O, That All Men Would Humble Themselves in the Presence of Our God.
A good Lord’s Day pastime, the following sermon by John Knox is one of the few committed to writing by him. His text is Isaiah 26:13-21. The historical setting of the sermon is explained in this preface:
“Henry Darnley (king of Scotland by his marriage with queen Mary,) went sometimes to mass with the queen, and sometimes attended the protestant sermons. To silence the rumours then circulated of his having forsaken the reformed religion, he, on the 19th of August, 1565, attended service at St. Giles’s church, sitting on a throne which had been prepared for him. Knox preached that day on Isaiah xxvi.13, 14, and happened to prolong the service beyond the usual time. In one part of the sermon, he quoted these words of scripture, ‘I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them: children are their oppressors, and women rule over them.’ In another part he referred to God’s displeasure against Ahab, because he did not correct his idolatrous wife Jezebel. No particular application of these passages was made by Knox, but the king considered them as reflecting upon the queen and himself, and returned to the palace in great wrath. He refused to dine, and went out to hawking.
That same afternoon Knox was summoned from his bed to appear before the council. He went accompanied by several respectable inhabitants of the city. The secretary informed him of the king’s displeasure at his sermon, and desired that he would abstain from preaching for fifteen or twenty days. Knox answered, that he had spoken nothing but according to his text, and if the church would command him either to preach or abstain, he would obey so far as the word of God would permit him. The king and queen left Edinburgh during the week following, and it does not appear that Knox was actually suspended from preaching.”
The following are Knox’s reasons for the publication of this Sermon, extracted from his preface to the first edition.
“If any will ask, To what purpose this sermon is set forth? I answer, To let such as satan has not altogether blinded, see upon how small occasions great offence is now conceived. This sermon is it, for which, from my bed, I was called before the council; and after long reasoning, I was by some forbidden to preach in Edinburgh, so long as the king and queen were in town. This sermon is it, that so offends such as would please the court, and will not appear to be enemies to the truth; yet they dare affirm, that I exceeded the bounds of God’s messenger. I have therefore faithfully committed unto writing whatsoever I could remember might have been offensive in that sermon; to the end, that the enemies of God’s truth, as well as the professors of the same, may either note unto me wherein I have offended, or at the least cease to condemn me before they have convinced me by God’s manifest word.”
A SERMON ON ISAIAH XXVI.
Isaiah 26:13-16, etc. — O Lord our God, other lords besides thee have had dominion over us; but by thee only will we make mention of thy name. They are dead, they shall not live; they are deceased, they shall not rise; therefore hast thou visited and destroyed them, and made all their memory to perish. Thou hast increased the nation, O Lord, thou hast increased the nation, thou art glorified; thou hast removed it far unto the ends of the earth. Lord, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them, &c.
As the skilful mariner (being master,) having his ship tossed with a vehement tempest, and contrary winds, is compelled oft to traverse, lest that, either by too much resisting to the violence of the waves, his vessel might be overwhelmed; or by too much liberty granted, might be carried whither the fury of the tempest would, so that his ship should be driven upon the shore, and make shipwreck; even so doth our prophet Isaiah in this text, which now you have heard read. For he, foreseeing the great desolation that was decreed in the council of the Eternal, against Jerusalem and Judah, namely, that the whole people, that bare the name of God, should be dispersed; that the holy city should be destroyed; the temple wherein was the ark of the covenant, and where God had promised to give his own presence, should be burnt with fire; and the king taken, his sons in his own presence murdered, his own eyes immediately after be put out; the nobility, some cruelly murdered, some shamefully led away captives; and finally, the whole seed of Abraham rased, as it were, from the fate of the earth. The prophet, I say, fearing these horrible calamities, doth, as it were, sometimes suffer himself, and the people committed to his charge, to be carried away with the violence of the tempest, without further resistance than by pouring forth his and their dolorous complaints before the majesty of God, as in the 13th, 17th, and 18th verses of this present text we may read. At other times he valiantly resists the desperate tempest, and pronounces the fearful destruction of all such as trouble the church of God; which he pronounces that God will multiply, even when it appears utterly to be exterminated. But because there is no final rest to the whole body till the Head return to judgment, he exhorts the afflicted to patience, and promises a visitation whereby the wickedness of the wicked shall be disclosed, and finally recompensed in their own bosoms.
These are the chief points of which, by the grace of God, we intend more largely at this present to speak;
First, The prophet saith, “O Lord our God, other lords besides thee have ruled us.”
This, no doubt, is the beginning of the dolorous complaint, in which he complains of the unjust tyranny that the poor afflicted Israelites sustained during the time of their captivity. True it is, that the prophet was gathered to his fathers in peace, before this came upon the people: for a hundred years after his decease the people were not led away captive; yet he, foreseeing the assurance of the calamity, did before-hand indite and dictate unto them the complaint, which afterward they should make. But at the first sight it appears, that the complaint has but small weight; for what new thing was it, that other lords than God in his own person ruled them, seeing that such had been their government from the beginning? For who knows not, that Moses, Aaron, and Joshua, the judges, Samuel, David, and other godly rulers, were men, and not God; and so other lords than God ruled them in their greatest prosperity.
For the better understanding of this complaint, and of the mind of the prophet, we must, first, observe from whence all authority flows; and, secondly, to what end powers are appointed by God: which two points being discussed, we shall better understand, what lords and what authority rule beside God, and who they are in whom God and his merciful presence rules.
The first is resolved to us by the words of the apostle, saying, “There is no power but of God.” David brings in the eternal God speaking to judges and rulers, saying, “I have said, ye are gods, and sons of the Most High.” (Psal. lxxxii.) And Solomon, in the person of God, affirmeth the same, saying, “By me kings reign, and princes discern the things that are just.” From which place it is evident, that it is neither birth, influence of stars, election of people, force of arms, nor finally, whatsoever can be comprehended under the power of nature, that makes the distinction betwixt the superior power and the inferior, or that establishes the royal throne of kings; but it is the only and perfect ordinance of God, who willeth his terror, power, and majesty, partly to shine in the thrones of kings, and in the faces of judges, and that for the profit and comfort of man. So that whosoever would study to deface the order of government that God has established, and allowed by his holy word, and bring in such a confusion, that no difference should be betwixt the upper powers and the subjects, does nothing but avert and turn upside down the very throne of God, which he wills to be fixed here upon earth; as in the end and cause of this ordinance more plainly shall appear: which is the second point we have to observe, for the better understanding of the prophet’s words and mind.
The end and cause then, why God imprints in the weak and feeble flesh of man this image of his own power and majesty, is not to puff up flesh in opinion of itself; neither yet that the heart of him, that is exalted above others, should be lifted up by presumption and pride, and so despise others; but that he should consider he is appointed lieutenant to One, whose eyes continually watch upon him, to see and examine how he behaves himself in his office. St. Paul, in few words, declares the end wherefore the sword is committed to the powers, saying, “It is to the punishment of the wicked doers, and unto the praise of such as do well.” Rom. xiii.
Of which words it is evident, that the sword of God is not committed to the hand of man, to use as it pleases him, but only to punish vice and maintain virtue, that men may live in such society as is acceptable before God. And this is the true and only cause why God has appointed powers in this earth.
For such is the furious rage of man’s corrupt nature, that, unless severe punishment were appointed and put in execution upon malefactors, better it were that man should live among brutes and wild beasts than among men. But at this present I dare not enter into the description of this common-place; for so should I not satisfy the text, which by God’s grace I purpose to explain. This only by the way — I would that such as are placed in authority should consider, whether they reign and rule by God, so that God rules them; or if they rule without, besides, and against God, of whom our prophet hero complains.
If any desire to take trial of this point, it is not hard; for Moses, in the election of judges, and of a king, describes not only what persons shall be chosen to that honour, but also gives to him that is elected and chosen, the rule by which he shall try himself, whether God reign in him or not, saying, “When he shall sit upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write to himself an exemplar of this law, in a book by the priests and Levites; it shall be with him, and he shall lead therein, all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, and to keep all the words of his law, and these statutes, that he may do them; that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left.” Deut. xvii.
The same is repeated to Joshua, in his inauguration to the government of the people, by God himself, saying, “Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth, but meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest keep it, and do according to all that which is written in it. For then shall thy way be prosperous, and thou shall do prudently.” Josh. i.
The first thing then that God requires of him, who is called to the honour of a king, is, The knowledge of his will revealed in his word.
The second is, An upright and willing mind, to put in execution such things as God commands in his law, without declining to the right, or to the left hand.
Kings then have not an absolute power, to do in their government what pleases them, but their power is limited by God’s word; so that if they strike where God has not commanded, they are but murderers; and if they spare where God has commanded to strike, they and their throne are criminal and guilty of the wickedness which abounds upon the face of the earth, for lack of punishment.
O that kings and princes would consider what account shall be craved of them, as well of their ignorance and misknowledge of God’s will, as for the neglecting of their office! But now, to return to the words of the prophet. In the person of the whole people he complains unto God, that the Babylonians (whom he calls, “other lords besides God,” both because of their ignorance of God, and by reason of their cruelty and inhumanity,) had long ruled over them in great rigour, without pity or compassion upon the ancient men, and famous matrons: for they, being mortal enemies to the people of God, sought by all means to aggravate their yoke, yea, utterly to exterminate the memory of them, and of their religion, from the face of the earth.
After the first part of this dolorous complaint, the prophet declares the protestation of the people, saying, “Nevertheless in thee shall we remember thy name,” (others read it, But we will remember thee only, and thy name;) but in the Hebrew there is no conjunction copulative in that sentence. The mind of the prophet is plain, namely, that notwithstanding the long sustained affliction, the people of God declined not to a false and vain religion, but remembered God, who sometime appeared to them in his merciful presence; which although they saw not then, yet they would still remember his name — that is, they would call to mind the doctrine and promise, which formerly they heard, although in their prosperity they did not sufficiently glorify God, who so mercifully ruled in the midst of them. The temptation, no doubt, of the Israelites was great in those days; they were carried captives from the land of Canaan, which was to them the gage and pledge of God’s favour towards them: for it was the inheritance that God promised to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. The league and covenant of God’s protection appeared to have been broken — they lamentably complain that they saw not their accustomed signs of God’s merciful presence. The true prophets were few, and the abominations used in Babylon were exceedingly many: and so it might have appeared to them, that in vain it was that they were called the posterity of Abraham, or that ever they had received the law, or form of right religion from God. That we may the better feel it in ourselves, the temptation, I say, was even such, as if God should utterly destroy all order and policy that this day is within his church — that the true preaching of the word should be suppressed — the right use of sacraments abolished — idolatry and papistical abomination erected up again; and therewith, that our bodies should be taken prisoners by Turks, or other manifest enemies of God, and of all godliness. Such, I say, was their temptation; how notable then is this their confession that in bondage they make, namely, That they will remember God only; although he has appeared to turn his face from them, they will remember his name, and will call to mind the deliverance promised!
Hereof have we to consider, what is our duty, if God bring us to the like extremity, as for our offences and unthankfulness justly he may. This confession is not the fair flattering words of hypocrites, lying and bathing in their pleasures; but it is the mighty operation of the Spirit of God, who leaves not his own destitute of some comfort, in their most desperate calamities. This then is our duty, not only to confess our God in time of peace and quietness, but he chiefly craves, that we avow him in the midst of his and our enemies; and this is not in us to do, but it behoves that the Spirit of God work in us, above all power of nature; and thus we ought earnestly to meditate before the battle rise more vehement, which appears not to be far off. But now must we somewhat more deeply consider these judgments of God.
This people dealt with thus, as we have heard, were the only people upon the face of the earth to whom God was rightly known; among them only were his laws, statutes, ordinances, and sacrifices, used and put in practice; they only invocated his name; and to them alone had he promised his protection and assistance. What then should be the cause, that he should give them over unto this great reproach; and bring them into such extremity that his own name, in them, should be blasphemed? The prophet Ezekiel, who saw this horrible destruction, forespoken by Isaiah, put into just execution, gives an answer in these words, “I gave unto them laws that were good, in the which whosoever should walk, should live in them; but they would not walk in my ways, but rebelled against me; and therefore, I have given unto them laws that are not good, and judgments, in the which they shall not live.” (Ezek. xx.) The writers of the books of Kings and Chronicles declare this in more plain words, saying, “The Lord sent unto them his prophets, rising early, desiring of them to return unto the Lord, and to amend their wicked ways, for he would have spared his people, and his tabernacle; but they mocked his servants, and would not return unto the Lord their God to walk in his ways.” (2 Kings xvii.) Yea, Judah itself kept not the precepts of the Lord God, but walked in the manners and ordinances of Israel; that is, of such as then had declined to idolatry from the days of Jeroboam; and therefore, the Lord God abhorred the whole seed of Israel, that is, the whole body of the people; he punished them, and gave them into the hands of those that spoiled them, and so he cast them out from his presence.
Hereof it is evident, that their disobedience unto God, and unto the voices of his prophets, was the cause of their destruction. Now have we to take heed how we should use the good laws of God; that is, his will revealed unto us in his word; and that order of justice, which by him, for the comfort of man, is established amongst men. There is no doubt but that obedience is the most acceptable sacrifice unto God, and that which above all things he requires; so that when he manifests himself by his word, men should follow according to their vocation and commandment. Now so it is, that God, by that great Pastor our Lord Jesus, now manifestly in his word calls us from all impiety, as well of body as of mind, to holiness of life, and to his spiritual service; and for this purpose he has erected the throne of his mercy among us, the true preaching of his word, together with the right administration of his sacraments: but what our obedience is, let every man examine his own conscience, and consider what statutes and laws we would have to be given unto us.
Wouldst thou, O Scotland! have a king to reign over thee in justice, equity, and mercy? Subject thou thyself to the Lord thy God, obey his commandments, and magnify thou the word that calleth unto thee, “This is the way, walk in it;” (Isa. xxx.) and if thou wilt not, flatter not thyself; the same justice remains this day in God to punish thee, Scotland, and thee Edinburgh especially, which before punished the land of Judah, and the city of Jerusalem. Every realm or nation, saith the prophet Jeremiah, that likewise offendeth, shall be likewise punished. (Jer. ix.) But if thou shalt see impiety placed in the seat of justice above thee, so that in the throne of God (as Solomon complains, Eccles. iii.) reigns nothing but fraud and violence, accuse thine own ingratitude and rebellion against God; for that is the only cause why God takes away “the strong man and the man of war, the judge and the prophet, the prudent and the aged, the captain and the honourable, the counsellor and the cunning artificer; and I will appoint, saith the Lord, children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them. Children are extortioners of my people, and women have rule over them.” Isa. iii.
If these calamities, I say, apprehend us, so that we see nothing but the oppression of good men, and of all godliness, and that wicked men without God reign above us; let us accuse and condemn ourselves, as the only cause of our own miseries. For if we had heard the voice of the Lord our God, and given upright obedience unto the same, God would have multiplied our peace, and would have rewarded our obedience before the eyes of the world. But now let us hear what the prophet saith further: “The dead shall not live,” saith he, “neither shall the tyrants, nor the dead arise, because thou hast visited and scattered them, and destroyed all their memory,” verse 14.
From this 14th verse, unto the end of the 19th, it appears, that the prophet observes no order; yea, that he speaks things directly repugning(6) one to another; for,first, he saith, “The dead shall not live:” afterwards, he affirms, “Thy dead men shall live.” Secondly, he saith, “Thou hast visited and scattered them, and destroyed all their memory.” Immediately after, he saith, “Thou hast increased thy nation, O Lord, thou hast increased thy nation. They have visited thee, and have poured forth a prayer before thee.”
Who, I say, would not think, that these are things not only spoken without good order and purpose, but also manifestly repugning one to another? For to live, and not to live, to be so destroyed that no memorial remains, and to be so increased that the coasts of the earth shall be replenished, seems to import plain contradiction. For removing of this doubt, and for better understanding the prophet’s mind, we must observe, that the prophet had to do with divers sorts of men; he had to do with the conjured(7) and manifest enemies of God’s people, the Chaldeans or Babylonians; even so, such as profess Christ Jesus have to do with the Turks and Saracens. He had to do with the seed of Abraham, whereof there were three sorts. The ten tribes were all degenerated from the true worshipping of God, and corrupted with idolatry, as this day are our pestilent papists in all realms and nations; there rested only the tribe of Judah at Jerusalem, where the form of true religion was observed, the law taught, and the ordinances of God outwardly kept. But yet there were in that body, I mean, in the body of the visible church, a great number that were hypocrites, as this day yet are among us that profess the Lord Jesus, and have refused papistry; also not a few that were licentious livers; some that turned their back to God, that is, had forsaken all true religion; and some that lived a most abominable life, as Ezekiel saith in his vision; and yet there were some godly, as a few wheat-corns, oppressed(8) and hid among the multitude of chaff: now, according to this diversity, the prophet keeps divers purposes, and yet in most perfect order.
And first, after the first part of the complaint of the afflicted as we have heard, in vehemency of spirit he bursts forth against all the proud enemies of God’s people, against all such as trouble them, and against all such as mock and forsake God, and saith, “The dead shall not live, the proud giants shall not rise; thou hast scattered them, and destroyed their memorial.” In which words he contends against the present temptation and dolorous state of God’s people, and against the insolent pride of such as oppressed them; as if the prophet should say, O ye troublers of God’s people! howsoever it appears to you in this your bloody rage, that God regards not your cruelty, nor considers what violence you do to his poor afflicted, yet shall you he visited, yea, your carcases shall fall and lie as stinking carrion upon the face of the earth, you shall fall without hope of life, or of a blessed resurrection; yea, howsoever you gather your substance, and augment your families, you shall be so scattered, that you shall leave no memorial of you to the posterities to come, but that which shall be execrable and odious.
Hereof the tyrants have their admonition, and the afflicted church inestimable comfort: the tyrants that oppress, shall receive the same end which they did who have passed before; that is, they shall die and fall with shame, without hope of resurrection, as is aforesaid. Not that they shall not arise to their own confusion and just condemnation; but that they shall not recover power, to trouble the servants of God; neither yet shall the wicked arise, as David saith, in the counsel of the just. Now the wicked have their councils, their thrones, and finally handle(9) (for the most part) all things that are upon the face of the earth; but the poor servants of God are reputed unworthy of men’s presence, envied and mocked; yea, they are more vile before these proud tyrants, than is the very dirt and mire which is trodden under foot. But in that glorious resurrection, this state shall be changed; for then shall such as now, by their abominable living and cruelty, destroy the earth, and molest God’s children, see Him whom they have pierced; they shall see the glory of such as now they persecute, to their terror and everlasting confusion. The remembrance hereof ought to make us patient in the days of affliction, and so to comfort us, that when we see tyrants in their blind rage tread under foot the saints of God, we despair not utterly, as if there were neither wisdom, justice, nor power above in the heavens, to repress such tyrants, and to redress the dolours of the unjustly afflicted. No, brethren, let us be assured, that the right hand of the Lord will change the state of things that are most desperate. In our God there is wisdom and power, in a moment to change the joy and mirth of our enemies into everlasting mourning, and our sorrows into joy and gladness that shall have no end.
Therefore, in these apparent calamities, (and marvel not that I say apparent calamities, for he that sees not a fire is begun, that shall burn more than we look for, unless God of his mercy quench it,(10) is more than blind,) let us not be discouraged, but with unfeigned repentance let us return to the Lord our God; let us accuse and condemn our former negligence, and steadfastly depend upon his promised deliverance; so shall our temporal sorrows be converted into everlasting joy. The doubt that might be moved concerning the destruction of those whom God exalteth, shall be discussed, if time will suffer, after we have passed throughout the text. The prophet, now proceeds, and saith, “Thou hast increased the nations, O Lord, thou hast increased the nations; thou art made glorious, thou hast enlarged all the coasts of the earth. Lord, in trouble,” &c. verses 15, 16.
In these words the prophet gives consolation to the afflicted, assuring them, that how horrible soever the desolation should be, yet should the seed of Abraham be so multiplied, that it should replenish the coasts of the earth; yea, that God should be more glorified in their affliction, than he was during the time of their prosperity. This promise, no doubt, was incredible when it was made; for who could have been persuaded, that the destruction of Jerusalem should have been the means whereby the nation of the Jews should have been increased? seeing that much rather it appeared, that the overthrow of Jerusalem should have been the very abolishing of the seed of Abraham: but we must consider, to what end it was that God revealed himself to Abraham, and what is contained in the promise of the multiplication of his seed, and the benediction promised thereto.
First, God revealed himself to Abraham, to let all flesh understand, by the means of his word, that God first called man, and revealed himself unto him; that flesh can do nothing but rebel against God; for Abraham, no doubt, was an idolater, before God called him from Ur of the Chaldees. The promise was made, that the seed of Abraham should be multiplied as the stars of heaven, and as the sand of the sea; which is not simply to be understood of his natural seed, although it was sometimes greatly increased; but rather of such as should become the spiritual seed of Abraham, as the apostle speaks. Now, if we be able to prove, that the right knowledge of God, his wisdom, justice, mercy, and power, were more amply declared in their captivity, than at any time before, then we cannot deny, but that God, even when to man’s judgment he had utterly rased them from the face of the earth, did increase the nation of the Jews, so that he was glorified in them, and extended the coasts of the earth for their habitation. And, for the better understanding hereof, let us shortly try the histories from their captivity to their deliverance; and after the same, to the coming of the Messiah.
No doubt satan intended, by the dispersion of the Jews, so to have profaned the whole seed of Abraham, that among them neither should have remained the true knowledge of God, nor yet the spirit of sanctification, but that all should have come to a like contempt of God. For, I pray you, for what purpose was it, that Daniel and his fellows were taken into the king’s court, were commanded to be fed at the king’s table, and were put to the schools of their diviners, soothsayers, and astrologers? It may be thought that it proceeded of the king’s humanity, and of a zeal which he had, that they should be brought up in virtue and good learning; and I doubt not but it was so understood by a great number of the Jews. But the secret practice of the devil was understood by Daniel, when he refused to defile himself with the king’s meat, which was forbidden to the seed of Abraham in the law of their God. Well, God began shortly after to show himself mindful of his promise made by his prophet, and to trouble Nebuchadnezzar himself, by showing to him a vision in his dream; which the more troubled him, because he could not forget the terror of it, neither yet could he remember what the vision and the parts thereof were. Whereupon were called all the diviners, interpreters of dreams, and soothsayers, of whom the king demanded, if they could let him understand what he had dreamed: but while they answered, that such a question used not to be demanded of any soothsayer or magician, for the resolution thereof only appertained to the gods, whose habitation was not with men, the charge was given, that they all should be slain: and amongst the rest, Daniel, whose innocence the devil envied, was sought to have suffered the same judgment. He claimed, and asked time to disclose that secret; (I only touch the history, to let you see by what means God increased his knowledge) which being granted, the vision was revealed unto him; he shewed the same unto the king, with the true interpretation of it; adding, that the knowledge thereof came not from the stars, but only from the God of Abraham, who alone was and is the true God. Which being understood, the king burst forth in his confession, saying, “Of a truth your God is the most excellent of all gods, and he is Lord of kings, and only he that revealeth secrets, seeing that thou couldst open this secret.” And when Nebuchadnezzar after that, being puffed up with pride by the counsel of his wicked nobility, would make an image, before which he would that all tongues and nations subject to him should make adoration; and when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, would not obey his unjust commandment, and so were cast into the flaming furnace of fire; and yet by God’s angels were so preserved, that no smell of fire remained on their persons or garments; this same king gave a more notable confession, saying, “The Lord God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, is to be praised, who hath sent his angels, and delivered his worshippers that put trust in him, who have done against the king’s commandment; who have rather given their own bodies to torment, than that they would worship another god, except their own God. By me therefore is there made a decree, that whosoever shall blaspheme the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, he shall be cut in pieces, and his house shall be made detestable.” Dan. iii.
Thus we see how God began, even almost in the beginning of their captivity, to notify his name, to multiply his knowledge, and set forth as well his power as his wisdom, and true worshipping, by those that were taken prisoners, yea, that were despised, and of all men contemned; so that the name and fear of the God of Abraham was never before notified to so many realms and nations. This wondrous work of God proceeded from one empire to another; for Daniel being promoted to great honour by Darius king of the Persians and Medes, fell into a desperate danger; for he was committed to prison among lions, because he was found breaking the king’s injunction; not that the king desired the destruction of God’s servants, but because the corrupt idolaters, who in hatred of Daniel had procured that law to be made, urged the king against his nature; but God, by his angel, stopped the lions’ mouths, and so preserved his servant; which being considered, with the sudden destruction of Daniel’s enemies by the same lions, king Darius, besides his own confession, wrote to all people, tongues, and nations, after this form; “It is decreed by me, That in all the dominions of my kingdom, men shall fear and reverence the God of Daniel, because he is the Living God, abiding for ever, whose kingdom shall not be destroyed, and his dominion remaineth; who saveth and delivereth, and sheweth signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered Daniel from the lions.”
This knowledge was yet further increased in the days of Cyrus, who giving freedom to the captives to return to their own native country, gave this confession; “Thus saith Cyrus the king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the Lord God of heaven given unto me, and hath commanded me, that a house be built to him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever therefore of you, that are of his people, let the Lord his God be with him, and let him pass up to Jerusalem, and let him build the house of the Lord God of Israel; for he only is God that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra i.) Time will not suffer me to treat the points of this confession, neither yet did I for that purpose adduce the history; but only to let us see, how constantly God kept his promise in increasing his people, and in augmenting his true knowledge beyond men’s expectation, when both they that were the seed of Abraham, and the religion which they professed, appeared utterly to have been extinguished. I say, he brought freedom out of bondage, light out of darkness, and life out of death. I am not ignorant, that the building of the temple, and the reparation of the walls of Jerusalem, were long stayed, so that the work had many enemies; but the hand of God so prevailed in the end, that a decree was made by Darius, (by him I suppose that succeeded to Cambyses,) not only that all things necessary for the building of the temple, and for the sacrifices that were to be burnt there, should be ministered upon the king’s charges; but also, that “whosoever should hinder that work, or change that decree, that a tree should be taken out of his house, and that he should be hanged thereupon; yea, that his house should be made a dunghill,” (Ezra vi.); and thereto he added a prayer, saying, “The God of heaven, who hath placed his name there, root out every king and people, (O that kings and nations would understand!) that shall put his hand, either to change or to hurt this house of God that is in Jerusalem.” And so, in despite of satan, was the temple built, the walls repaired, and the city inhabited; and in the most desperate dangers it was preserved, until the promised Messiah, the glory of the second temple, came, manifested himself to the world, suffered and rose again, according to the scriptures; and so, by sending forth his gospel from Jerusalem, replenished the earth with the true knowledge of God; and so did God in perfection increase the nation, and the spiritual seed of Abraham.
Wherefore, dear brethren, we have no small consolation, if the state of all things be this day rightly considered. We see in what fury and rage the world, for the most part, is now raised, against the poor church of Jesus Christ, unto which he has proclaimed liberty, after the fearful bondage of that spiritual Babylon, in which we have been holden captives longer space than Israel was prisoner in Babylon itself: for if we shall consider, upon the one part, the multitude of those that live wholly without Christ; and, upon the other part, the blind rage of the pestilent papists; what shall we think of the small number of them that profess Christ Jesus, but that they are as a poor sheep, already seized in the claws of the lion; yea, that they, and the true religion which they profess, shall in a moment be utterly consumed?
But against this fearful temptation, let us be armed with the promise of God, namely, that he will be the protector of his church; yea, that he will multiply it, even when to man’s judgment it appears utterly to be exterminated. This promise has our God performed, in the multiplication of Abraham’s seed, in the preservation of it when satan laboured utterly to have destroyed it, and in deliverance of the same, as we have heard, from Babylon. He hath sent his Son Christ Jesus, clad in our flesh, who hath tasted of all our infirmities, (sin excepted,) who hath promised to be with us to the end of the world; he hath further kept promise in the publication, yea, in the restitution of his glorious gospel. Shall we then think that he will leave his church destitute in this most dangerous age? Only let us cleave to his truth, and study to conform our lives to the same, and he shall multiply his knowledge, and increase his people. But now let us hear what the prophet saith more:
“Lord, in trouble have they visited thee, they poured out a prayer when thy chastening was upon them,” verse 16.
The prophet means, that such as in the time of quietness did not rightly regard God nor his judgments, were compelled, by sharp corrections, to seek God; yea, by cries and dolorous complaints to visit him. True it is, that such obedience deserves small praise before men; for who can praise, or accept that in good part, which comes as it were of mere compulsion? And yet it is rare, that any of God’s children do give unfeigned obedience, until the hand of God turn them. For if quietness and prosperity make them not utterly to forget their duty, both towards God and man, as David for a season, yet it makes them careless, insolent, and in many things unmindful of those things that God chiefly craves of them; which imperfection being espied, and the danger that thereof might ensue, our heavenly Father visits the sins of his children, but with the rod of his mercy, by which they are moved to return to their God, to accuse their former negligence, and to promise better obedience in all times hereafter; as David confessed, saying, “Before I fell in affliction I went astray, but now will I keep thy statutes.”
But yet, for the better understanding of the prophet’s mind, we may consider how God doth visit man, and how man doth visit God; and what difference there is betwixt the visitation of God upon the reprobate, and his visitation upon the chosen.
God sometimes visits the reprobate in his hot displeasure, pouring upon them his plagues for their long rebellion; as we have heard before, that he visited the proud, and destroyed their memory. At other times God is said to visit his people, being in affliction, to whom he sends comfort or promise of deliverance, as he visited the seed of Abraham, when oppressed in Egypt. And Zacharias said, that God had visited his people, and sent unto them hope of deliverance, when John the Baptist was born. But of none of these visitations our prophet here speaks, but of that only which we have already touched; namely, when God layeth his correction upon his own children, to call them from the venomous breasts of this corrupt world, that they suck not in over great abundance the poison thereof; and he doth, as it were, wean them from their mother’s breasts, that they may learn to receive other nourishment. True it is, that this weaning (or speaning, as we term it) from worldly pleasure, is a thing strange to the flesh. And yet it is a thing so necessary to God’s children, that, unless they are weaned from the pleasures of the world, they can never feed upon that delectable milk of God’s eternal verity; for the corruption of the one either hinders the other from being received, or else so troubles the whole powers of man, that the soul can never so digest the truth of God as he ought to do.
Although this appears hard, yet it is most evident; for what can we receive from the world, but that which is in the world? What that is, the apostle John teaches; saying, “Whatsoever is in the world, is either the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, or the pride of life.” (1 John ii.) Now, seeing that these are not of the Father, but of the world, how can it be, that our souls can feed upon chastity, temperance, and humility, so long as our stomachs are replenished with the corruption of these vices?
Now so it is, that flesh can never willingly refuse these fore-named, but rather still delights itself in every one of them; yea, in them all, as the examples are but too evident.
It behoves therefore, that God himself shall violently pull his children from these venomous breasts, that when they lack the liquor and poison of the world, they may visit him, and learn to be nourished of him. Oh if the eyes of worldly princes should be opened, that they might see with what humour and liquor their souls are fed, while their whole delight consists in pride, ambition, and the lusts of the corrupt flesh! We understand then how God doth visit men, as well by his severe judgments, as by his merciful visitation of deliverance from troubles, or by bringing trouble upon his chosen for their humiliation; and now it remains to understand how man visits God. Man doth visit God, when he appears in his presence, be it for the hearing of his word, or for the participation of his sacraments; as the people of Israel, besides the observation of their sabbaths and daily oblations, were commanded thrice a-year to present themselves before the presence of the tabernacle; and as we do, and us often as we present ourselves to the hearing of the word. For there is the footstool, yea, there is the face and throne of God himself, wheresoever the gospel of Jesus Christ is truly preached, and his sacraments rightly ministered.
But men may on this sort visit God hypocritically; for they may come for the fashion, they may hear with deaf ears; yea, they may understand, and yet never determine with themselves to obey that which God requires: and let such men be assured, that He who searches the secrets of hearts will be avenged of all such; for nothing can be more odious to God, than to mock him in his own presence. Let every man therefore examine himself, with what mind, and what purpose, he comes to hear the word of God; yea, with what ear he hears it, and what testimony his heart gives unto him, when God commands virtue, and forbids impiety.
Repinest thou when God requires obedience? Thou hearest to thine own condemnation. Mockest thou at God’s threatenings? Thou shalt feel the weight and truth of them, albeit too late, when flesh and blood cannot deliver thee from his hand. But the visitation, whereof our prophet speaks, is only proper to the sons of God, who, in the time when God takes from them the pleasures of the world, or shows his angry countenance unto them, have recourse unto him, and, confessing their former negligence, with troubled hearts, cry for his mercy. This visitation is not proper to all the afflicted, but appertains only to God’s children: for the reprobates can never have access to God’s mercy in time of their tribulation, and that because they abuse his long patience, as well as the manifold benefits they receive from his hands; for as the same prophet heretofore saith, “Let the wicked obtain mercy, yet shall he never learn wisdom, but in the land of righteousness,” that is, where the true knowledge of God abounds, “he will do wickedly.” Which is a crime above all others abominable; for to what end is it that God erects his throne among us, but that we should fear him? Why does he reveal his holy will unto us, but that we should obey it? Why does he deliver us from trouble, but that we should be witnesses unto the world, that he is gracious and merciful?
Now, when men hearing their duty, and knowing what God requires of them, do malapertly fight against all equity and justice, what I pray you, do they else, but make manifest war against God? Yea, when they have received from God such deliverance, that they cannot deny but that God himself hath in his great mercy visited them, and yet they continue wicked as before; what deserve they but effectually to be given over unto a reprobate sense, that they may headlong run to ruin, both of body and soul? It is almost incredible that a man should be so enraged against God, that neither his plagues, nor yet his mercy showed, should move him to repentance; but because the Scriptures bear witness of the one and the other, let us cease to marvel, and let us firmly believe, that such things as have been, are even at present before our eyes, albeit many, blinded by affection, cannot see them.
Ahab, as it is written in the book of the Kings, received many notable benefits of the hand of God, who visited him in divers sorts, sometimes by his plagues, sometimes by his word, and sometimes by his merciful deliverance. He made him king, and, for the idolatry used by him and his wife, he plagued the whole of Israel by famine; he revealed to him his will, and true religion, by the prophet Elijah; he gave unto him sundry deliverances, but one most special, when proud Benhadad came to besiege Samaria, and was not content to receive Ahab’s gold, silver, sons, daughters, and wives, but also required, that his servants should have at their pleasure whatsoever was delectable in Samaria. True it is, that his elders and people willed him not to hear the proud tyrant, but who made unto him the promise of deliverance? And who appointed and put his army in order? Who assured him of victory? The prophet of God only, who assured him, that by the servants of the princes of the provinces, who in number were only two hundred thirty-and-two, he should defeat the great army, in which there were two-and-thirty kings, with all their forces. And as the prophet of God promised, so it came to pass; victory was obtained, not once only, but twice, and that by the merciful visitation of the Lord.
But how did Ahab visit God again for his great benefit received? Did he remove his idolatry? Did he correct his idolatrous wife Jezebel? No, we find no such thing; but the one and the other we find to have continued and increased in their former impiety: but what was the end thereof? The last visitation of God was, that dogs licked the blood of the one, and did eat the flesh of the other. In few words then we understand, what difference there is betwixt the visitation of God upon the reprobate, and his visitation upon his chosen. The reprobate are visited, but never truly humbled, nor yet amended; the chosen being visited, they sob, and they cry unto God for mercy; which being obtained, they magnify God’s name, and afterwards manifest the fruits of repentance. Let us therefore that bear these judgments of our God, call for the assistance of his Holy Spirit, that howsoever it pleaseth him to visit us, we may stoop under his merciful hands, and unfeignedly cry to him when he corrects us; and so shall we know in experience, that our cries and complaints were not in vain. But let us hear what the prophet saith further:
“Like as a woman with child, that draweth near her travail, is in sorrow, and crieth in her pains, so have we been in thy sight, O Lord; we have conceived, we have borne in vain, as though we should have brought forth the wind. Salvations were not made to the earth, neither did the inhabitants of the earth fall,” verses 17, 18.
This is the second part of the prophet’s complaint, in which he, in the person of God’s people, complains, that of their great affliction there appeared no end. This same similitude is used by our Master Jesus Christ; for when he speaks of the troubles of his church, he compares them to the pains of a woman travailing in child-birth. But it is to another end; for there he promises exceeding and permanent joy after a sort, though it appear trouble. But here is the trouble long and vehement, albeit the fruit of it was not suddenly espied. He speaks no doubt of that long and dolorous time of their captivity, in which they continually laboured for deliverance, but obtained it not before the complete end of seventy years. During which time, the earth, that is, the land of Judah, which sometimes was sanctified unto God, but was then given to be profaned by wicked people, got no help, nor perceived any deliverance: for the inhabitants of the world fell not; that is, the tyrants and oppressors of God’s people were not taken away, but still remained and continued blasphemers of God, and troublers of his church. But because I perceive the hours to pass more swiftly than they have seemed at other times, I must contract that which remains of this text into certain points.
The prophet first contends against the present despair; afterwards he introduces God himself calling upon his people; and, last of all, he assures his afflicted, that God will come, and require account of all the blood-thirsty tyrants of the earth.
First, Fighting against the present despair, he saith, “Thy dead shall live, even my body (or with my body) shall they arise; awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust; for thy dew is as the dew of herbs,” verse 19.
The prophet here pierces through all impediments that nature could object; and, by the victory of faith, he overcomes, not only the common enemies, but the great and last enemy of all, death itself; for this would he say, Lord, I see nothing for thy chosen, but misery to follow misery, and one affliction to succeed another; yea, in the end I see, that death shall devour thy dearest children. But yet, O Lord! I see thy promise to be true, and thy love to remain towards thy chosen, even when death appears to have devoured them: “For thy dead shall live, yea, not only shall they live, but my very dead carcase shall arise;” and so I see honour and glory to succeed this temporal shame, I see permanent joy to come after trouble, order to spring out of this terrible confusion; and, finally, I see that life shall devour death, so that death shall be destroyed, and so thy servants shall have life. This, I say, is the victory of faith, when to the midst of death, through the light of God’s word, the afflicted see life. Hypocrites, in the time of quietness and prosperity, can generally confess, that God is true to his promises; but bring them to the extremity, and there the hypocrite ceases further to trust to God, than he seeth natural means, whereby God useth to work. But the true faithful, when all hope of natural means fail, flee to God himself, and to the truth of his promise, who is above nature; yea, whose works are not so subject to the ordinary course of nature, that when nature fails, his power and promise fail also therewith.
Let us further observe, That the prophet here speaks not of all the dead in general, but saith, “Thy dead, O Lord, shall live:” in which words he makes a difference betwixt those that die in the Lord, and those that die in their natural corruption, and in the old Adam. Die in the Lord can none, except those that live in him, (I mean, of those that attain to the years of discretion;) and none live in him, but those that, with the apostle, can say, “I live, and yet not I, but Christ Jesus that dwelleth in me: the life that I now live, I have by the faith of the Son of God.” (Gal. ii.) Not that I mean, that the faithful have at all hours such a sense of the life everlasting, that they fear not the death and the troubles of this life; no, not so; for the faith of God’s children is weak, yea, and in many things imperfect. But I mean, that such as in death, and after death shall live, must communicate in this life with Jesus Christ, and must be regenerated by the seed of life; that is, by the word of the everlasting God, which whosoever despises, refuses life and joy everlasting.
The prophet transfers all the promises of God to himself, saying, “Even my dead body shall arise;” and immediately after, gives commandment and charge to the dwellers in the dust, that is, to the dead carcases of those that were departed, (for the spirit and soul of man dwells not in the dust,) “That they should awake, that they should sing and rejoice;” for they should arise and spring up from the earth, even as the herbs do, after they have received the dew from above.
Time will not suffer that these particulars be so largely treated as ought, and as I gladly would do; therefore let us consider, that the prophet, in transferring the power and promise of God to himself, does not claim to himself any particular prerogative above the people of God, as that he alone should live and arise, and not they also; but he does it, to let them understand that he taught a doctrine whereof he was certain; yea, and whereof they should have experience after his death. As if he should say, My words appear to you now to be incredible, but the day will come, that I shall be taken from you, my carcase shall be inclosed in the bosom of the earth; and you shall be led away captives to Babylon, where you shall remain many days and years, as it were buried in your sepulchres.
But then call to mind what I said unto you before hand, that my body shall arise; even so shall you rise from your graves out of Babylon, and be restored to your own country, and city of Jerusalem; this, I doubt not, is the true meaning of the prophet. The charge that he gives to the dwellers in the dust, is to express the power of God’s word, whereby he not only gives life, where death apparently had prevailed; but also, by it, he calls things that are not, even as though they were. True it is, that the prophet Isaiah saw not the destruction of Jerusalem, much less could he see the restitution of it with his corporeal eyes; but he leaves this, as it were, in testament with them — that when they were in the extremity of all bondage, they should call to mind what the prophet of God had before spoken.
And lest that his doctrine, and this promise of God made unto them by his mouth, should have been forgotten, as we are ever prone and ready to forget God’s promises when we are pressed with any sorrow, God raised up unto them, in the midst of their calamity, his prophet Ezekiel, unto whom, among many other visions, he gave this — The hand of the Lord first led him in a place, which was full of dry and dispersed bones. (Ezek. xxxvii.) The question was demanded of the prophet, If these bones, being wondrous dry, could live? The prophet answered, The knowledge thereof appertained unto God. Charge was given unto him, that he should speak unto the dry bones, and say, “Thus saith the Lord God to these bones, Behold, I will give you breath, and you shall live: I will give unto you sinews, flesh, and skin, and you shall live.” And while the prophet spake as he was commanded, he heard a voice, and he saw every bone join its fellow; he saw them covered with flesh and skin, albeit there was no spirit of life in them. He was commanded again to speak, and to say, “Thus saith the Lord God, Come, O Spirit, from the four quarters, and blow on these that are slain, that they may live.” And as he prophesied, the spirit of life came; they lived, and stood upon their feet. Then the Lord interprets what this vision meant, saying “O son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried, our hope is perished, we are plainly cut off. But behold, saith the Lord, I will open your graves, I will bring you forth of them, ye shall live, and come unto the land of Israel, and ye shall know that I am the Lord.”
This vision, I say, given to the prophet, and by the prophet preached to the people, when they thought that God had utterly forgotten them, compelled them more diligently to advert to what the former prophets had spoken. It is no doubt but that they carried with them both the prophecy of Isaiah and Jeremiah, so that the prophet Ezekiel is a commentary to these words of Isaiah, where he saith, “Thy dead, O Lord, shall live, with my body they shall arise.” The prophet brings in this similitude of the dew, to answer unto that part of their fidelity, who can believe no further of God’s promises than they are able to apprehend by natural judgment; as if he would say, Think ye this impossible, that God should give life unto you, and bring you to an estate of a commonwealth again, after that ye are dead, and as it were rased from the face of the earth? But why do you not consider what God worketh from year to year in the order of nature? Sometimes you see the face of the earth decked and beautified with herbs, flowers, grass, and fruits; again you see the same utterly taken away by storms, and the vehemence of the winter: what does God to replenish the earth again, and to restore the beauty thereof? He sends down his small and soft dew, the drops whereof, in their descending, are neither great nor visible, and yet thereby are the pores and secret veins of the earth, which before by vehemence of frost and cold were shut up, opened again, and so does the earth produce again the like herbs, flowers, and fruits. Shall you then think, that the dew of God’s heavenly grace will not be as effectual in you to whom he hath made his promise, as it is in the herbs and fruits which from year to year bud forth and decay? If you do so, the prophet would say your unbelief is inexcusable; because you neither rightly weigh the power, nor the promise of your God.
The like similitude the apostle Paul uses against such as called the resurrection in doubt, because by natural judgment they could not apprehend that flesh once putrified, and dissolved as it were into other substance, should rise again, and return again to the same substance and nature: “O fool,” saith he, “that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die; and that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare corn, as it falleth, of wheat, or some other, but God giveth it a body as it pleaseth him, even to every seed his own body.” In which words and sentence, the apostle sharply rebukes the gross ignorance of the Corinthians, who began to call in doubt the chief article of our faith, the resurrection of the flesh after it was once dissolved, because that natural judgment, as he said, reclaimed thereto.(11) He reproves, I say, their gross ignorance, because they might have seen and considered some proof and document thereof in the very order of nature; for albeit the wheat, or other corn, cast in the earth, appears to die or putrify, and so to be lost, yet we see that it is not perished, but that it fructifies according to God’s will and ordinance.
Now, if the power of God be so manifest in raising up of the fruits of the earth, unto which no particular promise is made by God, what shall be his power and virtue in raising up our bodies, seeing that thereto he is bound by the solemn promise of Jesus Christ his Eternal Wisdom, and the Verity itself that cannot lie? Yea, seeing that the members must once communicate with the glory of the Head, how shall our bodies, which are flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bones, lie still for ever in corruption, seeing that our Head, Jesus Christ, is now exalted in his glory? Neither yet is this power and good-will of God to be restrained unto the last and general resurrection only, but we ought to consider it in the marvellous preservation of his church, and in the raising up of the same from the very bottom of death, when by tyrants it has been oppressed from age to age.
Now, of the former words of the prophet, we have to gather this comfort; that if at any time we see the face of the church within this realm so defaced, as I think it shall be sooner than we look for — when we shall see, I say, virtue to be despised, vice to be maintained, the verity of God to be impugned, lies and men’s inventions holden in authority — and finally, when we see the true religion of our God, and the zealous observers of the same, trodden under the feet of such as in their heart say, that “There is no God,” (Psal. xiv.); let us then call to mind what have been the wondrous works of our God from the beginning — that it is his proper office to bring light out of darkness, order out of confusion, life out of death: and finally, that this is He that calleth things that are not, even as if they were, as before we have heard. And if in the day of our temptation, which in my judgment approaches fast, we are thus armed, if our incredulity cannot utterly be removed, yet shall it so be corrected, that damnable despair oppress us not. But now let us hear how the prophet proceeds: —
“Come, thou my people, enter within thy chamber, shut thy door after thee, hide thyself a very little while, until the indignation pass over.”
Here the prophet brings in God, lovingly, calling upon his people to come to himself, and to rest with him, until such time as the fury and sharp plagues should be executed upon the wicked and disobedient. It may appear at the first sight, that all these words of the prophet, in the person of God, calling the people unto rest, are spoken in vain; for we neither find chambers, nor rest, more prepared for the dearest children of God, so far as man’s judgment can discern, than for the rebellious and disobedient; for such as fell not by the edge of the sword, or died not of pestilence, or by hunger, were either carried captives unto Babylon, or else departed afterwards into Egypt, so that none of Abraham’s seed had either chamber or quiet place to remain in within the land of Canaan. For the resolution hereof, we must understand, That albeit the chambers whereunto God called his chosen be not visible, yet notwithstanding they are certain, and offer unto God’s children a quiet habitation in spirit, howsoever the flesh be travailed and tormented.
The chambers then are God’s sure promises, unto which God’s people are commanded to resort; yea, within which they are commanded to close themselves in the time of greatest adversity. The manner of speaking is borrowed from that judgment and foresight which God has printed in this our nature; for when men espy great tempests appearing to come, they will not willingly remain uncovered in the fields, but straightway they will draw them to their houses or holds, that they may escape the vehemence of the same; and if they fear any enemy pursues them, they will shut their doors, to the end that the enemy should not suddenly have entry.
After this manner God speaks to his people; as if he should say, The tempest that shall come upon this whole nation shall be so terrible, that nothing but extermination shall appear to come upon the whole body. But thou my people, that hearest my word, believest the same, and tremblest at the threatenings of my prophets, now, when the world does insolently resist — let such, I say, enter within the secret chamber of my promises, let them contain themselves quietly there; yea, let them shut the door upon them, and suffer not infidelity, the mortal enemy of my truth, and of my people that depend thereupon, to have free entry to trouble them, yea, further to murder, in my promise; and so shall they perceive that my indignation shall pass, and that such as depend upon me shall be saved.
Thus we may perceive the meaning of the prophet; whereof we have first to observe, that God acknowledges them for his people who are in the greatest affliction; yea, such as are reputed unworthy of men’s presence are yet admitted within the secret chamber of God. Let no man think that flesh and blood can suddenly attain to that comfort; and therefore most expedient it is, that we be frequently exercised in meditation of the same. Easy it is, I grant, in time of prosperity, to say, and to think, that God is our God, and that we are his people; but when he has given us over into the hands of our enemies, and turned, as it were, his back unto us, then, I say, still to reclaim him to be our God, and to have this assurance, that we are his people, proceeds wholly from the Holy Spirit of God, as it is the greatest victory of faith, which overcomes the world; for increase whereof, we ought continually to pray.
This doctrine we shall not think strange, if we consider how suddenly our spirits are carried away from our God, and from believing his promise. So soon as any great temptation apprehends us, then we begin to doubt if ever we believed God’s promise, if God will fulfil them to us, if we abide in his favour, if he regards and looks upon the violence and injury that is done unto us; and a multitude of such cogitations which before lurked quietly in our corrupted hearts, burst violently forth when we are oppressed with any desperate calamity. Against which this is the remedy — once to apprehend, and still to retain God to be our God, and firmly to believe, that we are his people whom he loves, and will defend, not only in affliction, but even in the midst of death itself.
Again, Let us observe, That the judgments of our God never were, nor yet shall be so vehement upon the face of the earth, but that there has been, and shall be, some secret habitation prepared in the sanctuary of God, for some of his chosen, where they shall be preserved until the indignation pass by; and that God prepares a time, that they may glorify him again, before the face of the world, which once despised them. And this ought to be unto us no small comfort in these appearing dangers, namely, that we are surely persuaded, that how vehement soever the tempest shall be, it yet shall pass over, and some of us shall be preserved to glorify the name of our God, as is aforesaid.
Two vices lurk in this our nature: the one is, that we cannot tremble at God’s threatenings, before the plagues apprehend us, albeit we see cause most just why his fierce wrath should burn as a devouring fire; the other is, that when calamities before pronounced, fall upon us, then we begin to sink down in despair, so that we never look for any comfortable end of the same.
To correct this our mortal infirmity, in time of quietness we ought to consider what is the justice of our God, and how odious sin is; and, above all, how odious idolatry is in His presence, who has forbidden it, and who has so severely punished it in all ages from the beginning: and in the time of our affliction we ought to consider, what have been the wondrous works of our God, in the preservation of his church when it hath been in uttermost extremity. For never shall we find the church humbled under the hands of traitors, and cruelly tormented by them, but we shall find God’s just vengeance fall upon the cruel persecutors, and his merciful deliverance shewed to the afflicted. And, in taking of this trial, we should not only call to mind the histories of ancient times, but also we should diligently mark what notable works God hath wrought, even in this our age, as well upon the one as upon the other. We ought not to think, that our God bears less love to his church this day, than what he has done from the beginning; for as our God in his own nature is immutable, so his love towards his elect remains always unchangeable. For as in Christ Jesus he hath chosen his church, before the beginning of all ages; so by him will he maintain and preserve the same unto the end. Yea, he will quiet the storms, and cause the earth to open her mouth, and receive the raging floods of violent waters, cast out by the dragon, to drown and carry away the woman, which is the spouse of Jesus Christ, unto whom God for his own name’s sake will be the perpetual Protector. Rev. xii.
This saw that notable servant of Jesus Christ, Athanasius, who being exiled from Alexandria by that blasphemous apostate Julian the emperor, said unto his flock, who bitterly wept for his envious banishment, “Weep not, but be of good comfort, for this little cloud will suddenly vanish.” He called both the emperor himself and his cruel tyranny a little cloud; and albeit there was small appearance of any deliverance to the church of God, or of any punishment to have apprehended the proud tyrants, when the man of God pronounced these words, yet shortly after God did give witness, that those words did not proceed from flesh nor blood, but from God’s very Spirit. For not long after, being in warfare, Julian received a deadly wound, whether by his own hand, or by one of his own soldiers, the writers clearly conclude not; but casting his own blood against the heaven, he said, “At last thou hast overcome, thou Galilean:” so in despite he termed the Lord Jesus. And so perished that tyrant in his own iniquity; the storm ceased, and the church of God received new comfort.
Such shall be the end of all cruel persecutors, their reign shall be short, their end miserable, and their name shall be left in execrations to God’s people; and yet shall the church of God remain to God’s glory, after all storms. But now shortly, let us come to the last point:
“For behold,” saith the prophet, “the Lord will come out of his place, to visit the iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth upon them; and the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall no more hide her slain.” (Verse 21.) Because that the final end of the troubles of God’s chosen shall not be, before the Lord Jesus shall return to restore all things to their full perfection.
The prophet brings forth the eternal God, as it were, from his own place and habitation, and therewith shows the cause of his coming to be, that he might take account of all such as have wrought wickedly; for that he means, where he saith, “He will visit the iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth upon them.” And lest any should think the wrong doers are so many, that they cannot be called to an account, he gives unto the earth as it were an office and charge, to bear witness against all those that have wrought wickedly, and chiefly against those that have shed innocent blood from the beginning; and saith, “That the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall no more hide her slain men.”
If tyrants of the earth, and such as delight in the shedding of blood, should be persuaded that this sentence is true, they would not so furiously come to their own destruction; for what man can be so enraged, that he would willingly do even before the eyes of God that which might provoke his Majesty to anger, yea, provoke him to become his enemy for ever, if he understood how fearful a thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God?
The cause then of this blind fury of the world is the ignorance of God, and that men think that God is but an idol; and that there is no knowledge above, that beholds their tyranny; nor yet justice that will, nor power that can, repress their impiety. But the Spirit of truth witnesses the contrary, affirming, that as the eyes of the Lord are upon the just, and as his ears are ready to receive their sobbing and prayers, so is his visage angry against such as work iniquity; he hateth and holdeth in abomination every deceitful and blood-thirsty man, whereof he has given sufficient document from age to age, in preserving the one, or at least in avenging their cause, and in punishing the other.
Where it is said, “That the Lord will come from his place, and that he will visit the iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth upon them, and that the earth shall disclose her blood;” we have to consider, what most commonly has been, and what shall be, the condition of the church of God, namely, that it is not only hated, mocked, and despised, but that it is exposed as a prey unto the fury of the wicked; so that the blood of the children of God is spilt like unto water upon the face of the earth.
The understanding whereof, albeit it is unpleasant to the flesh, yet to us it is most profitable, lest that we, seeing the cruel treatment of God’s servants, begin to forsake the spouse of Jesus Christ, because she is not so dealt with in this unthankful world, as the just and upright dealings of God’s children do deserve. But contrariwise, for mercy they receive cruelty, for doing good to many, of all the reprobate they receive evil; and this is decreed in God’s eternal council, that the members may follow the trace of the Head; to the end that God in his just judgment should finally condemn the wicked. For how should he punish the inhabitants of the earth, if their iniquity deserve it not? How should the earth disclose our blood, if it should not be unjustly spilt? We must then commit ourselves into the hands of our God, and lay down our necks; yea, and patiently suffer our blood to be shed, that the righteous Judge may require account, as most assuredly he will, of all the blood that hath been shed, from the blood of Abel the just, till the day that the earth shall disclose the same. I say, every one that sheds, or consents to shed the blood of God’s children, shall be guilty of the whole; so that all the blood of God’s children shall cry vengeance, not only in general, but also in particular, upon every one that has shed the blood of any that unjustly suffered.
And if any think it strange, that such as live this day can be guilty of the blood that was shed in the days of the apostles, let them consider, that the Verity itself pronounced, That all the blood that was shed from the days of Abel, unto the days of Zacharias, should come upon the unthankful generation that heard his doctrine and refused it. (Matt. xxiii.)
The reason is evident; for as there are two heads and captains that rule over the whole world, namely, Jesus Christ, the Prince of justice and peace, and satan, called the prince of the world; so there are but two armies that have continued battle from the beginning, and shall fight unto the end. The quarrel which the army of Jesus Christ sustains, and which the reprobate persecute, is the same, namely, The eternal truth of the eternal God, and the image of Jesus Christ printed in his elect — so that whosoever in any age persecutes any one member of Jesus Christ for his truth’s sake, subscribes, as it were with his hand, to the persecution of all that have passed before him.
And this ought the tyrants of this age deeply to consider; for they shall be guilty, not only of the blood shed by themselves, but of all, as is said, that has been shed for the cause of Jesus Christ from the beginning of the world.
Let the faithful not be discouraged, although they be appointed as sheep to the slaughter-house; for He, for whose sake they suffer, shall not forget to avenge their cause. I am not ignorant that flesh and blood will think that kind of support too late; for we had rather be preserved still alive, than have our blood avenged after our death. And truly, if our felicity stood in this life, or if temporal death should bring unto us any damage, our desire in that behalf were not to be disallowed or condemned: but seeing that death is common to all, and that this temporal life is nothing but misery, and that death fully joins us with our God, and gives unto us the possession of our inheritance, why should we think it strange to leave this world and go to our Head and sovereign Captain, Jesus Christ?
Lastly, We have to observe this manner of speaking, where the prophet saith, that “the earth shall disclose her blood:” in which words the prophet would accuse the cruelty of those that dare so unmercifully and violently force, from the breasts of the earth, the dearest children of God, and cruelly cut their throats in her bosom, who is by God appointed the common mother of mankind, so that she unwillingly is compelled to open her mouth and receive their blood.
If such tyranny were used against any woman, as violently to pull her infant from her breasts, cut the throat of it in her own bosom, and compel her to receive the blood of her dear child in her own mouth, all nations would hold the act so abominable, that the like had never been done in the course of nature. No less wickedness commit they that shed the blood of God’s children upon the face of their common mother, the earth, as I said before. But be of good courage, O little and despised flock of Christ Jesus! for He that seeth your grief, hath power to revenge it; he will not suffer one tear of yours to fall, but it shall be kept and reserved in his bottle, till the fulness thereof be poured down from heaven, upon those that caused you to weep and mourn. This your merciful God, I say, will not suffer your blood for ever to be covered with the earth; nay, the flaming fires that have licked up the blood of any of our brethren; the earth that has been defiled with it, I say, with the blood of God’s children; for otherwise, to shed the blood of the cruel blood-shedders, is to purge the land from blood, and as it were to sanctify it: the earth, I say, shall purge herself of it, and show it before the face of God; yea, the beasts, fowls, and other creatures whatsoever, shall be compelled to render that which they have received, be it flesh, blood, or bones, that appertained to thy children, O Lord! which altogether thou shalt glorify, according to thy promise, made to us in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, thy well-beloved Son; to whom, with thee, and the Holy Ghost, be honour, praise, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.
Let us now humble ourselves in the presence of our God, and from the bottom of our hearts let us desire him to assist us with the power of his Holy Spirit; that albeit, for our former negligence, God gives us over into the hands of others than such as rule in his fear; that yet he let us not forget his mercy, and the glorious name that hath been proclaimed amongst us; but that we may look through the dolorous storm of his present displeasure, and see as well what punishment he has appointed for the cruel tyrants, as what reward he has laid in store for such as continue in his fear to the end. That it would further please him to assist, that albeit we see his church so diminished, that it appears to be brought, as it were, to utter extermination, we may be assured, that in our God there is great power and will, to increase the number of his chosen, until they are enlarged to the uttermost parts of the earth. Give us, O Lord! hearts to visit thee in time of affliction; and albeit we see no end of our dolours, yet our faith and hope may conduct us to the assured hope of that joyful resurrection, in which we shall possess the fruit of that for which we now labour. In the mean time, grant unto us, O Lord! to repose ourselves in the sanctuary of thy promise, that in thee we may find comfort, till this thy great indignation, begun amongst us, may pass over, and thou thyself appear to the comfort of thine afflicted, and to the terror of thine and our enemies.
Let us pray with heart and mouth,
Almighty God, and merciful Father, &c. Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit; for the terrible roaring of guns,(12) and the noise of armour, do so pierce my heart, that my soul thirsteth to depart.
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The last day of August, 1565, at four of the clock in the afternoon, written indigestedly, but yet truly so far as memory would serve, of those things that in public I spake on Sunday, August 19; for which I was discharged(13) to preach for a time.
Be merciful to thy flock, O Lord! and at thy good pleasure put an end to my misery.