The Great Gain of Godliness ( 2 )
by Thomas Watson, 1681
The Godly Should SPEAK of God
Having done with the character of the godly in general terms, I proceed next to their special characteristics: “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other“. When the wicked said, “It is vain to serve God”, then “Then those who feared the Lord talked often with each other“. The meaning of this word, they “talked often”, is they discoursed piously together; their tongues were divinely tuned by the Holy Spirit.
Christians, when they meet together, should be much in “holy conference”. This is not only an advice—but a charge: “You must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again.” (Deut. 6:6). Indeed, where there is grace poured in—it will effuse out! Grace changes the language—and makes it spiritual. When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, they “spoke with other tongues” (Acts 2:4). Grace makes Christian speak with other tongues. A godly Christian not only has the law of God in his heart (Psalm 37:31)—but in his tongue! (verse 30). The body is the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19). The tongue is the organ in this temple, which sounds in holy discourse! “The tongue of the just is as choice silver” (Prov. 10:20). He drops silver sentences, enriching others with spiritual knowledge! “The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him; and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12:35-37). In the godly man’s heart, there is a treasury of goodness, and this is not like a bag of hidden money—but he brings something out of the treasury within—to the enriching of others.
Grace is of the nature of fire, which will not be pent up. Like new wine, grace requires a vent (Acts 4:20). There is a principle within, which constrains to holy conference: “I am full of words, and my spirit compels me to speak.” (Job 32:18).
The first use of this doctrine is for INFORMATION. It shows the character and temper of true saints: they “speak often one to another”; their lips drop as a honeycomb. The country to which a man belongs—is known by his language. He who belongs to the Jerusalem above—speaks the language of Canaan. None of God’s children are dumb; their mouth is a “wellspring of wisdom” (Prov. 18:4).
The second use is REPROOF. Here I may draw up a bill of indictment against five sorts of people.
1. Such as are SILENT in matters of true religion. They would be counted godly—but he must have good eyes, who can see it! I know not whether it is ignorance or timidity—which sets godly discourse aside. Many are as mute in piety—as if their tongues did cleave to the roof of their mouth! Had they any love to God, or had they ever tasted how sweet the Lord is—their mouth would “talk of his righteousness” (Psalm 71:24).
Friends, what should concern us but salvation? What are the things of this world? They are neither real or lasting (Proverbs 23:5). Do we not see men heap up riches, and suddenly death, as God’s sergeant, arrests them! What should we talk of—but the things pertaining to the kingdom of God? Let this cause blushing among Christians—that their meetings are so unprofitable, because they leave God out of their discourse!
Why is there no godly conference? Have you so much spiritual knowledge, that you need not have it increased? Have you so much faith, that you need not have it strengthened? Silence in piety—is a loud sin! We read of one who was possessed with a dumb devil (Mark 9:17). How many are spiritually possessed with a dumb devil!
2. It is a rebuke to such as, when they meet together, instead of speaking of heaven, have IDLE, FROTHY discourse! They talk—but do not say anything spiritually profitable. Their lips do not drop as a honeycomb. Their speaking is no more profitable, than an infant’s mutterings. “They speak vanity everyone with his neighbor” (Psalm 12:2). If Christ should ask some today, as he did the two disciples going to Emmaus, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” (Luke 24:17); they could not answer as those did, “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene!” No, perhaps they were talking about toys, or new fashions! If idle words must be accounted for (Matt. 12:36), Lord, what an account will some have to give!
3. It reproves the avaricious person who, instead of speaking of heaven, talks of nothing but the WORLD. The farmer speaks of his plough and yoke of oxen; the tradesman of his wares and drugs; but not a word of God. “The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth—and speaks as one from the earth.” (John 3:31). Many are like the fish in the gospel—which had money in its mouth! (Matt. 17:27). They talk only of secular things, as if they imagined to fetch happiness out of that earth which God has cursed!
Seneca, being asked of what country he was, answered he was “a citizen of this world”. We may know many to be citizens of this world—their speech betrays them! O souls bent towards the earth and empty of spiritual things!
4. It reproves those who do indeed speak often to one another—but with EVIL speech. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6).
i. They speak one to another in harsh words. Their words should be like the “waters of Shiloh—which go softly” (Isaiah 8:6). But too often they are fierce and biting. Water, when it is hot, soon boils over; when the heart is heated with anger—it soon boils over in furious speech!
Many curse in their anger. The tongue is made in the fashion of a sword—and it cuts like a sword! Angry words often harm the one who utters them. Rehoboam with one churlish word, lost ten tribes. A fiery spirit is unsuitable to the Master we serve—”the Prince of Peace”; and to his message—”the gospel of peace”. Such whose tongues are set on fire, let them take heed that they do not one day in hell, desire a drop of water to cool their tongue! (Luke 16:24).
ii. They speak one to another in a bad sense, who MURMUR and COMPLAIN one to another. They do not complain of their sins—but their vain desires. Murmuring proceeds from unbelief: “They did not believe his word: but murmured” (Psalm 106:24-25). When men distrust God’s promises, they murmur at his providences. This is a sin God can hardly bear! “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmurs against me?” (Num. 14:27). Israel’s speeches were venomous, and God punished them with venomous serpents! (1 Cor: 10:10).
iii. They speak one to another in a bad sense who give vent to FILTHY, CORRUPT language. The heart is a cask full of wickedness, and the tongue is the tap which lets it flow out! When the face breaks out in sores and pimples—it shows that the blood is corrupt. When men break forth in filthy speech—it shows the heart is corrupt. We read that the lips of the leper were to be covered (Lev. 13:45). It would be a blessing—if we could cover the filthy lips of our spiritual lepers!
iv. They speak one to another in a bad sense who, instead of seasoning their words with grace, mix them with SWEARING. Swearers rend and tear God’s name, and, like mad dogs—fly in the face of God! “Because of swearing the land mourns” (Jer. 23:10). Some think it fine speech, to mix every sentence with an oath; as if they would go to hell genteelly. “But”, says one, “it is my custom to swear.” Is this an excuse—or an aggravation of the sin? If a malefactor should he arraigned for robbery, and he should say to the judge, “Spare me—for it is my custom to rob and steal”, the judge would say, “You shall all the more die!” For every oath that a man swears, God puts a drop of wrath into his vial!
v. It reproves those who, instead of speaking in a holy manner one to another, speak of others:
First, they speak of others in CENSURING. Some make it a part of their religion to talk about and criticize others. They do not imitate their graces—but speak upon their failings. God grant that professors may wash their hands of this! Were people’s hearts more humble—their tongues would he more charitable! It is the sign of a hypocrite—to criticize others and commend himself.
