When people ask for our attention because of what has passed, they say, 'in the Council of the Trinity,' and been promulgated, for our direction, by 'a Personal First Cause, the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe,' it is certainly open to any man to refuse to hear them, on the plea that the very thing they start with they have no means of proving. And we see that many do so refuse their attention; and that the breach there is, for instance, between popular religion and what is called science, comes from this cause. But it is altogether different when people ask for our attention on the strength of this other first principle: 'To righteousness belongs happiness;' or this: 'There is an enduring power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness.' The more we meditate on this starting-ground of theirs, the more we shall find that there is solidity in it, and the more we shall be inclined to go along with them and to see what will come of it.
And herein is the advantage of giving this plain, though restricted, sense to the Bible-phrases: 'Blessed is the man that feareth the Eternal!' and: 'Whoso trusteth in the Eternal, happy is he!' By tradition, emotion, imagination, the Hebrews, no doubt, came to attach more than this plain sense to these phrases, But this plain, solid, and experimental sense they attached to them at bottom; and in attaching it they were on sure ground of fact, where we can all go with them. Their words, we shall find, taken in this sense have quite a new force for us, and an indisputable one. It is worthwhile accustoming ourselves to use them thus, in order to bring out this force and to see how real it is, limited though it be, and insignificant as it may appear. The very substitution of the word Eternal for the word Lord is something gained in this direction. The word Eternal has less of particularity and palpability for the imagination, but what it does affirm is something real and verifiable.
Let us fix firmly in our minds, with this limited but real sense to the words we employ, the connection of ideas which was ever present to the spirit of the Hebrew people. In the way of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof is no death; as righteousness tendeth to life, so he that pursueth evil, pursueth it to his own death; as the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more, but the righteous is an everlasting foundation;—here is the ground-idea. Yet there are continual momentary suggestions which make for gratifying our apparent self, for unrighteousness; nevertheless, what makes for our real self, for righteousness, is lasting, and holds good in the end. Therefore: Trust in the Eternal with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding; there is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the Eternal; there is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death; there are many devices in a man's heart, nevertheless, the counsel of the Eternal, that shall stand. To follow this counsel of the Eternal is the only true wisdom and understanding. The fear of the Eternal, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil, that is understanding. It is also happiness. Blessed is everyone that feareth the Eternal, that walketh in his ways; happy shall he be, and it shall be well with him! O taste and see how gracious the Eternal is! blessed is the man that trusteth in him. Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Eternal; his leaf shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth, it shall prosper. And the more a man walks in this way of righteousness, the more he feels himself borne by a power not his own: Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, saith the Eternal. O Eternal, I know that the way of man is not in himself! all things come of thee; in thy light do we see light; man's goings are of the Eternal; the Eternal ordereth a good man's going, and maketh his way acceptable to himself. But man feels, too, how far he always is from fulfilling or even from fully perceiving this true law of his being, these indications of the Eternal, the way of righteousness. He says, and must say: I am a stranger upon earth, Oh, hide not thy commandments from me! Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Eternal, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified! Nevertheless, as a man holds on to practice as well as he can, and avoids, at any rate, 'presumptuous sins,' courses he can clearly see to be wrong, films fall away from his eyes, the indications of the Eternal come out more and more fully, we are cleansed from faults which were hitherto secret to us. Examine me, O God, and prove me, try out my reins and my heart; look well if there be any way of wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! O cleanse thou me from my secret faults! thou hast proved my heart, thou hast visited me in the night, thou hast tried me and shalt find nothing. And the more we thus get to keep innocency, the more we wonderfully find joy and peace. O how plentiful is thy goodness which thon hast laid up for them that fear thee! thou shalt hide them in the secret of thy presence from the provoking of men. Thou wilt show me the path of life, in thy presence is the fullness of joy, at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore. More and more this dwelling on the joy and peace from righteousness, and on the power which makes for righteousness, becomes a man's consolation and refuge. Thou art my hiding-place, thou shalt preserve me from trouble; if my delight had not been in thy law, I should have perished in my trouble. In the day of my trouble I sought the Eternal; a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat! O lead me to the rock that is higher than I! The name of the Eternal is as a strong tower, the righteous runneth into it and is safe. And the more we experience this shelter, the more we come to feel that it is protecting even to tenderness. Like as a father pitieth his own children, even so is the Eternal merciful unto them that fear him. Nay, every other support, we at last find, every other attachment may fail us; this alone fails not. Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee!
