Here is a great deal of gospel in these verses, both that which was always gospel, God’s readiness to pardon sin and to receive and entertain returning repenting sinners, and those blessings which were in a special manner reserved for gospel times, the forming and founding of the gospel church by bringing into it the children of God that were scattered abroad, the superseding of the ceremonial law, and the uniting of Jews and Gentiles, typified by the uniting of Israel and Judah in their return out of captivity. The prophet is directed to proclaim these words towards the north, for they are a call to backsliding Israel, the ten tribes that were carried captive into Assyria, which lay north from Jerusalem. That way he must look, to show that God had not forgotten them, though their brethren had, and to upbraid the men of Judah with their obstinacy in refusing to answer the calls given them. One might as well call to those who lay many hundred miles off in the land of the north; they would as soon hear as these unbelieving and disobedient people; backsliding Israel will sooner accept of mercy, and have the benefit of it, than treacherous Judah. And perhaps the proclaiming of these words towards the north looks as far forward as the preaching of repentance and remission of sins unto all nations, beginning at Jerusalem, Luke 24:47. A call to Israel in the land of the north is a call to others in that land, even as many as belong to the election of grace. When it was suspected that Christ would go to the dispersed Jews among the Gentiles, it was concluded that he would teach the Gentiles, John 7:35. So here.
I. Here is an invitation given to backsliding Israel, and in them to the backsliding Gentiles, to return unto God, the God from whom they had revolted (Jer. 3:12): Return, thou backsliding Israel. And again (Jer. 3:14): “Turn, O backsliding children! repent of your backslidings, return t 733a o your allegiance, come back to that good way which you have missed and out of which you have turned aside.” Pursuant to this invitation, 1. They are encouraged to return. “Repent, and be converted, and your sins shall be blotted out, Acts 3:19. You have incurred God’s displeasure, but return to me, and I will not cause my anger to fall upon you.” God’s anger is ready to fall upon sinners, as a lion falls on his prey, and there is none to deliver, as a mountain of lead falling on them, to sink them past recovery into the lowest hell. But if they repent it shall be turned away, Isa. 12:1. I will not keep my anger for ever, but will be reconciled, for I am merciful. We that are sinful were for ever undone if God were not merciful; but the goodness of his nature encourages us to hope that, if we by repentance undo what we have done against him, he will by a pardon unsay what he has said against us. 2. They are directed how to return (Jer. 3:13): “Only acknowledge thy iniquity, own thyself in a fault and thereby take shame to thyself and give glory to God.” I will not keep my anger for ever (that is a previous promise); you shall be delivered form that anger of God which is everlasting, from the wrath to come; but upon what terms? Very easy and reasonable ones. Only acknowledge thy sins. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive them. This will aggravate the condemnation of sinners, that the terms of pardon and peace were brought so low, and yet they would not come up to them. If the prophet had told thee to do some great thing wouldst thou not have done it? How much more when he says, Only acknowledge thy iniquity? 2 Kgs. 5:13. In confessing sin, (1.) We must own the corruption of our nature: Acknowledge thy iniquity, the perverseness and irregularity of thy nature. (2.) We must own our actual sins: “That thou hast transgressed against the Lord thy God, hast affronted him and offended him.” (3.) We must own the multitude of our transgressions: “That thou hast scattered thy ways to the strangers, run hither and thither in pursuit of thy idols, under every green tree. Wherever thou hast rambled thou hast left behind thee the marks of thy folly.” (4.) We must aggravate our sin from the disobedience that there is in it to the divine law. The sinfulness of sin is the worst thing in it: “You have not obeyed my voice; acknowledge that, and let that humble you more than any thing else.”
II. Here are precious promises made to these backsliding children, if they do return, which were in part fulfilled in the return of the Jews out of their captivity, many that belonged to the ten tribes having perhaps joined themselves to those of the two tribes, in the prospect of their deliverance, and returning with them; but the prophecy is to have its full accomplishment in the gospel church, and the gathering together of the children of God that were scattered abroad to that: “Return, for, though you are backsliders, yet you are children; nay, though a treacherous wife, yet a wife, for I am married to you (Jer. 3:14) and will not disown the relation.” Thus God remembers his covenant with their fathers, that marriage covenant, and in consideration of that he remembers their land, Lev. 26:42.
