The Sincerity of the Divine Compassion

By Horatius Bonar, 1867

"It repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart." Gen. 6:6

The manner in which God here acknowledges man as his handiwork is specially to be noted. The words are, "It repented the Lord that he had made man upon earth." It is not said generally, "that man had been made;" but definitely, that "he had made man." He had spoken of man in his primeval goodness, as coming from his hand; so now he does not fail to remind us that it is this same man, this very race, that has now become so worthless and hateful.

He might have drawn a veil over this point, so as to prevent our being so vividly reminded that man was truly his own workmanship. But he does not. No, he brings the sad fact before us—a fact that seems to reflect upon his own skill and power. He does not disavow creation. He does not disown man. He does not speak or act as one ashamed to be known as the Maker of one so miserably apostate, so incurably depraved. Even when making known man's extremity of guilt, he openly owns him as his creature. He does not keep silence on the matter, as one desirous that it should be forgotten or unnoticed. He brings it directly forward, as if to call attention to the fact.

When man fails in some great or favorite project—as when an architect plans and builds a palace, which, by reason of some essential defect, almost immediately tumbles down—he is anxious that its failure should not be proclaimed, and that the work thus ruined should never be known as his. He cannot bear the reproach which is sure to fall upon him; he shrinks from the responsibility which has been incurred; he cannot afford to lose the reputation he may have gained.

But with God there are no such feelings; no such desire of concealment; no desire to shake off the responsibility devolving on him as Creator. He can afford to bear man's petty censure; he can afford to have it said, "Behold the work of your hands." He is not concerned to keep back anything from his creatures, as if their blame or praise could affect him. Hence it is that we discern something altogether unlike man, something truly God-like, in that simple form of expression here, "It repented the Lord that he had made man upon the earth."

Marvelous words indeed; words such as no man could have ventured to use respecting God; words too strong and bold for anyone to have employed but God himself! Let us look calmly into them, for they are too full of solemn meaning to be lightly passed over, or generalized into a vague expression of God's hatred of sin, or explained away into a mere figure used by God, after the manner of men.

In endeavoring to discover what the words do mean, let us first inquire what they do NOT mean.

1. They do not mean that God's purpose had been frustrated. God's purpose shall stand, for it is the perfect combination of infinite wisdom and power. It is not within the limits of possibility that the creature should thwart the purpose of the Creator. God's purpose cannot fail. It must be carried out, though at times its movements may seem checked, or even become apparently retrogressive. To suppose anything else, would be to say that the will of the creature was stronger than the will of the Creator; and that the folly of the creature had baffled the wisdom of the Creator.

2. They do not mean that an unexpected crisis had arisen. With man it may be so. A crisis may come to him unexpectedly, so as entirely to disconcert himself and defeat his schemes. With God there can be nothing unexpected, nothing sudden, nothing unforeseen or unprovided for. The whole future, with its endless turns and intricacies, lies before him—as open and as clear as the past. No evil, however great, shoots up unpermitted or unlooked for. Neither Satan's wiles nor man's apostasy; neither the rejection of Noah's warnings, nor the spread of sin, nor the ruin of the race, were unexpected evils.

3. They do not mean that God is subject to like passions and changes as we are. He does not vary as we vary, nor repent as we repent. Instability is the property of the creature—not of the Creator. Frailty is for man—not for God. There is no vacillation, no fluctuation in him. That he does feel, we know. If he did not, he would not be God. But his feeling is not weakness. That he alters his procedure we know—but not as we alter ours. There is no caprice in his emotion or his acting. God's purpose is the serenity of highest wisdom, which cannot be taken by surprise, nor blinded by anger, nor rendered unavailing by fickleness, or facility, or arbitrary will.

