["Judgments and Chastisements," which is the ninth sermon in his Sermons chiefly on the Interpretation of Scripture, has been transcribed and translated into html by George P. Landow. Page breaks have been indicated in the following form so readers can easily locate passages in the print version: [95/96].]
And David said, I am, in a great strait: let us fall now into the hands of the Lord; for His mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man. — 2 Samuel xxiv.14
e are all familiar with these words of David, his answer to the prophet who came to him from God with a choice of one of three heavy judgments, the pestilence, famine, or war. And the choice which he made is one which we feel was wisely made. He preferred any of those evils which are directly from the hand of God acting upon natural causes, to those which are produced by the evil passions of men. He thought it, better to suffer three days' pestilence, or three years' famine, rather than to taste all the miseries of unsuccessful war in a three months' flight before an invading enemy.
Now the evils by which this country is threatened [87/88] at this time are of both these kinds; both natural — that is to say, such as befall us without being in any degree caused by other men — and moral evils, by which I mean evils that are occasioned by the fault of men, whether ourselves or others. The prayers which have been appointed for this day's service allude chiefly to the former class of evils; not that they are by any means the greatest, but because, with regard to these, people are all of the same mind; whereas when we speak of moral evils, or those caused by the fault of man, there is a very great difference of opinion about them, and these differences are very apt to excite angry feelings. Still the opportunities afforded by this day would be greatly wasted, if, while turning our minds to- wards the evils which assail or threaten the country, we were to omit those from which we have infinitely the most to fear, and from which we may, with a far stronger assurance of faith, pray to God to deliver us.
First, however, I will say a few words on the natural evils which are besetting us; that is, on the new and fatal disease which has appeared in several parts of the kingdom, and which is likely to spread itself over the whole of it. It is a very old remark, that new and alarming dangers are apt to breed a great deal of folly and superstition. Men's minds become highly excited, and their feelings far outrun their judgment. All sorts of exaggerated notions [88/89] therefore have been entertained about the present disorder, and in particular it has been represented as a punishment sent by God for our great and universal sinfulness. Undoubtedly our sins are great, and it would be a most false and mischievous representation which should endeavour to palliate them. But the aspect of the present disease seems to me by no means that of a judgment of God upon our sins. Of course no one could dare to speak of it as a judgment in the cases of individuals; we know that it would be equally false and uncharitable to think that they whom it carried off were greater sinners than those whom it spared. And with regard to the nation, it has not hitherto been in any degree so destructive as to weaken the power or diminish the resources of the country; in fact, nationally speaking, it has been no more felt than the ordinary diseases of every common season. On the contrary, far from regarding it as a judgment of God in His anger, it seems to me to bear far more of the character of a chastening given in His mercy. Both to individuals and publicly, it is capable of being most profitable, and has in fact in a great many instances actually been so. As I said on a former occasion, it has warned them most usefully of the uncertainty of life, while it has encouraged temperance, and called forth a considerable exertion of active charity. It has been a timely interruption to political violence, and has given men a subject of [89/90] common interest, on which not only they could not quarrel, but which placed them towards each other in relations of mutual kindness; and though, like all other chastisement, it "seemeth for the present not to be joyous, but grievous," and though we may lawfully pray to be delivered from it, as from all other visitations of pain and suffering; yet we must feel at the same time that we cannot certainly know whether it is best for us that our prayer should be answered; and assuredly if it be not answered, we may be certain that the refusal does not proceed from God's auger, but from his fatherly love.
How is it then, it may be asked, that we read so often in the Old Testament of pestilence sent as a judgment for sins past, not as a chastisement to warn from sins to come? There are several answers to be made to this question. In the first place, the visitations there spoken of differ from the present case in some important particulars. The destruction was very much greater, and more instantaneous; that is, it did not offer an opportunity for the exercise of those virtues which have been called forth by the present danger. The sight of seventy thousand persons cut off in three days, as on the occasion to which the text relates, was likely to make men overwhelmed with fear, or hardened by desperation; while the evil came in such a moment that there was no time for any wholesome preparation to meet it profitably, or to take any measures for lessening [90/91] its dangers. But the great distinction between the visitations of pestilence under the old dispensation and under the new, may be best understood by reading the prayer of Hezekiah, composed by him in a dangerous sickness ; and by observing how little it could be the language of a good Christian now. Hezekiah earnestly prays against death, because it would cut him off from God: "The grave cannot praise Thee," he says, "death cannot celebrate Thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy truth." Compare this with St. Paul's language: " Whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord; and we are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." It is manifest that a grievous disease falling upon a people whose promises were earthly, was a very different thing, as marking God's disposition towards them, from the same disease falling upon a people whose promises are heavenly. What was in the one case a sentence of death, is in the other a removal to glory. Then, if a parent saw his whole family dying around him, his wife expiring by his side, while he felt his own life ebbing fast within him, would he not have regarded himself as suffering the very last extremity of God's judgments, in not only cutting off himself, but all his hopes of posterity also; so that his name and race would be utterly put out ? But suppose the same case in a Christian family, — Christian, I mean, [91/92] not in name only, but in deed and in power, — and what before was the extremity of judgment becomes the utmost perfection of mercy. It is a grief for a parent to leave young children behind him, when he cannot but fear that the promise of their early years may in after life, when he can no longer watch over them, be wrecked for all eternity. But to be called to his Saviour with all those whom he most loves; to be released at once from all earthly care; to have done with earth not only for himself, but for his wife and children also ; to have reached his home in safety with all his treasures, not only with none to mourn as lost, but with none to fear for as yet in danger; the fondest range of hope could go no farther than to imagine such a rich abundance of blessing.
