Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
THE SECURE AND ATHEISTICAL CONDEMNED
Zephaniah 1:12. It shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees; that say in their heart, The Lord will not do good, neither will he do evil.
SUCH was the state of the Jews for a long time previous to the Babylonish captivity, that the prophets had little to do, but to denounce the judgments of God against them. The promises which they were inspired to utter had respect to a different and distant period, a period for the most part yet future; shadowed forth indeed by their deliverance from Babylon, but to be realized only by their future conversion to the faith of Christ. Nevertheless, the warnings given to them are of use to the Church of God in all ages. The Christian Church at this time is in a state not very dissimilar to that of the Jews in the land of Canaan. We are externally the chosen people of God: we enjoy the ordinances of religion in their purity: and we have all the means of grace richly afforded us. But we rest in external services, as they did; and have as little of real piety as the generality of that infatuated nation. While we call ourselves the people of the Lord, we differ but little from the nations that know not God. We conform in many things to customs most repugnant to true religion; and in the spirit and habit of our minds, show, that, whatever we may retain of "the form of godliness, we are strangers to its power." The evils which God reproved among them, are to be found in no less degree among us also: and the judgments that were denounced against them show what reason we also have to dread the displeasure of God. In confirmation of this truth, we will consider,
I. The characters here described—
Such we behold in every place; persons sunk in,
1. Carnal security—
The metaphor by which the state of these persons is depicted exhibits it in a most striking point of view. Wine, when "settled on its lees," retains for a long time its strength and flavor, which, if it were emptied from vessel to vessel, it would soon lose. In like manner, when, through a long period of ease and prosperity, persons have their natural dispositions fixed, and inveterate habits formed, they retain throughout their whole man, and manifest throughout their whole conduct, a savor of earthly things. The very habit of sin hardens them in sin; and the forbearance which God in his mercy exercises towards them, confirms in them an expectation of final impunity. This is the description which the Prophet Jeremiah gives of Moab Jeremiah 48:11; and with it agrees the testimony of David respecting the ungodly in all ages: as long as they have no changes "to awaken them from their slumber, they fear not God." How true this is, we cannot but see in all around us. How securely do men live in a total neglect of their everlasting concerns! They have no dread of God's displeasure; no anxieties about the future judgment; no alternations of hope and fear as arising from an examination of their state before God. Whatever God may say in his word, they regard it not. If he tell them, that "broad is the road that leads to destruction, and that many," even the great mass of mankind, "walk therein; but that narrow is the way that leads unto life, and few there be that find it;" they account it worthy of not the least attention: they cannot believe that they are in any danger; and they hold fast their delusions with a confidence that nothing can shake.
2. Atheistical presumption—
Persons, the more effectually to exclude all misgivings from their minds, deny that God takes any cognizance of their state. "Tush, say they, how shall God know? is there knowledge in the Most High Psalm 73 11." They think it would be dishonoring God to conceive of him as marking all the ways of the children of men in order to a future judgment. True indeed, they hear him denounce many threatenings against the ungodly: but they will not believe that he will execute them. They hear him, too, promising many things to his humble and obedient people: but they cannot persuade themselves that he will fulfill them. They imagine that he has, as it were, "forsaken the earth Ezekiel 8:12;" and quite contented are they that he should do so, since the very thought of his presence would disquiet them. Thus do they, in fact, "say like the fool, 'There is no God Psalm 14:1.'"
Not that this is the language of their lips: they would be ashamed to avow such sentiments as these. But it is the language of their hearts: "they say in their hearts, The Lord will not do good; neither will he do evil." If they believed in their hearts the promises and threatenings of God, they would manifest a suitable regard to them in their lives: but, as they neither delight themselves in the one, nor tremble at the other, they show beyond all doubt what the secret feeling of their hearts is, and that the construction which God puts upon their conduct is true. They may be moral and decent in their outward conduct; but radically in their hearts they are "Atheists in the world Ephesians 2:12. See the Greek."
After this view of the persons described in our text, we shall not wonder at,
II. The judgments denounced against them—
Two things God declares in the words before us;
1. That however hidden they may suppose their state to be, God will search it out—
The Jews at the Passover would search every corner of their houses with candles, in order to find the smallest portion of leaven which might lie concealed: and God will search with candles, not Jerusalem only, but every place, yes and every heart, to find the abominations which have been just described. They may not betray themselves by any overt acts, so as to excite the attention of men: they may even exist where all the outward conduct is correct; even as the most offensive masses of corruption are hid under a whited sepulcher. But God will not be deceived by any appearances, however specious; "The darkness is no darkness with him; but the night is as clear as the day:" before him all things are naked and opened: the thoughts and intents of the heart are discerned by him: and "he will make manifest its most hidden counsels." "He searches the heart, and tries the reins," and "weighs the spirit" as in a balance; and will interpret as infallibly the language of the heart, as if it had been manifested by ten thousand acts. Let this be duly considered. We may deceive others, and we may deceive ourselves: but we cannot deceive our God; for "he knows the things that come into our mind, every one of them."
2. That however innocent they may suppose their state to be, God will punish it—
God cannot look upon persons of this description without the deepest resentment: for they place him on a level with the basest idol, whose proper character is, that "it can do neither good nor evil Jeremiah 10:5." And how can a holy and jealous God endure this? Be it so: their wickedness is only, as it were, of a negative kind; and consists rather in a neglect of what is good, than in a perpetration of what is evil: but was this unpunished in the antediluvian world? "They ate, they drank; they planted, they built; they married, and were given in marriage:" and, What harm, it may be asked, was there in all this? None: but the evil was, that they lived without any regard for God: and therefore God sent a deluge, and swept them all away. And so will he do with respect to those who now cast off all fear of him, and, in heart at least, banish him from the world which he has created. See in what light he views such conduct: he declares "the iniquity of it to be exceeding great Ezekiel 9:9;" and denounces against it his heaviest indignation Deuteronomy 29:19-20. And so far are these persons from being out of danger, that the more secure they apprehend themselves to be, the greater and more imminent their danger is. They may say, Peace and safety; but "sudden destruction will come upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape 1 Thessalonians. 5:3;" they may sleep; but "their judgment lingers not, and their damnation slumbers not." "The sins of some are open beforehand, going before to judgment: but they that are otherwise cannot be hid 1 Timothy 5:24-25." It is in vain to say that they do no harm: for the unprofitable servant, no less than the openly wicked, shall be "cast into outer darkness, where is weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth."
