THE DIVINE MERCY TO MOURNING PENITENTS.
" I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus ; Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because 1 did bear the reproach of my youth. Is Ephraim my dear son ? is he a pleasant child ? for since I spoke against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him : I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord."—Jer. xxxi. 18-20.
In these words, the mourning language of a penitent child, sensible of ingratitude, and at once desirous and ashamed to return, and the tender language of a compassionate father, at once chastising, pitying, and pardoning are sweetly blended: and the images are so lively and moving, that, if they were regarded only as poetical descriptions founded upon fiction, they would be irresistibly striking. But when we consider them as the most important realities, as descriptive of that ingenuous repentance which we must all feel, and of that gracious acceptance we must all obtain from God before we can be happy, what almighty energy should they have upon us! How may our hearts dissolve within us at the sound of such pathetic complaints, and such gracious encouragements f Hard indeed is that heart that can hear these penitential strains, without being melted into the like tender relentings; and inveterate is that melancholy, incurable is that despondency, that can listen to such expressions of fatherly compassion and love, without being cheered and animated.
This whole chapter had a primary reference to the Jews, and such of the Israelites as might mingle with them in their return from the Babylonian captivity. As they were enslaved to foreigners, and removed from their native land for their sin, so they could not be restored but upon their repentance.
The text naturally resolves itself into three parts, as it consists of three verses. In the first verse we find the careless, resolute impenitent reduced by chastisement to a sense of his danger, and the necessity of turning to God, and yet sensible of his utter inability, and therefore crying for the attractive influences of divine grace. You hear Ephraim bemoaning his wretched condition, and pouring out importunate groans for relief, thus: Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, like a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke, that struggles and wearies himself in vain to get free from it, and must be broken and tamed with severe usage. " Thus stubborn and unmanageable have I been; and now when I am convinced of the necessity of a return to thee, I feel my obstinate heart reluctate, like a wild ox, and I cannot come. I therefore cry to thee for the attractive influence of thy grace." Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; draw me, and I shall run after thee. " To whom but to thee shall I return, and to whom but to thee shall I apply for strength to return ? For thou only art the Lord my God, who can help me, and whom I am under infinite obligations to serve." Thus the awakened sinner prayed; and mercy listened to his cries. The attractive influences of divine grace are granted, and he is enabled to return: which introduces the second branch of the text in the 19th verse, in which the new convert is represented as reflecting upon the efficacy of converting grace, and the glorious change wrought in him by it: Surely after that I was turned, I repented ; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth. The third part of the text represents the blessed God listening to the cries of his mourning child. I shall endeavor to illustrate each of these parts of the text, and thus shall be led to describe the preparative exercises, the nature and concomitants of true repentance, and the tender compassions of Heaven towards mourning penitents.
I. Let us view the returning sinner under his first spiritual concern, which is generally preparatory to evangelical repentance. And where shall we find him ? And what is he doing ? We shall not find him, as usual, in a thoughtless hurry about earthly things, confining all his attention to these trifles, and unmindful of the important concerns of eternity. We shall not find him merry, inconsiderate, and vain, in a circle of jovial, careless companions; much less shall we find him intrepid and secure in a course of sin, gratifying his flesh, and indulging his lusts. In this enchanted road the crowds of hardy impenitents pass secure and cheerful down to the chambers of death, but the awakened sinner flies from it with horror; or, if his depraved heart would tempt him to walk in it, he cannot take many steps before he is shocked with the horrid apparition of impending danger. He finds the flattering paths of sin haunted with the terrible spectres of guilt, and the sword of divine vengeance gleams bright and dreadful before him, and seems lifted to give the fatal blow. You will therefore find the awakened sinner solitary and solemn in some retired corner, not deceiving himself with vain hopes of safety in his present state, but alarmed with apprehensions of danger; not planning schemes for his secular advantage, nor asking with sordid anxiety, " Who will show me any temporal good?" but solicitous about his perishing soul, and anxiously inquiring, What shall I do to be saved ? He is no more senseless, hard-hearted, and self-applauding, as be was wont to be; but like a mourning turtle, he bewails himself in such tragical strains as these: " Unhappy creature that I am! Into what a deplorable state have I brought myself! and how long have I continued in it with the insensibility of a rock and the stupidity of a brute? Now I may mourn over my past, neglected, and unimproved days, and so many deceased friends, sent indeed by Heaven to do no good, but cruelly killed by my ungrateful neglect and continued delays as to a return to God and holiness. Here I am a guilty, obnoxious creature, uncertain of life, and unfit to die; alienated from God, and incapable (alas! I may add unwilling) to return, a slave to sin, and too feeble to break the fetters of inveterate habits; liable to the arrest of divine justice, and unable to deliver myself; exposed to the vengeance of Heaven, yet can make no atonement; destitute of an interest in Christ, and uncertain whether 1 shall ever obtain it. Unhappy creature! Pity me, ye brute creation, that know not how to sin, and therefore cannot know the misery of my case; and have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my friends! and if these guilty lips may dare to pronounce thy injured name, O thou God of grace, have pity upon me! But alas! I deserve no pity, for how long have I denied it to myself! Ah! infatuated wretch! Why did not I sooner begin to secure my unhappy soul, that has lain all this time neglected and unpitied upon the brink of ruin?"
