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OFFICE AND RESPONSIBILITY OF MINISTERS
Ezekiel 33:8. When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shall surely die! if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thy hand.
THE office of a minister is the most important and most difficult of any that we can be called to sustain. It is the most important, because the salvation of multitudes depends upon it: and it is the most difficult, because it requires such self-denying habits, and spiritual affections. The responsibility also that attaches to it is such, that no man would dare to take it upon himself, if he had not a promise of peculiar assistance in the discharge of it. Ministers are the messengers of God to men: to them they must faithfully declare his whole counsel: however painful the truths may be which they are to deliver, and however averse men may be to hear them, they must execute their commission at the peril of their souls. To this effect God speaks in the words before us: in which we may notice,
What God saith to the wicked—
It is scarcely possible to conceive a more solemn declaration than that before us; “I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die!” Consider,
Who are the people addressed—
[These are all who do not unfeignedly turn from sin to God. It matters not whether they be rich or poor, old or young, learned or unlearned. In some sense, it matters not whether their sins have been more or less heinous: for though there certainly are degrees of guilt, and some are more wicked than others, yet all are wicked, who are not following after God in righteousness and true holiness; and consequently, all such persons, however their characters may vary in other respects, are addressed in the text.]
The declaration of God unto them—
[Death is here denounced as the judgment to be inflicted on all who turn not to their God: and to the same effect the inspired writers uniformly speak [Note: Isaiah 3:11.Romans 6:23; Romans 6:23.James 1:14-15; James 1:14-15.]. Nor are we at a loss to determine what is meant by “death:” it is the wrath of God [Note: Romans 1:18.], the misery of hell [Note: Revelation 21:8.]. This is the judgment that will come upon every individual who shall be found in the state before described. God may be considered as addressing himself to every individual of the human race: “O thou wicked man!” Nor is this fatal result of wickedness expressed in doubtful terms: there is no peradventure; the decree is fixed; “Thou shalt surely die!” Who can reflect on these words as proceeding from a God of infinite power and of inviolable truth, and not tremble?]
The condition implied in that declaration—
[If there were no condition implied in the declaration, it would have been to no purpose to make known the declaration itself; since it could have no other effect than to torment men before their time. But as in the message to Nineveh, “that in forty days Nineveh should be overthrown,” there was an implied condition, that, if they repented, the threatened vengeance should be withheld; so, in this case, there is an implied assurance, that the wicked, if they will repent, shall not die. And this is expressly stated in the following context [Note: ver. 14–16.]: so that, awful as this passage is, it is no less encouraging than it is awful; because it assures the contrite and believing sinner that he shall never perish.]
Together with this warning, we see in the text,
The necessity imposed on ministers to proclaim it—
Ministers are described as watchmen, or sentinels, placed at a distance from the camp to give notice of the enemy’s approach. Now this very character marks both their duty and their responsibility. But the consequences of neglect in any minister are declared in two respects:
The person whom he neglects to warn, will perish—
[If through the sloth or treachery of the sentinels a camp be surprised at midnight, nothing but confusion and ruin can ensue. Thus, if a person appointed to warn the wicked, neglect to do so, the wicked will continue regardless of their impending doom, till it is too late to avert it. And when the hour of vengeance is come, it will be to no purpose to say, “I was not aware of my danger; my minister has betrayed me.” No; the wicked have means of information within their own reach, independent of their ministers; and they have secret intimations in their own consciences that they ought to repent: and therefore they must take the consequences of their own wickedness; “they must die in their iniquity.” How awful is this effect of one minister’s supineness! Alas! that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, should perish eternally, when, if he had warned them faithfully, they might have been saved for ever!]
He himself also will be dealt with as the author of that sinner’s destruction—
[As a sentinel who, by neglecting to give notice of the enemy’s approach, occasioned the overthrow of the army to which he belonged, would be chargeable with all the consequences of his neglect, so will the blood of all that perish through the minister’s neglect “be required at his hand.” When they shall all stand before God, he will ask of the minister, Why didst thou not warn that man, and him, and him, and him? It will be to no purpose to say, “Lord, he was rich, and I was afraid of his displeasure;” or, “Lord, he was poor, and I overlooked him;” or, “Lord, I was so engaged in business or pleasure, that I never thought about the souls committed to my charge.” No: he must answer for every soul that perishes through his means, and must sink ten-fold deeper into the bottomless abyss than the most guilty of the people whom he has neglected and betrayed.]
[After stating these reasons for ministerial fidelity, we need make no apology for “warning the wicked from their way:” or rather, we need apologize for not using far greater plainness of speech that we have ever yet done.
