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Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now have I kept thy word.—Ver. 67.
IN this verse you may observe two things:—
1. The evil of prosperity, before I was afflicted I went astray.
2. The good of adversity, but now have I kept thy word. Before wandering, but now attentive to his duty. Or, if you will, here is the necessity of afflictions and the utility of them.223
1. The necessity, ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray.’ Some think that David in his own person representeth the wantonness and stubbornness of all mankind. If it should be so, yet the person in whom the instance is given is notable. If this was the disposition of the prophet and man of God, and he needed this discipline, we much more: if he could say it in truth of heart that he was made worse by his prosperity, we need always to be jealous of ourselves; and were it not for the scourge, we should forget our duty and the obedience we owe to God.
2. The utility and benefit of afflictions, ‘But now have I kept thy word.’ Keeping the law is a general word. The use of God’s rod is to bring us home unto God, and the affliction driveth us to make better use of his word: it changeth us from vanity to seriousness, from error to truth, from stubbornness to teachfulness, from pride to modesty. It is commonly said, παθήματα μαθήματα; and the apostle telleth us that Jesus Christ himself learned obedience by the things which he suffered, Heb. v. 8; and here David was the better for the cross; so should we. Or rather, you may in the words observe three things:—
1. A confession of his wandering, ‘I went astray.’
2. The course God took to reduce him to his duty, ‘I was afflicted.’
3. The success or effect of that course, ‘I have kept thy word.’
Theodoret expresseth this in three words, ἠῤῥώστησα, ἐτμήθην, ἐῤῥώσθηνI was sick; I was cut, or let blood; I was well, or recovered my health again.
1. The one giveth us the cause of afflictions; they are for sin, ‘I went astray:’ wherein there is a secret acknowledgment of his guilt, that his sin was the cause of the chastisement God brought upon him. ‘
2. The true notion and nature of affliction to the people of God. The cross changeth its nature, and is not poena, a destructive punishment, but remedium delinquentium, a medicinal dispensation, and a means of our cure.
3. The end of them is obedience, or keeping God’s word. The sum of the whole is, I was out of the way, but thy rod hath reduced me, and brought me into it again. Aben Ezra conceiveth that in this last clause he intimateth a desire of deliverance, because the rod had done its work; rather, I think he expresseth his frame and temper when he was delivered; and accordingly I shall make use of it by and by.
I might observe many points, but the doctrine from the whole verse is—
Doct. That the end of God’s afflicting, is to reduce his afflicted and straying people into the right way.
I shall explain the point by these considerations.
1. That man is of a straying nature, apt to turn out of the way that leadeth to God and to true happiness. We are all so by nature: Isa. liii. 6, ‘All we like sheep have gone astray.’ Sheep, of all creatures, are exceeding subject to stray, if not tended and kept in the better, unable to keep out of error, and having erred, unable to return. This is the emblem by which the Holy Ghost would set forth the nature of mankind. But is it better with us after grace received? No; we are in part so still. The best of us, if left to 224ourselves, how soon are we out of the right way? into what sad errors do we run ourselves? Ps. xix. 12, ‘Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me from secret sins.’ Since grace, we all have our deviations; though our hearts be set to walk with God for the main, yet ever and anon we are swerving from our rule, transgressing our bounds, and neglecting our duty. Good David had cause to say, Ps. cxix. 176, ‘I have gone astray like a lost sheep: oh, seek thy servant!’ We go astray not only out of ignorance, but out of perverseness of inclination: Jer. xiv. 10, ‘Thus have they loved to wander; they have not restrained their feet.’ We have hearts that love to wander; we love shift and change, though it be for the worse; and so will be making excursions into the ways of sin.
