Divine Mercy to Mourning Penitents
Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies
I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God. For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the LORD. Jeremiah 31:18-20
In these words, we have the mourning language of a penitent child keenly aware of his ingratitude, and at the same time wanting but ashamed to return. Sweetly blended with these words we have the tender language of a compassionate father at once chastising, pitying, and pardoning.
The images are so lively and moving, that if they were considered as part of a work of fiction, they would be irresistibly powerful. But when we consider them as the most important realities, as a description of that sincere repentance which we must all feel, and of that gracious acceptance we must all obtain from God before we can be happy, what great effect should they have upon us!
How our hearts should melt at the sound of such pathetic complaints, and such gracious encouragements! And hard indeed is that heart, incurably miserable and hopeless, that can listen to such expressions of fatherly compassion and love, without being moved and encouraged.
This whole chapter referenced primarily to the Jews, and such of the Israelites as might mingle with them in their return from the Babylonian captivity. As they were enslaved to foreigners, and removed from their native land for their sins, so they could not be restored, but upon their repentance. Upon this condition only, did the Scriptures promise them a restoration. (Lev. 26:40-43; Deuteronomy 30:1-16.)
In this chapter we have a prediction of their repentance under the heavy chastisement of seventy years' captivity, and, upon their repentance, of their return to their own land. In the text the whole body of penitents among them is called by the name of a single person, Ephraim. In the prophetic writings, the northern kingdom of the ten tribes, as distinguished from the southern kingdom of Judah, is frequently referred to by this name, because the Ephraimites were a principal family among them. And sometimes, as here, the name is given to the Jews, probably on account of the great number of Ephraimites mingled with them, especially on their return from captivity. All the penitent Jews are included under this single name, to imply their unanimity in their repentance. Their hearts consented, like the heart of one man, to turn to the Lord, from whom with horrid accord they had previously revolted.
This single name Ephraim also makes this passage more easily applicable to particular penitents in all ages. Every one of such may insert his own name, instead of that of Ephraim, and claim the encouragement originally given to them. And indeed this whole passage is applicable to all true penitents.
Repenting Ephraim was only speaking the language of every one of you, believer in Christ, who is made to see the plague of his own heart, and turn to the Lord. And the tender language of forgiving grace to mourning Ephraim, is addressed to each of you; and it is with a view to you that I intend to consider this Scripture. The text naturally resolves itself into three parts, as it consists of three verses.
I-First, in verse 18, we find the careless, resolute impenitent, reduced by chastisement to a sense of his danger, and the necessity of turning to God; and yet aware of his utter inability, and therefore crying for the help of divine grace. You hear Ephraim bemoaning his wretched case, and pouring out persistent groans for help, he says: “You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined,” like a ox unaccustomed to the yoke, which struggles and wearies himself in vain to get free from it, and must be broken and tamed with severe treatment. Thus stubborn and unmanageable, have I been. And now, when I am convinced of the necessity of returning to you, I feel my obstinate heart, stubborn, like a wild ox, and I cannot come. I therefore cry to you for the helping influence of your grace! "Restore me, and I will return; draw me, and I will run after you! To whom but to you should I return; and to whom but to you should I ask for strength to return? For you only are the Lord my God, who can help me, and whom I am under infinite obligations to serve."
Thus the awakened sinner prayed; and mercy listened to his cries. The helping influences of divine grace are granted, and he is enabled to return.
II- This introduces the second branch of the text in the 19th verse, in which the new convert is described reflecting on the power of converting grace, and the glorious change effected in him by it: "After I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’" While the returning prodigal is venting himself in these plaintive strains in some solitary corner, his heavenly Father's affections are moving over him.
III- The third part of the text describes the blessed God listening to the cries of his mourning child. And while Ephraim is going on in his passionate complaints, God, as it were, interrupts him, and surprises him with the soothing voice of mercy. "Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child?" Surely he is. Or we may understand the words in this way, as if God should say, "Whose mourning voice is this that I hear? Is this Ephraim, my dear son? Is this my pleasant child that bemoans himself as a helpless orphan, or one abandoned by his father? And can I bear to hear his complaints without mingling divine consolations with them, and assuring him of pardon? No! For since I spoke against him in my threatenings, I do earnestly remember him still! Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him!" says the Lord.
