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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[4 Kings 24–25. Jerem. Baruch. Ezech. Daniel]

AT last the people of Juda became so hardened in sin that the divine chastisements had no longer any effect upon their hearts. They gave themselves wholly up to the vile practices of idolatry, and persecuted the prophets of God, several of whom they put to death. In vain did the great prophet, Jeremias, who lived at that time, endeavour to recall them to repentance. Finally, the patience of the merciful God was exhausted, and the ruin so often foretold by the prophet Isaias fell heavily on the people.

In the year 606 B. C., Nabuchodonozor (Fig. 54), king of Babylon, placed himself at the head of an immense army, marched against Jerusalem, and, having taken it, carried away the king and the principal inhabitants as captives. Sixteen years later, those who were left in Jerusalem revolted once more against Nabuchodonozor, and the latter returned with a still greater army, and after a siege of eighteen months, he took Jerusalem by storm (588 B. C.).

 

Fig. 54. Cameo with inscription of Nabuchodonozor. Berlin Museum. (From Jeremias, Das Alte Testament, 2. ed.)

Then the whole city was given up to fire and pillage. The Temple itself was consumed by fire, and the sacred vessels were carried off. All the people that escaped the sword were led into captivity in Babylon, and the splendid city of Jerusalem was reduced to a heap of ruins.

Jeremias remained in Jerusalem (Fig. 55), and, sitting on the ruins of the desolate city, he lamented in the most pathetic manner the miseries of his people, and the destruction of Jerusalem. “How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people; how is the mistress of nations become as a widow; the princess of provinces made tributary. The ways of Sion mourn, because there are none that come to the solemn feast. O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow. To what shall I compare thee, or to what shall I liken thee? Great as the sea is thy destruction. Who shall heal thee? Convert us, O Lord, to Thee, and we shall be converted, renew our days, as from the beginning.”

Jeremias, however, was not without consolation. He knew that Israel would be restored, and that God would make a new covenant with His people. “The days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Juda. Not according to the covenants which I made with their fathers, which they made void. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days. I will give my law and will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.”

 

Fig. 55. Jeremias’ Grotto near Jerusalem. (Phot. Bonfils.)

The captive Jews were treated with kindness by the king of Babylon, but they longed for the land of their fathers and for the city of Jerusalem. This longing of their hearts is beautifully expressed in one of the Psalms: “Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, when we remembered Sion. On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments, for there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs. How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not remember thee, if I make not Jerusalem the beginning of my joys.”

During the captivity God did not abandon His people, but sent the prophet Ezechiel, who admonished and instructed them. He also consoled them by telling them of a divine vision which foreshadowed the deliverance of the people from their captivity. The spirit of the Lord brought Ezechiel to a plain filled with bones of dead men. Being told by God, he commanded the bones to come together, which was done, and they were covered with flesh and skin, but there was no spirit in them. And the Lord told Ezechiel to say to the spirit: “Come, spirit, and let them live again.” The spirit entered into them, and they lived; they stood upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then the Lord said: “These bones are the house of Israel; they say that our bones are dried up and our hope is lost, but say to them: Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel, and you shall know that I am the Lord, O my people.”

Amongst the captives were several young men of high rank, belonging to the first families. The king ordered the most distinguished of these to be brought up in his own palace, clothed in kingly apparel, and fed with meats from his own table. Amongst these young men were Daniel, Ananias, Misael and Azarias.

They resolved not to eat the meats from the king’s table, because the Jewish law forbade the use of certain meats, and they begged the chief steward to allow them to eat only vegetables, and to drink only water. The steward was disposed to comply with their request, but he told them that if they lived on such diet, they would become so lean that the king would blame him, and perhaps punish him severely.

Daniel besought the steward to try them for ten days with the food and drink they desired to have. The steward consented, and at the end of ten days the faces of these young men were fresher and more comely than those of the other young men of the court.

After this the steward gave them only vegetables and water; but God gave them wisdom and science. When the time came for them to be presented to the king, he was so charmed with their beauty and wisdom that he retained them in his service.

