The Discovery Of The Individual
( Originally Published 1916 )
The recorded sermons of Jeremiah connect them-selves with the five years preceding Josiah's reform and the years following the king's death. The narrative concerning Jeremiah's preaching, in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, the words of the covenant commanded the fathers in the day that they were brought out of the land of Egypt, suggests that he participated in Josiah's reform, carrying the message of Deuteronomy directly to the people. If this was the case, he did not care to preserve the addresses of this era when he committed the substance of his earlier preaching to writing.
Jeremiah's early preaching must have helped to prepare the way for the reform of Josiah. How large a part he actually took in the measures of reform which the king carried out we do not know. He lived through the years of outward conformity to the high and exacting standards of Deuteronomy and, when the old evils came back under the reign of Jehoiakim, he promptly faced the crisis, warning king and people of the coming downfall of the state.
A century before, in the face of Assyrian attack, Isaiah had assured his contemporaries that Jerusalem would not be captured. The sudden withdrawal of the Assyrian army had vindicated his prediction, and so it had now grown into a dogma of faith that Yahweh's city could not be conquered. Jeremiah found the people confident that although they might steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, and follow other gods, if they only came and stood before Yahweh in his house they would escape judgment upon their sins. This type of faith nullified the teachings of Isaiah and the requirements of Deuteronomy, yet it was based on Isaiah's own words. That which was temporary, true for the particular occasion to which Isaiah was addressing himself, had been erected into a universel doctrine, absolutely hostile to Isaiah's own deep teachings of God's moral demands upon the nation.
From the death of Josiah to the complete destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., Jeremiah saw the coming doom and sought to avert it by leading the people to bend to the storm of Babylonian conquest and to amend their moral conduct so as to secure healthy internal conditions in their little state. His clear foresight that Babylon was destined to supersede Egypt in the control of Palestine, and that Jerusalem must fall if she persisted in her chosen course, made him seem a traitor, for he opposed the policy of the government and tried to weaken the people's purpose to resist Babylon.
Jeremiah was a man of peculiarly sensitive temperament, akin in thought and spirit to Hosea rather than to the stern Amos or the majestic Isaiah. At the outset of his ministry it was clear that he never could welcome the duties of a great prophet; nothing but an unrelenting sense that he had been chosen for a hard task could urge him to his mission. His was a nature that longed for fellowship and sympathy, yet his work separated him absolutely from human companionship and support, and brought upon him cruel misunderstanding and persecution.
The men of his own town, Anathoth, plotted against his life, so that he felt himself, in his ignorance of their purpose, like a gentle lamb that is led to the slaughter. Realizing that children, mothers, and fathers must die a grievous death in the ruin that was drawing near, he felt that he must not take a wife and beget sons and daughters to share the approaching misery. As the bearer of the message that God had taken away his peace from the people, he could not enter into the house of mourning to comfort nor into the house of feasting to share joy. Although he was of honorable priestly family, the priest who was chief officer of the temple put him into the stocks like a common criminal. Falsely accused of attempting to desert to the Babylonians, he was beaten and thrown into prison. Finally he was lowered into a miry pit in the court of the guard, where he was left to die by the princes, and was rescued only by the intercession of a servant of the king who chanced to hear of his fate.
After the capture of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was permitted to remain in Palestine with a little community of the people who were not removed with the exiles to Babylon. A little later the governor of this community was murdered and, against the advice of Jeremiah, the people fled to Egypt, taking him with them. Our last glimpse of the faithful prophet shows him warning his fellow-countrymen in that land and flouted by them with specious argument.
The outward vicissitudes of Jeremiah's life were sufficient to give his story deep pathos. The inner sufferings of such a shrinking, tender nature, forced into isolation, misunderstood and rejected, seeing his loved nation despise his clear prevision and plunge on to destruction, make his biography one of the tragedies of history. And yet it was just this suffering and loneliness that forced him along the path of consolation and triumph.
Jeremiah's words reveal to us the inner life of the prophet as do those 'of none of his predecessors. We have seen Elijah feeling that he alone was faithful to the God of Israel, journeying to the ancient mountain of the presence there to gain new strength and guidance from the still small voice; but Jeremiah shows us again and again how he turned in perplexity and rebellion to the unseen presence. He reasoned his cause with God. Instead of a solution of his questions or an answer to his cry "How long?" he received assurance that a far harder course was before him; he had been running with the footmen, but he must contend against horses. With such assurance he went out strong to meet his duty. Crying woe that he had been born to be a man of strife, he received promise of victory.
His every difficulty he carried to the one whom Hosea's words had taught him to count Israel's laving husband and father. In this experience he is led far beyond that which Hosea had seen. To the earlier prophet Yahweh was revealed as the husband and father of the nation; but Jeremiah learned, in his isolation from men and his, communion with God, that the individual may stand before God, apart from his nation.
Not only on the side of personal communion with God, resulting in strength and guidance for his own personal life, did Jeremiah come to know God's relation to the individual; he applied the doctrine to the divine judgments as well. Deuteronomy had promised the nation permanence and prosperity in the land if it would keep Yahweh's statutes and serve him only and had threatened corresponding judgments upon the nation if it were faithless. When troubles clouded thick upon the nation, the people were evidently prone to count these as judgments for the sins of their fathers. "The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge" seems to have been their favorite proverb. Jeremiah looked forward to the day when this convenient shifting of responsibility should have passed away with the recognition of the truth that God deals with each according to his own deserts: "Every man that eateth the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge; every one shall die for his own iniquity."
