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iii. 25-36

Having struck a rich vein, our author proceeds to work it with energy. Pursuing the ideas that flow out of the great truth of the endless goodness of God, and the immediate inference that He of whom so wonderful a character can be affirmed is Himself the soul's best possession, the poet enlarges upon their wider relations. He must adjust his views of the whole world to the new situation that is thus opening out before him. All things are new in the light of the splendid vision before which his gloomy meditations have vanished like a dream. He sees that he is not alone in enjoying the supreme blessedness of the Divine love. The revelation that has come to him is applicable to other men if they will but fulfil the conditions to which it is attached.

In the first place, it is necessary to perceive clearly what those conditions are on which the happy experience of God's unfailing mercies may be enjoyed by any man. The primary requisite is affirmed to be quiet waiting.188188   iii. 26. The passivity of this attitude is accentuated in a variety of expressions. It is difficult for us of the modern western world to appreciate such teaching.207 No doubt if it stood by itself it would be so one-sided as to be positively misleading. But this is no more than must be said of any of the best lessons of life. We require the balancing of separate truths in order to obtain truth, as we want the concurrence of different impulses to produce the resultant of a right direction of life. But in the present case the opposite end of the scale has been so much overweighted that we sorely need a very considerable addition on the side to which the elegist here leans. Carlyle's gospel of work—a most wholesome message as far as it went—fell on congenial Anglo-Saxon soil; and this and the like teaching of kindred minds has brought forth a rich harvest in the social activity of modern English life. The Church has learnt the duty of working—which is well. She does not appear so capable of attaining the blessedness of waiting. Our age is in no danger of the dreaminess of quietism. But we find it hard to cultivate what Wordsworth calls "wise passiveness." And yet in the heart of us we feel the lack of this spirit of quiet. Charles Lamb's essay on the "Quakers' Meeting" charms us, not only on account of its exquisite literary style, but also because it reflects a phase of life which we own to be most beautiful.

The waiting here recommended is more than simple passiveness, however, more than a bare negation of action. It is the very opposite of lethargy and torpor. Although it is quiet, it is not asleep. It is open-eyed, watchful, expectant. It has a definite object of anticipation, for it is a waiting for God and His salvation; and therefore it is hopeful. Nay, it has a certain activity of its own, for it seeks God. Still, this activity is inward and quiet; its immediate aim is not to get at some visible earthly end, however much this may208 be desired, nor to attain some inward personal experience, some stage in the soul's culture, such as peace, or purity, or power, although this may be the ultimate object of the present anxiety; primarily it seeks God—all else it leaves in His hands. Thus it is rather a change in the tone and direction of the soul's energies than a state of repose. It is the attitude of the watchman on his lonely tower—calm and still, but keen-eyed and alert, while down below in the crowded city some fret themselves with futile toil and others slumber in stupid indifference.

To this waiting for Him and definite seeking of Him God responds in some special manifestation of mercy. Although, as Jesus Christ tells us, our Father in heaven "maketh His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust,"189189   Matt. v. 45. the fact here distinctly implied, that the goodness of God is exceptionally enjoyed on the conditions now laid down, is also supported by our Lord's teaching in the exhortations, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you; for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened."190190   vii. 7, 8. St. James adds, "Ye have not because ye ask not."191191   James iv. 2. This, then, is the method of the Divine procedure. God expects His children to wait on Him as well as to wait for Him. We cannot consider such an expectation unreasonable. Of course it would be foolish to imagine God piquing Himself on His own dignity, so as to decline aid until He had been gratified by a due observance of homage. There is a deeper motive for the requirement. God's relations with men and women209 are personal and individual; and when they are most happy and helpful they always involve a certain reciprocity. It may not be necessary or even wise to demand definite things from God whenever we seek His assistance; for He knows what is good, while we often blunder and ask amiss. But the seeking here described is of a different character. It is not seeking things; it is seeking God. This is always good. The attitude of trust and expectancy that it necessitates is just that in which we are brought into a receptive state. It is not a question of God's willingness to help; He is always willing. But it cannot be fitting that He should act towards us when we are distrustful, indifferent, or rebellious, exactly as He would act if He were approached in submission and trustful expectation.

Quiet waiting, then, is the right and fitting condition for the reception of blessing from God. But the elegist holds more than this. In his estimation the state of mind he here commends is itself good for a man. It is certainly good in contrast with the unhappy alternatives—feeble fussiness, wearing anxiety, indolent negligence, or blank despair. It is good also as a positive condition of mind. He has reached a happy inward attainment who has cultivated the faculty of possessing his soul in patience. His eye is clear for visions of the unseen. To him the deep fountains of life are open. Truth is his, and peace and strength also. When we add to this calmness the distinct aim of seeking God we may see how the blessedness of the condition recommended is vastly enhanced. We are all insensibly moulded by our desires and aims. The expectant soul is transformed into the image of the hope it pursues. When its treasure is in heaven its210 heart is there also, and therefore its very nature becomes heavenly.

