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The Sins of the People; Encouragements to Repentance. (b. c. 400.)
7 Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return? 8 Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. 9 Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. 10 Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. 11 And I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground; neither shall your vine cast her fruit before the time in the field, saith the Lord of hosts. 12 And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the Lord of hosts.
We have here God's controversy with the men of that generation, for deserting his service and robbing him—wicked servants indeed, that not only run away from their Master, but run away with their Master's goods.
I. They had run away from their Master, and quitted the work he gave them to do (v. 7): You have gone away from my ordinances and have not kept them. The ordinances of God's worship were the business which as servants they must mind, the talents which they must trade with, and the trust which was committed to them to keep; but they went away from them, grew weary of them, and withdrew their neck from that yoke; they deviated from the rule that God had prescribed to them, and betrayed the trust lodged with them. They had revolted from God, not only in worship, but in conversation; they had not kept his ordinances. This disobedience they were chargeable with, and had been guilty of, even from the days of their fathers; either as in the days of their fathers of old, who were sent into captivity for their disobedience, or, "Now, for some generations past, you have fallen off from what you were, when first you came back out of captivity." Ezra owns it in one particular instance: Since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass unto this day, Ezra ix. 7. Now observe, 1. What a gracious invitation God gives them to return and repent: "Return unto me, and to your duty, return to your service, return to your allegiance, return as a traveller that has missed his way, as a soldier that has run his colours, as a treacherous wife that has gone away from her husband; return, thou backsliding Israel, return to me; and then I will return unto you and be reconciled, will remove the judgments you are under and prevent those you fear." This had been of old the burden of the song (Zech. i. 3), and is still. 2. What a peevish answer they return to this gracious invitation: "But you said with disdain, said it to the prophets that called you, said it to one another, said it to your own hearts, to stifle the convictions you were under; you said, Wherein shall we return?" Note, God takes notice what returns our hearts make to the calls of his word, what we say and what we think when we have heard a sermon, what answer we give to the message sent us. When God calls us to return, we should answer as those did Jer. iii. 22, Behold, we come. But not as these here, Wherein shall we return? (1.) They take it as an affront to be told of their faults, and called upon to amend them; they are ready to say, "What ado do these prophets make about returning and repenting; why are we disgraced and disturbed thus, our own consciences and our neighbours stirred up against us?" It is ill with those who thus count reproofs reproaches, and kick against the pricks. (2.) They are so ignorant of themselves, and of the strictness, extent, and spiritual nature, of the divine law, that they see nothing in themselves to be repented of, or reformed; they are pure in their own eyes, and think they need no repentance. (3.) They are so firmly resolved to go on in sin that they will find a thousand foolish frivolous excuses to shift off their repentance, and turn away the calls that are given them to repent. They seem to speak only as those that wanted something to say; it is a mere evasion, a banter upon the prophet, and a challenge to him to descend to particulars. Note, Many ruin their own souls by baffling the calls that are given them to repent of their sins.
II. They had robbed their Master, and embezzled his goods. They had asked, "Wherein shall we return? What have we done amiss?" And he soon tells them. Observe, 1. The prophet's high charge exhibited, in God's name, against the people. They stand indicted for robbery, for sacrilege, the worst of robberies: You have robbed me. He expostulates with them upon it: Will a man be so daringly impudent as to rob God? Man, who is a weak creature, and cannot contend with God's power, will he think to rob him vi et armis—forcibly? Man, who lies open to God's knowledge, and cannot conceal himself from that, will he think to rob him clam et secreto—privily? Man, who depends upon God, and derives his all from him, will he rob him that is his benefactor? This is ungrateful, unjust, and unkind, indeed; and it is very unwise thus to provoke him from whom our judgment proceeds. Will a man do violence to God? so some read it. Will a man do violence to God? so some read it. Will a man stint or straiten him? so others read it. Robbing God is a heinous crime. 2. The people's high challenge in answer to that charge: But you say, Wherein have we robbed thee? They plead Not guilty, and put God upon the proof of it. Note, Robbing God is such a heinous crime that those who are guilty of it are not willing to own themselves guilty. They rob God, and know not what they do. They rob him of his honour, rob him of that which is devoted to him, to be employed in his service, rob him of themselves, rob him of sabbath-time, rob him of that which is given for the support of religion, and give him not his dues out of their estates; and yet they ask, Wherein have we robbed thee? 3. The plain proof of the charge, in answer to this challenge; it is in tithes and offerings. Out of these the priests and Levites had maintenance for themselves and their families; but they detained them, defrauded the priests of them, would not pay their tithes, or not in full, or not of the best; they brought not the offerings which God required, or brought the torn, and lame, and sick, which were not fit for use. They were all guilty of this sin, even the whole nation, as if they were in confederacy against God, and all combined to rob him of his dues and to stand by one another in it when they had done. For this they were cursed with a curse, v. 9. God punished them with famine and scarcity, through unseasonable weather, or insects that ate up the fruits of the earth. God had thus punished them for neglecting to build the temple (Hag. i. 10, 11), and now for not maintaining the temple-service. Note, Those that deny God his part of their estates may justly expect a curse upon their own part of them: "You are cursed with a curse for robbing me, and yet you go on to do it." Note, It is a great aggravation