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DIRECTIONS FOR AN ACCEPTABLE APPROACH TO GOD
Hosea 14:1-28.14.3. O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; for hast fallen by thine iniquity. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord: say unto him, Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously: so will we render the calves of our lips. Asshur shall not save us: we will not ride upon horses; neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our Gods: for in Thee the fatherless findeth mercy.
FOR the encouragement of all who feel the burthen of their sins, God has declared, yea has sworn, that “he has no pleasure in the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live:” and the whole Scriptures bear testimony to that blessed truth. But, lest any should be discouraged by the idea that they know not how to approach him acceptably, it has pleased God to prescribe the very “words” whereby he would have them address him. And assuredly, if he had consulted all the weary and heavy-laden sinners in the universe, and had permitted them, or any individual among them, to dictate to him what expressions he should prescribe, the whole world could never have suggested any that were more suited to the necessities of men, or more satisfactory to their minds, than those recorded in our text.
In the words before us, we see, not merely our general warrant for returning to the Lord, but more particularly,
What petitions to offer—
[What would any one who felt the burthen of sin, and a restoration to the Divine favour, desire? What but a full remission of all his sins, and a free communication of all spiritual and eternal blessings? He would wish for pardon to be complete; because if so much as one sin were left upon his soul, it would inevitably plunge him into everlasting perdition — — — He would also wish for his reception to be perfectly gratuitous, because he can never do any thing to merit it at the hands of God — — — Behold then, it is precisely in this way that we are directed to pray; “Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously.” And let it be remembered, that this address is not put into the mouths of those only who have contracted a less measure of guilt than others, but of all, to whatever extent “their iniquities” may have abounded, and to whatever depth they may have “fallen” by them. If only we have a desire to “return to the Lord our God,” we are the persons invited and commanded to return in this way.]
In our text, we are further told,
What promises to make—
We must not imagine that we can make to God any adequate return for his mercies towards us; nor must we presume to offer any thing to him as an inducement to exercise mercy towards us: nor in any point of view whatever must we promise any thing in our own strength. But his mercies undoubtedly call for the best return that we can make; and they lay us under an obligation to do our utmost to please and serve him. Whatever tribute we can render to him, we should: and he here tells us what he will accept at our hands, namely, the tribute of,
A grateful heart—
[The blood of bulls or “calves” is no longer required of us: there are other and better sacrifices which he expects us to offer, namely, “the calves of our lips,” or the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving [Note: Psalms 50:13-19.50.14; Psalms 50:23.]. And these are the offerings which all who are looking to him for mercy desire to offer. In fact, the more any persons are bowed down with a sense of sin, the more they are ready to say, ‘How shall I praise God, if ever I should obtain mercy at his hands! If ever God should admit me to a participation of his kingdom and glory, there will not be one in heaven that will shout the praises of redeeming love so loud as I.’ This tribute therefore the pardoned sinner will delight to pay — — —]
A devoted life—
[To turn from sin, and especially from our besetting sins, is indispensably required of all who seek for mercy at God’s hands [Note: Hebrews 12:1.] — — — The besetting sins of Israel were, creature-confidence, and idolatry: they were always looking to Egypt or Assyria for help, rather than to God; and giving to dumb idols the worship that was due to him alone. These evils therefore they were to renounce; and an engagement to renounce them was required of all who desired the remission of their former sins. Thus, in approaching the Most High God, and supplicating mercy from him, we should determine, with God’s help, never more to provoke the Lord to jealousy by a renewal of those sins of which we profess to have repented. Our besetting sins in particular must be searched out: and whatever they may have been, whether of a spiritual or carnal nature, we must engage, through grace, to mortify and subdue them — — — We must engage, in dependence upon God, to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”]
As great earnestness is required in our prayers, we are taught,
What pleas to urge—
[God indeed is not, nor can be, wrought upon by any considerations that we can propose: but for the stirring up of our own souls it is proper and necessary that we should enforce our petitions with becoming pleas. But where shall we find any consideration fit to be presented to the Deity? No where, but in his own perfections, or in his gracious promises. Here however we are at no loss: the compassions of our God are infinite; and may well be pleaded by those who feel their need of mercy. “In him the fatherless findeth mercy:” in him, too, the guilty, as well as the destitute, find mercy. Search the records of his word; and this truth will be seen written as with a sun-beam. Mark that stupendous effort of mercy, the gift of his only dear Son to the accursed death of the cross! Mark the invitations, the promises, the expostulations, the complaints; “Wilt thou not be made clean? O! when shall it once be?” Mark these, I say; and they form such a plea, as must satisfy the most doubting mind, and turn to transports of joy the apprehensions of every desponding soul — — —]
o those who refuse to turn to God—
[Alas! how many turn a deaf ear to the solicitations of heaven! “How often would the Saviour gather us under his wings, and we will not?” But, if you will not turn at God’s reproof, what will ye answer him in the day when he shall judge the world? Low as “ye are fallen,” he now is willing to raise you up: but all possibility of recovery will then be past; and you will sink yet lower still, even into the bottomless abyss of misery. “O consider this, ye that forget God; lest he tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver you.”]
To those who are beginning to return—
[Mind that you return in his appointed way. Seek not merely a deliverance from wrath, but a restoration to the state from whence ye are fallen. Look back on man in his primeval state, and see how Adam walked with God in Paradise: that is the pattern that you should endeavour to follow, and the standard to which you should aspire. Or, if he be too far removed from your apprehensions, look at the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, and see how he walked in the midst of this ungodly world: and endeavour to “walk as he walked.” For the remission of your sins, and your restoration to the Divine favour, let the mercy of God in Christ Jesus be your only plea, your only hope: and, for the honouring of your reconciled God, let the sacrifice of praise be continually offered to him on the altar of your hearts, and every defilement be banished without hesitation or reserve. Thus coming to him, you shall never be cast out; but shall surely be received to a participation of his favour, and to a possession of his glory.]
THE BLESSINGS THAT PENITENTS MAY EXPECT
Hosea 14:4. I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him.
MEN who have never seen the evil of sin are ready to imagine that God will not punish: under the idea of advancing the attribute of mercy, they deprive the Deity of all justice, holiness, and truth. On the other hand, when they are awakened to a due sight and sense of sin, they suppose that God can never forgive such vile and guilty creatures as themselves: they are now as prone to limit his mercy, as before they were to extend it beyond all bounds of truth and soberness. Nor is this disposition found only in one or two instances: hard thoughts of God, and desponding thoughts of their own state, are very common amongst those who begin to repent; and therefore God is particularly solicitous to impress us with a confidence in his mercy. When he proclaimed his name to Moses, there were a great many expressions declarative of his mercy, while there was only one that described his justice. So we shall find, that there is scarcely one threatening in all the book of God, which is not followed by some free and gracious promise. In the passage before us, he has been exhorting the ten tribes to return unto him: he has put words into their mouths, and taught them how to approach him acceptably: and for their further encouragement, he promises to vouchsafe them the richest of all mercies; “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him.”
