Isaiah 55, 6.—Seek ye the Lord -while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.
1st the preceding context these truths are taught: that there is an abundant supply for the spiritual wants of men; that this supply is suited to their various necessities; that it includes refreshment, strength, exhilaration; that the constitution of man's nature forces him to seek some satisfaction; that the multitude are actually seeking "that which is not bread," and cannot satisfy the soul; that instead of this, the gospel offers them "that which is good," and invites the soul to " delight in fatness;"" that this offer is a free one; that the blessings offered may be bought, and must be bought, "without money and without price ;" that they can only be obtained by hearkening to God, and coming unto him; that there is only one way of access to him; that this one way is opened by a covenant; that this covenant is " an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure," (2 Sam. 23, 5;) that the Mediator of this covenant is the Son of David, the second David, the Messiah, in whom are fulfilled the promises made to the Son of Jesse, so that the mercies, which are secured to men through him, may well be called "the sure mercies of David;" that these mercies are not offered to the Jews alone; that Christ is the Saviour of the Gentiles also; that his office is that of " a witness to the nations, a leader and commander of the nations;" that however unlikely the extension of the gospel to the nations might appear, it must take place; that Christ will call nations which he knew not, and that nations which he knew not will run unto him; that this event must happen as an appointed means of glorifying God and doing honour to the Saviour.
All this was addressed, in the first instance, to the Jews; and now the prophet seems to press upon them the practical question—What then ought you to do? If God designs thus to save the heathen who have never known him, what effect should a knowledge of that purpose have on you, to whom he is well known? Shall the Gentiles enter the kingdom of heaven before you f Shall publicans and harlots press into the kingdom, while the very children of the kingdom, whose inheritance it is, are excluded? This would be a shame and a calamity indeed; but how will you prevent it ?—by excluding them ?—by gaining possession of the key of knowledge, and neither entering yourselves, nor suffering those who would to enter? This, if it were possible, would be the height of wickedness and folly. No; the true course is to enter with them, or, if you will, before them. Your true course is to seek the Lord, his favour, his protection, to call upon him, pray to him, confess to him, acknowledge him, and that without delay—before it is too late—now, even now—now, while he may be found, while he is near, while he is still your God by special covenant. If you would not see the heathen, whom you now despise, preferred before you, and received into the kingdom of Messiah, while you yourselves are shut out, use the only sure preventive— "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near."
This view of the meaning of the text is perfectly consistent with the context, and with other passages in which this motive is presented to the Jews, as an inducement to be prompt and diligent in making their calling and election sure. But it may well be doubted whether this is the whole meaning. It may be doubted whether this is even the chief meaning. The terms of the text are in no respect more restricted than those of the preceding verses, and especially the first part of the chapter, which obviously relates to the wrants of men in general, and the best way to supply them. If the invitation of the first verse is general, the exhortation of the text must be general also. If it is to all mankind that the prophet cries— "Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters !"—it is surely not to any one community or nation that he here says: "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near." Besides, if this address be restricted to the Jews, the reason implied for the command is irrelevant. If the words " while he is near" denote "while he continues in a special covenant relation to the Jews," then the command would seem to imply that by seeking the Lord and calling upon him, that peculiar exclusive covenant relation might be rendered perpetual, which was not the case. Or if, on the other hand, "while he may be found " denotes in a general way the possibility of finding favour and forgiveness at his hands, then the reason suggested is in no respect more applicable to the Jews than to the Gentiles. In this sense God was just as near to the one as to the other. The principles on which he would forgive and save, were just the same in either case. The necessity of seeking, the nature of the object sought, the way of seeking it, are wholly independent of external circumstances. As in the context, so here, the exhortation is addressed to all who are in need. It is therefore universal, or, at least, admits of a universal application. Even supposing that it has a special reference to the Jews, it is clear that the prophet says, and that, in imitation of him, we may say likewise, both to Jew and Gentile, "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near."