We will look into and illustrate each of these three parts of the text; and so we shall be led to describe:
1. The work of preparation,
2. The nature and signs of true repentance; and lastly,
3. The tender compassions of God towards mourning penitents.
1. And so, first, let us view the returning sinner when he first becomes aware of spiritual matters, which is generally a work of preparation to evangelical repentance.
And where shall we find him? And what is he doing?
We shall not find him as usual, in a thoughtless hurry about earthly things, confining all his attention to these trifles, and unmindful of the important concerns of eternity. We shall not find him merry and vain, in a circle of jovial, careless companions; much less shall we find him intrepid and secure in a course of sin, gratifying his flesh, and indulging his lusts.
In this enchanted road, the crowd of hardy impenitent pass secure and cheerful down to the dungeons of eternal death, but the awakened sinner runs from it with horror; or, if his depraved heart would tempt him to walk in it, he cannot take many steps before he is shocked with the horrid vision of impending danger! He finds the flattering paths of sin haunted with the terrible ghosts of guilt; and the sword of divine vengeance gleams bright and dreadful before him, and seems lifted to give the fatal blow!
You will, therefore, find the awakened sinner alone and solemn in some removed corner, not deceiving himself with vain hopes of safety in his present state, but alarmed with apprehensions of danger. He is not planning schemes for his worldly advantage; nor asking, with sordid anxiety, "Who will show me any worldly good?" but concerned about his perishing soul, and anxiously asking, "What shall I do to be saved?" He is not congratulating himself for the imaginary goodness of his heart or life, or priding himself with secret wonder in a rich survey of his excellencies; but you will hear him, in his sorrowful retirement, bemoaning, or (as in the sense of the original) condoling himself. He sees his case to be really dreadful and sad, and he, as it were, takes up a lamentation over himself. He is no more senseless, hard-hearted, and self-applauding, as he was accustomed to be: but, like a mourning dove, he bewails himself in such pathetic strains as these:
"Unhappy creature that I am! into what a deplorable state have I brought myself! and how long have I continued in it, with the insensibility of a rock and the stupidity of a brute! Now I may mourn over my past neglected and lost days, as so many deceased friends, sent indeed from heaven to do me good— but cruelly killed by my ungrateful neglect and continued delays as to return to God and holiness. Come back, you abused months and years; arise from the dead; restore me your precious moments again, that I may unravel the web of life, and form it anew; and that I may improve the opportunities I have squandered away! Vain and desperate wish! the wheels of time will not return— and what shall I do? Here I am, a guilty, loathsome creature, uncertain of life and unfit to die; alienated from God, and incapable (alas! I may add unwilling) to return, a slave to sin, and too feeble to break the chains of my chronic habits; liable to the arrest of divine justice, and unable to deliver myself; exposed to the vengeance of heaven— yet not able to make atonement; destitute of a saving interest in Christ; and uncertain, awfully uncertain, whether I shall ever obtain it!
"And if these guilty lips may dare to pronounce your injured name, O God of grace, have pity upon me! But, alas! I deserve no pity, for how long have I denied it to myself! Ah, infatuated wretch! why did I not sooner begin to secure my unhappy soul, which has lain all this time neglected, and unpitied, on the very brink of ruin! Why did I not sooner lay my condition to heart? Alas! I should have gone on thoughtless still, had I not been awakened by the kind severity, the gracious chastisements of my dishonoured Father!"
"You have disciplined me!" This, as spoken by Ephraim, had a particular reference to the Babylonian captivity; but we may naturally apply it to those afflictions in general, whether outward or inward, that are made the means of alarming the secure sinner. There are many ways which our heavenly Father takes to correct his undutiful children until they return to him.
