There are two distinct points in the ways and testimony of God as regards us: first, faith is the condition of soul in us which, as it is in exercise or otherwise, may either hinder or favour the enjoyment, which habitually the testimony of the word is to give to us. Then in presenting the object of faith to our souls—the Father’s love, the Son’s work—the word of God applies itself to the conscience and heart; for where the conscience is not in exercise the heart will not be, and all will be hollow. When the affections are dull then self comes in, and I attach these holy affections to myself; for when I am thinking about my affections I am thinking about myself. But when the conscience is in exercise we are thinking of the object presented: otherwise the heart is turned in upon self, the Lord is forgotten, and weakness ensues; consequently we sink into a feeble state; but then the word of God presenting the object of faith applies itself to the conscience, bringing that into exercise, and thus the heart is brought back to God.
There can be no true love to Christ while there is the sense of wrong done; for I cannot love a person I have wronged. What is needed then is the consciousness of the wrong done. “I have sinned, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.” When the conscience is aroused, and the heart is brought into play, we rest in the presence of God. The Spirit of God may humble us on account of what we have done, but when conscience is in play it brings out our whole condition before God. It is not the law coming in again, but God presenting Himself’, thus there will be right affections, and the conscience will be in exercise. Self-confidence and self-exaltation in every form are always the effects of an unexercised conscience. Only put a man in the Lord’s presence, and that will keep him lowly, and in a spiritual state of discernment; but there is nothing out of which we so easily get as the consciousness of the presence of God. So also in our prayers. You may often be sensible that you go on praying after you have lost the consciousness that you are speaking to God, still the soul goes on expressing itself; even when led by the Spirit the consequence will be that the manner will be all wrong, though the words may be right. Well, though all this be true, whenever the Lord recalls a soul He recalls it to His own presence. He will act on the conscience; He will speak plainly to us. Why? Because He is conscious of the relationship which ought to have produced the conduct befitting the relationship which we have forgotten. “Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him.” When the Lord recalls a soul to Himself He may reproach it with having forgotten the relationship in which it stood to God, and God to it; but He cannot reproach it as not having known that relationship. The power of every rebuke is founded on the relationship, and God remembering the relationship acts on the ground of it with all the affections belonging thereto. Thus every rebuke comes to us as the expression of the most wonderful tenderness; and the more deeply we learn that there is no failure in God’s affection, the more deeply we lament our short-coming and failure in that relationship which never fails.
God said to Jeremiah, “Go, say in the ears of Jerusalem”; but, alas! Israel would not hear. Now this was most disastrous; but God remembers His relationship to them, and says, in Hosea 2:16, “In that day thou shalt call me Ishi”; that is, my husband, “and shalt no more call me Baali”; that is, my Lord. Evil as their state was, He recalls with all its force and energy the remembrance of their relationship— “Go, cry in the ears of Jerusalem.” It is not, “He that hath an ear let him hear,” but God goes and speaks in their ears. Oh that He may speak in our ears! When God. spake comfortably to Jerusalem then He spake to the heart, and that was after chastening; but here He is at another work, speaking in the ears of Jerusalem that they might hear what God had to say to them. He could say—the true Servant— “The Lord God hath opened mine ear” to hear what God had to say to Him, and He was not rebellious, neither turned away back; but Israel “had forsaken him days without number”; they had done a terrible thing, such as no other nation had done. “Hath a nation changed its gods, which are yet no gods? but my people have changed their glory for that which doth not profit.” And again, “Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid, be ye very desolate, saith the Lord. For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” And now that God is sending a message after them, does He say, ‘Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, I remember thy sins”? No, but “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thy espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.” He is recalling what Israel was to God Himself: I remember the outgoings of thy heart towards Me; “I remember the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals.”
Now what a thing it was for God to say to Israel, ‘I have not forgotten what you were to Me in the days of thy youth, when the heart first turned to Me.’ In all this we have the same principle as “Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations,” when they were quarrelling which should be the greatest. And so Israel were always murmuring, thinking their leeks and cucumbers better than God; but God remembers the principles on which Israel acted— “When thou wentest after me in the wilderness.” They got much of this world’s goods in Canaan by following God; they got cities that they had not built, wells that they had not digged, palm-trees that they had not planted, and the like. All these things were the consequences of following God; but He does not mention these. But “thou wentest after me in the wilderness, which was a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought, and the shadow of death, a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt”; ‘thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, where there was nothing to set your affections on but Myself; I Myself was the whole and sole object of your affections’; and this it was that God remembered. He overlooks all failure, and the condition which God notices is that He Himself was everything to them; and this is what characterises a heart when first converted to God—the Lord is everything to it. What is the world to that heart? Dross and dung. Everything, cares and pleasures are alike forgotten, everything counted as nothing, except what is found in God Himself. The praises of Israel were freely given— “I will prepare him an habitation”; “my father’s God, I will exalt him,” because they had found Him who was everything to them, and the world and all it had to give a mere nothing.
Now let us look at the other side of the picture, and see the desperately bad state which the heart of Israel had got into, remembering they are but types of us. They were dissatisfied, and cried, “Would to God we had died in Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and ate bread to the full.” And again, “Wherefore have you made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us into this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.” In the wilderness there is nothing to see, nothing to look at; and this is what Israel wanted. God says, “I brought you into a plentiful country to eat the fruit thereof, and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered ye defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination.” They felt their own importance, and forgot the Lord; they had the blessing, and did not want the Lord of the blessing (v. 6-8). And is not this true of the church of God? We bring in self, which is but a broken cistern, and depart from Him, who is the living fountain and power of blessing, forgetting that “a Syrian ready to perish was my father.” Consequently there is moral weakness, and Satan gets power. A believer cannot get back into the world: a mere professor may, and enjoy it; but a Christian cannot. An Israelite could not get back through the Red Sea again. You cannot think of yourselves and the Lord together with satisfaction to your own souls. The Lord’s presence in the soul will bring self into utter ruin and nothingness. We have only to let the Lord have His place in our souls, and that will put us into our place. If I am walking through the world, shall I find it a wilderness? To be sure I shall; but then I shall not be thinking about the wilderness if the Lord is my joy and my strength. Are your hearts saying, This is a land we cannot see? If so, what does that prove? Why, that you are looking for something to see; and this is the thought you will find in your hearts, “It is a land not sown,” although you may be ashamed to own it. But God remembered Israel when they thought it worth while to follow God for His own sake. We feel bound to say it is a happy thing to be a Christian; but when we are alone do not our hearts say, “It is a land not sown”? If it be so with you, do not rest until the Lord Himself alone satisfies your soul; for you should delight yourself in Him. Lot saw a well-watered plain and a city, and then dwelt in it on the earth, and consequently was in the midst of judgment; while Abraham sought a city out of sight, and he enjoyed the blessing and comfort of God being with him, go where he might. When the soul is down, like a ship when the tide is low, it is in danger of shoals and sandbanks; but when the tide is up there are no sandbanks, because the ship is lifted up above them all. Thus when the soul is happy in Christ it will go on peacefully, independently of all the trials we may be called to meet with in our fellow-saints. We are called to walk together through the world, and a mere natural fitness will not do for that. No, we can only go on so far as Christ fills the soul; and thus going on in the tide of divine goodness, forgetting everything else, we can walk together happily, being occupied with Christ, and not with each other.
But notwithstanding what Israel was, still God does not forget Israel. And why? Because He remembers her affection in the day of her espousals, “when thou wentest after me in the wilderness.” The soul, when occupied with God alone, is holiness to the Lord. God says to Israel, “If thou wilt return, return unto me.” It is of no use to attempt to set the soul right except it be set right with God. Israel was “holiness to the Lord.” Now holiness is not innocence. God is not what we call innocent, but holy. He perfectly separates between evil and good. So Christ Himself when on earth was separated unto God; and when about to depart out of it, He says, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified through the truth”; for the meaning of the word “sanctify” in this place is separation to God. So it is with the church of God. She is separated from the world unto God, taken out of creation for Himself, the first-fruits of His increase. There will be a harvest of blessing when Israel and the nations are brought into blessing, but the church is the first-fruits of God’s increase. God remembers this, though the church may have forgotten it; but if we know what it is to get back into the affections of God, we must enjoy the love that fails not; for God says, “I remember.” The soul then apprehends what the church of God is in the affection of God, and not what it is down here. Christ was the corn broken and bruised, and afterwards the wavesheaf before God. So the church is to be in a low and oppressed state, and afterward to be exalted to where Christ is. God will have the whole harvest, but the first-fruits of His increase is that which occupies His affections.
“What iniquity have your fathers found in me?” Have I failed towards you in goodness? What is the matter now? Is the Lord changed? Is He worth less now than when thou wentest after Him in the wilderness? No; but we have got far from Him, and have walked after vanity, and have become vain. We have enjoyed His blessing, and have got fat and kicked, and consequently have fallen down into the weakness and wretchedness of our own hearts. When did the Lord bring up His people? When the very circumstances through which, and into which, He brought them was the proof that the Lord was bringing them there; for He brought them into a land of deserts and pits, where they had no need to lean on “a broken reed, whereon if a man lean it will go into his hand and pierce it,” because they leaned on God Himself. “Neither did thy raiment wax old upon thee, nor thy foot swell, these forty years.” And why? Because “the Lord alone did lead them, and there was no strange god with him.” So was it with Gideon; Jud. 6. He remembered what God had been to Israel in the day of their espousals, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” And the Lord looked upon him, and said, “Go in this thy might.” Thus we see that Gideon’s remembrance of what God was to Israel in the day of their espousals was the secret of his strength. In Gideon was a soul near enough to God to say, “Where is the Lord?” and then what a burden is taken off the heart. Only let us place ourselves before the Lord, and see if He does not come in remembering the day of espousals.
If I am thinking of the cucumbers of Egypt, the wilderness will not suit me; but if I am thinking of the Lord, I shall have no thought at all whether I am in the wilderness or not. The affections of my soul will be going on with God’s affection for me; for He ever remembers “the love of thine espousals” when He first revealed Himself to our souls. It is true we may see chastening, but God never forgets the work of grace in our souls. He never forgets “the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals when thou wentest after Him in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” And now thou art “holiness to the Lord”; and though God will have His joy in the harvest of the earth, yet thou art the first-fruits of His increase.