The whole frame of godliness is a mystery, Col. 1:26.
(The italicized sections are comments upon Sibbes’ sermon) And here is the greatest mystery:
the graciousness and abundant tender mercy of God towards miserable, wretched, and sinful creatures; even in the height of their rebellion, appointing such a remedy to heal them.
This is the subject of Hosea 14. Historical background for the chapter. In a time of apostacy, we read these
many excellent and heavenly encouragements; also many earnest incitements to repentance and returning to the Lord, with free and gracious promises, not only of pardon and acceptance, but of great rewards in things spiritual and temporal to such as should thus return.
‘O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God, for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.’
‘Take with you words, and turn to the Lord; say unto him, Take away all iniquity,’ &c.
At this point, Sibbes lays out the elements of the Lord’s call to repentance. This paying attention to the particular elements of a passage, noting the grammatical, logical, and psychological elements, is a commonplace among Puritan works:
In this chapter we have,
1. An exhortation to repentance, with the motives enforcing the same: ‘O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God,’ ver. 1.
2. The form: ‘Take with you words, and say unto the Lord,’ &c., ver. 2.
3. A restipulation, what they should do: and return back again, having their prayers granted. 1. Thanksgiving: ‘So will we render the calves of our lips.’ 2. Sound reformation of their beloved sin: ‘Ashur shall not save us,’ &c.; with the reason thereof: ‘For in thee the fatherless findeth mercy,’ ver. 3.
4. God’s answer to their petitions. 1. In what he will do for them: ‘Heal their backsliding, love them freely, and be as the dew unto Israel;’ with the reason thereof: ‘For mine anger is turned away from him,’ ver. 4. 2. What he will work in them, a proportionable speedy growth in height, breadth, and depth: ‘He shall grow as the lily, and cast forth his roots as Lebanon,’ &c.; which mercy is further amplified by a blessing poured out also upon their families: ‘They that dwell under his shadow shall return,’ ver. 5–7.
5. There is set down a further effect of this repentance and gracious work in them, a sound and strong well-rooted indignation against their former darling sins; ‘Ephraim shall say, What have I any more to do with idols?’ backed with a strong consolation: ‘I have heard him and observed him,’ &c., ver. 8.
6. The diverse event and issue of this God’s so gracious dealing, is shewed both in the godly and wicked. 1. The wise and prudent understand and know that the ways of the Lord are right, and shall walk in them; but, 2. ‘The transgressors shall fall therein,’ ver. 9.
Having considered the overall passage, Sibbes now turns to the first sentence:
‘O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God, for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.’
Every word hath his weight, and, in a manner, is an argument to enforce this returning.
Here he breaks out the elements of the sentence. Notice that when he takes the first word “Israel,” he does more than note this is the subject of the sentence. He thinks, why this word here? Why does God begin with the vocative “Israel” to begin his call to repentance. To understand the importance of this, consider the alternative ways God could have begun this call. Or think of an individual: You could address an individual in a number of ways from formal to familiar to affectionate.
‘O Israel!’ Israel, we know, 1, is a word of covenant. Jacob was Israel, a prince and wrestler with God, as they also ought to be. Therefore he enforceth, You also ought to return, because you are Israel.
And, 2, It was also an encouragement for them to return, because God so acknowledgeth them to be Israel, and will be gracious unto them, though they were such hideous sinners.
Next element: Return. In this passage, Sibbes alludes to Augustine’s Confessions:
‘Return,’ saith he, ‘unto the Lord Jehovah,’ who is the chief good. For when a man returneth to the creature, which is a particular, changeable good, unsatisfying [to] the soul, he is restless still until he come unto Jehovah, who is the all-sufficient, universal good, who fills and fills the soul abundantly.
Therefore, ‘return’ to him who is the fountain of all good, and giveth a being unto all things, and not to ‘broken cisterns,’ Jer. 2:13.
He is Jehovah, like himself, and ‘changeth not.’
There is another element to this beckoning return:
And then he is thy God. Therefore, return to him who is thy God in covenant, who will make good his gracious covenant unto thee, and did choose thee to be ‘his people before all the nations of the world.’ This, therefore, is also an encouragement to return.
What is the necessity of this return. Note how the logical elements of the text are laid out: There is a command and a rationale:
‘Thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.’ Therefore, because thou art fallen by thy iniquities, and thine own inventions have brought these miseries upon thee, and none but God can help thee out of these miseries, seeing he only can, and is willing to forgive thy sins and revive thee, therefore,‘O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God, for thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.’
He then comes to a doctrinal observation:
Now, in that he forewarneth them of the fearful judgments to come, which were to fall upon them unless they were prevented by true repentance, hence in general it is to be observed,
That God comes not as a sudden storm upon his people, but gives them warning before he smites them.
Proof of the point:
This is verified in Scripture. [He here lists Gen. 18:20-21, Ex. 11, Amos 4:12, Matt. 23:37.]
Here Sibbes answers a question: Why does God give warning first? Spurgeon would at this point say, “Someone will ask the question, Why does God give warning after warning before he brings judgment?” Sibbes provides two answers: God’s nature and his care:
The reason hereof is, his own nature. ‘He is a God of long-suffering,’ Exod. 34:6. He made the world in six days, yet hath continued it six thousand years, notwithstanding the many sins and provocations thereof, ‘his mercies being over all his works,’ Ps. 145:9.
2. And partly from a special regard to his own dear children, these terrible threatenings not being killing and wounding, but, like Jonathan’s warning arrows, who, though he shot, yet meant no other harm to David save to forewarn him of harm, 1 Sam. 20:20.
Having raised a doctrinal point, he now brings an application: If God is gracious in warning, then we must be wise in heeding those warnings:
Use. Let us, therefore, observe God’s gracious and mild dealing in so much mercy, who giveth us so many warnings by his servants, and lesser judgments which we have had amongst us; let us take notice and believe, so as belief may stir up fear, and fear may provoke care, and care stir up endeavours to provide us an ark, even a hiding-place betimes, before winter and worse times come upon us.
Hence issueth another general point, that
The best provision for preventing of destruction is spiritual means.
To understand this point, we must understand primary and secondary causes: If I strike a cue ball with a stick and the cue rolls and hits the eight ball: my stick is the primary cause of the cue ball striking the eight ball, it comes first in time. The cue ball is the proximate and immediate cause, but the cue was set in motion earlier. This gives a rough approximation of the manner in which God’s agency stands behind created agencies. Sibbes point is that we concern ourselves with the cue ball and ignore the stick: we concern ourselves with the immediate problem and ignore God.
God himself is a spirit, and spiritual means reach unto him who is the first mover of the great wheel of all the affairs of this world. It is preposterous to begin at the second cause. We trouble ourselves in vain there, when we neglect the first. We should therefore begin the work in heaven, and first of all take up that quarrel which is between God and our souls. If this be done first, we need not fear the carriage of second things, all which God, out of his good providence and gracious care, will frame to work for good to his, Rom. 8:28, for whose sakes, rather than help should fail, he will create new helps, Isa. 4:5. Wherefore, in all things it is best to begin with God.
And so, if I am in distress, my first concern should be with God who has sovereignty over all things in my circumstance. God will work out all things for good.