Secondly, they speak of others in SLANDERING. “You slander your own mother’s son!” (Psalm 50:20). Slandering is when we speak to the harm of another—and speak that which is not true. Worth is blasted by slander! Holiness itself is no shield from this sin. The lamb’s innocency will not preserve it from the wolf! Job calls slandering “the scourge of the tongue” (Job 5:21). You may smite a man—yet never touch him! A slanderer wounds another’s reputation, and no physician can heal these wounds! The eye and the name—are two tender things. God takes it ill at our hands—to calumniate others, especially to slander those who help to keep up the credit of true religion: “Were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Num. 12:8). What, my servant, who has wrought so many miracles, whom I have spoken with face to face on the mount! Were you not afraid to speak against him!
The Greek word for slanderer signifies devil (1 Tim. 3:11). Slander is the devil’s proper sin—he is “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev. 12:10). The devil does not commit adultery—but he bears false witness. The slanderer may be indicted for clipping; he clips his neighbor’s credit to make it weigh lighter. Our nature is prone to slander; but remember, it is just as much a sin in God’s reckoning to break the Ninth Commandment, as the Eighth Commandment.
The third use is EXHORTATION. Put this great duty into practice! Imitate these holy ones in the text, who “spoke often one to another”. Jerome thinks they spoke something in defense of the providence of God; they vindicated God in his dealings, and exhorted one another not to be discouraged at the virulent speeches of the wicked—but still to hold on a course of piety. Thus, Christians, when you meet, give one another’s souls a visit—impart your spiritual knowledge, impart your experiences to each other (Psalm 66:16). Samson having found honey, did not only eat of it himself—but carried it to his father and mother (Judges 14:9). Have you tasted the honey of the Word? Let others have a taste with you!
He who has been in a perfumer’s shop does not only himself partake of those sweet fragrances—but some of the perfume sticks to his clothes, so that those who come near him partake of those perfumes. Just so, having ourselves partaken of the sweet savor of Christ’s ointments, we should let others partake with us, and by our heavenly discourse, diffuse the perfume of piety to them. Let your words be seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6). Let grace be the salt which seasons your words and makes them savory. Christians should take all occasions for godly discourse, when they walk together, and sit at table together. This makes their eating and drinking to be “to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). What makes it a communion of saints–but godly conversation?
But some may say they are barren of matter—and know not what to speak of. Have you walked so often through the field of Scripture—yet gathered no ears of corn? Have not you matter enough in the Word to furnish you with something to say? Let me suggest a few things to you. When you meet, speak one to another of the promises. No honey is so sweet—as that which drops from a promise! The promises are the support of faith, the springs of joy, and the saints royal charter. Are you citizens of heaven, and yet do not speak of your charter?
Speak of the preciousness of Christ. He is all beauty and love; he has laid down his blood as the price of your redemption. Have you a friend who has redeemed you—and yet you never speak of him?
Speak one to another of sin, what a deadly evil it is, how it has infected your virgin-nature, and turned it into a lesser hell.
Speak of the beauty of holiness, which is the souls embroidery, filling it with such orient splendor, as makes God and angels fall in love with it. The graces are the sacred characters of the divine nature.
Speak one to another of your souls: enquire whether they are in good health.
Speak about death and eternity: can you belong to heaven and not speak of your country?
Thus, you see, here is matter enough, for holy conference. Why then do you not maintain godly discourse? I believe that one main reason for the decay of the power of godliness, is a lack of Christian conference. People when they meet talk of vanities—but God and heaven are left out of their discourse! That I may persuade you in your conversations to put in a word about your souls—let me offer these few things for your consideration.
1. Holy conversation was the practice of the saints of old. Elijah and Elisha went on in godly discourse until the chariot of heaven came to part them (2 Kings 2:11). David’s tongue was tuned to the language of Canaan, “My tongue shall talk of your righteousness” (Psalm 71:24). The primitive Christians, into whatever company they came, spoke of a glorious kingdom they expected, so that some thought they were ambitious of worldly honor. But the kingdom they looked for, was not of this world but a kingdom with Christ in heaven. Jerome says that some of the Christian ladies spent much of their time in communing together, and would not let him alone—but continually asked him questions about their souls.
2. We are bidden to redeem the time (Eph. 5:16). The poets painted time with wings, because it flies so fast! Time lost must be redeemed, and is there any better way to redeem time, than to improve it in trading for heaven, and speaking of God and our souls?
3. Jesus Christ has left us a pattern. His words were perfumed with holiness, “All bore him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth!” (Luke 4:22). Christ had grace poured into his lips (Psalm 45:2.). In all companies, he maintained godly discourse. When he sat on Jacob’s well, he falls into an heavenly discourse with the woman of Samaria about the water of life (John 4:14). And so when Levi made him a feast (Luke 5:29), Christ feasts him in return—with heavenly discourse. And no sooner was Christ risen from the grave but he “was speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). The more spiritual we are in our speeches—the more we resemble Christ! Should not the members he like the Head? Christ will not be our Savior—unless we make him our pattern.