From these words we shall take occasion to shew,
What blessings penitents may expect—
[We cannot easily conceive any description of sinners to be worse than those to whom the prophet was writing: this whole prophecy is filled with the most grievous accusations against them: yet God encourages them to repent; and, on the first appearance of penitence and contrition, he sends them this heart-reviving message, “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely.”
The first blessing then that every penitent may expect is, that God will heal his backslidings. Sin of every kind, but more especially backsliding, makes a grievous wound in the soul. What pain and anguish did Peter feel, when he went out and wept bitterly! How deeply was David stricken, when he “roared for the disquietness of his heart!” He compares his misery to that occasioned by broken bones; and prays, that God would “make the bones which He had broken to rejoice.” Yet grievous as these wounds are, God will heal them, if we be truly penitent. There are two ways in which he will heal sin: its guilt he will heal, by the blood of his Son; its power and pollution, by the influences of his Spirit.
He will heal its guilt, by the blood of his Son: there is no other balm than this: this alone can avail for the remission of sin: nothing but that which satisfied God will ever satisfy us: nothing but that blood which made an atonement for sin, can ever wash away its stain from our guilty consciences. That however will cleanse from all sin: God once opened on the cross a fountain for sin and uncleanness; nor has it lost any of its cleansing efficacy: the deepest wound may be healed in a moment, if it be only sprinkled with this precious blood: nor will God ever fail to impart this balm to any soul that makes application for it: “though their sins may have been as scarlet, they shall be made white as wool; and though they may have been red as crimson, they shall become white as snow.”
But God will destroy the power, as well as cleanse the guilt of our backsliding: and this he will do by the influences of his Spirit. It would be to little purpose that he forgave the guilt, if he did not also subdue the power, of our corruptions: for, however frequently they might be forgiven, they would still rage with unabated fury; the wounds healed for an instant would still be breaking out afresh; nor would our souls attain to any abiding purity or peace. God therefore will cast salt into the bitter fountain of our hearts: he will “put his Spirit within us, and cause us to walk in his statutes:” he will give us “grace sufficient for us:” he will strengthen us to resist temptation, and to fulfil our duties: and though we cannot expect to arrive at sinless perfection whilst we are in this world, yet shall we be so far healed, that “no sin whatever shall have allowed dominion over us.”
This then is the first blessing which every penitent may expect; the guilt and power of his sins, yea, even of his most grievous backsliding, shall be healed; and, whereas there was “no soundness in him, but (as the prophet says) wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores,” “his health shall spring forth speedily,” “the lame man shall leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”
But is this all that the penitent may expect? No; God has in store for him a higher and richer blessing: it is great indeed to have one’s backslidings healed; but it is greater still to enjoy the light of God’s countenance, and to have his love shed abroad in one’s heart: yet this also shall be vouchsafed to every repenting sinner: God says in my text, “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely.” God will feel a joy and a delight over the returning Prodigal; “To this man,” says he, “will I look, that is of an humble and contrite spirit:” I will fix my eyes upon him for good; I will look upon him with complacency; though burning seraphs surround my throne, and myriads of angels brighter than the sun encompass me around, I will look through all their shining ranks, nor shall all of them together divert my attention from the contrite sinner: “To this man will I look:” from whomsoever I hide my eyes, I will be sure to look on him with pleasure and complacency: “I will rejoice over him with joy; I will rest in my love; I will joy over him with singing.” What an unspeakable blessing is this! To have God himself delighting in us, and shedding abroad his love in our hearts, this is inestimable indeed! He adds moreover, “I will love them freely;” i.e. without any desert in them, without any reluctance in himself. Were he to wait till they had something in themselves worthy to attract his notice, they could have no hope: to all eternity they must remain poor, helpless, miserable, undone creatures: they could never of themselves entertain so much as one good thought; much less could they do any thing to merit God’s esteem: God therefore will not wait for any thing in them to attract his regard: if only they be sorry for their sins, and bewail them before him in secret, he will love them freely; not for their sakes, but for his own; not because they are good, but because he will shew forth the freeness of his grace. And, as he will love them without any desert in them, so will he love them without any reluctance in himself: he delights in the exercise of mercy: it is the very joy of his heart to manifest his mercy to all that call upon him in truth. When our iniquities compel him to give us up, then he is all backwardness and reluctance; “How shall I give thee up? my bowels are troubled for thee.” But when we desire to return to him, he never deliberates; he never says, “How shall I receive such a sinner as thou art?” We may see in the parable of the Prodigal Son what is his conduct towards every repenting sinner: instead of hesitating whether he should receive the Prodigal, he ran to meet him; instead of upbraiding him, he interrupts him in his confession, and seals up his lips with kisses; instead of granting his request and making him the lowest of his servants, he treats him as his best-beloved son, clothes him in the richest garments, and kills the fatted calf for him. Thus does God towards every penitent; and were every soul as much disposed to receive mercy as God is to shew mercy, there would never so much as one perish, even to the end of the world.
These blessings then may every penitent expect: God has here, as also in many other passages, expressly bound himself by his own voluntary promise; so that every penitent may expect these blessings upon the ground of God’s truth and faithfulness.]
But there is another ground mentioned in our text: we proceed therefore to notice,
On what ground they may expect them—
[This part of our subject will require peculiar care and attention, lest we be misunderstood.
Observe the manner in which the last words of our text are introduced: God says, “I will heal their backsliding; I will love them freely: for mine anger is turned away from him:” he is here endeavouring to encourage penitents; and therefore he tells them that he will do great things for them, because his anger is already turned away from them. After much and careful examination of the words, we are persuaded that this is the true sense and meaning of them; and that they are intended to convey one of the most encouraging truths that can be found in all the book of God, namely, that our repentance is a proof of God’s anger being turned away from us, and that the removal of his anger from us is a pledge of greater blessings; or, in other words, that our having the grace of repentance is a ground whereon we may expect the richest blessings.
But we will explain ourselves more fully.
