawn by the author of this elegy is the more graphic by reason of the fact that the present is linked to the past. The striking commencement, "I am the man," etc., sets the speaker in imagination before our eyes. The addition "who has seen" (or rather, experienced) "affliction" connects him with his present sufferings. The unfathomable mystery of personal identity here confronts us. This is more than memory, more than the lingering scar of a previous experience; it is, in a sense, the continuance of that experience, its ghostly presence still haunting the soul that once knew it in the glow of life. Thus we are what we have thought and felt and done, and our present is the perpetuation of our past. The man who has seen affliction does not only keep the history of his distresses in the quiet chamber of memory. His own personality has slowly acquired a depth, a fulness, a ripeness that remove him far from the raw and superficial character he once was. We are silenced into184 awe before Job, Jeremiah, and Dante, because these men grew great by suffering. Is it not told even of our Lord Jesus Christ that He was made perfect by the things that He suffered?162162   Heb. v. 8, 9. Unhappily it cannot be said that every hero of tragedy climbs to perfection on the rugged steps of his terrible life-drama; some men are shattered by discipline which proves to be too severe for their strength. Christ rose to His highest glory by means of the cruelty of His enemies and the treason of one of His trusted disciples; but cruel wrongs drove Lear to madness, and a confidant's treachery made a murderer of Othello. Still all who pass through the ordeal come out other than they enter, and the change is always a growth in some direction, even though in many cases we must admit with sorrow that this is a downward direction.

It is to be observed that here in his self-portraiture—just as elsewhere when describing the calamities that have befallen his people—the elegist attributes the whole series of disastrous events to God. This characteristic of the Book of Lamentations throughout is nowhere more apparent than in the third chapter. So close is the thought of God to the mind of the writer, he does not even think it necessary to mention the Divine name. He introduces his pronouns without any explanation of their objects, saying "His wrath" and "He hath led me," and so on through the succeeding verses. This quiet assumption of a recognised reference of all that happens to one source, a source that is taken to be so well known that there is no occasion to name it, speaks volumes for the deep-seated faith of the writer. He is at the antipodes of the too185 common position of those people who habitually forget to mention the name of God because He is never in their thoughts. God is always in the thoughts of the elegist, and that is why He is not named. Like Brother Lawrence, this man has learnt to "practise the presence of God."

In amplifying the account of his sufferings, after giving a general description of himself as the man who has experienced affliction, and adding a line in which this experience is connected with its cause—the rod of the wrath of Him who is unnamed, though ever in mind—the stricken patriot proceeds to illustrate and enforce his appeal to sympathy by means of a series of vivid metaphors. This is the most crisp and pointed writing in the book. It hurries us on with a breathless rush of imagery, scene after scene flashing out in bewildering speed like the whirl of objects we look at from the windows of an express train.

Let us first glance at the successive pictures in this rapidly moving panorama of similes, and then at the general import and unit of the whole.

The afflicted man was under the Divine guidance; he was not the victim of blind self-will; it was not when straying from the path of right that he fell into this pit of misery. The strange thing is that God led him straight into it—led him into darkness, not into light as might have been expected with such a Guide.163163   iii. 2. The first image, then, is that of a traveller misled. The perception of the terrible truth that is here suggested prompts the writer at once to draw an inference as to the relation in which God stands to him, and the nature and character of the Divine treatment of him186 throughout. God, whom he has trusted implicitly, whom he has followed in the simplicity of ignorance, God proves to be his Opponent! He feels like one duped in the past, and at length undeceived as he makes the amazing discovery that his trusted Guide has been turning His hand against him repeatedly all the day of his woful wanderings.164164   iii. 3. For the moment he drops his metaphors, and reflects on the dreadful consequences of this fatal antagonism. His flesh and skin, his very body is wasted away; he is so crushed and shattered, it is as though God had broken his bones.165165   iii. 4. Now he can see that God has not only acted as an enemy in guiding him into the darkness; God's dealings have shewn more overt antagonism. The helpless sufferer is like a besieged city, and God, who is conducting the assault, has thrown up a wall round him. With that daring mixture of metaphors, or, to be more precise, with that freedom of sudden transition from the symbol to the subject symbolised which we often meet with in this Book, the poet calls the rampart with which he has been girdled "gall and travail,"166166   The Authorised Version has "travel," a mere variation in spelling. The word means painful labour, toil. for he has felt himself beset with bitter grief and weary toil.167167   iii. 4.

