Witherspoon: There are Bounds to the Evil of Men and Nations

John WitherspoonCalled Unto Liberty, Founding Era Sermons, John Witherspoon

May 1776


Surely the Wrath of Man shall praise thee; the remainder of Wrath shalt thou restrain.

Psalm LXXVI. 10.

There is not a greater evidence either of the reality or the power of religion, than a firm belief of God’s universal presence, and a constant attention to the influence and operation of his providence. It is by this means that the Christian may be said, in the emphatical scripture language, “to walk with God, and to endure as seeing him who is invisible.”

The doctrine of divine providence is very full and complete in the sacred oracles. It extends not only to things which we may think of great moment, and therefore worthy of notice, but to things the most indifferent and inconsiderable; “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing,” says our Lord, “and one of them falleth not to the ground without your heavenly Father”; nay, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.[”] It extends not only to things beneficial and salutary, or to the direction and assistance of those who are the servants of the living God; but to things seemingly most hurtful and destructive, and to persons the most refractory and disobedient. He overrules all his creatures, and all their actions. Thus we are told, that “fire, hail, snow, vapour, and stormy wind, fulfil his word,” in the course of nature; and even so the most impetuous and disorderly passions of men, that are under no restraint from themselves, are yet perfectly subject to the dominion of Jehovah. They carry his commission, they obey his orders, they are limited and restrained by his authority, and they conspire with every thing else in promoting his glory. There is the greater need to take notice of this, that men are not generally sufficiently aware of the distinction between the law of God and his purpose; they are apt to suppose, that as the temper of the sinner is contrary to the one, so the outrages of the sinner are able to defeat the other; than which nothing can be more false. The truth is plainly asserted, and nobly expressed by the psalmist in the text, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.”


Would you like to learn more about political thought and career of John Witherspoon? TML recommends Jeffry R. Morrison’s John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic.


This psalm was evidently composed as a song of praise for some signal victory obtained, which was at the same time a remarkable deliverance from threatening danger. The author was one or other of the later prophets, and the occasion probably the unsuccessful assault of Jerusalem, by the army of Sennacherib king of Assyria, in the days of Hezekiah. Great was the insolence and boasting of his generals and servants against the city of the living God, as may be seen in the thirty-sixth chapter of Isaiah. Yet it pleased God to destroy their enemies, and, by his own immediate interposition, to grant them deliverance. Therefore the Psalmist says in the fifth and sixth verses of this psalm, “The stout-hearted are spoiled, they have slept their sleep. None of the men of might have found their hands. At thy rebuke, O God of Jacob! both the chariot and the horse are cast into a deep sleep.” After a few more remarks to the same purpose, he draws the inference, or makes the reflection in the text, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain[”]: which may be paraphrased thus, The fury and injustice of oppressors shall bring in a tribute of praise to thee; the influence of thy righteous providence shall be clearly discerned; the countenance and support thou wilt give to thine own people shall be gloriously illustrated; thou shalt set the bounds which the boldest cannot pass.

I am sensible, my brethren, that the time and occasion of this psalm, may seem to be in one respect ill suited to the interesting circumstances of this country at present. It was composed after the victory was obtained; whereas we are now but putting on the harness and entering upon an important contest, the length of which it is impossible to foresee, and the issue of which it will perhaps be thought presumption to foretell. But as the truth, with respect to God’s moral government, is the same and unchangeable; as the issue, in the case of Sennacherib’s invasion, did but lead the prophet to acknowledge it; our duty and interest conspire in calling upon us to improve it. And I have chosen to insist upon it on this day of solemn humiliation, as it will probably help us to a clear and explicit view of what should be the chief subject of our prayers and endeavors, as well as the great object of our hope and trust, in our present situation.

The truth, then, asserted in this text, which I propose to illustrate and improve, is, That all the disorderly passions of men, whether exposing the innocent to private injury, or whether they are the arrows of divine judgment in public calamity, shall, in the end, be to the praise of God: Or, to apply it more particularly to the present state of the American colonies, and the plague of war, The ambition of mistaken princes, the cunning and cruelty of oppressive and corrupt ministers, and even the inhumanity of brutal soldiers, however dreadful, shall finally promote the glory of God, and in the mean time, while the storm continues, his mercy and kindness shall appear in prescribing bounds to their rage and fury.


Source: Excerpt – the introductory remarks – from John Witherspoon’s May 1776 sermon, “The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men,” delivered at the College of New Jersey (Princeton) where he served as its President from 1768 – 1792. He was also a member of the Continental Congress, a man who urged the signing of, and who did himself sign the Declaration of Independence. For more background on Witherspoon go here.


Called Unto Liberty is researched, compiled, and edited (with occasional notes and commentary) by The Moral Liberal Editor In Chief, Steve Farrell. Copyright © 1999 – 2014 Steve Farrell and The Moral Liberal.