It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.--JEREMIAH xxxvi. 3.
The first lesson for this evening's service tells us of the wickedness of Jehoiakim, king of Judah. How, when Jeremiah's prophecies against the sins of Jehoiakim and his people were read before him, he cut the roll with a penknife, and threw it into the fire. Now, we must not look on this story as one which, because it happened among the Jews many hundred years ago, has nothing to do with us; for, as I continually remind you, the history of the Jews, and the whole Old Testament, is the history of God's dealings with man--the account of God's plan of governing this world. Now, God cannot change; but is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; and therefore His plan of government cannot change: but if men do as those did of whom we read in the Old Testament, God will surely deal with them as He dealt with the men of the Old Testament. This St. Paul tells us most plainly in the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, where he says that the whole history of the Jews was written for our example--that is for the example of those Christian Corinthians, who were not Jews at all, but Gentiles as we are; and therefore for our example also.
He tells them, that it was Christ Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, who fed and guided the old Jews in the wilderness, and that the Lord will deal with us exactly as He dealt with the old Jews.
Therefore it is a great and fearful mistake, to suppose that because the Jews were a peculiar people and God's chosen nation, that therefore the Lord's way of governing them is in any wise different from His way of governing us English at this very day; for that fancy is contrary to the express words of Holy Scripture, in a hundred different places; it is contrary to the whole spirit of our Prayer Book, which is written all through on the belief that the Lord deals with us just as He did with the Jewish nation, and which will not even make sense if it be understood in any other way; and besides, it is most dangerous to the souls and consciences of men. It is most dangerous for us to fancy that God can change; for if God can change, right and wrong can change; for right is the will of God, and wrong is what is against His will; and if we once let into our hearts the notion that God can change His laws of right, our consciences will become daily dimmer and more confused about right and wrong, till we fall, as too many do, under the prophet's curse, "Woe to them who call good evil, and evil good; who put sweet for bitter, and bitter for sweet," and fancy, like Ezekiel's Jews, that God's ways are unequal; that is, unlike each other, changeable, arbitrary, and capricious, doing one thing at one time, and another at another. No. It is sinful man who is changeable; it is sinful man who is arbitrary. But The Lord is not a man, that He should lie or repent; for He is the only-begotten Son, and therefore the express likeness, of The Everlasting Father, in whom is no variableness, nor shadow of turning.
But some may say, Is not that a gloomy and terrible notion of God, that He cannot change His purpose? Is not that as much as to say that there is a dark necessity hanging over each of us; that a man must just be what God chooses, and do just what He has ordained to do, and go to everlasting happiness or misery exactly as God has foreordained from all eternity, so that there is no use trying to do right, or not to do wrong? If I am to be saved, say such people, I shall be saved whether I try or not; and if I am to be damned, I shall be damned whether I try or not. I am in God's hands like clay in the hands of the potter; and what I am like is therefore God's business, and not mine.
No, my friends, the very texts in the Bible which tell us that God cannot change or repent, tell us what it is that He cannot change in-- in showing loving-kindness and tender mercy, long-suffering, and repenting of the evil. Whatsoever else He cannot repent of, He cannot repent of repenting of the evil.
It is true, we are in His hand as clay in the hand of the potter. But it is a sad misreading of scripture to make that mean that we are to sit with our hands folded, careless about our own way and conduct; still less that we are to give ourselves up to despair, because we have sinned against God; for what is the very verse which follows after that? Listen. "O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the Lord. Behold, as the clay is in the hand of the potter, so are ye in my hand, O house of Israel. At what instant I shall speak concerning a kingdom, to pull down and destroy it; if that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil which I thought to do to them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them."
So that the lesson which we are to draw from the parable of the potter's clay is just the exact opposite which some men draw. Not that God's decrees are absolute: but that they are conditional, and depend on our good or evil conduct. Not that His election or His reprobation are unalterable, but that they alter "at that instant" at which man alters. Not that His grace and will are irresistible, as the foolish man against whom St. Paul argues fancies: but that we can resist God's will, and that our destruction comes only by resisting His will; in short, that God's will is no brute material necessity and fate, but the will of a living, loving Father.
