I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offense, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.
Jehovah here threatens to withdraw his presence from his people, until, conscious of their weakness and loneliness, they return to him. In the affliction of the seventy years' captivity many did seek him. After that night of darkness the dawn of a new day brought a few gleams of hope, and some bestirred themselves "early" to find mercy with God (see Daniel 9:3-6).
I. THE CAUSE OF THIS AFFLICTION IS to be found in unrepented sin. 1. The unwillingness of God to send trouble to his creatures is constantly insisted on in Scripture. "He is very pitiful, and of tender mercy;" "Judgment is his strange work," its object being to show the need we have of the mercy he proffers. Evidences of the loving-kindness of God to his creatures reveal themselves more distinctly as we study their condition and circumstances. Illustrations from insects, birds, and beasts, in their relations to food and habitation. Example in provision for every child of man. The babe is cast in its helplessness upon us. We are to shield it, to foster its life, to foresee and provide for its wants. This is as much for our good as for the child's good. We learn thereby to conquer ourselves, to exercise frugality and diligence, and the rough nature is softened by the touch of tiny tender fingers. In the ways of Christ "a little child shall lead them." Then, as life develops, pleasure is found in the sights and sounds of nature, in the exercise of each faculty, etc. "Lord, when I count thy mercies o'er," etc.
2. There are seeming contradictions, however, to the loving-kindness of God's rule. The helpless racked with pain, the innocent born to a heritage of shame, the noblest and most useful snatched away by death, etc. Hence heathen philosophy believed in two antagonistic deities. Trace the belief in ancient philosophy and in modern idolatry. Holy Scripture declares there is but one God, concerning whom we read, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things" (Isaiah 45:7). The boldness of that conception stamps it as Divine. We know not the effect on other worlds and beings of the conflict waged here between good and evil. We cannot judge God from what is seen in this tiny fragment of his universe. A sea-anemone in its pool feels the rush of the tide over it and all around it, and its subsequent and certain withdrawal. If it could think, it would argue that the ebb and flow of the tide was God's law for all life. It knows nothing of fair fertile fields and busy cities, where the moaning of the sea is never heard. Our knowledge of God's method and character from what is around us is as slight.
3. The revelation of God in Christ shows that the sorrow is rightly mingled with the sin - just as storms are good for a vitiated atmosphere. We cannot breathe without creating poison. If the air were motionless it would be fatal to us and others. By Divine ordinance the air, because it is vitiated and heated, must move; and then comes the draught which chills the invalid and kills him, and the storm which sweeps over the sea and causes wreck. Yet the law which causes these disasters is for the world's salvation. So evils which would corrupt the earth, as in olden time, are not left unheeded. Sorrow comes till men "acknowledge their offence and seek God's face."
II. THE NATURE OF THIS AFFLICTION. "I will return to my place." God is everywhere; but relatively to us he is sometimes near, sometimes far away. He is to us according to the conditions and desires of our hearts. He is said to withdraw when the sense of his care and favor is gone. This would be no great trouble to some. They have yet to learn that to be apart from God is to be away from light and love and hope forever. It is to be in "the outer darkness." None of us know to the full the sweetness of the Divine presence, and therefore do not completely know the bitterness of its withdrawal. Who of us has prayed till the heavens were opened, and we saw visions of God? Who of us has gazed on Christ till he was transfigured before us, and we cried, "It is good for us to be here?" Who of us knows the deepest meaning of the promise, "If any man open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me"? It is in proportion as we have realized these blessings that we can realize this curse. Imagine yourself stricken down by fatal illness, growing sensibly weaker, no hope of recovery and no God near; going down into the darkness of death, feeling in vain for a hand that does not meet yours - a God-forsaken man! Or read the utterances of men who knew more of God than we. See the agony of the psalmist as he prays, "Be not silent unto me: lest, if thou be silent to me, I become like them that go down into the pit" (Psalm 28:1; also Job 13:24; Psalm 44:23, 24, etc.). If the message comes to the nation, to the Church, or to you, "I will go and return to my place," no organization we can frame, no force we can muster, will avail us. It will be time for us (as it was for Israel when Jehovah refused to go up amongst them, and promised only indirect guidance) to put off our ornaments, to bewail our sin, to acknowledge our offence, and seek him early. "Oh, satisfy us early with thy mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days."
III. THE RESULTS OF THIS AFFLICTION. "In their affliction they will seek me early."
1. Acknowledgment of sin is the first sign of the change. The reference is not to the unconsidered declaration that we are "miserable sinners," but to the intelligent and prayerful confession which follows on that self-examination which affliction does so much to stimulate. When severe weather keeps us within doors, we discover the faults of our house. When the vessel is under the stress of storm, her weak places reveal themselves. So with character, when thoughts are driven in upon ourselves. In society a man asks himself, "What have I?" in solitude he asks himself, "What am I?" A true answer to that question leads to confession. Acknowledgment of sin is not synonymous with the cry of pain or despair. See how David distinguishes between these in his own experience in Psalm 32. He speaks of himself as "roaring" with his pain, yet that brought no relief; but he adds, "I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord: and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin." The same distinction is drawn by Hosea himself (Hosea 7:14), "And they have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds." If a man were on the rack the executioner would not stay his hand because of his shrieks, but the first whispered words of a confession would give instant relief.
2. The seeking after God is a further sign of this change. We may condemn ourselves, we may resolve to be holier, we may confess our faults to our fellow-man, without having the true repentance described here. Judas was conscious of sin, and it drove him to despair; but Peter, when contrite, went to the Lord's feet, and was able still to say," Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee." "In their affliction they shall seek me early." To bring this about we are sometimes so encircled by troubles that we cannot look over them or see beyond them, but can merely look up to the hills whence true help comes. Apply this to the Christian who has been forgetting God, and to the sinner who has never known him.
APPEAL. Wait not till the sorrows of life make you feel your need of God. We may be thankful that we may go even at the last, but how ignoble to leave it till then! Point out the shame of leaving the gladness of youth unconsecrated to him who gave it; of waiting till the cares of life so press upon the spirit that, weary and heartsick, we return to the Father; of delaying till the evening of life is deepening, and enfeebled by age we say, "Now let us turn to God." Show how destitute of magnanimity, how fraught with peril, such a course must be. Whether in affliction or in joy, "seek him early." - A.R.
Parallel VersesKJV: I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.