35. To me belongeth vengeance. This passage is quoted to different purposes by Paul, and by the author f283 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, (<451219>Romans 12:19; <581030>Hebrews 10:30;) for Paul, with a view of persuading believers to bear injuries patiently, admonishes them to “give place unto wrath,” inasmuch as God declares vengeance to be His; but the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, proclaiming that God will be the avenger of impiety, confirms his declaration by this testimony. Hence it is that part of the commentators suppose that punishment is here denounced against heathen nations because they have cruelly afflicted God’s elect people. And, indeed, this appears to be the meaning of Paul’s words, that injuries should be patiently endured, since God claims for Himself the office of Avenger; but there is nothing to prevent the same statement from being accommodated to different uses, and therefore Paul did not irrelevantly confirm his exhortation by this saying of Moses, although it literally refers to the internal chastisements of the Church. Besides, the apostles are not in the habit of quoting every word from the testimonies which they adduce, but briefly remind their readers to examine more closely the passages quoted. But, since God here joins the two things together, that He will punish the sins of His people, and at the same time be the avenger of their oppressions, there will be nothing absurd in saying that Paul, as it were, points his finger at this passage; f284 still, the simple explanation will be, that the general declaration is accommodated to a special case, in order that believers should bear their injuries patiently, and leave to God the office which He pronounces to appertain to Himself. In my judgment, indeed, these words are connected with the preceding verse; for God pertinently confirms His statement, that he takes account of the number of men’s sins, and has them stored among His treasures, by adding that the power and office of judging rests with Himself; inasmuch as these two things are contrary to each other, that He should be cognizant of whatever is done unrighteously and amiss, and still leave it unpunished. Not that it is opposed to God’s justice to pardon sinners when they repent, but because this principle always continues firm, that God is the judge of the world, for the punishment of all iniquities. Thus the confidence of hypocrites is destroyed, who flatter themselves with the hope of impunity, unless they are overtaken by immediate punishment.
The clause which follows some interpreters pervert by supplying the relative, “in the time in which their foot shall slide;”whereas Moses simply concludesthat they will fall in their due time, or that, although they may think they stand, their ruin or fall was not far off; and this is further confirmed by what he adds, viz., that their day of calamity was at hand. This statement, as I have before said, often occurs in the Prophets, that there is with God a fit time, f285 in which to punish the sins which He has appeared to overlook, and therefore His long-suffering detracts nothing from the judgment which He delays. In this doctrine there is a twofold moral; first, that those whom God spares for a time, should not give way to self-indulgence; and, secondly, that the prosperity of the wicked should not disturb the minds of believers, but that they should allow God to decide the time and the place of executing vengeance. Inasmuch, however, as God’s delay renders hypocrites secure, so that they lull themselves to sleep in their vices, and, although they hear that they will have to render account of them, thoughtlessly indulge themselves during f286 their period of enjoyment, Moses declares that the day is near,and makes haste;for, if God does not openly alarm them, and reduce them to straits, they exult in their immunity. Hence those blasphemous sayings recorded by Isaiah, (<230519>Isaiah 5:19,) “Let him make speed, and hasten his work that we may see it; and let the counsel of the Holy One draw nigh and come, that we may know it! “Meanwhile we must bear in mind the words of Habakkuk, (<350203>Habakkuk 2:3,) “Though the prophecy tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.”
36. For the Lord shall judge his people. Some connect this sentence with what precedes it, and thus take the word judge for to punish, and the Apostle in the Epistle to the Hebrews, seems to support their opinion, inasmuch as he proves by this testimony how fearful a thing it is “to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews10:30, 31.) But there is no reason why the Apostle should not have accommodated to a different purpose what was set forth by Moses for the consolation of the godly, in order that believers might be the more heedful, the nearer they saw God to show Himself as the Judge of His Church; unless it be perhaps preferred to construe the words of Moses thus: Although God should judge His people, yet at length He will be propitiated, or touched with repentance, so as to temper the vehemence of His anger. Whichever way we understand them will be of little difference in the main; for, after Moses has threatened the despisers of God, and the apostates, who desire to be accounted members of His household the Church, he now turns to the strangers and denounces against them that the cruelty which they have exercised towards the Israelites shall not be unpunished, because God will at length be mindful of His covenant, and will pardon His elect people. If you take the word judge for to govern, or to undertake their cause, the particle for must be rendered adversatively, as though it were said nevertheless or but; if we prefer the other sense, it will be equivalent to although, or even though. Doubtless the object of Moses is to encourage the hopes of the pious, who have profited by God’s chastisement, by showing that He will mitigate His severity towards His elect people, and in His wrath will remember mercy. (<350302>Habakkuk 3:2.) Thus, then, Moses here teaches the same thing which God afterwards more clearly unfolded to David:
“If thy children forsake my law,… I will visit their transgressions with the rod of man,… nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not take away from them,” etc. f287 (<198930>Psalm 89:30, 33; <100714>2 Samuel 7:14, 15.)
