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a Bible passage

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Therefore I will hedge up her way with thorns;

and I will build a wall against her,

so that she cannot find her paths.


She shall pursue her lovers,

but not overtake them;

and she shall seek them,

but shall not find them.

Then she shall say, “I will go

and return to my first husband,

for it was better with me then than now.”

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The Prophet here pursues the subject we touched upon yesterday; for he shows how necessary chastisement is, when people felicitate themselves in their vices. And God, when he sees that men confess not immediately their sins, defends as it were his own cause, as one pleading before a judge. In a word, God here shows that he could not do otherwise than punish so great an obstinacy in the people, as there appeared no other remedy.

Therefore, he says, behold I — There is a special meaning in these words; for God testifies that he becomes the avenger of impieties, when people are brought into straits; as though he said, “Though the Israelites are not ready to confess that they suffer justly, yet I now declare that to punish them will be my work, when they shall be deprived of their pleasures, and when the occasion of their pride shall be removed from them.” And he intimates by the metaphorical words he uses, that he would so deal with them, as to keep the people from wandering, as they had done hitherto, after their idols; but he retains the similitude of a harlot. Now when an unchaste wife goes after her paramours, the husband must either connive at her, or be not aware of her base conduct. However this may be, wives cannot thus violate the marriage-vow, except they are set at liberty by their husbands. But when a husband understands that his wife plays the wanton, he watches her more closely, notices all her ways day and night. God now takes up this comparison, I will close up, he says, her way with thorns, and surround her with a mound, that there may be no way of access open to adulterers.

But by this simile the Prophet means that the people would be reduced to such straits, that they might not lasciviate, as they had done, in their superstitions; for while the Israelites enjoyed prosperity, they thought everything lawful for them; hence their security, and hence their contempt of the word of the Lord. By hedge, then, and by thorns, God means those adversities by which he restrains the ungodly, so that they may cease to flatter themselves, and may not thoughtlessly follow, as they were before wont to do, their own superstitions. She shall not then find her ways; that is, “I will constrain them so to groan under the burden of evils, that they shall no longer, as they have hitherto done, allow loose reins to themselves.” It afterwards follows —

God now shows what takes place when he chastises hardened and rebellious people with heavy punishment. In the first clause he shows that perverseness will cleave so completely to their hearts, that they will not immediately return to a sound mind. She will follow her lovers, he says, and seek them. Here the Prophet tells us, that though the Israelites should be chastised by frequent punishments, they would yet continue in their obstinacy. It hence appears how hard a neck they had, and how uncircumcised in heart they were; and such did the Prophets, as well as Moses, represent them to be. And we hence learn, that had they been only moderately corrected, it would not have been sufficient for their amendment. Amazing, indeed, was their obstinacy; for God had divorced them, and then led them into great straits; and yet they went on in their course, as though they were utterly stupid and destitute of every feeling. Is it not a prodigious madness, when men run on so obstinately, even when God sets his hand so strongly against them? Such, however, is represented to have been the obstinacy of the Israelites.

The meaning then is, that when they were subdued, God would not immediately soften their hearts. Then God, though he bruised, did not yet reform them; for their hardness was so great, that they could not be turned immediately to a docile state of mind; but, on the contrary, they followed their lovers. By the word, follow, is expressed that mad zeal which possesses idolaters; for as we see, they are like men who are frantic. As then the superstitious know no bounds, nor any moderation, but a mad zeal at times lays hold on them, the Prophet says She will follow her lovers and shall not overtake them. What does the latter clause mean? That God will frustrate the hope of the ungodly, that they may know that they in vain worship false gods and follow with avidity absurd superstitions. They will seek them, he says, and shall not find them. He ever speaks of the people under the character of a shameless and unfaithful wife.

We then see what the Prophet intended to do, — to vindicate God from every blame, that men might not raise a clamour, as though he dealt unkindly with them. He shows that God, even when so rigid, produces hardly any effect; for the ungodly in their perverseness struggle against his scourges, and suffer not themselves to be brought immediately into due order.

But in the second clause the Prophet adds, that some benefit would at length arise, that though idolaters abused God’s goodness, and even hardened themselves against his rods, yet this would not be perpetually the case; for the Lord would grant better success. Hence it follows, She will then say, I will go and return to my former husband. Here the Prophet shows more clearly a hope of pardon, inasmuch as he speaks of the people’s repentance; for men, we know, repent not without benefit, as God is ever ready to receive them when they return to him in genuine sorrow. Then the Prophet here avowedly speaks of the repentance of the people, that the Israelites might hence know, that corrections, which men naturally ever dislike, would be profitable to them. It is our wish that God should always favour us, and that we should be nourished kindly and tenderly in his bosom; but in the meantime, he cannot allure us to himself, by whatever means he may try to do so: and hence it is, that chastisements are bitter to us, and our flesh immediately murmurs. When the Lord raises his finger, before he strikes us, we instantly groan and become angry, and even roar against him: in short, men can never be brought willingly to offer themselves to be chastised by God. Hence the Prophet now shows, that the severity of God is profitable to us; for it drives us at length to repentance: in a word, he commends the favour of God in his very severity, that we may know that he furthers our salvation, even when he seems to treat us most unkindly. She will then say, I will go and return to my former husband.

But we must observe, that when men really repent, they do so through the special influence of the Spirit; for they would otherwise perpetually remain in that perverseness of which we have spoken. Were God for a hundred years continually to chastise perverse men, they would not yet change their disposition; and true is that common saying, “The wicked are sooner broken than reformed.” But when men, after many admonitions, begin to be wise, this change comes through the Spirit of God. We may also learn from this passage what true repentance is; that is, when he who has sinned not only confesses himself to be guilty, and owns himself worthy of punishment, but is also displeased with himself, and then with sincere desire turns to God. Many, we see, are ready enough, and disposed, to confess their sins, and yet go on in the same course. But the Prophet shows here that true repentance is something very different, “I will go and return”, he says. Repentance then consists (as they say) in the act itself; that is, repentance produces a reforming change in man, so that he reconciles himself to God, whom he had forsaken.

I will then go and return to my former husband. Why? Because better was it with me then than now. The Prophet again confirms what I lately said, — that the faithful are not made wise, except they are well chastised; for the Prophet speaks not here of the reprobate, but of the remnant seed. The people of Israel were to be exterminated; but the Prophet now declares that there would be some remaining who would at last receive benefit from God’s chastisements. Since then we must understand the Prophet as speaking of the elect, we may hence readily conclude, that chastisements are necessary for us; for we grow torpid in our vices, as long as God spares us. Unless, then it appears that God is really displeased with us, it will never come to our minds, that we ought to repent. Let us now proceed —