And the very same lesson is taught us in Ezek. xviii., of which I spoke just now; for if we read that chapter we shall find that the Jews had a false notion of God that He had changed His character, and had become in their time unmerciful and unjust. They fancied that God was, if I may so speak, obstinate--that if His anger had once arisen, there was no turning it away, but that He would go on without pity, punishing the innocent children for their father's sin; and therefore they fancied God's ways were unfair, self-willed, and arbitrary, without any care of what sort of person He afflicted; punishing the righteous as well as the wicked, after He had promised in His law to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. They fancied that His way of governing the world had changed, and that He did not in their days make a difference between the bad and the good. Therefore Ezekiel says to them: "When the righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, he shall die." "When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, he shall live." "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his ways, and live?"
This, then, is the good news, that God is love; love when He punishes, and love when He forgives; very pitiful, and full of long- suffering and tender mercy and repenting Him, never of the good, but only of the evil which He threatens.
Both Jeremiah, therefore, and Ezekiel, give us the same lesson. God does not change, and therefore He never changes His mercy and His justice: for He is merciful because He is just. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. That is His everlasting law, and has been from the beginning: Punishment, sure and certain, for those who do not repent; and free forgiveness, sure and certain also, for those who do repent.
So He spoke to Jeremiah in the time of Jehoiakim: "It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil that I purpose to do to them; that I may forgive them their iniquity and their sin." The Lord, you see, wishes to forgive--longs to forgive. His heart yearns over sinful men as a father's over his rebellious child. But if they will still rebel, if they will still turn their wicked wills away from Him, He must punish. Why we know not; but He knows. Punish He must, unless we repent--unless we turn our wills toward His will. And woe to the stiff-necked and stout-hearted man who, like the wicked king Jehoiakim, sets his face like a flint against God's warnings. How many, how many behave for years, Sunday after Sunday, just as king Jehoiakim did! When he heard that God had threatened him with ruin for his sins, he heard also that God offered him free pardon if he would repent. Jeremiah gave him free choice to be saved or to be ruined; but his heart and will were hardened. Hearing that he was wrong only made him angry. His pride and self-will were hurt by being told that he must change and alter his ways. He had chosen his way, and he would keep to it; and he cared nothing for God's offers of forgiveness, because he could not be forgiven unless he did what he was too proud to do, confess himself to be in the wrong, and openly alter his conduct. And how many, as I first said, are like him! They come to church; they hear God's warnings and threats against their evil ways; they hear God's offers of free pardon and forgiveness; but being told that they are in the wrong makes them too angry to care for God's offers of pardon. Pride stops their cars. They have chosen their own way, and they will keep it. They would not object to be forgiven, if they might be forgiven without repenting. But they do not like to confess themselves in the wrong. They do not like to face their foolish companions' remarks and sneers about their changed ways. They do not like even good people to say of them: "You see now that you were in the wrong after all; for you have altered your mind and your doings yourself, as we told you you would have to do." No; anything sooner than confess themselves in the wrong; and so they turn their backs on God's mercy, for the sake of their own carnal pride and self-will.
