These verses are the substance of what we had before (Ezek. 18:20) and they are so full and express a declaration of the terms on which people stand with God (as the former were of the terms on which ministers stand) that it is no wonder that they are here repeated, as those were, though we had the substance of them before. Observe here,
I. The cavils of the people against God’s proceedings with them. God was now in his providence contending with them, but their uncircumcised hearts were not as yet humbled, for they were industrious to justify themselves, though thereby they reflected on God. Two things they insisted upon, in their reproaches of God, and in both they added iniquity to their sin and misery to their punishment:—1. They quarrelled with his promises and favours, as having no kindness nor sincerity in them, Ezek. 33:10. God had set life before them, but they plead that he had set it out of their reach, and therefore did but mock them with the mention of it. The prophet had said, some time ago (Ezek. 24:23), You shall pine away for your iniquities; with that word he had concluded his threatenings against Judah and Jerusalem; and this they now upbraided him with, as if it had been spoken absolutely, to drive them to despair; whereas it was spoken conditionally, to bring them to repentance. Thus are the sayings of God’s ministers perverted by men of corrupt minds, who are inclined to pick quarrels. He puts them in hopes of life and happiness; and herein they would make him contradict himself; “for” (say they) “if our transgressions and our sins be upon us, as thou hast often told us they are, and if we must, as thou sayest, pine away in them, and wear out a miserable captivity in a fruitless repentance, how shall we then live? If this be our doom, there is no remedy. We die, we perish, we all perish.” Note, It is very common for those that have been hardened with presumption when they were warned against sin to sink into despair when they are called to repent, and to conclude there is no hope of life for them. 2. They quarrelled with his threatenings and judgments, as having no justice or equity in them. They said, The way of the Lord is not equal (Ezek. 33:17, 20), suggesting that God was partial in his proceedings, that with him there was respect of persons and that he was more severe against sin and sinners than there was cause.
II. Here is a satisfactory answer given to both these cavils.
1. Those that despaired of finding mercy with God are here answered with a solemn declaration of God’s readiness to show mercy, Ezek. 33:11. When they spoke of pining away in their iniquity God sent the prophet to them, with all speed, to tell them that though their case was sad it was not desperate, but there was yet hope in Israel. (1.) It is certain that God has no delight in the ruin of sinners, nor does he desire it. If they will destroy themselves, he will glorify himself in it, but he has no pleasure in it, but would rather they should turn and live, for his goodness is that attribute of his which is most his glory, which is most his delight. He would rather sinners should turn and live than go on and die. He has said it, he has sworn it, that by these two immutable things, in both which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation. We have his word and his oath; and, since he could swear by no greater, he swears by himself: As I live. They questioned whether they should live, though they did repent and reform; yea, says God, as sure as I live, true penitents shall live also; for their life is hid with Christ in God. (2.) It is certain that God is sincere and in earnest in the calls he gives sinners to repent: Turn you, turn you, from your evil way. To repent is to turn from our evil way; this God requires sinners to do; this he urges them to do by repeated pressing instances: Turn you, turn you. O that they would be prevailed with to turn, to turn quickly, without delay! This he will enable them to do if they will but frame their doings to turn to the Lord, Hos. 5:4. For he has said, I will pour out my Spirit unto you, Prov. 1:23. And in this he will accept of them; for it is not only what he commands, but what he courts them to. (3.) It is certain that, if sinners perish in their impenitency, it is owing to themselves; they die because they will die; and herein they act most absurdly and unreasonably: Why will you die, O house of Israel? God would have heard them, and they would not be heard.
2. Those that despaired of finding justice with God are here answered with a solemn declaration of the rule of judgment which God would go by in dealing with the children of men, which carries along with it the evidence of its own equity; he that runs may read the justice of it. The Jewish nation, as a nation, was now dead; it was ruined to all intents and purposes. The prophet must therefore deal with particular persons, and the rule of judgment concerning them is much like that concerning a nation, Jer. 18:8-10. If God speak concerning it to build and to plant, and it do wickedly, he will recall his favours and leave it to ruin. But if he speak concerning it to pluck up and destroy, and it repent, he will revoke the sentence and deliver it. So it is here. In short, The most plausible professors, if they apostatize, shall certainly perish for ever in their apostasy from God; and the most notorious sinners, if they repent, shall certainly be happy for ever in their return to God. This is here repeated again and again, because it ought to be again and again considered, and preached over to our own hearts. This was necessary to be inculcated upon this stupid senseless people, that said, The way of the Lord is not equal; for these rules of judgment are so plainly just that they need no other confirmation of them than the repetition of them.
