In those days, and in that time, said the LORD, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together…
The singularity of the passage lies in the face of the inquirer being towards Zion, whilst he is yet forced to ask what road he ought to take. "They shall ask," &c. They are in the right road, or at least are advancing in the right direction; but, nevertheless, whether through ignorance, or through fear of even the possibility of mistake, they continually make inquiries as to the path to be followed. We think that this circumstances indicates such honesty of purpose in the inquirer, such vigilance, such circumspection, such anxiety to be right, and such dread of being wrong, as should distinguish every Christian, though too often we look for them in vain. And, at the same time, we evidently learn that persons are not always fair judges of their spiritual condition; they may be asking the way like those who are in ignorance and darkness, and all the while their faces may be towards Zion. Let us consider first the case of those who, though going right, suppose themselves going wrong; and secondly, that of those who believe themselves right, but yet desire further assurance; for of both classes it may equally be said, "They ask the way," &c. Now it is the object of such parables as that of the tares and the wheat, or that of the net which gathered of all kinds, to teach us that there is to be a mixture in the visible Church, and that it is not men's business to attempt a separation. We are all too much disposed to exercise a spirit of judgment, to pronounce opinions on the condition of our fellow-men, whether the living or the dead, just as though we had access to God's Book, and could infallibly read its registered decisions. But there is everything in the Bible to warn us against this spirit of judgment, and to urge us, on the contrary, to a spirit of charity. A very comforting remembrance it is, that we are not to stand or fall by human decision, that our portion for eternity is not to be settled by what men think of us here. But not only are men likely to deliver a false judgment upon others, and therefore bound to confine their chief scrutiny to themselves, it is further very possible that they may form a wrong opinion of their own spiritual state, not only, as you all know, in concluding themselves safe whilst in danger, but, as is perhaps less suspected, in concluding themselves in danger whilst safe. They are downcast because faith seems weak, or elated because it seems strong; whereas it is not faith which is to save them, but Christ; and whilst faith, whether in itself or its evidences, may change from day to day, Christ changes not, but is "the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever." And we always think it safe to tell those who are spiritually depressed, that their very depression is no mean argument of their safety; for so unnatural is it to man to feel anxious for his soul, that, wheresoever there is the anxiety, we recognise a higher agency, even a Divine, as having wrought to excite the solicitude. And over and above these cases of depression, in which one cause or another weaves darkness round a man, so that, whilst his face is towards Zion, he cannot perceive that he is on the road to the heavenly city, we nothing doubt that there are many instances of parties who have begun in true religion, and nevertheless think that the first step has not been taken. It is not always, nay, it is not, we believe, often, that conversion is suddenly effected, nor through some special instrumentality which fixes, as it were, the date of the change. In the majority of cases, the change, we are inclined to believe, is gradual, imperceptibly effected, so that, although the man becomes at length conscious of a great moral alteration, he cannot tell you when it commenced, nor by what steps it went on. Regarding conversion as a gradual work, a work in which "one soweth and another reapeth," we do not look on those who are evidently confirmed believers, as the only travellers towards the celestial city: we rejoice in thinking that there are numbers in whom the moral change is not yet distinctly marked, but who are nevertheless in the act of passing the strait gate. But let us pass on to the case of men, in regard of whom there can be no doubt that they have made a beginning, and let us see what our text may indicate as to these more advanced characters. Let it first be observed, that a Christian should never be too confident; that he should never take for granted, as a point on which there could not be doubt, that he is indeed "a new creature," and on the high road to the kingdom. Do you find an increasing delight in secret prayer? does sin seem to you more and more odious? are you more and more penetrated by the exceeding great love of God in giving His Son to die for your sakes? is holiness becoming your happiness, duty your privilege, and heaven the very home of your affections? These, and the like questions are those which you should be frequently proposing to yourselves. On the answer to these, an answer given as in the sight of a heart-searching God, should rest your answer to the most momentous of all questions, "Are we on the way to Zion?" And if the answer to this last question can only be come at through the answer to a series of inquiries, each of which may be said to need, from its very nature, the being dally proposed, it necessarily follows that you ought to be imitating the children of Judah and Israel, asking as to the road to Zion, however you may hope that your faces are already thitherward. Can this be the way to Zion in which I am? Ask the dead, who have reached that heavenly city: with one voice they will tell you, that, if it be the right way, it is a way of self-denial, leading you through mortified lusts, and over subjugated affections; and then judge ye whether or not it be such a way in which you are found. Ask the living, of whom you have best cause to believe that they are heirs of the kingdom: they will assure you that the way is one of faith and obedience, every step of which is an advance in the knowledge of your own depraved hearts, and in the sense of the worth and sufficiency of Christ; and then judge ye whether or not this can be the way in which you are walking. Ask the Bible, on whose pages the Holy Spirit hath mapped out the path, and it will tell you that the way is a narrow way, which will not admit of your encumbering yourselves with perishable things, but which can be traversed only by those who lay aside every weight; all then judge ye whether ye have obtained the description of a path which ye yourselves are pursuing. And ask ye, yet further, of God. By diligent and fervent prayer make inquiry of God as to the road which conducts to the place where He dwells. And the answer to this inquiry, an answer, which, if there be sincerity in the inquirer, shall certainly not be withheld, will expose to you the deceitfulness of all hope of reaching Zion which is not founded on the appropriation of the merits of the Redeemer, the reality of that appropriation being proved by the produced fruits of righteousness; and then determine whether such answer ought to leave you assured that you are not self-deceived, when concluding yourselves in the heavenward path. We do not wish you to be always uncertain as to whether or not your faces are turned towards Zion; hut we wish you to understand that their being so turned is a reason in favour of, not a reason against, your frequently inquiring the heavenly path. It is not sufficient that they be turned; the great matter is, that they be kept turned; and whilst such is your nature, that, without constant vigilance, the direction may be gradually changed, and yet appear to you the same — even as the eyes of a well-drawn portrait follow you as you move, and so might persuade you that you had not moved at all — it is evidently bound on you, by your regard for your safety, that you be always ascertaining the landmarks, in place of judging by your apparent position. Is my life the life of a believer in Christ? is faith producing piety, humility, charity, patience? What is this mountain before me? is it on the map? what is this valley which I have to cross, this stream which I have to ford? are they what I was to meet with, or do they show that I have wandered? And here the road divides — which turn am I to take? what is to decide me in this perplexity? Let me be firm on one point — that it is the direction of the road, not its quality, by which I will be deter. mined. The road which leads to heaven, that is my road, be it, or be it not, strewed with the rocks, and swept by the torrents. Other paths may look more inviting: but I have nothing to do except with their termination: if they conduct not to Zion, I would not venture to follow them even a solitary step, though they might lead me to riches, or honours, or pleasures. This it is to imitate the emancipated Jews. But there is yet more to be gathered from this description, when considered as that of a believer in Christ. We will now suppose him certified as to the direction in which he is proceeding, certified that his face is towards Zion, and nevertheless busying himself with inquiries as to the way. And what would this mark? Christianity is that in which no man can be too advanced to study the alphabet. The simple and fundamental doctrines of our holy religion, — the doctrines of human corruption, of the renewing power of God's Spirit, of the incarnation of the Eternal Word, and of the atonement effected by a Mediator, — these, which may be said to show the way to Zion, present continually new material for the contemplation and instruction of the Christian. There is a sense in which- there is no getting beyond the very alphabet of Christianity; that alphabet will always be beyond us; any one of its letters being as a mighty hieroglyphic which the prayerful student may partially decipher, but the most accomplished scholar never thoroughly expound. By this, then, amongst other tests, let those who think themselves advanced in Christianity try their spiritual condition. What ear have they for simple truths simply delivered? In their private studies, what pleasure have they in meditating the first principles of the Gospel? do they find those first principles inexhausted, inexhaustible? or is it always to deeper doctrines that they turn, as though it were only when quite out of their depth, that they gain a resting-place for the soul? But there is yet one more particular on which we wish to insist. We would direct your attention to what we may call the honesty of purpose displayed by the Jews, and hold it up for imitation to all who profess to be seeking the kingdom of God. The Jew had his face turned towards Zion, whilst he was inquiring the road: if he did not know the precise path, he knew the direction in which the city lay; and he was looking in the direction, when he asked what way he should take. We have a right to require and expect a similar conduct from all those who ask of us the way to heaven. There is such a thing as asking the way to Zion with the face towards Babylon; and if there be this dissimulation — for no milder word will express the precise truth — in vain will the preacher point out the road, and urge the traveller to decision and dispatch. We would have you distinctly understand that there is a certain part which the unconverted man has to perform if he hope for conversion; and that whilst this is undone, he has no right to look for the visitations of grace. It may not be in his power to find for himself the pathway of life; still less to take a step on that pathway when found. But he may ascertain the direction in which Zion lies, and he may be looking in that direction, if not advancing. It is quite idle to say that he knows not the direction: he knows it to be the exact opposite to that in which he naturally looks; to turn his eyes from the world is, as he must be thoroughly aware, to turn them towards Zion.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: In those days, and in that time, saith the LORD, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together, going and weeping: they shall go, and seek the LORD their God.