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sinning, till thou come to the brim of hell; and then couldst suddenly stop, and return at leisure. The mercy of God never set period to a wilful sinner: neither yet did his own corrupt desires; so as, when he is gone the furthest, he could yet stay himself from another step. No man, that truly repents, is refused; but many a one sins so long, that he cannot repent. His custom of wickedness hath obdured his heart, and made it fint to all good impressions. There were Jeroboams, and Abijams, and Ahabs, and Joashes, and Ahazes, in these sacred thrones; there was but one Manasseh. God hath not left in any man's hand the reins of his own heart, to pace, and turn, and stop as he lists. This privilege is reserved to him that made it. It is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that sheweth mercy; and that mercy neglected, justly binds over to judgment.
I wonder not at Manasseh, either sinning or repenting : I wonder at thy goodness, O Lord, who, after thy just permission of his sin, callest him thus graciously to repent; and so receivest him repenting : so as Manasseh was not a more loathsome and monstrous spectacle of wickedness, than he is now a pleasing and useful pattern of conversion. Who can now despair of thy mercy, 0 God, that sees the tears of a Manasseh accepted? When we have debauched our worst, our evil cannot match with thy goodness. Rather it is the praise of thy infinite store, that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. o keep us from a presumption of grace, that we may repent; and raise us from a distrust of
grace, when we have repented.
No sooner is Manasseh penitent, than he is free. His prayers have, at once, loosed him from his sins, and from his chains; and of a captive have made him a king; and from the dungeon of Babylon have restored him to the palace of Jerusalem. How easy is it for the same hand that wounds, to cure! What cannot fervent prayers do; either for our rescuing from evil, or for our investing with good!
Then Manasseh knew that the Lord he was God. Then ? and not before ? Could his younger years escape the knowledge of God's miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from the Assyrians? Could he but know the slaughter, that God's angel made in one night, of a hundred fourscore and five thousand? Could he but have heard the just revenge upon Sennacherib? Could he be ignorant of his father's supernatural recovery? Could he but see that everlasting monument of the noted degrees in the dial of Ahaz? Could he avoid the sense of those fifteen years, which were superadded to his father's age? What one of these proofs doth not evince a Deity? Yet, till his own smart and cure, Manasseh knew not that the Lord was God.
Foolish sinners pay dear for their knowledge; neither will endure to be taught good-cheap: so we have seen resty horses, that will not move, till they bleed with the spur: so we have seen dull and careless children, that will learn nothing, but what is put into them with the rod.
The Almighty will be sure to be known for what he is ; if not by fair means, yet by foul. If our prosperity, and peace, and sweet experience of his mercy can win us to acknowledge him, it is more for our ease; but, if we will needs be taught by stripes, it is no less for his glory.
Manasseh now returns another man to Jerusalem. With what indignation doth he look upon his old follies! And now, all the amends he can make is, to undo what he did ; to do that, which he undid: He took away the strange gods, and the idol out of the house of the Lord; and all the altars that he had built in the mount of the house of the Lord, and in Jerusalem ; and cast them out of the city. True repentance begins to decline at the ablative; destroying those monuments of shame, which former error had reared. The thorns must first be stubbed up, ere the ground can be capable of seed. The true method of grace is, first, Cease to do evil; then, Learn to do good.
In vain had Manasseh professed a repentance, if the strange gods had still held possession of Jerusalem ; if the idol had still harboured in God's temple; if foreign altars had still smoked upon the holy mountain. Away with all his trash, when once Manasseh comes to a true sense of piety.
There is nothing but hypocrisy in that penitent, who, after all vows and tears, retains his old abominations. It is that poor piece of satisfaction which we can give to the divine justice, in a hearty indignation to Aling down that cup of wickedness, wherewith we have been bewitched, and to trample upon the sheards; without which, confession is but wind, and the drops of contrition, water.
The living God loves to dwell clean. He will not come under the roof of idols, nor admit idols to come under his. First therefore, Manasseh casts out the strange gods, and idols, and altars; and then He repairs the altar of the Lord, and sacrifices thereon peace-offerings and thank-offerings. Not, till he had pulled down, might he build; and when he had pulled down, he must build. True repentance is no less active of good. What is it the better, if, when the idolatrous altars are defaced, the true God hath not an altar erected to his name? In many altars was superstition; in no altars, atheism.