1. Those who are living in the state above described—
I will appeal to you yourselves respecting the wickedness of your lives. Judge you between God and your own souls. Consider yourselves but as creatures; and does it become you to live without any regard for your Creator? But view yourselves as sinners redeemed by the blood of God's only dear Son; and then say, whether a life of carnal security and atheistical presumption be such an one as your condition calls for?: Look into the Scriptures, and see whether you can find any countenance for such a life, either in the commands of God, or in the examples of his saints?: Think whether your own opinion of such a state will always remain what you now profess it to be? Do you find that any awakened soul looks back on such a life with delight? Does it appear to him a light matter to have lived all his days as without God in the world? If you continue to harden yourselves against God, he may give you up to your own delusions, and leave you under the power of them in your dying hour: but what think you will be your views of such a life the very instant your eyes are opened on the invisible world? What will be your views of it when standing in the presence of your Judge? and what will be your views of it, when you are eating the fruit of your own ways in that place from whence there is no return, and in which your residence will be fixed to all eternity? If in your hearts you think that you will then rejoice in the retrospect of a carnal life, go on; and sleep out the little remainder of your days. But if conscience tell you, that in that day you will have far different views from those which you now profess, then awake from your slumbers, and turn unto God without delay. God has given you a candle with which to search yourselves; (for "the spirit of man is the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly Proverbs 20:27;") make use of it then with all diligence: "search and try your ways, and turn unto the Lord your God:" and doubt not but that in Christ you shall find a full and complete redemption. "Awake, you that sleep, and arise from the dead; and Christ shall give you light."
2. Those who have attained deliverance from it—
Blessed be God, if any of you have been quickened from your death in trespasses and sins: and now beware, lest you relapse again into your former state of atheistical supineness. It is no uncommon thing for persons to run well for a season, and then turn back again; to "begin in the Spirit, and end in the flesh." But to you also will I make my appeal: Is it "a vain thing to serve the Lord?" Will he not do good to those who seek him in sincerity and truth? Is he not, as he has said, "the Rewarder of all such?" Does he not even now impart to the soul blessings that are of more value than ten thousand worlds? Does he not answer prayer? Does he not communicate to the soul a peace that passes all understanding? Does he not lift up the light of his countenance on the poor and needy? Does he not shed abroad his love in the heart? Does he not give the witness of his Spirit to the soul, and seal it unto the day of redemption? On the other hand, does he not hide his face when you become remiss, and leave you to feel what "an evil and bitter thing it is to depart from him?" Yes: you can testify that there is a God that rules in the earth; you can testify how rich his grace is, and how abundant his mercy in the Son of his love. You can testify that Christ "reveals himself to his people as he does not unto the world;" and that he dwells in them, and gives them, by the manifestations of his love, a pledge and a foretaste of their future inheritance. Go on, then, living by faith upon him, and cleaving unto him with full purpose of heart; and show to all around you what the Christian life is. Run, as in a race, for an incorruptible crown: wrestle as one that is striving against all the principalities and powers of Hell: and fight manfully until all your enemies are put under your feet. So shall you be living witnesses for God in this world, and partakers of all his blessedness in the world to come.
Zephaniah 2:1-3. Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, O nation not desired; before the decree bring forth, before the day pass as the chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord come upon you, before the day of the Lord's anger come upon you. Seek you the Lord, all you meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be you shall be hid in the day of the Lord's anger.
IN the preceding chapter, the most dreadful judgments are denounced against the whole Jewish nation. That devoted people are represented as a sacrifice, which God himself has prepared to be devoured by their enemies, whom he has invited as guests to come and prey upon them Zephaniah 1:7. Yet, as God afforded space for repentance to the Ninevites, notwithstanding the apparent immutability of his decree against them, so he does here to his own people the Jews. By the voice of his prophet he bids them "gather themselves together" for the purpose of national humiliation, and repent, before the threatened judgments come upon them. And, if they in their national capacity will not hear his voice, he bids the meek and contrite among them to abase themselves, that they at least may be preserved amidst the general wreck.
A similar exhortation is at all times seasonable; since at all times there are the heaviest judgments impending over the ungodly, and since by true and timely penitence they may be averted.
To analyze this passage, will be to enervate its force. I shall therefore ground upon it a general address, having respect to its main import, and prosecuting in an unartificial way its more prominent topics. Know then, that
The most dreadful judgments hang over an ungodly world—
There is a day wherein "God will judge the world by that man whom he has ordained, even by our Lord Jesus Christ." That day is called "the day of wrath and of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God;" and "the day of the perdition of ungodly men Romans 2:5. 2 Peter 3:7." But the terrors of that day who can conceive? Who can form any idea of what is meant by that wrath of God, which is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men Romans 1:18." Who can imagine what it is to be "cast into the lake that burns with fire and brimstone," where "the worm," that gnaws the conscience, "dies not, and the fire is not quenched?" In a word, the "power of his anger who can tell Psalm 90:11."
