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Jeremiah 17:9-10 - Homilies By D. Young

The searching and knowing of the heart.

One is reminded here of the oft-quoted piece of advice, "Know thyself." The prophet's assertion places man before us as the victim of self-ignorance, self-confidence, and self-deception. He talks of truth when his mind is full of error, and thus he is prevented from taking the only real way by which he can attain to the knowledge of truth. In the prophet's assertion and question, and the Divine answer given to the question, there is much which upon the first aspect may humiliate. But the humiliation will itself prove a cause for rejoicing if only it leads us to profit by God's certain knowledge in matters when we are profoundly ignorant.

I. THINK OF THE VAST AND INCREASING EXTENT OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE . If a man be ignorant of his own heart it surely cannot be because he himself is unfitted for the knowledge. He may have become unfit, and the unfitness may, by neglect, become more pronounced, but he cannot be unfit by reason of his original constitution. One may say that God must have intended him to have sufficient knowledge to keep his inward life right. Otherwise we have this curious contradiction—that man has achieved an immense amount of knowledge with respect to his physical constitution, but is doomed to remain in uncertainty and bewilderment as to the laws of a healthy and a happy inward life. "Who can know the heart?" says the prophet. And yet even with the limited knowledge of his age there were many men, doubtless, who knew many things. We all have the powers of observation, comparison, and experiment, and it is the largest pleasure of some minds to exercise these powers. And yet it is just to minds that are most trained, most confident in the principles of science, and most stored with the results of it, that this question might be put. It is not a question for the child just beginning to learn or for the savage unaccustomed to think; let it be put to man m his highest civilization, and then the fact will be seen that the question is no vain and inappropriate one.

II. Thus we are led to notice THE DREADFUL IGNORANCE WHICH MAY PREVAIL IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS KNOWLEDGE . The progress of the world does not make the prophet's question one whir less pressing. Nay, it becomes more pressing than ever. Other objects of knowledge have an ever-increasing light cast upon them, and by the very force of the contrast man's inward life appears in still deeper darkness. Whatever the cause of the continued ignorance may be, that ignorance does continue, so far as man's unaided effort to remove it is concerned. In one single mind we too often see exemplified vast intellectual knowledge and complete spiritual ignorance. He who seems to know everything does not know his own heart, and apparently does not care to know it; reminding one of the man who had traveled over the whole world and yet had never beheld a scene as wonderful as any which was visible from a point on his own estate. The time is coming when knowledge will vanish away. But the neglected heart will still remain to force itself, in a way which cannot be resisted, upon the thoughts of its long indifferent possessor.

III. THE CAUSE OF THIS IGNORANCE IS MADE PLAIN . It all lies in the deceitfulness and utter corruption of the human heart. And notice in particular that it is by the heart that the heart is to be known. Heart-knowledge is not like other kinds of knowledge; it depends on the character of him who knows. There is no essential contradiction between high intellectual acquirements and a hard, selfish, and perhaps even, in some instances, a profligate life. Men of refined tastes and great intellectual sensibilities may be thoroughly selfish, careless about the toil and suffering of the world, so long as these plant no thorn in their pillows, infuse no bitterness into their cup. But one who would know the heart must be very sure of his own motives, otherwise he may make human nature to appear better in some respects and worse in others than it really is. The description here may, therefore, be taken as applying even more forcibly to the heart that knows than to the heart that is to be known. Here the great difficulty and danger lie. For the deceitful and corrupt heart can be known, if not by any one else, at all events by Jehovah himself. But the deceitful and corrupt heart cannot know; it does not, in the fullest sense of the word, know anything at all. With hearts put right, what a wonderful increase of knowledge and of the profit and pleasure of knowledge will there be! But till then we are not unlike those who suffer from diseased intellects. They come into great contrast with sane people from the way in which their minds get filled with hallucinations and incongruities. And so, if we try to compare ourselves in our notions of things with Christ's teaching, we shall see the difference between the view taken by a sincere sound heart, such as was that of our Lord, and the view taken by corrupt, deceitful hearts, which ours are and must be till we discover the need of a new and pure life to be put into them.

IV. GOD 'S PERFECT KNOWLEDGE STANDS IN THE PLACE OF OUR IGNORANCE AND ERROR . God knows us in all our motives, through all our concealments, and can set our secret sins—the operation of destroying causes that lie even below our consciousness—in the light of his countenance. When once we discover how competent God is to search and try, we shall then see that it is vain for us to deny what he affirms, to excuse what he condemns, and to make out that we are not responsible when he lays evil at our doors. Jeremiah's scornful audiences may have said to him, "How come you to know these things about us? How come you to be so uncharitable as to bring these dreadful charges?" But then we know that they were not the prophet's own charges, but came from God himself. It was part of Jeremiah's grief that, on Jehovah's authority, he should have to believe things so bad of his nation. What God did to Israel was just; and more and more, as time went on, it was seen to be just. In all great exhibitions of Divine wrath we must be silent, recollecting that God knows what we cannot know, and perceives necessities where we can perceive none.—Y.

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