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Lecture Thirty-seventh

Take with you words and turn to Jehovah and say to him, Take away all iniquity, and bring good, and we will pay thee the calves of our lips. We mentioned in our last lecture the sort of words the Prophet here bids the Israelites to take, while exhorting them to repent: for as they had been hitherto deaf and mute, he commands them to be not only attentive to the word of the Lord, but also prompt to respond, that there might be a mutual consent between the doctrine heard and their own confession. He now explains himself and says, Take away all iniquity, and bring good. These are the words with which he bids them to come to God. He dictates to them the confession which the Lord requires.

He first bids them to ask remission and the pardon of sins; for if a sinner desires to return into favour with God, and yet does not confess his guilt, he adopts a way the most strange. The very beginning must be a confession, such as the Prophet here describes. For the Israelites, by asking God to remit their sins, at the same time confessed themselves to be guilty before Him; yea, they condemned themselves that they might obtain gratuitous absolution. And emphatical is what they said, Take away all iniquity. Thus they confessed themselves to be guilty not only of one sin, but also of many sins, for which God might justly punish them, had he not been propitious to them. In short, they acknowledge here their various and multiplied guilt.

But they add, Bring good This sentence is commonly explained as if the Israelites said, that they had hitherto been barren and empty of good works, but that now being reconciled, they would be useful and profitable servants of God. But this sense seems not to me suitable to this place; for he afterwards subjoins the evidence of gratitude, We shall pay the calves of our lips. He here speaks, I doubt not, of God’s blessing, which flows from the gratuitous pardon of sins: for God does not simply receive us into favour, but also really shows that he is not in vain reconciled to us; for he adds the fruits of his paternal love, by favouring us with his kindness. As then the Prophet commanded the Israelites to bring words before God, so now he introduces them as praying that God would bring good: and Scripture is wont commonly to join these two together, — the favour of God, by which he freely remits sins, — and his blessing, which he grants to his children, after he has embraced them in his paternal love. Hence bring good; that is, “O Lord, first receive us into favour, and then prove in reality that thou art propitious to us, even by outward benefits.”

It now follows, And we shall pay, or render, the calves of our lips In this passage, the faithful confess that they have nothing with which they can pay God in return, when he has bountifully granted them all things, except that they will celebrate his goodness in their praises, and confess that they owe all things to him. This is then a remarkable passage; for it sets forth God’s goodness towards men, and then it teaches that men can render no mutual compensation, but can only bring praises by which they celebrate God’s goodness, and nothing more, as it is said in Psalm 116,

‘What shall I repay the Lord for all the benefits which he has conferred on me? The cup of salvation will I take, and on the name of the Lord will I call.’

There also the Prophet testifies that God is not liberal towards men because he expects or demands any thing from them, for what can they give? but that he still requires thanksgiving, and that he is content with the sacrifice of praise, as we find it also said in Psalm 116. But we learn the same thing from this passage, O Lord, they say, bring good; that is, “Though we have in various ways exposed ourselves to thy judgement, having by our innumerable sins provoked thy wrath, yet let thy goodness surpass all our iniquities; having made us clean, bring also that good which has been hitherto, as it were, far away from us.” For while God shows signs of his wrath, we are destitute of all his blessings. They therefore ask God, after restoring them to favour, to manifest to them his kindness. And what do they at last say? “O Lord, we promise thee no compensation, for thou requires none, nor is it in our power to give any; but we will pay to thee the calves of the lips; that is, “We will confess that we owe all things to thee; for it is only the sacrifice of praise that we can render thee, when thou hast loaded us with all kinds of blessings.”

And calves of the lips the Prophet fitly calls the praises which God requires as the chief sacrifice; for under the law, some offered calves when they paged their vows. But the Prophet shows that God regards not external sacrifices, but only those exercises which men perform in another way, even the sacrifices of thanksgiving. This then is the meaning of the metaphor; as though he said, “The calves which are wont to be offered are not the true sacrifices in which God delights, but tend rather to show that men are to offer praise to God.” We now then perceive the meaning of this verse. It follows —

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