The Long-suffering Justice and Faithfulness of God. He was very patient and long-suffering with Juda. Up to the very moment of its overthrow He held out, through Jeremias, hope of pardon and the averting of punishment, if only the people would be converted. And was not the fate of the kingdom of Israel itself an impressive warning? However, neither king nor people would give heed to this, or to the warnings of the prophets sent by God, but listened rather to false prophets, resisted grace, and persisted in their impenitence. At last the measure of their sins was full, the justice of God manifested itself, and the long threatened punishment overtook Juda.

The Goodness and Mercy of God. The Lord did not leave His miserable people without comfort, but gave them through Jeremias the assurance that He had not finally rejected them, but would restore them to His favour, and institute a new and higher covenant with them.

The uses of suffering. Their captivity served for the salvation of many of the Jews. They turned to God with their whole hearts, for they felt that all their hopes of liberty rested in Him. At last they abhorred idolatry, and were so completely cured of their inclination towards it, that they never relapsed into it, even after their return to the Promised Land.

The love of Jeremias for his people. Even though he was misunderstood and persecuted by them, he felt no malicious satisfaction when the judgment foretold by him really overtook them. No, he bewailed the hard fate of his people, and gave utterance to the deep grief of his noble soul in the “Lamentations”.

The necessity of grace. This is taught by the words: “Convert us to Thee, O Lord, and we shall be converted.” The sinner cannot be converted without the assistance of grace.—In their captivity the Jews acknowledged themselves to be religiously and politically dead, and had no hope of ending their banishment by their own efforts, or of returning to their country and becoming once more an independent nation: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.” It was only by God’s Spirit that the dead and captive people could be raised to a new political and religious existence; and only by the help of God that they could be freed and restored to their own country. This applies to nations and individuals of all ages. A fallen nation can be restored and renewed only by religion and the Spirit of God. And no individual who has succumbed to the death of sin can raise himself up by his own strength, but only by the help of God, who by His grace can restore a dead soul to life. “I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.”

The tenth promise of the Messias. The New Covenant foretold by Jeremias was instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant was an external law, written on stone tables, observed out of fear, which could effect no inner justification or sanctification. The law of the New Covenant was written in men’s hearts by the Holy Ghost, so that it is a law kept out of love, which changes man inwardly, cleanses and heals him from sin. For this reason the Holy Ghost came down on Whitsunday, and wrote the law of Christ on the hearts of the apostles, illuminating them, and kindling in them the fire of love. The law of the New Covenant is engraved in the hearts of individuals in holy Baptism.

The Lamentations of Jeremias are very impressive, and full of deep meaning. They refer literally to the destruction of Jerusalem, and the captivity which the Jewish people had brought upon themselves; but they bear (as the Church has always taught) a deeper meaning, and contain allusions both to the sufferings of the Divine Redeemer, and to the sad condition of man when he is separated from God.

1. The Church applies the passages: “O all ye that pass by the way, attend and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow”, and “Great as the sea is thy destruction. Who shall heal thee?” to our Lord, suffering and dying, and also to His sorrowful Mother (see the Lamentations sung in the office of the last three days of Holy Week).

2. The passages relating to the desolation of Jerusalem and the Temple are applied by the Church to the sad condition to which man is brought by sin and its consequences, and to the desolation which mortal sin entails on the individual, whose soul is the temple of God. Of a soul which is in a state of mortal sin, we can truly say: “O how desolate is that soul, which was formerly so rich in virtues and merits. She was the mistress over the powers of human nature, and now, behold, she is the slave of sin and Satan! Once she was beautiful, now she is defaced, and full of sorrow, unrest, and remorse of conscience.”

Comfort in suffering. Almighty God did not quite forsake His people. Even during their captivity he raised up prophets among them, to urge them to do penance, to strengthen their faith, to warn them against idolatry, to comfort them and give them hope both of deliverance from their present captivity, and of the coming of a future Saviour. We too, in our troubles and adversity, ought to draw comfort from the thought of our Divine Saviour, who endured unspeakable sufferings for our sake. We should also draw comfort and courage from the thoughts of eternal life. St. Paul writes: “The sufferings of this world are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).

The eleventh promise of the Messias. The vision of Ezechiel is, primarily, prophetical of the resurrection of the body, in which all the Jews believed, even as patient Job believed in it. Thus the vision presupposes and describes this belief, and then employs it to convey further teaching. By it God wished to say thus to the Jews: “You are now dispersed, and, as it were, dead; but I, your God, will not forsake you, I will gather you together again, and take you back to your own country.” This promise was immediately and literally fulfilled by the return of the Jews from captivity (chapter LXXX), by which they became once more a nation; but it was more perfectly and gloriously fulfilled by the New Covenant, by which God poured out His Holy Spirit on all nations, and raised up a greater and more perfect Israel.

