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I understand more than the ancients, because I keep thy precepts.—Ver. 100.
MAN is a rational being, and should close with things more or less as they do perfect and polish his understanding. Now among all the inventions of mankind to remedy the defects of nature, not one of them can compare with the means which God offers for curing of the blindness and darkness of the mind which is introduced by the fall. Man hath found out grammar to rectify his speech, rhetoric to adorn it and make it more cogent and powerful in persuasion, logic to revive reason, medicine or physic to preserve the health of the body, politics for government of human societies, and for ordering our converse with others in the world, economics for prudent ordering of families, ethics for the tempering of each man’s spirit, that it may live under the dominion of natural reason. But mark, for commerce and communion with God, wherein our happiness lies, there all the inventions of man are very short, and only the word of God can guide us, and furnish us with this wisdom; and because of this is the word so desirous11That is, “desirable,” or “desired.”—ED. and precious to the saints. ‘Oh, how they love the law of God!’ for it is their wisdom. Well, David having showed how it prevailed with his own heart, Oh, how I love thy law!’ for thereby I get spiritual wisdom and understanding; to draw in other men to love and study the word, and to make this motive strong and pressing upon them, he doth compare the wisdom that men may get by the word 15with other things that look like wisdom; he compares it with the sagacity of enemies, the speculation and knowledge of the teacher, and the prudence we get by age and experience.
1. With the sagacity of enemies, whose wit was sharpened with their own malice. There he shows that a man that taketh counsel of the word to secure his great interest, by getting into the favour of God, and walketh by the plain rule of the word, without consulting with flesh and blood, hath the advantage of all other men, and will be found to be the wisest man at length. He compares this wisdom he got by the word with the speculations and knowledge of teachers. He that doth not content himself with the naked rules delivered by them, but labours with his own conscience to make them profitable to his own soul, he will see more by his own eyes as to the particular duties and concernments of the spiritual life than his teachers could ever direct him unto.
2. He compares it here in the text with the wisdom of the ancients, or men of long experience. By the elders or ancients may be meant either men of former times, or aged men of the same time.
[1.] Men of former times: Heb. xi. 2, ‘By it the ancients or elders obtained a good report;’ that is, the holy patriarchs of their time. If this be meant of men in former times, then thou hast made me wiser than the ancients recommends this observation to us, viz., the church of God is growing always, and one age sees more than an other. A dwarf upon a giant’s shoulders may see further than he. The ancients had their measures of light, so hath the present age: Joel ii. 28-30, ‘In the latter days’—meaning the times of the gospel, all that efflux of time which was between Christ’s ascension and his second coming, is called ‘the latter days’—‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions,’ &c. The knowledge which younger ones shall get under the New Testament is expressed by visions, dreams, and prophecy. These three were the ways of God’s revealing himself to the old prophets; therefore it implies that those very truths which the prophets and holy men of God had by visions, dreams, and prophecies, by such extra ordinary ways of revelation, will then be commonly known by preaching and catechising and other means of instruction in the church of God: and thus, ‘I have more understanding than the ancients.’ Succeeding ages may see more into the mind of God; therefore antiquity should not sway against truth, and former ages should not prescribe to succeeding, which grow up to a further latitude and increase in knowledge.
[2.] Rather let us take it, ‘I have more understanding than the ancients;’ that is, than many old men of the same age. They that are slow and dull of conceit, yet by long use they grow wise; and having smarted often, they learn by their own harms to become circumspect. But here is the excellency of the word, that it made a young man wiser than those that are men of age and experience. Youths well studied in God’s law may exceed men of great experience and knowledge in arts and sciences. True zeal and piety, and the defects of his age and want of experiences, are recompensed by the 16exactness of his rule that he takes to guide him; if he will but wholly subject and give up himself to the directions of this rule, he will not need much experience; he hath enough to guide him: ‘I understand more than the ancients: because I keep thy precepts.’ In which words you have—
1 The benefit that we get by God’s precepts, that is understanding.
2. This benefit is amplified by comparing it with the understanding that is gotten by age and experience, I understand more than the ancients.
3. The manner of obtaining this more excellent benefit, by a diligent heed and practice, ‘I understand more than the ancients.’ Why? Because I keep thy precepts. So that from hence three points are to be observed:—
1. That understanding gotten by the precepts of the word is better than understanding gotten by long experience. I observe this, because David doth not speak this so much to commend his own proficiency, as to set forth the exactness of our rule and goodness of the word of God; therefore this point lies couched here.
2. That young ones may sometimes have more of spiritual wisdom than those that are ancient. I observe that, because David instanceth in his own person, though young, that he exceeded many, not only of his equals, but of his seniors.
3. The way to increase in spiritual understanding is to be studious in practical holiness. I observe this, because the reason rendered was his own diligent practice, ‘I understand more than the ancients.’ Why? ‘Because I keep thy precepts.’
Doct. 1. That understanding gotten by the precepts of the word is better than understanding gotten by long experience. It is better in four regards:—
1. It is more exact. Our experience reacheth but to a few things, but the word of God reacheth to all cases that concern true happiness. The word is the result of God’s wisdom, who is the Ancient of days, therefore exceeds the wisdom of the ancients, or experience of any man, or all men. God is more ancient than they, sees all things that have been, are, and shall be, at one view and sight; and therefore, if he will give us a rule, certainly that is more than all our experience. Experience will show us the evils of this world, and give us some rules to escape it; but the word of God tells us of evils in the next, and that with more persuasiveness and evidence than if one came from the dead, and had been wallowing in those devouring flames that had been kindled in the other world, Luke xvi. 30, 31. There is more exactness and completeness in this rule than possibly can be in experience: 2 Tim. iii. 17, ‘The word is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.’ By the man of God is meant the teacher; the prophets are called men of God, and the public teacher is the man of God. If there be enough to furnish the teacher to every good work, surely there is enough to furnish the practiser. There is enough to furnish the maw of God, who is to consult not only for his own private necessity, but the necessities of others.17
2. As it is a more exact, so a more sure way of learning wisdom, whereas experience is more uncertain. Many have much experience, yet have not a heart to see and to gather wisdom from what they feel: Deut. xxix. 2, 3, ‘Ye have seen all that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt. Yet the Lord hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.’ They saw it, that is, had experience of it, yet not a heart to improve it: Ps. xlix. 13, ‘This their way is their folly, yet their posterity approve their sayings.’ The father gets an estate; when gotten, he thinks to enjoy it; God takes him off; their posterity live by their carnal maxims, and do not profit by their experience. Though they stand upon the graves of many that made a great bustle in the world to compass their worldly ends, yet they are never the wiser for all this. Therefore it is a great advantage to have a stated fixed rule to our hands, to have a rule of wisdom and principles given us by God himself, wherewith to steer and guide our course.
3. It is a safer and cheap way of learning, to learn by rule, than to come home by Weeping Gross, and to learn wisdom by our own smart. Experience is too expensive a way; and if we had nothing else to guide us, into how many thousand miseries should we run! how would a man’s life be exposed to inevitable hazards and soul-dangers! And if by chance he should get out of the snare (which is uncertain), yet the taint of former practices will remain in him a long time; therefore it is God’s mercy he will teach us by precept rather than by experience; that he doth not teach us, as Gideon taught the men of Succoth, by briars and thorns, but that we may learn wisdom at a cheaper rate. If we were only to know (as God saith of his people, Jer. ii. 19, ‘Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee’) when we had smarted for it, this were an expensive costly way; but if we will hearken to God’s precepts, all this smart and trouble and bitterness of affliction may be saved. Therefore the precepts of God are better.
4. The way by age and experience is a long way, and so for a long time all a man’s younger age must needs be miserable and foolish. Now here you may come betimes to be wise, by studying the word of God: Prov. i. 22, ‘How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity, and ye fools hate knowledge?’ It concerns a man not only to be wise at length, but to be wise betimes. The foolish virgins were wise too late, but never any were wise too soon. Therefore surely that is better which will make us wise betimes, as soon as we come to be exposed to dangers. In these respects he that applies himself to God’s precepts will get more wisdom than he that gets wisdom by age and experience; he hath it in a shorter way, a safer way, a less expensive way, and in a more certain and exacter way.
Use I. To reprove the folly of men that will not take God’s directions, but will be trying experiments at their own cost; as Solomon gave out his heart to a critical search, he would find where happiness and comfort was, and at length was forced to come home by Weeping Cross, to the fear of God and keeping of his commandments. This is the whole of man, he had tried pleasure, profit, and all things. The prodigal would be running out of his father’s house, and we all would 18be trying because we will not take God’s word. God hath given his word here to man, we need not search elsewhere; and it is a thousand to one that, when you are trying, that ever you recover yourselves out of the snare. Here or there a man returns; I found them, saith Solomon, but there are very few; and therefore, as the prophet saith, Jer xxxi 32 ‘How long wilt thou go about, O thou backsliding daughter?’ Why do you compass about? There is a shorter way to true happiness, if we had a heart to take it. Oh, but we must have our swing and our scope, and then come home by shame and sorrow: Mat xi. 28, ‘Come to me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden.’ Mark, they that come to Christ, come not only laden with their sins, but weary with vain pursuits. But this is the fashion of man, to be running about, to be wearying himself, and contract weariness and thirst, as the prophet speaks, Jer. ii. 13.
Use 2. To recommend the study of the word. O Christians! hath provided for us better than the heathens, who were forced to hunt up and down to find a spark of wisdom here and there; it is all brought home, and suited to your hands in the word of God; there is more wisdom to be gotten there for the guiding of your affairs and course of life in order to true happiness than by age and long experience you can possibly reach. Two ways doth this appear:—
1. Because the word doth sufficiently instruct us in our duty: Prov. ii. 9, ‘Then shalt thou understand righteousness, and judgment, and equity; yea, every good path.’ Then! when? When you give up yourselves to God’s direction, and take the law from his mouth, and walk in the way that is pointed out by his word and Spirit; you shall have enough to direct you in all your ways.
2. It doth warn us of all our dangers. It doth not only in the general call upon us ‘to watch,’ Mat. xiii. 37, and ‘walk circumspectly,’ Eph. v. 15, but it discovers all those deceits particularly whereby we may be surprised, diverted, and turned out of the way. There are snares in prosperity, snares in adversity; temptations you meet with in praying, trading, eating, drinking, in your public undertakings, and in your private converse; it shows your danger in all your ways, before you feel the smart of them. Therefore give up yourselves to God’s direction, reading, hearing, meditating, believing, and practising; read, hear it often, then the deceits of Satan will be laid open, and the snares of your own hearts. Christians! an exact rule is of little use if you do not consult it: Gal. vi. 16, ‘Peace and mercy be upon all them that walk according to this rule;’ that order their conversations exactly. The word signifies, that try their work as a carpenter doth by his square; they examine their actions by the word of God, what they are now a-doing, therefore consult with it often; then meditate of it, ponder it seriously: 2 Tim. ii. 7, ‘Consider what I say, and the Lord give thee understanding in all things.’ If we would have understanding by the word, there must be consideration. Man hath a discursive faculty to debate things with himself. Why! this is my duty. What would become of me if I step out of God’s way? Here is danger and a snare; what if I should run into it now it is laid before me? And then believe it surely: Heb. iv. 2, ‘The word profited not, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.’ Believe 19God upon his word without making trial. You hear much of living by sense and by faith; living by faith is when we bear up upon the bare word of God, and encourage ourselves in the Lord; but living by sense is a trying whether it be so or no; as they that will not believe hell shall feel hell, and they that will not believe the word of God shall smart for it: Heb. xi. 7, ‘Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark.’ It may be there were no preparations to the accomplishment of the curse and judgment; the word threatened, it is a thing not seen, yet he prepared an ark. When a man is walking in an unjust course, all things prosper for a-while, the misery the word threatens is unseen. Ay! but if you would grow wiser by the word than ‘men can by experience, you must look to the end of things: Ps. lxxiii. 17, ‘I went into the sanctuary of God, then understood I their end.’ And then practise it diligently. A young practiser hath more understanding than an ancient notionalist: Ps. cxi. 10, ‘A good understanding have all they that do his commandments.’ It is not they that are able to speak of things, and savour what the word requires, but they that do what they hear and discourse of, Gregory saith, we know no more than we practise, and we practise as we know; these two always go together. The word doth us no good unless there be a ready obedience; therefore this is wisdom, when we give up ourselves to God’s direction, whatever it cost us in the world.
Doct. 2. That young ones may have many times more of this wisdom than those that are ancient.
Divers instances there are. Joseph was very young, sold into Egypt about seventeen years of age; and when he was in Egypt, Ps. cv. 22, ‘He taught his senators wisdom,’ speaking of the senators of Egypt. With how much modesty did he carry himself when his mistress laid that snare! Isaac was young, and permitted himself to be offered to God as a sacrifice. Samuel was wise betimes: 1 Sam. ii. 26, it is said, ‘The child Samuel grew on, and was in favour both with the Lord and also with men.’ From his infancy he was dedicated to God, and God gives him wisdom to walk so that he was in favour with God and men; yea, God reveals himself to Samuel when he did not to Eli. David, when he was but fifteen years of age, fought with the lion and bear; and some while after that with Goliath, when he was a ruddy youth. Josiah, when he was but eight years old, administered the kingdom; before he was twelve, sets upon serious reformation. Jeremiah was sanctified from the womb, Jer. i. 5; and John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb, Luke i. 35. In the 32d of Job, the ancients, Job’s friends, are spoken of pleading their cause; wise young Elihu brings wiser words and better arguments than those that came to comfort Job. Solomon asked wisdom of God when he was young. Daniel and his companions, those four children as they are called: Dan. i. 17, 18, it is said, ‘The Lord filled them with wisdom above all the ancient Chaldeans.’ And Timothy, the apostle speaks of his youth, and bids him ‘flee youthful lusts;’ he was young, yet very knowing, and set over the church of God. Our Lord Jesus at twelve years old puzzled the doctors. In ecclesiastical stories we read of one who at fifteen years of age died with great constancy for religion in the midst of sundry tortures. 20Ignatius pleads the cause of the bishop when he was but a very youth, but a man powerful in doctrine and of great wisdom; and therefore he saith, he would have them not look to his appearing youth, but to the age of his mind, to his wisdom before God. And he saith, there are many that have nothing to show for their age but wrinkles and grey hairs. So there are many young ones m whom there is an excellent spirit; and in all ages there are instances given of youth of whom it may be said that they are wise beyond their years.
For the reasons, why many times young ones may have more wisdom than those that are aged: God doth so—
1. That he might show the freedom and sovereignty of his grace. He is not bound to years, nor to the ordinary course of nature, but can work according to his own pleasure, and give a greater measure of knowledge and understanding to those that are young, and otherwise green, than he will to those that are of great age and more experience in the world. You have this reason rendered: Job xxxii. 7-9, ‘I said, Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.’ There is the course: ‘But there is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding. Great men are not always wise, neither do the aged understand judgment.’ Though all men have reason and a spirit, yet the Spirit of God is a wind that blows where he lists. Those that exceed others in time, may come behind them in grace. He gives a greater measure many times of grace and knowledge, to show his freedom and sovereignty.
2. Sometimes to manifest the power of his grace, both in the person that is endued with it, and the power of his grace upon others. As to the person himself in whom this wisdom is found, when they are young, the Lord doth show he can subdue them by his Spirit, and make their prejudices vanish, enlarge their understanding, and overrule their heart: 1 John ii. 14, ‘I write to you, young men, because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one.’ In that slippery age, when lusts are boisterous, temptations most violent, and they usually uncircumspect and headstrong, and give up themselves to an ungoverned license, yet then can God subdue their hearts, and make them stand out against the snares of the devil. And then with respect to others, when by the foolish he will confound the wisdom of the wise, and blast the pride of man, and cast down all conceit in external privileges, and give young ones a more excellent spirit than the aged, as the apostle intimates such a thing, 1 Cor. i. 26, ‘Not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty.’ And our Lord: Mat. xi. 25, 26, ‘Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight.’ Usually God will do so, when he will punish the unfaithfulness of those that are in public place and office: ‘The law shall perish from the priest, and counsel from the ancient.’ God will not take the usual way and course, but will give his Spirit and graces of his Spirit to them, and deny it to those that should be builders.21
Now what use shall we make of this? There may be an abuse of such a point as this, and there may be a very good use.
To prevent the abuse—
1. This is not to be taken so but that there should be reverence shown to the aged, Job xxxii. 4-6. Elihu had waited till Job’s friends had spoken, because they were elder than he. It is an abuse of men of a proud persuasion of their own knowledge and learning to despise the aged, especially when they also have a competent measure of the same spirit. The scripture speaks of ‘Paul the aged;’ certainly there is a reverence due to grey hairs. And it argues a great disorder when the staff of government is broken, and the established order is overturned; when ‘a child shall behave himself proudly against the ancient,’ Isa. iii. 5, and young men shall peak up to the despising of their elders, Deut. xxviii.
2. This is not to be applied so as to prejudice the general case of consulting with the ancients, which was Rehoboam’s sin. Though God sometimes giveth wisdom to young men, yet the usual course is that, Job xxxii. 7, ‘I said, Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom.’ Certainly those that are old they are freer from passions, bettered by use and experience, and long continuance in study, have more advantages to add to their knowledge; therefore usually, though the bodily eyes be dim, the understanding may be most clear and sharp.
Use 2. The use in general is twofold—that young men should not be discouraged nor despised.
1. Not discouraged. We use to say Youth for strength and age for wisdom: but if they apply their hearts to religion and the study of God’s will, and with knowledge join practice, they may profit, and so as they may be a means to shame those that are elder, while they come behind them in many gracious endowments. They are not to be discouraged, as if it were too soon for them to enter into a strict course, or grow eminent therein; for God may glorify himself in their sobriety, temperance, chastity, zeal, courage, and the setting their strong and eager spirits against sin is a mighty honour to God: Ps. viii. 2, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength, because of thine enemies,’ &c. The graces of God in young ones do mightily turn to the praise of his glorious grace, and God is admired in them, and it is an honour and comfort to you, also: Eph. i. 12, ‘In Christ before me:’ it is a just upbraiding to elder people that lie longer in sin.
2. Nor yet should youth be despised: 1 Tim. iv. 12, ‘Let no man despise thy youth.’ God’s gifts should not be despised in any, nor stir up rancour. God may speak by them as he spoke by Samuel, and to Samuel when he spoke not to old Eli.
Having premised this, let me come to apply it particularly, though briefly. It conduceth then—
1. To the encouragement of youth to betake themselves to the ways of God. Oh, consider! let us begin with God betimes; do not spend your youth in vanity, but in a serious mortified course. This is your sharp and active time, when your spirits are fresh: therefore, if your watch is set right now, you may understand more than the ancients. 22Give up your hearts to a religious course; let not the devil feast upon the flower of your youth, and God be put off with the fragments and scraps of Satan’s table. While you are young take in with God; it is a great honour to God, and it will be an honour and an advantage to you. Mat. xxi. 15, 16, when the children cry ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ and the Pharisees reproved him for it, Christ approves of it, saying, ‘Have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?’ When young ones take kindly, it is a great blessing. Therefore is judgment hanging over this nation, that youth is so degenerated; whereas formerly they were addicted to religion, now they are addicted to all manner of lusts and vanity. Then it would be an honour and comfort to you; the sooner we begin with God, the more we glorify God, and the more praise to God: Eph. i. 12, ‘That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.’ They that get into Christ above22Qu. ‘before’?—ED. others, they glorify grace above others: Rom. xvi. 7, ‘They were in Christ before me.’ He that first gets into Christ, he hath the advantage of others; seniority in grace is a preferment, as well as in nature. And then it is a great advantage: Eccles. xii. 1, ‘Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth.’ When we begin betimes with God, we have more opportunity of serving and enjoying God than others have. A man should ‘bear the yoke in his youth,’ Lam. iii. If the bent of our inclinations were set right in our youth, it would prevent much, and hinder the growth of sin. Though a man cannot plant grace in his heart—that is the Lord’s own work—yet it keeps sin in, and prevents inveterate custom, for they will grow upon us; and therefore it makes for the. encouragement of you that they should sooner begin with God.
2. It makes for the encouragement of those that have the education of youth; as masters of families, parents, and the like. Do not say it is too soon for them to learn; no age is too soon for God: 2 Tim. iii. 15, ‘Thou hast from thy infancy learned the scriptures.’ When we suck in religion with our milk, it is a great advantage; those things we keep with us that we learn young: Prov. xxii. 6, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’ When the new vessel is seasoned with this precious liquor, it will keep the taste; tender twigs are bent this way when they are as wax, capable of any impression.
Use 3. Caution for young ones. If young men should obtain this benefit, to grow wiser than the ancients, notwithstanding this, yet they should learn to show reverence to the aged, Job xxxii. 4-6; and then to ascribe it to God. Saith he, ver. 8, ‘There is a spirit in man, and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.’ It is not the sharpness of our wit, but the inspiration of his grace; he is the author of all this wisdom that is wrought in us.
Use 4. To humble the aged, that have not made conscience of their time and ways, and therefore are more blockish than many children: Isa. lxv. 20, ‘There shall be no more an infant of days, nor an old man that hath not filled his days;’ old men that are ignorant of the mysteries of faith, after they have long sat under the word of God, and 23had many advantages to improve their youth: Heb. v. 12, ‘When for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.’ In this sense God is said to take away the understanding of the aged; that is, by a just judgment for their unfruitfulness and unprofitableness under the means of grace. They that are much younger than you are wise in comparison of you, when they excel you for ripeness in wisdom, for solidness and settledness in manners, in a course of godliness. Those old men that draw near to the grave before they have considered either the end wherefore they came into the world, or the state into which they shall be translated when they go out of it, those are children of one hundred years old, that have nothing to reckon age by, but wrinkles and grey hairs.
Doct. 3. That the way to increase in spiritual understanding is to be studious in practical holiness.
The word, that will give you understanding, will keep you out of all snares, sufficiently direct you to true happiness. But how shall we get it? Refer it to practice; practise what you know, and you shall know more: it must needs be so:—
1. Because these are such as have God’s promise: John vii. 17, ‘If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.’ They that make conscience of their ways, season their course in the fear of God, that take God’s direction with them, God will tell them, they shall know what doctrine is of God.
2. They have a greater clearness of mind and understanding, therefore must needs discern holy things. Why? Because they are freed from the clouds of lust and passion, which do insensibly blind and make them stay in generals: Mat. v. 8, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ Saith Nazianzen, Where there is purity there is brightness; where there is a pure heart, there is a great deal more clearness in the understanding. Reason and fancy are dark, unless a man have a command over his passions and affections; over his passions, of anger, fear, grief; and over his affections, of love and joy, and appetite towards sensual delights; unless he be able to govern these things, he will never truly discern the mind of God for the seasoning his course in living a holy life, That of the apostle is notable, 2 Peter i. 5, ‘Add to your faith, virtue; and to virtue, knowledge; and to knowledge, temperance.’ Unless they be able to govern their affections in the use of worldly delights, pleasures, and profits, they will never have this practical knowledge; and therefore the only way to know divine things, as Nazianzen well observes, is conscientiously to keep the commandments of God.’ If you would know the will of God, do not spend your time in heaping up notions, but framing your heart to obedience, governing your affections by the fear of God, and suiting your hearts to the word of God. Alas! those that seek knowledge out of ambition, curiosity, and vain ostentation, and lie under the power of vile affections, get but very little true spiritual light; they may have the understanding of teachers, but not the understanding to season them, and guide them in their communion with God.24
3. The more we practise, the more religion is exemplified and made sensible, so that we come to understand more of the sweetness of it; and, on the other hand, the more of difficulty is in it when there is nothing but bare notions and naked apprehensions. There we have a double advantage, an exact rule, and more experience of the sweetness of religion: Prov. iii. 17, ‘All her ways are ways of pleasantness.’ When we practise what we know, then we come to know the sweetness of entertaining communion with the Lord; and they know more of the difficulty of religion, they know where their hearts are more averse, and more in danger: whereas others that soar aloft in notions, and idle and lofty speculations, have not this experience.
4. They that practise, study things with more affection than others, mightily help the understanding. The more piety and zeal any man hath, the more will the Lord bless his studies. Paul profited in the Jewish religion above many of his equals. Why? Gal. i. 14, ‘Being more exceedingly zealous of the tradition of my fathers.’ A man that hath a zeal in anything will profit more than others; so he that hath a zeal for the things of God profits above others. A blunt iron, if red hot, will pierce through an inch board sooner than a cold tool, though never so sharp; so those that have blunt parts in comparison of others, yet if they have zeal and good affections, they will pierce deep into the mysteries of religion; they that have sharper parts, want the fire of zeal.
5. The more fruitful any grace is, the more doth it abound with us; and therefore when your knowledge is fruitful you will find it increased by laying out your talents: Col. i. 10, ‘Be fruitful in every good work, always increasing in the knowledge of God.’ First he presseth knowledge in order to practice, then he presseth practice in order to knowledge. Saving knowledge is the cause of practice, and it is the effect of it.
Use 1. Learn how much practice exceeds speculation, and whereby a man’s understanding is to be valued. Who is to be accounted a spiritual understanding man? Not he that hath finer notions, but he that is most skilful, and ‘ready to every good work.’ Do not content yourselves with a few fine opinions well dressed and curiously set forth, for all this is nothing to practice. It must needs be so, for practice is the end of knowledge. Now the end is always more worthy than the means; all the means have their loveliness from their end, and all the means have their order and measure from their end; that is, we must so use the means that we may come to such an end. Well, then, knowledge is worthy for practice sake, and only to be sought after in order to practice; not to soar aloft, but we are to be wise to sobriety; nor as wanton fancies, such as affect conceits of wit, and empty frothy notions; all should be suited to practice.
Use 2. Again, I might apply it, how ill they do that sever knowledge and a good conscience. When the age grew more knowing they were less moral in Seneca’s time; as it was so with them, so it is with Christianity many times. It was the saying of one, When I compare former times with ours, times of ignorance, darkness, superstition, they had more zeal, we have more light; where there was less knowledge there was more practice. Now we have notions like a carbuncle, 25which seems at a distance to be all fire, though it is quite cold; so we seem to have high floating notions concerning godliness; the head is stored with these, but hearts empty of grace, hands idle, less circumspect, more careless and loose, fruitless in good works. It shows us the cause why many, that have great dexterity in wit and excellent gifts in other things, yet are very stupid and blockish in the things o God. There is now a decay of gifts and knowledge. Why? Because professors do riot refer all to practice; and then ungodliness and less practice provokes the Lord to withdraw the light. God punished the heathens with spiritual blindness, because they did not improve their knowledge; and we may justly fear it may prove so with us, who are all head, little heart; much in speculations, little, very little in practical holiness.
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