Repentance has not in itself any thing meritorious; nor can the mere work of repentance ever afford a ground of hope towards God: to suppose that our repentance can merit any thing at God’s hands, or bear any part in our justification before God, would be to subvert the whole Gospel, and to render Christ’s death of none effect. Satan cannot take any more effectual method to bring souls to perdition, than to make them trust in their own repentance. Let us not then be understood as though we would lead any man to trust in his repentance; for we say again, that it is impossible to take a surer road to destruction, than he does, who trusts in any repentance or righteousness of his own. But, in another sense, repentance may encourage us to hope; for repentance is a sign and evidence of grace; and grace given, warrants us to expect more grace: and therefore we say, repentance is in some sense a ground of hope: and this, we doubt not, is the meaning of the prophet, in our text. The latter part of our text is a reason for the former part of it: God says in the former part, “I will do so and so;” and then, in the latter, he tells them why they may expect him to do so and so, namely, “because mine anger is turned away from them:” he does not say, “shall be turned away,” but is already turned away. Their being penitent was a proof that they had grace; their having grace was a proof that God’s anger was turned away from them; and the removal of his anger from them was a ground whereon they might expect further blessings from him. To make this matter more clear, let us substantiate two things: First, Repentance is an evidence of grace: no one can doubt that, unless he supposes, that he can repent without the grace of God: but a man must be ignorant indeed to frame any such conception as that: if we believe any thing of the Scriptures, or know any thing of our own hearts, we must know, that “Christ is ascended up on high, to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance and remission of sins;” and that we must acknowledge our repentance, as well as “every other good and perfect gift, to be from above, even from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning.” It being therefore past a doubt that repentance is an evidence of grace, let us prove next, that Grace given, warrants us to expect more grace. The Scriptures plainly assert this; for, on what ground was Paul so confident that God would carry on the good work in the hearts of his Philippian converts, and perform it until the day of Christ? On this ground, namely, “that he had begun a good work in them:” so that, to say the least, grace bestowed is a ground of encouragement whereon we may hope to obtain more grace.
The clear indisputable conclusion from hence is, that if any man has grace to repent, he may take encouragement from it to hope that God will give him more grace: if he has so good an evidence that God’s anger is already turned away from him, he has good reason to hope, that God will do more for him, that he will heal his backslidings, and love him freely.
By way of confirming this blessed truth, we will refer you to those memorable words of David [Note: Psalms 56:13.]; where you will see, that he draws the very same conclusion from the very same premises; and that too in such a way as evidently supposes his argument to be incontrovertible: “Thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt thou not deliver my feet from falling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living?”]
Let us now conclude, with an inference or two from what has been said:
What astonishing consolation is here for all that desire to turn unto God!
[A person may, from a discovery of his sins, be led to say, “There is no hope:” more especially those who have once “tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come,” if they have lost their good impressions, and turned back to the world, are tempted to despair: Satan would suggest to them, that, because they have sinned against light and knowledge, they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost. But observe what care God takes to dispel our fears, and to encourage our return: he does not merely say, “I will heal their sins, but I will heal their backsliding;” thereby obviating at once all their objections. He knows how Satan will take advantage of them: that he will suggest desponding thoughts, and make them believe their sins are too great to be forgiven; and therefore God specifies the greatest of all sins, “I will heal their backsliding” their sins committed against all their own vows and resolutions, their sins committed after the greatest mercies had been vouchsafed to them; yes, even those, says God, will I heal: I will wash them away in the blood of my dear Son, and blot them out as a thick cloud: I will cast them behind my back, and remember them no more; I will pour the balm of Gilead into your wounded spirits, and speak peace to your afflicted consciences. Still Satan suggests, “But you will fall again, and then your last end shall be worse than the beginning.” ‘No’ says God, ‘it shall not be so; only come to me, and I will keep you from falling; trust in me, and “you shall never fall; but an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the kingdom of your Lord and Saviour:” I will heal you, not only by my pardoning, but also by my renewing, grace: and so effectually will I heal your wounds, that I will even renew you after mine own image, in righteousness and true holiness.’ Perhaps Satan will still urge, ‘But you are not worthy;’ and thus prevent your trusting in God; ‘But,’ says God, ‘I do not look for worthiness in the creature: I will love them freely; without the smallest regard to any thing in them: I will love them for mine own name sake, and “have mercy merely because I will have mercy.” ’ But yet Satan suggests, ‘This is not for you: God is your enemy, and you have nothing to do with these promises:’ but to this also God has given you a certain answer; Are you truly desirous to have your backslidings healed, and to live in the enjoyment of God’s free love and favour? ‘Then, says God, “mine anger is turned away from you:” it not only shall be, but is; that very desire is a fruit of my love; that little repentance which you exercise, is the gift of my grace; and you are to take it as a pledge and earnest of richer blessings; you are to take encouragement from what I have given, to expect from me all that I can give: only follow the direction I have given you, “Take with you words, and say unto me, Take away all iniquity, and receive me graciously,” and I will answer the very desires of your heart; for “I will heal your backslidings, which are the greatest of all sins, and will love you freely; and, lest you should doubt this, I tell you, that, if such be the desires of your heart, mine anger is turned away from you” ’ — — —
See now, my Brethren, what rich consolation here is for every drooping and desponding soul! O cease to listen to the suggestions of Satan; cease to entertain hard thoughts of God! Only come to Jesus) and see what a gracious Saviour he is; how freely he will love) how effectually he will heal. Bring all your unworthiness along with you; bring all your sins) and all your backslidings; and if only ye desire to have them all healed) surely ye shall soon feel the cleansing efficacy of his blood) and the renewing influence of his Spirit: and when he thus loveth you, he will “love you to the end” — — —]
What cause of fear is here to those who are living in wilful sin!
[If you be not seeking deliverance from sin, even from your darling and besetting sin, surely your case is awful indeed: the anger of God is not turned away from you. No: if there be any truth in the Divine record, “the wrath of God abideth on you.” If you seek not to have your backslidings healed, how is it possible that God should love you? It is said, “He hateth all the workers of iniquity,” and, “He is angry with the wicked every day.” Deceive not therefore your own souls: ye backsliders in particular, who have fallen from your first love, deceive not yourselves; for, except ye repent, God shall remove your candlestick, and your lamp shall go out for ever. Examine well your own souls; see whether the world have not crept in; whether some accursed weeds and thorns have not choked the seed, so that you bring no fruit to perfection? If you can be easy in such a state, there is reason to fear that you are given up by God to judicial hardness: but perhaps you are not easy, yet your uneasiness does not stir you up to repent: you do not unfeignedly seek grace and mercy from the Saviour’s hands; you do not plead with him in earnest; you do not go with strong crying and tears to implore deliverance: what then can you expect, but to perish by the wounds which your backslidings have made? Still, however, there is mercy in store for you: God desires not your death, but rather that you turn from your wickedness and live. O then, “turn, and live ye!” Be importunate at the throne of grace; plead with Him that died for sinners: remember, He is the Sun of Righteousness, whose beams are healing; and “the tree of life, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.” He is called, in Exodus 15:26, “The Lord who healeth thee;” and he says to every convinced sinner, “If thou wilt return, return unto me, O Israel!” “Whosoever cometh unto me, I will in no wise east out” — — —]
THE FRUITS OF GOD’S FAVOUR
Hosea 14:5-28.14.7. I will be as the dew unto Israel: he shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon. His branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive-tree, and his smell as Lebanon. They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine; the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon.
THERE are instances of beautiful imagery in the Scriptures equal to any that can be found in the works of the most renowned authors; they are enhanced too by the importance of the subjects they contain. In both respects the passage before us deserves peculiar attention. Imagination cannot conceive a richer display of divine blessings than God here vouchsafes to his church and people.
