Mercy Inviting the Backslider

James Smith, 1865

"Return, backsliding Israel, says the Lord. I will not look on you with anger, for I am unfailing in My love. I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity—you have rebelled against the Lord your God. You have scattered your favors to strangers under every green tree and have not obeyed My voice!" Jeremiah 3:12-13

The historical portions of God's Word are a mirror in which we may see, on the one hand:

what is in our hearts — and what would be in our lives under particular circumstances;

and on the other hand, what is in the heart of God — and how His perfections are displayed in dealing with his people.

What we read of Israel — is true of us; for as in water face answers to face, so does the heart of man to man. And what we read of God — is still true of Him. He says, "I am the Lord, I change not, therefore you sons of Jacob are not consumed." His dealings may change — but not His nature, for He is "without variableness, or shadow of turning." Israel sinned, and God punished them; but now they are in affliction. He pities them, and sends this loving message to them. We will notice,

First, the invitation. "Return, backsliding Israel, says the Lord." The figure is taken from the heifer at plough, which slides back when it ought to go forward and cut the furrow. Israel went backward, and not forward; and now they are gone far from the Lord, He sends his invitation to them to return. He had been exceeding kind to them, from Egypt until now. He expected better things from them. He says, "But I was the one who planted you, choosing a vine of the purest stock—the very best. How did you grow into this corrupt wild vine?" He complains, "I looked for a crop of good grapes — but it yielded only bad fruit." He expected obedience — but behold, rebellion; he looked for worship, and behold, backsliding. Their conduct was base.

But has ours been better? His kindness has been shown to us — infinite, unmerited kindness. He expects us to glorify Him in our bodies and spirits which are His. But have we? Do we? How justly might He cut us off! But instead thereof — He invites us to return. He calls us back to His ordinances, not to rest in them — but to ascend to Himself. He is on his throne of grace, and his ordinances are intended to be as so many steps, by which we may ascend to that throne.

He says, "Return unto Me." We should come with confession, acknowledging our iniquities; with sorrow, grieving over our misconduct; with prayer, pleading for pardon, restoration, and greater grace. The invitation is from His own loving heart, it flows spontaneously from thence; that heart which we had grieved by our sins; which had threatened to punish our follies; but which still loved us, with an infinite, unutterable love.

Secondly, here is an inducement to return. A promise, a glorious promise. "I will not look on you with anger." His paternal anger had been roused against us — we greatly deserved that it should be poured out upon us; it was suspended over us, like the storm-cloud in the day of tempest — but returning to Him would prevent the execution of the threatening. He is reluctant to punish. "His anger endures but a moment." When most deeply grieved, He feels as if He could not give us up; hence He exclaims, "Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah or demolish you like Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows. No, I will not unleash my fierce anger. I will not completely destroy Israel, for I am God and not a mere mortal. I am the Holy One living among you, and I will not come to destroy." O the power, the patience, the long-suffering of divine love!

Thirdly, here is the source of all, here is the reason assigned for this loving invitation. "I am merciful, says the Lord." That is, I am FULL of mercy. The ocean is not so full of water, the sun is not so full of light — as God is full of mercy. No one can conceive the greatness of God's mercy. We must grasp infinity, and measure eternity — before we can calculate the extent of Divine mercy.

It is tender mercy, the mercy of a Father, who is full of pity.

It is free mercy, mercy flowing spontaneously from God's benevolent nature — neither caused, nor called forth by anything in us. For as light flows freely from the sun, and water rolls in freely from the ocean — so does mercy flow freely from our gracious and covenant God.

It is constant mercy, for "the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting." We stand in its center, and it surrounds us like an immeasurable circle. We stand on it, as on a rock in the midst of the ocean, whose waters spread out in every direction, far beyond sight, or even thought. "His mercies are new every morning, and great is His faithfulness.

He adds, "I will not be angry with you forever." "In a surge of anger I hid My face from you for a moment, but I will have compassion on you with everlasting love, says the Lord your Redeemer."

He will forgive, blotting out our sins as a cloud, and our iniquities as a thick cloud. He will forget our misconduct, as He has said, "I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more."

He will restore. He will restore our souls which had wandered, to His pasture, and His fold. He will restore unto us the joys of His salvation, which we had forfeited and lost. O the amazing, the unparalleled grace of God!

See then, how basely man acts. How basely we have acted! He brought us into His ways, set a mark before us, and a crown beyond it — and bid us patiently run the race set before us, looking unto Jesus, as our great example. But we lost sight of the mark, we forgot the crown, we took our eye off the Savior, and we wandered upon every mountain and hill, until we had forgotten our resting-place! So foolish, so ungrateful, so base were we!

But has God given us up? Has He discarded us? Is His mercy clean gone forever? Will He be favorable no more? Has He in anger shut up His loving-kindness? O no! See how wondrously God loves! He calls to us, "Return unto Me!" He sends His servants, and says, "Go, and proclaim these words, and say: Return, backsliding Israel. I will not look on you with anger, for I am unfailing in My love. I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your iniquity!" What wondrous love! What infinite mercy! What tender compassion! Surely, if anything will melt the heart, fill the eyes with tears, and the mouth with confession — this will.

How powerfully He prompts us to return. As if He had said, "Fear not — though you are so guilty; doubt not — though you are so vile. Think not that I will refuse you, or that I will execute my threatenings upon you. I will not. I give you my word, before you turn your faces toward me, or take one step in the way back, that I will not cause mine anger to fall upon you. Nay, I will receive you graciously, I will love you freely, I will pardon you heartily, and restore you to peace and joy!"

"Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea!" How low He stoops, how wondrously He condescends.

We have willfully and wickedly wandered. Our conduct grieved Him at His heart — and yet He entreats us to come back. He urges us to return. He promises to forgive and forget all the past, treating us as if we had not sinned, or dishonored His blessed name.

Let us then accept His invitation. Let us turn unto Him at once with weeping and with supplication. Let us say, with the church of old, "I will go, and return to my first Husband, for then it was better with me than now." Or, "Come, and let us return unto the Lord; for He has torn — and He will heal us; He has smitten — and He will bind us up."

Then will the parable of the prodigal son, become a great fact in our history; and there will be joy in heaven, in the presence of the angels of God, when we are brought to repentance. "Return unto me — and I will return unto you, says the Lord." "Behold, Lord, we come unto You, for You are the Lord our God!"