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The Prophet is now taught how difficult and dangerous an office he has now to undertake. God had previously laid it down as a law that he should utter nothing of himself: now he adds, that, the watchman is so set over the people that he must render an account of the diligence with which he goes through his watches. It is just as if it had been said that souls were committed to his care and fidelity, so that if they should perish he must undergo punishment before God. But it is better to explain the words — if when I say to the impious, “Thou shalt surely die,” and thou dost not admonish him, and he perish, then from thee will I require his blood In the first place, God confirms what we saw yesterday, that it is not. permitted to any mortal to condemn or absolve at his own discretion. When, therefore, God sends forth his servants, he does not resign that power, for still the supreme authority remains with himself: because there is one lawgiver, as James says, who can save and destroy. (James 4:12; Ezekiel 13:19.) And elsewhere Ezekiel reproves the false prophets, because they keep alive the souls which were dying, and slay the souls not devoted to death. For we know that proud men always tyrannize over the conscience when they take upon themselves the prophetic name, and substitute themselves in the place of God, as their practice is in the Papacy. For the Pope indeed pretends that he does nothing in his own proper name, but meanwhile he claims the prerogative of God, and sits in the temple as an idol, because nothing is more peculiar to God than ruling our minds with celestial doctrine; but the Papists themselves heap on their own comments, and so it comes to pass that they miserably distort and drown their own consciences even to utter destruction. They enact laws according to their pleasure, then they always add the condition, that they must be kept under pain of eternal damnation, or of mortal sin, as they say. This place, then, must be diligently marked, where God claims to himself alone the power and right of condemning: if, says he, when I say to the impious. From this we infer, that all those are sacrilegious who bind consciences with their own laws, decrees, and enactments, enforcing one thing and forbidding another, because they take away from God what here he wishes to be assigned to him, for it is his office alone to pronounce sentence, for Prophets are only his heralds.
Meanwhile those fanatics are to be rejected, who, under pretext of this place, wish to give license to sin, and assert there is no difference between good and evil, because it is not our duty to condemn. For, properly speaking, we do not assume anything to ourselves when we recite what has proceeded from the mouth of God. God condemns adulterers, thieves, drunkards, murderers, enviers, slanderers, oppressors: if one inveigh against an adulterer, another a thief, a third a drunkard, shall we say that they take upon themselves more than they ought? By no means, because they do not pronounce of themselves as we have said, but God has said it, and they are but witnesses and messengers of his sentence. Yet this moderation must be maintained, not to condemn any one through moroseness, since many immediately abominate whatever displeases them, and cannot be induced to use diligent inquiry. Inquiry, therefore, should precede our sentences; but when God has spoken, then we must follow the rule which was given to the Prophet, if thou hast not admonished him, and spoken for his admonition Here the character which was imposed upon Ezekiel is referred to: for the same duty does not devolve upon private individuals who do not bear the prophetic name. For we must remark that this is not a general declaration which concerns all men at large, but it concerns a Prophet who had already been called to be a watchman: for unless those who sustain such a burden admonish mankind, no excuse remains for them but the necessity of sending an account to God for those who are lost. And the repetition shows that this ought not to be done as a matter of course, but that Prophets ought to be anxious and even zealous in recalling sinners. This clause was clear enough: if thou dost not admonish the wicked after I have spoken: but it is added, and hast not spoken for his admonition This sentence seems to be repeated in vain, but God signifies that. unless the Prophet admonishes sinners, he is not absolved, because he spoke once in passing and uttered but a single word. We should remember that sinners ought to be continually reproved that they may return to the right way. And this is the tendency of Paul’s doctrine to Timothy:
“be instant in season and out of season.” (2 Timothy 4:2.)
For if it had been sufficient to reprove sinners mildly, and afterwards to spare them, Paul would have been content with that courtesy, but he says, we must be urgent on every occasion. The minister of the Church then must not cease to repeat these admonitions, as Paul says elsewhere to the Philippians —
“I am not weary of repeating the same things to you.”
And we know what he professes in the Acts. (Acts 20:31.) I have not ceased day and night, publicly and privately, to admonish each of you. That perseverance then which Paul shows that he used is here enjoined on all the Prophets and servants of God.
He says, to urge him to turn from his evil way, that is, to be cautious; as it was said yesterday, זהר, zeher, means to be cautious; here it is taken actively — unless thou hast spoken, that thou mayest teach him to be cautious, or to return from his evil way Here it may be asked, why does God touch only on one side of the teaching, and omit the chief point? For why was the law given? and why were Prophets called forth, unless to collect the people for God? Here we must exercise the obedience of faith, since we know that God regards nothing as more important than uniting miserable men in the hope of eternal life. This is the chief end of the law and the gospel, that men being reconciled to God, may worship him as a Father. Chastisements, threats, and terrors follow afterwards, of which now there is only the mention; but we must consider the condition of the people, as we have already seen it; for at that time the prevalence of impiety, and contempt of God, and of all kinds of wickedness, was so great, that the Prophet could not address the people mildly and softly. Since, indeed, that passage of Paul must be remembered, (1 Corinthians 4:21,) what will ye? how shall I come to you? with a rod, or in the spirit of mildness? When he gives the Corinthians the choice, whether they wish him to come in a spirit of tenderness, or armed with a rod for their chastisement — and why? For when they were self-satisfied with their sins, Paul could not, according to his custom, treat them as sons, nor deal freely with them, but he was compelled to assume, as it were, another character, and to use pure austerity and rigor. Such, then, were the Israelites, and hence we cannot feel surprise that God should lay aside his pity, his promises of favor, and whatever is sweet and pleasant to men; for they were not in a fit state to hear the paternal voice of God, unless previously subdued; and this could not be done without violence, because of their exceeding perverseness.
