The Checkered State of the Gospel ChurchSamuel Willard (1640-1707)
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The Checkered State of the Gospel Church
One will be hard pressed, outside of the Reformers and Puritans, to find such insightful and biblically compelling exposition as Willard’s works. Hear him on the state of the church
“And it shall come to pass in that day, that the light shall not be clear nor dark. But it shall be one day which shall be known to the Lord, not day, nor night: but it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light.” – Zech 14:6-7
Scripture prophecies are predictions of events that were future when they were delivered; and are best understood by the accomplishment of them in the divine providence. However, because they were given to the church for the direction and help of their faith in such times, they are, with sober inquisitiveness to be searched out by such as would enjoy the benefit of them: for by them we are taught what to expect, that we may be the better instructed how to prepare for, that we may suitably carry ourselves in such times; and it will be a good medium to our understanding of the matters contained in such prophecies, to be able to fix the time which they refer unto: and a mistake in this often loses us in a labyrinth of error.
I shall not here mention the several conjectures which are made about this particular prophecy now under consideration, and the accommodations which are accordingly made of it. Let it suffice to observe that Zechariah was raised by God, and sent to the people of the Jews, after their return from Babylon, to their own land; and therefore all his predictions must refer to the times which followed afterwards; in which the Scriptures observe two remarkable periods: the one containing in it that space of time which fell out between their deliverance from captivity by the edict of Cyrus, and the destruction of the second Temple, with the dispersion of their nation by the Romans. The other comprising all that time which was to follow that till Christ’s coming to the great and general judgment. In the former, an end was put to the dispensation of the covenant under the Jewish pedagogy; in the later is comprehended the duration of the gospel constitution of the church in the world. But because the foundation of the latter was laid in the most remarkable occurrences that fell out towards the close of the former, viz. Christ’s coming in the flesh, and making of himself an offering for sin, in which he accomplished all that was figured in the law, and so made it void; hence the Christian era begins from thence, which was about seventy years before the desolation of the land, and putting an end to temple worship. Nevertheless, because God suffered the legal dispensation practically to continue till the ruin of the temple, after which it was abolished, never to return again, our prophet in this chapter, seems to have a peculiar respect to that, as the introduction to the times which he predicts. Accordingly, to Zech 14:6, he foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, together with the events following upon it, by which he makes way to discourse of another day, with respect to the affairs of the church: concerning which day, all that follows in Zech 14:4-21 is to be understood.
One special remark upon which time we have presented to our consideration in the words of our text; in which is summarily set down the general state or condition of the gospel church under the dispensation of Christ’s mediatorial kingdom in this world, which he established after he had purchased it with his blood, and was, in our nature exalted to his throne, till his second coming, which is peculiarly called, the kingdom of heaven, in the New Testament.
In the words there are several passages which want a little clearing.
1. The time about which these things are prophesied; in that day, i.e. the day mentioned in Zech 14:1. Now the word day in prophetical scriptures, is used for a definitive period of time wherein some remarkable work of providence is transacted. Thus the time wherein God treated the church in the wilderness is called a day, Ps 95:8. The day of temptation in the wilderness, which lasted forty years, as appears from Zech 14:10. The time when God brought desolation upon Jerusalem is said to be her day, Ps 137:7. The season wherein Jerusalem was treated with about the things of her peace, before her last catastrophe is called her day, Luke 19:42. If thou hast known, even thou, in this thy day, etc. And the time of the gospel, wherein men have an opportunity of getting into Christ, is called the day of salvation, 2 Cor 6:2. And the day here intended is the time wherein the gospel dispensation is continued in the world.
2. The things that are asserted concerning this day viz.
2.1. The light shall not be clear nor dark; the word clear is sometimes translated precious, and sometimes it is rendered brightness, as, Job 31:26. The moon in its brightness; and it is well supposed here to intend serenity, that which is without any mist or cloud to obscure it. The word, dark, signifies to be condensed or thickened, and when applied to the light, it intends that there is something interposes to hide its brightness from us; and light is allusively used in the word of God either for the clearness of evangelical doctrine, or for the greatness of prosperity, and contrarily, darkness for the want of knowledge, or for distressing affliction, as may be often observed in both regards: and that these are jointly to be understood in this place, the nature of the subject may satisfy us.
2.2. It shall be one day. It may be called a day, probably to denote the brevity of it, however to let us understand that it is a limited and fixed time, which time is called the last days, 1 Pet 1:20. And the ends of the world, 1 Cor 10:11. And it is said to be one day, because the institutions of Christ concerning the outward administration of the affairs of his kingdom here, are settled and unalterable through this whole time, according to, Heb 12:28. We receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved. Not but that men may, and too many do dare to make innovations and alterations in them, but that Christ hath appointed these perceptively to continue invariable, whiles he hath a Church here.
2.3. It is a day which shall be known to the Lord; and this is to be understood limitedly, viz. That God doth, and no other doth know it. Now knowledge is ascribed to God both with respect to his purpose, by which he hath determined things, Acts 15:18. Known unto God are his works from the beginning of the world; and with regard to his active providence by which he pursues the accomplishment of his purposes, on which account this is ascribed to his wisdom, Ps 104:24. In wisdom hast thou done them all. And this knowledge encloses in it both the duration or length of that day, and all the several occurrences of providence which are to befall the Church in it; Christ assures us the Father hath put them in his own hand, Acts 1:7.
2.4. It shall be neither day or night. This interprets those more obscure words which were used in Zech 14:6. And the meaning is, that it shall neither be all day, nor all night, but a mixture of both these: Not that the day and night shall have their vicissitudes in it, but that when it is clearest it shall have some darkness on it, and when darkest, it shall have its measure of light; and this note upon it, serves to instruct us, as in the imperfect state of the church in this world, compared with the glory to come, so in the merciful providence of God which shall be over it during this its state of imperfection: and may allude to the cloudy and fiery pillar in the wilderness.
2.5. But it shall come to pass that at evening time it shall be light. The word evening, comes of a root which signifies mixture, because it is a time wherein the darkness mixes itself with the light: but we are not here to understand it according to the notation of the word, which implies the going away of the light, and the increasing of the darkness, by which the evening is distinguished from the morning, in which the darkness goes away by the coming on of the light: but it hath a respect to the time in regard of the latter part of it; the evening is wont to put an end to the day; and here to be understood of the finishing of this period of time or dispensation, which will in its conclusion immediately precede, or rather usher in the last judgment; in which the light shall imminently prevail over the darkness.
Many great and weighty truths might be observed from these words; but only three shall here be taken notice of, as more proper for the occasion for which they are insisted on.
That the Condition of the Church of God under the Gospel dispensation, is mixed with the Light and Darkness.
This is expressed under two observations in our text. It is said that it is neither clear nor dark, Zech 14:6. And that it shall be neither day nor night, Zech 14:7. And that this refers to the whole of it is therein evident, because it is said to be but one day wherein it shall be thus. And that this refers to the times of the gospel, hath been already observed from the context: and that it shall be so during this whole dispensation, Scripture predictions, both in the Old and New Testament do abundantly assure us.
In the clearing and confirming of this doctrine, there are several inquiries to be made.
Question 1. What is here to be understood by darkness and light?
