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Is he then to keep on emptying his net,
and destroying nations without mercy?
The Prophet's Plea; The Prophet's Complaint. (b. c. 600.)
12 Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One? we shall not die. O Lord, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction. 13 Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he? 14 And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them? 15 They take up all of them with the angle, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their drag: therefore they rejoice and are glad. 16 Therefore they sacrifice unto their net, and burn incense unto their drag; because by them their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous. 17 Shall they therefore empty their net, and not spare continually to slay the nations?
The prophet, having received of the Lord that which he was to deliver to the people, now turns to God, and again addresses himself to him for the ease of his own mind under the burden which he saw. And still he is full of complaints. If he look about him, he sees nothing but violence done by Israel; if he look before him, he sees nothing but violence done against Israel; and it is hard to say which is the more melancholy sight. His thoughts of both he pours out before the Lord. It is our duty to be affected both with the iniquities and with the calamities of the church of God and of the times and places wherein we live; but we must take heed lest we grow peevish in our resentments, and carry them too far, so as to entertain any hard thoughts of God, or lose the comfort of our communion with him. The world is bad, and always was so, and will be so; it is out of our power to mend it; but we are sure that God governs the world, and will bring glory to himself out of all, and therefore we must resolve to make the best of it, must be ourselves better, and long for the better world. The prospect of the prevalence of the Chaldeans drives the prophet to his knees, and he takes the liberty to plead with God concerning it. In his plea we may observe,
I. The truths which he lays down, which he resolves to abide by, and with which he endeavours to comfort himself and his friends, under the growing threatening power of the Chaldeans; and they will furnish us with pleasing considerations for our support in the like case.
1. However it be, yet God is the Lord our God, and our Holy One. The victorious Chaldeans impute their power to their idols, but we are taught to tell them that the God of Israel is the true God, the living God, Jer. x. 10, 11. (1.) He is Jehovah, the fountain of all being, power, and perfection. Our rock is not as theirs. (2.) "He is my God." He speaks in the people's name; every Israelite may say, "He is mine. Though we are thus sore broken, and all this has come upon us, yet have we not forgotten the name of our God, nor quitted our relation to him, yet have we not disowned him, nor hath he disowned us, Ps. xliv. 17. We are an offending people; he is an offended God; yet he is ours, and we will not entertain any hard thoughts of him, nor of his service, for all this." (3.) "He is my Holy One." This intimates that the prophet loved God as a holy God, loved him for the sake of his holiness. "He is mine because he is a Holy One; and therefore he will be my sanctifier and my Saviour, because he is my Holy One. Men are unholy, but my God is holy."
2. Our God is from everlasting. This he pleads with him: Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God? It is matter of great and continual comfort to God's people, under the troubles of this present life, that their God is from everlasting. This intimates, (1.) The eternity of his nature; if he is from everlasting, he will be to everlasting, and we must have recourse to this first principle, when things seen, which are temporal, are discouraging, that we have hope and help sufficient in a god that is not seen, that is eternal. "Art thou not from everlasting, and then wilt thou not make bare thy everlasting arm, in pursuance of thy everlasting counsels, to make unto thyself an everlasting name?" (2.) The antiquity of his covenant: "Art thou not from of old, a God in covenant with thy people" (so some understand it), "and hast thou not done great things for them in the days of old, which we have heard with our ears, and which our fathers have told us of; and art thou not the same God still that thou ever wast? Thou art God, and changest not."
3. While the world stands God will have a church in it. Thou art from everlasting, and then we shall not die. The Israel of God shall not be extirpated, nor the name of Israel blotted out, though it may sometimes seem to be very near it; like the apostles (2 Cor. vi. 9), chastened, and not killed; chastened sorely, but not delivered over to death, Ps. cxviii. 18. See how the prophet infers the perpetuity of the church from the eternity of God; for Christ has said, Because I live, and therefore as long as I live, you shall live also, John xiv. 19. He is the rock on which the church is so firmly built that the gates of hell shall not, cannot, prevail against it. We shall not die.
