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Question. What is our duty with respect to dark and difficult dispensations of God’s providence in the world?
Answer. In answer unto this question, three things are to be considered:— First. What are, in a Scripture sense, those things that make a season of providence dark and difficult? Secondly. What are the open signs of the coming and passing of such a season over us? And, Thirdly. What are our special duties in reference to our entering into, and passing through, such a season?
First. What are those things that make a season of providence dark and difficult?
I find four things in Scripture that make a dark season of providence; and, if I mistake not, they are all upon us:—
1. The long-continued prosperity of wicked men. This you are sensible is the most known case of all the Old Testament, Ps. lxxiii.; 393Jer. xii. 1–3; Hab. i. 4, 13, and many other places. The holy men of old did confess themselves in great perplexity at the long-continued prosperity of wicked men, and their long-continued prosperity in ways of wickedness. Give but this one farther circumstance to it, — the long-continued prosperity of wicked men in their wickedness, when the light shines round about them to convince them of that wickedness, and God speaks in and by the light of his word against them; that is a trial. When all things were wrapped up in darkness and idolatry, it is no wonder at the patience of God; but when things come in any place to that state that many continue prosperous in wickedness when the day is upon them that judges them, — it is a difficulty.
2. It is a difficult season of providence, when the church is continued under persecution and distress in a time of prayer, when they give themselves to prayer. The difficulty seems mentioned, Ps. lxxx. 4, “O Lord, how long wilt thou smoke against the prayer of thy people?” This made it hard, that God should afflict his church, and keep her under distresses, and suffer the furrows to be made long upon her back, and continue her under oppression from one season to another. There may be evident reason for that. But saith God, “Call upon me in the time of trouble, and I will hear.” God hath promised to hear the church: Will not God avenge the elect, that call upon him day and night? He will do it speedily. Now, when God seems to be angry with the prayers of his people, that is a difficult season: when they cry and shout, and God shuts out their prayers, that makes a dark providence.
As the other difficulty is evidently upon us, so I hope we have this difficulty to conflict withal, that the anger of God continues to smoke against the prayers of his people, as having stirred up many a blessed cry to himself; for there is a time when he will hear and answer their prayers.
3. It is a dark and difficult dispensation of providence, when the world and nations of the world are filled with confusion and blood, and no just reason appearing why it should be so. When our Saviour foretells a difficult season, Matt. xxiv. and Luke xxi., he says, “There shall be terrible times, such as never were; nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and there shall be wars, bloodshed, and earthquakes; and the very elect shall hardly escape.” Therefore God calls such a time, “a day of darkness,” yea, of “thick darkness,” Joel ii. 2, a dark, gloomy day. There is nothing to be seen in all the confusions that are in the world at this day, but that the frogs or unclean spirits are gone forth to stir up the lusts of men to make havoc of one another.
4. It adds greatly to the difficulty of a season, when we have no prospect whither things are tending, and what will be their issue.
394There are two ways whereby we may have a prospect of things that are in being:— by the eye of God’s providence, when we perceive which way that looks; and by Scripture rule. The truth is, we are in a time wherein no man can discern a fixed eye of providence looking this way or that way. What will be the issue of these things; whether it will be the deliverance of the church, or the desolation of the nation and straitening of the church; whether God will bring good out of them in this generation, or any other time, none knows: this makes it difficult. Ps. lxxiv. 9, We see not our signs, — have no tokens what God intends to do; “neither is there among us any to tell us how long.”
There is none of these things but make a season difficult, and providence dark; but when all of them concur together, they cannot but greatly heighten it: and I think they are all upon us.
Secondly. What are the open signs of the coming and passing of such a season over us?
There are three tokens or outward evidences of a difficult season. It is so, —
1. When God’s patience is abused. You know that place, Eccles. viii. 11, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” Things pass thus:— men fall into wickedness, great wickedness; their consciences fly in their faces, and they are afraid; the power of their lusts carries them into the same wickedness again, and their consciences begin to grow a little colder than they were: no evil comes of it, and judgment is not speedily executed; and so their hearts at last come to be wholly set to do evil. Hence others that look on say, “Here are men given up to all wickedness; surely judgment will speedily come upon these men.” Judgment doth not come, — God is patient; and so they themselves turn as wicked as the former. Abusing of God’s patience is an evident sign of a dispensation of the displeasure of God in his providence: and if ever it was upon any, it is upon us; and men learn it more and more every day. Every one talks of other men’s sins; and seeing no judgment falls upon them, they give up themselves to the same sins.
2. It is so when God’s warnings are despised: “When thine hand is lifted up, they will not see.” That is a difficult season; for, saith God, “The fire of thine adversaries shall consume thee.” Never had people more warnings than we have had; — warning in heaven above, and warning on the earth beneath; warnings by lesser judgments, and warnings by greater; and warnings by the word. God’s hand hath been lifted up; but who takes notice of it? Some despise it, and others talk of it as a tale to be told; and there is an end of it. Who sanctifies the name of God in all the warnings that are given us? 395“The Lord’s voice crieth unto the city,” Mic. vi. 9; but it is only “the man of wisdom,” of substance, that seeth the name of God in these his cries unto the city by his warnings from heaven and earth, signs and tokens, and great intimations of his displeasure.
3. An inclination in all sorts of people to security, and to take no notice of these things. I have spoken unto this business of security formerly, and I pray God warn you and myself of it; for I believe none of us are such strangers to our hearts, but we can say, that under all these warnings there is an inclination to security: if God did not prevent it, we should fall fast asleep under all the judgments that are round about us.
Any of these things shows that we are under a difficult dispensation of providence; but where all concur, — God be merciful to such a people! — it is the opening of the door to let out judgments to the uttermost.
Now if this be such a season, as I do verily believe we are all sensible it is, then, —
Thirdly, What shall we do? what are our special duties in reference to our entering into, and passing through, such a season?
I might speak unto the peculiar exercise of those graces which are required unto such a season; as faith, resignation to the will of God, readiness for his pleasure, waiting upon God, weanedness from the world, and the like; but I will only give you three or four duties, which are peculiarly hinted in such a season, and so have done:—
1. Our first duty is, that we should meet together, and confer about these things, Mal. iii. 16, 17. A good plan in difficult seasons, such as some of us have seen. The day of the Lord was coming that would burn as an oven: “Then they that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.” When was this? In a time of great judgment, and great sin, — “when they called the proud happy, and they that wrought wickedness were set up, and they that tempted God were even delivered;” that is, “appeared to be delivered.” It is the great duty of us all, as we have opportunity and occasion, to confer about these things; about the causes of them, — what ariseth from the profane, wicked world; what from a persecuting, idolatrous world; and (wherein we are more concerned) what from a professing generation; and see how we can sanctify the name of God in it. We might have as great advantages as any under the face of heaven for the discharge of this duty, if we did but make use of that “price” [Prov. xvii. 16] which 396God hath put into our hands; but if we are “fools,” and have no “heart” to improve it, the blame will be our own. You have opportunities for meeting and assembling: I fear there are cold affections in your private meetings; I wish there be not. It may be some thrive and grow; I hope so: and others are cold and backward; it is not a season for it. If God would help us to manage this church aright, and as we ought to do, there can be no greater advantage under such a season than we enjoy: but we want voluntary inspection; and the Lord lay it not to our charge we have deferred it so long. Much want of love might have been prevented, many duties furthered, and many evils removed, if we had come up to the light God hath given to us. But we are at a loss; and God knows we suffer under it, for want of discharging our duty.
That is the first thing, — to speak often one to another; — to sanctify the name of God by an humble, diligent inquiry into the causes of these dispensations, and preparation for these things.
2. The second duty in such a season is, for every one of us privately to inquire of Jesus Christ, in prayer and supplication, “What shall be the end of these things?” You have a great instance of it, Dan. viii. 13, 14, “Then I heard one saint speaking, and another saint said unto that certain saint which spake, How long shall be the vision concerning the daily sacrifice, and the transgression of desolation, to give both the sanctuary and the host to be trodden under foot? And he said unto me, Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” I suppose there is something of the ministry of angels in it; for this saint inquires, but the answer is made to Daniel, “One saint said unto another saint;” — “and he said unto me.” But the speaking saint was Jesus Christ. There was the Holy One that spake, which he calls פַּלְמוֹנִי, “a certain saint;” but the derivation of the word is, “One that revealeth secrets.”1111 See this meaning supported in Willet on Daniel. The highest modern authorities consider the word as equivalent to two words combined, — viz., פְּלֹני — an individual; אַלְמֹנִי— one who is nameless. — Ed. There was application made unto Jesus Christ, who is the revealer of secrets, to know how long. And you will find in the Scriptures, in difficult dispensations, that is very many times the request of the saints to God, “How long?” Dan. xii. 6, 8, “How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?” and, “O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?” There is an humble application by faith and prayer unto Jesus Christ, to know the mind of God in these things, that will bring satisfaction in to our souls. Do not leave yourselves to wander in your own thoughts and imaginations. It is impossible but we shall be debating things, and giving a rational account of them; but all will not bring us satisfaction. But let us go to Jesus Christ, and say to 397him, “O Lord, how long?” And he will give in secret satisfaction to our souls.
This is the second thing, — frequently confer about these things; and press Jesus Christ to give your souls satisfaction as to these dispensations And then, —
3. Another peculiar duty required in such a season is, to mourn for the sins that are in the world. That is recommended to us, Ezek. ix. When God had given commission unto the sword to slay both old and young, he spared only them that mourned for the abominations that were done in the land. We come short in our duty in that matter, — in [not] being affected with the sins of the worst of men. God being dishonoured, the Spirit of God blasphemed, the name of God reproached in them, we ought to mourn for their abominations. We mourn for the sins among God’s people; but we ought also to mourn for those abominations others are guilty of, — for their idolatries, murders, bloodshed, uncleanness, — for all the abominations that the lands about us, as well as our own, are filled with. It is our duty, in such a season, to mourn for them, or we do not sanctify the name of God, and shall not be found prepared for those difficult dispensations of God’s providence which are coming upon us.
4. The fourth and last peculiar duty which I shall mention is, to hide ourselves. And how shall we do that? The storm is coming; get an ark, as Noah did when the flood was coming upon the world: which is stated for a precedent of all judgments in future times. There are two things required to provide an ark, — fear and faith:—
(1.) Fear: “By faith Noah, being moved with fear, prepared an ark.” If he had not been moved with the fear of God’s judgments, he would never have provided an ark. It is a real complaint; we are not moved enough with the fear of God’s judgments. We talk of [as] dreadful things as can befall human nature, and expect them every day; but yet we are not moved with fear. “Yet were they not afraid,” saith Jeremiah, “nor rent their garments.” Nor do we do so. Habakkuk, upon the view of God’s judgments, was in another frame, chap. iii. 16, “When I heard,” saith he, “my belly trembled; my lips quivered at the voice: rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble.” This is the way to find rest in the day of God’s judgments. We are afraid of being esteemed cowards for fearing God’s judgments; and then, —
(2.) We cannot well provide an ark for ourselves, unless we be guided by faith, as well as moved by fear. “By faith, Noah prepared an ark.” How many things there are to encourage faith, you have heard; — the name, the properties of God, and the accomplishment of the promise of God. By virtue of all those properties, encourage faith in providing an ark.
398But you will say, “We are yet at a loss what this providing of an ark and hiding of ourselves is. ‘A prudent man foresees the evil, and hides himself.’ God calls us to enter into the chamber of providence, and hide ourselves till the indignation be overpast. If we knew what this was, we should apply ourselves unto it.” I will tell you what I think in one instance:— give no quiet to your minds, until, by some renewed act of faith, you have a strong and clear impression of the promises of God upon your hearts, and of your interest in them. If it be but one promise, it will prove an ark. If, under all these seasons, moved with fear, acted by faith, we can but get a renewed sense and pledge of our interest in any one promise of God, we have an ark over us that will endure, whatever the storm be. Think of it, and if nothing else occur to you, apply your minds to it, that you may not wander up and down at uncertainties; but endeavour to have a renewed pledge of your interest in some special promise of God, that it belongs unto you, and it will be an ark in every time of trouble that shall befall you.
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