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THE WISDOM OF RELIGION.
I have seen an end of all perfection; but thy commandment is exceeding broad.—Psal. cxix. 90.
THIS psalm seems to have a great deal more of poetical number and skill in it, than at this distance from the time and age in which it was written, we can easily understand; the main scope and design of it is very plain and. obvious; namely, to magnify the law of God, and the observation of its precepts, as that wherein true religion doth mainly consist. And, indeed, if we attentively read and consider it, every part of this psalm does with great variety of expression, and yet very little difference of the sense, des cant upon the same ground; viz. the excellency and perfection of the law of God. And the words of the text seem to be as full and comprehensive of the sense and design of the whole psalm, as any one sentence in it; “I have seen an end of all perfection; but thy commandment is exceeding broad.”
These words are variously rendered and under stood by interpreters, who yet in this variety do very much conspire and agree in the same sense. The Chaldee paraphrase renders the words thus: “I have seen an end of all things, about which I have employed my care; but thy commandment is very large.” The Syriac version thus: “I have seen an end of all regions and countries (that is, I have found the compass of this habitable world to be 164finite and limited); but thy commandment is of a vast extent.” Others explain it thus: “I have seen an end of all perfection;” that is, of all the things of this world, which men value and esteem at so high a rate; of all worldly wisdom and knowledge, of wealth, and honour, and greatness, which do all perish and pass away; “but thy law is eternal, and still abideth the same;” or, as the Scripture else where expresseth it, “the word of the Lord endureth for ever.”
Thy law; that is, the rule of our duty natural and revealed; or, in a word, religion, which consists in the knowledge and practice of the laws of God, is of greater perfection than all other things which are so highly valued in this world; for the perfection of it is infinite, and of a vast influence and extent; it reacheth to the whole man, to the happiness of body and soul; to our whole duration, both in this world and the next; of this life, and of that which is to come. And this will clearly appear, if we consider the reasonableness and the wisdom of religion, which consists in the knowledge of God, and the keeping of his laws.
First, The reasonableness of religion, which is able to give a very good account of itself, because it settles the mind of man upon a firm basis, and keeps it from rolling in perpetual uncertainty; whereas atheism and in6delity wants a stable foundation; it centres no where but in the denial of God and religion, and yet substitutes no principle, no tenable and constituent scheme of things, in the place of them; its whole business is to unravel all things, to unsettle the mind of man, and to shake all the common notions and received principles of mankind; it bends its whole force to pull down and 165to destroy, but lays no foundation to build any thing upon in the stead of that which it pulls down.
It runs upon that great absurdity which Aristotle (who was always thought a great master of reason) does every where decry, as a principle unworthy of a philosopher; namely, a progress of causes in infinitum, and without end; that this was the cause of that, and a third thing of that, and so on without end, which amounts to just nothing; and finally resolves an infinite number of effects into no first cause; than which nothing can be more unskilful and bung ling, and less worthy of a philosopher. But this I do not intend at present to insist upon, having treated largely on the same subject upon another11 See Sermon I. Vol. i. occasion. I shall therefore proceed, in the
Second place, to consider the wisdom of religion. “The fear of the Lord is wisdom,” so saith the psalmist; it is true wisdom indeed, it is the beginning of wisdom, caput sapientiae, the top and perfection of all wisdom. Here true wisdom begins, and upon this foundation it is raised and carried on to perfection; and I shall, in my following discourse, endeavour to make out these two things:
First, That true wisdom begins and is founded in religion, in the fear of God, and in the keeping of his commandments.
Secondly, That this is the perfection of wisdom; there is no wisdom without this, nor beyond it.