To escape those judgments should be the one concern of every living man—
There is no man who is not justly exposed to them: all are transgressors of God's holy law, and consequently obnoxious to the curse which it denounces against sin. All then, as with one heart and one mind, should unite in deprecating the displeasure of their God, and in "fleeing for refuge to the hope set before them" in the Gospel: Hear this, "O people not desired:" whether through the hardness of your hearts you are not desired by God, or through your ignorance of him are not desirous of his favor, (for the prophet's expression may be understood in either way;) you should not lose an hour in embracing the offered mercy. If once "the decree bring forth," there will be an end of all possibility of obtaining mercy to all eternity. "As the tree falls, so will it lie" forever and ever. O, then let all of you "gather yourselves together," and, as the word also imports, "search yourselves," before it be too late. For your immortal souls' sake, repent, I beseech you, without delay, "before the fierce anger of the Lord come upon you, before the day of the Lord's anger come upon you."
To those who have any measure of humility and contrition, this truth will approve itself as most unquestionable and most important—
Prevalent as impiety is to a vast extent, there are some, I trust, "who have wrought God's judgment," and labored in sincerity to fulfill his will. Such, it might be supposed, would be most self-confident. But the very reverse is their experience: the more observant they have been of the Lord's statutes, the more will they be humbled under a sense of their defects: they are, and ever will be, "the meek of the earth." To such then we address ourselves with the greater hope of success: "Seek you the Lord, all you meek of the earth." You have already shown that you think God is to be feared: your very attainments, small as they may be, yet testify in your behalf that you are neither "undesirous," or "undesired." You have chosen God; and that is a proof that God has previously chosen you John 15:16. Relax not then your endeavors: be not contented to have run well for a season: press forward, forgetful of all that you may have attained: "never be weary in well-doing," lest you "turn back," and "your last end be worse than your beginning."
But let your humiliation be such as God requires—
"Seek righteousness, seek meekness;" "seek righteousness" in the way wherein God has appointed it to be obtained, even by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; who, by his own obedience unto death, has brought in an everlasting righteousness for the justification of the ungodly; and by his efficacious and all-sufficient grace will "sanctify you throughout, in body, soul, and spirit." Rest not in anything short of the full possession of Christ and all his benefits: but labor night and day, until "he is, of God, made unto you wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption." Particularly "seek meekness" also; for that is the grace which God most delights in: "the broken and contrite heart he will not despise;" on the contrary, he will come down from the highest heavens to testify his regard for it, and to make it his habitation Isaiah 57:15. If there be one grace more than another which distinguishes the more advanced Christian, it is that of humility. Job was a "perfect" man before his sufferings; but, after them, his attainments in grace were exceedingly enlarged; and then it was that he "abhorred himself in dust and ashes." Do you also aspire after perfection in every grace; but learn most of all to "loath yourselves," when you have the most confident hope that "God is pacified towards you Ezekiel 16:63."
It shall then assuredly prove effectual for the salvation of your souls—
"Repent," says the prophet, "and turn from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin." Where the judgments are of a temporal nature, the true penitent may hope that God will put a difference between him and others Ezekiel 9:4; but in reference to judgments that shall be inflicted in the eternal world, he may be sure of it. The sheep and the goats shall have their appropriate places assigned them; and the wheat be treasured up in the gamer, while "the chaff is burnt up with unquenchable fire." Were there but a perhaps concerning this, it were quite sufficient to encourage our deepest penitence: but it is not a matter of uncertainty: it not only "may be," but shall be: and not the smallest grain of true wheat shall ever be lost Amos 9:9. Did Jesus, even in the days of his flesh, lose one whom the Father had given him? No: "nor will he ever suffer one to be plucked out of his hands." "Their lives are now hid with Christ in God; and therefore when He, who is their life, shall appear, they also shall appear with him in glory Colossians 3:3-4."
WHAT RECOMPENSE WE MAY EXPECT FOR OUR NEGLECT OF GOD
Zephaniah 3:7-8. I said, Surely you will fear me, you will receive instruction; so their dwelling should not be cut off, however I punished them: but they rose early, and corrupted all their doings. Therefore wait you upon me, says the Lord, until the day that I rise up to the prey.
IN great national calamities we are apt, for the most part, to overlook the hand of God, and to trace events only to second causes, or to ascribe them to mere chance. But whatever there be either of "good or evil in the city," God must be acknowledged as "the doer of it." Moreover, in whatever he does, he has some fixed design: and to answer that design should be the labor of all his creatures. Now the general design of his judgments is, to awaken the inhabitants of the earth from their torpor, and to teach them righteousness: and if smaller judgments produce not this effect upon us, we may expect heavier to ensue. One very important object to be attained by cutting off the nations around Judea, and by sending the ten tribes into captivity in Assyria, was to reform his more peculiar people, the tribes of Benjamin and Judah. And as his people were far from improving his judgments for that end, he declared that he would visit them in a way suited to display the enormity of their guilt, and the riches of that grace which they had so abused.
In order to accommodate this subject to the present occasion, we shall consider,
I. What God has been expecting from us—
Dreadful have been the judgments which God has inflicted on the surrounding nations—
To whatever part of Europe we direct our attention, we shall see that the different nations have, during the last twenty years, been visited with calamities of a most afflictive kind: but more particularly, the recent devastation of Russia, the destruction of its ancient capital by fire, and the total annihilation of the French army in the space of a few weeks, are events that demand particular notice at this time In October, 1813. Indeed, with the exception of our highly-favored land, there is scarcely a country to which, at some period of this war, we may not in a measure apply the words preceding our text; "I have cut off the nations: their towers are desolate; I made their streets waste, that none passes by: their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, that there is none inhabitant."
And has not God been speaking to us by these great events?
Yes, surely: he has sought to reclaim us from our evil ways: he has "said with himself, Surely you will fear me; you will receive instruction; so that your dwelling shall not be cut off, however I punish you." Of us this improvement of his judgments might well be expected, not only on account of the peculiar protection which has been afforded us, but on account of the transcendent advantages which we enjoy in the knowledge of God's word, and the ministration of his Gospel Here show particularly wherein that improvement should have consisted; and our additional obligation to it, arising from our religious privileges: verse 5; And now, I ask, was not this expectation reasonable? and is not that complaint which God made against his people of old, in the fullest and strictest sense applicable to us Isaiah 5:3-4..
