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1. PROVIDENCE AND HUMAN ACTION
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . . . Ps. 23:1–4, 6.
God gently draws us to himself by his good gifts to us, giving us a taste of his sweetness as our Father; but nothing is so easy for us as to forget him when we are enjoying peace and comfort. We ought then to attend most carefully to the example set for us by David. David, raised to a king’s throne, possessing ample wealth and great honors, testifies in the midst of the pleasures of his court that he remembers God and is mindful of the benefits which God has conferred upon him. He makes of them ladders by which he may climb nearer to God.
By the metaphor of the shepherd, he praises God’s care; he means that God’s care for those who are his own is like the solicitude of a shepherd for the sheep intrusted to him. In the Bible, God often assumes the title and role of shepherd, which we must recognize as a special sign of his love for us. Such a mode of expression is humble and undemanding and should make a deep impression upon us, since God for our sake is willing to stoop down and, by such a wonderfully gentle and intimate invitation, entice us to him, so that we may rest safely and quietly under his protection.
But it must be noted that God is shepherd only of those who are conscious of their own needs and weakness, and who feel the necessity of his guidance; for it is they who willingly remain in his flock and submit themselves to his leading. David, who excelled in power and possessions, acknowledged freely that he was a sheep, so that he might have God for his shepherd. What then would become of us, whose floundering proves our wretchedness, if we did not remain under the guidance of this same Shepherd?261
Moreover, we must not forget that our greatest happiness is to have God’s guiding hand stretched out to us, and to live under its shadow, so that his providence may watch over our safety.
He leadeth me beside the still waters. By still waters David meant waters that flow gently, because swift torrents are not suitable for sheep to drink from, and often they are even dangerous. . . . David here says once again that the Heavenly Shepherd overlooks nothing which might take away from the happiness of those under his care. . . . God in no way fails his faithful ones; he sustains them with his own power, feeds and strengthens them, and keeps them from all harm, so that they journey in comfort on smooth roads.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness. This means easy and plain paths. Since he continues with his metaphor, it would be out of place to understand this as referring to the direction of the Holy Spirit. David has said that God supplies him liberally with all he needs for this life; and he now adds that God protects him from all trouble.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. The faithful who dwell safely under God’s hand are nevertheless exposed to many perils. Keeping the same metaphor, David compares God’s care in guiding the faithful to the shepherd’s rod and staff. When a sheep is walking in a dark valley, only the shepherd’s presence keeps it safe from the attacks of wild beasts or from other accidents. David was not boasting of his own fearlessness; but was rather saying that he would walk boldly wherever his shepherd led him. And now that God reveals himself to us in the person of his only-begotten Son, as our Shepherd, more brightly than he did of old to the fathers under the law, we do not honor his protection properly unless we keep our eyes fixed upon it and by so doing trample upon all our trepidations.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Whence was this confidence that God’s kindness and mercy would be with him forever, if not from the promise by which God confines his benefits to those who believe, lest they be devoured by those whose palates have no taste for such benefits? For when David said earlier that in the shadow of death itself his eyes would be intently fixed on the providence of God, he showed well enough that he did not depend on things external; nor did he judge God’s favor by his bodily senses. When all earthly aids failed, 262his faith remained, because it rested solely on the Word of God.
The last words of the psalm show clearly that David did not confine himself to the pleasures or comforts of this earth, but kept his gaze on heaven as the ultimate end of everything else. He says plainly that for him the culmination of all the good [gifts] from God is to dwell in the house of the Lord.
Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord, and the people whom he hath chosen for his inheritance.
The Lord looketh from heaven, and he seeth all the sons of Adam.
A king is not kept safe by the size of his army, nor will a giant be saved by his great strength.
A horse is a vain thing for safety; neither shall he deliver by his great strength.
Let thy compassion be upon us, O Lord, according as we hope in thee. Ps. 33:12, 13, 16, 17, 22. (Calvin’s wording.)
. . . It is of little use to talk of the stability of God’s purpose if we do not relate it to ourselves. Therefore the prophet declares that those whom God takes under his guardianship are blessed because God’s purpose is not hidden from them, for it is seen in action in the safety of the church. And so we understand that it is not those who consider God’s power coldly and with indifference, but those who apply it to their own immediate need, that have a right knowledge of God as the Pilot of the world.
Indeed, when the psalmist says, “If the Lord is our God,” he points to the Lord as the fountain of divine love toward us, and tells us that we have no happiness except in him. In this way, he includes in one phrase everything we could ask for if we are to live a happy life. God’s care for our safety, keeping us warm under his wings, providing for our needs, counting us worthy of his help in time of peril — all this is grounded in his adoption of us. And in order to keep anyone from thinking that so much good comes from our own prowess and industry, the psalmist specifies that it flows from the fountain of free election which makes us God’s people.
Men corrupt this verse senselessly when they transfer to men what the prophet ascribes to God. As if men chose God for their inheritance! I admit that it is by faith that the true God is distinguished from idols; but we must hold fast to the following principle: There would be no communion between him and us if he did not first come to us with his grace.
The Lord looketh from heaven. The psalmist continues the same 263theme. The conditions of men do not come about by chance. God directs in hidden ways all that takes place. Therefore, the psalmist praises the watchfulness of God so that we may learn to see God’s invisible providence with the eyes of faith. For although the evidences of his care are continually before our eyes, the greater part of mankind is blind, and invent a blind chance to match their blindness. The more bountifully and richly God pours out his kindness upon us, the less we turn our minds to him; we keep them instead fixed on what happens to us from the outside.
The prophet castigates the indignity which men offer to God; for no greater wrong can be done to him than to shut him up to stay idly in his heaven. That is like burying him in a grave! For how would God be living if he saw nothing and cared for nothing? Further, by the term royal throne, the prophet shows how absurd and stupid it would be to divest God of mind and intelligence. For he means that heaven is not a palace for idle pleasures, as the Epicureans imagine, but a king’s seat of government from which God exercises his empire in all the realms of the world. But if God has set his seat in the sanctuary of the heavens in order to rule the universe, it follows that he by no means ignores earthly affairs, but controls them with the highest reason and wisdom.
A king is not kept safe, etc. A man’s life is safe not by his own power, but by the grace of God. Kings and giants are mentioned because they think they are exempt from the common lot of men and believe themselves beyond the reach of javelin or arrow. If some misfortune occurs, they expect to find an easy escape. Intoxicated with confidence in their own ability, they are hardly able to remember that they are mortal; and their pride is strengthened by the foolish admiration of the crowd who are astounded at their might. But if the resources of a king do not give him security, and a giant does not escape by his strength when danger comes, it is futile for any ordinary man to depend on earthly riches and forget God’s providence. For nothing can be more miserably precarious than the position of both the strong and the weak unless they rely on God’s protection.