Thou Hast Chastised Me. This, as spoken by Ephraim, had a particular reference to the Babylonish captivity; but we may naturally take occasion from it to speak of those calamities in general, whether outward or inward, that are made the means of alarming the secure sinner.
Sometimes God awakens the sinner to bethink himself, by stripping him of his earthly supports and comforts, his estate, or his relatives, which drew away his heart from eternal things, and thus brings him to see the necessity of turning to God, the fountain of bliss, upon the failure of the streams. Thus he dealt with profligate Manasseh. He was taken in thorns, and in fetters, and carried to Babylon ; and when he was in affliction he besought the Lord, and humbled himself greatly before him and prayed unto him.
But the principal means of correction which God uses for the end of return to him is that of conscience; and, indeed, without this, all the rest are in vain. Outward afflictions are of service only as they tend to awaken the conscience from its lethargy to a faithful discharge of its trust. It is conscience that makes the sinner sensible of his misery, and scourges him to a sense of his duty. This is a chastisement the most severe that human nature can endure. The lashes of a guilty conscience are intolerable; and some, under them, have chosen strangling and death rather than life. Let not such of you as have never been tortured with its remorse, congratulate yourselves upon your happiness, for you are not innocent; and therefore conscience will not always sleep; .it will not always lie torpid and inactive, like a snake benumbed with cold, in your breast. It will awaken you either to your conversion or condemnation. Either the fire of God's wrath, flaming from his law, will enliven it in this world to sting you with medicinal anguish; or the unquenchable fire of his vengeance in the lake of fire and brimstone will thaw it into life; and then it will horribly rage in ypur breast, and diffuse its tormenting poison through your whole frame: then it will become a never-dying worm, and prey upon your hearts for ever. But if you now suffer it to pain you with salutary remorse, and awaken you to a tender sensibility of your danger, this intestine enemy will, in the end, become your bosom friend, will support you under every calamity, and be your faithful companion and guardian through the most dangerous paths of life. Therefore now submit to its most wholesome severities, now yield to its chastisements.
You see, my brethren, the obstinate reluctance of an awakened sinner to return to God. I was chastised as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke. Like a wild young bullock, he would range at large, and is impatient of the yoke of the law and the restraints of conscience. He loves his sin, and cannot bear to part with it. He has no relish for the exercises of devotion and ascetic mortification, and therefore will not submit to them. The way of holiness is disagreeable to his depraved heart, and he will not turn his feet to it. He loves to be stupidly easy and serene in mind, and cannot bear to be checked in his pursuit of business or pleasure by anxieties of heart, and therefore he is impatient of the honest warnings of his conscience, and uses a variety of wretched expedients to silence its clamorous remonstrances. In short, he will do any thing, he will turn to any thing, rather than to God. If his conscience will be but satisfied, he will forsake many of his sins; ho will, like Herod, do many things, and walk in the whole round of outward duties. All this he will do, if his conscience will be bribed by it. But if conscience enlarges its demands, and, after he has reformed his life, requires him to make him a new heart—requires him to turn not only from the outward practice of gross vices, but from the love of all sin; and not only to turn to the observance of religious duties, but to turn to the Lord with all his heart, and surrender himself entirely to him, and make it the main business of life to serve him; if conscience, I say, carries its demands thus far, he cannot bear it—he struggles to throw off the yoke. And some are cursed with horrid success in the attempt; they are permitted to rest content in a partial reformation, or external religion, as sufficient, and so go down to the grave with a lie in their right hand. But the happy soul, on whom divine grace is determined to finish its work in spite of all opposition, is suffered to weary itself out in a vain resistance of the chastisements of conscience, till it is obliged to yield and submit to the yoke. And then, with Ephraim, it will cry, Turn thou me, and Isluxll be turned. This is the mourning sinner's language when convinced that he must submit and turn to God, and in the mean time finds himself utterly unable to turn. Many essays he makes to give himself to the Lord; but oh! his heart starts