Here is added the main benefit, that God would not only restore the captives, that they might dwell in the land of promise, but would also change them inwardly; for except God gives us a conviction as to our own sins, and then leads us by his Spirit to repentance, whatever benefit he may bestow on us, they will only conduce to our greater ruin. The Prophet has hitherto spoken of the alleviation of punishment, as though he had said, “God will stretch forth his hand to restore his people to their own country.” Then the remission of punishment is what has been hitherto promised; but now the Prophet speaks of a much more excellent favor, that God would not only mitigate punishment, but that he would also inwardly change and reform their hearts, so that they would not only return to their own country, but would also become a true Church, a name of which they had vainly boasted. For though they had been chosen to be a peculiar people, yet, as they had departed from true religion, they were only a Church in name. But now God promises that he would bring them, not only to enjoy temporal and fading blessings, but also eternal salvation, for they would truly fear and serve him.
And this is what we ought carefully to observe, for the more bountiful God is towards men, the more is his vengeance kindled by ingratitude. What, then, would it avail us to abound in all good things, except we had evidences of God’s paternal favor towards us? But when we regard this end, that God testifies to us that he is our Father by his bounty towards us, we then make a right use of all his blessings; and God’s benefits cannot conduce to our salvation except we regard them in this light. Hence Jeremiah, after having spoken of the people’s restoration, justly exalts this favor above everything else, that the people would repent, so that they would not only fully partake of all the blessings they could expect, but would also worship God in sincerity and truth.
Now, God says that he would give them a heart to know him The word heart is to be taken here for the mind or understanding, as it means often in Hebrew. It, indeed, means frequently the seat of the affections, and also the soul of man, as including reason or understanding and will. But though the heart is taken often for the seat of the affections, it is yet applied to designate the other part of the soul, according to these words,
“Hitherto God has not given thee a heart to understand.” (Deuteronomy 29:4)
The Latins sometimes take it in this sense, according to what Cicero shews when he quotes these words of Ennius, “Catus AElius Sextus was a man remarkable in understanding.” (Egregie cordatus; Cic. 1 Tuscul.) Then, in this passage, the word heart is put for the light of the understanding. Yet another thing must be stated, that a true knowledge of God is not, as they say, imaginary, but is ever connected with a right feeling.
From the words of the Prophet we learn that repentance is the peculiar gift of God. Had Jeremiah said only that they who had been previously driven by madness into ruin, would return to a sane mind, he might have appeared as one setting up free-will and putting conversion in the power of man himself, according to what the Papists hold, who dream that we can turn to either side, to good as well as to evil; and thus they imagine that we can, after having forsaken God, of ourselves turn to him. But the Prophet clearly shews here, that it is God’s peculiar gift; for what God claims for himself, he surely does not take away from men, as though he intended to deprive them of any right which may belong to them, according to what the Pelagians hold, who seem to think that God appears almost envious when he declares that man’s conversion is in his power; but this is nothing less than a diabolical madness. It is, then, enough for us to know, that what God claims for himself is not taken away from men, for it is not in their power.
Since, then, he affirms that he would give them a heart to understand, we hence learn that men are by nature blind, and also that when they are blinded by the devil, they cannot return to the right way, and that they cannot be otherwise capable of light than by having God to illuminate them by his Spirit. We then see that man, from the time he fell, cannot rise again until God stretches forth his hand not only to help him, (as the Papists say, for they dare not claim to themselves the whole of repentance, but they halve it between themselves and God,) but even to do the whole work from the beginning to the end; for God is not called the helper in repentance, but the author of it. God, then, does not say, “I will help them, so that when they raise up their eyes to me, they shall be immediately assisted;” no, he does not say this; but what he says is, “I will give them a heart to understand.” And as understanding or knowledge is the main thing in repentance, it follows that man remains wholly under the power of the devil, and is, as it were, his slave, until God draws him forth from his miserable bondage. In short, we must maintain, that as soon as the devil draws us from the right way of salvation, nothing can come to our minds but what sinks us more and more in ruin, until God interposes, and thus restore us when thinking of no such thing.
This passage also shews, that we cannot really turn to God until we acknowledge him to be the Judge; for until the sinner sets himself before God’s tribunal, he will never be touched with the feeling of true repentance. Let us then know that the door of repentance is then opened to us, when God constrains us to look to him. At the same time there is more included in the term Jehovah than the majesty of God, for he assumes this principle, which ought to have been sufficiently known to the whole people, that he was the only true God who had chosen for himself the seed of Abraham, who had published the Law by Moses, who had made a covenant with the posterity of Abraham. There is then no doubt but that the Prophet meant that when the Jews became illuminated, they would be convinced of what they had forgotten, that is, that they had departed from the only true God. This mode of speaking then means the same as though he had said, “I will open their eyes, that they may at length acknowledge that they are apostates, and be thus humbled when made sensible how grievous was their impiety in forsaking me the fountain of living waters.”