In the next verse, by the use of synecdoche (a part for the whole), the word horse means every kind of earthly assistance. Of course, kings are not armed with swords for nothing; and horses are not useless; nor are any of the wealth and resources, which God supplies to men to guard their lives, without value when they are rightly used. But the more the majority of men 264are surrounded with fortifications, the farther they go from God and falsely imagine that their wall is impregnable. God rightly confounds such insanity. So it is that the flood of God’s gifts is often without effect; because the world, separating them from their Author, deprives itself of his blessing.
Let thy compassion be upon us.
The psalm closes with a prayer, which the prophet offers in the name of all the faithful, asking that they may know they have not relied on God’s goodness in vain. In prescribing this rule of prayer by the mouth of the prophet, the Spirit teaches us that the door of God’s favor is opened when we do not seek and hope for safety elsewhere. Meanwhile we draw our sweetest comfort from the certainty that our hope will never crack up while we are still on our way; nor do we need to fear that God will not extend his compassion toward us until the end.
And fear not those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. And yea, I say to you, fear him. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father. Matt. 10:28, Luke 12:5, Matt. 10:29. (Calvin’s wording.)
Christ is perfectly right when he urges his disciples to despise death, because human beings created for heavenly immortality should treat this mutable and perishing life as so much smoke. The heart of the matter is this: if the believers consider to what end they were born, and what their condition now is, they will have no reason for clinging anxiously to this earthly life. However, these words have a still fuller and richer meaning; for Christ teaches us that the fear of God is dead in people who fear tyrants so much that they fail in their confession, that a brutish stupidity reigns in the hearts of those who fear death so much that they will not even hesitate to give up altogether confessing their faith. . . .
For this reason, Luke repeats emphatically: Yea, I say to you, fear him. We must understand Christ to say that, when we succumb to the fear of man, we show no respect for God; that when, on the contrary, we show proper reverence to God, victory is easy and in our hands, and no human power can pull us away from our duty. Besides, the experience of every age teaches how necessary it is for ministers and for believers in general to be warned about this danger, because there never was a time when men did not rise up in fury against God, and did not set themselves to crush the gospel. Not all men have equal power to put 265the fear of death into the believers; still, the majority of men are possessed with the ferocity of a Cyclops, which springs forth when opportunity arises. Besides, the devil often gets hold of giants, whose very looks would throw the servants of Christ down lifeless, were they not taught to be hard and immovable by this teaching.
Moreover, since fearing God and not fearing men go together, it is stupid and wrong to pay attention only to the latter point. On the contrary, as we have said before, Christ set a devout and holy fear of God in opposition to a perverse fear of men, which takes us away from the right way, as the only remedy for it. Otherwise, there would have been no point in his saying that, if we fear God who is Lord over soul and body, we ought not to fear men who have power only over the body. When Christ admits that men have the power to kill, he does so only by way of concession. God holds the bridle of the wicked loose; and they, puffed up by confidence in their own power, will dare anything. They strike at shaky souls, and act as though nothing could stop them. But futile is the insolence of the wicked which makes them fancy that they can do as they please with the life of believers. For, all the while, God holds the reins; and when it pleases him, he checks their attack, however fierce and violent. And yet they may be said to have the power to kill by God’s permission, because often they are able to go strong and give vent to their fury. . . .
Are not two sparrows, etc. Now Christ goes on to declare, as I have already hinted, that no matter how mad the tyrants may be, they have no power even over the body. Therefore, those who fear the cruelty of men, as though they were without God’s protection, are fools. In the midst of perils, we have this second comfort that, since God is the keeper of our lives, we may safely rely upon his providence. It is really an insult to God, not to place our lives at the disposal of him who has honored us with his protection. Christ extends the providence of God to all creatures in common, and so argues by way of synecdoche (from the whole to the part), that God exercises a particular care over us. There is nothing cheaper than a sparrow (two were sold for a penny; or as Luke has it, five for two pennies), and yet God’s eye is upon it, and nothing happens to it by chance. Will he then who looks after sparrows neglect to watch over the lives of men?
Moreover, we must notice two things. Christ defines the providence of God very differently from those who, not unlike 266the philosophers, admit that somehow the world is under divine government, and yet imagine the workings of providence in a confused way, as though God paid no attention to individual creatures. Christ, on the other hand, declares that every single one of God’s creatures is under his hand and care, and that nothing happens by chance. In this way, he firmly opposes the will of God to chance, without however affirming the fatalism of the Stoics. It is one thing to find necessity in a context of a chain of many causes; it is quite another to see the world, as a whole and in its individual parts, as subject to the will of God. I confess there is a certain operation of chance in the nature of things considered in themselves; but I say that nothing occurs merely by the wheels of blind fortune, because the will of God reigns over all that happens.
In the second place, we must not look at God’s providence after the manner of curious and silly people. It must be to us the ground of our strength, and an invitation to call upon God. When Christ tells us that even the hairs of our heads are numbered, he does it not to arouse us to empty speculation, but to teach us to rest in God’s Fatherly care, which he exercises in behalf of these frail bodies of ours.
Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands crucified and slain. Acts 2:23.
The chief purpose of Peter in mentioning the death of Christ is to establish faith in the resurrection all the more fully. It was well known among the Jews that Jesus had been nailed to a cross. Therefore, that he rose again would have been a token and evidence of the wonderful power of God. Meanwhile, in order to prick their consciences with a sense of sin, he says that it was they who killed Jesus, not that they had crucified him with their own hands, but that his death had been requested by the people with one voice. Although many of those who heard Peter had had no direct part in that godless and cruel wickedness, he was right in blaming them for it, because all of them had defiled themselves either by silence or by unconcern. There was no place for any pretense of ignorance, because God had already set Jesus before them. Peter thus prepares them for repentance by convicting them of sin.
By the determinate counsel. Here he meets a scandal which arises because it seems absurd at first sight, that this man whom God had adorned with such powers should have afterwards been 267subjected to every kind of insult and allowed to suffer an ignominious death. Because the cross of Christ is at first so disturbing to us, Peter declares that it did not occur by chance, or because Jesus had no power to set himself free, but because it had been ordained by God. For, only the knowledge that the death of Christ was ordained by the eternal purpose of God cut off in advance all occasion for foolish and depraved cogitations, and prevented people’s minds from taking offense at it. One thing is certain: that God makes no rash or vain decision. Whence it follows that he had a just reason for willing that Christ should have suffered. Such knowledge of God’s providence enables us to take the right step toward understanding the purpose and benefit of Christ’s death. For, the counsel of God confronts us with the truth that the Righteous One was delivered to death for our sins, and his blood was our ransom from death.
