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PREACHED AT WESTMINSTER-ABBEY,
TWENTY-NINTH OF MAY, 1672;
BEING THE ANNIVERSARY FESTIVAL APPOINTED BY ACT OF PARLIAMENT, FOR THE HAPPY RESTORATION OF KING CHARLES II.
—How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
THAT which first brought both a present guilt, and entailed a future curse upon mankind, was an inordinate desire of knowledge. And from the fall of Adam to this very day, this fatal itch has stuck so close to our nature, that every one of his succeeding race is infinitely eager, inquisitive, and desirous to know and judge, where he is called only to adore and to obey. By which we see, that it was this restless appetite of knowing, which made the earliest and boldest encroachment upon the divine prerogative; setting man up, not only as a rebel, but also as a rival to his Maker, and from behaving himself as his creature, encouraging him to become his competitor. For there appears not the least inducement to the breach of this command of God, from any pretence of the unreasonableness or difficulty of it, but merely because it was a command; it obliged, 2 and therefore was to be broken or shook off. So that upon the whole matter, it was not so much the taking beauties of the forbidden tree, as its being for bidden, which stirred the unruly humour, gave relish to the fruit, and force to the temptation. And could there be an higher and more direct defiance of the Almighty, under the peculiar character of Lord and Governor of the universe, than to have the very reason of his subject’s obedience turned into an argument for his rebellion? to see a pitiful, short sighted creature prying into the reserves of Heaven; and one who was but dust in his constitution, and of a day’s standing at most, aspiring to an equality with his Creator in one of his divinest perfections? All know, that even in human governments there is hardly any one of them but must have its arcana imperii, its hidden rules and maxims, which the subjects of it must by no means be acquainted with, but yield to their force, without examining their contrivance, (the very ignorance of them being the chief cause that the generality are governed by them.) And if so, how much a more unpardonable absurdity, as well as insolence, must it needs be for those who commonly stand at so great a distance, even from the little intrigues and mysteries of human policies, to say, like their grand exemplar and counsellor Lucifer, I will ascend and look into the secrets of the Most High, rip up and unravel all the designs and arts of Providence in the government of the world; as if, forsooth, they were of the cabinet to the Almighty, were privy to all his decrees, and, in a word, held intelligence with his omniscience. For no less than all this was or could be implied in our first parents affecting to be as gods; the main 3thing which, by the advice of the serpent, they were then so set upon and so furiously desirous of.
Whereas on the contrary, that great repository of all truth and wisdom, the scripture, is in nothing more full and frequent, than in representing the in finite transcendency of God’s ways and actings above all created intellectuals. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, says David, Psalm cxxxix. 6. And, Thy judgments are a great deep, Psalm xxxvi. 6. And, God has put darkness under his feet, Psalm xviii. 9. And, His ways are in the great waters, and his footsteps are not known, Psalm lxxvii. 19. In all which passages could any thing be expressed with more life and emphasis? For he who treads upon the waters leaves no impression; and he who walks in the dark falls under no inspection. There is still a cloud, a thick cloud, about God’s greatest and most important works; and a cloud, we know, is both high and dark, it surpasses our reach, and determines our sight; we may look upon it, but it is impossible for us to look through it. In a word, if we consult either the reports of scripture or of our own experience, about the wonderful, amazing events of Providence, especially in the setting up or pulling down of kings and kingdoms, transplanting churches, destroying nations, and the like; we shall find the result of our closest reasonings and most exact inquiries concluding in an humble nonplus, and silent submission to the overpowering truth of this exclamation of our apostle; How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
The glorious subject of this day’s commemoration is an eminent and bright instance of the methods of Providence surpassing all human apprehension or 4 conceit: and as it is a very great one itself, so was it brought forth by a numerous train of other providential passages, altogether as great, whether we respect the quality of the actions themselves, or the strangeness of the effects. My business therefore shall be, from so notable a theme, to read men a lecture of humility; and that in a case in which they seldom do (and yet have all the reason in the world to) shew it; to wit, in taking a due estimate of the proceedings of Almighty God, especially in his winding and turning about the great affairs of states and nations; and therein to demonstrate, what weak, purblind expositors we are of what is above us; how unfit to arraign and pass sentence upon that Providence that overrules us in all our concerns; and in a word, to turn interpreters where we understand not the original. It is, no doubt, an easy matter to gaze upon the surface and outside of things. But few who see the hand of the clock or dial can give a reason of its motion; nor can the case of the watch (though never so finely wrought) be any rule to judge of the artificial composure and exact order of the work within.
Now he who would pass a clear, firm, and thorough judgment upon any action, must be able to give an account of these two things belonging to it; viz.
1. From what cause or reason it proceeds.
2. To what event or issue it tends.
In both which respects I shall demonstrate, that the sublimest and most advanced wisdom of man is an incompetent judge of the ways of God. And,
1. For the reason or cause of them. Men are so far from judging rightly of the passages of Providence, 5that the causes they assign of them are for the most part false, but always imperfect.
