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THE PATIENCE OF GOD.
The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 2 Pet. iii. 9.
IN the beginning of this chapter, the apostle puts the Christians, to whom he writes, in mind of the predictions of the ancient prophets, and of the apostles of our Lord and Saviour, concerning the general judgment of the world, which by many (and, perhaps, by the apostles themselves) had been thought to be very near, and that it would presently follow the destruction of Jerusalem; but he tells them, that before that, there would arise a certain sect, or sort of men, that would deride the expectation of a future judgment, designing, probably, the Carpocratians (a branch of that large sect of the Gnostics), of whom St. Austin expressly says, “That they denied the resurrection, and, consequently, a future judgment.” These St. Peter calls scoffers, (ver. 3, 4.) “Knowing this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming?” The word is ἐπαγγελία, which signifies a declaration in general, whether it be by way of promise or threatening. What is become of that declaration of Christ, so frequently repeated in the gospel, concerning his coming to judgment? “For 76since the fathers fell asleep,” or, saving that the fathers are fallen asleep, except only that men die, and one generation succeeds another, “all things continue as they were from the creation of the world;” that is, the world continues still as it was from the beginning, and there is no sign of any such change and alteration as is foretold. To this he answers two things:
I. That these scoffers, though they took themselves to be wits, did betray great ignorance, both of the condition of the world, and of the nature of God: they talked very ignorantly concerning the world, when they said, “all things continued as they were from the creation of it,” when so remark able a change had already happened, as the destruction of it by water; and therefore, the prediction concerning the destruction of it by fire, before the great and terrible day of judgment, was no ways incredible. And they shewed themselves, likewise, very ignorant of the perfection of the Divine nature; to which, being eternally the same, a thousand years and one day are all one: and if God make good his word some thousands of years hence, it will make no sensible difference concerning his eternal duration; it being no matter when a duration begins, which is never to have an end; (ver. 8.) “Be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thou sand years, and a thousand years as one day.” This, it seems, was a common saying among the Jews, to signify, that to the eternity of God, no finite du ration bears any proportion; and therefore, with regard to eternity, it is all one whether it be a thou sand years, or one day. The Psalmist hath an expression much to the same purpose; (Psal. xc. 4.) 77For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday, when it is past, and as a watch in the night.” And the son of Sirach likewise, (Ecclus. xviii. 10.) “As a drop of water to the sea, and as a grain of sand to the sea-shore, so are a thousand years to the days of eternity.”
The like expression we meet with in heathen writers; “To the gods no time is long,” saith Pythagoras: and Plutarch, “The whole space of a man’s life, to the gods, is as nothing.” And in his excellent discourse of the slowness of the Divine vengeance (the very argument St. Peter is here upon), he hath this passage, “that a thousand, or ten thou sand years, are but as an indivisible point to an in finite duration.” And therefore, when the judgment is to be eternal, the delay of it, though it were for a thousand years, is an objection of no force, against either the certainty, or the terror of it; for, to eternity, all time is equally short; and it matters not when the punishment of sinners begins, if it shall never have an end.
2. But because the distance between the declaration of a future judgment, and the coming of it, though it be nothing to God, yet it seemed long to them; therefore he gives such an account of it, as doth not in the least impeach the truth and faithfulness of God, but is a clear argument and demonstration of his goodness. Admitting what they said to be true, that God delays judgment for a great while, yet this gives no ground to conclude that judgment will never be; but it shews the great goodness of God to sinners, that he gives them so long a space of repentance, that so they may prevent the terror of that day, whenever it comes, and escape that dreadful ruin, which will certainly overtake, 78sooner or later, all impenitent sinners: “the Lord is not slack concerning his promise,” that is, as to the declaration which he hath made of a future judgment, “as some men count slackness;” that is, as if the delay of judgment were an argument it would never come. This is a false inference from the delay of punishment, and an ill interpretation of the goodness of God to sinners, who bears long with them, and delays judgment, on purpose to give men time to repent, and, by repentance, to prevent their own eternal ruin: “God is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” In the handling of these words, I shall do these three things:
First, I shall consider the patience and long-suffering of God, as it is an attribute and perfection of the Divine nature; “God is long-suffering to us-ward.”
