The prophet, having reproved them for sin and threatened the judgments of God against them, is here sent to them again upon another errand, which he must publish in Judah; the purport of it is to persuade them to fear God, which would be an effectual principle of their reformation, as the want of that fear had been at the bottom of their apostasy.
I. He complains of the shameful stupidity of this people, and their bent to backslide from God, speaking as if he knew not what course to take with them. For,
1. Their understandings were darkened and unapt to admit the rays of the divine light: They are a foolish people and without understanding; they apprehend not the mind of God, though ever so plainly declared to them by the written word, by his prophets, and by his providence (Jer. 5:21): They have eyes, but they see not, ears, but they hear not, like the idols which they made and worshipped, Ps. 115:5, 6, 8. One would have thought that they took notice of things, but really they did not; they had intellectual faculties and capacities, but they did not employ and improve them as they ought. Herein they disappointed the expectations of all their neighbours, who, observing what excellent means of knowledge they had, concluded, Surely they are a wise and an understanding people (Deut. 4:6), and yet really they are a foolish people and without understanding. Note, We cannot judge of men by the advantages and opportunities they enjoy: there are those that sit in darkness in a land of light, that live in sin even in a holy land, that are bad in the best places. 2. Their wills were stubborn and unapt to submit to the rules of the divine law (Jer. 5:23): This people has a revolting and a rebellious heart; and no wonder when they were foolish and without understanding, Ps. 82:5. Nay, it is the corrupt bias of the will that bribes and besots the understanding: none so blind as those that will not see. The character of this people is the true character of all people by nature, till the grace of God has wrought a change. We are foolish, slow of understanding, and apt to mistake and forget; yet that is not the worst. We have a revolting and a rebellious heart, a carnal mind, that is enmity against God, and is not in subjection to his law, not only revolting from him by a rooted aversion to that which is good, but rebellious against him by a strong inclination to that which is evil. Observe, The revolting heart is a rebellious one: those that withdraw from their allegiance to God do not stop there, but by siding in with sin and Satan take up arms against him. They have revolted and gone. The revolting heart will produce a revolting life. They are gone, and they will go (so it may be read); now nothing will be restrained from them, Gen. 11:6.
II. He ascribed this to the want of the fear of God. When he observes them to be without understanding he asks, “Fear you not me, saith the Lord, and will you not tremble at my presence? Jer. 5:22. If you would but keep up an awe of God, you would be more observant of what he says to you: and, did you but understand your own interest better, you would be more under the commanding rule of God’s fear.” When he observes that they have revolted and gone he adds this, as the root and cause of their apostasy (Jer. 5:24), Neither say they in their hearts, Let us now fear the Lord our God. Therefore so many bad thoughts come into their mind, and hurry them to that which is evil, because they will not admit and entertain good thoughts, and particularly not this good thought, Let us now fear the Lord our God. It is true it is God’s work to put his fear into our hearts; but it is our work to stir up ourselves to fear him, and to fasten upon those considerations which are proper to affect us with a holy awe of him; and it is because we do not do this that our hearts are so destitute of his fear as they are, and so apt to revolt and rebel.
III. He suggests some of those things which are proper to possess us with a holy fear of God.
1. We must fear the Lord and his greatness, Jer. 5:22. Upon this account he demands our fear: Shall we not tremble at his presence, and not be afraid of affronting him, or trifling with him, who in the kingdom of nature and providence gives such incontestable proofs of his almighty power and sovereign dominion? Here is one instance given of very many that might be given: he keeps the sea within compass. Though the tides flow with a mighty strength twice every day, and if they should flow on awhile would drown the world, though in a storm the billows rise high and dash to the shore with incredible force and fury, yet they are under check, they return, they retire, and no harm is done. This is the Lord’s doing, and, if it were not common, it would be marvellous in our eyes. He has placed the sand for the bound of the sea, not only for a meer-stone, to mark out how far it may come and where it must stop, but as a mound, or fence, to put a stop to it. A wall of sand shall be as effectual as a wall of brass to check the flowing waves, when God is pleased to make it so; nay, that is chosen rather, to teach us that a soft answer, like the soft sand, turns away wrath, and quiets a foaming rage, when grievous words, like hard rocks, do but exasperate, and make the waters cast forth so much the more mire and dirt. This bound is placed by a perpetual decree, by an ordinance of antiquity (so some read it), and then it sends us as far back as to the creation of the world, when God divided between the sea and dry land, and fixed marches between them, Gen. 1:9, 10 (which is elegantly described, Ps. 104:6-26, and Job 38:8-41), or to the period of Noah’s flood, when God promised that he would never drown the world again, Gen. 9:11. An ordinance of perpetuity—so our translation takes it. It is a perpetual decree; it has had its effect all along to this day and shall still continue till day and night come to an end. This perpetual decree the waters of the sea cannot pass over nor break through. Though the waves thereof toss themselves, as the troubled sea does when it cannot rest, yet can they not prevail; though they roar and rage as if they were vexed at the check given them, yet can they not pass over. Now this is a good reason why we should fear God; for, (1.) By this we see that he is a God of almighty power and universal sovereignty, and therefore to be feared and had in reverence. (2.) This shows us how easily he could drown the world again and how much we continually lie at his mercy, and therefore we should be afraid of making him our enemy. (3.) Even the unruly waves of the sea observe his decree and retreat at his check, and shall not we then? Why are our hearts revolting and rebellious, when the sea neither revolts nor rebels?
2. We must fear the Lord and his goodness, Hos. 3:5. The instances of this, as of the former, are fetched from God’s common providence, Jer. 5:24. We must fear the Lord our God, that is, we must worship him, and give him glory, and be always in care to keep ourselves in his love, because he is continually doing us good: he gives us both the former and the latter rain, the former a little after seed-time, the latter a little before harvest, and both in their season; and by this means he reserves to us the appointed weeks of harvest. Harvest is reckoned by weeks, because in a few weeks enough is gathered to serve for sustenance the year round. The weeks of the harvest are appointed us by the promise of God, that seed-time and harvest shall not fail. And in performance of that promise they are reserved to us by the divine providence, otherwise we should come short of them. In harvest mercies therefore God is to be acknowledged, his power, and goodness, and faithfulness, for they all come from him. And it is good reason why we should fear him, that we may keep ourselves in his love, because we have such a necessary dependence upon him. The fruitful seasons were witnesses for God, even to the heathen world, sufficient to leave them inexcusable in their contempt of him (Acts 14:17); and yet the Jews, who had the written word to explain their testimony by, were not wrought upon to fear the Lord, though it appears how much it is our interest to do so.