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1 Kings, xiii. 22.
Philosophy endeavours to promote the improvement of mankind either by abstruse investigations or popular precepts, which, however they may enlighten and convince the understanding, seldom reach the heart. Religion, on the contrary, while it connects throughout practice with theory, and interweaves the history of moral agents with their duties, pursues a better path. It illustrates general rules by particular instances; it employs the activity of our imagination, and the severity of our judgment, on the characters of men who are represented as bearing a distinguished part on the great and stupendous theatre of the religious world; it gives our passions a warm and immediate interest in their fate, and fixes upon our conscience the most salutary impressions from their various examples. But from the historical form in which the Scriptures are drawn up, and from the singular situation in which men were appointed to act, while the usual order of Providence was occasionally suspended, there is room for the most circumspect inquiry, and for the most accurate discrimination, both when we decide upon the measures
pursued by Almighty God, and when we apply to the regulation of our own conduct the actions of his creatures. That circumspection, and that accuracy, have not been sufficiently employed on the interesting, and in some parts, I confess, the very perplexing event recorded in the chapter of my text.
Thus, in many of the objections that have been made to the sufferings of the prophet, who was commanded to eat no bread and to brink no water in the city of Beth-el, little attention seems to have been paid to the peculiar structure of the Jewish government, to the pecular genius of the Jewish religion, and to the peculiar duties which, in consequence of them, were incumbent upon those who exercised the prophetic office. Under that government, and under that religion, every act of disobedience to the will of God, communicated by preternatural revelation, must have been most injurious to the cause which such kinds of revelation were frequently and professedly employed to support. As therefore eminent rewards were bestowed
upon those who discharged their duty, uncommon severities were, by parity of reason,
those who transgressed it. The provision that is made by human laws is indeed general, and therefore imperfect; for, through the existence or the absence of circumstantial aggravation, there often will be a wide disproportion between offences and penalties. Nay in the general course of our conduct, as we are responsible to Almighty God, it is not consistent with any ideas we can form of a probationary scheme of government, that trangressions should instantly and invariably be overtaken by that punishment which is more properly reserved to a period of future and more exact retribution. But, in extraordinary cases, what is defective in human laws may be supplied, and what is improper, according to the general condition of our moral agency, may be introduced. The sins of men whom the Deity vouchsafes to invest with the highest dignity, and to direct by the most powerful aids, are evidently of a deeper dye. If, therefore, they be visited by immediate and adequate severities of judgment from Almighty God, we have no right to charge upon those severities either any infringement of the general rules of equity, or any inconsistence with the wisdom of that plan by which the rigours of Divine justice are suspended, while the objects of it continue in a state of moral trial and discipline.
Now if you connect these observations on the extraordinary providence of God with the statement I in a former discourse laid before you, of the difficulties which must attend our researches even into his ordinary dispensations, you will find that our reason is incapable of comprehending the whole scheme which God is pursuing in either of them; that where the ends are unknown we are incapable of deciding positively upon
the that the greatest caution should be used in applying to the one even the most correct principles which are deduced from our very imperfect views of the other.
In my former discourse, you may recollect that I
gave you some account of the public events which had preceded the commission of the Prophet, who went down from Judah to Beth-el; that I examined the character of Jeroboam, whose hand was withered and restored; that I set before you the firmness of the prophet in refusing to eat bread ; that I assigned some conjectural reasons for the command which was given him not to eat it; and that I stated the motives which probably influenced the man of God at Beth-el, who persuaded him to violate that command. I shall now resume the narrative, in order to consider the effects of this persuasion, to point out the guilt of the man of Judah in yielding to it, and to vindicate the punishment which he incurred. My remarks have hitherto been of the explanatory kind; but, in examining the sequel of the story, we shall now and then have occasion for a form of discussion more closely argumentative. I shall conclude with some important observations, which that case may suggest to us for the general regulation of our enquiries and our conduct upon the awful and momentous subject of religion. Let us proceed to resume the narrative.
So far as the behaviour of the prophet has hitherto fallen under our notice, he had done nothing either to weaken our respect or to provoke our disapprobation. He had borne an open and indignant testimony against the usurpation of Jeroboam, and the idolatry of his associates : but the fatal moment was now arrived, in which his caution and his courage at once forsook him. For when he hears that an angel of the Lord had revoked the prohibition, he makes no farther delay, he enters into no farther enquiry, but hastily and confidently transgresses that injunction to which he had before adhered with the strictest fidelity. The menaces of Jeroboam had not disheartened him ; even the courteousness of the old prophet had not prevailed upon him; but at the first mention of a message from Heaven, all his scruples vanished without hesitation, he went back with the prophet, and without fear he proceeded to eat bread and to drink water. How overwhelming then must have been his surprise—how agonizing his terrors, when under the roof of a protector and a prophet he was made acquainted with his guilt--when, to complete his misery, the corruptor started up in the form of an accuser-when, in the solemn tone, and with the commanding aspect, of one who was at this crisis really inspired, the man of Beth-el laid bare to him the baseness of his disobedience, and announced to him the just and approaching wrath of the Almighty: “Forasmuch as thou hast disobeyed the mouth of the Lord, and hast not kept the commandment which the Lord thy God commanded thee, but camest back, and hast eaten bread and drank water in the place of which the Lord did to thee, Eat no bread and drink no water; thy carcase shall not come into the sepulchre of thy fathers.”