Longing for home. The Jews loved their country, their Temple and their worship, so that even though they experienced no want in Babylon, they pined to return to their own home. The more pious among them longed to celebrate once more the feasts of the Lord, to offer sacrifice and sing canticles of praise. We too are living in banishment “in this vale of tears”; for heaven is our one, eternal home. We ought to pine for the heavenly Jerusalem, and do all we can to deserve admittance thereto.

Conscientiousness. Daniel and his three companions offer us a noble example of conscientious fidelity in the observance of God’s laws. The inducement to partake of the meats and wine sent from the king’s table was very great; but the four youths practised self-denial, and contented themselves with the poorest and most simple of fares, rather than expose themselves to the danger of sin. They acted thus, because they were possessed by the holy fear of God, and dreaded anything that might offend Him.

Fortitude and temperance. Furthermore, they offer us a noble example of fortitude. Their temptations to unbelief and sin in the luxurious court of the pagan king were numerous and powerful, but Daniel and his companions remained firm in faith and in the observance of the divine law. They practised the greatest abstemiousness, and did not let themselves be led away by the example of the other youths in the palace who did partake of the king’s dishes. Ought this not to put those Christians to shame who have not the courage to confess their faith before those who are unbelievers or non-Catholics, and who have not even the fortitude or self-denial to abstain from meat on Fridays? Does not this show great weakness, cowardice, and want of character?

The fruits of temperance. The abstemiousness practised by the four youths had a good effect on their bodies as well as their souls. These boys, who were content with simple fare, and who did not taste wine, were more healthy, fresh and comely than those who ate and drank from the king’s table. Moderation in eating and drinking preserves health, while the contrary course spoils it and leads to many diseases. “By surfeiting many have perished, but he that is temperate shall prolong life” (Ecclus. 37:34). A man should eat to live, and not live to eat. The minds of these youths were also strengthened by their abstemiousness. They learnt with ease, and made great progress in knowledge. They knew how to govern themselves, and advanced in every virtue. Moreover, by reason of their temperance they received supernatural gifts from God, especially the gift of wisdom; and to Daniel was given that of prophecy. Temperance, practised for love of God, is meritorious and wins many graces for us.

Good example. Daniel was especially favoured by God; and why? Because he showed a good example to his companions. Even as it is a terrible sin to lead others to do evil, so is it meritorious to show to others a good example, and lead them to do what is right.

The greatest of honours. It was a great honour for the four youths to be chosen by king Nabuchodonozor to be in his court; but it is a far greater honour to be chosen to be the servants of God; for God is the Most High, who rewards His faithful servants with eternal glory and happiness.

Conscientiousness and fortitude win respect even from the unbelieving. We see this in the case of Daniel and his companions. Their faithful observance of their religion, and their abstemiousness clearly pleased the chief steward; otherwise he would not have agreed to their proposal. He had a greater respect for these four than for the other Jewish youths, who ate without demur of the heathen dishes. In their hearts even the vicious pay tribute to virtue.

APPLICATION. Do you take to heart the admonitions and warnings of your parents and teachers, or do you, by preference, listen to bad companions? Do you follow the example of those who make no account of sin? Just think how terrible it is for a young heart to be hard and impenitent! If you have not amended your life since your last confession, begin at once. Make good resolutions every morning, and pray for grace to carry them out!

Think what terrible havoc mortal sin makes in the soul. Conceive a great horror of mortal sin, and resolve rather to die than commit one.

Does the Holy Ghost dwell within you; in other words, are you in a state of grace? Do not grieve the Holy Ghost who is within you by venial sin, and do not drive Him from you by mortal sin.

Had you been in Daniel’s place, would you have acted as he did? Do you care more for good eating and drinking than for anything else? Are you sometimes discontented with the food which is set before you? Have you ever sinned by greediness? Are you fond of strong drinks? From henceforward practise abstemiousness. Choose the worst rather than the best of what is offered to you. Faithfully observe all the laws relating to abstinence.








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