Hear then, ye wicked, with solemn awe, the voice of God to you. “O thou wicked drunkard, thou shalt surely die!” “O thou wicked whoremonger, thou shalt surely die!” “O thou wicked swearer, or sabbath-breaker, thou shalt surely die!” Is there any one here that, though free from gross sins, lives in a neglect of secret prayer; “O thou wicked man, thou shalt surely die [Note: This may be easily extended to the formalist, the hypocritical professor, &c.]!” — — —
But while we declare these things, we would not be unmindful of the compassion which is expressed in the very mode in which God has denounced his judgments; “O thou wicked man!” This seems to intimate, that God is grieved for the misery of the wicked, even while he declares the doom that awaits them. So would we be; and the rather, because we ourselves are involved in the same condemnation, if we do not repent and turn to God.
O then, brethren, whether ye have committed gross sins or not, remember that ye all need to humble yourselves before God as condemned sinners:ye all need to wash in the fountain of the Redeemer’s blood: ye all need to “turn from your transgressions, that so iniquity may not be your ruin.” O that God may enable you to accept this warning with all thankfulness! We have striven, as it became us, to “deliver our own souls:” the Lord grant that, in thus endeavouring to “save ourselves, we may be instrumental to save also those that hear us [Note: 1 Timothy 4:16.]!”]
GOD EXPOSTULATING WITH SINNERS
Ezekiel 33:11. Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?
THE excuses which men offer for not turning unto God, are, for the most part, reflections cast on the Deity himself. One man deems the service of God unnecessary; another thinks it impracticable in his particular situation; another says, I can do nothing without grace, and if God do not bestow his grace upon me, how can I help myself? Such was the disposition manifested by the Jews of old, when they were invited and commanded to repent: they complained, that it was to no purpose to repent, since they were already pining away under their transgressions; and that the promises of life, which were held forth to them in God’s name, were delusive, since God, so far from wishing to pardon them, had shewn a pleasure in executing his vengeance upon them [Note: This seems to be implied in ver. 10. as connected with the text.]. Against such unrighteous accusations, God vindicates himself by an oath, and by the most pressing and affectionate exhortation renews his calls to repentance. In the message which he sent by the prophet to the Jews, we have his message to sinners of every age and nation: and in delivering it to you at this time we would call your attention to two things contained in it:
A solemn oath—
“Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord speaketh,” yea, sweareth; and, “because he can swear by no greater, he swears by himself,” even by his own life and immortal perfections. But what is it which Jehovah condescends to confirm in this solemn manner?
That he hath no pleasure in the death of a sinner—
[What? was this a matter so doubtful, that it was necessary to remove our doubts in such a way? Methinks, we need no further proof of this than our own continuance in the land of the living. Should we, should any of us, have been here, if God had taken pleasure in our death? Have we not provoked God in ten thousand instances to cut us off, and would he not long since have consigned us over to perdition, if he had not been slow to anger, and rich in mercy? — — — Would God moreover have given his only dear Son to die for us, and his blessed Spirit to convert and sanctify us, yea, would he wait so long to be gracious unto us, and, notwithstanding our obstinacy, follow us every day with invitations, entreaties, promises, and expostulations; would he act thus, I say, if he had pleasure in our death? — — — Surely it was not any uncertainty respecting this truth itself, but our backwardness to believe it, that gave occasion for such an astonishing vindication of it.]
That he has pleasure in the conversion and salvation of sinners—
[This is not at all less obvious than the foregoing truth: and the same observations which confirm the one, will establish the other also. But we may farther refer both to existing facts, and most explicit declarations, in support of this assertion. We cannot conceive more atrocious guilt than that which David had contracted, guilt aggravated a hundred-fold by his past professions and experience. But no sooner did he acknowledge his transgression, than the prophet who had been commissioned to denounce the heaviest judgments against him, was inspired to reply, The Lord hath put away thy sin, thou shalt not die [Note: 2 Samuel 12:13.]. In what beautiful colours is the mercy of our God painted in the parable of the lost sheep, and the returning prodigal! Is it possible for words more fully to describe how much “he delighteth in mercy?” Let us marvel then at the condescension of our God in confirming such declarations by an oath. Had he “sworn in his wrath that we should not enter into his rest,” we might easily have accounted for it; because, however merited such a judgment might be, he is never brought, but with extreme reluctance, to execute it [Note: Isaiah 28:21. “His strange act.”]. But to establish his character for mercy in such a way, was altogether superfluous, except for the more abundant display of his own goodness, and the richer consolation of our minds.]
