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JUDGMENTS AND CHASTISEMENTS.
2 SAMUEL xxiv. 14.
And David said, I am in a great strait : let us fall now into
the hands of the Lord ; for his mercies are great : and let me not fall into the hand of man.
We are all familiar with these words of David, his answer to the prophet who came to him from God with a choice of one of three heavy judgments, the pestilence, famine, or war. And the choice which he made is one which we feel was wisely made. He preferred any of those evils which arise directly from the hand of God acting upon natural causes, to those which are produced by the evil passions of
He thought it better to suffer three days' pestilence, or three years' famine, rather than to taste all the miseries of unsuccessful war in a three months' flight before an invading enemy.
Now the evils by which this country is threatened
at this time are of both these kinds; both natural —that is to say, such as befall us without being in any degree caused by other men--and moral evils, by which I mean evils that are occasioned by the fault of men, whether ourselves or others. The prayers which have been appointed for this day's service allude chiefly to the former class of evils ; not that they are by any means the greatest, but because, with regard to these, people are all of the same mind; whereas when we speak of moral evils, or those caused by the fault of man, there is a very great difference of opinion about them, and these differences are very apt to excite angry feelings. Still the opportunities afforded by this day would be greatly wasted, if, while turning our minds towards the evils which assail or threaten the country, we were to omit those from which we have infinitely the most to fear, and from which we may, with a far stronger assurance of faith, pray to God to deliver us.
First, however, I will say a few words on the natural evils which are besetting us ; that is, on the new and fatal disease which has appeared in several parts of the kingdom, and which is likely to spread itself over the whole of it. It is a very old remark, that new and alarming dangers are apt to breed a a great deal of folly and superstition. Men's minds become highly excited, and their feelings far outrun their judgment. All sorts of exaggerated notions therefore have been entertained about the present disorder, and in particular it has been represented as a punishment sent by God for our great and universal sinfulness. Undoubtedly our sins are great, and it would be a most false and mischievous representation which should endeavour to palliate hem. But the aspect of the present disease seems to me by no means that of a judgment of God upon our sins. Of course no one could dare to speak of it as a judgment in the cases of individuals ; we know that it would be equally false and uncharitable to think that they whom it carried off were greater sinners than those whom it spared. And with regard to the nation, it has not hitherto been in any degree so destructive as to weaken the power or diminish the resources of the country ; in fact, nationally speaking, it has been no more felt than the ordinary diseases of every common season.
On the contrary, far from regarding it as a judgment of God in His anger, it seems to me to bear far more of the character of a chastening given in His mercy. . Both to individuals and publicly, it is capable of being most profitable, and has in fact in a great many instances actually been so. As I said on a former occasion, it has warned them most usefully of the uncertainty of life, while it has encouraged temperance, and called forth a considerable exertion of active charity. It has been a timely interruption to political violence, and has given men a subject of common interest, on which not only they could not quarrel, but which placed them towards each other in relations of mutual kindness ; and though, like all other chastisement, it “seemeth for the present not to be joyous, but grievous,” and though we may lawfully pray to be delivered from it, as from all other visitations of pain and suffering ; yet we must feel at the same time that we cannot certainly know whether it is best for us that our prayer should be answered; and assuredly if it be not answered, we may be certain that the refusal does not proceed from God's anger, but from his fatherly love.
How is it then, it may be asked, that we read so often in the Old Testament of pestilence sent as a judgment for sins past, not as a chastisement to warn from sins to come? There are several answers to be made to this question. In the first place, the visitations there spoken of differ from the present case in some important particulars. The destruction was very much greater, and more instantaneous; that is, it did not offer an opportunity for the exercise of those virtues which have been called forth by the present danger. The sight of seventy thousand persons cut off in three days, as on the occasion to which the text relates, was likely to make men overwhelmed with fear, or hardened by desperation ; while the evil came in such a moment that there was no time for any wholesome preparation to meet it profitably, or to take any measures for lessening
its dangers. But the great distinction between the visitations of pestilence under the old dispensation and under the new, may be best understood by reading the
prayer of Hezekiah, composed by him in a dangerous sickness; and by observing how little it could be the language of a good Christian
Hezekiah earnestly prays against death, because it would cut him off from God: “The
grave cannot praise thee,” he says, “ death cannot celebrate thee : they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.” Compare this with St. Paul's language: "Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord; and we are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” It is manifest that a grievous disease falling upon a people whose promises were earthly, was a very different thing, as marking God's disposition towards them, from the same disease falling upon a people whose promises are heavenly. What was in the one case a sentence of death, is in the other a removal to glory. Then, if a parent saw his whole family dying around him, his wife expiring by his side, while he felt his own life ebbing fast within him, would he not have regarded himself as suffering the very last extremity of God's judgments, in not only cutting off himself, but all his hopes of posterity also; so that his name and race would be utterly put out ? But suppose the same case in a Christian family,-Christian, I mean,