Sometimes he kindly takes away their health—the abused means of their depravity and security-- and restrains them from their lusts with chains of affliction. This is beautifully described by Elihu (EE-leye-hou) in Job chapter 33. "Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones, (20) so that his life loathes bread, and his appetite the choicest food. (21) His flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen, and his bones that were not seen stick out. (22) His soul draws near the pit, and his life to those who bring death." (Job 33:19-22)
Sometimes God awakens the sinner to examine himself, by stripping him of his earthly supports and comforts: his estate or his relatives—which drew away his heart from eternal things, and thus brings him to see the necessity of turning to God, the source of all happiness—upon the failure of the creature supports. In this way he dealt with reckless Manasseh (mah-NAH-sah) as we read in 2 Chronicles chapter 33: He was taken with ‘hooks, and bound with chains of bronze, and carried to Babylon; And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before him, and he prayed unto him.’ (Paraph 2 Chron 33:11-13) Thus also God promises to do with his chosen in other Scripture: "I will make you pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant." (Ezekiel 20:37; also Psalm 89:32; Proverbs 22:15, 29:15)
But the principal means of correction which God uses in conversion, is that of conscience; and indeed without this, all the rest are in vain. Outward afflictions are useful—only as they tend to awaken the conscience from its slowness to do its duty. It is conscience which makes the sinner aware of his misery and strikes him—until he returns to his duty. This is the most severe chastisement that human nature can endure. The lashes of a guilty conscience are intolerable; and some under them have chosen death rather than life. The spirit of a man may bear him up under outward sicknesses; but when the spirit itself is wounded—who can bear it? (Prov 18:14) "They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them." (Rom 2:15)
Conscience is a serpent in his breast, which bites and gnaws his heart; and he can no more avoid it, than he can run from himself! And let not such of you as have never been tortured with its remorse, congratulate yourselves on your happiness, for you are not innocents! Your conscience will not always sleep; it will not always lie frozen and inactive, like a snake benumbed with cold, in your breast! It will awaken you either to your conversion—or condemnation! Either the fire of God's wrath flaming from his law will enliven it, in this world, to sting you with healing anguish; or the unquenchable fire of his vengeance in the lake of fire and brimstone will thaw it into life—and then it will horribly rage in your breast, and pour out its tormenting poison through your whole being! And then it will become a never-dying worm, and prey upon your hearts forever!
But if you allow it to pain you with beneficial remorse now, and awaken you to a real awareness of your danger—then this internal enemy will in the end become your best friend, will support you under every calamity, and be your faithful companion and guardian through the most dangerous paths of life.
Therefore submit now to its wholesome severities, yield now to its chastisements!
Such of you as have submitted to its authority, and obeyed its faithful admonitions, find it your best friend. And you may bless the day in which you complied with its demands, though before divine grace renewed your heart, your wills were stubborn and reluctant; and you might say with Ephraim: "You disciplined me like an untrained calf!"
That is, "As a wild young ox, unbroken from the herd, is unmanageable, refuses the yoke, becomes outraged at the whip, and wearies himself in struggles to throw off the burden put upon him, and regain his savage liberty, and never will submit until wearied out, and unable to resist any longer; so has my stubborn heart, unaccustomed to obey, refused the yoke of your law, O my God, and struggled with sullen obstinacy under your chastisements! Instead of calmly submitting to your rod, and immediately reforming under correction, instead of turning to you, and flying to your arms to avoid the falling blow—I was unyielding and outraged, like a wild bull in a net! Isaiah 51:20. I wearied myself in desperate struggles to free myself from your chastising hand; or vainly tried to harden myself to bear it with stubborn insensibility. I tried to break the rod of conscience that I might no more groan under its lashes, and my heart forcefully resisted and rebelled against the gracious goal of your correction, which was to bring me back to you my heavenly Father. But now I am wearied out, now I know I must submit, or perish, and that my conscience is too strong for me, and must prevail."
You see the obstinate reluctance of an awakened sinner to return to God. Like a wild young ox, he would roam at large, and is impatient of the restraints of the law, and the restraints of conscience. He loves his sin—and cannot bear to part with it. He has no relish for the exercises of devotion and self-denial; and therefore will not submit to them. The way of holiness is disagreeable to his depraved heart, and he will not turn his feet to it. He loves to be stupidly comfortable, and serene in mind, and cannot bear to be checked in his pursuit of business or pleasure, by anxieties of heart! And therefore he is impatient of the honest warnings of his conscience, and uses a variety of wretched tricks to silence its loud protests.
