POOR AND CONTRITE SPIRITS THE OBJECTS OF THE DIVINE FAVOR.
" To this man -will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.—Isaiah, Ixvi. 2.
As we consist of animal bodies as well as immortal souls, and are endowed with corporeal senses as well as rational powers, God, who has wisely adapted our religion to our make, requires bodily as well as spiritual worship; and commands us not only to exercise the inward powers of our minds in proper acts of devotion, but also to express our inward devotion in suitable external actions, and to attend upon him in the sensible outward ordinances which he has appointed. Thus it is under the gospel; but it was more remarkably so under the law, which, compared with the pure and spiritual worship of the gospel, was a system of carnal ordinances, and required a great deal of external pomp and grandeur, and bodily services. Thus a costly and magnificent structure was erected, by divine direction, in the wilderness, called the tabernacle, because built in the form of a tent, and movable from place to place; and afterwards a most stately temple was built by Solomon with immense cost, where the divine worship should be statedly celebrated, and where all the males of Israel should solemnly meet for that purpose three times in the year.
The externals were not intended to exclude the internal worship of the spirit, but to express and assist it. And these ceremonials were not to be put in the place of morals, but observed as helps to the practice of them, and to prefigure the great Messiah. Even under the Mosaic dispensation, God had the greatest regard to holiness of heart and life; and the strictest observer of ceremonies could not be accepted without them.
But it is natural to degenerate mankind to invert the order of things, to place a part, the easiest and meanest part of religion, for the whole of it, to rest in the externals of religion as sufficient, without regarding the heart, and to depend upon a pharisaical strictness in ceremonial observances, as an excuse or atonement for neglecting the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. This was the unhappy error of the Jews in Isaiah's time; and this the Lord would correct in the first verse of this chapter. The Jews gloried in their having the house of God among them, and were ever trusting in vain words, saying, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these. They filled their altars with costly sacrifices; and in these they trusted to make atonement for sin, and secure the divine favor.
As to their sacrifices, God let them know, that while they had no regard to their morals, but chose their own ways, and their souls delighted in their abominations, while they presented them in a formal manner, without the fire of divine love, their sacrifices were so far from procuring his acceptance, that they were odious to him.
To remove this superstitious confidence in the temple, the Lord informs them that he had no need of it; that, large and magnificent as it was, it was not fit to contain him; and that, in consecrating it to him, they should not proudly think that they had given him any thing to which he had no prior right. " Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is my throne, where I reign conspicuous in the visible majesty and grandeur of a God; and though the earth is not adorned with such illustrious displays of my immediate presence, though it does not shine in all the glory of my royal palace on high, yet it is a little province in my immense empire, and subject to my authority; it is my footstool. If, then, heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool; if the whole creation is my kingdom, where is the house that ye build unto me? where is your temple which appears so stately in your eyes ? Can you vainly imagine that my presence can be confined to you in the narrow bounds of a temple, when the heaven of heavens cannot contain me ? Where is the place of my rest ?"
These are such majestic strains of language as are worthy a God. Thus it becomes him to advance himself above the whole creation, and to assert his absolute property in, and independency upon, the universe. Had he only turned to us the bright side of his throne, that dazzles with insufferable splendor; had he only displayed his majesty unalloyed with grace and condescension in such language as this, it would have overwhelmed us, and cast us into the most abject despondency, as the outcasts of his providence beneath his notice. We should be ready in hopeless anxiety to say, " Is all this earth, which to us appears so vast, is it all but the humble footstool of God ? hardly worth to bear his feet ? What, then, am I ? An atom of an atom-world, a trifling individual of a trifling race. The vast affairs of heaven and earth lie upon his hand, and he is employed in the concerns of the wide universe, and can he find leisure to concern himself with me, and my little interests? It seems daring and presumptuous to hope for such condescension. And shall I then despair of the gracious regard of my Maker ?"
No, desponding creature! Mean and unworthy as thou art, hear the voice of divine condescension, as well as of majesty: To this man will I look, even to him that is poor, and of a contrite spirit, and that trembleth at my word. Though God dwelleth not in temples made with hands, though he
Eours contempt upon princes, and scorns them in all their aughty glory and affected majesty, yet there are persons whom his gracious eye will regard. The high and lofty one that inhabiteth eternity, and dwelleth in the high and holy place, he will look down through all the shining ranks of angels upon—whom ? Not on the proud, the haughty, and presumptuous, but upon him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at his word. To this man will he look from the throne of his majesty, however low, however mean he may be. This man can never be lost or overlooked among the multitude of creatures, but the eyes of the Lord will discover him in the greatest crowd, his eyes will graciously fix upon this man, this particular man, though there were but one such in the compass of the creation, or though he were banished into the remotest corner of the universe.
