The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the LORD, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight, then shalt thou not remove.The Pleadings of God
The people had just said they would return, for they were tired of their evil ways. They had been looking to the hills for salvation, and no salvation came; they had turned their eyes to the multitude of mountains, and found them to be utterly barren of hope. The Lord had told them this, and they had confirmed it by much experience of a painful kind. The people said: "We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the Lord our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God" (Jeremiah 3:25). Men can say that as if they could not help doing the wickedness they complain of. This matter of confession needs analysis. We should look into it very penetratingly, for there may be irreligion in religion, impiety in piety. Why do men do the things that they are ashamed of, knowing that they will have to repent of them? And yet with all this staring them in the face with appalling vividness, they put out both hands to do evil, and they drink deeply at the streams of wickedness. They will repent tomorrow, and repeat the evil on the third day; they rest that they may get energy to serve the devil more faithfully; they retire to pray that they may come back with a keener appetite to the devil's banquet. This is the mystery of human nature; this is the insoluble point in the study of the soul. Yet the Lord allows himself (we speak reverently) to be mocked and deceived for a time. The moment he sees a tear he says, If you will return, I will dry that tear away. Whenever he hears a returning one crying out in the bitterness of his soul, he seems to say, The past is now forgotten; come in, and feast upon the true bread; come and be shielded by my omnipotence.
A strange ministry is that of Almightiness. It is almightiness—almost. Men who are critics only have found out that God cannot be almighty, or things would be different; and this they have held up as a revelation: whereas, it is no revelation, but the veriest commonplace of the Bible. It is God who "repents" that he made man—in some sense we cannot understand; but there is no other word which could convey even a hint of his meaning to our obtuse minds. It is God who says, I cannot do it: I have failed. I have planted a vineyard and looked for grapes, and behold it has brought forth wild grapes; the vineyard has been ungrateful. I might have been the most unskilled husbandman, nay, I might have been a niggard in the vineyard, sparing everything that tended to nurture and develop; for here—holding up the wild grapes—is the result of all my toil and love and care. So we come upon a mysterious if in all the history of God's administration. "If thou wilt return"—why not make them return? Here man is stronger than God. We have seen in innumerable instances how true it is that God, who can handle universes, can do nothing with the heart he has made except with the heart's consent. He made man in his own image and likeness: it is dangerous to give your personality to another. What is there to be had without danger, without an infinite risk? It were better to be a man with the pain of manhood as a daily portion, than to be the proudest beast that shakes the earth with his great hoofs. It is better that the child should live to smite you in the face, than that it should be a child made of marble which has been carved, and which can neither speak nor pray nor sin nor laugh nor die. There is a grim comfort even in gravedigging under the hearthstone: when it is all over the afflicted one says: I had the child awhile, and during his sojourn with me he doubled my life and made every day a Sabbath; even now I would not give up the experience of the joy because of this rain of bitterest tears. It may be that God has some comfort in this old earth yet. We are not children that cannot lie. If we could not lie, we could not pray. It is because we can distress God that we can please him. Displeasure is a multiple; it is a complex term; it involves much; it is full of giving and taking and exchanging and transforming, so that heart passes into heart, life into life, and love doubles love, and prayer ennobles life into immortality. Behold God, then, as a pleader. "If thou wilt return, O Israel, saith the Lord, return unto me: and if thou wilt put away thine abominations out of my sight,"—if thou wilt swear, "The Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness,"—if thou wilt do these things, the issue will be glorious; it will also be beneficent, it will have an evangelistic effect upon the world. The reason seems to be curious, but it allows itself to be examined with the assurance that when it is really understood it will cast light upon many a mystery.
How does the reasoning culminate? Thus: If thou wilt return—if thou wilt put away the things of thy shame—if thou wilt wander no more—if thou wilt swear, "The Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness," then "nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory." The meaning is, the heathen nations round about shall see thy return, and they will begin to own the power of God. That is the converting force that must be brought to bear upon the whole of the nations. The Church must be so beautiful as to attract attention. There must be something in prayer that there is in nothing else. Heathen nations may answer arguments: they cannot answer character. When Christians do right, pagans will believe; when Christians claim their uniqueness of quality and exemplify it, the men who get up arguments against Christianity will be ashamed of their own ingenuity, and run away from the things their hands have piled, saying, We cannot build fortresses against such quality of character. This is true missionary work. An honest England means a converted India. A drinking England means a sneering China. When we take our evil customs to other shores as well as our missionaries, what wonder if the natives should follow the customs and allow the missionaries to do what they please, and all their work to come to an impotent issue? We do the same thing: we copy the bad, we mimic the evil in all our mimetics, we reproduce defects; being skilled reproducers of feature and tone. It is the defect we reproduce, and not the sterling excellence The Lord here lays down the sublime doctrine that if his Church would be right the world would soon be converted.