Or to come to our own experience. We know with what an unusual degree of sickness we in this place are at this moment visited; that there are now four persons lying dead in this town, all of whom one fortnight ago were in no more danger of death than any of us here assembled. Are we to call this a judgment of God in His anger? God forbid! Much rather is it a dispensation most mercifully designed, — would that it might be received by us in an answering spirit! It warns us indeed with a striking voice, to become Christians in earnest with all speed; to put on Christ, and to put off all our sinful reflections. If we do not listen to it, be [92/93] assured that our continued health and prosperity is one of the most awful judgments of all. No sentence is so dreadful as that when God says of the sinner, "Let him alone." The pestilence may cut him off in the midst of his sin; but better even so than to be year after year hardened and encouraged in it, and thus to be daily swelling its amount. But if we do become Christians indeed, then the voice which was so solemn is but the gracious call of a loving Saviour. The servants who were ready, busily employed in preparing for their Lord's coming, zealously assisting one another, and looking forward for the hour when he would visit them, they assuredly felt nothing but a bounding joy when, at whatever hour, in the deepest midnight, or the full noon day, they heard the signal of His presence.
If this day leads us to consider all this, to hear both in the sickly season immediately around us, and in the disease which is prevailing elsewhere, nothing but God's warning and earnest call, the chastening of His love, not the judgment of His anger, then indeed it will be blessed to us. But it will be vain, and worse than vain, if with hearts full of worldly fear and spiritual hardness, trembling at the thought of pain and sickness and death, careless of sin and of eternal judgment, we pour out our unholy prayers to be delivered merely from worldly sufferings. And should God hear such prayers so [93/94] offered? Nay, verily, the worst scorn with which unbelievers regard this day's solemnities, would be deserved by us, and more than deserved, if our devotion be no more than cowardice, if our desire be for worldly and not for spiritual deliverance.
But the evil of disease is neither the only, nor by any means the worst evil which at this moment threatens our country. In this there are even to the actual sufferers, — the friends, I mean, of those whom it carries off, — many circumstances of great comfort; and to society at large it will be, and indeed has been already, as I said before, the means of calling forth a larger measure of mutual kindness and charity. But the other evils have nothing whatever to palliate them; they are bad, and merely bad from the beginning to the end. I speak of those violent passions, that impatience, and pride, and covetousness, and revenge, and brute ignorance, and hatred of law and authority, and selfish indifference to the degraded state of our brethren, and insolence, and extortion, and oppression, which becoming more aggravated every hour, must inevitably ere long lead to the destruction of our prosperity at once nationally and individually, at once as far as regards this world, and as far as regards the world to come. All these different kinds of wickedness, not existing of course in the same persons, but according to the party or class of society to which we belong, — some being the [94/95] besetting sins in one case, and others in another, — are yet all conspiring together to bring about the same ruin. And together with all these, or rather as the very fountain from which they all spring, there is the bitter root of ungodliness; existing not exactly under the same form, but with the same fatal power, in the unprincipled and wicked of both parties; showing itself on one side in a bitter hatred of all the forms of religion, because they may sometimes be accompanied with the spirit also; attended on the other with a great semblance of attachment to these same forms, because experience has shown, that they do not necessarily ensure the spirit; and so long as they do not do this, bad men on one side find them politically convenient, just as bad men on the other hold them to be a political evil. We find on one side, the blasphemy occasioned by worldly discontent and distress, as when Job was advised to curse God and die; and on the other, the inward blasphemy of the gay and luxurious, who say in their hearts, "Tush, the Lord shall not see, neither doth the God of Jacob regard it." All this evil is so great and so prevalent, that we may almost use the words of the prophet, "I looked, and there was none to help: I wondered that there was none to uphold."
