Hope For Wayward Sheep:
What is the Heart of God Towards His People
When They Bring Suffering Upon Themselves

Preached at Grace Baptist Church, Hartsville TN, By Greg Wright (2007)

Some people become sad when it rains, and you might be one of those people. I'm one of those people if it rains long enough. Of course, we all know that we need rain, but for some folks, going several days without sunshine can be very trying on their emotions.

Yet, very few people hate rain as much as a certain man named Harry. On rainy days he withdraws from everyone, ignores their greetings, and retreats to the seclusion of his office. There, he closes the door and weeps as he remembers a rainstorm in 1997, a storm in which his life was forever changed.

To see Harry now, it is hard to believe how happy he used to be. Together with his wife, Elaine, they had raised three wonderful children, children who now had homes and families of their own. Harry and Elaine had been pillars in their community and pillars in their local church.

But things began to go badly for Harry back in 1995. First, the company where he had worked for twenty-five years was shut down. Unable to find work in his profession, he had taken a drastic cut in pay and had gotten himself deeply into debt. Then he had started having health problems. To relieve his misery, he had become a regular visitor at a local bar. He would drink until he could hardly stand up, and then he would try to drive home. Once he was home, in his drunkenness, he would start arguments with his wife. He would come up with all kinds of irrational reasons to accuse her. Sometimes he would even hit her. Neighbors had reported frequent incidents of cursing and yelling. Finally, Elaine couldn't take it any more. Her sister, who lived across town, had offered to let Elaine stay with her for awhile. So Elaine had packed a few things and had set out to drive to her sister's house. But it was the worst possible time to drive. Not only was it raining, but it was one of those pounding rains in which she could barely see where she was going. Added to that, it was dark and foggy. Only an urgent sense of needing to get away from Harry would have made Elaine venture out into this kind of weather. As she was driving, a truck crossed over onto Elaine's side of the road, and she didn't see it until it was too late to avoid it. She never regained consciousness. An ambulance took her to the local hospital, and a couple of hours later God took her home.

Harry was still drunk when he arrived at the hospital. The scene was terrible. He was cursed by his children, accused by his in-laws, and shunned by his neighbors. Harry learned two things that night. He learned what it was like to grieve alone, and he learned what it was like to grieve in shame.

He also learned something else that night. It was as if his eyes had suddenly been opened. (By the way, Satan loves to do this to people. He will blind you just long enough for you to destroy yourself, and then he will take the blinders away so that you can fully comprehend your misery.) As Harry looked at his life, the sin he had so easily excused now appeared as black as the darkest hell. The wife he had so much taken for granted was now more precious than the morning sun (and just as much beyond his grasp). And the God he had so easily ignored now seemed to loom over him like a dark shadow of impending doom and judgment. Harry was suffering the consequences of his own sins, and he knew it.

Who is this guy whom I call Harry? Do we know him? Yes we do. He is the neighbor who lives down the street. He is the co-worker who sends us emails. He is the guy we pass in the grocery store. He represents the millions of people, even Christian people, who suffer, every day, the consequences of their sins and the results of their rebellion against God.

What is the heart of God towards us when we suffer the direct consequences of our own actions? What is the heart of God towards His people when we bring suffering upon ourselves? What is the heart of God towards His people when we destroy their own lives?

To answer this question, I ask you to turn to an Old Testament passage, the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. Old Testament passages often provide a lens, a looking glass, through which we can observe the character and heart of God. When we read of the compassion of God towards the rebellious people of Jerusalem, and when we carefully observe how He responded to them, we can anticipate what might be the heart of God towards His own people today. (Now, when I say God's people today, I mean Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles, all united to Christ as one people under the New Covenant.) If we understand what the heart of God was towards the rebellious people of Jerusalem, His people at that time, we can anticipate what the heart of God might be towards rebellious people in His Church today. With that in mind, let us consider our primary text, Isaiah 40:1-2:

"Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. "Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins." (NASB)

It is important to note the time when this passage was written. Isaiah ministered from about 740 to 680 B.C. He prophesied during the final days of the Northern Kingdom, which was called Israel, but his ministry was focussed on the Southern Kingdom, which was called Judah. Isaiah was still ministering when Israel fell to Assyria in 722 B.C. Babylon had not yet risen to the point of being a threat. Nevertheless, Isaiah had warned the people of Judah that if they did not repent, they would eventually be conquered by the Babylonians.

Our text speaks to the people of Judah, but it addresses them as the people of Jerusalem. It was common to address a group of people by the name of their primary city. In spite of all of Isaiah's efforts, Jerusalem stubbornly resisted every opportunity to repent. They continued to worship idols and disobey God's laws. They killed the prophets. Eventually, they even killed Isaiah. But before Isaiah died, he also prophesied of a later time -- a time when the people would be forgiven, a time when their relationship to God would be restored, a time when their future captivity would end, a time when they would be allowed to return to their own land.

When Jerusalem was finally destroyed, it was the culmination of three waves of attack. The first wave came in 605 B.C. This is when Daniel was carried away. The second wave came in 597 B.C. This is when Ezekiel and around 10,000 others were carried away into exile. The third and final wave came around 586 B.C., long after Isaiah had died. The prophecy came to pass. The people of Jerusalem became slaves in a foreign land. Just like this man Harry, by rebelling against God, they brought suffering upon themselves. Loved ones died, the temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was leveled, and most of the survivors were led away into Babylon.

Prior to the destruction of the temple, many lived under the illusion that God would never allow His own house to be destroyed. When He did, many were convinced that God had forsaken them forever. This was it -- they would never have access to God again. There would be no more sacrifices, no more means of atonement, no more opportunities to be reconciled to God. It was over.

So it was that God's people suffered. They suffered as an enslaved people, and they suffered as an abandoned people, abandoned by God, or so they thought. Meanwhile, suffering would begin to do its redemptive work in the hearts of God's people. Some of you know what I mean when I speak of the redemptive work of suffering. You've been there. There was a time when you strayed from God. Then God used suffering to bring you back home. Calamity clarified what prosperity had put out of mind. David speaks of this in Psalm 119:67, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word."

In the same way, suffering would begin to do its redemptive work among the captives from Jerusalem. Eventually their eyes would be opened, and they would be ready to listen to God. Eventually they would be ready to hear the words of the prophets. The chastening of God would accomplish its objective. The humiliation of suffering would be used to change their hearts.

Never again would they run to idols the way they had in the past. Never again would they serve the Baals, and never again would they sacrifice their children to Molech. Nevertheless, for a season, they continued to suffer the consequences of their iniquities. They continued to endure the results of their sins. And now they longed to be comforted by God.

God would comfort them in three ways: He would forgive their sins; He would draw near to them; and He would give them hope.

That is still the way God comforts His people today. He does not encourage them in the midst of their pride and rebellion, but once His people have humbled themselves and are ready to repent, He comforts them in three ways:

  1. He forgives their sins.
  2. He draws near to them.
  3. He gives them hope.

Now, let us consider in detail the way that God comforts His people.

I. He forgives their sins.

First, God forgives their sins. We are going to examine the when and how of this forgiveness. We are going to observe when their sins are forgiven and how their sins are forgiven.

A. When are sins forgiven?

When does God forgive sins? The way God forgives and the way people forgive is different. One difference has to do with heart-forgiveness. People are commanded to always forgive from the heart. In contrast, God does not have to struggle to keep a righteous heart towards His enemies. Injured people will sometimes have very difficult heart struggles, and it will often be very hard for them to respond righteously to their offenders. But God is not like that. His heart is always righteous. When God loves, it is with righteous love; when God is angry, it is with righteous anger; when God avenges, it is with righteous vengeance.

God's forgiveness and man's forgiveness also differ in responsibility. Man's responsibility is to leave vengeance with God. God's responsibility is to execute justice.

God's forgiveness and man's forgiveness also differ in ability to bring about reconciliation. An injured person might long to be reconciled and, yet, never have an opportunity to convey verbal-forgiveness to a repentant heart. The offender might be completely unrepentant and never want to be forgiven.

In contrast, it is not that way for God. God is more powerful than that. It is God's sovereign choice to choose some to be the recipients of his mercy and to choose others to be the recipients of His wrath. When God decides to be merciful -- when He determines to forgive someone -- He, then, can change that person's stubborn heart into a repentant heart so that the person can receive the forgiveness that God wants to grant.

That is what God did with His people. It was in the heart of God to forgive His people long before His people were ready to receive His forgiveness. While the people were still in rebellion, were they ready to be forgiven? No. While they were still excusing and justifying themselves in pride and arrogance, were they ready to be forgiven? No. When were they ready to be forgiven? They were ready to be forgiven when they humbled themselves before God. Only repentant people are ready to be forgiven: only people who are willing to forsake their wicked ways and thoughts. We see this in Isaiah 55:6-7:

Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.

Many years later, after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem, they would weep as they heard the law read and taught (see Nehemiah 8:9). This was a different kind of people. The law they had so easily ignored now pierced their repentant hearts.

In summary, God's people are ready to be forgiven when they repent. This is when God forgives people. Next, we consider how God forgives people.

B. How are sins forgiven?

Sins have two kinds of consequences: temporal and eternal. Both are addressed in this passage.

1. Temporal consequences.

First, we consider the temporal consequences. One of the temporal consequences of the iniquity of the people of Jerusalem was warfare. The word used for warfare can also be translated as hard service. They were a conquered people, they had lost everything, and now they were slaves in a foreign land.

When God forgives, sometimes he removes the temporal consequences of our sins. For example, when Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses in Numbers 12, God struck Miriam with leprosy. Then, when Moses prayed for her, God did agree to heal her, but not before she had been put outside the camp for seven days. She had to bear the temporal consequences of her sin for a week. In some other cases, God did not remove the temporal consequences of sin. In 2 Samuel 12, God forgave David for having Uriah killed, but David still had to endure the death of a son. And in Numbers 14, God also forgave the Israelites when they sided with the ten fearful spies against Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb. Yet, besides Joshua and Caleb, none of the Israelites older than nineteen would be allowed to enter the promised land. So it is in this passage from Isaiah: even though God would forgive His people, he would not let them go free until they had sufficiently endured the appointed temporal consequences of their sins. When the text says, "She has received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins," it refers to the completion of temporal consequences.

2. Eternal consequences.

Second, we consider the eternal consequences of sin. Sin does not always have obvious temporal consequences. Even though sin always damages the conscience and the affections, the temporal consequences of sin are not always obvious to other people. In fact, this is a complaint of the Psalmist in Psalm 73:3, "I was envious of the arrogant, as I saw the prosperity of the wicked."

But even if sin does not always have obvious temporal consequences, sin does always have eternal consequences. We see this in Psalm 73:27, "For, behold, those who are far from Thee will perish; Thou hast destroyed all those who are unfaithful to Thee." We also see this in Hebrews 9:27, "It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment."

In the end, there is no sin that goes unpunished. Either you will find forgiveness through Christ, or you will be forced to suffer, for all eternity, the consequences of your own iniquities. Either your sin-debt is already paid by Christ, or it will be endured by you as an unpayable debt in Hell.

This is why these words from our text are so precious: "Her iniquity has been removed."

As much as the people of Jerusalem longed to be set free from Babylon, they longed even more to be restored to a right relationship with God. They longed to have their sins forgiven, not just in terms of temporal punishment, but for all eternity.

In Isaiah 53:4-6, a Messianic prophecy, we see just how God would remove the iniquities of His people. Speaking of Jesus it says:

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.

The infinite purity and holiness of the sacrifice, Jesus Himself, surpasses the weight of the greatest sin. If God has graciously given you a repentant heart, then He stands ready to forgive you, even now, no matter what you have done. This is the first way that God comforts His people.

2. He draws near to them.

The second way that God comforts His people is by drawing near to them. The forgiveness of sins does more than take away the fear of eternal punishment. It opens the door to the blessings of the presence of God. When iniquities are removed, a right relationship with God is restored. God affirms this relationship by the way He draws near to His people. He draws near in two ways:

  1. He speaks to them covenantally.
  2. He speaks to them tenderly.

A. He speaks to them covenantally.

We see Him drawing near to them covenantally by His choice of language. When He calls them My people and when He calls Himself Your God, He is speaking to them in covenantal terms. This looks back towards the covenant God made with them in the book of Leviticus 26:11-13:

I will make My dwelling among you, and My soul will not reject you. I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt so that you would not be their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

This was God's promise to His people. But He had also promised curses if they rebelled, and, as we all know, they did. They had broken this covenant. As a result, God had brought covenant curses to bear. How was it, then, that God was still willing to address them in covenant terms. We find the answer in Leviticus 23:40-45. God had anticipated both the time of their rebellion and the time of their restoration. Thus we read:

If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their forefathers, in their unfaithfulness which they committed against Me, and also in their acting with hostility against Me— [and by the way] I also was acting with hostility against them, to bring them into the land of their enemies—or if their uncircumcised heart becomes humbled so that they then make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and My covenant with Abraham as well, and I will remember the land. For the land will be abandoned by them, and will make up for its sabbaths while it is made desolate without them. They, meanwhile, will be making amends for their iniquity, because they rejected My ordinances and their soul abhorred My statutes. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, nor will I so abhor them as to destroy them, breaking My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God. But I will remember for them the covenant with their ancestors, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD.

Even if they had forgotten their ancient covenant, God had remembered it for them. Furthermore, God had upheld his covenant relationship with Israel for the sake of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and today God continues to uphold His covenant relationship with all those who belong to Jesus.

Hear me. Those whom God calls He keeps. Those whom God foreknew from all eternity (see Ephesians 1:4-6) He keeps for all time. No matter how you have sinned, if you have been born again, you are still one of His people, and He is still your God.

But how can you know whether you have really been born again? You give evidence for your election, evidence that you really are one of God's people, when you turn away from your sin and return to God with a repentant heart.

If you are serious about dealing with your sin, and if you will seek God as your heavenly Father, He will respond to you and acknowledge you as His child.

This is one way in which God draws near to His people: He speaks to them in covenant language.

B. He speaks to them tenderly.

There is another way in which God draws near to His people: He speaks to them in tender language. We see this tenderness in the text when we read, "Speak kindly to Jerusalem." Were this translated literally, we would read, "Speak upon the heart of Jerusalem." God speaks with tenderness to the hearts of His people.

The language used here is the same kind of language that Joseph used with his brothers when they humbled themselves and begged for his forgiveness. After Jacob died, Joseph's brothers were afraid that he would take vengeance against them. So they pleaded for mercy. But how did Joseph answer? Without denying their sin, he, nevertheless spoke to them with kindness, as we find in Genesis 50:19-21:

But Joseph said to them, Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones. So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.

In our own lives, when we feel the weight of our own sins, sometimes we believe that God is looking forward to an opportunity to get even with us. We imagine Him relishing the thought of making us suffer for our rebellion.

But is this really the heart of God? Consider these words from Isaiah 57:14-19:

And it will be said, Build up, build up, prepare the way,

Remove every obstacle out of the way of My people.

For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. For I will not contend forever,

Nor will I always be angry; for the spirit would grow faint before Me,

And the breath of those whom I have made. Because of the iniquity of his unjust gain I was angry and struck him; I hid My face and was angry, and he went on turning away, in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and to his mourners, creating the praise of the lips. Peace, peace to him who is far and to him who is near, Says the LORD, and I will heal him.

This is how God draws near to his people. He draws near to them covenantally, affirming His relationship with them: My people and Your God. And He draws near to them by the way He speaks to them, speaking tenderly to their repentant hearts.

3. He gives them hope.

The third way that God comforts His people is by giving them hope. In this passage, the hope God conveys has to do with their captivity. The captives from Jerusalem are told that their captivity will not last forever. An end has been appointed for their season of suffering, and their hard service will soon be over.

In the text, the focus is upon the suffering that God's people are enduring as prisoners in a foreign land. As God's people today, we also long for an end to our season of suffering. In the world, we are but pilgrims. Thus, we are warned not to love the things of this present world. Redeemed by the blood of the lamb, we long for a better world, where God is honored as king, where God's laws are obeyed, and where His people dwell in love and peace.

Meanwhile, God's people continue to suffer. Some of this is innocent suffering. As more and more prisoners are having their sentences overturned, and as more and more people are being released based on DNA evidence, I can only imagine how many innocent people are still behind bars, even in the United States. How many are there because the prosecuting attorney was more interested in securing a guilty verdict than in finding the truth. How many are there because evidence was either hidden or manipulated.

Add to this the suffering of innocent Christian people around the world. Some will be martyred, and some will die in the cold, dark, cells that hold them now.

Then there are those who have brought suffering upon themselves but have now repented. They are guilty with respect to the past, but innocent with respect to Christ and the imputed righteousness that they have found through faith in Him. Some of those people are in prison too. And although they have repented before God, they still suffer the temporal consequences of their sins. God has not lifted the chains of their captivity.

Finally, there is the suffering that afflicts all people, including Christians, and from God's perspective, it is also guilty suffering. For we can speak of innocent suffering only in human terms. There might be an innocent party in the context of an automobile accident. But from God's perspective, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Even a little child has inherited a sinful nature as the offspring of Adam. Because of the fall of man, not only do we sin every day, but we continue to suffer the consequences of that fall through the afflictions that come from living in a fallen world.

What hope does God give us? God gives us hope in three ways:

  1. God gives hope by appointing an end to our time of suffering.
  2. God gives hope by sustaining us in the midst of our suffering.
  3. God gives hope by revealing the glory that awaits us.

A. God gives hope by appointing an end to our time of suffering.

First, God has appointed an end to our time of suffering. For those who belong to Christ, this world is all the hell they will ever know. When that last breath is taken, the last groan will end with it. Some die full of years. Some die in the womb before they are even born. Some die as young children. Some die as teenagers. Some die as young parents. Some die as grandparents. Some die as soldiers in foreign lands. Some die in the midst of a time of great blessing. Some die during a time of great sorrow. But all die at their appointed time. For it is written in Psalm 139:16, "Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in Thy book they were all written, the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them."

B. God gives hope by sustaining us in the midst of our suffering.

In the meantime, while we live, God works to sustain us in the midst of our suffering.

God sustains us by helping us when we are tempted. Suffering is often mixed with temptation. Yet, God sustains us, even during the time of temptation, by making a way of escape, as we read in 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.

God not only helps us when we are tempted, but He controls everything that touches our lives, promising to use all things for good. We see this in Romans 8:28-29:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren.

God also sustains us by being present within our very hearts through the Holy Spirit. As we read in John 14:16-17:

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you.

While the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts, He is very busy. He steers us away from evil, he teaches us and comforts us by bringing scripture to mind, and He even prays for us. We see this in Romans 8:26-27:

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

So it is that the Holy Spirit sustains God's people during their season of suffering. Another way in which the Holy Spirit sustains God's people is by reminding them of the glory that awaits them.

C. God gives hope by revealing the glory that awaits us.

Jesus is preparing a place in heaven where we will dwell with him. We see this in John 14:2-3:

In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.

The blessings of the life to come are beyond our wildest imagination, as we see in 1 Corinthians 1:9:

What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into a man's heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him. (HCSB)


In summary, we have considered how God comforts his people:

  1. He forgives their sins.
  2. He draws near to them.
  3. He gives them hope.

While examining the way God comforts His people, hopefully we have also discovered something else. Hopefully, we have also seen the character and heart of God. We have seen that God wants to comfort His people, even when they are suffering the consequences of their own sinful actions.

Are you tired of living apart from God? Do you long to know that your sins are forgiven? Do you miss the sweetness of His fellowship? Do you wish for the assurance that the comfort God offers is yours? Has grief done its work in your heart? Has suffering made you long to know God the way you used to know Him?

Then come -- return to Jesus. The same God who saved your soul many years ago still works to make sure that His children persevere in faith, even if the light of faith seems to fade for a while. The same God who allowed you to wander -- who let you have your way for a season -- is willing, even now, to welcome you back home.

Come home, dearly loved prodigal son and daughter. Though you bear the vile stench of living with swine, your renewed heart, now humble and repentant, is precious in the sight of God.

Come home, you who have destroyed your own lives. Why should you continue to bear the guilt and the shame? God offers you a new beginning. Hear these words from Isaiah 1:18:

'Come now, and let us reason together,' says the Lord. 'Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.'

He will forgive your sin. He will clothe you with a robe of righteousness. He will sustain you with His presence. He will give you strength for present days. And he will give you hope for the days to come.

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