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PROVERBS, CHAP. XIX.-VERSE 27.
Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the
words of knowlege.
That by the words of knowlege' in the text we are to understand the principles and dictates of virtue and religion, is so well known to all who are in the least acquainted with the language of Scripture, especially of the book of Psalms, the Proverbs, and other writings of the like kind, that there is no need to insist on the proof of it. This being admitted, the wise man's advice in the text amounts to this: that we should be careful to guard against the arts and insinuations of such as set up for teachers of infidelity and irreligion.
These teachers are not here considered under the character of vicious and profligate men, given up to the excesses of lewdness, or to be distinguished by any marks of desperate or notorious wickedness: they are spoken of only as instructors, as disputers, and as reasoners against the words of knowlege.' Such the wise King forwarns us of, advising us to keep at a distance from danger, and to stop our ears against their pernicious enchantments. He had often before spoken of the danger of associating with wicked men, who sleep not, except they do mischief; who eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence:' but here he points out to us another sort; men who have arrived to a pitch of being gravely and seriously irreligious; who spend their coolest hours and their calmest thoughts in the service of infidelity, and are maliciously diligent to pervert men from the acknowlegement of the truth, and by the very arms of heaven, reason and understanding, to enlarge the bounds of the kingdom of darkness.
There are two things which, in speaking to this subject, I would beg leave to recommend to your serious consideration :
First, the several temptations which men lie under to listen to such instructors as the text refers to.
Secondly, the great danger there is in listening to them.
It is one step towards security to see the dangers we are exposed to; for when we know the weak places which are least able to support themselves against the enemy's strength, we shall double our diligence to guard against any surprise from those parts. It will be of great service to us therefore to know the weaknesses of our own minds, to understand the prejudices and passions which conspire together to deliver us up as a prey to those who lie in wait for our ruin. This, if any thing, will enable us to rescue ourselves, by arming us with resolution to withstand the temptations which we are acquainted with before hand. Infidelity has no rewards or punishments to bestow : it affords at best but a very hopeless and comfortless prospect; which would make a considering man wonder whence the temptations to it should arise, and what should give that keenness which appears in the passion with which some men maintain and propagate it. Wicked and profligate men indeed are under some temptation from self-interest to wish well to the cause of infidelity, in opposition to both natural and revealed religion; because it sets them free from the fears of futurity, and delivers them from the many uneasy thoughts that attend them in all their vicious pleasures and enjoyments. To live at once under the dominion of our passions and the rebuke of our minds, to be perpetually doing what we are perpetually condemning, is of all others the most wretched condition : and it is no wonder that any man should strive to be delivered from it, or that those who resolve to enjoy the pleasure of sin here, should wish to be delivered from the fear of punishment hereafter. This then is a very great temptation to men to hope that all their fears are false and illgrounded; and that religion, from whence they flow, is nothing but the cunning of wise men and the simplicity of weak ones. Since therefore the fears and apprehensions of guilt are such strong motives to infidelity, the innocence of the heart is abso'lutely necessary to preserve the freedom of the mind : which, if
duly weighed, is a good reason why a man, as long as he finds himself swayed by appetite and the pleasures of vice, should suspect his own judgment in a matter where his reason is so absolutely chained down by passion and interest, and disabled from exerting itself to do its proper work and office.
Consider too : in the most unhappy circumstances of sin and guilt, religion opens to us a much safer and more certain retreat than infidelity can possibly afford, and will more effectually extinguish the fears and torments we labor under, and restore the long-forgotten peace and tranquillity of the mind : for after all the pains we can take with ourselves to close up our minds, and to shut out the belief of a superior overruling power, and of a future state of rewards and punishments, we cannot be secure of enjoying long even the comfort we propose to ourselves from it in this life. We may not always have strength enough to subdue natural sense and reason. Any sudden shock, either in our health or in our fortune, will disperse our animal spirits, and all the gay imaginations which attend them, and give us up once again to the cruel torments of cool thought and reflexion. Then will our fears rally their forces, and return on us with double strength : hell and damnation will constantly play before our eyes, and not suffer the least glimpse of comfort to enter, nor leave us courage to repent of our sins, or to fly to our last and only hope, the mercy
of God. To the truth of what I say, witness the latest and the bitterest hours of dying sinners! Hours of woe and despair! in which the soul, conscious of its own deserts, anticipates the pains of hell, and suffers the very torments of the damned ! in which it feels the worm which never dies beginning to gnaw, and lies expiring amidst the terrors of guilt, without power either to think of God or to forget him! So that all that sinners get by forming to themselves resolutions of unbelief (for that I take to be the true case of such unbelievers as we are now speaking of), is to render their case more desperate; to cut off all retreat to the mercy of God, when the day of their distress overtakes them; and to lay up in store for themselves a double portion of misery, both in this life and that which is to come.
Since then even the hopes which sinners conceive from un:
belief in this world, that they shall undisturbedly enjoy the pleasures of vice without suffering under the rebukes of their own minds, are so very uncertain, so liable to be dissipated by every cross accident of life; since they cannot alter their condition, except for the worse, in the life to come; it must needs be allowed that sinners make a very ill choice for themselves, when they sacrifice the powers of the mind to the passions of the heart. As long as men retain a sense of God and religion on their own minds, there is great hope that some time or other reason will prevail, and extricate the man from the misery of sin. Good principles are the seeds of good actions; and though the seed may be buried under much rubbish, yet as long as there is life in it, there is a reasonable expectation of seeing fruit from it some time or other; but when reason and understanding are depraved, and as far corrupted as the very passions of the heart; when thus “the blind leads the blind,' what else can we expect, but that 'both fall into the ditch ?'
But vice is not the only root from which infidelity springs; nor are all who profess themselves unbelievers, to be charged with uncommon degrees of wickedness. Happy were it for mankind, were there but one temptation to one vice! Common diligence might then secure the single pass against the enemy; whereas now, whilst we guard the most suspected place, the strongest often falls into his hands; and thus it sometimes happens in the case before us, that whilst we act with a superiority to all the vanities of the world, to all the allurements and temptations of bodily pleasure, reason itself is betrayed by the vanity of our hearts, and sinks under the pride and affectation of knowlege. To know all that can be attained to by our utmost diligence and sagacity, to search into the hidden causes of things, to examine the truth and reality of our knowlege, is an ambition worthy of a rational soul. But all kinds of laudable ambition grow to be vicious and despicable, when, instead of pursuing the real good, which is the true object, they seek only to make a show and an appearance of it. Thus it is that ambition for virtue produces hypocrisy; ambition for courage, empty boastings and unreasonable resentments; and by the same rule, ambition for learning and knowlege produces pedantry and paradoxes : for he who would desire to appear to
know more than other men, is ready to contradict the sense and reason of all men; for the same cause that he who is desirous to be thought to have more courage than others is ready to quarrel with every man he meets. And this is a temptation to which many daily sacrifice the innocence and integrity of their minds, whilst they mean little else by the singularity of their opinions, than to recommend themselves to the world as persons of more than ordinary discernment. That this is no unfair account of the conduct of some unbelievers, will appear by observing the very different, but equally natural, workings of the mind in these two different states of it ; whilst it seeks real knowlege and truth, and whilst it aims only at the credit and reputation of wisdom : and this will help us likewise in examining ourselves, and in judging whether we act with those impartial views and regards to truth that all rational men ought to do.
He who sits down to examine truth and search after real knowlege, will equally sift all his opinions; will reject none that he has been long possessed of without good reason; will admit no new ones without sufficient authority and weight of argument to support them. Wherever he discovers truth, he gains the satisfaction he aimed at: his mind acquiesces in it; nor is he disappointed in the event of his labor and study, when he finds himself at last in the same opinion with the rest of the world ; with this only difference, that his persuasion is the effect of reason, theirs perhaps of prejudice and custom ; which is a difference that affords much inward satisfaction and peace of mind, but little or no outward glory, or credit of wisdom and understanding.
In the other case, when men aim at being thought wiser and more knowing than others, and labor only to possess the world with an opinion of their sagacity, they can have no satisfaction in discovering the truth and reasonableness of any opinion that is commonly received in the world : for how will they appear wiser than other men by professing to believe what other men believe as well as they? They can no otherwise satisfy their ambition, than by differing from the common sense and reason of mankind; and the whole bent of their mind is to support such their difference with plausible reason and argument. This