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The Ways of Providence justified to Man. PSAL M lxxxiii. 12, 13.
Behold, these are the ungodly who prosper in the world, they increase in riches.
Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
HIS complaint of the Psalmist, concerning the promiscuous distribution of God's blessings to the just and the unjust,-that the sun should shine without distinction upon the good and the bad, and rains descend upon the righteous and unrighteous man,-is a subject that has afforded much matter for inquiry, and at one time or other has raised doubts to dishearten and perplex the minds of men. If the sovereign LORD of all the earth does look on, whence so much disorder in the face of things!-why is it permitted, that wise and good men should be left often a prey to so many miseries and distresses of life, whilst the guilty and foolish triumph in their offences, and even the tabernacles of robbers prosper ?
To this it is answered,-That therefore there is a future state of rewards and punishments to take place after this life,-wherein all these inequalities shall be made even, when the circumstances of every man's case shall be considered, and where GoD shall be justified in all his ways, and every mouth shall be stopt.
If this was not so,- -if the ungodly were to prosper in the world, and have riches in possession, and no distinction to be made hereafter, to what purpose would it have been to have maintained our integrity?-Lo! then, indeed, should I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.
It is farther said, and what is a more direct an swer to the point, that when God created man, that he might make him capable of receiving happiness at his hands hereafter,he endowed him with liberty and freedom of choice, without which, he could not have been a creature accountable for his actions ;—that it is merely from the bad use he makes of these gifts,—that all those instances of irregularity do result, upon which the complaint is here grounded,-which could nowise be prevented, but by the total subversion of human liberty,—that should God make bare his arm, and interpose on every injustice that is committed,mankind might be said to do what was right,-but, at the same time, to lose the merit of it, since they would act under force and necessity, and not from the determinations of their own mind;-that, upon this supposition,a man could with no more reason expect to go to heaven for acts of temperance, justice and humanity, than for the ordinary impulses of hunger and thirst, which nature directed ;—that God has dealt with man upon better terms; he has first endowed him with liberty and free-will ;—he has set life and death, good and evil, before him;— that he has given him faculties to find out what will be the consequences of either way of acting, and then left him to take which course his reason and direction shall point out.
I shall desist from enlarging any farther upon either of the foregoing arguments in vindication of God's providence, which are urged so often with so much force and conviction, as to leave no room for a reasonable reply ;-since the miseries which befal the good, and the seeming happiness of the wicked,could not be otherwise in such a free state and condition as this in which we are placed.
In all charges of this kind, we generally take two things for granted ;-1st, That in the instan
ces we give, we know certainly the good from the bad; and, 2dly, The respective state of their enjoyments or sufferings.
I shall, therefore, in the remaining part of my discourse, take up your time with a short inquiry into the diffiulties of coming, not only at the true characters of men, but likewise of knowing the degrees either of their real happiness or misery in this life.
The first of these will teach us candor in our judgments of others ;the second, to which I shall confine myself, will teach us humility in our reasonings upon the ways of GOD.
For though the miseries of the good, and the prosperity of the wicked, are not in general to be denied ;-yet I shall endeavor to show, that the particular instances we are apt to produce, when we cry out in the words of the Psalmist, Lo! these are the ungodly,-these prosper and are happy in the world;—I say, I shall endeavor to show, that we are so ignorant of the articles of the charge, and the evidence we go upon to make them good, is so lame and defective,-as to be sufficient by itself to check all propensity to expostulate with GoD's providence,allowing there was no other way of clearing up the matter reconcileably to his attributes.
And, first, what certain and infallible marks have we of the goodness or badness of the bulk of mankind?
If we trust to fame and reports,-if they are good, how do we know but they may proceed from partial friendship or flattery?-when bad, from envy or malice, from ill-natured surmises and constructions of things?—and, on both sides from small matters aggrandized thro' mistake,and sometimes thro' the unskilful relation of even truth itself?-from some, or all of which causes, it happens, that the characters of men, like the
histories of the Egyptians, are to be received and read with caution ;-they are generally dressed out and disfigured with so many dreams and fables, that every ordinary reader shall not be able to distinguish truth from falshood. But allowing these reflections to be too severe in this matter,
that no such thing as envy ever lessened a man's character, or malice blackened it ;-yet, the characters of men are not easily penetrated, as they depend often upon the retired, unseen parts of a man's life. The best and truest piety is most secret; and the worst of actions, for different reasons, will be so too. Some men are modest, and seem to take pains to hide their virtues; and, from a natural distance and reserve in their tempers, scarce suffer their good qualities to be known Others, on the contrary, put in practice a thousand little arts to counterfeit virtue which they have not,- -the better to conceal those vices which they really have ;-and this under fair shows of sanctity, good-nature,generosity, or some virtue or other, too specious to be seen through-too amiable and disinterested to be suspected. These hints may be sufficient to show how hard it is to come at the matter of fact :But one may go a step farther, and say, that, even that, in many cases, could we come to the knowledge of it, is not sufficient by itself to pronounce a man either good or bad. There are numbers of circumstances, which attend every action of a man's life, which can never come to the knowledge of the world,-yet ought to be known, and well weighed, before sentence with any justice can be passed upon him.-A man may have different views, and a different sense of things from what his judges have; and what he understands and feels, and what passes within him,may be a secret treasured up deeply there for ever.-A man, through bodily infirmity, or some complex
ional defect, which perhaps is not in his power to correct, may be subject to inadvertencies, to starts and unhappy turns of temper; he may lie open to snares he is not always aware of; or, through ignorance and want of information and proper helps, he may labor in the dark :-In all which cases, he may do many things which are wrong in themselves, and yet be innocent ;—————at least an object rather to be pitied, then censured with severity and ill-will. These are difficulties which stand in every one's way, in the forming a judgment of the characters of others. But, for once, let us suppose them all to be got over, so that we could see the bottom of every man's heart; let us allow that the word rogue, or honest man, was wrote so legibly in every man's face, that no one could possibly mistake it ;-yet still the happiness of both the one and the other, which is the only fact that can bring the charge home, is what we have so little certain knowledge of,that, bating some flagrant instances,whenever we venture to pronounce upon it, our decisions are little more than random guesses,For who can search the heart of man ?-it is treacherous, even to ourselves, and much more likely to impose upon others. Even in laughter(if you will believe Solomon) the heart is sorrowful;the mind sits drooping, whilst the countenance is gay; and even he, who is the object of envy to those who look no farther than the surface of his estate, may appear at the same time worthy of compassion to those who know his private recesBesides this, a man's unhappiness is not to be ascertained so much from what is known to have befallen him,-as from his particular turn and cast of mind, and capacity of bearing it.-Poverty, exile, loss of fame or friends, the death of children, the dearest of all pledges of a man's happiness, make not equal impressions upon every