It then follows, Thou shalt say to them, Return ye to me, and I will return to you (11) The Prophet now expresses more clearly for what purpose he had spoken of God’s vengeance, with which he had visited his chosen people, even that their posterity might take heed to themselves; for the common proverb, “Fools by adversity become wise,” ought in this case to have been verified. For where there is really a teachable spirit, men become instantly attentive to what God says: but even when they are sluggish and slothful, it is a wonder, that when they are smitten, the strokes which they feel do not shake off at least in some degree their torpor. Hence the Prophet, after having spoken of the punishments which God had inflicted, exhorts the Jews to repentance.
It ought however to be observed, that our Prophet not only speaks of repentance, but shows also its true character, that the Jews might not seek carelessly to please God, as is commonly the case, but that they might sincerely repent; for he says, return ye to me, and I will return to you. And this was not said without reason, when we consider in what sort of delusions the Jews indulged themselves immediately after their return. We have seen that they became devoted to their private concerns, while the temple remained desolate; and we also know what sacred history relates, that they married heathen women, and also that many corruptions prevailed among them, so that religion almost disappeared. They indeed retained the name of God, but their impiety showed itself by clear signs. It is then no wonder that the Prophet sharply stimulates them to repentance.
It must at the same time be noticed, that we cannot enjoy the favor of God, even when he kindly offers to be reconciled to us, except we from the heart repent. However graciously, then, God may invite us to himself, and be ready to remit our sins, we yet cannot embrace his offered favor, except our sins become hateful to us; for God ceases not to be our judge, except we anticipate him, and condemn ourselves, and deprecate the punishment of our sins. Hence we then pacify God when real grief wounds us, and we thus really turn to God, without dissimulation or falsehood. Now the experience of God’s wrath ought to lead us to this; for extremely heedless are they who, having found God to be a Judge, do carelessly disregard his wrath, which ought to have filled their hearts with fear. “Let no one deceive you with vain words,” says Paul, “for on account of these things comes the wrath of God on the children of unbelief,” or on all the unbelieving. (Ephesians 5:6.) Paul bids us to consider all the evidences which God gives of his wrath in the world, that they may instruct us as to the fear of God; how much more then should domestic examples be noticed by us? For the Prophet speaks not here of foreign nations; but says, angry has God been with anger against your fathers. Since, then, it appeared evident that God had not spared even his chosen people, they ought, unless they were in the extreme refractory, to have carefully continued in obedience to the law. Hence the Prophet here condemns their tardiness, inasmuch as they had made so little progress under the chastisements of God.
We thus see that no excuse can be brought before God, if we do not make a right use of all the punishments by which he designs to recover us from our sins. We have referred to that general truth announced by Paul, that God’s judgment, executed on the unbelieving, ought to be feared; it hence follows that our insensibility is extreme, if we are not thoroughly moved when God teaches us by our own experience, or at least when he sets domestic examples before us, as when he punishes our fathers and others connected with us; for this mode of teaching comes much nearer to us.
But when the Prophet says, return ye to me, and I will return to you, he means, as I have before stated, that though God meets sinners, and is ready with extended arms to embrace them, his favor cannot come to those to whom it is offered, except a real feeling of penitence leads them to God. In short, the Prophet means, that though they had returned from exile, they could not expect a permanent state of safety, except they turned from the heart to him; for if they imitated their fathers, God had in readiness far severer scourges to chastise them; and they might also be again driven into exile. he then briefly reminds them, that if they wished to enjoy the incomparable kindness with which God had favored them, it was necessary for them seriously to return to him. Though, then God had already in part returned to them, that is, he had really proved that he was pacified and propitious to them, yet he had begun by many evidences to show that he was again offended with them; for their fruit had either withered through heat, or had been smitten by hail, as we have found elsewhere; (Haggai 2:17;) so that they had already labored for several years under want and other evils. God then had not so blessed them, that they could in every way recognize his paternal favor. This is the reason why the Prophet says, I will return to you when ye return to me.
We now perceive the meaning of the Prophet to be, that though God had delivered his people, they ought yet to have feared lest his wrath should suddenly burn against the ungrateful and the wicked, and that being not in full favor, they ought also to have known that God was still offended with them. So the Prophet shortly reminded them, that it was no wonder that God treated them with no great kindness, for they allowed no place for his favor, but provoked his wrath, like their fathers, inasmuch as they did not from the hear repent.
The Papists allege this passage in defense of free-will; but it is a most puerile sophistry. They say that the turning of God to men is the same as their turning to him, as though God promised the grace of his Spirit as a help, when men anticipate him. They imagine then that free-will precedes, and then that the help of the Spirit follows. But this is very gross and absurd. The Prophet indeed means that God would return to the Jews; for he shows that God would in every respect be a father to them, when they showed themselves to be dutiful and respectful children. We must therefore remember that God does not here promise the aid of his Spirit to assist free-will, and to help the efforts of man, as these foolish and senseless teachers imagine, but that he promises to return to the Jews to bless them. Hence the return of God here is nothing else than the prosperity which they desired; as though he had said — “Fear me from the heart, and ye shall not labor under hunger and thirst; for I shall satisfy you, as neither your fields nor your vines shall hereafter disappoint your hopes. Ye shall find me most bountiful, when ye deal with me in a faithful manner.” This is the meaning.
We must further bear in mind, that, according to the common usage of Scripture, whenever God exhorts us to repentance, he does not regard what our capacity is, but demands what is justly his right. Hence the Papists adopt what is absurd when they deduce the power of free-will from the command or exhortation to repent: God, they say, would not have commanded what is not in our power to do. It is a foolish and most puerile mode of reasoning; for if everything which God requires were in our power, the grace of the Holy Spirit would be superfluous; it would not only be as they say a waiting-mind, but it would be wholly unnecessary; but if men need the aid of the Spirit, it follows that they cannot do what God requires of them. But it seems strange that God should bid men to do more than what they can. It seems so indeed, I allow, when we form our judgment according to the common perception of the flesh; but when we understand these truths — that the law works wrath — that it increases sin — that it was given that transgression might be made more evident, then the false notion — that God requires nothing but what men can perform, comes to nothing. But it is enough for us to know, that God in exhorting us to repentance requires nothing but what nature dictates ought to be done by us. Since it is so, however short we are in the performance, it is not right to charge God with too much strictness, that he demands what is beyond our power.
The frequent repetition of God’s name by the Prophet is emphatical; it was done, that what he taught might more sharply goad the hearts of the people. Had he simply said, that he had a commission from above to remind the people of the punishments which their fathers had endured, and also to call them to repentance, this mode of teaching would not have so penetrated into their hearts, as when the name of God is so often brought before them — Thou shalt say, Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, Return to me, saith Jehovah of hosts, and I will return to you, saith Jehovah of hosts. It surely behoved the Jews, when they heard God’s name pronounced three times, to awake and to consider with whom they had to do. For what can be more base or more disgraceful than for men, when God anticipates them and desires to be united to them, to refuse to respond and to devote themselves to his service?
It is at the same time evident, that the Prophet adopted a mode of speaking then in use: and we know that the language of the Jews underwent a change after their Babylonian exile. It lost that clearness and elegance which it possessed before: as it clearly appears from the style of those who wrote after the exile. I allow also that previously the Prophets exhibited not the same degree of eloquence; for Isaiah differs greatly from Jeremiah and from Amos. It is yet quite evident from the writings of the last Prophets, that the language had become somewhat muddy after the return of the people from exile. Let us now proceed —