Wicked Conversation Reproved; Evil Maxims of Sinners; Pious Converse Commended; Promises to the Godly.
B. C. 400.
13 Your words have been stout against me, saith the LORD. Yet ye say, What have we spoken so much against thee? 14 Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the LORD of hosts? 15 And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered. 16 Then they that feared the LORD spake often one to another: and the LORD hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the LORD, and that thought upon his name. 17 And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. 18 Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.
Among the people of the Jews at this time, though they all enjoyed the same privileges and advantages, there were men of very different characters (as ever were, and ever will be, in the world and in the church), like Jeremiah’s figs, some very good and others very bad, some that plainly appeared to be the children of God and others that as plainly discovered themselves to be the children of the wicked one. There are tares and wheat in the same field, chaff and corn in the same floor; and here we have an account of both.
I. Here is the angry notice God takes of the impudent blasphemous talk of the sinners in Zion and his just resentments of it. Probably there was a club of them that were in league against religion, that set up for wits, and set their wits on work to run it down and ridicule it, and herein strengthened one another’s hands. Here is,
1. An indictment found against them, for treasonable words spoken against the King of kings: Your words have been stout against me, saith the Lord. They spoke against God, in reflection upon him, in contradiction to him, as their fathers in the wilderness (Ps. lxx. 19); yea, they spoke against God. What he said, and what he designed, they opposed, as if they had been retained of counsel against him and his cause. Their words against God were stout; they came from their pride, and haughtiness, and contempt of God. What they said against God they spoke loudly, as if they cared not who heard them; they were not themselves ashamed to say it, and they desired to propagate their atheistical notions and to infect the minds of others with them. They spoke it boldly, as those that were resolved to stand to it, and were in no fear of being called to an account. They spoke it proudly, and with insolence and disdain, scorning to be under the divine check and government. They strengthened themselves; they would be valiant against the Almighty, Job xv. 25.
2. Their plea to this indictment. They said, What have we spoken so much against thee? They deny the words, and put the prophet to prove them; or, if they spoke the words, they did not design them against God, and therefore will not own there was any harm in them; at least they extenuate the matter: What have we spoken so much against thee, so much that there needs all this ado about it? They cannot deny that they have spoken against God, but they make a light matter of it, and wonder it should be taken notice of: “Words” (say they) “are but wind; others have said more and done worse; if we are not so good as we should be, yet we hope we are not so bad as we are represented to be.” Note, It is common for sinners that are unconvinced and unhumbled to deny or extenuate the faults they are justly charged with, and to insist upon their own justification, against the reproofs of the word and of their own consciences. But it will be to no purpose.
3. The words themselves which they are charged with. God keeps an account of what men say, as well as of what they do, and will let them know that he does so. We quickly forget what we have said, and are ready to deny what we have said amiss; but God can say, You have said so and so. They had said it as their deliberate judgment.
(1.) That there is nothing to be got in the service of God, thought it is a service that subjects men to labour and sorrow. They said, It is vain to serve God, or, “He is vain that serves God, that is, he labours in vain and to no purpose; he has his labour for his pains, and therefore is a fool for his labour. What profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, or his observation, that we have observed what he has appointed us to observe?” What mammon, or wealth, have we gained, says the Chaldee, intimating (says Dr. Pocock) that it was for mammon’s sake only that they served God, and so indeed not God at all, but mammon. “We have walked mournfully, or in black, with great gravity and great grief, before the Lord of hosts, have afflicted our souls at the times appointed for that purpose, and yet we are never the better.” Perhaps this comes in as a reason why they would not trust God to prosper them upon their bringing in the tithes (v. 10); “For,” say they, “we have tried him in other things, and have lost by him.” This is a very unjust and unreasonable reflection upon the service of God, and we can call witnesses enough to confront the slander.
[1.] They would have it thought that they had served God and had kept his ordinances, whereas it was only the external observance of them that they had kept up, while they were perfect strangers to the inward part of the duty, and therefore might say, It is in vain. God says so (Matt. xv. 9), In vain do those worship me whose hearts are far from me while they draw near with their mouth; but whose fault is that? Not God’s, who is the rewarder of those that seek him diligently, but theirs who seek him carelessly.
[2.] They insisted much upon it that they had walked mournfully before God, whereas God had required them to serve him with gladness, and to walk cheerfully before him. They by their own superstitions made the service of God a task and drudgery to themselves, and then complained of it as a hard service. The yoke of Christ is easy; it is the yoke of antichrist that is heavy.
