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Fear is a servile passion, when it has an unworthy object; but it becomes honourable when God is the object of it, and is the test of the human character. When fear is understood in a more general sense, and qualified with prudence, it is the passion which distinguishes men from brutes, and wise men from fools. The ignorant fear nothing, because they know nothing; and some people are mistaking and offending all their lives, because they never know when to fear, nor what to be afraid of: so that the want of fear argues a want of wit in common life, as it undoubtedly argues a want of grace in religion.
Nothing but the fear of God can render a man fit to live in the world as a member of society. No penalties, which human authority can inflict, lay any obligation upon the conscience; but he that fears God will consider himself as the servant and subject of God, and consequently he will be true and just, independent of ail temporal considerations.
To believe in God, and to fear him, ought to be the same thing with all mankind: but experience shews us, that many, who wor.ld be ashamed to deny God openly, do not live as if they feared him. Let me, therefore, point out to you some of those considerations which produce the fear of God in the heart of man.
The first of these is the consideration of his power, as it is manifested to us in the natural world. Who can observe the glorious lights of heaven in their wonderful order; the changes of the seasons, the operations of the elements, the structure of man, without being filled with a sense of the divine power? They shall fear thee, saith the Psalmist, as long as the sun and moon endureth. The lights of heaven must be blotted out of it, before we can resist the necessary inference, that the Maker of them is the first and greatest object of our fear and reverence.
We go forward with this argument, and consider God as the governor of the world ; directing the elements for our good, or interrupting the course of them for our punishment. What force of language can imprint such an awe upon the mind, as a sight of that solemn and majestic appearance of the sky, which is preparatory to a storm of thunder? When the clouds, as if they were summoned by a divine command, are gathered together from different quarters of the heaven; when the air is dark above, and the earth below is in silent expectation of the voice that is to follow, and fearful of that fire, which gives us an assurance and foretaste of what shall happen at the destruction of the world. Well might it be said by Elihu, in the book of Job—At this my heart trembleth, and is moved out of its place. The man who feels nothing upon such an occasion, has no reason to value himself upon his courage: such courage is no honour to any man: it is not fortitude, but stupidity. In different minds the effect will be different: in some, the terrors of guilt will be awakened; in others, a pious fear, and a submissive veneration, by which they are brought nearer to God, and become better aefpuainted Avith their own sins and infirmities.
The providence of God in the government of states, and the changes of empire, is another consideration which will instruct us farther in the fear of him, by shewing us how we arc subject to his power, and dependent upon his will.
The mighty monarchy of Babylon was raised up
for a scourge to other nations: it was an axe in the
. hand of Providence, and hewed down other powers,
to exalt itself; while the invisible hand, which directed it, was turning it to other purposes. It was made instrumental in punishing the Jews for their idolatry; detaining them under a long and miserable captivity, till they were cured of their inclination to idols: and when this end was answered, and the Jews were to be replaced in their own land, the power of this great kingdom departed from it in one night. As soon as the sentence was passed, it was executed on the profane Belstiazzar; and the particulars of this catastrophe are preserved by a celebrated heathen historian. Cyrus, to whom the kingdom was transferred, used his authority soon afterwards for the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem, and the restoration of th* Jewish ceconomy.
When God was about to send the Christian religion into the world, which was to be spread into every part of it, the Roman empire increased to its utmost grandeur, and the form of it was changed from republican to monarchical, amongst a people, who by education, natural temper and principle, were the most averse to monarchy of any upon earth. The country of Judea, the stage on which the Gospel was to make its first appearance, was become a Roman province, governed by Roman magistrates, and subject to Roman laws and customs: whence it came to pass, that our Saviour, Jesus Christ, suffered death upon a cross, after the Roman manner; his preachers were sent about the world, over which the Roman jurisdiction was extended; and the Gospel at length became the established religion of the empire, by virtue of the imperial edicts, in opposition to all the power and interest of paganism. When these things were accomplished, and the designs of Providence were answered, this mighty empire was broken into smaller independent kingdoms, and the name" of it is now nearly lost in the world.
The Roman power answered another remarkable purpose in the hand of God, for the punishment of the Jews under their last and great apostasy. They betrayed and crucified their Saviour, lest the Romans should come and take away their place and nation; maliciously exclaiming, that they had no king but Ccesar: therefore, these very Romans were the people appointed of God to drive them out of their land; the power of Csesar, to whom they had given the preference, was turned against them; and they who had sold their Saviour were, themselves, sold into captivity and bondage; thirty of them, as history saith, for one piece of silver.
Their rejection of the Gospel, and the consequent judgment of God upon them, are thus represented in one of the parables of Chnst-s-They took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them: but when the king heard thereof he was wrath; and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burnt up their city. When the Jews had filled up the measure of their sins, the Roman armies were sent out by the Divine direction, to inflict the vengeance due to them. Their city was burned, their temple levelled with the ground: their land is now possessed by aliens and infidels; themselves are wandering about the world, without any home, and their backs 'are bowed down under the burthens they carry upon them; they are mixed with all nations, but incorporated with none; they sojourn with all people, yet still differ from all, in their customs, and even in their looks; they are marked out, like Cain, as vagabonds and murderers, and are miraculously preserved for a lesson to all that behold them: so that
VOL. IV, H
a man can hardly iook upon a Jew without exclaiming —Thou persuadest me to be a Christian. Slay them not, said the prophet, lest niy people jar get ift but scatter them abroad: for thence it will.be understood in all succeeding ages, that God is terrible in his judgments; that none can forsake him, without being lost to themselves; and that obedience to his law can alone secure his protection to any other nation. '- ;
The Jews are held forth as the most striking examples of national sin, and national punishment; bub they are not singular: other nations have had their share, when their pride and wickedness have provoked, the divine displeasure: and some would grow wise, in time, from the example of others, unless it were found to be true, by fatal experience, that men become infatuated in their understandings, when they are devoted to destruction.
If the history of this kingdom were to be written, with all the truth and impartiality of inspiration, and effects compared justly with their causes; we should see how God, at sundry times, and in divers manners, hath interposed to visit us; sometimes raising us to honour, in the sight of those that are round'about us, and indulging us with the blessings of peace and plenty; at other times giving us up to be devoured among ourselves, when a spirit of.faction and disobedience has been let loose, to set us at variance^ and make us a scourge to one another. When a sense of past evils shall have lost its effect upon us, then the same turbulent spirit will again prevail, to undermine our greatness, and render us weak and contemptible in the sight of the nations that are round about us.
Upon, the whole, so manifest is the power of God