1. He promises to gather them together from all places whither they are dispersed and scattered abroad, John 11:52; I will take you, one of a city, and two of a family, or clan; and I will bring you to Zion, Jer. 3:14. All those that by repentance return to their duty shall return to their former comfort. Observe, (1.) God will graciously receive those that return to him, nay, it is he that by his distinguishing grace takes them out from among the rest that persist in their backslidings; if he had left them, they would have been undone. (2.) Of the many that have backslidden from God there are but few, very few in comparison, that return to him, like the gleanings of the vintage—one of a city and two of a country; Christ’s flock is a little flock, and few there are that find the strait gate. (3.) Of those few, though dispersed, yet not one shall be lost. Though there be but one in a city, God will find out that one; he shall not be overlooked in a crowd, but shall be brought safely to Zion, safely to heaven. The scattered Jews shall be brought to Jerusalem, and those of the ten tribes shall be as welcome there as those of the two. God’s chosen, scattered all the world over, shall be brought to the gospel church, that Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, that holy hill on which Christ reigns.
2. He promises to set those over them that shall be every way blessings to them (Jer. 3:15): I will give you pastors after my heart, alluding to the character given of David when God pitched upon him to be king. 1 Sam. 13:14; The Lord hath sought him a man after his own heart. Observe, (1.) When a church is gathered it must be governed. “I will bring them to Zion, not to live as they list, but to be under discipline, not as wild beasts, that range at pleasure, but as sheep that are under the direction of a shepherd.” I will give them pastors, that is, both magistrates and ministers; both are God’s ordinance for the support of his kingdom. (2.) It is well with a people when their pastors are after God’s own heart, such as they should be, such as we would have them be, who shall make his will their rule in all their administrations, and such as endeavour in some measure to conform to his example, who rule for him, and, as they are capable, rule like him. (3.) Those are pastors after God’s own heart who make it their business to feed the flock, not to feed themselves and fleece the flocks, but to do all they can for the good of those that are under their charge, who feed them with wisdom and understanding (that is, wisely and understandingly), as David fed them, in the integrity of his heart and by the skilfulness of his hand, Ps. 78:72. Those who are not only pastors, but teachers, must feed them with the word of God, which is wisdom and understanding, which is able to make us wise to salvation.
3. He promises that there shall be no more occasion for the ark of the covenant, which had been so much the glory of the tabernacle first and afterwards of the temple, and was the token of God’s presence with them; that shall be set aside, and there shall be no more enquiry after, nor enquiring of, it (Jer. 3:16): When you shall be multiplied and increased in the land, when the kingdom of the Messiah shall be set up, which by the accession of the Gentiles will bring in to the church a vast increase (and the days of the Messiah the Jewish masters themselves acknowledge to be here intended), then they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the Lord, they shall have it no more among them to value, or value themselves upon, because they shall have a pure spiritual way of worship set up, in which there shall be no occasion for any of those external ordinances; with the ark of the covenant the whole ceremonial law shall be set aside, and all the institutions of it, for Christ, the truth of all those types, exhibited to us in the word and sacraments of the New Testament, will be to us instead of all. It is very likely (whatever the Jews suggest to the contrary) that the ark of the covenant was in the second temple, being restored by Cyrus with the other vessels of the house of the Lord, Ezra 1:7. But in the gospel temple Christ is the ark; he is the propitiatory, or mercy-seat; and it is the spiritual presence of God in his ordinances that we are now to expect. Many expressions are here used concerning the setting aside of the ark, that it shall not come to mind, that they shall not remember it, that they shall not visit it, that none of these things shall be any more done; for the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth, John 4:24. But this variety of expressions is used to show that the ceremonies of the law of Moses should be totally and finally abolished, never to be used any more, but that it would be with difficulty that those who had been so long wedded to them should be weaned from them; and that they would not quite let them go till their holy city and holy house should both be levelled with the ground.