All this, we say, rests originally upon the simple but solid experience: 'Conduct brings happiness,' or, 'Righteousness tendeth to life.' And, by making it again rest there, we bring out in a new but most real and sure way its truth and its power.
For it has not always continued to rest there, and in popular religion now, as we manifestly see, it rests there no longer. It is important to follow the way in which this change gradually happened, and the thing ceased to rest there. Israel's original perception was true: Righteousness tendeth to life! It was true, that the workers of righteousness have a covenant with the Eternal, that their work shall be blessed and blessing, and shall endure for ever. But what apparent contradictions was this true original perception destined to meet with! What vast delays, at any rate, were to be interposed before its truth could become manifest! And how instructively the successive documents of the Bible, which popular religion treats as if it were all of one piece, one time, and one mind, bring out the effect on Israel of these delays and contradictions! What a distance between the eighteenth Psalm and the eighty-ninth; between the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Ecclesiastes! A time some thousand years before Christ, the golden age of Israel, is the date to which the eighteenth Psalm and the chief part of the Book of Proverbs belong. This is the time in which the sense of the necessary connection between righteousness and happiness appears with its full simplicity and force. The righteous shall be recompensed in the earth, much more the wicked and the sinner! is the constant burden of the Book of Proverbs; the evil bow before the good, and the wicked at the gates of the righteous! And David, in the eighteenth Psalm, expresses his conviction of the intimate dependence of happiness upon conduct, in terms which, though they are not without a certain crudity, are yet far more edifying in their truth and naturalness than those morbid sentimentalities of Protestantism about man's natural vileness and Christ's imputed righteousness, to which they are diametrically opposed. 'I have kept the ways of the Eternal,' he says; 'I was also upright before him, and I kept myself from mine iniquity; therefore hath the Eternal rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands hath he recompensed me; great prosperity showeth he unto his king, and showeth loving-kindness unto David his anointed, and unto his seed for evermore.' That may be called a classic passage for the covenant Israel always thinks and speaks of as made by God with his servant David, Israel's second founder. And this covenant was but a renewal of the covenant made with Israel's first founder, God's servant Abraham, that 'righteousness shall inherit a blessing,' and that 'in thy seed all nations of the earth shall be blessed.'
But what a change in the eighty-ninth Psalm, a few hundred years later! 'Eternal, where are thy former loving-kindnesses which thou swarest unto David? thou hast abhorred and forsaken thine anointed, thou hast made void the covenant; O remember how short my time is!' 'The righteous shall be recompensed in the earth!' the speaker means; 'my death is near, and death ends all; where, Eternal, is thy promise?'
Most remarkable, indeed, is the inward travail to which, in the six hundred years that followed the age of David and Solomon, the many and rude shocks befalling Israel's fundamental idea, Righteousness tendeth to life and he that pursueth evil pursueth it to his own death, gave occasion. 'Wherefore do the wicked live,' asks Job, 'become old, yea, are mighty in power? their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them,' Job himself is righteous, and yet: 'On mine eyelids is the shadow of death, not for any injustice in mine hands.' All through the Book of Job the question, how this can be, is over and over again asked and never answered; inadequate solutions are offered and repelled, but an adequate solution is never reached. The only solution reached is that of silence before the insoluble: 'I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.' The two perceptions, Righteousness tendeth to life, and, 'The ungodly prosper in the world,' are left confronting one another like Kantian antinomies. 'The earth is given unto the hand of the wicked!' and yet: 'The counsel of the wicked is far from me; God rewardeth him, and he shall know it!' And this last, the original perception, remains indestructible. The Book of Ecclesiastes has been called skeptical, epicurean; it is certainly without the glow and hope which animate the Bible in general. It belongs, probably, to the fourth century before Christ, to the latter and worse days of the Persian power; with difficulties pressing the Jewish community on all sides, with a Persian governor lording it in Jerusalem, with resources light and taxes heavy, with the cancer of poverty eating into the mass of the people, with the rich estranged from the poor and from the national traditions, with the priesthood slack, insincere and worthless. Composed under such circumstances, the book has been said, and with justice, to breathe resignation at the grave of Israel. Its author sees 'the tears of the oppressed, and they had no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there was power; wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.' He sees 'all things come alike to all, there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked.' Attempts at a philosophic indifference appear, at a skeptical suspension of judgment, at an easy ne quid nimis: 'Be not righteous overmuch, neither make thyself overwise! why shouldst thou destroy thyself?' Vain attempts, even at a moment which favored them! shows of skepticism, vanishing as soon as uttered before the intractable conscientiousness of Israel. For the Preacher makes answer against himself: 'Though a sinner do evil a hundred times and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God; but it shall not be well with the wicked, because he feareth not before God.'