The favour which God will shew his people—
The metaphor of “dew” is at once simple and sublime—
[The benefits of the dew are but little known in this climate; but in Judζa the metaphor would appear very significant [Note: Where the rains are periodical, and the climate hot, the dews are more abundant.]. Fur some time after the creation, dew supplied the place of rain [Note: Genesis 2:6.]; and, after rain was given, it still remained of great use. The Scriptures speak of it as an important blessing [Note: See Genesis 27:28; Gen 27:39 and Deuteronomy 33:13.]: they represent the withholding of it as a calamity and a curse [Note: 2 Samuel 1:21.].]
The communications of God to his people are fitly compared to it—
[It distils silently and almost imperceptibly on the ground; yet it insinuates itself into the plants on which it falls, and thus maintains their vegetative powers. In the same manner God’s visits to his people are secret [Note: He comes not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the small still voice. 1 Kings 19:11-11.19.12.]; but he gains access to their in most souls [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:16.]. He cheers and revives their fainting spirits, and thus he fulfils to them his own most gracious promise [Note: Isaiah 58:11.]—.]
Were his communications refreshing only, and not influential on the conduct, we might be afraid of enthusiasm; but his favour invariably discovers itself by—
Its fruits and effects—
The effects of the dew are seen by the progress of vegetation: the descent of God’s Spirit on the soul also produces growth, beauty, fragrancy, fertility.
[The “lily” springs up speedily, but is of short duration. The cedars of “Lebanon cast forth their roots” to a great extent. Thus the soul that is refreshed with divine communications. The quickness of its growth often excites admiration. Its stability defies the assaults of earth and hell, while it “spreads its branches,” and displays its vigour in every good word and work.]
[There is peculiar grace and ld;beauty in the olive-tree,” and such is there in the soul that communes much with God. What a lustre was there on the face of Moses, when he came down from the mount [Note: Exodus 34:30.]! And how is the lively Christian “beautified with salvation!” His outward conduct is rendered amiable in every part. His inward dispositions of humility and love are ornaments which even God himself admires [Note: 1 Peter 3:4.]. He is transformed into the very image of his God [Note: Ephesians 4:23-49.4.24.]; nor shall his beauty be ever suffered to decay [Note: The olive, as an evergreen, retains its beauty; and in this respect also is a fit emblem of the true Christian. Psalms 1:3.].]
Fragrancy [Note: This is twice mentioned in the text, and therefore deserves peculiar notice.]—
[Lebanon was no less famous for its odoriferous vines than for its lofty cedars: and does not the Christian diffuse a savour all around him [Note: 2 Corinthians 2:14.]? How animated his discourse when God is with him! How refreshing and delightful to those who enjoy his conversation [Note: See him before the sun has exhaled the dew, or the world abated the fervour of his affections; and how does he verify that saying! Proverbs 16:24.]! How pleasing is it also to his God and Saviour [Note: Malachi 3:16. Song of Solomon 4:16.]! In proportion as he lives near to God, he fulfils that duty [Note: Colossians 4:6.]—.]
[The “corn and the vine” are just emblems of a Christian’s fruitfulness. They often wear the most unpromising appearance; yet are they “revived” by the genial influences of the sun and rain. Thus the Christian may be reduced to a drooping or desponding state; but the renewed influences of God’s Spirit will revive him. They make him “fruitful in all the fruits of righteousness.” They too, who “dwell under his shadow,” and are most nearly connected with him, will participate his blessings [Note: If he be a master, a parent, and especially a minister, the benefit of his revivals will extend to many.]“.]
How honourable and blessed is the Christian’s state!
[Often is he favoured with visits from above [Note: John 14:23.], and glorious are the effects produced by God upon him. The whole creation scarcely affords images whereby his blessedness may be adequately represented. Who then is so honourable? who so happy? Let all endeavour to maintain a sense of their high privileges, and to “walk worthy of the calling wherewith they are called.”]
How hopeful is the state of those who wait on God!
[The promises in the text were given as an answer to prayer [Note: ver. 2.]: and they are made to all, who, “like Israel,” plead with God. If the dew be withheld from others, it shall descend on them [Note: Judges 6:37-7.6.38.]. Its descent shall accomplish the utmost wishes of their souls. They shall soon experience the fulfilment of that word [Note: Isaiah 40:31.]—.]
GOD’S NOTICE OF PENITENTS
Hosea 14:8. Ephraim shall say, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green fir-tree: from me is thy fruit found.
THE conversion of a sinner is a work of infinite difficulty; no efforts of the creature can accomplish it: none but He who spake the universe into existence, can renew the soul: but when his time is come, the work is done both easily and effectually. As a ship, forsaken by the ebbing tide, can never be dragged along, but is easily put in motion when borne up by the returning waters, so the sinner is immoveable in his iniquities, till the Spirit of God flows in upon him: and then “old things quickly pass away, and, behold, all things become new.” This observation is verified continually before our eyes: persons who have been warned and entreated for many years, and have not only withstood all the most awful and endearing considerations, but have been more and more hardened by the means used to convert them, have at last been turned to God through a secret and invisible influence upon their souls, and have become burning and shining lights in their day and generation. Such were the effects produced on the day of Pentecost, when thousands to whom our blessed Lord had preached in vain, and on whom the most stupendous miracles had wrought no change, were constrained to renounce all their former habits and opinions, and to embrace a new, a spiritual, a despised, and persecuted religion. A similar instance we have in the passage before us. If we look to the account given us of Ephraim in chap. 4:17, we shall find, that he was “joined to idols,” yea, so glued to them, that neither warnings from man, nor judgments from God, could separate him from them; and therefore God said respecting him, “Ephraim is joined to idols, let him alone;” it is to no purpose to use any further means for his recovery; he is incorrigible, and irreclaimable. But, behold the change, when once God is pleased to put forth his power! When once he says, “I will heal their backsliding, I will be as the dew to Israel,” “I will manifest my grace and mercy to his soul,” the obdurate heart relents; the abandoned sinner turns from his iniquities, and even with indignation and abhorrence renounces his most beloved lusts; “Ephraim saith, What have I to do any more with idols?” If God therefore have such pity on an impenitent transgressor, we shall not wonder at the gracious declaration which he makes for the comfort of this penitent and returning sinner; “I have heard him, and observed him: I am like a green fir-tree: from me is thy fruit found.”
In discoursing on these words, we shall be naturally led to shew you,
The disposition of the true penitent—
[The unconverted man, though he may never have bowed down to stocks and stones, is an idolater: he “loves and serves the creature more than the Creator.” All indeed do not worship the same idol: one gives his heart to riches, another to honour, another to pleasure; and though all these find a higher place in our affections than we allow to God, yet each person has his favourite idol, to which he is in a more especial manner devoted: but when grace has renewed the heart, then the penitent says with Ephraim of old, “What have I to do anymore with idols?” His disposition is, To renounce all sins in general,—his besetting sin in particular;— and this too with indignation and abhorrence.