That this testimony of God, respecting his own delight in mercy, may not fail of producing its proper effect on our minds, it is enforced by,
An affectionate exhortation—
Had we not already seen such condescension as almost exceeds our belief, we might well be filled with wonder at the further proofs of it which are exhibited in the text—
The Creator and Judge of all stoops to use the language of entreaty towards perishing sinners—
[He does not simply issue his command, but repeats it with all the tenderness and solicitude of the most affectionate parent. He sees with deep concern how “all like sheep are gone astray, every one to his own way:” one is wandering in the paths of open sensuality and profaneness; another has involved himself in the labyrinths of worldly care; another is pleasing himself with the idea that he belongs to the fold of God, while he has nothing but “the form of godliness without any of its power.” But God would have all return to him, to walk in his ways, and to enjoy his blessings. He longs to see the sensualist, the worldling, and the formal professor of religion, all truly and thoroughly awakened to a sense of their guilt and danger, and all seeking after the salvation of their souls as the one thing needful. He would not that one of them should perish, but that all should come to repentance and live. Hence his earnestness in urging their immediate and effectual return.]
He further enforces his request with a most animated expostulation—
[Sin and death are inseparably connected: there is no alternative but to flee from sin or perish forever; we must turn or die. This is evidently implied in the expostulation which God uses; and the certainty of it is far more strongly marked, than if it had been asserted in the plainest terms. Let sinners then answer the question which God puts to them, “Why will ye die?” Is death, eternal death so light a matter, that ye will subject yourselves to it for the fleeting gratifications of sin? Is it a light thing “to fall into the hands of the living God,” and to have “both body and soul cast into hell” for ever? Or is a life of godliness so painful, that the labours of it will not be repaid by all the felicity of heaven? If we were to ask you, Why will ye seek after God? Why will ye regard your souls? Why will ye forsake the beaten paths of sin, and walk in the unfrequented ways of righteousness? your answers would be plain; the most ignorant might give such a reply, as not all the wisdom of man could gainsay or resist. But what will ye answer to the interrogation in the text? And if you are constrained now, notwithstanding your habits of self-vindication, to acknowledge the folly and madness of your conduct, how much more will you be speechless in the day of judgment, when the enormity of such conduct will appear without any palliation or disguise! Let not God then reason with you in vain: but turn from those ways, which you are not able to justify, or, with any shadow of propriety, to excuse.]
To those who are now at length desirous of returning to God—
[It is not from profaneness to morality, or from morality to an outward observance of religious duties, that God calls us; but from all sin whatever to a sound and thorough conversion. Be sure then that you do not mistake in a matter of such infinite importance; but turn to God in the ways which he has appointed. Go with penitence and contrition to the Lord Jesus, that you may be washed in the fountain of his blood: and pray to God for the influences of his Spirit, that you may be “sanctified wholly in body, soul, and spirit, and be preserved blameless unto his heavenly kingdom.” Rest in nothing short of this, for it is to this only that the promise of life is annexed; “you must be converted, and become as little children (simple, teachable, dependent, obedient in all things) if ever you would enter into the kingdom of heaven.”]
To those who are still determined to withstand the entreaties of God—
[Go on in sin, till you have filled up the measure of your iniquities: but remember, ye will not have to cast the blame on God in that day when your calamities shall come upon you. God has at this very hour testified with an oath, that it is his desire to save your souls; yea, he at this moment expostulates with you, and beseeches you to seek his face. Nor shall ye have to accuse your minister in that day. We are told indeed, in the very chapter before us, that the blood of those who perish, shall be required at the hands of negligent and unfaithful ministers [Note: ver. 7–9.]: but, even though your blood were to be required at the hands of your minister, it would be no alleviation of your misery, since you also would die in your iniquity, and be condemned together with him. We hope, however, and are determined, God helping us, to be “pure from your blood:” we have warned you, and do warn you yet again, that you must turn or die; “if ye live after the flesh ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Whatever others therefore may plead, ye have, and shall have, none but yourselves to blame; and it will be a bitter reflection in the day of judgment, to think, that “God called, and ye refused;” and that “Christ would often have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not.” May God prevent those reflections by giving you repentance unto life, for his dear Son’s sake: Amen, and Amen.]
THE SELF-DECEPTION OF COVETOUS PROFESSORS
Ezekiel 33:31-32. And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they healthy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant, voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not.
NONE can be religious without appearing so; because religion must of necessity regulate our outward conduct. But persons may appear religious, while they are wholly destitute of vital godliness. Such were they, who talked of [Note: “So the word “against” should be read in ver. 30. as the whole context evidently shews; and it is so rendered in the margin of the Bibles.] the prophet in their houses, and expressed so much solicitude to hear from him the word of the Lord—
We propose to consider,
The characters here described—
[If we look at their profession only, all is well: they unite themselves to the Lord’s people, and account themselves to be of their number. They pay great attention to the ordinances; they feel peculiar delight in the ministration of the word; they express a very high regard for those who labour in the word and doctrine; they are not offended even with the most searching discourses; nor are the sons and daughters of pleasure more gratified with musical entertainments, than they are with the fluent, fervent, eloquent harangues of a faithful minister.