In short, he will do anything, he will turn to anything—rather than turn to God. If his conscience will only be but satisfied, he will forsake many of his sins. He will, like Herod, (Mark 6:20,) do many things, and walk in the whole round of external religious duties. All this he will do, if his conscience will be but bribed by it. But if conscience enlarges its demands, and, after he has reformed his life, requires him to have a new heart, requires him to turn not only from the outward practice of gross vices—but from the love of all sins; not only to turn to the observance of religious duties—but to turn to the Lord with all his heart, and surrender himself entirely to him, and make it the main business of life to serve him; if conscience, I say, carries its demands that far—he cannot bear it, he struggles to throw off the yoke!
And some are cursed with horrid success in the attempt! They are permitted to rest content in a partial reformation, or external religion, as sufficient; and so go down to the grave with a lie in their right hand! (Ps 144:8) But the happy soul, on whom divine grace is determined to finish its work, in spite of all opposition, is allowed to weary itself out in a vain resistance of the chastisements of conscience, until it is forced to yield, and submit to the yoke. And then with Ephraim it will cry: " bring me back that I may be restored!" This is the mourning sinner's language, when convinced that he must submit and turn to God, and in the meantime finds himself utterly unable to turn.
He makes many attempts to give himself to the Lord; but how his heart jumps back and shrinks away, as though he were rushing into flames—when he is but running to the gracious embraces of his Father! He strives, and strives to drag himself along—but all in vain. And what shall he do in this extremity—but cry, Lord, “bring me back that I may be restored! Draw me—and I shall run after you. Work in me to will and to do—and then I shall work out my own salvation.
"Lord, though I am aware of the necessity of turning to you, though I expend my feeble strength in many a sluggish effort to come—yet I cannot so much as creep towards you, though I should die on the spot! Not only your Word—but my own experience now convinces me that I cannot come unto you—unless you draw me. (John 6:44)
"Others vainly boast of their imaginary power, as though, when they set themselves to it, they could perform some great achievements. I once flattered myself in this way—but now, when I am most able to judge, that is, when I come to the trial, all my boasts are humbled! Here I lie, a helpless creature, unable to go to the physician, unable to accept of pardon and life on the easy terms of the gospel, and unable to free myself from the bondage of sin! And this is how I must lie forever, unless that God, from whom I have revolted, draws me back to himself. Turn me, you who have the hearts of all men in your hands, and can turn them wherever you please! Turn me—and then as weak and reluctant as I am—I will be turned. This backward heart will yield to the almighty attraction of your grace! Here am I—as passive clay in the hand of the potter; incapable to fashion myself into a vessel fit for your house; but you can form me as you please. This hard and stubborn heart will be malleable and pliable to your irresistible power."
In this way, you see, the awakened sinner is driven to earnest prayer in his need. Never did a drowning man call for help, or a condemned wrongdoer plead for pardon—with more sincerity and ardour! If the sinner had neglected prayer all his life before now—he runs to it as the only remedy left! Or if he was accustomed to run it over in a careless, unthinking manner, as an insignificant form—now he exerts all the efforts of his soul! Now he prays as for his life, and cannot rest until his desires are answered!
The sinner ventures to enforce his petition by pleading his relation to God, "bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God." There is a sense in which a sinner in his unregenerate state cannot call God, his God; that is, he cannot claim a special interest in him as his portion, nor cry "Abba, Father," with the spirit of adoption, as reconciled to God. But even an unregenerate sinner may call him my God in other senses:
He is his God by right, that is, though he has idolatrously yielded himself to other gods—yet by right he should have acknowledged the LORD only.
He is his God—as that name denotes authority and power, to which he should be subject.
He is his God—by anticipation and hope, as upon his turning to him he will become his reconciled God in covenant.
He is his God—by outward profession and visible relation.
The force of this argument, to urge his petition for converting grace, may be viewed in various lights.
