"O Lord, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid; O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy." (Habakkuk 3:2)
GOD'S threatenings against the Jewish nation were sent many times over by his various prophets. The Lord threatened them by his servants Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many of the minor prophets of whom Habakkuk was one. We have only to read the Bible to see how hardened were they to whom these threatenings were directed and on whom the judgments were to fall; but neither judgments nor mercies stopped them from going on in their downward course.
Habakkuk saw clearly their state, and being a man with the fear of God in his heart, he trembled at these threatenings; for he saw them hanging over the Jewish nation, to which nation he himself belonged; and at last those judgments began; for though God seemed to divert them time after time, yet at last they came, and dreadful they were; for when Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, there were a very great many of the Lord's national people killed and destroyed by the sword and famine; but that was nothing compared with the further judgments that awaited them with Titus, the Roman General, besieged Jerusalem, took it, and burned the temple, when more than a million person were supposed to have perished in the siege.
Habakkuk saw how judgment was to come upon them, and how the Chaldeans would invade their land, and what desolations they would make, and he trembled at the Word of God. It is a mercy when God's threatenings make people tremble and fear, and seek unto him, that his vengeance may not be suffered to fall upon them individually; for God's Word to all such is: "To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word." (Isa. 66:2)
In my text we see a man, though a prophet, who had heard God's speech and trembled at his word. In noticing this portion of Scripture I shall speak
I. Of God's speech, and of hearing it.
II. Of the prophet's desire for God to revive his work in the midst of the years.
III. That in wrath God would remember mercy.
I. Of God's speech.
i. God speaks out of his law, and very terrible is his voice when we hear it. You have only to read the 20th chapter of Exodus, and there you will find how the whole Israelitish nation were summoned to meet God at Mount Sinai, and they all came at the commandment of God, and the Lord spoke to them out of the fiery flame, and continued speaking so long, while the trumpet sounded louder and louder, that the whole of them as a nation trembled and were afraid, and even Moses, the lawgiver and commander and leader of the people, said, "I exceedingly fear and quake." What made them tremble? Why, lest the wrath and indignation of a holy God should burst forth upon them. They were guilty sinners before God, and were afraid lest he should deal with them after their sins; for not one promise of mercy issued from that mount. Nothing was spoken about grace, the Lord said nothing about a Redeemer; but the fire was burning, the flames were ascending, God's voice was heard, the trumpet sounded louder and louder, and everyone who stood at the foot of the mount trembled at the holiness and majesty of that great God who was speaking to them. It made them all afraid; there was no exception. Not a single person heard it without fear and trembling.
How typical were these Israelites of God's own dear people who by his Spirit are brought to Mount Sinai; for all are brought to know the holiness and spirituality of God's law and its just demands, and are made to tremble before it; for as the Israelites, who were God's national people, were thus taught the holiness of God's law; so God's own elect people now all know something of their own guiltiness, and also of the holiness and justice of God; for "by the law is the knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20) The Lord's people are brought to feel that they, with all mankind, have sinned and come short of the glory of God; but how very few out of the bulk of mankind hear God's speech and are made to tremble on account of it! Some may say, "Why should we tremble at it? Because God has said in his Word, "The soul that sinneth it shall die;" that is, if the soul departs out of the body without being quickened, and humbled, and without sin being made a burden, and transgressions forgiven, such a soul shall die, that it, have eternal death. Again, God says, for this is the speech of God, "He will by no means clear the guilty." (Exod. 34:7) Is there one here whose conscience is void of offence, and who can say, "I am not guilty?" Say you, "I have not been guilty of so many sins as some have." Hear what God says, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point he is guilty of all." (James 2:10) Say you, "Of what?" Why, guilty of breaking all of God's commandments, and he stands condemned out of the mouth of God, and nothing can justify him but the Lord's mercy and grace. Have you heard God's speech so as to bring you on your knees with fear and trembling? When God called his servant Jeremiah, he tells us how fear and trembling came upon him. When the Lord called Saul of Tarsus we read that "he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" Then again, when the jailor was arrested and called by God's grace, we read that "he called for a light, and sprang in and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" He saw and felt that he was a guilty sinner and that God was a holy God.
ii. Not only under the law does God speak and his people hear his speech and are afraid, but under the gospel also they hear his speech and are made to tremble; for the Lord says, "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21) In the days of Christ many came to him crying, Lord, Lord." The young man who was very rich came saying, "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17) The Lord dealt with him on the ground of his boasted works, and said "Go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me." (Mark 10:21) That quite settled him, for he soon left Christ, and went away "very sorrowful, for he had great possessions." Then again the Lord says, "Many will say unto me in that day, Lord, Lord have we not prophesied in thy Name done many wonderful works?" And yet the Lord will say unto them, "I never knew you." These things try God's people; for they have heard his speech, and know that his word will stand. Then again, how the Lord compares his own church to ten virgins, five of whom were wise and five foolish. They all took their lamps, and went forward alike in outward appearance with the same object, namely, to meet the Bridegroom. They all slumbered and slept, and all heard the voice that proclaimed, "Behold, the Bridegroom cometh." "Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps." But one part of them found they had taken no oil, therefore they were not likely to be able to make their lamps burn. We read "The foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out." The wise virgins also slumbered, but when they awoke they trimmed their lamps, and having the oil they soon burned. The Blessed Spirit was with them: "And they that were ready went in with him to the marriage; and the door was shut." (Matt. 25:10) The foolish were shut out, and the wise were shut in. What do these ten virgins represent? Why, the wise represent God's elect who possess the Spirit, and who are taught by him to tremble at his Word, and fear lest after all they have experienced they should come short; and the foolish represent those who have but a mere profession,--the externals of religion, and have never known a change of heart; such have no oil, and no vessel, only the lamp; but the wise have the lamp, the vessel in it, and the oil, and therefore it says when the Bridegroom came they trimmed their lamps, that is, the Blessed Spirit revived his work in them, These are the things the Lord's people sometimes hear, and fear lest they should come short. Paul said, "Let us therefore fear lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it." (Heb. 4:1) And again: "Be not wise in your own conceits." (Rom. 12:16) Eliphaz said, "He taketh the wise in their own craftiness; and the counsel of the froward is carried headlong." (Job 5:13) And Paul said, "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." (1 Cor. 10:12) Have you never had any fears lest you should come short? Are you altogether exempted from fears? Or do you not find rather that whilst you pray to God, confess your sins, seek unto him, and desire to be led aright, you find many fears crowd in upon your mind because you see what a separating word the word of the Lord is, and how many are making a profession of the Lord's Name who have not had an inward change. I ask you again, "Have you no fears?" Some may say, "No, I do not. I am stronger than Habakkuk, and I am not like Jeremiah who was full of fear, nor yet like Abraham whose fears the Lord had to break down." Then I say you are the very character that ought to fear and greatly fear too, for my fear of you would be as it would be of myself, if I were in your case, that you are a stranger to vital godliness, and never knew the exercises of God's children, but are classed amongst those of whom it is said, "They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men; therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment!" (Ps. 73:5,6)
God's people are plagued with fears; and what effect has this upon them? John says, "Fear hath torment." And what is it torments a child of God? Why, his sins. Satan will be tormenting him on account of them. He torments those who have a little grace and a little of the love of God in their souls, with the fear that they shall come short at last. And what will cast this fear out? Why, perfect love; for John says, "Perfect love casteth out fear." And what is this but God's love? John says, "He that feareth is not made perfect in love," (1 John 4:18) but he does not say he never shall be, and that is your mercy and mine; for he says, "Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us that we should be called the sons of God; therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:1,2) This is your desire, sinner, if you are led aright, this is your expectation, and this is the prize upon which your heart is fixed, and you would not miss it if you could call all the world your own. This is the mark to which Paul pressed when he said, "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." (Phil. 3:14)
Sinner, is that the prize to which you are pressing, and upon which you would take hold for your comfort and strength? And what is it, but to take hold of Christ; as Isaiah says: "Let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me; and he shall make peace with me." (Isa. 27:5)
II. The prophet's desire for God to revive his work in the midst of the years. He knew what would do his soul good in the midst of his fears and in the midst of these prospective judgments that were to come upon the nation and in which he himself was to be a partial sufferer. Now see how graciously the Lord did revive his work in him, for before he concluded his prophecy he says, "Although the fig-tree shall net blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls." Though everything in nature should be cut off from him, and there should be nothing to sustain his poor body, yet here see the reviving in his soul, "I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation." (Heb. 3:17,18) O how the Lord lifted the dear man up, and he was not long in doing it. This shows clearly that he had previously had a work wrought in his soul, but that work was very low at the time when he made this request. What is the work of God in the soul? Why, it is the work of the Spirit of God, a work apart, or in addition to, terrors. The terrors of the law produce slavish fear, but the work of the Spirit in the soul allays fear. Mark the difference! I say the terrors of God's law create fears, and the work of grace in a man's soul and God's blessing allays his fears. I do not mean that the Lord will take away all fear in such a way that the man shall never have any fear again. But what is the work of God? It is the work of his Spirit in quickening the soul into eternal life; therefore if the Blessed Spirit has ever wrought this work in your soul and mine, it is eternal life; as Christ said: "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. The work of quickening is always attended with a knowledge of sin, and the deeper discoveries you and I have of the fall of man and of man's real condition by nature, the more we shall be out of love with self and the less liability there will be to be entangled with the errors and doctrines of men; for if men were more acquainted with the depths of the fall and their real state before God, it would be impossible for even the devil himself to entangle men's minds as he does. If God after quickening our souls has made us well acquainted with the depths of the fall and the evils that dwell in us, if we have a right knowledge of our sinfulness and a right discovery of the professing and profane world, the knowledge of our total depravity and utter helplessness on account of sin will make it impossible for free-will to live and thrive in our hearts. The experience of a child of God is as a foreign language to all who are destitute of divine teaching: for we are as barbarians to them, and they to us. "Ye shall be a separate people unto the Lord your God." The Lord the Spirit quickens us to know our sinfulness, and our total depravity, and the corruption of flesh and blood, not only before God quickened us, but flesh and blood remain the same after grace has altered our state and made us holy by his indwelling power; for the Spirit makes us sensible of what we are, and he keeps us sensible of what we are; and we have no hope of our flesh being made holy until the resurrection morning when God shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body. This is the hope of a child of God. Paul said, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." (1 Cor. 15:19)
Again God blesses the sinner with a sense of his pardoning mercy. Say you, "But has not God blessed him when he quickens him? Yes, he has, but he has not blessed him with peace, he has not blessed him with pardoning love. There is a great distinction to be made between life and peace in a sinner's soul. You who are rightly led of God know that you had life in your soul long before you felt peace, and from that life there went up many prayers from your heart for peace, and God was pleased to hear and answer your cries in your affliction; as Job says, "He heareth the cry of the afflicted," (Job 34:28) and sent peace into your heart, and blessed peace it was as you found when you were in the enjoyment of it. You never had anything like it from the world; for, like the manna which came down from heaven to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness, and none tasted of that manna but the Israelities, so when God let down this peace into your soul, you felt it to be a heavenly peace, even the peace of God which passeth all understanding. O what sweet feelings of rapturous joy this brings into the sinner's soul! It is the work of God to bring peace into your souls and to seal you unto the day of redemption. The mercy of God always creates a trust in God, and it is the same trust that the primitive saints and Old Testament saints had. So it is written: "In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise." (Eph. 1:13) If God has set the seal upon us who can break it? In days of old it was a transgression worthy of death to anyone who interfered with the king's seal. Anything that was sealed with the king's signet was not to be undone, and none of the king's counselors must interfere with that seal. So with the Lord's children. He calls his church "a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" for himself. Paul calls this being sealed unto the day of redemption. O what a mercy it is if the Lord has sealed us! What does the seal impress upon us? Why, his own image; for the Lord creates all his own people in his own image; therefore it is said, "Put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness." (Eph. 4:24) Who can deface God's image? Adam could lose the image in which God first created him because he was a mutable creature. He stood upon his own merits, and God so made him that he could stand or fall, and that was free-will,--perfect free-will, and what was he inclined to when the forbidden fruits and the tempter came together? Why, to fall, therefore he partook of the fruit. There was his free-will. What to do? Why, to go into evil, and by so doing he lost the image of God in which he was created. But can a child of God lose that second image in which he is created? No, never; neither can it ever be impaired or sullied; as we read: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin." (1 John 3:9)
You who have this image know it by the pantings of your souls at times after God. Man, after he fell, fled from God; but God's children after they are regenerated are constrained to draw near to him, and want him in their hearts and pray for his presence, mercy, and love. This proves they have experienced the work of God.
When God's speech is heard through the preaching of the word faith is wrought in a man's heart. The apostle Paul says, "We give thanks to God alway for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father." (1 Thess. 1:1-3) This was the work the Lord wrought in the soul of the prophet Habakkuk; he gave him faith to believe God's word. The apostle says, "Faith cometh by hearing." A little of this faith is infinitely precious, because it keeps the sinner deeply conscious of what he is, and it keeps him from looking to anything in himself, and from building upon any works of his own or of the creature. It keeps emptying him of his self-sufficiency day after day and year after year, and by these discoveries he sees what a poor, empty, wicked, carnal creature he is by nature, and all this is allowed to bring him to rely entirely upon the Lord and his finished salvation; as we read: "Surely, shall one say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength." (Isa. 45:24) "They that trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abideth for ever." (Ps. 125:1) This then is the work which the Lord performs in the soul, but often it seems obscured, and the child of God cannot see his evidences, and has to break out sometimes inwardly in his soul's feelings and say, "O Lord, we see not our signs." Job had to cry out, "He holdeth back the face of his throne, and spreadeth his cloud upon it." (Job 26:9) Jeremiah said, "When I cry and shout, he shutteth out my prayer. Surely against me is he turned: he turneth his hand against me all the day." Here we see the state of some of God's people. Mark! Those men whose language I have just quoted were no hypocrites, they were not deceivers, they were not out of the secret of true religion; but they were holy men of God, and some of them were prophets of the Lord, and yet see the states and conditions into which they were brought, and how in their soul feelings they sank down very low; as David said, "I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me." (Ps. 69:2) The work was obscured for a time. These dear men sank in their soul's feelings, and were cast down, tried, and tempted. And you will find it the same if you know the work of faith in your hearts. And what is all this for? Why, to keep us in the footsteps of the flock, that we may cry for revivings, and renewings; for the Lord says of Israel, "They shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine; the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon." (Hos. 14:7) We find the church in the 85th Psalm crying out after God, and saying, "Wilt thou not revive us again; that thy people may rejoice in thee?" So, poor things, they were cast down, and had lost their joys and comforts, and had many fears, and could not revive the work themselves. The workmongers amongst the Calvinists in the present day say, "You should use the invitations and exhortations. If you would only preach the exhortations and invitations, then the people of God would live up to them, and others would believe." My friends, you might invite and exhort me all the year round for ten years, and it would have no effect upon me. Say you, "Then how can the exhortations and invitations be fulfilled?" When the Lord by his Spirit gives an exhortation, then he sends power to obey it; that is the secret of it. When the Lord sends power with the exhortation, then we require neither whip nor spur; for up rises the soul, saying, "The voice of my Beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills." Paul said, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." (Phil. 4:13) Suppose I invite some of you this morning to come to Christ, though, as I have before said, you are by nature dead in sins and enemies to God by wicked works, without strength or power or spiritual life, and suppose I exhort you to do spiritual acts, to repent and love God when just before I have declared you to be dead in sins, what would you think of me? Would you not think it was a contradiction to my previous statements? But let God speak an exhortation to a sinner's soul, and he obeys it directly. For instance. The Lord saw Levi sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, "Follow me." Could he obey this invitation? Yes, because it was from the voice of the Lord, and the Lord put forth his grace and drew him. And so in many other cases that I might name. When the Lord spoke to Zachaeus, and said, "Make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house," (Luke 19:5) the same voice reached him that reached Levi, and Zachaeus very quickly obeyed the exhortation of God.
But I was going to remark, ask a child of God why he does not revive the work in his own soul? His answer would be, "I earnestly desire to have it revived. O if the Lord would but come and bless my soul as once he blessed me. O if he would but once more draw out my soul in prayer and supplication! I earnestly at times ask him to do these things for me; for I can no more do them for myself than I could create a brighter world than the one God has made, or fetch the stars from the firmament, or cause the troubled ocean to be still when the waves roar. All these things teach us that without the Lord we can do nothing, and bring us into the spirit of the prophet when he uttered the words of my text, "O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years;" as if he should say, "Lord, quicken me again. Draw me once more to thy feet. Kiss me again with the kisses of thy mouth. Bless me with the felt pardon of all my sins. Revive my faith, and draw it out in sweet exercise and operation upon thy Blessed Self, and enable me in the midst of darkness, temptations, the accusations of the devil, temporal adversities, and family afflictions to trust in thee, and say, Thy will be done." The Lord brings us into places where we must pray. The prophet Habakkuk could not help himself, and we are brought to know something of the same feeling, that is, to be sensible of our weakness. What a mercy it is we have to do with a God who can revive the work in our souls, and who has said, "Ye now therefore have sorrow;"--but shall I leave you there? Shall I leave you to be swallowed up in sorrow? Shall I leave you in sorrow all the days of your life? No, says Christ, "I will see you again;" and what shall be the effect? "Your heart shall rejoice." And what will I put within you? "Joy which no man taketh from you." This is reviving the work of grace in the soul. When the Lord again visits us, then sorrow flies away.
But the prophet says, "In the midst of the years make known." What did he want the Lord to make known to him? Why to make himself known to him. Christ manifests himself to his disciples as he does not to the world, which caused Judas, not Iscariot, to say, "Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?" The child of God wants the Lord to make himself known to him, and to say unto his soul, "I am thy salvation." You want the Lord to pour down into your souls the Spirit of adoption, the Spirit of power, and of a sound mind; and will God turn a deaf ear to your cries? O no! In his own time he will answer them. Therefore it is written: "The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie; though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry." (Hab. 2:3) That is just what the Lord said to Habakkuk, and he went and delivered the message to the people, for he knew many of them would be weak and faint. Remember, the Lord has never designed to give us all joy here; for "eternal wisdom ne'er designed to give us always joy." We want the Blessed Spirit of power to be poured upon us. Have you come up to the house of God this morning seeking for this? Is this the desire of your soul and mine, that the Lord would once more look upon us and make himself known to us? When the Lord Jesus expired on the tree the disciples knew but little about his resurrection power. They had not seen him from the time when he hung dead on the cross; until he made himself manifest to them and then it is said, "Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord." That is just how it is with a child of God now. How glad he is of only a glimpse of Christ as his Lord and his God, and to have his heart encouraged and his soul inspired with fresh confidence that he is a child of his. We want the Lord again to make known to us the blessedness of the gospel of his grace. There is every blessing treasured up in the gospel, but we want the Lord to carry on his work and bless our souls.
Perhaps the prophet Habakkuk when he penned the words of my text had, like some of you, got twenty, thirty, or forty years along in his pilgrimage, and had found that there was nothing in the world that could give him any satisfaction; he found death within him and all around him, and there were very few persons who would listen to his prophecy, for they seemed to harden themselves in their iniquities, and he could find no comfort only as he found it in his God. I believe that is where David and many others in a great measure were brought, and they wanted the Lord to appear for them again and again and be their Helper, which made David cry "Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness' sake, O Lord." (Ps. 25:7) What does this imply, but that he had multiplied his sins and was a transgressor still in the sight of God! He had become no better in himself, but found that in himself was all evil, and the workings of evil, and all manner of sins which caused darkness, bondage and death; so that he felt if God were to deal with him after his sins he would cut him down as a cumberer of the ground and send him to hell.
III. "In wrath remember mercy."
No doubt the prophet here has reference to that wrath which God had promised he would pour out upon the Jewish nation. Not that he would cut them off entirely, but he promised to spare them, and leave them a remnant, and to keep them alive. But doubtless there is a far more particular sense in which the prophet desired that God would in wrath remember mercy. He wanted God not to deal with him after his sins. O what prayers and cries go out of the heart of a child of God that the Lord would in wrath remember mercy; for he is the subject of many fears and faintings of soul, and the longer he lives the weaker he becomes, and the greater sinner he is in his own eyes, and the greater wretchedness he discovers in himself. The Lord brings him to the full assurance of faith of what a sinner he is. Say you, "But is he not brought there at the first?" No, my friends, you will find after you have traveled thirty or forty years in the pilgrim's pathway you will know more of your sin than you did at the beginning, for you never dreamed you should be the subject of such sins, and feel such carnality and death as you now feel; so that you often come to the conclusion that there is not another sinner just like you, and the words of my text suit you well, "In wrath remember mercy," and you say, "Lord, I confess what I am, a poor, black, vile, guilty sinner from head to foot. I have sinned and transgressed against thee. But Lord, I plead thy mercy, the blood of Christ, and the righteousness of the Redeemer. O God, in the midst of wrath deserved, pardon mine iniquity, and blot out my sins as a cloud, and my transgressions as a thick cloud!" Poor soul, go on crying this prayer. It is the publican's cry, and the Lord has promised, saying, "And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily." (Luke 18:7)
"In wrath remember mercy." This is the desire of every living soul who has eyes to see how the wrath of God abides on all who are not brought by faith and grace to believe on the Son of God and to know him, and experience his lovingkindness, his tender mercy, his precious blood, his everlasting righteousness, his saving grace, and to be sealed by the blessed Spirit unto the day of redemption; as the Scripture says: He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not on the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him." (John 3:36)