Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. A PROVIDENTAL EVENT. The outward circumstances of life are altered. External tyrannies are brought suddenly to an end, and the children of God are set free to serve God or not as they please. In every life there are some such occurrences. The spell of evil is broken and moral freedom rendered possible. And this is often brought about impressively, with the stamp of the supernatural upon it. Especially was it so with Israel's escape from Babylon, because of the permanent influence that event was to have on the spiritual history of mankind.
1. It was of world wide import. Babylon was the central world power, holding in iron subjection many nations. As a universal empire it is to be broken in pieces, and its sentence is not only announced, but published abroad as an evangel to the nations.
2. Of evidently Divine authorship. The clear prophecies; the moral recompense involved in its fall, and so wonderfully corresponding to its deserts, and the vast spiritual consequences accruing therefrom, make this indubitable. And equally, we may be sure, was the hand of God visible to those who were the subjects of the deliverance (see Psalm 124.).
II. A SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE. This corresponds to the external circumstances and gives them their real significance and effect.
1. Sorrow for past offences. "Weeping" - tears of grief and shame. The marvellous grace of God has broken their hearts. Tears, too, of joy and gratitude.
2. Return to the true God. Idolatry was henceforth and forever forsaken. The sublimity and spirituality of God have taken possession of imagination and heart. Each step of the way to Palestine is a further removal from the sin which took them away. And it is not the carnal delights of the promised land which constitute its attraction. It is Zion they seek, the house of the Lord, that they may rebuild her ruins and restore her worship. This proves repentance real.
3. Renewal of the covenant. In this is repentance perfected. It is to be a new covenant - more spiritual, vital, and therefore eternal. The awful years of visitation have left an undying memory; but the interposition and grace of God have written his covenant upon their heart. - M.
I. UNREAL. When the outward behaviour contradicts the profession, or the conduct exhibited is only conventional or intended to deceive. It is either:
1. Half hearted, not having its root in deep conviction of sin, and unaccompanied by thorough separation from carnal interests. The looks of the heart are alternately attracted towards Zion and towards the world, whilst the feet go to and fro or stand still. Or:
2. Hypocritical When there is no conviction and the behaviour is a pretence. When worldly aims are cloaked by religions profession.
II. REAL. "Their faces thitherward." The attitude and movement correspond with the profession. Every preparation is made to go away from "Babylon," and the journey is commenced at once. Grief and heavenly longing are the grand motives.
1. Genuine sorrow. "Weeping" as they go.
2. Pure aspiration. They seek Zion. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," etc.
3. Resolute endeavour. The return is at once made, notwithstanding its difficulties and dangers. Only in Palestine can the perfect theocracy, the spiritual future, be realized, i.e. in a true Church fellowship, which they hasten to realize.
4. Inward and eternal fidelity. Covenant relationship is renewed. A new spiritual covenant, whose provisions are written on their hearts, is entered into. They are no longer their own, but the servants of God, "bought with a price."
5. Perfect unanimity. Both Israel and Judah. A guarantee this of success and thoroughness. The lesson has been learnt by all, and united Israel is "holiness to the Lord." - M.
I. THEY ACTUALLY SET OUT TO SEEK THE LORD. The time of thinking about it and talking of it was over. All indecision on the matter had ceased, and we see them arising and going on this blessed journey.
II. TEARS. Had there not been the actual setting out, these tears might not have counted for much. But it is said they were "going and weeping." Too many are quite capable of the weeping, but the other and the far more important part they fail in altogether. But when the fruits go along with the signs of godly sorrow, then those signs are of real worth, telling as they do of the broken and contrite spirit with which God is ever well pleased.
III. SINKING OF ALL DIFFERENCES AND OLD RIVALRIES. Unity taking the place of strife. The old rivals, Israel and Judah, were united now. And the giving up of former grudges and grievances is a real sign of a genuine work of grace in the soul.
IV. INQUIRY. This was an open and practical acknowledgment of their former wrong, a real confession like the "Father, I have sinned," of the returning prodigal.
V. THE ZIONWARD FACE. Ver. 5: "With their faces thitherward," it is said. There are many who talk about religion, but with their faces all the while world ward. What does our common talk, our every day life, our ordinary spirit and conduct, declare? They show which way our face really is, no matter what our tears or inquiries have been.
VI. STIRRING ONE ANOTHER UP TOWARDS THE GOOD WAY. "Come, and let us," etc. (ver. 5). When we see men trying to win others for God, to lead men not away from him, as heretofore, but to him, we conclude that that man's repentance is real.
VII. SOLEMN COVENANTING WITH GOD. The value of such vows and covenants is that they render going back from God more difficult. They help to steady the will and confirm the wavering purpose. They commit us to the right side. It is a kind of breaking down the bridges behind us, a burning of the boats, so that the soldiers started on the enterprise may not be able to recross the river. Hence we urge such open and solemn avowal, consecration and covenanting with God. It tends to make your adhesion to God "perpetual," and your holy purpose to serve him far less likely to "be forgotten." Thus was it with Israel and Judah - never since have they fallen into idolatry, and though yet "the veil is before their faces," they are far other than what they were. And in our own Churches such consecration has again and again been greatly blessed. - C.
