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PREACHED AT WESTMINSTER-ABBEY,
FEBRUARY 22, 1684-5.
The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing of it is of the Lord.
I CANNOT think myself engaged from these words to discourse of lots, as to their nature, use, and allowableness; and that not only in matters of moment and business, but also of recreation; which latter is indeed impugned by some, though better defended by others; but I shall fix only upon the design of the words, which seems to be a declaration of a divine perfection by a signal instance; a proof of the exactness and universality of God’s providence from its influence upon a thing, of all others, the most casual and fortuitous, such as is the casting of lots.
A lot is properly a casual event, purposely applied to the determination of some doubtful thing.
Some there are, who utterly proscribe the name of chance, as a word of impious and profane signification; and indeed, if it be taken by us in that sense in which it was used by the heathen, so as to make any thing casual in respect of God himself, their exception ought justly to be admitted. But 202to say a thing is a chance, or casualty, as it relates to second causes, is not profaneness, but a great truth; as signifying no more, than that there are some events, besides the knowledge, purpose, expectation, and power of second agents. And for this very reason, because they are so, it is the royal prerogative of God himself, to have all these loose, uneven, fickle uncertainties under his disposal.
The subject therefore, that from hence we are naturally carried to the consideration of, is, the admirable extent of the divine Providence, in managing the most contingent passages of human affairs; which that we may the better treat of, we will consider the result of a lot:
I. In reference to men.
II. In reference to God.
I. For the first of these, if we consider it as relating to men, who suspend the decision of some dubious case upon it, so we shall find, that it naturally implies in it these two things:
1. Something future. 2. Something contingent.
From which two qualifications these two things also follow:
1. That it is absolutely out of the reach of man’s knowledge.
2. That it is equally out of his power.
This is most clear; for otherwise, why are men in such cases doubtful, and concerned, what the issue and result should be? for no man doubts of what he sees and knows; nor is solicitous about the event of that which he has in his power to dispose of to what event he pleases.
The light of man’s understanding is but a short, diminutive, contracted light, and looks not beyond 203the present: he knows nothing future, but as it has some kind of presence in the stable, constant manner of operation belonging to its cause; by virtue of which, we know, that if the fire continues for twenty years, it will certainly burn so long; and that there will be summer, winter, and harvest, in their respective seasons: but whether God will continue the world till to-morrow or no, we cannot know by any certain argument, either from the nature of God or of the world.
But when we look upon such things as relate to their immediate causes with a perfect indifference, so that in respect of them they equally may or may not be; human reason can then, at the best, but conjecture what will be. And in some things, as here in the casting of lots, a man cannot, upon any ground of reason, bring the event of them so much as under conjecture.
The choice of man’s will is indeed uncertain, be cause in many things free; but yet there are certain habits and principles in the soul, that have some kind of sway upon it, apt to bias it more one way than another; so that, upon the proposal of an agree able object, it may rationally be conjectured, that a man’s choice will rather incline him to accept than to refuse it. But when lots are shuffled together in a lap, urn, or pitcher, or a man blindfold casts a die, what reason in the world can he have to presume that he shall draw a white stone rather than a black, or throw an ace rather than a size? Now, if these things are thus out of the compass of a man’s knowledge, it will unavoidably follow, that they are also out of his power. For no man can govern or command that which he cannot possibly know; 204since to dispose of a thing implies both a knowledge of the thing to be disposed of, and of the end that it is to be disposed of to.
And thus we have seen how a contingent event baffles man’s knowledge, and evades his power. Let us now consider the same in respect of God; and so we shall find that it falls under,
1. A certain knowledge. And
2. A determining providence.
1. First of all then, the most casual event of things, as it stands related to God, is comprehended by a certain knowledge. God, by reason of his eternal, infinite, and indivisible nature, is, by one single act of duration, present to all the successive portions of time; and consequently to all things successively existing in them: which eternal, indivisible act of his existence, makes all futures actually present to him; and it is the presentiality of the object which founds the unerring certainty of his knowledge. For whatsoever is known, is some way or other present; and that which is present, cannot but be known by him who is omniscient.
