Leviticus 26:23, “If ye will not be reformed by me by these things, but will walk contrary unto me, then will I also walk contrary unto you, and will punish you yet seven times for your sins.”
DOCTRINE: The great design of all God’s judgments on a professing people is to reform them.
The word signifies to bind, and metaphorically to chasten, and then metonymically, to reform or reclaim, that being its desirable genuine effect; and so it must be here understood. When I say this is the design, I do not speak of the end of the purpose which is secret, but of the precept which requires it, and of the providence, which is said to speak about it. This then is the revealed and proposed end. This may be opened and cleared in a few things.
1. That public calamities may be the lot of a professing people to meet with. This needs no proof, in being so manifestly exemplified in the providence of God, in all the ages of the church, that we may as well question the suns shining at noon day in a clear sky. The true emblem of the militant church is a bush on fire. Such a people are obnoxious to God, to devils, and to wicked men, and there are occasions for expecting them to meet with trouble from them all.
2. That usually they procure these afflictions to themselves by some apostasy. God may indeed exercise them for the trial of their obedience, and sincerity in it. Afflictions which are merely probationary are not only suffered personally, but may be publicly too; did not God do so by the kingdom of Judah under Hezekiah, in the time of a most zealous and thorough reformation? And there is an astonishment put on it, (2 Chron. 32:1ff). “After these things, and the establishment thereof,” etc. But, though God sometimes, for holy ends, in this way uses his sovereignty, for the most part there has some great provocation or other gone before, which procured these troubles for them. And this is very agreeable to the tenor of the covenant, in which God has engaged to bestow his favors on a people, that walk before him in the truth, and therefore the apostle has such a challenge, 1 Peter 3:13, “Who is he that will harm you, if you be followers of that which is good?” And God himself in this way expostulates with his people, when they were suffering his judgments, Jer. 2:17, “Hast thou not procured this to thyself, in that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God?”
3. That here these judgments are God’s testimony that he bears against that sin. And they are the discoveries which he makes of the displeasure that he takes at it. They are the tokens of his anger by which he gives them to understand how ill he resents it that they have broken his laws, and gone back from his command. These therefore are, in scripture language, called his anger, his wrath, his displeasure; because they are the discoveries of it. When he brings them on men, they feel those things which speaks about him as offended at them. They are such things as are accustomed in men to proceed from such a passion; and are ascribed to him after the manner of men, in whom are no passions properly so called.
4. They are of the discipline which God, by covenant, engages to exercise towards his people. It is therefore one article mentioned in the covenant on this hypothesis, Psalm 89:30, etc. “If his children forsake my law,” etc. “Then will I visit their transgressions with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes.” And the apostle expresses it as so, Heb. 12:6, “He scourgeth every son whom be receiveth,” i.e., “he receiveth” him on such terms. It is therefore called a rod, which is used for discipline, and not for ruin. They are called corrections, which, though they have anger in them, and suppose a fault which procures them, is yet tempered with love which manages the anger for good. And always, correction is administered for reformation of the party that undergoes it.
5. These judgments are to be annumerated to the long-suffering which God uses towards a sinning people. This therefore is attributed to him and is to be read in these dispensations. As he waits before he smites them, so he waits in smiting of them, and what is this for, but to see for their amendment if it may in this way be obtained? Consider then, Hosea 5:15, “I will go,” etc. “In their affliction they will seek me early.” And indeed, there is a great deal of mercy in it; God corrects when he might cut off; he afflicts instead of destroying, which they deserved, and might have suffered, if he had strained the advantage offered him. This is the church’s acknowledgment, Lam. 3:22, “it is of the Lord’s mercy that we are not consumed.” And so the good man in Nehemiah 9:31, “For thy great mercies sake, thou didst not utterly consume them.”
6. God is accustomed, with these judgments, to send them invitations to repentance, and offers of his favors if they repent. This is a privilege that a people in covenant with God enjoy, that not only does he warn and advise them before he strikes, so that, if it might be, blows might be prevented, but while he is striking them as well. He calls on them now to consider their ways, Haggai 1:5, “Whiles they are under afflictions.” He tells them that he does not thirst for their blood, or seek opportunities to ruin them; but would have them to turn that they may prevent it, and he declares it solemnly. Ezekiel 33:11, “As I live, I delight not in the death,” etc. “Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die, Oh house of Israel?” And he declares that if they do turn he will receive them, and turn his anger away from them Jer. 3:22, “Return ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings;” and so chapter 4:1.
