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PROVERBS iv. 26.
Ponder the path of thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established.
The sentence which we have now read, in- | arises concerning the subject, to which it is cludes a subject of immense magnitude, more applied, and this requires a second elucidation. proper to fill a volume, than to be comprised The term step is usually restrained in our lanin a single sermon; however, we propose to guage to actions of life, and never signifies a express the subject of it in this one discourse. mode of thinking; but the Hebrew language When we shall have explained the subject, we gives this term a wider extent, and it includes will put it to proof; I mean, we will apply it all these ideas. One example shall suffice. to some religious articles, leaving to your piety "My steps had well nigh slipped,”? Ps. lxxiii. the care of applying it to a great number, and 2, that is to say, I was very near taking a false of deriving from the general application this step; and what was this step? It was judging consequence, if we “ponder the paths of our that the wicked were happier in the practice feet, all our ways will be established.” of licentiousness, than the righteous in obeying
I suppose, first, you affix just ideas to this the laws of truth and virtue. Solomon, in the metaphorical expression, ponder the path words of my text, particularly intends to reguof thy feet. " It is one of those singular figures late our actions; and in order to this he intends of speech, which agrees better with the genius to regulate the principles of our minds, and the of the sacred language than with that of ours. affections of our hearts. “ Ponder the path of Remark this once for all. There is one among thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established,” many objections made by the enemies of reli- for so I render the words. Examine your steps gion, which excels in its kind; I mean to say, deliberately before you take them, and you it deserves to stand first in a list of the most will take only wise steps; if you would judge extravagant sophisms: this is, that there is no rightly of objects, avoid hasty judging; before reason for making a difference between the you fix your affection on an object, examine genius of the Hebrew language and the idiom whether it be worthy of your esteem, and then of other languages. It would seem, by this you will love nothing but what is lovely. By objection, that a book not originally written in thus following the ideas of the Wise Man, we the idiom of the language of scepticism can not will assort our reflections with the actions of be divinely inspired. On this absurd principle, your lives, and they will regard also, somethe Scripture could not be written in any lan- times the emotions of your hearts, and the guage; for if a Greek had a right to object operations of your minds. against inspiration on this account, an Arabian, We must beg leave to add a third elucidaand a Persian, and all other people have the tion. The maxim in the text is not always
Who does not perceive at once, that practicable. I mean, there are some doctrines, the inspired writers, delivering their messages and some cases of conscience, which we cannot at first to the Jews, "to whom were committed fully examine without coming to a conclusion, the oracles of God,” Rom. iii. 2, spoke pro- that the arguments for, and the arguments perly according to the idiom of their language against them, are of equal weight, and conseThey ran no risk of being misunderstood by quently, that we must conclude without a conother nations, whom a desire of being saved clusion; weigh the one against the other, and should incline to study the language for the the balance will incline neither way. sake of the wisdom taught in it.
This difficulty, however, solves itself; for, How extravagant soever this objection is, after I have weighed, with all the exactness of Bo extravagant that no infidel will openly avow which I am capable, two opposite propositions, it, yet it is adopted, and applied in a thousand and can find no reasons sufficient to determine instances. The book of Canticles is full of my judgment, the part 1 ought to take is not
I figures opposite to the genius of our western to determine at all. Are you prejudiced in languages; it is therefore no part of the sacred favour of an opinion, so ill suited to the limits canon. It would be easy to produce other which it has pleased God to set to our knowexamples. Let a modern purist, who affects ledge, that it is dangerous or criminal to susneatness and accuracy of style, and gives lec- pend our judgments! Are your consciences so tures on punctuation, condemn this manner of weak and scrupulous as to hesitate in some speaking, "ponder the path of thy feet;" with cases to say, I do not know, I have not deterall my heart. The inspired authors had no mined that question? Poor men! do you know less reason to make use of it, nor interpreters to yourselves so little? Poor Christians! will you affirm, that it is an eastern expression, which always form such false ideas of your legislator? signifies to take no step without first delibe- And do you not know that none but such as rately examining it. The metaphor of the live perpetually disputing in the schools make text being thus reduced to truth, another doubt it a law to answer every thing? Do you not
know, that one principal cause of that fury, / we ought to be persuaded that ignorance on which erected scaffolds, and lighted fires in the these subjects cannot be dangerous. . The church, that ought to breathe nothing but reason is plain: if God intended we should peace and love, was a rash decision of some see these truths in their full depth and clearquestions which it was impossible for sensible i ness, he would not have involved them in so men to determine? Are you not aware that much obscurity, or he would have given us one of the most odious ideas that can be formed greater abilities, and greater assistances, to of God, one the least compatible with the emi- enable us to form adequate and perfect ideas nence of his perfections, is, that God requires of them. In like manner, in regard to cases of us knowledge beyond the faculties he has of conscience, attended with insurmountable given us? I declare I cannot help blushing difficulties, if our salvation depended on the for Christians, and especially for Christians side we take in regard to them, God would cultivated as you are, when I perceive it needs have revealed more clearly what side we ought ful to repeat this principle, and even to use to take. In such cases as these, intention precaution, and to weigh the terms in which supplies the place of knowledge, and probawe propose it, lest we should offend them. To bility that of demonstration. what then are we reduced, Great God, if we So much for clearing the meaning of the have the least reason to suspect that thou wilt Wise Man; now let us put his doctrine to require an account, not only of the talents proof. “ Ponder the path of thy feet, and all which it has pleased thee to commit to us! To thy ways shall be established.” Wouldst thou what am I reduced, if, having only received of take only sure steps, at least as sure as is posthee, my Creator, a human intelligence, thou sible in a world where “in many things we wilt' require of me angelical attainments-offend all,” weigh all the actions you intend Whither am Idriven, if, having received a body to perform first with the principle from which capable of moving only through a certain space they proceed; then with the circumstances in in a given time, thou Lord, requirest me to which you are at the time; next with the manmove with the velocity of aerial bodies? At ner in which you perform them; again with this rate, when thou in the last great day shalt the bounds which restrain ther; afterward judge the world in righteousness, thou, Judge with those degrees of virtue and knowledge at of the whole earth, wilt condemn me for not which you are arrived; and lastly, with the preaching the gospel in Persia, the same day different judgments which you yourself form and the same hour in which I was preaching concerning them. it in this assembly! Far from us be such de- 1. An action good in itself may become testable opinions! Let us adhere to the senti- criminal, if it proceed from a bad principle. ments of St. Paul, God shall judge the Gentile II. An action good in itself may become according to what he has committed to the criminal, if it be performed in certain circumGentile; the Jew according to what he has stances. committed to the Jew; the Christian according III. An action good in itself may become to what he has committed to the Christian. criminal by the manner in which it is perThus Jesus Christ, “Unto whomsoever much formed. is given, of him much shall be required; and to IV. An action good in itself may become whom men have committed much, of him they criminal by being extended beyond its just will ask the more,” Luke xii. 48. Thus again limits. Jesus Christ teaches us, that God will require V. An action good in itself, when performed an account of five talents of him to whom he by a man of a certain degree of knowledge gave five talents, of two talents of him to whom and virtue, may become criminal, if it be perhe gave two, and of one only of him to whom formed by a man of inferior knowledge and he gave but one. What did our Redeemer virtue. mean when he put into the mouth of the wicked VI. In fine, an action good in itself now, servant this abominable pretext for neglecting may become criminal at another time. to improve his Lord's talent? Lord, I knew These maxims ought to be explained and thee that thou art a hard man," or, as it may enforced; and here we are going, as I said at be better translated, a barbarous man,“ reaping first, to apply the doctrine of the Wise Man to where thou hast not sown, and gathering where few subjects, leaving to your piety the care thou hast not strawed.” I return to my sub- of applying them to a great number, which ject. When we have examined two contra- will necessarily occur in the course of your dictory doctrines, and can obtain no reasons lives. sufficient to determine our judgment, our pro- I. We ought to ponder our steps in regard per part is, to suspend our judgment of the to the principle from which they proceed. An subject, and not to determine it at all.
action good in itself may become criminal, if It will be said, that, if this be possible in it proceed from a bad principle. The little regard to speculative points; it is not applicable attention we pay to this maxim is one principal to matters of practice. Why not? Such cases cause of the false judgments we make of ourof conscience as are the most embarrassing are selves. Thus many, who allow themselves precisely those which ought to give us the very expensive luxuries, say, they contribute least trouble. This proposition may appear a to the increase of trade. To increase trade, paradox, but I think I can explain and prove and to employ artists, considered in themit. I compare cases of conscience with points selves, are good works I grant; but is it a of speculation; difficult cases of conscience with desire of doing these good works that animates such speculative points as we just now men- you? Is it not your vanity? Is it not your tioned. The most difficult points of specula- luxury? Is it not your desire of sparkling and tion ought to givo us the least concern; I mean, Ishining in the world?
Thus our brethren, who resist all the exhor-, ing the motive which engages you to take it. tations that have been addressed to them for Let the glory of God be the great end of all many years, to engage them to follow Jesus our actions; " whether we eat or drink, or Christ“ without the camp,” reply, that were whatsoever we do, let us do all to the glory of they to obey these exhortations, all the seeds God," 1 Cor. x. 31. A mnotive so noble and of truth now remaining in the land of their so worthy of that holy calling with which God nativity would perish, and that the remnants has honoured us, will sanctify all our steps, of the reformation would be entirely extirpated. will give worth to our virtues, and will raise Diligently to preserve even remnants of the those into virtuous actions, which seem to reformation, and seeds of truth, is certainly an have the least connexion with virtue. A bustaction good in itself; but is this the motive ling trade, a sprightly conversation, a wellwhich animates you when you resist all our matched union, a sober recreation, a domestic exhortations? Is it not love of the present amusement, all become virtues in a man aniworld? Is it not the same motive that ani- mated with the glory of God; on the contrary, mated Demas? Is it not because you have virtue itself, the most ardent zeal for truth, neither courage enough to sacrifice for Jesus the most generous charities, the most fervent Christ what he requires, nor zeal enough to prayers, knowledge the most profound, and profess your religion at the expense of your sacrifices the least suspicious, become vices in fortunes and dignities? Thus again they who a man not animated with this motive. are immersed in worldly care tell us, that were II. Let us ponder our steps in regard to the they to think much about dying, society could circumstances which accompany them.
An not subsist, arts would languish, sciences de action, good or innocent in itself, may become cay, and so on. I deny this principle. I affirm, criminal in certain circumstances. This maxim society would be incomparably more flourish- is a clue to many cases of conscience, in which ing were each member of it to think continu- we choose to blind ourselves. We obstinately ally of death. In such a case each would con- consider our actions in a certain abstracted sult his own ability, before he determined what light, never realized, and we do not attend to employment he would follow, and then we circumstances which change the nature of the should see none elected to public offices except action. We think we strike a casuist dumb, such as were capable of discharging them; we when we ask him, what is there criminal in should see the gospel preached only by such as the action you reprove? Hear the morality of have abilities for preaching; we should see ar- the inspired writers. mies commanded only by men of experience, It is allowable to attach ourselves to a pious and who possessed that superiority of genius prince, and to push for port. Yet when Barwhich is necessary to command them. Then zillai had arrived at a certain age, he thought the magistrate, having always death and judg- it his duty to flee from court, and to quit his ment before his eyes, would think only of the prince, and he said to David, who invited him public good. Then the judge, having his eye to court, “I am this day fourscore years old, fixed only on the Judge of all mankind, would and can I discern between good and evil? Can regard the sacred trust committed to him, and thy servant taste what I eat, or what I drink? would not consider his rank only as an oppor- Can I hear any more the voice of singing men, tunity of making his family, accumulating and singing women? Let thy servant, I pray riches, and behaving with arrogance. Then thee, turn back again, that I'may die in mine the pastor, all taken up with the duties of that own city, and be buried by the grave of my important ministry which God has committed father and of my mother,'' 2 Sam. xix. 35. 37. to him, would exercise it only to comfort the It is allowable to erect houses proportional afflicted, to visit the sick, to repress vice, to to our fortunes and rank. Yet the buildings advance the kingdom of that Jesus whose min- of the Israelites drew upon them the most ister he has the honour to be, and not officious- mortifying censures, and the most rigourous ly to intrude into families to direct them, to chastisements, after their return from captivity. tyrannize over consciences, to make a parade This was, because, while their minds were all of gifts, and to keep alive a spirit of party. employed about their own edifices, they took
But, not to carry these reflections any fur- no thought about rebuilding the temple. Is ther, you say, society could not subsist, sciences it time for you,” said the prophet Haggai," Is would languish, and arts decay, if men thought it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled much about dying. Very well. I agree. But houses, and this house lie waste?" chap. i. 4. I ask, is this the motive which animates you It is allowable, sometimes, to join in good when you turn away your eyes from this company, and to taste the pleasures of the object" Is it fear lest the arts should decay, table and society; yet Isaiah reproached the science languish, society disperse? Is it this Jews of his time in the most cutting inanner, fear which keeps you from thinking of death? for giving themselves up to these pleasures, at Is it not rather because an idea of this “king a time when recent crimes, and approaching of terrors" disconcerts the whole system of calamities should have engaged them to acts your conscience, stupified by a long habit of of repentance. “In that day did the Lord sin; because it urges you to restore that ac- God of hosts call to weeping, and to mourncursed acquisition, which is the fund that sup- ing, and to baldness, and to girding with sackports your pageantry and pride; because it re- cloth; and behold, joy and gladness, slaying quires you to renounce that criminal intrigue oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinkwhich makes the conversation of all compa- ing wine. And it was revealed mine ears nies, and gives just offence to all good men? by the Lord of hosts; surely this iniquity shall
My brethren, would you always take right not be purged from you till yo die, saith the steps? Never take one without first examin- | Lord God of hosts," Isa. xxii. 12, &c.
It is allowable to eat any thing, without re- | in those of his children, and all in a million
I conclude from the example of Barzillai. Let
The case of scandal is a circumstance which man on the brink of the grave, and who has
just as he was the first day he entered on it;
pany them. An action good in itself, yea,
"God loveth a cheerful giver," most regular, we had the wisdom to retire. I 2 Cor. ix. 7. Another most essential duty of wish, instead of relishing then the most lawful religion is to interest one's self in the happirecreations, we had the wisdom to mourn for ness of our neighbour; and if he turn aside our offending a God whose law ought to be from the path of salvation, to bring him back extremely respected by us. To take the oppo- again. “Thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy site course then, to allow one's self pleasure, neighbour, and not sufler sin upon him:” thus innocent indeed in happier times, is to discover God spoke by his servant Moses, Lev. xix. 17. very little sense of that God whose commands" Exhort one another daily: this is a precept we have just now violated; it is to discover of St. Paul, Heb. iii. 13. To this may be addthat we have very little regard for our salva-ed the declaration of St. James: “If any of tion, at a time when we have so many just you do err from the truth, and one convert causes of doubting whether our hope to be him, let him know, that he which converteth saved be well-grounded.
the sinner from the error of his way, shall save The afflicted state of the church is another a soul from death, and hide a multitude of circumstance, which may make an innocent sins," chap. v. 19, 20. But this duty would action criminal: So I conclude, from the pas become a crime, were we to rebuke a neighsage just now quoted from Haggai. Dissipa- bour with bitterness, were the reproof more tions, amusements, festivals, ill become men, satire than exbortation, were we to assume airs who ought to be “grieved for the afflictions of haughtiness and discover that we intended of Josephı;" or, to speak more clearly, less still less to censure the vices of others, than to disbecome miserable people whom the wrath of play our own imaginary excellencies. It is God pursues, and who, being themselves" as not enough to rebuke a neighbour; it must be firebrands” hardly “plucked out of the burn- done with all those charitable concomitants, ing," are yet exposed to the flames of tribula- which are so proper to make the most bitter tion, one in the person of his father, another i censures palatable; it must be done with that