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PROVERDS iv. 20.
Ponder the path of thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established.
THE sentence which we have now read, includes a subject of immense magnitude, more proper to fill a volume, than to be comprised in a single sermon; however, we propose to express the subject of it in this one discourse. When we shall have explained the subject, we will put it to proof; I mean, we will apply it to some religious articles, leaving to your piety the care of applying it to a great number, and of deriving from the general application this consequence, if we ponder the paths of our feet, all our ways will be established.'
I suppose, first, you affix just ideas to this metaphorical expression, 'ponder the path of thy feet.' It is one of those singular figures of speech, which agrees better with the genius of the sacred language than with that of ours. Remark this once for all. There is one among many objections made by the enemies of religion, which excels in its kind; I mean to say, it deserves to stand first in a list of the most extravagant sophisms: this is, that there is no reason for making a difference between the genius of the Hebrew language and the idiom of other languages. It would seem, by this objection, that a book not originally written in the idiom of the language of scepticism can not be divinely inspired. On this absurd principle, the Scripture could not be written in any language; for if a Greek had a right to object against inspiration on this account, an Arabian, and a Persian, and all other people have the same. Who does not perceive at once, that the inspired writers, delivering their messages at first to the Jews, to whom were committed the oracles of God,' Rom. iii. 2, spoke properly according to the idiom of their language? They ran no risk of being misunderstood by other nations, whom a desire of being saved should incline to study the language for the sake of the wisdom taught in it.
How extravagant soever this objection is, so extravagant that no infidel will openly avow it, yet it is adopted, and applied in a thousand instances. The book of Canticles is full of figures opposite to the genius of our western languages; it is therefore no part of the sacred canon. It would be easy to produce other examples. Let a modern purist, who affects neatness and accuracy of style, and gives lectures on punctuation, condemn this manner of speaking, 'ponder the path of thy feet;' with all my heart. The inspired authors had no less reason to make use of it, nor interpreters to affirm, that it is an eastern expression, which signifies to take no step without first deliberately examining it. The me-. taphor of the text being thus reduced to
truth, another doubt arises concerning the subject, to which it is applied, and this requires a second elucidation. The term step is usually restrained in our language to actions of life, and never signifies a mode of thinking; but the Hebrew language gives this term a wider extent, and it includes all these ideas. One example shall suffice. My steps had well nigh slipped,' Ps. Ixxiii. 2, that is to say, I was very near taking a false step; and what was this step? It was judging that the wicked were happier in the practice of licentiousness, than the righteous in obeying the laws of truth and virtue. Solomon, in the words of my text, particularly intends to regulate our actions; and in order to this he intends to regulate the principles of our minds, and the affections of our hearts. "Ponder the path of thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established,' for so I render the words. Examine your steps deliberately before you take them, and you will take only wise steps; if you would judge rightly of objects, avoid hasty judging; before you fix your affection on an object, examine whether it be worthy of your esteem, and then you will love nothing but what is lovely. By thus following the ideas of the Wise Man, we will assort our reflections with the actions of your lives, and they will regard also, sometimes, the emotions of your hearts, and the operations of your minds.
We must beg leave to add a third elucidation. The maxim in the text is not always practicable. I mean, there are some doctrines, and some cases of conscience, which we cannot fully examine without coming to a conclusion, that the arguments for, and the arguments against them, are of equal weight, and consequently, that we must conclude without a conclusion; weigh the one against the other, and the balance will incline neither way.
This difficulty, however, solves itself; for, after I have weighed, with all the exactness of which I am capable, two opposite propositions, and can find no reasons sufficient to determine my judgment, the part I ought to take is not to determine at all. Are you prejudiced in favour of an opinion, so ill suited to the limits which it has pleased God to set to our knowledge, that it is dangerous or criminal to suspend our judgments! Are your consciences so weak and scrupulous as to hesitate in some cases to say, I do not know, I have not determined that question? Poor men! do you know yourselves so little? Poor Christians! will you always form such false ideas of your legislator? And do you not know that none but such as live perpetually disputing in the schools make it a law to answer every thing? Do you not know, that one prin
science with such speculative points as we just now mentioned. The most difficult points of speculation ought to give us the least concern; I mean, we ought to be persuaded that ignorance on these subjects cannot be dangerous. The reason is plain: if God intended we should see these truths in their full depth and clearness, he would not have involved them in so much obscurity, or he would have given us greater abilities, and greater assistances, to enable us to form adequate and perfect ideas of them. In like manner, in regard to cases of conscience attended with insurmountable difficulties, if our salvation depended on the side we take in regard to them, God would have revealed more clearly what side we ought to take. In such cases as these, intention supplies the place of knowledge, and probability that of demonstration.
So much for clearing the meaning of the Wise Man; now let us put his doctrine to proof. Ponder the path of thy feet, and all thy ways shall be established.' "Wouldst thou take only sure steps, at least as sure as is possible in a world where in many things we offend all,' weigh all the actions you intend to perform first with the principle from which they proceed; then with the circumstances in which you are at the time; next with the manner in which you perform them; again with the bounds which restrain them; afterward with those degrees of virtue and knowledge at which you are arrived; and lastly, with the different judgments which you yourself form concerning them.
cipal cause of that fury, which erected scaffolds, and lighted fires in the church, that ought to breathe nothing but peace and love, was a rash decision of some questions which it was impossible for sensible men to determine? Are you not aware that one of the most odious ideas that can be formed of God, one the least compatible with the eminence of his perfections, is, that God requires of us knowledge beyond the faculties he has given us? I declare I cannot help blushing for Christians, and especially for Christians cultivated as you are, when I perceive it needful to repeat this principle, and even to use precaution, and to weigh the terms in which we propose it, lest we should offend them. To what then are we reduced, Great God, if we have the least reason to suspect that thou wilt require an account, not only of the talents which it has pleased thee to commit to us, but even of others which thou hast not committed to us? To what am I reduced, if, having only received of thee, my Creator, a human intelligence, thou wilt require of me angelical attainments? Whither am I driven, if, having received a body capable of moving only through a certain space in a given time, thou Lord, requirest me to move with the velocity of aerial bodies? At this rate, when thou in the last great day shalt judge the world in righteousness, thou, Judge of the whole earth, wilt condemn me for not preaching the gospel in Persia, the same day and the same hour in which I was preaching it in this assembly! Far from us be such detestable opinions! Let us adhere to the sentiments of St. Paul, God shall judge the gentile according to what he has committed to the gentile; the Jew according to what he has committed to the Jew; the Christian according to what he has committed to the Christian. Thus Jesus Christ, 'Unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more,' Luke xii. 48. Thus again Jesus Christ teaches us, that God will require an account of five talents of him to whom he gave five talents, of two talents of him to whom he gave two, and of one only of him to whom he gave but one. What did our Redeemer mean when he put into the mouth of the wicked servant this abominable pretext for neglecting to improve his Lord's talent? Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man,' or, as it may be better translated, a barbarous man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed.' I return to my subject. When we have examined two contradictory doctrines, and can obtain no reasons sufficient to determine our judgment, our proper part is, to suspend our judgment of the subject, and not to determine it at all.
It will be said, that, if this be possible in regard to speculative points, it is not applicable to matters of practice. Why not? Such cases of conscience as are the most embarrassing are precisely those which ought to give us the least trouble. This proposition may appear a paradox, but I think I can explain and prove it. I compare cases of conscience with points of speculation; difficult cases of con
I. An action good in itself may become criminal, if it proceed from a bad principle.
II. An action good in itself may become criminal, if it be performed in certain circumstances.
III. An action good in itself may become criminal by the manner in which it is performed.
IV. An action good in itself may become criminal by being extended beyond its just limits.
V. An action good in itself, when performed by a man of a certain degree of knowledge and virtue, may become criminal, if it be performed by a man of inferior knowledge and virtue.
Vl. In fine, an action good in itself now, may become criminal at another time.
These maxims ought to be explained and enforced; and here we are going, as I said at first, to apply the doctrine of the Wise Man to a few subjects, leaving to your piety the care of applying them to a great number, which will necessarily occur in the course of your lives.
I. We ought to ponder our steps in regard to the principle from which they proceed. An action good in itself may become criminal, if it proceed from a bad principle. The little attention we pay to this maxim is one principal cause of the false judgments we make of ourselves. Thus many, who allow themselves very expensive luxuries, say, they contribute to the increase of trade. To increase trade, and to employ artists, considered in themselves, are good works I grant; but is it a desire of doing these good works that animates you? Is it not your vanity? Is it not your luxury? Is