Answer. These, being contraries, will illustrate each the other, and may therefore be conjoined in the enquiry. We observed, in [the] opening of the words, that these words are used metaphorically; and the two things which were there taken notice of, as principally alluded to by these metaphors, are to be applied to the present consideration. There is the light of knowledge, when the great gospel truths are enjoyed in the clear dispensation of them, and God affords to men the plentiful means of grace, and sends such pastors to them as are promised, Jer 3:15. I will give you pastors according to mine heart, who shall feed you with knowledge and understanding. And when he influences a people with his Spirit, and causes them to study that they may know and be distinctly acquainted with the truths of his word as Dan 12:4. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased; and to this may be added, when men live according to the light which they have afforded to them; when their light so shines, that God may be glorified, according to our Savior’s advice, Matt 5:16. And there is the light of prosperity, when God’s candle shines upon their tabernacle, as, Job 29:3, when he lights their candle, and the Lord their God enlightens their darkness, as, Ps 18:28, when they have light, and gladness, and joy, and honor, as, Esther 8:16. When they have peace from abroad, and unity among themselves; and God prospers them in all their outward affairs, and none dare to lift up their hand against them. So that on the other hand, it is dark, partly when the means of grace fail, God puts out the lights in the candlesticks, and either they have no teachers, or else such as are worse than none, such as are described in, Isa 56:10. His watchmen are blind, they are all ignorant, etc. And the people are consequently unacquainted with the great truths of the gospel, as they, Jer 4:22. My people is foolish, they have not known me, they are sottish children, and they have none understanding. And a spirit of error prevails among them, and men fall into, and became very tenacious of errors, as, Jer 8:5. They hold fast deceit, they refuse to return. As also when God brings them into trouble, either by unhappy contentions among themselves, or by oppression from their adversaries, and cruel persecutions that are raised against them. Such a day as this is, may well bear that character put upon it, Joel 2:2. A day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness.
Question 2. What we are to understand by the gospel church?
Answer. If the inquiry be after those who are the subjects concerned in the prediction given in our text, whom although not expressly mentioned in it, I call in the doctrine the gospel church; it comprehends in it the whole collection of those who, in this world, make an orthodox profession of the faith and truth as it is in Jesus: [Eph 4:21] It is the church militant considered in its visibility, as it is looked upon in all its parts and members, through the whole earth, and successively in all the generations wherein this state of it is to continue. I know the word, church, is used in other senses besides this, viz. sometimes only for the elect and called of God, both militant and triumphant; which under that consideration, we call the church invisible: and this is called the Church of the first born, Heb 12:23. And sometimes for the particular congregations of professors, who ordinarily meet in one place to attend upon the gospel ordinances, so in Gal 1:2. The churches in Galatia: but it is also used in this more larger sense, particularly, 1 Cor 12:28. And God hath set some in his church, first apostles, etc. And thus I understand it in the doctrine.
Question 3. In what respect the condition of this church is here mixed with light and darkness?
Answer. For our right taking this up, let these things be observed.
Observation 1. That the gospel day is but one. Thus our text, Zech 14:7, assures us, and in what respect it is so, hath been already observed in opening of the words, and nothing more needs to be added; only it is to be brought over hither to help our right taking up of the things which follow.
Observation 2. That there are great vicissitudes in this day. Though it be neither clear nor dark, yet it is sometimes more clear, and at other times more obscure. In respect of the light of knowledge, there have been seasons wherein it have broken forth eminently; thus it was in the days of the apostles, who had extraordinary assistances, in spreading of the gospel; and there were very great measures of this in the age next succeeding them, whiles such persons lived as had seen and conversed with them; and there was a great deal of holiness in the church in those days. But this light grew dimmer by degrees, till at length gross ignorance, error, and superstition brought a sable cloud upon the church; as when the world turned Arian, and the orthodox were so diminished, that it was once said, one Athanasius against the whole world: and when anti-Christianism grew to its height, when because men received not the love of the truth, God sent them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie, according to, 2 Thess 2:10-11. Then the fogs of the bottomless pit grievously obscured the Sun light of the gospel: but again there was a clearing time in the days of the Reformation; and if we speak of the light of prosperity, the church hath been never at a stay, sometimes grievous persecutions have been raised against it, Acts 8:1. Again, there have been times wherein it could be said of it, as, Acts 9:31. Then had the churches rest, and where edified and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied. Providence hath been checkered on this account, and hath allowed them their breathing intervals, according to, Ps 125:3. The rod of the wicked shall not rest on the lot of the righteous.
Observation 3. That it is not alike in this regard everywhere at the same time. It may be serene in one place, when it is very cloudy in another; one people may be blessed with great gospel liberty, and abundance of the means and ordinances, whiles another may be deprived of these means, or cut very short in the enjoyment of their spiritual privileges: some enjoy plenty of spiritual food, when others labor under a famine of hearing the word of God: whiles these have kings to be there nursing fathers, and queens their nursing mothers, who give them all encouragement in their serving of God, those may get their bread with the peril of their lives, and have their teachers driven into corners.
Observation 4. That the light may utterly cease in some places whiles it is removed to, or continued in others. Although God will have a church upon earth, as long as it continues, according to, Joel 3:20. Judah shall dwell for ever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation. Yet this privilege is not secured to anyone particular church in the world. What our savior threatened them withal, Matt 21:43. The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof, may as well be the lot of others, who may equally expose themselves to feel the like severity: nay, it is one of the judgments that professors are warned of, to make them the more careful how they entertain Christ, and improve his Gospel favors, Rev 2:5. Repent, else I will remove thy candlestick out of his place, if thou repent not.
Observation 5. The clearest light is not without some darkness, nor the obscurest darkness without some light. This is designed in saying that it is not day, nor night, viz. That there is a mixture of both, in every condition of it, whether it be at best, or at worst. There are bounds set to each of these: there have been errors and heresies troubling of the Church when it was most flourishing, some that sprung up even in the apostle’s days; for then the mystery of iniquity [2 Thess 2:7] began to work, and there have been those who have appeared valiant for the truth, when it hath been most oppressed: and in the midst of the trials of the church, God hath ever given being to that record, Ps 112:4. Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness.
4. For the evidence, that this is the state of the church in this world, and shall be so during the whole day of the gospel; two things may suffice to make it appear.
1. That it hath been so hitherto, is manifest from observation and experience. And this might be instanced in all the particulars forecited, and that both from the history of the New Testament, and from the records of ecclesiastical affairs which are recommended to us from the beginning, wherein we are plentifully informed of the workings of Providence in this affair, to which may be added the acquaintance which may be had of the present state of the church at this day in the world; but this is so obvious, that no observing Christian will so much as call it in question.
2. That it shall be so till the end of this church state is confirmed by Scripture predictions. The spirit of God hath foretold, what times are to pass over the church in general, during its militant state here. The book of Revelation is a prophecy of things future, or which were to commence in succession, from the time of the first writing of it, Rev 4:1. Come hither, and I will show thee the things which must be hereafter. And though these are written in a language that is dark and enigmatical, and which requires prayer and study, for our gaining acquaintance with it, yet it will give light to the intelligent reader; for it is said, Rev 1:3. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy. Besides, frequently in the Gospel, Christ and his apostles do both encourage the people of God with the promise of his presence with them; thus Christ, animated his disciples, Matt 28:20. I am with you alway, even to the end of the world. As also warn them of meeting with trouble here so Paul, 2 Tim 3:12. All that will live Godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. But this will be further illustrated under the next;
Question 5. Whence it comes to be so?
Answer. This is to be referred to the sovereign pleasure and providence of God: he hath seen meet that it shall be so: however there is his wisdom also to be discovered in it. And here briefly observe;
Observation 1. That God will have a church in the world. This is his holy pleasure; and indeed, the world stands for their sake. It is because he hath a number, according to the election of grace, who are yet to be brought in to him; and these he will not lose; there are some of these in every generation; till therefore they are born, and gathered out of the world unto Christ, the world must stand, and the church be continued; it must be till we all come to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, Eph 4:11.
Observation 2. That God governs the affairs of his church in this world. He is the Supreme Orderer, and Dispenser of the concerns of it. He is their king, Isa 33:22. And indeed, if he were no so, his church would soon cease, he would have no people upon earth, but the name of Israel would be cut off; that is a remark ever to be celebrated, Ps 124:1 f. If the Lord had not been on our side may Israel now say, etc. then they had swallowed us up quick.
