A Cry from the Dungeon!
Francis Bourdillon, 1864
Why does a living man complain a man for the punishment of his sins? Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens. We have transgressed and have rebelled; You have not pardoned. You have covered with anger and persecuted us; You have slain; You have not pitied. You have covered Yourself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through.
If these last words, and the other mournful complainings of the prophet, exactly described our case and described it fully, so that there were nothing besides to be said in the way of hope and comfort even then we could not justly complain. If God had indeed covered us with anger and persecuted us; if He had slain and not pitied us; if He had covered Himself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through even in that case, we could not say that this was more than our sins deserved. "Why does a living man complain a man for the punishment of his sins?" Have we not transgressed and rebelled? Have we not worthily deserved to be punished?
The prophet Jeremiah is describing his deep affliction. It seems from what follows, that he is speaking of what he felt when in the dungeon. He can hardly find words for his wretchedness. Yet when he has said all, this is the conclusion he comes to: that God was not unjust, that He had sent no affliction that was not well deserved by reason of sin. Perhaps, indeed, the prophet speaks in part in the name of his people rebellious and backsliding Israel; yet he makes himself one of them, and takes to himself a share in this guilt and unworthiness. A sense of sin pressed heavily upon him.
Still we find traces of hope in his words. He did indeed, in his deep despondency, find himself unable to take comfort in prayer. It seemed to him as if God would not hear or forgive. But this was not the case nor did the prophet himself really give up all hope. Almost in the same breath he says, "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord. Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens."
He scarcely believed, then, his own desponding words. He would not have prayed if there had been no hope that God would hear. He would not have lifted up heart and hands to God and called upon others to do the same if he had really thought that there was no pity or pardon with God. Nay, he would not have called to self-examination; far less would he have invited to turn to God unless he had had some hope, however faint, that God would receive the returning penitent. Through all his despondency, seeming in words to reach almost to despair hope makes itself heard even in the dungeon. Some belief in the mercy and love of God still remained.
And God does not despise even the feeblest faith. Further on in the same Chapter we find him speaking thus, "I called upon Your Name, O Lord out of the depths of the dungeon. You heard me when I cried, 'Listen to my pleading! Hear my cry for help!' Yes, You came when I called You told me, 'Do not fear!'
Here he seems to be looking back, from a happier time, upon his thoughts and prayers in the dungeon. He now thankfully acknowledges that God did hear him then. In his despondency he had let himself use such words as these, "You have covered Yourself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through." Now he says, " You heard me when I cried You came when I called."
But in the lowest depth of his misery, even in the pit itself, he had found the falseness of his own desponding thoughts. God had not covered Himself with a cloud. God had heard his voice. Even there, the presence of God had been with him. Even there, faith reviving had heard the voice of God saying, "Do not fear!"
Had God changed then? Would He hear at one time and did He refuse to hear at another? He drew near in the day that the prophet called upon Him was He not always ready to draw near? Yes, He was always ready. He was not changed. We change, but God changes not. Our feelings vary, from gloomy to bright, from desponding to hopeful. We feel at one time that God is near; at another we can find no sense of His presence. Yet God remains unchangeably the same near to all who call upon Him, near at all times, ready always to receive the returning sinner; never shutting His ear to the cry of the poor and destitute never refusing to pardon one who comes to Him in the Name of Jesus.
What are place and time and circumstances to the All-wise and All-powerful God? What was it to the God of Jeremiah, that His servant had been cast by his enemies to the bottom of a filthy dungeon? His God was as near to him there as ever! He was as able and as willing as ever to hear and save and that, from the very first moment that he found himself in that place.
The servant of God must never give way to desponding fears, as if God were one who changed. God does not change. At all times, in all places, under all circumstances He may be sought and found. He is a very present help in times of trouble. There is no difficulty with Him and no unwillingness to help and save.
It is right, in all trouble and despondency, to "search and try our ways" but no sense of our sins should lead us to think that God does not hear and will not forgive. Let us feel and own that . . .
if we were cast off entirely,
if never a prayer of ours were heard,
if never anything but affliction befell us
we would but receive what we deserved.
But let us remember that One has died for us and that He now cares for us, loves us, and pleads for us. Jesus is the hope of the sinner. In His Name we may draw near to the Father and plead for pardon in all the confidence of a true and humble faith. By Him we may "turn again to the Lord." Even when by searching our ways, we have discovered a depth of evil not suspected before. By Him, we may approach God as His children.
Not even the just accusations of conscience,
not the deep sense of unworthiness,
not all depressing circumstances
should be allowed to interfere with that hope in Christ, which is held out to all who will believe.
While we may plead the blood of Jesus never let us think that God will not pardon. He will pardon, and that fully. Not only shall we not receive to the uttermost what our sins have deserved but all will be forgiven for Christ's sake! While we may approach the mercy seat by Him let us never fear that God has covered Himself with a cloud and will not hear. A cloud there may be but it is the cloud of our own unbelief. In our deepest distress, "out of the low dungeon," as it were, let us call upon God, and call in faith. Assuredly He will hear our cry, and faith will enable us to realize His drawing near to us and to hear His voice saying to us, "Do not fear!"