Alas! We have reason to blush and be confounded, when we reflect,
II. How we have disappointed his expectations—
Hear the accusation of God against us; "They rose early, and corrupted all their doings"—
There is no sin, in the commission of which we are not as eager as ever. It should almost seem that "the goodness, and long-suffering, and forbearance of God, which should have led us to repentance," have produced rather the contrary effect, of lulling us to sleep in our sins. The accusation is more fully stated in a preceding verse verse 2: let us consider it more minutely: let us make use of it as a light by which to search and try our ways: exceeding heinous?
And is not the accusation applicable to all ranks and orders among us, even as it was against the Jews of old?
We do not in general wish to speak of others: but in a view of national iniquities we are constrained to do so, especially where the prophets lead the way. Behold then what the prophet speaks respecting the princes, the judges, the prophets, and the priests of his day verse 3, 4; we will not say that precisely the same iniquities prevail among those different orders in our land; but we appeal to you, whether any material change has taken place among the higher ranks; or whether those, whose duty it is to instruct and reform the world, have increased in activity and zeal, by any means to the extent that the occasion has called for? Alas! if we consult the records of the New Testament, and see what the Apostles preached, and how they lived, and then compare it with the lives and ministrations of the sacred order among us, we shall see cause to wonder that God has not already removed his candlestick from us, and left us in utter darkness.
And well may the misconduct of these orders be more distinctly noticed, since on them depends, in so great a degree, the state of all the other classes of society. If all ministers would preach the Gospel with fidelity, and exemplify its holy precepts in their lives; and if our princes and nobility would take the lead in the great work of reformation; an immense change would soon be wrought in every quarter of the land: but if, for want of their exertions, the whole land continue in its iniquities, let them not wonder that their criminality is exposed, and that the judgments reserved for them are proportioned to the guilt which they contract.
The disappointment of God's expectations from us leads us naturally to consider,
III. What we may expect from him—
On this part of our subject we shall be led to extremely different views, according to the interpretation which we put on the concluding words of our text. Some understand the words thus: "You have disappointed all my reasonable expectations; therefore expect from me the most tremendous judgments." Others justly observe, that the word "therefore" may properly be translated "nevertheless That is evidently the true sense of the word in Micah 5:2-3;" and that the sense is, 'you have disappointed all my reasonable expectations; nevertheless that shall not induce me to alter my gracious purposes towards Jews and Gentiles, whom I will unite under one head, and sanctify as my peculiar people.' In confirmation of this latter sense, we must say, that this is the very way in which God often introduces his most glorious promises Isaiah 43:22-26; Isaiah 57:16-17 and Habakkuk 2:12-14; and that the two verses following our text seem to require it. But as we cannot certainly determine which of the senses is the right, we include both; and show what we may expect from God,
1. In a way of judgment—
Often does God denounce especial vengeance against those who have abused his mercies Isaiah 5:5-6. Jeremiah 5:5-6; and well indeed may we expect to have it executed upon us: well may we be constrained to drink the dregs of that cup which has been put into the hands of the surrounding nations. And how fearful will be our state, if "God pour upon us his indignation, even all his fierce anger!" Let us not indulge in presumptuous security. Who that had been told a few years ago that either the ancient capital of the Russian empire, or that of the British empire, would before this be certainly destroyed by fire, would have imagined on which the lot should fall? O let us tremble for ourselves, and labor to fulfill the gracious designs of God, before his wrath come upon us to the uttermost.
2. In a way of mercy—
The Jews have an idea that the Messiah's advent was deferred on account of the wickedness of their nation: but it was not deferred; nor shall anything prevent the final execution of God's promises, in the restoration of the Jews, and the bringing in the fullness of the Gentiles verse 9, 10; No: we look for those events with full assurance that they shall be accomplished in due season. It is probable, indeed, that great calamities will precede those events Luke 21:25-28; and there is great reason to hope, that the calamities of the present day are preparing the way for them. May God hasten forward that glorious period! and then, grievous as have been the distresses of the world for so many years, we shall not think we have sustained one too much, if it has been accessary in any measure to the promotion of so blessed an end.
Let us now drop all idea of national concerns, and come to those which are purely personal. Let us call to mind our personal transgressions, and reflect upon the personal judgments or mercies that await us: And may God reap the fruit of all his kindness; and Christ "see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied!"
THE POOR LIVING BY FAITH
Zephaniah 3:12. I will also leave in the midst of you an afflicted and poor people; and they shall trust in the name of the Lord.
THE Lord's people have in every age been a mere remnant, in comparison of the great mass of mankind. At the time of the deluge they were confined to Noah and his family. In the patriarchal age, from the call of Abraham to the descent of his posterity into Egypt, they were still a very "little flock:" and though they afterwards in appearance multiplied, and became a great nation, yet "they were not all Israel who were of Israel:" there was still but a small portion of that people who truly loved and served God; and even in the apostolic age Paul tells us, that they were then only "a remnant according to the election of grace." Moreover, this remnant has for the most part been of the description mentioned in our text, persons destitute of anything whereon to found a carnal confidence, and necessitated to confide solely in their God. At the period referred to in the preceding context they will cease to bear the character of a remnant, seeing that they will fill the face of the whole earth, and comprehend in their number all the kings and princes of the world verse 9; but until that period they will be characterized as "an afflicted and poor people, who shall trust in the name of the Lord."
In further speaking of them, we shall be led to notice,
I. Their low condition—
The description here given of them is for the most part verified in them,
1. As members of the community—
Riches and poverty are relative terms; and, when viewed in a large and comprehensive sense, will serve to draw a broad line between the different classes of society. It is from the lower of these classes that the Lord's people are most generally taken. Others are not excluded; on the contrary, some of the opposite class will always be found among them: but "not many great, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: God has chosen rather the foolish, the weak, the base, the despised, that no flesh should glory in his presence 1 Corinthians 1:26-29." So evident has this been in all ages of the Church, that James appeals to his brethren all the world over in confirmation of the fact: "Hearken, my beloved brethren, Has not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of his kingdom James 2:5." Indeed to this circumstance our Lord himself referred as confirming the truth of his Messiahship, that "to the poor the Gospel was preached Matthew 11:5;" and they received his word, and "heard him gladly," while the Scribes and Pharisees almost universally rejected him.
Affliction too is not unfrequently associated with poverty in the Lord's people: for it is rarely that any man will turn truly unto the Lord, until affliction of some kind or other has prepared his heart, and "plowed up, as it were, the fallow ground" for the reception of the heavenly seed. Almost all have occasion to acknowledge, with the Psalmist, "Before I was afflicted, I went astray." The minds of men are so carnal and worldly, that they will scarcely admit a serious thought, until they are made to feel, like the Prodigal in the parable, the insufficiency of earthly things to comfort them in the hour of trouble. Then they awake, as it were, out of a dream; and begin to say, "I will go unto my Father, in whose house there is bread enough and to spare."
2. As convinced sinners—
In this state every child of God without exception answers to the character in our text. There was once a time when all of them thought that they were "rich and increased in goods, and had need of nothing;" but, when the Lord opened the eyes of their understanding, they were made sensible that they were "wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." From that time they become "poor in spirit," and "go on their way weeping" for all their past iniquities and abominations. Now they have on their hearts a load too heavy for them to bear; and under the pressure of it they go to that adorable Savior, who has invited to him the weary and heavy-laden, and who alone is capable of giving them rest. Such are the persons to whom alone the Gospel is acceptable Isaiah 14:32, or can ever be preached with full effect: "the whole need not a physician:" it is the sick alone that desire his aid, or will receive his prescriptions. And such are the Lord's people: they feel themselves utterly destitute of all wisdom, goodness, and strength; and they are content to receive these blessings out of the fullness that is in Christ Jesus.
3. As professors of godliness—
In former ages, long before the coming of Christ, the Lord's people were persecuted by an ungodly world. Thousands "of whom the world," as the Apostle says, "was not worthy, had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yes, moreover, of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheep-skins and goat-skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented Hebrews 11:36-38." Of the saints under the Gospel dispensation it is needless to speak: the Acts of the Apostles amply testify, as the Epistles do also, that the followers of Christ have been treated as "the filth of the world, and the off-scouring of all things;" and experience proves that they are so regarded even to this day. The increase of civilization, and the protection afforded by human laws, prevent the same cruelties from being exercised towards them as in days of old: but it is as true at this day as at any period of the world, that "he who departs from evil makes himself a prey;" and that "all who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." True, we are not dragged to the stake as formerly: but is it nothing to be hated, and despised of all men, and to be made a butt for impiety and profaneness to expend their arrows upon? Is it nothing, too, to have one's "greatest foes among one's own household?" Yet so shall every man, who will be faithful to his God, find it in his own experience: he shall surely have some cross to bear; and be himself a witness, that the Lord's servants are "a poor and afflicted people."
Nevertheless they need not be discouraged, if only they will improve,
II. Their exalted privilege—
"The name of the Lord is to them a strong tower, to which they may run and be safe." It is their privilege to trust in,
1. His mercy to pardon their offences—
Whatever their former sins may have been, their Lord and Savior is ready to forgive them, and to blot them all out as a morning cloud. Even though they may have been "red like crimson, they, through the virtue of his blood, shall be made white as snow." Know then your privilege in this respect: let no sense of guilt keep you from him: limit not his tender mercies: look at those whom he received in the days of his flesh: and be assured, that he is still as gracious as ever; and that "those who come to him he will in no wise cast out." "Though your sins may have abounded, his grace shall much more abound;" and he will say to you, as he did to a notorious sinner of old, "Your sins, which are many, are forgiven you."
2. His power to uphold them in their difficulties—
Great may be your conflicts with sin and Satan; but great shall be the support which you shall derive from your living Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will "strengthen you with might by his Spirit in your inner man:" and "as your day is, so shall also your strength be." In you shall that sweet promise be verified, "The foot shall tread down its adversaries, even the feet of the poor, and the steps of the needy Isaiah 26:6." However formidable then your enemies may appear, remember, that "your Redeemer also is mighty;" and that, "while God is for you, none can with any effect be against you."
3. His love to overrule everything for good—
God has promised to his people that "all things shall work together for their good." How the good shall be elicited from the evil, and especially at the time, they have no idea. But God knows how to accomplish his own gracious purposes by the very means which his enemies are using to defeat them. The history of Joseph, and the book of Esther, draw aside the veil, and show us how God is acting at this very hour. The instances that occur are invisible to mortal eyes, as they were in the histories referred to: but the plot is going forward; and in due time millions of other instances will be seen, no less real, and no less wonderful than they. It is the privilege of God's people to "commit their ways entirely to him," and he engages that he "will bring to pass" what shall eventually be for their greatest good.
4. His faithfulness to keep them, even to the end—
Never does he forsake his poor and afflicted people. He has promised them, "I will never leave you; I will never, never forsake you." We may be confident, as the Apostle was, that "where God has begun a good work, he will carry it on, and perfect it until the day of Christ." This is assured to them by covenant and by oath, that they may have the stronger consolation Hebrews 6:17-19. Not that a reliance on their Savior is to supersede their own efforts, but rather to encourage them; seeing that it is by their own efforts he will work: but still it is their privilege to anticipate the issue of their conflicts with confidence; and to rest assured, that "nothing shall ever separate them from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus their Lord."
