God's Patience Abused - by Dr. Stephen Charnock (1628-1680)Articles on the Christian Walk, Systematic Theology and Practical Theology
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“The Lord is slow to anger”—Nahum 1:3
Slowness to anger, or admirable patience, is the property of the divine nature.
God’s patience is seen in His providential works in the world: “He suffered the nations to walk in their own way”; and the witness of His providence to them was His “giving them rain, and fruitful seasons, filling their heart with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).
His patience is manifested to our first parents. His slowness to anger was evidenced in not directing His artillery against them when they attempted to rebel. God did not presently send that death upon man which he had merited, but continued his life to the space of 930 years. The earth did not swallow him up, nor a thunderbolt from heaven raze out the memory of him. Though he had deserved to be treated with such a severity for his ungrateful demeanor to his Creator and benefactor, and affecting an equality with Him, yet God continued him with a sufficiency for his content after he turned rebel, though not with such a liberality as when he had remained a loyal subject. And though He foresaw that he would not make an end of sinning but with an end of living, He used him not in the same manner as He had used the devils.
His slowness to anger is manifest to the Gentiles. What they are, we need no other witness than the apostle Paul, who sums up many of their crimes (Romans 1:29-32). He does preface the catalog with a comprehensive expression, “being filled with all unrighteousness”; and concludes it with a dreadful aggravation, “They not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.” All of them were plunged in idolatry and superstition, but God “winked at the times of that ignorance” (Acts 17:30). He winked as if he did not see them and would not deal so severely with them.
His slowness to anger is manifest to the Israelites. You know how often they are called a stiff-necked people; they are said to do evil from their youth, i.e. from the time they were erected a nation. They scarce discontinued their revolting from God; they were a “grief to Him forty years together in the wilderness” (Psalm 95:10), yet “He suffered their manners” (Acts 13:18). He bore with their ill behavior and sauciness towards Him; and no sooner was Joshua taken away, and the elders that were their conductors gathered to their fathers, but the next generation forsook God, and smutted themselves with idolatry of the nations (Judges 2:10). Their coming out of Egypt being about the year of the world 2450, and their final destruction as a commonwealth not till about forty years after the death of Christ; and all this while His patience did sometimes wholly restrain His justice, and sometimes let it fall upon them in some few drops, but made no total devastation of their country till the Roman conquest, wherein He put a period to them both as a church and state, He is long-suffering here, that His justice may be more public hereafter.
How is God’s patience abused?
The Gentiles abused those testimonies of it, which were written in showers and fruitful seasons. No nation was ever stripped of it, under the most provoking idolatries, till after multiplied spurns of it.
Not a person among us has not been guilty of the abuse of it. Let us consider the ways in which slowness to anger is abused.
1. It is abused by misinterpretations of it, when men slander God’s patience, to be only a carelessness and neglect of His providence; or when men, from His long-suffering, charge Him with impurity, as if His patience were a consent to their crimes; and because He suffered them without calling them to account, He were one of their partisans, and as wicked as themselves: (Psalm 50:21) “Because I kept silence, thou thoughtest I was altogether such a one as thyself.”
2. His patience is abused by continuing in a course of sin under the influence of it. How much is it the practical language of men, Come, let us commit this or that iniquity, because divine patience has suffered worse than this at our hands! How often did the Israelites repeat their murmurings against Him, as if they would put His patience to the utmost proof, and see how far the line of it could extend? They were no sooner satisfied in one thing but they quarreled with Him about another, as if He had no other attribute to put in motion against them. They tempted Him as often as He relieved them, as though the declaration of His name to Moses to be “a God gracious and long-suffering” had been intended for no other purpose but a protection of them in their rebellions.
3. His patience is abused by repeating sin, after God has, by an act of His patience, taken off some affliction from men. As metals melted in the fire remain liquid under the operation of the flames, yet when removed from the fire they quickly return to their former hardness and sometimes grow harder than they were before, so men who, in their afflictions, seem to be melted, like Ahab confess their sins, lie prostrate before God, and seek Him early, yet if they be brought from under the power of their afflictions, they return to their old nature, and are as still against God, and resist the blows of the Spirit as much as they did before. Pharaoh was somewhat thawed under judgments, and frozen again under forbearance.
4. His patience is abused, by taking encouragement from it, to mount to greater degrees of sin. Because God is slow to anger, men are more fierce in sin, and not only continue in their old rebellions, but heap new upon them. If He spare them for “three transgressions” they will commit “four,” as is intimated in Amos 1 and 2. “Men’s hearts are fully set in them to do evil, because sentence against an evil work is not speedily executed” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). No encouragement is given to men by God’s patience, but they force it by their presumption. But let it be considered,
1. That this abuse of patience is a high sin. As every act of forbearance obliges us to duty, so every act of it abused increases our guilt. The more frequent its solicitations of us have been, the deeper aggravations our sin receives by it. Every sin, after an act of divine patience, contracts a blacker guilt.
2. It is dangerous to abuse His patience. Though His Spirit strives with man, yet it “shall not always strive” (Genesis 6:3). Though there be a time wherein Jerusalem might “know the things that concerned her peace,” yet there is another period wherein they should be “hid from their eyes,” (Luke 19:42) “Oh that thou hadst known in this thy day.” Nations have their day and persons have their day, and the day of most persons is shorter than the day of nations. And for particular persons the time of life whether shorter or longer, is the only time of long-suffering. It has no other stage than the present state of things to act upon. The time of patience ends with the first moment of the soul’s departure from the body. This time only is the day of salvation. It is at His pleasure to shorten or lengthen our day, not at ours. It is not our long-suffering, but His; He has the command of it.