Observation 3. That God hath a number in his visible church, whom he hath a special love for, and will bring to eternal salvation. All that belong to the visible church are not of this company, Rom 9:6. All are not Israel, that are of Israel. But there are always such as these, and many times more than we are apprehensive of, as God assured desponding Elijah, 1 King 19:18. And to these he will manifest his love, by taking care of them, and affording them all that is necessary to bring them to glory: so that though he may bring them into darkness, yet he will not suffer them to want so much light as is needful, whether temporal or spiritual, for their safe conduct, through this world, to his heavenly kingdom.
Observation 4. But yet he will have the state of his church upon earth to be militant. They shall experimentally know the difference between earth and heaven, so as to make them willing to be gone hence thither in the due time. There is therefore a warfare which they are to go through, in which, as they shall have his presence and protection to preserve them from failing in their way to glory, so they shall encounter with trials and temptations of all sorts; and this he reckons to be expedient for them, 1 Pet 1:6. Ye are for the present, if need be, in heaviness through manifold temptations.
Observation 5. The visible church itself is a mixed company, and it is so like to the continue till the end of the world, when the separation is to be made. There are in it tares mixed with the wheat, and these grow together till the harvest, and when that is to be, Christ himself hath informed us, Matt 13:39, 41. There are secret enemies crept in among the people of God, such as hate the light, and will use clandestine endeavors to extinguish it. This warning Paul gave to them of Ephesus, Acts 20:30. Also of yourselves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, etc. And these will be the occasions of bringing dark times, 2 Tim 3:1 ff.
Observation 6. Satan also, and wicked men are always waiting for advantage to cast darkness upon the church of God. Satan is peculiarly their adversary, 1 Pet 5:8. And if he cannot wholly devour them, which he would be at, yet he will make a smoke upon them from the bottomless pit. For this purpose he stirs up the world against them, Rev 2:10. Behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, and ye shall have tribulation. He also inspires false apostles, whom he employs to obscure the truth and sets up pretended lights, who will lead all that are willing to be seduced by them, into darkness: 2 Cor 12:13. False apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And God suffers these things to succeed so far as he seeth good.
Observation 7. God will be admired in the salvation of his church another day. 2 Thess 1:10. To be admired in all that believe, in that day. And in nothing will his infinite wisdom and power be more celebrated, than in his having maintained a church in the world, and preserved his redeemed and called, safe through all the darkness and distressing difficulty which they have been called to pass through in their way to glory. His saved ones shall cry out, there is no God like our God, [cf. 1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chron 6:14] and their very enemies shall confess and say, Verily there is a God who is judge in the earth; and the greater variety of dispensations they have passed under, the more will his praise be celebrated on this account.
Use 1. Learn we hence the vanity of those who expect all light in the church of God in this world. That there is a time coming wherein there will be greater measures of light than as yet there have been, whether in respect of knowledge and holiness, or with regard to outward tranquility, is certain; etc. we are told of it in the close of our text, which will afterward come under consideration: but to think on a day on this side of eternal glory, or during the evangelical dispensation of the kingdom of Christ, in which there shall be neither ignorance, nor error nor trouble upon the professing people of God is but to dream: and those who feed themselves up with such a hope, do but feed on ashes. It is true, there is a time that will come ere long, wherein the privileges of the church both spiritual and temporal shall be great to admiration, but still it will have a mixture of darkness in it. Our Savior’s warning which he gave to his disciples, is to be applied to the whole series of the Gospel day, Job 16 ult. In the world ye shall have tribulation. And they that expect to enjoy an exemption from it, may expect, but shall find their expectation frustrate.
Use 2. This tells us what reason we have to nourish hope for the church of God in the worst of times. That evil days should come upon it, is not to be wondered at; but we have more occasion to admire that it enjoys so much of light as it doth, when we consider that it dwells by the lions’ dens, and in the mountain of leopards: however, this is our comfort, that though we may be called frequently to mourn with the church, by reason of her distresses, that yet we shall never have any occasion to mourn for her, at her funeral. She may meet with a great deal of darkness upon her day, but night shall not come upon her: though her case may be brought so low, and be made so helpless, that there remaineth no outward appearance of her subsisting, in the order of second causes; she may have no friend, none to stand by her and plead her cause, yet still, because God will not ever utterly cast her off, we may comfort ourselves, as he did in a case almost as desperate as ever any was, Esther 4:14. There shall enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews. For that will ever be a truth, Ps 94:14. The Lord will not cast off his people, neither will he forsake his inheritance.
Use 3. The consideration of the truth in hand, may help to regulate us in our prayers to God at such a day as this is, with respect to his church which is in the world. It is doubtless a time which, as much as ever any did, calls for prayers in behalf of the people of God: it is a day wherein a great and dark cloud lieth upon the church; whether we consider the decays that are upon it with respect to the light of truth and holiness, or the distresses which it labours under on the account of reproach and persecution; besides the storms that seem to be brewing against it, and how heavily they may fall upon it, God only knows. And now, what have all they to do, who love Jerusalem, but to pray hard in her behalf? This then is the thing which is incumbent on us, and we are at this day engaged in; and that we may be both directed and encouraged in this work, let us apply our mind to these considerations.
Consideration 1. That all our prayers ought to be in faith. These and no other are the prayers which are like to succeed in heaven; thus are we cautioned, James 1:6. But let him ask in faith. And thus our Savior limits the encouragement, Matt 21:22. All things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive. It is faith that must encourage us to pray, by helping us to embrace the promise; and it is upon the wings of faith that our prayers must ascend up to heaven, and come before God, that we may find acceptance with him.
Consideration 2. That the word of God is the only rule of this faith. For this reason it is called the word of faith, Rom 10:8. Divine faith is built upon a firm credit which is given to the testimony of God; which testimony is recorded in the holy Scriptures, which are a perfect rule of faith, as well as of manners: and it is the property of faith to receive this testimony, Job 3:34. And this must set the bounds or limits to our faith, so that for us to believe either beyond it or besides it, is not faith but enthusiasm, Isa 8:20. To the law, and to the testimony; if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.
Consideration 3. There are three things in the word of God by which we are to regulate our faith in our prayers; viz. the precepts, the promises, and the prophecies. There is indeed a special faith, which we call justifying, which is nextly built upon the promises in which Christ is exhibited as an object of trust, and accordingly embraced: but the faith of the children of God is of a farther use than merely to be an instrument in our justification; and though in this also it hath a great reference to the promises, yet it is not restrained to them, but extends to all which God hath revealed of his mind in the holy Scriptures, in which there are also rules given us for our direction how to manage ourselves, and predictions are recorded concerning times, and events which are to be expected, all of which we must give entertainment unto by faith: which, how it is to be done, will appear in that which follows.
Consideration 4. The precept hath made it our duty always to pray for the interest of the church of God. We must never forget to importune that it may go well with Zion, Ps 122:6. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We ought to believe that whatsoever God hath commanded us, must be attended by us, as we hope to enjoy his blessing; and that his revealed, and not his secret will is our rule in this regard, Deut 29:29. The secret things belong to God, but those that are revealed to us, etc. Nor need we to be at a loss here, or be afraid of praying unsuccessfully; our prayers shall not be lost, which are put up according to God’s command, 1 John 5:14-15. If we ask anything according to his will he heareth us, etc. Thus faith will afford us sufficient ground of inward peace, whiles we are in the way of our duty.
Consideration 5. That the promises have secured this to our faith, that it shall go well with the true church of God. God hath a church in the visible church which he loveth, and will take the care of at all times, and governs all things for the best, which do concern it; and our faith should build on this, Eccles 8:12. I know it shall go well with them that fear God, that fear before him. Ps 37:18. The Lord knows the days of the upright, and their inheritance shall be forever. And that promise extends to and engrosses in it all such as belong to this company, and at all times; Rom 8:28. All things shall work together for good to them that love God, etc. So that let things fall out as God sees meet with regard to the outward professors of the gospel, there is still plentiful security for our faith with regard to such as these who indeed belong to Christ.
