Covington, GA., May 7, 1869.
DEAR BROTHER BEEBE: - A friend requests my views through the SIGNS on a portion of Ezekiel’s prophecy, thirty-third chapter, and eleventh verse. “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
Ezekiel, as a prophet, was not sent to a people of a strange speech, and of an hard language, but to the house of Israel. He was a watchman to this people as described in the thirty-third chapter. They were an impudent and hard-hearted people, and were not disposed to receive the truth from the prophet. The Lord, however, prepared him to face the people fearlessly and boldly. The Lord says, “I have made thy face strong against their faces, and thy forehead strong against their foreheads. As an adamant, harder than flint have I made thy forehead; fear them not, neither be dismayed at their looks, though they be a rebellious house.” This truth has been verified in the experience of some, at least, of the ministers of Christ in modern times. In the shameful perversion of gospel truth, and introduction of false doctrines and practices within the last half century, into the professed church of Christ, God has had his ministers and people who have faithfully defended the truth, and withstood the storm of opposition and reproach.
The Lord God is the speaker in the text, addressing his national people through the prophet. Their course of conduct proved them to be a seed of evil doers, a bigoted, fanatical set of idolaters. Still he recognized them as his old covenant people. They were suffering justly the punishment of their own wicked course in the Babylonish captivity. Unquestionably they thought they ought not to be so dealt with, and no doubt, were disposed to reply against God. The carnal mind, to this day, will reply against God, and charge him of injustice, and self-gratification in the sufferings and miseries of his creatures. Some of the saints know this to be the truth by bitter experience.
The text contemplates the people of God in its meaning and application, and not the world of mankind at large. Jehovah is not susceptible of vindictiveness, malignancy, and revenge, in the sense they are understood and will apply among men. God says, As I live I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked. The word pleasure here does not mean purpose or command, but gratification. God speaks in the eternity of his existence and absolute perfections, as I live I have no gratification in the death of the wicked, or in other words, I am not gratified in the sufferings and miseries of the wicked. This is a rebuke to the carnal mind in its opposition to God, and clearly shows that the rankling enmity of the carnal mind possesses within itself the constituent elements of the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched. The Jews were experiencing the truth of God’s just dealing with them according to the stipulations of the covenant they were under. They had sinned, and were experiencing the bitterness of death, as the punishment of their sins. The seat of death in its ruling power over them, was in their own hearts, and sin and transgression was the cause of their misery and unhappiness, as it is the cause of all the misery and suffering in the world.
To show what was pleasing, or a pleasure to God respecting that people, after stating he had no pleasure in the death of the wicked, he says, “But that the wicked turn from his way and live.” A state of transgression is a state of death. A state of obedience is a state of life. They were commanded to turn from their evil ways, with the inquiry, “For why will ye die, O house of Israel?”
After a period of seventy years a portion of that people, after suffering severe hardships, and being fully humbled, returned from the captivity confessing their sins with tears and supplications to God, and were restored to their native land, and re-instated in the enjoyment of former rights and privileges. But that nation was not under grace at all in the sense we speak of God’s spiritual people. They were under a national covenant in which the blessings and cursings were temporal, and effected them only as a national people. Their government was a theocracy, and no other people were under such a government. I hope my friend will notice this point.
If there is any sense in which the text has an application under the gospel dispensation, it is in relation to such of the children of God as are walking after the flesh, and are in captivity among the Babylonians in a strange land. The church of God, properly speaking, is not in captivity, but is elevated in her doctrine, laws, ordinances and precepts, above the world, out of the reach of her enemies. She is a spiritual organization, a kingdom which cannot be moved. But unquestionably there are some of the Lord’s children who have strayed from the fold for the gratification of their pride, and the vanity of their carnal mind. The unadulterated doctrine of grace which feeds the spiritual mind, is repulsive to the fleshly or carnal mind; it desires something more congenial to its nature, and more pleasing to its appetite. It lusts after evil things, and seeks the company of the Babylonians, and has for its associates the religious witches, wizards and sorcerers of this blasphemous age. After a time such disobedient children find themselves under task-masters who are very exacting; they find no rest. It is labor by day and by night, with the continual cry, Work, work, work, until they are broken down by excessive labor. The bitterness of death seizes hold of them, they find trouble and sorrow. Instead of living by the faith of the Son of God, their way is scattered to strangers, and they are perishing in the hands of their enemies. Some pursue a course of disobedience, in violation of manifest duty for years, thinking the gate is too strait, and the way too narrow for them to walk in. The Primitive Baptists are not popular enough for them, and they are not yet prepared to leave their idols behind, or in other words, not willing to forsake all for Christ. When leanness enters their souls they find that they have sold their dearest privileges on earth for a mess of pottage, and they are ready to die; in fact the pangs of death are upon them. Some, perhaps, who have passed from death unto life, remain in the irreligious world, and spend a miserable existence in trying to enjoy the world and its vanities. In every case a person who is quickened to spiritual life fails to find any substantial rest, joy and peace in the service of the flesh, or carnal mind. The agony of spirit, the sorrow of soul and bitterness of death is awful beyond description. The rising billows of his unreconciled mind will reply against God as a Being that takes pleasure, or gratification in the miseries of his creatures, not realizing at the time that sin and selfishness in his own bosom is the cause of his misery and unhappiness. A presumptuous feeling seizes hold of him, perhaps, and he attempts, if possible, to rush into the very jaws of an endless death. I have presented an extreme case, but it is true, I think, in thousands of instances. I trust my friend sees this point, or at least I hope so.