4. Godly discourse would prevent sinful discourse. Much sin passes in ordinary talk—as gravel and mud pass along with water. How many are guilty of tongue-sins! Godly discourse would prevent evil—as labor prevents idleness. If we accustomed our tongues to the heavenly dialect, the devil would not have so much power over us.
5. We may somewhat have a knowledge of men’s hearts—by their common discourse. Words are the looking-glass of the mind. As you may judge of a face by the mirror, whether it be fair or foul; so by the words—we may judge of a man’s heart. A lascivious tongue shows a lustful heart; an earthly tongue shows a covetous heart; a gracious tongue shows a gracious heart. The Ephraimites were known by their pronunciation, saying “sibboleth” for “shibboleth” (Judg. 12:6). So by the manner of our speech—it may be known to whom we belong. The tongue is the index of the heart! If you broach a cask, that which is within, will come out. By that which comes out of the mouth—you may guess what is within, in the heart! “Of the abundance of the heart—the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45).
6. Godly discourse is beneficial. “The tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18) A word spoken in season may make such a powerful impression upon another’s heart, which will do him good all his life. One single coal is apt to die—but many coals put together keep in the heat. Christians by their heavenly talk may “blow up” one another’s grace into a flame!
When the daughters of Jerusalem had conversed a while with the spouse, and had heard her describe Christ’s admirable beauty, their affections began to be inflamed, and they would seek him with her. “Where is your beloved gone, O fairest among women—that we may seek him with you?” (Song of Sol. 6:1).
A Christian by divine discourse may enlighten another when he is ignorant; warm him when he is frozen; comfort him when he is sad; and confirm him when he is wavering. Latimer was much strengthened by discourse with Thomas Bilney in prison, and hearing his confession of faith. A godly life adorns true religion—a godly tongue propagates it! When the apostle would have us edify one another, what better way could he prescribe than this—to have such holy speeches proceed out of our mouths as might “minister grace unto the hearers” (Eph. 4:29)?
7. We must be accountable to God for our speech. Words are judged light by men—but they weigh heavy in God’s balance. By our words we shall be either saved or damned. “For by your words you shall he justified, and by your words you shall be condemned” (Malt. 12:37). If our words have been seasoned with grace—then the acquitting sentence is likely to go on our side.
8. Godly discourse is a Christian’s honor. The tongue is called our glory (Psalm 30:12), because it is the instrument of glorifying God. When our tongues are out of tune in murmuring, then they are not our glory; but when the organs sound in holy discourse, then our tongues are our glory.
9. Godly discourse will be a means to bring Christ into our company. While the two disciples were conferring about the death and sufferings of Christ, Jesus Christ himself came among them: “While they communed together . . . Jesus himself drew near, and went with them” (Luke 24:15). When bad discourse prevails—Satan draws near and makes one of the company; but when godly discourse is promoted—Jesus Christ draws near.
Let all that has been said excite us to godly discourse. Certainly, there is no better way than this to increase our stock of grace. Others by spending grow poor; but the more we spend ourselves in holy discourse, the richer we grow in grace; as the widow’s oil, by pouring out, increased (2 Kings 4).
Question: How may godly conference be arrived at?
Answer 1. If you wish to discourse of true religion, get your minds well furnished with knowledge. Hereby, you will have a treasury to fetch from. “I am pent up and full of words” (Job 32:18). Some are backward to speak of godly things for lack of matter. The empty vessel cannot run. If you would have your tongues run fluently in piety, they must be fed with a spring of knowledge. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). In one of the miracles which Christ wrought, he first caused the water-pots to he filled with water, and then said, “Now draw some out” (John 2:8). So we must first have our heads filled with knowledge, and then we shall be able to draw out to others in godly discourse.
Answer 2. If you would discourse readily in the things of God, make piety your delight. What men delight in—they will be speaking of. The sensualist speaks of his sports; the worldling of his rich purchase. Delight makes the tongue as the pen of a ready writer. The spouse, being delighted and enamored with Christ’s beauty, could not conceal herself; she makes an elegant and passionate oration in the commendation of Christ. “My beloved is white and ruddy, the chief among ten thousand! Yes—he is altogether lovely!” (Song of Solomon 5:10, 16).
Answer 3. Pray that God will both gift and grace you for Christian conference. “O Lord, open my lips!” (Psalm 51:15). Satan has locked up men’s lips. Pray that God will open them. Perhaps you pray that you may believe in Christ—but do you pray that you may commend him, and not be ashamed to speak of him before others? “I will speak of your testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed” (Psalm 119:46). To end this, let me briefly insert two cautions:
Caution 1. I do not deny that it is lawful to confer of worldly business sometimes; communication requires conference. But with this proviso, that we should show more delight and earnestness in speaking of spiritual things than earthly things, remembering that the soul is far more valuable than the world.
Caution 2. When people speak of true religion, let it not be for any sinister, unworthy end, nor for ostentation—but for edification; and then, having your aim right, speak of the things of God, with life and affection, that others may perceive you feel those truths of which you speak.
A. The Godly Should Meditate on God’s Name
The second special characteristic of the godly in the text is, “they thought upon God’s name.” These saints, when they were together—spoke of God; when they were alone—they thought of God. They “thought upon his name”.
Question. What is meant by God’s name?
Answer 1. By the name of God is meant his essence; God’s name is put for God himself.
Answer 2. By the name of God is meant his glorious attributes, which are, as it were, the several letters of his name.
Answer 3. By the name of God is meant his worship and ordinances, where his name is called upon. “Go to the place at Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle to honor my name” (Jer. 7:12). That is, where I first set up my public worship.
Now this name of God, the saints in the text did contemplate, they thought upon his name. Thoughts are the first-born of the soul, the conceptions of the mind, the immediate fruit and outcome of a rational being. “Thoughts are the representations of things in the imagination.” These devout souls in the text were chiefly busying their thoughts about God and heaven.
