My Presence Shall Go with Thee
Love (1757-1825) was a Church of Scotland minister at London and Glasgow, and an organizer of the modern foreign missions movement. John Macleod wrote of him, “In his early spiritual experience he was very thoroughly searched by the teaching of Jonathan Edwards and the men of the older New England introspective school. This left its mark on his teaching in turn.” When “Rabbi” John Duncan was ordained at Milton Church, Glasgow, in 1836, those who had admired Love’s ministry turned to Duncan as “the Elisha on whom the mantle of their master had fallen.” These two sermons, dated 1788, are from Love’s Discourses on Select Passages of Scripture (Edinburgh 1829).
“And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” Exodus 33:14.
The events of four thousand years were, for the most part, only introductory to the work of redemption, and adapted to illustrate the future glory of that work. So slowly did the sovereign mercy of God advance forward to its abundant manifestation. The wonders performed in behalf of the Israelites, their sins, and the judgments which their sins drew upon them, are held up to the view of the Christian church, till the end of time. From their history we learn, that no miracles, or external favours, or natural relentings of the affections, can conquer the depravity of human nature. In respect of all such things, the heart is “desperately wicked.” We also learn, from what befell the Israelites, that no external privileges, or blessings of providence, not even though accompanied with miraculous interpositions, are sure tokens of God’s special favour, or are connected inseparably with salvation. On the contrary, those who are presently exalted to heaven, in regard of common favours from God, and in regard of their own plausible resolutions, may yet be within a few steps of entire apostacy and perdition. Such is the dreadful example, exhibited in the thirty-second chapter of this book. There, we see an impatient levity of spirit, hurrying on that vast multitude, into the wildest outrages of that idolatry which they had, a little ago, solemnly renounced.
Sins run hastily into, in the face of warning, are repented of at leisure. A very sharp remedy was instantly applied to this revolt of the Israelites, by the divine zeal and courage of Moses, and the sons of Levi. But the consequences of sin are not, like sin itself, a wild effusion of impetuosity. The more boisterous acts of sin frequently subside in a little while. But the divine indignation, which is kindled by them, is of a durable, yea, of an eternal nature. This is the glory of God’s infinite holiness, that a course of wrath, fierce, eternal, and unabating, naturally follows every transgression. And there is but one way, in which the transgressor can be plucked out of this burning. After the terrors of immediate death inflicted on many of the Israelites, we find, in the latter part of the former and in this chapter, the intimations of a lasting controversy between God and Israel, awakened by that foul revolt. Hereupon, that crowd of transgressors puts on, at least, the outward appearances of sorrow, and seems to have felt some beginnings of compunction, suitable to their disgraceful guilt. But there is much reason, from their after conduct, to apprehend, that many of them remained strangers to saving repentance. The history, therefore, of that perverse generation, is, upon the whole, melancholy and humiliating.
But, amidst that gloom, the enlightened reader is relieved, by beholding the glories of divine perfection, and the beauties of human character, manifested on occasion of these base rebellions. The character of Moses rises in sweet majesty; while we see him, on the one hand, though habitually eminent in meekness, yet now transported with pious indignation, and executing just and seasonable severity against so vile an outrage: and, on the other hand, yet more transported with generous zeal and compassion, and pleading with God, in the most vehement supplications for an unworthy people. Such were the effects of grace, in that illustrious leader of Israel. And such superiority of character was crowned with distinguishing honour, from the God of grace. While the congregation at large is marked with wrath and ignominy, by the removal of the tabernacle at a distance from the camp, Moses is visibly patronised and approved, in the sight of these idolaters. The dismal appearance of things on earth, made it the more necessary for Moses, and the pious remnant, closely to prosecute their intercourse with the God of heaven. What is recorded, therefore, from the twelfth verse of this chapter, is a signal example of that near fellowship with God, which may be expected by persons, who are faithful to his cause, in times of general provocation. And we see here, how a generous concern for God’s interests is honoured and supported by him, under the most overwhelming discouragements.
It was by a strong influence of the Spirit, that Moses was raised up to that noble familiarity, vigour, and boldness, which characterize his address to God, in the twelfth and thirteenth verses. “See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me: yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight. Now, therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, show me now thy way, that I may know thee; and consider that this nation is thy people.” The divine answer, contained in the text, was wisely and graciously adapted to the inmost feelings and desires, which lay before the eye of God, in the prophet’s heart. “And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” These words were spoken to Moses, partly in reference to his peculiar undertaking, and charge respecting the Israelites. And, in this view, they intimated two things:
First, The general success of that undertaking, in the settlement of Israel in the promised Canaan, notwithstanding all the obstacles, from the guilt of that generation. Second, The gracious support, and acceptance of Moses, as to his work, in promoting that undertaking. But though the text had in it a special meaning, as adapted to the circumstances of Moses; yet, it is warrantable, for any child of God, to take these words home to himself, suitably to his particular necessities. Of this transference of such promises, as were, at the first, given to persons in special circumstances, to the general use of believers, there is a clear example in Heb. 13:5-6, where the words spoken originally to Joshua, as at the head of the armies of Israel, are transferred to the meanest believers: “He hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” In like manner, I shall consider the text, as an address from God to every soul, who possesses the character, and walks in the steps of Moses, though much inferior to him, in respect of the degree of grace. This is the voice of God to every such person: “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” And these words, when carried home with divine light and power, will inspire the noblest expectations, desires, and fortitude; and will introduce into the soul, the actual presence and operation of the Spirit, as “the Comforter.”
In farther discoursing from this passage of Scripture, I shall,
First, Describe the nature of that weariness and restlessness of spirit, which are felt by God’s children, in their pilgrimage course. Second, Show how the divine presence is vouchsafed to them, so as to give them seasonable relief and consolation.
I. That which comes first under consideration here, is the weariness and restlessness of spirit, which God’s children feel in their present pilgrimage course. The declaration in the text manifestly supposes this. And it is elsewhere clearly expressed, as in Isa. 50:4. “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season, to him that is weary.” In like manner, the Redeemer speaks of those, whom he distinguishes from the impenitent, described in the preceding part of the chapter, Matt. 11:28. “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” These descriptions of “him that is weary,” and those who “labour and are heavy laden,” may, in a certain sense, be applied even to the unconverted, and that, both the secure and carnal on the one hand, and the convinced and self-righteous on the other. But it is certain, at the same time, that there is a particular sense of these, and similar expressions, with respect to which, they are peculiarly applicable to the children of God. This is what I am now to inquire after: and I shall particularly show, as I go along, wherein the peculiarity lies, which distinguishes regenerate persons from others, who, in some sense, may be said to feel weariness and restlessness of spirit.
I. The first and simplest view, in which we may consider this weariness and restlessness of spirit, is, with respect to the felt want of happiness, or satisfying pleasure.
Desire of happiness is inlaid in the very constitution of the soul. The qualities of this desire after happiness, correspond to the dignity, and extensive capacities, of the rational spirit. A happiness, very noble and enlarged, is necessary to satisfy this desire, and so to give rest to the soul. Such rest, however, is, at no time, tasted by any of the unconverted. This is certain, from clear testimonies of God’s infallible word. Whence is it, then, that the countenances of men, in general, are so cheerful? Whence is it, that the aspect of the world is so lively and pleasant? Because it is a world of fools. Because infernal spirits are lodged in every bosom; by whose sorceries, the powers of men’s souls are bound down in delusion. This is the cause, why strangers to God imagine they are, or shall be, happy, at a distance from God. So powerful is this deceit, that men run about, in endless circles of vanity, from day to day, from year to year, from age to age. “This their way,” says the Psalmist, “is their folly; yet their posterity approve their sayings.”
But, from this direful enchantment, God delivers his chosen people. For this purpose, his Spirit enlightens and quickens their souls. New life, taste, and vigour are infused into them. What is the effect of this? They feel themselves unhappy. A strange effect, you will perhaps say; is this the effect of quickening grace? Stay a little, and you will be convinced that this is a happy melancholy, very different from the effects of bodily disease, and more to be coveted than the best worldly enjoyments. Miserable are those souls, who enjoy an undisturbed sleep of prosperity in the devil’s arms. But happy is he, who feels himself unhappy, in the manner which I now mean to represent. By the Spirit’s quickening breath, the soul is roused up, to feel its own dignity and high powers of enjoyment. The deceitfulness, emptiness, and worthlessness of the world, as set in the place of God, are not only believed, but felt, and tasted. The soul feels in itself such a void, as created things cannot possibly fill up. To propose worldly good to such a soul, is to exasperate and upbraid it. There is now something within, which — not by mere influence of education, or disappointment of some particular worldly pursuit, or philosophical reasonings, but from a universal despair of inferior happiness, and from a new nature, and taste — aspires towards God. The living God, the infinite and holy fulness of Jehovah, is now the fixed object of desire; in the want of which, there can be no happiness to such a soul: and the want of God, separation and distance from God, is felt with bitter anguish: This anguish, as it is usually severely felt at the beginning of the spiritual life, is one part of what is called the pangs of the new birth. It is not, however, confined to regeneration: It goes along with the spiritual life, in greater or less degrees, all the way to heaven itself; where the uneasy want of God is eternal forgotten, in the full enjoyment of him. Thus, are God’s children frequently weary and restless in spirit, and can give good reason, why they are so; in which respect, their character is widely distinguished from the peevishness of the discontented, from the gloom of superstition, and from the effects of bodily melancholy. These things you see exemplified in Job, when he speaks thus: “Even today, is my complaint bitter; my stroke is heavier than my groaning. O that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat!” “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: on the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him; he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him.” And in those converts, Jer. 50:4-5, of whom it is said, “they shall come, going and weeping; they shall go and seek the Lord their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with their faces thitherward”: and very frequently in David, as when he says, Ps. 143, “I stretch forth my hands unto thee, my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.” This is the simplest view of that weariness and restlessness of spirit, which we, who know the power of religion, are well acquainted with. This is part of what gives us a silly, an unaccountable appearance, in the view of the world at large, and most of all, in the view of dead hypocrites, who are secretly at ease, lively, and happy in their own eyes, independently of God.
But the uneasiness becomes more complicated and grievous, when, along with this want of happiness, there is a sense of guilt, and of divine wrath because of sin, impressed upon the conscience. This is the
Second leading view of that weariness and restlessness of spirit, which characterizes the children of God. They have peculiar sensations respecting sin, guilt, and divine wrath. These painful sensations come from the same quickening influences of the Spirit, and naturally go along with the things already mentioned, as I shall now briefly describe.
I said, in illustrating the former particular, that, by the quickening breath of the Spirit, the soul is roused up to feel its own dignity, and high powers of enjoyment. This, being accompanied with some discoveries of the glory of God, opens the conscience to apprehend what vile debasement the soul hath been yielding itself to, while it hath been idolatrously pursing after vanity. The misery felt, in being kept at a distance from God, naturally introduces an inquiry into the causes of that misery. The soul says to itself, “Why am I thus? Why doth a God of infinite goodness keep at such distance from me? Why doth he withhold from me my only happiness? What mean these chains of darkness, which invisibly bind me?” Conscience, and the law of God, answer, “God is angry. Thou hast moved him to jealousy. There is no peace to the wicked. Be astonished, ye heavens, at this; for they have committed two evils: they have forsaken the fountain of living waters, and have hewed out to themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water!” Thus, the charge of guilt begins to fasten upon the conscience. The soul, softened and enlightened by the Spirit, bows down under this load. The vigorous thoughts ruminate on former conduct and courses, and search into the immense evils of transgression. The threatenings of God begin to sound like thunder. The unmeasurable vastness of eternity, and the unknown terribleness of God’s infinite wrath, and the terror of being eternally separated from God, drink up the attention of the soul, and lay prostrate its courage. And here, there is room for such feelings as I cannot describe; nor can they be fully uttered by any tongue. Through what a sea of horror, doth the soul often make its way, in its first approaches to God? And how often are God’s people plunged back into these depths, after having felt the joy of his salvation? I know there are different degrees of these things. But the lowest degree has in it, a depth and awfulness, much beyond what many professors of religion give evidence of being acquainted with. Let us hear how Job expresses himself on this subject, Job 6:2-4. “Oh that my grief were fully weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together! For now it would be heavier than the sand of the sea: therefore, my words are swallowed up.” He is not here speaking merely, or chiefly, of his outward afflictions, but of an inward sense of divine wrath, on account of sin. This appears from the next words, “For the arrows of the Almighty are within me, the poison whereof drinketh up my spirit: the terrors of God do set themselves in array against me.” David, the man after God’s own heart, was no stranger to such exercises. Therefore, he cries out, in one Psalm, of the oppressive weight of his iniquities; and in another, of their vast number; and in another, of the dreadful depths into which he was thereby plunged. It would be the greatest mercy that could befall many high-flying professors of orthodoxy, to have some restless days, and sleepless nights, under such terrors of God, and so to learn the value of that salvation, which they vainly pretend to embrace with their hearts, while they indeed trample it under their feet.
But let who will, be at ease in Zion, the children of God, unless in times of dangerous backsliding, are not so. They have committed, and do still commit, enough of sin, to keep their consciences at work, and to be a source of much weariness and restlessness of sprit. Nor, doth the grace of the gospel exempt believers from such exercises; they continue, more or less, till their admission into the heavenly glory. It is then only, that God will wipe away all such tears from his children’s eyes.
Besides the things I have already mentioned, there are various other causes of weariness and restlessness of spirit, which I might, at large, enumerate; such as the plagues of the heart, — the strong motions of corruption, — and the tormenting violence, or subtlety of temptations: I might speak of a hard, unbelieving heart; of lifeless and tiresome duties; of long disappointments in waiting for God, and the accomplishment of his promises: I might speak of external afflictions of different kinds; of the general coldness and contempt of the world; of the cruelty and persecutions of enemies; of the treacheries of false friends; and of the terrors of approaching death. But I shall confine my attention, at present, to only two further particulars; which I select, as being much connected with the situation and exercises of Moses, as described in the context.
You will observe, then,
III. That God’s children are liable to weariness and restlessness of spirit, on account of the interruptions, and imperfection of their spiritual enjoyments in this world.
There are seasons of refreshment, when the children of God get possession of what they are in pursuit of, and sweetly enjoy the object of their desires. And the sweetness of these revivals is above being expressed by human language. It is a sweetness, that goes deep into the heart, and gives an experimental knowledge of that joy which is in heaven. It is called, in Scripture, “joy unspeakable, and full of glory.” And this joy of the Lord is the strength of his people. But, as it costs much labour, watchfulness, and struggling, before it is obtained; as such seasons are frequently long looked for, before they arrive; so they are commonly of short duration. When the soul is, as it were, beginning to approach the secret shrines of divine glory, and to taste a celestial sweetness in the presence and love of God, soon a cloud intervenes, and turns the ecstacy into darkness. Instead of a serene and joyful soul, instead of a smiling God, there succeeds a dead, or raging heart, and a buffeting devil. And the more ravishing the delight was, in the open sight of the glory of God, the more bitter is the anguish of desertion and distance. And hence, the children of God, though they long above all things for his presence, yet, almost tremble at his near approaches, because they know not what sharp conflicts may quickly follow. And, even in the time of nearest communion with the Lord, there is a felt distance, and imperfection, inseparably connected with the present state. The soul, though brought very near to God, though much revived, satisfied, and delighted, yet, clearly perceives the unavoidable scantiness of its joys, when compared with the joys of glorified spirits. If this should be almost forgotten for some moments, yet the secret languor of a soul, not yet made perfect, soon corrects the error; and such fancies of being like saints already in heaven meet with a severe check, teaching the person to confess the remaining sinfulness and misery of a militant state.
So was it with Moses, in the context. He said to God, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory.” This holy desire was approved, as appears from the answer, “I will make all my goodness pass before thee.” But, that he might not mistake himself, or lose sight of the distinction between a militant, imperfect state, and the state of glory in God’s immediate presence, he received this admonition, “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me and live.” That is, Thou shalt have such manifestations, as are competent to one dwelling in mortal flesh; but imagine not, that thy knowledge or joy can be equal to what I bestow on my saints and angels in heaven. No mortal man, surrounded with flesh and blood, and with internal corruption, is yet capable of such a sight. Such views of my glory would be killing, not comforting, to the holiest man that every lived, previous to his being made perfect.
On these accounts, even the highest spiritual enjoyments are attended with weariness and restlessness of spirit.
And this uneasiness is much increased, by that which I am now to mention, in the last place;
IV. Namely, The view of the general state of the world, and the unsuccessfulness of attempts to promote the power of religion among others.
This was plainly one of the heaviest burdens which lay upon the spirit of Moses, when the address contained in the text was made to him. The effect of much genuine communion with God appeared remarkably in his character. He came down, from conversing with God on the mount, fired with zeal against iniquity, and full of enlarged benevolence to mankind. So it is with all who partake of this divine fellowship. The nearer their approaches to God are, the clearer are their views of the sinfulness of the world, and of the terribleness of God’s eternal wrath. At the same time, their zeal for God and benevolence to men are increased. Their desire, therefore, is to see God glorified by others, and to see others happy in God. They look abroad, with eager eyes, for the appearances of this. But how are they often shocked with dismal spectacles around them, raging lusts, nauseous hypocrisy, a general contempt of the threatenings and promises of God, the wicked combinations of God’s enemies, the insolence and cruelty of some, the levity and treachery, the lukewarmness and backslidings, of others? In the view of these things, the children of God attempt, according to their place, to witness for God, and to stem the raging torrent. But these attempts are often fruitless, and an innocent occasion of more sin and condemnation, among the impenitent. The voice of the devil, the voice of false teachers, the voice of carnal lusts, and of spiritual delusions, are too loud to give room for the still voice of wisdom. These things make God’s people weary of this world. And sometimes they take such hold of their spirits, that they cannot, for a season, relish the comforts of their own salvation, while they see, all around them, such opposition to God, and such ruin of immortal souls. This was the case of Moses, when he said, Exod. 32:32. “If thou wilt forgive their sin: and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” Here, zeal for God, and for that people, so transported this great prophet, that, for that instant, he could not relish any comfort respecting himself; but was ready to disregard, and give up all, if his great public undertaking should fail.
I have thus shown you, how the children of God are liable to weariness and restlessness of sprit; so as that they need such consolation, as is held out to them in the words of this text, wherein God says to each of his children, “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.”
“And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” Exodus 33:14.
“Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters.” So speaks the Psalmist, in allusion to the church’s passage through the Red Sea. In speaking so, he points out, not only the unsearchableness of God’s procedure, but also the awful depth and greatness of those miseries, which give room for the display of God’s redeeming love and power. As the whale cannot swim in a shallow, but wishes for open sea-room, so those, who see need of only a little trifling salvation, and a little trifling comfort, give no room for God to appear great, as the God of salvation. He will, therefore, if this blindness continues, appear great in their damnation and misery.
The sorrows, and the comforts, of God’s people are equally a mystery to the world. “The heart,” says Solomon, “knoweth his own bitterness, and a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.” Those of you, who heard the former discourse from this text, may form some judgment, whether you shall be able to understand, and shall be warranted to apply, the things to be treated of in this discourse. If you have truly felt such weariness and restlessness of spirit, as I have already described, you may take home to yourselves the text, and all that shall be farther said in explication of it. You may consider God himself as addressing these words to you: “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.” And if you are specially interested in these words, you will desire to understand them more clearly, and to drink more deeply into their divine sweetness. It belongs to the Spirit of truth, to open these treasures to the view of Christ’s disciples. But he works by his own means. I shall, therefore, lay before you the following particulars, for illustrating the comfort here promised.
You may remember, I proposed,
To show how the divine presence is vouchsafed to God’s people, so as to give them relief and consolation, suited to those evils which make them weary and restless in spirit.
For this purpose,
I. God comes near his people, so as to give them a sense of his attention, and perfect knowledge, respecting all their distresses. This was the comfort suggested to the ancient church in Egypt, Exod. 3:7. “And the Lord said, I have surely seen,” (or, as it is translated by Stephen, in his dying speech), “I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people, which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry, by reason of their task masters: for I know their sorrows.” David, having tasted of the sweetness of this comfort, speaks thus: Ps. 31:7. “I will be glad, and rejoice in thy mercy: for thou hast considered my trouble, and thou hast known my soul in adversities.” This stands opposed to the disconsolate apprehensions of sense and unbelief. It is an easy matter for those who are whole-hearted, to enter speculatively into this sentiment. But, I am speaking of things which concern persons who have been cast down, so as to appear to themselves, as it were, out of God’s sight. They seem at a vast distance from God’s gracious regard; they seem plunged in a gulf, where no eye looks upon them; their bitter feelings seem too intricate and perplexed, to be known by any besides themselves. Men cannot so much as understand their maladies, and God is out of sight. Such is the disconsolate gloom, which gave occasion to many expressions found on the Scripture record: “But joy cometh in the morning.” Beams of celestial light are darted into the gloomy dungeon of the heart. The soul, which seemed to itself alone, and groaning under unknown miseries, realizes the presence of God. It cries out, with Asaph, when emerging from his sad thoughts, Ps. 73:23. “Nevertheless, I am continually with thee.” The throne, and the eye of Jehovah come into view. The soul apprehends itself, and its miseries, as under the inspection of God: and as being an object of his closest attention. Now, God appears, looking to the bottom of all the evils, which the soul hath felt or dreaded; and intimately acquainted with the methods of deliverance; even as an able physician looks deep into the case of his patient, and then takes an extensive survey of the sources of healing.
Thus, there is a reviving communion between God and the souls of his people, respecting their manifold grounds of complaint, when they practically and experimentally feel such expressions as these: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations.” “The eye of the Lord is upon them that fear him; upon them that hope in his mercy; to deliver their soul from death.” “When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path.” “He hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary, to hear the groaning of the prisoner.”
In such a manner as this, God and his disconsolate children come together, into familiar intercourse, with a view to their relief and consolation. And, when the matter is advanced thus far, the believing soul feels, under it, at least, a solid stay and support.
II. Another step of this communion, essentially requisite, both for the glory of God, and the relief of the soul, is God’s visiting the soul, so as to bring it down to a sweet submission and acknowledgment of his righteousness, as to all the occasions of its own disquiet.
There is, naturally, in the heart, a rebelliousness, and a quarreling with the justice of God, which exasperates the soul’s anguish, under its various burdens. No healing medicine, not even the sweet balm of redeeming love, can fix upon the soul, till this irritative poison is removed. It is self-evident, that, while the sentence of justice is disputed and contended against, the overtures of mercy cannot be cordially regarded. A criminal, sentenced to die, if he considers his sentence as an injury, or if the severity of justice appears to him hateful and cruel, cannot receive pardon in a proper manner. Such a criminal may be glad to escape death at any rate; but, if such are his views, his escape appears to him, rather as the repairing of a wrong, than as any overflowing of unmerited compassion on the part of his sovereign. So it is with men in their transactions with God. There can be no true rest in that soul, which holds out, in its natural enmity, against divine justice. The ideas of grace and mercy cannot possibly enter such a soul. I might here lay open a world of close hypocrisy, among people who make noise enough about orthodox opinions. They take shelter under grace, while they mortally hate the holiness and justice of God: They will confess themselves worthy of hell; but this they will not do, till they think they have got out of its reach. This, however, is only an artificial juggling with God. I know well, what places of Scripture are corrupted, wrested, and darkened, for the defence of such hypocrisy; and how hard a business it is, to dislodge this devil, where he hath once fixed his hold. But the nature of this discourse will not give leave to pursue hypocrites, through their caverns of darkness.
I have presently to do with those, who are spiritually fair, candid, upright, and opposite to guile. And I am sure of the concurrence of every such soul, in the train of sentiments which I am now endeavouring to set in your view. Every such person will be ready to own, that one chief aggravation of all his distresses is, an opposition to the justice of God, manifested in these evils: and that, while this opposition prevails in the breast, there is no quiet; and no touching of grace or mercy, so as to derive thence solid relief. And, when God comes near to give relief, this is the very beginning of his work, the opening and dissolving the heart into an ingenuous approbation of God’s holy severity, in the worst distresses. And this is indeed a great work: It is a great work to bring the heart over to the side of God’s justice against sin, where we ourselves are concerned. This work of God begins at conversion; but it is not completed, till the moment of glorification. And how does he perform it? How does God begin and carry forward his submissive prostration of the soul, before his awful justice? I answer, He first of all brings forth to view, out of its dark, lurking places, the opposite evil. Then, the rage and the malignity of this disposition is felt — a disposition to contend against God’s just severity. The soul finds its other burdens rendered doubly galling, by this rebellious perverseness: at the same time, it finds itself unable, by any reasonings of its own, to quiet the inward tempest. Then Jesus Christ appears, walking on the seas, and rebuking the winds and the waves. The soul is enlightened, to see the greatness and glory of God, and the evil of its sins against him, in such a manner, as that, instead of disputing his justice, it falls down before him in humble adoration of his glorious purity, and in admiration of that patient forbearance, which has suspended the full execution of just vengeance. Then, the evils which have caused much uneasiness, seem little, light, and few, in comparison of the desert of sin. Thus, the sting and poison of these evils is partly removed, and the wounds, thus cleansed, lie open to admit further healing.
The whole of this part of God’s procedure, I shall illustrate by these Scripture examples: though I know, there are many, who would be glad, no such thing could be proved from the Bible, because it condemns their rotten hypocrisy, and overturns their fictitious gospel.
The first example I refer to, is in the thirty-second Psalm at the third verse, where it is thus written, “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old: through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer. Selah.” What kind of silence was this? Not the silence of sweet submission, but of sullen rebellion against divine justice. It was a silence directly opposite to the open, ingenuous confession, which he describes in the next verse. He was silent, even when roaring all day long, under the distressing sense of divine wrath. He kept silence, that is, he endeavoured to stifle the voice of conscience, to defend himself, by extenuations of his guilt, and to avoid a full sense of his ill-deserving. And, while this continued, matters became worse and worse with him, till he was brought to extremity. How, then, was he delivered? Did God reveal mercy to him, while that sullen obstinacy continued? No. He could not then touch mercy, so as to take comfort. How, then, was he relieved? He informs you, plainly enough, in the fifth verse. “I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity have I not hid: I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord.” That is, the Spirit of God came upon him when he was in that perverse frame, pulled down his stubborn pride, gave him a just view of his unworthiness, and opened his heart, to pour itself out before God, in free and full confessions of sin, in justification of God’s righteousness, accompanied with earnest desires of reconciliation. Then, and not till then, the sweet beams of pardoning mercy began to shine comfortably upon his soul; “Thou forgavest,” says he, “the iniquity of my sin. Selah.”
Similar to this was the experience of Job. Though Job was an eminent saint, and had committed no remarkable transgression to be the occasion of his great trials, yet he discovered too much of a disposition to assert his own integrity, and in such a manner, as to darken the glory of God’s infinite justice. Job did not directly intend any such thing as this: but the disease was secretly festering in his breast; and many of his expressions, when carried to their full extent, implied in them a very grievous charge against the righteousness of God’s procedure. This was, for a time, Job’s situation. Now, let us attentively consider the method of the divine physician, in curing his distemper, and bringing him forth to comfort. Does he immediately melt him down, with a sense of mercy alone? That is the method which numbers have pretended to, whose after-rebellions have shown, sufficiently, that the plague of their heart never was touched, and that the true power of religion never reached their hearts. But God’s method of dealing with souls is not so unskillful as this. The wounds which he heals must be fairly opened, and searched, and the purulent matter washed away, before the balm of comfort is applied. For God will not mix his balm, and the devil’s putrefaction together, so as to make one plaster of both. The case of Job seemed to require very tender treatment. But, when God came near him, he seems at first to address Job, as though he had been an avowed blasphemer against his majesty, “Who is this,” says God, from the whirlwind, “that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” If you look through the thirty-eighth and thirty-ninth chapters of that book, you will find, that Job’s humiliation did not begin with views of mercy, but with views of majesty, sovereignty, and infinite perfection. And even, after Job began to relent, and to call back his rash speeches, still the awful voice of God continued thundering over his head. And, at the eighth verse of the fortieth chapter, the disease, which God saw in his heart, and designed more thoroughly to remove, is marked out in express terms, “Wilt thou also disannul my judgment? Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?” But Job’s heart was really a heart of flesh, a broken and contrite heart, though so unseemly a distemper prevailed in him for a season. Therefore, instead of hardening himself against God, instead of murmuring and kicking at the words of God, he falls down under them, lower and lower, through fresh influences of grace, till he was, in the eyes of God, low enough to receive consolation. Then, the vision of mercy did not tarry. The Lord turned the captivity of Job, when, as a fruit of sincere humiliation and contrition before God, he prayed for forgiveness to his mistaken friends. I recommend this whole passage — I mean the five last chapters of the book of Job — to your serious and deliberate consideration; as it contains a large and distinct view of God’s way of introducing comfort into troubled souls.
A third example of this part of God’s work, in giving rest to his people amidst their uneasinesses, I shall more briefly refer to. You find it in the book of Lamentations, where, after dreadful strokes of wrath, the church pours out her heavy complaint before God, so as to bear herself off from the whirlpool of despair, and to cast anchor in the faithfulness of her covenanted God. The following expressions, intermixed with the pathetic dirge in the two first chapters, show what are the first openings of gracious exercise of soul, under overwhelming evils, and how the divine presence enters the soul, so as to give it rest. Chap. 1, verse 8: “Jerusalem hath grievously sinned, therefore she is removed.” Verse 11: “See, O Lord, and consider, for I am become vile.” Verse 14: “The yoke of my transgressions is bound by his hand: they are wreathed, and come up upon my neck.” Verse 18: “The Lord is righteous, for I have rebelled against his commandment.” Verse 20: “Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress, my bowels are troubled: mine heart is turned within me, for I have grievously rebelled.” Chap. 2, verses 5, 14: “The Lord was an enemy.” “Thy prophets have seen vain and foolish things for thee; and they have not discovered thine iniquity, to turn away thy captivity; but have seen for thee false burdens and causes of banishment.” These expressions, as they stand connected, discover a sweet, submissive sense of sin and of divine wrath. But, you will see this further exemplified, in the third chapter, where the prophet emerges from his grievous mourning, by such a beam of light, as discovered the glory of divine justice, in these great calamities. Verse 22: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.” That is, I have been long and bitterly complaining; but now I see our ill-deserving, the malignity of our transgressions, the glory of divine justice, in these terrible strokes. I, therefore, no longer murmur, as being hardly treated; these things we have richly deserved, and much worse. I justify God. I see that God might justly have cast us into hell; and therefore, every thing, on this side hell, is mercy — the purest mercy.
I stand, adoring his mercy every day, in the midst of our desolations, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed.” And this sweet acknowledgment soon introduced the supporting and healing exercise of faith, expressed in the twenty-fourth verse. “The Lord is my portion, saith my soul, therefore will I hope in him.”
These examples are sufficient, to satisfy those who pay due reverence to Scripture authority; and they clearly mark part of God’s procedure, in giving rest to his people, under their various complaints. We feel much uneasiness, from want of the enjoyment of God, from convictions of sin, from heart plagues, from outward afflictions, from the low state of religion in the world. But our anguish begins to abate, and the poisonous bitterness is extracted from it, when God comes near, and discovers not only his attention and knowledge, but his glorious, unimpeachable righteousness in all our evils. And we then know, that refreshing consolation and delight is at hand. For,
III. This is quickly followed with reviving discoveries of God’s saving all-sufficiency, and of his abundant compassion, grace, and liberality.
I say, the one of these is quickly followed with the other, sometimes so quickly, that the distinction of time is scarcely discernible. As the motion of light is the swiftest of all things in the material world; so, God’s spiritual operations, in enlightening and renewing the heart, sometimes follow each other with astonishing rapidity. A glance of celestial light darts instantaneously into the soul; and, almost before there is time for much explicit attention, the soul, having seen and glorified divine justice, is plunged into the ocean of redeeming love. This sometimes is the case. But it is more usual, as is plain from the examples above produced, that the one operation of grace is distinctly felt before the other. And often the Lord, having brought his people to the submission and humiliation already described, leaves them there for a time, with no more than a very obscure dawning of mercy and love. And this interval will seem very tedious and perplexing; still, however, the discovery of mercy, and its treasures, may be said, not only to follow, but to follow quickly, after the right view of justice.
For what is the longest delay, in comparison of that awful eternity of wrath, and banishment from God, which sinners deserve? What is the longest delay, in the compass of threescore and ten years, when compared with the eternal sweetness of divine love and its vast blessings? God says, with one breath, “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thy help.” When the one part of the lesson is engraven on the heart, the other follows. And then, indeed, the soul enters into refreshing and joyful rest. By the former discoveries of God’s justice, the rebellious tumults of the soul are quieted; and the soul is placed in a proper situation for seeing, relishing, and admiring the glorious sweetness, majesty, immensity, and all-sufficiency of the love of God, displayed in Jesus Christ. And this is the chief, the most delightful discovery of the glory of God, to which other views of his relative glory are subservient. Therefore, when Moses said, “I beseech thee, show me thy glory,” the answer was expressed in these terms, “I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” For, where there are a group of things brought together in connection with each other, it is common to mention only some conspicuous and principal part, as leading the attention to the whole group: though, by no means, exclusively of other things, though not then particularly named.
This, then, is a principal cause of that rest, which the presence of God communicates to his people. He gives them enlarged and sweet discoveries of the immense riches, and all-sufficiency of his redeeming love, venting itself through the Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what the church prays for, in Ps. 85:5-7. “Wilt thou be angry with us for ever? wilt thou draw out thine anger to all generations? Wilt thou not revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee? Show us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation.” This the Redeemer had particularly in view, when he said, John 17:26: “And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it, that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” And for this, the apostle importunately pleaded in behalf of the Ephesian church, in that glorious prayer of his, recorded Eph. 3:14-19. “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God.” If ever you know experimentally the fulfillment of these passages of Scripture, you will see more in the love of God, than all the tongues in the world can describe.