It is dangerous to abuse His patience, for God has wrath to punish as well as patience to bear. He has a fury to revenge the outrages done to His meekness; when His messages of peace, sent to reclaim men, are slighted, His sword shall be whetted, and His instruments of war prepared; (Hosea 5:8) “Blow ye the cornet in Gibeah, and the trumpet in Ramah.” As He deals gently like a father, so He can punish capitally as a judge. Though He holds His peace for a long time, yet at last He will go forth like a mighty man, and stir up jealousy as a man of war, to cut in pieces His enemies. It is not said, He has no anger, but that He is slow to anger, but sharp in it. He has a sword to cut, and a bow to shoot, and arrows to pierce (Psa 12:13). And though He be long a-drawing the one out of the scabbard, and long a-fitting the other to His bow, yet when they are ready, He strikes home and hits the mark.
Though God a while was pressed with the murmurings of the Israelites, after their coming out of Egypt, and seemed desirous to give them all satisfaction upon their unworthy complaints, yet when they came to open hostility, in setting a golden calf in His throne, He commissions the Levites to “kill every man his brother and companion in the camp” (Exo 32:27); and how desirous soever He was to content them before, they never murmured afterwards, but they severely smarted for it. He planted by the apostles churches in the East, and when His goodness and long-suffering prevailed not with them, He tore them up by the roots. What Christians are to be found in those once famous parts of Asia, but what are overgrown with much error and ignorance?
The more His patience is abused, the sharper will be the wrath He inflicts. All the time men are abusing His patience, God is whetting His sword, and the longer it is whetting the sharper will be the edge.
When He puts an end to His abused patience, His wrath will make quick and sure work. He that is slow to anger, will be swift in the execution of it. The departure of God from Jerusalem is described with wings and wheels (Eze 11). One stroke of His hand is irresistible; He that has spent so much time in waiting, needs but one minute to ruin; though it be long ere He draw His sword out of the scabbard, when once He does it, He dispatches men at a blow. Ephraim, or the ten tribes, had a long time of patience and prosperity, but “now shall a month devour him with his portion” (Hosea 5:7). One fatal month puts a period to the many years’ peace and prosperity of a sinful nation.
Though He defers His visible wrath, yet that very delay may be more dreadful then a quick punishment. He may forbear striking, and give the reins to the hardness and corruption of men’s hearts. He may suffer them to walk in their own counsels, without any more striving with them, whereby they make themselves fitter fuel for His vengeance. This was the fate of Israel; when they would not hearken to His voice, “He gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts, and they walked in their own counsels” (Psa 81:12). Though His sparing them had the outward aspect of patience, it was a wrathful one, and attended with spiritual judgments. Thus many abusers of patience may have their line lengthened, and the candle of prosperity to shine upon their heads, that they may increase their sins, and be the fitter mark at last for His arrows. They swim down the stream of their own sensuality with a deplorable security, till they fall into an unavoidable gulf, where at last it will be a greater part of their hell to reflect on the length of divine patience on earth, and their inexcusable abuse of it.
It is a vast comfort to any when God is pacified to them; but it is some comfort to all that God is yet patient towards them, though but very little to a refractory sinner. It is a terror that God has anger, but it is a mitigation of that terror that God is slow to it. Patience, as long as it lasts, is a temporary defense to those that are under the wing of it; but to the believer it is a singular comfort. It is a comfort in that it is an argument of His grace to His people. If He has so rich a patience to exercise towards His enemies, He has a greater treasure to bestow upon His friends. If His slowness to anger be so great when His precept is slighted, His readiness to give what He has promised will be as great when His promise is believed. He was more ready to make the promise of redemption, after man’s apostasy, than to execute the threatening of the law.
It is a comfort in infirmities. If He were not patient, He could not bear with so many peevishnesses and weaknesses in the hearts of His own. Were it not for His slowness to anger, He would stifle us in the midst of our prayers, wherein there are as many foolish thoughts to disgust Him as there are petitions to implore Him. The most patient angels would hardly be able to bear with the follies of good men in acts of worship.
Presume not upon God’s patience. The exercise of it is not eternal; you are at present under His patience, yet while you are unconverted you are also under His anger: (Psalm 7:11) “God is angry with the wicked every day.” You know not how soon His anger may turn His patience aside, and step before it. It may be His sword is drawn out of the scabbard, His arrows may be settled in His bow, and perhaps there is but a little time before you may feel the edge of the one or the point of the other, and then there will be no more time for patience in God to us, or petition from us to Him. If we die without repentance, He will have no longer mercy to pardon, nor patience to bear.
Sinner, won’t you come to the Saviour? Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation. Who knows when your soul will be required of you. The Lord is calling to all the earth, “come now, and let us reason together…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as wool.” Do you not have strength? He tells you that you are to take hold of his strength. “let him take hold of my strength, that he may make peace with me; and he shall make peace with me.” The call goes forth “turn ye turn ye for why will ye die?” Call upon the name of the Lord and thou shalt be saved.