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January 25, 1708.
GOD HIDING HIS FACE FROM BACKSLIDERS.
ISAIAH lxiv. 7,
And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.
THIS chapter contains a prayer of the church in great distress, in which they plead with God for his return, confess their sin, and lament their case. In the sixth verse, they lament their sinfulness and misery, and here they bewail the helplessness of it, and the improbability of their recovery.
The time to which this relates is twofold; namely, the Babylonish captivity, and the final rejection of the Jews. This prophecy was before the Babylonish captivity, and that it hath a respect unto it, will scarcely be doubted; but that it looks further, is clear from the Lord's answer to the prayer, Isa. lxv. 1. Whence we observe, that though some are willing to part with Christ, he will always find others ready to entertain him.
In the text we have mentioned the general neglect of the duty, to which their circumstances called them: "There is none that calleth upon thy name." We are not to understand it, as if there were simply none at all; for in the worst of times, the Lord had always a remnant, that would not, for their part, give consent to his departure. The Lord reserved seven thousand in Elijah's days; but comparatively, there were so very few, that they were next to none, and could hardly be discerned amongst the multitude.
We have, also, the woful frame and temper of the spirits of professors in that day. "None stirreth up himself to take hold of thee." There was a general deadness and indifference, nothing like an active vigilant frame. They were not exercised about the holding of Christ still, with themselves and with others. Their best friend is taking his departure from their house, but they are in bed; and though they may coldly cry out of their beds to bid him stay, yet they do not rise up, and resolutely take hold of him, and say they are resolved not to part with him. But for them he may go, if he will, they are indifferent.
DOCTRINE I. Though the Lord be on his way to depart, yet he may be holden still.
DOCTRINE II. When the Lord is on his way to go, it is high time for people to stir up themselves to hold him still.
DOCTRINE III. Sometimes religion is at such a low ebb amongst a professing people, that Christ may even go his way, for any that is to hold him still.
DOCTRINE I. Though the Lord be on his way to depart, yet he may be holden still. To confirm this, consider,
1. It is pure love that brings Christ to a people or person, Deut. vii. 6-8; and such you know, may easily be holden still. What should have brought him out of heaven, but love to the inhabitants of the earth. His delights were with the children of men. Had he not enough in the hallelujahs of angels in the bosom of the Father, or was there any attracting object here below? No, surely. If he would have them home to be his spouse, he behoved to wash his filthy bride in his own blood, before she could set her foot within his Father's house. Now, if he took such a journey to come, will he not stay if he get entertainment.
2. He is unwilling to go away, when he is come, and therefore he may be holden still. This appears, if you consider: 1. That our Lord waits long upon poor sinners, if so be they will be so wise as receive him. "Behold," says he, "I stand at the door and knock; if any man will hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with me." He waited one hundred and twenty years on the old world, in the days of Noah. He has waited long on Scotland, and yet he is not gone. He has waited at our doors on most of us, and he is still ready to embrace us. 2. Many times he enters on his way, and yet he turns back again, as if he could not obtain it of himself, to leave even a professing sinful generation, Hos. xi. 8, 9. How often did he leave the people of the Jews, before he parted with them altogether? Many good nights, is an evidence of unwillingness to go away. How often has he turned his back on Scotland, and yet come back again, even when he was almost out of sight; when we were ready to say, we shall not see the Lord, even the Lord in the land of the living. How can it be thus? Truly Christ is not so bound to any land, but he may leave it altogether. Look to the Jews, the seven churches of Asia, and others. The reasons are:There may be some hidden ones among them, so that he cannot leave a land altogether, till these be put out of harm's way Isa. lvii. 1, 2. Lot must be out of Sodom before it be destroyed. Again, there may be some chosen vessels in the loins of such a generation, as it was in the case of
that generation that came out of Egypt, with whom God bare forty years for their posterity's sake. He does it also for the glory of his patience. God will have it to be seen, that he delights in mercy, and that he does not execute his judgments on sinners, till they extort them out of his hands. Judgment is his strange act. Finally, God spares a wicked people, till the measure of their iniquity be filled up, and the cup be brim full, and then the last stroke comes, which compensates for its being so long a-coming, with the severity of it when it is come.
3. He gives frequent warning that he is going away ere he go; and why all that, but to stir up people to hold him still. Thus he warned the old world by Noah. Not a chop was laid on the ark, but it was a warning to them.
4. The breach never begins on his side, nor does he go while people are resolute to hold him still. See how he condescends to Abraham, Gen. xviii. 23-33; and how the Lord, by Paul and Barnabas, takes his leave of the Jews, Acts xiii. 46.
Finally, He has been holden still, when he was on his way to depart; and what has been, may be, Luke xxiv. 28, 29. The Moses, Exodus xxxii.
then the blame lies at our
spouse, Song iii. 4. Jacob, Gen. xxxii. USE 1. If the Lord depart from us, door, for then he may be holden still. The case of this land is very dangerous, yet it is not hopeless. Our Lord is yet within a cry, within the reach of prayers. If he go, for want of serious invitation from us to stay still, we are inexcusable. Alas! that there are so few stirring up themselves to take hold of him. I must needs say, that the empty seats in this kirk, on the fast day, are no good sign either for the land or the parish. If sitting at home, or going about their own work that day, was a way to hold Christ still in the land, I am much mistaken. Surely, the people of Judah did not so much despise the fast proclaimed by Jehoshaphat, 2 Chron. xx. 3, 4. But if these people did, with Esther, iv. 16, keep private fasts at home, when others were gathered for that work in the congregation, it will say much to clear them of contempt of the ecclesiastical and civil authority, calling them to fast and pray that day, and say that they were indeed concerned to hold Christ among us. And never more need to fast than at this day.
