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Israel at the time this portion of prophecy was penned, perhaps we cannot better improve the present solemnity than by taking occasion, from the words before us, to point out some of those sentiments and views which appear in the present crisis not to be right; and, after exploding these, to endeavour to substitute more correct ones in their stead.
1. They who content themselves with tracing national judgments to their natural causes, without looking higher, entertain a view of the subject very inadequate to the demands of the present season. When you have imputed to the effects of an unparalleled convulsion on the Continent, to the relative situation of foreign powers, to the turbulent passions and insatiable ambition of an individual, the evils which threaten us, what have you done to mitigate those evils? What alleviation have you afforded to perplexity and distress? They still exist in all their force. Far be it from me to attempt to discourage political inquiry. An inquiry into the sources of great events, an attempt to develop the more hidden causes which influence, under God, the destiny of nations, is an exercise of the mental powers more noble than almost any other, inasmuch as it embraces the widest field, and grasps a chain whose links are the most numerous, complicated, and subtle. The most profound political speculations, however, the most refined theories of government, though they establish the fame of their authors, will be found, perhaps, to have had very little influence on the happiness of nations. As the art of criticism never made an orator or a poet, though it enables us to judge of their merits, so the comprehensive speculation of modern times, which has reviewed and compared the manners and institutions of every age and country, has never formed a wise government or a happy people. It arrives too late for that purpose, since it owes its existence to an extensive survey of mankind, under a vast variety of forms, through all those periods of national improvement and decay in which the happiest efforts of wisdom and policy have been already made. The welfare of a nation depends much less on the refined wisdom of the few than on the manners and character of the many: and as moral and religious principles have the chief influence in forming that character, so an acknowledgment of the hand of God, a deep sense of his dominion, is among the first of those principles. While we attend to the operation of second causes, let us never forget that there is a Being placed above them, who can move and arrange them at pleasure, and in whose hands they never fail to accomplish the purposes of his unerring counsel. The honour of the Supreme Ruler requires that his supremacy should be acknowledged, his agency confessed; nor is there any thing which he more intends by his chastisements than to extort this confession, or any thing he more highly resents than an attempt to exclude him from the concerns of his own world. Wo unto them (saith Isaiah) that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink; that continue until night, till wine inflame them! And the harp and the viol, the tabret and pipe, and wine are in their feasts : but they regard not the work of the Lord, neither consider the operation
of his hands.* The same prophet complains, that while the hand of Jehovah was lifted up they would not see; but he adds, they shall see. If lighter chastisements will not suffice, he has heavier in reserve; if they despise his reproofs, he will render his anger with fury, his rebukes with flames of fire. He is resolved to overcome; and what must be the issue of a contest with Omnipotence it is as easy to foresee as it is painful to contemplate.
2. They speak not aright who, instead of placing their reliance on God for safety, repose only on an arm of flesh.-The perfect unanimity which prevails, the ardour to defend every thing dear to us which is expressed by all classes, the sacrifices cheerfully made, the labours sustained, and the mighty preparations by sea and land which the vigilance of government has set on foot to repel the enemy from our coasts, or ensure his discomfiture should he arrive, must be highly satisfactory to every well-disposed mind. They afford, as far as human means can afford, a well-founded prospect of success. Though there is, on this account, no room to despond, but much, on the contrary, to lead us to anticipate a favourable issue to the contest; yet nothing, surely, can justify that language of extravagant boast, that proud confidence in our national force, without a dependence upon God, which, however fashionable it may be, is as remote from the dictates of true courage as of true piety. True courage is firm and unassuming: true piety, serious and humble. In the midst of all our preparations, we shall, if we are wise, repose our chief confidence in Him who has every element at his disposal; who can easily disconcert the wisest councils, confound the mightiest projects, and save, when he pleases, by many or by few. While the vanity of such a pretended reliance on Providence as supersedes the use of means is readily confessed, it is to be feared we are not sufficiently careful to guard against a contrary extreme, in its ultimate effects not less dangerous. If to depend on the interposition of Providence without human exertion be to tempt God; to confide in an arm of flesh, without seeking his aid, is to deny him: the former is to be pitied for its weakness, the latter to be censured for its impiety; nor is it easy to say which affords the worst omen of success. Let us avoid both these extremes; availing ourselves of all the resources which wisdom can suggest or energy produce, let us still feel and acknowledge our absolute dependence upon God. With humble and contrite hearts, with filial confidence and affection, let us flee to his arms, that thus we may enjoy the united supports of reason and religion; and every principle, human and divine, may concur to assure us of our safety. Thus shall we effectually shun the denunciations so frequent and so terrible contained in his holy word against the vanity of human confidences. Cursed is the man who trusteth in man, and
maketh flesh his arm.
3. Their conduct is not to be approved who, in the present crisis, indulge in wanton and indiscriminate censure of the measures of our
Isaiah v. 11, 12.
rulers. I say wanton and indiscriminate, because the privilege of censuring with moderation and decency the measures of government is essential to a free constitution; a privilege which can never lose its value in the eyes of the public till it is licentiously abused. The temperate exercise of this privilege is a most useful restraint on those errors and excesses to which the possession of power supplies a temptation. The free expression of the public voice is capable of overawing those who have nothing besides to apprehend; and the tribunal of public opinion is one whose decisions it is not easy for men in the most elevated stations to despise. To this we may add, that the unrestrained discussion of national affairs not only gives weight to the sentiments, but is eminently adapted to enlighten the minds of a people; and, consequently, to increase that general fund of talent and information from which the accomplishments even of statesmen themselves must be ultimately derived. While, therefore, we maintain this privilege with jealous care, let us be equally careful not to abuse it. There is a respect, in my apprehension, due to civil governors on account of their office, which we are not permitted to violate even when we are under the necessity of blaming their measures. When the apostle Paul was betrayed into an intemperate expression of anger against the Jewish high-priest, from an ignorance of the station he occupied, he was no sooner informed of this, than he apologized, and quoted a precept of the Mosaic law, which says, Thou shalt not revile the gods nor curse the ruler of thy people. In agreement with which, the New Testament subjoins to the duty of fearing God that of honouring the king; and frequently and emphatically inculcates submission to civil rulers, not so much from a fear of their power as from a respect for their office.
The ancient prophets, it is true, in the immediate discharge of their functions, appear to have treated kings and princes with no sort of ceremony. But before we establish their style into a precedent, let us recollect they were privileged persons, speaking expressly in the name of the Most High, who gave them his words and invested them for the moment with a portion of his majesty.
Apart from the personal characters of rulers, which are fluctuating and variable, you will find the apostles continually enjoin respect to government, as government, as a permanent ordinance of God, susceptible of various modifications from human wisdom, but essential, under some form or other, to the existence of society; and affording a representation, faint and inadequate it is true, but still a representation of the dominion of God over the earth. The wisdom of resting the duty of submission on this ground is obvious. The possession of office forms a plain and palpable distinction, liable to no ambiguity or dispute. Personal merits, on the contrary, are easily contested, so that if the obligation of obedience were founded on these, it would have no kind of force, nor retain any sort of hold on the conscience; the bonds of social order might be dissolved by an epigram or a song. The more liberal sentiments of respect for institutions being destroyed, nothing would remain to ensure tranquillity but a servile fear of men. In the
absence of those sentiments, as the mildest exertion of authority would be felt as an injury, authority would soon cease to be mild; and princes would have no alternative but that of governing their subjects with the severe jealousy of a master over slaves impatient of revolt: so narrow is the boundary which separates a licentious freedom from a ferocious tyranny! How incomparably more noble, salutary, and just are the maxims the apostles lay down on this subject. Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers: for there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God: whosoever resisteth therefore the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the ? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same. For he is the minister of God to thee for good. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake. We shall do well to guard against any system which would withdraw the duties we owe to our rulers and to society from the jurisdiction of conscience; that principle of the mind whose prerogative it is to prescribe to every other, and to pronounce that definitive sentence from which there is no appeal. A good man is accustomed to acquiesce in the idea of his duties as an ultimate object, without inquiring at every step why he should perform them, or amusing himself with imagining cases and situations in which they would be liable to limitations and exceptions. Instead of being curious after these (for I do not deny that such exceptions exist), let the great general duty of submission to civil authority be engraven on our hearts, wrought into the very habit of the mind, and made a part of our elementary morality.
At this season especially, when unanimity is so requisite, every endeavour to excite discontent, by reviling the character or depreciating the talents of those who are intrusted with the administration, is highly criminal. Without suspicion of flattery, we may be permitted to add, that their zeal in the service of their country cannot be questioned; that the vast preparations they have made for our defence claim our gratitude; and that if, in a situation so arduous, and in the management of affairs so complicated and difficult, they have committed mistakes, they are amply entitled to a candid construction of their measures.
Having been detained by these reflections somewhat longer than was intended, it is high time to return to those religious considerations which are more immediately appropriate to the present season. I therefore proceed to add,
4. That they appear to entertain mistaken sentiments who rely with too much confidence for success on our supposed superiority in virtue to our enemies. Such a confidence betrays inattention to the actual conduct of Providence. Wherever there is conscious guilt, there is room to apprehend punishment; nor is it for the criminal to decide where the merited punishment shall first fall. The cup of divine displeasure is, indeed, presented successively to guilty nations, but it by no means invariably begins with those who have run the greatest
career in guilt. On the contrary, judgment often begins at the house of God; and he frequently chastises his servants with severity before he proceeds to the destruction of his enemies. He assured Abraham his seed should be afflicted in Egypt for four hundred years, and that after their expiration the nation that afflicted them he would judge. The Assyrian monarchs, blind and impious idolaters, were permitted for a long period to oppress his chosen people; after which, to use his own words, he punished the fruit of the proud heart of the king of Babylon; and having accomplished his design in their correction, cast the rod into the fire. His conduct on such occasions resembles that of a parent, who, full of solicitude for the welfare of his children, animadverts upon faults in them, which he suffers to pass without notice in persons for whom he is less interested. Let us adore both the goodness and severity of God. The punishments which are designed to amend are inflicted with comparative vigilance and speed; those which are meant to destroy are usually long suspended, while the devoted victims pass on with seeming impunity.
But, independent of this consideration, that superiority in virtue which is claimed may be neither so great nor so certain as we are ready at first to suppose. To decide on the comparative guilt of two individuals, much more of two nations, demands a more comprehensive knowledge of circumstances than we are usually able to obtain. To settle a question of this sort, it is not enough barely to inspect the manners of each; for the quality of actions, considered in themselves, is one thing, and the comparative guilt of the persons to whom they belong is another. Before we can determine such a question, it is necessary to weigh and estimate the complicated influences to which they are exposed, the tendency of all their institutions, their respective degrees of information, and the comparative advantages and disadvantages under which they are placed. And who is equal to such a survey but the Supreme Judge, to 'whom it belongs to decide on the character both of nations and individuals?
Our enemies, it is true, in the moments of anarchy and madness, treated the religion of Jesus with an ostentation of insult; but it was not till that religion had been disguised and almost concealed from their view under a veil of falsehoods and impostures. The religion they rejected, debased by foreign infusions, mingled with absurd tenets, trifling superstitions, and cruel maxims, retained scarce any traces of the truth as it is in Jesus. The best of men were compelled to flee their country to avoid its persecuting fury, while the souls under the altar were employed day and night in accusing it before God. Religious inquiry was suppressed, the perusal of the word of God discountenanced, or rather prohibited, and that book to loose whose seals the Lamb condescended to be slain impiously closed by those who styled themselves its ministers. In this situation, it is less surprising if the body of the people, misled by pretended philosophers, lost sight
*The author begs this remark may be understood to apply to the French people only, and not by any means to their infidel leaders. Of the infidelity of the latter, there needs no other solution to be given than the Scripture one: They loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.