I. THE VOLUNTARINESS OF THIS QUEST. How it is exactly that Israel becomes master of its own choice is not indicated here. Nor need we stop to notice the indications elsewhere. The great thing to note is that Israel, being free to choose, chooses the right thing. Israel might have chosen to stop in Babylon. Thus a great difference is indicated between the circumstances in which the first covenant with Israel was made, and these circumstances of the second covenant. We search the Book of Exodus in vain for any evidence of such a free and profoundly penitent spirit as we find here. God has shown by the history of Israel that a covenant made in constraint may be necessary, but also it can only be preparatory. All the elements here are of strong voluntary action. The people come; they are not driven. They weep with the noble emotion of penitence. All the waste of past centuries stands before them, seen as it might have been seen before if only they had had eyes to see. Then there is the seeking, hoping spirit to be considered. The people are willing now to go to God, whom so long they had forsaken in idolatry and unrighteousness.
II. THE UNION OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN UNNATURALLY SEPARATED. Why this distinction between the children of Israel and the children of Judah? The very names indicate something wrong, something having its basis in self-will and jealousy. For the children of Judah were also children of Israel. Thus the common Christianity underlies all sectarian names. These names originate in certain historical necessities, and the sects keep them because they are thinking of the different starting points whence they have come rather than of the common goal whither they tend. In uniting thus together, Israel and Judah were doing things meet for repentance. They were doing all they could do while they remained in exile. Past alienations and antipathies were submerged in the rise of a strong feeling of desire after their God. When men want to be brothers and companions, most difficulties in the way can be easily pushed aside.
III. A SUBORDINATE ELEMENT IN THE QUEST OF JEHOVAH. The people know they must turn their footsteps toward a certain place, even Zion. God is always to be sought in a certain appointed way. Seeking Zion, the people are doing a great deal towards finding God. The people knew the way to look toward Zion, even from afar; we have illustration of this in the praying attitude of Daniel, who bowed his knees three times a day, his windows being open in his chamber toward Jerusalem. Whether we shall find God depends upon where we are disposed to seek him. We shall certainly never find him apart from Jesus Christ, nor anywhere else than as connected with the heavenly Zion, the city of the living God. The vague aspirations of natural human sentiment promise a great deal, but they perform nothing. They follow an ignis futuus, and not the star that goes on till it stands over Bethlehem. God is to be found by those who will accept the guidance of his Spirit, making known to them the riches which are in Christ. - Y.
The extent of their apostasy is here described.
I. IT WAS COMPLETE.
1. They had wandered. The allurements of idolatry had led them on and on, and they had at length yielded to them. They had sought other pastures and acquired preferences for other worship. It is an evil sign when men lose taste for the simple services of a spiritual religion. God should be sought alone and for his own sake.
2. They became alienated. A natural consequence. Step by step they went so far that they could not find their way back. Spiritual unfaithfulness produces confusion and spiritual darkness. They forgot their own fold.
3. They became degraded and morally odious. They bore the sign of their spiritual fall upon them. Their history, too, was the record of their shame to the neighbouring peoples. The backslider can never erase the past. He will bear his Cain mark to the end, and even the heathen and unbeliever will despise him. Their oppressors are so struck with the justice of their sentence that they justify themselves in even greater cruelties than were warranted. There is no corner of the world where the backslider can escape God's curse or hide his shame. Do what he may, he will not be as other men.
II. YET IT DID NOT BAFFLE THE SHEPHERDING OF GOD.
1. To avenge. The overdone punishment is not lost sight of; it will be duly recompensed. And the sacred character of the exiles will add to the guilt of those who used it as an excuse for their cruelties. God is the Judge of his lost ones even to the end. He commits his authority to no other. He who causes a child of God to go further astray, and delights in his degradation and ruin, will have to account terribly for this to his Father and Saviour.
2. To bring back. God's arm is strong to destroy the detaining influences, and outstretched far enough to reach his wanderers, even to the extremities of transgression and ruin. And he can detect them in every hiding place and covert. He is the good Shepherd. No wilderness too wide, no mountain too high or rocky, for him to traverse. He will bring them back to righteousness and then to happiness and peace. - M.
I. A PRECIOUS TRUTH IMPLIED. There is a Resting place provided for us. Weary we often are, by reason of conscience and temptation and earthly trouble and fear. But there is a resting place for us. "We who have believed" in the Lord Jesus Christ "do enter into rest." His one sacrifice gives rest as to the past, his intercession ensures grace sufficient for all the present and the future too, and his resurrection is the pledge that "he will redeem" my "life from destruction, and crown" me "with loving kindness and tender mercy."
II. A SAD ACCUSATION MADE. That we "have forgotten," etc. Now, this is very grievous; for:
1. It involves deep ingratitude. Think at what a cost our rest was purchased for us. Our pardon, peace, sanctification, and life eternal were not the result of a mere wish on the part of God, but they cost the life and death of the Son of God. Ponder that vast price paid for redemption, and think what must that heart be that forgets all this - what Christ has done for us, is doing, and will do. "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass," etc. (Isaiah 1:3).
