“Though true repentance be never too late, yet late repentance is seldom true. Millions are now in hell, who have pleased themselves with the thoughts of after-repentance. The Lord has make a promise to late repentance, but where hath he made a promise of late repentance.” —Thomas Brooks, Apples of Gold
A voice on the bare heights is heard,
the weeping and pleading of Israel’s sons
because they have perverted their way;
they have forgotten the LORD their God.
“Return, O faithless sons; I will heal your faithlessness.”
“Behold, we come to you, for you are the LORD our God.
In Jeremiah 3:19–4:4 we have something of the inverse of that poetic dialogue between lovers, The Song of Songs. There, covenant love is in bloom; here, as regards God’s bride, it has rotted. While there is some tension in Solomon’s Song, it is the lover’s mutual adoration that comes to the fore. Here, the tension is stressed and you are left longing for the relationship to be resorted, for Israel to return to Yahweh.
Israel speaks of returning, but we are left wondering if her “return” is like the presumptuous return of Judah (3:1), done in pretense (3:10). There is no resolution. God clarifies what true repentance involves in 4:1–2 but then turns from the north to the south, commanding Judah to break up her fallow ground and circumcise her heart, to repent. The dialogue between Yahweh and Israel in 3:19–4:2 is imaginative. It is something of a vision, like the boiling pot of chapter 1. Though fictional, it is true. It isn’t a recording of Israel; it is pedagogical for Judah. It is meant to teach presumptuous Judah what true repentance is.
As we study this passage, we are left, like Judah, with the command to repent lying on us. The aim isn’t that we become morbidly introspective, questioning whether or not we’ve repented enough. This is a call for hypocrites who vow fidelity with their mouths but prove adulterous with with bodies to repent, not perfectly, but truly.
God is no hopeless romantic. This is no cliche romance novel or cheesy romantic comedy. Israel’s tears and pleas are not met with instant embrace and reconciliation. Yahweh is indeed merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast covenant love and faithfulness, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but He is no fool. Israel’s pleas are met not with pardon, but with further pleas. True repentance will find the Father’s arms open wide, but only true repentance. God recognizes a fake cry. Such a cry doesn’t move Him to compassion, but wrath.
Repentance means turning with disgust from idolatrous lovers to vow fidelity to the Bridegroom, loving Him with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. There should be no lustful glances cast aside wondering if others desire you. The eyes of repentance are fixed on Christ; they don’t look back to Sodom. You may be able to sing the song of Sodom to the tune of the Song of Solomon, but the Bridegroom knows when you’re just humming the tune, feigning loyalty while longing for others.
“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:1).
Following the opening prosecution of Judah for her marital infidelity (chapter 2) God leads the witness asking if there is any hope to restore relationship? While leading questions are forbidden in our courts of law, here the Prosecutor is the Judge. Lawyers may wickedly use leading questions to establish false evidence; God righteously uses them to expose the truth we deny. With this question God draws from His law.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 24:1–4).
Several questions arise in out mind, but in light of this, what is the obvious answer to God’s question? An undoubted and resolute “No!” And yet, everything established here will seemingly be flipped on its head by the end of this passage—seemingly.
Initially there seems no hope of return, but then vv. 11–18 give way to two pleas for Israel to return accompanied by a plethora of promises. Topsy-turvy? No, note two things. The pleas and the promises are made to Israel, not Judah, although there is a glimmer of hope as Judah is included as part of the promise made to Israel (v. 18). It appears subtly assumed in this is that Judah will have to first face the same judgment that has befallen Israel.
Second, there’s returning and then there’s returning. The returning spoken against in v. 1 is a presumptuous returning. Following the question, God commands Judah to lift up her eyes and see her whoredom (v. 2). Judah may not return without seeing her sin. Judah’s pious words are empty, but her wicked acts are full (v. 5). Her return is not with her whole heart, but in pretense (v. 10).
So may the whore return? God’s covenant name is His vow. He explained His name and revealed His glory to Moses saying that YHWH is a God “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6–7). May the unfaithful bride return to her Husband? Never and always; it depends on what you mean by return.
“Repentance is a mighty work, a difficult work, a work that is above our power. There is no power below that power that raised Christ from the dead, and that made the world, that can break the heart of a sinner or turn the heart of a sinner. Thou art as well able to melt adamant, as to melt thine own heart; to turn a flint into flesh, as to turn thine own heart to the Lord; to raise the dead and to make a world, as to repent. Repentance is a flower that grows not in nature’s garden. ‘Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil,’ Jer. 13:23. Repentance is a gift that comes down from above. Men are not born with repentance in their hearts, as they are born with tongues in their mouths.” —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices
“Ah souls, you can easily sin as the saints, but can you repent with the saints! Many can sin with David and Peter, that cannot repent with David and Peter, and so must perish for ever.” —Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices
One of the best introductions to the little book of Jonah is given by a fictional preacher, “Father Maple,” of what is hailed by many as the great American Novel, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
“Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—‘And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.’ Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah.”
Though immersed in nautical terms, though that novel centers on a whale, Father Maple gets closer than many to the true message of the book. Maple was a former whaler and knows more of what Jonah is about than we landlubbers who are preoccupied with the great fish.
Father Maple said Jonah teaches a two-stranded lesson. The first lesson concerns the sin and repentance of Jonah. The second he later says is “to preach the truth in the face of falsehood.”
Still, Father Maple misses the greatest point of this little book. Greater than Jonah’s sin and greater than Nineveh’s repentance is God’s mercy. God’s grace makes blue whales look smaller than the krill they feast on. God’s grace is so great, a multitude of blue whale-size sinners can swim and live in it.
G. Campbell Morgan wrote, “Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God.” The most astounding thing that happens in this book isn’t that God appoints a fish to swallow Jonah, but that he appoints His grace to swallow sinners. This is a whale of a tale, a big fish story—and it is true. God’s grace really is that big.
“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison.” —Colossians 4:3 (ESV)
Paul’s “open door” has been installed in many churches incorrectly. This phrase has been hijacked in an attempt to sanctify a horrid way to seek God’s will. In his excellent little book, Just Do Something, Kevin DeYoung quotes a Lark New satire piece,
TUPELO — Walter Houston, described by family members as a devoted Christian, died Monday after waiting 70 years for God to give him clear direction about what to do with his life.
‘He hung around the house and prayed a lot, but just never got that confirmation,’ his wife Ruby said. ‘Sometimes he thought he heard God’s voice, but then he wouldn’t be sure, and he’d start the process all over again.’
Houston, she says, never really figured out what his life was about, but felt content to pray continuously about what he might do for the Lord. Whenever he was about to take action, he would pull back ‘because he didn’t want to disappoint God or go against him in any way,’ Ruby says. ‘He was very sensitive to always remain in God’s will. That was primary to him.’
Friends say they liked Walter though he seemed not to capitalize on his talents.
‘Walter had a number of skills he never got around to using,’ says longtime friend Timothy Burns. ‘He worked very well with wood and had a storyteller side to him, too. I always told him, ‘“Take a risk. Try something new if you’re not happy,” but he was too afraid of letting the Lord down.’
To his credit, they say, Houston, who worked mostly as a handyman, was able to pay off the mortgage on the couple’s modest home.
Do you know how Paul found open doors? He prayerfully tried a bunch of handles. When one opened, he went through.
What are the open doors Paul asks for? Opportunity for the gospel, to declare the mystery of Christ. Upon returning to Antioch following his first missionary journey, we read that, “when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles (Acts 14:27).” The open door for the word then isn’t just the opportunity to declare the gospel, but receptivity to believe the gospel. Listen to the same truth in different garb. In Acts 11 Peter reports of this same open door of faith for the Gentiles. When the church “heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’ ” (Acts 11:18)
Paul desires prayer because He knows the work is the Lord’s. All opportunity and all receptivity for the gospel are gifts from God’s hand. Paul isn’t asking for prayer so that he might know who to marry, where to go to school, or what job to take. Paul’s personal request isn’t that personal at all. Paul doesn’t ask for an open door for himself, but for the gospel.
Why is Paul’s door installed incorrectly in so many churches? Because we are idolatrously bent in on ourselves. The crooked can’t hang straight doors.