And first for the false ones; these (or some of them at least) are such as follow.
1. That the prosperous and happy in this life are the proper objects of God’s love; and the miserable and calamitous, of his hatred: a blessed doctrine doubtless, and exactly according to that of Mahomet, even the very marrow and spirit of the Alcoran, and the prime and topping article, or rather sum total of the Ottoman divinity. But such, we see, is the natural aptness of men to bring down God to their own measures, and to ascribe only those methods to him, which they first transcribe and copy from themselves. For they know well enough how they treat one another, and that all the hostility of a man’s actions presupposes and results from a much greater in his affections; so that the hand is never lifted up to strike, but as it is commanded by the heart, that hates. And accordingly let any notable calamity or distress befall any one, (and especially if maligned by us,) and then how naturally do there start up, in the minds of such Mahometan Christians, such reasonings as these: “Can so beneficent a being as God be imagined to torment in love? to kill with kindness? Or does the noise of his blows and the sounding of his bowels speak the same thing?” No, by no means; and therefore, when any one chances to be cut off by the stroke of some severe providence, no sooner has God done execution, but the malice of men presently passes sentence, and, by a preposterous proceeding, the man is first executed, and afterwards condemned, and so dies not for being a criminal, but passes for a criminal for being put to death.6
Many remarkable instances of which have been in the late times of confusion; in which, when a violent faction had, by perjury and rebellion, and success in both, rode triumphant over the best of kings, the loyalest of subjects, and the justest of causes that was ever fought for; how then was the black decree of reprobation opened and let fly at them, both from pulpit and from press, and how were all the vials of wrath in the Revelation poured down upon their heads! Every mother’s son of them was a reprobate and a castaway, and none to hope for the least favour hereafter, who had not Cromwell or Bradshaw for his friend here. And as for the poor, oppressed episcopal clergy of our church, I myself, in those blessed times, have heard one of their leading doctors, or rather pulpit officers, thus raving against them, in a sermon in the university. “See,” says he, “those of the late hierarchy, (as they called themselves,) how God, for their uselessness, has wholly laid them aside, with a design never to use them more.” But what, never? Could the man of prophecy be sure of this, when the year sixteen hundred and sixty was then so near? Or did God then so wonderfully restore the church and clergy, for no other end but to make no further use of them for ever? Or does he do miracles only to make sport for the world? But so full were these sons of arrogance and imposture of the prophetic spirit, (true or false it mattered not, so long as it served a turn,) that in time, with the help of a little more confidence, and less sense, (if possible,) they might have set up for the writing almanacks, and even vied with their oracle Lilly himself, in his famous predictions of the glories of a deposed, pitiful protector, not able to protect himself.7
Nor were these enthusiasts less liberal in denouncing God’s curses upon their enemies, than in engrossing his blessings to themselves; there being none of those reforming harpies, who, by plunders and sequestrations, had scraped together three or four thousand a year, but presently (according to the sanctified dialect of the times) they dubbed themselves God’s peculiar people and inheritance; so sure did those thriving regicides make of heaven, and so fully reckoned themselves in the high road thither, that they never so much as thought that some of their saintships were to take Tyburn in their way.
Thus we see how those saucy arbitrators upon and dispensers of God’s judgments took upon them to distribute life and death, election and reprobation, at their pleasure; and all this in direct contradiction to, or rather defiance of, the Spirit of God himself, (so impudently pretended to by these impostors all along,) who, as positively as words can express a thing, in Eccles. ix. 1, assures us, that no man knows either love or hatred by all that is before him; nor consequently can conclude himself in favour or out of favour with Almighty God by any thing befalling him in this life; indeed, no more than he can read the future estate of his soul in the lines of his face, or the constitution of his body in the colour of his clothes. For should the quality of a man’s condition here determine the happiness or misery of it here after, no doubt Lazarus would have been in the flames, and the rich man in Abraham’s bosom. But the next life will open us a very different scene from what we see in this, and shew us quite another face of things and persons from that which dazzles and deludes men’s eyes at present; it being the signal 8 and peculiar glory of the day of judgment, that it will be the great day of distinction, as well as retribution. But in the mean time, does not common experience undeniably convince us, that God some times curses men even with prosperity, confounds them in the very answer of their prayers, and, as it were, chokes them with their own petitions? Does he not, as he did formerly to the Israelites, at the same time put flesh into their craving mouths, and send leanness withal into their souls? And is there any thing more usually practised in the world, than for men to caress, compliment, and feast their mortal enemies? persons whom they equally hate and are hated by? While, on the other side, as a father chides, frowns upon, and lashes the child whom he dearly loves, (his bowels all the time yearning while his hand is striking;) so how common is it, in the methods of divine love, for God to cast his Jobs upon dunghills, to banish into wildernesses, and so sell his most beloved Josephs into slavery and captivity; and, in a word, to discipline and fit them for himself by all that is harsh and terrible to human nature? And still there is nothing but love, and designs of mercy, at the bottom of all this: Thy rod and thy staff, says David, comfort me, Psalm xxiii. 4; that is, with his staff he supports, and with his rod he corrects, but still with both he comforts.