2. And it is such folly. For no more surely do we need the bread that perisheth for our bodily life than we do "the Bread of life," which is Christ, for the sustenance of our spiritual life. And this not mere theory, but all who have ever known him as our Rest, know what a Rest - how gracious, how perfect, how constant and sure! - he is. And to neglect, abandon, forget that! - "Can the force of folly further go?" It is an exchange of Eden for the wilderness, of the father's house for the swine feeding and the husks, light for darkness, life for death.
3. It causes such misery. See the picture in the verse. It is that of a hunted, worried sheep. If that were the condition of such sheep, instead of being led by the shepherd by green pastures and lying down there by the still waters, what would its life be worth? And so with our souls; their misery betrays itself in the haggard look or the flippant laugh, or the hideous attempt to stifle all thought and memory in the wild pursuit of pleasure, of business, or - worst of all - of sin. Conscience will rebuke; memory will recall bitter times and moan, "Oh that it were with me as in times past!" Prayer and the means of grace seem unable to help; we are powerless for good; and the scorn of men of the world. Yes; thus to forget is misery indeed.
4. And the danger is very great. For if we do not return, we are lost. The terrible words of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 6:4-6) will be fulfilled in us, and then all hope is gone. "O ye children of God, ye have a Resting place; how is it that ye can forget it? Touch upon the things of nature, how they chide you! Bring to your remembrance the birds of the air, the beasts of the forest, the dumb driven cattle accustomed to the yoke, and let them chide you; for they forget not their resting place. Carried away to the city the other day, the dove was taken from its cage, and they let it loose, fastening to it the message that was to be sent. It mounted aloft, it whirled around awhile, that it might see Where it was. It was far, far away from the dove cote; it was found hundreds of miles away; but whither did it fly? Swift as an arrow from the bow, it sought its resting place with the infallibility of affection; it found its nearest way to the cote where it had been reared, and brought its message safely there. And even the dog which thou despisest, taken away from its master, carried many miles away, in darkness too, so that it might not know its way, has been known to swim rivers, cross byways it could not have known, and then is found barking for admission at its master's door; oh, so happy when it hears its master's voice again. It could not rest elsewhere. O my heart, wilt thou let the pigeon outstrip thee in affection? art thou more doggish than a dog? Dost thou forget thy Lord, when dogs remember well their masters? Let us learn from them and forget our Resting place nevermore" (Spurgeon).
III. EARNEST INQUIRY SUGGESTED.
1. As to the source of such forgetfulness. Sometimes it arises from mere thoughtlessness. Cf. the seed that fell by the wayside (Matthew 13.). Or from the unsubdued heart, which likes not to retain the memory of God. Or from the cares of this world. The children of Israel when in Egypt could not listen to Moses by reason of the bitterness of their bondage. And yet more often from wicked worldliness. The hurry and drive, the everlasting rush of business, and the setting aside of everything that stands in its way, the determination to be rich at all hazards. Unbelief is also another cause, the materialistic doubts, the questioning that arises as to the truth of there being any such resting place at all. And the bewilderment caused by sin. The soul is stunned, dazed, and has lost its powers.
2. As to its cure. "Let the wicked forsake," etc. (Isaiah 55:7). - C.
I. A TRUE ACCUSATION. Israel's wrong doing is not at all overstated. They have sinned against Jehovah. Nor is this accusation left in all its wide generality. Note the rendering of Naegelshach: "Jehovah the true Pasturage and their fathers' Hope." Thus the figure begun in the previous verse is continued. For the sheep a true, ample, rich pasturage is provided and protected. The shepherd makes that pasturage with all its needs his peculiar charge. If the sheep will not have faith in their shepherd, submission to his ordinances, satisfaction with his provisions, and general content in all their appointed lot; if they prefer an erratic, self-providing, self-protecting lot; - then they must take the consequences. There was nothing wonderful in Israel having becoming a lost and miserable flock. The wrong doing of a man does not excuse bad treatment of him by others, but it explains how bad treatment often becomes possible. If, overleaping the bounds and Laws of Divine wisdom, we go of our own choice into the way of the adversary, we must not complain of consequent spoliation and suffering.
II. A BAD REASON. The adversaries of Israel made Israel's wickedness a plea for their own wickedness. We must distinguish between the conquerors of Israel as made use of by Jehovah and the purposes and feelings of the conquerors themselves. It is evidently God's principle to make use of what already exists: these people were bent on attacking the land of Israel, and, when Israel had so utterly apostatized in heart from Jehovah, there was no reason why he should defend them. The wickedness of man often wonderfully serves a Divine purpose, but that does not make it wickedness any the less. Wicked men are not necessary to God, however useful they may be in the present conditions of things. Vain will it be for any man to plead that, in the event, his wickedness has brought some good thing to light. The purposes of his heart were evil and only evil, and by those purposes he must be judged.
III. INDICATION OF THE PROPER TREATMENT. The proper treatment of the sheep that have forgotten their resting place is fully revealed in the Gospels. There the true Shepherd is set before us, no self-indulgent one, no self-seeker, no hireling; but he who came to seek out the lost sheep, and who dies for his own. We must never forget, in all comparisons between straying men and straying sheep, that God means us thereby to be deeply impressed with the need of his provisions and protections. He who remembers that we are dust, remembers also that at the best we are as sheep, needing for the present to be watched very closely, and kept within a place of safety by all sorts of checks and constraints. - Y.
