Hold Simply to His Promises

From Commentary on Hosea (1559)

Indeed, God shows that it was his purpose to execute vengeance, such as the Israelites deserved, even wholly to destroy them: but yet he assumes the character of one deliberating, that none might think that he hastily fell into anger, or that, being soon excited by excessive fury, he devoted to ruin those who had lightly sinned, or were guilty of no great crimes. That no one then might assign to God an anger too fervid, he says here, “How shall I set you aside, Ephraim? How shall I deliver you up, Israel? How shall I set you as Sodom?”

By these expressions God shows what the Israelites deserved, and that he was now inclined to inflict the punishment of which they were worthy and yet not without repentance, or at least not without hesitation. He afterwards adds in the next clause, “This I will not do; my heart is within me changed; I now alter my purpose, and my repenting are brought back again; that is, it was in my mind to destroy you all, but now a repenting, which reverses that design, lays hold on me. We now apprehend what the prophet means.

As to this mode of speaking, it appears indeed at the first glance to be strange that God should make himself like mortals in changing his purposes and in exhibiting himself as wavering. God, we know, is subject to no passions; and we know that no change takes place in him. What then do these expressions mean, by which he appears to be changeable? Doubtless he accommodates himself to our ignorance whenever he puts on a character foreign to himself…

As he intended in this place to leave to the godly some hope of salvation, he adds what may confirm this hope; for we know that when God denounces wrath, with what difficulty trembling consciences are restored to hope. Ungodly men laugh to scorn all threatening; but those in whom there is any seed of piety dread the vengeance of God, and whenever terror seizes them, they are tormented with marvelous disquietude, and cannot be easily pacified. This then is the reason why the prophet Hosea now confirms the doctrine which he had laid down: “I am God,” he says, “and not man,” as though he had said, that he would be propitious to his people, for he was not implacable as men are; and they are very wrong who judge of him, or measure him, by men…

Inasmuch then, as it is our habit thus to transform him, let this truth be a remedy to this fault; and whenever God promises pardon to us, from which proceeds the hope of salvation, how much soever he may have previously terrified us by his judgements, let this come to our mind, that as he is God, he is not to be judged by what we are. We ought then to hold simply to his promises. “But then we are unworthy to be pardoned; besides, so great is the atrocity of our sins, that there can be no hope of reconciliation.” Here we must take instant hold on this shield, we must learn to fortify ourselves with this declaration of the prophet, “He is God, and not man.” Let this shield be ever taken to repel every kind of diffidence….

Since God then had promised some mitigation or some alleviation in all his punishments, he now reminds us, that he will not have his Church wholly demolished in the world, for he would thus be inconsistent with himself: hence he says, I am God, and not man, holy in the midst of thee; and since I have chosen thee to myself to be my peculiar possession and inheritance, and promised also to be for ever thy God, I will now moderate my vengeance, so that some Church may ever remain.”

For this reason he also says “I will not enter into the city” … There is no doubt but that the comparison is taken from the practice of war. For when a conqueror enters a city with an armed force, slaughter is not restrained but blood is indiscriminately shed. But when a city surrenders, the conqueror indeed may enter, yet not with a sudden and violent attack, but on certain conditions; and then he waits, it may be for two days, or for some time, that the rage of his soldiers may be allayed.

Then he comes, not as to enemies, but as to his own subjects. This is what the prophet means when he says, “I will not enter the city,” that is, “I will make war on you and subdue your force until you surrender and that with great loss; but when the gates shall be opened, and the wall demolished, I will then restrain myself, for I am unwilling wholly to destroy you.” …

It must also be observed that punishment was mitigated, not only with regard to the elect, but also with regard to the reprobate, who were led into captivity… The Lord, however, spared his people for a time; for among them was included his church, in the same way as the wheat is preserved in the chaff, and is carried from the field with the straw. Why so? Even that the wheat may be separated. So also the Lord preserves much chaff with the wheat; but he will afterwards, in due time, divide the wheat from the chaff. We now understand the whole meaning of the prophet and also the application of his doctrine.

John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, who served for many decades as the chief pastor of Geneva. He wrote commentaries on most books of the Bible, which were reworked from lectures he gave to theological students. He is commemorated on May 26 or May 28 on the liturgical calendars of several Anglican churches.


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