But, of course, they want an excuse for doing that; and when a man wants an excuse, the devil will soon fit him with a good one. Then, perhaps, the foolish sinner behaves as Jehoiakim did. He tries to forget God's message in the man who brings it. He grows angry with the preacher, or goes out and laughs at the preacher when service is over, as if it was the preacher's fault that God had declared what he has; as if it was the preacher's doing that God has revealed His anger against all sin and unrighteousness. So he acts like Jehoiakim, who tried to take Jeremiah the prophet and punish HIM, for what not he but the Lord God had declared. Nay, they will often peevishly hate the very sight of a good book, because it reminds them of the sins of which they do not choose to be reminded, just as the young king Jehoiakim was childish enough to vent his spite on Jeremiah's book of prophecies, by cutting the roll on which it was written with a penknife, and throwing it into the fire. So do sinners who are angry with the preacher who warns them, or hate the sight of good books. But let such foolish and wilful sinners, such full-grown children--for, after all, they are no better--hear the word of the Lord which came to Jehoiakim: "As it is written, he that despiseth Me shall be despised, saith the Lord." And let them not fancy that their shutting their ears will shut the preacher's mouth, still less shut up God's everlasting laws of punishment for sin. No. God's word stands true, and it will happen to them as it did to Jehoiakim. His burning Jeremiah's book did not rid him of the book, or save him from the woe and ruin which was prophesied in it; for we have Jeremiah's book here in our Bibles to this day, as a sign and a warning of what happens to men, be they young or old, be they kings or labouring men, who fight against God. Jeremiah's words were not lost after all; they were all re-written, and there were added to them also many more like words; for Jehoiakim, by refusing the Lord's offer of pardon, had added to his sins, and therefore the Lord added to his punishment.
Perhaps, again, the devil finds the wilful sinner another excuse, and the man says to himself, as the Jews did in Ezekiel's time: "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge. It is not my own fault that I am living a bad life, but other people's. My parents ought to have brought me up better. I have had no chance. My companions taught me too much harm. I have too much trouble to get my living; or, I was born with a bad temper; or, I can't help running after pleasure. Why did God make me the sort of man I am, and put me where I am? God is hard upon me; He is unfair to me. His ways are unequal; He expects as much of me as He does of people who have more opportunities. He threatens to punish me for other people's sins."
And then comes another and a darker temptation over the man, and the devil whispers to him such thoughts as these: "God does not care for me; God hates me. Luck, and everything else is against me. There seems to be some curse upon me. Why should I change? Let God change first to me, and then I will change toward Him. But God will not change; He is determined to have no mercy on me. I can see that; for everything goes wrong with me. Then what use in my repenting? I will just go my own way, and what must be must. There is no resisting God's will. If I am to be saved, I shall be; if I am to be damned, I shall be. I will put all melancholy thoughts out of my head, and go and enjoy myself and forget all. At all events, it won't last long: 'Let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die.'"
Oh, my dear friends, have not some of you sometimes had such thoughts? Then hear the word of the Lord to you: "When--whensoever-- whensoever the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness which he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive." "Have I any pleasure in the death of him that dieth? saith the Lord, and not rather that he should be converted, and live?" True, most true, that the Lord is unchangeable: but it is in love and mercy. True, that God's will and law cannot alter: but what is God's will and law? The soul that sinneth, it shall die? Yes. But also, the soul that turneth away from its sin, it shall live. Never believe the devil when he tells you that God hates you. Never believe him when he tells you that God has been too hard on you, and put you into such temptation, or ignorance, or poverty, or anything else, that you cannot mend. No. That font there will give the devil the lie. That font says: "Be you poor, tempted, ignorant, stupid, be you what you will, you are God's child--your Father's love is over you, His mercy is ready for you." You feel too weak to change; ask God's Spirit, and He will give you a strength of mind you never felt before. You feel too proud to change; ask God's Spirit, and He will humble your proud heart, and soften your hard heart; and you will find to your surprise, that when your pride is gone, when you are utterly ashamed of yourself, and see your sins in their true blackness, and feel not worthy to look up to God, that then, instead of pride, will come a nobler, holier, manlier feeling--self-respect, and a clear conscience, and the thought that, weak and sinful as you are, you are in the right way; that God, and the angels of God, are smiling on you; that you are in tune again with all heaven and earth, because you are what God wills you to be--not His proud, peevish, self-willed child, fancying yourself strong enough to go alone, when in reality you are the slave of your own passions and appetites, and the plaything of the devil: but His loving, loyal son, strong in the strength which God gives you, and able to do what you will, because what you will God wills also.