1. Let it not be a grief to any that they are "afflicted and poor"—
Such the Savior himself was; "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief." And shall it be a grief to any to be made like unto Him?: Besides, it is by our own utter destitution of all good, that the power and grace of Christ will be magnified. And shall we not thankfully acquiesce in anything that glorifies him? The Apostle Paul "took pleasure in his infirmities and distresses," because "the power of Christ as made perfect, and manifested to be perfect, by his weakness 2 Corinthians 12:9-10;" and this is the proper disposition for us all. Be contented to be nothing; that "Christ may be all in all."
2. Let the religion of the heart be more and more cultivated—
We are far from undervaluing religious acts: they are excellent, as fruits of the Spirit, and as evidences of a lively faith. But it is the religion of the heart that must be our first concern; since until the tree be made good, it is in vain to hope for any good fruit to spring from it. The grand characteristic feature of the Lord's people is, that "they trust in his name." Now trust is altogether an act of the soul; an act invisible to mortal eyes. It realizes the presence of Jehovah, and his government of the whole universe. It rests on him: it reposes all its hopes on his agency; and thus honors him, far beyond all other exercises either of the mind or body. This then is to be the habit of our minds: and "the whole life which we now live in the flesh, we must live altogether by faith in the Son of God, who has loved us, and given himself for us."
THE DUTY OF THANKFULNESS FOR GOD'S MERCIES
Zephaniah 3:14-15. Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord has taken away your judgments, he has cast out your enemy: the King of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of you: you shall not see evil any more.
THE prophets are chiefly occupied with reproving the evils which prevailed in their day, and with denouncing, both on Israel and the surrounding nations, the judgments they had merited by their multiplied transgressions. But occasionally they change their voice, and, as heralds of mercy, proclaim to all, but to Israel more especially, the blessings which God has in reserve for them in the latter day. In performing this office they quite exult; and, when they have begun, they scarcely know how to end, their benevolent congratulations. In the former part of this chapter the prophet brings his accusations against the Jews, who, disregarding the warnings which God in his providence had given them by the judgments visibly inflicted upon others, persisted in their iniquities without shame or remorse verse 1–7. But, in the latter part of it, he launches forth into a subject more congenial with his feelings, and announces, both to the Jewish and Gentile world, that God had designs of love towards them, and would incorporate them all in one blessed society, and restore them all to his favor. In the address which I have just read to you he is peculiarly animated. We may consider it as delivered,
I. To the Jews, prospectively, in a way of anticipation—
The events referred to are spoken of as already past, even though at this time, after the lapse of twenty-five centuries, we see not yet the predictions fulfilled. But this mode of speaking is common to all the prophets, who, knowing the unerring certainty of their predictions, look through intervening ages as through a telescope, and see the objects of which they speak accomplished before their eyes.
Now here the prophet felicitates the Jews as already liberated from the judgments which they had suffered, or which yet at distant periods impended over them—
They were to be carried captive to Babylon and to Assyria, and to be utterly destroyed by the Roman power, and to be scattered over the face of the whole earth as objects of hatred and contempt among all people. And it is a fact, that no people that ever existed upon earth were ever so universally despised, and hated, and persecuted as they. But the prophet says to them by anticipation, "Your judgments are taken away." This has already in part been "fulfilled." And it is certain that in God's good time her judgments shall be so perfectly taken away, as not to leave even the appearance, and scarcely the recollection, of them behind: "You shall forget the shame of your youth, and shall not remember the reproach of your widowhood any more. For your Maker is your husband.…the God of the whole earth shall he be called Isaiah 54:1-10. See also Zechariah 1:15-17. In a Discourse written on this subject, almost all the passages here referred to, under the first head especially, should be cited at full length." So completely shall this be done, that Jerusalem shall yet become a name and a praise among all the people upon earth, as soon as ever the Lord shall have turned back the captivity with which his people are now oppressed verse 19 with Isaiah 65:17-19.
But, to enter more distinctly into this subject—
Three things are here predicted as grounds of unutterable joy: First; Their enemies shall all be cast out; next, The Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, shall dwell in the midst of them; and lastly, There shall be an utter end of their troubles.
Their enemies shall all be cast out. When the time shall arrive for the full accomplishment of this, the combination against them will be formidable in the extreme. But "all of their enemies shall fall for Zion's sake Isaiah 54:16-17;" yes, if there were "a confederacy of the whole earth against them," the Jews shall consume them "as easily as a torch of fire consumes a sheaf Zechariah 12:3; Zechariah 12:6; Zechariah 12:9," and as certainly "as a lion prevails over a flock of sheep Micah 5:8-9; Micah 5:15;" such "a burdensome stone shall Jerusalem be, to crush all her opponents;" and to such an abject state shall she reduce them, that, "like serpents, they shall lick the dust of the earth before her," and be "like worms that dare not to crawl out of their holes through fear Micah 7:15-17."
Then shall the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, descend to dwell in the midst of them. This is repeated in most glowing terms by the prophet in the second verse following my text verse 17; and is affirmed also by the prophet Zechariah Zechariah 2:10-12, and by Ezekiel also, who declares, that "they shall dwell in the land where their fathers dwelt," and that the true "David, their Messiah, shall be king over them;" and that "God's tabernacle shall be with them;" and his presence so conspicuous in the midst of them, that "all the heathen world shall acknowledge them as his peculiar people Ezekiel 37:24-28." As to the personal reign of Christ on earth for a thousand years, I can say nothing to it. But I have no doubt, his manifestations of himself to them will be beyond all former example glorious; and his communications of his grace and peace to them far exceed all the precedents of former times, "the light of the moon being as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun seven-fold, as the light of seven days Isaiah 30:26." Under the Mosaic dispensation they saw the Savior as in a shadow: we see him as in a glass or mirror: but "the Jews in that day shall see him eye to eye," and face to face Isaiah 52:8 with 1 Corinthians 13:12.