7. God has been accustomed, on their reformation, to avert his judgments from his people. This is a course that has not failed. How often did he do so for his people of old! As we shall find on record in biblical history. No, such has been the pity which he has extended to them in this regard, that when their reformation has been feigned, and not upright, yet he has delivered them out of everything, and that many a time, as is intimated in Psalm 78:34. How much more then will he do so when it is hearty, and sincere? It is a very remarkable passage in Judges 10:15-16.
8. Therefore, the reason why God has at any time proceeded to extirpate a professing people has been their impenitence. When neither word nor rod, neither warnings nor judgments would prevail with them to return, but they have remained obstinate under all; see an account of this, 2 Chron. 36:15-16, he waited until there was no remedy; no other course to be taken. All their other provocations, though never so many and heinous, would never have brought it to this, if they had not added contumacy to their apostasy; Therefore, we have God using of that expostulation with them, (Isaiah 48:18-19).
Use 1. Learn from this, that if a professing people perish at last, they must blame themselves. Well might God say to them as he did, Hosea 13:9, “Oh Israel! Thou hast destroyed thyself.” All the sore judgments and calamities, which God brings on a sinning people, are not in themselves any symptom of their ruin; are not a sure token that God has forsaken them; though sometimes sinners, when sorely visited, they are ready to say, “my God has forgotten me.” But on the other hand, there is an argument that God is loath to destroy them, and therefore he first tries whether by such judgments this may not be prevented. What the apostle says in, 1 Cor. 11:32, “When we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world,” is applicable here. God by afflicting of a sinful people, shows that he would not destroy them, unless they themselves are resolved in their own destruction. There is a voice in the rod, and he would have them to hear it, and him who has appointed it, (Micah 6:9). And he has more than once said it, that if they will hear it shall be well with them for all. If then they will not hear, but stop their ears at this voice, and harden their hearts against the advice of it, and so they perish, where is the fault?
Use 2. Let this then serve to point us to our present duty. It tells us what it is that is now incumbent on us. We are a people whom God has taken near to himself, who have been privileged with his covenant favors and blessings; whom he has done many and great things for. But he has signally altered the course of his providence towards us and brought us under his rod; his hand is many ways out against us, and we are made low. He has wasted us by striking us many ways, and we are reduced to great distresses. And what is all this for but our iniquities? If we had not revolted from him, he would not have afflicted us. Our peace, and our prosperity might have continued uninterrupted, and he would have delighted in it. What then remains, but that we set on a real and a thorough reformation? And let us be serious in it. Are there not the things among us that need reforming? Is there not a fearful decay of love, and zeal, and holiness among us? Is not almost everything that can be thought of out of order among us? And is our God now manifesting of the dislike that he takes at it? What have we to do then, but to set on this work in good earnest? Let all orders of men be invited to it. Let us all search, and try, and turn, (Lam. 3:40). And to move us to this, consider:
1. God is waiting to be gracious. Whatever displays he gives us of his righteous anger, and they are awful, yet still he is to be sought in the way of his judgments, (Isa. 26:8). Though he is scourging of us by his afflictive providences, yet he is still hearkening to hear if there be any inclination in us this way; if there is the least motions or stirrings in our hearts towards it; and he will take it well of us if there is; he therefore makes that complaint on this account, Jer. 8:6, “I hearkened and heard, but none spake aright,” etc.
2. Listen, if we do reform, there is hope. May we not say as he did in Ezra 10:2-3, “We have trespassed against our God, yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing, now therefore let us make a covenant with our God.” And observe what great encouragement there is given for our so doing, Joel 2:12, etc. “God is merciful and gracious, and ready to repent of the evil, and he has his end in smiting of us.” If this may but be obtained, the design of corrective providences is fully answered, and so the controversy is ended when once it arrives at this. Why then do we sit still? Why do we pine away in our iniquities because we do not put them away from us? Let us be up and doing, and the Lord will accept of us.