The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD.Contending Emotions
We often speak about contending emotions. We do not know certainly whether the love or the wrath will overcome at the last. We burn with anger, and then we are melted with pity; we denounce and repel, and then in some sudden inspiration not human we hold out the sceptre and bid the alien return. We need not go beyond the range of our own consciousness to verify all this marvellous play of emotion. We are not the same in the evening we were in the morning: sometimes we sleep off our anger and awake radiant with benignity; then the sudden thought of ill-usage returns, and we frown again, and our forehead is clothed with denser clouds. Such is the panorama of emotion—its marvellous colour, its changing energy, its variant tone. All this we find on the widest scale in the Book of God. How God's method changes! He will destroy, and yet he will not hurt; he offers men great blessing, and on their ill-behaviour he suspends, if not withdraws, the offer; he is clothed with judgment, yet his mercy abideth for ever. Here we find the harmony of contraries. All this is needful, in order that our own consciousness may be covered and satisfied by the revelation of God's person and government. We understand all the action and interaction:—when God is angry and when he is grieved; when he sorrows and when he beams with complacency upon those who have returned in humbleness to seek his pardon and to kiss his hand. We need not travel the whole Biblical space in illustration and confirmation of this, for we have here, as in a little Bible, all the ups and downs, all the dark thunder and all the vivid lightning, all the tender music, all the wrestling love, all thunder-crowned Sinai, and all blood-besprinkled Calvary, within the few lines which constitute the parable cf this chapter. A wonderful structure is the Bible: sometimes it runs itself altogether into one little chapter, so that we may see its whole purpose at a glance; now it bewilders; now it is too profound for us, and we dare not plunge into its mysterious depths; and now it is higher than heaven, what can we do? and now it is brighter than the white flame of midday, who can look at its dazzling glory? and then it tabernacles itself in some brief sentences, attempers itself, atmospheres itself, and comes within our own condition, so that we may look at it whilst it looks at us, and study it, and reply to its appeals, and make acquaintance with its mystery of judgment and its mystery of gospel. To this chapter we may come with the high expectation of finding in it the whole gamut of divine emotion.
God tells us why there are difficulties in our culture and experience of nature. The sentence is a bold one, and he would be a bold man who would read it today loudly. Yet so must we read it:—
"Therefore the showers have been withholden" (Jeremiah 3:3).
Some men smile at the fanatical notion that God so interferes in nature as to express moral disapprobation or moral regard: but who are they that smile? what have they done for the world? There is nothing so easy as to smile with a kind of benignant contempt—not the bitter scorn which great subjects might elicit from great scorners, but a sort of modified and semi-benignant contempt, as should say, The poor creatures! how little they know of the constitution of the universe, the laws of nature, the economy of time and space, and the general condition of things! All this reproach ought to have an effect upon us; but what effect? Because some man has smiled at our piety, is our piety therefore not worth entertaining, preserving, and extending? First, who is the man? What will he do for us in the great crisis? If he should turn out to be wrong, will he stand in our place and bear the issue bravely like a vicarious hero? What if his smile be turned against himself, and God should laugh at his calamity and mock when his fear cometh? Men who can smile at deep convictions are never to be trusted. A man who can smile at a pagan idolater, when that idolater is really and truly expressing his soul's uppermost temper in relation to the idol which he worships, is not a religious man; he, too, is a mocker: he may mock from a different level, but the same mockery is in him, and he does not understand human nature when religiously fired, elevated, inflamed, ennobled. There does not seem to be such a violation of reason in this declaration as might at first sight appear. If God is immanent in the universe, not a deity immeasurable distances away from his creation; if he is in it, part of it; if without him it could not hold together for a moment, there is nothing unreasonable in the thought that he should sometimes show resentment at the spirit of evil, indicate some emotion at least in the presence of ingratitude. We do the same ourselves. Parents sometimes give children to feel that the penalty of ill-behaviour is the withdrawment of a privilege, the abbreviation of a holiday, the suspension of a pleasure, Put it in what way we may, we still have under all the external appearance the reality of our being so identified with the life of the house that we cannot allow evil behaviour, evil temper, ingratitude to pass without showing that it is undesirable, unwelcome, improper. Sometimes by deprivation God inflicts punishment upon those who turn away from him. In this case the penalty was one of deprivation—the showers had been withholden. Sometimes the penalty is positive, and there are too many showers. God drowns the world that denies him. He does not withhold the showers for want of water; the deluge is always ready: the river of God is full of water. It may be unscientific and ignorant to think that God interferes with nature, but it stands to our highest reason as a probable truth. If he made it, he may interfere with it; if he constructed it, he may sometimes wind it up, visit it, operate upon it, assert his eternal proprietorship. If the great landlord allows us to walk through his fields freely and joyously, he may sometime, say, once in twenty-one years, put up a fence or a boundary, which being interpreted means, This path is mine, not yours; the boundary will be taken down again tomorrow, but it is here today to signify that you have acquired no rights by constant use. It is not an unnatural intervention, nor do we see that it is an unreasonable intervention, on the part of God, if we deny him, neglect him, scorn him, operate wholly against the spirit of his holiness, that he should now and again withhold the shower, or send such deluges upon the earth as shall wash away our seed and make a desert of our garden.