Jeremiah just glimpses this aspect of truth, but Ezekiel, preaching as a captive in Babylon before the destruction of Jerusalem, catches up the thought and works it out after his thorough manner.
He asserts that the soul of each is God's, whether father or son, and declares : "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." This he exemplifies at. length in the case of a righteous father and wicked son who may not be spared because of his father's virtue, and then carries out his illustration by assuming that this one's son does not follow in the evil steps of his father. He even asserts that the individual is not condemned on his own past record, but on his present conduct, and declares that the Lord has no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
Ezekiel applies his doctrine of individual responsibility as an appeal to others to turn from their wickedness and live, but he does not fail to apply it in full measure to himself. If he as the city's watchman fails to warn of the approach of danger, the blood of the city is upon his head; if he gives warning, then their blood is upon the heads of those who have not heeded. Thus thoroughly does Ezekiel carry out the personal responsibility side of Jeremiah's doctrine of individualism.
It is difficult for those who live in a land and age of highly developed individualism to realize the nature of tribal or communal consciousness which always marks earlier stages of development. In these earlier stages one hardly thinks of himself as having more of an individual life, apart from the clan or tribe, than we think of the cell as having individual life distinct from the organism of which it is a part. In studying any phase of the development of civilization we must learn to interpret early phenomena from the standpoint of tribal consciousness. It is an indication of comparatively late and mature development when this yields to definitely personal consciousness in which the separate man, woman, or child is thought of as an end apart from the group. In Israel, thé years that mark the downfall of the state show the most clearly marked stage of this great and fateful transition.
In the early years of struggle for the land common loyalty to the covenant God was the one force which was able to change the tribal consciousness of early Israel into something like a national consciousness. When the remnant of the divided nation was facing extinction more than four centuries later, it was the loyalty of the prophet Jeremiah to the nation and its deserted God which led him to such an experience of his own standing with God that he found the individual whose fellowship with his God might exist, though the nation proved faithless, and whose life as a separate reality, dear to God, might continue though the nation fell and its members were scattered abroad.
The people who superstitiously conceived the divine presence in the temple as a palladium of the nation's safety dwelt upon the level of the peoples about them, who thought of each god as belonging to a particular district or group. When their nation, city, and temple should fall and they themselves be scattered to distant regions, they might be expected to count their god as overthrown and to seek the favor of the deities in whose lands they found themselves. Under the .tribal or national conception of Deity the scattering of the nation might easily mean the obliteration of the name of Yahweh from the face of the earth, as the name of many another god has been lost in the destruction of the people who acknowledged him.
While Jeremiah struggled against such catastrophe in Jerusalem, Ezekiel worked to the same end among the exiles in Babylonia. The largest band of those deported from Jerusalem to Babylonia was the company taken in the year 597, when the city and temple escaped destruction for the time. Among those taken at this time was the young priest Ezekiel. Five years later, on the banks of one of Babylon's canal-rivers, near the ancient city of Nippur, he had a vision of Yahweh coming, seated on a throne borne by strange, composite creatures, similar to those the prophet had seen sculptured at the entrances of palaces and temples in the land of his captivity.
Whatever may have been the meaning of all the symbolism of this vision, it showed three things: (I) the God of Israel superior to the mythical beings reverenced by Israel's conquerors; (2) this God a mobile being, not limited to one place; (3) this God present in ancient and mighty Babylon itself. In vivid picture Ezekiel described to his fellow-exiles, who still trusted Yahweh speedily to restore them to his city, the idolatrous practices which forced their God to leave his polluted temple. At last he described Yahweh as rising from his temple and leaving it to its fate. By such pictorial teaching he sought to free men from the idea that the fall of Jerusalem meant the defeat of Yahweh, no longer able to maintain his abode against the attack of Marduk, god of Babylon.
When Jerusalem fell in the year 586, after its mad rebellion and stubborn resistance, and other thousands were deported to Babylon, and still others fled to Egypt, the people who had based false hopes on the temple as their assurance of safety were in despair; but some must have remembered that Ezekiel had predicted this doom and had taught them to think of their God as having voluntarily left his temple and suffered its destruction. Now they turned to the prophet whose prediction had been vindicated. Suddenly his message changed from one of doom to one of hope of restoration. His task was a discouraging one, yet his faith burned bright and the exiles in Babylon did not all give up faith; they became, indeed, the hope of a restored and purified Judah.
Thus, in the fall of the nation, Ezekiel taught the exiles to recognize their individual responsibility and standing before God, regardless of their fathers' failures or virtues, regardless even of their own past errors. He promised them, too, a heart of flesh in place of their stony heart.
Jeremiah, who in Jerusalem had preached immediate doom and later restoration, had seen more deeply than Ezekiel into the only condition which could make restoration worth while. Ezekiel was probably too young to remember the reform of Josiah through which Jeremiah had lived. The older prophet had seen the inadequacy of the most perfectly formulated contract to secure permanently a pure national life. He had seen the superficial and temporary character of reform by royal authority and had learned that only the law written in the heart could be adequate that only the people that knew God from the least of them even unto the greatest of them could be truly his people.
Jeremiah contrasted thus the new covenant with the old, which had been so perfectly formulated in the Book of Deuteronomy and so faithfully tried by the good King Josiah: "Behold the days come, saith Jehovah, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was a husband unto them, saith Jehovah.
"But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith Jehovah: I will put my law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people: and they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more."
This conception of the new covenant is one of the loftiest heights reached in the religion of Israel. It was far beyond the apprehension of the mass of the people, even of their religious teachers, but it was one of the most vital statements of religious truth that has ever been formulated. It meant the possibility of transition from a limited, national religion to an individual and so universal religion.