"The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness." -- Isa. lvii. 1, 2.
This is a text that the providence of God hath severely preached on to this congregation. I cannot look before me, I cannot look behind me, but I see the footsteps of death. It hath been here, it hath been there, upon the right hand and upon the left. Sometimes God expounds the works of his providence by his word; and sometimes he expounds his word by the works of his providence. To suit the word of God and the works of God, as the one interprets the other, is the sum and substance of all our wisdom here in this world.
God doth at this day expound his works by his word. The world is full of confusion, full of tokens of God's displeasure, full of judgments, full of dread; yet the world understands nothing of all these. Bring these works of God to the word of God, and we shall understand them. We shall understand the world is full of sin and provocation, that God is displeased, that he is talking away rest from men, -- shaking every thing within and without. Those who know not the word of God understand nothing of these works, but are filled with a multitude of vain thoughts. He expounds his works by his word.
And sometimes God expounds his word by his works, as he doth this day. He expounds this text; so that in the works of God we may see the mind and sense of the Holy Ghost plainly, as in a glass. "The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come."
The general truth in these words is this:-- That when God is bringing evils, distressing evils, upon a church, upon a people, in the ordinary way of his providence, he doth take away beforehand many of those who are most eminent and most useful. When in a particular manner "the righteous perisheth, and merciful men are taken away," it is a time when God is bringing evils certainly. So, when God was bringing evils upon Jerusalem and the land of Judah, Jer. xxiv., he gathered all the good figs, and laid them aside. Many of them died, some went into captivity; but all that were good and were to be restored, God gathered them out from among them; and then came the universal desolation. "The righteous perisheth." Josiah is an instance of this, whom some think the prophet (though long before) had a particular respect unto in this text: Josiah shall perish; he shall be taken away.' To what end? That I may bring evil,' saith God. Go thou thy way. Thou shalt perish, and be slain; yet thou shalt go unto thy grave in peace, that I may bring evil.' I have often spoken it myself, and beard others say, the taking away, the gathering in, as the word is, ("They shall be gathered"), of so many ministers, -- many of them in the fulness of their strength, and fulness of their labours, and best of their designs for God, -- has been a token that there was evil to come. And it is not only so as to ministers; but as to others in this congregation, in a most eminent manner, such as I have never had experience of in the whole course of my life; -- so many persons of holiness, worth, and usefulness, to be taken away, and gathered in out of one poor society in so short a time! That is the general scope of the place.
I shall a little open the words in particular.
It is a double description of the persons spoken of:-- 1. With reference to their state and condition before God; they are "righteous men:" 2. With respect unto their state and condition towards men; they are useful men, "merciful men," who are spoken of.
First, With reference to their state before God: "The righteous perisheth." I know the word is frequently used for a man who is morally righteous, a just man among men. But from what follows in verse 2, as we shall see by-and-by, I rather take the righteous man here to be a justified man, -- a man who is righteous and accepted with God; a just man, that is, a man justified by the blood of Christ. That is his first description, as to his estate in reference unto God, of whom he speaks: he is a justified person.
Secondly, With respect unto their state and condition towards men. He speaks of "merciful men," -- men of benignity, men of kindness, men of goodness, good men, useful men, men that exercise kindness in the earth, who are peculiarly the lovely and desirable men in the world. The apostle makes a distinction between a just man and a good man, Rom. v. 7, Scarcely for a righteous man will one die" (for a justified man); "yet peradventure for a good man" (one who is benign, kind, useful, merciful), -- "some would even, dare to die" for such a man. Such are the persons who are here mentioned, -- a justified man, and a man of benignity and kindness.
Truly, I cannot avoid the application of it; for God by his providence at present speaking unto us, it is our duty to apply it unto our case, to the person whom God hath lately taken from this congregation, -- a justified man; as I might do to many others who have gone before. I was with him the day before he died, and found him in the exercise of faith upon as noble a principle as ever I would desire to live and die in, -- that view which God had given him of the glory of his wisdom, of his righteousness, of his grace, and love, and mercy, all manifested in Jesus Christ for the saving of his soul. I know no more glorious act of faith. And they are the substance of the words wherein he expressed himself; as, indeed, he had done oftentimes before, when I had conference with him about his spiritual estate: for he was a person neither afraid of his pastor, nor unfree to communicate his thoughts unto him. And I cannot but give him the other character, -- a "merciful man." I see the faces of sundry in this congregation who have spoken of him to me as one full of kindness, love, benignity, ready to serve every one in all their occasions, inquiring how he might serve the meanest, and any other, with great condescension, meekness, and humility. I account this little that I have said due unto him; and I shall add no more but that it is an instance of God taking away a righteous man, and of God's gathering in a merciful man. And it is known unto us that the same character, both for faithfulness and usefulness, may be applied in a most eminent manner unto several persons of this congregation who have been taken from us. I pray God we may be "followers of them who through faith and patience are inheriting the promises;" that all of us, who profess that we are justified before God, may take care that we he merciful, -- that is, kind, benign, and useful, not selfish, not living to ourselves, but ready to serve one another, ready to serve all the members of the congregation, and all others, as we have opportunity. If we are justified persons, let us take care to be good, to be merciful, kind and benign.
