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A tainted air doth more easily affect a sound body, than a wholesome air can clear the sick. Superstition hath ever been more successful than truth; the young years of Ahaz are soon misled to a plausible misdevotion.
A man that is once fallen from truth, knows where he shall stay. From the calves of Jeroboam is Ahaz drawn to the gods of the heathen ; yea, now bulls and goats are too little for those new deities; his own flesh and blood is but dear enough; “ He made his son to pass through their fire.” Where do we find any religious Israelite thus zealous for God? Neither doth the holiness and mercy of our God require so cruel a sacrifice: neither is our dull and niggardly hand ready to gratify him with more easy obediences. O God, how gladly should we offer unto thee our souls and bodies, which we may enjoy so much the more, when they are thine ; since zealous Pagans stick not to lose their own flesh and blood in an idol's fire !
He, that hath thus shamefully cast off the God of his fathers, cannot be long without a fearful revenge. The king of Israel galls him on the one side, the king of Syria on the other. To avoid the shock of both, Ahaz doth not betake himself to the God whom he had offended, who was able to make his enemies at peace with him, but to Tiglath-pileser king of Ashur; him doth he woo with suits, with gifts, and robs God of those presents, which may endear so strong an helper. He that thought not his son too dear for an idol, thinks not God's silver and gold too dear for an idolatrous abettor.
O the infinite patience of the Almighty! God gives success awhile to so offensive a rivality. This Assyrian king prevails against the king of Syria, kills him, and takes his chief city Damascus. The quarrel of the king of Judah hath enlarged the territories of his assistant beyond hope; and now, while this Assyrian victor is enjoying the possession of his new-won Damascus, Ahaz goes up thither to meet him, to congratulate the victory, to add unto those triumphs, which were drawn on by his solicitation. There he sees a new fashioned altar, that pleases his eye; that old form of Solomon's, which was made by the pattern showed to Moses in the Mount, is now grown stale and despicable : a model of this more exquisite frame is sent to Urijah the priest, and must be sampled in Jerusalem.
It is a dangerous presumption to make innovations, if but in the circumstances of God's worship. Those human additions, which would seem to grace the institution of God, deprave it; that infinite Wisdom knows best what will please itself, and prescribes accordingly. The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men. Idolatry and falsehood are commonly more gaudy and plausible than truth. That heart, which can, for the outward homeliness, despise the ordinances of God, is already alienated from true religion, and lies open to the grossest superstition.
Never any prince was so foully idolatrous, as that he wanted a priest to second him. An Urijah is fit to humour an Ahaz. "Greatness could never command any thing, which some servile wits were not ready both to applaud and justify.
Ere the king can be returned from Damascus, the altar is finished. It were happy, if true godliness could be so forward in the prosecutions of good. Neither is this strange pile rcared only, but thrust up betwixt God's altar and the temple, in an apparent precedency, as if he had said, Let the God of Judah come behind the deities of Syria.
And now, to make up the full measure of his impiety, this idolatrous king will himself be sacrificing upon his new altar, to his new gods, the gods of Damascus. An usurped priesthood well becomes a false deity; " Because, saith he, the gods of the kings of Syria help them, therefore will I sacrifice to them, that they may help me.”
O blind superstition ! How did the gods of Syria help their kings, when both those kings and their gods were vanquished, and taken by the king of Assyria? Even this Damascus and this altar were the spoil of a foreign enemy; how then did the gods of Syria help their kings, any other than to their ruin? What dotage is this to make choice of a foiled protection? But had the Syrians prospered, must their gods have the thanks ? Are there no authors of good but blocks or devils ? oç, is an outward prosperity the only argument of truth, the only motive of devotion? O foolish Abaz! it is the god thou hast forsaken that plagues thee, under whose only arm thou mightst have prevailed. His power beats those pagan stocks one against another, so as, one while, one seems victorious, another vanquished ; and at last he confounds both together with their proudest clients. Thyself shall be the best instance.
Of all the kings of Judah hitherto, there is none so dreadful an example, either of sin or judgment, as this son of good Jotham. I abhor to think, that such a monster should descend from the loins of David; where should be the period of this wickedness ? He began with the high places, thence he descends to the calves of Dan and Bethel; from thence he falls to a Syrian altar, to the Syrian god ; then, from a partnership, he falls to an utter exclusion of the true God, and blocking up bis temple; and then to the sacrifice of his own son; and at last, as if hell were broken loose upon God's inheritance, every several city, every high place of Judah hath a new god. No marvel, if he be branded by the Spirit of God, with, " This is that king Ahaz.”
What a fearful plague did this noisome deluge of sin leave behind it in the land of Judah! Who can express the horror of God's revenge upon a people that should have been his ? Pekah the king of Israel slew an hundred and twenty thousand of them in one day, amongst whom was Maseiah the son of Ahaz. O just judgment of the Almighty! Abaz sheds the blood of one son to an idol : the true God sheds the blood of another of his sons in revenge.
Yet the hand of the Lord is stretched out still.
Two hundred thousand of them were carried away, by the Israelites, captive to Samaria.
The Edomites came, and carried away another part of them for bond slaves to their country.
The Philistines came up and shared the cities of the south of Judah, and the villages thereof: shortly, what other is miserable Judah, than the prey and spoil of all the neighbouring nations ! “For the Lord brought Judah low because of Israel; for he made Judah naked, and transgressed sore against the Lord.” As for the great king of Ashur, whom Abaz purchased with the sacrilegious pillage of the house of God, instead of an aid, he proves a burden: however he sped in his first onsets, now - he distressed Judah, but strengthened it not.” The charge was as great as the benefit small; sooner shall he eat them out, than rescue them. No arm of flesh can shelter Abaz from a vengeance.
“ Be wise, O ye kings ; be instructed, O ye judges of the earth : serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little."
His subjects complain, that he died so late; and, as repenting that he ever was, deny him a room in the sepulchres of kings ; as if they had said, the common earth of Jerusalem is too good for him that degenerated from his progenitors, spoiled his kingdom, deprived his people, forsook bis God.
The utter Destruction of the Kingdom of Israel. JUDAH was at a sore heave; yet Israel shall miscarry before it ; such are the sins of both, that they strive whether shall fall first; but this lot must light upon the ten tribes. Though the late king of Judah were personally worse than the most of Jeroboam's successors, yet the people were generally less evil, upon whom the encroachments of idolatry were more by obtrusion, than by consent: besides, that the thrones of Judah had some interchanges of good princes, Israel none at all. The same justice therefore that made Israel a scourge to Judah, made Assyria a scorpion to Israel.
It was the quarrel of Judah, that first engaged the king of Ashur in this war against Israel : now he is not so easily fetcht off. So we have seen some eager mastiff, that hath been set on by the least clap of the hand, but could not be loosened by the force of staves.
Salmaneser king of Assyria comes up against Hoshea king of Israel and subdues him, and puts him to his tribute. This yoke was uncouth and unpleasing: the vanquished prince was neither able to resist, nor willing to yield : secretly therefore he treats with the king of Egypt for assistance, as desiring rather to hazard his liberty by the hand of an equal, than to enjoy a quiet subjection under the hand of an overruling power. We cannot blame princes to be jealous of their sovereignties: the detaining of his yearly tribute, and the whisperings with new confederates, have drawn up the king of Ashur to perfect his own victories. He returns therefore with a strong power, and, after three years' siege, takes Samaria, imprisons Hoshea, and, in the exchange of a woeful captivity, he peoples Israel with Assyrians, and Assyria with Israelites. Now that abused soil hath, upon a surfeit of wickedness, cast out her perfidious owners, and will try how it can fare with heathenish strangers. Now, the Assyrian gallants triumph in the palaces of Samaria and Jezreel, while the peers and captains of Israel are driven manacled through the Assyrian streets, and billeted to the several places of their perpetual servitude. Shortly now the flourishing kingdom of the ten tribes is come to a final and shameful end, and so vanished in this last dissipation, that, since that day, no man could ever say, this was Israel.
O terrible example of vengeance, upon that peculiar people, whom God hath chosen for himself out of all the world! All the world were witnesses of the favours of their miraculous deliverances and protections ; all the world shall be witnesses of their just confusion.
It is not in the power of slight errors to set off that infinite mercy. What was it, O God, what was it that caused thee to cast off thine own inheritance? what but the same that made thee to cast the angels out of heaven, even their rebellious sins. Those sins dared to emulate the greatness of thy mercies, no less than they forced the severity of thy judgments : “ They left all the commandments of the Lord their God; and made them molten images, oven two calves; and made a grove, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served Baal, and caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke him to anger.
Neither were these slips of frailty, or ignorant mistakings, but wilful crimes, obstinate impieties, in spite of the doctrines, reproofs, menaces, miraculous convictions of the holy prophets, which God sent amongst them. Thy destruction is of thyself, O Israel! What could the just hand of the Almighty do less than consume a nation so incorrigibly flagitious ? a nation so unthankful for mercies, so impatient of remedies, so incapable of repentance; so obliged, so warned, so shamelessly, so lawlessly wicked ?
What nation under heaven can now challenge an indefeasible interest in God, when Israel itself is cast off? what church in the world can show such dear love-tokens from the Almighty, as this now abhorred and adulterous spouse? He, that spared not the natural olive, shall he spare the wild ? It