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PREACHED AT WESTMINSTER-ABBEY,
TWENTY-NINTH OF MAY, 1672 ;
BEING THE ANNIVERSARY FESTIVAL APPOINTED BY ACT OF
PARLIAMENT, FOR THE HAPPY RESTORATION OF
KING CHARLES II.
ROMANS xi. 33. :-How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past
finding out ! THAT which first brought both a present guilt, and entailed a future curse upon mankind, was an inordinate desire of knowledge. And from the fall of Adam to this very day, this fatal itch has stuck so close to our nature, that every one of his succeeding race is infinitely eager, inquisitive, and desirous to know and judge, where he is called only to adore and to obey. By which we see, that it was this restless appetite of knowing, which made the earliest and boldest encroachment upon the divine prerogative; setting man up, not only as a rebel, but also as a rival to his Maker, and from behaving himself as his creature, encouraging him to become his competitor. For there appears not the least inducement to the breach of this command of God, from any pretence of the unreasonableness or difficulty of it, but merely because it was a command; it obliged,
and therefore was to be broken or shook off. So that upon the whole matter, it was not so much the taking beauties of the forbidden tree, as its being forbidden, which stirred the unruly humour, gave relish to the fruit, and force to the temptation. And could there be an higher and more direct defiance of the Almighty, under the peculiar character of Lord and Governor of the universe, than to have the very reason of his subject's obedience turned into an argument for his rebellion ? to see a pitiful, shortsighted creature prying into the reserves of Heaven ; and one who was but dust in his constitution, and of a day's standing at most, aspiring to an equality with his Creator in one of his divinest perfections ? All know, that even in human governments there is hardly any one of them but must have its arcana imperii, its hidden rules and maxims, which the subjects of it must by no means be acquainted with, but yield to their force, without examining their contrivance, (the very ignorance of them being the chief cause that the generality are governed by them.) And if so, how much a more unpardonable absurdity, as well as insolence, must it needs be for those who commonly stand at so great a distance, even from the little intrigues and mysteries of human policies, to say, like their grand exemplar and counsellor Lucifer, I will ascend and look into the secrets of the Most High, rip up and unravel all the designs and arts of Providence in the government of the world; as if, forsooth, they were of the cabinet to the Almighty, were privy to all his decrees, and, in a word, held intelligence with his omniscience. For no less than all this was or could be implied in our first parents affecting to be as gods; the main thing which, by the advice of the serpent, they were then so set upon and so furiously desirous of.
Whereas on the contrary, that great repository of all truth and wisdom, the scripture, is in nothing more full and frequent, than in representing the infinite transcendency of God's ways and actings above all created intellectuals. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, says David, Psalm cxxxix. 6. And, Thy judgments are a great deep, Psalm xxxvi. 6. And, God has put darkness under his feet, Psalm xviii. 9. And, His ways are in the great waters, and his footsteps are not known, Psalm lxxvii. 19. In all which passages could any thing be expressed with more life and emphasis ? For he who treads upon the waters leaves no impression ; and he who walks in the dark falls under no inspection. There is still a cloud, a thick cloud, about God's greatest and most important works; and a cloud, we know, is both high and dark, it surpasses our reach, and determines our sight; we may look upon it, but it is impossible for us to look through it. In a word, if we consult either the reports of scripture or of our own experience, about the wonderful, amazing events of Providence, especially in the setting up or pulling down of kings and kingdoms, transplanting churches, destroying nations, and the like; we shall find the result of our closest reasonings and most exact inquiries concluding in an humble nonplus, and silent submission to the overpowering truth of this exclamation of our apostle; How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!
The glorious subject of this day's commemoration is an eminent and bright instance of the methods of Providence surpassing all human apprehension or
conceit: and as it is a very great one itself, so was it brought forth by a numerous train of other providential passages, altogether as great, whether we respect the quality of the actions themselves, or the strangeness of the effects. My business therefore shall be, from so notable a theme, to read men a lecture of humility; and that in a case in which they seldom do (and yet have all the reason in the world to) shew it; to wit, in taking a due estimate of the proceedings of Almighty God, especially in his winding and turning about the great affairs of states and nations; and therein to demonstrate, what weak, purblind expositors we are of what is above us; how unfit to arraign and pass sentence upon that Providence that overrules us in all our concerns; and in a word, to turn interpreters where we understand not the original. It is, no doubt, an easy matter to gaze upon the surface and outside of things. But few who see the hand of the clock or dial can give a reason of its motion ; nor can the case of the watch (though never so finely wrought) be any rule to judge of the artificial composure and exact order of the work within.
Now he who would pass a clear, firm, and thorough judgment upon any action, must be able to give an account of these two things belonging to it; viz.
1. From what cause or reason it proceeds. 2. To what event or issue it tends.
In both which respects I shall demonstrate, that the sublimest and most advanced wisdom of man is an incompetent judge of the ways of God. And,
1. For the reason or cause of them. Men are so far from judging rightly of the passages of Provi
dence, that the causes they assign of them are for the most part false, but always imperfect.
And first for the false ones; these (or some of them at least) are such as follow.
1. That the prosperous and happy in this life are the proper objects of God's love; and the miserable and calamitous, of his hatred : a blessed doctrine doubtless, and exactly according to that of Mahomet, even the very marrow and spirit of the Alcoran, and the prime and topping article, or rather sum total of the Ottoman divinity. But such, we see, is the natural aptness of men to bring down God to their own measures, and to ascribe only those methods to him, which they first transcribe and copy from themselves. For they know well enough how they treat one another, and that all the hostility of a man's actions presupposes and results from a much greater in his affections; so that the hand is never lifted up to strike, but as it is commanded by the heart, that hates. And accordingly let any notable calamity or distress befall any one, (and especially if maligned by us,) and then how naturally do there start up, in the minds of such Mahometan Christians, such reasonings as these : “ Can so beneficent a being as God be
imagined to torment in love? to kill with kindness? “ Or does the noise of his blows and the sounding “ of his bowels speak the same thing ?" No, by no means; and therefore, when any one chances to be cut off by the stroke of some severe providence, no sooner has God done execution, but the malice of men presently passes sentence, and, by a preposterous proceeding, the man is first executed, and afterwards condemned, and so dies not for being a criminal, but passes for a criminal for being put to death.