It is the inseparable sign of a godly man, to employ his chief thoughts about God: “The thoughts of the righteous are right” (Proverbs 12:5); that is, they are set upon the right object. It is natural to think. Thoughts fly out of the mind—as sparks fly out of a furnace. The Hebrew word for a thought signifies the boughs of a tree, because thoughts shoot out from our minds as branches do from a tree. It is, I say, natural to think—but it is not natural to think of God; this is proper to a saint. His thoughts are sublime and seraphic—they fly to heaven.
The mind is a mint-house where thoughts are minted. David minted golden thoughts: “I am still with you” (Psalm 139:18), that is, by divine contemplation. Thoughts are the travelers of the soul. David’s thoughts kept on heavens road: “I am continually with you” (Psalm 73:23). As the mariners needle turns to the North Pole, so a saint’s thoughts are still pointing towards God.
Question. Why is it, that the saints thoughts mount up to God?
Answer 1. There will be this thinking on God—from those intrinsic perfections which are in him. The loveliness of the object, attracts the thoughts. God is the Supreme good. There is nothing but God, which is really worth thinking upon. “You are my portion, O Lord” (Psalm 119:S7). Will not a man’s thoughts run upon his portion? A gracious soul has found pleasure in thinking on God (Psalm 63:5-6). He has had those transfigurations on the mount, those incomings of the Spirit, those enterings of God’s love, those foretastes of glory—so that he cannot keep his thoughts off from God! To hinder him from thinking on God—is to bar him of all his pleasure.
Answer 2. There will be thinking on God—from the powerful operations of the Holy Spirit. We cannot of ourselves think a godly thought (2 Cor. 3:5)—but the Spirit elevates and fixes the heart on God: “The Spirit lifted me up” (Ezek. 3:14). When you see the iron move upward—you know there has been some magnet drawing it. Just so, when the thoughts move upwards towards God, the Spirit has, as a divine magnet, drawn them!
First Use: REPROOF.
Out of the quiver of this text I may draw several arrows of reproof:
1. It reproves those who do not think upon God’s name. It is the brand-mark of a reprobate: “God is not in all his thoughts” (Psalm 10:4). He endeavors to expunge and blot God out of his mind. Though he draws his breath from God—yet he does not think of him. His thoughts all shoot into the earth (Phil. 3:19). Had not sinners by their fall lost their head-piece, they would reason thus with themselves: “Certainly God is best worth thinking on. Is there any excellency in the world? Then what excellency there is in God—who has made it! He gives the star its beauty, the flower its fragrance, food its pleasantness! If there is such deliciousness in the creature, what must there be in God! He must needs be better than all. O my soul, shall I admire the drop—and not the ocean? Shall I think of the workmanship, and not of him who made it?”
This forgetfulness of God, is the fruit of original sin—which has warped the soul, and taken it off from the right object.
2. It reproves such as indeed think of God—but who do not have RIGHT thoughts of him. As the Lord said to Eliphaz, “You have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7); so some think of God—but they do not think of him rightly.
1. They have low unworthy thoughts of God. They imagine God to be like themselves (Psalm 50:21). Men think that God is as short-sighted as they, and that he cannot see them through the thick canopy of the clouds. (He who makes a watch knows all the wheels and pins in it, and the spring which causes the motion.) God who is the inspector of the heart (Acts 1:24; 15:8) sees all the intrigues and private plots in the thoughts (Job 42:2; Amos 4:13). God knows the true motion of a false heart! “I know, and am a witness—says the Lord” (Jer. 29:23).
2. Men have injurious thoughts of God.
First, they think that his ways are unjust. “Yet you say—The way of the Lord is not just. Hear, O house of Israel—Is my way unjust? Is it not your ways that are unjust?” (Ezek. 18:25). Some call God’s providence to the bar of reason, and judge his proceedings to be unjust. But God says, “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line” (Isaiah 28:17). His ways are secret—but never unjust. God is most just in his way—when we think he is out of his way.
Secondly, they think that his ways are unprofitable. “You have said—It is useless to serve God. What have we gained by keeping His requirements?” (Mal. 3:14). We cannot show our earnings. These are not right thoughts of God. Men think him to be a hard master; but God will be in no man’s debt, he gives double pay: “Neither do you kindle a fire on my altar for nothing” (Mal. 1:10).
3. It reproves such as, instead of thinking on God, have their minds wholly taken up with VAIN thoughts. Vain thoughts are the froth of the brain. “How long shall your vain thoughts lodge within you?” (Jer. 4:14). I do not deny that vain thoughts may sometimes come into the best hearts—but they have a care to turn them out before night, that they do not lodge there. This denominates a wicked man. His thoughts dwell upon vanity; and well may his thoughts be said to be vain, because they do not turn to any profit! “Vanity, and things wherein there is no profit” (Jer. 16:19). They are vain thoughts, which are about foolish things, and run all into straw. They are vain thoughts which do not better the heart, nor will give one drop of comfort at death, “In that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4). Vain thoughts are corrupt; they taint the heart and leave an evil tincture behind.
4. It reproves such as have, not only vain thoughts, but VILE thoughts.
Firstly, proud thoughts: while they view themselves in the mirror of self-love, they begin to take up venerable thoughts of themselves, and so pride fumes up into their head and makes them giddy! (Acts 5:36).
Secondly, impure thoughts. They think how to gratify their lusts—they “make provision,” or as the word signifies, become “caterers” for the flesh (Romans 13:14).