For nothing is more fitted to sustain us in afflictions than when God promises that there shall be some limit to them, so that He will not utterly destroy those whom He has chosen. Whenever, therefore, the ills which we suffer tempt us to despair, let this lesson recur to our minds, that the punishments, wherewith God chastises His children, are temporary, since His promise will never fail that “his anger endureth but a moment,” (<193005>Psalm 30:5,) whilst the flow of His mercyis continual. Hence, too, that lesson which is especially directed to the Church: f288
“For a moment I afflicted thee, but I will pursue my mercies towards thee for ever.” (<235408>Isaiah 54:8.)
He here calls them His servants, not because they had deserved His pardon by their obedience, but because He condescends to acknowledge them as His own; for this honor has reference to His gratuitous election; as when David says, “I am thy servant, and the son of thine handmaid,” (<19B616>Psalm 116:16,) he assuredly arrogates nothing peculiar to himself; but only boasts that he from the womb had been of God’s family, just as slaves are born in the house of their masters. At the same time we must observe that, whenever God declares that He will be merciful to His servants, he only refers to those who heartily seek for reconciliation, and not to the reprobate, who are carried away to destruction by their desperate obstinacy. In short, to the end that God should repent of His severity, repentance is required on the part of sinners; as he teaches elsewhere:
“Turn ye unto me,… and I will turn unto you.”
Instead of shall repent, some translate the word, shall console himself.f289Jerome, regarding the drift of the passage rather than the meaning of the word, translates it shall have mercy.
We must, however, remark the time which God prefixes for the exertion of His grace, viz., when all their power (virtus) shall have departed from them, and all shall be reduced to almost entire destruction; for the word hand is used for vigor;f290as though it were said that God would be by no means content with a light chastisement, and consequently would not be appeased until they should have come to extremities. This circumstance is well worthy of notice, so flint our hopes may not fail us even in the most severe afflictions of the Church; but that we may be assured that although all may be in the worst state possible, still the due season of reparation will come even yet.
That none should remain behind, or shut up or left, is almost a proverbial phrase in Hebrew; as when it is said, (<111410>1 Kings 14:10,) “I will cut off from Jeroboam,... him that is shut up and left in Israel,” i.e.,as well in the city as in the country, or at home as abroad. And this is again repeated respecting the posterity of Ahab. (Ibid. 21:21.) And hence it is plain that they are mistaken f291 who explain this as referring to riches shut up in treasure-houses, and cattle dispersed through the fields. And this will be still more apparent from another passage in which the Prophet unquestionably referred to this, “TheLord saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter; for there was not any shut up, nor any left,” and inasmuch as He had not determined to blot out His people,” he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam;” as much as to say, that God, as He had promised, had pity upon His people in their extreme destitution. (<121426>2 Kings 14:26, 27.)
37.And he shall say, Where are their gods? Commentators are here at issue, for some continue the paragraph, as if Moses were reporting the boastings and insults of their enemies in the afflicted state of the Church; whilst others consider it to be a pious exultation, wherein the faithful will celebrate the deliverance of the Church. If we suppose the enemies to be here speaking, it will be inconsistent that the word “gods”should be used in the plural number: besides, what follows will proceed from their mistake and ignorance, that the Israelites “did eat the fat,”which was not lawful for them even in their common food, and much less in the sacrifices wherein the fat was burnt. The other exposition, however, is that which I rather approve of, viz., that when the tables were turned, and God should have shown Himself as the avenger of the unbelievers cruel injustice, — God’s children would be at liberty to upbraid them. The word “he shall say,” f292 is used indefinitely for “It shall be said by any or all of God’s children.” Just, then, as unbelievers, when they see the saints afflicted, impudently ridicule their faith, so on the other side Moses, when God comes to the help of His Church, introduces the saints derisively inquiring, where are the gods of the Gentiles, and where are all their patrons? since all of them, as is well known, had their tutelary gods. Thus their impure and spurious sacrifices are satirized in which they ate the fat, and drank the libations of wine. In short, Moses intimates that, when God succors His people, their mouth is opened to sing the song of triumph to the glory of the true God, and to upbraid unbelievers with the false confidence whereby they are deceived.