Joseph Sewall (1688–1769). A Harvard graduate of 1707, Sewall spent a long and generally serene ministry at Old South Church in Boston, where he preached beyond his eightieth year. He was a strong Calvinist, yet he became a friend of George Whitefield, who preached in Sewall’s pulpit during several visits to Boston. He was offered the presidency of Harvard in 1724, but he declined it after a peevish attack by Cotton Mather. He preached the artillery sermon in 1714 and the election sermon in 1724, and he was awarded a D.D. by the University of Glasgow in 1731. With his classmate Reverend Thomas Prince, he edited The Compleat Body of Divinity from collected papers of Samuel Willard (1726). His own papers were not collected, but Sibley’s Harvard Graduates (vol. 5), lists twenty-nine writings by him.
Reprinted here is a fast-day sermon preached before the Massachusetts governor, the council, and the house of representatives on December 3, 1740. Always ready to look for underlying causes and strongly attached to his province, Sewall readily supported the patriot cause and permitted his meeting house to become a shrine of the American cause. In Charles Chauncy’s words, Sewall “was a strenuous asserter of our civil and ecclesiastical charter-rights and priviledges. . . . He knew they were the purchase of our forefathers at the expence of much labor, blood, and treasire [sic]. He could not bear the thought of their being wrested out of our hands. He esteemed it our duty, in all wise, reasonable, and legal ways, to endeavour the preservation of them. . .” (Chauncy, Discourse Occasioned by the Death of . . . Joseph Sewall [Boston, 1769], p. 26).
And God saw their Works, that they turned from their evil Way, and God repented of the Evil that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not.
Jonah III. 10.
In this book we have a very memorable and instructive history. The prophet Jonah, whose name the book bears, was call’d of God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian monarchy, and cry against it: He criminally attempted to fly from the presence of the Lord, by going to Joppa, and from thence to Tarshish; but that God whom the winds and sea obey, raised such a storm as made the heathen mariners conclude there was something very extraordinary, and accordingly they propose to cast lots, that they might know for whose cause this evil was upon them. Jonah is taken, and cast into the sea; upon which it ceased from raging: And thus, by the wonderful Providence of God, he became a type of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who having appeased the wrath of God by his obedience unto death, lay buried in the earth three days, Matth. 12. 40. For as Jonas was three Days and three Nights in the Whale’s Belly: So shall the Son of Man be three Days and three Nights in the Heart of the Earth. Jonah having cried to God, as out of the Belly of Hell, was delivered from his dreadful confinement. Chap. 2. v. 10. The Lord spake unto the Fish, and it vomited Jonah upon the dry Land. Thus the brute creation, even the mighty whales, obey the word of God’s power, while men transgress his law. Jonah, being thus delivered from the depth of distress, obeys the second call of God to him, Ch. 3. v. 1. Happy is that rebuke, how sharp soever, which is sanctified to make us return to God and our duty. And here it is observ’d, in the third verse, that Nineveh was an exceeding great city, great to or of God,* “Things great and eminent have the name of God put upon them in scripture[,]” of three days journey. It is computed to have been sixty miles in compass, which may well be reckon’d three days journey for a footman, twenty miles a day, says Mr. Henry; or as the same author observeth, walking slowly and gravely, as Jonah must, when he went about preaching, it would take him up at least three days to go thro’ all the principal streets and lanes of the city, to proclaim his message, that all might have notice of it.” However, no greatness or wordly glory will be any security against God’s destroying judgments, if such places go on obstinately in their sins. O let not London! let not Boston, presume to deal unjustly in the Land of Uprightness, lest the holy God say of them as of his ancient people, You have I known of all the Families of the Earth: Therefore I will punish you for all your Iniquities, Amos 3. 2. But to return, Jonah, in obedience to the divine command, cries against this great city, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown, v. 4. In the five following verses, we have the faith and repentance of the Ninevites described, which our Lord takes particular notice of, Matth. 12. 41. The Men of Nineveh shall rise in Judgment with this Generation, and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonas, and behold, a greater than Jonas is here. Let us then attend to these words with reverence and godly fear, lest they also rise up in judgment against us in the terrible day of the Lord. And here I would more particularly observe, 1. The People of Nineveh believed God, v. 5. Jonah, we may suppose, declared to them the true and living God, who made heaven and earth, and publish’d his message in his name; and God wrought such a faith in them as excited a fear of his judgments, and made them deeply concern’d to put away their provoking sins, that they might escape the threatned destruction. And this impression of fear and concern was general; for we find, 2dly, That they proclaim’d a Fast, and put on Sackcloth from the greatest of them even to the least of them. Yea, there was a royal proclamation for this by the Decree of the King and his Nobles, v. 7. And this great monarch humbled himself before the Most High, who cuts off the spirit of princes, and is terrible to the kings of the earth. The king of Nineveh arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and cover’d him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes, v. 6. Thus did he practically confess, that he had behav’d unworthy his royal dignity, and deserv’d to have it taken from him. And the proclamation requir’d the strictest abstinence, Let neither Man nor Beast taste any Thing. Not as if the beasts were capable of moral good or evil; but as these had been abus’d by them, they would have their moans and cries under the want of food, further to excite penitential sorrow in themselves. And all are commanded to cry mightily to God, v. 8. Yea, all are exhorted to turn every one from his evil Way, and from the violence that is in their hands. The Ninevites were sensible, that to outward signs and means of humiliation, they must add repentance and reformation. 