He renounces all sins in general.—A person who is not truly penitent may exchange one sin for another; he may exchange lewdness and intemperance for the love of honour and ambition: he may turn from prodigality to avarice; or from indifference and profaneness to Pharisaism and hypocrisy. But he never remits one sin without taking some other in its stead; yea, he frequently puts more into the scale of pride and conceit, than ever he took out of that of sensuality or profaneness. But it is not thus with the true penitent: he has commenced a war against sin in general; he endeavours to attack it in all quarters; he knows that sin is idolatry, in that it is a preference given to the creature above God himself; and therefore, without making any reserves, he determines to extirpate sin, root and branch, if possible, and says, “What have I to do any more with idols?”
But he more particularly devotes to destruction his besetting sin.—The besetting sin of the ten tribes was idolatry: and therefore when Ephraim is brought to repentance, he is represented as fixing his eyes more particularly on that sin. Indeed this was remarkably exemplified in the Jews, after their return from the Babylonish captivity: for though, before their captivity, they could never be kept long together from idolatry, they could not after their return be drawn to it; insomuch, that when it was proposed to set up a statue of Augustus in the Temple, the Jews determined to perish rather than submit to it. Now every man has some sin which more easily besets him: and it is oftentimes a very difficult matter to find it out, by reason of the various shapes which it assumes, and the deep recesses in which it lurks. But it is a distinguishing mark of the true penitent, that, whatever he imagines to be his besetting sin, he will be more particularly solicitous to mortify and subue it. The hypocrite and self-deceiver will plead for his darling lust; he will make excuses for it; he will cast the blame on his constitution, or his situation in life; he will palliate his guilt, and not endure to be admonished respecting it: but the truly upright soul will be exceeding glad to discover his secret enemy, and will by prayer and all other means labour to bring it into subjection.
Nor is this all: he will prosecute his lurking foe with vigilance, and cast him out with indignation and abhorrence. This is strongly intimated in the text: Ephraim does not merely resolve that he will not have any more to do with idols; but with an holy indignation against them, and an everlasting abhorrence of them, he says, “What have I to do any more with idols?” He determines never to join himself to them again: the folly and wickedness of such conduct appear to him now in such glaring colours, that he cannot endure the thought of ever relapsing into it any more. Thus it is with the true penitent: O! how does he lothe the sins that have led him captive, and the secret sins that have so defiled his conscience! How does he determine, if possible, to withstand the baneful influence of his in-dwelling corruption, and to watch and pray against it! How does he aggravate the guilt of his besetting lust, till he sees it in all its vileness and deformity! How unreasonable does it appear to him to harbour such an enemy in his bosom! How does he mourn because he cannot get rid of it! How desirable does the furnace itself appear, if it may but purify and retine his soul!
Say, Believer, are not these the thoughts of thy heart? Say, thou that weepest, like Mary, at thy Saviour’s feet, dost thou not hate thy sins, and thyself on account of them? Couldst thou but bring forth the lurking foe, and slay him utterly, wouldst thou not rejoice? Is it not thy grief that thou canst not get more complete victory over him? Is it not thy shame that thou art at any time deceived by him? Does it not make thee lothe thyself, to think how ready thou art to favour this enemy, and to be enticed by him before thou art aware? Art thou not often filled with indignation against thyself, to think that thou shouldst ever offend thy God through the solicitations of some base lust or evil principle within thee? Yea, I go further, and ask, Dost thou not hate thyself because thou canst not hate thyself more? I know thy heart vibrates; I know it is in unison; I know there is no discordant string; I know that these must be thy feelings, if thou be upright before God.]
It is with pleasure therefore that I proceed to set before you,
The notice which God takes of this disposition—
[It is impossible that there should be the smallest good in our hearts, and God not observe it: there was but “some good thing toward the Lord God of Israel” in the heart of young Abijah, and the Lord noticed it, and remembered him on account of it. The Prophet Jeremiah sets this in a striking point of view: he represents Ephraim [Note: Chap. 31:18.] as mourning over his sins in secret, and God as listening to him, and at last as breaking out into this soliloquy; “I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus:” then, after repeating the substance of Ephraim’s complaint, he adds, “Is not Ephraim my dear son? is he not a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still; yea, my bowels are troubled for him, I will surely have mercy on him [Note: Chap. 31:20.].” Exactly thus, in my text, God hears Ephraim saying, “What have I to do any more with idols?” and he adds immediately, “I have heard and observed him;” I have had my eye fixed upon him, though he did not know it; I have attended to every word he has been saying; he has not uttered a sigh, but it has entered my ears; he has not poured forth a groan, but it has pierced my heart; he has not shed a tear, but I have treasured it up in my vial: he thinks I will not regard him, but I have heard and observed him all the while: there is not a thought of his heart that has escaped my notice; and what is more, I now say respecting him, and respecting all that shall resemble him even to the end of the world, “I am, and will be, to him as a green fir-tree; and of me shall his fruit be found.”
I must here just observe, that the words of my text which are printed in different characters are not in the original, but are supplied by the translators; and that therefore the verse maybe read, and I think should be read, thus; “Ephraim saith, What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him and observed him: I will be like a green fir-tree: of me shall thy fruit be found.” The sense is the same indeed either way; only in the latter it is more clear: and according to it we have two blessed promises of God to the penitent and contrite soul, namely, that he will afford him protection, and engage for his perseverance.
First, he promises protection to the repenting sinner, “I will be as a green fir-tree.” The fir-tree affords a remarkably thick shade, which cannot be penetrated either by sun or rain; so that it afforded a safe retreat, either from the rays of the meridian sun, or from the violence of the impending tempest. Conceive then a burthened sinner travelling towards Zion: see him either trembling from an apprehension of Divine judgments, even of that “fire and brimstone, storm and tempest, which God will rain upon the ungodly;” or fainting through the heat of temptation and persecution, What a reviving cordial to his soul is here! Let him come to me, says God; “I will be as a green fir-tree to him;” I will shelter him from the curses of my broken law; I will guard him from the fiery darts of Satan; I will hide him from the assaults of all his enemies; none shall hurt him: I will hide him in the secret of my tabernacle, even in my pavilion, where he shall have not only safety, but all manner of refreshing viands: “he shall sit under my shadow with great delight.” Hear this, ye who desire to renounce your idols; ye who long to be delivered from the attacks of your great adversary, and to find a place of rest unto your souls: to you God says, “Surely I will deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence: I will cover thee with my feathers, and under my wings shalt thou trust: my truth shall be thy shield and buckler [Note: Psalms 91:3-19.91.4.].” You know how our blessed Saviour complains of the Jews, that when he would often have gathered them, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, they would not. O! let him not utter the same complaint against you. They indeed would not flee to him, because they would not believe their danger; but you are in danger of keeping from him through a doubt of his ability or willingness to protect you. But, O! flee to him: he is a sure Refuge: only rest under his shadow, and you need not fear: none can ever hurt you, if you be found under the shadow of his wings: he promises that he will be as a green fir-tree to you; and he will fulfil his word unto all that put their trust in him.