4. They do not mean that He has ceased to care for his creatures. Wrath, indeed, has gone out against the transgressor; the righteous wrath of the righteous, though loving, God. "The soul that sins—it shall die." Yet, neither man himself, nor his habitation, the earth, has been overlooked by God, far less hated and spurned. The words intimate neither the coldness nor the dislike of the Creator toward the creature. It is something very widely different which they convey; a sadder, tenderer feeling; a feeling in which, not indifference—but profound compassion, is the prevailing element. They do not intimate the quenching of his love, nor even imply coldness or distance. They are not the utterance of resentment, as if pity had now been extinguished, and the fondness of affection been supplanted by the fierceness of revenge.

But still, it may be asked, How are the words to be reconciled with the character of God as the all-knowing Jehovah, seeing the end from the beginning, and ordering everything from eternity, according to the counsel of his will? To clear up this, let me remark—

1. God is represented to us here, as looking at events or facts, simply as they are, without reference to the past or future at all. He isolates or separates them from all connection with his own purpose; and looking at them simply as they stand alone, he declares what he thinks and feels. In so far as they stood connected with his own vast purpose, which age after age was evolving, he did not repent, or change his mind, or wish them undone; but, in so far as they were exhibitions of human wickedness or wretchedness, he did grieve, and he did repent. For let us remember that there must ever be two kinds of feelings in such matters—one called up by looking at each event by itself, and another by looking at it as part of a mighty plan, which, in its origination and developments, is from eternity to eternity.

2. God's purposes do not alter God's estimate of events, or his feelings respecting individuals and their conduct. It was by the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" that Christ was betrayed and slain, yet that did not affect God's estimate of the crime committed by those who slew him. God's allowing man to fall did not make God the approver of his sin; it did not make him the less to hate and to grieve over the sin whose permission had been foreseen and decreed. Each action or event is a link in God's mighty purpose, yet it must be weighed separately in the balances, and judged according to the perfect standard of right and wrong.

3. God is looking at the scene just as a man would look at it, and expressing himself just as a man would have done, in such circumstances. He takes the place of a finite being; hears with finite ears, looks with finite eyes, and utters the sentiments of a finite heart. He sees all the present misery and ruin which the scene presents, and they affect him according to their nature; and as they affect him, so does he speak—in the words of man. For the feelings implanted in man must, to some extent, be the same as those existing in the bosom of God. Man was made in God's image in respect of his feelings as truly as in respect of his understanding; the human heart is the counterpart of the divine, just as Israel's earthly tabernacle was the copy of that which is above. Hence it is that God so often uses the language of human feeling. It is not merely that God is condescending to man (though this is true)—but it is also because the heart of man, being fashioned after that of God, the language that gives utterance to the feelings of the former, will, in a greater or less degree, according to circumstances, give utterance to the feelings of the latter. God's love, hatred, wrath, pity, joy, grief—are all real. And they are, in kind, the same as man's—only there is no sin in them. So that we may say, that all the feelings of man that are holy, or that can be called forth without sin, do exist in God.

But now let us look at the words of our text—"repenting,"—"grieving at the heart."

1. Repent. The word frequently occurs in the same connection as in our text; Ex. 32:14, "The Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people" (see also 1 Sam. 15:11, 36; Jer. 26:13, 19). In these and other like passages, it denotes that change of mind which is produced towards an object by an alteration of circumstances. Nor is this inconsistent with unchangeableness in God. It is true that he is without variableness or shadow of turning; there is no caprice or vacillation in him. But his unchangeableness is not a mere arbitrary principle—a thing which makes him feel the same towards a person, however that person may change from good to evil, or from bad to worse. It does not mean that his proceedings are unchangeable, though it does mean that his purposes are so; no, the very change of his proceedings may be the result and manifestation of the unchangeableness of his purposes.

When Adam fell, God changed his mind towards him from favor to displeasure; yet that was just the result of his unchangeableness. When a sinner repents, God changes his mind toward him; yet, this is not changeableness; no, it is the carrying out of his unchangeableness. His "changing," in such cases, is the display of his holiness and wisdom. Were he not to change, it would be mere arbitrariness—it would not be wisdom—but foolishness. His "repentance" is not only the true and necessary expression of holy feeling—but it is part of his unchangeable purpose.

2. Grieve. The word used in reference to man, is found in such places as the following—2 Sam. 19:2, "The king was grieved for his Son;" and, in reference to God, in such as the following Psalm 78:40, "How often did they provoke him in the wilderness, and grieve him in the desert!" and Isaiah 63:10, "They rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit." In these passages the word denotes simply and truly what we call "grief;" and then, in the passage before us, as if to deepen the intensity of the expression, and to show how thoroughly real was the feeling indicated, it is added, "at his heart." The grief spoken of is as true as it is profound. It is not the grief of mere words. It is not the grief of fancy or sentiment. It is true sorrow of heart. How this can be, in the bosom of the blessed One, it is not easy to show. How he can remain unruffled and unbroken, in his infinite tranquility of being, while "grieved at heart" because of his rebellious creatures—is difficult to explain. How his heaven can abide as bright as ever, without a shadow over its dwellings, or sackcloth upon its dwellers, while he is mourning over the ruin of a world and the wretchedness of a guilty child—we cannot say. We take the words as we find them—especially as it is but one out of the many similar utterances of which Scripture is full—utterances all confirmed and reiterated by the Son of God, when he wept over the doomed and apostate Jerusalem.

Yet, after all, what greater difficulty should we find in understanding this sorrowful commiseration for the lost, than in comprehending the joy with which all heaven is made to resound because of even one sinner saved? Shall heaven ring with gladness when one soul is plucked from the devouring fire; and must it be passive when millions plunge into the everlasting burnings? Is salvation a thing so very blessed as to occasion new joy in the bosom of God, and be the occasion of a new song; and is damnation such a trifle as to be beheld unmoved? Is the saved soul's deliverance, and recovery of sonship, so glorious, as to draw forth the utterance of the divine delight "in the presence of the angels;" and shall the sinner's ruin, the lost soul's funeral, call forth no feeling at all? Would this be true perfection? Passivity and insensibility were not the perfection of Him who wept over doomed Jerusalem; can they be the perfection of Godhead?

We come now to ask, why did the Lord thus grieve at his heart?

1. He grieved to see the change which sin had made in the work of his hands. Once it was "very good," and in this he had rejoiced. Now, how altered! So altered that it could hardly be recognized as the same. Creation was a wreck. The world lay in ruins. Man's glory had departed. The lovely image of his Maker was gone! How could the Creator behold so sad a change, and not be "grieved at his heart!" How could he look upon the sin, the ruin, the darkness, the defilement, and not feel? God cannot be indifferent to the desolation which sin produces, even when righteousness constrains him not to interfere for its prevention—but only for its punishment. Yes, he feels it, he mourns over it, all the more, because mercy has reached its utmost limit, and righteousness demands the putting forth of his almightiness to avenge, and not to save.

It may seem strange that a being of infinite power should grieve over that which the exercise of almightiness could have prevented. But let us not forget that there is righteousness as well as almightiness in God, and that, while his power can be limited or restrained by nothing out of himself, it is and must be limited by his other perfections, so that his almightiness cannot accomplish anything that is unrighteous. When, therefore, his power has reached its righteous limits, and can no longer be put forth towards the sinner, then it is that he is grieved at heart. He is grieved that sin has got to such a height that the works of his own hands must be destroyed, that they must be put away from his sight as an unclean thing.

2. He grieved at the dishonor thus brought upon himself. It was, indeed—but a temporary dishonor; it was one which he would soon repair; but still, it was an obscuration of his own lovely character; it was a clouding of his glory; it was an eclipse, however transient. It was like a wound inflicted by a most unlooked for hand, which, however quickly healed, could not but be severely felt. How could he but be grieved at heart—at being thus dishonored by those whom he had made to glorify him—dishonored by a favorite child—dishonored by those who, he might well expect, would have been specially sensitive on such a point, peculiarly tender and jealous of his honor.

3. He grieved at man's misery. Man had not been made for misery. Happiness, like a rich jewel, had been entrusted to him. He had flung it away, as worthless and undesirable. Not only had he taken no pains to retain the treasure—but he had labored to alienate it. He had offered it for sale to every passer by; no, he had cast it from him as vile. He had plunged himself into misery; he had refused to be happy; he had not only said to evil, "Evil, be my good;" but he had said to sorrow, "Sorrow, be my joy." This wretchedness filled his soul, and overshadowed this once blessed earth. How, then, could God but grieve? He is the infinitely blessed God; he knows what blessedness is, and what the want of it must be. Could he, then, fail to be grieved at his heart? He grieves over the sinner's wretchedness, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem. "How often would I have gathered you!" "If you had known." "O that you had hearkened to my commandments!" "You will not come to me that you might have life." Such are some of the utterances of this divine grief.

He also saw the eternity of man's wretchedness. It was no lifetime's sorrow that lay before man. It was an eternal woe. The infinite eye of Jehovah looked through that whole eternity, realized its bitterness and anguish—saw the torment, the darkness, the worm, the fire, the second death; and seeing these, he was grieved at his heart. For he has no pleasure in man's sorrow, either the sorrow of an hour, or the sorrow of a whole eternity. It is no joy to him that man should be wretched. No, it grieves him at his heart. Fury is not in him. Vengeance is his strange work. His joy is to bless, not to curse; to save, not to destroy. He takes oath before the universe that he has no pleasure in the death of the wicked—but rather that they should turn and live.

4. He grieved that now he himself, must be the inflictor of man's misery. No alternative remains. There had, for long years, been an alternative. He could be gracious; he could be long-suffering; he could pardon; or, if not actually pardon, he could suspend the gathering vengeance, he could delay the stroke. But now this alternative is denied. Such was the accumulation of sin; such was its hatefulness; such were its aggravations, that grace can no longer hold out against righteousness; patience has exhausted itself, and judgment must take its course. If matters are allowed to go on as they have been going, the law will become a dead letter, the divine holiness will be called in question, the faithfulness of God in his threatenings will be suspected; no, the very power of Jehovah will be denied—as if it were insufficient either to restrain the evil from arising, or to crush it when it has risen to such a pitch. Mercy had long prevailed against judgment; now judgment prevails against mercy. Grace had done wonders for the sinner. To do more would be to subvert righteousness, and to tamper with the solemness of law.

As the gracious Father, he had hitherto delayed the vengeance; but now, as the righteous Judge, he must interpose. He has long lingered in his love, yearning over his rebellious children; he can linger no more. His strange work must be done, at whatever sacrifice, either to himself or to man. He must not only withhold the good, he must visit with the evil—and he must do it himself! He, the Maker, must be the destroyer too. Man must be given up! He has gone beyond the limit within which grace can be righteously exercised. He has made it impossible for God to bless him. He has put it out of God's power to do anything more in his behalf. He has made it a matter of righteous necessity that God should execute vengeance upon him. God wanted to bless, man has compelled him to curse. God wanted to save, man has compelled him to destroy. Condemnation, wrath, ruin, wretchedness forever—must now be man's portion! The vessel which God had made, and meant for honor and for gladness, must become a vessel of shame, eternal shame, filled with gall and wormwood! No wonder that it grieved God at his heart!

However incomprehensible the subject may be; still these words of our text are plain. We would not explain them away. We would not dilute them, or rob them of that solemn tenderness, to which they give such mournful utterance. We would not add to them; but neither would we take from them. And surely they do affirm that God's grief is both sincere and deep. It is a Creator's grief. It is a Father's grief. It is grief such as afterwards uttered itself, over Israel, in such words as, "Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? How can I let you go? How can I destroy you like Admah and Zeboiim? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows." It is grief such as, at a still later day, gave vent to itself in Christ's tears over Jerusalem. And is not all that reality? Was there ever reality like it? Yet all this does not make hell less true—nor the everlasting burnings less terrible!

