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 --