THE EFFECTS OF PIETY AND IMPIETY IN THE WORLD
Proverbs 28:4. They that forsake the Law, praise the wicked; but such as keep the Law, contend with them.
MAN, as a social being, has an influence on those around him: and his actions should be considered, not merely as they affect himself, but, in their social aspect, as tending to make an impression upon the minds of others. In this point of view, a great measure of responsibility attaches to us, far beyond what, at first sight, we should be ready to imagine. Our good or evil conduct operates as an example, and countenances a similar conduct in others: so that, in our daily actions, we, though unconscious of it, are doing good or evil to an unknown extent. This is proclaimed in the words before us: “They that forsake the Law, praise the wicked; but such as keep the Law, contend with them.”
From these words I shall be led to shew the effects of piety and impiety on the surrounding world. And,
I. Of impiety—
Whatever be men’s line of conduct, they must, of necessity, “have pleasure in those who pursue the same [Note: Romans 1:32.].” Those they will of course choose for their companions; and if for no other reason, yet in their own vindication they will approve of and applaud their ways. The proud will commend the proud, and “call them happy [Note: Malachi 3:15.];” as will the worldling also “bless the covetous, whom God abhorreth [Note: Psalms 10:3.].” Indeed, it may be laid down as a general rule, that if only you “do well to yourself,” by studying your own ease, interest, and honour, “all men will praise you,” as men that are wise, and worthy of imitation [Note: Psalms 49:18.]. It is a matter of course that “the world will love its own [Note: John 15:19.].” This, however, is a very partial view of our text; the true sense of which lies much deeper. The praise which an ungodly man will give to those who are like himself, is bestowed not only occasionally with the lips, but uniformly and without intermission in the life. A man who refuses submission to the will of God, and “forsakes his Law,” does by that very act tacitly, though most intelligibly, declare to all around him,
1. That obedience to God’s Law is unnecessary—
[He will acknowledge the Scriptures to be a revelation from God; and would be greatly offended, if his belief in that revelation were questioned. But his faith in it is nothing more than a speculative assent: he regards not the authority of God in it; and by his contempt of that authority he says, in fact, that a submission to it is unnecessary. The language of the heart and of the life is interpreted in this way by God himself: “Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of Hosts [Note: Malachi 3:14.]? “And this construction is just; for what a man avows to be unnecessary for himself, he must be understood as maintaining to be unnecessary for others.]
2. That not even the Gospel itself entails any obligation upon us—
[Many who profess to believe the Gospel, and to make it the ground of their hope towards God, yet feel no constraining influence from all its wonders of love and mercy. They practically say, ‘True, the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world, and “died the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God [Note: 1 Peter 3:18.].” But what has this to do with the regulation of our lives? We need not be “brought to God” in this world: it will be quite sufficient to be brought to him in the world to come: and we may be sure, even from this very mercy vouchsafed unto us, that God will accept us, even though no change shall have taken place in our hearts and lives. He has sent his Son indeed, as we are told, “to bless us, in turning every one of us from our iniquities [Note: Acts 3:26.]:” but we need not be anxious about experiencing any such effect of the Redeemer’s mission: we may live to ourselves, and obtain his favour, as effectually and as certainly as if we lived to him.’]
3. That the way of wickedness is preferable as it respects this present world—
[Finding pleasure only in the things of time and sense himself, he encourages the same taste in others. For, for what end “has God given us all things richly to enjoy,” if we are not to enjoy them? As for a compliance with the precepts of the Law, it is obvious that it must require continual self-denial: and what happiness can there be in that? It must detach us, also, from those who are most able and willing to administer to our happiness: and how can that operate, but to our disadvantage? As for repentance, and holy exercises of every kind, they may be very good in a dying hour; but to a person in health they can be a source of nothing but gloom and melancholy. Thus he sanctions the ungodly in the whole of their conduct, and encourages them in all the delusions by which they are misled.]
4. That no evil is to be apprehended from it in the world to come—
[This necessarily follows from all the rest: for, if he really thought that God would execute his threatenings against the violators of the Law, he would be more attentive to his own ways. But he persuades himself, that God is too merciful to punish any one in the eternal world, or, at all events, for such slight offences as he commits: and, by his open contempt of God’s threatened judgments, he says to all around him, that they have nothing to fear, since “the Lord will do neither good nor evil [Note: Zephaniah 1:12.].” The exact description of these persons is given by the Psalmist, when he says, “The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts. His ways are always grievous: thy judgments are far above out of his sight: and as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them [Note: Psalms 10:4-5.].”]
The very reverse of this is the influence,
II. Of piety—
The man who forsakes the Law, praises the wicked; but the man who keeps the Law, contends with them. He does this,
1. By the silent testimony of his life—
[A godly man is like “a light shining in a dark place.” However unobtrusive his conduct may be, it forms a contrast with that of all around him, and especially with that of those who move in his sphere of life. If he be young, his sobriety is a reproach to all the giddiness and folly of his youthful acquaintance. If he be of a more advanced age, his zeal for God reproves the worldliness and indifference even of his most respected neighbours. Whether we view his abstinence from sin, or his practice of holiness, he equally casts reflections on the great mass of mankind. “They are of the world, and speak of the world: he is of God, and both speaks and acts for God [Note: 1 John 4:5-6].” “He is not conformed to the world” in any of its vanities [Note: Romans 12:2]: “he comes out from the world, and is separate; and will not so much as touch the unclean thing [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:17].” He endeavours so to walk in the world, as to “keep his garments clean [Note: Revelation 16:15.],” and undefiled with any of its abominations. He is even “crucified to the world, and regards it as a man would who was suspended on a cross, and looking for a speedy dissolution [Note: Galatians 6:14.].” At the same time he gives himself to holy exercises; and determines, with God’s help, to fulfil every duty, as in the presence of his God. He shews that he has other views, other desires, other pursuits, than the world has any conception of; that he belongs to another world; that his conversation is in heaven [Note: Philippians 3:20.];” and that, “though in the world, he is not of the world, even as the Lord Jesus Christ was not of the world [Note: John 17:16.].”
Now all this, of necessity, attracts notice, and constrains all who behold him to say, “If he is right, we must be wrong.” The effect of his conduct is precisely like that of Noah’s, when he built the ark. It is said of Noah, that “being moved with fear, he prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world [Note: Hebrews 11:7.].” How did this act of his condemn the world? He was, it is true, “a preacher of righteousness;” but it was not so much his preaching, as his practice, which was here said to condemn the world. His faith condemned their unbelief; his fear, their security; his obedience, their disobedience. He needed not to say any thing: his conduct spake sufficiently; and the consciences of the beholders made the application. Thus it is, in a measure, with every godly man; he is “an epistle of Christ, known and read of all men [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:3.].” The ungodly world may shut their eyes against the light of God’s written word; but him they are forced to see, whether they will or not: and in him they see what is the line of conduct which God requires, and how far they are from walking according to it.