of sin when men persist in it notwithstanding the rebukes of Providence which they are under for it. Nay, it should seem, because God had punished them with scarcity of bread, they made that a pretence for robbing him-that now, being impoverished, they could not afford to bring their tithes and offerings, but must save them, that they might have bread for their families. Note, It argues great perverseness in sin when men make those afflictions excuses for sin which are sent to part between them and their sins. When they had but little they should have done the more good with that little, and that would have been the way to make it more; but it is ill with the patient when that which should cure the disease serves only to palliate it, and prevent its being searched into. 4. An earnest exhortation to reform in this matter, with a promise that if they did the judgments they were under should be quickly removed. (1.) Let them take care to do their duty (v. 10): Bring you all the tithes into the storehouse. They had brought some; but, like Ananias and Sapphira, had kept back part of the price, pretending they could not spare so much as was required, and necessity has no law; but even necessity must have this law, and it would redress the grievance of their necessity: "Bring in the full tithes to the utmost that the law requires, that there may be meat in God's house for those that serve at the altar, whether there be meat in your houses or no." Note, God must be served in the first place, and our quota must be contributed for the support of religion in the place where we live, that God's name may be sanctified, and his kingdom may come, and his will be done, even before we provide our daily bread; for the interests of our souls ought to be preferred before those of our bodies. (2.) Let them then trust God to provide for them and their comfort "Let God be first served, and then prove me herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, whether I will not open the windows of heaven." They said, "Let God give us our plenty again, as formerly, and try us whether we will not then bring him his tithes and offerings, as we did formerly." "No," says God, "do you first bring in all your tithes as they become due, and all the arrears of what is past, and try me, whether I will not then restore you your plenty." Note, Those that will deal with God must deal upon trust; and we may all venture to do so, for, though many have been losers for him, never any were losers by him in the end. It is fit that we should venture first, for his reward is with him, but his work is before him; we must first do the work which is our part, and then try him and trust him for the reward. Elijah put the widow of Zarephath into this method when he said (1 Kings xvii. 13), "Make me a little cake first, and then prove me whether there shall not be enough afterwards for thee and thy son." That which discourages people from the expenses of charity is the weakness of their faith concerning the gains and advantages of charity; they cannot think that they shall get by it. But it is a reasonable demand that God here makes: "Prove me now; is any thing to be got by charity? Come and see;" Nothing venture, nothing win. Trust upon honour, "And you shall find," [1.] "That, whereas the heavens have been shut up, and there has been no rain, now God will open to you the windows of heaven, for in his hand the key of the clouds is, and you shall have seasonable rain." Or the expression is figurative; every good gift coming from above, thence God will plentifully pour out upon them the bounties of his providence. Very sudden plenty is expressed by opening the windows of heaven, 2 Kings vii. 2. We find the windows of heaven opened, to pour down a deluge of wrath, in Noah's flood, Gen. vii. 11. But here they are opened to pour down blessings, to such a degree that there should not be room enough to receive them. So plentifully shall their ground bring forth that they shall be tempted to pull down their barns and build greater, for want of room, Luke xii. 18. Or, as Dr. Pocock explains it, "I will pour out on you such a blessing as shall be not enough only, and such as shall be sufficient, but more and more than enough;" that is, a great addition. The oil that is multiplied shall not be stayed as long as there are vessels to receive it, 2 Kings iv. 6. Note, God will not only be reconciled to sinners that repent and reform, but he will be a benefactor, a bountiful benefactor, to them. We are never straitened in him, but often straitened in our own bosoms. God has blessings ready to bestow upon us, but, through the weakness of our faith and narrowness of our desires, we have not room to receive them. [2.] That, whereas the fruits of their ground had been eaten up by locusts and caterpillars God would now remove that judgment (v. 11): "I will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and will check the progress of those destroying animals, that they shall no more destroy the products of the earth and the fruits of the trees." God has all creatures at his beck, can command them and remand them at his pleasure. Neither shall the vine cast her fruit before the time; it shall not be blasted or blown off. Or, as some read it, Neither shall the devourer make your vine barren, as the locusts did, Joel i. 7. [3.] That, whereas their neighbours had upbraided them with their scarcity, and they had lain under the reproach of famine, which was the more grievous because their country used to be boasted of for its plenty, now all nations shall call them blessed, shall speak honourably of them, and own them to be a happy people. [4.] That whereas their sin had made their land unpleasing to God (even their temple, and altars, and offerings were so, ch. ii. 13), and whereas his judgments had made their land unpleasant to them, and very melancholy, "Now you shall be a delightsome land, your country shall be acceptable to God and comfortable to yourselves." Note, The reviving of religion in a land will make it indeed a delightsome land both to God and to all good people; he will say, It is my rest for ever; here will I dwell; and they will say the same, Isa. lxii. 4; Deut. xi. 12. It should seem that this charge to bring in the tithes had its good effect, for we find (Neh. xiii. 12) that all Judah did bring in their tithe into the treasuries, and, no doubt, they had the benefit of these promises, in the return of their plenty, immediately upon their return to their duty, that they might plainly discern for what cause the evil had been upon them (for when the cause was removed the evil was removed), and that they might see how perfectly reconciled God was to them upon their repentance, and how their transgression was remembered no more, for the curse was not only taken away, but turned into an abundant blessing.