back, and shrinks away as though he were rushing into flames, when he is but flying to the gracious embraces of his Father. He strives, and strives to drag it along, but all in vain. And what shall he do in this extremity, but cry, Lord, turn thou me, and I shall be turned; draw me, and I shall run after thee. Lord, though I am sensible of the necessity of turning to thee, though I exert my feeble strength in many a languid effort to come, yet I cannot, I cannot so much as creep towards thee, though I should die on the spot. Not only thy word, but my own experience now convinces me that I cannot come unto thee unless thou draw me. Here I lie, a helpless creature, unable to go to the physician, unable to accept of pardon and life on the easy terms of the gospel, and unable to free myself from the bondage of sin; and thus I must be for ever, unless that God, from whom I have revolted draws me back to himself. Turn me, O thou that hast the hearts of all men in thy hands, and canst turn them whithersoever thou pleasest, turn me; and then, weak and reluctant as I am, I shall be turned; this backward heart will yield to the almighty attraction of grace. " Here am I, as passive clay in the hand of the potter, incapable to fashioning myself into a vessel fit for thy house; but thou canst form me as thou pleasest. This hard and stubborn heart will be pliable to thine irresistible power." Thus you see the awakened sinner is driven to earnest prayer in his exigence. Never did a drowning man call for help, or a condemned malefactor plead for pardon with more sincerity and ardor. If the sinner had neglected prayer all his life before, now he flies to it as the only expedient left; or if he formerly ran it over in a careless, unthinking manner, as an insignificant form, now he exerts all the importunity of his soul; now he prays as for his life, and cannot rest till his desires are answered.
Having viewed Ephraim under the preparatory work of legal conviction, and the dawn of evangelical repentance, let us view him,
II. As reflecting upon the surprising efficacy of grace he had sought, and which was bestowed upon him in answer to his prayer. .-J
We left him just now crying, Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; here we find him actually turned. Surely, ajhr I was turned I repented. When the Lord exerts his power to subdue the stubbornness of the sinner, and sweetly to allure him to himself, then the sinner repents; then his heart dissolves in ingenuous, disinterested relentings. His sorrow and concern before conversion are forced and mercenary ; they are occasioned only by a selfish fear of punishment, and he would willingly get rid of them; but now his grief is free and spontaneous; it flows from his heart as freely as streams from a fountain, and he takes pleasure in tender relentings before the Lord for his sin; he delights to be humble, and to feel his heart dissolve within him. A heart of flesh, soft and susceptive of impressions, is his choice, and a stony, insensible heart his greatest burden; the more penitent the more happy, and the more senseless the more miserable he finds himself.
We learn from this passage, that the true penitent is sensible of a mighty turn in his temper and inclinations. Surely, after I was turned 1 repented. His whole soul is turned from what he formerly delighted in, and turned to what he had no relish for before. Particularly his thoughts, his will and affections are turned to God; there is a heavenly bias communicated to them which draws them to holiness, like the law of gravitation in the material world. There is indeed a new turn given to his outward practice ; the world may see that he is a new man. But this is not all; the first spring that turns all the wheels of the soul and actions of life is the heart, and this is first set right. The change within is as evident as that without, could our eyes penetrate the heart. In short, if any man be in Christ, he is throughout a new creature: old things are passed away, and behold all things are become new.
Apply this touchstone to your hearts, my brethren, and see if they will stand the test.
III. Let us notice the compassion of God towards mourning penitents.
While they are bemoaning their case, and conscious that they do not deserve one look of love from God, he is represented as attentively listening to catch the first penitential groan that breaks from their hearts. Ephraim, in the depth of his despondency, probably did hardly hope that God took any notice of his secret sorrows, which he supEressed as much as possible from the public view: but God eard him—God watching to hear the first mournful cry; and he repeats all his complaints, to let him know (after the manner of men) what particular notice he had taken of them. " / have surely heard, or hearing I have heard;" that is, "I have attentively heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus."
What strong consolation may this give to desponding mourners, who think themselves neglected by that God to whom they are pouring out their weeping supplications! He hears your secret groans, he courts your sighs, and puts your tears into his bottle. His eyes penetrate all the secrets of your heart, and he observes all their feeble struggles to turn to himself; and he beholds you, not as an unconcerned spectator, but with all the tender emotions of fatherly compassion. " For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still." Many and dreadful were the threatenings denounced against the sinner while impenitent; and, had he continued impenitent, they would certainly have been executed upon him. But the primary and immediate design of the threatenings are to make men happy, and not to make them miserable; they are designed to deter them from disobedience, which is naturally Ereductive of misery, or to reclaim them from it, which is ut to restrain them in their career of ruin. And consequently these threatenings proceed from love as well as the promises of our God—from love to the person, though from hatred to sin. Thus when the primary end of the divine threatenings, namely, the deterring and reclaiming men from disobedience is not obtained, then it becomes necessary that they should be executed upon the impenitent in their dreadful extent; but when the sinner is brought to repentance, and to submit to the divine government, then all these threatenings are repealed, and they shall not hurt one hair of his head. And the sinner himself shall acknowledge that these threatenings proved necessary mercies to him, and that the denunciation of everlasting punishment was one means of bringing him to everlasting happiness, and that divine vengeance in this sense conspired with divine grace to save him.
Consider this, ye desponding penitents and allay your terrors. That God, who has written such bitter things against you in his word, earnestly and affectionately remembers you still, and it was with a kind intent to you, that he thundered out these terrors of which you tremble. These acids, this bitter physic, were necessary for your recovery. These coals of fire were necessary to awaken you out of your lethargy. Therefore read the love of your Father, even in these solemn warnings. He affectionately remembers you still; he cannot put you out of his thoughts.
And can you, ye mourners in Zion, can you fear a rejection from such a tender Father? Can you dread to venture upon such abundant mercies? Is there a mourning Ephraim in this assembly ? I may call you as God did Adam, Ephraim, where art thou? Let the word of God find you out, and force a little encouragement upon yOu: your heavenly Father, whose angry hand you fear, is listening to your groans, and will measure you out a mercy for every groan, a blessing for every sigh, a drop, a draught of consolation for every tear. His bowels are moving over you, and he addresses you in such language as this, " Is this my dear son ? is this my pleasant child ?" And as to you, ye hardy impenitents, ye abandoned profligates, ye careless formalists, ye almost Christians, can you hear these things, and not begin to relent? Do you not find your frozen hearts begin to thaw within you ? Can you resist such alluring grace ? Can you bear the thoughts of continuing enemies to so good, so forgiving a Father ? Does not Ephraim's petition now rise in your hearts, Turn thou me, and I shall be turned ? then I congratulate you upon this happy day; you are this day become God's sons, the children of his delights. Is there a wretch so senseless, so wicked, so abandoned, as to refuse to return? Where art thou, hardy rebel? Stand forth and meet the terrors of thy doom. To thee I must change my voice, and instead of representing the tender compassions of a Father, must denounce the terrors of an angry Judge. Thy doom is declared, and fixed by the same lips that speak to penitents in such encouraging strains; by those gracious lips that never uttered a harsh censure. Thou art treasuring up wrath in horrid affluence against the day of wrath.—Bom. ii. 5. God is jealous, and revengeth ; the Lord revengeth, and is furious ; the Lord will take vengeance on his adversaries ; and he reserveth wrath for his enemies. The mountains quake, at him ; the hills melt; the earth is burnt at his presence; yea, (he world, and they that dwell therein. Who can stand before his indignation ? Who can endure the fierceness of his anger ? —Nehem. i. 2-5- These flaming thunderbolts, sinner, are aimed at thy heart, and if thou canst harden thyself against these terrors, let me read thy doom before we part. You have it pronounced by God himself in Deuteronomy, the twenty-ninth chapter, at the nineteenth and following verses: If it come to pass that when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying, I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my heart—the Lord shall not spare him: but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven ; and the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of tlie law. And now, sinner, if thou canst return home careless and senseless with this heavy curse upon thee, expect not a word of comfort, expect no blessing till thou art made truly penitent ; for " how shall I bless whom God has not blessed ?" The ministerial blessing falls upon one on thy right hand, and one on thy left, but it lights not upon thee. The curse is thy lot, and this must thou have, at the hand of God, if thou continuest hardened and insolent in sin. Consider this, all ye that forget God, lest he tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.