That the world consider themselves as condemned by the godly, is evident, from the indignation which they manifest when the light of God’s truth is made to shine before them. They instantly endeavour, by every possible means, to extinguish the light, or at all events to induce the godly to put their light under a bushel, and to hide it from their eyes [Note: John 3:19-20.]. They will profess to reprobate the sentiments of the godly: but they would never concern themselves about the sentiments of the godly, if they could but induce them to alter their conduct. It is their conduct that reproaches them, and that forms the real ground of their indignation against them. “If ye were of the world,” says our Lord, “the world (whatever your sentiments might be) would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you [Note: John 15:19.].” Let piety enter into any family amongst us, and we shall see a fulfilment of that word, “Think you that I came to send peace on earth? I came not to send peace, but a sword [Note: Matthew 10:34-36.].”]
2. By the open avowal of his sentiments—
[A faithful servant of God, in whatever line he move, will not be ashamed of Christ, but will “confess him openly before men [Note: Matthew 10:32.].” This he feels to be a bounden duty. He does not wish to make a parade of his religion: but he is commanded to “let his light shine before men [Note: Matthew 5:16.];” and not only “not to have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but, when opportunity occurs, to reprove them [Note: Ephesians 5:11.].” Hence, though he is cautious, “not to cast pearls before swine, who would only trample them under their feet [Note: Matthew 7:6.],” he is “ready to give to every inquirer a reason of the hope that is in him with meekness and fear [Note: 1 Peter 3:15.].” Nor will he be afraid to reprove sin, where he has any hope that his admonitions will be well received. If he be a minister, he will be “bold in the Lord to speak the Gospel of God with much contention [Note: 1 Thessalonians 2:2.];” not fearing the face of man, but declaring, before all, and without reserve, “the whole counsel of God [Note: Acts 20:27.].” Nor, though he move in a private sphere, will he be backward to exert his influence, so far as it extends, for the suppression of evil, and for the diffusion of piety through the world. This indeed will raise up enemies against him: for men will “hate him that reproveth in the gate [Note: Isaiah 29:21.].” They hated our blessed Lord principally on this account; as he himself told them: “You, (who countenance its proceedings,) the world cannot hate; but me it hateth, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil [Note: John 7:7.].” It was this that incensed Ahab against Micaiah: “I hate Micaiah because he doth not speak good concerning me, but evil [Note: 1 Kings 22:8.]. And it was the faithfulness of John, in reproving Herod’s unlawful commerce with his brother Philip’s wife, that brought down the vengeance of that prince upon him [Note: Mark 6:25-27.]. But, notwithstanding all the odium that such fidelity will bring upon him, the true Christian will exercise it as occasion serves, declaring candidly his conviction, that “the broad road of the world leadeth to destruction, and that the narrow way alone will issue in eternal life [Note: Matthew 7:13-14.].”]
From this subject we may clearly see,
1. How much guilt attaches to us all—
[I will not now speak of those who have lived in open and flagrant sin; though, of course, all that I shall say will apply with double force to them; but I will speak of those who, though moral and discreet, have not given up themselves unfeignedly to God; or who grew up to maturity before they fully embraced the Gospel. Look back to your early childhood: your example even at that time had an influence on your youthful companions; and said to them, in language which they clearly understood, that there was no occasion for them to seek after God. As you grew up towards manhood, your influence became proportionably extended, and proportionably more injurious also. Go now to your different companions, and to the thousands who, unknown to you, derived from your example encouragement in sin: go, tell them how you regret the injuries you have done, and how anxious you are to repair the evil, by making known to them the way of life and salvation. Thousands, alas! are gone beyond the reach of any effort, and are already enduring in hell the miseries which you contributed to heap upon them. But of those to whom you may gain access, how many, do you suppose, would listen to your advice? there would scarcely be found one amongst them all that would not laugh in your face, and account you either a fool or mad. King Manasseh, by his influence and example, did evil to as great an extent as any creature that ever lived: but when he exerted his royal influence to reclaim the persons he had seduced to sin, he could not prevail: they would still, notwithstanding all his edicts, and all his example too, continue to “offer sacrifices on their high-places,” instead of conforming themselves to the commandments of their God [Note: 2 Chronicles 33:15-17.]. Thus, even supposing that we are now walking in the ways of God, the influence of our former lives will continue to operate to the ruin of many souls, and to the unspeakable augmentation of our own guilt. Contemplate this, I pray you, my Brethren; and remember, that though you may never have committed one single sin that should expose you to shame before men, you are guilty in the sight of God, to an extent that no language can paint, no imagination can conceive. Nay, strange as it may seem, the very blamelessness of your conduct before men, inasmuch as it has attracted a greater measure of their admiration, has unhappily contributed, even beyond the example of the generality, to deceive their minds, and to ruin their souls. I must then say to every one amongst you, that the injury which in your days of thoughtlessness you have unconsciously done to the souls of men, should be a ground of the deepest humiliation to you, to the latest hour of your lives.]
2. What a pre-eminent measure of guilt is contracted by the backsliding professor—
[Whilst others, by their ungodly lives, encourage sin in all around them, you do it with far greater effect. For you are understood as speaking from experience; whilst others deliver only, as it were, a hasty and ill-formed opinion. You are considered as proclaiming that there is no excellency, no reality, in religion; that the ways of the world, from which for a season you had departed, are not either so dangerous or so sinful as you had ignorantly supposed; that, in fact, there is no sincerity in those who profess godliness; and that, if all were as honest as you, they would, like you, throw off the mask at once. Ah! think what a stumbling-block you lay in the way of others; how you “crucify the Son of God afresh;” and what cause multitudes will have to curse your very name for ever, whilst they call for vengeance on your souls for contributing so largely to their ruin!
And here let me speak to those who do not indeed draw back to open sin, but only so far as to conceal their principles in compliment to the world. You may account this prudence: but God will account it treason; and the Saviour, whom “you thus refuse to confess, will refuse to acknowledge you in the presence of his Father [Note: Matthew 10:32-33.].” Consider this; and know assuredly on what terms your sentence shall be passed in the last day: “If you suffer with Christ, you shall also reign with him; but if you deny him, he will deny you. If ye believe not his testimony, yet he abideth faithful; he cannot deny himself [Note: 2 Timothy 2:12-13.];” but will assuredly execute judgment, in perfect conformity to this rule.]
3. What an incentive we have to cultivate piety in the highest possible degree—
[The more our light shines before men, the more shall we put to shame the wickedness of the ungodly, and encourage the exercise of all that is good in the world. And who can tell how far our influence may extend? If we be the means of leading one sinner to repentance, “we save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins [Note: James 5:19-20.].” And what may be the ultimate effects on that person’s family, or even on his remotest posterity, who can tell? Let this then operate as an inducement with us to “shine as lights in the world [Note: Philippians 2:15-16.].” I say not but that the saving of our own souls should be our first motive: nevertheless, a strong additional motive we may find in the subject before us. Nor ought it to have light weight on our minds: for, whilst we benefit the world, we greatly honour our God; who is most glorified in those who most reflect his image, and most advance his kingdom in the world.]
THE LIGHT ENJOYED BY THE GODLY
Proverbs 28:5. They that seek the Lord understand all things.
THERE are, in the Holy Scriptures, broad, and, if I may so call them, sweeping expressions, which, if taken in their strict and literal sense, have not so much as even the semblance of truth. Yet are they not liable to be misunderstood, because every candid reader will of necessity supply the restrictions which are necessary for a just interpretation of them. For instance: no one who should read the words which we have just heard, would suppose that Solomon ever intended to assert that all who sought the Lord were at once brought to the knowledge of all arts and sciences, and to an acquaintance with all the languages of the earth. Every expression must of necessity be restricted either by the subject of which it treats, or by the context in which it stands. The words before us are used in a way of contrast with those which precede them. The writer has just said, that “evil men understand not judgment;” that is, they understand not what they are doing, or what they ought to do, or the true end and scope of God’s dealings with them. But they who seek the Lord are well instructed in these things: they may be as ignorant of worldly things as any other people; but of things relating to their spiritual and eternal welfare they have a discernment which no ungodly man either does, or can, possess. Taking the word’s with this restriction, I shall,
I. Confirm the sentiment—
Here I might enumerate a great variety of particulars, such as the evil of sin, the beauty of holiness, the glory of Christ, which a spiritual man alone can truly apprehend: but, as the expression is broad and comprehensive, so shall my illustration of it be; that so the contrast between the spiritual and carnal man may more forcibly appear. Of those, therefore, who seek the Lord, I will say, they understand,
1. The true state and character of the world around them—
[That every thing bears the appearance of some great change that has been wrought upon it, is obvious to all. The very elements bear this stamp upon them; as does also the whole creation, animate and inanimate, rational and irrational. No one can conceive of the world, or any thing in it, as having preserved that degree of perfection in which it was originally created. The ungodly therefore, as well as others, are sensible that there is a great deal of disorder in the world. But the godly man alone sees this in any degree according to its real extent. He sees that the whole universe is up in arms against Almighty God, under the command of that wicked fiend, who, having himself rebelled against his Maker, is labouring to bring every creature into a participation of his crime; and who, having succeeded in this enterprise, is justly called, “the god of this world.” He sees that this contest is carried on, not by those only who are sunk in open profligacy, but by the most moral and sober of mankind; who, in fact, are as much “alienated from the life of God” as others, and have their own “minds as much at enmity with him” as any other people upon earth. He sees, in a measure, what men ought to be, and what they are; and that all, without exception, are “living to themselves, and not unto their God.” The different orders of men are, in his eyes, only like different parts of one great army; differently habited indeed, and differently employed; some under the very garb of friends, whilst others are arrayed as open and determined foes: but all are acting, in their respective places, for the establishment of Satan’s kingdom, rather than of Christ’s. This, I say, the godly man sees, in perfect correspondence with what St. Paul has declared: “There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none that understandeth; there is none that seeketh after God: they are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable: there is none that doeth good, no, not one [Note: Romans 3:10-12.].”]
2. The real happiness of man—
[The world at large conceive of this as consisting in temporal enjoyment. Pleasure, riches, honour, are looked upon as the great sources from whence happiness must flow: and where these are not eagerly coveted, there is something of a temporal nature substituted in their place: some fond conceit, or a mere state of carnal ease, devoid either of any strong emotions, whether of pain or pleasure. But the godly man knows that there is no happiness but in God—in a sense of his favour, in a performance of his will, in a prospect of his glory. There is in his views, and those of an ungodly man, a most perfect contrast with respect to this matter; each coveting what the other despises, and each regarding as contemptible what the other desires. Our blessed Lord’s words will put this matter in the clearest light [Note: See Luke 6:20-26.] — — — The rich, the gay, the honoured, are by the one regarded with admiration and envy; by the other, with pity and compassion. The poor weeping and persecuted saint, on the contrary, is by the one despised; whilst the other affects the experience of such an one with the fondest delight. In a word, whilst to the inquiry, “Who will shew us any good?” the ungodly man says, ‘Give me a supply of corn, and wine, and oil;’ the godly man pours out his soul in that petition of the Psalmist, “Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon me [Note: Psalms 4:6.].”]
3. The proper tendency of all that God is doing in the world—
[God is seen both in his word and works; and both in the one and in the other does he appear, to an ungodly world, to obstruct, rather than to advance, the happiness of his creatures. The word is too strict in its requirements to suit our fallen state; and the dispensations of his Providence are calculated only to embitter life by continual troubles or bereavements. Far different from these, however, are the sentiments of a godly man. The whole inspired volume, whether it promise or threaten, prohibit or enjoin, is in his eyes a fountain of good, springing up to everlasting life — — — And all the diversified afflictions which arise, are regarded by him as blessings in disguise; as messengers sent to “humble us, and to do us good at our latter end,” by weaning us from things visible and temporal, and stimulating us to lay hold on those which are invisible and eternal.
An ignorant novice may dread a cross wind, as calculated only to retard the vessel in which he is embarked: but the experienced mariner will welcome it, as filling all his sails better than a wind that is the most direct; and thus, whilst the ungodly man news afflictions only as calamities which he would most avoid, the godly man welcomes them from God’s hands, in the assured hope that “his light and momentary afflictions will work out for him a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:17.].”]
Thus, to go no further, it sufficiently appears how much clearer insight the godly man has into God’s word and works, than the ungodly man can pretend to. And now let us,
II. Account for the fact—
I readily concede, that, in point of natural talent or acquired learning, the godly man may be inferior to others; but in spiritual discernment he is superior to the wisest philosopher on earth. Does any one inquire how this should be! I answer,
1. He has God himself for his teacher—
[All God’s people “are taught of him;” and it is in consequence of their “having heard and learned of the Father,” that they attain to a knowledge which no other person can possess [Note: John 6:45.]. Were I to say that “the Spirit of God opens the eyes of their understanding,” and “brings them out of darkness into marvellous light,” I should say enough to justify all the assertions which I have made: nor would any one have a right to ask from me an explanation of the process by which this mysterious work is accomplished. Yet I think that the mode of divine teaching may be in some little measure comprehended by means of a suitable and familiar illustration. There are different ways in which an object which is obscure may be rendered visible: one way is, by bringing it nearer to us; another is, by removing intervening obstacles; another, by reflecting stronger light upon it; and another, by strengthening the organs of vision to behold it. Now, without entering into a minute consideration of all these particulars, we may observe, in general, that God’s methods of instructing us by his Spirit are somewhat analogous to these; in that he brings home with power to our souls the truths which we hear, and inclines our hearts to embrace them. The telescope, which brings distant objects to our view, and the microscope, which enables us to discern things which are too small to be seen by the naked eye, make no difference whatever either in the objects themselves or in the organs whereby we perceive them: the things themselves, and our faculties also, all remain the same, whether the instruments be used by us or not. So there is no difference in the truths which are heard by different persons, or in the capacity of those by whom they are perceived: the difference is in the manner in which the truths are presented to the mind: and if we, by instruments of human contrivance, are able thus to bring to the sight of men things that are invisible to the naked eye, we may well suppose that God is able to bring home to the souls of men truths which the unassisted mind is unable to apprehend. But I think we may get a juster view of this, by considering how it is that the imperfections of our sight are remedied in common life. When we have an indistinct vision of objects before us, it is for the most part owing to this: through an excess or defect of convexity in our eye, the object before us either falls short of the retina, or goes beyond it: and the use of glasses is, by a suitable medium to bring the object on the retina, that so it may be distinctly impressed thereon, in all its just symmetry and proportions. Now the Spirit of God, by giving to us “an honest and a good heart,” imprints upon the tablet of our souls the truths, of which, without his aid, we could have no just perception: and thus we are enabled to understand what others are not able to discern. And thus is fulfilled what St. John has said: “The spiritual man judgeth all things; yet he himself is judged of no man: for who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ,” and therefore are qualified to judge both ourselves and others [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:15-16.]. Now, I the rather dwell on this, in order to remove from the minds of objectors the idea that we lay claim to any thing like miraculous inspiration. We do indeed say, that God alone can enable us to discern the things of the Spirit [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:12.]; but we say, also, that he does this through the use of our own faculties, under the direction and influence of his good Spirit: and thus “he reveals to babes and sucklings the things which he has hid from the wise and prudent [Note: Matthew 11:25.].”]
2. He has an inward experience of the things which he knows—
[St. John affirms this very thing: “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself [Note: 1 John 5:10.];” that is, he has in his soul a distinct perception of those truths which he has received through the medium of his understanding. And this also, I think, may, through a familiar illustration, be made perfectly intelligible to our minds. We know that our senses are given us for the purpose of discerning the distinctive excellencies of every thing around us. It is not sufficient that one faculty alone be brought to bear upon the object that is set before us: we must exercise upon every thing that very faculty which is pre-eminently formed to discover and appreciate its excellence. Suppose we see, for instance, the sun, without feeling its beams; or a flower, without having our smell regaled by its odours; or honey, without tasting its sweetness; or a singing bird, without hearing his melodious notes; it is obvious that we can form but a very inadequate notion of these things, for want of an acquaintance with their chief excellencies: and, in like manner, we can ill judge of a diamond by the touch, when its brilliancy has never been submitted to our sight. It is through the apprehending of every thing by its appropriate sense, that we attain just and adequate perceptions of it. Now the Apostle tells us, that the godly man “has all his senses exercised to discern good and evil [Note: Hebrews 5:14.]:” and hence it is, that having within himself a perception of them which no other man can enjoy, he possesses also an evidence which no other man can attain. Now this test may be applied to every thing that is of a spiritual nature; and the perception arising from it is fitly called “a spiritual discernment [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:14.]?” and by this, I say again, “we understand all things;” as St. John also has told us; “Ye have an unction of the Holy One, and ye know all things [Note: 1 John 2:20; 1 John 2:27.].” Here is contained all that I have spoken; namely, the extent of the knowledge possessed by God’s people, and the means by which they are enabled to attain it: “We know all things,” because God himself is our teacher: and by the unction poured out, that is, by the “eye-salve which he puts upon our eyes,” he gives us the actual perception of every thing in our own souls [Note: Revelation 3:18.], and, consequently, the clear and proper understanding of it.]
Methinks you are now ready to inquire,
1. How shall I attain this understanding?
[I answer, Not by mere study, even of the Scriptures themselves; but rather by “seeking after God” in spirit and in truth. This is the particular point suggested in my text: “They that seek the Lord understand all things.” You will remember what our Lord has said: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God [Note: John 7:17.].” This is that which I have spoken of before: it supposes that there is in us that “honest and good heart,” which alone receives the word aright, and alone enables us to “bring forth fruit with patience [Note: Luke 8:15.].” I would not depreciate books of human composition, and still less the Scriptures of truth: but we must never forget, that “though Paul should plant, and Apollos water, it is God alone that can give the increase [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:5-7.].” In fact, this is the reason why many hear the Gospel for years without any saving benefit to their souls: they will not humble themselves before God, and seek for mercy through Christ, and give themselves up unreservedly to God; and therefore they remain for ever without any true understanding of the word, and any sweet experience of its power. You must first be melted by it; and then you will be “poured into its mould,” and attain, by means of it, that knowledge of God which is life eternal.]
2. How shall I manifest it to the world?
[If “God have given you an understanding to know him [Note: 1 John 5:20.],” shew it, not by a fond conceit of your own attainments, or a contemptuous spurning of others as blind and carnal — — — but by a holy life and conversation, such as none but those who are taught of God can maintain. If you know more than others, you should be prepared to answer that question, “What do ye more than others [Note: Matthew 5:47.]?” “The tree must be known by its fruit:” and, if you have received a superior illumination in your mind, you must “walk worthy of that high distinction,” and “shine as lights in a dark world.” If the Lord, by his Spirit, have written his law upon your hearts, then must you shew forth that law in your lives, and be in the world as “epistles of Christ, known and rend of all men [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:2.].”]
ADVANTAGES OF THE RICH AND OF THE POOR COMPARED
Proverbs 28:11. The rich man is wise in his own conceit; but the poor that hath understanding searcheth him out.
PROVERBS are, for the most part, very obscure: they are intended to convey an abundance of instruction in a small space: and the truths contained in them are almost always such as escape the observation of unthinking men, and such as militate against their most received opinions. That the rich have greatly the advantage of the poor in reference to knowledge in general, must be confessed: for they have leisure, which the poor cannot command; and instruction, which the poor cannot obtain. Hence it is generally supposed that the rich have the same advantage in reference to divine knowledge. But this is by no means true. On the contrary, the poor have, in reference to divine knowledge, the advantage of them. And this is what Solomon affirms, in the words before us: “The rich man is wise in his own conceit; but the poor that hath understanding searcheth him out.”
In support of Solomon’s assertion, I will shew,
I. That the poor have really the advantage of the rich in reference to divine knowledge—
Elihu, intending to criminate Job, observed, “Great men are not always wise [Note: Job 32:9.].” And if this be true in relation to the affairs of this world, much more is it so in reference to the concerns of eternity Nor indeed are the poor always wise in this respect: yet have they, on the whole, the advantage of the rich.
1. They had the advantage in the days of old—
[Look at those who received the testimony of our blessed Lord. It was said with a kind of triumph, “Have any of the rulers and of the Pharisees believed on him [Note: John 7:48.]?” Whereas we are told, on the other hand, that “the common people heard him gladly [Note: Mark 12:37.].” And such was also the experience of the Apostles: it was chiefly amongst the poor that their ministry was attended with success; as St. Paul observes: “Ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are; that no flesh should glory in his presence [Note: 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.].”]
2. They have also the advantage at this day—
[It was to be one mark of the Messiah’s advent, that “to the poor the Gospel should be preached [Note: Matthew 11:5.].” By them, too, was the Gospel to be received, whilst by the rich it should be rejected and despised. Nor did our blessed Lord merely affirm this, but he accounted it a fit subject of praise and thanksgiving: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes [Note: Matthew 11:25-26.]!” And now look around, and see if it be not thus at this day. Who are they that value the Gospel? Who are they that attend it, wherever it is preached with effect? Some, indeed, there are of the wise and rich; but very few in comparison; so few, that if a man of wealth and learning shew a decided love to the Gospel, he is regarded almost as a phenomenon; and that, too, no less by the Church than by the world itself. The great mass of religious people are of the poorer class; so that at this day, no less than in the apostolic age, when that appeal of the Apostle James is made to us, “Hearken, my beloved brethren, hath not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to them that love him [Note: James 2:5.]?” there is but one answer that can be given to it: we must say, It is even so; it is from among the poor, and not from amongst the rich, that God has formed his Church: it is “of unhewn stones that his altar is made [Note: Exodus 20:25.];” and “of these very stones that he has raised up children to Abraham [Note: Matthew 3:9.].”]
