Francis Bourdillon, 1864
"Whenever God slew them — then they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant. Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return. How often they rebelled against him in the desert and grieved him in the wasteland! Again and again they put God to the test; they vexed the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember his power — the day he redeemed them from the oppressor."
This Psalm is about the people of Israel. It sets forth God's dealings with them and the return which they made; it declares, on the one hand, the wonderful things which He did for them: His kindness and long-suffering, His chastisements and His forgiveness; and, on the other hand, their many backslidings, their repeated ingratitude and rebellion. In this particular part of the Psalm we see how the people turned to God when He laid His hand upon them in affliction, but forgot Him again when His hand was removed. This happened again and again. Many a time did they seem to repent, and yet they again returned to their sins. Many a time did God forgive their backslidings.
How often may this be seen still! "When He slew them — then would seek Him." When a man feels the hand of God upon him in sickness or trouble, then he seeks God. His pride is brought down, he is careless no longer; for his strength is gone from him, and outward comforts are fled, and perhaps death itself seems near. Now he seems in earnest. He shows much zeal in inquiring after God, and pays attention to reading and prayer. His thoughts go back to the past. He remembers God's dealings with him — he thinks over his life, counts up the mercies he has received, considers how he has been borne with in his carelessness, and how the means of grace have not been withheld from him, though he has made so poor an use of them. He sees now the vanity of the world. He remembers that God is his Rock, and the most high God is his Redeemer. He will be a different man for the future. He will never again live as he has lived. If it pleases God to raise him up, he will never more forget Him, but will strive to serve Him truly all his days.
These are his thoughts and purposes. Suppose it please God to restore that man to health and prosperity — does he still remain in the same mind? Does he really lead a new life and care for his soul and serve God? Alas, not in every case. Often the sick-bed vow is broken — and the sick-bed thoughts are forgotten. With returning health, old thoughts come back, and old ways are followed. There is little change.
The words come true, " But then they would flatter Him with their mouths, lying to Him with their tongues." Not that they did not mean what they said. The people of Israel were sincere perhaps at the moment; but "their heart was not right with Him, neither were they steadfast in His covenant." There was no depth in their repentance, no steadfastness in their purposes — and so, as soon as God's afflicting hand was removed, they provoked Him afresh.
In like manner, the man who forgets his sick-bed vows was no hypocrite perhaps when he made them. He did not say one thing — and mean another. He meant to keep to what he said, and thought that he would. But he did not know his own heart, his weakness, his proneness to forget God, his need of grace. He did not know that the Holy Spirit alone could work a real change in him and make his heart right with God and lead him to be steadfast in His covenant. Had he but known this, and sought the Spirit accordingly — how different would his after-life have been!
Affliction, pain, and sickness — do not in themselves work a change of heart. They are often used as instruments by God, but they are only instruments — the power is His. It is only sanctified affliction which leaves a blessing behind it. We should pray therefore, when we are sick or in trouble, that the Holy Spirit may be given to us, and that our affliction may be sanctified and turned to the good of our souls.
Prayer is the way by which afflictions may be turned into blessings. Prayer will give us cause to say with David, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted!" (Psalm 119:71). God is full of compassion and mercy.
Though Israel so often sinned again — yet God repeatedly forgave them. He is still the same — the same to us, as He was to them. He looks in mercy upon our shortcomings and backslidings, our broken vows and forgotten resolutions. He remembers that we are but flesh — poor, weak, sinful creatures. The precious blood of Christ has been shed for us, and "He ever lives to make intercession for us" (Hebrews 7:15).
For His sake, God is still ready to receive us; and, notwithstanding all that is past, He will forgive and save all who seek Him through Jesus Christ. Thus He is indeed their Rock and their Redeemer. Happy are all who seek Him and know Him thus!
But let none presume on God's compassion and mercy and think that because He bears long and forgives often — they may go on in their sins and yet escape. It cannot be. There is every encouragement to turn to God in Christ now. No one shall now be refused; no one shall now find the door of mercy shut.
But the time will come when that door will be closed forever, and when those who have slighted God's warnings and turned a deaf ear to His invitations — will find too late that they have let the day of salvation slip by. Now is the time to profit by God's chastisements, to turn to Him and to seek Him. Even while His hand is upon us and we hear His gracious voice calling us in His Word — let us turn unto Him who smites us; let us seek the Lord Almighty! (Isaiah 9:13).