I do not scruple to address the call to all who hear me. Are you disappointed and unsatisfied? then seek the Lord. Are you oppressed with a sense of guilt? seek the Lord. Are you careless and at ease? I warn you to seek the Lord. Sooner or later you will certainly seek him. However careless you may now be, the day is coming when you shall seek and not find; when you shall call upon him and receive no answer. There is a limit to the offer of salvation. If there were not, sin would be without control. If the sinner could suspend his choice forever, there would bo no punishment. The offer is limited to this life. And even in this life there is a limit. There is a day of grate in which men may be saved, and this day may be shorter than the sinner's lifetime. There is a time when God is near, and when he may be found. There must be a time, therefore, when he is no longer near, and is no longer to be found. Consider this, you who are now asleep in sin. From that sleep you must and will awake. You will either awake to righteousness or to despair. However deep your sleep may now be, and however long it may continue, you shall awake at last, and in your terror seek for God, when he is no more to be found, and call upon him when he is no longer near, when he is grieved, and has departed, when you shall "feel after him " in vain, amidst the darkness which surrounds you, and shall be constrained at last to take up the sorrowful and bitter lamentation, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." If this be true, and it cannot be disputed, "seek ye the Lord while he may be found."
But how shall you seek him? Not in this or that locality. Regard not those who say: "Lo here, lo there;" but go to him in secret, make confession of your sins, renounce yourselves, accept the Saviour whom he offers, devote yourselves to him, and thus "call upon him while he may be found." Is this too much to ask of a poor ruined sinner, as the price of his salvation? But is this indeed all? Is no reformation, no change of life, required? Not as the meritorious cause of your salvation. It is purchased by another. But you cannot avail yourselves of it, and continue as you are. You cannot be saved in sin. You may be saved from it. The same voice which says, " Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call y6 upon him while he is near," says likewise, (v. 7,) " Let the wicked forsake his way." He cannot continue in that way, and be saved. "No man can serve two masters;" but " whosoever committeth sin, he is the servant of sin." Between sin and holiness, between God and mammon, he must choose. The refusal to choose is itself a choice. To refuse to choose God is, in fact, to choose sin. In relation to this question there is no neutrality—there can be none.
If, then, the sinner would indeed seek God, he must "forsake his way,"—a common figure for the course of conduct. Life is a journey which may be pursued by many distinct paths; but the way of God and the way of sin lead in opposite directions. He who would tread the one, not only will, but must, forsake the other. How ?—by a mere external reformation? No; the change must be a deeper and more thorough one. The law of God, which condemns the sinner's life, extends, not only to his outward acts, but to his thoughts, desires, dispositions, and affections. The moral quality of outward acts arises from the motives which produce them, and the reformation which the gospel calls for, reaches far beyond the mere external conduct. This is often an unwelcome discovery. Men are at first hard to be convinced that there is any danger in the course which they pursue. When this becomes too evident to be disputed, they are prone to cling to the idea that the gospel asks no change or reformation; and when this truth can no longer be denied, they still delude themselves with the belief that the required reformation extends merely to the outward life. But this delusion is dispelled, and they are made to hear the voice of God not only saying, "Let the wicked forsake his way," but, " the unrighteous man his thoughts."
This is merely negative. It cannot be, that what God calls men to, is a mere negation, a mere abstinence. There must be something positive. There must be commands as well as prohibitions. The mere cessation of former habits would be insufficient; nay, it is impossible. An active being must have something to seek as well as something to avoid. Evil courses can be really abandoned in no other way than by exchanging them for good ones. If men would "cease to do evil," they must "learn to do well." This is a dictate of nature, of reason, of experience, of revelation. It is the voice of God himself who says, "Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord." The fact is assumed that all have departed from him. The words may seem strictly applicable only to backsliders—those who have falsified their own professions—who have apostatised from a voluntary visible relation to Jehovah, and who may with strict propriety be summoned to "return,"—to return to Him from whom they have "so deeply revolted." To any such now present I apply the words, however far you may have gone back in the wicked way which you appeared to have forsaken—however far your present thoughts may be from God and righteousness—I call upon you to give ear to God's rebuke and invitation: "Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord." This is your only hope, and even this may soon be gone; therefore, "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near."