But to go on with the words. What is said of this righteous man? He "perisheth." Absolutely? No; no righteous man perishes eternally. The prophet in the next verse obviates any such objection; for there he gives a distribution of him into his two essential parts. What saith he of him? "He shall enter into peace." There is his soul. What shall become of his body? That shall go into the grave. If the righteous man perishes, it shall be only a dissolution; -- as to their souls, they shall go to rest; as to their bodies, they shall go into the grave. I say he doth not perish absolutely, neither as to soul nor body; but the prophet uses these expressions that he may be said to leave out no justified man, by what way soever or by what means soever they may come to their death, though they may seem to perish, to be cut off Some die in their youth, in the beginning of their usefulness; some die in their usefulness; -- some die under strong pains; some may die by the sword: all which have an appearance of perishing. This expression comprises whatever way or time God is pleased to take a just man out of the world.
Again; a just man is said to perish and be gathered in, because of the help and assistance he should have been unto the church, and city, and place where he lived. He is perished and gone. The just man perishes, and the merciful man is taken away. They are gathered. There is an emphasis upon the season. There is a time when the just man so perishes and the merciful man is so taken away; and we can all give instances of it in near relations, in friends and acquaintances, that it hath been so.
To go a little further; What is the end hereof? what is the issue of this dispensation of God in the perishing of righteous and merciful men?
Why, saith he, -- 1. "No man layeth it to heart." And, 2. "None considering that they are taken away from the evil to come." The meaning of it is this, that in those strange and wonderful dispensations of God, there are very few that either consider the cause or end of it: none lays it to heart in considering the cause; none considers it in respect of the end, -- their being "taken away from the evil to come." And that is the doleful truth which these words teach us, namely, that when God takes away, gathers in, righteous and merciful men, to make way for the bringing in of great evils, distresses, and destruction, few or none shall either lay it to heart or consider it. It is part of God's displeasure, part of his judgment, that we are not more awakened by it. God be merciful to this poor church, or we are lost! If we don't see the cause and end of God's dispensation towards us, -- unless the Lord be pleased to give us a further sense than yet we have attained, -- I shall be afraid of "the evil to come, that is approaching unto a more sad event than we are ready to think of. "No man layeth it to heart;" very few shall do so. Yea, surely, how many sad words have we heard from all sorts of persons concerning those who have been lately taken from us: "Ah, my brother! Ah, my sister! Ah, their usefulness while they were among us!" and we can hang down our heads for a day, for a night; -- but this is not laying it to heart. I speak unto the remnant of this congregation what God doth certainly require of us, that this complaint may not be found true concerning us, that none considers the cause and end, what they are; which is the saddest prognostic of most distressing evils.
Evil is a comprehensive word for every thing that is so. It is required of us that we do really take notice of the displeasure of God in it, -- that God is displeased, not with them whom he hath taken away. Was God displeased with some of the best sprouts among our brethren? was God displeased with them? No. But we are to take notice of God's displeasure towards us. When God's hand is lifted up, if men will not see, he saith, "they shall see." Truly, I am almost ashamed, and ready to blush to look men in the face, to consider what rebukes God hath given us. Our Father hath spit in our face; he hath showed his displeasure, not in this instance only, but in nine or ten I could name, eminent in grace, whom he hath taken from us; so that I know not how we should not be ashamed that our Father is displeased with us, The Lord help us to lay it to heart! If we laid it to heart, we should blush.
What are the causes of God's displeasure with us? If God be displeased with us, what are the causes of it? I do not know that he hath given me a greater rebuke, in the whole course of my ministry, than that I have been labouring in the fire to discover the causes of God's withdrawing from us without any success. I will say nothing of them now, though it is good for us to think of them. Our duty is to let go all our vain pretences and security, and consider what is the cause that God is displeased with us as a congregation, and take shame unto ourselves.
And then, let us be jointly humbled for those causes, and be turning with all our heart from every thing that hath been a provocation unto the eyes of his glory. Without this, my own love unto this congregation will make me to apply that word unto it: You have I known of all the congregations in London in a peculiar manner, and therefore will I punish you for all your sins.' We have been lifted up unto heaven by privileges, and how God will bring us down I know not. But it is time for us to consider the causes of this displeasure of God, testified so openly against us, to be humbled for them, and return unto the Lord. It is high time so to do. Oh, blessed is he that contributes any thing hereunto in this particular! The Lord raise up some, and pour his spirit upon them, to be useful unto this end; that we may help to save ourselves, the pity, and the nation wherein we live, and the residue of the churches in this land! The Lord can pour out such a spirit on some, that may raise such a spirit of repentance for sin and humiliation before God as may be useful to this end and purpose. The first charge is, that "No man layeth it to heart." And I do believe, and therefore I speak, that if these things be not laid to heart in the way that I have declared, or to that purpose, it is an evidence that evil will come and overtake us in the latter end; for so it is said, "The righteous perisheth, and merciful men are taken away from the evil to come."
Why are they taken from the "evil to come"?
First, That God may bring the evil: I will leave some when the evil comes to be exercised; may be an old man, may be a young man. It waits but till I have gathered some to myself. I cannot bring evil till those lights be gone out and the good figs be carried away. I cannot,' saith God, bring evil upon Jerusalem till then.' And they are taken away that evil may come. And, --
Secondly, Which is the most general acceptation, they are taken away that they should not see the evil; as Josiah was taken away by the sword that he might not see the evil. Death by the sword hath no evil in it, in comparison of the evil God will bring upon a people or nation when he comes in a way of judgment. Josiah shall not see the burning of the city and temple, shall not see women eating their own children,' etc. What is perishing by the sword in comparison of all those temptations wherewith these evils are accompanied? The Lord will take them away, that they shall not see that which hath evil, wrath, distress, in it. They are "taken away from the evil to come."