This then is a notable statement of the providence of God, teaching us that our life as well as our death is governed by it. Luke is indeed speaking about Christ; but in him we have a mirror of the universal providence of God which extends to the whole world, and shines especially upon us who are members of Christ.
In this place, Luke sets forth two things: God’s foreknowledge and his sure decree. Although first in order comes foreknowledge (since God contemplates what he will ordain before he ordains it), Luke puts it after God’s counsel or decree, to teach us that God neither wills nor decrees anything without having long before directed it to its proper end. People often make rash decisions because they decide quickly. Therefore, when Peter wants to point out that God’s counsel is not without reason, he couples it with his foreknowledge. Now, we need to distinguish between these two with some discernment, because many have fallen down at this point. Passing by the counsel of God with which he directs the whole world, these people grab at his mere foreknowledge. Hence arises the common distinction according to which, even while God foresees everything, he lays no constraint upon his creatures. Of course, it is true that God foresees this or that which is in the future. But Peter teaches us that what befell Jesus was not only foreseen by God, but also decreed by him. From this we learn a general truth about God’s providence, one that appears in the government of the world as a whole, no less than in the death of Jesus: it belongs to God, not only to know the future, but also to ordain by his will whatever he wants to be done. Peter made this second point when he 268said that Jesus was delivered by the sure and determinate counsel of God. Wherefore, the foreknowledge of God is other than the will of God by which he rules and regulates all things.
Some whose discernment is sharper admit that God not only foresees but also regulates with a nod everything that is done in this world. At the same time, however, they imagine a vague direction, as though God lets go of the bridle and allows his creatures to follow the rule of their own natures. They say that the sun rules by God’s will, because in giving us light it does the duty enjoined on it by God in the beginning. They think that a free will of this kind is left to men, because their nature is capable of a free choice between good and evil. But those who think in this manner imagine that God is sitting idly in heaven. The Scriptures speak very differently, and defend God’s control over particular events and over the several actions of men. But we must consider the purpose of Scripture in teaching us this doctrine; and we must at the same time shun all the mad speculations with which we see people carried away. The intention of Scripture is to exercise our faith, that we may know we are protected by God’s hand, and that we may not be subject to harm from Satan and wicked men. . . .
By the hands of the wicked. Peter seems to suggest that the wicked did God’s will. From this follows one or the other of two absurdities: either that God does evil, or that whatever wickedness men may perpetrate, they do not sin. As to the second statement, I answer that even though the wicked carry out what God himself has ordained, obeying God is the last thing they do. For obedience comes from a willing disposition, and we know that the purpose of the wicked is inspired by something far different. Besides, nobody but one who knows God’s will obeys him. Obedience depends upon a knowledge of the will of God. But God has revealed his will to us in the law. Therefore, they only obey God whose deeds fulfill the demands of the rule of the law, who, therefore, submit themselves willingly to its authority. But we see none of this in the wicked, whom God drives hither and thither without their knowing it. Therefore, let no man say that they are to be excused because they obey God. We must seek the will of God in his law; but the wicked seek to resist God with everything in them.
I deny the other statement, that God does evil, because it suggests that God is disposed to wickedness. We must judge wickedness in the light of the purpose which governs a man’s action. People who perpetrate theft or murder sin in that they 269are thieves and murderers; for they do these things with a wicked purpose. God, who makes use of men’s wickedness, must not be put in the same class with them; he must be seen in a far different light; because when he sets out to punish one man, and to exercise another in patience, he never deviates from his nature, which is perfect rectitude. Thus, when Christ was delivered by the hands of wicked men, and crucified, it was done by the consent and decree of God. But the treachery in the matter, which as such is evil, and the murder in it which was a great wickedness, must not be attributed to God.
And the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham that thing which I do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? Gen. 18:17–18.
When God proposes something as though it were doubtful, he does so out of kindness to men; for he had already decided what he would do. Here he intended to make Abraham pay close attention to the reasons he gives for the destruction of Sodom.
God gives two reasons for wanting to reveal his purpose before it was fulfilled: first, because Abraham was worthy of the privilege of the superior honor; second, because it would be useful and fruitful in the education of posterity. This in brief is the scope and value of this revelation.
One reason, as I said, why God wished his servant to know beforehand of his terrible vengeance upon Sodom was to honor him with special gifts. God has always shown this same kindness to the faithful; and he even increases it, heaping new and fresh blessings upon the earlier ones; and so it is that he deals daily with us. What ground is there for the innumerable favors he constantly bestows upon us except that he cannot refrain from expressing his Fatherly love with which he has enfolded us; and in doing this, he honors himself and his own gifts in us? For what except his own free gifts does he reward with his kindness? The origin of his kindness was in himself, not in Abraham’s merits; nor does the blessing of Abraham flow from any other fountain except God.
Moreover, we learn from this passage, what experience also teaches, that it is the special privilege of the church to know the meaning of the judgments of God and their direction and purpose. God does indeed prove himself a just judge of the world by inflicting punishment on evil men. But because all things seem to happen by accident, God enlightens his sons by his Word, so 270that they may not walk blindly like unbelievers. So, in the past, when he stretched out his hand to smite all the world, he confined his holy oracle to Judea; that is, when he was ready to bring distresses and misfortunes upon the nations, he declared himself as their author by his prophets and to his chosen people alone. . . . Let us then be mindful that God, having begun to be good toward us, continues unwearied until, having blessed us in every way, he completes our salvation. Having once adopted us and enlightened our minds by his Word, he keeps the torch of the Word blazing before our eyes, that we may in faith keep our minds upon the judgment and punishment of evil which the impious confidently ignore.
Therefore the faithful ought to be well informed on the known history of all times, to be able to judge according to the Scripture the various calamities which befall the wicked, privately and in public. While Sodom was unharmed and enjoying its pleasant luxuries, the Lord announced to his servant Abraham that it would soon perish. There was then no doubt that it perished not by chance but by the act of God. . . . We must accept the same conclusion in other cases; for although God does not foretell the future to us, he wishes us to be eyewitnesses of his acts and to propound their causes wisely. We are not to be deceived by false vision like the unbelievers, who “seeing, see not” and turn their backs to their true goal.