But it is far from being true, that this appeal is applicable only to backsliders. However strictly understood, it is appropriate to all mankind. It is true, the word "return" is used, and this word certainly implies departure from a previous state of nearness; and it may at first sight seem, on this account, inapplicable to the mass of men; for how, it may be asked, can they return to Him from whom they never have departed, but from whom they have always been wholly alienated? But this view of the matter is extremely superficial. It is true, most true, that the invitation to "return" implies a previous departure; and, can any departure be more real or deplorable than that which involves, not, merely individuals, but the whole human family? The terms of the summons do indeed point back to that original apostasy under the curse of which the whole race groans. When the rebel is exhorted to return to his allegiance, the call comes with emphasis enhanced, not lessened, to the ears of those who are hereditary traitors, born in rebellion, inheriting the taint, and living in the practice of notorious treason : such is our condition. It is under this double burden that we sink; it is from this double penalty that we must be delivered; it is therefore to us all, without exception, that this solemn call is addressed—"Return unto the Lord"—"Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord." All who are aliens from your God, to you he says this day, Return! return! Return with penitent confession of your sins, with self-renunciation, with submission, with a solemn consecration of yourselves to God; but, above all, and before all, in the exercise of faith, believing in the Saviour, and accepting him as yours. This includes all the rest. Where this exists, they follow, as a thing of course; where this exists not, they are null and void, without worth, nay, without existence. In the exercise of this faith, and of that repentance which has never yet failed to accompany it since the world began, and of that zeal and obedience which can no more fail to spring from such repentance and such faith, than the fruit can fail to spring from the prolific seed, "Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord."
But what is the inducement to return which is here held out? It is man's part to forsake his evil ways and thoughts, to return to God, to seek him, and to call upon him. None of these will he do until God draw him. None of them can he do until God enable him. But this is true of every service which man ever renders. Though unable of himself to do these things, he is still bound to do them. It is his part to do them; and when he has performed his part, what does God promise in return? "What will he do for man? He will have mercy upon him. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him." Mercy is the inducement offered, and mercy is precisely what the sinner needs. Nothing else can meet his case but this. Without this nothing can be given, or, if given, can do him any good.
Mercy implies two things, misery and guilt. Innocent suffering may be relieved through pity, but it cannot, strictly speaking, be regarded as an object of mercy. And, on the other hand, if guilt could exist unaccompanied by suffering, it might be pardoned, and the sinner might, in that sense, be said to obtain mercy. But, in strictness of speech, the term is applicable only to those cases in which misery and guilt coexist. And, alas for us! this is, without exception, the condition of man. No one sins without suffering. No man suffers without guilt. Individual sufferers may be innocent in reference to those who immediately cause their sufferings; and, on the other hand, guilt may, for the present, seem to be accompanied by pleasure only. But in due time both these false appearances will be removed. Every sin will be seen to be the necessary cause of sorrow, and every sorrow will be seen to flow more or less directly from sin. And, in the meantime, we have no need to look further than ourselves for objects upon which mercy may be exercised. In us, in all of us, the two prerequisites are found abundantly—misery present and prospective, the experience of it here and the dread of it hereafter—misery not produced by chance, but by ourselves—by sin, and that our own sin. To us, then, this inducement ought to be a strong one. To induce, then, "the wicked to forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts," and to "return unto the Lord," it ought to be enough to know that that the Lord " will have mercy upon him."
But, alas! he is insensible of his condition. The more he stands in need of mercy, the more blind he is to that necessity. By nature, man is never prompted to implore God's mercy on account of his iniquities. He either asks nothing, or he cries for justice. While he is prosperous, and life seems long, he is content to remain always as he is. And when death stares him in the face, or any thing compels him to think seriously of his end, he assumes the character of injured innocence; he claims eternal life as the reward of his obedience; he appears before God not to plead for mercy, but to demand justice; and, with that demand upon his lips, or in his heart, he is often swept into eternity to get what he presumptuously asked for. Then, then, if not before, he cries for mercy; for that very mercy which he spurned before, and with that last despairing cry upon his lips, he goes " to his own place." Such is the end of those who presumptuously ask for justice and will not have mercy. But it often pleases God to undeceive the soul before it is too late. And then, when the sinner's eyes are opened, he beholds with wonder what he never saw before; he sees his own condition, his own guilt—the misery to which that guilt consigns him, and his utter incapacity to help himself. Ah, what a change takes place then in his feelings, and the tone of his addresses to the throne of grace. He who once called for justice at the hand of God, now sues for mercy. He who once stood erect, and said, "I thank thee, God, that I am not like other men," is now unable to lift so much as his eyes to heaven, but smites upon his breast, and says, " God be merciful to me a sinner." Is it not better that this opening of the eyes should take place now than in eternity ?" Seek ye the Lord then while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God." Do you observe that expression, "our God ?"—the phrase by which the Jews expressed their covenant relation to Jehovah. As addressed to Jews, the phrase may be understood to mean, that God was still their God by a special engagement; and that, notwithstanding their departures from him, if they would forsake their evil ways and thoughts, and return unto him, he would have mercy upon them, as their God, as their own God, and fulfil the promises made unto their fathers.
