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1. To be on our guard against acquiescing too easily in popular opinions—
[From the positions which we have just considered, the carnal mind revolts. Yet, not only are these positions confirmed by our blessed Lord, but they are expressed by him in far stronger terms than by Solomon himself." Blessed are ye poor: blessed are ye that hunger now: blessed are ye that weep now: blessed are ye when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man's sake. But woe unto you that are rich: woe unto you that are full: woe unto you that laugh now: woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you." It is obvious that light and darkness are scarcely more opposite than these declarations are to the sentiments and habits of the world at large. But are we therefore to question the truth of them, or to refuse submission to them? No: we are to regard the Scriptures as the only authorized standard of opinion; and to them must our sentiments be conformed. Even if the whole world combine to reprobate what the Scriptures enjoin, we must not be deterred from following what God prescribes; but must boldly say, "Let God be true, but every man a liar."]
2. To take eternity into our estimate of present things
[In the passage just cited from the Sermon on the Mount, we see that every declaration of our blessed Lord is founded on the aspect which our present state has upon the eternal world. And I would ask, What would the Rich Man and Lazarus now think of the condition in which they were severally placed when in this lower world? Would carnal mirth be commended by the one, or temporal distress be deprecated by the other, in such terms as the spectators of their widely different condition were once wont to use respecting them? Methinks the enjoyments and sufferings of time would be deemed by them scarcely worthy of a thought; and eternity would swallow up every other consideration. And so it will be with us, ere long. Indeed, even at this present moment, every man's conscience bears witness to this truth, however in the habits of his life he may contradict it. I cannot therefore but entreat all to consider what will be their views of present things, when they shall have left this transient scene; and to regulate their judgment now by what they believe to be the uniform tenour of God's word, and the full conviction of every creature, whether in heaven or in hell.]
g Luke vi. 20-26.
h Rom. iii. 4.
3. To examine well the tendencies and inclinations of our hearts
[In the prospect of death and judgment, men may be led to adopt sentiments which they do not cordially approve, and to follow a conduct in which they have no delight. I ask not, then, what you either say or do under such circumstances. I ask not whether you put a force upon your inclinations, abstaining from indulgences in which you would be glad to revel, and performing services from which you would gladly be excused: I ask, What are the pursuits which your heart affects? What is your real and predominant taste? and what is the employment in which you chiefly delight? I need not say what would be the taste of an angel, if he were sent to sojourn here; nor need I tell you what was the taste of our blessed Saviour and his holy Apostles: of these things no one of you can entertain a doubt. This, then, I say, Seek now to be, what ere long you will wish you had been: seek to be in heart, what you are bound to be in act. It is by the inward dispositions of your souls that you will be judged in the last day. What if, like Doeg, you were "detained before the Lord," if yet you had no pleasure in the service of your God? Would your worship be pleasing and acceptable to God? No; " your heart must be right with him," if you would either please him here, or be accepted of him hereafter. To every one of you, therefore, I say, Inquire not where your bodies are, but where your hearts; "for as a man thinketh in his heart, so is hei."] 4. To conform ourselves to the suggestions offered in our text
[Let not any one think them too strong, or that the conduct which they recommend is too self-denying. I have already shewn, that the same things are spoken by Christ himself; and I must further observe, that the whole tenour of God's blessed word suggests and enjoins the same. "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world: if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him: for all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world." What is there "in the house of mirth" which is not here proscribed? Again: "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom (or by which) the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world." Think at how low a rate the world esteems an object that is crucified, and a man, in the very article of death upon a cross, affects all that the world could give him. Surely, if these and other passages of the same tendency be duly weighed, there will be no difficulty k 1 John ii. 15, 16. 1 Gal. vi. 14.
i Prov. xxiii. 7.
in apprehending the true import of my text, nor any doubt upon our minds, which of the two objects before us should be preferred. Let this preference, then, be seen in the whole of of our life and conversation. I say not, that we should never go to "the house of mirth;" but only that, our heart should not be there; and that, if called there by any peculiar occurrence, we should go, not as those that would be at home there, but as physicians to a hospital, where they desire to do all the good they can, but are glad to come away again, and to breathe a purer atmosphere.
Well do I know that it is not in the power of all to visit the abodes of misery, and to spend their time in administering to the necessities of the poor. But, where these offices can be performed consistently with the duties of our own peculiar sphere, they are most pleasing in the sight of God, and not a little profitable to our own soulsm But those who cannot embark to any extent in the office of visiting the afflicted, may yet facilitate the execution of it in others by their liberal contributions n And if, from the peculiarity of our engagements, we are so circumstanced that we cannot personally frequent "the house of mourning," let us at least shew that our hearts are there; and that we have no occupation more congenial with our minds, than to "rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep."]
m If this were preached in behalf of a Benevolent Society, an appeal might here be made to those engaged in it, whether they have not experienced the truth of Prov. xi. 25. and Isai. lvii. 10, 11.
n Here, whether the Institution be of a public or private nature, a statement may be made of the methods pursued, and of the good done.
Eccl. vii. 10. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
IN the writings of Solomon we find many maxims, which, if uttered by an uninspired man, would be controverted; but to which, as suggested by inspiration from God, we submit without gainsaying. That which is delivered in the passage before us does not, at first sight, carry its own evidence along with it: but the more it is investigated, the more will it appear to be a dictate of sound wisdom, and worthy of universal acceptation. That we may derive from it the full benefit which it is calculated to impart, let us consider,
I. What is the inquiry which is here discouraged— It is not every comparison of existing circumstances with the past, that is here reprobated
Nor is all
[In many situations we may, with the utmost propriety, institute an inquiry into the reasons of any change which may have taken place. A man, in relation to his own temporal concerns, would be very unwise if he neglected to do so. Suppose, for instance, his business, which was formerly in a very prosperous state, have failed, can we condemn him for inquiring into the occasion of that failure? Should we not think him worthy of severe blame, if he did not labour to find out the cause of this change in his circumstances; in order, if possible, to apply a remedy before it was too late? inquiry precluded in relation to the concerns of the nation. If there have been a plain and visible decline in the national prosperity, all who are affected by it are entitled, with modesty, to inquire whence that decline has arisen; and to express to those who are in authority their sentiments respecting it; and to point out what they conceive to be the most judicious and effectual means of remedying the existing evils In reference to the concerns of the soul, to neglect such inquiries would be the height of folly and wickedness. Suppose a person to have formerly walked with God, and experienced much of His presence in his soul, and now to have become destitute of all spiritual life and comfort; should not he ask, "Wherefore were the former days better than these?" Yes to examine into this matter is his bounden duty. The Apostle says, "Let a man examine himself:" and the Lord Jesus counsels the Ephesian Church, "when they had left their first love, to remember from whence they had fallen, and to repent, and do their first works." So that it is clear, that the prohibition respecting such inquiries is not universal, but must be limited to such occasions as Solomon had more especially in view.]
The comparisons which are here discouraged, are those which are the mere effusions of discontent
[In every age, discontented men have been forward to make this inquiry; "What is the cause that the former days were better than these?" They make no endeavour to ascertain the correctness of their sentiments; but, taking for granted that they are right, they demand the reason of so strange a phenomenon. Now it is a curious fact, that this is the habit. of discontented men in every age. Those who are now advanced in life, can remember, that, in their early days, the very same clamour was made by discontented men as at this hour: and,
a Rev. ii. 5.
if we go back to every preceding generation, we shall find the same complaints respecting the deterioration of the times but we shall never arrive at that time, when the people confessed themselves to be in that exalted state in which our imaginations place them. Certainly, if ever there was a time and a place that might be specified as that happy æra when there was no occasion for complaint, it was the state of the Jews in the days of Solomon for, in respect of peace and prosperity, there never was a nation to be compared with the Jews at that time. Yet, behold, it was at that time, and under those circumstances, that the reproof was given: "Say not thou, What is the cause that the former times were better than these?" Hence, then, we see what is the inquiry which Solomon discourages: it is that which has no just foundation, and which is the offspring of spleen and discontent.]
These distinctions being duly adverted to, we are prepared to see,
II. Why the making of it is unwise
I will assign two reasons: it is unwise, because, 1. It is erroneous in its origin
[It is not true that former times, on a large and extended scale, were better than these. Improvements may have been made in some respects, and matters may have been deteriorated in others; or particular persons and places may be in less favourable circumstances now than formerly: but times have been much alike in all ages. There is in every situation a mixture of good and evil. To every man this is a chequered scene. There are no people loaded with unqualified good; nor are there any oppressed with unmitigated evil. But men know of former times only by report, and by very partial report too: whereas, existing circumstances they know by actual experience; and they are more observant of one evil, than of a hundred blessings.
In relation to our own times and country, the very reverse of what is here assumed is true. Never did the nation stand higher amidst the nations than at this day. Never was civil liberty held more sacred, or better regulated for the good of the community. Never did religion flourish in a greater extent. Never was there such a combination of all ranks and orders of men to diffuse religion and happiness over the face of the earth. Never were the wants and necessities of human nature provided for in such a variety of forms. There is not a trouble to which humanity is exposed, but societies are formed to prevent or to alleviate its pressure. Never were the blessings of education so widely diffused. In a word, such is the increase
b In 1822.