This, my brethren, is a matter of universal concern. It is the interest of each of us to know whether we are thus graciously regarded by that God on whom our very being and all our happiness entirely depend. And how shall we know this ? In no other way than by discovering whether we have the characters of that happy man to whom he condescends to look. Let us inquire into the import of each of the characters.
I. It is the poor man to whom the majesty of heaven condescends to look.
This does not principally refer to those that are poor in this world; for, though it be very common that " the poor of this world are chosen to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom," yet this is not a universal rule; for many, alas! that are poor in this world are not rich towards God, nor rich in good works, and therefore shall famish through eternity in remediless want and wretchedness. But the poor here signifies such as Christ characterizes more fully by the 'poor in spirit. And this character implies the following ingredients:
(1.) The poor man to whom Jehovah looks is deeply sensible of his own insufficiency, and that nothing but the enjoyment of God can make him happy. He feels himself to be, what he really is, a poor, impotent, dependent creature, that can neither live, nor move, nor exist without God.
This sense of his dependence upon God is attended with a sense of the inability of all earthly enjoyments to make him happy, and fill the vast capacities of his soul, which were formed for the enjoyment of an infinite good. He has a relish for the blessings of this life, but it is attended with a sense of their insufficiency, and does not exclude a stronger relish for the superior pleasure of religion.
If he enjoys no great share of the comforts of this life, he does not labor, nor so much as wish for them as his supreme happiness: he is well assured they can never answer this end in their greatest affluence. It is for God, it is for the living God, that his soul most eagerly thirsts.
If he enjoys an affluence of earthly blessings, he still retains a sense of his need of the enjoyment of God. To be discontent and dissatisfied is the common fate of the rich as well as the poor; they are still craving an unknown something to complete their bliss. The soul, being formed for the fruition of the Supreme Good, secretly languishes and pines away in the midst of other enjoyments, without knowing its cure. It is the enjoyment of God only that can satisfy its unbounded desires. But the poor in spirit know where their cure lies. They do not ask with uncertainty, Who will show w any good? but their petitions centre in this, as the grand constituent of their happiness, Lord, lift thou up the light of thy countenance upon us.
(2.) This spiritual poverty implies deep humility and self-abasement.
The poor man on whom the God of heaven condescends to look is mean in his own apprehensions; he accounts himself not a being of mighty importance. He has no high esteem of his own good qualities, but is little in his own eyes. After he has done all, he counts himself an unprofitable servant.
He that is poor in spirit has also a humbling sense of his own sinfulness. His memory is quick to recollect his past sins, and he is very sharp-sighted to discover the remaining corruptions of his heart, and the imperfections of his best duties. He sincerely doubts whether there be a saint on earth so exceeding corrupt; and, though he may be convinced that the Lord has begun a work of grace in him, and consequently, that he is in a better state than such as are under the prevailing dominion of sin, yet he really questions whether there be such a depraved creature in the world as he sees he has been. Self-abasement is pleasing to him; his humility is not forced; he does not think it a great thing for him to sink thus low. He makes no proud boasts of his good heart, or good life, but falls in the dust before God, and casts all his dependence upon his free grace:—which leads me to observe,
(3.) That he who is poor in spirit is sensible of his need of the influences of divine grace to sanctify, and enrich him with the graces of the Spirit.
Hence, like a poor man that cannot subsist upon his stock, he depends entirely upon the grace of God to work all his works in him, and to enable him to work out his salvation with fear and trembling.
(4.) He is deeply sensible of the absolute necessity of the righteousness of Christ for his justification.
He pleads his righteousness only, and trusts in it alone. The rich scorn to be obliged; but the poor, that cannot subsist of themselves, will cheerfully receive. So the selfrighteous will not submit to the righteousness of God, but the poor in spirit will cheerfully receive it.
(5.) And lastly, the man that is poor in spirit is an importunate beggar at the throne of grace.
