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Thoughts on Deuteronomy 30:6

(In continuation from Vol. V., page 441.)

No. V.

Divine Agency in the Restoration of Israel

My Dear Friend,

Our first attention must now be given to some objections. It probably still occurs to you with great force, as an objection, that an exceeding great reward is promised to Abraham. On this point, permit me, in addition to what I have already said, to present a parallel case which clearly settles the question that a man’s whole dependence may be on unmerited mercy, yet he may ask and receive a reward. Nehemiah frequently and plainly asks to be rewarded. He says, “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.” On another occasion, he prays, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.” It is the prayer of the sane man, “Spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.” In the ninth chapter of the Book of Nehemiah, we find him and several outer Israelites, acknowledging that they had done wickedly, and that God had done justly in bringing upon them all the afflictions of captivity and persecution; and they attribute their being spared entirely to mercy. Speaking of Israel, they confess, “Nevertheless for thy great mercies’ sake, Thou didst not utterly consume them nor forsake them; for thou art a merciful and gracious God.” The man who thus attributes the escape of himself and people from utter destruction to the mercy of God, has doubtless no hope of a reward except from the same mercy. Another objection is that if God does not bless us in precise accordance with our previous merit, he acts arbitrarily and blindly. This objection begs the whole question in taking for granted that man, previous to the circumcision of his natural heart, does deserve the favour of <<25>>God. It is an objection that ought never to come from short-sighted man, as it presumes that all reason for divine favour to man must lie in human merit. Let the objector survey every thought of the Divine Mind, let him search through all the plan of eternity, through all the possibilities and predestinated certainties of the endless future, through all the eternal and infinite depths of divine wisdom, justice, and love; let him prove that there is in all these heights and depths, an universal blank of any motive for the outgoing of mercy to undeserving man in one case, and the full display of justice in another case: having accomplished all this search,—more than any finite mind can accomplish,—let him then assert that in human merit is the only motive and only measure of the displays of God’s mercy. Let him behold the wrath of God burning on Mount Sinai, and the whole congregation on the point of destruction, for their worship of the calf. Let him then hear the voice of God, וחנתי את אשר אחן ורחמתי את אשר ארחם “And will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” This is a voice of sovereignty that should rebuke effectually every such objection.

Let us now take a full view of the comprehensive doctrine we have advanced, and of the first and most natural inferences. The natural condition of man is the condition of moral and hopeless death. Our subject explains the import of that death, which was threatened before the existence of sin, and which was the necessary consequence of the first sin. God said to the first man, “In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” This was said to the first man not merely as an individual, but as the beginning and representative of the whole race. The death of the first man was to be the death of all his posterity. What was this death? All admit that it was not annihilation or the extinction of intellectual consciousness and moral conscience: and probably, upon a moment’s reflection, we will admit that it involves much more than the simple separation of body and spirit. In many instances in which death expresses the penalty of sin, the death of the body appears excluded. Take, for instance, Deut. 30:15: “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” Now we know that God never set before Israel the possibility of escape from simple natural <<26>>death. The following instances are equally clear in the exclusion of the death of the body. Ezek. 18:21: “But if the wicked will turn from all his sins,—he shall surely live, he shall not die.” Ezek. 33:11: “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye, from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O House of Israel?” Here we are entreated to escape from that death which is the natural and certain penalty of sin; yet God has offered us no way of escape from temporal death. The true view is that the death which has fallen upon the human family in the first of men, is essentially a moral death, a death of the soul,—not the soul’s extinction, but its moral corruption, its loss of all holy communion with God, and its subjection to his wrath; and that all the miseries of the body connected either naturally or providentially with his spiritual death, are of no moment in comparison with the moral evil. Now let another point be particularly marked. Death is the extinction of all hope, as it leaves with its subject no power of self-restoration. Moral death turns into everlasting darkness all the sinner’s hope of moral happiness, and leaves the only possibility of restoration in that resurrection which is the work of God. This idea of utter hopelessness as to any resources of the dead, is always, in Scripture, connected with the idea of both natural and spiritual death. Solomon says, “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Hezekiah says, “For the grave cannot praise thee; death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” The great error of the Unitarian faith, whether held by gentiles or by Jews, is a misunderstanding of the first three chapters of Genesis. It is the most unscriptural and dangerous doctrine that, moral death, in all its hopelessness, has not fallen upon man, and that we may, by our best endeavours to lead a decent life, by a few tears dropped over our sins, and a few prayers in a sacred language, secure and effect and even merit our salvation. The agency of God is as necessary for our resurrection from moral death as for the resurrection of the body.

The essential matter in the promised restoration of Israel, is the moral change; whilst the restoration to Palestine and the restoration of Jerusalem, are at best but mere circumstances <<27>>which derive all their importance from their connexion with the spiritual change. The glory of the Restoration will be God’s putting his Spirit in the heart of Israel. Any return to Palestine not connected with this change, would be another calamity to Israel. It is most bitterly to be lamented that the Israelites are so much disposed to overlook the essential matter. and to magnify unimportant circumstances. It would have been infinitely better for the learned Rabbi Akiba, and all others who were deceived by Barchochebas [Bar Kochba], and thousands of the same spirit in subsequent ages, if, instead of expecting a Messiah who should make the blood of gentiles flow in torrents, and conduct them back to Jerusalem, they had turned their eyes within to the necessity of a change in their own hearts.

Jews and Christians both believe in a personal Deliverer from the curse, and Restorer of Israel. A few words in relation to this Restorer.