It may be understood like this: "Restore me—for you only who are the Lord of the universe, and have all the creation at your control. You alone, who are my God and ruler, and in whose hand my heart is—are able to turn so obstinate a creature as myself! In vain I seek for help elsewhere. Not all the means on earth, not all the persuasions, exhortations, invitations, and terrors that can be used with me—can turn my hard heart; it is a work befitting the Lord God Almighty, and it is you alone who can accomplish it."
Or we may understand the plea in this way: "Restore me—and I will turn to you; to you who are the Lord my God, and to whom I am under the most sacred obligations to return. I would resign your own right to you; I would submit to you who alone has a just claim to me as your servant."
Or the words may be understood as a disowning of all the idol-lusts to which the sinner was enslaved before: "I will turn to you; for to whom should I turn—but to the Lord my God! "what have I to do with idols?" (Hosea 14:8)” "Why should I submit any longer to other masters, who have no right to me? I would renounce them all; I would throw off all subjection to them, and affirm you alone for the Lord my God!" In this way the Jews renounced their false gods upon their return from Babylon.
Or we may understand the words as an encouragement to hope for converting grace, since it is asked from a God of infinite power and goodness: "Though I have most grievously offended, and had I done the thousandth part so much against my fellow creatures, I could never expect to be accepted by them; yet I dare ask so great a favor of you, for you are God—and not man: your power and your grace are all divine, such as befit a God. I therefore dare to hope for that from your hands, which I might despair of, from all the universe of beings besides."
In whatever sense we understand the words, they convey to us this important truth: that the awakened sinner is forced to take all his encouragement from God, and not from himself. All his trust is in God’s mercy, and he is brought to a beneficial self-despair.
Having viewed Ephraim under the preparatory work of legal conviction, and the dawn of evangelical repentance; let us now view him,
2. In the second place, as reflecting upon the surprising power of grace he had sought, and which was bestowed upon him in answer to his prayer. In this we see nature and signs of true repentance. We left him just now crying, "bring me back that I may be restored!" And here we find him actually turned: "For after I had turned away, I relented (most trans: repented), and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh!" When the Lord exerts his power to subdue the stubbornness of the sinner, and graciously to allure him to himself—then the sinner repents; then his heart dissolves in sincere, unselfish relenting. His sorrow and concern before conversion are forced and motivated only by sinful gain; they are brought about only by a selfish fear of punishment, and he would willingly get rid of them! But now, his grief is free and spontaneous; it flows from his heart as freely as streams from a fountain! He now takes pleasure in tender avowings before the Lord for his sin; he delights to be humble, and to feel his heart dissolve within him. A heart of flesh, soft and susceptive to impression, is his choice; and a stony, insensible heart a great burden. The more penitent—the more happy; and the more senseless—the more miserable he finds himself.
Now also, his heart is motivated by a generous concern for the glory of God. Now also, he sees the horrid evil of sin as contrary to the holiness of God, and an ungrateful payment for his uninterrupted kindness. We learn from this passage, that the true penitent is aware of a mighty turn in his temper and inclinations. Surely “I had turned away, I relented." His whole soul is turned from what he formerly delighted in—and turned to what he had no relish for before. Particularly his thoughts, his will, and affections are turned to God. There is a heavenly bias communicated to them—which draws them to holiness; like the law of gravity in the material world.
There is indeed a new turn given to his outward actions; the world may in some measure see that he is a new man; but this is not all; the first spring that turns all the wheels of the soul and actions of life is the heart—and this is first set right. The change on the inside is as evident as the change on the outside, and if our eyes could penetrate the heart—we would clearly see the great change. In short, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come!" (2 Cor 5:17) Apply this standard to your hearts, I exhort you, and see if they will stand the test!
The penitent goes on, "after I was instructed,… I was ashamed!" The same grace that turns him—also instructs him; More than that, it is by unveiling to him the beauty of holiness, and the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, that it draws him. He is brought out of darkness, into marvellous and astonishing light, which surprises him with new discoveries of things! He is instructed particularly:
- as to the necessity of turning to God,
- as to the horrid ingratitude, vileness, and deformity of sin,
- and as to his folly and wickedness in continuing so long alienated from God.
(By the way, have you, here present, ever been let into these secrets?)