Sin begins in the thoughts. First men devise sin—then they act it (Mic. 2:1-2). For instance, if one seeks preferment, he thinks to himself by what ladder he may climb to honor. He will cringe and comply, and lay aside conscience, because he thinks that this is the way to rise. If a man would grow rich, he sets his thoughts to work how to obtain an estate. He will pull down his soul—to build up an estate. Would he wreak his malice on another? He frames a plan in his thoughts to harm him. As Jezebel (that painted harlot) when she would ruin Naboth, presently feigns a sham-plot and subtly thinks of a way how to dispatch him: “She commanded: Call the citizens together for fasting and prayer and give Naboth a place of honor. Find two scoundrels who will accuse him of cursing God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death!” (1 Kings 21:9-10).
Oh, the mischief of thoughts! A man may deny God in his thoughts: “The fool has said in his heart—there is no God” (Psalm 14:1). He may commit adultery in his thoughts: “Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). A man may murder another in his thoughts: “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15 ). O how much contemplative wickedness is in the world! Tremble at sinful thoughts. We startle at gross sin—but we are not troubled so much for sinful thoughts. Know firstly, that sin may be committed in the thoughts, though it never blossoms into outward act: “The thought of foolishness is sin!” (Prov. 24:9). See this illustrated in two things:
Envy—the Jews envied Christ, for the fame of his miracles: “Pilate knew that for envy they had delivered him” (Matt. 27:18). Here was sin committed in the thoughts. The Jews sinned by envying Christ, though they had never crucified him.
Discontentment–“The Lord accepted Abel and his offering, but he did not accept Cain and his offering. This made Cain very angry and dejected.” (Gen. 4:4-5). He maligned his brother, and his thoughts boiled up to discontentment. Here was sin committed in the thoughts. Cain sinned in being discontented, even if he had never murdered his brother.
Know that God will punish sinful thoughts. We say thoughts are free—and so they are in man’s court; but God will punish for thoughts! It was set upon Herod’s score, that he thought to destroy Christ under a pretense of worshiping him (Matt. 2:8).
Let us be humbled for the sins of our thoughts. “If you have thought evil, lay your hand upon your mouth” (Proverbs 30:32); that is, humble and abase yourself before the Lord. The holiest people alive, need to be humbled for their thoughts:
First, for the instability of their thoughts. How do your thoughts dance up and down in prayer. It is hard to tie two godly thoughts together.
Secondly, for the impiety of their thoughts. In the fairest fruit, may be a worm—and in the best heart, evil thoughts may arise. Did men’s hearts stand where their faces do, they would blush to look one upon another! Let us be deeply humbled for our thoughts. Let us look up to Christ, that he would stand between us and God justice, and that he would intercede for us, that the thoughts of our hearts may be forgiven.
Second use: EXHORTATION.
Let us think on God’s Name; let us lock up ourselves with God every day; let our thoughts get wings and, with the birds of paradise, fly up towards heaven. Christians, look upon that day to be lost, in which you have not conversed with God in your thoughts; think of God in your closet, in your shop; trade above the moon. “Isaac went out to meditate in the field” (Gen. 24:63). He walked in heaven by holy utterances. Our minds should be steeped in holy thoughts.
It is not enough to have a few transient thoughts of God—but there must be a fixing of our minds on God, until our hearts are warmed in love to him, and we can say, like those in Luke 24:32, “Did not our heart burn within us!”
But what should the matter of our holy meditations be?
1. Think of God’s immense being.
Adore his illustrious ATTRIBUTES, which are the beams by which the divine nature shines forth. Think of God’s omniscience. He particularly and critically assesses all our actions, and notes them down in his book. Think of God’s holiness, which is the most sparkling jewel of his crown (Exod. 15:11). Think of God’s mercy: this makes all his other attributes sweet. Holiness without mercy, and justice without mercy, would be dreadful. Think of God’s veracity: “Abundant in truth” (Exod. 34:6); that is, God will be so far from coming short of his word, that he does more than he has said. He shoots beyond the promise, never short of it.
Think of the WORKS of God: “I will meditate also on all your works” (Psalm 77:12). God’s works are bound up in three great volumes: Creation, Providence, Redemption. Here is sweet matter for our thoughts to expatiate upon.
To enforce the exhortation, let me propose some arguments and inducements to be frequent in the thoughts of God.
1. The reason why God has given us a thinking faculty, is that we may think on his Name. When our thoughts run out in vain things, we should think with ourselves thus: Did God give us this talent to misemploy? Did he give us thoughts that we should think of everything but him?
2. It we do not accustom ourselves to godly thoughts, we cannot be godly Christians. Thinking seriously on heavenly things—makes them stick in our minds, causes delight in them, and makes them nourish us. Musing on holy objects, is like digesting food, which turns it into nourishment. Without holy thoughts, there is no true religion. Can a man be pious and scarcely ever think of it?
3. We are deeply obliged to think on God. For, First, God is our Maker. “It is he who has made us, and not we ourselves” (Psalm 100:3). Our bodies are God’s fine needlework (Psalm 139:15). And as God has wrought the cabinet, so he has put a jewel in it—the precious soul. Has God made us—and shall not we think of him?
Secondly, God has sweetened our lives with various mercies. A city in Sicily is so finely situated, that the sun was never out of sight. Just so, God has so placed us by his providence, that the sunshine of his mercy is never out of sight. We are miraculously attended with his mercy! His mercy feeds us with the finest of the wheat—the bread of life; mercy guards us with a guard of angels; it makes the rock pour forth rivers of oil. Shall not the stream lead us to the fountain? Shall not we think of the God of our mercies? This is high ingratitude.
4. To have frequent and devout thoughts of God—evidences SINCERITY. No truer touchstone of sanctity exists, than the spirituality of the thoughts. What a man’s thoughts are—that is the man! “For as he thinks in his heart—so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Thoughts are freer from hypocrisy, than words. One may speak well for applause, or to stand right in the opinion of others; but when we are alone and think of God’s Name, and admire his excellencies, this shows the heart to be right. Thoughts are freer from hypocrisy, than a man’s external behavior. A man may be lovely in his outward behavior—yet have a covetous, revengeful mind! The acts of sin may be concealed, when the heart sits brooding upon sin. But to have the thoughts spiritualized and set upon God is a truer sign of sincerity—than a life free from vice.