3. We have their Encouragement to attend this Duty, in a time of impending judgment, v. 9. Who can tell if God will turn and repent. We may suppose that Jonah declar’d to them the grace and mercy of the God of Israel, and shew’d them the way of salvation thro’ the then promised Messiah; that tho’ their bodies should be destroy’d, their souls might be sav’d in the day of the Lord. And they might well infer some ground of hope as to their temporal deliverance from this, that the judgment was not presently executed; but the space of forty days was given them for repentance. However, as it doth not appear they had any particular promise respecting this matter, so their faith and hope are here express’d as attended with doubt and fear. Who can tell? A like expression we have, even respecting God’s covenant people, Who knows if he will return and repent? Joel 2. 14. 4. We have an account of Nineveh’s repentance, and God’s gracious deliverance, v. 10. Godsaw their Works, i.e. with approbation and gracious acceptance. Their works “whereby they testified the sincerity of their faith and repentance.”* Our Saviour says, they repented at the preaching of Jonas. Luke 11. 32. We may conclude therefore that his preaching was accompanied with the powerful influences of the spirit of God convincing them of their many hainous transgressions, awakening them with fears of God’s judgments, and prevailing upon them to turn from their sins to the Lord. Had it not been for this wonderful work of grace upon them, they had been like to the sinners of the old world, who went on securely, tho’ Noah was a Preacher of Righteousness to them, ’till the Flood came, and took them all away. Here were some, I hope, and that not a few, who had saving repentance given them; and others were so terrified and awakened, that they engaged at least in an outward and publick reformation. And may we not suppose that in this wonderful work, God gave his ancient people a specimen and earnest of the call of the gentiles? Now, upon this their repentance it is said, Godrepented of the Evil, and he did it not. Which words must be understood in such a sense as is consistent with the divine perfections. It is not spoken of God, as if he could in a proper sense be griev’d for what he had done in threatning the Ninevites; no, this was right, and he had a gracious design in it: Nor, as if he had alter’d his counsels concerning them. He is of one mind, and who can turn him? Nor, as if he acted contrary to truth and faithfulness; no, the threatning was conditional. And accordingly when they repented God turned from his fierce anger, and gave them deliverance; which is agreable to that rule of his government which we have declar’d. Jer. 18. 7. 8. At what Instant I shall speak concerning a Nation, and concerning a Kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it: If that Nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their Evil, I will repent of the Evil that I thought to do unto them.
From the words thus explained to you, I would observe the following doctrines,
(1.) If we would seek the Lord in a right manner, we must believe him; the threatnings and promises of his word. (2.) It is the duty of a people to cry to God in prayer with fasting, when he threatens to bring destroying judgments upon them; and their rulers should be ready to lead in the right discharge of this duty. (3.) Our seeking to God by prayer with fasting must be attended with true repentance, and sincere endeavours after reformation. (4.) When a people do thus attend their duty, God will repent of the evil, and not bring destruction upon them.
I.If we would seek the Lord in a right manner under his threatned judgments, we must believe him; the threatnings and promises of his word.
The people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast. We are not told what particular credentials Jonah produc’d to prove that he was a true prophet sent from God. His preaching might be more full and particular than is here recorded; and God set it home, so that they were made sensible they had to do with the true and faithful one, whose name is Jehovah; and accordingly they set themselves to entreat his favour with great seriousness. And thus we must believe, that the Lord is that powerful, holy, faithful, and merciful God, which he declareth himself to be in his word. We must realise it, that his word is sure and most worthy of credit, whether he threatens evil to the impenitent, or promiseth mercy to such as confess and forsake their sins; or we shall never be concerned to seek his face in a right manner. Without faith it is impossible to please God, in our approaches to him: For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and that he is a Rewarder of them that diligently seek him. Heb. 11. 6. Agreably, in a time of danger, that pious king Jehoshaphet, said to God’s ancient people, Hear me, O Judah, and ye the Inhabitants of Jerusalem, Believe in the Lord your God, so shall you be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper. 2 Chron. 20. 20. Certainly then, we who are born under the clear light of the gospel dispensation, must believe the Lord our God speaking to us in his word, if we would attend the duties of this day, so as to obtain mercy for ourselves, and this distressed people. We must believe that if we go on obstinately in our sins, and despite the warnings God has given us in his word and by his providences, we shall after our hardness and impenitent heart treasure up unto our selves wrath against the day of wrath; But if we forsake the way of sin, and return unto the Lord, he will have mercy and abundantly pardon. We must believe our Lord Jesus when he says to us, Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. And we must also receive it as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and will cast out none that come to him in the exercise of faith and repentance. O that there was such a faith in us! Then we should fly to God’s name, as to our strong tower this day, and find him our defence and refuge in the day of trouble. By Faith Noah being warnned of God of Things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an Ark to the saving of his House; by the which he condemned the World, and became Heir of the Righteousness which is by Faith, Heb. 11. 7.
II.It is the duty of a people to cry to God in prayer with fasting, when he threatens to bring destroying judgments upon them; and their rulers should be ready to lead in the right discharge of this duty.