He afterwards adds, that they should be to him a people, and that he in his turn would be to them a God; for they would return to him with the whole heart By these words the Prophet shews more clearly what he had before referred to, that God’s blessings would be then altogether salutary when they regarded their giver. As long then as we regard only the blessings of God, our insensibility produces this effect, that the more bountiful he is towards us, the more culpable we become. But when we regard God’s bounty and paternal kindness towards us, we then really enjoy his blessings. This is the meaning of the Prophet’s words when he says,
“I shall be to you a God, and ye shall be to me a people.”
What this mode of speaking means has been stated elsewhere.
Though God rules the whole world, he yet declares that he is the God of the Church; and the faithful whom he has adopted, he favors with this high distinction, that they are his people; and he does this that they may be persuaded that there is safety in him, according to what is said by Habakkuk,
“Thou art our God, we shall not die.” (Habakkuk 1:12.)
And of this sentence Christ himself is the best interpreter, when he says, that he is not the God of the dead, but of the living, (Luke 20:38;) he proves by the testimony of Moses, that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though dead, were yet alive. How so; because God would not have declared that he was their God, were they not living to him. Since then he regards them as his people, he at the same time shews that there is life for them laid up in him. In short, we see that there is here promised by God not a restoration for a short time, but he adds the hope of eternal life and salvation; for the Jews were not only to return to their own country, when the time came to leave Chaldea, and a liberty granted them to build their own city; but they were also to become the true Church of God.
And the reason is also added, Because they will return to me, he says, with their whole heart He repeats what we have already observed, that they would be wise (cordatos) and intelligent, whereas they had been for a long time stupid and foolish, and the devil had so blinded them, that they were not capable of receiving sound doctrine. But these two things, the reconciliation of God with men and repentance, are necessarily connected together, yet repentance ought not to be deemed as the cause of pardon or of reconciliation, as many falsely think who imagine that men deserve pardon because they repent. It is indeed true that God is never propitious to us, except when we turn to him; but the connection, as it has been already stated, is not such that repentance is the cause of pardon, nay, this very passage clearly shews that repentance itself depends on the grace and mercy of God. Since this is true, it follows that men are anticipated by God’s gratuitous kindness.
We hence further learn, that God is not otherwise propitious to us than according to his good pleasure, so that the cause of all is only in himself. Whence is it that a sinner returns to the right way and seeks God from whom he has departed? Is it because he is moved to do so of himself? Nay, but because God illuminates his mind and touches his heart, or rather renews it. How is it that God illuminates him who has become blind? Surely for this we can find no other cause than the gratuitous mercy of God. When God then is propitious to men, so as to restore them to himself, does he not anticipate them by his grace? How then can repentance be called the cause of reconciliation, when it is its effect? It cannot be at the same time its effect and cause.
We ought therefore carefully to notice the context here, for though the Prophet says that the Jews, when they returned, would be God’s people, because they would turn to him with their whole heart, he yet had before explained whence this turning or conversion would proceed, even because God would shew them mercy. They who pervert such passages according to their own fancies, are not so acquainted with Scripture as to know that there is a twofold reconciliation of men with God: He is first reconciled to men in a hidden manner, for when they despise him, he anticipates them by his grace, and illuminates their minds and renews their hearts. This first reconciliation is what they do not understand. But there is another reconciliation, known by experience, even when we feel that the wrath of God towards us is pacified, and are indeed made sensible of this by the effects. To this the reference is made in these words,
“Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you,” (Zechariah 1:3)
that is, “I appear severe and rigid to you; but whence is this? even because ye cease not to provoke my wrath; return to me, and you shall find me ready to spare you.” God therefore did not then first begin to pardon sinners, when he does them good, but as he had been previously pacified, hence he turns them to himself, and afterwards shews that he is really reconciled to them.
By the whole heart, is intimated sincerity or integrity, as by a double heart, or a heart and a heart, is signified dissimulation. It is certain that no one turns to God in such a manner that he puts off all the affections of the flesh, that he is renewed at once in God’s image, so that he is freed from every stain. Such a conversion is never found in man. But when the Scripture speaks of the whole heart, it is in contrast with dissimulation;
“with my whole heart have I sought thee,” says David; “I have hid thy words and will keep them: I have prayed for thy favor; I will ask,” etc., (Psalms 119:10;)
“They will seek me,” as Moses says, “with their whole heart.”
(Deuteronomy 4:29; Deuteronomy 10:12)
David did not divest himself of everything sinful, for he confesses in many places that he was laboring under many sins; but the clear meaning is, that what God requires is integrity. In short, the whole heart is integrity, that is when we deal not hypocritically with God, but desire from the heart to give up ourselves to him.
As we have before refuted the error of those who think that repentance is the cause why God becomes reconciled to us, so now we must know that God will not be propitious to us except we seek him. For there is a mutual bond of connection, so that God anticipates us by his grace, and also calls us to himself; in short, he draws us, and we feel in ourselves the working of the Holy Spirit. We do not indeed turn, unless we are turned; we do not turn through our own will or efforts, but it is the Holy Spirit’s work. Yet he who under pretext of grace indulges himself and cares not for God, and seeks not repentance, cannot flatter himself that he is one of God’s people; for as we have said, repentance is necessary. It follows, — but I cannot to-day finish this part, for he speaks of the badness of the figs, and of the remnant which still remained.