What do your thoughts run upon? Where do they make their most frequent visits? Can you say, “Lord, our hearts are still mounting up to heaven, our thoughts are lodged in paradise; though we do not see your face—yet we think on your Name!” This is a good evidence of sincerity. We judge men by their actions; God judges them by their thoughts!
5. Thinking much on God—would cure the love of the WORLD. Great things seem little—to him who stands high. To such as stand upon the top of the Alps, the great cities of Italy seem like little villages. For those who are mounted high in the contemplation of Christ and glory—how do the things of the world disappear, and even shrink into nothing! A soul elevated by faith above the visible planets, has the earth under his feet. A true saint intermeddles with secular affairs, more out of necessity than choice. Paul’s thoughts are heavenly and sublime—he lived in the altitudes—and how he scorned the world! “The world is crucified unto me!” (Gal. 6:14).
6. Thinking on God—would be expulsive of SIN. From whence is impiety—but from thoughtlessness? If only men carefully considered God’s holiness and justice—would they dare sin at the rate they do! That which kept Joseph in check, was the thought of a sin-revenging God. When the delights of sin tickle us—let the thoughts of God come into men’s minds, that he is both Spectator and Judge—and that after the golden crowns and women’s hair—comes the lions teeth! (Rev. 9:8). This would put them into a cold sweat—and be as the angel’s drawn sword! (Num. 22:31). It would scare them from sin!
7. Thinking on God, is an admirable means to increase our LOVE to God. As it was with David’s meditations, “As I was musing the fire burned” (Psalm 39:3); so it is with our musing on the Deity. While we are thinking on God—our hearts will kindle in love to him.
The reason our affections are so chilled and cold in religion—is that we do not warm them with thoughts of God. Hold a magnifying glass to the sun, and the glass burns that which is near to it. So when our thoughts are lifted up to Christ, the Sun of righteousness, our affections are set on fire. No sooner had the spouse been thinking upon her Savior’s beauty—but she fell into love-sickness. (Song of Sol. 5:8). O saints, do but let your thoughts dwell upon the love of Christ, who passed by angels and thought of you; who was wounded that, out of his wounds, the balm of Gilead might come to heal you; who leaped into the sea of his Father’s wrath, to save you from drowning in the lake of fire! Think of this unparalleled love, which sets the angels wondering—and see if it will not affect your hearts and cause tears to flow forth!
8. Thinking on God, will by degrees transform us into his image. As Jacob’s flock looking on the rods which had white streaks conceived and brought forth like them (Gen. 30:39), so by contemplating God’s holiness, we are in some measure changed into his likeness! “Beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord—we are changed into the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18). The contemplative sight of God was transforming; they had some print of God’s holiness upon them; as Moses when he had been on the mount with God, his face shone! (Exod. 34:35). What is godliness, but God-likeness? And who are so like him—as those that think on his name?
9. Thinking on God is sweet. It ushers in a secret delight to the soul! “My meditation of him shall be sweet” (Psalm 104:34). He whose head gets above the clouds—has his thoughts lifted high, has God in his eye, is full of divine raptures, and cries out as Peter in the transfiguration, “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” Holy thoughts are the dove we send out of the ark of our souls—and they return with an olive branch of peace. Some complain that they have no joy in their lives. It is no wonder, when they are such strangers to heavenly contemplation! Would you have God give you joy and comfort—and never think of him? Indeed Israel had manna dropped into their tents, and they never thought of it; but God will not drop down this manna of heavenly joy on that soul which seldom or never thinks of him.
Would you have your spirits cheerful? Let your thoughts be heavenly! The higher the lark flies—the sweeter it sings. Just so, the higher a soul ascends in the thoughts of God—the sweeter joy it has!
10. Thoughts of God will turn to the best account. Thoughts spent on the world are often in vain. Some spend thoughts about laying up a portion for a child; and perhaps either it dies, or lives to be a severe trial to them. Others beat their brains how to rise in politics—when royal favor has shone upon them, all of a sudden an eclipse comes about, the king’s smile is turned into a frown, and then their thoughts are frustrated!
How oft do men build castles in the air! But the thoughts of God will turn to a good account, they augment sanctification, and bring satisfaction: “You satisfy me more than the richest of foods. I will praise you with songs of joy. I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you through the night” (Psalm 63:5-6). The thoughts we have of God in the time of health, will be a comfort to us in the time of sickness.
11. God thinks of us—and shall not we think of him? “The Lord thinks upon me!” (Psalm 40:17). God thinks on us every morning; his mercies are “new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). He gives us night-mercies, he rocks us asleep every night: “So he gives his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2). And if we awaken, he gives “songs in the night” (Job 35:10). If God is thinking of us day and night, shall not we think of his Name? How can we forget a friend—who is ever mindful of us? “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, with the Lord are thoughts of peace” (Jer 29:11). Though God is out of our sight—we are not out of his thoughts!
12. God will one day reckon with us, for our thoughts. He will say, “I gave you a mental faculty. What have you done with it?” If God asks a covetous man, “What have your thoughts been? Which way have your thoughts run?” He will answer, “To heap up riches!” If God asks princes and emperors, “How have you employed your thoughts?” They will say, “By our scepter—to beat down the power of godliness.” What a dreadful account will these people have to give at last! Not only men’s actions—but their thoughts will accuse them! “Their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them!” (Romans 2:15).
13. Our thoughts of God shall not be lost. God accepts the thought—for the deed. David had a good thought come into his mind to build God a house, and God took it as kindly as if he had done it! “Forasmuch as it was in your heart to build an house for my name, you did well in that it was in your heart” (2 Chron. 6:8). When Christians have thoughts of promoting God’s glory—that they would do such good acts if it were in their power—the Lord looks upon it as if they had done it. So that our thoughts of God are not lost.
Let us think of God in a right MANNER. A good medicine may be spoiled in the making. So may a good duty be spoiled in the doing. Thoughts may be good for the matter of them—yet may be faulty in the manner. I shall show you, first, how thoughts of God may fail in their manner. There is a right manner of thinking upon God.
1. How thoughts of God may fail in their manner.
First, a man may think good thoughts of God—yet not intend his glory. Jehu had good thoughts come into his mind, to destroy the Baal worshipers—but his intent was to advance himself unto the throne! Bad aims spoil good actions!
Secondly, a man may have good thoughts of God—but they are forced. When one bleeds under God’s afflicting hand, he may think of God—yet have no love to him. “When he slew them—then they remembered that God was their rock, and the most high God their Redeemer: nevertheless they only flattered him with their mouth” (Psalm 78:34-36). These were good thoughts—but it was to pay God a compliment in order to get rid of the affliction.
Thirdly, a man may have thoughts of God—out of a design to stop the mouth of conscience. Conscience lashes the profane sinner: “What! Are you so wicked as never to think of God, who indulges you with so many favors!” Hereupon, he may have a few good thoughts; but they are irksome to him—this is not from a principle of conscience—but to quiet conscience.
Fourthly, a man may think of God with horror! He thinks of God’s sovereignty, and dreads the thoughts of God. You see—one may think of God, yet the thoughts may become sinful.
2. The right manner of thinking on God.
First, our thoughts of God must be serious. Feathers float on the surface—but gold sinks into the water. Feathery spirits have some floating thoughts; but godly hearts sink deep in the thoughts of God!
Secondly, our thoughts of God must he spiritual. Take heed of framing any gross conceits of God in your minds, representing him by the likeness of the creature: “You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire” (Deut. 4:15). Conceive of God in Christ. We cannot see him any other way, as we cannot see the sun in the circle—but in the beams. The Godhead dwells in Christ’s human nature (Col. 2:9). Think of God as a Spirit full of immense glory, propitious to us through a Mediator.
Thirdly, our thoughts of God must be delightful. With what delight does a child think of his father! A gracious soul counts them the sweetest hours, which are spent with God.
Fourthly, our thoughts of God must be operative and efficacious, leaving our hearts in a better tune. The thoughts of God’s faithfulness must make us confide in him. The thoughts of God’s holiness must make us conform to him. This is the right thinking on God—when it is influential, leaving us in a more heavenly frame.
Third use: DIRECTION.
The text shows us how to have our thoughts frequently fixed upon God.
1. Begin the day with holy thoughts. “When I awake, I am still with you” (Psalm 139:18). God should have the first buddings of our thoughts. In the law, the Lord would have the first fruits offered him. Give God your virgin thoughts in the morning. What the vessel is first seasoned with, it keeps the relish of, a long time after. The mind seasoned with godly thoughts in the morning, will keep the heart in a better state all the day long.
2. If you would think of God—take heed of hindrances.
1. Turn away your eyes from beholding vanity (Psalm 119:37). Vain objects poison the imagination; lascivious pictures and wanton talk leave bad impressions in the mind.
2. As far as you are able, call your thoughts off from the world. If worldly thoughts come crowding into our mind—godly thoughts will be lost in the crowd!
3. Gel a love for God and his ways. One cannot but think—of that which he loves. “Does a young woman forget her jewelry?” (Jer. 2:32). When she has not her jewel on her ear—she will have it in her thoughts. A person deeply in love, cannot keep his thoughts off from the object he loves. The reason we think on God no more—is because we love him no more! Let there be but one spark of love to God—and it will fly upward in heavenly thoughts and prayers. By nature our hearts cannot be made to fix on God—but by love.
4. If you would think often on God, get a saving interest in him. “This God is our God!” (Psalm 48:14). We think most—upon that which is our own. If a man rides by beautiful houses and gardens, he casts his eyes slightly upon them. But let him have a house of his own—and his thoughts dwell in it. Why do men think no more of God—but because they and God are strangers? Let a man’s interest in God be cleared—and he will not be able to keep his thoughts off from God.
Part II. THE GREAT GAIN OF GODLINESS
“Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord hearkened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. “They will be mine,” says the Lord Almighty, “in the day when I make up my jewels. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” Malachi 3:16-18
A. The first of the good effects of the saints piety—is that God REGARDED it. “The Lord hearkened and heard.” These blessed ones in the text were speaking and thinking of God—and he did not turn away his ear from them, as if he had not minded them. But he hearkened and heard; which expression denotes both diligence and delight.
1. It notes the diligent heed God gave to these saints—he “hearkened”. Here was attention of ear, and intentness of mind. Hearkening is the gesture of one who intently listens to what another says.
2. God’s hearkening shows the delight he took in the holy dialogues of these saints. He was pleased with them; they were to him as a sweet melody.
God takes special notice of the good which he sees in his people. The children of God may perhaps think that God does not regard them: “I cry unto you—and you do not hear me” (Job 30:20). The church complains that God shuts out her prayer (Lam. 3:8)—but though God is some times silent—he is not deaf! He takes notice of all the good services of his people: “The Lord hearkened and heard.”
Why is it that God takes such notice of his people’s services?
First, not from any merit in them—but the impulsive cause is his free grace! The best duties of the righteous, could not endure God’s scales of justice—but God will display the trophies of his mercy. Free grace accepts—what stern justice would condemn!
Secondly, God’s taking notice of the good in his people, is through Christ! “He has made us accepted—in the beloved” (Eph. 1:6). Or, as Chrysostom renders it, he has made us “favorites”. Through a red glass everything appears of a red color. Just so, through Christ’s blood, both our persons and duties appear ruddy and beautiful in God’s eyes!