Then the scene changes. The victim of Divine wrath is a captive languishing in a dungeon, which is as dark as the abodes of the dead, as the dwellings of those who have been long dead.168168   iii. 6. The horror of this metaphor is intensified by the idea of the antiquity of Hades. How dismal is the thought of being plunged into a darkness that is already aged—a stagnant darkness,187 the atmosphere of those who long since lost the last rays of the light of his life! There the prisoner is bound by a heavy chain.169169   iii. 7. He cries for help; but he is shut down so low that his prayer cannot reach his Captor.170170   iii. 8.

Again we see him still hampered, though in altered circumstances. He appears as a traveller whose way is blocked, and that not by some accidental fall of rock, but of set purpose, for he finds the obstruction to be of carefully prepared masonry, "hewn stones."171171   iii. 9. Therefore he has to turn aside, so that his paths become crooked. Yet more terrible does the Divine enmity grow. When the pilgrim is thus forced to leave the highroad and make his way through the adjoining thickets his Adversary avails Himself of the cover to assume a new form, that of a lion or a bear lying in ambush.172172   iii. 10. The consequence is that the hapless man is torn as by the claws and fangs of beasts of prey.173173   iii. 11. But now these wild regions in which the wretched traveller is wandering at the peril of his life suggest the idea of the chase. The image of the savage animals is defective in this respect, that man is their superior in intelligence, though not in strength. But in the present case the victim is in every way inferior to his Pursuer. So God appears as the Huntsman, and the unhappy sufferer as the poor hunted game. The bow is bent, and the arrow directed straight for its mark.174174   iii. 12. Nay, arrow after arrow has already been let fly, and the dreadful Huntsman, too skilful ever to miss His mark, has been shooting "the sons of His quiver" into the very vitals of the object of His pursuit.175175   iii. 13.

188Here the poet breaks away from his imagery for a second time to tell us that he has become an object of derision to all his people, and the theme of their mocking songs.176176   iii. 14. This is a striking statement. It shews that the afflicted man is not simply one member of the smitten nation of Israel, sharing the common hardships of the race whose "badge is servitude." He not merely experiences exceptional sufferings. He meets with no sympathy from his fellow-countrymen. On the contrary, these people so far dissociate themselves from his case that they can find amusement in his misery. Thus, while even a misguided Don Quixote is a noble character in the rare chivalry of his soul, and while his very delusions are profoundly pathetic, many people can only find material for laughter in them, and pride themselves in their superior sanity for so doing, although the truth is, their conduct proves them to be incapable of understanding the lofty ideals that inspire the object of their empty derision; thus Jeremiah was mocked by his unthinking contemporaries, when, whether in error, as they supposed, or wisely, as the event shewed, he preached an apparently absurd policy; and thus a greater than Jeremiah, One as supreme in reasonableness as in goodness, was jeered at by men who thought Him at best a Utopian dreamer, because they were grovelling in earthly thoughts far out of reach of the spiritual world in which He moved.

Returning to imagery, the poet pictures himself as a hardly used guest at a feast. He is fed, crammed, sated; but his food is bitterness, the cup has been forced to his lips, and he has been made drunk—not with pleasant wine, however, but with wormwood.177177   iii. 15.189Gravel has been mixed with his bread, or perhaps the thought is that when he has asked for bread stones have been given him. He has been compelled to masticate this unnatural diet, so that his teeth have been broken by it. Even that result he ascribes to God, saying, "He hath broken my teeth."178178   iii. 16. It is difficult to think of the interference with personal liberty being carried farther than this. Here we reach the extremity of crushed misery.

Reviewing the whole course of his wretched sufferings from the climax of misery, the man who has seen all this affliction declares that God has cast him on from peace.179179   iii. 17. The Christian sufferer knows what a profound consolation there is in the possession of the peace of God, even when he is passing through the most acute agonies—a peace which can be maintained both amid the wildest tempests of external adversity and in the presence of the fiercest paroxysms of personal anguish. Is it not the acknowledged secret of the martyrs' serenity? Happily many an obscure sufferer has discovered it for himself, and found it better than any balm of Gilead. This most precious gift of heaven to suffering souls is denied to the man who here bewails his dismal fate. So too it was denied to Jesus in the garden, and again on the cross. It is possible that the dark day will come when it will be denied to one or another of His people. Then the experience of the moment will be terrible indeed. But it will be brief. An angel ministered to the Sufferer in Gethsemane. The joy of the resurrection followed swiftly on the agonies of Calvary. In the elegy we are now studying a burst of praise and glad confidence breaks190 out almost immediately after the lowest depths of misery have been sounded, shewing that, as Keats declares in an exquisite line—

"There is a budding morrow in midnight."

