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my crown they cannot return to God, and hold off from their lawful sovereign: they cannot return to Jerusalem, and keep off from God, from their loyalty thrice a year will their devotion call them up thither; besides the exigence of their frequent Vows. How can they be mine, while that glorious temple is in their eye; while the magnificence of the royal palace of David and Solomon shall admonish them of their native allegiance; while, besides the solicitation of their brethren, the priests and Levites shall preach to them the necessity of their due obedience, and the abomination of their sacrifices in their wilful disobedience; while they shall, by their presence, put themselves upon the mercy or justice of their lawful and forsaken prince? Either therefore, I must divert them from Jerusalem, or else I cannot live and reign. It is no diverting them by a direct restraint such prohibition would both endanger their utter distaste, and whet their desire to more eagerness. I may change religion; I may not inhibit it: so the people have a God, it sufficeth them. They shall have so much formality, as may content them. Their zeal is not so sharp, but they can be well pleased with ease. I will proffer them, both a more compendious and more plausible worship. Jerusalem shall be supplied within mine own borders. Naturally, men love to see the objects of their devotion; I will therefore feed their eyes, with two golden representations of their God, nearer home; and what can be more proper than those, which Aaron devised of old to humour Israel?"
Upon this pestilent ground, Jeroboam sets up two calves, in Dan and Bethel; and persuades the people, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt.
Oh the mischief that comes of wicked infidelity! It was God's prophet, that had rent Jeroboam's garment into twelve pieces, and had given ten of them to him, in token of his sharing the ten tribes, who with the same breath also told him, that the cause of this distraction was their idolatry: yet now will he institute an idolatrous service, for the holding together of them, whom their idolatry had rent from their true sovereign to him. He says not, "God hath promised me this kingdom; God hath conferred it; God shall find means to maintain his own act: I will obey him; let him dispose of me: the God of Israel is wise and powerful enough, to fetch about his own designs :" but, as if the devices of men were stronger than God's providence and ordination, he will be working out his own ends by profane policies.
Jeroboam, being born an Israelite, and bred in the court of a Solomon, could not but know the express charge of God, against the making of images, against the erecting of any rival altars to that of Jerusalem; yet now, that he sees both these may avail much to the advancing of his ambitious project, he sets up
those images, those altars. Wicked men care not to make bold with God, in cases of their own commodity: if the laws of their Maker lie in the way of their profit or promotion, they ether spurn them out, or tread upon them at pleasure: aspiring minds will know no God, but honour.
Israel sojourned in Egypt, and brought home a golden calf; Jeroboam sojourns there, and brought home two. It is hard to dwell in Egypt untainted: not to savour of the sins of the place we live in, is no less strange, than for wholesome liquor tunned up in a musty vessel, not to smell of the cask. The best body may be infected in a contagious air. Let him beware of Egypt, that would be free from idolatry.
No sooner are Jeroboam's calves up, than Israel is down on their knees their worship follows immediately upon the erection. How easily is the unstable vulgar carried into whatsoever religion of authority! The weathercock will look which way soever the wind blows. It is no marvel, if his subjects be brutish, who hath made a calf his god.
Every accessary to sin is filthy, but the first authors of sin are abominable. How is Jeroboam branded in every of these sacred leaves ! How do all ages ring of his fact, with the accent of dishonour and indignation; Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, that made Israel to sin! It was a shame for Israel, that it could be made to sin by a Jeroboam; but, O cursed name of Jeroboam, that would draw Israel to sin! The followers and abettors of evil are worthy of torment; but no hell is too deep, for the leaders of public wickedness.
Religion is clothed with many requisite circumstances. As a new king would have a new god, so that new god must have new temples, altars, services, priests, solemnities: all these hath Jeroboam instituted; all these hath he cast in the same mould with his golden calves. False devotion doth not more cross, than imitate, the true. Satan is no less a counterfeit, than an enemy, of God: he knows it more easy to adulterate religion, than to abolish it.
That, which God ordained for the avoidance of idolatry, is made the occasion of it; a limitation of his holy services to Jerusalem. How mischievously do wicked men pervert the wholesome institutions of God, to their sin, to their bane!
Jeroboam could not be ignorant, how fearfully this very act was revenged upon Israel, in the wilderness; yet he dares renew it in Dan and Bethel. No example of judgment can affright wilful offenders.
It is not the metal, that makes their gods, but the worship, the sacrifices. What sacrifices could there be without priests? No religion could ever want sacred masters of divine ceremonies. God's clergy was select and honourable; branches of the holy stem of Aaron Jeroboam rakes up his priests, out of the channel
of the multitude; all tribes, all persons were good enough for his spurious devotion. Leaden priests are well fitted to golden deities. Religion receives either much honour or blemish, by the quality of those that serve at her altars. We are not worthy to profess ourselves servants of the true God, if we do not hold his service worthy of the best.
Jeroboam's calves must have sacrifices, must have solemn festivities; though in a day and month of his own devising. In vain shall we pretend to worship a god, if we grudge him the just days and rites of his worship.
It is strange, that he, who thought the dregs of the vulgar good enough for that priesthood, would grace those gods, by acting their priest himself; and yet behold where the new king of Israel stands before his new altar, with a sceptre in one hand and a censer in the other, ready to sacrifice to his new gods; when the man of God comes from Judah, with a message of judgment.
Oh desperate condition of Israel, that was so far gone with impiety, that it yielded not one faithful monitor to Jeroboam! The time was, that the erecting of but a new altar (for memory, for monument,) on the other side of Jordan, bred a challenge to the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh; and had cost much Israelitish blood, if the quarrelled tribes had not given a seasonable and pious satisfaction; and now, lo, how the stronger stomach of degenerated Israel can digest new altars, new temples, new gods! What a difference there is, betwixt a church and kingdom newly breathing from affliction, and settled upon the lees of a misused peace!