4. Whatever the enemies of the church may do against her, it is according to the counsel of God, and is designed and directed for wise and holy ends: Thou hast ordained them; thou hast established them. It was God that gave the Chaldeans their power, made them a formidable people, and in his counsel determined what they should do, nor had they any power against his Israel but what was given them from above. He gave them their commission to take the spoil and to take the prey, Isa. x. 6. Herein God appears a mighty God, that the power of mighty men is derived from him, depends upon him, and is under his check; he says concerning it, Hitherto shall it come, and no further. Those whom God ordains shall do no more than what God has ordained, which is a great comfort to God's suffering people. Men are God's hand, the rod in his hand, Ps. xvii. 14. And he has ordained them for judgment, and for correction. God's people need correction, and deserve it; they must expect it; they shall have it; when wicked men are let loose against them, it is not for their destruction, that they may be ruined, but for their correction, that they may be reformed; they are not intended for a sword, to cut them off, but for a rod, to drive out the foolishness that is found in their hearts, though they mean not so, neither does their heart think so, Isa. x. 7. Note, It is matter of great comfort to us, in reference to the troubles and afflictions of the church, that, whatever mischief men design to them, God designs to bring good out of them, and we are sure that his counsel shall stand.
5. Though the wickedness of the wicked may prosper for a while, yet God is a holy God, and does not approve of that wickedness (v. 13): Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil. The prophet, observing how very vicious and impious the Chaldeans were, and yet what great success they had against God's Israel, found a temptation arising from it to say that it was vain to serve God, and that it was indifferent to him what men were. But he soon suppresses the thought, by having recourse to his first principle, That God is not, that he cannot be, the author or patron of sin; as he cannot do iniquity himself, so he is of purer eyes than to behold it with any allowance or approbation; no, it is that abominable thing which the Lord hates. He sees all the sin that is committed in the world, and it is an offence to him, it is odious in his eyes, and those that commit it are thereby made obnoxious to his justice. There is in the nature of God an antipathy to those dispositions and practices that are contrary to his holy law; and, though an expedient is happily found out for his being reconciled to sinners, yet he never will, nor can, be reconciled to sin. And this principle we must resolve to abide by, though the dispensations of his providence may for a time, and in some instances, seem to be inconsistent with it. Note, God's connivance at sin must never be interpreted into a giving countenance to it; for he is not a God that has pleasure in wickedness, Ps. v. 4, 5. The iniquity which, it is here said, God does not look upon, may be meant especially of the mischief done to God's people by their persecutors; though God sees cause to permit it, yet he does not approve of it; so it agrees with that of Balaam (Num. xxiii. 21), He has not be held iniquity against Jacob, nor seen, with allowance, perverseness against Israel, which is very comfortable to the people of God, in their afflictions by the rage of men, that they cannot infer God's anger from it; though the instruments of their trouble hate them, it does not therefore follow that God does; nay, he loves them, and it is in love that he corrects them.
