GOD’S CONDESCENSION AND GRACE
Amos 5:8-9. The Lord is his name; that strengtheneth the spoiled against the strong, so that the spoiled shall come against the fortress.
IN our public addresses, we feel peculiar satisfaction in entering upon subjects which admit of no dispute, and on which all considerate persons are agreed. That we ought to seek after God, is universally admitted: and as that is the one duty inculcated in the passage before us, the whole scope of our present discourse will be to recommend the performance of it. In the preceding context, Jehovah, speaking to the whole house of Israel says, “Seek ye me, and ye shall live.” Immediately afterwards, the prophet himself enforces the exhortation, and adds, “Seek ye the Lord, and ye shall live; lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it..…Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion..…the Lord of Hosts is his name; that strengthened the spoiled against the strong, so that the spoiled shall come against the fortress:” that is, ‘Seek Him, who, being the Creator and Governor of all things, possesseth all power to avenge himself upon you for your neglect of him, or to give success to your feeble endeavours.’
To enforce yet further the prophet’s admonition, I will set before you,
I. The character of Jehovah, as here portrayed—
Let us notice,
1. His condescension—
[There is no person so low or so despised among men, but God will condescend to look upon him with tender compassion. Human beings can scarcely be conceived in a more degraded situation than the Hebrews in Egypt were: yet of them God says, “I have seen their affliction; I have heard their cry; I know their sorrows [Note: Exodus 3:7.].” And at a subsequent period, when they were reduced to the utmost distress by the Ammonites, we are told, “His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel [Note: Judges 10:16.].” The same compassion does he exercise towards his oppressed people in every age. So “afflicted is he in all their afflictions [Note: Isaiah 63:9.],” that “the touching of them is like touching the apple of his eye [Note: Zechariah 2:8.]; and he will interpose for them, however low they be: “he will raise up the poor out of the dust, and lift up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit a throne of glory [Note: 1 Samuel 2:8.].” Notwithstanding “he is the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity,” and “humbleth himself when he beholds the things that are in heaven;” yet will he “look upon him that is poor and of a contrite spirit [Note: Genesis 17:1.],” yea, and “dwell with him too, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
But that which we are more particularly to notice, is,]
2. His power—
[As he is Almighty in himself, so is he “the strength of his people [Note: Psalms 29:11.];” even “the saving strength of his anointed [Note: Psalms 28:8.].” “He is a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall [Note: Isaiah 25:4.]:” nor does he ever interpose for his people with greater pleasure than when he sees them reduced to the lowest possible state of want and misery [Note: Deuteronomy 32:36.].
Perhaps the particular occurrence referred to by the prophet may be that of the victories granted to Joash over the triumphant and oppressive Syrians. Hazael, king of Syria had so reduced the power of Israel, that “he had left to king Jehoahaz only fifty horsemen, and ten chariots, and ten thousand footmen.” To Joash, the son and successor of Jehoahaz, God promised deliverance from Syria: and if Joash had expressed that zeal in his country’s cause, and that confidence in God, which became him, his victories over Syria would have been complete. As it was, we are told that “he took out of the hand of Benhadad, the son of Hazael, the cities which Hazael had taken from Jehoahaz by war; that three times did he beat Benhadad, and recovered the cities of Israel [Note: 2 Kings 13:7; 2 Kings 13:17-19; 2 Kings 13:25.].” To this event, I say, the prophet is supposed more particularly to allude. But, in the history of Israel, such instances were without number. The deliverance of Israel from Egypt, the destruction of Jericho by the sound of rams’ horns, and of Midian by the lamps and pitchers of Gideon, clearly shew, that God can save equally by many or by few, and that those who trust in him shall never be confounded.
If, on the other hand, we suppose this exercise of God’s power to be mentioned with a view to awe the Israelites into submission, it may well be interpreted in that view. The whole nation, both of Israel and Judah, placed an undue reliance on their relation to God, and could not conceive that their enemies should ever be suffered finally to prevail against them. A remarkable instance of this occurred in the days of Zedekiah, king of Judah. The Chaldeans besieged him in Jerusalem: but, on Pharaoh’s coming from Egypt to succour him, the Chaldeans raised the siege. This departure of the Chaldean army raised the confidence of Zedekiah, that he had no just ground for fear. But Jeremiah was commanded to tell him, that the Egyptian army should soon return to their own land; that the Chaldeans should immediately resume the siege; and that, “though he had smitten the whole army of the Chaldeans, so that there remained none but wounded men amongst them, yet should they, the wounded soldiers, rise up every man in his tent, and burn Jerusalem with fire [Note: Jeremiah 37:5-10.].”