Neither doth penitent Manasseh build God a new altar, but he repairs the old ; which, by long disuse, lay waste, and was mossy and mouldered with age and neglect. God loves well his own institutions: neither can he abide innovations, so much as in the outsides of his services. It is a happy work, to vindicate any ordinance of God from the injuries of times, and to restore it to the original glory.
What have our pious governors done other in religion? Had we gone about to lay a new foundation, the work had been accursed: now, we have only scraped off some superfluous moss, that was grown upon these holy stones ; we have cemented some broken pieces ; we have pointed some crazy corners, with wholesome mortar, instead of base clay, wherewith it was disgracefully patched up. The altar is old; it is God's altar: it is not new; not ours. If we have laid one new stone in this sacred building, let it fly in our faces, and beat out our eyes.
On this repaired altar, doth Manasseh send up the sacrifices of his peace, of his thankfulness; and, doubtless, the God of Heaven smells a sweet savour of rest. No perfume is so pleasing to God, as that which is cast in by a penitent hand.
It had not served the turn, that Manasseh had approached alone to this renewed altar. As his lewd example had withdrawn the people from their God; so now he commands Judah to serve the Lord God of Israel. Had he been silent, he could not have been unfollowed: every act of greatness is preceptive; but now that religion is made law, what Israelite will not be devout ?
The true God hath now no competitor in Judah. All the idols are pulled down; the high places will not be pulled down. An ill guise is easily taken up; it is not so easily left. After a common depravation of religion, it is hard to return unto the first purity : as when a garment is deeply soiled, it cannot without many lavers recover the former cleanness. 2 Kings xxi. 2 Chron. z.rriii.
JOSIAH'S REFORMATION. Yet, if we must alter from ourselves, it is better to be a Manasseh, than a Joash. Joash began well, and ended ill ; Manasseh began ill, and ended well. His age varied from his youth, no less than one man's condition can vary from another's. His posterity succeeded in both. Amon, his son, succeeded in the sins of Manasseh's youth; Josiah, his grandchild, succeeded in the virtues of his age.
What a vast difference doth grace make in the same age! Ma. nasseh began his reign at twelve years; Josiah, at eight: Manasseh was religiously bred under Hezekiah ; Joash was mis-nurtured under Amon: and yet, Manasseh runs into absurd idolatries; Josiah is holy and devout. The Spirit of God breathes freely; not confining itself to times or means.
No rules can bind the hands of the Almighty. It is, in ordinary proof, too true a word, that was said of old, Woe be to thee, o land, whose king is a child! The goodness of God makes his own exceptions. Judah never fared better, than in the green years of a Josiah : if we may not rather measure youth and age, by government and disposition, than by years. Surely thus, Josiah was older with smooth cheeks, than Manasseh with grey hairs. Happy is the infancy of princes, when it falls into the hands of faithful counsellors.
A good pattern is no small help for young beginners. Josiah sets his father David before him ; not Amon; not Manasseh. Examples are the best rules for the inexperienced : where their choice is good, the directions are easiest. The laws of God are the ways of David. Those laws were the rule ; these ways were the practice. Good Josiah walks in all the ways of his father David.
Even the minority of Josiah was not idle: we cannot be good too early. At eight years, it was enough, to have his ear open to hear good counsel, to have his eyes and heart open to seek after God: at twelve, he begins to act, and shews well that he hath found the God he sought. Then he addresses himself to purge Judah and Jerusalem, from the high places, groves, images, altars, wherewith it was defiled; burning the bones of the idolatrous priests upon their altars; strewing the ashes of the idols upon the graves of them that had sacrificed to them; striving, by those fires and mattocks, to testify his zealous detestation of all idolatry.
The house must first be cleansed, ere it can be garnished. No man will cast away his cost upon unclean heaps. So soon as the temple was purged, Josiah bends his thoughts upon the repairing and beautifying of this house of the Lord.