Seeing, then, that what we have asserted is an unquestionable fact, let us,
II. Account for it—
We might be satisfied with referring it, as our blessed Lord does, to the sovereign will of God: “Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in thy sight [Note: Matthew 11:26.],” should be quite sufficient for us. But we may trace the fact to natural causes. The rich, from the very circumstance of their elevation in society, are under considerable disadvantages, beyond what are experienced by the poor:
1. They are more blinded by prejudice—
[Into the minds of the higher orders of society prejudices are instilled from their earliest infancy. Religious people are kept at a distance from them; religious books are taken out of their hands; and religious sentiments are branded with every epithet that can render them odious. For one word that would lead them to God, a hundred are spoken to draw them from him. Let them betray a love to earthly things, and no one will offer a sentiment to turn them from such an evil way: but let them betray a decided love to heavenly things, and multitudes will exert themselves in every possible way to divert them from so dangerous a path. Hence their prejudices are all on the side of evil and of the world. And how great the effect of prejudice is, may be seen in the adherents both of Judaism and Popery. One would imagine that the superstitions both of the one and of the other must give way before the light of the New Testament: but prejudice, as has been said, has neither eyes nor ears. Truth has no force, and argument no power, when set before one whose mind is pre-occupied with statements of an adverse nature. The Apostle says of the Jews, that “to this day a veil is upon their hearts: so that, when Moses is read to them, they cannot see the true scope of his instructions [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:14-15.].” And precisely thus it is also with the rich, when the Gospel is preached to them: “Their eyes are blinded; and they cannot discern” the truth of those things which are proposed to their consideration [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:4]. But the poor are, comparatively, but little subjected to this influence. People take not so much pains to prejudice their minds; and they are left more to think and act for themselves. Hence, when truth is proposed to them, they are more open to conviction, and more easily brought under its power. And this is one reason why even the “publicans and harlots enter into the kingdom before the Scribes and Pharisees.”]
2. They are more enslaved by custom—
[The rich, amidst all their boasted liberty, are the veriest bond-slaves that the world contains. If negroes are afraid of the scourge of their masters, so are the rich afraid lest they should be subjected to the lash of censure amongst their equals. Let an opportunity of spiritual instruction be afforded them, they would be afraid to avail themselves of it, if it were offered at a place not frequented by the rich, or by a person not approved amongst them. Even though in their hearts they would be glad to hear the instruction, they dare not go over the line prescribed by custom and fashion, lest they should bring upon themselves some reproach. They would be ashamed to be found reading the Bible; and would be in perfect horrors if they were discovered weeping for their sins. True, a rich Papist would not blush at being known to follow the superstitious usages of his Church, because other rich persons both approve and follow the same superstitions: but a rich Protestant would not dare to spend a day in fasting and prayer, because the rich of his own community pour contempt on piety, and on the means by which piety is advanced in the soul. But the poor are more free to follow the dictates of their conscience: and when they “have a spiritual understanding,” they will follow them: they will not be content to “continue in the broad road, because the many walk there; or to desert the narrow path, because there be but few who find it [Note: Matthew 7:13-14.]:” they are more independent of the opinions of the world; and are prepared to say with Joshua, “Let others think or act as they please, I will serve the Lord [Note: Joshua 24:15.].”]
3. They are more deluded by conceit—
[The rich, on account of their wealth and influence, have great deference paid to their opinions. The flattery which they receive is extremely grateful to them; and they soon begin to think that they are indeed as wise as fawning sycophants represent them to be. Hence they become very confident in their own opinions, and can ill brook contradiction upon any subject. They suppose, too, that they are as competent to judge of religion as of any other subject; and will lay down the law upon the subject of divine truth as confidently as if they had the wisdom of Daniel or St. Paul. But the poor man, that has been taught of God, sees at once how ignorant these persons are on those subjects on which they presume to dogmatize with such unblushing confidence. The rich conceited man will tell us how erroneous it is to represent our fallen nature as so depraved; and what a licentious doctrine that of salvation by faith alone is; and that a life of entire devotedness to God is no better than wild fanaticism or puritanical hypocrisy. But “the poor man, that hath understanding, searcheth him out:” he has within himself the evidence of those truths which the conceited man decries. St. John says, “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself [Note: 1 John 5:10.]:” and this internal evidence is more to him than all the assertions which conceit can dictate or arrogance maintain. He knows his own depravity: he feels his need of a Saviour: he tastes the sweetness of pure and undefiled religion; and from God he inherits a blessing [Note: Matthew 5:3.], whilst the rich contemner of his faith receives nothing but woes at the hand of his offended God [Note: Isaiah 5:21.].]
1. Envy not those who are rich in this world—
[Truly they are encompassed with snares, and exposed to great dangers. The advantages which they possess are very trivial: (what has the richest man beyond food and raiment, which the poor possess as well as they?) but their disadvantages are very great; so great, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Remarkable, in this view, is that advice of Solomon; “Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom [Note: Proverbs 23:4.].” The errors here pointed at are almost inseparable from each other; and every one that is truly wise will be on his guard against them both.]
2. Seek to be “rich towards God”—
[That is true wisdom: and the more you possess of spiritual riches, the more truly humble will you be before God. Indeed, a poor pious man is, in God’s estimation, as high a character as exists on earth. When God’s only-begotten Son became incarnate, this was the character he assumed. Seek to be conformed to him, and you need not desire any thing beyond. Nothing is of any value without piety; nor can any thing add to piety, when it fully occupies the soul [Note: Philippians 3:7-8.].]
TRUE REPENTANCE RECOMMENDED
Proverbs 28:13. He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.
THE subject of repentance offers nothing for the gratification of “itching ears.” But it must not on that account be overlooked; since, if less interesting than some other subjects on the score of novelty, it yields to none in point of importance. It is the first act whereby a sinner returns unto his God: and it is an act for which the most eminent saint has occasion from day to day; insomuch that in him it assumes rather the character of a habit than an act. In the more grown Christian, it is the warp, whilst every other grace is the woof: whether the colours interwoven with it be grave or gay, this pervades the whole piece, and is, as it were, the foundation of all the rest.
For the advancing of this work in all our souls, I will shew,
I. The folly of covering our sins—
To conceal our sins from the all-seeing eye of God is impossible: yet
There are various ways in which men attempt to cover them—
[Sin, though it cannot be hidden from God, may be covered from ourselves, by denial, by extenuation, by forgetfulness.
Many, though walking in the habitual violation of the plainest duties, will deny that they commit any sin at all. As “the adulterous woman,” of whom Solomon speaks, “eateth, and wipeth her mouth, and saith, I have done no wickedness [Note: Proverbs 30:20.];” so these, in gratifying their sensual appetites, think that they commit no more evil than if they had merely satisfied the demands of hunger and thirst: and, in their minds, one sinful indulgence is but a prelude to another, whenever opportunity and inclination concur to call for it. Persons of this description, if they receive only a distant intimation of their state, are ready to reply, even against God himself, just as Cain did, after murdering his brother Abel: “Where is thy brother Abel?” “I know not: am I my brother’s keeper [Note: Genesis 4:9.]?” Thus, rather than they will humble themselves before God, they will deny their accountability to him, saying, “Our lips are our own: who is Lord over us [Note: Psalms 12:4.]?” But this denial of their guilt will avail them nothing. God will reprove them as he did Israel of old [Note: Jeremiah 2:23-24. This is a fine image to illustrate the insatiable avidity with which the wicked follow their own lusts and passions.]; and will surely visit them with his heaviest indignation [Note: Jeremiah 2:31; Jeremiah 2:35.].
Others cover their sins by endeavouring to extenuate the guilt of them. Thus did Adam and Eve in Paradise. Thus also did Saul, after sparing the king of the Amalekites, and the spoil which he had taken, instead of destroying them utterly according to the direction which he had received from the Lord. He first of all asserted that he had executed the divine command; and that being disproved by the lowing of the oxen, he vindicated himself, asserting, that, in as far as he was implicated in the affair, he had acted under the influence of the people, whom he could not restrain, and dared not to resist [Note: 1 Samuel 15:13-15; 1 Samuel 15:20-21; 1 Samuel 15:24.]. Thus it is also that the generality are acting all around us. They cannot actually deny that what they are doing is contrary to God’s revealed will; but they are so circumstanced, that they cannot on the whole act otherwise than they do: the current of the world is so strong against them, that they cannot resist it; and, if they err, the fault is rather in those who have led the way, than in themselves, who have only gone with the stream.
But perhaps the most common way of covering sing is by letting them pass altogether unnoticed. Many are not altogether satisfied that their ways are right: but they go on without much thought, and presently forget any thing which may have made a slight impression on their minds. Forgetting their sins, they suppose that God has forgotten them also. Of such persons God complains; “They consider not in their hearts that I remember all their wickedness [Note: Hosea 7:2.].” Very beautiful is the description which God gives of such persons, by the Prophet Jeremiah: “I hearkened and heard, but they spake not aright: no man repented of his wickedness, saying, What have I done? Every one turned to his course, as the horse rusheth into the battle [Note: Jeremiah 8:6.].” The horse is unconscious of his danger; and so are the mass of ungodly men: “it is a sport to them to commit iniquity;” and, provided it be not of such a heinous nature as to violate the usages of the place wherein they live, they say, “No evil will come unto us [Note: Jeremiah 5:12.].”]
But all who thus attempt to cover their sins are guilty of the extremest folly—
[They “can never prosper.” Temporal prosperity they may have as much as others: but in their souls they cannot prosper [Note: Job 31:33.].
They cannot in this world. They can have no peace with God or in their own consciences; for God has said, “There is no peace to the wicked.” They can have no victory over sin: for God will not interpose to deliver them from bonds, which they themselves are pleased with. They can have no delight in holy ordinances, either in the public assembly, or in their secret chamber. They may, like Ezekiel’s hearers, be pleased with hearing a man that can play well upon an instrument [Note: Ezekiel 33:31-32.]; but they can have no fellowship with God: for “what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, or light with darkness [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:14.]?” They can have no bright and cheering prospects of the eternal world: for they have no evidence within themselves of their acceptance with God, nor any “meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light.”
Much less can they prosper in the world to come. There the impenitent and unbelieving will meet their deserved recompence. No joy awaits them there. They sought not merey and therefore they find it not: they came not weary and heavy laden unto Christ; and therefore they have no part in the rest which he alone can give: they humbled not themselves; and therefore they can never be exalted.]
Let us now contemplate, on the other hand,
II. The benefit of true penitence—
True repentance consists of two parts; a confessing, and forsaking, of our sins—
[Confession is of absolute and indispensable necessity. We never can humble ourselves aright without it. Nor ought we to rest in mere general acknowledgments: we should search out our sins: we should say, “Thus and thus have I done.” We should go farther, and enter into the particular aggravations of our sins, in order the more deeply to affect our own hearts, and to fill our minds with self-lothing and self-abhorrence. Not that God needs to be informed: he knows all our iniquities, and all the circumstances with which they have been attended. But by spreading them all before God, we give the more glory to him as a God of infinite mercy and compassion; at the same time that we prepare our own minds for a due reception of mercy at his hands.
But, besides this, we must forsake our sins. If we hold them fast, it is a clear proof that our repentance is not genuine. Nor must we forsake them merely as a man parts with a limb, which, if not amputated, would destroy his life: we may indeed take into our consideration the danger arising from them, as our Lord tells us in the case of “a right hand or right eye,” which, if retained, would plunge us into everlasting perdition: but we must regard them as odious, and hateful, and abominable; and long for deliverance from them as we would for deliverance from the most lothsome disorder.
These two, a confessing, and forsaking of sin, must go together. Supposing we could put away our sins for the future, it would still become us to bewail those which are past: and, if we bewail them ever so bitterly, still must we not rest without gaining the victory over them, it is the union of them both that marks true penitence; and]
Where such repentance is, there God will bestow his richest blessings—
[It is said in a subsequent part of this chapter, that “a faithful man shall abound with blessings.” And this is true of all who deal faithfully with their own souls and with their God, in bewailing and mortifying their most secret corruptions. This is strongly asserted by all the inspired writers. “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon [Note: Isaiah 55:7.].” To such both the faithfulness and the justice of God assure a perfect remission of all sin [Note: 1 John 1:9-10.]. Nor will God delay to manifest his love, when once he sees our souls truly humbled for sin. The self-condemning publican was justified even before he left the spot where his confessions were made [Note: Luke 18:14.]. And David speaks of the same truth as realized also in his experience. Whilst he forbore to humble himself, he was kept in a state of darkness and misery: but “as soon as he began to confess his sins unto the Lord, the Lord forgave the iniquity of his sin [Note: Psalms 32:3-5.].”
And need we say what “mercy” God will vouchsafe to penitents in the last day? Surely all the manifestations of his love which he gives to them in this world, are but as a twinkling star compared with that full splendour of the Sun of Righteousness, which in that day every contrite soul shall enjoy. The joy of the Father over the returning prodigal, with all the music, and feasting, and dancing, are but faint images of what shall be realized in heaven over every true penitent through all eternity.]
From hence we may learn,
1. Whence it is that men know so little of spiritual prosperity—
[Repentance is a work to which we are very averse. If we did but occasionally set apart a day for solemn fasting and prayer, and set ourselves more diligently to the great duty of humiliation before God, we should have more delightful visits from him, and richer communications of his grace to our souls — — —]
2. How painful will be the self-condemnation of all who perish!
[The promise in our text will then be remembered with unutterable shame and sorrow. What a reflection will it be, “I might have obtained mercy, but would not seek it:” God said to me, “Only acknowledge thine iniquity [Note: Jeremiah 3:12-13.]:” but I would not deign to acknowledge it. Verily the easy terms on which salvation might have been obtained, will form the bitterest ingredient of that bitter cup which the impenitent soul will have to drink to all eternity.]
3. What obligations do we owe to the Lord Jesus Christ!
[It is through him, and through him alone, that repentance is of any avail. There is nothing in repentance that can merit forgiveness: all the merit is in Christ Jesus, even in his obedience unto death: it is that which cancels all our guilt: it is that which purchases our title to the heavenly inheritance. Whilst therefore we confess and forsake our sins, let our eyes be directed to Him as our only hope, even to him, “in whom all the seed of Israel shall be justified, and in whom they shall glory.”]
THE PORTION OF THE FAITHFUL MAN
Proverbs 28:20. A faithful man shall abound with blessings.
ST. PAUL has told us, that “the love of money is the root of all evil: and that many, whilst coveting after it, have pierced themselves through with many sorrows [Note: 1 Timothy 6:10.].” In truth, the effects of this principle on the persons in whom it dwells, and on all connected with them, are beyond all conception bitter and injurious. On the other hand, a superiority to the love of money greatly elevates and ennobles those in whom it is found; and conduces, in a very eminent degree, to their happiness both in this world and the next.
This appears to be the precise import of our text, as it stands connected with the words which follow it. But we need not so limit its use. It contains a general truth, which will afford us much profitable instruction. Taking it in this more enlarged sense, I will endeavour to shew,
I. Who are they that answer the description here given us—
Nehemiah, speaking of his brother Hanani, says, “He was a faithful man, and feared God above many:” and he assigns this as his reason for appointing him to superintend the repairs of the city of Jerusalem; since he might be fully depended on for a conscientious discharge of his high office [Note: Nehemiah 7:2.]. From hence, then, we see who they are that are entitled to the character of “faithful men.” They are those who are,
1. Faithful to their convictions in things relating to God—
[There is in every man, under the Christian dispensation, a conviction that he is a sinner who stands in need of mercy; that God has revealed to us in his Gospel the way in which alone he will dispense mercy; and that, as responsible beings, who shall soon stand at the judgment-seat of Christ in order to be judged according to our works, it is our duty and our happiness to be seeking for mercy in God’s appointed way. Now, if a man be faithful to his convictions respecting these things, we may justly call him a faithful man; but, if he neglect God, and pour contempt upon the Lord Jesus, and disregard his eternal interests, and labour in every possible way to silence the remonstrances of his own conscience, is he faithful? No, indeed; he is a traitor to God and to his own soul. If he be truly upright before God, he will give to the concerns of his soul and of eternity the attention they demand — — —]
2. Faithful to their engagements in things relating to man—
[Without supposing any express compact voluntarily entered into between man and man, there is of necessity a mutual obligation lying upon every man to perform the duties of his place and station. As husbands or wives, parents or children, masters or servants, magistrates or subjects, all of us have some line of conduct prescribed to us; and, as members of one great body, are bound to perform our proper office for the benefit of the whole. Every person feels this in relation to others; and would account himself very injuriously treated, if any should violate towards him the duties of their station: and, consequently, every one must owe to others the treatment which he himself claims at their hands. Now, a faithful man considers this, and will labour to do unto others as he, in a change of circumstances, would think it right that they should do unto him. But if a man consult nothing but his own interests and inclinations, and make his own will the only rule of his conduct, can he be called “faithful?” Is he not as much bound to observe the commandments of the second table as those of the first? His obligation to both the one and the other of them is unalterable; nor can either the one or the other in any wise be dispensed with. Religion and morality must go hand in hand. Neither of them can supersede the other; nor can either of them exist without the other: and he who is faithful in one, must of necessity be faithful in both.]
For the encouragement of such characters, I will proceed to state,
II. What are the peculiar blessings reserved for them—
Truly “the faithful man shall abound with blessings”—
[I might here enumerate thousands of blessings, if time would admit of it; but I will specify only three: the approbation of God; the testimony of a good conscience; and a blessed hope of immortality and glory — — — But how shall I describe these blessings? “In God’s favor is life; and his loving-kindness is better than life itself [Note: Psalms 30:5; Psalms 63:3.]” — — — As for the testimony of our own conscience, and the witness of God’s Spirit with ours, that we are upright before him, man can have no greater joy on earth than that [Note: 2 Corinthians 1:12, Romans 8:16.] — — — And who can adequately declare the blessedness of a soul that apprehends God himself as his portion, and all the glory of heaven as his inheritance? — — —]
But it is the peculiarity and exclusiveness of this portion which we are chiefly called to notice—
[To the faithful man these blessings are accorded; but to him also are they limited: for they are peculiar to him; “and a stranger intermeddleth not with his joy [Note: Proverbs 14:10.],” Let the man who is unfaithful to his convictions or to his engagements say what he knows of these blessings? If he speak the truth before God, he has no experience of them whatever in his own soul. Indeed, it is impossible that he should have any sense of them as already imparted to him; since, if God be true, no one of them belongs to him; “he has no part or lot in any one of them:” they belong to the faithful man, and to him alone — — —]
1. What is the proper scope and tendency of the Gospel—
[It is doubtless intended to effect a change, yea, an exceeding great change, both in the characters and states of men. But what does it effect in their character? Does it make them hypocrites? No; but faithful both to God and man. And what does it effect in their states? Does it deprive them of comforts, and make them melancholy? No; but it makes them to abound with blessings, both in time and in eternity. O that you could be prevailed upon to view the Gospel in its true light, and to embrace it with your whole hearts!]
2. What bitter self-condemnation awaits the impenitent and unbelieving soul—
[You have now the blessings of time and sense. But what are they, in comparison of those that await the faithful man? Even here your portion is far inferior to his: but what will they be in the eternal world? Truly, you will all find, ere long, that to gain the whole world with the loss of your own souls was a sad exchange. May God make you wise in time, that you may not have to deplore your folly to all eternity!]
Proverbs 28:26. He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.
THE Holy Scriptures speak plainly, and without reserve: they know nothing of that squeamish delicacy that keeps men from designating things by their appropriate names: they declare sin to be sin, and folly to be folly, without considering what the pride of man will say to the fidelity that is expressed. Now this gives an exceeding great advantage to ministers: for though it does not sanction rudeness, or indelicacy, or inattention to the feelings of mankind, it does authorize a “great plainness of speech” in all who deliver the messages of God to a sinful and self-deceiving world. Indeed, by universal consent, a greater freedom of speech is admitted, even by the most fastidious in our public addresses, than would be palatable in private converse: nor will any be offended with us, if we declare authoritatively, and without any palliating modifications, what God has said, and what we know to be true, and what therefore we must affirm, that “he who trusteth in his own heart is a fool.”
In confirmation of this plain and solemn truth, I will shew,
I. What is the conduct here reprobated—
Man, when he fell from God, renounced not only his allegiance to him as his Maker, but his affiance in him as his God. Since that time, man affects to be a god unto himself, and places his reliance rather on his own inherent powers than on the Majesty of heaven.
He relies on,
1. His own wisdom and understanding—
[This is true, especially in reference to all that concerns the soul. Every one conceives that he knows what religion is, and how he is to obtain favour at the hands of God. The most careless of men stand, in this respect, on a footing with the most thoughtful and sedate: every one is alike confident that his opinions are just; and he holds them last, with a degree of assurance which the most studious habits would scarcely warrant.
Some, however, will admit the Scriptures to be the only true standard of religious sentiment: but then they suppose themselves to be perfectly equal to the task of extracting from them the mind of God. They feel no need of divine teaching: they are unconscious of the blindness of their minds, and of the bias that is upon their hearts on the side of error. Hence they will take some few particular passages which favour the prejudices they have imbibed; and on them they will build, as securely as if it was impossible for them to err.]
2. His own purposes and resolutions—
[Every one has, at some time or other, thought with himself, that it was desirable for him to be prepared for death and judgment: and most persons have formed some faint purposes at least, if not a fixed resolution, that they will amend their lives, and prepare for their great account. In some imminent danger, or under some distressing occurrence, the purpose may have been formed with a view to a speedy change: but, in general, the convenient season is looked for at somewhat of a distant period. But the power to turn to God is doubted by none. The sufficiency of man to execute his own purposes and resolutions is never questioned. Every one supposes that he shall be able to effect whatever his judgment shall direct, and his necessities require. As for any need of divine assistance for these things, men have no idea of it. Their own strength is equal to the performance of all that they judge necessary for their salvation; and therefore they may safely defer the great work of their souls to any period which it may suit them to assign.]
That I may dissuade you from such vain confidence, I proceed to state,
II. The folly of it—
Even in relation to earthly things an overweening confidence in our own judgment and strength is a mark of folly: but in reference to the concerns of the soul it is folly in the extreme. For,
1. It robs us of the benefit we might receive from trusting in God—
[This is particularly intimated in the words immediately connected with my text: “He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool; but whoso walketh wisely shall be delivered.” Now here the “walking wisely” is put for trusting in God, rather than in ourselves: and the person who so conducts himself, “shall be delivered” from those evils into which the self-confident must fall. Indeed the very honour of God is concerned to leave us, that we may reap the bitter fruits of our own folly. If we succeeded in effecting our own deliverance, we should “burn incense to our own net,” and ascribe all the glory to ourselves. But God has warned us, that, if we provoke him thus to jealousy, we shall lose the benefits which, by trusting in him, we might have obtained; and bring on ourselves the very evils which, by trusting in him, we might have escaped:—“Thus saith the Lord: Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord: (where you will see, that to trust in ourselves is a departure of heart from God:) for he shall be like the heath in the desert; and shall not see when good cometh; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land, and not inhabited. But blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is: for he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river; and shall not see when heat cometh; but her leaf shall be green, and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit [Note: Jeremiah 17:5-8.].”]
2. It ensures, beyond all doubt, our ultimate disappointment—
[If ever any man was authorized to trust in himself, methinks Peter and the other Apostles were, in relation to their desertion of their Lord, in his lowest extremity. In the fulness of his own sufficiency, Peter said, “Though I should die with thee, I will not deny thee. And so likewise said they all.” Yet, behold, no sooner was their Master apprehended, than “they all forsook him and fled.” And Peter, the most sell-confident of them all, denied him with oaths and curses. And thus will it be with all of us: however firm our resolutions be, they will prove only as tow before the fire, if they be made in our own strength. We need, indeed, only look back and see what has become of the resolutions we have already made. ‘We would turn from this or that sin: we would mortify this or that propensity: we would give up ourselves to God in newness of life.’ Alas! alas! how have these purposes vanished, as smoke before the whirlwind! And though we may think to profit by experience, and to become more steadfast in consequence of our former disappointments, we shall only live to prove with still greater evidence the folly of our own ways, and the truth of that inspired declaration, that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”]
3. It will keep us from discovering our error, till it is past a remedy—
[Tell persons what God says of their ways, and they will not believe it. Every one thinks himself safe; and holds fast his persuasion, in spite of all the admonitions that can be given him. The Rich Man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day, would have deemed any one very uncharitable who should have warned him of his approaching end. He would have found an abundance to allege in his own defence; and would not have believed that so inoffensive a life as his could ever issue in such misery as was denounced against him. His five brethren, who succeeded to his wealth, and followed him in what they esteemed so becoming their situation in life, were equally secure in their own minds, and equally averse to think themselves obnoxious to God’s displeasure: nay, so averse were they to admit such an idea, that, if their deceased brother’s wish had been granted, and one had been sent from the dead to warn them of their danger, they would not have believed his report. Hence, like him who had gone before them, they held fast their delusions, till, one after another, they all came into the same place of torment. Each, at the instant of his own departure, saw the danger of those who were left behind: for, as they would not believe Moses and the Prophets, their ruin was inevitable, and their misery sure. Precisely such is our state and conduct. We will trust in our own hearts, and deny the necessity for trusting only in the Lord; and the probability is, that we shall never be undeceived, till we come to experience what now we will not believe. And are not they who pursue such a course justly denominated fools? If a man would not be persuaded that the leaping down from a lofty precipice would hurt him, and should desperately put it to the trial, and break all his bones, would any one be at a loss to assign an appropriate name to him? Yet would he be wise, in comparison of one who, in defiance of all the warnings of Holy Writ, will trust in himself rather than in God.]
See, then, from hence,
1. How desirable is self-knowledge—
[Respecting gross offences, men cannot be ignorant of their condition before God: but respecting the state and habit of their minds, especially in relation to the object of their trust and confidence, they are almost as ignorant as new-born babes. People will not inquire; they will not examine; they will not even suspect that they may be wrong. In truth, they will not believe that their self-confidence is so criminal as the Scriptures represent it, or that any danger can await them on account of it. But, my dear Brethren, I beg you to remember, that the declaration in my text is the word of the living God, and shall surely be found true in the end. I charge you, therefore, to examine carefully into this matter. See whether you have just views of the deceitfulness of the heart. See whether you feel so fearful of its delusions, that you determine never to take its report of any thing without comparing it with the sacred records, and imploring direction from God that you may not err. And be assured, that, till you are brought to renounce all dependence on yourselves, and to depend only on the Lord, you are not, you cannot be, in a state of acceptance with God: for, if he pronounces you fools, he will surely deal with you according to your proper character.]
2. How necessary is the knowledge of Christ—
[Till we come to know what provision God has made for us in the Son of his love, we shall of necessity continue guilty of the folly which is here reprobated. But when once we are assured that there is another in whom we may trust, and who possesses in himself all the fulness of the Godhead, we are encouraged to look beyond ourselves, and to place our confidence in him. Now the Lord Jesus Christ is that person, who is sent of God for that very end, and “is of God made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” Here, then, we have all that our necessities can require. By this, all temptation to creature-confidence is cut off: for who would lean upon a reed, that has Omnipotence for his support? or who would build upon the sand, that can have for his foundation “the Rock of ages?” Seek, then, I pray you, the knowledge of this Saviour; and beg of God to shew you what an inexhaustible fulness is treasured up for you in him; and how impossible it is that you should ever fail, if only you trust in him. Once begin in truth to “live by faith in the Son of God,” and you “shall not be ashamed or confounded world without end.]
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Proverbs 28". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany