- Sermon I. the Rising Generation Exhorted to Adopt the Religion of Their Christian Forefathers.
- Sermon II. Hope In God.
- Sermon III. On the Means and the Importance of Grace.
- Sermon IV. Corruption of Heart the Source of Irreligion and Immorality.
- Sermon V. Against Despair and Suicide.
- Sermon VI. On the Folly and Danger of Thoughtlessness.
- Sermon VII. Perseverance In the Religious Principles Taught In Youth, and Particularly In Faith and Hope, Recommended.
- Sermon VIII. Good Intentions the Least Fallible Security For Good Conduct.
- Sermon IX. Religion the Chief Concern of Life.
- Sermon X. On Conformity to Fashion and the Customs of the World
- Sermon XI. On Seeking a Remedy For Sorrow, In Vice and Dissipation.
- Sermon XII. Christian Politeness
- Sermon XIII. On the Duty of Preventing Evil, By Actual Coercion, As Well As By Advice and Remonstrance.
- Sermon XIV. On Pursuing Visionary Schemes of Happiness, Without Attending to Scripture, and Revealed Religion
- Sermon XV. the Pride of Human Learning and False Philosophy, a Great Obstacle to the Reception of Christianity.
- Sermon XVI. On the Duty of Servants.
- Sermon XVII. On the Wickedness and Misery of Envy and Contention.
- Sermon XVIII. the Cunning Oe the Wicked Inconsistent With Wisdom.
- Sermon XIX. On the Snares of the Devil, and Means of Escaping Them.
- Sermon XX. Moderation Necessary to All Solid and Durable Enjoyment.
- Sermon XXI. Happiness to Be Found Rather In the Enjoyment of Health and Innocence, Than In the Successful Pursuits of Avarice and Ambition.
- Sermon XXII. On the Duties of the Preacher and the Hearer.
- Sermon XXIII. * On the Benefits to Be Derived From the Sight of a Funeral.
- Sermon XXIV. a Preparatory Persuasive to the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.
- Sermon XXV. the Prospect of Perpetual and Universal Peace to Be Established On the Principles of Christian Philanthropy.
- Sermon XXVI. On the Necessity of Increasing the Places of Public Worship On the Establishment; and On the Duty of Supporting the Objects of the Philanthropic Society.
- Sermon XXVII. the Support of the Magdalen Hospital Recommended.
- Sermon XXVIII. the Education of the Poor Recommended.
happiness to be found rather in the enjoyment of health and innocence, than in the successful pursuits of avarice and ambition.
Jeremiah, xlv. 5. — And seeketh thou great things for thyself? seek them not. For, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord: but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey, in all places whither thou goest.
Pliny, the natural philosopher, who abounds in fabulous accounts, relates, that a certain bird, in plucking up the roots of a plant on which it feeds, pulls with such violence as to leave her neck behind her. Incredible as the story is, it is emblematic of the worldly man; who, in his eager attachment to some transient gratification or attainment, endangers his happiness, his health, his life, and his very soul. For the sake of the enjoyment of life, to lose the objects for which life was bestowed, is a miserable folly; to prevent which, every effort of reason and religion should be exerted. The thoughtless multitude, who hasten on in the precipitate career of ambition, should be warned to reflect on the end of their pursuits, and to consider whither they are going, before they are lost in the wilderness of error.
The advice contained in the text, was addressed to Baruch; but, as the Scripture was given for the direction of all men at all times, I shall consider it less as a particular, than as a general, prohibition, intended for universal use, though to be understood under those limitations which reason evidently prescribes.
And seeketh thou great things for thyself ? seek them not. For, behold, I will bring evil on all flesh, saith the Lord: but thy life will I give thee, for a prey, in all places whither thou goest.
This passage may, perhaps, be thus interpreted in a liberal paraphrase.
Art thou the slave of an excessive and selfish ambition? Art thou seeking great things, merely to gratify thy pride and thy voluptuousness? Seek them not. For riches and grandeur cannot remove natural evil; those sufferings, which I, for wise purposes, have deemed to be the lot of human nature. But I give thee existence. Be it thine to seek to render it happy by obedience to my laws, by a life of reason and virtue, by fixing thine heart on solid and substantial joys, rather than on the fleeting objects of vice and vanity.
I wish to understand by great things, in the text, those which are falsely called great by the world; preeminent stations, distinguished titles, affluent fortunes, splendid mansions, equipages, and retinue. It never could be the intention of the Deity, to prohibit the aspiration of man after great excellence in moral and intellectual attainments. It is impossible to be too good and too wise; for however, in the carelessness of common converse, those expressions may be used, it is certain, that the excess intended to be signified by them, destroys the very nature and existence of the qualities, thus carried to a pitch of extravagance.
But yet, the aspirant after wisdom and goodness may deceive himself in the ardent pursuit even of excellent objects, if he is actuated by wrong motives, and aims at ends which religion cannot approve. Thus benevolence, adopted only as an atonement for sin, and practised as a commutation for all other duties, ceases to be laudable in the eye of Heaven, whatever great things it may effect by means of opulence, or however it may be applauded by human creatures. Having self only in view, it is no longer benevolence in the true sense. Thus learning and science, whatever advances they may make, or however they may be admired, if they are sought only to gratify pride, to raise a reputation, as means of ambition and avarice, or used in undermining the fabric of Christianity, and shaking the foundations of truth, become the more obnoxious to divine displeasure, in proportion to the great things, the high advances, which, by indefatigable industry, they are able to accomplish.
There is a kind of philosophy, which, endeavouring to account for every thing, puzzles itself in the mazes of its own ingenuity; and lapses into atheism, or that state of doubt and unbelief, which terminates in confusion and misery. It seeks great things in its own estimation, a perfect knowledge of the fitness of things; an emancipation from prejudice, and a right to arraign the ways of Providence at the bar of human reason. It inflates the heart with pride, and yet leaves it, after all, less illumined, and less tranquil, than the mind of the ignorant, yet humble and sincere believer, It teaches to reach after the tree of knowledge, in defiance of all prohibition, and to affect a wisdom above that which is written.
But the prohibition, Seek them not, was intended to forbid a too anxious pursuit of what is called in another place, the pride of life.
If we look at the busy world, we shall find men labouring for an advancement in rank, or an increase of property, which is very unlikely to add to their real enjoyments, even when it is attained. Not only the young and healthy, who have a prospect of long life, are employed in the unceasing drudgery, but the old and infirm; those whose strength and senses are too much impaired to admit of much external delight; and those who, according to the common course of things, have but a short time to live.
A decent provision for a surviving family, is indeed a very rational object of pursuit. But avarice and ambition are found most active in the bosoms of those who have no children to inherit their honours and opulence. The same selfishness which kept them in a single unconnected state, urges them to the inordinate pursuit after riches and glory.
And even those who have families dependent on them, to justify a moderate attention to the things of the world, usually proceed farther than the laudable motive of providing for their families requires. They not only seek good things and sufficient things, but great things. The truth is, that they catch the spirit of avarice and ambition in their progress from reasonable parsimony and prudence. They soon forget the end, and dote upon the means. A regard for the future prosperity of their families becomes a mere cloak to conceal the deformity of their mistaken selfishness from the eyes of others, and from their own.
Those who are thus engaged in the pursuit of great things, are strangers to solid and permanent satisfaction. Experience has long ago proved, that desire increases with possession. What was great before it was possessed, is no longer great when it is familiar. While greater things are in the possession of others, they excite an emulation which partakes of envy. The spirit of rivalry is scarcely compatible with self-enjoyment. The frequent failures, which, in the course of human affairs, always attend long and arduous enterprises, cause a chagrin no less inimical to health, than to ease. And if the eager votary is really actuated by a regard for his relations or posterity, in seeking great things, yet, as he carries his pursuit so far as to lose his own tranquillity, he sacrifices more to his children than reason can allow. For every man has, in his own life, no less right to as much happiness as he can obtain, than his posterity have to their portion of it in their period of existence.
The topic of the vanity and insubstantial happiness of human grandeur would be too common to admit repetition, if it were not evident from the conduct of mankind, that, often as it has been urged, it has not yet been urged with success sufficient to deter men from the irrational and inordinate pursuit of it. The truth is, that it has been chiefly urged iu the style of rhetorical declamation, or philosophical arrogance. Ambition of every kind and degree has been the subject of invective. Truth disclaimed the mere effusions of fancy, of pride, of disappointment, and of envy. Ambition, regulated by reason, is productive of great advantages to society. No community can exist without some subordination, without offices and employments of high honour nod emolument, adequate to the abilities and exertions they require. If good men are forbidden to accept them, or voluntarily disclaim them, bad men must supply their place. And how injurious must it be to the world when vice is invested with power, decked with the robes of authority, and obtruded on the notice and consequent imitation of the people, by the lustre of a splendid example?
The excess therefore of ambition, and the excess of parsimony, that excess which leads to the neglect of the duties which man owes to himself, to his neighbour, and to God, is the error forbidden by the text. Seek not great things, so as to forget those which the world calls little, but which, in fact, are the greatest of all; a prudent regard to a quiet conscience, to health, to peace, to kind and just behaviour towards men; to piety, and obedience to the will of God. These should be the first objects of pursuit. Riches and honours may be secondary objects, when held, as they ought to be, in due subordination to the first, when modestly desired, wisely used, and patiently resigned.
How different the practice of the world∗ It is deemed spirited, noble, and manly, to hurry on in the career of ambition and avarice, without suffering the attention to be called off a moment by the restraints of religion and philosophy. Heated in the pursuit, like warriors in the midst of action, the adventurous multitude deigns not to notice, or even to feel the wounds and the falls which are scarcely avoidable. The conflict is so severe, that the victory cannot recompense the toil and danger. But victory, after all, can be but the lot of few. Thousands retire from the field, through mere inability to continue the contest; and sit down, in want, solitude, and old age, to deplore the folly of their early choice.
But let us suppose, that all who aim at great things, reach them at last by their perseverance. Yet, does the possession equal the expectation? Contrary to what happens in natural vision, the objects of the mind's eye, which appear great at a distance, diminish by approach. But let us proceed to suppose that expectation is not disappointed, that the grandeur and splendour which allured at first, continue to delight at last, uncontracted and unsullied; yet, can any portion of riches, any degree of greatness, remove that natural evil, which is the doom of every son of Adam?
The text adds, after forbidding the pursuit of great things; for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord. The denunciation of evil upon all flesh, is given as a reason why great things are not to be sought with exclusive and immoderate attention. The evils which are to be the lot of all men, are reasons for not placing our dependence on riches and honours; since riches and honours are in no respect exempted from pain, sickness, casualties of various kinds, and the decays of declining life.
Nothing, indeed, demonstrates the vanity of riches and honours more forcibly, than the maladies to which those who possess them are no less liable, than the poor and the obscure. A man, loaded with the trappings of state, lying under a gorgeous canopy, and groaning with the agonies of disease, affords a lesson to the worldly-minded, which, if any thing could rouse their sensibility to spiritual things, must be efficacious to their conversion. A crown upon the head cannot guard it from the attacks of insanity; nor a star on the bosom tranquillise the pulsation of a fever. Nothing which greatness and opulence afford, can delay the approach of death; that evil which it has pleased God to bring upon all flesh, and which must be a peculiar evil to those who doat on the vanity of the world, and have no resources in religion, to comfort them on leaving it.
The toil of procuring great things, the uncertainty of succeeding in the pursuit, their unsubstantial, unsatisfactory nature, and their inability to soften, much less prevent disease and death, are sufficient to prove, that they were never intended by God to furnish the chief happiness of man, nor to become objects of his first wishes and most anxious pursuit.
But what, say you, is not the nature of man aspiring; and do not the strong suggestions of his heart teach him, that he was designed to reach at great things? There is certainly a natural desire of greatness in the mind of man, and it was not given for no other purpose, but to be controlled. It was given for admirable ends, and may be directed to their accomplishment, under the guidance of reason and religion.
Let us see, whether the text does not supply hints of instruction for the conduct of this natural propensity. 1 will bring evil upon all flesh; that is, upon the high as well as the low, saith the Lord; but it immediately follows as a source of consolation, but thy life I will give thee, for a prey in all places whither soever thou goest. Under all circumstances, and in all situations, whether prosperous or adverse, elevated or depressed, thy life may still afford thee comfort; so that thou mayest rejoice in the possession, if thou knowest how to use it rightly, as a conqueror rejoices in the prey or spoil which he carries home from the field of battle.
The right conduct of life, then, and not the attainment of great things, ©f exalted posts in society, is the rational abject of a wise Christian. Greatthings are such as really contribute to sweeten life, to preserve it, to sanctify it, to render it approved by the giver, and preparatory to a better.
The mind of man, you say, is naturally aspiring. Here then is scope for its highest ambition. Great things, not such as the world deems great, but such as reason and religion place above all others, must be sought, and may be found, by every sincere Christian.
The conquest of passion is a great object. And seeketh thou great things for thyself? Seek them not in worldly vanity; for reason has affirmed, that nothing is truly great, the contempt of which is great. Many men have been admired, and celebrated, for refusing honours and emoluments; a plain intimation that honours and emoluments are not in themselves great and glorious objects; for if they were, to despise them would not be deemed a mark of a great soul, but of a mean and groveling spirit. But no man was ever admired or celebrated for yielding to his passions. On the contrary, those who have subdued them in any signal instance, where the temptation was great, and the opportunities convenient, have been justly looked up to as the ornaments of human nature. Self-command gave them in the most indigent and unhonoured state, a superiority of character above the most illustrious in title, and the most opulent in fortune. He that is slow to anger, is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city.
To be able to resist the influence of fashionable example; to do right in the midst of an erring multitude; to be proof against the attacks of ridicule, this is truly great; and no man can show too anxious a solicitude for sack preeminence. This is moral heroism, the triumph of reason, the victory of virtue.
Fortune has no share in it. It proceeds from principle and resolution, assisted by divine favour; and it forms a character happy and great in itself, and useful and instructive by its example. It may not be crowned with civil honours, it may not be applauded by shouting multitudes; but it must be secretly approved, even by those who externally insult it; and even if it should fail of the esteem of man, it will be honoured by him who made man, and by whom those kings and potentates reign, who assume to themselves the privilege of conferring titular honour and civil precedency. This is great; and they who pursue it have learned a lesson of wisdom unknown to those warriors, statesmen, and orators, who have shown an inclination to engross all property, all distinction, all power, and all authority.
To be able to dissipate the mist of prejudices formed against reason and religion; and to adopt and defend truth, when attacked by the wit, the learning, and the eloquence of infidel and haughty philosophers; this also is great, and worthy the aspirations of all who are rationally ambitious.
To bear disappointment, neglect, and ill-usage with patience; steadily proceeding in the path of virtue, notwithstanding the world neither applauds nor remunerates; but, on the contrary, may oppose, revile, and injure; this is truly great: and he who has really attained it, may be said to be above the world, not in the sense of a proud philosophy, but in the unassuming language of a meek religion.
All moral virtues, and all Christian graces, are certainly objects worthy of the wisest man's ambition. They are great indeed, adequate to the vast capacity of the human soul, and the only things which can give it complete and durable satisfaction.
We have already seen, that riches, honours, external advantages of all kinds, are incompetent to the removal or alleviation of disease, unable to dissipate the fear of death, or to afford comfort to the distressed mind at its approach. But this cannot be said in objection to those great things which are comprehended under the appellation of the moral virtues, and the Christian graces. They certainly possess a power of tranquillising the spirits under bodily sufferings, and, therefore, of becoming conducive to cure; but, at all events, they contribute more than any thing else to give patience under sufferings, because they inspire the cheerfulness of hope. If any thing can remove the reluctance with which life is resigned at the call of nature, it must be that dependence on divine Providence, which religion teaches; she who points to her votary, happiness beyond the grave. A death-bed shows us, in the most striking point of light, the difference between real and false grandeur. The pious peasant, fully believing the religion he was taught in his infancy, dies with cheerful resignation; while the rich and great, those who trust in their riches and greatness, submit to the necessity with an impious reluctance. Never having contemplated, or desired any thing greater than the wealth, rank, and opulence of the world, they have nothing to look up to, when wealth, rank, and opulence, are on the eve of departure. They would give them all, for the pious poor man's acquiescence and fortitude. For then the great things of the world pall on the mind, and are viewed with an antipathy, like that which children show to the playthings which, but a few minutes ago, they prized beyond measure.
It cannot be said with justice, that all that has been advanced against the pursuit of great things, in the worldly sense of greatness, to the neglect of great things in the spiritual sense of that term, is merely the common-place declamation of an insincere rhetoric. Experience will, I think, set her seal to the truth of the whole; and if we really believe in the Gospel, we cannot entertain the least doubt concerning the reality of what has been premised. Many are the scriptural passages which might be cited, in proof that worldly riches and worldly grandeur are an impediment to the one thing needful, spiritual proficiency. Not that there can be conceived to be any crime in the mere possession of riches and honours but they are of so seducing a nature, when sought with eagerness, and possessed with confidence in them, that they turn the attention from every thing that Contributes to the welfare of the soul, from temperance, humility, piety, and charity.
The shortness of life is a common topic, and therefore little regarded. But if it were duly considered, it would lead to a right estimate of all external things. Let us consider those whom we have known most successful in the pursuit of great things, and who have left them behind them. How little a while did they enjoy them? Did they enjoy them at all? It is doubtful. For their health and senses were often impaired, before they obtained their long wished-for objects; and when they had obtained them, new ones started up, and urged them to new enterprises, even when they were tottering on the brink of the grave.
But the shortness of life is a circumstance which adds value to great things in a religious and philosophical sense. These render the little span as full of enjoyment, as the will of Providence has allowed it to be in its best state. These soothe the heart, compose the temper, controul desire, afford contentment, and inspire patience, hope, and love.
And it is a circumstance much in favour of such great things, that they are attainable in the least fortunate conditions of life, in poverty, in obscurity, in exile. While God gives life, man may render it happy by seeking the blessing of God in the ways that he has been pleased to prescribe. Thy life, says he, in the words of the, text, will I give for a prey in all places, whither thou goest. In all places, whether high or low, commodious or inconvenient, thy life is an inestimable treasure, which, by good conduct, thou mayest improve, so as to rejoice in the possession, as a military conqueror, over the rich plunder of war. Health, innocence, and peace of mind, are the things which will give life its true relish, independently of riches and honours; and therefore are alone worthy of being deemed great things, adequate to thy desire and ample as thy capacity.
The great things of the world are bestowed by erring mortals, who can know but little of real desert; who are misguided by passion, prejudice, and self-interest; who are most inclined to favour that moderate degree of merit which does not excite their envy, or eclipse their own brilliancy; who are rather disposed to favour intellectual ability than moral goodness, and who seldom concern themselves with the religious improvements of those who court their patronage. But the great things which belong to a world superior to the present, are in the gift of one who knows what is in the heart of man, who values purity of principle and rectitude of intention, above the shining qualifications which attract the admiration of the multitude, and who gives his grace to the humble; to him who makes no figure in the busy scene of ambition and avarice, but who, in the retirement of private life, does justice, loves mercy, and walks humbly with his God.
And, surely, this grace or favour of God, which, with invisible influence, acts on the human mind, and bestows a tranquillity and self-possession, which the world cannot give, which bestows it on the virtuous in all circumstances, whether prosperous or adverse; surely, I say, this grace or favour is the greatest object at which the heart of man can aspire. This is the pearl of great price, to purchase which a man would do well to part with all his possessions, if they were incompatible with it. But they are not incompatible. It is not required to part with our possessions to attain it; but with our immoderate desires, our too eager affections, our selfish avidity: those desires, those affections, and that avidity, which exclude an attention to all other things, to our best interest, to the attainment of God's favour, and a blessed immortality.
Set your affections therefore on things above, and not on things on the earth.
In order to love any object, it is necessary to think of it frequently. How shall they set their affections on things above, who seem to be immersed in things on the earth; who, like the brutes, fix their eyes only on the things before them, which gratify their appetites, and contribute only to animal support or enjoyment? Even they who rise higher, yet who acknowledge no other objects to be great, but such as conduce to worldly grandeur; who frequent courts and palaces, in the hope of obtaining titles, ribbons, stars, or offices of great emolument, dreaming of them by day and night, how can even they have room enough in their hearts for the love of him who will not suffer a rival, who has denominated himself a jealous God, who probably abominates the idolatry of him who worships the vain things of the world, more than that of the poor Indian, who falls down, before stocks and stones, in pious, though mistaken adoration.
Such is the tumult, noise, and precipitation of those who live in the scenes of fashionable pleasure, or of public and commercial employments, that many, it is to be feared, are prevented by them from enjoying the repose which is necessary to religious meditation. So far from seeking the great things which religion proposes, they scarcely think of them; they dare not speak of them, lest they should be derided as sanctimonious pretenders; they grow old, in a state of insensibility with respect to all that concerns the invisible things which belong unto their eternal peace; yet they profess themselves Christians, and are not inclined to believe themselves mistaken or deficient in assuming or completing that character.
How greatly is it to be wished, that the admonition of the preacher could speak effectually to their hearts, and awaken them from their slumbers; that he could turn their eyes, a little while at least, from the glittering prospect of gold and diamonds, of purple robes, and ermined coronets, to contemplate the riches of God's grace, and to consider the means which lead to a glorious preeminence in heaven?
And though preachers themselves should seek the great things of the world, yet let no man despise their advice, as the mere declamation of professional necessity. Let no man infer, from the failure of the adviser in the duties he may recommend, the futility of his advice. What the preacher teaches, equally concerns his hearers and himself to practise. He ought, indeed, to set the example, as well as give the instruction. But if he is so unwise and unhappy as not to do so, let the hearer remember, that he alone is to answer for his own omission, and that his defect will neither be excused itself, nor tend to excuse the negligence of those who are committed to his pastoral care.
Seek not great things, the great things of this world, to the exclusion of those of another, is a prohibition that originates not in the preacher's mind, but in reason and in Scripture. We are all hastening to another state; and at the hour of departure we shall all wish that we had attended to the important concerns of a religious life. Let us do now, what we shall then wish we had done, and what will afford us comfort and pleasure, when all the delights of human grandeur and opulence shall be unable to furnish a momentary gratification.
Attentive to the great things which concern the state of our souls, we may also attend to the business of life, and be rewarded for our merits, or industry, either with riches and honours, or both, according to the decisions of those who are able to bestow them. Religion will sanctify our secular cares, and add a relish to the fruits of them. But let it never be forgotten by those who profess to be Christians, that, consistently with their profession, they must deem all things, however splendid and exalted in the eye of the mistaken votaries of worldly grandeur, far beneath the virtues, habits, and duties which contribute to secure, in this life, the grace ofGod, and in a better, everlasting felicity.