But oh the patience and mercy of our long-suffering God, that will not strike a very Jeroboam unwarned! Judgment hovers over the heads of sinners, ere it light. If Israel afford not a bold reprover of Jeroboam, Judah shall. When the king of Israel is in all the height, both of his state and superstition, honouring his solemn day with his richest devotion, steps forth a prophet of God, and interrupts that glorious service, with a loud inclamation of judgment.
Doubtless, the man wanted not wit to know what displeasure, what danger, must needs follow so unwelcome a message; yet dares he, upon the commission of God, do this affront to an idolatrous king, in the midst of all his awful magnificence. The prophets of God go upon many a thankless errand. He is no messenger for God, that either knows or fears the faces of men.
It was the altar, not the person, of Jeroboam, which the prophet thus threatens; yet not the stones are stricken, but the founder, in both their apprehensions. So dear are the devices of our own brains to us, as if they were incorporated into ourselves. There is no opposition whereof we are so sensible, as that of religion.
That the royal altar should be thus polluted, by dead men's bones and the blood of the priests, was not more unpleasing, than
that all this should be done, by a child of the house of David; for Jeroboam well saw, that the throne and the altar must stand or fall together; that a son of David could not have such power over the altar, without an utter subversion of the government, of the succession; therefore is he thus galled, with this comminatory prediction.
The rebellious people, who had said, What portion have we in David? hear now, that David will perforce have a portion in them; and might well see, what beasts they had made themselves, in worshipping the image of a beast, and sacrificing to such a god, as could not preserve his own altar from violation
All this while, I do not see this zealous prophet laying his hand to the demolition of this idolatrous altar, or threatening a knife to the author of this depravation of religion: only his tongue smites both, not with foul, but sharp words; of menace, not of reproach. It was for Josiah a king, to shed the blood of those sacrificers, to deface those altars: prophets are for the tongue; princes for the hand: prophets must only denounce judgment; princes execute.
Future things are present to the Eternal. It was some two hundred and sixty years, ere this prophecy should be fulfilled; yet the man of God speaks of it as now in acting. What are some centuries of years to the Ancient of Days? How slow, and yet, how sure, is the pace of God's revenge! It is not in the power of time, to frustrate God's determinations. There is no less justice nor severity, in a delayed punishment.
What a perfect record there is of all names, in the roll of heaven; before they be, after they are past! Whatever seeming contingency there is in their imposition, yet they fall under the certainty of a decree, and are better known in heaven ere they be, than on earth while they are.
He, that knows what names we shall have before we or the world have a being, doth not often reveal this piece of his knowledge to his creature: here he doth; naming the man, that should be two hundred years after; for more assurance of the event, that Israel may say, "This man speaks from a God who knows what shall be."
There cannot be a more sure evidence of a true Godhead, than the foreknowledge of those things, whose causes have yet no hope of being. But because the proof of this prediction was no more certain than remote, a present demonstration shall convince the future; The altar shall rend in pieces, the ashes shall be scattered.
How amazedly must the seduced Israelites needs look upon this miracle! And why do they not think with themselves, While these stones rend, why are our hearts whole? Of what an overruling power is the God whom we have forsaken, that can thus tear the altars of his co-rivals! How shall we stand before his
vengeance, when the very stones break at the word of his prophet?" Perhaps, some beholders were thus affected; but Jeroboam, whom it most concerned, instead of bowing his knees for humiliation, stretcheth forth his hand for revenge, and cries, Lay hold on him. Resolute wickedness is impatient of a reproof; and, instead of yielding to the voice of God, rebelleth. Just and discreet reprehension doth not more reform some sinners, than exasperate others.
How easy it is for God, to cool the courage of proud Jeroboam! The hand, which his rage stretches out, dries up, and cannot be pulled back again: and now stands the king of Israel like some antique statue, in a posture of impotent endeavour; so disabled to the hurt of the prophet, that he cannot command that piece of himself! What are the great potentates of the world, in the powerful hand of the Almighty? Tyrants cannot be so harmful, as they are malicious.
The strongest heart may be brought down with affliction. Now the stout stomach of Jeroboam is fallen to an humble deprecation; Entreat now the face of the Lord thy God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored me again. It must needs be a great straight, that could drive a proud heart to beg mercy, where he bent his persecution: so doth Jeroboam; holding it no scorn, to be beholding to an enemy. In extremities, the worst men can be content, to sue for favour, where they have spent their malice.
It well becomes the prophets of God to be merciful. I do not see this seer, to stand upon terms of exprobration and overly contestations with Jeroboam; to say, Thine intentions to me were cruel. Had thy hand prevailed, I should have sued to thee in vain. Continue ever a spectacle of the fearful justice of thy Maker, whom thou hast provoked by thine idolatry, whom thou wouldest have smitten in my persecution." But he meekly sues for Jeroboam's release; and, that God might abundantly magnify both his power and mercy, is heard and answered with success. We do no whit savour of heaven, if we have not learned to do good for evil.
When both wind and sun, the blasts of judgment and the beams of favour, met together to work upon Jeroboam, who would not look, that he should have cast off his cumbrous and misbeseeming cloke of his idolatry; and have said, "Lord, thou hast stricken me in justice; thou hast healed me in mercy: I will provoke thee no more: this hand, which thou hast restored, shall be consecrated to thee, in pulling down these bold abominations?" Yet now, behold he goes on in his old courses; and, as if God had neither done him good nor evil, lives and dies idolatrous. No stone is more hard or insensate, than a sinful heart. The changes of judgment and mercy do but obdure it, instead of melting.