I. THE SPIRIT IN WHICH BABYLON SHOULD HAVE DONE ITS DESTROYING WORK. Jehovah meant Babylon for the chastisement and the humiliation of his own people, that they might be enlightened and purified through the losses they thus sustained. They lost many things they loved, but at the same time they lost things which tempted and ensnared. The description here, "Destroyers of mine heritage;" indicates sufficiently the spirit in which Babylon acted. What God wanted was the thorough purification of his heritage, not at all its destruction. Babylon cared nothing as to whether Israel was better or worse for its afflictions. It could only rejoice over another nation conquered, another territory acquired, and a fresh degree of brightness added to its military glory. It is surely a terrible thing when men do good work unconsciously and not meaning it to be good work at all. When we have to engage in any work that inflicts suffering, shame, and loss on others, it ought to be under the sternest pressure of necessity and as the sorrowing ministers of violated law. There are times when we cannot escape being the agents of suffering to wicked and foolish men; but if we only act in the right spirit, keeping our hearts free from all that is vengeful and exulting, we may even have some share in turning them from their wickedness. Everything that savours of our personal satisfaction and gain must be kept away when we have to make others suffer.
II. THE CERTAIN RETRIBUTION ON THOSE WHO REJOICE IN THE SUFFERINGS OF OTHERS. A disposition to rejoice in this way indicates, of course, a general iniquity of life which is sure to bring retribution. But retribution will take special forms according to the sin, and those who have gloated over the humiliations of others are taking a sure way to have others gloat over them in the day of their humiliation. Israel itself, which had been rejoiced over by Babylon, had first of all been rejoicing where it ought not to have rejoiced. If we exult and insult where we ought to pity, then nothing is more certain than that we shall meet with insult in turn.
III. A DIRECTION SUGGESTED IN WHICH THERE MAY BE GREAT REJOICING. Man was made to rejoice; the pity is that so often his rejoicing comes from individual and selfish considerations. When the right spirit is in our hearts, we too shall rejoice that so many are cast down, but it will be because of the opportunities given to lift them up. There should be the greatest of gladness in serving the lowly and the needy. Thus, while there never can be joy at suffering for its own sake, there can be much joy because of the opportunities given for glorifying Christ. - Y.
I. IT BRINGS UNSPEAKABLE JOY. In the former part of this chapter (cf. ver. 6) the prophet has pictured Israel and Judah like to a driven, hunted flock of sheep, never allowed to rest in peace, worried by fierce dogs, and hence in perpetual distress. But here there is a complete contrast. The flock feeds on Carmel and Bashan, the richest pastures. The most perfect rest is theirs. The lot of the flock told of in Psalm 23:2 is theirs. So full of peace and joy are they. And the forgiveness of God does bring deep joy to the soul. The sense of such forgiveness is very delightful - the realization that God doth no more remember our sin. And the manifestations of that forgiveness are also very blessed. For very generally God causes his providence to be gracious and kindly to that man whom he has pardoned. And the fruits of it are also blessed, in the character, the peace, the energy, the strength, it imparts. But -
II. IT IS CHALLENGED. "The iniquity of Israel shall be sought for" (ver. 20). There are those who question very much the Divine forgiveness, who maintain that the sin is still where it was. Often the forgiven man himself does this. He cannot "read his title clear;" he trembles at the future and cannot be persuaded that God has put away his sin. He is filled with doubts and fears. But often the seeking after the iniquity of God's people is done malignantly. The enemies of God rejoice when they can find a solitary blot or blemish in the character of God's children. What a yell of triumph they raise when they light on such a discovery! Satan is "the accuser of the brethren." He is ever on the search for their iniquity. And they who are of him are ready with the charge of cant, hypocrisy, etc.; refusing to believe that there can be any such person as a real saint of God. And pharisaically also Israel's iniquity is frequently "sought for." See that elder son in the parable (Luke 15.). How slow he was to believe in anything but the hardened iniquity of his younger brother! A great deal may be urged in favour of his Slew of things. Such kindly treatment did seem unjust, putting bad and good on one level. He would not have objected - as such men, and there have been and are myriads of them, do not object - to show some little favour to a repentant sinner, after a long course of testing him and proving whether he was worthy of any further forgiveness; but to give him all at once such complete pardon, such elder sons never believe in that. And by some the iniquity of those whom God has pardoned is sought for philosophically. "Plato, Plato," said Socrates, "I do not see how God can forgive sins." And when we see, as we do see, how in the whole realm of nature every force goes on until it has produced its full effect - there is no loss of force anywhere - how can sin be made an exception? how can it be prevented from having its due and full effect, sad and terrible as that is? Philosophically speaking, there can be no forgiveness. What a man soweth, that must he also reap, in nature and measure, in kind and degree. Thus is God's forgiveness challenged. But -
III. IT IS VINDICATED. Ver. 20, "The iniquity.., shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins... and they shall not be found." The sacrifice and the Spirit of Christ are the vindication of God's forgiveness. The former by vindicating the Divine righteousness in such forgiveness. For there are two ways of accomplishing this. One is the way of condign punishment. But God desires atonement, reconciliation, as well as vindication, and therefore this way will not serve. The other the way of repentance, the accepting the contrite confession of sin, and prayer for its forgiveness. And this is the way God has chosen. Cf. "I said I will confess... and thou forgavest," etc.; "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit," etc. Now, this way of dealing with sinners vindicates God's righteousness. For, though we cannot offer an adequate confession, repentance, and intercession, yet, in Christ, this has been done; and when, in sympathy with him, in "the fellowship of his sufferings," and "made conformable to his death," we make our confessions and prayers, they are accepted for the sake of him who has offered perfectly the spiritual sacrifice which we can offer only imperfectly. Now, this way of dealing with sinners vindicates God's righteousness; yea, it causes sinners to be made "the righteousness of God in him," that is, Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). God's righteousness is thus made illustrious, conspicuous, as by no other means whatsoever. For when it is clearly seen, as in the kingdom of God it will be clearly seen,
(1) the depths whence the sinner has been drawn, and
(2) the glorious height of purity and excellence to which he has been by this grace of God upraised, that spectacle will silence all objections, and will prove that that way must have been a righteous way which has had such righteous results. And the Spirit of Christ, producing sanctity in the hearts and lives of believers, is the vindication of this way of grace to all eider sons, and, indeed, to all else who challenge what God has done. CONCLUSION.