O Assyrian, the rod of my anger, and the staff in their hand is my indignation. Isa. 10:5.
What follows is intended so to announce the coming punishment as to mitigate the sorrow of the faithful with some word of comfort. Therefore greater emphasis is given to the doctrine that whatever the evils perpetrated by the Assyrians, they will be a temporary discipline from God, and that when the unbelievers overdo their insolence, they will finally be put in their places.
Hoi is sometimes an exclamation of pain, sometimes a call for attention; and sometimes it has the sense “woe to,” as the ancient interpreters translated it here. But in this passage it can only mean either that the Lord is calling the Assyrians, or that he is assuming the role of a mourner because he has to punish his people at the hand of the Assyrians. But when I look more closely at the whole passage, I prefer the interpretation that God is calling the Assyrians as though they were armed for battle by his own command. 271The prophet had already proclaimed that the Assyrians would be upon them; but hypocrites feel so secure that the fear of God never troubles them, before they can see his scourge or until they actually feel its blows. This is why God now summons the Assyrians with “Come,” just as a judge calls an officer and orders him to bind a criminal, or commands the executioner to put him to death. So the Lord calls the Assyrians to inflict punishment by their hand.
And the staff. This can refer to the Assyrians, and the clause can be understood as a repetition of the preceding in slightly different words. But I find here a difference in meaning. First, the Assyrians are called “the rod of God’s wrath” ; second, the swords and weapons with which they are equipped are equated with the anger of God, as though the prophet had said, “God according to his will is using the Assyrian instead of ax or sword as executor of his wrath,” and then had added, “Although they may wear swords, what you should fear is [not their weapons but] God’s anger against his people.” The point is that whatever strength the enemy may have comes from God’s anger, and that the enemy would not move a finger unless God roused him by a hidden prodding against the nation He intended to destroy. God calls the staff which they hold in their hand his “anger” to make it clear to the Jews that the apparently blind attacks of their enemies are directed by heavenly providence.
I disagree with some interpreters who would turn beyadam (in their hand) to “in their place” or “in their land.” That is too forced. The point is that God calls the Assyrians as the servants of his wrath, for by their hand he will exact due penalty for the crimes of his people. Therefore, he declares that his anger is all the might they possess.
This teaching has two purposes: first, to terrify the wicked by letting them know that God’s threats to destroy them are not empty words, and to show them the reason they are to be punished. These words, therefore, had much more force to rouse from their indifference the wicked who had laughed at all the former threatenings of the prophets.
Secondly, this teaching had also no small value when the Assyrians began to harass the people. For then, in the midst of the disaster, the Jews could see that it was not purposeless, nor happening by accident, for it had been predicted by the prophets.
Someone will object, Why did God when He had first said that the Assyrians were the rod of his anger, afterwards call 272their staff his indignation? But we must put it, “The Assyrian is my anger, and the staff which he carries is the staff of my indignation.” But so long as we understand what the prophet means, we should not stop anxiously over words. He calls men “the rod of God’s anger” because God uses them like a rod; he calls the weapons of men God’s “indignation,” because they are not directed by men’s own will but are the evidence of God’s anger.
These words of the prophet are most pertinent today, because they forbid us to think that the wicked burst forth unrestrained wherever their lust drives them; for they are guided and checked by a bridle, so that they will accomplish nothing against God’s will. Hence we must conclude that God acts by the hand of the wicked. But here we must think and speak soberly, for there is need to distinguish wisely and carefully between the work of God and the work of men.
There are three ways in which God acts through men. First, all are moved and exist through him; from which it follows that all human actions proceed from his goodness. Second, he acts in a special way when he moves the wicked as seems good to him. Although nothing is further from their thoughts, he uses their work so that they mutually destroy one another and perish, or so that he may discipline his own people by their hand. This last is the prophet’s point in this place. Third, God guides men by his sanctifying Spirit; but this way belongs only to the elect.
So whether tyrants, or robbers, or any others injure us; or when foreign nations rise up against us, always, among turbulent and confused commotions, the hand of God sheds his light upon us, to keep us from imagining that anything happens by chance.
Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart. . . . Joel 2:12.
After announcing the terrible judgment, the prophet shows that his purpose was not simply to inspire terror, but rather to bring the people back to their right minds. But this he could not do unless he gave them the hope of forgiveness. I have said many times — and indeed the whole Bible proves it — that men cannot be brought back to the right way unless they receive the hope of God’s compassion. For despair makes men more obstinate and doubles their wickedness, rather multiplies it a hundredfold.
For when a man who has done wrong despairs, he hurls 273himself wholly into the gulf of wickedness without any restraint whatever. Therefore the prophet now describes the kindness and compassion of God in order gently to lead the people to apply themselves to repentance.
So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God. . . . Gen. 45:8.
This is an especially significant passage, for it teaches us that the true course of events is never disturbed by the wickedness and malice of men; that, on the contrary, God directs men’s confused and turbulent movements to a good end. Also it shows us how we ought to think of God’s providence and how we are to profit from it. When curious men debate over it, they not only muddle and pervert everything by ignoring its purpose, but also concoct whatever absurdities they can to insult God’s justice. Their effrontery even makes some pious and modest men wish they could bury this part of our doctrine. For as soon as it is proclaimed that God holds the government of the whole world and that nothing is done without his assent and command, those who feel too little reverence for the mysteries of God burst out with various questions which are not only frivolous, but also pernicious.
However, in our desire to stop such profane intemperance, we should be very careful not to be satisfied with a crass ignorance of truths which are not only revealed by the Word of God but are also very useful for us to know. Good men are ashamed to confess that nothing which men undertake is accomplished unless God wills it, for fear unbridled tongues will clamor either that God is the author of sin, or that no blame is incurred by impious men since they are only following God’s purpose. Although there is no way of refuting this sacrilegious madness, we should be content to detest it, and meanwhile hold firmly to the clear witness of Scripture, whatever men may invent. Amid all the shoutings of men, God directs men’s plans and efforts from heaven, and finally accomplishes by their hands what he himself has decreed.
Good men who fear to expose the justice of God to the slanders of the impious take refuge in the distinction that God wills some things to be done and only permits others. As if, without his will, any freedom of action would be possible for men! If he had merely permitted Joseph to be carried to Egypt, he would not have ordained him as the instrument for saving the lives of his father Jacob and his sons; and this is what is said here explicitly. A statement like our text would be meaningless if 274evil things which God afterwards turns to a good end were done only by his permission, and not by his intention and will.
I know that on men’s side there are evil deeds which are done out of sheer perversity. Moreover, since the doers are inherently sinful, they must be accounted wholly guilty. But God works through them in a wonderful way, so that he produces pure justice out of impure corruption. How he acts is hidden and too high for us. And it is not strange that lusting flesh rebels against it. But for this very reason we ought to avoid attempting to restrict heaven’s great height to our narrow vision. Therefore let it be a fixed point that even while men’s passion runs high and rushes uncontrollably hither and thither, God remains supreme over all and by his hidden bridle directs their motions wherever it seems to him good.
At the same time we must also hold that God’s action is distinct from man’s, so that his providence is free from all iniquity, and his decrees have no affinity with the wrongdoings of men. A most beautiful illustration of this truth is presented to our eyes in this story. Joseph was sold by his brothers for no other reason than that they wanted him somehow destroyed and out of the way. The same act is ascribed to God, but with the very different purpose of providing the house of Jacob with food in time of famine and beyond their every hope. . . . Hence it is clear that, although God at first seems to act as do wicked men, in the end their crime is a far cry from his wonderful justice. . . .
But we also see that men are no less criminal because God, contrary to their expectations, transforms the end they seek in their wickedness to a good and happy outcome. . . . Certainly we must hold that men’s deeds must be valued not by their issue, but by whether they failed to do their duty, or acted contrary to God’s command, or went beyond the limits of their vocation. When a man neglects his wife and children, and does not labor to provide for their necessities, even though they do not die unless God so wills, this in no way excuses the brutality of the husband and father who deserts them when he ought to be their helper. Therefore people with a bad conscience gain nothing by pushing forward the providence of God as a screen for their misdeeds.
But I ask you to note again, How often God resists the malice of those who desire to harm us, not only resists but also turns their evil efforts to our good! Thus he mitigates the afflictions of our flesh and gives us a calm spirit and greater peace.275
And he said: Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. Gen. 9:25.
It is strange that Noah curses his grandson and passes over in silence Ham who committed the crime. The Jews give God’s favor as the reason and say that God had so greatly honored Ham that the curse was shifted to his son. But that is a foolish conjecture. I am sure that the punishment was transferred to posterity to make its severity all the more obvious; for God was giving clear testimony that he did not consider the punishment of one man alone to be sufficient, and that therefore the curse had to include his descendants and continue in force through the ages. Meanwhile Ham himself was certainly not exempted; God made his judgment heavier by including his son with him.
Now another question arises. Why did God single out from among Ham’s many sons one man in particular for the blow? But here we must not allow too much range to our curiosity. We should keep in mind, it is not without reason that the judgments of God are called an unfathomable abyss. It is not fitting that God, before whose tribunal we must all finally stand, be subjected to our judgment — or rather to our foolish temerity. God chooses as he pleases some, to make them examples of his grace and long-suffering; he destines others for a different purpose, to be proofs of his anger and severity. Here human minds are blind; yet each one of us, knowing his own failure, should learn to praise God’s justice rather than hurl himself by insane audacity into the deep abyss.
The curse of God included the whole seed of Ham. But he singled out the Canaanites by name as cursed above all others. We know that this judgment was from God, for it was afterwards validated by the event. Noah was a man and did not know what was to happen to the Canaanites; but in such obscure and hidden matters he spoke as the Spirit directed his tongue.
There is still another difficulty. The Scripture teaches that the sins of men are punished to the third and fourth generation; and yet [our text] seems to depict the punishment of God’s wrath as reaching to ten generations. I answer: Scripture does not prescribe a rule which God himself may not transgress, as though he were bound not to punish beyond four generations. We must see grace and punishment as combined and so understand that, while God justly punishes our crimes, he is still more inclined to mercy. Meanwhile, let us admit that he is free to extend punishment as far as it seems good to him.276
Servant of servants. This Hebrew phrase means that Canaan will be the lowest among slaves, or that his situation will be worse than common slavery. But does not the lightning bolt of this stern and terrible prophecy seem a harmless joke, since the Canaanites were [at the time it was written] outstanding, in power, riches, and resources? Where then was their slavery? I answer: First, God’s threats need not be fulfilled immediately; but they are never empty or ineffective; second, God’s judgments are not always visible to our eyes or recognizable by our physical senses. The Canaanites threw off the yoke of slavery which was divinely imposed upon them and even grasped an empire for themselves. But although they had their time of arrogance, they were never in God’s sight free.
In the same way, when the faithful are unjustly oppressed and tyrannically harassed by the wicked, their spiritual liberty before God is not destroyed. God promised to his servant Abraham dominion over the land of Canaan, and condemned the Canaanites to destruction. We must be satisfied with this as proof of God’s justice.
One more point. The pope asserts that he utters prophecies. Well, so did Caiaphas. I do not wish to appear to deny all his claims; and I freely admit that the title8989The title of the pope, “Pius Episcopus, servus servorum Dei,” has been used since the time of Gregory the Great, in the sixth century. It is the regular heading of papal bulls at the present time. with which he adorns himself was dictated by the Holy Spirit. May he like Canaan become servant of servants.
And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. Gen. 4:10.
God shows, first, that he knows men’s deeds even when no one complains or accuses; seconds that human life is too precious to him for him not to punish the shedding of blood; third, that he takes the faithful under his care not only when they are alive but also after they die.
Earthly judges for the most part doze unless an accuser appeals to them. But even when the wounded are silent, their very injuries cry out to God to pronounce the penalty. It is a wonderfully sweet comfort to good men who are harassed unjustly to hear that the evils they endure silently go before God of their own accord and demand vengeance. Abel was silent when his throat was cut (perhaps he was killed some other way), but after his death the voice of his blood was more eloquent than the 277plea of any orator. Thus, men may stifle or silence [the cry of the innocent]; but they cannot prevent God from judging a cause which the world considers buried. This consolation richly nourishes our endurance. When we learn that nothing of our right is lost, we bear our injuries with moderation and steady minds. The soul’s calm silence raises an effective cry which fills heaven and earth.
Nor does the teaching of this verse apply to this life alone. We not only know ourselves safe under God’s protection amid the innumerable dangers with which we are surrounded, but are also lifted up to the hope of a better life. It clearly follows that those who live under God’s protection are safe after they die.
The people therefore that stood by, and heard it, said that it thundered: others said, An angel spake to him. John 12:29.
It was truly monstrous that the multitude was so stupid as to remain unmoved by so open a miracle. Some were so hard of hearing that what God so distinctly uttered they took for a confused sound. Others who were less dull made little of the majesty of the Voice of God, and said it was merely an angel who spoke. But men do the same today. God speaks plainly enough in the gospel, and there reveals such power and energy of the Spirit as ought to shake the heaven and the earth. But for many its doctrine is lifeless as though it were from mortal men; to others the Word of God is confused and barbarous, no different from thunder.
But the question arises, Did that voice sounding from heaven come in vain or without benefit to anyone? I answer that what the Evangelist says of the whole crowd was true only of a part. There were others besides the apostles who had a clearer insight of the matter. The Evangelist wanted to point out briefly what is common in this world: namely, that most people hear but do not understand when God speaks with a clear and loud voice.
2. PROVIDENCE AND GOD
He hath blinded their eyes and hardened their heart. John 12:40.
This passage is from Isaiah (6:9; cp. Matt. 13:14), where the Lord warns the prophet at once that his labors of teaching will only end in making the people worse. First then he says, “Go and tell these people, When you hear, you hear but do not understand.” He means, “I send you in order that you may speak to the deaf.” Then he adds, “Harden the people’s heart” ; 278by which he means that he intends his Word to issue in the punishment of the wicked; that he will make them totally blind, and they will plunge into a deeper darkness. Right as well as formidable is the judgment of God when he darkens the mind of men with the very light of his Word, so that they are bereft of all sense. By means of their only light, he covers them with a gross darkness!
However, we must note that the Word of God does not blind men by its own proper working. Nothing could be more absurd than that there should be no difference between truth and lies, or that the bread of life should act as deadly poison and medicine make a disease worse. When life is turned into death, we must blame men’s evil for it. Besides, we must observe that God himself sometimes blinds the minds of men by depriving them of understanding and judgment; sometimes he does it through Satan and false prophets, whose lies make the people mad; sometimes he does it by his ministers, as when the doctrine of salvation is harmful and even deadly to the hearers. This is why, when the prophets fulfill their task of teaching faithfully, they ought to commend the fruit of their labors to the Lord. If they do not succeed, they should not quit, or lose their temper. Let them be satisfied to know that God approves of their labor; that although the savor of their doctrine does men no good, and the wicked turn it into a source of death to themselves, it is as Paul testifies, good and pleasing before God (2 Cor. 2:15).
Because the carnal mind is in enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. Rom. 8:7.
Paul now proceeds to prove what he had said by adding that nothing but death can issue from all the effort of the flesh, because it struggles in enmity to the will of God. The will of God is the rule of righteousness; whatever does not agree with his will is unrighteous; and if unrighteous, it is at the same time deadly. When God is set against us, it is vain to expect life; for his wrath must directly and inevitably be followed by death, which is vengeance wrought by his wrath. And now let us remember that in all things the will of man is opposed to the will of God. For we differ from God as depravity differs from rectitude.
For. . . to the law of God. This is the explanation of the previous sentence. It tells us how it comes about that all the thoughts of the flesh strive against the will of God. The will of God is attacked only where he reveals it; but it is in the law that God tells us what pleases him. Therefore those who would 279try to find out rightly whether they conform with God, must judge all their purposes and concerns by the norm of God’s law. Even though nothing in this world is active except as directed by God’s secret providence, it is an intolerable blasphemy to pretend that therefore nothing happens except by his approval, as some frenzied people cavil in our day. What folly it is, to seek the distinction between rectitude and iniquity, which the law places before our eyes so openly and distinctly, in the deep labyrinth of secret providence! As I have said before, the Lord has his own hidden counsel by which he disposes of everything in the world. But since it is incomprehensible to us, let us have sense enough to keep away from undue curiosity in prying into it. In the meanwhile, it remains true and settled that nothing pleases him except righteousness, and that we cannot judge our own deeds rightly except by the law of God, which testifies without deception to what pleases and what displeases him.
Nor can be. And now look at the faculty of free will, which sophists cannot praise highly enough! With these words Paul affirms certainly and explicitly what they detest with open mouths: that it is impossible for us to bring our powers into subjection so as to obey the law. They throw at our faces that the heart is able to bend itself one way or another, provided only that it is aided by an impulse of the Spirit; that the choice between good and evil is free and in our hand, provided the Spirit comes to our help: so that to choose or to refuse is up to us. They also invent good impulses by which we set ourselves spontaneously to obey the law. Paul, on the contrary, tells us that our hard heart is bulging with irrepressible outrage [against God] and will not by its own nature bend down to put on the yoke of God. Nor does he argue about this or that part of us; but rather, speaking in general, he puts together all the impulses which rise up from within us in the same bundle. Therefore far be the free will of heathen philosophy from the Christian heart! Let everyone know himself as thee servant of sin, which he in fact is, that he may become free by the grace which he receives from Christ’s own hand. To glory in any other freedom is the greatest stupidity.
But evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived. 2 Tim. 3:13.
It is the worst of trials that godless men wax great and strong with their sacrilegious audacity, and the blasphemies and 280errors they perpetrate. Paul says elsewhere that Isaac was troubled not by the sword of Ishmael but by his taunting (Gal. 4:29). We may gather from this verse that the writer did not point to one particular kind of persecution, but spoke in general of trials which the children of God must endure when they contend for the glory of their Father.
I spoke, a little before, of how evil men shall grow worse and worse. The apostle predicts not only that they will offer obstinate resistance, but also that they shall succeed in harming and corrupting others. One good-for-nothing fellow can always tear down more than ten faithful teachers can build, no matter how hard they try. There is no scarcity of the tares sown by Satan and infesting the good earth. No sooner are some false prophets put down than others pop up in all directions.
Now, wickedness has this power not because lies are by nature more effective than truth, or because the devices of the devil are superior to the power of God’s Spirit, but because men have a spontaneous inclination toward vanity and error, and will embrace much too readily whatever suits their fancy. Therefore by a just retribution of God, they become blinded and captive slaves to the pleasure of the devil. This is the principal reason for the effectiveness of the pestilence of ungodly teachings. And considering the ingratitude of men, it is right that this should be so. Therefore, godly teachers should take to heart the warning to be prepared for constant warfare, not to break down because it is long and drawn out, or succumb before the impudence and insolence of their adversaries.
There were present at that season some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay, but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Luke 13:1–3.
