"Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy. He will turn again; He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the mercy to Abraham which Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old." (Micah 7:19,20)
These words are a challenge to all the gods men worship, and all the gods they trust in and seek. Who is a God like unto ours? Whatever God we seek, we are sinners; therefore we must have a God that can deal with sinners. We must have one that can have compassion on a sinner, and save a sinner. A sinner can never have compassion on himself; he cannot save himself, nor forgive his own sins. It is out of all reason to suppose a transgressor can pardon his own sins. If he could, there would be no unpardoned transgressors in the world; and all guard to life and property would be broken down. It is sorely the right of the offended to forgive the offender. There is no law of equity fulfilled in passing by transgressions but by the Lord. The law cannot pardon offenses. To do so would wrong the offended. There is a right God has given to men in the gospel to pass by offenses between man and man; wherein is a transcript of His own grace. It is the character of God only expressed here: "That pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage." He can do it, because with Him there is atonement for sin. And if He passes by transgressions, He must do so by His infinite grace and glory.
It is often asked, if the Lord pardons a sinner through the atonement He has made, how can it be called mercy? If a man pays twenty shillings to the pound, how can his creditor be said to exercise mercy? It is like this. If the creditor pays it to his own account, that his books may stand straight, and the debtor pays nothing, it is equally an act of mercy as though the debt were not paid, and equally just to his character as though the sum were received from the debtor. Now the Lord Jesus Christ is God's provision. God has provided His own sacrifice, His own atonement; and hence the entirety of pardon is of Himself, and is mercy to the sinner. He is just to His law, just to His integrity; yet the satisfaction comes not from the sinner; he pays nothing for his pardon. It is as free mercy from the Lord, as free, sovereign grace in pardoning transgressions, as if God had done it independently of an atonement. It is really a sovereign pleasure in the Most High to pardon sin. Therefore the challenge is made: "Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage?"
Before we dwell on this part of the subject, we will make a running comment upon the whole passage, that we may gather a little from it, if the Lord enables us.
Here you see there is a heritage spoken of. The whole Scripture declares that the Lord has an inheritance. By this term we are to understand something wherein He has a right and some pleasure and interest. His people are His inheritance or heritage for ever, His treasure, and in them He has an interest: "This people have I formed for Myself; they shall show forth My praise." (Isa. 43:21) They are the express formation of God, fashioned by His own Word and Spirit, that they may show forth His praise. This is the primary object God has in view, that they should show forth His praise in being recipients of His mercy and goodness, and in giving actual thanksgiving and gratitude to Him. The forming is of God, according to His mind; and all the mysterious ways of God towards them in providence and grace may be unlocked by that one word. There is the key to the whole,--that He forms them for Himself, to show forth His praise. As, then, our religion is something belonging to God, if it suffers loss, He is sure to restore it. If the affections become cold, He will warm them; they are His treasure. Something has interfered with His heritage; something has stayed the affections which are His; something has cooled the heart which is His heart; something has closed the mouth, so that it does not acknowledge God. He knows the best way to bring them back to Himself, and often sends trial or affliction to recover His people and their praises.
The psalmist says, "Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now have I kept Thy Word." (Ps. 119:67) Like him we are made conscious that our heart roves, our affections go hither and thither, and that God comes to recover His possession. What a blessing if He has a treasure in us! The trials He sends are not to damage the soul, but to improve it, to renew its strength. God comes by them to repair His estate, to give it health and cure, that He may have the honor doe to His Name. When He has done it, the soul offers praise, and thanks Him for His mercy. Then no damage can come to His people. Crosses and trials must necessarily be an advantage to them; every rod laid upon them is to improve them Godward, that they may give the Lord their praises. So in affliction we are to look for the increase and strengthening of grace in us, and the blessing of God upon our souls, by His gathering our hearts and affections to Himself, weaning us from creature things and from self and self-indulgence. If these things do not take place, there is no improvement or growth in grace in us.
He "passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage," and "retaineth not His anger for ever." It is plain there are seasons when He is angry. Many times this song has been sung: "Though Thou wast angry with me, Thine anger is turned away, and Thou comfortedst me." (Isa. 12:1) To be angry is not antagonistic to love; it stands in a line with it. God is angry on account of everything contrary to His mind and will in His people; and He frequently shows that anger in some form. The greatest manifestation of it is by a cloud that hides His face from them; and the highest blessing that can come to us is to see His face. For the Lord to lift us the light of His countenance is the most gracious favor of the new covenant. When we look to other things as greater burdens than the hidings of God's face, we have not a right conception of ourselves nor of Him. A dark cloud that hides His face from the soul must weaken it. To walk in darkness spiritually is to walk in fear. And to walk in the light of His countenance is the blessing of the Lord's people and their real enjoyment.