2. This straying humour is much increased and encouraged by prosperity, which, though it be good in itself, yet, so perverse are we by nature, that we are the worse for it. That the wicked are the worse for it, is clear: Isa. xxvi. 10, ‘Let favour be showed to the wicked, yet will they not learn righteousness.’ The sunshine upon the dung hill will produce nothing but stinks, and the salt sea will turn all that falleth into it into salt water; the sweet dews of heaven, and the tribute of the rivers all becometh salt when it falleth into the sea. So wicked men convert all into their humour: neither God’s mercies nor judgments will have any gracious and kindly work upon them: but, if it be well with them, they take the more liberty to live loosely and profanely: the fear of God, which is the great holdback from all wickedness, is lessened and quite lost in them when they see no change: Ps. lv. 19, ‘Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God.’ That little slavish fear which they have, which should keep them back from wandering, is then lost, and the more gently God dealeth with them, the more godless and secure they are. When they go on prosperously and undisturbedly, the more obdurate ever. But is it not so with the people of God also? Yes, verily. David, whose heart smote him when he cut off the lap of Saul’s garment when he was wandering in the wilderness, could plot the death of Uriah, his faithful servant, when he was at ease in his palace. We lose much tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against sin, much of that lively diligence that we should otherwise show forth in carrying on the spiritual life, when we are at ease, and all things go well with us. We are apt to indulge the flesh when we have so many baits to feed it; and to learn how to abound is the harder lesson of the two than to learn how to be abased, Phil. iv. 12; and therefore, did not God correct us, we should grow careless and negligent. The beginning of all obedience is the mortification of the flesh, which naturally we cannot endure. After we have submitted and subjected ourselves to God, the flesh will be seeking its prey, and be rebelling and waxing wanton against the spirit, till God snatch its allurements from us. Therefore the Lord by divers afflictions is fain to break us and bring us into order. We force him to humble us by poverty, or disgrace, or diseases, or by domestic crosses, or some inconveniency of the natural and animal life, which we value too much. Besides, our affections to heavenly things languish when all things succeed with us in this world according to our heart’s desire; and this coldness and 225remissness is not easily shaken off. Many are like the children of Reuben and Gad, Num. xxxii., who, when they found convenient pastures on this side Jordan, were content with it for their portion, without seeking aught in the land of promise. So their desires insensibly settle here, and have less respect to the good of the world to come.
3. When it is thus with us, God seeth fit to send afflictions. Much of the wisdom of God’s providence is to be observed;—partly in the season of affliction, in what state and posture of soul it surpriseth us, when we are wandering, when we most need it, when our abuse of prosperity calleth aloud for it; when the sheep wander, the dog is let loose to fetch them in again. God suiteth his providence to our necessities: 1 Peter i. 6, ‘For a season ye are in heaviness, if need be.’ Alas! we often see that afflictions are highly necessary and seasonable, either to prevent a distemper that is growing upon us, or to reclaim us from some evil course in which we have wandered from God. Paul was in danger to be lifted up, and then God sendeth a thorn in the flesh. This discipline is very proper and necessary before the disease run on too far. Partly in the kind of affliction. All physic doth not work upon the same humour; divers lusts must have divers remedies. Pride, envy, covetousness, wantonness, emulation, have all their proper cures. All sins are referred to three impure fountains: 1 John ii. 16, ‘For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.’ From the lusts of the flesh do arise not only the gross acts of wantonness, fornication, adultery, gluttony, drunkenness, which the more brutish and base part of mankind are taken with, but an inordinate love of pleasures, vain company, and vain delights, carnal complacency, or flesh-pleasing, wherewith the refined part of the world are too often captivated and bewitched. The lust of the eyes, covetousness and worldly-mindedness, produce wretchedness, rapines, contentions, strife, or that immoderate desire of having or joining house to house, field to field, and building up ourselves one storey higher in the world. From pride of life cometh ambition, lofty conceit of ourselves, scorn and contempt of others, affectation of credit and repute in the world, pomp of having multitudes of servants, or greatness of train, fineness of apparel, and innumerable vanities! Now God, that he may meet with his servants when they are tripping in any kind, he sendeth out afflictions as his faithful messengers to stop them in their career, that the flesh may not sail and carry it away with a full and clear gale. Against the lusts of the flesh he sendeth sicknesses and diseases; against the lusts of the eyes, poverty and disappointments in our relations; against pride, disgraces and shame: and sometimes he varieth the dispensation, for his providence doth keep one tenor, and every cure will not fit every humour; all will not work alike upon all. He sendeth that affliction which is sure to work; he knoweth how to strike in the right vein: thus he cureth Paul’s pride by a troublesome disease. None that study providence but may observe the wisdom of God in the kind of affliction, and how suitable it is to the work it is to do; for God doth all things in number, weight, and measure. Partly by the manner how it cometh upon us, by what instruments, and in what sort. How many make themselves 226miserable by an imagined cross! and so, when all things without are well, their own humours and passions make them a burden to themselves, and when they are not wounded in point of honour, nor lessened and cut short in estate, nor assaulted in their health, nor their relations diminished and cut off, but are hedged round about with all temporal happiness, there seemeth to be no room or place for any affliction or trouble in their bosoms, yet, ‘in the fulness of their sufficiency, God maketh them a terror and burden to themselves, either by their own fears or misconceit, or the false imagination of some loss or disgrace: God maketh them uncomfortable and full of disquiet; and though they want nothing, yet they are not at ease, yea, more troubled than those that are called out to conflict with real, yea, the greatest evils. Haman is an instance: he was one of the princes of the kingdom of Persia, flowing in wealth and all manner of delights, in degree of dignity and honour next the king himself, and flourishing in the hope of a numerous and fair issue; yet because Mordecai, a poor Jew, did not do him expected reverence, ‘All this availeth me nothing,’ Esther v. 19. So soon can God send a worm into the fairest gourd, and a dissatisfaction into the most flourishing estate in the world, that men shall have no rest night and day, especially if a spark of his wrath light into the conscience: Ps. xxxix. 11, ‘When thou with rebukes dost correct man for his iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity, Selah.’ There is a secret moth that eateth up all their contentment; they are under terror, discouragement, and want of peace: God teacheth them that nothing can be satisfactorily enjoyed apart from his blessed self: ‘A fire not blown shall consume them,’ Job xx. 26. Partly in the continuance of afflictions. God ordereth, taketh off, and layeth on afflictions at his own pleasure, and as he seeth it conducible to our profit. Variety of afflictions may meet together on the best and dearest of God’s children, there being in the best many corruptions both to be discovered and subdued, and many graces to be tried: 1 Peter i. 6, ‘Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness, through manifold temptations;’ and James i. 2, ‘My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations.’ One trouble worketh into the hands of another, and the succession of them is as necessary as the first stroke. We often force God to renew his corrections, ab assuetis nulla fit passio—things to which we are accustomed do not affect us; therefore, under a general affliction there come in many special ones to rub up our sense, and make it work the better. Under public calamities we have a private one, and they come one in the neck of another like waves. When God hath begun he will make an end, and bring his discipline to some more comfortable and perfect issue. In all these things the wisdom of God is to be observed.
4. The affliction so sent hath a notable use to reduce us to a sense and care of our duty. This is often pressed in the scripture: ‘The fruit of all shall be to take away their sin.’ Afflictions are compared in scripture to fire that purgeth away our dross: 1 Peter i. 7, ‘Now for a season, if need be, ye are in manifold temptations, that the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, 227though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise, and honour, and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.’ To the fan that driveth away the chaff: Mark iii. 12, ‘Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ To a pruning-hook, that cutteth off the luxuriant branches, and maketh the others that remain the more fruitful: John xv. 2, ‘Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away, and every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth it that it may bring forth more fruit.’ To physic, that purgeth away the sick matter: Isa. xxvii. 9, ‘By this therefore shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged, and this is all the fruit to take away his sin.’ To ploughing and harrowing of the ground, that destroyeth the ill weeds, and fitteth it to receive the good seed: Jer. iv. 3, ‘Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.’ To the file that worketh oft’ our rust, and the flail that maketh our husk fly off. So Heb. xii. 11, ‘No affliction for the present seemeth joyous, but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them that are exercised therewith.’ The affliction hath a necessary tendency to so comfortable an effect But because generals do but beat the air, and do not so well fit themselves in the mind, I shall show you it is either the means of our first conversion, or subservient to the reformation of those that are converted.
[1.] It is a means of our first conversion. How many begin with God upon the occasion of afflictions! The time of sorrows is a time of loves. The hot furnace is Christ’s workhouse, where he formeth the most excellent vessels of honour and praise for his own use. Manasseh, Paul, and the jailer in the Acts, were all chosen in the fire; as the Lord saith, Isa. xlviii. 10, ‘I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction,’ where God began to discover his choice by his working on their affections. All men are vessels capable of any form, therefore God puts them into the furnace. Most of us are taken in our month, as the ram that Abraham offered was caught in the thickets. When stout and stubborn sinners are broken with want and distress, then they come to themselves, and think of returning to their Father: Luke xv. 17, 18, ‘And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father,’ &c. Afflictions make us more serious; conscience is then apt to work. Before, we were guided by the wisdom of the flesh, and governed by our carnal appetite, never minded heavenly things, till God get us under, and then we bethink ourselves. Have you never known any instance in this kind? that whilst they were young, rich, strong, noble, all their humour was for vain pleasure, to-day hunting, to morrow hawking, another day feasting, and then brawling, fighting, drinking, carousing, dancing; all the warnings of parents, the good counsel of tutors and governors, the grave exhortations of ministers and preachers, will do no good upon them; they are always wandering up and down from God and from themselves, cannot endure a thought of God, of death, of heaven, of hell, of judgment to come; but when God casts them once into some grievous disease, or some great trouble, they begin to come to themselves, and then they that would hear nothing, 228understand nothing, despised all grave and gracious counsel given, as if it did not belong to them, scoffed at admonitions, thought the day lost in which they had not acted some sin or other, when the cross preacheth, and some grievous calamity is upon them, then conscience beginneth to work, and this bringeth to remembrance all that they have heard before, then they come to themselves, and would fain if they could come to Christ. Sharp affliction is a sound, powerful, rousing teacher: Job xxxvi. 8, 9, ‘And if they be bound in fetters, and be holden in cords of affliction, then he showeth them their work, and their transgressions that they have exceeded.’ Grace worketh in a powerful but yet in a moral way, congruously but forcibly, and by a fit accommodation of circumstances. One place more: Jer. xxxi. 18, ‘Truly I have heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus, Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke: turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God.’ Affliction awakeneth serious reflections upon our ways; therefore take heed what ye do with the convictions that arise upon afflictions; to slight them is dangerous. Nothing breedeth hardness of heart so much as the smothering of convictions. Iron often heated grows the harder. On the other side, see they do not degenerate into despair, either the raging despair which terrifieth, or the sottish despair which stupefieth: Jer. xviii. 12, ‘They said, There is no hope, but we will walk after our own devices, and we will every one do the imagination of his evil heart.’ The middle between both is a holy sensibleness of our condition, which is a good preparation for the great duties of the gospel. The work of conversion is at first difficult and troublesome, but pass over this brunt, and all things will be sweet and easy: the bullock at first yoking is most unruly, and fire at the first kindling casts forth most smoke; so when sin is revived it brings forth death: Rom. vii. 9, ‘For I was alive without the law once, but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.’ But yet cherish the work till God speak peace upon sound terms.
[2.] It is a great help to those that are converted already. How many are reduced to a more serious, lively practice of godliness by their troubles! We are rash, inconsiderate, inattentive to our duty, but the rod maketh us cautious and diligent. We follow the world, not the word of God; the vanities thereof take us off from minding the promises or precepts of the word, till the affliction cometh. In short, there are none of us so tamed and subdued to God but that we need to be tamed more. We are all for carnal liberty; there is a wantonness in us. We are high-minded, earthly-minded, till God come with his scourge to reclaim us. He chasteneth us for our profit, that we may be partakers of his holiness, Heb. xii. 10; some lust still needeth mortifying, or some grace needeth exercising; our pride needs to be mortified, or our affections to be weaned from the world. The almond-tree is made more fruitful by driving nails into it, because that letteth out a noxious gum that hindereth its fruitfulness; so when God would have you thrive more, he makes you feel the sharpness of affliction. You have heard Plutarch’s story of Jason of Chaerea, that had his imposthume let out by a casual wound. There is some corruption God would let out. We are apt to set up our rest here, and 229therefore we need to be disturbed, to have the world crucified to us, Gal. vi. 14, that the cumber of the world may drive us to seek for rest where it is only to be found, and to humble us by outward defects, that we may look after inward abundance, that, by being poor in this world, we may be rich in faith, James ii. 5, and having nothing in, the creature, we may possess all things in God, 2 Cor. vi. 10, and be enlarged inwardly as we are straitened outwardly; in short, that we may be oftener with God. God sent a tempest after Jonah. Absalom set Joab’s barley-field on fire, and then he came to him, 2 Sam. xiv. 30. Isa. xxvi. 16, ‘Lord, in trouble have they visited thee; they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them;’ Hosea v. 15, ‘In their affliction they will seek me early.’ It were endless to run out in discourses of this nature.
5. The affliction of itself doth not work thus, but as sanctified and accompanied with the Spirit of God. If the affliction of itself and by itself would do it, it would do so always, but that we see by experience it doth not. In itself it is an evil and a pain that is the consequent and the fruit of sin, and so breedeth impatience, despair, murmuring, and blasphemy against God. As it is a legal curse, other fruit cannot be expected of it but reviving terrors of heart and repinings against the sovereignty of God. We see often the same affliction that maketh one humble, maketh another raging; the same poverty that maketh one full of dependence upon God, maketh another full of shifts and evil courses whereby to supply his want. No; it is understood of sanctified crosses, when grace goeth along with them to bless them to us: Jer. xxxi. 19, ‘Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth;’ after God had wrought a gracious change in him by his afflicting hand and Spirit working together. So Ps. xciv. 12, ‘Blessed is he whom thou chastenest, and instructest out of thy law.’ The rod must be expounded by the word, and both must be effectually applied by the Spirit. Grace is God’s immediate creature and production; he useth subservient means and helps, sometimes the word, sometimes the rod, sometimes both; but neither doth anything without his Spirit.
6. This benefit, though gotten by sharp afflictions, should be owned, and thankfully acknowledged as a great testimony and expression of God’s love to us. So doth David to the praise of God. It is a branch that belongeth to the thanksgiving mentioned ver. 65, ‘Thou hast done well with thy servant, according to thy word:’—the first of this octonary. We are prejudiced against the cross out of a self-love, a mistaken self-love; we love ourselves more than we love God, and the ease of the body more than the welfare of the soul, and the world more than heaven, and our temporal pleasure and contentment more than our spiritual and eternal benefit; and therefore we cannot endure to hear of the cross, much more to bear it. Oh! this doth not become men; surely it doth not become Christians! Would you have your consolation here? Luke xvi.; your portion here? Ps. vii. Would you value yourselves by the flourishing of the outward man, or the renewing of the inward man? 2 Cor. iv. 16. Should we be so impatient of 230the cross? Afflictions are bitter to present sense, but yet they are healthful to the soul: they are not so bitter in present feeling as they will be sweet in the after-fruits. Now, we are greatly unthankful to God, if the bitterness be not lessened and tempered by this fruit and profit. Consider, when are we most miserable? When we go astray, or when we are reduced into the right way? when we are engaged in a rebellion against God, or when brought into a sense of our duty? Hosea iv. 17, ‘Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone.’ Let him alone is the heaviest judgment that can be laid upon a poor creature. Providence, conscience, ministry let him alone; the case is desperate, and we are incorrigible when we are left to our own ways. There needeth no more to make our case miserable and sad than to be suffered to go on in sin without let and restraint; there is no hope of such: God seemeth to cast them off, and to desert and leave them to their own lusts. It is evident he mindeth not their salvation, but leaveth them to the world, to be condemned with the world. Well, then, doth God do the elect any harm when he casts them into great troubles? If we use violence to a man that is ready to be drowned, and, in pulling him out of the waters, should break an arm or a leg, would he not be thankful? Yes, saith he, I can dispense with that, for you have saved my life. So may God’s children bless his name. O blessed providence! I had been a witless fool, and gone on in a course of sin, if God had not awakened me. A philosopher could say that he never made better voyage than when he suffered shipwreck, because then he began to apply himself to the study of wisdom: surely a Christian should say, Blessed be God that he laid his chastenings upon me, and brought me to a serious heavenly mind: I should otherwise have been a carnal fool, as others are. Wicked men are left to their own swing. When the case of the sick is desperate, physicians let them alone, give them leave to take anything they have a mind unto. The apostle speaketh much to this purpose: Heb. xii. 6, ‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.’ Sharp afflictions, which in their visible appearance seem tokens of God’s hatred, are rather tokens of his love. There is a twofold love of God—Amor benevolentiae et complacentiae—the love of good-will, whereby the Lord out of the purposes of his own free grace doth regenerate us, and adopt us into his family; and having loved us, and made us amiable, he doth then delight in us. The text alleged may be expounded of either. Oh! then, why do not we more own God in our afflictions? If he use us a little hardly, it is not an argument of his hatred, but his love. Thou darest not pray, Lord, let me have my worldly comforts, though they damn me; let me not be afflicted, though it will do me good. And if thou darest not pray so, will you repine when God seeth this course necessary for us, and taketh away the fuel of our lusts? Is it not a good exchange to part with outward comforts for inward holiness? If he take away our quiet, and give us peace of conscience, our worldly goods, and give us true riches, have we cause to complain? If outward wants be recompensed with an abundance of inward grace, if we have less of the world that we may have more of God, a healthy soul in a sickly body, it is just matter of thanksgiving: 3 John 2, ‘I wish, above all things, that thou 231mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.’ We can subscribe to this in the general; all will affirm that afflictions are profitable, and that it is a good thing to be patient and submissive under them; but when any cross cometh to knock at our door, we are loath to give it entrance; and if it thrust in upon us, we fret and fume, and our souls sit uneasy, and all because we are addicted so unreason ably to the ease of the flesh, the quiet, happiness, and welfare of the carnal life, and have so little regard to life spiritual.
7. At the first coming of the affliction we do not see this benefit so well as in the review of the whole dispensation: ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I have kept thy word.’ So Heb. xii. 11, ‘Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness to them which are exercised thereby.’ There is a perfect opposition; the root and the fruit are opposed—affliction and fruit of righteousness, the quality of the root, and the quality of the fruit: ουͮ χαρᾶς εἶναι ἀλλὰ λύπης, καρπὸν εἰρηνικὸν, the appearance and the reality, δοκεῖ and ἀποδίδωσις. Then the season, πρὸς τὸ παρὸν and ὕστερον. God’s physic must have time to work. At first it may not be so, or at least not appear; for things are before they appear or can be observed for the present. We must tarry God’s leisure, and be content with his blows, till we feel the benefit of them: it is first matter of faith, and then of feeling; though we do not presently understand why everything is done, we must wait. The hand on the dial doth not seem to stir, yet it keeps its course; while it is paving we see it not, but that it hath passed from one hour to another is evident. So is God’s work with the soul; and spiritual renovation and increase is not so sensible at the first though it be carried on ἡμέρα καὶ ἡμέρᾳ, day by day, 2 Cor. iv. 16, but in view of the whole it will ap pear. What are we the better? Doth sin decay? and what sin? Do we find it otherwise with us than it was before?
8. This profit is not only when the affliction is upon us, but after it is over the fruit of it must remain. Their qualms and pangs most have: Ps. lxxviii. 34-37, ‘When he slew them, then they sought him, and returned and inquired early after God: and they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer. Nevertheless, they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues; for their heart was not right with him, neither were they steadfast in his covenant.’ Many have a little forced religion in their extremities, but it weareth off with their trouble. Sin is but suspended for a while, and the devil chained up; they are very good under the rod, they are frighted to it; but after the deliverance cometh, the more profane. It is true many may begin with God in their troubles, and their necessities drive them to the throne of grace; and Christ had never heard of many, if -fevers and palsies, and possessions and blindness, deafness and dumbness, had not brought them unto him, thanks to the disease. But if a course of godliness begins upon these occasions, and continues afterwards, God will accept it; he is willing to receive us upon any terms. Men will say, You come to me in your extremity; but he doth not upbraid us, provided we will come so as to abide with him, and will not turn the back upon him when our turn is 232served. If you do so, take heed; God hath other judgments to reach you: as John said, Mat. iii. 11, 12, ‘He that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ So that which cometh after is mightier than that which went before; the last judgment is the heaviest: ‘The axe is laid to the root of the tree; therefore every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire,’ Mat. iii. 10. He will not only lop off the branches, but strike at the root; as the Sodomites that escaped the sword of Chedorlaomer perished by fire from heaven. The Israelites that were not drowned in the Red Sea, were stung to death by fiery serpents: ‘As if a man did flee from a lion, and a bear met him; or went into the house and leaned his hand on the wall, and a serpent bit him,’ Amos v. 19. When you avoid one judgment, you may meet an other, and find a stroke where you think yourselves most secure.
Use 1. Let us consider these things, that we may profit by all the chastenings of the Lord. It is now a time of affliction, both as to public judgments and as to the private condition of many of the people of God. We have been long straying from God, from our duty, from one another; it was high time for the Lord to take his rod in his hand, and to scourge us home again. Upon these three nations there is somewhat of God’s three great judgments—war, pestilence, and famine; they are all dreadful. The pestilence is such a judgment as turneth populous cities into deserts and solitudes in a short time; then one cannot help another: riches and honours profit nothing then, and friends and kinsfolks stand afar off: many die without any spiritual helps. In war, what destructions and slaughters, expense of blood and treasure! In famine, you feel yourselves to die without a disease, know not where to have fuel to allay and feed the fire which nature hath kindled in your bodies. But, blessed be God, all these are in moderation. Pestilence doth not ragingly spread, the war is at a distance, the famine only a scarcity. Before God stirreth up all his wrath, he observeth what we do with these beginnings. Besides, the people of God are involved in a heap of miseries on all hands; the op pressed, dejected party burdened with jealousies, and ready to be haled to prison and put under restraint. Holy men sometimes have personal afflictions added to the public calamities. Jeremiah was cast into the dungeon when the city was besieged. The chaff and grain both are threshed together, but the grain is, besides, ground in the mill and baked in the oven. Besides, who thinks of his strayings, and returning with a more serious resolution to his duty? If we would profit by afflictions we must avoid both the faulty extremes: Heb. xii. 5, ‘My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him.’ Slighting and fainting must be avoided.
1. Let us not slight them. When we bear them with a stupid senseless mind, surely that hindereth all profit. None can endure to have their anger despised, no more than their love: a father is displeased when his child slights his correction. That we may not slight it, let us consider:—
[1.] Their author, God. We think them fortuitous, from chance, 233but they ‘do not rise out of the dust,’ Job v. 6. Whoever be the instruments, or whatever be the means, the wise God hath the whole ordering of it. He is the first cause; he is to be sought to, he is to be appeased, if we would stop evil at the fountain-head; for all creatures willingly or unwillingly obey him, and are subject to his empire and government: Amos iii. 6, ‘Is there any evil in the city, and I have not done it, saith the Lord?’ Isa. xlv. 7, ‘I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things;’ Job i. 21, ‘The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.’
[2.] The meritorious cause is sin: Lam. iii. 39, ‘Wherefore doth a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sin?’ That first brought mischief into the world, and still continueth it. God never afflicts without a cause; either we need it, or we deserve it: Micah vii. 9, ‘I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.’ We should search for the particular sins that provoke God to afflict us; for while we only speak of sin in general, we do but inveigh against a notion, and personate mourning; but those we can charge upon our selves are most proper and powerful to break the heart.
[3.] The end is our repentance and amendment, to correct sin past, or prevent sin to come.
(1.) For correction, to make us more penitent for sin past. We being in a lower sphere of understanding, know things better by their effects than their nature: Jer. ii. 19, ‘Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee: know, therefore, and see that it is an evil and bitter thing that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord of hosts.’ Moral evil is represented to us by natural evil; pain showeth what sin is.
(2.) For prevention of sin for time to come. The smart should make us cautious and watchful against sin: Josh. xxii. 17, 18, ‘Is the iniquity of Peor too little for us, from which we are not cleansed to this day, although there was a plague in the congregation of the Lord, but that ye must turn away this day from following the Lord? And it will be, seeing ye rebel to-day against the Lord, that to-morrow he will be wroth with the whole congregation of Israel.’ Afflictions also should stir up in us heavenly thoughts, heavenly desires, and more lively diligence in the exercise of those graces which before lay dormant in us through our neglect. Only I must tell you, that sometimes the affliction may be merely for prevention, and may go before sin. God hath always a cause, but he doth not always suppose a fault in act, but sometimes in possibility; looking into thy actions or thy tem per, what thou hast done, or wouldst do, to cure or prevent a distemper in thy spirit, as well as a disorder in thy conversation.
2. Let us not faint. When the afflictions sit close and near, then we are apt to fall into the other extreme, to be dejected out of measure. An over- sense worketh on our anger, and then it is fretting; or on our sorrow, and then it is fainting. The former is the worse of the two, for that is to set up an anti-providence, or a being displeased with God’s government, a practical disowning of his greatness and justice. 234All men will acknowledge God is great, yet what worm is there will submit to him any further than themselves please? We say we deserve nothing but evil from his hands, but yet are maddened like wild bulls in a net when the goad is in our sides. We say, Any other cross but this. We do not dislike trial, but this trial that is upon us. God thought this fittest for us; our murmuring will not ease our trouble, but increase and continue it. Certainly without submission troubles will do us no good: ‘Patience worketh experience,’ Rom. v. 4. Fainting, properly so taken, is when we look upon God’s work through a false glass, and mis-expound his dispensation. God puts forth his hand, not to thrust us off, but pull us to himself: Hosea v. 15, ‘I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early.’ The very affliction giveth us hope that he will not let us go on securely in our sins. It is not our being afflicted and made miserable by trouble which God aimeth at: Lam. iii. 33, ‘He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.’ Nor is it that which we should chiefly be affected with under affliction. We should mind another lesson taught by it, which if we neglect, our sense of trouble will be but perplexing. It is to subdue sin, to make us more mindful of heavenly things, to have our hearts humbled. No affliction should be counted intolerable which helpeth to purge our sin. We evidence our love to sin if we are overmuch troubled at it, or peevishly quarrel with God. Fainting showeth our weakness: Prov. xxiv. 10, ‘If thou faint in the day of adversity, thy strength is small.’
Use 2. Something concerning the profit of it: value it, observe it.
1. Value it. What do you count a profit or benefit, to flow in wealth, or excel in grace; to live in ease, or to be kept in a holy, heavenly, and humble frame? Heb. xii. 10, ‘For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure, but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.’ Not that we might have the pelf of this world, but that we might be partakers of his holiness. It is better to have holiness than to have health, wealth, and honour; the sanctification of an affliction is better than to have deliverance out of it. Deliverance taketh away malum naturale—some penal evil which God bringeth upon us; sanctification, malum morale—the greatest evil, which is sin. I am sure this is that which we should look after. Deliverance is God’s work, the improvement of the trouble is our duty: do you mind your work, and God will not be wanting to do his part.
2. Observe it, and see how the rod worketh, what thoughts it begets in you, what resolutions it stirreth up, what solaces you run to, and seek after to this end.
[1.] In what temper and frame of heart you were when the affliction surprised you. Usually affliction treadeth upon the heels of some sin. If it be open, and in our practice, it discovereth itself; if secret, and in the frame of our hearts, it must be searched after. Usually it is some slightness and carelessness of spiritual and heavenly things; your hearts were grown in love with the world, you began to neglect your souls, grew more cold in the love of God, more formal in prayer, and indifferent as to your spiritual estate; you did not watch over your 235hearts; therefore the holy and jealous God cometh and awakeneth you by his smarting scourge. The foregoing distemper observed, will help you to state your profit.
[2.] How that is cured by God’s discipline, or what benefit you have gotten by it? You are more diligent in your duty, careful in your preparations for a better state. A Christian should be able to give an account of the methods by which God bringeth him to heaven. David could give an account, as here, ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now have I kept thy word;’ and ver. 71, ‘It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes;’ not good that I should be, as accepting the punishment, but that I have been, as owning the profit.
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