But I shall not insist upon these speculations; which when they are most refined serve only to shew, how impossible it is for us to have a clear and explicit notion of that which is infinite. Let it suffice us in general to acknowledge and adore the vast compass of God’s omniscience. That it is a light shining into every dark corner, ripping up all secrets, and steadfastly grasping the greatest and most slippery uncertainties. As when we see the sun shine upon a river, though the waves of it move and roll this way and that way by the wind; yet for all their unsettledness, the sun strikes them with 205a direct and a certain beam. Look upon things of the most accidental and mutable nature, accidental in their production, and mutable in their continuance; yet God’s prescience of them is as certain in him, as the memory of them is or can be in us. He knows which way the lot and the die shall fall, as perfectly as if they were already cast. All futurities are naked before that all-seeing eye, the sight of which is no more hindered by distance of time, than the sight of an angel can be determined by distance of place.
2. As all contingencies are comprehended by a certain divine knowledge, so they are governed by as certain and steady a providence.
There is no wandering out of the reach of this, no slipping through the hands of omnipotence. God’s hand is as steady as his eye; and certainly thus to reduce contingency to method, instability and chance itself to an unfailing rule and order, argues such a mind as is fit to govern the world; and I am sure nothing less than such an one can.
Now God may be said to bring the greatest casualties under his providence upon a twofold account.
(1.) That he directs them to a certain end.
(2.) Oftentimes to very weighty and great ends.
(1.) And first of all, he directs them to a certain end.
Providence never shoots at rovers. There is an arrow that flies by night as well as by day, and God is the person that shoots it, who can aim then as well as in the day. Things are not left to an aequilibrium, to hover under an indifference whether they shall come to pass or not come to pass; but the whole train of events is laid beforehand, and 206all proceed by the rule and limit of an antecedent decree: for otherwise, who could manage the affairs of the world, and govern the dependance of one event upon another, if that event happened at random, and was not cast into a certain method and relation to some foregoing purpose to direct it?
The reason why men are so short and weak in governing is, because most things fall out to them accidentally, and come not into any compliance with their preconceived ends, but they are forced to comply subsequently, and to strike in with things as they fall out, by postliminious after-applications of them to their purposes, or by framing their purposes to them.
But now there is not the least thing that falls within the cognizance of man, but is directed by the counsel of God. Not an hair can fall from our head, nor a sparrow to the ground, without the will of our heavenly Father. Such an universal superintendency has the eye and hand of Providence over all, even the most minute and inconsiderable things.
Nay, and sinful actions too are overruled to a certain issue; even that horrid villainy of the crucifixion of our Saviour was not a thing left to the disposal of chance and uncertainty; but in Acts ii. 23. it is said of him, that he was delivered to the wicked hands of his murderers, by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God: for surely the Son of God could not die by chance, nor the greatest thing that ever came to pass in nature be left to an undeterminate event. Is it imaginable, that the great means of the world’s redemption should rest only in the number of possibilities, and hang so loose in respect 207of its futurition, as to leave the event in an equal poise, whether ever there should be such a thing or no? Certainly the actions and proceedings of wise men run in a much greater closeness and coherence with one another, than thus to derive at a casual issue, brought under no forecast or design. The pilot must intend some port before he steers his course, or he had as good leave his vessel to the direction of the winds and the government of the waves.
Those that suspend the purposes of God, and the resolves of an eternal mind upon the actions of the creature, and make God first wait and expect what the creature will do, (and then frame his decrees and counsels accordingly,) forget that he is the first cause of all things, and discourse most unphilosophically, absurdly, and unsuitably to the nature of an infinite being; whose influence in every motion must set the first wheel a going. He must still be the first agent, and what he does he must will and intend to do before he does it, and what he wills and intends once, he willed and intended from all eternity; it being grossly contrary to the very first notions we have of the infinite perfection of the divine nature, to state or suppose any new immanent act in God.
The Stoics indeed held a fatality, and a fixed unalterable course of events; but then they held also, that they fell out by a necessity emergent from and inherent in the things themselves, which God himself could not alter: so that they subjected God to the fatal chain of causes, whereas they should have resolved the necessity of all inferior events into the 208free determination of God himself; who executes necessarily that which he first purposed freely.
In a word, if we allow God to be the governor of the world, we cannot but grant, that he orders and disposes of all inferior events; and if we allow him to be a wise and a rational governor, he cannot but direct them to a certain end.