In the first place: The necessity of a circumcision of heart must be the fundamental and principal doctrine of this teacher. The old, carnal, rebellious, unbelieving heart cannot exist in his kingdom. To the uncircumcised in heart among gentiles and Jews, he must, in fidelity to his mission, speak as follows: “Out of the heart of men proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.” “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” The following doctrine is probably an infinitely better mark of the true Restorer than the rebuilding of the temple. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Is there anything in all this, more severe than the teachings of the last Song of Moses?

Again: The circumcision of heart must be the work of the Restorer. As this work is ascribed to none but God, the Restorer must come in all the fullness of divine power. He must be in the possession of divine power, greater than Moses; for the uncircumcised heart in the wilderness, irresistible to all the efforts of Moses, ruined the whole generation.

Again: The Restorer must visit Israel under the infinite weight of the curse of the law, and be able fully to meet and satisfy that principle of divine justice which demands that Israel, <<28>>having once forsaken God, shall utterly and eternally perish; he must be able to take from them and bear away on his own shoulders this crushing weight of wrath; he must sustain their unworthiness by his merit; otherwise he cannot be the Restorer.

Here it is appropriate to remark that the unprecedented exigencies of the world, and especially the exigencies of the Jewish Church, demanded a new revelation from God; and the appearance of the Restorer, some time during the period of the second temple. You know that this remark opens before us a field upon which it is almost impossible to enter without going beyond my space and subject. We say that the time of the destruction of the old local covenant, when the temple and sacrifices ceased, and the people were dispersed, was the most appropriate time for the commencement of the new dispensation, the עולם הבא for the establishment of the new covenant promised by the prophet Jeremiah, for the clear development of the new and better, and ancient, and only certain hope. It is reasonable to suppose that divine mercy would, before the dispersion of the people, submit to them in offer, the person of the Restorer, and the blessings of the Restoration; and that, upon their refusal of this offer, their house should become desolate. How tremendous was the exigency of the Jewish people at the time of the final dispersion! Rashi himself says that the Israelite sojourning out of the Holy Land is as if he has no God. The Israelites needed one from heaven to tell them whether the law having completely failed, with all the instructions of the prophets, to preserve Israel in their own land, would not prove a greater failure out of the land and under the curse. They needed one from heaven to tell them whether a Passover without the lamb is any Passover, and whether an annual atonement without a sin offering, is any atonement. They needed one from heaven to tell them whether it was right to gather up what fragments they could of the old law, and make many additions and changes, and thus compose a law for their dispersion. It is acknowledged by the most eminent teachers in Israel, that it was absolutely necessary to break the written law in order to write their present law, and preserve it. They miserably seek an apology for this breach of the law from Ps. 119:126.* These considerations ought to <<29>>bring the honest Israelite to tremble for the foundations of his present system, and to inquire most candidly and prayerfully, whether all the blessings of the new covenant and all the blessings promised through Abraham to the gentiles, are still lying buried deep under the ruins of the Theocracy. The deplorable fact is, that the great body of the Israelites during the second temple, were unprepared to receive the true Restorer; and that the same opposition of heart to the work of the Restorer has continued ever since. They desired a Messiah to break the Roman yoke, and make them the princes of the world, rather than a Messiah to establish the kingdom of God in the heart of rebellious man. They thought that external circumcision entitled them to all the privileges of the Messiah’s kingdom, and did not know their need of a spiritual circumcision. The Israelites at present do not feel the weight of the curse of the law; hence they are not prepared to receive the Deliverer from this curse. Some have gone so far in the deadly delusion, as even to assert that they are under no curse. Unconscious that they are dead in sin, they despise him whom others believe to be “the Resurrection and the Life.”

* See Instruction, in the Jewish Religion, translated from the German of J. Johlson, by Rev. Isaac Leeser, page 57.

The practical use which we should make of this subject is to admit the sinfulness and utter hopelessness of the moral condition in which we naturally exist, and to pray to God for renewed hearts. God commands us to circumcise our hearts. This command implies that, though we are naturally dead in sin, God has never lost his right to demand from us the acts of living men; that the condition of spiritual uncircumcision is essentially sinful; and that the uncircumcised in heart have no plea before God. This command, taken in connexion with the doctrine of the necessity of divine agency in the circumcision of heart, implies farther, that we should look to God for grace that we may be enabled to lead new and holy lives. That we may humbly look to God for this grace, it is necessary that we admit the reality, and weight, and justness of the curses. We offer a great insult to the word of God when we pass quickly and lightly over the curses; and, without any regard to our moral character, appropriate to ourselves the blessings. A most deluded and dangerous deceiver is that public teacher, who never sees the highest interests of the immortal spirit in awful jeopardy, and <<30>>who is constantly applying to his hearers, unconditionally, the promises. May God preserve us from the snares and lying tongues of such men! The people of Israel never can be blessed until they feel more effectually the terrors of Sinai. God will never raise us up except from the dust. Bear in mind, too, that we are very liable to be deceived by a false humility. Nothing is more deceiving and dangerous to the soul than this false humility. We may make the most humble confessions before God when our hearts are full of the most detestable pride, We may confess before God that we deserve nothing but wrath, and sincerely think that we are very humble, when we would be highly offended at any man who would dare to intimate that we are not eminently meritorious. It is easy to be deceived, even in our highest spiritual and immortal interests. Let us endeavour to pray in the spirit of the following passages: and possibly we may find as a living reality within us, the true Restorer of Israel. Ps. 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” Jer. 31:18: “Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke; turn thou me and I shall he turned; for thou art the Lord my God.”

Now, my friend, I feel that a thousand thanks are due to you and others, that I have had the privilege of thus publicly and freely addressing you. I am happy to illuminate my last line with the desire that the Restoration which has been my theme, may be hastened in our day,

With highest regard, yours,