Now, though I think it is sufficiently manifest to the impartial and judicious, that neither the sufferings of our prince or his loyal subjects were any arguments of God’s hatred of them, yet I hope his restoration was an effect of God’s love to these poor, harassed kingdoms; I say, I hope so; for our great ingratitude, sensuality, and raging impiety ever since 9our deliverance, makes me far from being confident that what was in itself incomparably the greatest of earthly blessings, may not be made the fatal means to sink us lower, and damn us deeper, than any sins committed by us under the rod of the usurpers could have done. This is certain, that God may outwardly deliver us, and yet never love us; he may turn our very table into a snare. And I know no certain mark or criterion whereby we may infallibly conclude that God did the glorious work, which we celebrate this day, out of love to us, but only this one, that we become holier and better by it than before. But if it should prove otherwise, will it not rank us with the hardened and incorrigible, whose infidelity such miracles could not cure, and whose obstinacy such mercies could not melt down? and having upon both accounts done so much for us to so little purpose, resolve never to do more? And thus much for the first false cause, commonly assigned by confident and conceited men, of the dealings of God’s providence, namely, God’s love or hatred of the persons upon whom they pass. But,
2. Another false cause, from which men derive the different proceedings of Providence, is, the different merit of the persons so differently treated by it: and from hence still supposing, that the good only must prosper, and the bad suffer, they accordingly from men’s prosperity conclude their innocence, as from their sufferings their guilt. A most absurd assertion certainly: for if men’s happiness and misery in this world (of which only we now speak) be measured out to them according to their goodness or badness respectively, how infinitely vain and senseless must that old and celebrated question, Cur bonis male et 10 malis bene? needs have been; when, according to the aforesaid doctrine, the very subject of this question is quite taken away, and a man’s happiness as necessarily presupposes his goodness, and his misery his sin or wickedness, as, in the natural course of things, the consequent does and must the antecedent. And therefore, so far has this opinion been from obtaining with the more sober and knowing part of mankind., that there has hardly been any age of the world in which the said question has not exercised the minds of some of the wisest and best men in it; and that to such a degree, that it has proved a constant stumblingblock to most, and of all temptations to infidelity the strongest and most hardly conquered. For it was this which so staggered David himself, that he confesses, that his feet had well nigh slipped, Psalm lxxiii. 2; and so confounded the prophet Jeremiah, Jer. xii. 1, that he could almost have offered to dispute the point with God himself: so utterly puzzled and distracted were these great men, till religion came in to their aid, and unriddled what philosophy could not solve; and faith cut asunder what reason could not untie. And from the same topic it was that Job’s friends argued, and that with such assurance, that one would have thought that they took all that they said for demonstration; but how falsely and rashly they did so, appears from the verdict passed by God himself upon the whole matter, both rejecting their persons and condemning their reasonings, by a severe remark upon the presumption of the one and the inconsequence of the other: for where the rule is crooked, how can the line drawn by it be straight? It is most true, that there is no man (our blessed Saviour only excepted) who either does 11or ever did suffer, but was more or less a sinner before he was a sufferer; and consequently, that there is ground enough in every man to make God’s infliction of the greatest evil upon him just; and yet I affirm, that a man’s sin is not always the reason of his sufferings, though sinfulness be still the qualification of his person; but the reason of those must be fetched from some other cause. For the better understanding of which, we must observe, that God may, and sometimes actually does deal with men under a double capacity or relation, viz. 1. as an absolute lord; and, 2. as a judge or governor. The rule which he proceeds by as an absolute lord, is his sovereign will and pleasure; and the rule which he acts by as a judge, is his justice and his law. Now, though under the former notion God does not properly exercise or exert his justice, yet he cannot therefore be said to do any thing unjustly; it being one thing for God barely not to exercise an attribute in such or such a particular action, and another to oppose, or do any thing contrary to the said at tribute. The former of which is usual, and fairly agreeable with the whole economy of his attributes; but the latter is impossible.
Accordingly, in the various dispensations befalling the sons of men, we find, how naturally prone the world has been all along to state the different usages of men’s persons upon the difference of their deserts. As when Pilate mingled the Galileans blood with their sacrifices, there were enough ready to conclude those poor Galileans sinners above all other Galileans, for their suffering such things; but our Saviour quickly reverses the sentence, and assures them that the consequence was by no means good, Luke xiii. 1,2. 12 And on the other hand, the Israelites, from the many miraculous works done for them, and blessings heaped upon them by the divine bounty, concluded themselves holier and more righteous; than all the nations about them; but we find both Moses, in Deut. ix. and the Psalmist, in Psalm lxxviii. roundly telling them that there was no such thing, but that they were a rebellious, ungrateful, stiffnecked people from the very first; and, for ought appears from history to the contrary, have continued so ever since. And to proceed further, did not the righteous providence of God bring down most of the potentates of the eastern world under the feet of that monster of tyranny and idolatry, Nebuchadnezzar; and that while he was actually reigning in his sins with as high an hand as he did or could do over any of those poor kingdoms who had been conquered or enslaved by him? So that in the Song of the Three Children, (as it is called,) then the objects of his brutish fury, Azarias emphatically complains, that God had not only deserted his people, but delivered them into the hands of the most unjust and wicked king in all the world. These were the words, ver. 9, and this the character of that flagellum Dei, that scourge of nations, notable for nothing great or extraordinary recorded of him, but sin and success. In like manner, did not the same Providence make most of the crowns and sceptres of the earth bend to the Roman yoke?11 See Dr. Arthur Duck’s book de Usu et Authoritate Juris Civilis Romanorum. The greatness of which empire was certainly founded upon as much injustice, rapine, and violence, as could well be practised by men; though still couched and carried on under the highest pretence of justice 13and honour, (set off with the greatest shew of gravity besides,) even while the said pretences in the sight of the whole world were impudently outfaced by the quite contrary practices; as appears in particular from that scandalous case of the Mamertines, and the assistance they gave those thieves and murderers, against all the law of nations and humanity itself, only to serve a present interest against the Carthaginians. And lastly, what a torrent of success at tended the Turks, till they had overrun most of the earth, and the whole Greek church and empire? And yet the notorious governing qualities which these barbarians acted and grew up by, both in war and peace, were the height of cruelty and treachery; qualities of all other the most abhorred by God and man, and such as we may be sure could never induce God to abandon so great a part of Christendom (which yet in his judgment he has actually done) to so base a people and so false a religion. And now, notwithstanding such flagrant examples of thriving impiety, carrying all before it, we see how apt the world is still to make Providence steer by man’s merit. And as we have given instances of this in nations, so we want not the like in particular persons; amongst which we have not a more remarkable exemplification of the case now before us, than in the person of St. Paul, and the judgments the barbarians passed upon him, Acts xxviii. 4, 5, 6. For as soon as they saw the viper fastening upon his hand, they pronounced him a murderer; and presently again, as soon as he shook it off, and felt no hurt, they looked upon him as a god; that is, in a minute’s time, from one not worthy to live, (as they had said,) they advanced him to the condition of one not able to die. 14 Thus we see how they declared their judgment of both these passages, and of one no doubt as wisely as the other. In like manner, is a man brought under any signal and unusual calamity? Why then to the question: Was it his own personal guilt, or that of his family, which consigned him over to it? or, in other words, Did the man himself sin, or his parents, that he was plundered, sequestered, imprisoned, and at length sworn out of his estate and life? Much the like question, we know, was proposed to our Saviour himself, in John ix. 2, 3, and that upon the account of as great a misery befallen a man, as could be well incident to human nature. And the answer he gave it (stating the whole reason of the evil suffered upon the sole will of the inflicter, without the least regard to any guilt in the sufferer) stands upon record as an everlasting reprimand to all such queries and reflections. So that should Providence at any time strip a man of his estate, his honour, or high place, must this presently stamp him a reprobate, or castaway; or rather, according to the divine philosophy of our Saviour’s forementioned answer, teach us, that God, who perfectly knew the temper and circumstances of the man, knew also, that a mean and a low condition would place him nearer to heaven, (as much a paradox as it may seem,) than the highest and most magnificent? Another man perhaps is snatched away by a sudden or untimely, a disastrous or ignominious death; but must I therefore pass sentence upon him out of Daniel or the Revelation, or charge him with some secret guilt, as the cause of it; as if a fever or an apoplexy were not sufficient, without the concurring plague and poison of a malicious tongue, to send a man packing out of this world; or as if 15any death could be so violent, or distemper so mortal and malign, but that it may and does carry some into a better world, as well as others into a worse? But be the course of Providence never so unaccountable, and contrary to my notions, ought I to descant upon any act of it, while I am wholly ignorant of the purpose which directed it? Or shall I confess the ways of God to be unsearchable and past finding out, and at the same time attempt to give a reason of them, and so to the arrogance join the contradictions? Such methods certainly are equally senseless and irreligious.
But of all the examples producible of impudent and perverse judging, there can hardly be any one parallel to what passed upon the sufferings of the late king of blessed and glorious memory, king Charles I. whose genealogies of family guilt, besides personal, have been charged upon his royal head; as if he had come, not only to the throne, but also to the block by inheritance. But as that excellent prince was an eminent instance of the censorious venom of men’s tongues in matters of this nature, so we need go no further for a proof of the falseness and fallaciousness of this rule of judging, than to the same royal martyr; for was there ever any prince more unfortunate, and yet ever any more virtuous? Who could have imagined, that so much true piety, so much innocence, so much justice, and tenderness of his subjects lives and properties, so much temperance and restraint of himself in all the affluence and prosperities of a long-flourishing court, so much patience and submission to the hand of God in his sharpest adversities, and, in a word, such an union of all moral perfections as scarce ever met in 16 any prince, (or indeed in any mere man but himself;) who, I say, that should measure out men’s fortunes by their merit, could have imagined, that all these heights of virtue and Christianity should only prepare the princely owner of them to fall a sacrifice to the evil of his enemies in the most cruel, barbarous, and savage manner that perhaps any crowned head ever fell before? And will any one after this pretend to give an account of the proceedings of Providence from the guilt or innocence of persons, when king Charles I. was imprisoned, spit upon, arraigned, and cut off by an infamous sentence as a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy, before the gates of his own palace? And that miscreant, who was the prime actor in all this woful tragedy, (a piece of dirt soaked in blood, as it was said of Nero with much less cause,) should usurp the sceptre, and invade the throne of his royal master, reign successfully, and die in peace? If he could be said to die in peace who lived in perpetual war with his own conscience; the only enemy which would never make peace with him, whatsoever his dastardly, mean-spirited neighbours did.
Histories inform us of many worthy and brave persons brought to unworthy ends; any one of which were enough to rebuke the proneness of the world to judge of the causes of God’s dealing with men from any qualifications in the persons so dealt with. But certainly, if we consider the peculiar strangeness of the forementioned case, with the appendage of all its circumstances, so long as the memory of king Charles I. lasts, (as I hope it will not only last, but flourish also, to the world’s end,) it will be impossible for us to be convinced by an 17higher argument or a more amazing matter of fact, that God’s judgments are unsearchable, and his ways past finding out. And therefore, till our bold magisterial dispensers of God’s judgments can give us a satisfactory account of the foregoing particulars, from some clear and undoubted principle of reason or revelation; let them stand off, and adore in silence, without presuming to judge, and much less to condemn, having, as it is manifest, no more ability for the one, than authority for the other. And thus, as we have given proof more than enough of men’s utter unfitness to sound the depths of God’s providential dealings with them, upon this account, that they usually ascribe them to false causes; so in the
Third place, the same will appear yet further from this; that they always resolve them into imperfect causes. Who would assign an adequate reason of any thing which God does, must see as far into it as God sees. And there is scarce any extraordinary passage of Providence which does not point at least a thousand years forward, and stretch itself more than a thousand miles about; so that a man must be able to take into his mind all that long train and wide compass of purposes to which it may subserve, and all those influences which it may cast upon things vastly remote in place, and distant many ages in time; which it is impossible for any created intellect to have a clear prospect into or comprehension of. There is no action of God, but there is a combination of impulsive causes concerned in it; one or two of which possibly the wit of man may sometimes light upon, but the shortness or weakness of his discerning powers keeps him inevitably a stranger to far the greatest part of 18 them. God, by one and the same numerical lot of Providence, may intend to punish one nation, to advance another; to plant the gospel in a third, and to let in trade into a fourth; likewise to make way for the happiness of one man’s posterity, and for the extinction and rasing out of another’s; to reward the virtues of a sober and industrious people, and to revenge the crimes22 No nation certainly, at this time, further in debt to God’s justice than the English. of a slothful and a vicious, a perjured and rebellious; with innumerable other designs, which God may actually propose to himself in every single passage of his transactions with men; and which we are no more fit or able to search into or arbitrate upon, than we are to govern the world.
And thus much for the first general argument, proving the insufficiency of any human wisdom to interpret the actions of Providence, taken from its inability truly and throughly to pierce into the reasons of them; which, as it must always make one considerable ingredient in passing a right judgment upon any action, so I shew, that there was another also required, namely, a certain prospect into the utmost issue or event of the same. Upon which account also man’s unfitness to judge of the proceedings of Providence shall be now made out to us, by considering those false rules and grounds by which men generally forejudge of the issue and event of actions: as,
1. Men usually prognosticate the event of any thing or action according to the measure of the prudence, wisdom, and policy of second agents immediately engaged in it. And it must be confessed, that it is the best and likeliest rule that they have 19to judge by, were it not controlled by two better and likelier, and from which there can lie no appeal, viz. scripture and experience. The former of which brings in God laughing at the wisdom of the wise; taking and circumventing the crafty in their own wiles, Job v. 12, 13; baffling the subtle and shrewd advices of Balaam and Ahitophel, and so stifling both counsel and counsellor in a noose of his own making. And for the latter, history so abounds with instances of the most refined customs and artificially spun contrivances dashed in pieces by some sudden and unforeseen accidents, that, to ascertain the event of the most promising undertaking, if we trust but our own eyes, we shall have little cause to trust to another’s wisdom.
2. Men usually prognosticate the success of any project or design, from success formerly gained under the same or less probable circumstances. And the argument seems to proceed a majore ad minus; as, that if a man could conquer and break through a greater difficulty, much more may he presume, that he shall be able to master and evade through a less. And perhaps the ratiocination, according to the bare natural consequences of things, is true and good. Nevertheless it is manifest, that men frequently miscarry in the application of it; and several reasons may be given for their doing so. As, 1. It is hard, and perhaps scarce possible, (whatsoever less observing minds may imagine to the contrary,) to repeat and exemplify any action under perfectly the same circumstances. 2. That in most actions there are still some circumstances not observed or taken notice of, which may have a surer and more immediate influence upon the event of those actions, than 20 those circumstances which, coming more into view, are more depended upon. But, 3. and chiefly, because the success of every action depends more upon the secret hand of God, than upon any causes or instruments visibly engaged in it. Take an instance or two of this. It was easy and natural enough to conclude, that Hannibal, having so worsted the Roman armies while they were in their fresh strengths and full numbers, should have been much abler to crush the same enemy under all those disadvantages which such great and frequent defeats must needs have brought upon them. And yet we find Fabius and Marcellus, after some time, wonderfully turning the stream of his conquests, and Scipio, at length, totally subduing him. In like manner, if a nation under an usurped government, disunited in itself, and in continual danger of commotions at home, as well as of enemies from abroad, was yet an overmatch to its neighbour nation in a war against it; it seems rational and probable enough to infer from thence, that the same nation, settled under an unquestionably legal government, and free from any disturbances within itself, should be much more likely (especially under the same conduct) to cope with and subdue the same enemy. And yet we find, that the premises taken up from our naval successes in the years 1652 and 1653, produced but a poor conclusion in our contest with the same adversary in the years 1666 and 1667; when we were so shamefully insulted upon our coasts, and our noblest ships fired in our harbours. And the cause of this seems not so much derivable from any failure either of the English courage or conduct at sea, as from the secret judgments of God, (much the greater 21deep of the two.) So that it is clear, that this rule also, of gathering the future success of actions, is weak and fallacious; and that in some sorts of events, after things have been contrived and put together with the utmost exactness, a link or two of the chain happening to break, the coherence of the whole is thereby dissolved; and then, how fairly soever the antecedent may have promised us, we shall yet in the close of all find ourselves lurched of the consequent.
3. Men generally measure the issue and success of any enterprise according to the preparations made for it, and the power employed in it; it being a rule of judging which the world cannot be beaten off from, that ten thousand must needs chase a thousand, and a thousand put an hundred to flight. Victory, on much the stronger side, seems still to be foreseen and foretold as certainly as a necessary effect in the bowels of its cause. And yet we shall find, that it is not always the bigger weight, but sometimes the artificial hand holding and managing the balance, which turns the scale. And in like manner, when we have raised armies and manned out fleets, are we not still in the hand of Providence? in that hand, which sometimes sets the crown of victory upon the weak and the few, and disappoints the hopes and breaks the force of the confident and numerous? Could any take up surer and better grounded presages of victory, from a survey of his own stupendous power, than Xerxes might, when he came to fetter the Hellespont, and to swallow up the (comparatively) despicable strength of the Athenians? Or could any thing look more invincible, than the Spanish armada sent against the English navy? But 22 for all this, we find that there is no commanding the sea, without being able to command the winds too; and he who cannot do this, let him not pretend to the other. What a poor thing is preparation, to be trusted to, in opposition to accident. And what a pitiful defence is multitude on the one side, where omnipotence takes the other. If we read and believe scripture, we shall find Gideon, with his three hundred men, armed with lamps and pitchers, routing and destroying the vast and innumerable host of the Midianites: and can any rational man be confident of the greatest forces which human power can raise, if he believes that the same God, who did that, is still in being, and still as able to do the same things as ever? Nay, should we take an exact survey of all passages in history to this purpose, such a pleasure does Providence seem to take in defeating the counsels of confident and presuming men, that perhaps in the greatest battles which were ever fought, we shall find as many victories obtained by a less number over a greater, as by a greater over a less: and what then must become of the commonly received rules? But to keep nearer home, and to the day too; if human force and preparation could have determined the event of things, and Providence had proceeded by the same measures which men judge, the business of this day, I am sure, had been desperate, and as impossible in the event, as it was once in the opinion and discourse of some, who, having done their utmost to prevent it, had the good luck to get too much by it, when it came to pass. For were not the usurpers just before the king’s restoration as strong as ever? Did they not sit lording it in the head of victorious fleets and armies, with their feet 23upon the neck of three conquered enslaved kingdoms? and striking such an awe and terror into all about them, that the boldest of their adversaries durst not so much as stir or open their mouths either against their persons or proceedings? And now in this state of things, who would have imagined, that any one could have entered into the strong man’s house, and have bound him, but one who had been much stronger? Or that any thing could have recovered the lost sceptre, but a triumphant sword? Or that the crown, being once fought off from the royal owner’s head, could have ever returned to it, but by being fought on again? These and no other methods of restoring the king did either his friends or his enemies think of; but so infinitely unlikely and unfeasible were they, that his enemies feared them as little as his friends had grounds to hope for them.
When, behold! on a sudden, and in the height of all their pride, policy, and power, Providence gives them a turn, and they see the whole web, which with so much pains, cost, and cunning, they had been so long a weaving, unravelled before their eyes in a moment, and themselves clear off the stage, without having settled any one of those innovations either in church or state, which they had been swearing and lying, whining and praying, plundering and fighting, and cutting throats for, (all in the Lord,) for near twenty years together; but instead thereof, the ancient government restored, and happily set upon its former bottom, (could it have kept itself there;) and all this (to phrase it in the words of a late historian33 Dr. Peter Heylin.) so easily, and with so little noise, that the wresting 24 of that usurped power out of their hands cost not so much as a broken head or a bloody nose; for the getting of which they had wasted so many millions of treasure, and more than one hundred thousand lives, not to mention the loss of souls: by such unlikely and unforeseeable ways does Providence some times bring about its great designs, in opposition to the shrewdest conjectures and contrivances of men. And thus much for the other general argument, proving the inability of any human wisdom to comprehend the designs of Providence, taken from those false rates and grounds, by which men generally forejudge of the issue or event of actions.
And now, for the use and improvement of what has been discoursed by us hitherto, we may from the foregoing particulars infer these three things.
1. The extreme folly and vanity of making the future event, or presumed success of any enterprise, the rule of our present actings about the same. A rule, as such, should be a thing both certain in itself, and certainly known to be so. But there is no future contingent, which we promise ourselves, though under the greatest probability of event imaginable, but is still a thing in itself uncertain; and consequently, being capable of failing us in the issue, can be no rational certain rule to guide us for the present. And moreover, as a rule in any human action whatsoever ought to be (as we have here shewn) both certain, and certainly known to be such, upon the stock of bare prudence and reason; so ought it likewise to be lawful, or morally good, upon the accounts of conscience and religion; and therefore no thing contrary to the same ought to be admitted as a rule for men to act by, whether in a private or a 25public capacity. In a word, conscience, duly steering by principles of morality and religion, is the sole assured director of all human actions or designs. So that when any political sinister consideration would draw men off from a present confessed duty, upon presumption or supposal of some future advantage, (to ensue thereby for the service of some great interest, civil or religious,) still that advantage is but presumed or supposed, and so not always sure to follow the illegal actions; but the guilt of it always does. And of this we have a remarkable, but sad instance in the late royal martyr, who had but one thing lay heavy upon his conscience in all his sufferings, and which he always lamented even to his dying day, namely, the death of the great earl of Strafford. And we may easily imagine the tumults and struggles in his princely breast, when it was assaulted on both sides about that unhappy action. On the one hand, his conscience urged to him the unlawfulness of condemning a person, of whose innocence he always declared himself so fully satisfied. On the other, the stream of the popular fury beat high and fierce upon the throne itself, and seemed to threaten all, if he did not sacrifice that great minister. Now here was a present, certain duty on the one side, persuading him not to violate his conscience; and a supposed future advantage on the other, to wit, his own and his kingdom’s security, which induced him to balk his conscience for that person. And we know what course he took; but did it answer his expectations? Did it abate the popular rage at all? Or did it secure either his own or his kingdom’s peace? Nay, on the contrary, did not the cutting down of that great bank let in a torrent which overwhelmed 26 and carried all before it? Nothing being indeed more usual, than for such as venture to displease God, only that they may gratify and please men, in the issue to have God their enemy and man too. And therefore that worthy prelate;44 Bishop Juxon, then bishop of London, and privy-counsellor. who in the face of all this danger still plied the king with this counsel; “ Sir, you know the judgment of your own conscience, I beseech you follow that, and trust God with the rest;” gave him an advice not more becoming the piety of a bishop, than the wisdom of a privy-counsellor; and so deep and lasting an impression did it leave upon his royal and truly tender conscience, that in his last meditations upon this sad subject he observes, that he only, who of all his counsellors advised him to adhere to his conscience against the popular rage, was the person who was the least harassed and pursued by that popular rage, when it was at its greatest height of power and tyranny. To which we may add our own further observation of the same pious and wise bishop, that he survived all that tyranny and oppression; and, after he had so fully and worthily served the father, lived to attain to the highest dignity in this church, and, as the complement of all, to set the crown upon the head of his miraculously restored son. And may that Providence that governs the world always signalize such peculiar merits with such peculiar rewards. But,
2. We gather also, from the foregoing discourse, the absolute necessity of an entire, total, unreserved dependence upon Providence in the most hopeful and promising condition of our affairs. The natural cause or ground of all dependence is men’s consciousness 27to themselves of their own ignorance or weakness, compared with the sufficiency of others, whereby they expect that relief from others, which they find they cannot have from themselves. This, I conceive, is the true account and philosophy of this matter. And we have already sufficiently demonstrated man’s utter inability either to under stand the reasons or to control the issues of Providence; so that in all the passages of it, an implicit faith in God’s wisdom is man’s greatest knowledge, and a dependence upon his power, his surest strength. For when all the faculties of man’s body and mind have done their utmost, still the success of all is at the mercy of Providence; the ways of which are intricate and various, the grounds upon which it proceeds unintelligible, and the ends it drives at unsearchable. But in a word, to make our reliance upon Providence both pious and rational, we should, in every great enterprise we take in hand, prepare all things with that care, diligence, and activity, as if there were no such thing as Providence for us to depend upon; and again, when we have done all this, we should as wholly and humbly depend upon it, as if we had made no such preparations at all. And this is a rule of practice which will never fail or shame any who shall venture all that they have or are upon it: for as a man, by exerting his utmost force in any action or business, has all that an human strength can do for him therein; so, in the next place, by quitting his confidence in the same, and placing it only in God, he is sure also of all that omnipotence can do in his behalf. It is enough that God has put a man’s actions into his own power; but the success of them, I am sure, he has not. And 28 therefore all trust in man about things not within the power of man, (according to the account of Heaven,) is virtually a distrust of God: for let but our trust in him be measured out by our whole heart, soul, and strength, (the only measure of it which the scripture knows,) and we shall find but a poor overplus to bestow upon any thing besides. But,
3. And lastly, as we have from the premised particulars evinced the necessity of a dependence upon Providence, so from the same we may learn the impossibility of a rational dependence upon it with any comfort, but in the way of lawful, honest, and religious courses. This is certain, that in all our undertakings God will be either our friend or our enemy; for Providence never stands neuter; and if so, is it not a sad thing for a man to make a mighty potentate his enemy, and then to put himself under his protection? And yet this is directly the case of every presuming sinner, and these the terms upon which he stands with Almighty God. But can that man with any confidence rest himself upon God’s power, whose conscience shall in the mean time proclaim him a traitor to his laws? Or can any people, nation, or government whatsoever, in the doubtful engagements of war, cast itself upon God’s mercy, while by its crying sins of profaneness, atheism, and irreligion, (or, which is worse, a countenance of all religions,) it knows itself so deeply in arrears to his justice? No man persisting in any known wicked course can rationally hope that God should succeed or prosper him in any thing that he goes about; and if success should chance to accompany him in it, it is a thousand to one but it is intended him only 29as a curse, as the very greatest of curses, and the readiest way, by hardening him in his sin, to ascertain his destruction. He who will venture his life in a duel, should not choose to have his mortal enemy for his second.
On the contrary, the same innocence which makes all quiet within a man, makes all peaceable and serene above him. And that person cannot but have a certain boldness, and a kind of claim to the favours of Providence, whose heart is continually telling him that he does as he should do; and that his conscience, having been all along his director, cannot in the issue prove his accuser: but that all things, whether he looks forwards or backwards, upon what is past or what is to come, shall concur in assuring him, that his great Judge has no other sentence to pass upon him, but to set a crown of glory upon his head, and receive him with an Euge, bone serve! enter thou into the joy of thy Lord. And if, being thus inspired and anointed with such supporting expectations, he should yet chance utterly to sink, as to all his concerns and interests here below, yet, having thus broke through them all to discharge his duty, the very sense of his having done so shall strengthen his heart and bear up his spirits, though the whole world were in arms against him or in a flame about him; so that he shall be able, from his own experience, to seal to the truth of that seeming paradox of the apostle in Rom. viii. 35, 36, 37, that persons thus assisted from above, even in tribulations, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, (the known badges of primitive Christianity,) nay, in their being killed all the day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter, shall yet, under these very massacres 30 become more than conquerors, through that God who makes those who fight under his banners triumph more gloriously in losing their blood for him, than their mightiest and most insulting enemies do or can in their shedding of it. For if a man falls a sacrifice to God, his conscience, or his country, it is not material by what hand he falls: God accepts the martyr, whosoever is the executioner. And so long as there is another world to reward and punish, no man’s doom can be certainly pronounced from any thing that befalls him in this.
And now at length, to come to a close of what we have been hitherto discoursing of, we have shewn the darkness and intricacy of the ways of Providence; and we have shewn also what incompetent judges, and yet what confident interpreters men are generally of them; from all which what can so naturally result, and so justly be inferred, as the severest reprimands of the blindness and boldness (qualities seldom found asunder) of the saucy descants of the world concerning these matters? For what do they else, but, in effect, arraign even Providence itself? summon omniscience before the bar of ignorance? and, in a word, put a pitiful mortal to sit in judgment upon his Maker? The text, I am sure, positively declares, that the works of God are past finding out; and if so, is it not the height of absurdity, as well as arrogance, to presume, either from divinity or philosophy, to assign any other reason of the works themselves, but the sole will of the agent? or to pretend to give an account of that which we ourselves own to be unaccountable? Common sense certainly must needs see and explode the grossness of the contradiction, and convince us, that 31in things so transcendently above our highest and most raised speculations, the only rational and safe rule for us to proceed by will be, to make them rather matter of admiration than of argument; still remembering, that next to a direct violation of God’s revealed will, is a bold intrusion into his secret.
Now to the infinitely wise Governor of all things, adorable in his counsels, and stupendous in his works, but essentially just and holy in both, be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.32
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