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Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
Exhortation to Repentance. (b. c. 720.)
12 Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning: 13 And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil. 14 Who knoweth if he will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him; even a meat offering and a drink offering unto the Lord your God? 15 Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: 16 Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet. 17 Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, Where is their God?
We have here an earnest exhortation to repentance, inferred from that desolating judgment described and threatened in the foregoing verses: Therefore now turn you to the Lord. 1. "Thus you must answer the end and intention of the judgment; for it was sent for this end, to convince you of your sins, to humble you for them, to reduce you to your right minds and to your allegiance." God brings us into straits, that he may bring us to repentance and so bring us to himself. 2. "Thus you may stay the progress of the judgment. Things are bad with you, but thus you may prevent their growing worse; nay, if you take this course, they will soon grow better." Here is a gracious invitation,
I. To a personal repentance, exercised in the soul, every family apart, and their wives apart, Zech. xii. 12. When the judgments of God are abroad, each person is concerned to contribute his quota to the common supplications, having contributed to the common guilt. Every one must mend one and mourn for one, and then we should all be mended and all found among God's mourners. Observe,
1. What we are here called to, which will teach us what it is to repent, for it is the same that the Lord our God still requires of us, we having all made work for repentance. (1.) We must be truly humbled for our sins, must be sorry we have by sin offended God, and ashamed we have by sin wronged ourselves, both wronged our judgments and wronged our interests. There must be outward expressions of sorrow and shame, fasting, and weeping, and mourning; tears for the sin that procured it. But what will the outward expressions of sorrow avail if the inward impressions be not agreeable, and not only accompany them, but be the root and spring of them, and give rise to them? And therefore it follows, Rend your heart, and not your garments; not but that, according to the custom of that age, it was proper for them to rend their garments, in token of great grief for their sins and a holy indignation against themselves for their folly; but, "Rest not in the doing of that, as if that were sufficient, but be more in care to accommodate your spirits than to accommodate your dress to a day of fasting and humiliation; nay, rend not your garments at all, unless withal you rend your hearts, for the sign without the thing signified is but a jest and a mockery, and an affront to God." Rending the heart is that which God looks for and requires; that is the broken and contrite heart which he will not despise, Ps. li. 17. When we are greatly grieved in soul for sin, so that it even cuts us to the heart to think how we have dishonoured God and disparaged ourselves by it, when we conceive an aversion to sin, and earnestly desire and endeavor to get clear of the principles of it and never to return to the practice of it, then we rend our hearts for it, and then will God rend the heavens and come down to us with mercy. (2.) We must be thoroughly converted to our God, and come home to him when we fall out with sin. Turn you even to me, said the Lord (v. 12), and again (v. 13), Turn unto the Lord your God. Our fasting and weeping are worth nothing if we do not with them turn to God as our God. When we are fully convinced that it is our duty and interest to keep in with him, and are heartily sorry we have ever turned the back upon him, and thereupon, by a firm and fixed resolution, make his glory our end, his will our rule, and his favour our felicity, then we return to the Lord our God, and this we are all commanded and invited to do, and to do it quickly.
2. What arguments are here used to persuade this people thus to turn to the Lord, and to turn to him with all their hearts. When the heart is rent for sin, and rent from it, then it is prepared to turn entirely to God, and to be devoted entirely to him, and he will have it all or none. Now, to bring ourselves to this, let us consider, (1.) We are sure that he is, in general, a good God. We must turn to the Lord our God, not only because he has been just and righteous in punishing us for our sins, the fear of which should drive us to him, but because he is gracious and merciful, in receiving upon us our repentance, the hope of which should draw us to him. He is gracious and merciful, delights not in the death of sinners, but desires that they may turn and live. He is slow to anger against those that offend him, but of great kindness towards those that desire to please him. These very expressions are used in God's proclamation of his name when he caused his goodness, and with it all his glory, to pass before Moses, Exod. xxxiv. 6, 7. He repents him of the evil, not that he changes his mind, but, when the sinner's mind is changed, God's way towards him is changed; the sentence is reversed, and the curse of the law is taken off. Note, That is genuine, ingenuous, and evangelical repentance, which arises from a firm belief of the mercy of God, which we have sinned against, and yet are not in despair. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The goodness of God, if it be rightly understood, instead of emboldening us to go on in sin, will be the most powerful inducement to repentance, Ps. cxxx. 4. The act of indemnity brings those to God whom the act of attainder frightened from him. (2.) We have reason to hope that he will, upon our repentance, give us that good which by sin we have forfeited and deprived ourselves of (v. 14), that he will return and repent, that he will not proceed against us as he has done, but will act in favour of us. Therefore let us repent of our sins against him, and return to him in a way of duty, because then we may hope that he will repent of his judgments against us and return to us in a way of mercy. Now observe, [1.] The manner of expectation is very humble and modest: Who knows if he will? Some think it is expressed thus doubtfully to check the presumption and security of the people, and to quicken them to a holy carefulness and liveliness in their repentance, as Josh. xxiv. 19. Or, rather, it is expressed doubtfully because it is the removal of a temporal judgment that they here promise themselves, of which we cannot be so confident as we can that, in general, God is gracious and merciful. There is no question at all to be made but that if we truly repent of our sins God will forgive them, and be reconciled to us; but whether he will remove this or the other affliction which we are under may well be questioned, and yet the probability of it should encourage us to repent. Promises of temporal good things are often made with a peradventure. It may be, you shall be hid, Zeph. ii. 3. David's sin is pardoned, and yet the child shall die, and, when David prayed for its life, he said, as here, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me in this matter likewise? 2 Sam. xii. 22. The Ninevites repented and reformed upon such a consideration as this, Jonah iii. 9. [2.] The matter of expectation is very pious. They hope God will return and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, not as if he were about to go from them, and they could be content with any blessing in lieu of his presence, but behind him, that is, "After he has ceased his controversy with us, he will bestow a blessing upon us;" and what is it? It is a meat-offering and a drink-offering to the Lord our God. The fruits of the earth are called a blessing (Isa. xlv. 8) because they depend upon God's blessing and are necessary blessings to us. They had been deprived of these, and that which grieved them most while they were so was that God's altar was deprived of its offerings and God's priests of their maintenance; that therefore which they comfort themselves with the prospect of in their return of plenty is that then there shall be meat-offerings and drink-offerings in abundance brought to God's altar, which they more desired than to see the wonted abundance of meat and drink brought to their own tables. Thus when Hezekiah was in hopes that he should recover of his sickness he asked, What is the sign that I shall go up, not to the thrones of judgment, or to the councilboard, but to the house of the Lord? Isa. xxxviii. 22. Note, The plentiful enjoyment of God's ordinances in their power and purity is the most valuable instance of a nation's prosperity and the greatest blessing that can be desired. If God give the blessing of meat-offering and the drink-offering, that will bring along with it other blessings, will sanctify them, sweeten them, and secure them.