What stir was there in Judah, wherein God's temple suffered not? Six several times was it pillaged, whether out of force or will : first, Jehoash king of Judah is fain by the spoil of it to stop the mouth of Hazael ; then Joash king of Israel fills his own hands with that sacred spoil, in the days of Amaziah ; after this, Ahaz rifles it for Tiglath Pileser, king of Assyria; then, Hezekiah is forced to ransack the treasures of it for Sennacherib; yet after, the sacrilege of Manasseh makes that booty of it, which his later times endeavoured to restore; and now lastly, Amon his son neglects the frame, embezzles the furniture, of this holy place. The very pile began to complain of age and unrespect. Now comes good Josiah; and, in his eighteenth year, when other young gallants would have thought of nothing but pleasure and jollity, takes up the latest care of his father David, and gives order for the repairing of the temple.
The keepers of the door have received the contribution of all faithful Jews, for this pious use. The king sends Shaphan the scribe to Hilkiah the priest to sum it up, and to deliver it unto carpenters and masons, for so holy a work.
How well doth it beseem the care of a religious prince, to set the priests and scribes in hand with re-edifying the temple! The command is the king's; the charge is the high priest's; the execution is the workmen's. When the labourers are faithful in doing the work, and the high priest in the directing it, and the king in enjoining it, God's house cannot fail of a happy perfection; but when any of these slacken, the business must needs languish.
How God blesses the devout endeavours of his servants! While Hilkiah was diligently surveying the breaches and the reparation of the temple, he lights upon the book of the law. The authentic and original book of God's law was, by a special charge, appointed to be carefully kept within a safe shrine, in the sanctuary. In the depraved times of idolatry, some faithful priest, to inake sure work, had locked it fast up in some corner of the temple, from the reach of all hands, of all eyes : as knowing how impossible it was, that divine monument could otherwise escape the fury of prophane guiltiness. Some few transcripts there were doubtless, parcels of this sacred book, in other hands : neither doubt I, but, as Hilkiah had been formerly well acquainted with this holy volume, now of long time hid, so the ears of good Josiah had been inured to some passages thereof; but the whole body of these awful records, since the late night of idolatrous confusion and persecution, saw no light till now. This precious treasure doth Hílkiah find, while he digs for the temple. Never man laboured to the reparation of God's Church, but he met with a blessing more than he looked for.
Hilkiah the priest and Shaphan the scribe do not engross this invaluable wealth into their own hands, nor suppress these more than sacred rolls for their own advantage; but transmit them, first to the ears of the king, then, by him, to the people. It is not the praise of a good scribe, to lay up, but to bring forth, both old and new: and if the priest's lips shall keep knowledge, they keep it to impart, not to smother; The people shall seek the law ai his mouth; for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts.
So soon as the good king hears the words of the Book of the Law, and, in special, those dreadful threats of judgment denounced against the idolatries of his Judah, he rends his clothes, to shew his heart rent with sorrow, and fearful expectation of those plagues; and washes his bosom with tears. Oh gracious tenderness of Josiah! He doth but once hear the law read, and is thus humbled; humbled for his father's sins, for the sins of his people: how many of us, after a thousand hammerings of the menaces of God's law, upon our guilty souls, continue yet insensible of our danger! The very reading of this law doth thus affect him; the preaching of it stirs not us: the sins of others struck thus deep with him; our own are slighted by us. A soft heart is the best tempered for God: so physicians are wont to like those bodies best, which are easiest to work upon: 0 God, make our clay, wax; and our wax pliable to thy hand; so shall we be sure to be free, either from sin, or from the hurt of sin.
It is no holy sorrow, that sends us not to God. Josiah is not moped with a distractive grief, or an astonishing fear; but, in the height of his passion, sends five choice messengers to Huldah the prophetess, to inquire of the Lord, for himself, for Judah. It is a happy trouble, that drives us to this refuge.
I do not hear any of these courtiers reply to this godly motion of their young king; “ Alas, Sir, what means this deep perplexity? What needs all this busy inquisition? If your father were idolatrous, what is that to you, who have abandoned his sins? If your people were once idolatrous, what is that to you, yea to them; who have expiated these crimes by their repentance? Have you not carefully reformed all those abuses ? Hath not your happy reformation made an abundant amends for those wrongs ? Spare your tears, and save the labour of your messengers. All is well; all shall be well, These judgments are for the obstinate. Had we been still guilty, these fears had been just. Were we still in danger, what had we gained by our conversion ?” Rather, as glad to second the religious cares of their young king, they feed his holy anxieties, with a just