It is not surprising, however, that, for the time being, the exceeding blackness of the night keeps the hope of a new day quite out of sight. The elegist exclaims that he has lost the very idea of prosperity. Not only has his strength perished, his hope in God has perished also.180180   iii. 18. Happily God is far too good a Father to deal with His children according to the measure of their despair. He is found by those who are too despondent to seek Him, because He is always seeking His lost children, and not waiting for them to make the first move towards Him.

When we come to look at the series of pictures of affliction as a whole we shall notice that one general idea runs through them. This is that the victim is hindered, hampered, restrained. He is led into darkness, besieged, imprisoned, chained, driven out of his way, seized in ambuscade, hunted, even forced to eat unwelcome food. This must all point to a specific character of personal experience. The troubles of the sufferer have mainly assumed the form of a thwarting of his efforts. He has not been an indolent, weak, cowardly creature, succumbing at the first sign of opposition. To an active man with a strong will resistance is one of the greatest of troubles, although it will be accepted meekly, as a matter of course, by a person of servile habits. If the opposition comes from God, may it not be that the severity of the trouble is191 just caused by the obstinacy of self-will? Certainly it does not appear to be so here; but then we must remember the writer is stating his own case.

Two other characteristics of the whole passage may be mentioned. One is the persistence of the Divine antagonism. This is what makes the case look so hard. The pursuer seems to be ruthless; He will not let his victim alone for a moment. One device follows sharply on another. There is no escape. The second of these characteristics of the passage is a gradual aggravation in the severity of the trials. At first God is only represented as a guide who misleads; then He appears as a besieging enemy; later like a destroyer. And correspondingly the troubles of the sufferer grow in severity, till at last he is flung into the ashes, crushed and helpless.

All this is peculiarly painful reading to us with our Christian thoughts of God. It seems so utterly contrary to the character of our Father revealed in Jesus Christ. But then it is not a part of the Christian revelation, nor was it uttered by a man who had received the benefits of that highest teaching. That, however, is not a complete explanation. The dreadful thoughts about God that are here recorded are almost without parallel even in the Old Testament. How contrary they are to such an idea as that of the pitiful Father in Psalm ciii.! On the other hand, it should be remembered that if ever we have to make allowance for the personal equation we must be ready to do so most liberally when we are listening to the tale of his wrongs as this is recounted by the sufferer himself. The narrator may be perfectly honest and truthful, but it is not in human nature to be impartial under such circumstances. Even when, as in the present192 instance, we have reason to believe that the speaker is under the influence of a Divine inspiration, we have no right to conclude that this gift would enable him to take an all-round vision of truth. Still, can we deny that the elegist has presented to our minds but one facet of truth? If we do not accept it as intended for a complete picture of God, and if we confine it to an account of the Divine action under certain circumstances as this appears to one who is most painfully affected by it, without any assertion concerning the ultimate motives of God—and this is all we have any justification for doing—it may teach us important lessons which we are too ready to ignore in favour of less unpleasant notions. Finally it would be quite unfair to the elegist, and it would give us a totally false impression of his ideas, if we were to go no further than this. To understand him at all we must hear him out. The contrast between the first part of this poem and the second is startling in the extreme, and we must not forget that the two are set in the closest juxtaposition, for it is plain that the one is intended to balance the other. The harshness of the opening words could be permitted with the more daring, because a perfect corrective to any unsatisfactory inferences that might be drawn from it was about to be immediately supplied.

The triplet of verses 19 to 21 serves as a transition to the picture of the other side of the Divine action. It begins with prayer. Thus a new note is struck. The sufferer knows that God is not at heart his enemy. So he ventures to beseech the very Being concerning whose treatment of him he has been complaining so bitterly, to remember his affliction and the misery it has brought on him, the wormwood, the gall of his hard lot. Hope now dawns on him out of his own193 recollections. What are these? The Authorised Version would lead us to think that when he uses the expression, "This I recall to my mind,"181181   iii. 21. the poet is referring to the encouraging ideas of the verses that immediately follow in the next section. But it is not probable that the last line of a triplet would thus point forward to another part of the poem. It is more consonant with the method of the composition to take this phrase in connection with what precedes it in the same triplet, and a perfectly permissible change in the translation of the 20th verse gives good sense in that connection. We may read this:

"Thou (O God) wilt surely remember, for my soul is bowed down within me."

Thus the recollection that God too has a memory and that He will remember His suffering servant becomes the spring of a new hope.

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