Consideration 6. The scripture prophecies assure us that there shall great changes go over the church of God in this world. It is therefore of the matter of our faith to believe that it shall be so, for God’s warnings, as well as his encouragements are to be credited by us; nor are we to hope to prevent these changes coming by all our prayers: what he acknowledged in his own personal case, must be confessed a truth on this account also, Job 23:13. He is of one mind, and who can turn him? And what his soul desireth, even that he doth. Though we may and many times ought to pray for things that God hath not purposed to do, because not the purpose but the precept is that which we are to regulate ourselves by; yet we are not to pray with a design or hope that our requests, though never so earnest, we shall alter any of his purposes.
Consideration 7. That there is a way and order in which God is wont to accomplish his promises to his people. His promises are sure and stable, being the resolves of his immutable will; and though there are some promises that are made hypothetically, in which there is an expressed resolve, so that we have no farther assurance of enjoying the promised good, than as we comply with the condition connected with it; yet there are other promises which God hath made with respect to his church, which are positive declarations of his absolute council from eternity concerning his people. Now, though these promises are not suspended on any hypothesis in them; Isa 57:17-18. I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart: I have seen his way, and will heal him. Yet God hath purposed how, or after what manner he will bring them to pass, as well as that he will without fail give being to them. And this way is known to himself, though they are many times at a loss about it, and are ready to say, with Jacob, all these things are against me: God therefore offers that relief to his people in captivity, under their despondencies, Jer 29:11. I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.
Consideration 8. Hence our faith is to be exercised in prayer accordingly. And from the premises there are these practical rules to be gathered:
Rule 1. We are to submit our requests for Zion to the wisdom and government of God. We are to pray very earnestly for the good of the church, as those that will have no denial; but then we are to acknowledge to God that he is the Governor, and that he is infinitely wise, and knows that which is best, and is not to be directed by us in the measures which he takes; that his thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways; [cf. Isa 55:8] we must therefore leave it with him, and rest satisfied in this, that his love will not suffer him to forsake his people, and that his council cannot err in the way that he takes to bring about their good. We must then put the condition of Zion into the hand of Zion’s God, and leave it there.
Rule 2. We are to pray that God will do that for his church, which is the way to its peace and tranquility. We are to ask every mercy in that order in which God hath told us, in his word, that he will bestow it. Now, though God acts much of his sovereignty here, yet usually the troubles and evils that befall the church, are procured by their own sins; so that the right way for them to be restored, is by the putting of these sins away, in order to their recovering of light and comfort; this therefore is to be a main ingredient of our supplications in their behalf, that God would turn them from their iniquities, and reform all those things which are amiss among them; thus did they, Ps 79:9. Deliver us, and purge away our sins for thy name sake.
Rule 3. We are to eye the events of providence which follow upon our solemn prayers, with respect to the affairs of the church. If we pray with a suitable frame of spirit, we cannot be negligent in observing whether God answers us or no; and in order to our knowing of this, our business is to take notice how it is in the course of providence; thus he resolved, Ps 85:8. I will hear what God the Lord will say; and he in, Hab 2:1. I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch what he will say unto me. And this must be calculated, not only in respect of the providence it felt, but also of the effects which are wrought by it on the people of God; and that whether the providence be dark or lightsome.
Rule 4. We are to fortify ourselves in this resolve, that all shall end well with God’s people. This is to be believed and maintained, whatsoever the outward event at present may be. Sometimes it is worse both in the providence itself, and in the morals of God’s people; Isa 57:17. I smote him, and he went on frowardly; and when we see the judgments of God to have such a contrary operation, we are ready to despond: but if they are God’s own, we may be sure of this, that he will bring his purpose about, according to his promise, and the revelation of his mind in his word: and though he answers our prayers awfully, yet it shall be well; Ps 65:5. By terrible things in righteousness thou wilt answer us, O God of our salvation: and Ps 99:8. Thou answeredst them, thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions.
Rule 5. But, we are from these observations, to judge of the present times of the church. It is certain that God will sometimes bring the church into a more dark and dismal state than it is in at present, though there be a great deal of darkness already upon it, and this is designed in his counsel, to make way for her deliverance; and being restored again to light and tranquility; and if we consider the times which we are now fallen into, we have not a little reason to expect that it will be thus at this day. The Protestant churches are woefully gone to decay: errors, nay, heresies, and immoralities horribly prevail among them; the power of godliness is almost a stranger everywhere, and hardly to be found; how few are there who name the name of the Lord, that depart from all iniquity? these must be purged in order to better times, and what hot fires may be kindled upon them for that end, who can tell? Babylon must fall, her doom is written inevitable; and what great shakings are there like to come upon the world at that time, and will not Balaam’s prophecy have a remarkable fulfillment in that hour? Num 24:23. Who shall live when God doth this?
Use 4. This truth may serve to direct us how to carry ourselves under the present state of affairs with respect to the church of God. How involved, dark, and perplexed they are, is a thing notorious, and every thinking person is ready to inquire what is like to come next? And there are many searchings of heart in sensible persons at this day: for our help here, take these rules.
Rule 1. We ought to judge of things by their moral causes. This is the way we are directed to by the word of God, Isa 3:10-11. Say to the righteous, it shall be well with him: woe to the wicked, it shall be ill with him. True, other things are not to be despised, providence hath a voice; and we are to make prudent observations on the state of affairs in the world, respecting the people of God; but to draw resolute conclusions from these things is rash. What saith God to them, Jer 37:10. Though ye had smitten the whole army of the Chaldeans that fight against you, and there remained but wounded men among them, yet should they rise up every man in his tent, and burn this city with fire. If apostasy abides and increaseth, we may be sure that God hath not done his work upon Mt. Zion. [Isa 10:12]
Rule 2. Let us prepare for dark times. I am sure the prognostics which appear upon the face of things, forebode them, and it will be our wisdom to expect them, and accordingly to make ready for them. We are told, Prov 27:12. The prudent foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself. God is for this end, giving us warning from time to time, and if we be supinely careless, we shall thereby despise his admonition, and so expose ourselves; and let us know if, there are those sins among us which are a provocation in the eyes of an holy God.
Rule 3. Hence let us do what we may to be hidden in a day of darkness. There may such a day come upon us, and God hath told us what is our duty, as we hope to be ready when it comes, and encouraged us to lay in that we may escape it, by such an argument, Zeph 2:3. Seek the Lord, etc. it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger. And we find God sweetly inviting of his people, when such times are making haste, Isa 26:20. Come, my people, enter into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee, etc. And let us seek after this.
Reason 1. For our people. We hath a common interest, and therefore ought to endeavour that we may be serviceable to it: and though it peculiarly concerns such as have a public station, which is to be done by stepping into the gap; on which account we read, Ezek 22:30-31. I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land that I should not destroy it; but I found none: therefore have I poured out mine indignation upon them, etc. Yet the body of a people also have a work to do in this regard, which is, combinedly to put away the things from among them which provoke God, and to set up a thorough and cordial reformation.
Reason 2. For ourselves. Though we should do all that we can for the public, yet we are peculiarly to save our own souls: and there are distinguishing favors provided for some in dark times, and we are told who they are, Ezek 9:4. Set a mark upon the forehead of the men that sigh, and that cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst thereof; and remarkable is that passage of God’s call given unto Noah, Gen 7:1. Come thou, and all thine house into the ark, for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation. Resolve then to be righteous, and keep your garments unspotted: you may indeed hereby procure the scorn of secure sinners, and be made the reproach of this Libertine Age; but you shall have the comfort of it in the time of God’s controversy.
