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[Preached on St. Luke’s Day.]
THE REPUTATION OF GOOD MEN AFTER DEATH.
The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.—Psal. cxii. 6.
AS the desire and hope of immortality, which is implanted in human nature, is some evidence of the thing, so likewise, that natural desire which is in men to have a good name perpetuated, and to be remembered, and mentioned with honour, when they are dead and gone, is a sign that there is in human nature some presage of a life after death; in which they hope, among other rewards of well doing, to meet with this also, to be well spoken of to posterity: and though probably we should not know the good that is said of us when we are dead, yet it is an encouragement to virtue, to be secured of it beforehand, and to find by experience, that they who have done their part well in this life go oft with applause, and that the memory of their good actions is preserved and transmitted to posterity.
And among the many advantages of piety and virtue, this is not altogether inconsiderable, that it reflects an honour upon our memory after death; which is a thing much more valuable than to have our bodies preserved from putrefaction: for that 1 think is the meaning of Solomon, when he prefers a good name before precious ointment: (Eccl. vii. 1.) “A good name is better than precious ointment.” This 404they used in embalming of dead bodies, to preserve them from noisomeness and corruption: but a good name preserves a man’s memory, and makes it grateful to posterity; which is a far greater benefit than that of a precious ointment, which serves only to keep a dead body from stench and rottenness.
I shall briefly explain the words, and then consider the matter contained in them; “The righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.” By the righteous, is probably here meant the good man in general; for though justice and righteousness are in Scripture frequently used for that particular virtue, whereby a man is disposed to render to every man his own, which is known by the name of justice; yet it is less frequently, and perhaps in this place, used in a larger sense, so as to comprehend all piety and virtue. For so the righteous man is described at the beginning of this Psalm, “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, that delighteth greatly in his commandments:” and he is opposed to the wicked man, (ver. 10.) “the wicked shall see it and be grieved;” that is, he shall be troubled to see the prosperity of the righteous; the manifold blessings of his life, and the good name he shall leave behind him at his death; which is the meaning of his being “in everlasting remembrance;” that is, long after he is dead, perhaps for many ages, he shall be well spoken of, and his name mentioned with honour, and his good deeds recorded and remembered to all posterity.
So that the sense of the words amounts to this—that eminently good men do commonly leave a good name behind them, and transmit a grateful memory of themselves to after-ages. 1 say, commonly, 405for so we are to understand this kind of sayings; not that they are strictly and universally true, without exception; but usually, and for the most part. It is possible that a good man may soon be forgotten by the malice of men, or, through the partiality and iniquity of the age, may have his name blemished after death, and be misrepresented to posterity: but for the most part it is otherwise; and though the world be very wicked, yet it seldom deals so hardly and unjustly with men of eminent goodness and virtue, as to defraud them of their due praise and commendation after death. It very frequently happens otherwise to good men, whilst they are alive; nay, they are then very seldom so justly treated as to be generally esteemed and well spoken of, and to be allowed their due praise and reputation: but after death, their good name is generally secured and vindicated, and posterity does them that right, which perhaps the age wherein they lived denied to them. Therefore, in the prosecution of this argument, I shall inquire into these two things:
First, Whence it comes to pass, that good men are very often defrauded of their just praise and reputation, whilst they are alive: and,
Secondly, What security they have of a good name after death.
First, Whence it comes to pass, that good men are so frequently defrauded of their just praise and reputation, while they are alive. And to give ourselves full satisfaction in this matter, two things are fit to be inquired into.
1. From what cause this proceeds.
2. For what reason the providence of God doth often permit it.406
(1.) From what cause it proceeds, that good men have so often the hard fate to be ill spoken of, and to be severely censured, and to have their worth much detracted from, while they are alive.
And this proceeds, partly from good men themselves, and partly from others.
1. Good men themselves are many times the cause of it. For the best men are imperfect; and present and visible imperfections do very much lessen and abate the reputation of a man’s goodness. It cannot be otherwise, but that the lustre of a great piety and virtue should be somewhat obscured, by that mixture of human frailty which does necessarily attend this state of imperfection: and though a man by great care and consideration, by great vigilancy and pains with himself, be arrived to that degree and pitch of goodness, as to have but a very few visible failing?, and those small, in comparison; yet when these come to be scanned and commented upon, by envy or ill-will, they will be strangely inflamed and magnified, and made much greater, and more than in truth they are. But there are few persons in the world of that excellent goodness, but, besides the common and more pardonable frailties of humanity, they do now and then discover something, which might perhaps justly deserve a severe censure, if some amends were not made for it, by many and great virtues.
Very good men are subject to considerable imprudences and sudden passions; and especially to an affected severity and moroseness of carriage; which is very disgustful, and apt to beget dislike. And they are the more incident to these kind of imperfections; because, out of a just hatred of the vicious customs and practices of the world, and to 407keep out of the way of temptation, they think it safest to retire from the world as much as they can; being loath to venture themselves more than needs in so infectious an air. By this means, their spirits are apt to be a little sour, and they must necessarily be ignorant of many points of civility and good-humour, which are great ornaments of virtue, though not of the essence of it.
Now two or three faults in a good man, if an uncharitable man have but the handling and managing them, may easily cast a considerable blemish upon his reputation; because the better the man is, so much the more conspicuous are his faults; as spots are soonest discovered, and most taken notice of, in a pure and white garment. Besides that, in matters of censure, mankind do much incline to the harder side; and but very few persons are so charitable and equal, as to construe things to the best sense, and to consider a man altogether; and fairly to set the good that is in him, against his faults and imperfections. But,
2. Though good men many times contribute too much to the lessening of their own reputation, with those among whom they live, yet the principal cause of their suffering in this kind, is not from themselves, but others; and that upon these three accounts:
1. From the hatred and opposition of bad men to holiness and virtue; and these are commonly the greatest number, and make the loudest cry. They are declared enemies to goodness; and then, how can it be expected, they should have any great kindness for good men? They want virtue themselves; and therefore they think themselves upbraided by the good qualities of others.408
This enmity of wicked men against the righteous, and the true reason of it, is very well expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon: (chap. ii. ver. 12.) “Let us (say they) lie in wait for the righteous; because he is not for our turn, and is clean contrary to our doings; he upbraideth us with our offending the law, and he objecteth, to our infamy, the sins of our youth: he was made to reprove our thoughts, therefore he is grievous unto us, even to behold; for his life is not like other men, he is quite of another fashion; we are esteemed of him as reprobate silver; he abstaineth from our ways, as from filthiness.” This is that which filleth the minds of wicked men with malice against the righteous; and malice will easily invent ways to blast any man’s reputation. Good men do sometimes, as it is their duty, reprove those that are bad; or if they do it not in word, yet they upbraid them in their actions, and contrary course of life; and both these are grievous and provoking to them. Not but that wicked men are many times in their consciences convinced of the real goodness of those whom they speak against; but they will not own it, lest in so doing they should condemn themselves.
2. Another cause of this, is the envy of those who perhaps have some degree of goodness themselves. For great virtue is apt to raise envy in those who fall short of it; and this makes those who are but imperfectly good, to detract from the eminent worth of others; because they are sensible they are outshined by them, and that it occasions a disadvantageous comparison, and makes their defects taken notice of.
They can endure a man that is moderately good, and keeps pace with his neighbours: but if he endeavour 409to outstrip them, they presently combine against him, and take all opportunities to undermine his reputation; and will be very glad, either to find a blot in his escutcheon, or to fix one there.
3. There is something in the very presence and nearness of goodness and virtue, which is apt to lessen it.
In matters of sense, the nearer the object is, the bigger it appears; and the farther distant it is from us, the less it seems to be: but here it is quite otherwise; men are not so apt to value present worth, when [yet they will reverence it mightily at a distance.
I know not whence it comes to pass, but so we certainly find it, that men are more sensible of the goodness and excellency of any thing, under the want of it, than while they enjoy it; and do usually value it more when it is gone, than they did whilst it was present with them. Whilst we live with good men, and converse with them every day, we take but little notice of them; but no sooner are they departed, but we admire them, and every man’s mouth is open to celebrate their good qualities. Perhaps familiarity, and acquaintance, and conversation does insensibly beget something of contempt; but whatever the reason of it be, we find the thing most certainly true in experience.
(2.) Let us consider in the next place, for what reasons the providence of God permits it thus to be. I shall mention but these two.
1. To keep good men humble, and, as the expression is in Job, “to hide pride from men.”
God’s providence, in the disposal and ordering of things in this world, seems rather to consult our safety, than our satisfaction; and the security of our 410virtue, than the full reward of it. Now, if good men should always meet with that clear esteem and reputation which their goodness deserves, they would be in great danger of being puffed up with a proud conceit of themselves; and pride is enough to supplant the greatest virtue in the world; such a dead fly, as this, were sufficient to spoil a box of the most precious ointment. For man is an ambitious creature, and vain above all things; so vain, as not only to be covetous of praise, but even patient of flattery: and the best of men lie too open on this blind side of human nature; and therefore, God, who knows our frame, and how apt dust and ashes are to be proud, hath in his wise and merciful providence so disposed things, that good men are seldom exposed to the full force of so strong a temptation. And for this reason he lets loose envious and malicious tongues to detract from good men, for a check to the vanity of human nature, and to keep their virtue safe, under the protection of humility.
And this is the way likewise to secure the reputation which they have, and which otherwise would be in danger of being lost: for he that is once proud of the esteem he hath got, takes the readiest way to fall into contempt; and certainly it is better of the two, that our reputation should suffer a little by the malice of others, than be ruined by our own pride and vanity.
God does not envy good men the reputation of their goodness and virtue; but he knows the weakness of human nature, and “will not suffer it to be tempted, above what it is able.” When good men are grown up to perfection, and able to bear it, as they will be when they come to heaven, their good 411name shall be fully vindicated, and they shall have praise not only from men, but from angels, and from God himself.
2. This life is not the proper season of reward, but of work and service.
In this life, God is pleased to give some present encouragement to piety and virtue, but reserves the main of our recompence to be bestowed upon us at the end of our work. When our course is finished, then, and not before, we must expect our crown; when our accounts are cast up and stated, and it appears what improvement we have made of our talents, then will come the Euge bone serve, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” In the mean time, good men must be content with such a portion of esteem, as an envious and ill-natured world will afford them.
And thus I have done with the first thing I proposed to inquire into—whence it comes to pass that good men are frequently defrauded of their due praise and reputation while alive. I proceed to the
Second inquiry, namely, What security good men have of a good name after death,
And the true account of this is to be given, partly from the providence of God, and partly from the nature of the thing.
(1.) From the providence of God; which is concerned herein, upon a twofold account.
1. In respect of the equity of it.
2. In regard of the example of it.
1. In respect of the equity of it. God, who will not be behindhand with any man, concerns himself, to secure to good men the proper reward of their piety and virtue. Now praise is one of the most proper recompences of good and virtuous actions; 412this good men seldom meet with in this life, with out a great deal of allay and abatement; and therefore the providence of God hath so ordered things, that it should come in the properest season, when our work is done, and when we are out of the danger of the temptation of it.
2. In regard of the example of it. It is a great argument to virtue, and encouragement to men to act their part well, to see good men applauded, when they go off the stage. Every man, that hath any spark of generosity in him, is desirous of fame; and though men care not how soon it comes, yet they will be glad to have it after death, rather than not at all. Piety and virtue would be but very melancholy and uncomfortable things, if they should always be so unfortunate, as never to meet with due esteem and approbation; but when men are assured that they shall have this reward one time or other, and observe it to be so in experience, this is a great spur and encouragement to do virtuously: and a great mind, that hath a just sense of reputation and a good name, will be content to lay in for it before hand; and patiently to wait the time which God knows fittest for the bestowing of it.
(2.) The other part of the account of this truth, is to be given from the nature of the thing: because death removes and takes away the chief obstacle of a good man’s reputation. For then his defects are out of sight, and men are contented that his imperfections should be buried in his grave with him. Death hath put him out of the reach of malice and envy; his worth and excellency does now no longer stand in other men’s light; his great virtues are at a distance, and not so apt to be brought into comparison, to the prejudice and disadvantage of the 413living; mortui non mordent; the example of the dead, is not so cutting a reproof to the vice of the living; the good man is removed out of the way, and his example, how bright soever, is not so scorching and troublesome at a distance; and therefore men are generally contented, to give him his due character.
Besides that, there is a certain civility in human nature, which will not suffer men to wrong the dead, and to deny them the just commendation of their worth. Even the scribes and pharisees (as bad a sort of men as we can well imagine), though they were just like their fathers in persecuting and slaying the prophets, while they were alive; yet had they a mighty veneration for their piety and virtue after they were dead, and thought no honour too great to be done to them. They would be at the charge of raising monuments to the memory of those good men whom their fathers had slain; and whom they would certainly have used in the very same manner, had they either lived in the days of those prophets, or those prophets had lived in their days, as our Saviour plainly told them.
All that now remains is to draw some inferences from what hath been said by way of application; and they shall be these three.
1. To vindicate the honour and respect which the Christian church, for many ages, hath paid to the memory of the first teachers and martyrs of our religion.
2. To encourage us to piety and goodness, from this consideration; that “the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.”
3. That when we pretend to honour the memory of good men, we would be careful to imitate their holiness and virtue.414
1. To vindicate the honour which the Christian church hath for many ages done to the first teachers and martyrs of our religion; I mean more especially to the holy apostles of our Lord and Saviour; to whose honour the Christian church hath thought fit to set apart solemn times, for the commemoration of their piety and suffering, and to stir up others to the imitation of them.
This certainly can with no good colour, either from Scripture or reason, be pretended to be unlawful; and when David here says, “the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance,” he cannot certainly be thought to exclude the most solemn way of commemorating their piety and virtue.
I do not pretend this custom can be derived from the very first ages of Christianity; but surely it is sufficient, for the lawfulness of it, that it is no where forbidden; nay, it is rather required here in the text; the best way to preserve the memory of good men, being thus to commemorate them. And it may be of great use to us, if it be not our own fault; the set ting before our eyes the holy lives of excellent men, being in its own nature apt to excite us to the imitation of them.
Besides that, I could tell you, that though this can not be proved so ancient, as some vainly pretend, yet it is of great antiquity in the church, and did be gin in some of the best ages of Christianity, Memoriae martyrum, the meetings of Christians at the tombs of the martyrs—was practised long before the degeneracy of the western church; and the Christians were wont, at those meetings, solemnly to commemorate the faith and constancy of those good men, and to encourage themselves from their examples.
I know, very well, that this did in time degenerate 415into gross superstition, which afterward gave colour and occasion to that gross and idolatrous practice in the church of Rome, of worshipping saints. But this abuse is no sufficient reason for ns to give over the celebrating of the memory of such holy men, as the apostles and martyrs of Christ were; and propounding them to ourselves for our patterns. We may still lawfully give them their due honour; though the church of Rome hath so overdone it, as to rob God of his.
2. Let this consideration, that “the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance,” be an encouragement to us to piety and goodness. This, to a generous nature, that is sensible of honour and reputation, is no small reward and encouragement. Before the happiness of heaven was clearly revealed, and life and immortality brought to light by the gospel, one of the greatest motives to worthy and virtuous deeds, was the earnest desire which men had of leaving a good name behind them, and of perpetuating the fame and glory of their action to after-ages. Upon this ground, chiefly, many of the bravest spirits among the heathen were animated to virtue, and, with the hazard of their lives, to do great and glorious exploits for their country.
And certainly it is an argument of a great mind to be moved by this consideration, and a sign of a low and base spirit to neglect it. He that hath no regard to his fame, is lost to all purposes of virtue and goodness; when a man is once come to this, not to care what others say of him, the next step is, to have no care what he himself does. Quod conscientia est apud Deum, id fama est apud homines; “what conscience is in respect of God, that is fame in respect of men.” Next to a good conscience, a clear reputation 416ought to be to every man the dearest thing in the world. Men have generally a great value for riches; and yet the Scripture pronounceth him the happier man that leaves a good name, than him that leaves a great estate behind him. (Prov. xxii. 1.) “A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.”
If then we have any regard to a good name, the best way to secure it to ourselves, is by the holy and virtuous actions of a good life. Do well, and thou shalt be well spoken of; if not now, yet by those who shall come after: the surest way to glory, and honour, and immortality, is by a patient continuance in well-doing. God hath engaged his promise to us to this purpose: (1 Sam. ii. 30.) “Them that honour me, 1 will honour; and they that despise me, shall be lightly esteemed.” “The name of the wicked shall rot,” says Solomon, (Prov. x. 7.) But God doth usually take a particular care to preserve and vindicate their memory, who are careful to keep his covenant, and remember his commandments to do them.
3dly, and lastly, Whenever we pretend to do honour to the memory of good men, let us charge ourselves with a strict imitation of their holiness and virtue. The greatest honour we can do to God, or good men, is to endeavour to be like them; to express their virtues, and represent them to the world in our lives. Upon these days, we should propound to ourselves, as our patterns, all those holy and excellent persons, who have gone before us; the apostles of our Lord and Saviour, and all those blessed saints and martyrs, who were faithful to the death, and have received a crown of life and immortality.417
We should represent to ourselves the piety of their actions, and the patience and constancy of their sufferings, that we may imitate their virtues, and “be followers of them, who through faith and patience, have inherited the promises; and, seeing we are compassed about with such a cloud of witnesses,” we should “lay aside every weight, and run with patience the race that is set before us.”
Let us imagine all those great examples of piety and virtue, standing about us in a throng, and fixing their eyes upon us: how ought we to demean ourselves in such a presence, and under the eye of such witnesses! and how should we be ashamed to do any thing that is unworthy of such excellent patterns, and blush to look upon our own lives, when we remember their’s! Good God! at what a distance do the greatest part of Christians follow those examples; and, while we honour them with our lips, how unlike are we to them in our lives!
Why do we thus reproach ourselves with these glorious patterns! Let us either resolve to imitate their virtues, or to make no mention of their names; for while we celebrate the examples of saints and holy men, and yet contradict them in our lives, we either mock them, or upbraid ourselves.
Now the God of, peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, &c.418
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