This passage is extremely helpful to us, because it is almost an inborn disease with us to be hard and severe in judging others, while we treat our own misdeeds as mere trifles. Thus it happens that not only do we deal too sharply with the sins of our brothers, but also, when things go wrong with them, we condemn them as infamous and reprobate people. Meanwhile, so long as God’s hand is not heavy upon us, we sleep safely with our sins, as though we enjoyed God’s favor and friendship. In this way, we are doubly guilty. For, when God chastises someone under our very eyes, he does it so as to warn us of his judgments, 281in order that each one of us may learn to examine himself and to weigh the punishment he himself deserves. And if he spares us for a time, by his kindness and mercy he invites us to repentance. It should be far from us to use the time allowed us as an occasion for sloth.
The point Christ makes is that those who suffer hardship at the hands of others are not the worst of men; and his purpose is to condemn our depraved judgment which turns us habitually against those who are afflicted by some calamity, and to root out that self-indulgence with which everybody treats his own self. God exercises his judgments freely, in his own way and order, so that some receive their punishment immediately, whereas others are allowed for a while to enjoy their ease and pleasure in peace. Christ is here teaching us that whatever calamities occur in this world, they are testimonies to the wrath of God; and from this we learn that unless we avert God’s wrath we shall be destroyed.
The occasion which led to this exhortation was the statement of some people that Pilate had mixed human blood with the blood of sacrifices. They meant to bring contempt upon these sacrifices, because they were accompanied by such a chastisement. It is likely that this outrage was inflicted upon the Samaritans who had turned aside from the pure worship of the law. The Jews, therefore, were quick to applaud themselves while they condemned the Samaritans. But our Lord turned the matter into something else. Because the Jews hated and condemned the whole people of the Samaritans, he asked them if they thought the wretched few who were murdered by Pilate were so much more wicked than the rest. In other words, he said, “It can be no secret to you that the whole land of the Samaritans is full of ungodliness; and yet many who are worthy of punishment are still safe and sound.” He must indeed be a blind and depraved judge who thinks that where there is affliction there must be sin. It is not true that the most wicked are dragged for punishment first. God chooses to punish a few out of a multitude, so that through them he may condemn the rest and fill them with the terror of his vengeance.
After having spoken of the Samaritans, Jesus turns to the Jews themselves. He points out that in those days eighteen people had been crushed to death by the fall of the tower of Jerusalem. He denies that these people were wicked above all others, and argues that their death ought to fill everyone with fear; for, if God had made them an example of his justice, it was 282not likely that the rest would be able to escape from his hand even though for a while they were being left alone. Christ does not discourage believers from attending to God’s judgment; but he does ask them to do it rightly by beginning with their own sins. . . .
And his disciples asked him saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? John 9:2.
First, since Scripture testifies that all the troubles of humanity arise from sin, whenever we see anyone in misery it naturally occurs to us at once that his distress is a punishment inflicted by the hand of God. Thus we err in three ways. First, few judge themselves as severely as they do others. If my brother meets adversity, right away I see the judgment of God in it. When God chastises me with an even heavier rod, I shut my eyes to my sins. But in passing judgment, a man ought to begin with himself; he ought not to spare himself more than others. If we would be just in this matter, we ought to be quicker to discern evil in ourselves than in others. Secondly, excessive rigor is wrong. No sooner do we find someone meeting disaster at God’s hand than we jump to the conclusion that it is because God hates him. We turn his faults into crimes and almost despair of his salvation. On the contrary, we so belittle sins in our own case that we hardly see as little faults what we ought to confess as gross wickedness. In the third place, we sin by freely casting off as damned those whom God is trying with a cross.
It is true, as we said above, that all misery arises from sin. But it is also true that God afflicts his own for various reasons. Now, God does not avenge certain crimes in this world, but postpones punishment to the next, to deal with them all the more severely; conversely, he often deals severely with his faithful people, not because they have sinned greatly, but in order to mortify the sin of the flesh. At times he overlooks their sins; he tries their obedience and trains them in patience. Take the case of Job, who suffered more calamity than other men; God was not concerned with his sins. His purpose was rather to make a better trial of Job’s faith through his various afflictions. Therefore, the interpreters who attribute all suffering indiscriminately to sin are fools — as though all were punished equally, or as though in afflicting men, God had regard only to each man’s desert!
Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If a man 283walketh in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. John 11:9.
This verse has been explained in various ways. Some are of the opinion that men’s minds are changeable, and seize every hour upon a new and different purpose; but nothing could be further from what Christ meant. This view would hardly be worth mentioning except that it has become a common proverb. Let us be content with the right and simple meaning of this verse. First, Christ borrows the simile from day and night. When a man walks in the dark, it is not strange if he knocks against something, or goes astray, or even gets lost. But when the sun shines and shows the way, he walks in safety. Now, the calling of God is like the light of day, which keeps us from hitting something or going astray. Whoever obeys the Word of God and does not go ahead except by his command, has a Guide and Director from heaven; and with this confidence, he sets on his way with courage and security. Now, as we learn from Ps. 91:11, anyone who walks in God’s ways has angels for protectors and is safe under their guidance, so that his feet do not strike a stone. Therefore, Jesus, fortified by this confidence, goes ahead boldly into Judea without fear of being stoned. There is no danger of going astray when God, acting as our sun, directs our way.
This verse teaches us that, if a man lives by his own wits, without God’s calling, he will wander and get lost all his life. Those who think they are very wise, and neither inquire of God nor receive his Spirit to govern all their actions, are blind and grope in the dark. There is only one right way: to hold on single-mindedly to our divine calling and to have God always walking ahead of us. This firmly established rule of life, which we must follow with perfect confidence, leads straight to a successful outcome because God does not rule our lives except for our well-being. And it is essential for us to realize that, as soon as the faithful move one foot in order to follow God, Satan comes forward with a thousand obstacles, and presents them with all sorts of perils, all with the one purpose of contriving to obstruct our way. Nevertheless, the Lord kindles his light and invites us to go ahead; we must walk with courage even though our way may be filled with many deaths. This we must do because God never bids us to go ahead without at the same time fortifying us with his promise; and the promise gives us our firm certainty that if we remain under his authority, he will bring us to a good and blessed end. This is our chariot; anyone 284who rides in it is never weary and cast down. Even though the obstacles on our way are so great that we could not overcome them in our own vehicle, we always find our way out with the wings which are given us, until we arrive at our destination; not because nothing adverse happens to believers, but because the very evils they meet are helps which bring them to salvation.
Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come. John 7:30.