4. He promises that the gospel church, here called Jerusalem, shall become eminent and conspicuous, Jer. 3:17. Two things shall make it famous:—(1.) God’s special residence and dominion in it. It shall be called, The throne of the Lord—the throne of his glory, for that shines forth in the church—the throne of his government, for that also is erected there; there he rules his willing people by his word and Spirit, and brings every thought into obedience to himself. As the gospel got ground this throne of the Lord was set up even where Satan’s seat had been. It is especially the throne of his grace; for those that by faith come to this Jerusalem come to God the judge of all, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, Heb. 12:22-24. (2.) The accession of the Gentiles to it. All the nations shall be discipled, and so gathered to the church, and shall become subjects to that throne of the Lord which is there set up, and devoted to the honour of that name of the Lord which is there both manifested and called upon.
5. He promises that there shall be a wonderful reformation wrought in those that are gathered to the church: They shall not walk any more after the imagination of their evil hearts. They shall not live as they list, but live by rules, not do according to their own corrupt appetites, but according to the will of God. See what leads in sin—the imagination of our own evil hearts; and what sin is—it is walking after that imagination, being governed by fancy and humour; and what converting grace does—it takes us off from walking after our own inventions and brings us to be governed by religion and right reason.
6. That Judah and Israel shall be happily united in one body, Jer. 3:18. They were so in their return out of captivity and their settlement again in Canaan: The house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, as being perfectly agreed, and become one stick in the hand of the Lord, as Ezekiel also foretold, Jer. 37:16, 17. Both Assyria and Chaldea fell into the hands of Cyrus, and his proclamation extended to all the Jews in all his dominions. And therefore we have reason to think that many of the house of Israel came with those of Judah out of the land of the north; though at first there returned but 42,000 (whom we have an account of, Ezra 2:1-70) yet Josephus says (Antiq. 11.68) that some few years after, under Darius, Zerubbabel went and fetched up above 4,000,000 of souls, to the land that was given for an inheritance to their fathers. And we never read of such animosities and enmities between Israel and Judah as had been formerly. This happy coalescence between Israel and Judah in Canaan was a type of the uniting of Jews and Gentiles in the gospel church, when, all enmities being slain, they should become one sheepfold under one shepherd.
III. Here is some difficulty started, that lies in the way of all this mercy; but an expedient is found to get over it.
1. God asks, How shall I do this for thee? Not as if God showed favour with reluctancy, as he punishes with a How shall I give thee up? Hos. 11:8, 9. No, though he is slow to anger, he is swift to show mercy. But it intimates that we are utterly unworthy of his favours, that we have no reason to expect them, that there is nothing in us to deserve them, that we can lay no claim to them, and that he contrives how to do it in such a way as may save the honour of his justice and holiness in the government of the world. Means must be devised that his banished be not for ever expelled from him, 2 Sam. 14:14. How shall I do it? (1.) Even backsliders, if they return and repent, shall be put among the children; and who could ever have expected that? Behold what manner of love is this! 1 John 3:1. How should we who are so mean and weak, so worthless and unworthy, and so provoking, ever be put among the children. (2.) To those whom God puts among the children he will give the pleasant land, the land of Canaan, that glory of all lands, that goodly heritage of the hosts of nations, which nations and their hosts wish for and prefer to their own country, or which the hosts of the nations have now got possession of. It was a type of heaven, where there are pleasures for evermore. Now who could expect a place in that pleasant land that has so often despised it (Ps. 106:24) and is so unworthy of it and unfit for it? Isa. this the manner of men?
2. He does himself return answer to this question: But I said, Thou shalt call me, My Father. God does himself answer all the objections that are taken from our unworthiness, or they would never be got over. (1.) That he may put returning penitents among the children, he will give them the Spirit of adoption, teaching them to cry, Abba, Father, Gal. 4:6. “Thou shalt call me, My Father; thou shalt return to me, and resign thyself to me as a father, and that shall recommend thee to my favour,” (2.) That he may give them the pleasant land, he will put his fear in their hearts, that they may never turn from him, but may persevere to the end.