Thus did the men of Nineveh, nor did their king refuse to humble himself and lie in the dust before that Almighty God, who threatned to destroy them. The order given was, “Let Man and Beast be covered with Sackcloth, and cry mightily to God.” This then is a moral duty incumbent on all as God shall call. God’s ancient people practised it. Thus when the children of Moab and Ammon came against Jehoshaphet to battel, he feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a Fast, 2 Chron. 20. 1–3. And we have an account in scripture of more private fasting, Mark 2. 18, 20. Where we are informed that the disciples of John, and of the pharisees used to fast. And our Lord declares that after his departure, His Disciples should also Fast. And we have particular direction about religious fasting, 1. Cor. 7. 5. Here then, I would be a little more particular in describing the duty of fasting and prayer, in which we are this day engaged.
1.In religious fasting we must chasten our bodies, by abstaining from meat and drink, and other pleasures which gratify the outward man.
Thus must we acknowledge that we have abused God’s good creatures, and are unworthy of the least drop and crumb even of the blessings of his common Providence. And in this way we ought to afflict and keep under our bodies, that our animal appetites may be bro’t into subjection, and that our souls may be the more deeply humbled before God. Indeed the necessity of persons, respecting the weakness of some constitutions, is here to be regarded. However, when persons wantonly indulge their appetites, and find their own pleasures when God calls to weeping and mourning, is sinful and shameful. And God declares in his word, that this is a provoking evil, Isai. 22. 12–14. In that Day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping and to mourning, and to girding with sackcloth: And behold Joy and Gladness, slaying Oxen, and killing Sheep, eating Flesh, and drinking Wine; let us eat and drink, for to morrow we shall die. And it was revealed in mine Ears by the Lord of hosts, Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord God of hosts. And surely the men of Nineveh will rise up in judgment against such, and condemn them; for we find they were very strict in attending these outward signs and means of humiliation. But then, it must be granted that this bodily abstinence will profit little, unless our hearts are broken for sin, and broken off from the pleasures of it.
2. In religious fasting we must afflict our souls; have the heart inwardly pierced, and the spirits broken upon the account of our sins.
That God who is a spirit, and forms the spirit of man within him, looks on the heart, and requireth us to worship him in spirit and truth. The Sacrifices of God are a broken Spirit: a broken and contrite Heart, O God thou wilt not despise, Psal. 51. 17. The call of God to his people on a day of solemn fasting, was that, rent your heart, Joel 2. 13. There must then be a deep and thorow conviction of sin, and contrition upon the account of it. We must look to Jesus whom our sins have pierced, and mourn as one mourneth for his only Son, and be in bitterness, as one that is in bitterness for his First-born, Zech. 12. 10. There must be hatred of sin, and indignation at it as the accursed thing which stirs up God’s holy displeasure against us. There must be inward grief because God has been dishonour’d and his law broken by our sins: That godly Sorrow which worketh Repentance, 2 Cor. 7. 10. There must be holy fear of God’s judgments. We must take shame and blame to our selves, and make that confession, Dan. 9. 8. O Lord to us belongeth confusion of Face, to our Kings, to our Princes, and to our Fathers, because we have sinned against thee. We must abhor our selves, lie down before God in deep abasement, and humble ourselves under his mighty hand: Thus must we go to God self-condemned, and willing to be reconcil’d to him upon his own terms; looking to Jesus as our advocate with the Father, and depending on him as the propitiation for our sins.
3.We must cry mightily to God in prayer. Earnest prayer, in this and other places of scripture, is express’d by crying to the Lord, Psal. 130. 1. Out of the depths have I cried unto thee O Lord. Prayer is a great part of the duty of the day; and we must take care, that it be that effectual fervent Prayer that availeth much, Jam. 5. 16.[,] in-wrought prayer, that prayer which is wrought in the heart by the Holy Ghost. For this end, we must ask the spirit of grace and supplication to help our infirmities, and stir up the gift of God in us. Thus must we pour out our hearts before God, and say, in most humble importunity as Jacob, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. For God said not to the seed of Jacob, seek ye me in vain, Isa. 45. 15. And therefore, if we approve our selves the genuine sons of that patriarch, we shall also have power with God, and prevail thro’ the merits and intercession of our Lord Jesus Christ: we shall either obtain the blessing for God’s people, as Elias did, tho’ a man subject to like passions; or at least shall deliver our own souls. I might further set before you the prophet Daniel, who has given rulers a bright example of a publick spirit, greatly concern’d for the peace of Jerusalem. How earnest was he when he set his face to seek the Lord by prayer with fasting! Hear his repeated cries, Ch. 9. 19. O Lord hear, O Lord forgive, O Lord, hearken and do, defer not, for thine own sake, O my God. And when God call’d his people to sanctify a fast, the divine command is, Joel 2. 17. Let the Priests, the Ministers of the Lord, weep between the Porch and the Altar, and let them say, Spare thy People, O Lord, and give not thy Heritage to Reproach; that the Heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the People, Where is their God? May Moses and Aaron, lift up their hands with their hearts to God in prayer this day, and receive the blessing from the Lord.
4.We must turn, each one from his evil way. Thus when the exhortation given was to cry mightily to God, it follows; Yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the Violence that is in their Hands. And indeed, unless this be our care, our sins will cry louder than our prayers, and provoke God to cover himself as with a cloud, Isa. 59. 1, 2. Behold, the Lord’s Hand is not shortned that it cannot save: neither his ear heavy that he cannot hear. But your Iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your Sins have hid his Face from you, that he will not hear. And when God had declared to his people that he rejected their assemblies and solemn meetings, he gives them that exhortation. Wash ye, make ye clean, put away the evil of your Doings from before mine Eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek Judgment, relieve the Oppressed, judge the Fatherless, plead for the Widow, Isa. 1. 16, 17.
