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a knowledge of what is most needful to be known, as will fully justify the Psalmist's encomium, that the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple*
Not that even the learned, and much less the illiterate, act either with humility or prudence, if in reading holy writ they rely wholly on their own judgment unassisted. For God hath made the help of others extremely necessary to our understanding of his word, as well as his works. Men of great abilities and attainments, by trusting to themselves, have gone sadly wrong: and men of no other advantages, than a teachable disposition, have arrived at a most beneficial acquaintance with religious truths. For God hides things from the wise and prudent in their own opinion, which he reveals into babest; resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble 1. Nor let it be imagined, that such must therefore depend altogether in every thing on the authority of their spiritual guides. For as in matters of science, or common business, what a man doth not see of himself, he may have shewn him notwithstanding, and then see it as truly and fully, as if it had been his own original discovery: so in matters of revelation, one, who would otherwise have made small progress, or, it may be, great mistakes, yet having the main articles of it methodically explained to him, in discourses on his catechism, and occasionally inculcated in sermons, or answers to the questions which he asks in private, may, by comparing what he is thus taught, with what he reads in his Bible, come by degrees, not to believe implicitly, but to discern, evidently, the genuine sense of its fundamental doctrines * Ps. xix. 7.
† Matth. xxi. 25. Luke x. 21. I James iv, 6.
and precepts. In which case his faith rests no longer on the word of man, but that of God, whether we can answer all the specious objections against it or not: which few people can do in any thing that they believe of any kind. We should therefore conscientiously take all fit opportunities of learning instruction from those, who are set apart to give it. For the priest's lips are appointed to keep knowledge : and the people to seek the law at his mouth* : not with a blind submission to whatever he shall affirm; but with so much regard at least, as in other professions the more ignorant pay to the more skilful. Nor are we confined to respect only the sentiments of the particular teachers, whom we statedly attend, but ought to have much greater deference for the general persuasion of Christ's Church, particularly our own branch of it, and a proportionable one for that of every knowing and good person; always entertaining some distrust of ourselves when we differ from these. The exercise of our best judgment, and a modest attention to that of others, are the joint means, which our Maker hath instituted for the understanding of his will, natural and revealed. They, who use them uprightly, and they alone, may hope for pardon of their ignorance and errors. And were any one to continue so ignorant to the last, as to believe the truths contained in holy writ, only because those about him told him they were such: yet might he have the happiness of acquiring even by the means of this most implicit faith, dispositions of piety and virtue unattainable otherwise, and sufficient to qualify him for eternal happiness.
But sometimes Christians of a deeper insight, real or imaginary, into Scripture, instead of complaining,
Mal, ii. 7.
like others, that necessary doctrines and precepts are not clear enough there, are tempted to think them expressed so much more familiarly, and repeated so much oftener than needed, that the places, in which they are inculcated thus, may be passed over, as not designed for such, as they are. Now, would they but consider even the least entertaining of them for a competent time, with a spirit of seriousness, there would start out of them information or admonition, of which they little think, and for which they have great occasion. Or should they find nothing that is new to them, they would at least have cause given them to recollect with humble thankfulness, not only that their Christian brethren do, and are made wise unto salvation * by these despised plain passages, and by these only, but that from them, above the rest, proceeded all that knowledge of the redemption of man, and almost all that knowledge of natural religion also, which the most learned enjoy; and which hath made even the vulgar of the gospel dispensation superior to the ablest and best instructed amongst the heathen : a superiority, which will be lost again, in proportion as regard to the word of God decays.
But though, in reading it, we must all begin with attending, and ever after attend chiefly, to the first elements of Christian instruction, or, to speak in St. Peter's language, as new born babes desire the sincere milk of the word, that we may grow thereby t; and know it for a bad sign, if we cannot relish the food of simplest taste, and easiest digestion : yet keeping to this wholly is the business of those alone, who, as the Epistle to the Hebrews expresses it, are unskilful, or rather unexperienced, in the word of righteousness: which hath in it also strong meat, belonging to them * 2 Tim. ii. 15.
t1 Pet. ii. 2.
that are of full age, who, by reason of use, have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil *. We shall thrive best by the use of lighter nourishment first : and mixing the more solid with it prematurely may both check our growth, and hurt our health. But when we have acquired a due firmness and vigour, we shall both preserve and increase it, by feeding on other things, likewise, throughout the Scripture: the several parts of which I shall briefly go over once again for your completer direction.
The historical books of the Old Testament may be read carelessly with as little improvement, as any other history. But therefore to prevent this, we are to reflect as we go along: and observe, according to the nature of each article, how it sets before us the sovereignty, the superintendency, the wisdom, the justice, the mercy of God; the amiableness and rewards of good actions, the deformity and punishment of wicked ones ; the heights of piety and vir- . tue, at which the Saints of old time arrived, as we may by imitating them; the dreadful sins into which they sometimes fell, as we shall, if we take not warning. For all these things happened to them for ensamples; and they are written for our admonition t. As to the danger, which may arise from the bad deeds of good persons, related without censure, and actions that seem unwarrantable, yet are told with approbation, and were therefore either done by God's extraordinary commision, or grounded on circumstances, of which we are not well apprized : I have spoken of these in a former discourse; and shewn you, that, in such circumstances, the precepts, not the histories of the Bible, must be our rule. In the book of Job, some parts are highly poetical, Heb. v. 13, 14.
t'i Cor. x. 11.
and proportionably dark: for which reason our attention must be chiefly paid to those others, which will amply recompence it, by exhibiting the noblest and most pleasing views of the majesty of the Almighty, of the patriarchal religion, of the exquisite beauties of humanity and charity, of the hard struggle of human virtue with heavy afflictions, and God's gracious acceptance of imperfect endeavours. Ye have heard of the patience of Job: and have seen the end of the Lord; that he is very pitiful, and of tender mercy*
As to the Psalms: I have already explained to you the nature of those, which contain imprecations. Of repeating them all in the church, I shall, God willing, speak some other time. Of reading them in private, I need only say, that with the exercise of but a common degree of judgment, every pious person will find it equally improving and delightful.
The Proverbs have scarce any obscurity, and much use. Concerning Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, you have had, I hope, sufficient instructions for perusing them with benefit.
The prophetical writings abound in difficult passages; but still more in plain ones, expressing the sublimest notions of piety and morals, the strongest preference of inward goodness to outward observances, the awfullest denunciations against wickedness of every kind, the most affectionate expostulations, the most inviting promises, the warmest and justest concern for public good : which the prophets manifested with so fearless and impartial a freedom, in telling both the body of the people, and the highest in authority, their duty and their sins, that the descendants of those, who persecuted them when
* James v. 11.