It is a positive scriptural truth, as addressed to the saints, that if ye live after the flesh ye shall die. Also, if ye sow to the flesh, ye shall of the flesh reap corruption. And to be carnally minded is death. One distinguishing trait of a carnal mind is covetousness. Wherever this sin is seen and felt, its deleterious consequences are of the most blighting and withering character. To feed, nourish and encourage it is destruction to all spiritual mindedness among the saints. One of the most appalling traits of covetousness is the religious imposition palmed off upon people under the specious pretence of philanthropy of a religious character, for hire, and worldly gain and advantage. The wickedness of Israel of old in point of magnitude and enormity, did not excel this age and generation in the outrageous strides of priestly domination, political and social mongrelism, and abolition fanaticism of the most beastly and degrading character. Our own country is ruined by this blasting, withering curse. The devotees of such abominations glory in their shame, and sport with their own deceivings.
But to the redeemed of the Lord there is a bright future. Though there is an awful death in the transgression of the law of Christ, the power and grace of God is sufficient in their redemption from its power and dominion. Under the law of love there is no command in a legal sense to the disobedient children as though they possessed any human ability to turn from their evil ways and live. While it is a positive truth that they sin in their flesh voluntarily, yet their return is not voluntary, only as the compelling power of the law of love draws them, perhaps under the rod of chastisement, and they return with weeping and supplication. Self is denied, the cross is borne, and their kind and heavenly Father smiles propitiously upon them. They forsake their own evil ways, and experience the truth that it is a pleasure to God for them to return and live in his sight. Each one of them can say, like Ephraim, “Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke; turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned I repented; and after that I was instructed I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth.” The language of their Redeemer about them is like his language about Ephraim. “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; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord.”
I have written something in a concise form relative to the death and the life spoken of in the text as applying to national Israel, and also something in relation to death and life as applying to the spiritual Israel of God. The obedience or disobedience of the former did not change their relation as Israelites, nor the obedience or disobedience of the latter does not change their relation as the children of God. The oath and promise of God to the former in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, secured their existence as his national people until the coming of the promised Messiah. The oath and promise of God to the latter in the everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure, secures eternal salvation, and all spiritual blessings to them in time and eternity. The first Israel were a carnal people; the second Israel, the people of God, are a spiritual people. The first inhabited the land of Canaan, the second inhabit the land of rest, into which the people of God enter by faith in time, and which is gloriously consummated in the world of unclouded day.
As I have before stated, if there is any sense in which the text applies under the gospel dispensation, it must be in the sense in which I have presented it, or at least I so understand it. I think I often know what a text does not mean, when I may be at a loss to know what it does mean. The religious wiseacres of this polluted and degenerate age, pervert this text, as well as others, by making an application of it to graceless sinners, as though salvation was proffered to them upon terms and conditions to be accepted or refused, according to the will and choice of the creature. The minds of some of the saints are bewildered and confused by such erroneous teachings.
It is an unspeakable blessing, indeed an invaluable privilege to be established in the truth, and to be at rest as to the foundation of the believer’s hope of salvation, and to be cut loose from the entangling and bewitching doctrines and notions of men. To be little children in deed and in truth, to live at home in our heavenly Father’s family, and to be weaned from any hankering after the world and its vanities, is a great and blessed consideration. There are many, however, who are deprived of the privilege of christian association on account of their isolated condition, and surrounded by many very zealous professors of religion, and yet are alone. This class have our sympathy. It is better to be alone with a quiet mind, than to be in a large crowd with confusion. It is more desirable to dwell alone, than to be in a wide house with a brawling woman.
I have hastily penned the foregoing lines, and will submit them to the consideration of my friend, and all others who may feel disposed to read this communication.
Joseph L. Purington.
P.S. For the special consideration of my friend, and all others who may feel interested, I will state that the prophet Ezekiel speaks of the blessings and promises of the gospel covenant, in contradistinction from the legal covenant, in relation to God’s spiritual Israel, with as much assurance as any of the prophets, or the apostles. See Ezek. 34:20-31, 36:25-38; and chapter 37. The Spirit of Christ testified in him, which is the spirit of the gospel covenant, and he rejoiced in it.