But this brings me to the 3d general head,
III. Our seeking to God by prayer with fasting, must be attended with true repentance, and sincere endeavours after reformation.
God saw their works, that they turned from the evil way. Here we may consider,
1. What is implied in this work of repentance and reformation.
2. Why we should thus engage in the work of repentance and reformation.
First, What is implied in this work of repentance and reformation?
A. 1. It implieth, An holy and prevailing resolution to turn from those sins which we confess on the day of fasting. When we appear before God to confess our sins and ask pardon for them; if we attend this duty in sincerity, we are convinc’d that it is an evil and bitter thing that we have forsaken God by transgressing his law; and we shall accordingly resolve to put away this accursed thing which separates between God and us, and engage to return to God and our duty. Thus did God’s people on a solemn fast. They entred into an oath to walk in God’s law, and solemnly promis’d, that they would reform the evils which had crept in among them; in taking strange wives, in profaning the Sabbath, in their cruel exacting upon their poor brethren, &c. Neh. 9. 38. 10. 29–31. And it is certainly seasonable and necessary for persons on such a day to resolve, relying on God for grace, to put away such and such sins as have more easily beset them, to take more care to keep themselves from their own iniquity, and to reform whatever hath been contrary to God’s law.
Which leads me to say,
2. It intends, That this resolution be put in practice in sincere endeavours to put away those sins and reform those evils, which have been confess’d and bewail’d before God. This God requires of us. Thus saith the Lord God, Repent and turn your selves from all your Idols, and turn away your Faces from all your Abominations, Ezek. 14. 6. And after this manner did the children of Israel testify their repentance, when they cried to the Lord under the oppression of their enemies. And they put away the strange gods from among them, and served the Lord and his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel. Judg. 10. 16. Agreeably, when we have fasted and prayed, we must bring forth fruits meet for repentance, by engaging in a thorow reformation of all sins of omission or commission. If we have omitted religious duties, secret or family prayer, self-examination, the ordinances of God’s house; we must now conscienciously attend upon them. If we have neglected the duties of those relations which we sustain towards men, in publick or private life; we must now with care and diligence discharge them. If we have committed sins contrary to the laws of sobriety, righteousness and godliness; we must labour by the spirit to mortify them. In a word, we should cleanse our selves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. And in order to these things, we ought earnestly seek to God to put his laws into our minds, and write them in our hearts; for it is he alone that can work in us to will and to do, in beginning and carrying on this necessary work of reformation.
3.That we return to God by Jesus Christ; to believe in, love and obey him. The prophet Hosea complains, They return, but not to the most High, 7. 16. Whereas, when a reformation is sincere and general, we shall have a regard to the Lord our God in it, as to our chief good and highest end. We shall not be principally concern’d to serve a turn, and escape this or the other threatned judgment. As they, When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and enquired early after God. And they remembred that God was their Rock, and the high God their Redeemer. Nevertheless, they did flatter him with their Mouth, and they lied unto him with their Tongues, Psal. 7. 8. 34–36. But shall make it our great business to obtain peace with God thro’ Jesus Christ the only Mediator, who has made peace thro’ the blood of his cross. And then shall we endeavour to be stedfast in his covenant. The language of our hearts must be as Hos. 6. 1. Come and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. 14. 3. Asshur shall not save us, we will not ride upon Horses, neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods: for in thee the Fatherless findeth mercy. We must return to God as to our Lord and lawgiver, to obey and serve him; as to the object of our desire and choice, to take our full contentment in him: Thus it is said of God’s people All Judah rejoiced at the Oath: for they had sworn with all their Heart, and sought him with their whole desire, and he was found of them, 2 Chr. 15. 15. As to particular persons, it is necessary that they thus give up themselves to the Lord, and then keep the covenant of their God. And as to a people, considering them collectively, this must be their prevailing desire and practice: If they are generally false & hypocritical, they will give God reason to complain of them, as of his ancient people, O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee: O Judah, what shall I do unto thee: for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away. Hos. 6. 4.
Secondly, Why should our days of fasting be thus attended with sincere endeavours after reformation?
A. 1.God demands this of us. When that inquiry was made, Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow my self before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousands of rivers of oyl? The answer is, He hath shewed thee, O Man, what is good, and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? Micah 6. 8. And therefore, when God’s people fasted in a formal customary manner, without engaging in the necessary work of reformation, God said to them, Did ye at all Fast unto me, even to me? And then it follows, Execute true Judgment, and shew Mercy and Compassions every Man to his Brother. And oppress not the Widow, nor the Fatherless, the Stranger, nor the Poor, and let none of you imagine Evil against his Brother in your Heart, Zech. 7. 8, 10.
2.God makes precious promises to encourage and excite us to this duty. Thus when God had exhorted his people to put away the evil of their doings; he adds for their encouragement, Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your Sins be as Scarlet, they shall be white as Snow; though they be red like Crimson, they shall be as Wool. If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the Land. And in the 55th Chapter we have that exhortation enforc’d with a promise of full and free pardon, v. 6, 7. Seek ye the Lord, while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near. Let the Wicked forsake his Way, and the unrighteous Man his Thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. ver. 6, 7. Surely then, we must be basely ungrateful, if we are not drawn with these cords of a man, and bands of love. While we refuse to attend this great duty, we practically despise the riches of God’s goodness whereby he leads sinners to repentance. And this is another reason why we should engage in the work of repentance and reformation.
3. If we refuse to repent and reform, we shall be condemned out of our own mouths, and fall under the threatned judgments of God. One considerable part of the duty of a day of religious fasting is to make an humble and penitent confession of our sins whereby we have provoked a holy God to come out in judgment against us, and to cry to him for grace that we may turn from them. Thus ’tis said of God’s people on the day of solemn fasting recorded Neh. 9. The Seed of Israel stood and confessed their Sins, and the Iniquities of their Fathers: 2d v. But if there be no care to put away the sins which we have confess’d, we shall give our Lord and judge reason to say to us as to the wicked servant, Out of thine own Mouth will I judge thee. Now this will be dreadful indeed, and must aggravate our condemnation, to be thus self-condemned; and so to fall under the righteous judgment of God. We have the proof of this written for our warning in the doleful account which the Scripture gives of the sin and punishment of God’s ancient convenant people. Tho’ they had their days of fasting, particularly on the seventh month, when the high priest was to make an atonement for himself and the people, and enter into the holy place within the vail, Lev. 16. Notwithstanding this, God said to his people, If ye will not be reformed, but will walk contrary to me, then will I also walk contrary to you, and will punish you seven times for your sins. And God fulfilled his word. They mocked the Messengers of God, and despised his Words, and misused his Prophets, until the Wrath of the Lord arose against his People, till there was no Remedy, 2 Chron. 36. 16. Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by fire, and God’s people led into captivity to Babylon. And after their merciful restoration, when they had filled up the measure of their sins by disobeying and crucifying the Lord of Glory, and then by rejecting the offers of the gospel made to them by his apostles; the wrath of God came upon them to the uttermost by the Romans, and they are made an execration and a curse unto this day.
IV.When a people do thus turn from their evil way to the Lord, he will repent of the evil, and not bring destruction upon them.
God saw their works—and God repented of the Evil that he had said he would do unto them, and he did it not. Judgment is God’s strange work; but he delighteth in mercy. And when God threatens, it is with a reserve of grace and favour to the penitent. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen & repent, and do the first Works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy Candlestick out of his Place, except thou repent. Rev. 2. 5. Thus God said to the prophet Jeremiah,
Take thee a Roll of a Book, and write therein all the Words that I have spoken unto Thee against Israel, and against all the Nations, from the Day I spake unto thee, from the Days of Josiah, even unto this Day. It may be the House of Judah will hear all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every Man from his evil Way, that I may forgive their Iniquity and their Sin, Jer. 36. 2, 3.
God knew perfectly well what they would do; but then he here lets his people know how ready he was to forgive the penitent and receive them into favour: It’s true, such as repent may be afflicted in this life; but then it is with the tender compassion of a father, not with the deadly wound of an enemy. The first and purest times of Christianity were times of persecution; however, while the holy martyrs overcame by the blood of the Lamb, not loving their lives unto the death; the church was preserv’d, yea increased and multiplied. And as to a people, considering them collectively, I suppose no one instance can be produc’d in which God pour’d out his fury to destroy them, while a spirit of repentance and reformation prevail’d. And even in times of abounding iniquity, when the glory of God was departing from his people, and destroying judgments breaking in like a flood; God was pleased to make a remarkable distinction between the penitent, and such as were hardned in sin.
And the Lord said unto him, Go through the midst of the City, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a Mark upon the Foreheads of the Men that sigh and that cry for all the Abominations that be done in the midst thereof. And to the others be said in mine hearing, Go ye after him through the City and smite: let not your Eye spare, neither have ye Pity, Ezek. 9. 4, 5.
But the time would fail me, should I attempt to speak particularly to this head; and I have in part prevented my self by what has been already said. I shall therefore only give a few hints further to confirm & illustrate the truth before us. The faithful and true Goddeclareth this in his word.
When I say unto the Wicked, Thou shalt surely die: If he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right; If the Wicked restore the Pledge, give again that he had robbed, walk in the Statutes of Life, without committing Iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die, Ezek. 33. 14, 15.
When Ephraim bemoan’d himself and repented, God manifested his fatherly compassions to him.
I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus, Thou hast chastised me, and I was chastised, as a Bullock unaccustomed to the Yoke: Turn thou me, and I shall be turned; for thou art the Lord my God. Surely after that I was turned, I repented; and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh: I was ashamed, yea, even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my Youth. Is Ephraim my dear Son? Is he a pleasant Child? For since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: Therefore my Bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord. Jer. 31. 18–20.
Again, When a people do thus turn from their evil way to the Lord, They are prepar’d to receive and improve God’s merciful Deliverance after a suitable manner. While a degenerate people are impenitent they will be ready to despise the riches of God’s goodness and forbearance, and to wax wanton under sparing mercy. Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked: thou art waxen fat, thou art grown thick, thou art covered with fatness; then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his Salvation, Deut. 32. 15. But when sin is embitter’d by the godly sorrow which worketh repentance we shall observe that caution after God has spoken peace, Psal. 84. 8. Let them not turn again to Folly. Such a people will be jealous over themselves and for the Lord of hosts, and be concern’d to improve all his gracious appearances for them to the honour of his great name. Accordingly, God says of his people, How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land? And then returns this answer, Thou shalt call me, My Father, and shalt not turn away from me, Jer. 3. 19. Again, this truth is evident from the happy experience of the penitent. We have a remarkable instance before us. Now, did God spare repenting Nineveh, and will he not spare his repenting covenant-people? Yes surely,
If their uncircumcised Hearts be humbled, and they then accept of the punishment of their Iniquity: Then will I remember my Covenant with Jacob, and also my Covenant with Isaac, and also my Covenant with Abraham will I remember; and I will remember the Land.
And God was pleas’d to fulfill his promise to his people, 1 Sam. 7. and in other instances upon record in scripture. In a word, the Lord Jesus our great high priest, has offered a sacrifice of infinite value to make atonement for the congregation of his people, whether Jews or gentiles; and he lives in heaven to interceed for them: And therefore, when God’s people look to him and mourn and turn to the Lord, he will turn from his fierce anger, and command salvation.
USE 1. Learn that true religion lays the surest foundation of a people’s prosperity. Righteousness exalteth a Nation, Prov. 14. 34. When we turn to God by Jesus Christ, and do works meet for repentance; we take the best way to obtain salvation from the help of his countenance, who is the Father of Lights, from whom cometh down every good & every perfect gift. It’s sin that separateth between God and his people: When this accursed thing is therefore put away from among them, that God to whom belong the issues from death, will draw nigh to them with his saving health, and appear for their deliverance.
And if God be for us, who can be against us? There is no Wisdom nor Understanding, nor Counsel against the Lord. The Horse is prepared against the Day of Battle: But Safety is of the Lord. Prov 21. 30, 31. Certainly then, the one thing needful is to secure the presence and favour of God; and this we do when we return to him in hearty repentance, and then walk before him in new obedience. Blessed is that people whose God is the Lord: No weapon form’d against them shall prosper, and that good word shall be fulfilled unto them, God is our Refuge and Strength, a very present Help in Trouble, Psal. 46. 1. and v. 5. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved. God shall help her, and that right early, O that God would impress on our minds the firm belief of these things! O that he would affect our hearts suitably with them! That we might strive together in our prayers this day, crying to God with the prophet, O Lord, revive thy Work in the midst of the Years, in the midst of the Years make known; in Wrath remember Mercy. Hab. 3. 2.
USE 2. Abounding iniquity will be the destruction of a people, except they repent. If they persist and go on in the ways of sin, refusing to return to God, iniquity will be their ruin. Sin is the Reproach of any People, Prov. 14. 34. It hath both a natural and moral tendency to lay them low, and expose them to shame. Sin in the body politick, is like some foul and deadly disease in the natural body which turns the beauty of it into corruption, and weakens all it’s powers. Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more: the whole Head is sick, and the whole Heart is faint. From the Sole of the Foot, even unto the Crown of the Head, there is no Soundness in it; but Wounds and Bruises, and putrifying Sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither molified with Ointment, Isa. 1. 5, 6. And then, this deadly evil provokes the holy God to pour contempt upon a people, and lay their honour in the dust. Thus God threatned his people, Thou shalt become an Astonishment, a Proverb, and a By-word, among all Nations whither the Lord shall lead thee. Deut. 28. 37. And in the 44th and 45th [verse:] He shall lend to thee, and thou shalt not lend to him; he shall be the Head, and thou shalt be the Tail. Moreover all these Curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee till thou be destroyed: Because thou hearknedst not unto the Voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his Commandments and his Statutes which he commanded thee. And the threatning was fulfilled upon them. God said to his people, O Israel, Thou hast fallen by thine iniquity. And the weeping prophet laments their sins and ruin, Jerusalem hath grievously sinned: all that honoured her, despise her, because they have seen her nakedness: yea, she sigheth, and turneth backward. Her filthiness is in her skirts, she remembreth not her last end, therefore she came down wonderfully: she had no Comforter. Yea, after this remarkable deliverance granted to Nineveh, it’s suppos’d about ninety years, when they returned to their former sins, the prophet Nahum foretells their ruin, Chap. 1.
USE 3. Let us then be sensible of the destroying evil of sin, and the necessity of true repentance.
God speaks to us this day as to his people of old, Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy Backslidings shall reprove thee: know therefore and see, that it is an evil thing and bitter that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that my fear is not in thee, saith the Lord God of hosts, Jer. 2. 19. And as 44. 4. O do not this abominable thing that I hate. Most certainly they are guilty of great folly, who make a mock at sin. This is to cast fire-brands, arrows and death; and say, Am I not sport? The wise man observes, that One Sinner destroyeth much Good, Eccl. 9. 18. Thus Achan took of the accursed Thing; and the Anger of the Lord was kindled against the Children of Israel, Josh. 7. 1. Let us then fly from sin as the most pernicious evil, and see the necessity of our turning to the Lord by sincere repentance. O let that word of the Lord sink deep into our hearts this day! Turn ye, turn ye, Why will ye die, O House of Israel? Ezek. 33. 11.
Which leads me to the last use;
4. Let us all be exhorted to turn, every one from his evil way; and to engage heartily in the necessary work of reformation.
This, this is our great duty and interest this day, as we would hope to be made instruments in God’s hand of saving our selves and this people. Let us then seriously consider that we have to do with that God who is able to save and to destroy. And settle that word in our hearts as a certain truth, When he giveth Quietness, who then can make Trouble? and when he hideth his Face, who then can behold him? whether it be done against a Nation, or against a Man only. Job 34. 29. And accordingly, let us turn from all sin to the Lord, and in this way hope and wait for his salvation. O let us take heed, lest there be in any of us an evil Heart of Unbelief in departing from the living God. To day, let us hear his voice, and not harden our hearts. May each one of us say with Job, Now mine Eye seeth thee: Wherefore I abhor my self, and repent in Dust and Ashes. And as it has pleased the Father to commit all judgment to the Son; let us look to him, and encourage our selves in him whom God hath exalted to be a prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. May our ascended Jesus, who has receiv’d of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, pour out this great blessing upon the whole land, and fulfill that word,
Then will I sprinkle clean Water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness and from all your Idols will I cleanse you. A new Heart also will I give you, and a new Spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the stony Heart out of your Flesh, and I will give you an Heart of Flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my Statutes, and ye shall keep my Judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the Land that I gave to your Fathers, and ye shall be my People, and I will be your God. Ezek. 35. 25–28.
Blessed be the Lord, his spirit has been, we hope, moving on the hearts of many to convince and awaken them. O let us not resist and quench the spirit! lest the threatning denounc’d against the sinners of the old world, should be fulfill’d on us, My Spirit shall not always strive with Man, for that he also is Flesh. Gen. 6. 3. Let us cherish his motions, and pray the more earnestly that he may be given in an extensive manner as a spirit of saving conversion and thorow reformation. And surely, If we duely consider the state of this sinful, distressed people, we shall be constrain’d to say with the prophet It is Time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain Righteousness upon you. Hos. 10. 12. And then with our fervent prayers, let us unite our best endeavours with regard to our selves, our families, and this people; that all iniquity may be put far from us, and that we may become zealous of good works. In this way we might hope God would say of us as of the remnant of Judah; Then will I build you, and not pull you down, and I will plant you, and not pluck you up: for I repent me of the evil that I have done unto you. Or as Isa. 65. 8. Destroy it not, for a Blessing is in it.
But the time requireth me to draw to a close. I would therefore proceed with due respect to make a particular application of what hath been said, unto our honoured rulers, who have call’d us to sanctify a fast with them; and have set apart this day to humble themselves under the sense of sin, and the tokens of the divine displeasure upon this province.
My fathers! Suffer the word of exhortation: Let God see your works; that you turn from every evil way; that God may also repent of the evil, and not bring it upon us. For how dreadful must it be if the example of the nobles and men of Nineveh should rise up in judgment against any of you: They repented at the preaching “of one Prophet sent to them by God, you have Moses and the Prophets”; Yea in these last days God has spoken to us by his Son that prince of the prophets, who is God manifest in the flesh. You have the sacred writings of the New-Testament, in which God reveals his wrath against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men; and also his grace and mercy to the penitent by a redeemer. And as the judge of all the earth hath advanced you to rule over his people; so he declareth to you in his word, That they who rule over Men must be just, ruling in the Fear of God; and requireth you to lead in the work of reformation by your example, and by the right use of that power with which he hath betrusted you.
This people have observ’d many days of fasting and prayer, and yet there’s sorrowful occasion to make that complaint; For all this his Anger is not turned away, but his Hand is stretched out still. You have also in this more private way sought the Lord some years past,* confessing your sins, and the sins of this people before him; notwithstanding which, the holy and faithful God goeth on walking contrary to us, and threatens to punish us seven times more for our sins. What means this heat of his anger? Why do we still complain, Judgment is far from us, neither doth Justice overtake us: we wait for Light, but behold Obscurity; for Brightness, but we walk in Darkness. We grope for the Wall like the Blind, and we grope as if we had no Eyes. Isa. 59. 9, 10. Alas! We must take up the lamentation which follows, v. 12–14.
Our Transgressions are multiplied before Thee, and our Sins testify against us: for our Transgressions are with us, and as for our Iniquities, we know them: In transgressing and lying against the Lord, and departing away from our God, speaking Oppression and Revolt, conceiving and uttering from the Heart, Words of Falsehood. And Judgment is turned away backward, and Justice standeth afar off: for Truth is fallen in the Street, and Equity cannot enter.
O it is time then, high time, heartily to engage in keeping the fast which God has chosen, and we have describ’d for our instruction and reproof, Isa. 58. 6, 8.
Is not this the Fast that I have chosen? to loose the Bands of Wickedness, to undo the heavy Burdens, and to let the Oppressed go free, and that ye break every Yoke? Is it not to deal thy Bread to the Hungry, and that thou bring the Poor that are cast out to thy House? when thou seest the Naked, that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thy self from thine own Flesh?
Upon this God promiseth,
Then shall thy Light break forth as the Morning, and thine Health shall spring forth speedily: and thy Righteousness shall go before thee; the Glory of the Lord shall be thy Reward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. 8, 9. v.
And 12 v[:] They that shall be of thee, shall build the old waste Places: thou shalt raise up the Foundation of many Generations; and thou shalt be called, The Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Paths to dwell in. Be intreated therefore to cry to God for grace that you may cleanse your hearts and hands from all sin, and so turn to the Lord; and then, let it be your constant care and diligent endeavour to do works meet for repentance. As God has exalted you above your brethren, let your light shine before them, that others seeing your good works may glorify your heavenly Father, and be excited to follow you. Let all that behold you, see your pious regards to God’s worship and ordinances, his day and house. Do your utmost that the worship of God may be maintain’d in the power and purity of it, among this people. Let all due care be taken that men may fear this glorious and fearful name, the Lord our God, and not presume to take it in vain; for because of swearing the land mourns. Let the Lord’s-day be strictly observ’d; for God hath set the Sabbath as a sign between him and his people, that he is the Lord who sanctifieth them. Let the most effectual means also be used that the great abuse of taverns may be reformed; that these be not converted into tipling and gaming houses for town- dwellers, to the dishonour of God and hurt of the common-wealth. Let the fountains of justice be kept open and pure, that judgment may run down as waters; and that such as thirst after righteousness may come freely, and be refreshed. And whereas the present difficulties which embarrass our affairs, do very much arise from the want of a suitable medium of trade, and different apprehensions in the legislature about supplying the treasury, whereby the publick debts are, in part at least, left unpaid, and the country naked and defenceless, in this day of calamity and war: I can’t but humbly apprehend, that this awful frown of Providence calls aloud to you further to consider, whether there has not been great injustice and oppression with relation to the bills of publick credit which have pass’d among us, from their sinking and uncertain value; and to use your best endeavours that whatever bills shall pass for time to come in lieu of money, may be a just medium of exchange; for a false Ballance is abomination to the Lord; but a just Weight is his Delight, Prov. 11. 1. Whatever methods may be propos’d to extricate us out of our present distress, justice and equity must be laid in the foundation; or we may expect that the Lord who loves righteousness and hates wickedness, will confound our devices, and bring them to nought. But then, I presume not in the least measure to determine whether this or that way is right. May that God before whom all things are open and naked, direct Your Excellency and the whole court, into such paths of righteousness as shall lead to our deliverance and safety; that we may neither oppress one another, nor become a prey to an insulting enemy! May you be filled with the most tender and fatherly compassion for your people under the present distress and danger, and do all you can to relieve them! And if there should be a difference in your opinion about the way, may you be enabled to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, that the God of peace may be with you, who has promis’d to guide the meek in judgment!
But in vain is salvation hoped for from the hills, and from the multitude of mountains: Truly in the Lord our God is the salvation of Israel!
O God! We know not what to do; but our eyes are unto thee. We wait upon thee O Lord, who hidest thy self from the house of Israel; confessing that we thy servants, and thy people have sinn’d. Thy ways are equal, our ways have been very unequal. O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day, because we have sinned against thee. To the Lord our God also belongeth mercies and forgivenesses, tho’ we have rebell’d against him. O Lord, hear, O Lord forgive, O Lord, hearken and do, defer not, for thine own sake, O God! for thy city, and thy people are called by thy name. Look to the face of thine Anointed, O merciful Father! Behold thy Son in our nature, who on earth offer’d a sacrifice of infinite merit to atone for the sins of thy people; and now appears in heaven, as a Lamb that had been slain, interceeding for us. We are unworthy; but the name in which we now ask thy divine help, is most worthy. O hear us, for thy Son’s sake, and speak peace to thy people. Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock, thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up thy strength, and come and save us. Turn us again O God; and cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved. O remember not against us former iniquities: let thy tender mercies speedily prevent us; for we are bro’t very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name; and deliver us, and purge away our sins for thy name’s sake: So we thy people and sheep of thy pasture, will give thee thanks for ever; we will shew forth thy praise to all generations.
And would you, our honoured rulers, to whom I again address my self, have the all-wise God present to shew you what his people ought to do in this very critical conjuncture, and to make you the joyful instruments of our deliverance; then abide with God by taking his word for your rule, by making his glory your highest end, and by seeking the public-weal in all things. Ask of God a public spirit, and by all means labour to subdue a vicious self-love remembring the warning given us, 2 Tim. 3. 1, 2. In the last Days perilous Times shall come. For Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous. May you have the love of God and his people shed abroad in your hearts by his spirit; and be ready to sacrifice private views and personal interests to the publick good! Shake your hands from bribes of every kind, and when call’d to give your vote, consider seriously what is right in the sight of God, with whom is no respect of persons, or taking of gifts; and act accordingly. And if at any time you should be tempted to this great evil, as the best of men may; set that word of God in opposition to the temptation.
He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly, he that despiseth the Gain of Oppression, that shaketh his Hands from holding of Bribes, that stoppeth his Ears from hearing of Blood, and shutteth his Eyes from seeing Evil: He shall dwell on high, his Place of Defence shall be the Munition of Rocks; Bread shall be given him, his Waters shall be sure. Isa. 33. 15, 16.
In this way you shall obtain the gracious presence of God with you. The Lord is with you, while ye be with him, 2 Chron. 15. 2. And if God be with you and for you, who can be against you? What can harm you? What can be too hard for you, if the Almighty is pleas’d to own you as his servants, and command deliverance for his people by you? Surely the mountains shall become a plain, crooked things straight, and the night shine as the day. Let me say to you therefore as 2 Chron. 15. 7. Be ye strong, and let not your Hands be weak: for your Work shall be rewarded. God will be your shield, and exceeding great reward. You shall see the good of God’s chosen, rejoice with the gladness of his nation, and glory with his inheritance. And when the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto these my Brethren, ye have done it unto me: Come ye Blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom.
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