The chapter proceeds—"Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns." There is a negative work to be done. The ground wants cutting up, exposing to the light and the rain. "Sow not among thorns." Here is the hint of a great parable already. When Jesus Christ borrowed he borrowed from himself. He was never indebted to any man for a thought. He quoted no parables, he made them for the occasion; and how exquisitely they fitted the opportunity! How upon all human life he laid the line of his imagination, and caused that imagination to take its mould from the immediate circumstances, and gathered from those circumstances his most solemn expositions and appeals. "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart" (Jeremiah 4:4). Already the book begins to be spiritual. For a long time we have been with the symbols and types and hints of things, and we could not understand them; we said, Thank God we are not Jews! we never could go through all this dreary curriculum: surely the Lord was taunting the people and mocking them, and loading them with grievous burdens, in all this fire-lighting, and all this blood-shedding, and all this continual ritual, always ending where it began, and. in its ending but creating a new beginning: we became weary of the infinite monotony. Here and there the book has revealed the true spiritual element. The commandments at the very first, as we have seen, put out tentacles that meant a kingdom invisible, for the commandments ended with "Thou shalt not covet." What a rise in the education of Israel! "Thou shalt not steal"—a vulgar exhortation: who wants to steal? But at the end, having got through the nine well, we come to "Thou shalt not covet." Already the kingdom of the spiritual is setting in; and now the prophet says, speaking in the name of God, "Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, and take away the foreskins of your heart:" "rend your heart, and not your garments." This was the meaning of all the education. It was very irksome, most tedious, the people were groaning under it; but it was all required in order that the spiritual revelation might be made complete and vivid; the meaning was, It is the heart that must be circumcised; it is the spirit that must be cleansed; it is the soul that must be attuned to heaven's music. Be real, not ceremonial. Do not only be in the open church, into which every man may go, but find your reverent way into the inner sanctuary, and have an interview with God, face to face, when no one else is present Do not have a set of dogmas, all trimmed and dressed, and marked in plain figures, to which you pay a moment's court once a week; but have living principles active doctrines, penetrating beliefs, convictions that seize the whole nature, and conduct it through a purifying and ennobling process. The Lord will have no ritual that is not significant of an inward ministry. He will have no cleanliness of the body, unless it mean that the soul has undergone divine catharism, and is spiritually cleansed, as a vessel may be chemically purified. This is a sublime issue; this explains everything. It is so with our intellectual education. Who likes to learn alphabets? What do they all amount to, when the five- or six-and-twenty letters are all learned, in this shape and that, curious as if the genius of learning had determined to puzzle the intellect of the world? What are they? They say nothing; they do not know one another; they have to be introduced to one another, and combined, and related, and interrelated, and run into one another; they have to undergo a process of tessellation: but when the child first sees the living meaning of a sentence, and that sentence is full of light and poetry and music, he says, This is worth all the toil. To have been studying a foreign tongue, and then to be able to pass into the nation where it is spoken, and to hold intercourse with the inhabitants—easy, confident, ample intercourse—then the student says, It was worth all the long nights I spent upon the acquisition of this language: it has given me a new world, it has enlarged the horizon of my outlook, I am thankful for all the pains I underwent. So it is with Christian education. There are rituals, observances, penances, ceremonies, and they become irksome, until they yield up their meaning; and the moment a soul can out of its own self pray, shoot out one living sentence, it beholds new heavens and a new earth, and says, This is the meaning of all the discipline; blessed be God, I am a free man of the heavens; I can in my own name for my very self pray through Christ and receive blessings direct from God. If we have not circumcised our hearts, if we have not taken away the foreskins of our hearts and souls, we know nothing about the Christian religion and ought not to profess it.
In the twenty-second verse we have a remarkable charge:—
"For my people is foolish, they have not known me; they are sottish children, and they have none understanding." (Jeremiah 4:22)
Here is inverted genius; here is abused faculty. Here is a man who is in the high pay of the devil. For the devil could hardly do without him, so inventive is he in all evil; he has coined a new language, minted a new currency of evil; he has achieved the right to share the throne of blackness with Beelzebub. The Lord has determined that all falsehood shall come to an unholy end.
"And when thou art spoiled, what wilt thou do? Though thou clothest thyself with crimson, though thou deckest thee with ornaments of gold, though thou rentest thy face with painting, in vain shalt thou make thyself fair; thy lovers will despise thee, they will seek thy life" (Jeremiah 4:30).