Many seem to suppose that, because God has not passions such as we have; that because he is not liable to emotions like ours; that because there are no such swellings and subsidings of feverish excitement—interfering with the infinite serenity and blessedness of his divine being—that therefore God does not feel; that it would be degrading him to suppose that he can be affected, in the remotest degree, by the alternations of joy or sorrow—especially in so far as the condition of his creatures can be conceived as being the source of either.

It is not so. This would be indifference, not serenity. It would make Jehovah not the God who is revealed to us in the man Christ Jesus. It would make him inferior to his creatures in all those tender affections which constitute so noble a part of our being. It would invest him with the insensibility of Stoicism. But with him whom we call our God, there is no such insensibility, no such Stoicism. He is love. He is the God of all grace. He is merciful and gracious, long-suffering, slow to anger, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. He so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son. It is written of him, that "his soul was grieved for the miseries of Israel;" that "in all their affliction he was afflicted." He stoops over us in the fondness of parental love. He yearns over us. He longs to see us happy. He delights to bless. His strange work is to curse. No, he is the very fountainhead of love. All the affections of man's soul are but the copy of his—faint indeed and dim—yet truly the copy, the counterpart—the earthly likeness of the heavenly reality. Man's heart is, in all the affections that are holy, the very transcript of God's.

In God is the birthplace of all feeling—and shall he not feel? With him is the well-spring of all affection—and shall he be cold, and divested of all loving sympathies? Shall he give to man such powers of emotion, constituting the divinest part of our nature—and shall he himself be unmoved and immoveable? He is the Father of spirits, and shall he so entirely differ from the spirits that he has made? He made them in his own image—and is that image nothing but unsympathizing callousness? Is it but the ice, or the rock, or the iron? He sent his Son to be the revelation of his mind and heart—and we see, from that Son—how deeply the Father feels! Do we not see in him, who is his perfect image, what is the Creator's sympathy for his creatures in their joys and sorrows? Do we not see in him, with what strength he can hate the sin—and yet love, no, weep over, the sinner? Yes, and does not the Holy Spirit also unfold his feelings? And do we not read of that Spirit being resisted, vexed, grieved—as if sorrowing over our coldness, our neglect, our unbelief, our ungodliness?

What, then, can these things mean—but that our God truly and deeply feels? There can, indeed, be nothing carnal, nothing allied to imperfection or weakness, in such sensibility. But to suppose him to be devoid of feeling, as we too often do, is to deny him to be perfectly and truly God! Ah! it is only when we learn how profoundly he feels—that we know aright the character of that God with whom we have to do. It is only when we realize how sincerely he yearns, and pities, and joys, and grieves, and loves—that we understand that revelation which he has made of himself in the gospel of his grace, and in the person of his Incarnate Son. Not until then do we feel the unutterable malignity of sin—as being a grieving of God, a vexing of his loving Spirit—and become rightly alive to the depravity of our own rebellious natures. It is only then that we can cordially enter into God's condemnation of the evil, and sympathize with him in that which makes him grieve. Never, until we give him credit for feeling as he says he does—can we really long for deliverance from that which is not only the abominable thing which he hates—but that thing of evil and sorrow over which he so sincerely mourns.

It is this which gives such power to God's expostulations with the sinner, and his appeals to the sinner's conscience and heart. We are apt to treat these utterances of God as mere words of course; or, at least, as words which, however gracious in themselves, could not be supposed to embody the feelings of him from whom they come. It is far otherwise. God not only means what he says—but he feels what he says. He is not unconcerned about our condition, or indifferent to the reception or rejection of his messages. When he says, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked," he utters the deep feeling of his heart. When he says, "How shall I give you up?" he shows us how he feels! When he says, "O that you had hearkened to my commandments," he tells us how he feels! And when his only-begotten Son, in the days of his flesh, said to the unbelieving Jews, "You will not come unto me, that you might have life," he showed us how truly, in this respect, the Father and the Son are one, and that to each poor child of earth, however erring, however dark, however unbelieving, however rebellious—he is stretching out his hands in love—and, not the less sincerely, because, to tens of thousands, he is stretching out these hands in vain!