Malachi, probably almost contemporary with the Preacher, felt the pressure of the same circumstances, had the same occasions of despondency. All around him people were saying: 'Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Eternal, and he delighteth in them; where is the God of judgment? it is vain to serve God, and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance?' What a change from the clear certitude of the golden age: 'As the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more; but the righteous is an everlasting foundation!' But yet, with all the certitude of this happier past, Malachi answers on behalf of the Eternal: 'Unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings!'
Many there were, no doubt, who had lost all living sense that the promises were made to righteousness; who took them mechanically, as made to them and assured to them because they were the seed of Abraham, because they were, in St. Paul s words: 'Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the law and the service of God, and whose are the fathers.' These people were perplexed and indignant when the privileged seed became unprosperous; and they looked for some great change to be wrought in the fallen fortunes of Israel, wrought miraculously and materially. And these were, no doubt, the great majority; and of the mass of Jewish expectation concerning the future they stamped the character. With them, however, our interest does not so much lie; it lies rather with the prophets and those whom the prophets represent. It lies with the continued depositaries of the original revelation to Israel, Righteousness tendeth to life; who saw clearly enough that the promises were to righteousness, and that what tendeth to life was not the seed of Abraham taken in itself, but righteousness. With this minority, and with its noble representatives the prophets, our present interest lies; the further development of their conviction about righteousness is what it here imports us to trace. An indestructible faith that the righteous is an everlasting foundation they had; yet they too, as we have seen, could not but notice, as time went on, many things which seemed apparently to contradict this their belief. In private life, there was the frequent prosperity of the sinner. In the life of nations, there was the rise and power of the great unrighteous kingdoms of the heathen, the unsuccessfulness of Israel; although Israel was undoubtedly, as compared with the heathen, the depositary and upholder of the idea of righteousness. Therefore prophets and righteous men also, like the unspiritual crowd, could not but look ardently and expectantly to the future, to some great change and redress in store.
At the same time, although their experience that the righteous were often afflicted, and the wicked often prosperous, could not but perplex pious Hebrews; although their conscience felt, and could not but feel, that, compared with the other nations with whom they came in contact, they themselves and their fathers had a concern for righteousness, and an unremitting sense of its necessity, which put them in covenant with the Eternal who makes for righteousness, and which rendered the triumph of other nations over them a triumph of people who cared little for righteousness over people who cared for it much, and a cause of perplexity, therefore, to men's trust in the Eternal,—though their conscience told them this, yet of their own shortcomings and perversities it told them louder still, and that their sins had in truth been enough to break their covenant with the Eternal a thousand times over, and to bring justly upon them all the miseries they suffered. To enable them to meet the terrible day, when the Eternal would avenge him of his enemies and make up his jewels, they themselves needed, they knew, the voice of a second Elijah, a change of the inner man, repentance.
And then, with Malachi s testimony on its lips to the truth of Israel's ruling idea, Righteousness tendeth to life! died prophecy. Through some four hundred years the mind of Israel revolved those wonderful utterances, which, even now, on the ear of even those who only half understand them and who do not at all believe them, strike with such strange, incomparable power, the promises of prophecy. Through four hundred years, amid distress and humiliation, the Hebrew race pondered those magnificent assurances that 'the Eternal's arm is not shortened,' that 'righteousness shall be for ever,' and that the future would prove this, even if the present did not. 'The Eternal fainteth not, neither is weary; he giveth power to the faint. They that wait on the Eternal shall renew their strength; the redeemed of the Eternal shall return and come with singing to Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; they shall repair the old wastes, the desolations of many generations; and I, the Eternal, will make an everlasting covenant with them. The Eternal shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended; the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising, and my salvation shall be forever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished.'