Then shall there be to them an utter end of all their troubles. "They shall not see evil any more." Then "will God take out of their hands the cup of trembling; and they shall drink it no more Isaiah 51:21-23." "No more will he hide his face from them Ezekiel 39:25-29;" "the days of their mourning shall be ended Isaiah 60:15-20;" and they shall thenceforth be for a name and a praise to God among all the nations of the earth verse 20."
And now I ask, is not this a ground for most exalted joy? So Jehovah himself regards it: "Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind. Be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy Isaiah 65:17-19; Isaiah 49:13." I call upon you then, my brethren, not to be indifferent to this sublime subject. If at the time when the prophecy was delivered, the prospect of these great events was a ground of joy, much more should it be so now, when the accomplishment of them is no near at hand. Could I address all the nation of Israel dispersed throughout the world, I would say to them, "Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; rejoice and be glad with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem;" for your complete redemption draws near. I already see, as it were, "the glory of the Lord revealed to you;" and in the name of the Most High God I proclaim unto you, "Your warfare is accomplished; your iniquity is pardoned; and you shall receive at the Lord's hands mercies double" the amount of all the sins you have committed, and of all the judgments you have merited Isaiah 40:1-5.
But we must not confine the prophet's address to the Jews: while it was delivered to them in a way of anticipation, it was delivered also,
II. To us immediately in a way of congratulation—
It is in reference to converts from among the Gentile world that the prophet says, "Then I will turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent," that is (as the margin translates it), with one shoulder; the whole world, Jews and Gentiles, drawing together harmoniously, like well-disciplined oxen, in the same blessed yoke. The truth is, that every soul, on its conversion to God, is brought into this blessed state, and made a partaker of all these privileges. The only difference between the Millenarians and us is, that we enjoy, in the earlier dawn, the light which they will behold in its meridian splendor. To all of you then who have believed in Christ, and through him been made the children of the living God, I say, "Sing and shout, yes, be glad and rejoice with all your hearts;" for "Jerusalem is as much your mother," as she was of the Jews of old Galatians 4:26. To you then I say,
"The Lord has taken away your judgments"—
Think what guilt you have contracted, and what condemnation you have merited, by your numberless transgressions in thought, word, and deed, from the first moment of your existence, even to the present hour: yet, if you have believed in Christ, I am authorized to declare, that "your sins are all blotted out as a morning cloud Isaiah 43:25," that "God has cast them all behind his back into the very depth of the sea Micah 7:19," and that "there is now no condemnation to you Romans 8:1."
"He has also cast out all your enemies"—
You well know, you cannot but know, how the world, and the flesh, and the devil, have had dominion over you, and led you captive at their will. But "by faith you have been enabled to overcome the world 1 John 5:5;" "you have also crucified the flesh, with it affections and lusts Galatians 5:24;" and "from the snares of the devil are you recovered 2 Timothy 2:26." He is a vanquished enemy, "judged by God John 16:11," and "cast out from his dominion John 12:31," yes, and "overcome by you 1 John 2:14," and so restrained, that he "cannot touch you 1 John 5:18," though, like a roaring lion, he is incessantly seeking to destroy you. He is indeed still permitted to assault you: but his efforts are all in vain: the prayer of faith "puts him utterly to flight James 4:7;" and in a little time "he shall be bruised forever under your feet Romans 16:20." Whatever other enemies you may have, they shall all be put to shame, and, "through him that loved you, you shall be more than conqueror over all Romans 8:37."
"To you also does the Lord Jesus manifest himself as he does not unto the world John 14:22."—
"He dwells in your very hearts by faith Ephesians 3:17." He is altogether "one with you," "one body with you Ephesians 5:30," and "one spirit also 1 Corinthians 6:17." So gloriously does he reveal himself unto you, that "you behold his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth John 1:14;" you so "behold his glory, as to be changed by it into his image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord 2 Corinthians 3:18;" and you are enabled by him so to "comprehend the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of his unsearchable love, as to be filled by means of it with all the fullness of God Ephesians 3:18." In a word, "He lives in you, and is your very life Galatians 2:20;" and from that very circumstance you are assured, that "at his future coming you shall appear with him in glory Colossians 3:4."
From this time also you may bid an eternal farewell to evil of every kind—
You may have trials; but "they shall all work together for your good Romans 8:28;" they shall all prove only blessings in disguise. Moral evil shall no more prevail over you. Penal evil, so far as it is the loving correction of a Father, you may yet feel; but, as a vindictive process of a Judge, you shall never feel it to all eternity. Not one of your sins shall ever be remembered by him Hebrews 10:17; nor shall any one of your corruptions retain an allowed ascendant over you Romans 6:14. God engages that he will "perfect that which concerns you Psalm 138:8," and "finish in you the good work he has begun Philippians 1:6." Though you be the least of his little ones, "he will not suffer you to perish Matthew 18:14;" nor shall any prevail to "pluck you out of his hands John 10:28-29." Therefore, even while you are yet conflicting with evils of various kinds, you may rest assured, that "none of them, how great or formidable soever they may be, shall ever separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord Romans 8:38-39."
And is not here abundant ground for joy?
Well does David say, "Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King Psalm 149:2." I say then to you, in the name of Almighty God, "Rejoice in the Lord always Philippians 4:4;" "rejoice evermore 1 Thessalonians. 5:14;" yes, "though now you see not your beloved Savior with your bodily eyes, yet, believing in him, it is both your privilege and duty to rejoice in him with joy unspeakable and glorified 1 Peter 1:8." In fact, "if you do not sing, and shout, and rejoice in him with all your heart, the very stones will cry out against you Luke 19:40."
While I say this, I am far from recommending to you a tumultuous joy. A tender contrite spirit must be retained in the midst of all your joy. Even in Heaven are his redeemed people all prostrate before him, while they sing with all imaginable love and gratitude his praise Revelation 7:11. A similar prostration of spirit I recommend to you: and, if only that be preserved, your joy can never be too exquisite, nor your praises too devout.