And when instructed in these, " I struck my thigh." This gesture denotes consternation and amazement; This action, therefore, of the penitent, shows what consternation and amazement he is cast into, when these new discoveries flash upon his soul. He stands amazed at himself. He is struck with horror to think what an ungrateful, ignorant, stupid wretch he has been all his life—until this happy moment! "Alas! what have I been doing? abusing all my days in ruining my own soul, and dishonouring the God of all my mercies! contentedly estranged from him, and not seeking to return! Where were my eyes, that I never before saw the horrid evil of my conduct and the shocking deformity of sin, which now opens to me in all its hideous colors! Amazing! that divine vengeance has not broken out upon me before now! Can it be that I am yet alive! Alive in the land of hope too! Yes, alive, a humble pardoned penitent! Let heaven and earth be astonished at this, for surely the sun never shone upon a wretch so undeserving! so great a monument of mercy!"
The pardoned penitent goes on: "I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth!"
We are ashamed when we are caught in a foul, vile and scandalous action! We blush, and are confounded, and do not know where to look, or what to say. And in this way the penitent is heartily ashamed of himself, when he thinks about the shameful dispositions he has indulged, and the vile and scandalous actions he has committed. He blushes under his own inspection; he is confounded at his own tribunal. He appears to himself—a foul, vile contemptible wretch; and, though the world may honor him—he loathes himself, as viler than the earth he treads on; and is secretly ashamed before men. And how then shall he appear before God? How shall he hold up his face in the presence of his offended Father?
He comes to God ashamed, and covering his head. He does not know what to say to him; he does not know how to look him in His face—but he falls down abashed and confounded at his feet. In this way penitent Ezra was ashamed before God. He fell on his knees, and lifted up his hands (his eyes, like the publican, he dared not lift up) to the heavens, and he says, " O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. (7) From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. … (10) “And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments!” (Ezra 9:5-10)
And so it was foretold concerning the repenting Jews. "Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed… that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth!" (Ezek 16:61-63) There is good reason for this conscious shame, and therefore it is enjoined as a duty: "Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel!" (Ezek 36:32)
And what is the cause of this shame in the mourning penitent? "Oh," he says, "it is because I bear the disgrace of my youth!" That is, "I carry upon myself (as is the meaning in the original) the mark of infamy. My youth, alas! was spent in a thoughtless neglect of God and the duties I owed him; my vigorous days were wasted in sensual extravagances, and gratifying my carnal inclinations. My prime of life, which should have been sacred to the author of my existence, was spent in rebellion against him! Alas! my first thoughts, my first love, did not aspire to him; nor did my young desires, look up to heaven. In short, the tendency of my heart, and the course of my life, from when I was first able to reason—to this happy hour of my conversion, were a disgrace to my rational nature! I have degraded myself beneath the beasts which perish!"
As the Lord says to Ezekiel "Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations." (Ezek 36:31) And how amazing is the grace of God—to honor so base a wretch with a place among the children of his love!
And so we have a picture of the heart of penitent Ephraim. Let me ask you, all of you here present—is this your picture? Have you ever felt such sincere relentings, such just consternation, such holy shame and confusion? There can be no transition from nature to grace, from death to life, without these. You all bear the disgrace of your youth, you have all spent some unhappy days in the scandalous ways of sin, and your consciences still bear the mark of infamy. And have you ever been made deeply aware of it? Has God ever heard you bemoaning yourselves privately in some mournful solitude, "You disciplined me like an untrained calf, and I have been restored." Is there any such mourner here this day? Then listen to the gracious voice of your heavenly Father, while,
3. In the third place, I am illustrating the last, the sweetest part of the text, which expresses the tender compassion of God towards mourning penitents. While they are bemoaning their case, and conscious that they do not deserve one look of love from God—he is described as attentively listening to catch the first penitential groan which breaks from their hearts.
Ephraim, in the depth of his despondency, probably could hardly hope that God took any notice of his secret sorrows, which he hid as much as possible from the public view. But God did hear him—God was watching to hear the first mournful cry; and he repeats all his complaints, to let him know (after the manner of men) what particular notice he had taken of them. “I have heard” or as other translations have it "I have surely heard, or hearing I have heard." That is, "I have attentively heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus!"