This latter interpretation of the words seems countenanced by the menace which has been before mentioned; where the prophet says, “Seek ye the Lord, lest he break forth like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, and there be none to quench it in Beth-el.”]
According to this twofold view of the character of Jehovah, we must state,
The ends for which it is adduced—
1. As a warning to those who seek him not—
[To every creature under heaven must we declare, that “God is very greatly to be feared:” “Forasmuch as there is none like unto thee, O Lord: thou art great, and thy name is great in might: who would not fear thee, O God of nations [Note: Jeremiah 10:6-7.]?” If he is “able to save, he is able also to destroy.” In whatever fortresses any be entrenched, “their refuges of lies shall be swept away, and the flood of Divine vengeanee shall overflow their hiding-place [Note: Isaiah 28:15; Isaiah 28:17.].” They may in their own conceit “make a covenant with death and hell;” but “their covenant with death shall be disannulled, and their agreement with hell shall not stand: when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, they shall be trodden down by it [Note: Isaiah 28:18.].” What is said in relation to Moab may be spoken in reference to all who cast off the fear of God; “they shall be trodden down by him, even as straw is trodden down for the dunghill: and he shall spread forth his hands, as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim; and he shall bring down their pride, together with the spoils of their hands: and the fortress of the high fort of thy walls shall he bring down, lay low, and bring to the ground, even to the dust [Note: The image of a swimmer advancing himself, whilst with his hands he irresistibly sweeps away the waters, beautifully illustrates God’s advancing his own glory in the destruction of all his enemies.].”
To those, then, who are living without God in the world, I would suggest this awful consideration: God is “of great power and of terrible majesty;” and when he riseth up, who then can resist him [Note: Job 31:14.]? or who can stand in his sight when he is angry [Note: Deuteronomy 4:24.]? Verily, “He is a consuming fire [Note: Psalms 76:7.].” Who then would set briers and thorns against him in battle? He would go through them, and burn them up together. “Seek ye, then, his face:” seek him as he is revealed to you in the Gospel of his Son: seek him as reconciled to you by the blood of the cross: seek him also speedily, and with your whole hearts: for I must declare to you, that “there is no escape to those who neglect his great salvation [Note: Hebrews 2:3.];” and that, “though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished [Note: Proverbs 11:21.].”]
2. As an encouragement to those who desire his favour—
[Many are ready to despond on account of their own weakness, and of the power of their enemies. But if God be our strength and our salvation, whom need we fear? “If he be for us, who, with any prospect of success, can be against us?” Hear how he chides the indulgence of a desponding thought: “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary; there is no searching of his understanding? He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint [Note: Isaiah 40:27-31.].” Let not any one then shrink back from the contest, how weak soever he himself may be, or however potent his enemies. Aided by God, “a worm shall thresh the mountains [Note: Isaiah 41:14-15.]:” and the weakest creature in the universe may say with Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me [Note: Philippians 4:13.].” In truth, a sense of weakness, so far from being any ground of discouragement, is rather a ground of hope; because “God will perfect his own strength in our weakness.” We are told that God bringeth down them that dwell on high; the lofty city, he layeth it low; he layeth it low, even to the ground; he bringeth it even to the dust.” But whom does he employ in this work? The strong and mighty? No: it is added, “The foot shall tread it down, even the feet of the poor, and the steps of the needy [Note: Isaiah 26:5-6.].” Whoever then ye be, go forward. Though seas of difficulty be before you, I say to you, as God did to Moses, “Wherefore criest thou unto me? Say unto the children of Israel, that they go forward [Note: Exodus 14:15.].” Do you doubt whether success shall attend your efforts? Look at the example of David: see his triumphs, and his acknowledgments [Note: 2 Samuel 22:2-20. This whole passage should be cited. See also ver. 30–41.] — — — and doubt not, but that if you seek God, and confide in him as David did, like him you shall be more than conquerors, through Him that loveth you.]
GOD KNOWS OUR SINS
Amos 5:12. I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins.