But the difficulty of turning this to profit on occasions like the present, arises from the mixed nature of our common congregations; and from the absolute harm which is done to either side, or class, [95/96] or party, by dwelling in their hearing upon the faults of the other. One is restrained, therefore, from going into the particulars of the evil on either side so fully as we might do, because the other side would hear it with pleasure, and would but be confirmed in their own faults the more. Here, however, the congregation consists so much of one particular class in society, the higher or richer class, that their faults may be safely dwelt upon; not that the poor have not theirs also, but because it does us nothing but harm to think of these, is it seems to afford a sanction to our own. Every one must have noticed the delight with which they who want an excuse for selfishness and a grudging spirit lay hold of any alleged instance of ingratitude or improvidence on the part of the poor. The faults of the poor, the sins of the avowed enemies of religion and of our national institutions, however great they may be, do not concern us; our true business is with our own. I have before, in this place and elsewhere, noticed our great sin, — ours, that is, as belonging to the richer classes, — that we measure ourselves by one rule and our neighbours by another; we think that a very little will do for others, while for ourselves we think we can never have enough; and this is the case with intellectual enjoyments as well as with bodily; a very little knowledge, a very scanty measure of social enjoyment, very little show of civility, and next to [96/97] none of respect and attention to their feelings, are while for ourselves, sea and land are ransacked, the utmost ingenuity of man is exercised, to furnish us with new "information, with new excitement, to carry to the utmost possible perfection the polish and refinement of our own social intercourse. And this spirit infects us all more than we are aware of; it is a habit gained in childhood, and it goes on with us in after life, in many instances without our being aware of it. I have known good and kind-hearted persons speak so coldly and behave so distantly to those of an inferior station, that a foreigner, not acquainted with our manners, nor with the character of the individuals, would have ascribed it at once to insolence and pride. But though the excuses for individuals doing this are many, from the cause that I have mentioned, namely, that they do it from habit, and without thinking of it; yet it is no less wrong in itself, and like all other wrong things tends to produce evil to society at large. This manner is practised unintentionally on one side, and received as a matter of course on the other; but even while it breeds no ill will, it effectually checks any feelings of positive regard ; and when in process of time tills cold and neutral state of feeling comes to be tampered with by those who wish to change it into active hatred, they find it but too easy a ground to work upon. Then the reserve and distance [97/98] which had before only prevented cordiality, comes to be looked upon as an actual insult, and as such awakens resentment; nor is the length of time which it has lasted considered in any other light. than as swelling the amount of the wrong, and therefore adding to the violence of their hoped for vengeance.
True it is that manner is but an outward thing, and does not always show the state of the heart. But when our notice is called to it, it is at least a good ground for examining a little anxiously whether indeed all is right and sound within. I cannot but think, that if we really possessed a true Christian love of our brethren, if we felt towards them as brethren, not as towards what are called, and most sadly miscalled, objects of charity, that we should insensibly assume towards them a very different out- ward manner also. At any rate this is certain, that the national evil produced by the behaviour I have been speaking of, is most enormous. It is a folly to think that any money given away in alms can at all make up for the want of kindness. He is in fact doing a double mischief to the poor, who, while he alienates their hearts by his pride, makes himself useful to their necessities by his money; he is doing what he can to degrade them, to make them wear an outward show of respect and gratitude and dependence towards one whom in their hearts they can neither esteem nor love. But on the other [98/99] hand, kindness without money may do very much indeed; and the comfort is, that there is no one amongst us who cannot be kind, however small may be his ability to give alms. There is no one among us who may not make his daily intercourse with every one in a poorer station, a means of increasing mutual charity, instead of exciting mutual aversion. You know full well the vexations which you are sometimes guilty of towards some of our neighbours; not of any serious amount, and still less purposely inflicted; but still galling and annoying, and tending to perpetuate what. is unkind between one class and another, rather than what is friendly. I am sure that you are not aware of the full extent of the mischief created by these apparent trifles; but when you think of the number of schools in England; and that in the neighborhood of each of them something of the same thing is going on, it is easy to imagine, that the effect on the whole may be felt even nationally. But at any rate, whether the effect be more or less, the mischief to our own hearts is the same; opportunities for kindness are kept out; and a careless and insulting habit finds its way into them.
In other places there are other matters on which I might have dwelt with propriety in addition to this; but I know of none where this could have been rightly omitted. And now in conclusion, the sum and substance of this day's solemnity is to [99/100] nourish in us feelings of love towards God and man. Whether we fear disease, love towards God in Christ, and an unwearied kindness towards one another, will take away its sting, and turn it into a blessing; or if we fear civil commotions and revolution, love to God and man is again the only oil that can appease the raging waters; the one love enkindling the other, till, if for no other reason, yet for this alone, because of our strong sense of our common brotherhood in Christ Jesus, because God so loved us, we also should all love one another.
March 21st, 1832.
(General Fast Day.)
Arnold, Thomas. "Judgments and Chastisements" (1832) Sermons chiefly on the Interpretation of Scripture. [Ed. Mary Arnold] 4th ed. London: T. Fellowes, 1859.
Last modified 7 July 2006