But is there any such encouragement to us who are sinners of the Gentiles? May we return to God, not merely as an absolute and righteous sovereign, but as our own God, bound to us by covenant, who will not, cannot cast us off? Yes, we may, even the vilest sinner who forsakes his evil courses and returns to God, may trust not only in his sovereign mercy, but in the faithfulness of his engagements. Even such he is bound by covenant and by oath to save. Even the poor, benighted heathen, who has never been a sharer even in the outward privileges of the Christian church, may come and, as it were, lay claim to the salvation of the gospel, not in his own right but in that of another. Yes, my hearers, whoever you may be, and however ignorant of God and of salvation until now, if you -will but come to Mm, and come to him in the way before described, if you will but come to him, forsaking your sins and repenting of them, seeking him and calling upon him,, and believing in him, then he is yours, your Saviour, and you have a right to say, not only that the Lord will have mercy but that our God will pardon. He will not only pity and relieve, but pardon; he will not only pity and relieve distress, but pardon sin. And this is absolutely necessary; without this there could be no real permanent relief.
There is no mercy opposed to justice. In the nature and the works of God, these attributes must harmonize. He cannot exercise mercy until justice be satisfied. He cannot be merciful to man until his justice is appeased. But justice demands punishment. And man, if punished, must be punished forever, because a finite being cannot exhaust the penalty of the broken law. How then can mercy be extended to him? Only by punishing another in his stead. In this substitution lies the sinner's only hope. God gives his own Son to be punished for him; not forever—ah! how would that impair the rapture of forgiveness and salvation; not forever—but long enough to answer the demand, through the infinite dignity and merit of the sufferer. In this way and in this way only, God can be just and yet a justifier. In this way he can pardon sin. In this way he will pardon all who come unto him. Is not this enough? Is not this a sufficient earnest of his willingness to save ?" He that spared not his own Son, but freely gave him up for us all, shall he not with him also, freely give us all things?" Come then, seek the Lord and call upon him, and that without delay. Seek him while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. The way you are in is a bad way—a destructive way, however it may now appear. "There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death." But "let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him."
What is there to prevent such a return? Does guilt stand in the way? He has provided for this difficulty. Guilt is itself a reason for returning. "He will pardon." Is your guilt too great? Too great for what? To be atoned for by yourself? Yes, it is indeed, even the least sin, such as you took no note of at the time, or have long since forgotten; even the least of such sins is too great for expiation by yourself, and unless otherwise atoned for, will rise up hereafter to condemn you, aye, will seize upon your soul and plunge it into endless ruin. You who are wont to say or think that you are not a great sinner, you shall yet be made to see that the most despised and trivial sin, as you esteemed it, is enough to slay your soul forever. But if you mean that your sins are too great for divine forgiveness, that is another matter. Even if pardon were a mere sovereign, arbitrary act of mercy, without regard to justice, you would have no right to limit the power and compassion of a God. Much less when pardon is in one sense really an act of justice, not to you but to another, when the penalty is paid and justice fully
satisfied for all believers. Is not this enough? Is Christ not great enough? Is his blood not rich enough? Were his pangs not keen enough to pay your debt, however great and overwhelming? Do you not see that the fountain which is opened for sin and uncleanness is the fountain of Christ's merit, and is, therefore, inexhaustibly abundant, so that God, for his sake, cannot only pardon, but abundantly pardon? —that Christ's atonement is suflicient in itself for all, however great the multitude, aye, and for all the sins of all whoever sinned, however many and however heinous? So that God, for Christ's sake, cannot only pardon but abundantly pardon? And he will, he will, if he pardons at all, "he will abundantly pardon." Oh, then, hear the voice of invitation, whether old, inveterate offenders or beginners in the ways of sin—whether the burden of your guilt be overwhelming or comparatively light—whether your minds have hitherto been careless, or alarmed about your state—you are all alike in danger and in need of speedy rescue. "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord."