To his reflections on the blessedness of quiet waiting the elegist adds a very definite word about another experience, declaring that "it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth."192192   iii. 27. This interesting assertion seems to sound an autobiographical note, especially as the whole poem treats of the writer's personal experience. Some have inferred that the author must have been a young man at the time of writing. But if, as seems probable, he is calling to mind what he has himself passed through, this may be a recollection of a much earlier period of his life. Thus he would seem to be recognising, in the calm of subsequent reflection, what perhaps he may have been far from admitting while bearing the burdens, that the labours and hardships of his youth prove to have been for his own advantage. This truth is often perceived in the meditations of mature life, although it is not so easily acknowledged in the hours of strain and stress.

It is impossible to say what particular yoke the writer is thinking about. The persecutions inflicted on Jeremiah have been cited in illustration of this passage; and although we may not be able to ascribe the poem to the great prophet, his toils and troubles will serve as instances of the truth of the words of the anonymous writer, for undoubtedly his sympathies were quickened while his strength was ripened by what he endured. If we will have a definite meaning the yoke may stand for one of three things—for instruction, for labour, or for trouble. The sentence is true of either of these forms of yoke. We are not211 likely to dispute the advantages of youthful education over that which is delayed till adult age; but even if the acquisition of knowledge is here suggested, we cannot suppose it to be book knowledge, it must be that got in the school of life. Thus we are brought to the other two meanings. Then the connection excludes the notion of pleasant, attractive work, so that the yoke of labour comes near to the burden of trouble. This seems to be the essential idea of the verse. Irksome work, painful toil, forced labour partaking of the nature of servitude—these ideas are most vividly suggested by the image of a yoke. And they are what we most shrink from in youth. Inactivity is then by no means sought or desired. The very exercise of one's energies is a delight at the time of their fresh vigour. But this exercise must be in congenial directions, in harmony with one's tastes and inclinations, or it will be regarded as an intolerable burden. Liberty is sweet in youth; it is not work that is dreaded, but compulsion. Youth emulates the bounding energies of the war horse, but it has a great aversion to the patient toil of the ox. Hence the yoke is resented as a grievous burden; for the yoke signifies compulsion and servitude. Now, as a matter of fact, this yoke generally has to be borne in youth. People might be more patient with the young if they would but consider how vexatious it must be to the shoulders that are not yet fitted to wear it, and in the most liberty-loving age. As time passes custom makes the yoke easier to be borne; and yet then it is usually lightened. In our earlier days we must submit and obey, must yield and serve. This is the rule in business, the drudgery and restraint of which naturally attach themselves to the first stages. If older persons212 reflected on what this must mean at the very time when the appetite for delight is most keen, and the love of freedom most intense, they would not press the yoke with needless harshness.

But now the poet has been brought to see that it was for his own advantage that he was made to bear the yoke in his youth. How so? Surely not because it prevented him from taking too rosy views of life, and so saved him from subsequent disappointment. Nothing is more fatal to youth than cynicism. The young man who professes to have discovered the hollowness of life generally is in danger of making his own life a hollow and wasted thing. The elegist could never have fallen to this miserable condition, or he would not have written as he has done here. With faith and manly courage the yoke has the very opposite effect. The faculty of cherishing hope in spite of present hardships, which is the peculiar privilege of youth, may stand a man in stead at a later time, when it is not so easy to triumph over circumstances, because the old buoyancy of animal spirits, which means so much in early days, has vanished; and then if he can look back and see how he has been cultivating habits of endurance through years of discipline without his soul having been soured by the process, he may well feel profoundly thankful for those early experiences which were undoubtedly very hard in their rawness.

The poet's reflections on the blessedness of quiet waiting are followed by direct exhortations to the behaviour which is its necessary accompaniment—for such seems to be the meaning of the next triplet, verses 28 to 30. The Revisers have corrected this from the indicative mood, as it stands in the Authorised213 Version, to the imperative—"Let him sit alone," etc., "Let him put his mouth in the dust," etc., "Let him give his cheek to him that smiteth him," etc. The exhortations flow naturally out of the preceding statements, but the form they assume may strike us as somewhat singular. Who is the person thus indirectly addressed? The grammar of the sentences would invite our attention to the "man" of the twenty-seventh verse. If it is good for everybody to bear the yoke in his youth, it might be suggested further that it would be well for everybody to act in the manner now indicated—that is to say, the advice would be of universal application. We must suppose, however, that the poet is thinking of a sufferer similar to himself.

Now the point of the exhortation is to be found in the fact that it goes beyond the placid state just described. It points to solitude, silence, submission, humiliation, non-resistance. The principle of calm, trustful expectancy is most beautiful; and if it were regarded by itself it could not but fascinate us, so that we should wonder how it would be possible for anybody to resist its attractions. But immediately we try to put it in practice we come across some harsh and positively repellent features. When it is brought down from the ethereal regions of poetry and set to work among the gritty facts of real life, how soon it seems to lose its glamour! It can never become mean or sordid; and yet its surroundings may be so. Most humiliating things are to be done, most insulting things endured. It is hard to sit in solitude and silence—a Ugolino in his tower of famine, a Bonnivard in his dungeon; there seems to be nothing heroic in this dreary inactivity. It would be much easier to attempt some deed of daring, especially if that were in the heat214 of battle. Nothing is so depressing as loneliness—the torture of a prisoner in solitary confinement. And yet now there must be no word of complaint because the trouble comes from the very Being who is to be trusted for deliverance. There is a call for action, however, but only to make the submission more complete and the humiliation more abject. The sufferer is to lay his mouth in the dust like a beaten slave.193193   iii. 29. Even this he might brace himself to do, stifling the last remnant of his pride because he is before the Lord of heaven and earth. But it is not enough. A yet more bitter cup must be drunk to the dregs. He must actually turn his cheek to the smiter, and quietly submit to reproach.194194   iii. 30. God's wrath may be accepted as a righteous retribution from above. But it is hard indeed to manifest the same spirit of submission in face of the fierce malignity or the petty spite of men. Yet silent waiting involves even this. Let us count the cost before we venture on the path which looks so beautiful in idea, but which turns out to be so very trying in fact.

We cannot consider this subject without being reminded of the teaching and—a more helpful memory—the example also of our Lord. It is hard to receive even from His lips the command to turn the other cheek to one who has smitten us on the right cheek. But when we see Jesus doing this very thing the whole aspect of it is changed. What before looked weak and cowardly is now seen to be the perfection of true courage and the height of moral sublimity. By His own endurance of insult and ignominy our Lord has completely revolutionised our ideas of humiliation. His215 humiliation was His glorification. What a Roman would despise as shameful weakness He has proved to be the triumph of strength. Thus, though we may not be able to take the words of the Lamentations as a direct prophecy of Jesus Christ, they so perfectly realise themselves in the story of His Passion, that to Christendom they must always be viewed in the light of that supreme wonder of a victory won through submission; and while they are so viewed they cannot fail to set before us an ideal of conduct for the sufferer under the most trying circumstances.

This advice is not so paradoxical as it appears. We are not called upon to accept it merely on the authority of the speaker. He follows it up by assigning good reasons for it. These are all based on the assumption which runs through the elegies, that the sufferings therein described come from the hand of God. They are most of them the immediate effects of man's enmity. But a Divine purpose is always to be recognised behind the human instrumentality. This fact at once lifts the whole question out of the region of miserable, earthly passions and mutual recriminations. In apparently yielding to a tyrant from among his fellow-men the sufferer is really submitting to his God.

Then the elegist gives us three reasons why the submission should be complete and the waiting quiet. The first is that the suffering is but temporary. God seems to have cast off His afflicted servant. If so it is but for a season.195195   iii. 31, 32 This is not a case of absolute desertion. The sufferer is not treated as a reprobate. How could we expect patient submission from a soul that had passed the portals of a hell over which Dante's216 awful motto of despair was inscribed? If they who entered were to "forsake all hope" it would be a mockery to bid them "be still." It would be more natural for these lost souls to shriek with the fury of madness. The first ground of quiet waiting is hope. The second is to be found in God's unwillingness to afflict.196196   iii. 33. He never takes up the rod, as we might say, con amore. Therefore the trial will not be unduly prolonged. Since God Himself grieves to inflict it, the distress can be no more than is absolutely necessary. The third and last reason for this patience of submission is the certainty that God cannot commit an injustice. So important is this consideration in the eyes of the elegist that he devotes a complete triplet to it, illustrating it from three different points of view.197197   iii. 34-6. We have the conqueror with his victims, the magistrate in a case at law, and the private citizen in business. Each of these instances affords an opportunity for injustice. God does not look with approval on the despot who crushes all his prisoners—for Nebuchadnezzar's outrages are by no means condoned, although they are utilised as chastisements; nor on the judge who perverts the solemn process of law, when deciding, according to the Jewish theocratic idea, in place of God, the supreme Arbitrator, and, as the oath testifies, in His presence; nor on the man who in a private capacity circumvents his neighbour. But how can we ascribe to God what He will not sanction in man? "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?"198198   Gen. xviii. 25. exclaims the perplexed patriarch; and we feel that his plea is unanswerable. But if God is just we can afford to be patient. And yet we feel that while there is217 something to calm us and allay the agonising terrors of despair in this thought of the unswerving justice of God, we must fall back for our most satisfying assurance on that glorious truth which the poet finds confirmed by his daily experience, and which he expresses with such a glow of hope in the rich phrase, "Yet will He have compassion according to the multitude of His mercies."199199   iii. 32.

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