II. They are here called to a public national repentance, to be exercised in the solemn assembly, as a national act, for the glory of God and the excitement of one another, and that the neighbouring nations might know and observe what it was that qualified them for God's gracious returns in mercy to them, which they would be the admiring witnesses of. Let us see here, 1. How the congregation must be called together, v. 15, 16. The trumpet was blown (v. 1), to sound an alarm of war; but now it must be blown in order to a treaty of peace. God is willing to show mercy to his people if he do but find them in a frame fit for it; and therefore, Call them together; sanctify a fast. By the law many annual feasts were appointed, but only one day in the year was to be observed as a fast, the day of atonement, a day to afflict the soul; and, if they had kept close to God and their duty, there would have been no occasion to observe any more; but now that they had by sin brought the judgments of God upon them they are often called to fasting. What was said ch. i. 14 is here repeated: "Call a solemn assembly; gather the people (press them to come together upon this errand); sanctify the congregation; appoint a time for solemn preparation beforehand and put them in mind to prepare themselves. Let not the greatest be excused, but assemble the elders, the judges and magistrates. Let not the meanest be passed by, but gather the children, and those that suck the breasts." It is good to bring little children, as soon as they are capable of understanding any thing, to religious assemblies, that they may be trained up betimes in the way wherein they should go; but these were brought even when they were at the breast and were kept fasting, that by their cries for the breast the hearts of the parents might be moved to repent of sin, which God might justly so visit upon their children that the tongue of the sucking child might cleave to the roof of his mouth (Lam. iv. 4), and that on them God might have compassion, as he had on the infants of Nineveh, Jonah iv. 11. New-married people must not be exempted: Let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber and the bride out of her closet; let them not take state upon them as usual, not put on their ornaments, nor indulge themselves in mirth, but address themselves to the duties of the public fast with as much gravity and sadness as any of their neighbours. Note, Private joys must always give way to public sorrows, both those for affliction and those for sin. 2. How the work of the day must be carried on, v. 17. (1.) The priests, the Lord's ministers, must preside in the congregation, and be God's mouth to the people, and theirs to God; who should stand in the gap to turn away the wrath of God but those whose business it was to make intercession upon ordinary occasions? (2.) They must officiate between the porch and the altar. There they used to attend about the sacrifices, and therefore now that they have no sacrifices to offer, or next to none, there they must offer up spiritual sacrifices. There the people must see them weeping and wrestling, like their father Jacob, and be helped into the same devout frame. Ministers must themselves be affected with those things wherewith they desire to affect others. It was between the porch and the altar that Zechariah the son of Jehoiada was put to death for his faithfulness; that precious blood God would require at their hands, and therefore, to turn away the judgment threatened for it, there they must weep. (3.) They must pray. Words here are put into their mouths, which they might in their prayers enlarge upon. Their petition must be, Spare thy people, O Lord! God's people, when they are in distress, can expect no relief against God's justice but what comes from his mercy. They cannot say, Lord, right us, but, Lord, spare us. We deserve the correction; we need it; but, Lord, mitigate it. The sinner's supplication is, Spare us, good Lord. Their plea must be taken from the relation wherein they stand to God ("They are thy people, and thy heritage, therefore have compassion on them"), but especially from the concern of God's glory in their trouble—"Lord, give not thy heritage to reproach, to the reproach of famine; let not the land of Canaan, that has so long been celebrated as the glory of all lands, now be made the scorn of all lands; let not the heathen rule over them, as they will easily do when thy heritage is thus impoverished and disabled to subsist. Let not the heathen make them a proverb, or a by-word" (so some read it); "let it never be said, As poor and beggarly as an Israelite." Note, The maintaining of the credit of the nation among its neighbours is a blessing to be desired and prayed for by all that wish well to it. But that reproach of the church is especially to be dreaded and deprecated which reflects upon God: "Let them not say among the people, Where is their God—that God who has promised to help them, whom they have boasted so much of and put such a confidence in?" If God's heritage be destroyed, the neighbours will say, "God was either weak and could not relieve them or unkind and would not." Deut. xxxii. 37, Where are now their gods in whom they trusted? And Sennacherib thus triumphs over them. Where are they gods of Hamath and Arpad? But it must by no means be suffered that they should say of Israel, Where is their God? For we are sure that our God is in the heavens (Ps. cxv. 2, 3), is in his temple, Ps. xi. 4.