These last words are connected with what goes before, by the conjunction " for"—" For my thoughts, &c." To what is this "for" to be referred—of what does it assign the reason? Some have thought that it relates to the national prejudices of the ancient Jews, to whom the calling of the Gentiles and the abrogation of the Mosaic system seemed impossible events, and to whom the prophet may be understood as saying—Do not imagine that because this dispensation has so long existed, it will last forever, or that because you are so blindly attached to it, I will not be willing to annul it when the time for its cessation shall arrive—" for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." But however good this sense may in itself be, it is far from being obvious in this connection, and refers the 8th verse to a remote and doubtful antecedent. Besides, as we have seen before, the terms of this whole passage cannot be understood as having reference merely to the Jewish dispensation. Even if that were the primary and obvious sense, we have abundant reason and authority to superadd another more extensive and more spiritual. But it is not the primary and obvious sense, as we have seen, and it is therefore necessary to connect the "for" with one of the clauses of the seventh verse. If with the first clause, then the eighth verse gives a reason for the call to reformation and repentance—" Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts—for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." Here the same two words are placed in opposition— "ways" and "thoughts"—let the wicked, &c,—i. e. Tou cannot walk in my ways and the ways of sin; you cannot think my thoughts, and yet cherish thoughts of sin; sin and salvation are irreconcilable, and you must choose between them.
This is, to many who would fain escape perdition, "a hard saying." Having cherished the delusive hope that free salvation implies liberty to sin, they are painfully surprised at the discovery that God's ways and thoughts are wholly incompatible with theirs. They are afraid of hell, and they are willing to be saved from it, but that is all. That slavish fear is the sum of their religion. They must keep their sins. At first they plead for all sin, then for some ; and as one after another is torn from them by the hand of the inexorable law, although their conscience, now enlightened, can no longer question or deny the truth, they hate what they acknowledge, they would gladly shut their eyes upon the light which has revealed to them this odious truth; and in the vain hope of escaping it, many, ah, how many, " draw back to perdition," and as they rush along that downward course, they still hear that gracious but inexorable voice crying after them, "Turn ye, turn ye, for why will ye die." I have given my Son to die for sinners, and all who come unto me through him I will abundantly pardon; but the wicked must forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways—there is, there can be no communion between light and darkness, between Christ and Belial. Ah, my hearers, God only knows in how many ears this expostulating voice has rung, and rung in vain; how many sinners on the verge of death have stopped their ears against it, or at most have paused and listened, with one foot upon the precipice, perhaps looked back, and even wavered with a momentary impulse to return, and then forever disappeared.
But there are others whom divine grace has arrested, even those upon the dizzy verge of that abyss, and made to hear the warning voice, and see the saving light as it shines upon this fundamental truth, that sin must be forsaken or the sinner cannot possibly be saved. But this conviction often generates a new doubt of another kind—I see it to be not only true but right that sin must be left, or God cannot pardon; but can he pardon even then, or if he can, will he pardon, will he pardon me? Can he, will he, pardon so abundantly that I shall be included? This misgiving, under Satan's artful and malignant influence, would drive men to despair, unless the grace of God prevent. The soul admits the freeness and sufferings of Christ's atonement as a truth revealed, but rejects it practically against itself; it makes a merit of its unbelief, the cross fades from its view, its light begins to disappear, the invitations of the gospel are less audible, and at this crisis, some who did not sink before, sink now forever; but to others, when the voice of man is hushed, the voice of God becomes more audible—a voice both of reproof and encouragement —" Who art thou, O man, that repliest against God? Thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself." It is not man who pardons, it is God. It is not you who merit, it is Christ. As long as yon stay away from him, nothing is pardoned, not even the least sin, it will sting your soul forever ; but come, and all is pardoned, abundantly pardoned. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord."
Man may be unforgiving when he is not just. God can be just, and yet not unforgiving. Oh, glorious difference! Man can be himself unjust, and yet condemn the innocent. God can be just, and yet justify the guilty. Judge not God by man. Judge not his mercy by the compassions of his erring creatures. The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. Well, then, may he say to those who find such mercy too stupendous to be trusted in," my thoughts are not as your thoughts," &c. God pardons nothing, or he pardons all. Let the convicted sinner cease to doubt—let him cease to linger, for any reason or on any pretext—let him cease to call in question either his danger or his guilt—let him cease, on the other hand, to make its greatness an excuse for unbelief or a pretext for despair;—but since he is in danger, imminent danger—since deliverance from it is so freely offered—since the grace which offers it is limited in time—since that grace will not save men in sin, but will freely save them from sin— since it will pardon sin itself to the believer, and whenever it pardons at all, will abundantly pardon even the chief of sinners—however foreign such forgiveness may be from human passions and human feelings, let the sinner hesitate and doubt no longer— "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon: for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord: for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."