Rule 4. Let us wait in hope for better times. What though the days are evil, and the carnal security of the generality of professors, not only makes them so, but portends worse days yet to come; let us still believe that God hath a reserve for more clear and Sun shiny days to be upon his church; and let all that fear God nourish their faith with this, and repulse the insultings of the church’s enemies, with that resolve of the church, Mic 6:8-10. When I fall, I shall arise, when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me; I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me; he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness; then she that is mine enemy shall see it, shame shall cover her, etc.
That all the changes which go over the church, to the end of time, are foreknown, and managed by God.
This is partly expressed, partly included, in that he saith, it is known to God, as was observed in the opening of the text; and it is referred to the whole day. There are two things here asserted in the doctrine.
1. That it is foreknown.
2. That it is managed by God. And a few words may suffice to be spoken to each of them:
Assertion 1. All these changes are foreknown by God. Knowledge is here ascribed to God with respect to things future, and that must be foreknowledge, according to our manner of conception of things; though not in regard of God knowing, yet in respect of the things known. And here, to clear up this, we may consider;
Consideration 1. The evidence that it is so, which will appear in three things.
1. From his infinite all-knowledge. We read concerning him, Ps 147:5. His understanding is infinite. And if it be so, it cannot but comprehend within its grasp, all things that are knowable, and these whether past, present or future: and that, because infinity and eternity are inseparable in that Being who is God; to which eternity all things are present, and those intervals of time, to which finite beings are subjected, and by which their duration is measured, can make no difference in him who enjoys himself in an everlasting NOW. And for this reason, we may suppose it is, that many futurities which are foretold in the word of God, are expressed in words of the preter sense, as if they had already been, and were past, because God hath as thorough and perfect a sight of them, as if they were so.
2. From the predictions which are recorded about these things. There are two sorts of predictions about things, viz. either such as are certain, and known to be so by him who foretells them; or only probable, and so only guessed at by prognosticators: Of this latter sort are all such as men pretend to tell us about future contingencies, unless they lay claim to a spirit of revelation, or prophecy: and these are very frequently convicted in the issue, of their mistakes; and if they uttered them with confidence, they come off with shame. But scripture predictions are of the former sort, and do therefore argue a certain knowledge of them, in him that foretells them; and of a thorough and perfect knowledge when he tells of them in regard of the definite time when they shall be, the manner how, the means by which, and all their circumstances: How many such as these have we a full assurance of, from the word of truth, that they have been already accomplished according as they were predicted? And this is a sufficient evidence of the Divine All-knowledge, and gives hold enough for our faith to believe the unfailing performance of all the rest in their appointed time.
3. Because it is impossible that they should come to pass without his Supreme Efficiency. He is the first cause of all things, they are all of him, and from him; [cf. Rom 11:26; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 2:10] and he is an intelligent agent, he knows what he doth, yea what he will do, for we assured, Eph 1:11. That he doth all things according to the council of his will. There are no second causes which can accomplish anything without his active permission, as, Lam 3:37. Who is it that saith, and it cometh to pass, and he hath not commanded it? All those things that are done in the world, belong to the works of God, and necessarily suppose his knowledge of them; and that must be a free knowledge in respect of the things so done in time, for God is unchangeable in all his attributes and perfections, and therefore he can hath no new knowledge of anything which he did not foresee from eternity, Acts 15:18. Known unto God are all his works, from the beginning of the world.
Question 1. On what grounds this foreknowledge of his appears to be necessary?
Answer. This is to be argued from three particulars,
Argument 1. From the nature of the decree. We often read of God’s purpose; and all the things which come to pass in time, are ascribed unto it. Now the decree of God, is that wherein he hath laid out, according to his wisdom and holy pleasure, all those things that are brought about in the whole world, from the beginning to the end; and it is apparently impossible that such a decree as that should pass, but that God who fixed it, must needs know his own purpose in regard to all these things, throughout; and consequently that everything that comes within the compass of it must be perfectly understood by him; and that is everything: and because this decree is immutable, therefore he hath a firm knowledge of all, for we are told in, Ps 33:11. The council of the Lord standeth forever, and the thoughts of his heart to all generations.
Argument 2. From the ground of futurity of possible things, which is his will. That there are some things certainly future, notwithstanding that, in their own nature; they are contingent, is beyond rational dispute, because there is a positive decree concerning them, as was before observed: Now there are innumerable possibilities, which shall never pass into futurity, which yet were as capable of it, as those that do: we are therefore told concerning God, Mal 2:15. He had the residue of the Spirit. There must be some cause why these passed from mere possibility to futurity, when the others did not, which can be no other but the will of God: and certainly, if God hath willed the thing to be, he hath a perfect knowledge of his own will; he hath therefore said, Jer 29:11. I know mine own thoughts.
Argument 3. From the last end of all things which is his own glory. God hath not only appointed these things to be, and for that reason he must know them; but he hath allotted to them the end of their being, and hath laid out the way in which they shall reach the end; Prov 16:4. God hath made all things for himself, yea even the wicked for the day of evil. And for that cause he must be intimately acquainted with them, how otherwise could they have been so continued, as that his end shall never fail, but infallibly reach to the design of it?
Assertion 2. That all these changes are managed by God. He not only knows them, but also disposeth of them; for it is a practical knowledge which we are to ascribe to him, as we before observed; and here we may consider;
Consideration 1. That he so doth; which will appear,
Reason 1. From his universal government. As God is the alone Creator, so he is the Supreme Governor of the creature; and this dominion of his extends to, and is exercised over all the works of his hands, Ps 103:19. The Lord hath prepared his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom ruleth over all. And this government of his is not idle but operative, and influential; we are therefore told in, Ps 29:10. The Lord sitteth upon the flood, yea the Lord sitteth king forever; he acts his pleasure in it, Ps 115:3. Our God is in the heavens, he hath done whatsoever he pleased.
Reason 2. From the dependence of all second causes upon him. It is true, God’s government is for the most part mediate, with respect to the creatures in the lower world; so that there are creatures, yea, there are reasonable creatures concerned in these changes, who have a free and voluntary agency therein, and act for ends of their own, and by measures deliberated in their own minds: however, they act, not only in subordination to his will, but also in an absolute dependence on his cooperation with them; nor can they move one hair’s breadth beyond or besides his acting of them; and in this regard, they are no more than mere tools in his hand, Isa 10:5. O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger; and therefore they cannot but do his will whatsoever their intention may be, Isa 10:7. Howbeit he meaneth not so.
Reason 3. From the special concern that he hath in his church. It is not to be denied but that the activity of God’s providence is alike in all things: but yet he hath given us to understand, that he hath a peculiar interest of his glory in his church, and that for that end he will give the more illustrious manifestations of it in the ordering of the affairs which relate unto it; hence that, Ps 29:9. In his temple doth everyone speak of his glory; and the psalmist hath that remark in, Ps 76:1-3. In Judah is God known, his name is great in Israel: in Salem also is his tabernacle, and his dwelling place is in Zion, there break he the arrows, etc. He therefore tells his people what an interest they have in him, and how near they lie to his heart, Isa 49:15-16. Can a women forget her sucking child, etc. Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of mine hands, etc. Surely then he cannot but curiously look after all that passeth over them at all times.
Question 2. What is implied in this management?
Answer. These four things more peculiarly.
1. That he hath laid out in his all wise council, all the times that shall go over his church, and that in all of their circumstances. He knows what he hath designed, and that includes in it the whole conduct of all the affairs of it, in every the least passage which belongs thereunto; this is manifestly implied in that proverbial speech of our Saviour, to his disciples, Matt 10:30. The very hairs of your heads are numbered. Job therefore could say in this regard, Job 23:14. He performeth the thing that is appointed for me, and there are many such things with him.
2. That he sets the bounds to all the instruments that are used in these providences. Though voluntary agents, or causes by council, are improved about them, yet he doth not leave them to their own pleasure unlimited, but he stints them how far they shall proceed, and saith to them, by an efficacious word, as to the sea, Job 38:10. Hitherto shalt thou come, and no farther, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed; they would willing go more steps, but he will not suffer them. When Sennacherib had fearfully threatened what he would do against Jerusalem, and thought that no God could prevent him, yet the God of Israel saith that he will, Isa 37:33. He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it.