This renting of the face is, literally, enlarging of the eyes, through kohl or antimony—a trick of artificial beauty. And the poor creature has taken out her best clothes, painted herself with the fairest colours, done all she could from the outside, and behold the issue is: "Thy lovers will despise thee"—they will see through thee. The knave shall know that he is more seen through than he supposes. He is very skilful up to a given point. The accusation relates both to men and women; charges can easily be made; but it is the whole human nature that is involved in this impeachment. There is clothing, and there is painting, and there is decoration with gold, and there is renting of the face; but after all is over men feel that this is unreal, untrue, utterly rotten at the core; they say this is "a goodly apple rotten at the heart." Let us understand this, that whether we be discovered now or then, we shall be discovered. The hollow man shall be sounded, and shall be pronounced void. Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting; and thou, poor fool, hast covered up the hectic flush of consumption with indigo that will wash off, or with some other colour that can be cleansed away; thou hast made thyself look otherwise than as thou art: but all that is external shall be taken from thee, and thou shalt be seen in thy naked hideousness and ghastliness. This is right! The revelation will be awful; but it ought to be made, or heaven itself will be insecure. Oh what disclosures then! The canting hypocrite without his cloak; the skilful mocker who has lost his power of jesting; the knave who always said a grace he had committed to memory before he cut the bread he had stolen; the preacher who knew the right, and yet the wrong pursued; the fair speaker, who knew the very subtlety of music as to persuasion, and yet decoyed souls down the way at the end of which is hell. Then the other revelation will also be made. There may be men of rough manners who shall prove to have been all the while animated by a gentle spirit; there may be those who have been regarded as Philistines who are God's gentlemen; there may be those who have been thought as unworthy of courtesy who shall be set high among the angels. "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." To be seen through,—that is an awful thought. To have it made plain that the smile was only on the lips and not in the soul,—who could bear the disclosure? To have the royal purple taken away and the lurch of the cripple revealed,—who could bear it? Who can stand before the judgment of God? When the day burneth like an oven, who can bear the ardour? Unless we face these solemn and fundamental questions we never can understand what is meant by God's great offer, by Christ's redeeming Cross, by the ministry of the Holy Ghost. If we tell lies to ourselves, we disqualify ourselves for hearing the music of the gospel. If we live a frivolous surface-life, eating, drinking, talking, sleeping, buying, selling, getting gain, moving to and fro like a weaver's shuttle, then we shall know nothing about the agony of Golgotha, and the meaning of the shed blood of the Son of God: it will be mockery to us; the Sabbath will be a burden, the church will be a nuisance, the grand appeal will be wasted eloquence. But let a man come to feel that he is really a soul, in very deed, made in the image and likeness of God; let him feel one sting of conscience; let him know that he can do nothing towards obliterating the past, even if he could live a beautiful life from this day forth evermore; then he will begin to ask, Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Has no provision been made in this great medical universe for the healing of wounds such as gape in my soul? Does the world grow herbs for the healing of the body, and is there no garden where things are grown for the healing of the soul? It is in that hour that the Christian evangelist has his glorious opportunity; it is then he can say, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved; the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost; thy shame is thy introduction to the Father; thy penitence shall open the door of the sanctuary in which he dwells; he needs no introduction to a broken heart, a contrite spirit, a soul that afflicts itself because of its self-helplessness. Thus from the Old Testament, as from the New, there comes up a gospel—in the one case, the necessity for deliverance; in the other, the living Deliverer—the tender, sympathetic, all-understanding, mighty, infinite Son of God.
Almighty God, withhold not thy showers from us, even though we sin against thee; still plead with us by the goodness of thy providence. We know thou canst afflict us and crush us and fret us beyond endurance. Spare the rod! But why do we plead with thee when thou hast said, I am merciful? Thy mercy endureth for ever. We cry out, because the rod makes us smart under its stroke, and not always because we know the criminality of the sin; we are selfish, we mourn consequences when we ought to lament causes. Enable us to see this, and to act accordingly, that so we may search our own hearts, and hold over the secret places of our life the candle of God. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. The heart will tell lies to heaven. We have a cloak called hypocrisy, which we wear, and which covers us well; sometimes the wind blows it aside, or some rough hand shakes it, and somewhat of our moral ghastliness is revealed. We dare not always look at ourselves, for we are often cowards. Search us, and try us, and see if there be in us any wicked way, and lead us in the way everlasting. We are ashamed of ourselves; we have great ability in falsehood, we smile with the face and frown with the heart; we promise much, and do nothing; we say we will pray unto the Lord, and we forget our heart's desire. Yet thou dost not cut us down; truly, when thou dost say, I am merciful, we can answer, This is even so: his mercy endureth for ever. While we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Herein is love! This is the mystery of grace, the mystery of godliness,—how great it is in love, and light, and hope! We come to the Lord Jesus Christ, the wounded man; our faith lays its trembling hand upon him, our self-accusing, misgiving heart says, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. Lord, hear us, and let thine answer surprise even us, who are accustomed to the miracles of thy goodness. Amen.