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My flesh trembleth for fear of thee, and I am afraid of thy judgments.—Ver. 120.
IN this psalm you find the man of God under divers passions, some times of joy, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of hope and courage, and sometimes of fear. As there is a time for all things in this world, there are several conditions and duties that we run through, and we have affections planted in us that suit with every condition. Religion doth not nullify, but sanctify our affections. Some have vainly thought affections to be an after-growth of noisome weeds in our nature corrupted; whereas they are wholesome herbs, implanted in us by God at our first creation, of great use to grace when rightly stirred and ordered: Anima nunquam melius agit, &c. The passion expressed in the text is fear; for two or three verses his meditations had been taken up in the observation of God’s judgments upon evil-doers: ‘Thou hast trodden down all them that err from thy statutes; for their deceit is falsehood’ (ver. 118). They were once high, but God hath brought them down with ignominy and contempt; they had borne themselves out in their sinful courses on account of their prosperity, but at length they are utterly ruined and broken. And why? ‘For their deceit is falsehood;’ that is, they were unmasked, and all their pretences of piety and justice found to be fraud and imposture. In ver. 119 he still insisteth upon the same argument: ‘Thou puttest away all the wicked of the earth like dross; therefore I love thy testimonies.’ They seemed to cleave to the church and people of God as dross to gold or silver. That God, who is the purger and refiner of his church, failed not to put a difference, and to consume the dross and refine his silver. The use that David made of these judgments was twofold:—(1.) To love God’s ways so much the more, and to cleave to them with greater firmness, ‘Therefore I love thy testimonies. (2.) To fear before the Lord, and tremble at the Lord’s judgments, as in the text. There are two affections wherein we should always seek to profit—the love of God and the fear of God. Of this last in the text, ‘My flesh trembleth for fear of thee, and I am afraid of thy judgments.’ In which words we have—
1. The degree of his fear, my flesh trembleth.
2. The object of his fear, for fear of thee.
3. The ground and reason of his fear, I am afraid of thy judgments.
1. The degree of his fear, ‘My flesh trembleth.’ The word samar St Hierome rendereth, horrivilavit caro mea—my flesh is in horror and affrightment. Symmachus before him, ὀρθοτριχεῖ ἀπὸ τοῦ φόβου ἡ σάρξ μου—my flesh maketh my hair stand on end, as the prickles of a hedgehog, which is an emblem of horror. The poet Persius expresseth such an affrightment thus, Excussit membris tremor albus aristas—my fear made my hair stand up like a field of corn, from the contraction of the skin. So it happeneth in cases of fear. You have the like expression, Job iv. 14, 15, ‘Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake; the hair of my flesh stood up.’ And elsewhere the same word is so used. The Septuagint reads it imperatively, καθήλωσον ἐκ τοῦ φόβου τὰς σαρκάς μου, ἀπὸ γὰρ τῶν κριμάτων σου ἐφοβήθην—pierce through my flesh with fear, as with nails. Surely it noteth some deep sense and high degree of fear; as the prophet Habakkuk expresseth upon like occasion, Hab. iii. 15, ‘When I heard this, my belly trembled, my lips quivered, rottenness entered into my bones, and I trembled in my flesh;’ his bowels did beat and shake for fear, and his lips quivered for fear, that he could not speak. The judgments of God ought to beget a deep sense and trembling, not a slight affection in us. The prophet saith, Amos iii. 8, ‘The lion roareth; who will not fear?’ We have need to stir up our hearts again and again. When the Lord roareth and cometh forth to judgment, we have need be ashamed of our stupidity when we are not affected.