Prayer is the natural language of spiritual poverty. The poor, saith Solomon, useth entreaties ;- whereas they that are rich in their own conceit can live without prayer, or content themselves with the careless formal performance of it. This spiritual poverty is greater riches than the treasures of the universe. May God thus impoverish us all; may he strip us of all our imaginary grandeur and riches, and reduce us to beggars at his door! But it is time to consider the other character of the happy man upon whom the Lord of heaven will graciously look; and that is,
II. Contrition of spirit. To this man wiU I look, that is of a contrite spirit.
The word contrite signifies one that is beaten or bruised with hard blows or a heavy burden. And it belongs to the mourning penitent, whose heart is broken and wounded for sin. Sin is an intolerable burden, that crushes and bruises him, and he feels himself sore under it. His stony heart, which could not be repressed, but rather repelled the blow, is taken away; and now he has a heart of flesh, easily bruised and wounded. He is easily susceptive of sorrow for sin, is humbled under a sense of his imperfections, and is really pained and distressed because he can serve his God no better, but daily sins against him. Let us,
III. Consider the remaining character of the happy man to whom the Lord will look. Him that trembleth at my tvord.
This character implies a tender sense of the great things of the word, and a heart easily impressed with them, as the most important realities. To one that trembles at the divine word, the threatenings of it do not appear vain terrors, nor great swelling words of vanity, but the most tremendous realities. It reaches and pierces his heart as a sharp two-edged sword; it carries power along with it, and he feels that it is the word of God, and not of men, even when it is spoken by feeble mortals. Thus he not only trembles at the terror, but at the authority of the word;— which leads me to observe, farther, that he trembles with filial veneration of the majesty of God speaking in his word. He considers it as his voice who spake all things into being, and whose glory is such, that a deep solemnity must seize those that are admitted to hear him speak. How opposite is this to the temper of multitudes who regard the word of God no more than (with horror I express it) the word of a child or a fool. They will have their own way, let him say what he will. They persist in sin, in defiance of his threatenings. They sit as careless and stupid under his word, as though it were some old, dull, trifling story. It seldom makes any impression upon their stony hearts. These are the brave, undaunted men of the world, who harden themselves against the fear of futurity. But, unhappy creatures! the God of heaven disdains to give them a gracious look, while he fixes his eyes upon the man that " is contrite, and that trembles at his word." But let such of you as are poor and contrite in spirit, and that tremble at the word of the Lord, enter deeply into the meaning of this expression, that the Lord looks to you. He does not look on you as a careless spectator, not concerning himself with you, or caring what will become of you, but he looks upon you as a father, a friend, a benefactor; his looks are efficacious for your good.
He looks upon you with acceptance. He looks upon you as the objects of his everlasting love, and purchased by the blood of his son, and he is well pleased for his righteousness' sake. Again, he looks to you so as to take particular notice of you. He sees all the workings of your heart towards him. This, indeed, might make you tremble, if he looked upon you with the eyes of a judge; for O how many abominations must he see in you! But be of good cheer; he looks upon you with the eyes of a friend, and with that love which covers a multitude of sins.
To conclude, let us view the perfection and condescension of God as illustrated by this subject. Consider, ye poor in spirit, who he is that stoops to look upon such little things as you. It is he whose throne is in the highest heaven, surrounded with myriads of angels and archangels; it is he who is exalted above the blessing and praise of all the celestial armies, and who cannot without condescension behold the things that are done in heaven; it is he that looks down upon such worms as you.
He manages all the affairs of the universe; he takes care of every individual in his vast family; he provides for all his creatures, and yet he is at leisure to regard you. He takes as particular notice of jou as if you were his only creatures. What perfection is this! what an infinite grasp of thought! what unbounded power! and what condescension too! I shall add but this one natural reflection; if it be so great a happiness to have the great God for our por
tion, then what is it to be out of his favor? to be disregarded by him ? Methinks a universal tremor may seize this assembly at the very supposition. And is there a creature in the universe in this wretched condition ? Methinks all the creation besides must pity him. Where is the wretched being to be found ? Must we descend to hell to find him ? No, alas! there are many such on this earth ! nay, I must,come nearer you still, there are many such probably in this assembly. All among you are such who are not poor and contrite in spirit, and do not tremble at the word of the Lord. And art thou not one of the miserable number, O man? What! disregarded by the God that made thee! not favored with one look of love by the author of all happiness! He looks on thee indeed, but it is with eyes of indignation, marking thee out for vengeance; and canst thou be easy in such a case ? wilt thou not labor to impoverish thyself, and have thy heart broken, that thou may est become the objects of his gracious regard ?