Thirdly, God takes notice of the services of his people—because they flow from the principle of grace. God regards the voice of faith: “O my dove … let me hear your voice; for sweet is your voice” (Song of Sol. 2:14). The services of the wicked are harsh and sour—but the godly give God the first-ripe cluster (Mic. 7:1), which grows from the sweet and pleasant root of grace.
First use: INFORMATION.
1. If God hearkens and hears, I infer from hence—God’s OMNISCIENCE. How could he, being in heaven, hear what the saints speak and think—were he not omniscient? Through the bright mirror of his own essence he has a full knowlege of all things. He knows the intrigues of nations, and the stratagems of his enemies (Exod. 14:24). Future contingencies fall within his cognizance.
God’s knowledge is foundational. He is the original, pattern, and prototype of all knowledge. God’s knowledge is instantaneous. He knows all at once! Our knowledge is successive, we know one thing after another, and argue from the effect to the cause; but all things are in God’s view—in one entire prospect. God’s knowledge is infallible and not subject to mistake. Such is the infinity of his knowledge, that the apostle cries out in admiration, “O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!” (Romans 11:33). The world is to God as a beehive of glass, where you see the working of the bees and the framing of their honey-combs. All things are unveiled to the eye of Jehovah! “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account!” Hebrews 4:13
2. See God’s GOODNESS, who often passes by the failings of his people (Num. 23:21), and takes notice of the good in them.
“Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him Lord” (1 Pet. 3:6). The Holy Spirit passes by Sarah’s unbelief and laughing at the promise—and takes notice of her reverence to her husband; she called him Lord.
“You have heard of the patience of Job” (James 5:11). We have heard of his impatience, cursing his birthday—but the Lord does not upbraid him with that—but observes the good that was in him: “You have heard of the patience of Job”. The painter who drew Alexander’s picture, drew him with his finger upon his scar. Just so, God puts a finger of mercy upon the scars of his children! He sees their faith—and turns a blind eye to their failings!
3. See God’s differing dealings towards the godly and the wicked. If the godly think on his name, he hearkens and hears; but if the wicked meddle with religious duties, he turns away his ear. “He did not accept Cain and his offering” (Gen. 4:5). Suppose a man had a sweet breath—yet if he had the plague, nobody would come near him! Just so, though a sinner may give God many a sweet, elegant expression in prayer—yet, having the plague in his heart, God will not receive any offering from him! If God shuts men’s prayers out of heaven, it is a sad prognostic that he will shut their persons out of heaven.
4. See the privilege of the godly—they have God’s ear! “The Lord hearkened and heard!” “His ears are open unto their cry!” (Psalm 34:15). It would be counted a great happiness to have the king’s ear. How astonishing is it to have God’s ear! Believers have the Spirit of God breathing in them—and God cannot but hear the voice of his own Spirit.
5. See what an encouragement is here to be conversant in the duties of God’s worship. God takes notice of the services of his people—he hearkens to them as to sweet music. Who would not come with their humble addresses to God—when he is so pleased with them (Prov. 15:8)
Objection 1—But I deserve nothing.
Answer—God does not bestow his favors according to our desert—but according to his promise and grace.
Objection 2—But I have prayed a long time and have no answer.
Answer—God may hear prayer when he does not answer. He may lend us his ear—when he does not show us his face! The text says, “the Lord hearkened and heard.” It is not said he gave an answer—but he “hearkened”. It befits suitors to wait. Faith waits upon God, patience waits for God. “Like a servant’s eyes on his master’s hand—so our eyes are on the Lord our God until He shows us favor.” (Psalm 123:2).
6. See the difference between God and men. God takes notice of the good in his people; the wicked pass by the good in the godly—and take notice only of their failings. If they can spy any impropriety or blemish in them, they upbraid them with it; like those children who reproached Elisha for his baldness—but took no notice of the prophet’s miracles (2 Kings 2:23).
7. From the words, “the Lord hearkened and heard”, take note of the folly of idolaters. They worship a God who can neither hearken nor hear! The Cretans pictured Jupiter without ears. Idol gods have ears—but hear not (Psalm 115:6). A lifeless god is good enough for a lifeless worship.
Second use: EXHORTATION.
1. Let the people of God stand and wonder:
a. Stand and wonder at God’s CONDESCENSION, that he who is so high in the praises and acclamations of the angels—should stoop so low as to listen to the lispings of his children. “The Lord hearkened and heard!” Alas, God has no need of our services; he is infinitely blessed in reflecting upon the splendor of his own infinite being! We cannot add the least cubit to his essential glory: “If you are righteous, what do you give Him, or what does He receive from your hand?” (Job 35:7). Yet such is his sweet condescension, that he does as it were, stoop below himself, and take notice of his peoples poor offerings.
b. Stand and wonder at God’s LOVE, that he should regard those services of his people, which are so mixed with corruption! “Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags!” (Isaiah 64:6). The sacrifice of thanksgiving, which was the highest sacrifice, had some leaven mixed with it (Lev. 7:13). Our best duties have some leaven of imperfection mixed in them; yet such is God’s love, that he receives and accepts them: “I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey” (Song of Sol. 5:1). Honey is sweet—but the honeycomb is harsh and bitter, and can hardly be eaten; yet such was Christ’s love to his spouse, that he ate of her honeycomb, her services mixed with imperfection, and was pleased and delighted with them! Oh, the love of God, that he should have respect to our offerings, which are interlaced with sin! Our best duties, are sweet wine coming out of a sour cask.
2. If God hearkens to us when we speak—let us hearken to him when be speaks. In the Word, God speaks to us. He is said now to speak to us from heaven (Heb. 12:25), that is, by the Word. Does God hearken to us, and shall not we hearken to him? Be not like the deaf adder which stops her ear. This the Lord complains of: “God does speak—now one way, now another—though man may not perceive it” (Job 33:14) . If God’s Word does not prevail with us—our prayers will not prevail with him.