But, alas! their practice ill accords with their profession: it is amusement rather than real edification that they seek. Their hearts are set upon the world, and riveted to their earthly possessions. In the pursuit of gain they will be guilty of falsehood or dishonesty; they will commend their goods, when they know them to be bad; they will impose on the ignorance or the necessities of those who deal with them; they will take advantage of the confidence reposed in them to overreach their neighbour; and will condescend to meannesses, of which an honest heathen would be ashamed. They may be generous where their own inclination is strongly concerned, or where a liberal donation will advance their reputation; hut at other times they will be as penurious and niggardly as the most unfeeling miser. It may be indeed that a principle of honour keeps them tolerably observant of truth and justice; but they give abundant evidence that their hearts are set upon things below rather than on things above, and shew, that they are more solicitous to be rich in this world, than to be rich towards God — — —
Such there have been in every age; nor are there wanting many such characters among the professors of the present day [Note: The characters of a proud and passionate professor, and of a censorious and uncharitable professor, might here be drawn, as being equally common, and equally hateful.]. They hear the duties of a Christian opened and enforced; but they remain as much under the dominion of their lusts as ever — — —]
The light in which they are viewed by God—
[In their own eyes they are as good as any. Whatever be their besetting sin, they have reasons enough to extenuate and excuse it. Their covetousness is nothing more than prudence and diligence; their fretfulness and fiery passions are the mere infirmities of nature, the trifling ebullitions of a warm and hasty temper, that are far more than counterbalanced by a proportionable zeal for what is good. When they hear the contrary dispositions recommended from the pulpit, they acknowledge the directions to be exceeding proper; but they scarcely ever feel their own conduct condemned by them. They are eagle-eyed in spying out the faults of others; but they are almost utter strangers to their own. Their zeal for the Gospel, and their attachment to those who preach or profess it, is to them a decisive evidence of their own conversion; and nothing that God or man can say to the contrary is suffered for one moment to shake their confidence.
In the estimation of the Church these persons often pass for eminent saints. Their faults are not generally known, and the best construction is put upon all they say or do. Godly men are afraid of judging harshly, and have learned to exercise the “love that hopeth all things,” and that “covereth a multitude of sins.” Hence they give the right hand of fellowship to those who shew a love to the Gospel; and, even when they fear that all is not right, they are content to “let the tares grow up with the wheat till the harvest, lest through their ignorance they should pluck up the wheat with the tares.”
But in the sight of God, who searcheth the heart, these men appear in their proper colours. Are they covetous? “he abhors them [Note: Psalms 10:3.].” Are they proud, passionate, contentious? they are actuated by an infernal spirit [Note: James 3:14-15.]. Have they no government of their tongue? their religion is vain [Note: James 1:26.]. Are they hearers of the word, and not doers of it also? they only deceive their own souls [Note: James 1:22.]. Are they habitually and allowedly under the dominion of any sin whatever? they are children of the devil [Note: 1 John 3:8.], and not of God [Note: 1 John 3:9.]: not with standing all their profession, they have no part in the Gospel salvation [Note: 1Jn 3:6 and Romans 6:14.], no acceptance in their prayers [Note: Psalms 66:18.], nor any portion but eternal misery in hell [Note: Mark 9:43-48.]. They may have a name to live; but they are really dead before God [Note: Revelation 3:1.]]
How far must they be from a Christian state, who feel no delight in divine ordinances!
[It has already appeared that men may be extremely fond of the offices, the ministers, and the professors of religion, and yet perish for ever, for want of that conformity to the Divine will, which is essential to the Christian character. How much more then must they be destitute of religion, who have not even the outward appearance of sanctity, but live in an open contempt of God’s word and ordinances! Let not any one imagine that the naming the name of Christ is sufficient to constitute us Christians. The tree must be judged of by its fruits: and according to our works will be the sentence that shall be upon us in the last day.]
What need have the professors of religion to examine well their own hearts!
[Love to the word and people of God, if accompanied with an unreserved obedience to his commandments, is an excellent evidence of our conversion: but, if there be a reigning inconsistency in our conduct, our love to the one or to the other of these is mere hypocrisy [Note: Matthew 15:7-8. Psalms 78:34-37. Isaiah 58:2-3.]. Let us then inquire diligently, and beg of God to try us, whether there be any wickedness practised in our lives, or harboured in our bosoms [Note: Psalms 139:23-24.]? Let us not be content to “honour God with our lips, while our hearts are far from him.” Let us rather entreat him to “put truth in our inward parts,” that, while we profess to be interested in the promises, we may “purify ourselves from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit, and perfect holiness in the fear of God [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:1.].”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Ezekiel 33". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany