What a beautiful simplicity and directness in the statement! It is like the lawgiver anew setting before the people the way of life and the way of death, and calling upon them to determine which of the two they were inclined to choose. Then, what a moving tenderness in the appeal, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord God.” You think of me as if I were a heartless being, indifferent to the calamaties that befall my children, and even delighting to inflict chastisement on them for sins they have not committed. So far from this, I have no pleasure in the destruction of those who by their own transgressions have deserved it, but would rather that they turn from their ways and live. Thus he presents himself as a God of holy love,—love yearning over the lost condition of his wayward children, and earnestly desiring their return to peace and safety,—yet still exercising itself in strict accordance with the principles of righteousness, and only, in so far as these might admit, seeking the good of men. For however desirous to secure their salvation, he neither can nor will save them, except in the way of righteousness.
A yearning tenderness here manifests itself, still seeking, notwithstanding all that has taken place, the return of those who survived to the way of peace. But with that tenderness, what a stern and unflinching holiness! There can be no relaxation or abatement mentioned in respect to this, not even amid the moanings of pain and cries of distress which arose from the people,—no return to life possible but through a return to righteousness. God is anxious, as a kind and affectionate parent, to see them restored to a happy and prosperous condition; he would not have them ignorant of that. But they must also know that in God’s sight there was a higher thing still, which he could on no account sacrifice for the sake of the other; he must maintain in his dealings with them the honour of his authority and the rectitude of his government; and only if they turn from their wicked ways, can he turn from his fierce displeasure. Here, therefore, stands the one door-way of escape; and the prophet, in entering upon the second department of his ministerial calling, must begin by reiterating the message with which he entered on the first (chap. iii. 18–21), and which he had also subsequently repeated and enlarged upon (chap. xviii.)—the message, namely, that each should be dealt with according to his ways. The righteousness of the righteous should not deliver him if he turned aside to transgression; but neither would the wickedness of the wicked prove his destruction, if he sincerely repented of his sins and laid hold of the covenant of God. These are God’s terms now, as they have been all along; the Lord’s servant has no other to offer; and if they are not concurred in, recovery is impossible.
1 Tim. 2:4:
Then follows the reason why such conduct [i.e. making intercession for all men] meets with God’s approval as right and proper: who willeth all men to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth—ἐπίγνωσιν, knowledge in the fuller sense, knowledge that reaches its end, saving knowledge; and the governing verb, it will be observed, is θέλει, not the stronger βούλεται, which would have expressed will with an implied purpose or intent (see at ver. 8). Nothing can be better than the comment of Chrysostom here: “Imitate God. If He is willing that all men should be saved, it is meet to pray for all. If He willed that all should be saved, do thou also will it; but if thou willest, pray; for it is the part of such to pray. . . . But if God wills it, you will say, what need is there for my prayers? This is the great benefit both for you and for them: it draws them to love; thyself, again, it prevents from being treated as a wild beast; and such things are fitted to allure them to faith.” There seems no need for going beyond this practical aspect of the matter; and either to press the passage on the one side, with some, to universalism,—as if it bespoke the comprehension of all within God’s purpose of salvation,—or, on the other, to limit it, so as to make, not strictly all men, but only all sorts of men (with Calvin and others), the object of the good contemplated, is equally to strain the natural import of the words. It seems to me unnatural to understand the all men, twice so distinctly and emphatically expressed, as indicative of anything but mankind generally—men not merely without distinction of class or nation, but men at large, who certainly, as such, are to be prayed for. As the objects of the church’s intercessions, there can be no difference drawn between one portion and another; and we are expressly taught to plead for all, because it is the will of God that they should be saved—σωθηναι: not His will absolutely to save them, as if the word had been σώσαι; but that they may be brought through the knowledge and belief of the truth into the state of the saved. And the whole character of the gospel of Christ, with its universal call to repent, its indiscriminate offers of pardon to the penitent, and urgent entreaties to lay hold of the hope set before them, is framed on very purpose to give expression to that will; for, surely, in pressing such things on men’s acceptance, yea, and holding them disobedient to His holy will, and liable to aggravated condemnation, if they should refuse to accept, God cannot intend to mock them with a mere show and appearance of some great reality being brought near to them. No; there is the manifestation of a benevolent desire that they should not die in sin, but should come to inherit salvation (as at Ezek. xxxiii. 11), if only they will do it in the way that alone is consistent with the principles of His moral government and the nature of Christ’s mediation. This, necessarily, is implied; and it is the part of the church, by her faithful exhibition of the truth in Christ, by her personal strivings with the souls of men, and earnest prayers in their behalf, to give practical effect to this message of goodwill from Heaven to men, and to do it in the spirit of tenderness and affection which itself breathes.
Such appears to be the fair and natural interpretation of the apostle’s declaration, and the whole that it properly calls us to intermeddle with. It is true that all whom God wills to be thus entreated and prayed for shall not actually be saved—not even many who have enjoyed in the highest degree the means and opportunities of such dealing. And seeing, as God does, the end from the beginning, knowing perfectly beforehand whom He has, and whom He has not destined to salvation, grave questions are ready to arise as to whether the work of Christ can be really sufficient to meet the emergency occasioned by the ruin of sin, or whether God be sincere in seeking through His church the salvation of all,—questions which touch upon the deep things of God, and which it is impossible for us, with the material we now possess, to answer satisfactorily to the speculative reason. Knowing who and what He is with whom in such things we have to do, we should rest assured that His procedure will be in truth and uprightness; and that the mysteries which meanwhile appear to hang around it will be solved to the conviction of every reasonable mind, when the proper time for doing so shall have arrived. But enough is known for present duty. God has unfolded for one and all alike the terms of reconciliation: He is willing, nay desirous, for His own glory’s sake, that men should everywhere embrace them; and for this end has committed to His church the ministry of reconciliation, charging it upon the conscience of her members to strive and pray that all without exception be brought to the saving knowledge of the truth. What more can be required for faith to rest on, and for the interecessions and labours of an earnest ministry?