MANY passages of Holy Writ appear to refer to a particular people only; whilst in reality, they are applicable to all mankind. Whoever shall consult the passages cited by St. Paul in the third chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, in confirmation of the total depravity of mankind, and compare them with the places from whence they are taken, will be particularly struck with the truth of this remark. The Prophets David and Isaiah speak of certain individuals whose iniquities were of a most enormous kind; but St. Paul proves from them the depravity of human-nature in general: and this he does with great propriety: for, though all persons do not run to the same extent of wickedness, all have the same propensities within them: and if persons enjoying all the advantages of revelation abandoned themselves to such wickedness, it must arise, not from the peculiarity of their trials, but from the inward depravity of their hearts. This observation was applicable to the passage before us. The prophet, or rather God by him, is addressing a people who violated all the duties of social and civil life; and is denouncing his judgments against them for the sins which they so openly committed: but the same address may be justly made to every child of man: for all are corrupt and abominable in their doings; “all of which are naked and opened before the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”
Let us consider,
I. The information here given us—
Men conceive of God as not noticing their sins: “They say in their hearts, The thick clouds are a covering to him, that he cannot see.” But he does see the sins of all mankind: he sees them,
1. In all their extent and variety—
[From infancy to age his eye is upon us. Scarcely do we draw our breath, before we begin to shew what fallen creatures we are; how irritable, how self-willed, how querulous, how addicted to every evil which we are capable of committing. As our powers of acting are enlarged, our habit of sinning is proportionably increased; every faculty displaying those corruptions which are most suited to its powers, and to the exercise of which it can most easily contribute. As reason expands, we might hope that it should assume the government of our lives: but it is soon overpowered by passion; and its voice, if heard at all, is lost amidst the pleasures and vanities of a tempting world. So universal is this, that all expect, as a matter of course, to behold increasing corruptions with increasing years; the exhibition of them varying with the successive periods of life: in the young, the passions pleading for indulgence; in maturer age, the desire of distinction urging and impelling us; and, in our latter years, the cares of this life, or the deceitfulness of riches, occupying all our time and thoughts. All this has God beheld; and not a disposition or desire has been hid from him.
The sins of body and of mind have been alike open to him. Each of these has its appropriate lusts: there is a “filthiness both of the flesh and of the spirit,” from which we are alike concerned to “cleanse ourselves.” Intemperance, lewdness, sloth, have, in different men, their sway, according as education or constitutional propensity incline them. And in the mind, what an inconceivable mass of iniquity resides, ever ready to start forth into action, as occasion may require! Oh the pride, the envy, the malice, the wrath, the revenge, the uncharitableness, which shew themselves in our daily life and conversation! Add to these the murmuring, and discontent, and covetousness; the self-confidence and self-dependence; and the entire devotion to self-gratification in the whole of our conduct. What an accumulation of wickedness must arise from a life so spent, when, in fact, “every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts is evil, only evil, continually!”
Of omission, too, as well as of commission, does he behold our sins. He tries us by the standard of his perfect law, which requires that we should love him with all our heart and mind and soul and strength; and that we should live in an entire dependence on his care, and for the purpose only of advancing his glory. But in our whole lives there has not been one single moment in which we have conformed to his law, or come near to the line which he has marked out for us. To his dear Son, also, what gratitude, what affiance, what devotion have we owed! Yet have we been almost strangers to these holy feelings; and, even at the present moment, possess them in no degree comparable to what his love to us requires. Nor have we obeyed the motions of his Holy Spirit, but rather have done despite to him every day we lived. What have the interests of our souls and of eternity demanded? Yet, in what way have we discharged the debt?
Surely, if we put together these things, we must confess that our “transgressions” have been “manifold;” yea, more in number than the hairs of our head, or “as the sands upon the sea-shore innumerable.”]
2. In all their heinousness and aggravations—
[Our sins have been committed against light and knowledge. Though we have not known the extent of our duty to God, we have known far more of it than we have ever practised. No one of us has been so ignorant, as not to see the importance of eternal things, when compared with the things of time and sense; and, consequently, the duty of giving them a precedence, both in our estimation and pursuit. But have we felt the same ardour in relation to them that we have in prosecuting the vanities of this present world? Alas! If we had paid no more attention to our temporal concerns than we have to those which are spiritual and eternal, we should have had very little prosperity to boast of; or rather I should say, there would have been but one sentiment respecting us, among all who knew us.
