This is part of Isaiah's prophecy. He is telling the Jews that they should come back safe at last to their own land. He tells them why God had driven them out, and why God was going to bring them back.
He had driven them out for their sins. But he was not going to bring them back for their righteousness. He was going to bring them back out of his own free grace, his own pure love and mercy, which was wider, deeper, and higher, than all their sins, or than the sins of the whole world. He had sworn to Abraham to be the friend of those foolish rebellious Jews, and he would keep his promise for ever. Their wickedness could not conquer his goodness, or their denying him make him deny himself.
But one thing he did require of them. Not that they should turn and do right all at once. That must come afterwards. But that they should open their eyes, and see that they had done wrong. He wanted to produce in them the humble and the contrite heart.
Now, as I told you last Sunday, a contrite heart does not merely mean a broken heart; it means more. It means literally a heart crushed; a heart ground to powder. You can have no stronger word.
It was this heart which God wished to breed in these rebellious Jews. A heart like Isaiah's heart, when he said, after having seen God's glory, 'Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell among a people of unclean lips.' A heart like Jeremiah's heart, when he said, 'Oh, that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.' A heart like Daniel's heart, when he confessed before God that, to him and all his people belonged shame and confusion of face.
Why do I mention these three men? They were not bad men, but good men. What need had they of a contrite heart?
I mention them, because they were good men. And why were they good men? For any good works of their own? Not in the least. What made them good men was, just the having the humble and the contrite heart; just feeling that in themselves they were as bad as the sinners round them; that the only thing which kept them out of the idolatry and profligacy of their neighbours was confessing their own weakness, and clinging fast to God by faith; confessing that their own righteousness was as filthy rags, and that God must clothe them with his righteousness.
Do you suppose that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel would have been good men, if they had said to themselves, 'We are prophets; we are inspired; we know God's law: and therefore we are righteous; we are safe: but these people -- these idolaters, these drunkards, these covetous, tyrannous, profligate people round, to whom we preach, and who know not the law -- they are accursed.' If they had, they would have said just what the Pharisees said afterwards. And what came of their saying so? Instead of knowing the Lord Christ, when he came they crucified him, showing that they were really worse at heart than the ignorant common people, instead of better.
No, my friends, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Daniel, were, better men than those round them, just because they had the humble and contrite heart; because they confessed that the root of sin was in them too, as much as in their fellow-country men; because they took their share of the public blame, their share of the public burden.
And their work and wish was, to breed in their fellow-countrymen the same humble and contrite heart which they had; to make them confess that their only hope lay in turning back to God, and doing right. But they could not succeed. Sin was too strong for them. So as Isaiah had warned the Jews, God did the work himself. God took the matter into his own hands, and arose out of his place to punish those Jews, and to make short work with them, by famine, and pestilence, and earthquake, and foreign invasion, till they were all carried away captive to Babylon: to see if that would teach them to know that God was the Lord; to see if that would breed in them the humble and contrite heart.
But God says to these poor Jews, Do not fancy that I have taken a spite against you. Not so. I will not contend for ever. I will not be always angry; for then the spirit would fail before me, and the souls which I have made. I have made you, God says; and I love you. I wish to save you, and not to destroy you. If God really hated any man, do you suppose that he would endure that man for a moment in his universe? Do you suppose that he would not sweep that man away, as easily and as quickly as we do a buzzing gnat when it torments us? Do you fancy that God lets you, or me, or any man, or any creature live one single instant, except in the hope of saving him, and of making him better than he is; of making him of some use, somewhere, some day or other? Do you suppose, I say, that God endures sinners one moment, save because he loves sinners, and willeth not the death of a sinner, but that he should be converted and live? No. 'God our Saviour,' says St. Paul to Timothy, 'willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth;' and therefore if they are not saved it must be their own fault, and not God's; it must be they who will not be saved, though God wills that they should be, as Isaiah goes on to show. For he says -- God cries to men, Peace! I create the fruit of the lips; that is, I give men cause to thank me. I create it. I make it without their help. I do not sell them my mercy. I give it them freely. I say, Peace, peace, to them all, To him who is near, and him who is afar off; peace to all mankind; peace on earth, and goodwill to men. God is everlastingly at peace with himself, and at peace with all his creatures, and with all his works; and he wills, in his boundless love, to bring them all into his peace, the peace which passeth understanding; that they may be at peace with him; and, therefore at peace with themselves, and at peace with each other.
But how can they be at peace, when there is no peace in them? If they will do wrong; if they will quarrel; if they will defraud each other; if they will give way to the lusts and passions which war within them: how can they be at peace? They are like a troubled sea, says Isaiah, when it cannot rest, which casts up mire and dirt; and there is no peace to them. It is not God who casts up the mire and dirt. It is they who cast it up. God has not made them restless: but they themselves, with their pride, selfishness, violent passions, longings after this and that. God has not made them foul and dirty, but they themselves, with their own foul words and foul deeds, which keep them from being at peace with themselves, because they are ashamed of them all the while; which keep them from being at peace with their neighbours; which make them hate and fear their neighbours, because they know that their neighbours do not respect them, or are afraid of their neighbours finding them out.
What says brave, plain-spoken St. James? -- 'Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.' 'From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not.'
But as for God, he says, from him comes nothing but good. Do not fancy anything else. 'Do not err, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.'
My friends, all these things were written for our examples. God grant that we may lay the lesson to heart. A dark night may come to any one of us, a night of darkness upon darkness, and sorrow upon sorrow, and bad luck upon bad luck; till we know not what is going to happen next; and are ready to say with David -- 'All thy waves and thy billows are gone over me;' and with Hezekiah -- 'I reckoned till morning, that, as a lion, so will he break all my bones: from day even to night wilt thou make an end of me.'
God grant, that before that day comes, we may have so learnt to know God, as to know that the billows are God's billows, and the storms his storms; and, after a while, not to be afraid, though all earthly hope and help seem swept away. God grant that when trouble comes after trouble, we may be able to see that our Father in heaven is only dealing with us as he dealt with those poor Jews; that he is all the while saying 'Peace!' to us, whether we be near him, or far off from him; and is ready to heal us, the moment that he has worked in us the broken and contrite heart. And we may trust him that he will do it. With him one day is as a thousand years. And in one day of bitter misery he can teach us lessons, which we could not teach ourselves in a thousand years of reading and studying, or even of praying. But our prayers, we shall find, have not been in vain. He has not forgotten one of them; and there is the answer, in that very sorrow. In sorrow, he is making short work with our spirits. In one terrible and searching trial our souls may be, as the Poet says --
Heated hot with burning fears,
Yes. He will make short work at times with men's spirits. He grinds hearts to powder, that they may be broken and contrite before him: but only that he may heal them; that out of the broken fragments of the hard, proud, self-deceiving heart of stone, he may create a new and harder heart of flesh, human and gentle, humble and simple. And then he will return and have mercy. He will show that he will not contend for ever. He will show that he does not wish our spirits to fail before him, but to grow and flourish before him to everlasting life. He will create the fruit of the lips, and give us cause to thank him in spirit and in truth. He will show us that he was nearest when he seemed furthest off; and that just because he is the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy, who dwelleth in the high and holy place, for that very reason he dwells also with the humble and the contrite heart; because that heart alone can confess his height and its own lowliness, confess its own sin and his holiness; and so can cling to his majesty by faith, and partake of his holiness by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit.
God grant that we may all so humble ourselves under his mighty hand, whenever that hand lies heavy upon us, that he may raise us up in due time, changed into his divine likeness, from glory to glory; till we come to the measure of Christ, and to the stature of perfect men, renewed into the image of the Son of Man, Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen.