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This is what is implied in the duty of consideration, or thinking on our ways.
II. Let us now observe the proper effect of this practice, which is amendment. "I thought on my ways," says the Psalmist," and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.'
That is one effect and advantage of this practice. But it is not the sole and only one. to a good man it may be sometimes the ground and occasion of peace, joy, pleasing reflections, and comfortable hopes and expectations, and afford cause of thanksgiving to God. It will especially do so, at the end of life, to such as have made it a fréquent practice, and have thereby been engaged in a strict and steady course of virtue. Like the apostle, they will be able to say: "Our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in this world, 2 Cor. i. 12. And when he was yet nearer the period of his days on earth, he reflects, and looks forward in this manner: "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day," 2 Tim. iv. 7, 8.
This satisfaction we may well suppose was sometimes the result of the Psalmist's thinking on his ways. For though he did not always perform agreeably to the obligations he was under, yet he never laid aside the, profession of religion, nor abandoned himself to an allowed and deliberate course of wickedness. So he declares in this Psalm, ver. 102, "I have not departed from thy judgments, for thou hast taught me." And ver. 22, "remove away from me reproach and contempt:" for "I have kept thy testimonies." And ver. 165-167, "Lord, I have hoped in thy salvation, and done thy commandments. My soul has kept thy testimonies, and I love them exceedingly. I have kept thy precepts, and thy testimonies: for all my ways are before thee."
But this was one happy effect of serious consideration, or thinking on his ways, that he was better disposed and enabled to amend what had been hitherto amiss, and to advance in piety. As he says, ver. 67, "before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now have I kept thy word." There were errors and faults in his conduct, in the time of ease and prosperity, which afflictions had taught him to correct and reform.
So here in the text: "I thought on my ways:" and having on that recollection and review observed some, or even many defects and transgressions, "I turned my feet unto God's testimonies." Whatever I discerned to be contrary to duty, gave me grief and concern, and I resolved to do so no more. I determined not to persist in any thing which I had seen the evil of: knowing that any one sin, wilfully indulged, is a presumptuous disrespect to the authority of the divine law; and might harden my heart, and extirpate all sense of religion in my mind, until I become totally forsaken of God, and abandoned to all manner of wickedness.
Having seen my errors, I resolved to be for the future more exact, careful and circumspect. And I have actually found by experience, that this frequent, serious, and impartial recollecting and reviewing my past conduct has been of great use to me, and proved an excellent mean of my amendment and improvement.
III. It remains, that in the way of application I recommend this duty of consideration, or the practice of" thinking on our ways," by some motives.
1. It is a very fit and proper employment of rational creatures, whilst in a state of trial : wherein they labour under many frailties and imperfections, and are exposed to various snares and temptations.
What can be more proper for such beings, in such circumstances, than to "think on their ways?" They are accountable to God. And must it not be very becoming them, to shew a respect to him, and his laws, by frequently considering their behaviour: that, if at any time, through surprise, or any other means, they have been misled, they may make humble confessions of their offences, and resolve and aim and endeavour to do better in time to come.
2. I observe secondly, (which follows from what was just said) that this practice is very proper for all men.
It is proper for such, as have not yet seriously devoted themselves to God and his service: and also for those who are really and sincerely, but only imperfectly good. It is greatly needful, and of the utmost importance for the former, "to think on their ways. And it may be very expedient and beneficial for these last likewise. The Psalmist shews as much by his own
example, who ought to be placed in this latter rank. And he may be well understood to intend, by this observation, to recommend the practice to others.
3. This exercise of the mind is oftentimes expressly recommended to men by God himself, or his prophets, speaking in his name, and by his authority.
In the first chapter of the book of Isaiah God laments and complains, as it were, that "Israel did not know, his people did not consider," Is. i. 3. And earnestly calls to them to attend to the end of things. "Wash ye, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do well. Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land; but if ye refuse, and rebel, ye shall be destroyed: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it," ver. 16-20. They are severely checked and reproved, who go on securely in an evil way: not considering how displeasing such a course is to the Divine Being. "These things hast thou done, and I kept silence. Thou thoughtest that I was such an one as thyself: but I will reprove thee, and set them in order before thee. Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver," Ps. 1. 21, 22.
And in the New Testament, says St. Paul, "Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith: prove your ownselves," 2 Cor. xiii. 5. And, "If any man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself: but let every man prove his own work. Then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another," Gal. vi. 3, 4. St. John is directed by our exalted Lord to write in this manner to the church of Ephesus: "Remember therefore, from whence thou art fallen: and repent, and do the first work," Rev. ii. 5. And St. Paul observes: "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged," or condemned, "by the Lord," 1 Cor. xi. 21.
4. Which brings us to another argument for this practice: that God will hereafter try and judge us, and all men.
There is a day appointed for reviewing the actions of all mankind: and then every one will receive according to what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. This should be of great force to persuade us to think on our ways now, and seriously to recollect our past conduct; that all instances of misbehaviour may be blotted out, and corrected by the tears of unfeigned and timely repentance, and by hearty reformation and amendment.
5. There is a great deal of reason to apprehend that we shall be induced to think on our ways some time before our departure out of this world.
If ever we are brought into troubles and distresses, or have near apprehensions of death and judgment, then these reflections will be unavoidable, and these thoughts will disturb us, when the benefit will be uncertain. It must therefore be prudent to think on our ways in time, freely and voluntarily, and by a speedy and effectual repentance and amendment, to lay a foundation for pleasing reflections, and comfortable prospects, in a day of affliction, or at the time of death.
6. Lastly, let us attend to the great advantages of thinking on our ways.
It is a likely mean of repentance, of amendment, and of improvement in every thing good and excellent: we shall then know ourselves: we shall see the evil of sin, and be very sensible of the sad consequences of continuing therein: we shall turn from it, and carefully keep God's commandments to the end, without any more deliberately and wilfully forsaking, or turning
aside from them.
This is the lesson of the text, and of what follows: "I thought on my ways, and turned my feet unto thy testimonies. I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments." Which last words, God willing, shall be the subject of our meditations the next opportunity.
THE UNREASONABLENESS OF DELAYS IN THINGS OF RELIGION.
I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments.-Psal. cxix. 60.
THIS HIS psalm is equally admirable for justness and piety of sentiment, and for exactness and elegance of composition. The prevailing principle running throughout, is a high esteem and veneration for the revealed will of God: which under some expression of law, word, statutes, ordinances, testimonies, or some other phrase of like import, is mentioned in almost every verse of the Psalm. Notwithstanding which, and the length of the meditation likewise, it is not chargeable either with tediousness or tautology. But there is a great and surprising variety, and the attention of the reader is kept up from the beginning to the end.
Indeed the variety is such, that it is somewhat difficult to make a summary of its contents, or represent in brief the several thoughts with which it is filled. However it may in general be said, that the Psalmist often professeth the regard he had for the divine law: and he aims to recommend to others the serious and diligent study of it, and a sincere and constant practice of all its precepts, as the only way to true blessedness. He declares the great and frequent experience he had of support and comfort from it in his distresses and afflictions. He vows perpetual obedience and conformity to it, notwithstanding the discouragements he might meet with from the world about him, and the multitude, or the greatness of transgressors. He prays also for farther instruction in God's word, and help to keep it to the end. The psalm is suited to comfort the dejected, to assist those who aim at the greatest perfection in virtue, to quicken the slothful and indolent, and to awaken sinners, and reclaim them from their wanderings.
The words of the text are more especially adapted to some of the last mentioned cases.
In the preceding verse he declares, that he had " thought on his ways:" the result of which was, that he was thereby disposed and enabled to amend them: and "I turned my feet unto thy testimonies." He adds here a very happy and commendable circumstance of that conversion, or alteration for the better: it was speedy, and immediate. "I made haste, and delayed not, to keep thy commandments."
Having lately explained and recommended to you the duty of consideration, or "thinking on our ways:" I now intend to recommend the imitation of the Psalmist in this circumstance, speediness of amendment wherever any thing has been amiss. The want of which is, probably, one of the most common failings which men are incident to. There are few, or none, but have some convictions of the evil of sin, and some perception and persuasion of the excellence and necessity of real holiness. They are aware that sin, unrepented of, must be of fatal consequence: and that without holiness no man can attain to the happiness of a future state. They intend therefore and hope to be truly holy in time. They would not die in sin, nor continue in it always. No, they propose to repent of it, and forsake it. They design to humble themselves greatly for all their transgressions, and to turn themselves from them to a sincere obedience to all God's commandments. But the time for putting these resolutions in practice is not yet come, and they hope it may be well done hereafter. This is very different from the example in the text. Which that all may be disposed to follow and imitate,
I. I will in the first place mention some considerations, shewing the evil of delays in the things of religion.
II. I will consider those pleas and excuses which some make for delaying to reform, and their objections against immediate compliance with the commands of God.
III. I intend also at the end to offer some motives and arguments, tending to induce men to perform what is their duty.
I. In the first place I shall mention some considerations, shewing the evil of delays in the things of religion.
1. A sinner's delaying repentance and amendment is an act of great imprudence, and such as men are not ordinarily guilty of in other matters.
It is, I say, great imprudence to delay to reform; because it is a thing of the utmost importance, upon which depends our everlasting concerns, our happiness or misery in another state. Is not the condition of an habitual sinner extremely hazardous? Every one must own, that whilst a man is in any evil course, allowed of and indulged, he is under the displeasure of God. And if he die in that state and course, he is miserable beyond redress. The only way of averting the displeasure of God, and of escaping future misery, is that of sincere repentance. And how imprudent must it be to defer that a moment? Should not every discreet and thoughtful person desire to be in a safe condition, rather than in a state of great danger?
Should we not then be all ready to embrace the pardoning mercy of God, now offered to us, by confessing and forsaking our sins, as he requires? He will, then," receive us graciously, and love us freely," Hos. xiv. 2, 4.
2. We ought seriously to consider the shortness and uncertainty of life. Can it be reasonable to defer a thing which we own ought to be done, when we are not certain that we shall have another opportunity of doing it? For we cannot depend upon tomorrow, not knowing what the present day may bring forth. All do not arrive at old age, or any other of the advanced periods of life. Numberless are the dangers to which we are exposed. And the strongest and most healthy may be taken off by sudden accidents.
Suppose death to make gradual approaches. Yet we are not certain what pains, what indispositions they are, that shall bring on the dissolution of soul and body. They may be such as shall immediately and utterly unqualify us for settling any of our affairs relating to this life, or making any preparations for another. How inconvenient then, how unsafe, how unwise must it be, to defer this important concern to a distant, unknown, and uncertain futurity!
3. You defer repenting and giving up yourself to God for the present, in hopes of doing so hereafter. But repentance will be more unlikely hereafter than now.
There cannot, I apprehend, be any reason to think it should be more likely in some future time, than the present. But there are many reasons to suppose the contrary.
You are not sure of having such calls to repentance as you now have, even supposing the continuance of life. You now enjoy means of virtue and holiness and earnest and frequent calls and invitations are made to you. But it may not be always so. Your worldly affairs may place you in some other situation, where the like means are not to be had, which are now afforded you. Or, if the principles of religion do not now make a deep and abiding impression upon your minds, you may be prevailed upon by some worldly considerations, to forsake and abandon the ordinances of divine worship, and all the usual means of awakening, reforming, and reclaiming sinners. For these, and other the like reasons the scripture speaks of "an accepted: time," and a " day of salvation," Is. xlix. 8, which it is of importance to improve, and very dangerous to neglect, 2 Cor. vi. 2.
If the ordinary means of holiness and salvation are continued, what reason is there to think that you should be at any time hereafter better disposed to improve them than you are now? Is there not rather a great deal of reason to fear, lest the heart should contract some hardness by a long continuance in sin? And if reasonable and forcible arguments do not now sway and prevail, they will be so far from influencing more hereafter, that they will affect much less than at present. Besides, by delaying and deferring you contract a habit of delaying, and do it with less remorse. Your first put-offs and excuses, perhaps, are not made without a good deal of uneasiness: and you are almost ashamed, or even confounded, when you make them: and your heart afterwards smites you for it. But having time after time excused and deferred compliance with the reasonable demands that have been made of you, you become more assured and confident; and such demands åre for the future put off with little or no scruple, or concern of mind.
Moreover, it is a vain thing to imagine, that you may outlive temptations; and that the time may come, when there shall be no longer any impediments or obstructions of repentance and amendment. For there always will be temptations, suited to every age of life, which will have a powerful influence upon those who are not fully devoted to God, and have not attained to the government of their passions. If sensual pleasure be a bait that seduces and ensnares
men in the early days of life, riches, and honour, and preferment are as taking with men of worldly minds, in the more advanced, and the very latest periods of life.
4. Late repentance, supposing it to be sincere and available and accepted of God, must be very bitter and sorrowful.
It cannot be otherwise. For you will have little or nothing to comfort you. And you will have a great number, and a long course of transgressions and neglects, to reflect upon with grief and concern. It will be very grievous to recollect many instances of ingratitude to God, who has been very good and gracious to you, who would not think of him, or pay a just regard to his reasonable and holy laws and commandments. You will then, severely blame and condemn yourselves for acting contrary to conviction, and for refusing to hearken to former pressing and friendly calls and invitations. You will be filled with the utmost concern to think how you have multiplied transgressions, and persisted therein: thereby offending God, and perhaps grieving men, whose comfort and happiness should have been dear to you. And it is well if you have not also the sad and bitter reflection to make, that by your sins, some of them more especially, you have been the means of misleading some of your fellow-creatures, and causing them to fall and miscarry.
5. But late repentance is seldom sincere.
I do not say that it is never sincere; but there is too much reason to think it is seldom so. The confessions and lamentations of men in sickness, and in visible danger of death, appear rather forced and unavoidable, than free and voluntary. And very often, when the danger is over, and health and safety are restored, and the temptations of life return with their usual force, men shew their repentance was not unfeigned and effectual, by returning to their former evil courses, and by being again entangled and overcome by this world, and the snares of it, as before.
6. Consequently, late repentance must be very uncomfortable.
For though it should be sincere, and accepted of God, you cannot ordinarily have a full and satisfactory persuasion of it in your minds. Some hope, possibly, you may entertain: but it will be weak and languid: somewhat between hope and despair, a sad mixture of doubt and fear, whether this late humiliation will be accepted or not. And forasmuch as you have not now an opportunity of approving to yourselves, or others, the truth of your repentance by future acts of steady obedience, and that in time of temptation you must go out of the world without that assured hope and expectation of a better life, and the heavenly happiness, which is very desirable and necessary to give peace in the hour of death.
These considerations shew the folly and danger of delaying repentance."
II. I would now consider the pleas and excuses which some make for delaying to reform, and their objections against immediate compliance with the commands of God, and against forming a present resolution to be immediately religious.
1. Some think with themselves, and are apt to plead, that a life of strict virtue and serious religion is unpleasant, sad and melancholy: depriving men of the pleasures and entertainments of life, and of much worldly gain and profit, which they might otherwise make.
To this I answer two things.
1.) Allowing the truth of all this, it is not a good and reasonable ground of deferring to be really good and virtuous, and securing the happiness of a future life: because things earthly and temporal are not to be compared with things heavenly and eternal. These last are greatly superior and preferable in real excellence, just value, and length of duration. And therefore, if the possessions and enjoyments of this world are inconsistent and incompatible with heavenly treasures and enjoyments, they may be reasonably quitted and resigned for the sake of these. If both were proposed and set before us: but one, certainly, without the other: there could be no doubt or hesitation which should be chosen and preferred. Let the path of virtue be ever so thorny, strait, and difficult, if it lead to eternal life, we should resolve to enter on it, and persist in it. The reward at the end will crown all our labours, and make full recompense for all our self-denial and patience.
2.) But, secondly, this is not altogether true. Men have no reason to be shy of the paths of virtue, as sad, gloomy, and melancholy. Many are the testimonies, which wise and good men,
If any find this sermon too long for a single reading, here is a proper pause.