The other promise which God here makes to the repenting sinner is, that he himself will engage for his perseverance in the ways of holiness; “Of me shall thy fruit be found.” The penitent no sooner determines to cast his idols to the moles and to the bats, than fears arise in his mind, and he says, “But how shall I do this? Who is sufficient for these things?” To silence therefore all such doubts as these, God himself undertakes the work; “Be not afraid, sinner;” I will take that work upon myself; “my grace shall be sufficient for thee;” I will furnish thee with strength according to thy day of trial; “Of me shall thy fruit be found:” “I will make thee fruitful in all the fruits of righteousness: the things thou desirest are the fruits of my Spirit; and my Spirit shall produce them in thee.”
Can we conceive a more comforting declaration than this? If the drooping sinner were permitted to dictate what God should say to him, could he devise any thing more calculated to comfort and refresh the soul? My dear brethren, behold your God undertaking for you, not merely to bring you to heaven, (for that would be a small matter, if you were not made holy,) but to deliver you from all your sins. Hear his gracious words, as they are recorded by Ezekiel; “From all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you: a new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will cause you to keep my statutes and my judgments to do them.” Hear again what he says to the same purpose by Jeremiah; “I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not depart from them to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me: yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul.” Is it possible for God to express more earnestness in your cause, or a more full determination to preserve you in spite of all your in-dwelling corruptions; or rather, I should say, to deliver you from them? O! lift up your heads, ye drooping penitents, for your redemption draweth nigh: only commit yourselves into the hands of a faithful God and a loving Saviour: there is a fulness of all that you can want treasured up in Jesus; and out of his fulness ye may all receive, grace for grace. He is the Vine, from whom you must receive sap and nourishment continually; “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in him: separate from him ye can do nothing: but if ye abide in him, ye shall bring forth much fruit;” yea, ye may“do all things, through Christ strengthening you.” However inveterate therefore your corruptions be, fear not, but look unto Christ: instead of being terrified, as though they were invincible, let the sight of them remind you what great things the Saviour has undertaken for you: instead of despairing on account of your own weakness, rather learn to glory in it, as the means of displaying your Saviour’s strength. Do not misunderstand me, as though I would have you glory in sin: God forbid! sin is, and ought to be, your shame and aversion: but I say again, your inability to any thing that is good ought not to discourage you, because the Apostle says, “When you are weak, then are you strong:” and therefore, while you lament your sins, you may at the same time “glory in your weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon you.” Your extremity shall assuredly be the season of God’s interposition: “In the mount of difficulty the Lord shall be seen;” according as it is written in Deuteronomy 32:36. “The Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up or left.”]
Here let us close, with one obvious reflection—
Do ye not see from hence how excellent repentance is?
[Whether it be viewed in its nature or its consequences, surely it is a most inestimable blessing. What can be more desirable than to be delivered from those base lusts and idolatrous affections, which rob us of our happiness, and God of his glory? If we had discarded all our idols, and were determined to have nothing more to do with them, we should have a very heaven upon earth; especially if we found the grace of Christ sufficient for us; as we certainly should do, if we sought it humbly, and depended on it simply. God will never disappoint our expectations which are founded on his promises. If indeed we presume to limit him with respect to the time and manner in which he shall deliver us, we may be disappointed; but if we commit ourselves to him, to carry on his work in the time and manner that he sees fit, we shall never be disappointed: he will assuredly cover our defenceless heads, and make fruitful our withered branches: he will perfect that which concerns us, and fulfil in us all the good pleasure of his goodness; nor will he ever leave us till he has accomplished all the good things which he has spoken concerning us. And is this the nature, is this the consequence, of repentance? Shall every contrite soul have an experience of these things? O that God may grant us all, “repentance unto life, even that repentance which is not to be repented of!” May we thus experience the power and grace of Christ, and find everlasting rest unto our souls!
But let not those whose hearts are yet cleaving to their idols conclude themselves penitent. What repentance has the worldling, who is minding nothing but his earthly business? Surely Mammon is his God; and, till this idol be put away, there is no repentance, no salvation to his soul. Nor has the proud, passionate, carnal, worldly-minded professor any pretensions to repentance; for what repentance has he, when he is yet harbouring idols in his heart? No, professor, thou must be delivered from thine idols; thy besetting sin in particular must be lamented, lothed, and mortified: nor, till this be thine experience, wilt thou have any defence against the impending wrath of God: thou mayest talk of Christ, and have a clear head-knowledge of the truth; but knowledge will not serve instead of repentance: thou must be divorced from thy lusts, thine evil tempers, and every thing else to which thou hast been glued. Christ gave himself to redeem us from all iniquity, and to purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works; and therefore, if thou wouldst ever dwell under the shadow of God in heaven, see that this fruit be found on thee on earth. God is willing to produce it in you: look therefore to Him; and he will be as the dew unto you; he will heal your backslidings, and love you freely — — —]
SPIRITUAL KNOWLEDGE PECULIAR TO GOD’S PEOPLE
Hosea 14:9. Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the Lord are right, and the just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein.
TO guide mankind into the way of peace, and to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation to their souls, is certainly the most pleasant and honourable employment in the world: but it is an employment accompanied, for the most part, with heavy discouragements, and those peculiar to itself. If we labour to convey instruction in any branch of science, we find our labours attended with some degree of success to all: for though all make not the same proficiency, yet all reap some advantage. This however is very far from being the case when we would impart spiritual knowledge: some, blessed be God! receive benefit; but the generality of our hearers continue as ignorant and blind as ever. Many indeed get somewhat of head-knowledge; but as to any saving experience of the things we teach (and that alone is worthy the name of knowledge), few, very few, attain to it. Nor is this unteachableness peculiar to the present age: it is frequently represented in the Scriptures as a subject of lamentation, not only to the prophets, but even to God himself. How often does God call his people foolish and unwise; and, with a mixture of tenderness and disappointment, say, “O that they were wise, and that they understood these things [Note: Deuteronomy 32:6; Deuteronomy 32:29.]!” Hence the inspired writers, as though they had no expectation that all should profit from their instructions, express themselves as looking for success only among those who were endued with heavenly wisdom. Thus the Psalmist, after expatiating largely upon the goodness of God, both in his works of providence and grace, concludes the psalm [Note: Psalms 107:0.] with saying, “Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the loving-kindness of the Lord.” And in nearly the same terms the Prophet Hosea, having preached no less than seventy years with very little effect, and having comprised the principal and most important parts of the Divine messages in a book, concludes the whole with these most affecting words; “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the Lord are right; and the just shall walk in them; but the transgressors shall fall therein.”
From these words we shall take occasion to shew,
Who they are that will understand divine things—
[The things which the prophet is speaking of in the former part of our text, are the same which he afterwards calls “the ways of the Lord.” Now we might be led to suppose that he refers to the sins against which he had guarded them, the duties he had inculcated, the punishments he had denounced, and the blessings which he had promised them in the name of God; seeing that these things are the general scope of the whole book: but he limits his own words to one particular sense, and teaches us to understand him as speaking, not so much of those ways wherein God had walked towards them, as of the ways wherein they were to walk before him: and therefore the things which the wise only can understand, are the things which pertain to vital experimental religion: and indeed this best agrees with the preceding context; for through the whole chapter, God delineates the experience of true penitents, and shews, that when he shall come down as the dew upon their souls, they shall resemble the olive in their beauty, the lily in their growth, the cedar in their stability, the wines of Lebanon in their fragrancy, and the corn itself, or vine, in their fruitfulness. These things, it must be confessed, surpass the comprehension of the natural man; and therefore the prophet adds, “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things; prudent, and he shall know them.”
But here we must attentively consider whom the prophet intends under the description of the “wise and prudent?” Is it worldly wisdom and worldly prudence of which he speaks in such high terms? Are these the great requisites for the right understanding of spiritual matters? Surely not; this cannot be the meaning of the prophet; for then he would directly oppose the whole tenour of the sacred writings. Carnal wisdom and prudence are universally represented in the Scriptures as most adverse to divine truth, and as the greatest obstacles to the attainment of spiritual knowledge. Hear how St. Paul speaks of the wisdom and prudence of this world, in 1 Corinthians 1:18, and following verses; “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish, foolishness; but unto us who are saved, it is the power of God; for it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? for, after that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” Then, in ver. 26, he appeals to their own experience and observation; “Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, that no flesh should glory in his presence.” If any additional testimony were needed, we might take that of our Lord himself, who not only affirmed the same truth, but was exhilarated and comforted by the consideration of it, and made it the subject of his devoutest thanksgiving: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.” God indeed has been pleased in all ages to enlighten and convert some who were reputed wise; because he would shew to all the world, that his truths, however despised, were consistent with the profoundest wisdom, and capable of enlarging the most refined understanding: nevertheless, the wise and prudent of this world have always been the foremost to reject the truth of God. None cavilled more at our Lord’s discourses than the Scribes and Pharisees; nor were any more contemptuous in their treatment of Paul than the philosophers at Athens. We may be sure, therefore, that such are not the persons intended by the prophet in my text?
Who then are the wise? who are the prudent? First, they are those whose understandings have been enlightened by the Holy Ghost. True “wisdom is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights.” We have not the smallest spark of it by nature: on the contrary, we are blind; and folly is bound up in our hearts: nor unless He, who first commanded light to shine out of darkness, shine into our hearts, can we ever see one ray of that divine glory which shines in the person of Jesus Christ. Hence they who are truly wise have learned that most humiliating lesson, to “become fools, that they may be wise:” they have been deeply convinced that they needed a divine illumination, and have obtained it in answer to their prayers: to them has been fulfilled that blessed promise, “All thy children shall be taught of God.” This therefore is the first part of the wise man’s character, that he has been taught by the Holy Ghost. But a further mark whereby the wise and prudent are to be distinguished is, that they view things in their proper colours; they no longer “call good evil, and evil good; they no longer put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter;” but they see things in the light of God’s word, and estimate every thing, in a measure, according to the judgment of God respecting it: the body appears to them of small value, when set in competition with the soul; nor do the enjoyments or sufferings of this present world appear worthy to be compared with the glory that shall ere long be revealed in them. Sin is now considered by them as a most tremendous evil, more to be shunned than death itself: and a life of holiness appears to be the perfection and happiness of man. But most of all, true wisdom and prudence discover themselves in this, that they unite their influence to govern our whole lives: “I Wisdom dwell with prudence,” says Solomon. They who are truly enlightened do not rest satisfied with clear notions, but desire to have their practice conformable to the convictions of their minds: they therefore take the word of God as a light to their feet and a lantern to their paths: they strive to walk in the fear of the Lord all the day long: this, I say, is the best evidence of their wisdom; for indeed it is the very beginning of wisdom; as Solomon has observed, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;” and as Job also says, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding [Note: Chap. 28:28.].”
We see then who are the wise and prudent. Not they who boast of their intellectual powers, and abound with human learning, but those who are taught of God to judge and act agreeably to the sacred oracles.
Now these persons shall have a true knowledge and understanding of divine things: the ways of the Lord shall be clear to them from their own experience: they shall know how delightful it is to live a life of faith on the Son of God: they shall understand what it is to have fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ: they shall enjoy that sweet security which they possess, who are instructed in the Covenant of Grace, and who know the faithfulness of a promise-keeping God. These indeed are secrets hid from the natural man; but we are assured, that they are, and shall be, revealed unto those who are spiritual: David says, (and he himself had experienced the truth of it,) “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him, and he will shew them his covenant.”]
But this knowledge is peculiar to the persons above described; and this leads me to shew you,
Why this knowledge is peculiar to them—
[Two reasons the prophet assigns: one taken from the peculiar excellence of the things known, and the other from the use which different persons make of them.
The first reason is taken from the excellence of the things known—“Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent, and he shall know them? for the ways of the Lord are right.” There is a rectitude in a life of godliness; there is something in it which is fit and proper in itself; something which is agreeable to the mind and will of God; something which is calculated to promote the perfection and happiness of man. The most refined reason cannot conceive any thing more fit and becoming, than that He, whose loveliness and loving-kindness are infinite, should be the supreme object of our affections; or that He who is omnipotent, immutable, and eternal, should be honoured, trusted, and obeyed with our whole hearts. To a carnal eye, that views only the Majesty of God, it might appear unsuitable, that the Deity should condescend to commune with such sinful worms: but his condescension and grace reflect a lustre on all his other attributes, and overwhelm us with wonder and astonishment. As for the pleasantness and peace which are found in the ways of religion, or the effect of it on our hearts and lives, we have the united testimony of all who ever devoted themselves to it, that “in keeping of God’s commandments there is great reward.” Indeed it is this excellency which helps the godly to know and understand the things themselves; at least it helps to enlarge and perfect their knowledge of them. The Holy Spirit first leads them to a life of godliness, and then discovers to them how fit in itself, how honourable to God, and beneficial to man, such a life is: and then this discovery confirms them in their ways: confirms them, I say, beyond every thing in the world; so that though they began to walk in the Lord’s ways from the fear of hell, and from a desire after heaven, they now walk in his ways because they are right; they now see, that to “yield themselves a living sacrifice to God is the most reasonable service” in the world: and so much is their knowledge and understanding confirmed by this discovery of the rectitude and excellency of God’s ways, that they would wish to walk in them, even though there were no heaven to reward their obedience, nor any hell to punish their disobedience: they can say with David, “I esteem thy commandments concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way;” that is, “My soul approves the way of duty, therefore would I walk in it, and not for the sake of the reward: I hate sin, and therefore would I avoid it to the uttermost, and not merely because I am afraid of punishment: I would not be excused from my duty, if I might; nor would I practise sin, though I might do it with impunity.” On the other hand, this very excellency is one reason why none but the wise and prudent can know these things. A weak and disordered eye cannot bear the light. This is true with respect to spiritual light, as well as to the light of the sun. Our Lord says, that the ungodly “hate the light, neither come to the light; they love darkness rather than light.” If we draw a picture of morality, the amiableness of it will commend itself to them; but if we set before them a life of godliness, they are dazzled by it; they are hurt with it; its splendour, like that of the sun, overwhelms them: it is so high above them, that they cannot comprehend it: not having a spiritual discernment, they account it foolishness: it appears to them more like the ravings of enthusiasm, than the words of truth and soberness: they know not how to annex a proper meaning to our words: being low and carnal in their apprehensions, they cannot rise above a carnal sense of our expressions. We see therefore, that the very excellency of these things is one reason why the true knowledge of them is peculiar to the wise and prudent. Thus it was in our Lord’s time: he told his hearers, that the reason they murmured at his words was, that their apprehensions were carnal, whereas his words were spiritual: “Doth this offend you? The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” At another time he said, “Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my words.”