What strong consolation may this give to desponding mourners, who think themselves neglected by that God to whom they are pouring out their earnest supplications! He hears your secret groans, he sees your sighs, and puts your tears into his bottle! His eyes penetrate all the secrets of your heart, and he observes all their feeble struggles to turn to himself; and he beholds you—not as an unconcerned spectator—but with all the tender emotions of fatherly compassion! For, while he is listening to Ephraim's mournful complaints, he abruptly breaks in on him, and surprises him with the warmest declarations of pity and grace:
"Is this Ephraim, my dear son, whose mourning voice I hear? Is this my pleasant child, the child of my delights, who thus wounds my ear with his heart-rending groans?" What strange language is this—to an ungrateful, unyielding rebel, who continued obstinate—until he was wearied out; who would not turn—until drawn; who deserved to fall a victim to justice! This is the language of compassion all divine, of grace that befits a God.
This passage contains a most encouraging truth: that, however vile and abandoned a sinner has been—yet at his repentance, he becomes God's dear son, his favourite child! God will, from that moment, regard him, provide for him, protect him, and bring him to his heavenly inheritance, as his son and heir! "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!" (Rom 8:38-39) Nothing shall separate him from his father's love—but he shall inherit all things, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” (Rom 8:17) Yes, all things are his already in title, and he shall be made "greater than the kings of the earth!" He shall be made such as befits so dignified a relation as that of a son to the King of kings, and Lord of lords!
And is this not sufficient to attract all here present to their Father's house? Can you resist the almighty force of such compassion?
Return, you who are perishing! Though you have sinned against Heaven, and before your Father, and are not worthy to be called his son—yet return, and you shall be made his dear son—the child in whom He delights! Are none of you in need of such strong consolation as this? Do you need encouragement to return, and are you ready to spring up and run to your Father's arms at the first assurance of acceptance? If this is what you need, you have abundant encouragement. Are all your souls then in motion to return? Does that eye which darts through the whole creation at once, now see your hearts moving towards God? Or am I wasting these gracious encouragements upon dull creatures, void of sense, who do not care for them; or that are so conceited of their own worth, as not to need them? If so, I retract these consolations, with respect to you, and shall shortly tell you of your doom!
But let us look further into these outpourings of paternal pity: " For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still." Many and dreadful were the threatenings denounced against the sinner, while impenitent; and, had he continued impenitent, they would certainly have been executed upon him. But the primary and immediate purpose of the threatenings, are to make men happy—and not to make them miserable! They are designed to deter them from disobedience, which naturally leads to misery; or to reclaim them from it, which is but to restrain them in their career to ruin.
And consequently these threatenings proceed from divine love—as well as the promises of our God; from love to the person, though from hatred to sin. So the same love which prompts a parent to promise a reward to his son for obedience, will prompt him also to threaten him, if he takes some dangerous weapon to play with.
And so when the primary end of the divine threatenings, namely, the deterring and reclaiming men from disobedience, is not obtained—then it becomes necessary that they should be executed upon the impenitent in all their dreadful extent! But when the sinner is brought to repentance, and to submit to the divine government, then all these threatenings are repealed, and they will not hurt one hair of his head! And the sinner himself will acknowledge that these threatenings proved necessary mercies to him, and that the threatening of everlasting punishment was one means of bringing him to everlasting happiness, and that divine vengeance in this sense conspired with divine grace—to save him!
Consider this, you who are desponding penitents, and dispel your terrors. That God, who has written such bitter things against you in his Word; earnestly and affectionately remembers you still, and it was with a kind intent to you that he thundered out these terrors at which you tremble. These acids, this bitter medicines, were necessary for your salvation. These coals of fire were necessary to awaken you out of your sleep. Therefore read the love of your Father, even in these solemn warnings. He affectionately remembers you still; he cannot put you out of his thoughts.
Therefore my heart is troubled for him—“my heart yearns for him!" adds the all-gracious Jehovah! This is astonishing beyond conception! How can we bear up under such words as these? Surely they must break our hearts, and overwhelm our spirits! Here the great God, who has millions of holy beings to serve him, and who is absolutely independent of them all—is troubled, his very heart troubled—for a rebellious, useless, trifling worm! Surely this is profoundly astonishing.
And is this true? Surely, these words are not to be taken literally, as though God were capable of sorrow, or any of the human passions! But he here condescends to adapt himself to the language of mortals, and to borrow such images as will convey to us the most lively ideas of his grace and tenderness to mourning penitents. And no image can answer this end better than that of a father, whose affections are yearning over his mourning child, prostrate at his feet, and who, with eager embraces, raises him up, assuring him of pardon and acceptance!
If any of you know what it is to receive a penitent child in this manner, while all the fatherly emotions are working within you—you may have some idea of the readiness of our heavenly Father to receive returning sinners from this tender illustration.
The Lord concludes this moving speech with a promise that includes in it—more than we can ask or think, sealed with his own sacred name. "I will surely have mercy on him!" That is, "I will show abundant mercy to him! I will give him all the blessings which infinite mercy can bestow!"
What more can be needed? This promise includes pardon, acceptance, sanctification, joy in the Holy Spirit, peace of conscience, and immortal life and glory in the eternal world! Truly! what a God, what a Father is this! "Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. (19) He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea!" Micah 7:18-19
And can you, you who mourn, can you fear being rejected by such a tender Father? Can you be afraid to rest on such abundant mercies? Is there a person who is mourning in this assembly? I may call you, as God did Adam, "Ephraim, where are you?"
Let the Word of God find you out, and force a little encouragement upon you: "Your heavenly Father, whose angry hand you fear, is listening to your groans, and will measure you out a mercy—for every groan; a blessing—for every sigh; a large portion of consolation—for every tear. His affections yearn for you, and he addresses you in such language as this, "Is this my dear son? is this my darling child?"
And as to you, you sturdy impenitents, you abandoned worldlings, you careless formalists, you almost Christians; can you hear these things—and not begin now to relent? Do you not find your frozen hearts begin to thaw within you? Can you resist such alluring grace? Can you bear the thoughts of continuing to be enemies to so good, so forgiving a Father? Does not Ephraim's sincere petition now rise in your hearts, "bring me back that I may be restored?" If so, praise be to God on this happy day; you have this day become God's dear sons, the children of his delight.
But is there a wretch so senseless, so wicked, so abandoned to sin—as to refuse to return? Where are you, hardy rebel? Stand up and meet the terrors of your doom! To you I must change my tone, and instead of describing the tender compassions of a father—I must proclaim the terrors of an angry judge:
Your doom is declared and fixed—by the same lips which speak to penitents in such encouraging words; by those gracious lips that never uttered a harsh reproach. ‘God is indignant with you every day!’ (Psalm 7:11) "Unless you repent, you will… perish!" Luke 13:3. The example of Christ authorizes me to repeat it again; " Unless you repent, you will (surely) perish!" (v.5) ‘The God who made you—will have no compassion on you! And he who formed you—will show you no favor.’ Isaiah 26:11. "You are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed!" (Rom 2:5)
Hear the words of Nahum: “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. (3) The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. (4) He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. (5) The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it. (6) Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.” (Nah 1:2-6 ESV)
These awful threats, sinners, are aimed at your heart, and if you can harden yourself against their terror—then let me read you your doom before we part! You have it pronounced by God himself in the book of Deuteronomy: “Beware lest there be among you … one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (20) The LORD will not be willing to forgive him, but rather the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and the curses written in this book will settle upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. (21) And the LORD will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for calamity, in accordance with all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.” (Deu 29:19-21 ESV)
And now, stubborn sinner, if you can return home careless and senseless with this heavy curse upon you—do not expect a word of comfort; do not expect any blessing—until you are made truly penitent! ‘For how shall I bless—those whom God has not blessed?’ (Num 23:8. 20)
The blessing of our text may fall upon one on your right hand, and one on your left hand—but the curse is your lot! And this curse—you must have from the hand of God himself! If you continue hardened and insolent in sin—you must lie down in eternal sorrow! "Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!" Psalm 50:22