[3.] They complained that they had got nothing by their religion; they were still in poverty and affliction, and behindhand in the world. This is an old piece of impiety. Job xxi. 14, 15, What profit shall we have if we pray unto him? Elihu charges Job with saying something like this. Job xxxiv. 9, It profits a man nothing that he should delight himself with God. The enemies of religion do but set up against it the old cavils that have been long since answered and exploded. Perhaps this refers to the errors of the sect of the Sadducees, which was the scandal of the Jewish church in its latter days; they denied a future state, and then said, It is vain to serve God, which has indeed some colour in it, for, if in this life only we had hope in Christ, we were of all men most miserable, 1 Cor. xv. 19. Note, Those do a great deal of wrong to God’s honour who say that religion is either an unprofitable or an unpleasant thing; for the matter is not so: wisdom’s ways are pleasantness, and wisdom’s gains better than that of fine gold.
(2.) They maintained that wickedness was the way to prosperity, for they had observed that the workers of wickedness were set up in the world, and those that tempted God were delivered, v. 15. The outward prosperity of sinners in their sins, as it has weakened the hands of the godly in their godliness (Ps. lxxiii. 13), so it has strengthened the hands of the wicked in their wickedness. Note,
[1.] Those that work wickedness tempt God by presumptuous sins; they do, as it were, try God, whether he can and will punish them as he has said in his word, and, in effect, challenge him to do his worst, by provoking him in the highest degree.
[2.] Those that tempt God by their wicked works are many times both delivered out of the adversity into which they were justly brought and advanced to the prosperity which they were utterly unworthy of. They are not only set up once, but when we thought their day had come to fall, and they were in trouble, they were delivered and set up again; so strangely did Providence seem to smile upon them.
[3.] Though it be thus, yet it will not warrant us to call the proud happy. For they may be delivered and set up for a while, but it will appear that God resists them, and that their pride is a preface to their fall; and, if so, they are truly miserable, and it is folly to call them happy, and to bless those whom the Lord abhors. Wait awhile, and you shall see those that work wickedness set up as a mark to the arrows of God’s vengeance, and those that tempt God delivered to the tormentors. Judge of things as they will appear shortly, when the doom of these proud sinners (which follows here, ch. iv. 1) comes to be executed to the utmost.
II. Here is the gracious notice God takes of the pious talk of the saints in Zion, and the gracious recompence of it. Even in this corrupt and degenerate age, when there was so great a decay, nay, so great a contempt, of serious godliness, there were yet some that retained their integrity and zeal for God; and let us see,
1. How they distinguished themselves, and what their character was; it was the reverse of theirs that spoke so much against God; for,
(1.) They feared the Lord–that is the beginning of wisdom and the root of all religion; they reverenced the majesty of God, submitted to his authority, and had a dread of his wrath in all they thought and said; they humbly complied with God, and never spoke any stout words against him. In every age there has been a remnant that feared the Lord, though sometimes but a little remnant.
(2.) They thought upon his name; they seriously considered and frequently mediated upon the discoveries God has made of himself in his word and by his providences, and their mediation of him was sweet to them and influenced them. They thought on his name; they consulted the honour of God and aimed at that as their ultimate end in all they did. Note, Those that know the name of God should often think of it and dwell upon it in their thoughts; it is a copious curious subject, and frequent thoughts of it will contribute very much to our communion with God and the stirring up of our devout affections to him.
(3.) They spoke often one to another concerning the God they feared, and that name of his which they thought so much of; for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth will speak, and a good man, out of a good treasure there, will bring forth good things. Those that feared the Lord kept together as those that were company for each other; they spoke kindly and endearingly one to another, for the preserving and promoting of mutual love, that that might not wax cold when iniquity did thus abound. They spoke intelligently and edifyingly to one another, for the increasing and improving of faith and holiness; they spoke one to another in the language of those that fear the Lord and think on his name–the language of Canaan. When profaneness had come to so great a height as to trample upon all that is sacred, then those that feared the Lord spoke often one to another.
[1.] Then, when iniquity was bold and barefaced, the people of God took courage, and stirred up themselves, the innocent against the hypocrite, Job xvii. 8. The worse others are the better we should be; when vice is daring, let not virtue be sneaking.
[2.] Then, when religion was reproached and misrepresented, its friends did all they could to support the credit of it and to keep it in countenance. It had been suggested that the ways of God are melancholy unpleasant ways, solitary and sorrowful; and therefore then those that feared God studied to evince the contrary by their cheerfulness in mutual love and converse, that they might put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.
[3.] Then, when seducers were busy to deceive and to possess unwary souls with prejudices against religion, those that feared God were industrious to arm themselves and one another against the contagion by mutual instructions, excitements, and encouragements, and to strengthen one another’s hands. As evil communication corrupts good minds and manners, so good communication confirms them.
2. How God dignified them, and what further honour and favour he intended for them. Those who spoke stoutly against God, no doubt looked with disdain and displeasure upon those that feared him, hectored and bantered them; but they had little reason to regard that, or be disturbed at it, when God countenanced them.
(1.) He took notice of their pious discourses, and was graciously present at their conferences: The Lord hearkened and heard it, and was well pleased with it. God says (Jer. viii. 6) that he hearkened and heard what bad men would say, and they spoke not aright; here he hearkened and heard what good men did say, for they spoke aright. Note, The gracious God observes all the gracious words that proceed out of the mouths of his people; they need not desire that men may hear them, and commend them; let them not seek praise from men by them, nor affect to be taken notice of by them; but let it satisfy them that, be the conference ever so private, God sees and hears in secret and will reward openly. When the two disciples, going to Emmaus, were discoursing concerning Christ, he hearkened and heard, and joined himself to them, and made a third, Luke xxiv. 15.
(2.) He kept an account of them: A book of remembrance was written before him. Not that the Eternal Mind needs to be reminded of things by books and writings, but it is an expression after the manner of men, intimating that their pious affections and performances are kept in remembrance as punctually and particularly as if they were written in a book, as if journals were kept of all their conferences. Great kings had books of remembrance written, and read before them, in which were entered all the services done them, when, and by whom, as Esther ii. 23. God, in like manner, remembers the services of his people, that, in the review of them, he may say, Well done; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord. God has a book for the sighs and tears of his mourners (Ps. lvi. 8), much more for the pleadings of his advocates. Never was any good word spoken of God, or for God, from an honest heart, but it was registered, that it might be recompensed in the resurrection of the just, and in no wise lose its reward.
(3.) He promises them a share in his glory hereafter (v. 17): They shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels. When God utterly cuts off the Jewish church and nation for their infidelity, the remnant among them, that believed his word, and, having waited for the consolation of Israel, welcome him when he comes, shall be admitted into the Christian church, and shall become a peculiar people to God; God will take care of them, that they perish not with those that believe not; but that they be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger against that nation. They shall be my segullah–my peculiar treasure (it is the word used, Exod. xix. 5), in the day when I make or do what I have said and designed to do; so some read it. These pious ones shall have all the glorious privileges of God’s Israel appropriated to them and centering in them; they shall now be his peculiar treasure, when the rest are rejected; they shall now be the vessels of mercy and honour, when the rest are made vessels of wrath and dishonour, vessels in which is no pleasure. This may be applied to all the faithful people of God, and the distinction he will put between them and others in the great day. Note,
[1.] The saints are God’s jewels; they are highly esteemed by him and are dear to him; they are comely with the comeliness that he puts upon them, and he is pleased to glory in them; they are a royal diadem in his hand, Isa. lxii. 3. He looks upon them as his own proper goods, his choice goods, his treasure, laid up in his cabinet, and the furniture of his closet, Ps. cxxxv. 4. The rest of the world is but lumber, in comparison with them.
[2.] There is a day coming when God will make up his jewels. They shall be gathered up out of the dirt into which they are now thrown, and gathered together from all places to which they are now scattered; he shall send forth his angels to gather his elect, who are his jewels, from the four winds of heaven (Matt. xxiv. 31), to gather his jewels into his jewel-house, as the wheat from several fields into the barn. All the saints will then be gathered to Christ, and none but saints, and saints made perfect; then God’s jewels will be made up, as stones into a crown, as stars into a constellation.
[3.] Those who now own God for theirs, he will then own for his, will publicly confess them before angels and men: “They shall be mine; their sanctification shall be completed, and so they shall be perfectly and entirely mine, without any remaining interests of the world and the flesh.” Their relation to God shall be acknowledged, and his property in them. He will separate them from those that are not his, and give them their portion with those that are his; for to them it shall be said, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you. They were in doubt, sometimes, whether they were belonging to God or no; but the matter shall then be put out of doubt. God himself will say unto them, You are mine. Now their relation to God is what they are reproached with, but it will then be gloried in; God himself will glory in it.
(4.) He promises them a share in his grace now: I will spare them as a man spares his own son that serves him. God had promised to own them as his and take them to be with him; but it might be a discouragement to them to think that they had offended God, and that he might justly disown them, and cast them off; but, as to that, he says, “I will spare them; I will not deal with them as they deserve. I will rejoice over them” (so some expound it) “as the bridegroom over his bride,” Isa. lxii. 5; Zeph. iii. 17. But the word usually signifies to spare with commiseration and compassion, as a father pities his children, Ps. ciii. 13. Note,
[1.] It is our duty to serve God with the disposition of children. We must be his sons, must by a new birth partake of a divine nature, must consent to the covenant of adoption and partake of the spirit of adoption. And we must be his servants; God will not have his children trained up in idleness; they must do him service, and they must do it from a principle of love, with cheerfulness and delight, and as those that are therein serving their own true interest, and this is serving as a son with the father, Phil. ii. 22.
[2.] If we serve God with the disposition of children, he will spare us with the tenderness and compassion of a Father. Even God’s children that serve him stand in need of sparing mercy, that mercy to which we owe it that we are not consumed, that mercy which keeps us out of hell. Nehemiah, when he had done much good, yet, knowing there is not a just man on earth, that does good and sins not, and that every sin deserves God’s wrath, prays, Lord, spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy; see Neh. xiii. 22. And God, as a Father, will show them this mercy. He will not be extreme to mark what we do amiss, but will make the best of us and our poor performances; he will mitigate the afflictions his children are exercised with, and save them from the ruin they deserve. The father continues to spare the son, and does it with complacency, because he is his own; thus God will spare humble penitents and petitioners, as a man spares his son that serves him, though we do him so little service, nay, though we do him so much disservice.
3. How they will thus be distinguished from the children of this world (v. 18): “Then shall you return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between sinners and saints, between those that serve God and make conscience of their duty to him and those that serve him not, but put contempt upon his service. You that now speak against God as making no difference between good and bad, and therefore say, It is in vain to serve him (v. 14), you shall be made to see your error; you that would speak for God, but know not what to say as to this, that there seems to be one event to the righteous and to the wicked, and all things come alike to all, will then have the matter set in a true light, and will see, to your everlasting satisfaction, the difference between the righteous and the wicked. Then you shall return, that is, you shall change you mind, and come to a right understanding of the thing.” This primarily respects the manifest difference that was made by the divine Providence between the believing Jews and those that persisted in their infidelity, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, and of the Jewish church and nation, by the Romans. But it is to have its full accomplishment at the second coming of Jesus Christ, and on that great discriminating day when it shall be easy enough to discern between the righteous and the wicked. Note,
(1.) All the children of men are either righteous or wicked, either such as serve God or such as serve him not. This is that division of the children of men which will last for ever, and by which their eternal state will be determined; all are going either to heaven or to hell.
(2.) In this world it is often hard to discern between the righteous and the wicked. They are mingled together, good fish and bad in the same net. The righteous are so distempered, and the wicked so disguised, that we are often deceived in our opinions concerning both the one and the other. There are many who, we think, serve God, who, having not their hearts right with him, will be found none of his servants; and, on the other hand, many will be found his faithful servants, who, because they followed not with us, did not, as we thought, serve him. But that which especially raised the difficulty here was that the divine Providence seemed to make no difference between the righteous and the wicked; you could not know wicked men by God’s frowning upon them, for they commonly prospered in the world, nor righteous men by his smiling upon them, for they were involved with others in the same common calamity. None now knows God’s love or hatred by all that is before him, Eccl. ix. 1.
(3.) At the bar of Christ, in the last judgment, it will be easy to discern between the righteous and the wicked; for then every man’s character will be both perfected and perfectly discovered, every man will then appear in his true colours, and his disguises will be taken off. Some men’s sins indeed go beforehand, and you may now tell who is wicked, but others follow after; however, in the great day, we shall see who was righteous and who wicked. Every man’s condition likewise will be both perfected and everlastingly determined; the righteous will then be perfectly happy and the wicked perfectly miserable, without mixture or allay. When the righteous are all set on the right hand of Christ, and invited to come for a blessing, and all the wicked on his left hand, and are told to depart with a curse, then it will be easy to discern between them. As to ourselves, therefore, we are concerned to think among which we shall have our lot, and, as to others, we must judge nothing before the time.
– Matthew Henry Commentary