Against vows and resolutions, too, we have proceeded in this mad career. I conceive there is not any one amongst us so obdurate, as not to have formed some purposes of amendment. At the death of a friend or relative, or in a time of sickness, when our own dissolution seemed to be drawing near, or perhaps after an awakening sermon, we have thought that to humble ourselves before God, and seek acceptance with him, was our duty: but the impression has soon worn away, and, like metal that has been fused, we have soon returned to our wonted hardness. Possibly we may have begun and made some progress in religion, and given to our friends hopes that we would really turn unto our God: but we have been drawn aside by temptation, and have “turned back with the dog to his vomit, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”
Above all, we have sinned against all the mercies and the judgments of God. We have seen his judgments upon others, yet have not returned unto him ourselves. We have perhaps felt them in some measure ourselves, yet have made no suitable improvement of them. As for mercies, they have followed us night and day, from our youth up: yet to how little effect, as it regards our souls! That greatest of all mercies, the gift of God’s only-begotten Son to die for us, one would suppose that that should have altogether constrained us to live unto our God. But that stupendous mystery has appeared to us only as a cunningly-devised fable, which might amuse us awhile, but which merited no practical regard. Indeed, if Christianity had been altogether false, few of us would have materially differed from what we have been; for we have neither been allured by its promises, nor alarmed by its threats, so as to comply with its dictates in any essential point.
Is this matter over-stated? Do we not know it to be true? and has not God witnessed it in all its parts? Yes: as he has seen “our manifold transgressions,” so has he also known “our mighty sins,” and recorded every one of them in the book of his remembrance.]
Such is the information given us in our text: and it becomes us to consider,
The use we should make of it—
Certainly, in the first place,
1. We should beg of God to discover to us the real state of our souls—
[We know it not, though it is so plain and palpable. We are ready to account ourselves, if not positively good, yet far from bad. The sins of which we are conscious, appear only like the stars in a cloudy night, few in number, and at great intervals; whereas, if we saw ourselves as we really are, the whole extent of our lives would present to us but one continuous mass of sins, of a greater or lesser magnitude. But who can open our eyes? Who can shew us to ourselves? Who can bring us to a becoming sense of our extreme vileness? None but God. It is he alone who can open to our view “the chambers of imagery” which are in our hearts; and shew us, that instead of our being, as we vainly imagine, “rich, and increased with goods, and in need of nothing, we are indeed wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.”]
2. We should entreat him to humble us in the dust before him—
[It is God alone who can “give repentance:” he alone can take away the heart of stone, and give us a heart of flesh. Who was it that made the difference between Lydia and the other hearers of St. Paul? It was “the Lord, who opened her heart to attend to the things that were spoken by him.” And it is the same power alone that can turn us from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God. And let us remember, that humiliation for sin is necessary: it is indispensably necessary for our acceptance with God. God himself has declared, that “whoso covereth his sins shall not prosper; and that he only who confesseth and forsaketh them, shall find mercy at his hands.”]
3. We should look to our Lord Jesus Christ, as our only hope—
[If we conceive our sins to have been only light and venial, we shall easily persuade ourselves that we can make compensation for them by some works of our own. And it is owing to men’s ignorance of their own hearts, that they so generally hope to establish a righteousness of their own by the works of the law. But that vain thought must be discarded with abhorrence. We must renounce all hope in ourselves; and “flee for refuge to that hope which is set before us, even to the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that he might atone for our sins, and effect a reconciliation for us with our offended God. Be assured, Brethren, that there is no other way unto the Father than by Christ. If you were to shed rivers of tears, you could never wash away one sin; nor, if you could walk ever so holily in future, could you ever atone for the smallest sin. How then can you hope to wash away or make atonement for all your manifold transgressions, and your mighty sins? Indeed, you must look to Christ as your only hope, and transfer to his sacred head the sins you have committed, exactly as Aaron transferred to the head of the scape-goat the sins of all Israel. It is in this way alone that they can ever be removed from your souls: and if not so removed, they will sink your souls into everlasting perdition.]
4. We should walk with all possible circumspection before God—
[Having so long exercised the patience of our God, we ought to determine, through grace, that we will offend him no more. However careful we may be, imperfection will pervade our very best services. But let it be imperfection only, and not wilful sin, that God shall see in us in future. Let there be no allowed guile in our hearts. Let us search out our duty in its full extent, and endeavour to fulfil it; attending to it in all its parts, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Let it henceforth be the one labour of our lives to “keep a conscience void of offence before God,” if by any means we may approve ourselves to him, and “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God.”]