The other reason assigned by the prophet is taken from the use which different persons make of spiritual truths: “The just,” he observes, “will walk in them, but the transgressors will fall therein.”
Now the just and righteous, as far as they are acquainted with the ways of God, will endeavour to walk in them: they desire to reduce every truth to practice, and wish to have even “the thoughts of their hearts brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ:” and their knowledge is wonderfully furthered and advanced by this disposition: their apprehension is quickened by the previous disposition which they feel to embrace the truth; and their memory is strengthened by the love which they bear towards it, when once it is discovered. Hence unenlightened persons, who have studied the Scriptures critically for many years, are often not half so well acquainted with them as others of very inferior abilities, who, under the influence of such a disposition, have studied them but a short time: to the one, the Bible is “a sealed book;” its contents are dark, intricate, and unintelligible: to the other, it is clear, perspicuous, and easy to be understood: the one meets with nothing but difficulties and stumbling-blocks; the other has a clew to every truth contained in it. And whence is it that the one knows the mysteries of the kingdom, while the other sees nothing but dark and obscure parables? Our Lord enables us to solve this difficulty; “If any man,” says he, “will do my will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God;” his disposition and desire to do my will shall operate in such a manner as greatly to facilitate the understanding of my word.
On the other hand, the indisposition which others feel towards the ways of God will prevent the introduction of Divine knowledge into the soul: “the transgressors will fall therein.” The pillar and the cloud by which God led the Israelites, may serve to illustrate the operation of his word, by which he leads us: the cloud was a pillar of fire to give light to the Israelites by night, while it was a cloud of darkness towards the Egyptians, insomuch that they could not advance, but were obstructed in their march by means of it. Now so it is with the word of God: to God’s people, it exhibits a bright and luminous appearance, so that they can walk in the light of it: but to transgressors, who do not desire above all things to be conformed to it, it is an offence: to the former it is “a savour of life unto life;” but unto the latter it is “a savour of death unto death:” yea, Christ himself, who is the sum and substance of the Bible, is to the former “a sanctuary;” but to the latter “a snare and a gin, and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence,” by means of which “many are snared, and taken, and fall,” to their more aggravated condemnation. Daily experience shews us that the strictness and purity of God’s ways are an offence unto many: they take occasion from what they hear to shew their enmity against God, more than ever they would have done, if the light had not been thus set before them: Christ being set forth, they make him only “a sign to be spoken against; and thus the thoughts of their hearts are revealed.” And that this vile and wicked disposition blinds them more than ever, we are sure from the testimony of our Lord: the Pharisees had shut their hearts against conviction, and then were incensed against our Lord for intimating that they were blind; “Are we blind also?” Upon which our Lord answers them, “If ye were blind, ye would have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.” It is evident therefore, that the very opposite uses which different persons make of the ways of God, must necessarily, and of themselves, as well as by Divine appointment, contribute greatly to enlighten the one, while the others are confirmed in ignorance and unbelief.]
Let us now conclude with an application of the foregoing truths;
To those who are unacquainted with the truths and ways of God—
[Many, it is to be feared, there are among you, who are wise and prudent enough with respect to the things of this world, but yet are miserably ignorant of the nature and excellency of vital godliness. Your own consciences testify, that you know not what it is to have God come down as the dew upon your souls: you know not what is meant by that beauty, that growth, that stability comma; that fragrancy, and that fruitfulness, which characterize the true Christian. Nay, some perhaps, instead of experiencing these things in their own souls, are hurt and offended by the very mention of them: instead of judging the ways of the Lord to be right, they are ready to condemn them as enthusiastic or righteous overmuch. To all such persons therefore, whether they be only ignorant of these things, or have taken offence at them, we must testify, that the ways of the Lord are right: whatever exception may be taken against them, they will assuredly prove right in the issue: “Wisdom will be justified of all her children.”We may challenge all the world to shew, that there is any thing unreasonable in a life of devotedness to God, or that such a life is not calculated to make us happy. Let me therefore entreat you to seek the knowledge of these things: your not having the wisdom and learning of this world will be no obstacle to your proficiency in divine knowledge: it is spiritual wisdom that you want: seek wisdom therefore from Him who has promised to “give it liberally, and without upbraiding:” seek prudence also; for “a prudent man,” says Solomon, “foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself; but the simple pass on and are punished.” But if you will not be persuaded, remember what God has said, “My people perish for lack of knowledge;” and again, “They are a people of no understanding; therefore He that made them will not have mercy on them, and He that formed them will shew them no favour.” Such declarations as these fully prove how awful it is to remain in ignorance: and therefore I entreat you all to improve your present opportunities. “Wisdom is the principal thing, therefore get wisdom; and, with all your getting, get understanding.”]
To those who know and walk in the ways of God—
[What do you owe to God, my Brethren, for the divine wisdom and prudence which he has bestowed upon you! Surely you were once foolish and unwise, even as others; and perhaps were ready to say of those who felt what you now experience, “Thou art beside thyself: much attention to religion hath made thee mad.” Well, bless God that your eyes are opened, and that, though ye were once blind, ye now see. Yet rest not in what ye have attained: you know but little yet in comparison of what remains to be known: there are heights and depths in divine things, which will be opened more and more to your view to all eternity; and the promise is, that “you shall know, if you follow on to know the Lord:” therefore seek to “grow in knowledge and in grace: while others stumble at the word, and make the ways of God an occasion of falling, do you be pressing forward; and let “your profiting appear unto all men.” Pray more and more for “a spirit of wisdom and understanding;” and endeavour, with truly Christian prudence, to act up to the convictions of your conscience: so shall your knowledge and holiness advance each other, till you come to that blessed place, where faith shall be turned into sight, and hope be consuminated in enjoyment.]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Hosea 14". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany