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SERMON VII.

PROVERBS xxix. 5.

A man that flattereth his neighbour , spreadeth a net for his feet.

HE that shall set himself to fight against a custom, will find that the match is not equal; and that by speaking against a generally received practice, he only treads the dry paths of duty, without any reward or recompence, but only to be slighted for his pains. But since neither custom nor credit must authorize a vice so far, as to set it out of the preacher’s reach; surely an ill practice may be very safely and discreetly reprehended, while, in the mean time, persons are spared.

That which the text here offers for the subject of this discourse, is flattery; a thing condemned by the mouth of one who could very well judge, as being a king, and therefore experimentally acquainted with the ways and arts of flatterers; a sort of cattle that usually herd in the courts of princes and the houses of great persons.

The words of the text are so plain, that they can need no explication, and therefore I shall immediately fall upon the prosecution of the matter contained in them, which I shall manage under these three general heads.

I. I shall shew what flattery is, and wherein it does consist.

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II. I shall shew the grounds and occasions of it on his part that is flattered.

III. I shall shew the ends and designs of it on his part that flatters.

I. And first for the first of these, what flattery is. It surely must be a very difficult thing to bring it under any certain description, the very nature and property of it being to put on all forms and shapes, according to the exigence of the occasion: as it is reported of a creature called a polypus, that it still assumes the exact colour of that thing to which it cleaves. And therefore he that would paint flattery must draw a picture of all colours, and frame an universal face, indifferent to any particular aspect whatsoever. But though we cannot reach all the varieties of it, we may yet endeavour to give some account of those general ways in which it does exercise and shew itself.

1. The first is the concealing or dissembling of the defects or vices of any person. Indeed to publish a man’s defects to others is malice, but to declare them to himself is friendship and sincerity; for it is to awake him out of his sleep when his house is afire, and to tell him that he is under a distemper that may prove mortal, if not prevented by timely applications: but flattery is like that devil mentioned in the gospel, that is both blind and dumb; it will pretend not to see faults, and if it does, it will be sure not to reprove them; a temper of all others the most base, cruel, and unchristian: for it declares a man unconcerned in the misery and calamity of his brother, such an one as will not put himself to the expense of a word, to recover a perishing soul from the mouth of ruin and damnation. It shews him 113to be void of compassion, the bond of converse and all society.

It is indeed, in the estimation of the world, accounted a piece of prudence, to let things go as they will, without interposing to interrupt or alter their course: and no question but if a man, according to our modern politics, makes himself the sole centre of all his actions, and thinks upon nothing but the improving and securing his private interest, it is the safest and most prudential course to stand still and say nothing, though he sees never so many destroying themselves round about him. But had the world heretofore acted by those principles that pass for prudence nowadays, perhaps it would not have stood so long as it has; for had no man espoused the cause of the public, nor thought himself at all obliged, upon the common accounts of humanity, to contribute to the good and advantage of others, men could never have united or embodied; or being once embodied, and gathered into corporations, they must presently again have been scattered and dissolved; there being (upon supposition of that temper that we have been discoursing of) no common cement to bind and hold them together.

Now this is the only ground upon which the flatterer’s silence can be accounted prudence; but unless to be base is to be prudent, I suppose it will have another esteem with those who are the most competent judges of such things. It is indeed a pest and a disease, and so to be looked upon and detested by those minds that have the least tincture of virtue and generosity. It breeds only in narrow, paltry, self-serving spirits, that lie upon the catch, and make 114 this their whole design, to enjoy the world, and to live to themselves.

But now, as to be silent of men’s defects and vices is a piece of flattery, and flattery a degenerous and unworthy thing; yet, that all people may not promiscuously think themselves called upon to reprove and declare against whatsoever they see amiss in others, and so mistake that for charity and duty, which is indeed nothing else but sauciness and impertinence, it will be convenient to shew,

1. First, who they are that are concerned to speak in this case.

2. The manner how they are to speak.

And first for the persons: I conceive they may be brought under these three sorts:

1. First such as are intrusted with the government of others. All government makes the actions and behaviour of him that is governed, in some sense, the actions and behaviour of him that governs: and consequently a governor is as really obliged to observe and regulate what is done by those that are under him, as what he does himself. And therefore as no man is to flatter himself, so neither is such an one to flatter others. No man is to be abused into a destructive persuasion, that his vices are virtues, and his faults perfections; which without an impartial discovery will certainly follow, from that opinion that self-love begets in every man of his own actions, though never so ugly and irregular. He that says nothing of the miscarriages of a person under his government betrays a trust, and forgets, that as every father is a governor, so every governor ought, in some respect, to be a father: and surely no father 115will suffer a son to perish, only for want of telling him that he is like to perish; if he does, God will require his blood at his hands, which will be but a sad reckoning, where the relation shall redouble the murder.

2. The second sort of persons, to whom it belongs to tax and take notice of miscarriages, are those who are intrusted with the guidance and direction of others; such as are persons set apart to the work of the ministry. It may possibly be looked upon as a piece of presumption to say, that they are to guide or to direct, who of all men are accounted the most ignorant and impertinent; yet such is their unhappiness, that the sins of those that think themselves much wiser, if not reproved and testified against by them, will be charged by God upon their score. That preacher that shuts his eyes and his mouth where he sees a bold and a reigning vice, prevaricates with his profession, and deserves to be removed from it by some remarkable judgment from Heaven, for being too wise to discharge his duty.

He is silent, it seems, for fear of interrupting a great sinner’s repose. The galled conscience must not be touched, for fear the beast should kick, and do him a shrewd turn.

And therefore there must not be a word cast out, that may so much as border upon a reprehension, or but hint his sin to his suspicion; for if that takes fire, so as to make him worry, and at length ruin the preacher, all the pity he shall find, for being faithful so much to his own disadvantage, shall be to be upbraided for want of experience, and for not knowing men. However this and a much sharper calamity cannot take off the obligation that Christ 116 and Christianity has laid upon every preacher of the word. And it is to be feared, that God may, some time or other, silence those, who have in this manner first silenced themselves.

3. The third sort of persons to whom this duty belongs are those that profess friendship. Every man is to challenge this as a debt from his friend, to be told impartially of his faults: and whosoever for bears to do it, fails in the highest office of kindness. For to what purpose does a man take another into that intimacy as to make him in a manner his second conscience, if he will not be bold and impartial, and do the office of conscience, by excusing or accusing, according as he has done well or ill? Two things are required in him that shall undertake to reprove another; a confidence in, and a kindness to the person whom he reproves: both which qualifications are eminently to be found in every real friend. For who should a man confide in, if not in himself? and who should he be kind to, if not to himself? and is it not a saying as true as it is common, that every friend is another self?

But is it possible that that man should truly love me, that leaves me unguarded and unassisted, when the weakness and inadvertency of my own mind would expose me with all my indecencies and imperfections to the observation and derision of the world? No; it is the nature of love to cover a multitude of sins; which are by no way so effectually concealed and covered from the eyes of others, as by being faithfully discovered and laid open to him who commits them.

It puts him upon his defence, and upon all the arts of securing himself, by watching and criticising 117upon his own behaviour: it arms him with caution and recollection, and so frees him from the great est evil in the world; which is confidence in the midst of folly: a quality that destroys wheresoever it abides; that unfits a man for conversation, deprives him of all respect; and, in a word, is the only thing that can make his enemies formidable, and, in all their attempts against him, successful.

And thus I have shewn who the persons are to whom it belongs to discover and to reprove faults: but since, though the work is fitted to the person, there may still be a fault in the manner, we shall, in the next place, see how these reprehensions are to be managed: concerning which I shall set down these rules.

1. First, let the reproof, if possible, be given in secret; for the design of it is not to blazon the crime, but to amend the person. Let it not be before malicious witnesses, such as shall more enjoy the man’s shame, than hate his vice. The publication of a miscarriage, instead of reforming the offender, may possibly make him desperate or impudent; either to despond under the burden of his infamy, or to harden his forehead like a flint, and resolve to out face and outbrave it; neither of which are like to conduce any thing to the purposes of virtue, or to promote the person’s recovery.

Shame indeed is a notable instrument to deter a man from vicious and lewd practices, but then it is not shame as it is actually endured, but as it is yet feared; for the endurance of it puts an end to the fear; and if the man is of a bold and a daring temper, is like to make him ten times more a wretch and a villain than he was before: for now he thinks he 118 has felt the worst of his crime, and so lies under no check, as to its further progress.

But such is partly the malice, partly the unskilfulness of most persons, in their taxing the faults of others, that the man that is most concerned in the report perhaps comes to hear of it last; it being first communicated to another, and so, through many hands, is at length conveyed to him: or peradventure it is at the very first proclaimed upon the house top; so that the man, instead of being gradually reduced, is at once blown up and undone; and this is all the charity and discretion of some reprovers.

But the method prescribed by Christ is very different. Has thy brother offended thee? first tell him his fault between him and thee; and if that prevail not, then take unto thee a witness; but if neither this will do any thing, then tell it him before two or three witnesses: and at last, upon contempt of all these, then bring it to the church. All which excellent proceeding consists of so many steps of prudence and humanity; of tenderness to our brother’s reputation, as well as to his soul; and of his comforts in this world, as well as of his salvation in the next: a course worthy the imitation of all, but especially those who are to study the great wisdom of winning souls.

The vices of most natures have in them this property of the dirt, that the sight of the sun hardens, but never dissolves them. When the crime is made public, the criminal thinks it not worth while to retreat. His ignominy is now in the mouths and memory of all men, and so not to be cancelled or brought into oblivion by any after-practices of virtue or regularity of living.

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The end of every reproof is remedy; but to shame a man is revenge; and such an one as the bitterest adversary in the world cannot act a sharper or a more remorseless: and therefore the church of Rome, which practises and requires confession of sins to the priest, thinks no penalty too severe to be inflicted upon that confessor that should disclose any thing revealed to him in confession. A practice most wise and charitable; and though used by them perhaps upon grounds of policy, yet to be enforced in the like instances upon the highest accounts of religion.

For it is a piece of inhuman barbarity to afflict a man, but in order to his consequent good; and I have shewn, that the publication of a man’s shame, that might otherwise be concealed, can contribute nothing to the making of him better. It may sink his spirit or exasperate his vice; but any other effect upon him it can have none. A sore is never to be ripped up, but in order to its cure.

2. Let a reproof be managed with due respect to, and distinction of the condition of the person that is to be reproved. He that at any time comes under the unhappy necessity of reprehending his superior, ought so to behave himself, that he may appear to acknowledge him his superior no less in the reproof, than in the most solemn acts of reverence and sub mission; for religion teaches no man to be rude or uncivil, nor takes away the difference of persons and the inequality of states and conditions, but commands a proportion of respect suitable to all: and he that reproves a prince or a great person in the same manner that he would a peasant, or his equal and companion, shews that he is acted rather by the spirit of a Scotch presbytery, than of Christ. But 120 such perhaps will defend themselves with the example of the prophet Elijah reviling Ahab and Jezebel, and so, baptizing the intemperance of their tongues with the name of zeal, bear themselves for persons of an heroic spirit comparable to the old prophets. But persons that pretend this, ought to satisfy the world that they act by the same extraordinary commission from heaven that Elijah did, and withal to do the miracles that Elijah did, for the proving of that commission; otherwise it will not be sufficient for them, that they shew wonders of incivility and ill behaviour.

All persons called to the ministry are undoubtedly commissioned by Christ to bear witness to the truth, by testifying against the enormities of the greatest as well as of the meanest sinners; but no man’s particular personal indiscretion is any part of his commission. It is possible indeed that it may, nay, very certain that it will make the execution of it very useless and ineffectual to most of the great purposes to which Christ designed it; for truth unseasonably and unmannerly proposed comes with a disadvantage, and is in danger to miscarry through the unskilfulness of the proposer: and as we say of some commentators and interpreters of scripture, that the text had been clearer, had they not expounded, or, indeed, rather exposed it; so it is like that some persons had not been so vicious and lewd, to the degree of incorrigible, had not their vice and lewdness been indiscreetly reproved; for that has made them bid defiance to virtue, and turn their backs upon the reproof; imputing (by an unjust in deed, but yet by an usual inference) the faults of the person upon the office and the religion; in which 121case the reprover shall, before God, share the of fender’s guilt; for that finding him sinful, he made him obstinate and impenitent; and so confirmed the beginnings of sin into a resolved, settled impiety.

I question not, but it had been very lawful for Abraham to have reproved his father’s idolatry, and to have declared and represented the unreasonableness of such a worship to him. But yet while he was doing so, I cannot believe that he was in the least discharged from the eternal obligation of the law of nature, exacting a due honour to be paid to parents: for a true doctrine could never have excused an undutiful behaviour.

With what humility, reverence, and distance did Daniel reprove Belshazzar! Though a most impious, insulting heathen, and one that had but newly, in a drunken revel, even spit in the face of the God of heaven, by a profanation of the sacred vessels of the temple amongst his unhallowed parasites and concubines; yet he did not fly in his face, or call him profane or sacrilegious prince, and tell him that divine vengeance would pay him home for his insolence and unthankfulness to God. No; Daniel did not speak as some, that nowadays pretend to interpret, utter themselves to princes. But after he had recounted the signal mercies and judgments of God upon his father Nebuchadnezzar, all the reproof he gives him runs in these gentle and sober words, chap. v. 22. And thou his son, O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart, though thou knewest all this. For undoubtedly, had he been sharp and peremptory, Belshazzar, a prince of that haughty and arrogant spirit, would never have sent him out of 122 his presence clothed with scarlet, and with a gold chain about his neck. No; it is like he had been loaded with another kind of chain, and, perhaps, worn a scarlet died with his own blood. But prudence and submission made his reproof acceptable and his person honourable.

Great ones, whose state and power makes their will absolute and formidable, must, for the most part, be pleased before they can be convinced; and therefore must be brought to love before they will obey the truth. Upon which account it is infinitely vain to cast the issue and success of persuasion upon the sole force of truth or virtue addressing itself to the mind, with all its severities bare and unqualified by a winning behaviour in him that is to persuade. He that presumes upon the mere efficacy of truth, forgets that men have affections to be caressed, as well as understandings to be informed; which is the reason, that a reprehension can never be grateful to persons of high place, but as it comes disguised with ceremony, and attended with all the expressions and demonstrations of honour and due respect; all which will be found little enough to keep them from thinking themselves affronted, while they are only faithfully admonished; and from throwing back an unpleasing truth in the teeth of him that brings it.

What men’s pride and ill-nature may carry them to, is not in the preacher’s power to remedy or prevent; only it concerns him, that the reproof which men’s sins have made necessary should not, by any failure of duty on his part, be made ineffectual. God has not made it a virtue in any man to have no respect of persons: and therefore let him that shall 123call upon princes and Caesars to give God his due, beware that he do it with that homage as not to bereave Caesar of his due; remembering, that if he that reproves is God’s ambassador, yet he that is reproved is God’s vicegerent; and that there is nothing in the world that more highly deserves reproof, than a pragmatical and absurd reprover.

3. Let him that reproves a vice, as much as is possible, do it with words of meekness and commiseration. Let the reprehension come not as a dart shot at the offender’s person, but at his crime. Let a man reprehend so, that it may appear that he wishes that he had no cause to reprehend. Let him behave himself in the sentence that he passes, as we may imagine a judge would behave himself, if he were to condemn his own son, brought as a criminal before him; that is, with the greatest reluctancy and trouble of mind imaginable, that he should be brought under the necessity of such a cruel accident, as to be forced to speak words of death to him, whose life he tenders more passionately than his own.

Now this being the temper and disposition that is required in a reprover, it easily appears, that nothing can be more deformed and uncharitable than scoffs and bitter sarcasms thrown at a poor guilty person; than to insult over his calamity, and to seem, as it were, to taste and relish his distress. A jeering reprover is like a jeering judge, than which there cannot be imagined, either in nature or manners, a thing more odious and intolerable. And therefore the Roman orator, discoursing of sceptical urbanity, or jesting, how far it was allowable in speeches and pleadings, lays down an excellent rule, fit to be 124 owned by the most Christian charity, that two things were by no means to be made the subject of jest; namely, great crimes and great miseries; for if these be made the matter of our mirth, what can be the argument of our sorrow? There is something in them at which nature shrinks and is aggrieved; so that it beholds them with horror and uneasiness: and nothing but a very ill mind, improved by a very ill custom, can frame itself to pleasant apprehensions upon such occasions; for that any man should be merry, because another has offended God, or undone himself, is certainly a thing very unnatural.

But then further; as reproofs are not to be managed with bitter and scurrilous reflections upon the offender, so neither is the offence itself to be aggravated by higher and blacker expressions, than the nature of the thing or the necessity of the occasion requires. He that is to reprove is to remember, that his business is not to declaim and shew his parts, but to work a cure. And some actions are so confessedly lewd, that but to hint them to the offender is sufficient to cover him with shame and sad remembrances, without a morose and particular insisting upon the description of their vileness; which being to tell the guilty person no more than what he knew before, cannot properly serve to in form, but only to upbraid and afflict him; which is none of the works of charity, as every reprehension ought to be.

David was not to be informed of the enormity of the sins of murder and adultery, and to have long harangues made before him, to aggravate and set forth their filthiness; and therefore, when the prophet Nathan was to bring him a reproof from heaven, 125 and to call him to repentance, we see with what insinuations and arts of gentleness he does it; he represents the injustice and unreasonableness of what he had done in a parallel case, leaving him to make the application; by which, having brought him to the confession of his sin, he does not presently fill his ears with tragical exclamations about the impiety and grossness of it, both in respect of the person that committed it, and the persons upon whom it was committed; a work fitter for a schoolmaster than a prophet; but he answers his confession with a declaration of pardon, seconded only with a gentle item, or admonition; The Lord has done away thy sin; thou shalt not die: howbeit, by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. Nothing could have been spoke more gently, and yet more forcibly, to melt him down into a penitential sorrow for, and an abhorrence of those two foul deviations from the law of God. But there is a sort of men in the world, pretending to a degree of purity and acquaintance with the mind of God above other mortals, that upon such an opportunity would have called up all their spleen and poison, and have reviled him at least two hours by the clock; and could no more have refrained doing so, than they could have held their breath so long.

Before I pass from this rule of managing reproofs with words of meekness, candour, and compassion; I cannot but think this also necessary to be added, that they are to be managed without superciliousness, and a certain spiritual arrogance, by which the reprover looks upon the guilty person with disdain, in comparison of that higher measure of holiness 126 and perfection, that upon this account he presumes to be in himself. But this is for pride to reprehend other vices, which perhaps, in the sight of God, carry a much less guilt.

He that has a criminal and a vicious person under his reproof, should speak as one that thankfully ascribes it to God’s mere grace, that he is not as bad himself, having the same nature, and the same natural corruptions, to betray him to all the evil and villainy that can be, if God should but desert and leave him to his own strength. By this means he treats the offender as his equal, his brother, and naturally standing upon the same ground, the vantage being entirely from divine favour; of which a man may have cause to be glad indeed, but no cause to boast.

For let that proud pharisee that shall reprove a publican with words of insultation and boasting, that he is not such an one as he, tell me how he knows, that, had he been placed under the same circumstances and opportunities of sin, he should not have been prevailed upon to do the same for which, with so much arrogance, he reproves or rather baits another. Was it not the mercy of Providence, that cast the scene of his life out of the way of temptation? that placed the flax and the stubble out of the reach of the fire? And what cause has he then to be bitter and insolent upon him, that God thought fit to deny these advantages to, though otherwise of no worse mould or make, or less merit than himself?

But this is not to be passed by, that, as God most peculiarly and directly hates such an arrogant disposition, as is apt to crow and insult over the failings and lapses of others; so it is ten to one but that, 127some time or other, he lets loose some fierce temptation upon such an one, and leaves him so far to himself, that he falls foully and scandalously, to the perpetual abasement of his pride, and the infamy of his person; in which case, all the daggers that he threw at others are, with greater force and sharpness, returned upon his own breast, where formerly there dwelt so little compassion to his offending brother.

And therefore, surely, I should think it concerned every one, about to reprove any vicious persons what soever, first to allay his spirit, and to compose himself to mildness and moderation, with that excellent admonition of the apostle, Gal. vi. 1, If a man be overtaken in a fault, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. And believe it, it will be but an uncomfortable revolution, when he that once bore himself high upon his innocence, and then shewed no mercy upon others, shall come to have the same need of mercy himself.

4. The fourth and last rule that I shall mention, for the completing of our direction about this duty, is, that a reproof be not continued or repeated, after amendment of that which occasioned the reproof. For this is both malicious and useless; malicious, because it renews a man’s torment, and revives his calamity; and then useless, because the man is al ready reformed.

Pardon is still to be accompanied with oblivion; not that it is in our power to forget a thing when we will; but it is in our power to behave ourselves as if we had forgot it; with that friendliness of address, that unconcernment of speech, that openness 128 and respect of carriage that we use to persons that never did those actions which others have only left off to do.

But to be still sarcastically reminding of a penitent amended person of his former miscarriages, which perhaps stand cancelled in heaven, and even blotted out of the book of God’s remembrance; it is like the breaking open of graves, to rake out bones and putrefaction, and argues not only an unchristian, but an inhuman, wolfish disposition.

Let this suffice to render every such person inexcusable to himself, that he would not endure to wish that either God or man should deal so by him; and if so, there can be no such true and infallible demonstration of his baseness, as the impartial measure of this rule.

And thus much for the first thing, wherein flattery does consist; namely, the concealing and not reproving the defects and faults of obnoxious persons; which, understood with those due limitations hither to laid down, will be able to keep him, whose place or condition may at any time call him to this work, both from a sordid, undutiful silence on one hand, and from a saucy, meddling, bitter impertinence on the other.

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