First, True wisdom begins and is founded in religion, and the fear of God, and regard to his laws. This is the first principle of wisdom, and the foundation upon which the whole design of our happiness is to be built. This is, in the first place, to be supposed, 166and to be taken into consideration in all the designs and actions of men: this is to govern our whole life, and to have a main influence upon all the affairs and concernments of it. As the first principle of human society, and that which is to run through the whole frame of it, is the public good; this was always to be taken into consideration, and to give law to all laws and constitutions about it: so religion is the first principle of human wisdom, by which all our actions are to be conducted and governed; and all wisdom which does not begin here, and lay religion for its foundation, is preposterous, and begins at the wrong end; and is just as if, in the forming of human society, every one in the settlement of the constitution, and the framing of laws, should have an eye to his own private and particular advantage, without regard to the public good, which is the great end of society, and the rule and measure of government and laws, and, in the last issue and result of things, the only way to procure the settled welfare, and to secure the lasting interests of particular persons, so far as that is consistent with the public good. And it would be a very preposterous policy to go about to found human society upon any other terms, and would certainly end in mischief and confusion.
And such is all the wisdom of men, in relation to their true happiness, which does not begin with religion, and lay its foundation there: which does not take into consideration God and his providence, and a future state of rewards and punishments after this life. All wisdom which does not proceed upon a supposition of the truth and reality of these principles, will certainly end in shame and disappointment, in misery and ruin; because it builds a house 167upon the sand, which when it comes to be tried by stress of weather, and assaulted by violent storms, will undoubtedly fall, and the fall of it will be great.
And this error every man commits who pursues happiness by following his own inclination, and gratifying his irregular desires, without any consideration of God, and of the restraint which his laws have laid upon us, not for his own pleasure but for our good. For when all things are duly considered, and all accounts cast up, it will appear, upon a just calculation of things, that all the restraints which the laws of God lay upon men are highly reasonable, and greatly for their benefit and advantage, and do not abridge us of any pleasure or happiness; but are wise and merciful provisions of heaven, to prevent our harm and mischief; so that we are not wise, if we act without regard to God, and his laws, and are not willing to be governed by him, who loves us better than we do ourselves, and truly designs our happiness, and commands us nothing but what directly tends to it. For the laws of God are not arbitrary constitutions, and mere in stances of sovereign will and power; but wise rules and means to procure and advance our happiness.
And, in like manner, all that wisdom which men use to compass their worldly designs, of riches and greatness, without consideration of the providence of God, and dependance upon it for the success of our affairs, is all perfect folly and mistake. For though the design be never so well laid and vigorously prosecuted, and no means, which human wisdom can devise for the attaining of our end, have been omitted by us; yet, if we leave God out of the account, we forget that which is principal, and signifies more to the success of any design, than all 168other things put together. For if God favours our designs, the most improbable shall take effect; and if he blow upon them, the most likely shall miscarry. Whenever he pleaseth to interpose to cross the counsels and designs of men, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; neither yet bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favour to men of skill; but time and chance happens to all.”
So that it is great folly not to consider the providence of God in all our designs and undertakings, not to implore his favour and blessing, without which nothing that we take in hand can pros per. That which is principal to any purpose, ought to be considered in the first place, nothing being to be attempted either without or against it. And such is the providence of God in all human affairs; it is more considerable to the promoting or hindering of any event, than all things in the world besides; and therefore all policy, which sets aside God and his providence is vain; because there is no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel, against the Lord.
So likewise all that wisdom which only considers and regards this short life, and the narrow concernments of it, and makes provision only for our welfare in this world; and therefore can only be tempted with the hopes of temporal advantages, and terrified only with the danger of temporal evils and sufferings; but hath no sense of an immortal spirit within us, no prospect of a life after death, no consideration of a happy or miserable eternity, of rewards and punishments, infinitely greater than all the temptations and terrors of time and sense: I say, all this is a preposterous and pernicious wisdom, 169and proceeds upon a false supposition, and a quite contrary scheme of things to what really is; and consequently, our whole life, and all the designs and actions of it, do run upon a perpetual mistake, and a false stating of our own case; and whatever we do pursuant to this mistake is foolish and hurtful, and so far from conducing to our true interest, that it is all either besides it or contrary to it; because we act upon a supposal only of this life, and a being only in this world, and that there is nothing either to be feared or hoped for beyond it; and being thus grossly mistaken, we set our hearts only upon temporal things, and study our present security and satisfaction; and, in all our counsels and actions, are swayed only by the consideration of temporal good and evil, of the present ease and pleasure, the disturbance and pain of our fleshly and sensual parts; without any sense of our own immortality, and of that everlasting state which remains for us in another world.