2. This may stir us up to wrestle with God for his stay amongst us, we may come to prevail. Where there is no hope of success there can be no vigorous endeavours; but a possibility of being successful in this very important matter, may engage us to exert ourselves. There is hope in Israel concerning this thing, Zeph. ii. 1-3.
DOCTRINE II. When the Lord is upon his way to go, it is high time for people to stir up themselves to hold him still.
I. I shall shew you when it may be said that the Lord is upon his way.
II. I shall shew what it is to take hold of Christ.
III. What it is to stir up ourselves to take hold of him.
IV. Give the reasons of the point. I am then,
I. To show you when it may be said that the Lord is upon his way, and so when it is high time for us to stir up ourselves to hold him still. I shall do this, first, more generally, and then more particularly.
I. More generally, with respect to a land in which the Lord has set up his candlestick. The Lord is upon his way,
1. When people have plenty of gospel means, and yet remain unfruitful under them, Isa. v. 4—6; Heb. vi. 7, 8. The ox is near to the slaughter, when he has meat to the full laid before him to fatten him. If the Lord mind to lay the cities of Judah waste, he will send Isaiah to preach to them, and ripen them for that stroke. Alas! there is too great ground of fear, that this takes up a great part of the commission of the ministers of Scotland this day. That is an astonishing word: "And now also, the axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire," Matth. iii. 10. "And now." Let us attend to this passage in its connection. O! what a people John had to preach to, and he was a burning and a shining light. The whole people flocked out to hear him preach, ver. 5. They would not loiter at home. They did not stand to undertake a long journey out of the cities, to the wilderness to hear him, ver. 1. They made open profession of repentance, ver. 6. They were admitted by him to the sacrament of baptism. Finally, they had their cases of conscience to propose to him, Luke iii. 10. But notwithstanding, says he, "Now is the axe laid to the root of the trees." It is with the gospel as with the sun, which sometimes gives a very fair blink a little before it set; and usually the greatest severity follows at the heels of the greatest mercy, of which that is a dreadful instance, 1 Thess. ii. 16. This may let us see that it is high time to stir up ourselves.
2. When people have been tried with many lighter rods, and have not been made better. Sodom got a stroke, Gen. xiv. but it did them no good, therefore came on them that fearful overthrow. When all means have been used to do good to all people, and yet have proved unsuccessful, the Lord is near to a departure. He then says of such, as he did of the fig-tree: "If it bear fruit, well; and
if not, then after that, thou shalt cut it down." Scotland bath got a little of various kinds of judgments, and yet what the better are we? He that was filthy, is filthy still.
3. When some of the pillars of a land fall, and others begin to fall. Good Josiah must be taken away in his young days, 2 Kings xxii. 20. Isaiah says, chap. lvii. 1, "The righteous is taken away from the evil to come." Luther, writing on this text saith, that the Lord, after his death, would bring great affliction on Germany. It so fell out, two years after his death. Noah was taken into the ark, and Lot out of Sodom, before the threatened destruction came. We are not without such sad prognostics. But then, when the remaining pillars fail, that finishes the business. It was a sad token, when Jonah was fast asleep in the ship. When the godly that remain are not fit to stand in the gap, but security steals upon them. Thus, while the bridegroom tarried, even the wise virgins slumbered. General security says wrath is at the door, "for when they shall say, peace and safety, then suddenly destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape." The security of this generation is too palpable.
4. When the glory is gone the length of the threshhold of the temple, Ezek. ix. 3-5. When the shadows of the evening are stretched out, the night is fast hastening on. May we not say, where is the God of Elijah; and the servants may complain, as their Master did before them, "I have laboured," said he, “in vain; I have spent my strength for nought and in vain." Their own, and their people's dead-heartedness, often close up the door of utterance; and when that is opened, yet the door of entrance is mostly kept shut, unless it be to hew them by the prophets, and slay them by the words which come out of his mouth, or to dart in convictions upon people, who nevertheless run away with the arrows sticking in them, and at last get them out, and lick themselves whole again. We find this is sometimes the great part of ministers' work, Rev. xi. 10; and it is a sad sign that Christ and the gospel are upon the wing to depart. For within a while, the tormented hearers rejoice at the death of the tormenting preachers, that ripped up their sores, and would not let them sleep to death. This then should alarm us to rise up, and take hold of the Lord to keep him still, while the glory is yet on the threshhold; but should not encourage any to turn their backs on the ordinances, lest they be found not to follow after the Lord, but to run away before him.
II. More particularly.
1. When spiritual darkness is still upon the growing hand. may people say, Woe unto us! for the day goeth away, for the