But do these congratulations belong to all of you, my brethren? Must I not rather say to many of you, "Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep James 4:9." Many, I fear, have never sought the removal of their judgments, so that "the wrath of God abides on them to this very hour John 3:36." They are still, as much as ever, the bond-slaves of sin and Satan. As for union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, they are yet strangers to it, and know nothing of "a life of faith upon the Son of God, as having loved them, and given himself for them." What then shall I say to such persons? That "they shall not see evil any more?" No: I must rather say that nothing but evil is before them, both in this world and the next—an unholy life, an unhappy death, a miserable eternity. "O that mine head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep over them day and night Jeremiah 9:1." I pray you, brethren, see what mercies you lose, what blessings you despise. Were you but penitent, and believers in Christ, all the congratulations which we have been contemplating would be yours. The Lord grant that you may avail yourselves of the opportunity now afforded you, and that "this day of grace may be the day of salvation" to all your souls 2 Corinthians 6:2.
GOD'S DELIGHT IN SAVING SINNERS
Zephaniah 3:17. The Lord your God in the midst of you is mighty: he will save, he will rejoice over you with joy: he will rest in his love, he will joy over you with singing.
HOW wonderful are these expressions, as uttered by Jehovah himself, in reference to such a worthless and sinful creature as man! But they are the very words of the Most High God addressed to his Church of old, and, in them, to us also. Behold then,
I. What bright prospects are here for the Jewish Church!
Greatly had they sinned against their God and raised his indignation against them. Hence they are threatened with utter destruction Zephaniah 1:12-18. But their enemies too had grievously offended; and therefore they also are threatened with the visitations of his wrath Zephaniah 2:1-15. But in the midst of judgment God remembered mercy towards his ancient people; and by his prophet announced his purpose to bring them back unto himself, and to make them happy in the enjoyment of his love verse 9–13. But, scattered as they are over the face of the whole earth, this seemed to be almost impossible. He therefore reminds them how "mighty" he is to save, even as in the day that he delivered them from their Egyptian bondage. And, as he had rejoiced over her to do her good in former days, so would he again in the latter day, taking away all her judgments, casting out all her enemies, and so perpetuating his mercies towards her that she should not see evil any more verse 15 If this were the subject of a Jewish Sermon, the four hints in this last sentence should be distinctly considered, and largely amplified, by appropriate citations from Holy Writ."
But let us notice also,
II. What bright prospects are here for every individual believer!
"Fear not, believer, nor let your hands be slack," but consider for your encouragement what your God has here so graciously set before you; namely,
1. His power to save—
He who was in his Church of old, is equally present with your soul: and he, even "the Lord your God, is mighty" See what he wrought in the days of old, when he brought forth his people out of Egypt, delivering them from all their enemies, Exodus 14:27-28; Exodus 17:14. and supplying all their wants Psalm 77:15-16. And "is his hand now shortened that he cannot save, or his ear heavy that he cannot hear Isaiah 59:1." Be assured, there is not anything which he will not accomplish for you also, through the care of his providence Romans 8:28. and the operation of his grace 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.
2. His determination to save—
"He will save;" and none shall hinder him. Having bought you with the blood of his dear Son, and committed you to him, he will suffer "none to pluck you out of his hands." Under all circumstances, "the grace of Christ shall be sufficient for you," and "the strength of Christ be magnified in your weakness." Only "be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might," and "nothing shall be impossible unto you Mark 9:23."
3. His delight in saving—
You may see in the parable of the prodigal son, what are the feelings of Jehovah towards returning penitents. But if that convey not an adequate idea to your minds, call to mind the image under which God has condescended to set forth the joy which he feels in his believing people. Nothing that a natural man can experience, can exceed the joy with which a bridegroom, after a long season of suspense and fear, is animated in the possession of his bride. Yet to that does Jehovah refer as most fitly illustrating the delight which he has in manifesting his love to his chosen people Isaiah 62:5.
4. His immutability towards those whom he intends to save—
Man is often alienated from the object of his affections, either by means of some unexpected evil he has discovered, or through his own fickleness and inconstancy. But God changes not Malachi 3:6. James 1:17. Whom he loves he loves to the end John 13:1. He hates putting away Malachi 2:16. And, as he loved his people from eternity Jeremiah 31:3, and chose them without any reference to good, either seen or foreseen, in them Deuteronomy 7:7-8; Deuteronomy 9:5-6, so will he not forsake them on account of their infirmities Isaiah 54:7-10. He will indeed punish their transgressions with all needful severity Psalm 89:30-34; but his gifts and callings are without repentance Romans 11:29; nor will he cast off the people whom he has chosen in Christ, and given to him 1 Samuel 12:22. Hosea 2:19-20.
1. How marvelous the compassion of your God!
Call to mind the wickedness of God's ancient people through the whole course of their conduct, until they completed it and filled up the measure of it in crucifying their Messiah, the Lord of glory. Yet to them is my text more immediately addressed, and in them shall it before long be certainly fulfilled. How utterly does such love pass all human comprehension! But look back to your own ways, my brethren, and you will have reason enough to adore and magnify the grace of God, when you consider, that you also are interested in these promises, and that in you shall they receive a speedy accomplishment. Dear brethren, I would have this to be, if I may so say, the constant subject of your most devout meditations. It is this that will set your hearts at liberty, and cause you to go on your way rejoicing. Nothing can obstruct the happiness of a mind habituated to such contemplations as these.
2. How ardent should be your zeal in his service!
Is his mind so set on you, and his power so engaged for you? how devoted then should you be to him; and how entirely should your souls be occupied in endeavors to fulfill his holy will! Does he "rest in his love" to you, and will you suffer one moment's intermission in your love to him? O stir yourselves up more and more to serve him; and let your every faculty, whether of mind or body, be in constant exercise for the advancement of his glory.