1. Rejoice in such forgiveness, that you have it to proclaim, to think of, to rest your soul upon.
2. Adore. What else can we do but sing our "Magnificats" to such a redeeming God?
"Who is a pardoning God like thee? 3. Come away from all self-trust, all reliance on your own deeds for justification and forgiveness. 4. Tremble, O unsaved one, to be found amongst those who have despised such grace. "How can we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" - C.
3. Come away from all self-trust, all reliance on your own deeds for justification and forgiveness.
4. Tremble, O unsaved one, to be found amongst those who have despised such grace. "How can we escape if we neglect so great salvation?" - C.
I. WHAT JEHOVAH HAD PROVIDED AND THE PEOPLE HAD LOST. Carmel and Bashan, Ephraim and Gilead, were not something altogether new. They were memories of the past as well as hopes of the future. Israel had been a scattered sheep. Out of Christ not only are we ourselves lost, but we have lost the use of the appropriate possessions of humanity. Really what God does in restoring his people is to bring them to something a great deal better than the places mentioned; but these places represent an actual, experienced good. And it is well that God should give us, as one aspect of the future, a restoration of all that was satisfying in the past.
II. JEHOVAH IS ABOUT TO RESTORE' HOW WILL THE PEOPLE USE WHAT IS TO BE RESTORED? Restoration by itself will do nothing. If the man comes back to his possessions as he went away, then he can only misuse and squander as of old. The house swept and garnished only presented to the evil spirits a chance for greater riot and defilement than before. To the old land there comes back a new people. After tasting the bitterness of wanderings, they have tasted also the powers of the world to come - old carnal temptations no longer charm, new spiritual considerations stand full in view. Formerly, even on Carmel and Bashan, Mount Ephraim and Gilead, there had been discontent, because, with all the goodness in these places, there was not enough for the carnal heart. But now, when things are used spiritually, there is enough and more than enough. If only we follow where God leads there will be ample provision and ample blessedness. - Y.
salvation (vers. 19, 20). In both is manifested his righteousness in its elements of wrath and mercy. His forgiveness acts in perfect harmony with his severity.
I. HOW IT MANIFESTS ITSELF.
1. Retrospectively. Sins that are past are to be blotted out. A complete severance is to be effected between the era of apostasy and the new one upon which they are to enter. The strictest justice, the most jealous hostility, will fail to make out a valid indictment.
(1) In the character. It will be purified and confirmed in the righteousness of God.
(2) In the conduct. There will be no more lapses or infidelities. Israel will be "a peculiar people, zealous of good works." It is for the sake of this new future that the guilty past has been cancelled; and it is the legitimate fruit of the experience of God's pardoning grace that the "reserved" ones shall give themselves "with a glad heart and free" to his service and glory.
II. TO WHAT IT IS DUE. Not to Divine goodness in conflict with Divine righteousness, but to the satisfaction of Divine righteousness.
1. In atonement. The sacrifice of Christ was anticipated, and for its sake the national tribulation through which Israel had passed was accounted a satisfaction for guilt incurred. In itself that tribulation could never effect such an end, nor in any sense as supplementary of the sufferings of Christ, but only symbolically and representatively, such as the lamb slain on the temple altar. The sinner is identified with the Saviour.
2. In making righteous. "Justice looking at the sinner, not simply as the fit subject of punishment, but as existing in a moral condition of unrighteousness, and so its own opposite, must desire that the sinner should cease to be in that condition; should cease to be unrighteous - should become righteous; righteousness in God craving for righteousness in man, with a craving which the realization of righteousness in man alone can satisfy. So of holiness." (Macleod Campbell.) - M.
