Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Lament of New England's Prophets

The painful tone and dreadful message of the prophet Jeremiah and the book of Lamentations have been heard at various times and expressed in various ways in the church. For Americans, the most notable example is surely the sermons preached by the early New England ministers starting around 1640. These diatribes, which have aptly been called “jeremiads,” thundered warnings of impending punishment and disaster on a people who were slipping in their devotion to the Lord. The plain truth was that the evolving society was failing to live up to the intense spiritual vigor of the previous generation, and the spiritual leaders were not pleased.

The previous—the first—generation of Puritans in New England was a tough spiritual act to follow (in fact, impossible). They were a very godly group indeed. The writings they left make it clear that they scrutinized every aspect of their lives in the light of God’s Word. Their faith had been shaped, tried, and purified by adversity and sacrifice. They literally sailed out in faith from their homeland without looking back and trusted the Lord to guide and protect them in a forbidding, mysterious wilderness.

But, of course, for all their glory, they weren’t perfect. The coming generation, however, lacked their zeal and spiritual intensity and were even less perfect. With growing security and the buds of prosperity came spiritual complacency and apathy. Without batting an eye, the ministers attacked this attitude head-on, in sermon after sermon after sermon.

God’s displeasure was obvious, and the ministers made it clear that the ills that were befalling New England—Indian wars, disease, fires, drought, electrical storms, strange signs in the heavens—were the proof positive. The covenant these people had made with the Lord when they were en route to New England was being broken; instead of the blessings of obedience, they could expect the curses of disobedience.

By the 1660s, it was obvious to the clergy that worldliness was seriously threatening their enterprise and bringing calamity. In Michael Wigglesworth’s 1662 poem God’s Controversy With New England, he wrote:
For thinke not, O Backsliders, in your heart. That I shall still your evil manners beare: Your sinns me press as sheaves do load a cart, And therefore I will plague you for this geare Except you seriously, and soon, do repent Ile not delay your pain and heavy punishment.
And later,
Consider wel & wisely what the rod, Wherewith thou art from yeer to yeer chastized, Instructeth thee. Repent & turn to God, Who Will not have His nurture be despised.
Though the spelling left something to be desired, and the message was grim, the poem was an immediate best-seller (up there with his other poem, The Day of Doom). The scenario was one of disaster and punishment for disobedience, reminiscent of Lamentations: “The LORD has brought her [Zion] grief, because of her many sins” (Lamentations 1:5b); and “In his winepress the Lord has trampled the Virgin Daughter of Judah” (Lamentations 1:15c). In fact, the jeremiads did not pour on as much punishment as the biblical message of judgment they echoed. The verse just quoted paints a very dreadful image, but, of course, some statements in Jeremiah and Lamentations make this one seem rather mild.

Some things call for strong medicine. The New England “prophets”—the ministers—demanded repentance, as did the prophet of Lamentations (though in Lamentations, calamity was a foregone conclusion). They saw unrepentant sin as a serious threat to their social stability and warned that a disastrous punishment would inevitably follow if the people did not turn. The pattern of God’s dealings which the ministers saw in the Old Testament experience of Israel were applied to their own situation; the medicine they sought as remedy came from the mouths of the prophets.

Unfortunately, the decline the ministers sensed was real. From the once pure soil of the holy commonwealth one day would spring such ugly weeds as unitarianism—a “Christianized” form of unbelief. The founders, perhaps naively, thought they were on the threshold of the Millennium, and they hoped for a heaven on earth, but alas, the way to the garden was barred.

Fortunately for those who weathered the storm of decades of accusatory sermons (however well deserved), the final word was not one of gloom, doom, and bitterness but one of hope. Though God was a holy judge and not about to stand by while His people trampled on their covenant with Him, He was supremely a merciful, forgiving Father, who would not stay angry forever. The fact that He was concerned was proof that they were His children; the anger was for their chastisement, not their eternal destruction.

Lamentations, not surprisingly, offers the same hope: “Because of the LORD’S great love we are not consumed.… For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love” (Lamentations 3:22, 31–32).

In the midst of the darkness of chastisement for sin comes the promise of hope and deliverance. When in your inner ear you hear a jeremiad on the blackness of your sins, remember the unfailing love of the One who has washed them white as snow.