3. That he hath glorious ends in all these providences. God doth not only know what he will do, but also what he will do it for: and it is certain that all his designs concerning his church are glorious: he therefore accommodates all these providences, so that they may suit and serve to his own purposes, and bring them about without fail; he so disposeth of them as to make them proper and convenient for that end: and it cannot be otherwise, for his wisdom hath contrived and foreappointed them, and that cannot be mistaken in any of them; for he is wise in heart, Job 9:4.
4. That he infallibly brings them to attain the end designed. He never fails of that, let men or devils do their worst to undermine or overthrow them; all their consultations and attempts come to naught, and are utterly defeated, Prov 19:21. There are many devices in a man’s heart; nevertheless the council of the Lord, that shall stand. Prov 21:30. There is no wisdom nor understanding, nor council against the Lord; he is not afraid to declare his council beforehand, and let the world know it, lest they might frustrate it, but he dares the proudest adversaries to defeat him if they can, Isa 14:26-27. This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth; for the Lord of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? His hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?
Use 1. We may here see the folly of two sorts of men.
1. Such as ascribe all the changes which pass over the world to mere casualty. To do thus professedly and from a principle, proceeds from pagan ignorance, and savors of horrid atheism, and is only adapted to the mouth of a Philistine priest, 1 Sam 6:9. It was a chance that happened us. But there are too many that do so practically, and express their folly in words, which very ill become Christians, when they ascribe these and those things to their good and evil luck, and meanwhile take no notice of an higher hand in the ordering or disposing of affairs. They that look no higher than casualty, cannot possibly adore the government of divine providence.
2. Such as look no farther than instruments in all these things. They do acknowledge voluntary agents, and can take notice of their good or ill will in it; but they tarry at second causes, and ascribe unto them all the praise of what doth them a kindness, and discover only their anger and malice in that which tends to their harm; but they see not the hand of God in all these things; and so he is neither feared, nor thanked: they neither court his favor, nor seek to pacify his anger. Certainly such as these rob God of his glory, whiles they neither acknowledge his wisdom, nor his government in the affairs of his people: and then there is no reason to wonder if they carry it unsuitably under the changes of providence which go over them.
Use 2. Let it then be for exhortation to the people of God; and that in two particulars.
1. Labor to carry it suitably under all the changes which come over you: Whether it be light or dark, still remember that it is God, and let that thought work on you, and produce in you such frames and behaviors as may prove you to be his people. Hence,
1.1. Are they dark times? Adore his sovereignty, and believe his wisdom; and let that silence your murmurings. When such things befall us, let us say, this is the Lord’s hand, and he may do whatsoever he pleaseth, and is not to be called to give an account of any of his matters, nor may any of his creatures controvert with him, or say unto him, What doest thou? [Dan 4:35] let this then stop your mouths, as it did his, Ps 39:9. I was dumb, I opened not my mouth, because thou didst it. Nor is this enough, but God expects that instead of fretting, or finding fault with any of his dealings, we confess that he is all-wise, and that all his judgments are right; [Ps 119:75] that he doth nothing rashly, but that his council ordereth everything that passes over you, in the whole conduct of his providence, and say, when things seem to be the most intricate, as he, Ps 73:24. Thou shalt guide me by thy council.
1.2. Are they lightsome days? Give him the whole praise of it. See therefore that this also comes from him, and that the tribute of thankfulness for it is his due. He challenges to himself the supreme ordering of all that goes over the creature, Isa 41:7,9. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I the Lord do all these things. If it were not for his all-knowledge, and powerful oversight, the church of God in this world would not see any light, but undergo a perpetual night. Might Satan and ungodly men have their wills, the people of God should not participate in the least ray of truth or peace. Give then to him the glory of this, and say as he, Ps 118:7. God is the Lord, which hath showed us light; bind the sacrifices with cords, even to the horns of the altar; and Ps 41:11. By this I know that thou favourest me, because mine enemy doth not triumph over me.
2. Let us not be over anxious for the church. Let us not torment our minds with sinking thoughts about it. To be solicitous for the cause and people of God, and duly affected with the troubles that are brought upon them in a dark time, becomes all those who love Zion, and we should be able to say, with him, Ps 137:5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. But we are too prone to sink in our spirits, and to give up all for gone, when we see clouds gathering, and a storm impending; but this posture very ill becomes those that are true believers; let us then always bear in our thoughts, with a firm credit, that God knows intimately what is now in doing; and is not forgetful of his people whom he hath loved: let us not then be afraid, or discouraged, but pursue our duty, and wait in hope.
Use 3. Nay, the truth in hand affords matter of great consolation to all the true members of the church of God, under all the changes that pass over it. Let the face of providence look never so black, yet you may lift up your heads [Luke 21:28] and maintain an holy sedateness of spirit; and there are these grounds of comfort which may be fetched from the doctrine under consideration.
Ground 1. Zion’s God orders and governs all these affairs. All these are his works, and he perfectly knows what he is doing. Although it is his good pleasure to bring his church into the furnace, yet he sits by it, and carefully looks after it. It is God, and therefore you may rest in quietness and confidence: Nay it is her own God, and this may abundantly compose our spirits, when her affairs seem to be at the worst. For,
Ground 2. This God loves Zion. His own people indeed may, and very often do provoke him to anger, and he may make the discoveries of it in such awful dispensations as these are: but still it is an anger which is governed by love, for these two are very consistent; and as long as that love continues to be at work for them, we may conclude that there is not danger of real harm; and it is an unchangeable love, John 13:1. Having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them to the end; we are therefore assured of this, Ps 87:2. The Lord loveth the gates of Zion. And therefore, though it is our duty to tremble at his anger, yet we ought to rejoice in his love. For,
Ground 3. He designs good to his own in and by all these things, and he will bring it about in this way. That one promise hath consolation enough in it to sweeten the bitterest cup of gall and wormwood, which he at any time gives his people to drink, Rom 8:28. All things shall work together for good to them that love God, to them which are called according to his purpose. It may look very strange to an eye of sense and human reason, that God should send the best of his people, the good figs to Babylon first, when the bad figs are left behind in Judea for a considerable time after; but what saith God himself concerning this? Jer 24:5. I will acknowledge them that are carried away captive of Judah, whom I have sent out of this place, into the land of the Chaldeans for their good. And if he did not know how to make these things to turn to their advantage, he would never have so disposed of them.
Ground 4. The present condition of the church of God is best for them in their circumstances. If we look upon things nakedly in themselves, and judge of them by the common rules, it is certain that light is more eligible than darkness, and it is more comfortable to enjoy God’s smiles, than to undergo his frowns, to lie in his bosom, and enjoy his embraces, than to suffer under his rod: but in a moral consideration, it is best that it should be thus. If God’s people are at any time under afflictive temptations, it is because they have need of them; 1 Pet 1:6. Ye are, if need be, etc. And God himself hath given us a satisfactory reason why he at anytime brings them under such trials as these are, Deut 8:16. That he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end; and Isa 27:9. By this shall the iniquity of Jacob be purged, and all the fruit shall be to take away his sin. The apostle therefore tells his Corinthians what benefit was designed for them, by those afflictions which God then saw meet to bring upon them, 1 Cor 11:32: When we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.
Ground 5. God hath given us abundant security in the promises which we may safely rely upon. God requires that the just should live by faith, and the strength of faith is in the promise: now the promise is full, there is enough in it to supply our faith, and influence it with vigor in the darkest times. God hath assured us upon his faithful word, that let the day be never so troublesome, it shall still go well with his church; that the gates of hell [Matt 16:18] shall never be able to prevail against it; that though afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, it shall all turn to their great emolument, Isa 54:11. O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires; he bids them not to fear, promising, that because he is their God, he will strengthen, help, uphold them with the right hand of his righteousness, Isa 41:10. That when they pass through the waters he will be with them, and these shall not overflow them, etc. Isa 43:2. And what is said of the righteous man, is a truth if applied to the whole church of God, Ps 37:37. Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace.