II. The grievances he complains of, and finds hard to reconcile with these truths: "Since we are sure that thou art a holy God, why have atheists temptation given them to question whether thou art so or no? Wherefore lookest thou upon the Chaldeans that deal treacherously with thy people, and givest them success in their attempts upon us? Why dost thou suffer thy sworn enemies, who blaspheme thy name, to deal thus cruelly, thus perfidiously, with thy sworn subjects, who desire to fear thy name? What shall we say to this?" This was a temptation to Job (ch. xxi. 7; xxiv. 1), to David (Ps. lxxiii. 2, 3), to Jeremiah, ch. xii. 1, 2. 1. That God permitted sin, and was patient with the sinners. He looked upon them; he saw all their wicked doings and designs, and did not restrain nor punish them, but suffered them to speed in their purposes, to go on and prosper, and to carry all before them. Nay, his looking upon them intimates that he not only gave them no check or rebuke, but that he gave them encouragement and assistance, as if he smiled upon them and favoured them. He held his tongue when they went on in their wicked courses, said nothing against them, gave no orders to stop them. These things thou hast done, and I kept silence. 2. That his patience was abused, and, because sentence against these evil works and workers was not executed speedily, therefore their hearts were the more fully set in them to do evil. (1.) They were false and deceitful, and there was no credit to be given them, nor any confidence to be put in them. They deal treacherously; under colour of peace and friendship, they prosecute and execute the most mischievous designs, and make no conscience of their word in any thing. (2.) They hated and persecuted men because they were better than themselves, as Cain hated Abel because his own works were evil and his brother's righteous. The wicked devours the man that is more righteous than he, for that very reason, because he shames him; they have an ill will to the image of God, and therefore devour good men, because they bear that image. Though many of the Jews were as bad as the Chaldeans themselves, and worse, yet there were those among them that were much more righteous, and yet were devoured by them. (3.) They made no more of killing men that of catching fish. The prophet complains that, Providence having delivered up the weaker to be prey to the stronger, they were, in effect, made as the fishes of the sea, v. 14. So they had been among themselves, preying upon one another as the greater fishes do upon the less (v. 3), and they were made so to the common enemy. They were as the creeping things, or swimming things (for the word is used for fish, Gen. i. 20), that have no ruler over them, either to restrain them from devouring one another or to protect them from being devoured by their enemies. They are given up to the Chaldeans as fish to the fishermen. Those proud oppressors make no conscience of killing them, any more than men do of pulling fish out of the water, so small account do they make of human lives. They make no difficulty of killing them, but do it with as much ease as men catch fish, that make no resistance, but are unguarded and unarmed, and it is rather a pastime than any pains to take them. They make no distinction among them, but all is fish that comes to their net; and they reckon every thing their own that they can lay their hands on. They have various ways of spoiling and destroying, as men have of taking fish. Some they take up with the angle (v. 15), one by one; others they catch in shoals, and by wholesale, in their net, and gather them in their drag, their enclosing net. Such variety of methods have they to destroy those by whom they hope to enrich themselves. (4.) They gloried in what they got, and pleased themselves with it, though it was got dishonestly: Their portion is fat, and their meat plenteous; they prosper in their oppression and fraud; they have a great deal, and it is of the best; their land is good, and they have abundance of it. And therefore, [1.] They have great complacency in themselves, and are very pleasant; they live merrily (v. 15): Therefore they rejoice and are glad, because their wealth is great, and their projects succeed for the increase of it, Job xxxi. 25. Soul, take thy ease, Luke xii. 19. [2.] They have a great conceit of themselves, and are great admirers of their own ingenuity and management: They sacrifice to their own net, and burn incense to their own drag; they applaud themselves for having got so much money, though ever so dishonestly. Note, There is a proneness in us to take the glory of our outward prosperity to ourselves, and to say, My might, and the power of my hands, have gotten me this wealth, Deut. viii. 17. This is idolizing ourselves, sacrificing to the dragnet, because it is our own, which is as absurd a piece of idolatry as sacrificing to Neptune or Dagon. That which makes them adore their net thus is because by it their portion is fat. Those that make a god of their money will make a god of their drag-net, if they can but get money by it.
III. The prophet, in the close, humbly expresses his hope that God will not suffer these destroyers of mankind always to go on and prosper thus, and expostulates with God concerning it (v. 17): "Shall they therefore empty their net? Shall they enrich themselves, and fill their own vessels, with that which they have by violence and oppression taken away from their neighbours? Shall they empty their net of what they have caught, that they may cast it into the sea again, to catch more? And wilt thou suffer them to proceed in this wicked course? Shall they not spare continually to slay the nations? Must the numbers and wealth of nations be sacrificed to their net? As if it were a small thing to rob men of their estates, shall they rob God of his glory? Is not God the king of nations, and will he not assert their injured rights? Is he not jealous for his own honour, and will he not maintain that?" The prophet lodges the matter in God's hand, and leaves it with him, as the psalmist does. Ps. lxxiv. 22, Arise, O God! Plead thy own cause.