(2.) In the next place, he directs all these appearing casualties, not only to certain, but also to very great ends.
He that created something out of nothing, surely can raise great things out of small; and bring all the scattered and disordered passages of affairs into a great, beautiful, and exact frame. Now this over ruling, directing power of God may be considered,
First, In reference to societies, or united bodies of men.
Secondly, In reference to particular persons.
First. And first for societies. God and nature do not principally concern themselves in the preservation of particulars, but of kinds and companies. Accordingly, we must allow Providence to be more intent and solicitous about nations and governments than about any private interest whatsoever. Upon which account it must needs have a peculiar influence upon the erection, continuance, and dissolution of every society. Which great effects it is strange to consider, by what small, inconsiderable means they are oftentimes brought about, and those so wholly undesigned by such as are the immediate visible actors in them. Examples of this we have both in holy writ, and also in other stories.
And first for those of the former sort.209
Let us reflect upon that strange and unparalleled story of Joseph and his brethren; a story that seems to be made up of nothing else but chances and little contingencies, all directed to mighty ends. For was it not a mere chance that his father Jacob should send him to visit his brethren, just at that time that the Ishmaelites were to pass by that way, and so his unnatural brethren take occasion to sell him to them, and they to carry him into Egypt? and then that he should be cast into prison, and thereby brought at length to the knowledge of Pharaoh in that unlikely manner that he was? Yet by a joint connection of every one of these casual events, Providence served itself in the preservation of a kingdom from famine, and of the church, then circumscribed within the family of Jacob. Likewise by their sojourning in Egypt, he made way for their bondage there, and their bondage for. a glorious deliverance through those prodigious manifestations of the divine power, in the several plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians. It was hugely accidental, that Joash king of Israel, being commanded by the prophet to strike upon the ground, 2 Kings xiii. should strike no oftener than just three times; and yet we find there, that the fate of a kingdom depended upon it, and that his victories over Syria were concluded by that number. It was very casual, that the Levite and his concubine should linger so long, as to be forced to . take up their lodging at Gibeah, as we read in Judges xix. and yet we know what a villainy was occasioned by it, and what a civil war that drew after it, almost to the destruction of a whole tribe.210
And then for examples out of other histories, to hint a few of them.
Perhaps there is none more remarkable, than that passage about Alexander the great, in his famed expedition against Darius.
When in his march towards him, chancing to bathe himself in the river Cydnus, through the excessive coldness of those waters, he fell sick near unto death for three days; during which short space the Persian army had advanced itself into the strait passages of Cilicia: by which means Alexander with his small army was able to equal them under those disadvantages, and to fight and conquer them. Whereas had not this stop been given him by that accidental sickness, his great courage and promptness of mind would, beyond all doubt, have carried him directly forward to the enemy, till he had met him in the vast open plains of Persia, where his paucity and small numbers would have been contemptible, and the Persian multitudes formidable; and, in all likelihood of reason, victorious. So that this one little accident of that prince’s taking a fancy to bathe himself at that time, caused the interruption of his march, and that interruption gave occasion to that great victory that founded the third monarchy of the world. In like manner, how much of casualty was there in the preservation of Romulus, as soon as born exposed by his uncle, and took up and nourished by a shepherd! (for the story of the she-wolf is a fable.) And yet in that one accident was laid the foundation of the fourth universal monarchy.
How doubtful a case was it, whether Hannibal, 211after the battle of Cannae, should march directly to Rome, or divert into Campania! Certain it is, that there was more reason for the former; and he was a person that had sometimes the command of reason, as well as regiments: yet his reason deserted his conduct at that time; and by not going to Rome, he gave occasion to those recruits of the Roman strength that prevailed to the conquest of his country, and at length to the destruction of Carthage itself, one of the most puissant cities in the world.
And to descend to occurrences within our own nation. How many strange accidents concurred in the whole business of king Henry the eighth’s divorce! yet we see Providence directed it and them to an entire change of the affairs and state of the whole kingdom. And surely, there could not be a greater chance than that which brought to light the powder treason, when Providence (as it were) snatched a king and kingdom out of the very jaws of death, only by the mistake of a word in the direction of a letter.
But of all cases, in which little casualties produce great and strange effects, the chief is in war; upon the issues of which hangs the fortune of states and kingdoms.
Caesar, I am sure, whose great sagacity and conduct put his success as much out of the power of chance, as human reason could well do; yet upon occasion of a notable experiment that had like to have lost him his whole army at Dyrrachium, tells us the power of it in the third book of his Commentaries, De Bello Civili: “Fortuna quae plurimum potest, cum in aliis rebus, tum praecipue in bello, in parvis momentis magnas rerum mutationes 212efficit.” Nay, and a greater than Caesar, even the Spirit of God himself, in Eccles. vi. 11, expressly declares, that the battle is not always to the strong. So that upon this account every warrior may in some sense be said to be a soldier of fortune; and the best commanders to have a kind of lottery for their work, as, amongst us, they have for their reward. For how often have whole armies been routed by a little mistake, or a sudden fear raised in the soldiers minds, upon some trivial ground or occasion!
Sometimes the misunderstanding of a word has scattered and destroyed those who have been even in possession of victory, and wholly turned the fortune of the day. A spark of fire or an unexpected gust of wind may ruin a navy. And sometimes a false, senseless report has spread so far, and sunk so deep into the people’s minds, as to cause a tumult, and that tumult a rebellion, and that rebellion has ended in the subversion of a government.
And in the late war between the king and some of his rebel subjects, has it not sometimes been at an even cast, whether his army should march this way or that way? Whereas had it took that way, which actually it did not, things afterwards so fell out, that in very high probability of reason, it must have met with such success, as would have put an happy issue to that wretched war, and thereby have continued the crown upon that blessed prince’s head, and his head upon his shoulders. Upon supposal of which event, most of those sad and strange alterations that have since happened would have been prevented; the ruin of many honest men hindered, the punishment of many great villains hastened, and the preferment of greater spoiled.213
Many passages happen in the world, much like that little cloud in 1 Kings xviii. that appeared at first to Elijah’s servant, no bigger than a man’s hand, but presently after grew and spread, and blackened the face of the whole heaven, and then discharged itself in thunder and rain, and a mighty tempest. So these accidents, when they first happen, seem but small and contemptible; but by degrees they branch out, and widen themselves into such a numerous train of mischievous consequences, one drawing after it another, by a continued dependence and multiplication., that the plague becomes victorious and universal, and personal miscarriage determines in a national calamity.
For who, that should view the small, despicable beginnings of some things and persons at first, could imagine or prognosticate those vast and stupendous increases of fortune that have afterwards followed them?
Who, that had looked upon Agathocles first hand ling the clay, and making pots under his father, and afterwards turning robber, could have thought, that from such a condition, he should come to be king of Sicily?
Who, that had seen Masianello, a poor fisherman, with his red cap and his angle, could have reckoned it possible to see such a pitiful thing, within a week after, shining in his cloth of gold, and with a word or a nod absolutely commanding the whole city of Naples?
And who, that had beheld such a bankrupt, beggarly fellow as Cromwell, first entering the parliament house with a threadbare torn cloak, and a 214greasy hat, (and perhaps neither of them paid for,) could have suspected that in the space of so few years, he should, by the murder of one king, and the banishment of another, ascend the throne, be invested in the royal robes, and want nothing of the state of a king, but the changing of his hat into a crown?
It is (as it were) the sport of the Almighty, thus to baffle and confound the sons of men by such events, as both cross the methods of their actings, and surpass the measure of their expectations. For according to both these, men still suppose a gradual natural progress of things; as that from great, things and persons should grow greater, till at length, by many steps and ascents, they come to be at greatest; not considering, that when Providence designs strange and mighty changes, it gives men wings instead of legs; and instead of climbing lei surely, makes them at once fly to the top and height of greatness and power. So that the world about them (looking up to those illustrious upstarts) scarce knows who or whence they were, nor they themselves where they are.
It were infinite to insist upon particular instances; histories are full of them, and experience seals to the truth of history.
In the next place, let us consider to what great purposes God directs these little casualties, with reference to particular persons; and those either public or private.
1. And first for public persons, as princes. Was it not a mere accident, that Pharaoh’s daughter met with Moses? Yet it was a means to bring him up in 215the Egyptian court, then the school of all arts and policy, and so to fit him for that great and arduous employment that God designed him to. For see upon what little hinges that great affair turned; for had either the child been cast out, or Pharaoh’s daughter come down to the river but an hour sooner or later; or had that little vessel not been cast by the parents, or carried by the water, into that very place where it was, in all likelihood the child must have undergone the common lot of the other Hebrew children, and been either starved or drowned; or, however, not advanced to such a peculiar height and happiness of condition. That Octavius Caesar should shift his tent (which he had never used to do before) just that very night that it happened to be took by the enemy, was a mere casualty; yet such an one as preserved a person who lived to establish a total alteration of government in the imperial city of the world.
But we need not go far for a prime preserved by as strange a series of little contingencies, as ever were managed by the art of Providence to so great a purpose.
There was but an hair’s breadth between him and certain destruction for the space of many days. For had the rebel forces pone one way rather than another, or come but a little sooner to his hiding-place, or but mistrusted something which they passed over, (all which things might very easily have happened;) we had not seen this face of things at this day; but rebellion had been still enthroned, perjury and cruelty had reigned, majesty had been proscribed, religion extinguished, and both church and 216state throughly reformed and ruined with confusions, massacres, and a total desolation.
On the contrary, when Providence designs judgment or destruction to a prince, nobody knows by what little, unusual, unregarded means the fatal blow shall reach him. If Ahab be designed for death, though a soldier in the enemy’s army draws a bow at a venture; yet the sure, unerring directions of Providence shall carry it in a direct course to his heart, and there lodge the revenge of Heaven.
An old woman shall cast down a stone from a wall, and God shall send it to the head of Abimelech, and so sacrifice a king in the very head of his army.
How many warnings had Julius Caesar of the fatal ides of March! Whereupon sometimes he resolved not to go to the senate, and sometimes again he would go; and when at length he did go, in his very passage thither, one put into his hand a note of the whole conspiracy against him, together with all the names of the conspirators, desiring him to read it forthwith, and to remember the giver of it as long as he lived. But continual salutes and addresses entertaining him all the way, kept him from saving so great a life, but with one glance of his eye upon the paper; till he came to the fatal place where he was stabbed, and died with the very means of preventing death in his hand.
Henry the second of France, by a splinter, unhappily thrust into his eye at a solemn justing, was despatched and sent out of the world, by a sad, but very accidental death.
In a word, God has many ways to reap down the grandees of the earth; an arrow, a bullet, a tile, a 217stone from an house, is enough to do it: and besides all these ways, sometimes, when he intends to bereave the world of a prince or an illustrious person, he may cast him upon a bold, self-opinioned physician, worse than his distemper, who shall dose and bleed, and kill him secundum artem, and make a shift to cure him into his grave.
In the last place we will consider this directing influence of God, with reference to private persons; and that, as touching things of nearest concernment to them. As,
1. Their lives.
2. Their health. .
3. Their reputation.
4. Their friendships. And,
5. And lastly, their employments or preferments. And first for men’s lives. Though these are things for which nature knows no price or ransom; yet I appeal to universal experience, whether they have not, in many men, hung oftentimes upon a very slender thread, and the distance between them and death been very nice, and the escape wonderful. There have been some, who upon a slight, and perhaps groundless occasion, have gone out of a ship, or house, and the ship has sunk, and the house has fell immediately after their departure.
He that, in a great wind, suspecting the strength of his house, betook himself to his orchard, and walking there, was knocked on the head by a tree, falling through the fury of a sudden gust, wanted but the advance of one or two steps, to have put him out of the way of that mortal blow.
He that being subject to an apoplexy, used still to carry his remedy about him; but, upon a time, 218shifting his clothes, and not taking that with him, chanced, upon that very day, to be surprised with a fit, and to die in it, certainly owed his death to a mere accident, to a little inadvertency and failure of memory. But not to recount too many particulars: may not every soldier, that comes alive out of the battle, pass for a living monument of a benign chance, and a happy providence? For was he not in the nearest neighbourhood to death? And might not the bullet, that perhaps razed his cheek, have as easily gone into his head? And the sword that glanced upon his arm, with a little diversion have found the way to his heart? But the workings of Providence are marvellous, and the methods secret and untraceable, by which it disposes of the lives of men.
In like manner, for men’s health, it is no less wonderful to consider to what strange casualties many sick persons oftentimes owe their recovery. Perhaps an unusual draught or morsel, or some accidental violence of motion, has removed that malady, that for many years has baffled the skill of all physicians. So that, in effect,, he is the best physician that has the best luck; he prescribes, but it is chance that cures.
That person that (being provoked by excessive pain) thrust his dagger into his body, and thereby, instead of reaching his vitals, opened an imposthume, the unknown cause of all his pain, and so stabbed himself into perfect health and ease, surely had great reason to acknowledge Chance for his chirurgeon, and Providence for the guider of his hand.
And then also for men’s reputation; and that either in point of wisdom or of wit. There is hardly 219any thing, which (for the most part) falls under a greater chance. If a man succeeds in any attempt, though undertook with never so much folly and rashness, his success shall vouch him a politician; and good luck shall pass for deep contrivance: for give any one fortune, and he shall be thought a wise man, in spite of his heart; nay, and of his head too. On the contrary, be a design never so artificially laid, and spun in the finest thread of policy, if it chances to be defeated by some cross accident, the man is then run down by an universal vogue; his counsels are derided, his prudence questioned, and his person despised.
Ahithophel was as great an oracle, and gave as good counsel to Absalom, as ever he had given to David; but not having the good luck to be believed, and thereupon losing his former repute, he thought it high time to hang himself. And, on the other side, there have been some, who for several years have been fools with tolerable good reputation, and never discovered themselves to be so, till at length they attempted to be knaves also, but wanted art and dexterity.
And as the repute of wisdom, so that of wit also, is very casual. Sometimes a lucky saying, or a pertinent reply, has procured an esteem of wit, to persons otherwise very shallow, and no ways accustomed to utter such things by any standing ability of mind; so that if such an one should have the ill hap at any time to strike a man dead with a smart saying, it ought, in all reason and conscience, to be judged but a chance-medley: the poor man (God knows) being no way guilty of any design of wit.
Nay, even where there is a real stock of wit, yet 220the wittiest sayings and sentences will be found in a great measure the issues of chance, and nothing else but so many lucky hits of a roving fancy.
For consult the acutest poets and speakers, and they will confess that their quickest and most admired conceptions were such as darted into their minds like sudden flashes of lightning, they knew not how, nor whence; and not by any certain consequence or dependence of one thought upon another, as it is in matters of ratiocination.
Moreover, sometimes a man’s reputation rises or falls as his memory serves him in a performance; and yet there is nothing more fickle, slippery, and less under command, than this faculty. So that many, having used their utmost diligence to secure a faithful retention of the things or words committed to it, yet after all cannot certainly know where it will trip, and fail them. Any sudden diversion of the spirits, or the justling in of a transient thought, is able to deface those little images of things; and so breaking the train that was laid in the mind, to leave a man in the lurch. And for the other part of memory, called reminiscence, which is the retrieving of a thing, at present forgot, or but confusedly remembered, by setting the mind to hunt over all its notions, and to ransack every little cell of the brain. While it is thus busied, how accidentally oftentimes does the thing sought for offer itself to the mind! And by what small, petit hints, does the mind catch hold of, and recover a vanishing notion!
In short, though wit and learning are certain and habitual perfections of the mind, yet the declaration of them (which alone brings the repute) is subject to a thousand hazards. So that every wit runs something 221the same risk with the astrologer, who, if his predictions come to pass, is cried up to the stars from whence he pretends to draw them; but if not, the astrologer himself grows more out of date than his almanack.
And then, in the fourth place, for the friendships or enmities that a man contracts in the world; than which surely there is nothing that has a more direct and potent influence upon the whole course of a man’s life, whether as to happiness or misery; yet chance has the ruling stroke in them all.
A man by mere peradventure lights into company, possibly is driven into an house by a shower of rain for present shelter, and there begins an acquaintance with a person; which acquaintance and endearment grows and continues, even when relations fail, and perhaps proves the support of his mind and of his fortunes to his dying day.
And the like holds in enmities, which come much more easily than the other. A word unadvisedly spoken on the one side, or misunderstood on the other; any the least surmise of neglect; sometimes a bare gesture; nay, the very unsuitableness of one man’s aspect to another man’s fancy, has raised such an aversion to him, as in time has produced a perfect hatred of him; and that so strong and so tenacious, that it has never left vexing and troubling him, till perhaps at length it has worried him to his grave; yea, and after death too, has pursued him in his surviving shadow, exercising the same tyranny upon his very name and memory.
It is hard to please men of some tempers, who in deed hardly know what will please themselves; and yet if a man does not please them, which it is ten 222thousand to one if he does, if they can but have power equal to their malice, (as sometimes, to plague the world, God lets them have,) such an one must expect all the mischief that power and spite, lighting upon a base mind, can possibly do him.
In the last place. As for men’s employments and preferments, every man that sets forth into the world, comes into a great lottery, and draws some one certain profession to act, and live by, but knows not the fortune that will attend him in it.
One man perhaps proves miserable in the study of the law, who might have flourished in that of physic or divinity. Another runs his head against the pulpit, who might have been very serviceable to his country at the plough. And a third proves a very dull and heavy philosopher, who possibly would have made a good mechanic, and have done well enough at the useful philosophy of the spade or the anvil.
Now let this man reflect upon the time when all these several callings and professions were equally offered to his choice, and consider how indifferent it was once for him to have fixed upon any one of them, and what little accidents and considerations cast the balance of his choice, rather one way than the other; and he will find how easily chance may throw a man upon a profession, which all his diligence cannot make him fit for.
And then for the preferments of the world, he that would reckon up all the accidents that they depend upon, may as well undertake to count the sands, or to sum up infinity; so that greatness, as well as an estate, may, upon this account, be properly called a man’s fortune, forasmuch as no man can state either 223the acquisition or preservation of it upon any certain rules: every man, as well as the merchant, being here truly an adventurer. For the ways by which it is obtained are various, and frequently contrary: one man, by sneaking and flattering, comes to riches and honour, (where it is in the power of fools to bestow them,) upon observation whereof, an other presently thinks to arrive to the same greatness by the very same means; but striving like the ass, to court his master, just as the spaniel had done before him, instead of being stroked and made much of, he is only rated off and cudgelled for all his courtship.
The source of men’s preferments is most commonly the will, humour, and fancy of persons in power; whereupon, when a prince or grandee manifests a liking to such a thing, such an art, or such a pleasure, men generally set about to make themselves considerable for such things, and thereby, through his favour, to advance themselves; and at length, when they have spent their whole time in them, and so are become fit for nothing else, that prince or grandee perhaps dies, and another succeeds him, quite of a different disposition, and inclining him to be pleased with quite different things. Whereupon these men’s hopes, studies, and expectations, are wholly at an end. And besides, though the grandee whom they build upon should not die, or quit the stage, yet the same person does not always like the same things. For age may alter his constitution, humour, or appetite; or the circumstances of his affairs may put him upon different courses and counsels; every one of which accidents wholly alters the road to preferment. So that those who travel that 224road must be (like highwaymen) very dexterous in shifting the way upon every turn; and yet their very doing so sometimes proves the means of their being found out, understood, and abhorred; and for this very cause, that they are ready to do any thing, are justly thought fit to be preferred to nothing.
Caesar Borgia (base son to pope Alexander VI.) used to boast to his friend Machiavel, that he had contrived his affairs and greatness into such a posture of firmness, that whether his holy father lived or died, they could not but be secure. If he lived, there could be no doubt of them; and if he died,, he laid his interest so as to overrule the next election as he pleased. But all this while, the politician never thought, or considered, that he might in the mean time fall dangerously sick, and that sickness necessitate his removal from the court, and during that his absence, his father die, and so his interest decay, and his mortal enemy be chosen to the papacy, as indeed it fell out. So that for all his exact plot, down was he cast from all his greatness, and forced to end his days in a mean condition: as it is pity but all such politic opiniators should.
Upon much the like account, we find it once said of an eminent cardinal, by reason of his great and apparent likelihood to step into St. Peter’s chair, that in two conclaves he went in pope, and came out again cardinal.
So much has chance the casting voice in the disposal of all the great things of the world. That which men call merit, is a mere nothing. For even when persons of the greatest worth and merit are preferred, it is not their merit, but their fortune that prefers them. And then, for that other so much admired 225thing called policy, it is but little better. For when men have busied themselves, and beat their brains never so much, the whole result both of their counsels and their fortunes is still at the mercy of an accident. And therefore, whosoever that man was, that said, that he had rather have a grain of fortune than a pound of wisdom, as to the things of this life, spoke nothing but the voice of wisdom and great experience.
And now I am far from affirming, that I have recounted all, or indeed the hundredth part of those casualties of human life, that may display the full compass of divine Providence; but surely, I have reckoned up so many, as sufficiently enforce the necessity of our reliance upon it, and that in opposition to two extremes, that men are usually apt to fall into.
1. Too much confidence and presumption in a prosperous estate. David, after his deliverances from Saul, and his victories over all his enemies round about him, in Psalm xxx. ver. 7, 8, confesses, that this his prosperity had raised him to such a pitch of confidence, as to make him say, that lie should never be moved, God of his favour had made his hill so strong: but presently he adds, almost in the very same breath, Thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.
The sun shines in his full brightness but the very moment before he passes under a cloud. Who knows what a day, what an hour, nay, what a minute may bring forth! He who builds upon the present, builds upon the narrow compass of a point; and where the foundation is so narrow, the superstructure cannot be high, and strong too.226
Is a man confident of his present health and strength? Why, an unwholesome blast of air, a cold, or a surfeit took by chance, may shake in pieces his hardy fabric; and (in spite of all his youth and vigour) send him, in the very flower of his years, pining and drooping, to his long home. Nay, he can not with any assurance, so much as step out of his doors, but (unless God commissions his protecting angel to bear him up in his hands) he may dash his foot against a stone, and fall, and in that fall breathe his last.
Or is a man confident of his estate, wealth, and power? Why, let him read of those strange, unexpected dissolutions of the great monarchies and governments of the world. Governments that once made such a noise, and looked so big in the eyes of mankind, as being founded upon the deepest counsels and the strongest force; and yet, by some slight miscarriage or cross accident, (which let in ruin and desolation upon them at first,) are now so utterly extinct, that nothing remains of them but a name, nor are there the least signs or traces of them to be found, but only in story. When, I say, he shall have well reflected upon all this, let him see what security he can promise himself, in his own little personal domestic concerns, which at the best have but the protection of the laws, to guard and defend them, which, God knows, are far from being able to defend themselves.
No man can rationally account himself secure, unless he could command all the chances of the world: but how should he command them, when he cannot so much as number them? Possibilities are as infinite as God’s power; and whatsoever may come to 227pass, no man can certainly conclude shall not come to pass.
People forget how little it is that they know, and how much less it is that they can do, when they grow confident upon any present state of things.
There is no one enjoyment that a man pleases himself in, but is liable to be lost by ten thousand accidents, wholly out of all mortal power either to foresee or to prevent. Reason allows none to be confident, but Him only who governs the world, who knows all things, and can do all things, and therefore can neither be surprised nor overpowered.
2. The other extreme, which these considerations should arm the heart of man against, is, utter despondency of mind in a time of pressing adversity.
As he who presumes, steps into the throne of God; so he that despairs, limits an infinite power to a finite apprehension, and measures Providence by his own little, contracted model. But the contrivances of Heaven are as much above our politics, as beyond our arithmetic.
Of those many millions of casualties, which we are not aware of, there is hardly one, but God can make an instrument of our deliverance. And most men, who are at length delivered from any great distress indeed, find that they are so, by ways that they never thought of; ways above or beside their imagination.
And therefore let no man, who owns the belief of a providence, grow desperate or forlorn under any calamity or strait whatsoever; but compose the anguish of his thoughts, and rest his amazed spirits upon this one consideration, that he knows not which way the lot may fall, or what may happen to him; 228he comprehends not those strange unaccountable methods, by which Providence may dispose of him.
In a word. To sum up all the foregoing discourse: since the interest of governments and nations, of princes and private persons, and that, both as to life and health, reputation and honour, friendships and enmities, employments and preferments, (notwithstanding all the contrivance and power that human nature can exert about them,) remain so wholly contingent, as to us; surely all the reason of mankind cannot suggest any solid ground of satisfaction, but in making that God our friend, who is the sole and absolute disposer of all these things: and in carrying a conscience so clear towards him, as may encourage us with confidence to cast ourselves upon him: and in all casualties still to promise ourselves the best events from his providence, to whom no thing is casual: who constantly wills the truest happiness to those that trust in him, and works all things according to the counsel of that blessed will.
To whom be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.229
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