The prophets themselves, speaking when the ruin of their country was impending, or soon after it had happened, had for the most part had in prospect the actual restoration of Jerusalem, the submission of the nations around, and the empire of David and Solomon renewed. But as time went on, and Israel's return from captivity and resettlement of Jerusalem by no means answered his glowing anticipations from them, these anticipations had more and more a construction put upon them which set at defiance the unworthiness and infelicities of the actual present, which filled up what prophecy left in outline, and which embraced the world. The Hebrew Amos, of the eighth century before Christ, promises to his hearers a recovery from their ruin in which they shall possess the remnant of Edom; the Greek or Aramaic Amos of the Christian era, whose words St. James produces in the conference at Jerusalem, promises a recovery for Israel in which the residue of men shall seek the Eternal. This is but a specimen of what went forward on a large scale. The redeemer, whom the unknown prophet of the captivity foretold to Zion, has, a few hundred years later, for the writer whom we call Daniel and for his contemporaries, become the miraculous agent of Israel's new restoration, the heaven-sent executor of the Eternal's judgment, and the bringer-in of the kingdom of righteousness,—the Messiah, in short, of our popular religion. 'One like the Son of Man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days, and there was given him dominion and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him; and the kingdom and dominion shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High.' An impartial criticism will hardly find in the Old Testament writers before the times of the Maccabees (and certainly not in the passages usually quoted to prove it) the set doctrine of the immortality of the soul or of the resurrection of the dead. But by the time of the Maccabees, when this passage of the Book of Daniel was written, in the second century before Christ, the Jews have undoubtedly become familiar, not indeed with the idea of the immortality of the soul as philosophers like Plato conceived it, but with the notion of a resurrection of the dead to take their trial for acceptance or rejection in the Most High's judgment and kingdom.
To this, then, has swelled Israel's original and fruitful thesis:—Righteousness tendeth to life! as the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more, but the righteous is an everlasting foundation! The phantasmagories of more prodigal and wild imaginations have mingled with the product of Israel's own austere spirit; Babylon, Persia, Egypt, even Greece, have left their trace there; but the unchangeable substructure remains, and on that substructure is everything built which comes after.
In one sense, the lofty Messianic idea of 'the great and notable day of the Eternal,' 'the consolation of Israel,' 'the restitution of all things,' are even more important than the solid but humbler idea, righteousness tendeth to life, out of which they arose. In another sense they are much less important. They are more important, because they are the development of this idea and prove its strength. It might have been crushed and baffled by the falsification events seemed to delight in giving it; that instead of being crushed and baffled, it took this magnificent flight, shows its innate power. And they also in a wonderful manner attract emotion to the ideas of conduct and morality, attract it to them and combine it with them. On the other hand, the idea that righteousness tendeth to life has a firm, experimental ground, which the Messianic ideas have not. And the day comes when the possession of such a ground is invaluable.
That the spirit of man should entertain hopes and anticipations, beyond what it actually knows and can verify, is quite natural. Human life could not have the scope, and depth, and progress it has, were this otherwise. It is natural, too, to make these hopes and anticipations give in their turn support to the simple and humble experience which was their original ground, Israel, therefore, who originally followed righteousness because he felt that it tended to life, might and did naturally come at last to follow it because it would enable him to stand before the Son of Man at his coming, and to share in the triumph of the saints of the Most High.
But this latter belief has not the same character as the belief which it is thus set to confirm. It is a kind of fairy-tale, which a man tells himself, which no one, we grant, can prove impossible to turn out true, but which no one also can prove certain to turn out true. It is exactly what is expressed by the German word 'Aberglaube,' extra-belief belief beyond what is certain and verifiable. Our word superstition had by its derivation this same meaning, but it has come to be used in a merely bad sense, and to mean a childish and craven religiosity. With the German word it is not so; therefore Goethe can say with propriety and truth: 'Aberglaube is the poetry of life,—der Aberglaube ist die Poesie des Lebens.' It is so. Extra-belief, that which we hope, augur, imagine, is the poetry of life, and has the rights of poetry. But it is not science; and yet it tends always to imagine itself science, to substitute itself for science, to make itself the ground of the very science out of which it has grown. The Messianic ideas, which were the poetry of life to Israel in the age when Jesus Christ came, did this; and it is the more important to mark that they did it, because similar ideas have so signally done the same thing with popular Christianity.
More from Matthew Arnold
- English poet and cultural critic
- Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888