I. IN CONTRAST WITH PREVIOUS QUESTS OF THE SAME KIND. Then hardly anything but iniquity and sin were to be found. The few righteous and godly men only called attention more emphatically to the general wickedness. God is ever seeking in the earth for all that is true and good, and whatever there be of it he is sure to find. He misses nothing, searching into every man according to the fundamental thoughts of his heart. In former days sin and iniquity had been the great burden of prophetic deliverances, and the mention of them a continual exasperation to the people.
II. THE REASON WHY THE QUEST HAS BECOME VAIN. All is pardoned. There has been deep and adequate repentance, adequate atonement, and consequently there is full forgiveness. Iniquity and sin cannot be found, because they have vanished as disturbing elements in human consciousness. What an intensely evangelical verse this is, full as it can be of one of the great results of the gospel! God, who sends prophets into the midst of sinful men, calling attention to the universal presence of evil; works remove that evil, so that it shall no longer be possible to find it. This inability to find evil is not the report of man merely; if so, we might suspect the worth of the report as being nothing more than shallow optimism. When God says that evil cannot be found he means that it has ceased to exist.
III. THIS VAIN QUEST IMPLIES OTHER GUESTS EQUALLY VAIN. No consequences of sin shall be left. When the roots are gone, clean extirpated, vain will it be to seek for the fruits. There can be no pain where there is no sin. There can be no death. Fulness of life and health will succeed. There will be no seed but good seed, no ground but good ground. And hence there will only be good fruit springing forth abundantly.
IV. ANOTHER QUEST THAT WILL BE SUCCESSFUL. The matter must be looked at positively as well as negatively. Iniquity is not to be found, i.e. complete conformity to law is found everywhere; sin is not found, i.e. every man in his own nature is fully glorifying his Maker and his Redeemer. More and more we must seek to see the depth and reality of present iniquity and sin; so shall we better understand the work whereby God will slowly remove - slow]y, that is, to our apprehension - all these evil things away - and cause harmony, holiness, and happiness to rise enduringly in their place. - Y.
I. ALL POWER IS A STEWARDSHIP FROM GOD. The vast extent and influence of those empires, and the special mission divinely appointed them, cannot but impress one with a sense of special responsibility. There seems something supernatural in their very origin and continuance. And yet it is equally true that the humblest power is a responsibility. It might be said that a great deal of the influence of great nations arises unconsciously, mechanically, and as it were as the result of their own momentum; and also that the distribution of official duties divides, if it does not quite dissipate, individual responsibility. Yet each contributes his quota to the general result, and in the end each will have to account for his own influence. The nation as a whole will be judged, and in that judgment each will be apportioned his due share. How much more, therefore, may the individual be held responsible for the use of those powers belonging to his own nature and person, and which are under his own control or have been in great part created by his own cultivation. We are doubly responsible, viz.
(1) for the acquisition, and
(2) for the use of power.
II. IT IS POSSIBLE TO BE THE INSTRUMENT OF DIVINE JUSTICE AND YET BE GUILTY. Babylon was clearly and definitely "commanded" to perform its work of conquest and destruction. But it overdid its task through arrogance and unbelief. It was the land of "Double defiance" (Merathaim), inasmuch as it had first illegitimately acquired its position by revolt against Assyria, and secondly it had triumphed in a cruel and unseemly manner over Israel (Naegelsbach). For this it was brought to account, and, therefore, is again named "Visitation." This self-sufficiency and unbelief rendered it guilty ("Against Jehovah hast thou striven," ver. 24), and yet the work it did, even in excess, was turned to account by God. We are responsible, not only for doing what God commands, but for doing it in the right spirit and manner. That God should overrule our evil for the good of others does not alter its character, which depends upon motives and dispositions. Especially in judging or punishing others ought we to keep watch over ourselves and examine our own hearts. National and official action will entail moral responsibility as much as personal, although, it may be, not so directly.
III. THE ABUSE OF POWER WILL BE TERRIBLY AVENGED. In the case of Babylon it involved it in complete destruction. The influence which had in part been a Divine creation rapidly degenerated into a merely human and sinful one.
1. Because the consciousness of power tempts to greater arrogance and depravity; and:
2. Because all power has. involved in it corresponding moral capacity.
3. It is the perversion and abuse of a gracious privilege. - M.
God's Word was that other hammer, against which even the force of the hammer of the whole earth should be put forth in vain. "Is not my Word... as a hammer, saith the Lord, which breaketh the rock in pieces?" (Jeremiah 23:29). And it did thus break the power of Babylon, and made her "a desolation among the nations." Now, all this is a parable of what is and long has been in the spiritual world. Note -
I. THERE IS A HAMMER-LIKE FORCE WORKING AGAINST GOOD IN THE WORLD. See how it crushes joy, innocency, purposes of good, noble endeavours, life itself. It is the kingdom of Satan; such crushing of so much that is good is of those "works of the devil" to destroy which the Son of God was manifested.
II. BUT THERE IS A GOD-LIKE FORCE WHICH SHALL PROVE A MIGHTIER HAMMER STILL. The strong one shall be driven out by the stronger. For proof of this, see:
1. The progress of humanity. Surely he must be blind who will deny the improvement in the general condition, conduct, and character of men since Christ lived and died on this earth. Most admit it, but ascribe it to merely secular, natural, and subordinate causes.
2. The laws of civilized nations. How much more just, humane, and righteous they are than they once were!
3. The philanthropic instinct amongst men. What abundance of objects there now are on which this instinct flings itself and toils for their good! Now, these things are, at least, "aids to faith," in a fuller and more complete deliverance of man from all evil, which it is the glory of the gospel both to promise and to promote. But see this Divine power at work in the individual soul. The fear which hath torment is taken away. The sin which tyrannizes is broken and subdued. The good which was weak is made strong, the evil which was strong is made weak. The sorrow which killed all joy is hushed. Death which destroyed is itself destroyed by the resurrection of Christ from the dead. These are some of the present trophies of the grace of God, and they are but an earnest of more and far better things to come. But in virtue of them we believe in the Son of God, who shall subdue all things unto himself. God's Word, God's providence, God's Spirit, all unite to testify to the existence and by and by the exercise of that triumphant power by which all the might of evil shall be crushed, shattered, and broken forever. On which side, then, are we taking our place? - C.
I. IT WAS NECESSARY THAT HE SHOULD BE SO.
1. This is true of Israel's Redeemer. See the power ranged against them. Physical, in the might of Babylon and the many hostile nations. Spiritual, in the justice of the sentence under which they were suffering. Moral, in the enfeebling effects of their disobedience, causing despondency, despair, timidity, giving power to evil habits, and making very difficult the acquirement of such as were good. But:
2. It is true of our Redeemer. The powers by which humanity is held in captivity are more terrible and unconquerable than were those by which Israel was held. These powers are commonly classified under the threefold division - a trinity of hell - of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Consider the power:
(1) Of the world, in enslaving the soul of man. The seductiveness of its smile, the terror of its frown, the overpowering force of its rewards, the awfulness of its punishments. And yet all this might is against God and against the soul.
(2) Of the flesh. Yes; it does beat against the spirit, it warreth against the soul. If it once have gained dominion, is that dominion ever entirely destroyed while this life lasts? And in some, yea, many, its dominion is allowed as something that cannot be broken. A moral despair comes over many in regard to it, and they cease to contend against a tyranny which they affirm they are powerless to escape from.
(3) Of the devil. He is no mere imagination, or myth, or invention of a credulous and superstitious age, but a living reality, against whom our Saviour, who knew his strength and terror as none other did - for he had just come away from his encounter with him - bade us in our daily prayer say, "Deliver us from the evil one." Who but he is it that is ever plying us with unhallowed thought and suggestion, causing the will and opportunity to sin so fatally to combine? But who of us is or can be ignorant of his devices? And when the force of all these terrible foes is augmented, as it is by the force of habit, of example, of inherited tendency, of enfeebled power of resistance the result of past defeats, - oh, what need, indeed, is there that our Redeemer should be strong! But -
II. BLESSED BE GOD, HE IS SO. In regard to Israel, he did redeem them in part, and their more complete redemption is yet to come. In regard to humanity at large, he is strong likewise. See in proof of this:
1. His mighty power when here on earth. All those signs and wonders, those glorious miracles, were designed to confirm our faith in our Redeemer as One "mighty to save." Hence diseases fled devils were cast out, nature obeyed, Death gave up her dead, at his word. All these things were, as St. John calls them, "signs."
2. His might displayed in his Church. "I will build my Church," he said; and in spite of the feebleness in numbers, in influence, in intellectual or social power, in adaptation of methods, in selection of men; in spite of all the force that numbers, wealth, power, rank, cruelty, hate, could bring to bear; - still his word was accomplished and is yet being accomplished. Must we not confess, in view of facts like these, that our Redeemer is strong?
3. His power over the individual soul. How he gives strength against the terror of a violated law, the might of an indwelling sin, the crushing power of earthly sorrow, the king of terrors, death itself! "Conversion is the standing miracle of the Church" - the transformations of character, condition, and conduct, which are perpetually being wrought by the power of Christ. All these compel the glad confession that Christ is "mighty to save." Now, note -
III. THAT HIS STRENGTH BECOMES OURS BY MEANS OF OUR FAITH. For faith in him brings to bear the power of:
1. The unseen.
3. The new life. And so these marvels are wrought.
"Mighty Redeemer, set me free
I. THE DESTROYING AGENT. Not a deluge, not fire from heaven, but an ordinary human agent, working with energy and thoroughness. The weapon which Babylon in its greed of conquest had used against Jerusalem is turned against itself. First of all, Babylon looks covetously on the land of Israel, and spoils it of its people and their possessions. And then, enriched, Babylon becomes in turn an object of desire. God has only to leave covetousness and grasping alone, whether in nations or individuals. There will generally come in some human agency to dissipate ill-gotten gains. As Babylon became richer in external goods, it became weaker in manly resources. There was more to invite attack, more need of the best defences, and yet at the same time less ability to defend. The sword stands here as the great symbol of human physical force. We must not infer that God approves it: he simply points out how it must have free scope upon the surface of things. Babylon took the sword, and she in turn must perish by the sword; and that same sword, successful against Babylon, points to the destruction of those who wielded it. Nothing abiding, nothing permanently satisfying, is to be achieved by the sword.
II. THE EXTENT OF THE DESTRUCTION. Physical force can make short work of all man's natural treasures; all that is wanted is a sufficient amount of it. Skill compensates for force only up to a certain point. Vain was it for Babylon to count up its mighty men and parade its horses and chariots. If we would arrive at right conclusions in the matter of security we must know the strength of our enemies as well as our own. As to one element in its strength in particular, Babylon would be dreadfully deceived. It could not realize how, as the agent of a punishing Jehovah, there had been more than its wonted strength bestowed on it against sinning Israel. It plumed itself too much on conquered Israel, and thought itself stronger than it really was. - Y.
I. IT IS ONE WHICH THEY WIELD. It cuts asunder:
1. The ties which bind man to man.
2. Those which bind the soul to truth and virtue.
3. Those which bind the heart to God.
4. Those which would lead the man to eternal life.
II. IT IS ONE WHICH THEY FEEL. It pierces the soul with shame, with anguish, with a deadly wound.
III. IT IS ONE BY WHICH THEY WILL SOONER OR LATER BE DESTROYED.
1. It is often so in this life. Men will league themselves together against a liar as against a wild beast or serpent, to destroy it. In the hearts of all men there is a protest against lies. That protest cannot be stifled universally, or for long, or over wide reaches of the world. It will break forth. It did break forth, and down went the paganism of the Roman empire, the priestly lies of the Church of Rome in the days of the Reformation, the political lies of despots as in the French Revolution, the Jesuitical lies by which that order has been disgraced and on account of which it has once and again been driven forth in shame. And the like of all this is seen in the condemnation and punishment of the convicted liars even now.
2. But yet more will it be so hereafter. See the awful doom that is pronounced against liars in the Word of God: "All liars shall have their part in the lake of fire, which is the second death." CONCLUSION.
1. Dread this sword.
2. Love and cherish truth, in thought, word, and deed.
3. Give yourself to him who is the Truth. - C.
I. A CRY OF TERROR. Their confidence, their pride, will be shattered, and they will quail at "the wrath of the Lamb" which they have provoked. But there will be many who will behold that overthrow and from them -
II. A CRY OF WONDER will be heard. That kingdom of evil so widespread, so ancient, so established, so seemingly undisputed in its possession during all the long ages hitherto, now completely overthrown. How many valiant soldiers of the cross and faithful servants of God have in past ages hurled themselves against her ramparts and tried to storm her citadel, and have, apparently, but thrown their lives away! Therefore, when at length it is proclaimed, "Babylon is fallen!" what wonder and astonishment will fill the minds of all beholders! But it will be also -
III. A CRY OF JOY. It will be the day of jubilee, the setting free of the oppressed, the opening of the prison doors, the giving of liberty to the captives. Hence the psalms perpetually bid us sing unto the Lord - sing a new song; "for he cometh, he cometh to judge the earth." We are accustomed to speak of the judgment day as one of terror only; we forget that it will be a day of unspeakable joy to the multitudes of the oppressed, like as, when Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, they sang their song of triumph. And it will be also -
IV. A CRY OF THANKSGIVING, of adoration and praise. How can it be otherwise? "The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together" beneath hell's dread oppression. Shall there not be unspeakable gratitude felt when the Lord crushes this awful tyranny and destroys it forevermore? CONCLUSION.
1. Remember that this overthrow will take place. They who believe in this kingdom of evil say, "We shall never be moved." But they are deceived and will, one day, be terribly awakened.
2. Which cry shall be ours? - C.
1. Those which by the magnitude of them arrest attention and deeply impress the imagination of the world. Such was the taking of Babylon. It was like the fall of a mighty building; when the fall came, it could not but shake the earth. The effects were of necessity far reaching. The political centre of gravity got shifted. The fall of Babylon meant a new kind of government for a great many people. It meant a total change in temporal circumstances. Then the whole thing was to a large extent unexpected. Many such events have happened in history. Great struggles between nations and confederated nations, lasting for years, come to their consummation in some battle, and then for a while there is comparative equilibrium.
2. Those which excite tittle or no attention at the time. The death of Christ is the crowning instance of events of this kind. Locally and for a short time it did make a deep impression, but certainly the earth was not moved, nor was there a cry heard among the nations. The movement was in spiritual regions; heaven it was that got moved; and the cry was heard among the principalities and powers in the invisible world, whether they were good ones or bad ones. We need a divinely chosen standpoint from which to measure the magnitude of terrestrial events. We enlarge where we should diminish, and diminish where we should enlarge. It has truly been said that history is too full of wars and conquerors. These have been recorded, while other events dropped into oblivion, which now we should give a great deal to understand. We must guard against letting the deepest impression on us be produced By mere noise and hulk. As history is commonly written, critical, seminal events are to be looked for in the quiet comers of it, and often they are treated in a very hasty way. If we would discover the fountains of what is really momentous in human affairs, we must be obedient to the guidance of God's Spirit. We must be delivered from the snares of mere national prosperity and glory. Then, conversely, in our own actions we must not be troubled if little attention is pain to them by others. A man may be sowing the seeds of immense, world wide benefits, all unconsciously, knowing only this, that he is doing the thing, the evidently appointed work for him - lying nearest to his hand. - Y.