For the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the middle of her,…
We do not know whether the poet is here describing actual events, or whether this is an imaginary picture designed to express his own feelings with regard to the persons concerned. The situation is perfectly natural, and what is narrated may very well have happened just as it is described. But if it is not history it is still a revelation of character, a representation of what the writer knows to be the conduct of the moral lepers, and their deserts; and as such it is most suggestive. In the first place there is much significance in the fact that the overthrow of Jerusalem is unhesitatingly charged to the account of the sins of her prophets and priests. The accusation is of the very gravest character. These religious leaders are charged with murder. The crimes were aggravated by the fact that the victims selected were the "righteous," perhaps men of the Jeremiah party, who had been persecuted by the officials of the State religion. The sin of these religious leaders of Israel consists essentially in betraying a sacred trust. The priest is in charge of the Torah — traditional or written; he must have been unfaithful to his law or he could not have led his people astray. If a man who has been set in a place of trust prostitutes his privileges simply to win admiration for his oratory, or at most in order to avoid the discomfort of unpopularity or the disappointment of neglect, his sin is unpardonable. The one form of unfaithfulness on the part of these religious leaders of Israel of which we are specially informed is their refusal to warn their reckless fellow citizens of the approach of danger, or to bring home to their hearers' consciences the guilt of the sin for which the impending doom was the just punishment. Our age is far from being optimistic; and yet the same temptation threatens to smother religion today. In an aristocratic age the sycophant flatters the great; in a democratic age he flatters the people — who are then in fact the great. The peculiar danger of our own day is that the preacher should simply echo popular cries, and voice the demands of the majority irrespective of the question of their justice. In the hour of their exposure these wretched prophets and priests lose all sense of dignity, even lose their self-possession, and stumble about like blind men, helpless and bewildered. The discovery of the true character of these men was the signal for a yell of execration on the part of the people by flattering whom they had obtained their livelihood, or at least all that they most valued in life. This, too, must have been another shock of surprise to them. Had they believed in the essential fickleness of popular favour, they would never have built their hopes upon so precarious a foundation, for they might as well have set up their dwelling on the strand that would be flooded at the next turn of the tide. The Jews show their disgust and horror for their former leaders by pelting them with the leper call. According to the law the leper must go with rent clothes and flowing hair, and his face partly covered, crying, "Unclean, unclean." It is evident that the poet has this familiar mournful cry in his mind when he describes the treatment of the prophets and priests. But if the religious leader is slow to confess or even perceive his guilt, the world is keen to detect it and swift to cast it in his teeth. There is nothing that excites so much loathing; and justly so, for there is nothing that does so much harm. Such conduct is the chief provocative of practical scepticism. Religion suffers more from the hypocrisy of some of her avowed champions than from the attacks of all the hosts of her pronounced foes. Accordingly a righteous indignation assails those who work such deadly mischief. Their action appears to show that they had some idea that even at the eleventh hour the city might be spared if it were rid of this plague of the blood-stained prophets and priests. And yet however various and questionable the motives of the assailants may have been, there is no escape from the conclusion that the wickedness they denounced so eagerly richly deserved the most severe condemnation. Wherever we meet with it, this is the leprosy of society. Disguised for a time, a secret canker in the breast of unsuspected men, it is certain to break out at length; and when it is discovered it merits a measure of indignation proportionate to the previous deception.
(W. F. Adeney, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: For the sins of her prophets, and the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her,