They did not lack the will to do him harm, or even the zeal to do it. They also had the power. Why then with all this were they helpless, as if they were bound hand and foot? The Evangelist answers that it was because Christ’s hour had not come, by which he means that God’s own protection guarded him against their fury and violence. And at the same time, he faces and removes the offense of the cross; because when we hear that Christ was subjected to death not by the will of men but as destined for such a sacrifice by the decree of the Father, we are no longer disquieted. And from this we may infer a general truth, that as we live day by day the hour of our death is in God’s hand. It is hard to believe [but true] that, although subject to so many accidents, exposed to evil in the hands of so many lurking men and beasts, and liable to so many diseases, we are nevertheless safe from all peril until God is ready to call us. Our part is to struggle against our own lack of trust. First, let us hold on to the truth here taught us, then next to the goal set before us, and finally to the exhortation which follows: Casting all our cares on God, let each one of us fulfill his vocation without allowing fear to turn him aside from his duty. And let no man go beyond God’s purpose for him. For, it is not right that a man trust the providence of God apart from God’s own will for him.
But when Phineas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand. Num. 25:7. (The Harmony.)
Phineas’ courage is celebrated because, while others did nothing, he was fired with holy zeal and leaped forward to inflict punishment. The inaction of the others is tacitly condemned, although their tears merit praise. But since their grief almost stupefied them, their virtue was not free from fault. Certainly, when the unbridled license of the people burst forth like waves from a stormy sea, it is not strange that the courage 285of good men broke down, or lay prostrate and feeble; and the more glorious was the zeal of Phineas who did not hesitate to oppose so many wicked criminals, raging with their own passions.
Someone may object that he exceeded the bounds of his vocation because he snatched a sword to slay, although he was not armed by God. But the answer to this is ready. Vocation is not always restricted to its ordinary duties, because God sometimes gives his servants new and unusual roles. As priest, Phineas was not charged with punishing crime; but he was especially called to do so by God’s instigation and he was under the command of the Holy Spirit.
This incident ought not to be taken as an example from which to draw a general rule. God is free to appoint his servants to whatever special tasks he pleases; and his approval is enough evidence that he himself has called. We conclude without question that Phineas was under divine direction, because God declared that the deed pleased him. And this is repeated in Ps. 106:31. But if anyone in a private capacity begins in an excess of zeal to punish a like crime, he cannot plead Phineas’ example unless he is truly convinced of his own heavenly commission.
We must not forget Christ’s answer when his disciples wished to follow the example of Elijah and call down fire on those who had not received them: You know not of what spirit you are (Luke 9:55). If our zeal is to be approved by God, it must be tempered with spiritual wisdom and ruled by God’s authority. The Holy Spirit must lead us and dictate to us what is right.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Matt. 6:9–10.
When we set out to pray, there are two things we must seek above all: first, that we may have access to God, and secondly, that we may rest in him with full and solid confidence, knowing his Fatherly love for us and his unbounded kindness; that he is ready to hear our prayers; and above all that he is spontaneously ready to come to our help. Christ calls him Father, and with this title, gives us sufficient ground for confidence in him. But because we trust God only in part because of his goodness, he next commends to us God’s power. When Scripture says that God is in heaven, it means that God is sovereign over all things; that he holds the world and all that is in it in his hand; that his power sustains all and his providence orders all. So, David 286himself says in Ps. 2:4, “He who dwells in the heavens, shall laugh at them” ; and in Ps. 115:3, “Our God is in heaven; whatever he wills, he does.”
In other words, when God is said to be in heaven, it is not meant that he is inside it; we must remember the words “Heaven of heavens do not contain him” (2 Chron. 2:6). This expression sets him apart from all creatures, and warns us that no mean and earthy thoughts about him should enter our minds, because he is higher than the whole world. So, Christ, above all, wanted to establish the disciples’ trust in God’s goodness and power; because unless our prayers are rooted in such faith, they do us no good. What stupidity and mad arrogance it would be to invoke God as Father, unless we are accepted as his children in the Body of Christ! It follows that we pray rightly only when we come to God trusting in the Mediator.
Hallowed be thy name. Now what I have said becomes clearer. In the first three petitions we are bid to subordinate our self-regard to the glory of God; not because the glory of God has no bearing upon our salvation, but because the majesty of God deserves to come before all other considerations. It is well for us that God reigns and that all honor is his due; for no man is aflame with the desire to glorify God, unless, forgetting himself, he elevates his mind to seek God who is high and lofty. Moreover, there is a close connection and likeness among these three petitions. Where God’s name is hallowed, there is his Kingdom; and the principal mark of his Kingdom is that his will be done. When we consider how cold we are, and how slow to choose the greatest goods for which we are here commanded to pray, we see how needful and useful it is that these three petitions be thus distinguished one from another.
To hallow the name of God is simply to honor him as is his due, so that men shall not think or speak of him without the highest homage. The opposite of to hallow is to profane, which happens when men forget his majesty, or fail to render him the reverence and honor he deserves as God. Now, the glory by which God is hallowed [among men] emanates from and depends upon men’s common knowledge of his wisdom, goodness, righteousness, power, and every other excellency of God. Of course, God is never without his holiness; but men do obscure it with their ill will and wickedness, and violate and corrupt it with their unholy contempt. The sum of this petition, therefore, is that the glory of God may shine in the world and be duly celebrated among men. Religion is most alive and vigorous when men confess 287that all God’s works are right and worthy of praise, full of wisdom and altogether righteous. For, so it is that men embrace his Word with the obedience of faith, and approve of his pleasure and his works. But the faith by which we yield to God’s Word is as it were our signature by which we acknowledge that God is faithful (John 3:33); whereas, unbelief and contempt of his Word is the greatest possible dishonor to God.
These words spoke Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven. . . . John 17:1.
John’s present account of how Christ prayed with eyes raised to heaven indicates his uncommon zeal and ardor. With this gesture, Christ testified that in spirit he was in heaven rather than on earth; that, having left the society of men behind, he was in communion with God. He looked up to heaven, not because God, who fills heaven and earth, is in it, but because it reveals his majesty in a special way. Besides, by asking us to raise our eyes to heaven, he exalts the Deity of God above all his creatures. For this same reason, it is well to raise our hands up while we pray. Human nature being lazy and slow, and the mind being drawn downward toward earthly things, men need such goadings, rather such chariots, that they may rise to God. Besides, if we would imitate Christ, let us beware that there be no more in outward act than in the mind. Let the inner disposition move the eyes, hands, tongue, and all we have.
The behavior of the publican who cast his eyes down does not contradict [the action of Christ spoken of in] this verse. Even though he was cast down with shame over his sins, his humility did not prevent him from being confident as he prayed for forgiveness. It was proper of Christ to pray in a different way, because he had no reason for shame. David, himself, prayed with eyes up, or down, according to the occasion.288
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