But there is (my brethren) most certainly, there is another life after this; we are not beasts, if we do not make ourselves so; and if we die, we shall not die like them, neither shall our last end be like theirs. For whatever we may think or wish, it shall not be in our power to extinguish our own beings when we have a mind to be rid of them, and to choose whether or no we shall live for ever.
And if this be a false scheme of things which we have framed to ourselves, and proceed upon (as undoubtedly it is), then our whole life is one great error, and a perpetual mistake, and we are quite wrong in all that we design to do. Our wisdom hath begun at the wrong end, and we have made a false calculation and account of things, and have 170put our case otherwise than it is; and the farther we proceed upon this mistake, our miscarriage will be so much the more fatal in the issue. But if our wisdom begin at the right end, and our case be truly stated, that God hath put into these frail and mortal bodies of ours immortal spirits that shall live for ever; and hath sent us into this world to sojourn here for a little while, and to be disciplined and trained up for eternity; and that, after a short proof and trial of our obedience, we shall be translated into an everlasting state of unspeakable happiness or misery, according as we have demeaned ourselves in this world; if we believe this to be truly our case, our interest is then plainly before us, and we see where our happiness lies, and what remains for us to do, in order to the obtaining of it, and what we are to expect to suffer if we do it not.
Now this foundation being laid, it is evident, that the best thing we can do for ourselves, is to provide for our future state, and to secure the everlasting happiness of another life. And the best way to do that is, to live in obedience to those laws which our Maker and our sovereign hath prescribed to us; and according to which he will one day sentence us to eternal rewards or punishments.
It is evident, likewise, that all our sensual appetites and desires are to be bounded by the rules of reason and virtue, which are the laws of God; and that no present ease and pleasure, trouble and suffering, are to be considered and regarded by us, in competition with the things which are eternal; and that sin is of all other the greatest evil, and most mischievous to our main interest, and therefore with all possible care to be avoided; and that the favour of God is to be sought, and the salvation of our 171souls to be provided for, at any pains and expense whatsoever, and even with the hazard and loss of our dearest interests in this world, yea, and of life itself.
And now, if this matter hath been rightly stated, then religion and the fear of God is the first principle and foundation of true wisdom, and that which we are to consider, and take along with us in all the designs and actions of our lives; and all wisdom which does not begin here is preposterous, and will prove folly in the issue.
Secondly, As religion is the beginning of wisdom, so it is the perfection of it; it is the highest point of wisdom in which we can be instructed: “The fear of the Lord (says Solomon, Prov. xv. 33.) is the instruction of wisdom.” “A good understanding (says David, Psal. cxi. 10.) have all they that do his commandments.” The practice of religion is the perfection of wisdom; and he understands himself best who lives most according to the laws of God. And this I might shew, by instancing in particular virtues, the practice whereof is much wiser, and every way more for our interest, than the contrary vices; but this is too large an argument to engage in, and therefore I shall content myself at present, briefly to shew, that the chief characters and proper ties of wisdom do all meet in religion, and agree to it.
The first point of wisdom is to understand our true interest, and to be right in our main end; and in this religion will best instruct and direct us. And if we be right in our main end, and true to the interest of it, we cannot miscarry: but if a man mistake in this, he errs fatally, and his whole life is vanity and folly.
Another property of wisdom is to be steady and 172vigorous in the prosecution of our main end; to oblige us hereto religion gives us the most powerful arguments—the glorious happiness, and the dismal misery of another world.
The next point of wisdom is, to make all things stoop and become subservient to our main end. And wherever religion bears sway, it will make all other things subordinate to the salvation of our souls, and the interests of our everlasting happiness; as the men of this world make every thing to submit and give way to their covetous, and ambitious, and sensual designs.
Another part of wisdom is to consider the future, and to look to the last end and issue of things. It is a common folly among men to be so intent upon the present, as to have little or no regard to the future, to what will be hereafter. Men design and labour for this present life, and their short continuance here in this world, without taking into serious consideration their main duration, and their eternal abode in another world. But religion gives us a clear prospect of a life after death, and overlooks time, and makes eternity always present to us, and minds us of making timely provision and preparation for it. It takes into consideration our whole duration, and inspires us with wisdom, to look to the end of things, and to what will be hereafter, as well as to what is present.
It is likewise a great property of wisdom to se cure the main chance, and to run no hazard in that. And this religion directs us to take care of, because the neglect of it will prove fatal.
Another mark of wisdom is, to lay hold of opportunities, those especially which, when they are once past, will never return again. There are some 173seasons wherein great things may be done, which, if they be let slip, are never to be retrieved. A wise man will lay hold of these, and improve them: and religion inculcates this principle of wisdom upon us, that this life is the opportunity of doing great things for ourselves, and of making ourselves for ever; this very day and hour may, for aught we know, be the last and only opportunity of repentance, and making our peace with God: therefore “to-day, whilst it is called to-day,” let us set about this necessary work, “lest any of us be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin;” to-morrow it may be too late to begin it, and the justice of God may cut us off whilst we are wilfully delaying it; and the opportunities of saving our immortal souls may vanish, and be for ever hid from our eyes.
The next property of wisdom is, to foresee dangers, and to take timely care to prevent them. “The prudent man (saith Solomon) foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself;” that is, shelters and secures himself against it; “but the simple pass on and are punished;” that is, the evil overtakes them, and their folly is punished in their fatal ruin. Now, the greatest danger is from the greatest power; even from “Him who is able to save and to destroy:” “I will tell you (says the wisdom of God) whom ye shall fear: fear him who, after he hath killed, can destroy both body and soul in hell.”
Again, another main point of wisdom is, to do as little as we can to be repented of, trusting rather to the wisdom of prevention, than to that of remedy. Religion first teacheth men innocency, and not to offend; but in case we do (as in many things we offend all), it then directs us to repentance as the only remedy. But this certainly is folly to sin in 174hopes of repentance; that is, first to make work for repentance, and then run the hazard of it; for we may certainly sin, but it is not certain that we shall repent. And if it were, yet it is great folly to lay in beforehand, and to make work for trouble; Nae tu stultus homuncio es, qui malis veniam precari, quam non peccare, was a wise saying of old Cato: “Thou art (says he) a silly man indeed, who choosest rather to ask forgiveness, than not to offend.” If a man had the best remedy in the world, he would not make himself sick to try the virtue of it; and it is a known comparison, and a very fit one, that repentance is tabula post naufragium, “a plank after shipwreck.” But I am greatly afraid that thousands of souls, who have trusted to it, have perished before they could get to land, with this plank in their arms.
The last character of wisdom I shall mention is, in all things to consult the peace and satisfaction of our own minds, without which nothing else can make us happy: and this, obedience to the laws of God does naturally procure. “Great peace have they (says David) that love thy law, and nothing shall offend them.” “The work of righteousness (says the prophet) shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.” The fear of God, and the keeping of his commandments, is the best preservative against the troubles of a guilty conscience, and the terrifying apprehensions of a future judgment. And this is the great wisdom of religion; that whosoever liveth according to the rules and precepts of it, prevents the chief causes of discontent, and lays the surest foundation of a perpetual satisfaction of mind, a jewel of inestimable price, which none knows but he that has it, and he that hath it knows the value of it too well to 175part with it for the pleasures of sin, which are but for a season, and which always prove bitterness in the end, and, for the little sweetness which they yielded, leave a terrible sting behind them.
Thus I have briefly represented the reasonableness and wisdom of religion. It is of infinite perfection, and of a vast influence and extent; it reacheth to the whole man, the happiness of soul and body; and to our whole duration, the happiness of this world and the next; for godliness, that is, true religion and piety, hath the promise of this life, and of that which is to come.
But, now, where are the effects of true religion, in the full compass and extent of it, to be found? such real effects as do, in any measure, bear a proportion to the power and perfection of their cause? for nothing, certainly, is more excellent and amiable in its definition than true religion is; but, alas! how imperfect is it in the subject! I mean in us, who ought to shew forth the power and perfection of it, in the practice and actions of our lives, the best demonstration of the excellent frame and temper of our minds.
What a conflict and struggling do the best men find between their inclination and their duty! how hard to reconcile our practice and our knowledge, and to make our lives to agree with the reason of our minds, and the clear conviction of our consciences! How difficult for a man, in this dangerous and imperfect state, to be, in any measure, either so wise or good as he ought! How rare is it for a man to be good-natured, gentle, and easy to be entreated, without being often betrayed into some weakness and sinful compliances, especially in the bad company of our betters! How next to impossible is it to 176be strict and severe in our lives, without being sour! to govern our lives with that perpetual caution, and to maintain that evenness of temper, as not to be sometimes peevish and passionate! and, when we are so, not to be apt to say with Jonah, “we do well to be angry!”
There are two precepts in the New Testament, that seem to me to be the nicest of all other, and hardest to be put in practice. One is that of our blessed Saviour, “be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.” How hard is it to hit upon the just temper of wisdom and innocency; to be wise, and hurt nobody; to be innocent, without being silly! The other is that of the apostle, “be angry and sin not.” How difficult is this—never to be angry but upon just cause! and, when the cause of our anger is just, not to be transported beyond due bounds, either as to the degree of our anger, or as to the duration and continuance of it: this is so very nice a matter, that one would be almost tempted to think, that this were, in effect, a prohibition of anger in any case: “be ye angry, and sin not:” be ye so, if ye can, with out sin. I believe whosoever observes it, will find that it is as easy to suppress this passion at any time, as to give way to it, without offending in one kind or other. But to proceed,
How hard a matter is it to be much in company, and free in conversation, and not to be infected by it? to live in the midst of a wicked world, and yet to keep ourselves free from the vices of it? to be temperate in the use of things pleasing, so as neither to injure our health, nor to lose the use of our reason, nor to offend against conscience? to fast often, without being conceited of it, and bargaining, as it were, with God for some greater liberties in another 177kind; and without censuring those who do not tie up themselves to our strict rules, cither of piety or abstinence? when, perhaps, they have neither the same opportunities of doing it, nor the same reason to do it that we have; nay, perhaps, have a much bet ter reason for not doing just as we do: for no man is to prescribe to others his own private method, either of fasting or of devotion, as if he were the rule, and his example a kind of proclamation, en joining all his neighbours the same days of lasting and prayer which he himself, for reasons best known to himself, thinks fit to observe.
And, then, how hard is it to be cheerful without being vain? and grave and serious, without being morose? to be useful and instructive to others in our conversation and discourse, without assuming too much authority to ourselves? which is not the best and most effectual way of doing good to others; there being something in the nature of man which had rather take a hint and intimation from another, to advise himself, and would rather choose to imitate the silent good example which they see in another, than to have either his advice or his example imposed upon them.
How difficult is it to have a mind equal to every condition, and to be content with mean and mode rate things? to be patient in adversity, and humble in prosperity, and meek upon sudden and violent provocations? to keep our passions free from getting head of our reason, and our zeal from outrunning our knowledge? to have a will perfectly submitted and resigned to the will of God, even when it lies cross and thwart to ours, so that whatever pleases God should please us? to be resolute when our duty happens to be difficult and dangerous; or even 178to believe that to be our duty (though it certainly be so) which is very inconvenient for us to do? to hold out and be unwearied in well-doing? to be careful to preserve our lives, and yet, upon a great occasion, and whenever God calls for them, to be content to lay them down?
To be wise and innocent; men in understanding, and yet in malice children? to have many great virtues, and not to want that which gives the great lustre to them all, I mean real and unaffected modesty and humility? In short,
How difficult is it to have regard to all God’s commandments, and to hate every evil and false way? to have our duty continually in our eye, and ready to be put into practice upon every proper occasion? to have God and the consideration of another world always before us, present to our minds, and operative upon our practice? to live as those that know they must die, and to have our thoughts perpetually awake, and intent upon the great and everlasting concernments of our immortal souls?
These are great things, indeed, easy to be talked of, but hard to be done; nay, not to be done at all without frequent and fervent prayer to God, and the continual aids and supplies of his grace; not with out an earnest endeavour on our parts, a vigorous resistance of temptations, and many a sore conflict with our own perverse wills and sensual inclinations; not without a perpetual guard and watchfulness over our lives, and our unruly appetites and passions.
Little do inexperienced men, and those who have taken no great pains with themselves, imagine, what thought and consideration, what care and attention, what resolution and firmness of mind, what diligence 179and patient continuance in well-doing, are requisite lo make a truly good man; such an one as St. Paul describes, that is, “perfect and entire, and wanting nothing;” that follows God fully, and fulfils every part of his duty, having “a conscience void of offence towards God and towards man.” Who is there among us, that is either wise enough for his own direction, or good enough for the peace and satisfaction of his own mind; that is so happy as to know his duty, and to do it; as to have both the understanding and the, will to do in all things as he ought?
After our best care, and all our pains and endeavours, the most of us will still find a great many defects in our lives, and cannot but discern great and manifold imperfections in our very best duties and services; insomuch, that we shall be forced to make the same acknowledgment concerning them, which Solomon does concerning the imperfection of all things under the sun; “that which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” And, when all is done, we have all of us reason to say, not only that “we are unprofitable servants, having done nothing but what was our duty to do;” but have cause likewise, with great shame and confusion of face, to acknowledge that we have been in many respects wicked and slothful servants; and so very far from having done what was our duty to do, that the greatest part of the good which the most of us have done, is the least part of the good which we might and ought to have done.
The practice of religion, in all the parts and in stances of our duty, is work more than enough for the best and greatest mind, for the longest and best 180ordered life, “the commandment of God is exceeding broad;” and an obedience, in any good measure equal to the extent of it, extremely difficult. And, after all, as the man in the gospel said, with tears, to our Saviour, concerning the weakness of his own faith, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” (Mark ix. 24.) So the best of men may say, and say it with tears too, concerning every grace and virtue wherein they excel most; “Lord, I aspire, I endeavour after it, be thou pleased to assist my weakness, and to help me by thy grace continually to do better.”
The sum of all is this: if we be careful to do our best, and make it the constant and sincere endeavour of our lives to please God, and to keep his commandments, we shall be accepted of him: for God values this more than “whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices,” more than “thousands of rams, and ten thousands of rivers of oil;” because this is an essential part of religion, “To love God with all our hearts, and minds, and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves.” The duties comprehended in these two great commandments, sincerely practised by us (though with a great deal of imperfection), will certainly be acceptable in the sight of God, in and through the merits and mediation of “Jesus Christ the righteous.” “Blessed are they (saith St. John very plainly, in the conclusion of that obscure book of his Revelation), blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life.” (Rev. xxii. 14.)
I speak now to a great many who are at the upper end of the world, and command all the pleasures and enjoyments of it; but the time is coming, and (whether we think of it or not) is very near at hand, 181when we shall see “an end of all perfection,” and of all that is desirable upon earth, and upon which men are apt to value themselves so much in this world; and then nothing but religion, and the conscience of having done our duty to God and man, will stand us in stead, and yield true comfort to us. When we are going to leave the world, how shall we then wish that we had made religion the great business of our lives; and, in the day of God’s grace and mercy, had exercised repentance, and made our peace with God, and prepared ourselves for another world; that, after our departure hence, we might be admitted into “the presence of God, where is fulness of joy, and at whose right hand are pleasures for evermore?”
Let no man, therefore, of what rank or condition soever he be in this world, think himself too great to be good, and too wise to be religious, and to take care of his immortal soul, and his everlasting happiness in another world; since nothing but this will approve itself to be true wisdom at the last. All other things will have an end with this life; but religion and the fear of God is of a vast extent, and hath an influence upon our whole duration; and, after the course of this life is ended, will put us into the secure possession of a happiness, which shall never have an end.
I will conclude this whole discourse with those words of our blessed Saviour, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” Which thou, who art the eternal spring of truth and goodness, grant that we may all know and do in this our day, for thy mercies’ sake in Jesus Christ; to whom, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, dominion and power, now and for ever. Amen.182
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