That towards the close of the Gospel day, there shall be great light afforded to the church of God.
At evening time it shall be light.
A few brief glances may suffice for the clearing up of this truth.
Question 1. We may here inquire, What is in this place to be understood by the evening?
Answer. The word, evening, strictly taken, intends the extreme part of the day, or that which puts an end to it, and brings on the night, when the light begins to grow obscure, and the darkness increaseth: but we observed in opening the text, that it is not here to be strained to every circumstance of the metaphor; the scriptures take notice of two evenings which were observed by the ancient people of God, we therefore read in Exod 12:6. Shall kill it in the evening Hebr. between the two evenings; which phrase is also elsewhere used. The one of these was presently after the setting of the sun, and continued till the darkness did observably prevail over the light. The other began about the ninth hour of the day, which in our account is near about 3 of the clock in the afternoon, which was the time allotted for the offering up of the evening sacrifice; and comprehended a fourth part of the artificial day in it: and by evening in our text, we are not to understand the very last article of the time here spoken of, but we are to take it in a latitude, for some of the last ages, wherein the gospel dispensation shall be brought to a period, and the last judgment shall thereupon be introduced; and it may include in it those thousand years of which mention is made, Rev 20. And a time of great liberty to the church is foreboded in them: although therein also we may suppose, consistent with the analogy of faith, a definite number to be put for an indefinite, so allowing that phrase to be tropical, as well as the rest in that prophecy. But this is certain from the word of God, that there shall be a very considerable time of tranquility, afforded to the church, after her coming out of the wilderness; and if it be allowed to be a full thousand years, I see no scripture argument against it.
2. If it be asked, when this shall be? It may suffice to answer, as Christ once did to his over inquisitive disciples, Acts 1:7. It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own hands. And we have reason to take notice, and make a remark upon the holy Providence of God, in suffering of those who have been over daring in their definitive determining of those changes of times foretold, to a year, to be convinced of their mistakes, to make others to be more sober. It should then content us to consider that the thing is certain, and that the time is known unto God, and shall be brought about in the appointed season, which will be the best opportunity for it: nevertheless there are two things which I suppose, may be safely asserted concerning this time.
Assertion 1. That it shall not be after the great and last day of judgment is began. Some have not only conjectured, but also confidently asserted this; but I cannot be of their persuasion; and I suppose their opinion is grounded, partly upon a mistaking those scriptures, which represent the ruin of anti-Christ, by a day of judgment; and the restoring of the oppressed church to a state of glory here on earth, by a day of redemption; whereas nothing is more certain, than that the spirit of God in setting forth some notable and unwonted providences of God, make use of words or forms of speech borrowed from that great day; and which are indeed the forerunners and earnests of it: partly from their supposing the time not as yet begun, and thinking it hard to believe that the judgment shall be deterred a thousand years from the beginning of it; but this is but to express our short spirits, whereas in a direct answer to such a way of arguing, which hath no footing in the holy writ, we are told, 2 Pet 3:8. One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. And besides, this is but to seek to salve our difficulty with another that is more inextricable; as will appear in the sequel.
Assertion 2. That it will be, when the Jews are called, and anti-Christ is ruined. That these things will come together, or commence much about a time, I have cleared in a former treatise on Zech 13:1, and need not here farther to insist upon it. Then there will be a bright appearing of Christ, by which the destruction of anti-Christ will be wrought according to, 2 Thess 2:8. Then shall that wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and destroy with the brightness of his coming. Which some have, (I think) needlessly applied to his coming to the last judgment; for there are other comings of his in the power of his Kingdom, though it is likely that he will not appear to the lower world in his humanity till then. And there is great reason to hope that the time for this is not very far off, and it may be began ere we are aware of it; inasmuch as it is rationally to be supposed that this light will have its gradual increase, and not attain to its meridian at once, as the darkness into which the church went, in its retirement into the wilderness, was gradual; and we have such a comparison used by the wiseman in, Prov 4:18. The path of the just is as the shining light, that shineth more and more unto the prefect day.
Question 3. In what respects it shall be light?
Answer. It shall be in both the respects that were mentioned in the former doctrine, viz.
1. There shall be a great breaking forth of the light of the truth at that time. The truths of the gospel have been for a long time, greatly obscured by false doctrines, vended by men of corrupt principles, and entertained by men of carnal minds, by which the very essentials of the Christian religion have been undermined to the great detriment of souls: but now there shall abundance of light break forth, this will be the time when that fountain shall be opened, according to that prediction, Zech 13:1. Now is the time when that promise shall have a wonderful accomplishment in, Hab 2:14. The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. So that the light shall then be great in a double respect.
Respect 1. In regard of the measures of it. There shall be more of it than hath been ever since the apostles’ times; and possible, as to the generality of Christians more than was discovered to them in those times. There will be a clearer dispensation of the truths of the word of God, and a more distinct discovery of the mind of God therein, than in the ages going before, there had been in the church; so that there shall be a very imminent accomplishment of that prophecy; Isa 30:26. The light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days; in the day when the Lord binding up the breach of his people.
Respect 2. In respect of the extensiveness. This light shall spread abroad into the dark corners of the world, which shall be illuminated by it. The gospel had a large course in the apostles’ times; and how far it spread in the succeeding ages, is very uncertain, and many things recorded by ecclesiastical writers are dubious; but it is certain that it shall yet have a more large extent in the times that are expected: then shall the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord, and such as were before strangers to the mysteries of the kingdom, shall be made acquainted with them, and those that had sat in darkness, shall see a great light. Now will that prediction have its fulfillment, Rev 14:6. I saw another angel in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to them on the earth, and to every nation, and kingdom, and tongue, and people.
2. There shall be abundance of peace, tranquility, and prosperity upon the church. Then shall they come out of the wilderness, and their enemies shall no longer be above them: then will God give being to that which is prophesied, Isa 2:2-4. It shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the tops of the mountains, and shall be exulted above the hills, and all nations shall flow to it, etc. And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, etc. They shall be the head, and their enemies the tail, and those that hated them, shall feign obedience to them. This is the time foretold under the kingdom of our heavenly Solomon, Ps 72:3. The mountains shall bring forth peace to the people, and the little hills by righteousness; and Ps 72:7. In his days shall the righteous flourish, and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth.
Question 4. To what degrees this light shall arrive?
Answer. This will not be certainly known to any, till they come to enjoy it; and beyond doubt some have been too extravagant in their conjectures about it: however I think, something may be said to regulate our thoughts in this matter, viz.
1. That it is a part of that day which is treated of, Zech 14:7. And it is all of it one day, and consequently under one and the same dispensation of the kingdom of Christ. To make it to belong to any other day but that of the gospel, is not agreeable to the design of our text: and for this reason all our conceptions about it are to be measured and confined, according to the nature of the day under consideration; and this observation well considered, will afford help to our right apprehension of it; hence,
2. It belongs properly to the state of the church militant. For all the prophecies which are contained in this chapter, are restrained to the condition of the church of God whiles it abides under the means and ordinances, and receives all its light mediately; to which way of communion with God, he hath bounded our regular expectations in this life; and what that is we may rationally conceive; hence,
3. It will be far short of the light of glory. This light indeed is here mentioned to be such as exceeds all that which went before it in this dispensation, but it is not made equal to that which we hope and wait for, when the medium shall be taken away, and we shall be brought to partake in the immediate vision. There must and shall be a difference between the church militant and triumphant; and this is one thing wherein it will mainly be made, 1 Cor 13:12. We now see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know even as also I am known.
