Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
THE REBUILDING OF THE TEMPLE
Ezra 3:11-13. All the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off.
TO put a fanciful interpretation on any part of God's blessed word is highly inexpedient; and to found a doctrine upon any such interpretation would be injudicious in the extreme. But certain it is, that there are many explanations given us by the Apostles, which we should in no wise have admitted, if given by uninspired men; such as the termination of the Levitical priesthood, as deduced from Abraham's giving to Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils which he had taken; and the reservation of God's inheritance to regenerate persons only, as deduced from Abraham's repudiation of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Where these things are explained by the inspired writers, we may follow without fear: but in any interpretations of our own, the utmost diffidence becomes us. These observations I make, lest, in the passage before us, I should be misunderstood as intimating that the construction put upon it was really designed by the event itself. I am far from intending to assert that. I merely bring forth the subject as both curious in itself, and calculated to convey important instruction to our minds, if judiciously and temperately considered. That an exuberance of joy and of sorrow should be excited at once by the same event, is undoubtedly a curious fact: and it will be profitable to show you,
I. What there was at that time to call forth such strong and widely different emotions—
The Jews, after their return from Babylon, had just laid the foundation of the second temple: and this was,
1. To some an occasion of exalted joy—
It was not the mere circumstance that a magnificent building was about to be raised, but the thought of the use to which that building was to be appropriated, that proved to them such a source of joy. The erection of it was justly regarded by them as a restoration of God's favor to them, after the heavy judgments which he had inflicted on them during their captivity in Babylon. In this light they had been taught to consider their return to their native land; and the very song which they now sang, had, at the commencement of their captivity, been provided for them by the Prophet Jeremiah, as proper to be sung on that occasion Cite Jeremiah 33:10-11. as compared with the words immediately preceding the text; This event opened to them a prospect of again worshiping Jehovah according to all the forms prescribed to them by the Mosaic ritual. In reference to this, also, the same song had been provided for them by David; in singing which they could not but "make a joyful noise unto the Lord Cite also Psalm 100:1-5. in the same view.": Nor could they fail to view it as tending to advance the honor of their God; in which view pre-eminently it must of necessity fill them with most exalted joy. As the bringing up of the ark to Mount Zion, so this event also called for songs and acclamations from every creature under Heaven: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth; make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together before the Lord: for he comes to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity Compare 1 Chronicles 16:8-10; 1 Chronicles 16:31-34 with Psalm 98:1-9."
I think, with such views of the event before them, the people could not but shout for joy; and "if they had been silent, the very stones would have cried out against them."
2. To others, an occasion of the deepest sorrow—
Commentators have condemned this sorrow, as expressive of discontent; and as showing, that the persons so affected did in reality betray an ungrateful spirit, and "despise the day of small things Zechariah 4:10." But I am far from thinking such an interpretation of their conduct just. The persons who manifested such pungent grief were "the priests, and Levites, and the chief of the fathers who were ancient men, that had seen the former temple." It is true, they wept, because they well knew how infinitely this structure must fall below the former in point of magnificence. Whether it was of smaller dimensions than the former, we do not know: but as, of course, it could not be so splendidly furnished as the former temple was, so, of necessity, it must want many things which constituted the glory of that edifice, and could never be replaced. The Shechinah, the bright cloud, the emblem of the Deity himself, was forever removed. The ark was lost, and the copy of the Law which had been preserved in it. The Urim and Thummim too, by which God had been accustomed to communicate to his people the knowledge of his will, was irrecoverably gone; and the fire which had descended from Heaven was extinct, so that they must henceforth use in all their sacrifices nothing but common fire. And what but their sins had brought upon them all these calamities? Would it have been right, then, in these persons to lose all recollection of their former mercies, and of the sins through which they had been bereaved of them; and to be so transported with their present blessings as not to bewail their former iniquities? No: I think that the mixture of feeling was precisely such as the occasion called for: and if there appeared a preponderance on the side of grief, it was only such as the glorified saints in Heaven are expressing continually in the very presence of their God; for while singing, with all their powers, "Salvation to God and to the Lamb," they are all prostrate on their faces with self-abasing shame, and casting their crowns down before the throne, from a conscious unworthiness of the honor conferred upon them.
But I think that the Prophet Ezekiel, and I may add too the experience of all the most eminent saints that ever lived, will put this matter in its true point of view. By Ezekiel, God says, "I will remember my covenant with you, and will establish unto you an everlasting covenant, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth any more because of your shame, when I am pacified towards you for all that you have done, says the Lord God Ezekiel 16:60-63." And Job, Isaiah, Paul, yes, every real saint, in proportion as he is humbled before God, evinces precisely the feeling which was here so strongly marked: they loath themselves in proportion as they are favored and honored by their God Job 40:3-4. Isaiah 6:5. 1 Timothy. 1:12-13.
That this subject is not uninteresting to us, will appear, while I show,
II. How far similar emotions become us at the present day—
Certainly there is at this time great occasion for joy—
We are not, indeed, constructing a material temple for the Lord: but the whole nation is engaged in endeavors to erect a spiritual temple to him throughout the world. Never was there a period, since the apostolic age, when the exertions were so general, so diversified, so diffusive. To spread the blessed word of God, and to send to every nation under Heaven those who shall impart the knowledge of it to the unenlightened, whether of Jews or Gentiles, seems at this time the one great labor of all who love and fear God. And is this no ground of joy?: But, to come home more nearly to ourselves: Is there no reason to rejoice in what, we trust, is going on among us? If the Gospel be "glad tidings of great joy unto all people," is it no cause for joy that it is brought to our ears; and that it is effectual among us, as it has been throughout the whole world, to convert men to God, and to save many souls alive?
But, not to dwell on matters of general concern, let us bring it home to our own business and bosoms: Are there not among you, who hear me this day, some at least who have been "turned from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God?" Yes, I trust, there are here present some at least, who, having been taken from the quarry by the great Master Builder, are now "as lively stones built up a spiritual house," to be "the habitation of God, through the Spirit," forever and ever. Speak I then too much, if I say, that not only those individuals themselves, but all who are interested in their welfare, have reason to burst forth into songs of praise, as loud and fervent as those that were uttered on the occasion which we have been considering? If even the very angels before the throne of God are not so occupied with contemplating the divine glory, but that they have derived a great accession to their joy from their views of every individual among you that is truly converted to God, surely we, who are all looking for the same salvation, and hoping to be partakers of it, have reason to rejoice.
Yet is there among us abundant occasion for grief also—
The persons whose anguish of heart forced from them such bitter lamentations, were those who remembered the former temple, which had far exceeded in glory every edifice which the world had ever seen. Now, if we suppose the Apostle Paul, who witnessed the state of God's Church in its primitive and purest age; if we suppose him, I say, to come down in the midst of us, what would be his feelings at the present hour? That he would not "despise the day of small things," or be indifferent about the salvation of ever so few, we are well assured: but what would he say to the state of this parish, this town and neighborhood, or of the individuals who are most looked up to in the midst of us as professing and adorning the faith of Christ? Would his joy be unmixed with sorrow? Would he, recollecting what pure Christianity is, and what the preached Gospel produced in his day, and what advantages we have enjoyed; would he, I say, be satisfied with what he saw? Would he not rather burst out into floods of tears? yes, much as many are rejoicing at what exists among us, would not his lamentations equal in loudness and intensity the joys that are expressed by others in our behalf? I think that no one who knows what the Apostle was and what he himself is, can doubt of this. On the occasion referred to in my text, the noise of the joy and of the sorrow could not be distinguished from each other, by reason of the intensity of both: and I am well persuaded, that, if an assembly of primitive saints were at this moment blended with us, they would equal in their wailings the joys which any of us feel, or which others can feel in our behalf. It was with "weeping" that Paul contemplated many of the Philippian converts Philippians. 3:18; and for many of the Galatian Church he "agonized as in the pangs of childbirth, until Christ should be more perfectly formed in them Galatians 4:19." And was this from a want of charity, or from a contempt of piety in its lower stages of existence? No; but from love, and from a desire that God should be honored to the uttermost, wherever his Gospel came, and wherever its blessings were experienced in the soul.
1. What, above all things, should interest our souls—
I say not that any one should be indifferent about the things relating to this present world: but I say, that the interests of religion in general, and in our own souls in particular, ought to swallow up, as it were, every other concern. As the rebuilding of the temple filled the minds of those at that time engaged in it, so nothing under Heaven should transport us with joy like the establishment of Christ's kingdom in the world and in the soul. On the other hand, nothing should produce in us such acute sensations of grief, as a consciousness that God is not glorified in the midst of us as he ought to be. Truly, it is a shame to the Christian world, that they feel so little on these subjects, while every vanity of time and sense is sufficient to excite in them the strongest emotions: But, Beloved, learn, I pray you, what ought to be the state of your minds in relation to the cause of God; and never cease to cry unto God, until you have obtained grace to serve him as it becomes those who have received mercy at his hands.
2. What use we should make of our knowledge and experience—
Many would think that the unmixed joy of the younger classes was more becoming than the grief of the elder. But if, as I suppose, the cries of the elder were a mixture of joy and sorrow arising from a more enlarged view of the whole matter, a decided preference must be given to their feelings above those of their younger brethren. It is not the fruit which exhibits the brightest colors that will prove the most grateful to the taste, but that which, under the influence of warmer suns, has acquired somewhat of a darker and more mellowed tint. So, in like manner, it is not so much an unqualified effusion of joy that is pleasing to the Most High, as that which is moderated with shame, and tempered with contrition. In truth, as long as we are in this world, we must have occasion for shame and sorrow: it will be time enough to lay them aside, when we are got within the portals of Heaven. There our happiness will be without alloy; as the prophet says: "We shall have gladness and joy; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." Cultivate, then, my Brethren, this depth of feeling, this tenderness of spirit, this humility of mind. Never forget your great and multiplied transgressions: but "walk softly before your God" in the remembrance of them; contented to "sow in tears, that you may reap in joy;" and to "humble yourselves now, that you may be exalted in due time."
SERMON ON THE KING'S ACCESSION
Ezra 6:10. Offer sacrifices of sweet savors unto the God of Heaven, and pray for the life of the king This Sermon was preached on the occasion of the Accession of King George the Fourth, 1820.
ON the last occasion of our assembling in this place, we were called to pay a respectful tribute to the memory of our late beloved and revered sovereign, whose mortal remains were then committed to the tomb. The vision which the Apostle John beheld of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, in which Jehovah, with all his hosts and angels, vouchsafes to dwell, was then submitted to your attention, as offering peculiar consolation to us under the loss we have sustained: for there "the spirits of the just are made perfect," and enter into the complete fruition of that glory, which here they apprehended only by the weak and imperfect grasp of faith. Of such as shall be admitted to those blissful mansions, it is said, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." That our sorrows in this valley of tears might be alleviated, and our consolation in the prospect of that happy state be the more abundant, Jehovah, having said, "Behold, I make all things new," added, "Write; for these words are true and faithful:" and the truth of them shall be experienced by every saint in due season. Then the same Almighty Being yet further added, "It is done Revelation 21:1-6." This very blessedness is already experienced by millions, who, in successive ages and generations, have been gathered to their fathers, and liberated from the pains and troubles of this mortal life; millions, who "have come out of great tribulation, having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, are already before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and neither hunger any more, nor thirst any more, neither does the sun light on them, nor any heat; for the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne feeds them, and leads them to living fountains of waters: and God has wiped away all tears from their eyes Revelation 7:14-17."
Here our minds were irresistibly led to contemplate the state of our departed sovereign. "It is done;" yes, "It is done;" to his unspeakable joy, and to the comfort of every reflecting mind. Embittered as his life has been by great and heavy trials, by the loss of a considerable portion of his empire, by the subjugation of Europe to the dominion of an insatiable and ruthless tyrant, and by having to contend for the very existence of his kingdom as an independent state; having also, during the latter years of his life, been visited with the heaviest afflictions of which our frail nature is susceptible,—with the loss of vision, not only corporeal, but mental; I say, embittered as his life has been, how sweet the thought, that now "all former things are passed away—that pain and sorrow are known by him no more—that all tears are forever wiped away from his eyes"—that, at the instant of his departure hence, "joy and gladness came forth" to welcome him as his inseparable attendants—and "sorrow and sighing," which had followed him so closely during his long and eventful life, "fled away forever." Truly this thought may well reconcile us to a dispensation, which, according to the course of nature, was to be expected soon, and which, if it have bereaved us, has so greatly benefitted and enriched him Isaiah 35:10. This exordium may easily to modified, according to existing circumstances.
It seems proper now that our attention should be turned to his son and successor, our present most gracious sovereign; and that we should contemplate the duties which his accession to the throne imperiously calls for at our hands. With this view I have selected the passage before us, in which King Darius expresses his wish that the Jews, who were then under his dominion, and whom he was greatly favoring, would serve their God with all fidelity, and unite their supplications "for him, and for his sons."
I propose to consider the words before us in a two-fold point of view:
I. As the desire of a heathen prince; and,
II. As the duty of a Christian people.
I. Let us consider them as the desire of a heathen prince—
If the occasion on which the words were spoken be duly considered, it will appear that the desire expressed in them was a just and reasonable desire, and at the same time a wise and politic desire.
True, it was a just and reasonable desire; as the history will clearly show. The Jews, by the permission of Cyrus, had begun to rebuild their temple, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon had destroyed. But, when Artaxerxes had succeeded to the throne of Persia, the Samaritans, filled with envy at the progress which the Jews made in the erection of their city and temple, sent to him, to apprise him of the danger that would ensue to his government, if they should be permitted to proceed with their building. Upon this, Artaxerxes commanded that the work should be stopped, until further orders should be issued by him for the prosecution of it. This so discouraged the Jews, that they abandoned the public works for many years, and attended only to their own personal accommodations. But at last, after Darius had succeeded to the throne of Persia, the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah stirred up the Jews to resume the work; and, having succeeded in exciting among the people a holy zeal to prosecute it with vigor, they had the joy of beholding it advance with great rapidity. But, behold, the enemies of Judah and Benjamin, being again filled with envy, applied to the governors whom Darius had placed over them, to execute and enforce the orders of the late king Artaxerxes, and to put an entire stop to the building. But these governors, being more candid than those to whom the complaint had been before made, suffered the Jews to state their own case, and transmitted it faithfully to Darius, with a request for instructions how to act. Upon this, Darius consulted the records of his kingdom; and, finding their representations just, he issued a decree, that no obstacle should any more be put in their way; that the most liberal aid should be afforded them, out of his revenues, for the establishment and support of the temple worship; and that, if any one in future should attempt to reverse this decree, his house should be pulled down, and the timbers of it be erected as a gallows, whereon he should suffer death verse 11, 12.
Now, consider the obligations which this benevolent monarch was conferring on the Jews; and then say, Whether the desire which he expressed was not just and reasonable. He had ordered, that "whatever they had need of, young bullocks and rams and lambs, for the burnt-offerings of the God of Heaven, together with wheat, salt, wine, and oil, according to the appointment of the priests which were at Jerusalem, should be given them, day by day, without fail." Was it not reasonable that he should expect these things to be applied to their destined use, and that, when he was showing such a paternal regard for the welfare of their nation, he should be remembered by them in their devotions, and have an interest in their prayers? Surely, this was the least return which they could render to him for his extreme kindness. And, if he, who was a heathen, had such confidence in Jehovah, as to believe that there was efficacy in prayers addressed to him, and to desire that intercessions should be offered to him in his behalf, it became them, who knew that Jehovah was a prayer-hearing God, to be very urgent with him in their supplications, and to entreat, day and night, that he would recompense into the king's bosom all the favors which he had so liberally heaped upon them.
But we have said, that the desire expressed in our text was also a wise and politic desire. Religion and loyalty are inseparable It is possible that a pious man may be misguided, as was doubtless the case with many in the days of Charles the First: but their error must not be imputed to religion: for, if it was the duty of Christians to submit to, and to pray for, such a tyrant as Nero, the point is determined at once. "The powers that be, are ordained of God; and are to be obeyed, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake." To inquire whether any, or what, circumstances would justify a departure from this rule, is no part of the author's design: it is ground which a minister of the Prince of Peace is not called to occupy. It cannot be, that a man who truly fears God should fail essentially in honoring the king. The godly ever have been, and ever must be, "the quiet in the land." It is not possible for them to be entering into cabals, and stirring up a spirit of disaffection to the throne. On the other hand, a man who has no fear of God before his eyes has no principle sufficiently strong to keep him faithful to his king, if he be drawn either by interest or inclination to oppose him. The probability is, that the very same principle which leads him to cast off the yoke of God will impel him to resist and overthrow all human authority also, as far as his own safety will admit of it. The throne and the altar will for the most part stand or fall together, as in the affections, so also in the efforts and exertions of mankind. Hence, then, it was wise in Darius, though a heathen prince, to encourage piety among the Jews.
Nor was he less politic in desiring a remembrance in their prayers. Pray for a man; and hate him, if you can. There may be faults in the monarch, and errors in his government: but the man who prays devoutly and constantly for him will cast a veil over the one, and use none but constitutional methods of correcting and remedying the other. Intercession will induce a habit of mind friendly to the person for whom it is offered, and, if offered in sincerity by a whole nation, would prove a bulwark around the throne, stronger that all the fleets and armies that could be raised for its defense.
II. But let us pass on to the second head of our Discourse; in which we proposed to consider the text as declaring to us also, the duty of a Christian people.
Our first duty, beyond all doubt, is to our heavenly King: our next is, to the monarch whom, in his providence, he has placed over us:—we must first "Fear God," and then "Honor the King."
In the service of our heavenly King, "the offering of sacrifices to him of a sweet savor" may well be considered as comprehending our duty to him; whether as sinners, who stand in need of his mercy, or as saints, who desire to glorify his name. The Jewish sacrifices, which were offered from day to day, were presented as an atonement for the sins of the people: and they prefigured that "Lamb of God, which, in his eternal purpose, was slain from the foundation of the world." These we are not required to bring; because that adorable Savior, in whom all the types and shadows of the Mosaic Law were to be fulfilled, is come; even Jesus, of whom it is said, "He loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor Ephesians 5:2." This sacrifice we must ever bring before the God of Heaven and earth. We must never presume to come into his presence without it. We must lay our hands on the head of that blessed victim, and transfer to him all our guilt, and expect forgiveness solely through his atoning blood. To this the whole Scriptures direct us, as the sure and only means of acceptance with God. Consult the Law and the Prophets; and they will all point to Jesus, as "the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6. Romans 3:21-22." The Apostles also declare, that "his is the only name whereby any man can be saved Acts 4:12;" the voice of all, without exception, is the same as that of this heathen prince: "Offer sacrifices to the God of Heaven."
But there are other sacrifices also, which, as saints, we are to offer, and which have a sweet savor before God. Our whole person, body, soul, and spirit, is to be presented to the Lord, as the Apostle tells us: "I beseech you by the mercies of God that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service Romans 12:1." And, if only we come to God through Christ, there is not a service which we can render to him which shall not come up with acceptance before him, as a sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savor. Such are our alms Hebrews 13:16; such our prayers Psalm 107:22; such our very sighs Psalm 51:17; such is our every service, of whatever kind 1 Peter 2:5.
And do not imagine that your attention to this duty is unimportant as it respects the welfare of the state. There is a far closer connection between national piety and national prosperity than men generally imagine. Hear, I pray you, the admonition given us in the very next chapter: Whatever is commanded by the God of Heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of Heaven: for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king Ezra 7:23.
Let then a heathen prince, my Brethren, teach and admonish you: and forget not henceforth your indispensable duty, to "offer sacrifices of a sweet savor unto the God of Heaven."
To this must be added your duty to your earthly prince, to be instant in prayer to God on his behalf.
This is your duty: for the Apostle says, "I exhort that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority: for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior 1 Timothy. 2:1-3."
And let me add, It is your interest also: for the welfare of every individual in the nation is bound up in the welfare of the king. If God, in his mercy, direct his counsels, and prosper his endeavors, the whole empire will reap the benefit; while, on the other hand, if God were to give him up to infatuated counsels, or to blast his best endeavors, the whole body politic would suffer, from the greatest to the least. As every member of the human frame participates in the sufferings of the head, so should we all, without exception, have reason to deplore any evil which befell him on whom the destinies of the nation so essentially depend.
But to the performance of this duty we have an especial call at this time The remainder of this head can. of course, apply only to the particular occasion: but every succeeding period will supply appropriate topics to substitute in its place. The illness with which his Majesty has been visited, and from which he is at this time scarcely recovered, speaks loudly to us all, and should make us extremely urgent with God in his behalf, that his valuable life may be spared to us. Call to mind how suddenly one of his royal house, in the very prime of life, and in the utmost vigor of manhood, has been snatched away The Duke of Kent; and then say, whether we have not reason to unite in unwearied supplications to the God of Heaven, to restore his health, and to preserve to us a life so justly dear, so transcendently important. But further, reflect upon the state of the nation at this time: what a spirit of insubordination and impiety has prevailed, and would yet show itself in the same daring attitude that it has already assumed, if the firmness of our king, and the wisdom of the legislature, had not repressed it. We must not imagine that the rebellious disposition of those miscreants, who, for so long a time, and to so awful a degree, have agitated the nation, is changed: no: it is only waiting for an opportunity to burst forth; and, like water that has been dammed up, it would quickly deluge the whole kingdom, if only it could bear down the barriers with which its progress has been stopped. See what this same spirit of impiety and of anarchy accomplished in a neighboring kingdom, and, if it had not been withstood by the wisdom and firmness of our late revered monarch, would have accomplished here also! See what an horrible deed this demoniacal spirit has just perpetrated in France, in order to effect the extirpation of the royal family there The murder of the De Berri. And is not the same spirit alive in this country? Look back to the former reign: no less than three times was the life of our late gracious sovereign attempted. Yes, and our present sovereign too:—his prime minister has been assassinated; the life of another of his ministers has been attempted If this and the foregoing instance be supposed to have occurred on private, rather than public, grounds, still they show the spirit that has existed, and yet exists, in the nation; which is the point here chiefly to be noticed; the lives of many of them have been menaced; and his own life also has been sought by the hands of an assassin. Scarcely have a few weeks elapsed, since several, who were engaged in executing the laws, were either murdered, or delivered, as it were by miracle, out of the murderers' hands: and apologies have been made by those who would direct the public mind, in extenuation of these enormities. Tell me, Is there not a call on the whole people of the land to "pray for the life of the king Little did the author think, when he sent this to the press, what weight all his observations were speedily to derive from the horrible conspiracy just brought to light. (The Cato-street conspiracy.) Surely there will not be found many in the land, who will not bless and admire that gracious God, who has so mercifully interposed to defeat it!?"
But I must add yet further; We have a special obligation to pray for him. Consider the obligations which we owe to his august family! What liberty, both civil and religious, have we enjoyed, since the house of Brunswick came to the throne! No person whatever is molested, if he molest not others. But why speak I of obligations to the family of our sovereign? Think what we owe to the sovereign himself, who, under God, has brought us through all the difficulties and dangers of the late conflict, and placed this nation on n pinnacle of glory, which no human being could have ventured, a few years ago, to anticipate, or even think of! See, too, the manner in which he has proceeded in suppressing the atrocities which, from the excess of our liberties, licentious blasphemers and agitators have been able to effect! Not one atom more of restraint has he imposed than was necessary for the occasion: so far has he been from wishing to stretch either his own prerogative or the rigor of the law beyond what necessity required, that there is scarcely a person in the whole nation that is not impressed with the wisdom, and moderation, and equity of the enactments which his servants have proposed and his authority has sanctioned. I say, call these things to remembrance; and then ask yourselves, Whether the praying for the life of such a king be not the least that we can do to requite the benefits that we have received from him? Surely you need not to be instructed by a heathen: you need not Darius to inform you of your duty.—To all of you then, as Christians, I would say, "Offer sacrifices of sweet savor unto the God of Heaven, and pray for the life of the king."
In my text it is said, "Pray for the life of the king and his sons." Would to God I could urge upon you your duty to the same extent; or that I could say, Pray for the king and for his daughter! But it has pleased God, in his mysterious providence, to deprive us of her, who was the hope and joy of the whole nation; and of her infant offspring too, to whom we fondly looked as to the future sovereign of these realms. Still does the nation mourn, and for many years will continue to mourn, that overwhelming bereavement. In a moment when every heart was ready to leap for joy, and every tongue to utter the language of congratulation and thankfulness, the sad tidings came, and plunged the whole nation in an abyss of woe. It is not permitted us, therefore, any longer to pray for her. But this should interest us the more in behalf of all the royal family, for whom our prayers should ascend with unceasing earnestness, that God may bless them in all their concerns, both temporal and spiritual, and render them blessings, both by their influence and example, to this whole nation.
To conclude.—Let us, from the example of this heathen prince, learn how to employ our influence:—He was the mightiest monarch that day upon the face of the earth: and there were in his dominions a poor and despised people, who were zealous for the honor of their God, but whose zeal in the cause of religion was misrepresented, and made a subject of complaint. But the king, so far from wishing to interfere with them in the conscientious discharge of their duty, gave them every possible encouragement, as well by financial aid as by his effectual protection; thus showing himself the father of his people, and the patron of all that was good. In like manner, whether our influence have a wider range, or be contracted within a narrower sphere, let us use it for "the God of Heaven:" let us employ it to protect the oppressed, to encourage piety, and to maintain the honor of God in the world.
On the other hand, let us learn also how to improve the privileges we enjoy.—No doubt the Jews felt their obligations to Darius, and acknowledged with gratitude the hand of God, who had caused them to find favor in his sight. No doubt, also, the pious among them, at least, earnestly poured forth to God their supplications in behalf of their gracious benefactor. Let us then, who enjoy such privileges, not merely through the favor of our monarch, but through the established constitution of the realm; let us, I say, abound in praises to our heavenly Benefactor, in affectionate loyalty to our earthly king, and in every work, whereby God may be glorified, and the welfare of our fellow-creatures may be advanced.
THE SUBSERVIENCY OF A FAITHFUL MINISTRY TO THE ERECTION OF GOD'S SPIRITUAL TEMPLE
Ezra 6:14. And the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo.
THE purposes of God, whatever difficulties may seem to obstruct the execution of them, are all accomplished in due season. The deliverance of his people from Babylon, and the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem, though in themselves the most improbable events, were effected with a facility the most surprising. The heart of Cyrus was moved to give the orders that were requisite; and though the constructing of the temple was retarded by unforeseen obstacles, yet afterwards, through the exhortations of the Prophets Haggai and Zechariah, that laborious work was finished in the space of four years.
We shall offer a few remarks upon,
I. The building of the temple through the instrumentality of the fore-mentioned prophets.
Many difficulties obstructed the progress of the work—
Scarcely was the foundation laid, before an attempt was made to impede the work through the hypocrisy of pretended friends. The Samaritans offered to co-operate with the Jews in raising the intended fabric: but their design was to frustrate, rather than promote, the completion of it. And though this appears at first sight to be a strange mode of showing hostility, yet it is indeed most common, both in political contests, and in the concerns of religion. Many will profess to desire the same objects, and will offer to concur in prosecuting them to a certain point, who, if their offers were accepted, would only defeat the ends proposed: The Jews, however, aware of the snares thus laid for them, determined to prosecute their work alone. Ezra 4:1-3.
That device having failed, they were assaulted by the hostility of open enemies. Complaints were made against them to the governing powers, and they were represented as plotting to regain their liberty and independence. Their former endeavors to cast off the Babylonish yoke were referred to as proofs of their present disposition to rebel against the king of Persia Ezra 4:4-16. It is in this way that the servants of God have been assailed in all ages: our blessed Lord was calumniated as an enemy to Caesar; and his Apostles, as "movers of sedition:" and, if at any period of the Church an occasion can be found against the people of God, the record of it shall be brought against them in all future ages, and the evils of one party (as of the Puritans, for instance) shall be made to characterize religion itself, and all who profess it: and a sense of duty and of regard for the public welfare shall be artfully pleaded as an apology for the measures, which in reality were dictated by nothing but a rooted aversion to the cause of God Ezra 4:14.
This plan having too fatally succeeded, the Jews yielded to despondency, and for the space of fifteen years suspended the work in which they had engaged Ezra 4:23-24. A spirit of indolence and supineness soon prevailed among them, and would have operated to a total dereliction of the work, if God had not sent his prophets to rouse them from their lethargy. And indeed this is the greatest obstacle to every good work, since the longer it continues, the more entire is the ascendant which it gains over us.
Through the preaching of the prophets, however, these difficulties were overcome—
The Prophet Haggai justly reproved them for attending so carefully to their own accommodation, while the temple and the service of their God were altogether forgotten; and bade them carefully to "consider their ways Hag. 1:2-5; Hag. 1:7." The Prophet Zechariah also urged them to bear in mind how awfully their fathers had suffered for their neglect of God Zechariah 1:1-6; and then, by a variety of images which he had seen in visions, encouraged them with assurances of success in their labors Read attentively the four first chapters of Zechariah in this particular view. Thus were the people stimulated to exertion. But behold, no sooner did they resume their work, than their enemies renewed their application to the government to issue again their mandate to discontinue it Ezra 5:1-10. While they were occupied only in building ceiled houses for themselves, no notice was taken of it: but as soon as they began to serve their God, their enemies were up in arms. And so it always is; zeal is approved in everything except religion: but, as soon as ever it discovers itself in that, every effort will be made to repress it. This effort, however, was overruled, as similar efforts have often been, for the furtherance of the work it was intended to destroy Compare Ezra 6:1-10 with Philippians. 1:12; and in the short space of four years the edifice was completed verse 15.
The history thus viewed leads us naturally to notice,
II. The subserviency of a faithful ministry to the erection of God's spiritual temple—
The temple of old was a shadow of that spiritual temple which is erected for God in the hearts of men; "being built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, and Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone Ephesians 2:20-22." The erection of this,
1. Is attended with the same difficulties—
Who that begins truly to surrender up his soul to God, does not find many impediments from pretended friends? They will profess to approve of religion, and will propose to go with us to a certain length, that so they may have the greater influence to keep us from "following the Lord fully," and from serving him with our whole hearts: If we are enabled to withstand their efforts, then we shall be assailed by open enemies, who will accuse us of evil designs against both the Church and State; and will call forth the power of the civil magistrate, or of our more immediate governors, to suppress our zeal. Not unfrequently will they become our greatest foes, who by their relation to us ought rather to become our firmest protectors: And too often do timidity and sloth induce us to relax our efforts, until, if God do not by some special act of providence or grace awaken us, we lose the time for working, and, like the foolish virgins, experience forever the fatal effects of our remissness.
But the work of God in the soul,
2. Is carried on and perfected by the same means—
God has established an order of men on purpose to carry on this spiritual building in the world Ephesians 4:11-13. Paul and the other Apostles may be called "master-builders 1 Corinthians 3:10;" but every pastor and teacher is engaged in the same work, according to the peculiar office that has been assigned him. "To impart to you some spiritual gift, to the end that you may be established," and "to perfect that which is lacking in your faith," and in every way to be "helpers of your joy," is the great end of all our ministerial labors: and, if we would labor with effect, we must use the very same means as Haggai and Zechariah did.
We call you then, Brethren, to "consider your ways:" consider what has hindered you hitherto; and what has been the consequence of intermitting your exertions in the service of your God. Have you not reason to blush and be confounded for the little progress that you have made in the divine life?: Consider too, as Zechariah so largely recommends, the promises of God. What assurances of success are given you by your gracious God, if only you will put your hands to the work in good earnest: "Up then, and be doing," every one of you; and "your God will be with you." Yield not to discouragements of any kind; for "greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world." And beware how you give way to carnal ease and indolence: surely it ill becomes you to be so intent, as most of us are, on earthly things, while the spiritual edifice advances so slowly. Let all inquire, what yet remains to be done in their own hearts, and, what may be done for God in the world at large: and let us, by "coming daily and hourly to Christ as the living foundation-stone, seek, as living stones, to be built up a spiritual house 1 Peter 2:4-5," that shall be "the habitation of God, through the Spirit," forever and ever.
THE DECREE OF ARTAXERXES
Ezra 7:23. Whatever is commanded by the God of Heaven, let it be diligently done for the house of the God of Heaven.
WE are accustomed in divine ordinances to sit at the feet of Prophets and Apostles, and to learn of them: but this day we will take for our preceptor a heathen monarch; in following whose directions we shall not fail to approve ourselves faithful servants to our God. It was no less than fifty-nine years since the temple at Jerusalem had been rebuilt: but still the people, who had returned thither, were at a very low ebb, both in morality and religion. Ezra, who was yet remaining in Babylon, in the service of Artaxerxes, greatly lamented the want of piety among his own countrymen; and made request to the king, that he might go to Jerusalem for the purpose of inquiring into their state, and rectifying the abuses which obtained among them. In answer to his requests, Artaxerxes issued a decree, authorizing him to go thither with as many of his countrymen as chose to accompany him, and encouraging all his subjects in the province of Babylon to assist him in his pious enterprise. The words before us breathe a spirit which we should scarcely have expected to find in a heathen prince: but it is remarkable that some of the richest effusions of piety in the whole Scriptures proceeded from heathen monarchs Darius and Nebuchadnezzar.
To make a due improvement of the words before us, we shall consider them,
I. In reference to the Jewish Church—
The state of the Jewish Church at this time is not unlike to that in which it was in the days of Ezra—
Though the temple worship was restored, it was carried on by the Jews without any zeal for God's honor, or any of that spirituality of mind which is the very essence of all acceptable worship. Nor was the Law of God regarded among them with any just measure of submission: for, in direct opposition to its most authoritative dictates, they formed connections with the heathen round about them, and thus defiled and dishonored the holy seed which were separated for the service of Almighty God Ezra 9:1-9. So at this time the Jewish people are at a very low ebb, both in respect of morals and religion. They are indeed, by the providence of God, placed in a situation in which no other people upon earth stand: for they alone, of all people upon the face of the globe, are incapable of serving their God according to the directions of their own Law, and the dictates of their own conscience. But, at the same time, they show no sense of privation on this account, nor any desire to honor God in the services which they do render: for there is universally among them, in all their synagogues, a degree of irreverence, which we should scarcely expect to find among heathens in the worship of their idols. It is impossible to behold them in their religious services, and not see how thick a veil is yet upon their hearts. Nor do they manifest any respect for their own Law, especially in its sublimer precepts. Of some superstitious rites they are observant with pertinacity and zeal; but of real holiness of heart and life they are ignorant in the extreme: and beyond the gains and pleasures of this present world, the great mass of their nation appear scarcely to entertain a thought.
But to us is given, no less than to Ezra, a command to advance their welfare—
Ezra received a commission from Artaxerxes to go and rectify the abuses which obtained at Jerusalem, and to place the worship of God on a footing more consonant with his Law, and more worthy of his divine majesty. And have we no command to seek the welfare of that degraded people? Are we not told what God's purpose is respecting them; namely, to "raise up the tabernacle of David which is fallen down, and to close the breaches thereof; to raise up its ruins, and to build it as in the days of old Amos. 9:11." Are we not told, also, who the builders are to be, and how strictly God enjoins us to execute his work? This is God's express command to us, even to us, strangers of the Gentiles: "The sons of strangers shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister unto you: for in my wrath I smote you, but in my favor have I had mercy on you. And the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; yes, those nations shall be utterly wasted Isaiah 60:10; Isaiah 60:12." With their material temple we have indeed nothing to do: but for the erection of God's spiritual temple among them we are bound to labor; removing all the obstacles to their salvation Isaiah 62:10, and proclaiming to them the advent of their Messiah, saying, "Behold your salvation! behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him Isaiah 62:11." Yes, "to all the cities of Judah we should cry, Behold your God Isaiah 40:9."
In this work we should engage with all diligence—
It is not to be effected by good wishes merely, but by great and laborious exertions. It was not without great exertions on the part of men that the Gentiles were converted to the faith of Christ: and the same kind of efforts which the Apostles made for the conversion of the Gentiles we are to make for the restoration of the Jews to the favor of their God. We must feel compassion towards them; and go forth in dependence upon God to search them out in the cloudy and dark day, and to bring them home to the fold of the great and good Shepherd. In this work all should engage, according to their power. As "the Jews, when scattered abroad upon the persecution of Stephen, went everywhere preaching the word Acts 11:19," so should we avail ourselves of the opportunity afforded by the dispersion of the Jews, to draw their attention to the sacred oracles which testify of Christ, and to make known to them the Messiah whom their fathers crucified. I hesitate not to say, that this is our duty. It is not merely enjoined in that general commission to "go and preach the Gospel to all nations," but it is devolved upon us as an office which it is at the peril of our souls to neglect. God has told us, that he has made us the depositories of his Gospel, not for our benefit merely, but for the benefit of his outcast people: "As you in times past have not believed God, but have now obtained mercy through their unbelief, even so have these also now not believed, that through your mercy they also may obtain mercy Romans 11:30-31." It is, therefore, not only a duty to rebuild the desolated Church of Zion, but our duty, even the duty of every one who has himself obtained mercy of the Lord: and it is a work in which we should engage, no less from a sense of our own obligations to God than from compassion for the necessities of our Jewish brethren.
But, as the Jewish Church was typical of that which exists under the Christian dispensation, it will be proper to consider the words of our text,
II. In reference to the Church which is among us—
The edifying of the Christian Church should be an object near to all our hearts: and it is remarkable that Peter applies to this subject the forfeited expressions of the Prophet Amos, respecting the tabernacle of David; which, if not so interpreted, we should have been led to confine to the Jewish Church. And, beyond all doubt, it is our duty to labor in this field, and to exert ourselves both among nominal Christians and the heathen world, for the enlargement and establishment of Christ's kingdom upon earth.
But I propose rather to limit my observations at this time to individuals among ourselves.
You, Brethren, need to have God's work advanced in the midst of you—
"You are God's house," as God has said Hebrews 3:6; you also are expressly called the temples of God, in which he lives and dwells 2 Corinthians 6:16. But in whom is God honored as he ought to be? In whom are found sacrifices so pure, so spiritual, so abundant, as God calls for at our hands? Truly there is much amiss in all of us; much evil to be rectified, and much defective to be supplied. Who has not reason for self-condemnation, when he reflects on this injunction which is given by a heathen? Instead of being alive to "everything that is commanded by the God of Heaven," there are many of the divine precepts which we are apt to overlook: and, instead of doing everything "diligently" as unto "the God of Heaven," how listless are we, and heartless in the greater part of our services! and, instead of living only for the Lord, to how great an extent do we live rather to ourselves! Truly the temple of our God needs to be purged again and again of the corruptions that prevail within it; and a more entire devotion of all that we have and are unto the Lord may justly be required at our hands.
I call you, then, to engage in the Lord's work with your whole hearts—
We will suppose that you are built upon the Lord Jesus Christ, as the foundation which God has laid in Zion Isaiah 28:16. 1 Corinthians 3:11. But there is much to be done by every one among you. No man is contented with having laid a foundation: he proceeds to build upon it; and never considers his work as finished, until he has brought forth the top-stone. So it must be in this spiritual building which is begun within us: we must "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ:" or, to keep to the figure which is more appropriate to our subject, we must come to Christ daily "as lively stones, that we may be built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ 1 Peter 2:4-6." Our profiting ought to appear, so that every one who sees us may acknowledge that God is with us of a truth. To this, then, would I call you: and this duty would I impress upon your minds, if ever you would honor God, or walk worthy of your high calling. And remember, I pray you, whose command this is: it is the command of the God of Heaven. Remember, too, whose work it is: it is the work of the God of Heaven. O! learn of a heathen to venerate the divine authority, and to exert yourselves to the uttermost to promote the divine glory.
And now let me call you to obey this imperial mandate,
1. In a way of personal reformation—
At the time of the Passover, the Jews swept every corner of their houses, in order to purge out from them every particle of leaven which might have escaped their more general and superficial search. And this is what we also are called to do. Alas! there are many evil dispositions which lurk within us, and which a superficial survey will not enable us to detect. Pride, envy, discontent, uncharitableness, sloth, are deeply implanted in our nature, and, with many other corrupt propensities, spring up from time to time. O be diligent in "purging out this old leaven, that you may be a new lump;" since by profession "you are," and in reality you ought to be, "unleavened!" And let spiritual sacrifices abound within you, even the "sacrifices of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God."
2. In a way of ministerial exertion—
Here I come to that which the occasion peculiarly calls for, and which is more immediately referred to in my text—the efforts which are to be made for the restoring of God's worship and service in the Jewish Church. Surely this is the duty of all; and it should be performed by us with all diligence.
In this, persons of rank and influence ought to take the lead. Who can see a heathen monarch, the most powerful monarch that day upon the face if the earth, thus interesting himself for his Jewish subjects, and not wish, that all monarchs, with "their counselors" (for all the counselors of Artaxerxes concurred with him in this act) were embarked in this holy cause, and exerted all their influence for the promotion of it?
In this the clergy, also, should be most distinguished. Ezra was what, in modern language, would be called a great divine: and he was in a post of honor at the court of Artaxerxes: but he satisfied not himself with the luxury of strenuous idleness and learned ease: he sought to improve his talents and influence, for the honor of God, and the welfare of his people. Gladly, therefore, did he avail himself of the liberty accorded to him of going to Jerusalem for the purpose of remedying the evils which obtained there, and of establishing, on a more becoming scale, the ordinances of divine worship. It was an office of great labor; yet he willingly undertook it. And does not this show, how those who are distinguished for rank and learning among the clergy should employ their talents and influence for the Lord? Surely they could not render unto God a more acceptable service, or perform one more honorable to themselves, than by laboring, according to their respective abilities, for the advancement of God's worship among the Jews. The very first work of Ezra, too, may furnish them with a profitable hint: for he immediately sent forth persons to find "ministers," and "men of understanding," who should co-operate with him in this labor of love Ezra 8:16-18. And, truly, such instruments are wanting at this time; and, until such are found, we cannot hope for any great success in our undertakings. Let us "pray, then, to the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth laborers into his harvest;" for "the harvest truly is great; but the laborers are few."
The readiness with which all the people of Babylon concurred in this good work shows how all classes of the community among ourselves should unite in the work that is now proposed to us. They contributed no less than eighty thousand pounds in silver, and one hundred and fifty thousand pounds in gold, besides a vast abundance of wheat, and wine, and oil, and salt, for the purpose of honoring God in his temple at Jerusalem. This was done, I say, by heathens, to honor the God of the Jews. What, then, should not be done by us Christians, who profess to serve the God of the Jews, and to feel our obligations to him for all the wonders of redeeming love? Should not we, according to our power, be alike liberal? Should not all ranks and orders among us concur in this good work? And should not "our merchandise and our hire (whether in 'wheat, or wine, or oil, or salt,' or any other article,) be holiness to the Lord Isaiah 23:18." Surely I shall not call upon you in vain. You will not suffer the recommendations of an earthly monarch to be of more avail with his subjects than the edict of Almighty God with you. Ezra was authorized to "accept all the silver and the gold which he could find in all the province of Babylon" for this great object, and to "lay it out" to the best of his judgment "for the honor of his God verse 16–18." And whatever the liberality of the Christian public shall commit to the disposal of those who have the direction of this great concern will be expended, I trust, with economy and wisdom, in such a way as most to advance the glory of God, in the restoration and salvation of his outcast people.
EZRA'S HUMILIATION FOR THE SINS OF HIS PEOPLE
Ezra 9:5-6. And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God, and said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to you, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens.
IT is common both for individuals and Churches to appear hopeful before men, when a nearer acquaintance with them would furnish us with abundant cause of grief and shame. At Ezra's coming to Jerusalem, about fourscore years after the Babylonish captivity, he found the temple built, and the ordinances of religion statedly performed. But on inquiring more particularly into the state of those who now inhabited the Holy Land, he received such information as filled him with the deepest anguish.
We propose to consider,
I. The reason of his sorrow—
Many of the people had connected themselves in marriage both with the Canaanites and other heathens around them. This he justly regarded as a most heinous evil,
1. As being a violation of an express command—
Ezra himself speaks of it in this view verse 10–12. compared with Deuteronomy 7:2-3. It is possible that, while the generality sought only the gratification of their own corrupt appetites, "the princes and rulers, who were chief in this matter," justified their conduct on the ground of policy. They might urge, that, being few in number, it was desirable, for their own preservation, to make alliances with those whose hostility they feared. It is certain that in this way many set their own reasoning in opposition to God's revealed will. But reason is altogether out of its place on such occasions. God's authority is not to be trampled on by us: we are not at liberty to sit in judgment on his commands, and to determine how far it is expedient to obey them: when once we are told, "Thus says the Lord," we have no option, no alternative left: a cheerful and unreserved compliance is our bounden duty, and our highest wisdom.
2. As having an evident tendency to bring the people back to idolatry—
It was for their idolatries more especially that the nation had been sent into captivity; and a recurrence of the same evils was most likely to result from so intimate a connection with idolaters. This danger had been particularly pointed out, when the prohibition had been originally given Deuteronomy 7:4; and their disregard of this danger showed how little they had profited by the judgments that had been inflicted on them, or the mercies that had been given unto them. But thus it is with all who seek the friendship of the world: God has told them, that "friendship with the world is enmity with God James 4:4;" that it is impossible to maintain communion with both Matthew 6:24, and 2 Corinthians 6:14-15; and that therefore all who cultivate the friendship of the world will be regarded and treated as the enemies of God 1 John 2:15-17; yet they will run the risk, and for the sake of gratifying their corrupt wishes, will endanger the everlasting salvation of their souls. O that those who are inclined to take worldly persons for their associates, and especially those who are tempted to unite with them in the indissoluble bonds of marriage, would consider the guilt and danger of such measures, before they bring upon themselves the wrath of an offended God! If only they would look around them and see the injury which others have sustained in their souls by such conduct, they would pause, and not venture to purchase any imagined good at so great a price.
How great his sorrow on this occasion was, we may judge from,
II. The expressions of it—
That which first calls for our notice is, the expression of his grief the instant he was informed of their misconduct—
This was more violent than any of which we read in the Holy Scriptures. Often have men rent their mantle and their garments; but of him alone we are told that "he plucked off the hair of his head and of his beard." In the first paroxysm of his grief he was almost distracted; yes, he was so overwhelmed as to be incapable of speech or action: hence "he sat down astonished," as one altogether stupefied through excess of sorrow. And shall we think all this extravagant? No truly, if we duly estimate the evil they had committed, and the danger to which the whole nation was reduced verse 14. We are told of David, that "horror took hold upon him," and that "rivers of tears ran down his cheeks, because of those who kept not God's law:" and Paul appeals to God himself, that he had "great sorrow and continual heaviness in his heart for his brethren's sake Romans 9:1-3." We may be sure therefore that the grief which Ezra manifested was no more than what the occasion called for.
But his humiliation before God is that which more particularly demands our attention—
"At the time of the evening sacrifice," as if revived and encouraged by the consideration of the great atonement, "he arose from his heaviness, and fell upon his knees, and spread out his hands unto the Lord his God," and confessed with shame and anguish of heart both his own sins and the sins of all the people. What a just view had he of national transgressions! Many would have thought, that, because he disapproved of the evils that had been committed, he had no share in the guilt contracted by them, nor any occasion to humble himself before God on account of them: but the members of the body politic are, in their corporate capacity, like the members of the natural body, all to a certain degree responsible for those evils, which generally, though not universally, prevail among them. At the day of judgment indeed, none will have to answer for anything but what they themselves were personally guilty of; but in this world, where alone nations can be dealt with as nations, we should consider ourselves as participating in whatever relates to the nation at large.
And here we cannot but admire the humility with which he confessed the sins of the nation before God, and the fervor with which he implored the forgiveness of them. O that we felt even for our own sins, as he felt for the sins of others! However "fools may make a mock at it," sin is no light evil: there is no contrition too deep for us to feel on account of sin, nor any earnestness too great to use in order to obtain the remission of it. Let the view then of this holy man put us all to shame: let us blush and be confounded at the thought that our repentance from day to day is so cold and superficial; and let us tremble for ourselves, lest we be found at last to have been hypocrites and dissemblers with God. We are told plainly enough what is that repentance which godly sorrow will produce 2 Corinthians 7:10-11; let us therefore look to it that we "approve ourselves to be clear in this matter."
And now, methinks, the evening sacrifice is just offered: "now once, in the end of the world, has Christ appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself Hebrews 9:26." O let our eyes be fixed on that "Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!" Let us spread before him both our national and personal transgressions; and let us lay them all on the head of that heavenly victim; not doubting but that, "if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness 1 John 1:9."
USE OF GOD'S DIVERSIFIED DISPENSATIONS
Ezra 9:13-14. After all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass, seeing that you our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this; should we again break your commandments?
THE intention of God in all his dispensations, whether of providence or of grace, is to deter men from sin: and it becomes all his people to co-operate with him in this important work. Rulers in particular are invested with power by God himself for this very end: nor do they ever appear to more advantage than when they exert themselves to the uttermost in the support of God's authority, and in promoting the best interests of those over whom they are placed.
Ezra, perhaps about eighty years after the return of the Jews from Babylon, was permitted by Artaxerxes king of Persia to go and visit his brethren in Judea, and was empowered by him to rectify all abuses that he might find among them. After his arrival, he heard, to his unspeakable grief, that many of them had joined in marriage with heathen women. He therefore humbled himself before God on their account; and looking back upon all that they had suffered for their iniquities, and on the marvelous deliverance which God had given unto them, he expressed his surprise, his horror, his indignation at their great impiety.
From his words we shall take occasion to consider,
I. God's diversified dispensations towards us—
God visited his people of old with alternate mercies and judgments: and thus he has dealt with us also.
He has visited our sins with judgments—
The judgments which we have of late experienced, have been exceeding heavy Here particulars should be mentioned; And it is of the utmost importance that we should acknowledge the hand of God in them. They spring not out of the dust: they arise not merely from the ambition of our enemies, or the errors of our own government. God uses men as instruments, just as he did the Assyrians and Chaldeans, to punish his people: but still it is His hand alone that inflicts the stroke Psalm 17:13. Isaiah 10:5-7; Isaiah 10:13-15; Isaiah 37:24-26. Genesis 45:8; and, if we do not trace his displeasure in all that we have suffered, it is not possible that we should ever make a proper improvement of it.
We must confess, however, that our sufferings have by no means equaled our deserts Psalm 103:10. Take any one of our national sins Our contempt of the Gospel, our open profaneness, our traffic in human blood, etc, and it might well bring down upon us all that we have endured. If God had proceeded against us according to the tremendous aggregate of our iniquities, we should have been made as Sodom and Gomorrah.
He has now also given us a deliverance—
The "deliverance" granted to the Jews in their return from Babylon, was not inferior to that which they had formerly experienced in their departure from Egypt. And has not ours also been exceeding great Here it should be set forth.: In this too must we view the hand of God. Whoever were the means, God was the author of it. It is he who produces all the changes that arise in the state of individuals 1 Samuel 2:6-8, or of kingdoms Jeremiah 18:6-7; Jeremiah 18:9. And as the discerning of his agency in our afflictions is necessary to effect our humiliation, so the beholding of it in our mercies is necessary to excite our gratitude.
To promote a suitable improvement of these dispensations, let us consider,
II. The effect they should have upon us—
If the destruction of sin be the end which God proposes to himself in all his conduct towards us, then we should endeavor to make everything subservient to that end. The pointed interrogation in the text strongly shows in what light we should view a renewed violation of God's commandments, after he has taken such pains to enforce the observance of them.
1. How unreasonable would it be!
No man can read the account of Pharaoh's obstinacy in the midst of all his successive judgments and deliverances, and not stand amazed at his more than brutish stupidity. Yet it is precisely thus that we shall act, if we do not now put away our sins, and submit ourselves entirely to God's revealed will. And how unreasonable, or rather we should say irrational, such conduct would be, God himself tells us: he even calls Heaven and earth to express their astonishment at it, as not only leveling us with the beasts, but reducing us to a state far below them Isaiah 1:2-3. And if we be guilty of it, he will justly vent his indignation against us, as he did against his people of old; "They are a perverse and crooked generation. Do you thus requite the Lord? O foolish people, and unwise Deuteronomy 32:5-6."
2. How ungrateful!
Ingratitude is considered as one of the greatest aggravations that can be found in any offence of man against his fellow-man: and how much more must it enhance the guilt we contract in our disobedience to God! See what stress God himself lays upon this in the transgressions of David 2 Samuel 12:7-9, and Solomon 1 Kings 11:9, and Hezekiah 2 Chronicles. 32:25; and will it not stamp a ten-fold malignity also on our offences See what construction God himself puts upon such conduct, Jeremiah 7:9-10.
3. How dangerous!
This is particularly noticed by Ezra, in the words following the text: and the state of the Jews at this moment is an awful comment upon it. We are yet in the hands of our God; and if we still rebel against him, he can easily bring again upon us the calamities which he has just removed, or send others far more afflictive. He tells us, that, as the impenitence of the Jews was the reason of his continuing to afflict them Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 9:21; Isaiah 10:4, so he will "punish us seven times more for our sins Leviticus 26:18; Leviticus 26:21; Leviticus 26:24; Leviticus 26:28," if we now continue in them. To what a state of misery and dereliction we may in that case expect to be reduced, we may judge from what was actually experienced by the Jewish nation Judges 10:11-14. But the Lord grant that we may not so provoke the Majesty of Heaven!
Remember that God is not an indifferent spectator of our conduct. Sin is "that abominable thing which his soul hates Jeremiah 44:4," and he will surely destroy either it, or him that retains it. And if his judgments be not inflicted on the sinner in this life, there still is a future day of retribution, when every man shall give account of himself to God, and receive the just recompense of all his actions.
Let this then be the improvement which we determine, through grace, to make of God's present dispensations. Let us reflect upon them as means of exciting us to holy obedience; and let every one of us shudder at the thought of ever again breaking the least of God's commandments.