Sometimes God shows Himself angry by speaking angrily; at other times He acts angrily; but it is the anger of a Father. He shows anger because He is a Father; and when He puts away the soul from His presence, it manifests His displeasure. I would that your consciences and mine were tender enough to feel the anger of a Father, and be aware when there is something between Him and the soul. O what a blessing to have a sensible feeling of the loss of God's presence, or of the loss of His sweet voice speaking to us in fellowship! What the Lord's people need is not only to know they are His people, but when they have some assurance that He is their God they want something more--they want God himself, to have Him, to enjoy Him, while passing through this dreary vale of life. Do we not want the Lord to be with us, and His arm to be sensibly underneath us? When we pass through dark paths, we want Him to guide and lead us; when we go through fire and water, we want Him to be with us, that they should not hurt us. It is communion with God in prayer, in every action of our lives, which is our real, essential enjoyment. Whatever stays that, whatever obstructs our intercourse with God, is to be dreaded by us as something that drives away experimentally our best Friend, our dearest delight.
But "He retaineth not His anger for ever." There is a limit to it. He has power over His anger. Your anger and mine may overcome us; it may gain possession of us, so that we cannot manage ourselves. But with God everything is under His control. His power is as great as any attribute He possesses; so that He keeps perfect command over Himself. Though He manifests anger, He can stay His anger in a moment. The moment He knows it is sufficient He can turn His hand and bless the soul. "He retaineth not His anger for ever, because He delighteth in mercy." Here is something wherein He takes pleasure, wherein He can rejoice, and show and magnify His goodness, and wherein His people can admire Him. And what He takes pleasure in He is sure to perform.
Then He says, "He will turn again;" that is, after He has apparently turned away from us, He will turn His affections towards us, so that we shall know it experimentally. What a blessing is this! You that have felt past mercies, and have said, "Is His mercy clean gone for ever?" to feel Him turn again in those mercies! You that have felt God's power, to feel Him turn again in that power, and once more visit your soul according to His lovingkindness; to feel Him turn again as your Friend, as your God, as your all in all.
"He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities." Now, compassion is a word full of feeling. It speaks of the entire mercy and goodness of God; it expresses the divine quality of favor towards us. He will make it known to us, and subdue our iniquities. This is His promise; and this is what we want Him to do. There is power and dominion in sin; it has great power. Toplady sings, and rightly too,
O! When sin once has unrestrained power over a man, whatever it may be, when it grasps him in its hand and holds him prisoner, what a wretched being it makes him! He becomes a slave to a predominant power, be it what it may. The Lord's people do at times feel that sin has the dominion over them; but if it is so, the Lord will subdue it. "He will subdue our iniquities." We cannot be under the power of sin without knowing it; and if we are under its dominion, does it not make us cry out like a poor slave who cries out under the chains and fetters of his master? A slave who is made to work in chains is an unwilling servant, serving a master he would not serve. He does not work from his own will, but from another's. He has no rights of his own; they are all taken from him. So when sin gains advantage over men, they have no will of their own; they are mere dupes and slaves of sin, grasped by its power. Their condition is one scene of hard bondage and distress. If we are there, does it not grieve us, and make us cry out to the Lord that He would break our fetters and let us go free? If so, there are some signs that the Lord is turning towards us, and His presence is coming near us; for He has put within us a looking towards His holy temple that we may be delivered.
We have in the example of Jonah a lively illustration of the power of sin over a man. His temper was so high that he would not submit to the Lord, though storms followed him, and he must be thrown overboard. But a gracious God preserves him from fatal consequences, and by and by subdues his iniquities. Like a little child he turns, and looks towards that holy place whence mercy comes and hope towards that holy place whence mercy comes and hope can spring.
We all have our own propensities to fall into sin. Every heart knoweth its own bitterness. There are bitters in every soul; sins which require especially to be subdued and the hand of God put on them, that they may be restrained. And if He does restrain them, He has compassion upon us, and fulfills His promise: "He will subdue our iniquities."
"And Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea." What a gracious favor is this! None can dive to the bottom of the sea, naturally, to bring up again what is cast there. Those sins that have plagued the child of God, and grieved the Lord, that brought the Son of God from above, and caused His agony here below, He has cast into the depths of the sea.
But we are told further what the Lord will do: "Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob and the mercy to Abraham, which Thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old." This is a covenant He has made, which is called a covenant "of life and peace." (Mal. 2:5) It was made not with His people immediately, but with Jesus, their Head and Representative before the world was, and with His people only in Him. It was a covenant to bless them with all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus. There those blessings are all secured. They are handed over, as it were, to Him; and the first blessing He gives to a soul is life. When He has given life, there are many things required to support that life, and these He will give; for to bless a man with life and to withhold from him the comforts of life is only to bring him into a condition of misery and sorrow.
But how ready men are by nature to insult God for the miseries they bring upon themselves, and the paths they make for themselves. We read, "They have made them crooked paths; whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace." (Isa. 59:8) "Be sure," say the Lord, "your sins will find you out." (Num. 32:23) "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." (Rom. 1:18) The sin is ours, and would entail upon us all the evils that can be; but instead of doing what it would, it is restrained; and the mercy that preserves us is God's. We are indebted to ourselves for all our miseries, aches, pains, and wretchedness, and indebted to the Lord for all our health and favor, for the things He has provided to make the life He has given comfortable.
Likewise when God blessed His people with life in Christ Jesus, it necessarily included all the accompaniments of spiritual life, which only satisfy the soul. There is no real satisfaction upon earth in an earthly life. If a man is full of riches, they do not satisfy him, because he is not equal to them. As for riches, there is no harm in them; but we are not equal to them, and are carried away by them. "Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked." We are not equal to prosperity. It hardens and draws our minds from God, and brings us into lines and circumstances that are evil to us. Therefore the Lord sets adversity over against prosperity, and makes use of adversity to put the thing right again. Now the life of God requires none of the things of earth. It is called in Scripture eternal life; and it has all the real qualities of life and power in itself, through union with Christ. It is a life that seeks God, and requires the God of heaven for an Associate; for the real fullness of all satisfaction is in Him. If we have God by faith in our hearts in sweet enjoyment, we have all we can possibly desire. There is such perfection in Him, felt at times by faith, that if there were not another creature on earth and we have His presence, we should not feel a want. This will tell you there is something in God so full, so real, so satisfying, that He is all-sufficient. The covenant of life is that gracious promise of His favor that will be the satisfaction of the soul when it arrives safely in heaven. He will perform the truth unto Jacob. God has spoken it; and what He has spoken is true, and shall be done. The whole must come from His hand,--the truth to Jacob and the mercy to Abraham which He has sworn.
Let us now turn back to the challenge: "Who is a God like unto Thee?"
Look which way we will, where shall we find one who deals thus mercifully, favorably, and graciously to a transgressor, one who shows so much kindness and forgiveness to a sinner? Where shall we find an equal to Him? Yet we are given to idolatry. The Word of God stands in opposition to idolatrous practices in our hearts. How easy it is to trust in our own hearts, to lean upon an arm of flesh rather than upon God Himself! By nature we have lost the real God; we have no idea of Him, and know not where He is. Men invent a god for themselves; and shocking, too, are some of their inventions. We look back on the idols of wood and stone of men's invention; but they were not a whit worse than are made now. There was no more blasphemy in offering to those idols than there is now in the idolatry that pervades men's minds, whether professor or profane, unless the grace of God is in their hearts. Who is it the world worship? It is not the God of the Bible that passeth by transgression; it is not the God that saves; they have one of their own. It is impossible to be without a god. The infidel may deny it; but he has a god. One will deify reason; another his own power of will. They both deify a quality in themselves; there is no difference in this, and both have a god. The man that deifies this reason rejects everything that is not reasonable. The other, that deifies his own supposed free-will, rejects everything that is not within his grasp. What he cannot perform he sets on one side, and thinks of going to heaven by free-will. But I ask the infidel, "Can your reason manage to unfold temporal things?" And the free-willer, "Can your will accomplish its object in temporal things?" Does everything in nature come according to reason and free-will, or are there circumstances that thwart them both? It is because men have no relationship to heavenly things that they deify reason or something else.
Look at your business, property, whatever you are connected with, can you make these bend to reason? Can you give a reason why such a wind blows, why such a crop does not grow, one field of wheat is blighted, and another is not? If you cannot, why be so foolish as to set up that reason to be god which cannot account for the things of daily life? Or take a deified will. You have a boy; can you manage him? You have a horse; can you do as you like with it? Whatever thwarts your will is superior to it. It is something that comes from a higher power, over which you have no control. You may take the helm; but you never reach the haven you wish. "It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps." (Jer. 10:23) Then free-will is a vain hope; for it is not in man to do what he would.
Idolatry in the people of God is one of their most troublesome plagues. Looking to another than God; feeling your heart leans upon some supposed good, some supposed righteousness; that the whole heart is given to idolatry, and the back turned to the Lord and not the face, is it not that which brings grief and sorrow to your soul?
We find continually that the God of heaven is the real Deity. "I will do all My pleasure"--all. There is no obstacle to Him. "Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deep places." (Ps. 135:6) Here is infinite power, and it dwells in One that comes to a poor sinner with infinite good-will. It is not the flimsy will of man that would but cannot do. It is His who said to the leper, "I will; be thou clean." The man with his leprosy had surely willed as much as possible to be cleansed; but his will had no power. When the Lord said, "I will; be thou clean," immediately the leprosy was cleansed.
If you are in trouble, free-will cannot help you, nor reason. The supposed righteousness of man is another idol; our hearts cleave to it, but neither can this help us in time of need. Truly it may be said of all our idols, "There is no help in them." They never arise to our help, nor move; and it is senseless to bow down to them. Now "who is a God like unto Thee?"
Here is a woman with sorrow and guilt upon her conscience, that bows down her soul. If you know what guilt is, you know it really destroys all the pleasures of life and the profits of life. A guilty conscience is a gnawing worm. There is nothing before it but destruction. When you have had guilt in your soul, you may have tried your own righteousness to relieve you; but it could not ease the pangs of guilt. There was a woman who was really guilty, who came to the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ; and ultimately He said to her, "Thy sins are forgiven. Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace." (Luke 7:48-50)
Again. There was one sick of the palsy brought to the Lord, borne of four on a bed. There was a crowd round the house; and they were obliged to climb to the top, and take away the covering, to let down the man in the midst. "Who is a God like unto Thee?" He saw their faith in the action, and saw something too in the man; and before He cured his body, He attended to his soul, saying, "Son, thy sins are forgiven thee." What was the cure of his limbs to that of his soul? It was but trifling in comparison with this declaration. Then He gave the command: "Take up thy bed, and walk;" and the man arose, and took up that whereon he lay, and went forth. The Lord healed his body to show that He could forgive sins. The first act was as effectual as the second; and this was the proof of it.
In like manner, when you are brought to the same Lord, you will feel, "Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity?" He takes away the pangs of guilt from the conscience, removes the gnawing worm, and brings peace and pardon. He gives that which would cause your soul to feel enjoyment whether in a workhouse or not,--it is the peace of God. When you have been in trouble, and your friends have closed up their hearts against you; when you must have help from some one, and you have lifted up your heart to God; then you are brought to feel, "Who is a God like unto Thee?" We have leaned to self; we have leaned to man; and these are but idols. We have been ready to sink, with a burden of guilt upon the conscience, under the hidings of God's face, feeling as though we were passed over to Satan's power, for him to do what he pleased with us; and God has sent His Word: "Thy sins are forgiven thee!" What a return to peace, joy, and comfort that poor sinner finds!
One thing I want, and I believe all the children of God are most anxious for the same,--the enjoyment of God while passing through this world. I am not satisfied with the simple knowledge that I shall go to heaven. See how it was with the prodigal son. He ran away from his father, spent all he had, and came into want and misery. While he was feeding the swine, he was a miserable man. Though he knew he had a father with riches and bread enough and to spare, that did not satisfy his hunger; that did not clothe his bare limbs, nor comfort his comfortless heart; and he cried out, "I will arise, and go to my father." See when the father fell on his neck and kissed him, that very kiss of welcome showed the mercy and largeness of his heart and the forgiveness of his love. This is the desire of the wandering child of God, to meet his Father on pardoning terms, to go into His house, and sit at His board, and to hear Him say, "Let us eat, and be merry." This is the real enjoyment of life and godliness that the Lord's people need.
I would not have you be satisfied with any part of the knowledge of truth. The abstract knowledge can never give you the sweetness in your heart. Satan has a greater knowledge of the truth than we can have; but it yields no comfort to him. It is when faith is put into the heart, and can eat and digest the truth, then it becomes sweet to the taste, and yields satisfaction, encouragement, and strength. For a sinner to have his sins pardoned, he only knows how great the grace. The highest peak of the mountains of his sins disappears at the sight of the Son of God, the slain Lamb, seen by faith. O! If the soul were ten thousand times as great a sinner, the infinity of grace he sees would take all his sins away. God is "able to do exceeding abundantly, above all we ask or think." Poor sinner, you have not done with mercy yet. God help you to knock at mercy's door, and knock again; "because He delighteth in mercy."
What mercy is must be felt to be known; because it is an internal thing. It implies misery in another. You see a miserable object, and mercy forbids you to pass it by without relieving it. That feeling of misery has entered your heart; and you cannot get rid of it, unless you show mercy. Accordingly it is said, "He took our sorrows." They have entered into Him; He is "touched with the feeling of our infirmities;" and as the feeling of misery enters, so the pleasure of relieving it is felt: "I will rejoice over you to do you good." So, seeing Ephraim's misery, He says, "My bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him." (Jer. 31:20)
May the Lord help you and me to seek after real gain, that we may feel experimentally the truth of God's Word: "Who is a God like unto Thee, that pardoneth iniquity?" He has done it for some of us; for we have been in the enjoyment of pardoning mercy and forgiving love, of His presence and favor. May He enable you to feel the sweetness of these words in your hearts, with a present enjoyment of them.