4. There shall still be enemies of the church abiding in the world, who will wait for an opportunity to bring darkness upon it again. There is a prophecy whose accomplishment will be after the church hath been brought into this happy condition under our contemplation, recorded in, Rev 20:7, etc. And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go about to deceive the nations, etc. which indisputably assures us, that the church will all this while remain in a condition which renders them in themselves liable to the malice of adversaries, though God will suppress their rage, and tie up their fury, during his pleasure, and their very offer of giving them molestation shall infallible issue in their own utter ruin, and the church’s glorious triumph: however it sayeth that they will be as yet in a state of militancy.
Use 1. Learn we from hence, how vain are all the attempts of the church’s enemies against it. The cause and people of God always had, and will have such as hate them and plot and practice against them; that is ever an observation that may be made, Ps 37:12. The wicked plotteth against the just, gnashing upon him with his teeth. They look great, and speak big, and rise up as a flood, which threatens to overflow and bear all before it; and now we are ready to be afraid, and say, what shall become of the interest of Christ in the world? but all their attempts are in vain. They may exercise the people of God; they may bring them low, and be ready to make a triumph over them, and cry out, the day is our own; but God hath appointed his church to see better times, and all the essays of men and devils shall not be able to hinder him in bringing it about, but shall, contrary to their design, contribute to it. Well might the psalmist on this account, treat them with that sarcasm, Ps 2:1-4. Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? the kings of the earth set themselves, etc. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, the Lord shall have them in derision; yea God himself doth encourage his people to make that daring challenge as, Isa 8:9-10. Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces, etc. for God is with us.
Use 2. This may serve to encourage our faith and prayer in behalf of the church of God. The people of God are too frequently ready to be discouraged; when they see things, in the face of Providence to be dark and dismal; everything, as to the aspect of it, seems as if it boded nothing but desolation, and the utter extirpation of the whole interest of Christ in the world; and hereupon they are either disheartened from praying at all, or they pursue it very faintly, and can scarcely either believe or hope that any good issue can come of these things: but here is enough to make us recruit, and put new vigor into our prayers, when we duly consider;
Consideration 1. That God hath assured us of such a turn as this in the day of his church in the world. This is one of the true sayings of God, [Rev 19:9] and therefore it must infallibly have its accomplishment in the season of it; for none of his words shall fail: or fall to the ground: if he hath said it, who or what should prevent it, since he is true, and faithful and powerful: and though there have been many brightenings of the affairs of the people of God in former times, which have afforded matter of reviving to them, and been as a leviathan to feed their faith in the wilderness; [Ps 74:14] yet nothing on this account which hath befallen them hitherto, can amount to that which is here predicted, nor do they properly belong to the evening of this day: so that they are still to be looked for, and for that very reason the church must be continued, which is to be the subject of them.
Consideration 2. That the faithful have been in all ages of the gospel, from the beginning, relieved by the faith and expectation of such a time. In the darkest and most afflictive hours which have been upon the people of God since the primitive times, the consideration of these prophesies which refer to the latter days, and the glorious things which are therein for-signified, hath been a cordial to their spirits, and not only kept them from fainting when their pressures have been never so great, but fortified them with the greatest resolution and cheerfulness in undergoing them: and though they lived not to see the fulfillment, yet they died in the comfort of it, firmly believing that there should be such as would see and enjoy all the glorious benefits therein contained.
Consideration 3. That the time for these things to come to pass, makes haste, and draws on apace. For though it would presumption in us, to go about to fix the day, the month or the year wherein this shall be, yet we are assured, that the prophecies which are concerning the times to go before it, and that are to usher it in, are in a great measure run out, and so much of light we may gain out of them, though obscure, as will satisfy us that it cannot be long before the pride of the man of sin, who hath so long sat in the temple of God, as God, shall be pulled down, and the afflicted people of God shall receive that call from heaven, Isa 52:1. Awake, awake, put on thy strength O Zion, put on thy beautiful garments O Jerusalem; and that voice shall be heard, Rev 11:15. The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.
Consideration 4. That God will prepare his church for this by all the trials which for the present it encounters withal. He is pleased to bring them into darkness, thereby to make them the more fit for the enjoyment of the light, when it shall shine upon them. We are told what end the chastenings of the people of God are designed for, Heb 12:10-11. That we might be partakers of his holiness, and to yield the peaceable fruits of righteousness. God, by these humbleth them, reformeth them, purgeth away their filth from them and melts out the drossy part which is in them; this is it for which he hath his furnace in Jerusalem: [Isa 31:9] and the aim of all is to render them the more meet for such a precious benefit.
Consideration 5. If we ourselves should not live to see and partake of the happiness of those blessed times: yet these two thoughts may derive comfort from them to us.
Consideration 5.1. The faith of them affords suitable help to us in the doing of our present work. It hath so done to those that have gone before us: and there is this matter of great encouragement in it, to move us thus to do, inasmuch as it is a privilege secured to that church of which we are members, and for whose welfare we are deeply concerned; and we may in a believing prospect of it anticipate their joy; besides that we have great encouragement to hope that some of ours may live to see and partake in the happiness of those days, and this cannot but comfort us in our work.
Consideration 5.2. That we ourselves shall go to see and enjoy better things. It will indeed be a very great comfort to those that shall enjoy it, to see that pleasant day, when the church shall come out of darkness, and dwell in light, and to be fellow-sharers in the glorious privileges of it: However, it doth but belong to the inchoate and imperfect happiness of the people of God; and there are unspeakably better sights and fruitions to be enjoyed by those that go to the general assembly of the firstborn, [Heb 12:23] and dwell with the spirits of just men who are made perfect.
Use 3. Let it be for consolation to all the true members of the church of God, under the present darkness which is upon the kingdom of Christ in the world. It is in every respect a gloomy day, and covered with thick clouds; notwithstanding here is solid comfort and refreshment to be drawn from this prophecy in such a day as this is: and let all those whose common interest is bound up with that of the church, make an answerable improvement of it: for which end let us much meditate on those three conclusions.
Conclusion 1. That this darkness shall not hinder the accomplishment of the promise which is included in this prophecy. God is the undertaker to do this thing, and he cannot be prevented or obstructed: nay, it is his wise and holy pleasure to suffer such things as those to be, that he may from thence take the occasion, the more gloriously to signalize his power as well as his truth; and meanwhile he doth but deride the sweat and toil which his and his church’s enemies are wearying themselves withal to no purpose.
Conclusion 2. That this darkness which is now on the church, may be a symptom of the hastening of this blessed time. It is a frequent observation in natural things, that the darkest time of the night is usually a little before the breaking of the day: and that it hath been so in a moral consideration, and that most usually, in the affairs of the people of God, we have frequent instances for it given us in the scriptures. When our Savior had been speaking of dismal times that were coming upon the world, he gave that consolatory advice to his people, Luke 21:28. When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth night; and we have such an account, Rev 7:13-14. One of the elders answered, saying to me, what are these that are arrayed in white robes? And whence came they? And I said to him, Sir, thou knowest; and he said to me, these are they which came out of great tribulation.
Conclusion 3. That when this time comes, the church shall forget all her sorrows. This will wipe off all her tears, and put an end to her days of mourning: then will they experience the efficacy of that promise, Isa 51:11, The redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their head; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and mourning shall flee away. Then will the people of God be filled with gladness and shall sing songs of triumph, when they shall walk up and down in the light of God’s countenance all the day long. Then shall they reckon and acknowledge all their sorrows and trials to be abundantly compensated, when God shall have returned their captivity, and filled their mouth with laughter, and their tongues with singing: When they shall enjoy a glorious representation of heaven on earth, and be entertained with that precious treatment of which they had been told, Rev 21:3-4. Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes, etc. Let us then live and die in the faith of these things, and bear up through the darkness of the day we live in resolving that Zion’s God sits king, and will in due seasons accomplish all the good for her, which he hath made it our duty to hope in him for.