God penetrates the most skilfully contrived disguises:—
"Wilt thou not from this time cry unto me, My father, thou art the guide of my youth?" (Jeremiah 3:4).
Yet God proclaims the great Gospel. Here we see the contending emotion:—
"Go and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, Return, thou backsliding Israel" (Jeremiah 3:12).
Men will never be brought back by force. God never arrests a man, and by some constabulary energy fixes him in heaven. That would be no heaven to such a man. We are not in heaven unless we are heavenly. God has no heaven for us if we are not godly. Men themselves must act. Here is a mystery of will and necessity, divine sovereignty and human volition; and great battles may be fought around these theological terms to no effect. We must recognise the real philosophy of things, the actual sense of life, the innermost motive and pulse of being; then we shall understand how it is that men cannot return, and yet they can return,—that they can only return by the attraction of a welcome, and that the attraction is itself an assistance to their upward home-going emotion. If we cannot explain it in words, we have felt it in the deepest places of the heart.
God reveals his character; he says, "I am merciful,... and I will not keep anger for ever" (Jeremiah 3:12). How could he? Sweet are these words! No man ever made them or put them together about any other god. Have you in all the history of mythology or idolatry found such a description of any hand-made deity? We might almost say it of the dear, beneficent sun: he does seem to be merciful; he who could burn us with light, kisses the tiny flower as if it were a little child; he who pours so much light upon the earth that it runs off, so to say, at the edges to water with glory under-worlds and other spaces, never hurts the earth with a dart of fire. But all this mercy is ascribed to the Living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; and he will continue to reveal his mercy until he consummates the revelation in the Cross of Calvary, the death, the atonement, of his own Son.
God never varies the essential conditions of pardon—"Only acknowledge thine iniquity" (Jeremiah 3:13). That is New Testament speech: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins." But we must acknowledge, and we must acknowledge fully; we must keep back nothing. How difficult actually to empty the heart! We can confess a great deal, but we keep back the blackest word; we can confess all things in general terms, but to detail our sin, to write out a bill of particulars, to hand to God the diary of the heart, who could do it? Blessed be God, we have not to hand that diary to one another. If we have done wrong to any man, to that man we are bound to confess the wrong we have done; but we are not bound to tell priest or friend or dearest brother all we have done: we are to say to God, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." We believe in confession, but not in confession to any fellow-sinner, who may even have exceeded ourselves in the enormity of iniquity. If you have done wrong to man, woman, or child, go and say so; without that there can be no forgiveness. Having done wrong to God, enter thou into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door tell him all, and say that this very telling of it all means trust and love: thou couldst not whisper it in the ear of judgment,—thou venturest to whisper it in the ear of mercy.
Almighty God, our joy is in thy greatness, and not in our own resources. Thou wilt wonderfully beautify thy church in the days to come; we know not with what adornment thou shalt adorn thy bride. Behold, all things are at thy disposal, and thou wilt spare nothing that Zion may be glorified, and that the work of the Son of man may be completed in victory. Thou hast ever held out an alluring prospect to thy church; there has always been better wine to drink; there has always been some higher height to scale whence could be had a clearer and further view of things, lighted up with undreamed-of glory. In this prospect we serve; we say that what is now round about us cannot be the end of things; all that we see must be but a beginning, an opening gate, a dawning opportunity, a momentary glimpse, whatsoever signifies that which is significant; but the end who can tell? We rest in thy word; we are strengthened by thy promise; we are quieted by thy grace; we say, Let the Lord work as he will, and in the end he will justify his ways to men. Thou hast given us great words to live upon, yea, exceeding great and precious promises with which to nourish the soul. Lord, evermore give us this bread. Make the Cross our meeting-place, for there the angels are, there heaven begins because Christ died for the sons of men, and there is sealed the pardon of a believing world. For that Cross how can we thank thee? It meets all our necessities, it answers all the cry and pain of the afflicted soul; in that Cross is the balm of healing; otherwhere that balm cannot be found. May we live at the Cross, and live for the Cross; then the crown is assured, and all heaven shall welcome those who have loved the Son of God. Thy Holy Spirit thou wilt not withhold; he will work miracles in our life day by day, he will open our eyes that we may see, and our ears that we may hear, and every night shall hear the astounding tale of increase of light and multiplication of comfort. Let thy word be precious to us as water is to men who are in wildernesses; let thy promises lure us as bread draws men towards it who have known the gnawing of hunger; thus may we declare plainly that we hunger and thirst after righteousness, that the wells of the earth cannot satisfy our thirst, and that all the provisions of time are too small for the holy desire thou hast enkindled within us. Son of man, Son of God, God the Son, we throw our crowns at thy feet, for thou didst give them; we say. Not unto us, but unto thyself, be every ray of glory, world without end. King of kings, Lord of lords, only Potentate, reign over us, and put down all other rule. Amen.
Will he reserve his anger for ever? will he keep it to the end? Behold, thou hast spoken and done evil things as thou couldest.Making, Destroying, and Saving Man
If you could bring together into one view all the words of God expressive of his purposes concerning man, you would be struck with the changefulness which seems to hold his mind in continual uncertainty. He will destroy, yet the blow never falls; he will listen to man no more, yet he speeds to him in the day of trouble and fear; he will make an utter end, yet he saves Noah from the flood, and plucks Lot as a brand from the fire; his arm is stretched out, yet it is withdrawn in tender pity. So changeful is he who changeth not, and so fickle he in whom there is no shadow of turning! We cannot but be interested in the study of so remarkable a fact, for surely there must be some explanation of changefulness in Omniscience and variation of feeling in the Inhabitant of eternity. You never read of God being disappointed with the sun, or grieved by the irregularity of the stars. He never darkens the morning light with a frown, nor does he ever complain of any other of the work of his hands than man, made in his own image and likeness! he does indeed say that he will destroy "both man and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air," but it is wholly on account of man's sin; for, as everything was made for man, so when man falls all that was made for him and centred in him goes down in the great collapse. Why should there be blithe bird-music in the house of death? Why should the earth grow flowers when the chief beauty has lost its bloom? So all must die in man. When he falls he shakes down the house that was built for him. So we come again to the solemn but tender mystery of God's changefulness, and ask in wonder, yet in hope, whether there can be found any point at which are reconciled the Changeable and the Everlasting?
But let us be sure that we are not mistaken in the terms of the case. Is it true that there is any change in God? is not the apparent change in him the reflection of the real change that is in ourselves? I not only undertake to affirm that such is the case, but I go farther, and affirm that the very everlastingness of the Divine nature compels exactly such changes as are recorded in the Bible. If you say that man ought not to have been created as a changeable being, then you say in other words that man ought not to have been created at all. If you find fault with man's constitution, you find fault with God, and if you find fault with God I have no argument with you. I take man as he is, and I want to show that Divine love must manifest itself, either in complacency or anger, according to the conduct of mankind.
I must remind you that this principle is already in operation in those institutions which we value most, and that it is a principle on which we rely for the good order, the permanent security, and the progress of society.
This principle is in constant operation in family life. By the gracious necessities of nature the child is tenderly beloved. The whole household is made to give way to the child's weakness. The parents live their lives over again in the life of the child. For his sake hardship is undergone and difficulty is overcome. The tenderest care is not too dainty, the most persistent patience is not accounted a weariness. But sin comes: ingratitude, rebellion, defiance; family order is trampled on, family peace is violated; and in proportion as the parent is just, honourable, true, and loving, will he be grieved with great grief; he will not be petulant, irritable, or spiteful, but a solemn and bitter grief will weigh down his desolated heart. Then he may mourn the child's birth, and say, with breaking and most tearful voice, "It had been better that the child had not been born." Then still higher aggravation comes. Something is done which must be visited with anger, or the parent must lose all regard for truth and for the child himself. Now, all punishment for wrong-doing is a point on the line which terminates in death. Consider that well, if you please. It may, indeed, be so accepted as to lead to reformation and better life; but that does not alter the nature of punishment itself. Punishment simply and strictly as punishment is the beginning of death. Have you, then, changed in your parental love because you have punished your child? Certainly not. The change is not in you; it is in the child. If you had forborne to punish, then you would have lost your own moral vitality, and would have become a partaker in the very sin which you affected to deplore. If you are right-minded, you will feel that destruction is better than sinfulness; that sinfulness, as such, demands destruction; and if you knew the full scope of your own act you would know that the very first stripe given for sin is the beginning of death. But I remember the time when you caressed that child and fondled it as if it was your better life, you petted the child, you laid it on the softest down, you sang it your sweetest lullabies, you lived in its smiles; and now I see you, rod in hand, standing over the child in anger! Have you changed? Are you fickle, pitiless, tyrannical? You know you are not. It is love that expostulates; it is love that strikes. If that child were to blame you for your changefulness you would know what reply to make. Your answer would be strong in self-defence, because strong in justice and honour.
We have exactly the same thing in the larger family called Society. When a man is punished by society, it is not a proof that society is fickle in temper; it is rather a proof that society is so far conservative, and even everlasting in its substance, as to demand the punishment of every offender. Society is formed to protect and consolidate all that is good and useful in its own multitudinous elements, yet society will not hesitate to slay a man with the public sword, if marks of human blood are upon his hands. Is, then, society vengeful, malignant, or uneven in temper? On the contrary, it is the underlying Everlasting which necessitates all those outward and temporary changes which are so often mistaken as signs of fickleness and uncertainty. What the Everlasting cannot tolerate is dishonour, tyranny, wrong, or impureness in any degree. Society offers rewards today and deals out punishments tomorrow. At noon, society may crown you as a benefactor; at midnight, society may drag you forth as a felon: the same society—not fickle or coy, but self-protecting and eternal in righteousness.
These side-lights may at least mitigate the gloom of the mystery with which we started. I want to make you feel that God's changefulness, so called, is not arbitrary, but moral; that is to say, he does not change merely for the sake of changing, but for reasons which arise out of that very Everlastingness which seems to be impaired! Not to be angry with sin is to connive at it; to connive at sin is sinful; to be sinful is to be no longer Divine. When God is angry it is a moral fire that is burning in him; it is love in a glow of justice; it is his protest on behalf of those who may yet be saved from sin.
See how it is God himself that saves man! We trembled when he said he would destroy man, for we knew he had the power; and now that he says he will save man we know that his power of offering terms of salvation is none the less. If man can be saved, God will save him; but it is for the man himself to say whether he will be saved. "If any man open the door, I will come in to him." "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." This is the voice that said, "I will destroy," and the two tones are morally harmonious. Looking at the sin, God must destroy; looking at any possibility of recovery, God must save. "A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench." Christ lives to save. He would no longer be Christ if human salvation were not his uppermost thought. His soul is in travail; he yearns over us with pity more than all human pitifulness; he draws near unto our cities and weeps over them. But he can slay! He can smite with his strong arm! His hand can lay hold on justice, and then solemn is the bitter end! O, my soul, make thy peace with God through Christ. It is his love that burns into wrath. He does not want to slay thee; he pities thee; he loves thee; his soul goes out after thee in great desires of love; but if thou wilt not come to his Cross, his arm will be heavy upon thee!
How true, then, is it that there is an important sense in which God is to us exactly what we are to him! "If any man love me, I will manifest myself to him." That is the great law of manifestation. Have I a clear vision of God? Then am I looking steadily at him with a heart that longs to be pure. Can I not see him? Then some secret sin may be holding a veil before my eyes. I have changed, not God. When I seek him he will be found of me; but if I desire him not he will be a God afar off!