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DIRECTION I. – Justify God in the greatest afflictions which befall you.
Though God should condemn you, see that you acquit him, and say, He is righteous in all his dealings. When the church was under the heaviest distress, she finds cause to justify God, Lam. 1:18. "The Lord is righteous, for I have rebelled against his commandment." So doth godly Nehemiah, (Neh.9:33). "Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done holy, but we have done wickedly." The same doth holy David acknowledge, Ps. 119:75. "I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me."
Now, in order to bring you to this agreeable frame, and to convince you of the equity and justice of God in his dispensations, however heavy and long your distress be, I shall lay before you the following considerations:
1st, Consider the infinitely holy and righteous nature of that God who smiteth thee, Ps. 119:137. "Righteous art thou, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments." We presume it of a righteous man that he will do righteous things: and shall we not much more believe so of a holy and righteous God? We cannot be infallibly certain that a righteous man will always do so; for a righteous man may leave his righteousness, because the creature is mutable: but God is immutably righteous; so that we may be confident of it, that the Judge of all the earth will do right; for it is impossible he can do otherwise, Zech.3:5. "The just Lord is in the midst thereof, he will not do iniquity." He will not, he cannot; for it is contrary to his nature.
2dly, Consider that God never brings on any affliction without a cause, 1 Cor. 11:30. "For this cause many are sick." He hath still just ground for the heaviest affliction, from thy sins and provocations; and may always say to thee, as to Israel, Jeremiah 2:17,19. "Hast thou not procured this unto thyself, in that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, when he led thee by the way? Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backsliding shall reprove thee: know therefore, and see, that it is an evil thing and bitter that thou hast forsaken the Lord" There is still ground enough for affliction to be found in the best of God's people; and therefore it is said, Lamentations 3:33, "For he doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men." No, it is our sins that oblige him to it. As Christ whipped the sellers of oxen and sheep out of the temple with a whip (as is generally thought) made of their own cords, so God never scourgeth us but with a whip made of our own sins. Prov. v. 22. "His own iniquities shall take the wicked himself, and he shall be holden with the cords of his sins."
If we consider the mighty God as a Lord dispensing grace, then we find he acts sovereignly, and according to his will and pleasure, Matt.11:16. "Even so, Father, for it seemed good in thy sight." But if we consider him as a judge dispensing judgments, he never doth it without a foregoing cause on the creature's part. God's treasure of mercy is always full and ready to be let out to them that seek it; but his treasure of wrath is empty, till men fill it by their sins, Rom. 2:15. "Thou treasures up to thyself wrath against the day of wrath." We do always provide fuel for God's wrath, before it kindle and break out upon us.
3dly, Consider further this instance of God's equity, that when there is a cause given, God doth not presently take it, but continues to threaten oft, and warn long, before he executes the sentence of his word: He sends lesser strokes as warnings of greater, if we repent not; and he repeats his warnings many times, both by his word and providence, before he smites. Yea, even when repeated warnings are slighted, he delays a long time, and waits to be gracious, Isa. 30:18. And when men's obstinacy and incorrigibleness arrive to such a height that he can spare no longer, yet how loath is he to give them up to severe judgment! Hos. 11:8. "How shall I give thee up Ephriam? How shall I deliver thee, Israel? How shall I make thee as Admah? How shall I set thee as Zeboim? Mine heart is turned within me, my repentings are kindled together." When the Lord hath sinners in his arms, ready to give them up to severe judgments, yet he makes a stand, and would fain be prevented, before he proceeds to his strange work: for so he calls his acts of judgment, Isa. 27:21. Acts of mercy are con-natural, most agreeable and pleasant to God, Mic. vii. 18. "He delighteth in mercy," but judgment is his strange act, and his strange work.
4thly, Consider, that when at last he sends strokes on us, they are always short of the cause; he exacts not the whole debt that sinners owe to his justice, as Ezra doth acknowledge, Ezra 9:13. "Thou hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve." The stroke he there is speaking of, was of a most heavy judgment, fearful ruin and desolation came upon Jerusalem, and the whole land of Judah; the city and temple were burnt to ashes, the people carried captive to a strange land, and treated as bond-slaves among the heathen: Yet, saith the holy man, thou hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve: q.d. "It is true we have been carried to Babylon, but in justice we might have been sent to hell; our houses were burnt, but our bodies might have been burnt too. We have been drinking water, but we might have been drinking blood; we have had grievous burdens on earth, but we might have been groaning in hell; we were banished from the temple, but we might have been eternally banished from God's presence."
We think it a great favour among men, when any punishment is mitigated, when the sentence of death is changed into banishment, or when banishment is turned into a fine, or a great fine is made smaller and that you think that God deals severely or rigorously with you, when he lays you on a sickbed, when he might justly have laid you in hell, and poured out all his wrath upon you there. You but taste of the brim of the cup, when God might cause you drink of the bottom and dregs thereof. Have you not cause then to acknowledge God's justice, nay, even his mercy too, in his dealings with you, however rough they may seem to be? May you not with good reason, say, any thing less than hell is a mercy to such an ill-deserving creature as I am? If even a hard-hearted Pharaoh, under distress, came the length to own the justice of God, Exod. 9:27. "I have sinned, the Lord is righteous;" shall any professed Christian fall short of that obstinate Egyptian?
(To be continued, D.V.)