(1.) If those that have made a great profession of religion throw off their profession, quit the good ways of God and grow loose and carnal, sensual and worldly, the profession they made and all the religious performances with which they had for a great while kept up the credit of their profession shall stand them in no stead, but they shall certainly perish in their iniquity, Ezek. 33:12, 13, 18. [1.] God says to the righteous man that he shall surely live, Ezek. 33:13. He says it by his word, by his ministers. He that lives regularly, his own heart tells him, his neighbours tell him, He shall live. Surely such a man as this cannot but be happy. And it is certain, if he proceed and persevere in his righteousness, and if, in order to that, he be upright and sincere in it, if he be really as good as he seems to be, he shall live; he shall continue in the love of God and be for ever happy in that love. [2.] Righteous men, who have very good hopes of themselves and whom others have a very good opinion of, are yet in danger of turning to iniquity by trusting to their righteousness. So the case is put here: If he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, and come to make a trade of sin—if he not only take a false step, but turn aside into a false way and persist in it. This may possibly be the case of a righteous man, and it is the effect of his trusting to his own righteousness. Note, Many eminent professors have been ruined by a proud conceitedness of themselves and confidence in themselves. He trust to the merit of his own righteousness, and thinks he has already made God so much his debtor that now he may venture to commit iniquity, for he has righteousness enough in stock to make amends for it; he fancies that whatever evil deeds he may do hereafter he can be in no danger from them, having so many good deeds beforehand to counterbalance them. Or, He trust to the strength of his own righteousness, thinks himself now so well established in a course of virtue that he may thrust himself into any temptation and it cannot overcome him, and so by presuming on his own sufficiency he is brought to commit iniquity. By making bold on the confines of sin he is drawn at length into the depths of hell. This ruined the Pharisees; they trusted to themselves that they were righteous, and that their long prayers, and fasting twice in the week, would atone for their devouring widows’ houses. [3.] If righteous men turn to iniquity, and return not to their righteousness, they shall certainly perish in their iniquity, and all the righteousness they have formerly done, all their prayers, and all their alms, shall be forgotten. No mention shall be made, no remembrance had, of their good deeds; they shall be overlooked, as if they had never been. The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him from the wrath of God, and the curse of the law, in the day of his transgression. When he becomes a traitor and a rebel, and takes up arms against his rightful Sovereign, it will not serve for him to plead in his own defence that formerly he was a loyal subject, and did many good services to the government. No; he shall not be able to live. The remembrance of his former righteousness shall be no satisfaction either to God’s justice or his own conscience in the day that he sins, but rather shall, in the estimate of both, highly aggravate the sin and folly of his apostasy. And therefore for his iniquity that he committed he shall die, Ezek. 33:13. And again (Ezek. 33:18), He shall even die thereby; and it is owing to himself.
(2.) If those that have lived a wicked life repent and reform, forsake their wicked ways and become religious, their sins shall be pardoned, and they shall be justified and saved, if they persevere in their reformation. [1.] God says to the wicked, “Thou shalt surely die. The way that thou art in leads to destruction. The wages of thy sin is death, and thy iniquity will shortly be thy ruin.” It was said to the righteous man, Thou shalt surely live, for his encouragement to proceed and persevere in the way of righteousness; but he made an ill use of it, and was emboldened by it to commit iniquity. It was said to the wicked man, Thou shalt surely die, for warning to him not to persist in his wicked ways; and he makes a good use of it, and is quickened thereby to return to God and duty. Thus even the threatenings of the word are to some, by the grace of God, a savour of life unto life, while even the promises of the word become to others, by their own corruption, a savour of death unto death. When God says to the wicked man, Thou shalt surely die, die eternally, it is to frighten him, not out of his wits, but out of his sins. [2.] There is many a wicked man who was hastening apace to his own destruction who yet is wrought upon by the grace of God to return and repent, and live a holy life. He turns from his sin (Ezek. 33:14), and is resolved that he will have no more to do with it; and, as an evidence of his repentance for wrong done, he restores the pledge (Ezek. 33:15) which he had taken uncharitably from the poor, he gives again that which he had robbed and taken unjustly from the rich. Nor does he only cease to do evil, but he learns to do well; he does that which is lawful and right, and makes conscience of his duty both to God and man—a great change, since, awhile ago, he neither feared God nor regarded man. But many such amazing changes, and blessed ones, have been wrought by the power of divine grace. He that was going on in the paths of death and the destroyer now walks in the statues of life, in the way of God’s commandments, which has both life in it (Prov. 12:28) and life at the end of it, Matt. 19:17. And in this good way he perseveres without committing iniquity, though not free from remaining infirmity, yet under the dominion of no iniquity. He repents not of his repentance, nor returns to the commission of those gross sins which he before allowed himself in. [3.] He that does thus repent and return shall escape the ruin he was running into, and his former sins shall be no prejudice to his acceptance with God. Let him not pine away in his iniquity, for, if he confess and forsake it, he shall find mercy. He shall surely live; he shall not die, Ezek. 33:15. Again (Ezek. 33:16), He shall surely live. Again (Ezek. 33:19), He has done that which is lawful and right, and he shall live thereby. But will not his wickednesses be remembered against him? No; he sha 7e55 ll not be punished for them (Ezek. 33:12): As for the wickedness of the wicked, though it was very heinous, yet he shall not fall thereby in the day that he turns from his wickedness. Now that it has become his grief it shall not be his ruin. Now that there is a settled separation between him and sin there shall be no longer a separation between him and God. Nay, he shall not be so much as upbraided with them (Ezek. 33:16): None of his sins that he has committed shall be mentioned unto him, either as a clog to his pardon or an allay to the comfort of it, or as any blemish and diminution to the glory that is prepared for him.
Now lay all this together, and then judge whether the way of the Lord be not equal, whether this will not justify God in the destruction of sinners and glorify him in the salvation of penitents. The conclusion of the whole matter is (Ezek. 33:20): “O you house of Israel, though you are all involved now in the common calamity, yet there shall be a distinction of persons made in the spiritual and eternal state, and I will judge you every one after his ways.” Though they were sent into captivity by the lump, good fish and bad enclosed in the same net, yet there he will separate between the precious and the vile and will render to every man according to his works. Therefore God’s way is equal and unexceptionable; but, as for the children of thy people, God turns them over to the prophet, as he did to Moses (Exod. 32:7): “They are thy people; I can scarcely own them for mine.” As for them, their way is unequal; this way which they have got of quarrelling with God and his prophets is absurd and unreasonable. In all disputes between God and his creatures it will certainly be found that he is in the right and they are in the wrong.