14. Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, says the Lord God.
14. Et fuerint tres viri isti in medio ejus, Noe, Daniel, et Job, ipsi in justitia sua eripient1 animas suas, dicit Dominator Iehovah.
Here again God threatens the people of Israel with final destruction: but the words seem opposed, that God would be merciful and propitious to his people, and yet that no hope of pardon would be left. But we must remember the principle, that the prophets sometimes directed their discourse to the body of the people which was utterly devoted to destruction, since its wickedness was desperate; yet afterwards they moderated that rigor, when they turned to the remainder, which is the seed of the Church in the world, that God's covenant should not be extinguished, as we have already said. Hence, when we meet with this kind of contradiction, we know that God affords no hope to the reprobate, since he has decreed their destruction: so that language ought to be transferred to the body of the people which was already alienated, and like a putrid carcass. But when God mingles and intersperses any testimony of his favor, we may know that the Church is intended, and that he wishes a seed to remain, lest the whole Church should perish, and his covenant be abolished at the same time. The Prophet, therefore, as before, so also now, sets before himself the people desperate in wickedness, and says that they had no right to hope that God would act mercifully as usual, since necessity compelled him to put his hand for the last time to the destruction of the impious. This is the full meaning. We had a similar passage in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:1), where he said, If Moses and Samuel had stood before me, my mind is not towards this people; that is, it never could be that I should return to favor them, even if Moses and Samuel should intercede for them, and endeavor to obtain pardon by their own intercession. The papists foolishly distort this passage to prove that the dead intercede for us, for Moses and Samuel had been dead some time; but God says, Even if they should pray for the people, their prayers would be in vain. But this passage refutes that gross ignorance: for God is not here making a difference between the living and the dead; but it is a kind of personification, and of bringing back Moses and Samuel from the grave; as if he had said, Were they living at this time, and entreating for these wicked ones, I would never listen to them: for Ezekiel here mentions three, Noah, Job, and Daniel. But Daniel was then alive: he had been dragged into exile, and lived to a mature old age, as is well known. Then he expresses his meaning more clearly, by saying, if they had been in the midst of the city they had escaped in safety themselves, but they would not have prevailed for others. The whole meaning is, that God cuts off all hope of mercy from the abandoned people.
We must remark the form of speech which is used: he relates four kinds of punishments by which men's crimes are usually avenged, and enumerates them distinctly. If I shall break the staff of bread, says he, because the land has revolted from me, and I shall send famine upon it, Daniel, Job, and Noah, shall preserve their own souls, but shall not profit others by their holiness: then he adds, if I shall send a sword, that is, if I shall follow up the impious by wars, even Daniel, and Job, and Noah, shall save their own souls, but they shall not intercede for others. He pronounces the same of pestilence and wild beasts. At length He reasons from less to greater. When I shall have punished any nation, says He, with famine, pestilence, and the sword, and wild beasts, how much less shall Daniel, Job, and Noah, prevail with me by their intercession? But God had condemned the house of Israel to all punishments, just as if he had poured all his curses like a deluge to destroy them. Hence He concludes that there is no reason for cherishing any hope of escape from these imminent dangers. Now then we comprehend the Prophet's meaning.
Now let us come to the first kind of punishment. If the land, says he, acts wickedly against me, or conducts itself wickedly,
Again, and I will stretch forth, my hand upon it, and will break the staff of bread, and will send famine upon it, and will cut off from it man and beast. Here, as I have mentioned, he touches upon only one kind of punishment; for God is accustomed to take vengeance on men in four ways; and the prophets, as you have often heard, usually adopt the form of speech used by Moses. These four curses of God are everywhere related in the law, -- war, famine, pestilence, and the assault and savageness of wild beasts. Now the Prophet begins with hunger; but he points out the kind of hunger -- if God has broken the staff of bread. For sometimes, when he does not reduce men to poverty, yet he puffs up the bread, so that those who think to use it as nourishment do not gather any rigor from it. But the Prophet properly means it in this second sense, as we see in Ezekiel 4 and Ezekiel 5. The metaphor is in accordance with the word staff: for as the lame cannot walk unless they lean on a staff -- and tremulous old men need a similar support -- so by degrees men's strength vanish, unless new rigor is replaced by meat and drink. Bread is, therefore, like a staff which restores our strength when want has weakened it. We now come to the word breaking. How does God break the staff of bread? By withdrawing the nourishment which he had infused into it; for the virtue which we perceive in bread is not intrinsic: I mean this -- that bread is not naturally endued with the virtue of continuing and inspiring life within men; and why? Bread has no life in it: how then can any one derive life from it? But the teaching of the law has been marked: that man lives not by bread only, but by every word proceeding from God's mouth. (Deuteronomy 8:3.) Here Moses intends, that even if God has inserted the virtue of nourishment in bread, yet this is not to be so attributed to it as if it were inherent in it. What follows then? That as God breathes a secret virtue into the bread, it sustains and refreshes us, and becomes our aliment. On the other hand, God says that he breaks the virtue of the bread when he withdraws from it that virtue: because, as I have already said, when we taste bread, our minds ought to rise immediately to God, since men, if they cram themselves a thousand times, yet will not feel their life to be deposited in the bread. Therefore, unless God breathes into bread the virtue of nourishment, the bread is useless; it may fill us up, but without any profit. Now, then, we understand the meaning of this sentence, about which we shall have something more to say.
Grant, Almighty God, since you shine so clearly upon us with the teaching of thy Gospel, in which thy Son reveals himself familiarly to us, -- Grant that we may not shut our eyes to this light, or turn them hither and thither by depraved curiosity, but may remain in simple obedience, until at length having passed through the course of this life, we may arrive at the fullness of light, when you will transform us into thy glory by the same -- your only-begotten Son. -- Amen.
I have already partially explained the Prophet's design, when he says, if God has sent famine upon a land, and Job, Noah, and Daniel were in it, that they indeed should be safe, but that the land should perish, since he had determined to destroy it. Moreover, he described the kind of famine, when he said, when I shall have broken the staff of bread; because, though wheat should be plentiful, and men be prevented from starving, yet they would not be refreshed, since the bread would only burden them. On the whole, God means that famine, even if it arise from natural causes, proceeds from his judgments: for by continual rains the seed rots in the ground, and drought consumes all its juice and substance. Then, if hail devastates the sown fields, the causes of the ensuing famine are manifest. But it is necessary to look higher, because, as we are nourished by God's bounty, so we never suffer poverty unless when he withdraws his hand.
Let us now come to the next verse. If these three men, the most just of all, had been in the land, they should only free their own souls. The exclusive particle is not expressed, but it is easy to gather the Prophet's sense from the context; as if he had said that God's decree was fixed when he had determined to afflict the land grievously. It is sometimes asked why Noah, Daniel, and Job are named, rather than Abraham, Jacob, or David, or any others. Those who wish to be precise guess various comments; namely, because Noah could not preserve the old world from the deluge, but only his sons an their wives. But this example does not suit: and as to the others, they say that Job did not preserve his own sons, since they were all consumed by the lightning. But the same thing happened to others. Thus Abraham was the common father of the people, and even he could not snatch his posterity from the wrath of God: nay, Jeremiah describes Rachel, though dead, weeping for her children, and refusing consolation because none of them survived. (Jeremiah 31:15.) We see, then, that this is cold. Others say that these three men had experienced three different kinds of life; that Noah, living before the deluge, had seen the horrible devastation of the whole earth, and yet the renovation of the world had followed: they say, also, that Job had flourished in prosperity, and then was deprived of all his goods and his children, and was so defiled by disease and filth as to be rather a carcass than a living man, and yet was restored like a captive from the enemy's hand. Daniel, again, had lived at Jerusalem, had been taken captive, and had lived there in exile; that he at length saw the beginning of the restoration of the people when that sudden change happened, and the Babylonian monarchy passed to the Persians. These things, at the first glance, seem to be clever; but whatever is affected is always cold and tame. Ezekiel here mentions these three men, simply because they first occurred to him. For we must remember that passage of Jeremiah which I quoted yesterday, (Jeremiah 15:1,)where it is said, If Moses and Samuel had stood before me, I should not have listened to them for the safety of the people. A question may arise, why Jeremiah names Moses and Samuel rather than any others? What will these clever speculators say? We see, therefore, that each of these things must not be so scrupulously beaten out, since it is enough to understand the general intention of the Holy Spirit. Three men, then, are placed here, whose holiness was celebrated. Daniel was then living: the others had been dead many ages ago; but the integrity of them all was universally manifest. It is then as if he had said, even if those should come who either are or have been most perfect among men, yet they would avail nothing in interceding for a land already devoted to destruction.
But the Prophet's saying, they should be saved on account of their own righteousness, seems absurd: for no one can be found whose righteousness can stand before God's tribunal: for if God was to reason with men, every one must be found guilty, as the Scripture also often teaches, and experience most fully convinces us. Here the Prophet seems to extol too much the merit of works, when he attributes the person's freedom to his righteousness. But the solution is easy; namely, this righteousness of which mention is made ought not to be separated from gratuitous pardon, which reconciles men to God, so that their sins are not imputed to them: for as to some saying that they were justified by faith, this does not forward the inquiry; and besides that, it is forced. By their own righteousness shall they free their own souls, that is, say they, by their faith. But when God addresses Noah himself, (Genesis 7:1,) and says that he was found just through his piety, he does not mean that he was endued with faith; this would be nugatory. There is no doubt, then, that he commends sanctity and integrity in his servant; so also in this passage, under the word righteousness or justice, he implies the fear of God, in which all virtues are founded, and chastity and temperance, and whatever belongs to the rule of living holy and justly. But meanwhile this derogates nothing from the righteousness of faith; for the faithful are reckoned just before God, and their works are also reckoned just -- not by any inherent merit -- not because they bring any perfection of that kind before God which may conciliate his favor, and in which they can stand; but because God pardons them indulgently through his own paternal clemency, and so approves their righteousness, which otherwise might be deservedly rejected. For example, Pinnehas was thought just when he avenged the reproach of the sanctuary. (Numbers 25:7, 8.) When inflamed with zeal, Pinnehas brought out of the midst the courtezan with her paramour; for this cause, as is said in the Psalm, (Psalm 106:31,) he was reckoned just. But that could not suffice for a man's righteousness, since one special act could not render a man just. Pinnehas, then, could not be reckoned just on that ground; but while his work was pleasing to God, for that reason it was just. But, on a serious inquiry, that work was also condemned as being infected with some fault, and so was not just in itself. But because God pardons his sons, as we have said, hence he accepts their works: so he acknowledges them also as just, and they do not obtain this by either their own worthiness or peculiar merits. For the beginning of the righteousness about which we are now speaking is a gratuitous reconciliation by which all the faults of the faithful are buried: whence it happens also that their integrity, although not perfect, is still pleasing to God. We see, therefore, that these things are easily reconciled; that men are freed by their righteousness, and yet that their temporal safety depends only on the mere pity of God: for when God's gratuitous favor has gone before, hence he seems to acknowledge as true righteousness which was in itself mutilated and but half complete. Now it follows --
1 Or, "shall free." -- Calvin.
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