Hence we must remark, that the more displeasing the Prophets’ embassy, the greater need they had of excitements; because, if the grace of God only is to be set before a people, and the hope of eternal life to be held out to them, since there is nothing in such teaching which greatly offends them, or embitters their feelings, hence it is easy to offer freely messages of this kind. But when men are to be summoned, or rather dragged, to the tribunal of God, when they are to be frightened by the fear of eternal death, when the minister, in the armory of God, as Paul says, (2 Corinthians 10:5-7,) brings his vengeance before mankind, because offense is thus stirred up, and this sometimes instigates men to fury, because, they cannot bear thus to be pressed home with the word of God; hence it is necessary that Prophets themselves should be animated, lest they fail, or even hesitate in their duty. Now, therefore, we understand why God speaks only of his own threats and terrors, for he mingles no taste of pity, because, in truth, the Israelites were not capable of profiting by any mildness, so that the Prophet would never have dared to discharge his duty so courageously unless this threat had been added. In other places we shall see the Prophet as God’s ambassador, for reconciling the miserable exiles to God; for he will bring forward many testimonies concerning the reign of Christ, and the restoration of the Church, and will herald the mercy and pardon of God; but before he can utter any message of grace, he must himself contend with the extreme obstinacy of the people. Hence it is, therefore, that God only can say, that the impious must be admonished, that they may return from their impiety
It is added, to give them life; and this may seem absurd, because all hope of repentance was taken away beforehand; they are a rebellious house and a bitter one, thou wilt not profit them. (Ezekiel 2:5, 6, 8.) But it now seems that the fruit of his labor is promised, when mention is made of the life of those who, when admonished, shall repent. But in the first place we must remember, that some individuals always are curable, even if the whole body of the people appears desperate. For God, when he previously said that all the Israelites were rebellious and intractable, referred to the body at large, but as he is accustomed to preserve some small seed, there were a few remaining in that people who might be converted by the Prophet’s labor. This is one point. Besides, we must remember, even if no success from labor appears, yet it ought to satisfy us, just as if we had succeeded better and according to our wishes. For example, suppose our duty to be with the impious multitude, where-ever we turn our eyes contempt of God meets us, and even such wickedness, that we seem to lose all our pains. But yet, whilst the sin of the people affords us only materials for despair, we ought, nevertheless, to pursue our course, just as if the seed sown were producing fruit. Although, therefore, Ezekiel had heard from God’s mouth that the people would be rebellious, yet he ought to spend his labors for God quite as much as if he either perceived or hoped for some good result. In the meantime, what I have touched upon must be borne in mind, namely, that God always has some seed as a remnant, although the people as a whole may be lapsed into impiety.
It is now added, the impious man shall die in his impiety, but I will require his blood at thy hand. God here says, that he had called his servant under this condition, that he must render an account if any one perished through his fault. This place, although I have lately touched upon the subject, shows how dangerous an office those sustain who are called to the duty of teaching. Nothing is more precious to God than souls which he has created after his own image, and of which he is both the Redeemer and Father. Since, therefore, our souls and their salvation are so dear to God, hence we infer, how anxiously Prophets and all pastors ought to discharge their duties; for it is just as if God were to commit souls to their care, under this condition of rendering an account of each. Nor is it sufficient to admonish one and another, for unless they had endeavored to recall all from destruction to life and salvation, we hear what God here pronounces. Hence, also, Paul uses this expression, woe is me if I preach not the gospel, for a necessity is laid upon me. (1 Corinthians 9:16.) In fine, that the Prophet may be roused to undertake his office, God here announces that certain penalties hang over him, unless he diligently endeavor to recall all wanderers into the way of salvation. But, because men think that their ignorance will prove a sufficient defense, this cavil is removed, because God says they shall perish, although they were not admonished. This exception is added advisedly, that men may not flatter themselves, and throw the blame upon their pastors, if they perish in error. Although, therefore, any one has not been admonished, yet he shall die, and although the pastor shall render an account of his negligence, and shall spare himself while doing so, yet he shall have no excuse before God. Now we perceive that negligence in Prophets and pastors is allied to perfidy, when they knowingly and willingly permit souls to perish through their own silence: meanwhile, it is not surprising if God adjudges to death those who are not admonished: for their conscience is a sufficient accuser, and however they may now defend their error and ignorance, it is certain that they perish of their own accord. Afterwards it follows —