Secondly, I shall shew that the patience of God, and the delay of judgment, is no just ground why sinners should hope for impunity, as the scoffers, here foretold by the apostle, argued, that because our Lord delayeth his coming to judgment so long, therefore he would never come; “God is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness.”
Thirdly, I will consider the true reason of God’s patience and long-suffering towards mankind, which the apostle here gives; “He is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”
First, I will consider the patience and long-suffering of God towards mankind, as it is an attribute 79and perfection of the Divine nature; “God is long-suffering to us-ward.” In the handling of this, I shall do these three things:
I. I shall shew what is meant by the patience and long-suffering of God.
II. That this is a perfection of the Divine nature.
III. I shall give some proof and demonstration of the great patience and long-suffering of God to mankind.
I. What is meant by the patience and long-suffering of God.
The Hebrew word signifies, one that keeps his anger long, or that is long before he is angry. In the New Testament it is sometimes expressed by the word ὑπομονὴ, which signifies God’s forbearance, and patient waiting for our repentance; sometimes by the word ἀνοχὴ, which signifies God’s holding in his wrath and restraining himself from punishing; and sometimes by μακροθυμία, which signifies the extent of his patience, his long-suffering, and forbearing for a long time the punishment due to sinners.
So that the patience of God is his goodness to sinners, in deferring or moderating the punishment due to them for their sins: the deferring of deserved punishment in whole, or in part, which, if it be extended to a long time, it is properly his long-suffering: and the moderating, as well as the deferring of the punishment due to sin, is an instance likewise of God’s patience; and not only the deferring and moderating of temporal punishment, but the adjourning of the eternal misery of sinners, is a principal instance of God’s patience; so that the patience of God takes in all that space of repentance which God affords to sinners in this life; nay, all temporal judgments and afflictions which befal 80sinners in this life, and are short of cutting them off, and turning them into hell, are comprehended in the patience of God. Whenever God punisheth, it is of his great mercy and patience that we are not consumed, and because his compassions fail not. I proceed to the
II. Second thing I proposed, which was to shew, that patience is a perfection of the Divine nature.
It is not necessarily due to us, but it is due to the perfection of the Divine nature, and essentially be longs to it: it is a principal branch of God’s goodness, which is the highest and most glorious perfection of all other; and therefore we always find it in Scripture, in the company of God’s milder and sweeter attributes. When God would give the most perfect description of himself, and, as he says to Moses, “make all his glory to pass before us,” he usually does it by those attributes which declare his goodness; and patience is always one of them. (Exod. xxxiv. 6.) “The Lord passed by before Moses, and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord God merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.” (Psal. lxxxvi. 15.) “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.” (Psal. ciii. 8.) “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy.” And the same you find, Psal. cxlv. 8. Jonah iv. 2. Joel ii. 13.
Sometimes, indeed, you find a severer attribute added to these, as that “he will by no means clear the guilty,” (Exod. xxxiv. 7.) But it is always put in the last place; to declare to us, that God’s goodness, and mercy, and patience, are his first and primary perfections: and it is only when these fail, 81and have no effect upon us, but are abused by us, to the encouragement of ourselves in an impenitent course, that his justice takes place.
Nay, even among men, it is esteemed a perfection, to be able to forbear and to restrain our anger; passion is impotency and folly, but patience is power and wisdom. (Prov. xiv. 29.) “He that is slow to wrath, is of great understanding; but he that is hasty of spirit, exalteth folly.” (Prov. xvi. 32.) “He that is slow to anger, is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city.” (Rom. xii. 21.) “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” To be impatient, is to be overcome; but to forbear anger and revenge, is a victory. Patience is an argument of great power and command of ourselves; and therefore God himself, who is the most powerful being, is slow to anger, and of infinite patience; and nothing doth more declare the power of God, than his patience; that when he is provoked by such vile and despicable creatures as we are, he can withhold his hand from destroying us. This is the argument which Moses useth, (Numb. xiv. 17, 18.) that the power of God doth so eminently appear in his patience; “And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying, The Lord is gracious, and long-suffering.” And yet power, where it is not restrained by wisdom and goodness, is a great temptation to anger; because where there is power, there is something to back it, and make it good: and therefore the Psalmist doth recommend and set off the patience of God, from the consideration of his power; (Psal. vii. 11.) “God is strong and patient; God is provoked every day:” God is strong, and 82therefore patient; or, he is infinitely patient, not withstanding his almighty power to revenge the daily provocations of his creatures.
Among men, anger and weakness commonly go together; but they are ill matched, as is excellently observed by the son of Sirach: (Ecclus. x. 18.) “Pride was not made for man, nor furious anger for him that is born of a woman.” So that anger and impatience is every where unreasonable. Where there is power, impatience is below it, and a thing too mean for omnipotency: and where there wants power, anger is above it; it is too much for a weak and impotent creature to be angry. Where there is power, anger is needless, and of no use; and where there is no power, it is vain and to no purpose. So that patience is every where a perfection, both to God and man. I proceed to the
III. Third thing I proposed, which was, to give some proof and demonstration of the great patience and long-suffering of God to mankind. And this will evidently appear, if we consider these two things:
1. How men deal with God.
2. How, notwithstanding this, God deals with them.
1. How men deal with God. Every day we highly offend and provoke him, we grieve and weary him with our iniquities, as the expression is in the prophet: (Isa. xliii. 24.) “Thou hast made me to serve with thy sins; thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities.” Every sin that we commit is an affront to the Divine Majesty, and a contempt of his authority: by denying submission to his laws, we question his omnipresence, and say, “Doth God see? and is there knowledge in the Most High?” Or if we acknowledge his omnipresence, and that he 83regards what we do, the provocation is still the greater; because then we affront him to his face; we dare his justice, and challenge his omnipotency, and “provoke the Lord to jealousy,” as if “we were stronger than he.”
Is not God patient, when the whole world lies in wickedness, and the earth is overspread with violence, and is full of the habitations of cruelty? when he, who is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,” and is so highly offended at the sins of men, hath yet the patience to look upon “them that deal treacherously, and to hold his peace?” when the “wicked persecutes and devours the man that is more righteous than he?” when even that part of the world which professeth the name of God and Christ, do, by their vile and abominable lives, “blaspheme that holy and glorious name whereby they are called.”
Every moment God hath greater injuries done to him, and more affronts put upon him, than were ever offered to all the sons of men; and, surely, provocations are trials of patience, especially when they are so numerous, and so heinous; for if offences rise according to the dignity of the person injured, and the meanness of him that cloth the injury, then no offences are so great as those that are committed by men against God, no affronts like to those which are offered to the Divine Majesty by the continual provocations of his creatures. And is not this an argument of God’s patience, that the glorious Majesty of heaven should bear such multiplied indignities from such vile worms? that he who is the Former of alt things, should endure his own creatures to rebel against him, and the work of his hands to strike at him? that he who is our great Benefactor, should 84put up such affronts from those who depend upon his bounty, and are maintained at his charge? that he, “in whose hands our breath is,” should suffer men to breathe out oaths, and curses, and blasphemies against him? Surely, these prove the patience of God to purpose, and are equally trials and arguments of it.
2. The patience of God will farther appear, if we consider how, notwithstanding all this, God deals with us. He is patient to the whole world, in that he doth not turn us out of being, and “turn the wicked” together “into hell, with all the nations that forget God.” He is patient to the greatest part of mankind, in that he makes but a few terrible examples of his justice, “that others may hear and fear,” and take warning by them. He is patient to particular persons, in that, notwithstanding our daily provocations, he “prevents us daily with the blessing” of his goodness, prolonging our lives and vouchsafing so many favours to us, that, “by this great goodness, we may be led to repentance.”
But the patience of God will more illustriously appear, if we consider these following particulars, which are so many evidences and instances of it.
1. That God is not obliged to spare and forbear us at all. It is patience, that he doth not surprise us in the very act of sin, and let fly at us with a thunderbolt so soon as ever we have offended; that the wrath of God doth not fall upon the intemperate person, as it did upon the Israelites, “while the meat and drink is yet in their mouths;” that a man is not struck dead or mad whilst he is telling a lie; that the soul of the profane and false-swearer does not expire with his oaths and perjuries.
2. That God spares us, when it is in his power so 85easily to ruin us; when he can with one word command us out of being, and by cutting asunder one little thread, let us drop into hell. If God were disposed to severity, he could deal with us after another manner, and, as the expression is in the prophet, “ease himself of his adversaries, and be avenged of his enemies.”
3. That God exerciseth this patience to sinners, flagrante bello, while they are up in arms against him, and committing hostilities upon him; he bears with us even when we are challenging his justice to punish us, and provoking his power to destroy us.
4. That he is so very slow and unwilling to punish and to inflict his judgments upon us. As for eternal punishments, God defers them a long while, and by all proper ways and means endeavours to prevent them, and to bring us to repentance. And as for those temporal judgments which God inflicts upon sinners, he carries himself so, that we may plainly see all the signs of unwillingness that can be; he tries to prevent them; he is loath to set about this work; and when he does, it is with much reluctance; and then he is easily persuaded and prevailed withal not to do it; and when he does, he does it not rigorously, and to extremity; and he is soon taken off, after he is engaged in it: all which are great instances and evidences of his wonderful patience to sinners.
(1.) God’s unwillingness to punish, appears in that he labours to prevent punishment; and that he may effectually do this, he endeavours to prevent sin, the meritorious cause of God’s judgments: to this end, he hath threatened it with severe punishments, that the dread of them may make us afraid 86to offend; and if this will not do, he does not yet give us over, but gives us a space of repentance, and invites us earnestly to turn to him, and thereby to prevent his judgments; he expostulates with sinners, and reasons the case with them, as if he were more concerned not to punish, than they are not to be punished: and thus, by his earnest desire of our repentance, he shews how little he desires our ruin.
(2.) He is long before he goes about this work. Judgment is, in Scripture, called “his strange work;” as if he were not acquainted with it, and hardly knew how to go about it on the sudden. He is represented as not prepared for such a work; (Deut. xxxii. 41.) “If I whet my glittering sword;” as if the instruments of punishment were not ready for us. Nay, by a strange kind of condescension to our capacities, and to set forth to us the patience of God, and his slowness to wrath, after the manner of men, he is represented as keeping out of the way, that he may not be tempted to destroy us; (Exod. xxxiii. 2, 3.) where he tells Moses, that he would send an angel before them; “For I will not go up in the midst of thee, lest I consume thee in the way.”
At works of mercy he is very ready and forward. When Daniel prayed for the deliverance of the people of Israel out of captivity, the angel tells him, that “at the beginning of his supplication, the commandment came forth,” to bring him a promise of their deliverance. The mercy of God, many times, prevents our prayers, and outruns our wishes and desires: but when he comes to affliction, he takes time to do it; he passeth by many provocations, and waits long in expectation, that, by our repentance, he will prevent his judgments: “He hearkened and heard, (saith God in the prophet Jeremiah) but they 87spake not aright; no man repented him of his wickedness, saying, What have I done?” He is represented as waiting and listening, to hear if any penitent word should drop from them; he gives the sinner time to repent and reflect upon his actions, and to consider what he hath done, and space to reason himself into repentance. For this reason the judgments of God do often follow the sins of men at a great distance; otherwise he could easily make them mend their pace, and “consume us in a moment.”
(3.) When he goes about this work, he does it with much reluctance: (Hosea xi. 8.) “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim; how shall I deliver thee, Israel? Mine heart is turned within me, and my repentings are kindled together.” He is represented as making many essays and offers before he came to it: (Psal. cvi. 26.) “Many a time lifted he up his hand in the wilderness to destroy them.” He made as if he would do it, and let fall his hand again, as if he could not find in his heart to be so severe. God withholds his judgments till he is weary of holding in, as the expression is, (Jer. vi. 11.) until he can forbear no longer; (Jer. xliv. 22.) “So that the Lord could no longer bear, because of the evil of your doings, and because of the abominations which ye have committed.”
(4.) God is easily prevailed upon not to punish. When he seemed resolved upon it to destroy the murmuring of the Israelites, yet how often, at the intercession of Moses, did he turn away his wrath? That he will accept of very low terms to spare a very wicked people, appears by the instance of Sodom, where, if there had been but “ten righteous persons,” he would not have destroyed them for the ten’s 88sake. Yea, when his truth seemed to have been pawned (at least in the apprehension of his prophet), yet even then repentance took him off, as in the case of Nineveh. Nay, how glad is he to be thus prevented! With what joy does he tell the prophet the news of Ahab’s humiliation! “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself? Because he humbleth himself, I will not bring the evil in his days.”
(5.) When he punisheth, he does it very seldom rigorously, and to extremity, not so much as we deserve; (Psal. ciii. 10.) “He hath not dealt with us after our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.” Nor so much as he can, he doth not let loose the fierceness of his anger, nor pour forth all his wrath; (Psal. lxxviii. 38.) “He being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and destroyed them not; yea, many a time turned he his anger away, and did not stir up all his wrath.”
(6.) After he hath begun to punish, and is engaged in the work, he is not hard to be taken off. There is a famous instance of this, 2 Sam. xxiv. when God had sent three days pestilence upon Israel, for David’s sin in numbering the people, and, at the end of the third day, the angel of the Lord had stretched forth his hand over Jerusalem, to destroy it; upon the prayer of David, it is said, that the “Lord repented of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed, It is enough; stay now thine hand.” Nay, so ready is God to be taken off from this work, that he sets a high value upon those who stand in the gap to turn away his wrath; (Numb. xxv. 11-13.) “Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel (while he was zealous for my sake among them), that I consumed not the children 89of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: and he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.” That which God values in this action of Phinehas, next to his zeal for him, is, that “he turned away his wrath, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.”
5. And lastly, The patience of God will yet appear with farther advantage, if we consider some eminent and remarkable instances of it; which are so much the more considerable, because they are instances not only of God’s patience extended to a long time, but to a great many persons; the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah upon the whole world, as is probably conjectured, for the space of a hundred and twenty years. God bore with the people of Israel in the wilderness, after they had tempted him ten times, for the space of forty years; (Acts xiii. 18.) “And about the time of forty years suffered he their manners in the wilderness.” And this instance of God’s patience will be the more remarkable, if we compare it with the great impatience of that people; if they did but want flesh or water, they were out of patience with God; when Moses was in the mount with God but forty days, they presently fall to make new gods; they had not the patience of forty days, and yet God bore their manners forty years. God had spared Nineveh for some ages; and when his patience was even expired, and he seems to have passed a final sentence upon it, yet he grants a reprieve for forty days, that they might sue out their pardon in that time: and they did so; “They turned from their evil ways, 90and God turned from the evil he said he would do them, and he did it not.”
But the most remarkable instance of God’s long-suffering is to the Jews, if we consider it with all the circumstances of it; after they had rejected the Son of God, notwithstanding the purity of his doctrine, and the power of his miracles; after they had unjustly condemned, and cruelly murdered, the Lord of life, yet the patience of God respited the ruin of that people forty years.
Besides all these, there are many instances of God’s patience to particular persons: but it were endless to enumerate these; every one of us may be an instance to ourselves of God’s long-suffering.
I shall only add, as a farther advantage to set off the patience of God to sinners, that his forbearance is so great, that he hath been complained of for it by his own servants. Job, who was so patient a man himself, thought much at it; (Job xxi. 7, 8.) “Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power? Their seed is established in their sight with them, and their offspring before their eyes.” Jonah challengeth God for it; (chap. iv. 2.) “Was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger,” &c. Jonah had observed God to be so prone to this, that he was loath to be sent upon his message, lest God should discredit his prophet, in not being so good (shall I say, so severe) as his word.
I have done with the first thing I proposed to speak to; viz. The great patience and long-suffering of God to mankind.91
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