2. The object of his fear, ‘For fear of thee.’ It was not the fear of man that put him into such an agony and consternation. We are always dissuaded from the fear of man, but we are exhorted to the fear of God: Mat. x. 28, ‘And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’ The one is a snare—Prov. xxix. 25, ‘The fear of man bringeth a snare; but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord shall be safe’—but the other is a duty. The great preservation of the soul from spiritual dangers is the fear of God. We are tuti si cauti, securi si attoniti, saith Tertullian—the fear of God maketh us circumspect, and so bringeth safety to us; yea, the one is the cure of the other, Isa. viii. 12, 13. As one nail driveth out another, or as Moses’ rod did eat up the rods of the magicians, so doth the fear of God against all contrary fears and terrors, whereby the heart may be turned from God. Man can only kill the body, but God can cast both soul and body into hell-fire; so that we may set God against man, soul and body against the body only, and hell-fire against temporal punishment. As that holy man said, Da veniam, imperator, tu carcerem comminaris, Deus autem comminatur Gehennam—thou threatenest bonds and imprisonment, he threateneth everlasting damnation; therefore it is God is to be feared: Ps. lxxvi. 7, ‘Thou, even thou, are to be feared; and who can stand in thy sight when thou art angry?’ Not man, in comparison of God. Man against man may stand, and wicked men in the time of his patience may stand; but when God judgeth, who can stand? Now of God there is a double fear—filial, which draweth us to him; and servile, which driveth us from him: Exod. xx. 20, ‘And Moses said unto the people, Fear not, for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your face, that ye sin not.’ Fear not with a slavish fear, but an awful fear, composed of reverence and love.
3. The ground of his fear, ‘I am afraid of thy judgments.’ The great seventy which God did exercise in punishing the evil-doers, and purging out the dross. When God doth smite the wicked and call them to an account for sin, he warneth his own people to stand in awe. As here, ‘Thou puttest away the wicked like dross. When the threatening is made good, and terrible judgments are abroad, every one needeth to look to himself; not only to love God’s testimonies, but to stand in awe of his judgments. We need all affections to keep us within our duty, both fear and love.
Doct. That when God is angry, and his judgments are abroad in the world, it becometh his own people to observe them, and have a> deep awe and sense thereof.
Here I shall show you—
1. How far the people of God do and ought to take notice of his judgments.
2. This fear that is wrought thereby, whether it be an infirmity or a duty.
3. The reasons why it becometh them to have a deep awe and sense of these things.
For the first:—
1. His ancient judgments in former times ought to be laid to heart by us, especially when like sins abound. The scripture referreth to the days of Lot and Noah, and biddeth us remember Lot’s wife, Luke xvii. 26-32. God biddeth his people, ‘But go ye now to my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it, for the wickedness of my people Israel,’ Jer. vii. 12. And the apostle tells us that all the punishments that befell the stubborn Israelites are for our caution and warning: 1 Cor. x. 1-10, ‘And all these things happened unto them for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come;’ so he concludeth in ver. 11. And the apostle tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah were ‘an example to those that after should live ungodly,’ 2 Peter ii. 6. A people might easily read their own doom and destiny if they would blow off the dust from these ancient providences, and mark the prints of God’s justice and truth in them, and how the word of God was verified upon them, for these are but copies and patterns. The desert of sin is still the same, and the exactness of divine justice remaineth still the same. These providences are pledges of the same wrath, of the like for substance to come upon us also, if we walk contrary to God. Others have smarted, why not we? God is impartially and immutably just: Gal. iii. 20, ‘He is but one;’ always consonant unto himself, like unto himself; his power is the same, so is his justice; and therefore we should take warning: Exemplo qui peccat, bis peccat. He that will plunge himself in a bog or quagmire, where others have miscarried before him. is doubly guilty of folly, because he neither feareth nor will take warning by their example. This is one great benefit we have by the historical part of the word, that it doth not only preserve the memory of the saints, that we may imitate their graces and enjoy their blessings, but also records the sins and punishments of the wicked, that we may know God hath owned the historical part of the word, and fear for ourselves: Heb. ii. 1, 2, ‘Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward;’ Rom. i. 18, ‘The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.’ So the historical parts are also to justify the prophetical. It is not only a register and chronicle of what is past, but a calendar and prognostication of what is to come. God might have blotted out the memory of sinners, that it should be no more thought or heard of, but he would secure it upon record for our learning; as some malefactors, their bodies are not buried, but quarters set upon places of greatest resort: Ut qui vivi noluerunt prodesse, morte eorum respublica utatur; or as Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, to season after ages. So that our flesh may tremble at the old judgments, that Adam for one sin was turned out of paradise, the old world swept away with a flood, Dathan and Abiram swallowed up of the earth, Achitophel and Judas brought to the halter, Herod eaten up with worms for his pride; and all these have their use.
2. Judgments that light upon other countries ought to be made use of by us, because usually they go in, a circuit; the cup of trembling goeth round, Jer. xxv. 32; and because by this means we may learn to be wise, and have all our schooling at other men’s costs. As God expresseth it, Zeph. iii. 6, 7, ‘I have cut off the nations: their towers are desolate: I made their streets waste, that none passed by: their cities are destroyed, so that there is no man, none inhabitant. I said, Surely thou wilt fear me, thou wilt receive instruction; so their dwelling should not be cut off, however I punished them: but they rose early, and corrupted all their doings.’ God would have us take warning at a distance, and, while he is yet a great way off, to send for conditions of peace; otherwise it is a new provocation, and the judgment is hastened, Jer. iii. 7-10. A fire in one house alarmeth all the street: and they make provision for their safety.
3. When the judgments of God break in among us, and are executed before our eyes, that must be the more considered: Isa. xxvi. 9, ‘When thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.’ God looketh to be more reverenced and obeyed for this, because then what was before matter of faith is made matter of sense; and we need not doubt any more whether God will punish the disobedient when his threatening is made good. Smoke is a sign of fire, much more when the fire is breaking out; and we see what we only heard before, and we feel what we would not believe before.
4. Though we should be well at ease in our own persons, yet the judgments upon others should be considered by us. Nehemiah, chap. i., preferred at court, yet hath a sad resentment of the state of Jerusalem. So Daniel, chap. ix. 5, a great man in Babylon, yet layeth to heart the judgments upon the people of God.
5. Though the judgment pursue but a few, yet all should fear. When Ananias and Sapphira fell down dead, it is said, Acts v. 5, ‘That great fear fell upon all that heard these things.’ God, in one or a few, giveth an instance of his severity that others may tremble; as it is said of David, when the breach was made upon Uzzah, 1 Chron. xiii. 12, ‘And David was afraid of God that day, saying, How shall I bring the ark of God home to me?’ The sin was Uzzah’s, the breach only upon him, but the stroke was God’s, and that maketh David tremble. Yea, the pagan mariners, when divine vengeance had pursued Jonah, chap. i. 18, ‘Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and made vows.’ The danger was for Jonah’s sake; when he was thrown overboard, there was a calm; but the men feared greatly.
6. Though it should light upon enemies to us and God, yet their fall is not to be insulted over, but God’s hand observed with great reverence: ‘Thou puttest away the wicked of the earth like dross;’ then ‘my flesh trembleth,’ saith David. So in Ps. lxxvi. 6, 7, ‘At thy rebuke, O God of Jacob, both the chariot and the horse are cast into a deep sleep. Thou, even thou, art to be feared; and who may stand in thy sight when once thou art angry?’ We ought to express a sense of our Father’s displeasure, as a child quaketh when he heareth his father is angry with or doth correct a servant. Naturalists say a lion will tremble to see a dog beaten before him: Ps. Hi. 6, ‘The righteous also shall see and fear.’ The godly will be wise observers of God’s work and dispensations of justice, and the spiritual advantage they may gain thereby: Prov. xxi. 12, ‘The righteous man wisely considereth the house of the wicked, and that God overthroweth the wicked for their wickedness.’ Holy men do exceedingly profit by these judgments.
7. Much more should we tremble at God’s judgments upon his own people, when he cometh to visit their iniquities with rods and their transgressions with scourges. If this be done in the green tree, what in the dry? ‘If judgment begin at the house of God, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?’ 1 Peter iv. 18. Many times they are broken with a great breach and heavy corrections: Jer. xxv. 17, ‘Then I took the cup at the Lord’s hand, and made all the nations to drink.’ His own people sip of the bitter cup that others drank the dregs of. The world shall know that he is a God hating sin, and therefore will punish them for it, lest he should seem to approve their sin. Though God doth not condemn his people to hell for their sin, yet by his sharp corrections of them in this life the world shall know how much he hateth sin; especially when they have made the name of God to be evil spoken of. God will vindicate himself. Now these should make us tremble; they are ordered for this purpose.
Secondly, I shall inquire what this fear is, an infirmity or a duty. To many, to fear judgments seemeth slavish, and thereupon build a false conceit, that God only is to be feared for his mercies and not for his judgments. Indeed ‘God is feared for his goodness,’ Hosea iii. 5, but not only. Judgments are the object of fear; and the fear conversant about them may be so far from being a sin that it is a grace. Briefly, then, it is not such a fear as driveth us from God, Gen. iii. 5, but bringeth us to him, keepeth us with him: ‘I will put my fear into their hearts, and they shall never depart from me,’ Jer. xxxii. 40. They are afraid both to sin and to suffer for sin. Afraid to sin, and so it is the fear of caution and circumspection. Certainly it can be no fault to be afraid of that which deserveth punishment or judgment; and afraid to suffer for sin in this world, where all things come alike to all; and in the world to come, where God will stir up ail his wrath. But to fear punishment, is not this servile? No, it is not. First, if it keep its proportion, and doth not exceed its limits, driving us into a despairing anguish, such as the devil’s is, James ii. 19. Secondly, if it have its spiritual use and end, which is the main and principal thing, which is to make us cleave the closer to God: Jer. xxxii. 40, ‘But I will put my fear into their hearts, and they shall not depart from me.’ Or, thirdly, if it be subordinate, which is to make us cautelous and watchful against sin, or such things as may occasion these judgments, fleeing from wrath to come, Mat. iii. 7, and to use the means for our preservation with the more diligence, Heb. xi. 7.
Thirdly, The reasons.
1. Because a tender heart is easily affected with all God’s dispensations; one of the great and first privileges of grace is a heart of flesh, Ezek. xxxvi. 26. Wicked men have a heart of stone, a stout, obstinate, stupid spirit; but when God’s hand is upon their persons they have no sense: Jer. ix. 3, ‘Thou hast smitten them, but they have not grieved.’ But God’s children have a heart of flesh, that trembleth at his word, and at judgments at a distance: they are soon affected with a providence. This tenderness, as it is wrought in them by grace at the first, so it is increased by their acquaintance with God and experiences of his love. Familiarity with men breedeth contempt; familiarity with God not so. None are moved with reverence to the Lord more than they that know him best, and are most familiar with him. None rejoice more than they when they find God is pleased and giveth out demonstrations of grace to the world. None fear more than they when God is angry: Ps. xc. 11, ‘Who knoweth the power of thine anger? According to thy fear, so is thy wrath.’ The world think not of God’s anger till they feel the terrible effects of it; but God’s children, that have a deep awe of God, and observe him in all his motions, have the greatest apprehensions of his displeasure.
2. It is the property of God’s children, when they look to anything without them, still to draw home the providence, and consider their own case, and to edify themselves by that they see in others, whether it be good or evil. Electorum corda semper ad se sollicite videant, saith Gregory. When Uzzah was stricken, ‘How shall I bring the ark of God home to me?’ saith David, 1 Chron. xiii. 12. Will not God be as severe to me, if I behave myself unreverently? He ob served how failing about holy things did much incense God’s wrath: Gal. vi. 13, ‘Ye which are spiritual, restore such a one with meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.’ They that rigidly and uncharitably censure others, are usually greatest strangers to their own hearts; but a man that draweth all things home, knoweth that if God should let loose temptations upon him, he may be as bad as others. A man that usually reflects upon himself will be afraid, and will not reflect on the judgments executed on others, but tremble. Nunquid ego tali? &c., was a good question in a heathen. If God should visit my transgressions, I have broken his laws, and deserve as great a punishment. A spirit of application is a great advantage. Our Lord telleth others, Luke xiii. 5, ye shall likewise perish, without repentance. David was afraid lest he should be cast away with the dross, because they love not God’s testimonies; therefore he would not only love his testimonies, hut also fear his judgments. Carnal men forget themselves when they are so bitter against others.
3. The usefulness of this fear showeth it is their duty. It is very necessary—
[1.] To stir up watchfulness and care for our own safety, that we may not fall into like offences, or do anything that is displeasing to God, lest we fall into his vengeance. We are bidden to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, Phil. ii. 12. We have to do with a just and holy God, who is tender of his laws. Now, this fear should be more active and lively when we see his judgments executed, for then God is ready at hand with a whip to awaken us, and to show us he will not be dallied with, and that danger attendeth us, when we begin to straggle out of our duty. He that breaketh through a hedge, a serpent shall bite him. Fear is the great restraint of sin, as the fear of man keepeth the beasts from hurting him, Gen. ix. 2; it is their bridle: ‘The fear of you shall be upon the beasts of the field.’ So fear of God helps to keep from offending him, or breaking his laws.
[2.] To humble us, when we see that sin shall not escape unpunished. Alas! if God should enter into judgment with us, who could stand? Ps. cxliii. 2. Non dicit cum hostibus tuis, sed cum servo tuo. He doth not say, If them shouldest enter into judgment with thine enemy, but with thy servant. God is a just judge, and therefore, when we see judgments executed upon others, we may be afraid of his righteousness. Every humble heart is conscious to himself of grievous offences; and if God, when he cometh to purge out dross, should be severe with us, what miserable wretched creatures should we be! This striketh a holy fear into our hearts, and so helps us to humble ourselves in his presence.
[3.] To make us thankful for our mercies and gracious escape. It is fear that maketh us taste the sweetness of the promise of free par don, when we see from what miseries we are delivered by the mercy of God. When the Israelites had seen the Egyptians drowned in the water, they saw they had cause to triumph in the God of their salvation, Exod. xv. 1, 2. The consideration of our defects is in part represented to us in the bitter experience of others; there we may see what dangers we are liable unto, were it not for his preventing grace, that we are riot condemned with the world, and left to perish in our sins.
[4.] To quicken and sharpen our prayers. God knoweth how to take vengeance on all iniquity, even in his dearest servants: Joel ii. 17, ‘Spare thy people, O Lord, and give not thine heritage to reproach.’ Sparing is an act of God’s mercy, withdrawing and mode rating deserved judgments. Now the more our fear is increased, the more earnest and importunate will we be to keep off or get the judgment removed.
Use. Reproof of the greatest part of the world, that pass by God’s judgments, and take no notice of them, so as to fear and return to him; not his judgments upon others. When the arrows of God fly round about us, we should fear for ourselves, and when wrath is making inquisition for sinners, be the more earnest to be found in Christ. But a senseless stupidity possesseth most men; they mind none of these things. The Gibeonites were more wise and cautious, Josh. ix. 3, 4. When they saw the cities of Jericho and Ai destroyed, and their inhabitants cut off by the sword, they did not expect the coming of Joshua, but sent messengers to him, and by a wile struck up a covenant with him, before he came any further. Or as that captain, when two before him with their fifties were destroyed by fire, he fell upon his knees before the prophet, 2 Kings i. 13, 14, saying, ‘O man of God, let my life and the life of these fifty thy servants be precious in thy sight. Behold, there came fire down from heaven, and burnt up the two captains of the former fifties, with their fifties; therefore let my life be precious in thy sight.’ But oh! our blindness and stupidness! though others fall under the judgment of God, we are as immovable as rocks, and do not fall down before the Lord to deprecate his anger. Certainly if we had a due sense of our condition, we are as worthy as they; it is by the mercy of God that yet we stand. Therefore we should fear with a holy fear, that we may bridle the flesh, humble ourselves before the Lord, be thankful for our safety, and be earnest in prayer: this we should do when we see any others in afflictions. Again, when judgments are on ourselves, when God cometh nearer to us, and beginneth to touch us with his hand, we should relent presently. To be sinning and suffering is the condition of the damned in hell. The Holy Ghost sets a brand upon Ahaz: 2 Chron. xxviii. 22, ‘That in the time of his distress he did yet trespass more and more against the Lord; this is that king Ahaz.’ If we keep our pride, luxury, vanity, wantonness still, our avarice, coldness in religion, Sabbath profanation, if we be not brought by all our afflictions to fear God the more, such a brand will he put upon us, yea, our judgments will be increased, and the furnace heated seven times hotter; as when the child is stubborn and obstinate, the father redoubleth his strokes. Therefore we are to beg his Spirit with his rod, that we may be the better by all his corrections: Numb. xii. 14, ‘If her father had spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days?’ So if our heavenly Father be displeased and casts contempt upon us, &c.
Use 2. It reproveth those that triumph over the fallen, and declaim and inveigh against their sins, but do not consider their own. We should rather tremble and learn to fear from every judgment executed, though upon the worst of men, and say, Well, God is a righteous God, and whosoever provoketh him to wrath shall not escape unpunished. But this ἐπιχαιρεκακία, this insulting over and upbraiding others with their evil and afflicted condition, is a sin which God cannot endure, and will certainly punish: Prov. xvii. 5, ‘And he that is glad at calamities shall not be unpunished.’ If God hath stricken them, and the hand of justice found them out, we should be tender to them: Prov. xxiv. 17, 18, ‘Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth; lest the Lord see it and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.’ Some read it, Et convertat iram suam in te—he turn his wrath upon thee. Thine enemy is not he that thou hatest, for a Christian should hate nobody, but he that hateth thee. If we rejoice in their evil, certainly it is a sign we hate them, however we please ourselves with the thoughts of forgiving them. As not when he falleth, so not when he stumbleth, not at lesser evils that befall them. Many will say they do not wish their destruction, but a little evil they could be glad of; which showeth how rare true piety is. God will give him like advantage against thee; as the leprosy of Naaman doth cleave to Gehazi. David, when he heard of the death of Saul, rent his clothes and wept and fasted, 2 Sam. i. 11, 12. Therefore, to feed our eyes with the misery and torment of others, is no holy affection. Job disclaimed it: Job xxxi. 29, ‘If I rejoiced at the destruction of him that hated me, or lifted up myself when evil found him, neither have I suffered my mouth to sin by wishing a curse to his soul.’ Revenge is sweet to carnal nature, but such a disposition as that cannot or should not find room in a gracious heart. To evidence his integrity, Job produceth this vindication. Though they that hate us be our worst enemies, and should have spirits steeped in bitterness and wormwood against us, yet ought we not to rejoice at the misery of an enemy. Yea, to mourn at their fall becometh us more, if we would act as Christians; and to fear because of it is an act of piety. Therefore this old leaven of malice and revenge must be purged out, this being inwardly delighted, when we hear of the fall of those that hate us. When thine enemy falleth, consider, Either I myself am like him, or worse, or better than he. If better, who made thee to differ? If worse, thou hast cause to wonder thou art spared, and to fear before the Lord. Let us therefore observe the judgments of God executed according to his word. Lactantius telleth us, Quod non metuitur, contemnitur, quod contemnitur utique non colitur. If the wrath of God be not feared, it is contemned; and if God be contemned, he cannot be worshipped.
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