If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, He will turn and bring disaster on you and consume you, even after He has been good to you."
I. THE CHARACTER OF GOD, AND THE KIND OF SERVICE HENCE EXPECTED.
1. He is holy, and consequently demands abstinence from sin. There is in Him entire rectitude of attribute, both in essence and in exercise. The seraphim cry, "Holy is the Lord of Hosts." His vesture is spotless, and He expects His servants to attend Him in uniform unstained (see Leviticus 19:2). Also note the incidents of Moses at the burning bush, Nadab and Abihu consumed for offering unhallowed fire, and the men of Beth-shemesh constrained to exclaim, "Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God?" The sinlessness of Jesus proclaims Him Divine, and sometimes evokes the petition, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and condemns every act that is inconsistent with the relations in which we stand to Himself, to our fellow creatures, and the material world.
2. He is jealous, and therefore exacts whole-hearted allegiance. Annexed to the second commandment was a statement of Jehovah's jealousy, which could not permit His glory to be paid to graven images. When the tables of the law were renewed it was expressly affirmed, "The Lord whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." The word means, glowing with heat, hence the Almighty is compared to a "consuming fire" that subdues every work of man. Idolatry was the sin to which Israel was prone, and every prostration at the shrine of an idol was a derogation from the honour due to God, and excited His indignation. He is not content with an inferior share of affection, He must be loved and served with all our strength. "He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me." The true disciple is ready to forsake all and follow Christ. The will of the Lord is for him law, his only inquiry being, "Lord, what writ Thou have me to do?"
3. He is immutable, and requires unvarying fidelity. "If ye forsake the Lord, then He will do you hurt after that He hath done you good." He rewards every man according to his doings, and visits transgression with punishment. The Israelites were fickle, moved like water by every passing breeze. God is not the son of man that He should repent. He cannot be false to His nature, and look with pleasure on offenders. Past obedience is no answer to the charge of present guilt. Each day brings its own need of sanctification. It is not possible, in God's service, to work so hard one week as to enable us to spend the next in idleness, nor can we accumulate a store of good works to cover deficiencies in a time of sin. "It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them."
II. THE PEOPLE'S DETERMINATION TO SERVE THIS EXACTING GOD.
1. Indicates a feeling that only such a Master is worthy of men's service. Conscience testified that worship should not be offered to other than a perfect Being, and that such a Being could rightly claim these high prerogatives. The rock on which the vessel of mythology has been wrecked is the evil character assigned to its deities, proving them the offspring of human imagination in a debased state. The remembrance of the past, and hopes and fears respecting the future incited the Israelites to continue in their position as the Lord's peculiar people. And have not we experienced that to be the happiest day when we have thought most of God, and most fro. quently lifted our hearts in prayer to Him for guidance and succour? If called to renounce ease or sinful practices, have we not been amply repaid in the consciousness that we have acted rightly, and are walking in the light of God's countenance? To set upon the throne of our hearts one who would be content with meagre devotion and occasional conformity to righteousness might please for a while, but could not durably satisfy our moral aspirations.
2. Intimates a belief that God chiefly regards the sincere endeavours of His servants to please Him. The Israelites could point to Joshua's own demand in ver. 14 - "serve Him in sincerity and in truth." What is really displeasing to the Most High is wilful violation of His commandments, or hypocritical pretences of loyalty when the heart is estranged. These He visits with severest condemnation. Jehovah declared Himself in the same commandment both a "jealous" God, and one "showing mercy." And though the disciples of Christ had often exhibited a spirit of worldlinesss, of impatience and unbelief, yet their Master looking on His little company at the Last Supper could even after their unseemly dispute concerning precedence, recognise what was good in them and say, "Ye are they who have continued with Me in My temptations." He who knows all our works (Revelation 3:8), appreciates the humblest effort to keep His commandments.
3. Suggests an assurance that imperfections of service can be atoned for by confession, sacrifice, and intercession. Joshua's assertion was quite true. Neither the Israelites nor any other nation could serve the Lord perfectly. Limitations of knowledge and frailties of temper produce at least temporary deviations from the path of obedience. But the people no doubt remembered the provision made in the law for sins of ignorance, the trespass offerings, the day of atonement "to cleanse them that they might be clean from all their sins before the Lord." Nor were they unmindful of the prayers which had been heard on their behalf When Moses pleaded for them, and the gracious forgiveness that had often followed their national repentance. And what was dimly foreshadowed in the Levitical economy now blazes brightly for our instruction and comfort under the Christian dispensation. Jesus Christ hath by one offering perfected them that are sanctified. His perpetual priesthood is a guarantee for the final salvation of those who come unto God by Him. "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." "Ye are complete in Him."
4. Leads us to anticipate a period of perfect service. However the goodness of God may pardon our faults and, beholding us in Christ, take note of the direction rather than of the success of our attempts, it is impossible for us to rest content with our present experience. The spirit cries out for entire emancipation from the thraldom of sin, and longs for the redemption of the body. When shall we be conformed to the image of Christ, and enjoy to the full what now we know only by brief moments of rapture and sudden hasty glimpses? This question is answered by the promise of a manifestation of the sons of God," when, in unswerving obedience to His Father's will, they shall realise truest liberty. You who so delight in Christian work as to wish you could spend all your time and energy therein, look to the years to come! "They serve Him day and night in His temple." "His servants shall serve Him, and they shall see His face." - A.
I. THAT WE ARE UNDER OBLIGATIONS TO SERVE THE LORD FROM OUR OWN CHOICE, OR VOLUNTARY ENGAGEMENTS. Here I would premise that though voluntary obligations, taken upon ourselves by our own act, have something of a peculiar force in them, yet they are not the only obligations we are under to serve the Lord. We are bound to be His servants whether we will or not. His character as our creator, our preserver, and benefactor, and as a being of supreme excellency, give Him the most firm and indisputable right to our obedience. But though we are all under obligations to God, independent upon, and prior to, our own consent, yet there are a class of obligations which we have personally, and by our own act, taken upon ourselves; and in the breach of these we are guilty of more direct and aggravated perjury.
If ye forsake the Lord... He will turnI. THE REASONABLENESS OF EXPECTING THAT ABUSED MERCIES MUST LEAD TO MORE AGGRAVATED PUNISHMENT. We see this clearly in the history of Israel. Their career as a nation was marked by perfidy and ingratitude; at almost every step of their progress we find them in rebellion against the Most High — "forsaking the Lord, and serving strange gods." And how did God deal with them when they thus acted? Is it not the case that He scourged them, and caused them to suffer punishment? Look at the plagues that befel them in the desert; look at the slaughters which God permitted them to experience in warfare with their enemies. And who can survey the subsequent history of the Jews, and not read a fulfilment of the threatening contained in our text? And what we are desirous you should gather from the foregoing observations is mainly this, that no experience of good at the hands of the Almighty affords warrant to expect that future disobedience will not be visited with righteous severity. "If ye forsake the Lord and serve strange gods, then He will turn and do you hurt and consume you, after that He hath done you good."
II. THE JUSTICE OF THE DEALING WHICH IS REFERRED TO IN THE THREATENING BEFORE US. NOW it will be admitted that every reason was given Israel to expect the continuance of the Divine favour and protection. We think it easily to be perceived that one main purpose of the Almighty in the calling of Israel as a nation was to maintain upon earth, through means of that race, the pure knowledge of Himself; to afford a witness to the unity of Jehovah, and against idolatry; to secure glory to Himself by the exhibition, on the part of this people, of a consistent obedience. Surely, then, if this purpose was, through the nation's profligacy and disobedience, altogether thwarted, if all the resources which God gave them of national strength were abused and corrupted, indeed it were strange not to perceive that their conduct in this respect released every presumed obligation "to do them good," and in short vindicates to the letter the justice of the warning, "If ye forsake the Lord, and serve strange gods, then He will turn and do you hurt, and consume you, after that He hath done you good." And now, to take a more comprehensive range, from looking at the case of the Jewish people let us turn to that of mankind in general. Does it appear that God can be just in the apportionment of unmitigated wrath to mankind, notwithstanding all the manifestations of His determination to do them good? There are two grand exhibitions to be met with of God's merciful intention towards mankind at large, to do them good. The first of these is furnished by creation, and the second by redemption. Our object of inquiry is simply this: whether the display of God's love in creating or redeeming mankind offers any reason to conclude that, in harmony with His justice, He cannot "turn and do them hurt, and consume them." To begin with creation: no man can doubt that his creation is the proof of a purpose on God's part to "do him good." Beyond all question this purpose was man's happiness, but then his happiness was to consist in assimilation to the Godhead; and if upon man devolve the guilt of having voluntarily destroyed and renounced that similitude, where is the inconsistency of the dealing, should God "turn and do him hurt, and consume him"? The nobler the faculties wherewith he was endowed the brighter the evidence of God's purpose to "do him good," the stronger then seem to me the reasons wherefore wrath should be executed upon those by whom the faculties are abused and the evidence slighted. We turn, lastly, to the manifestation of God's goodness as displayed in redemption. There have been those who have argued — redemption is the evidence of a love so surpassing, they can never believe God will sentence to destruction those whom He has redeemed at such cost. "The method of our atonement involves an expenditure of such wisdom and mercy, that how can we conceive of the Almighty as permitting its objects finally to perish?" Mast to reason thus is equally, as in the former instances we have adduced, to overlook one main purpose of God in the scheme of human redemption. Is it not strange that men who have been made the objects of a sacrifice so costly should regard it so lightly and requite it so coldly? We may wonder that redeemed sinners should perish, but is it not more wonderful that redeemed sinners should refuse to be saved? Again, let us revert to the purpose of God in redemption. Indeed it was to bless the whole earth; it was to ransom humanity from the bondage of evil, and to exalt it to transcendent felicity. But after all, throughout every dealing of God with His intelligent creatures, we may discover the purpose to treat them as responsible beings, free to reject the overtures of His mercy. Now, redemption is offered upon certain terms; man is required to repent and to believe in order to be saved. It is no part of redemption to offer him an entrance into heaven irrespective of a moral fitness, to render him meet for heaven's enjoyments; and in the acquisition of this moral fitness man is required to co-operate with the Divine Spirit. He can refuse to profit by what God hath done for him, and thus prove himself a despiser of the love which is so unsearchably great. He can resolutely withstand the design of the Almighty in redemption, namely, that he should glorify God, both in his body and soul; and, I ask, if it be possible for Him to act thus, is there not justice in the sentence which awards him to suffer in spite of all the declared willingness of God to do him good?
(Bp. R. Bickersteth.)
II. TO INQUIRE HOW AND WHEN, OR IN WHAT RESPECTS, AND AT WHAT PERIODS OF TIME, WE ARE WITNESSES AGAINST OURSELVES THAT WE HAVE CHOSEN THE LORD TO SERVE HIM.
1. You yourselves are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord to be your God. You know and confess that you have been dedicated to God in baptism; and some of you know it was your own act and deed when capable of choosing for yourselves. You also know in your own consciences that you are often present at the table of the Lord, and there you renew your covenant with God afresh.
2. You are witnesses against one another that you have chosen the Lord to serve Him. You have seen the transactions that have passed between God and you in His house; you have seen some baptized themselves, some presenting their children to baptism, and so renewing their own covenant with God; some sealing their religious engagements at the Lord's table.
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