I have remembered thy judgments of old, O Lord; and have comforted myself.— Psalm 119:52
That the remembrance of the most illustrious examples of his justice, power, and goodness, should comfort us, though we do not perfectly feel the effects of his righteous government.
[1.] I will prove we are apt to suspect God's righteous administration when we see not the effects of it. When the godly are oppressed with divers calamities, and the wicked live a life of pomp and ease, flourishing in prosperity and power, according to their own heart's desire, they are apt to think that God taketh no care of worldly affairs, or were indifferent to good and evil, as those profane atheists, Mal. 2:17, 'Every one that doth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delighteth in him, or where is the God of judgment?' as if God took pleasure in wicked men, and were no impartial judge, or had no providence at all, or hand in the government of the world. Temptations to atheism begin ordinarily at the matter of God's providence. First men carve out a providence of their own, that God loveth none but whom he dealeth kindly with in the matters of the world; and if his dispensations be cross to their apprehensions, then his providence is not just. Nay, the people of God themselves are so offended that they break out into such words as these, Ps. 73:11–13, 'How doth God know? is there knowledge in the Most High? Behold, these are the ungodly, who prosper in the world; they increase in riches. Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency.' They dispute within themselves, Doth God indeed so discern and take notice of all this? How cometh it about that he permitteth them? for it is visible that the wicked enjoy the greatest tranquillity and prosperity, and have the wealth and greatness of the world heaped upon them: then what reward for purity of hearts or hands, or the strict exercise of godliness? Till God doth arise, and apply himself to vindicate his law, these are the thoughts and workings of men's hearts; at least, it is a great vexation and trouble even to the godly, and doth tempt them to such imaginations and surmises of God.
[2.] I shall prove that the remembrance of his judgments of old is one means to confirm the heart, for so we are enabled to tarry till God's judgments be brought to the effect. We see only the beginning, and so, like hasty spectators, will not tarry till the last act, when all errors shall be redressed. We shall make quite another judgment of providence when we see it altogether, and do not judge of it by parts. Surely then they shall see 'there is a reward for the righteous; there is a God that judgeth the earth.' At first none seem so much to lose their labour, and to be disregarded by God as the righteous, or to be more hardly dealt withal; but let us not be too hasty in judging God's work, while it is a-doing, but tarry to the end of things. In the word of God we have not only promises which are more firm than heaven and earth, but instances and examples of the afflictions of the righteous and their deliverance; therefore let us but suspend our censure till God hath put his last hand unto the work, and then you will see that if his people seem to be forsaken for a while, it is that they may be received for ever. All is wont to end well with the children of God, let God alone with his own methods; after a walk in the wilderness, he will bring his people into a land of rest.
But more particularly why his judgments of old are a comfort and relief to us.
1. It is some relief to the soul to translate the thoughts from the present scene of things, and to consider former times. One cause of men's discomfort is to look only to the present, and so they are over whelmed; but when we look back, we shall find that others have been afflicted before us, it is no strange thing, and others delivered before us upon their dependence on God, and adherence to him. You were not the first afflicted servants of God, nor are likely to be the last. Others have been in the like case, and after a while delivered and rescued out of their trouble: Ps. 22:4, 5, 'Our fathers trusted in thee; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them; they cried unto thee, and were delivered; they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.' In looking back we see two things—the carriage of the godly, and their success, or the salvation of God: 'The patience of Job and the end of the Lord,' James 5:11. They trusted God, and trusted him patiently and constantly in all their troubles. At last this trust was not in vain; they were delivered, and not confounded; depending on God for rescue and deliverance, they never failed to receive it. Now, in looking back we look forward, and in their deliverance we see our own; at least, you are fortified against the present temptation, whilst you see his people in all ages have their difficulties and conflicts, and also their deliverances; so that you will not miscarry, nor be over-tempted by the present prosperity of the wicked: Ps. 73:17, 'I went into the sanctuary, and there understood I their end;' that is, entering into a sober consideration of God's counsels and providences, we may easily discern what is the ordinary conclusion of such men's felicities at last; they pay full dear for their perishing pleasures.
2. Because these are instances of God's righteous government, and instances do both enliven and confirm all matters of faith. Here you see his justice. God hath ever been depressing the proud and exalting the humble, gracious to his servants, terrible to the wicked. These examples also of rescuing others who have been in like condition before us show us what the wisdom and omnipotency of God can do in performing promises. When the performance of them seemeth hopeless, and all lost and gone, then they are infallible evidences of his tenderness, care, and fidelity towards all that depend upon him. Now, though we have nothing of our own experience to support us, yet the remembrance of what hath been done for others, the experiences of the saints in scripture, are set down for our learning, for the support of our faith and hope. They trusted in God, and found him a ready help; why may not we? God is the same that he was in former times, and carrieth himself in the same ways of providence to righteous and unrighteous as heretofore; still promises are fulfilled, and threatenings are executed. They on whose behalf God showed himself so just, powerful, wise, good, and tender, had not a better God than we have, nor a more worthy Redeemer, nor a surer covenant. If they had a stronger faith, it is our own fault, and we should labour to increase it: the saints are as dear to God as ever. And as to the wicked, they that inherit others' sins shall inherit others' judgments. It is true, we live not in the age of wonders; but God's ordinary providence is enough for our turn, and those very wonders show that he hath power and love enough to protect and deliver us. Well, then, these are instances of his righteous government, and instances which concern us, which is my second reason.
3. By these judgments of old you see the exact correspondency between his word and works. Where his voice is heard, but his hand not seen, his word is coldly entertained; but by his providence he establisheth the authority of his law. The word spoken by angels was λόγος βέβαιος, 'a steadfast word,' Heb. 2:2. A word may be said to be steadfast either in respect of the unalterable will of the lawgiver, or in respect of execution, or with respect to the party to whom it is given, who firmly and certainly believeth it. The one maketh way for the other. God is resolved to govern the world by this rule, therefore he doth authorise it, own it by the dispensations of his providence; accordingly the world learneth to reverence it: Hosea 7:12, 'I will chastise them, as their congregation hath heard.' God's word against sin and sinners will at last take effect, and end in sad chastisements; and they that would not believe their danger are made to feel it. Now his promises will have their effect as well as his threatenings: Micah 2:7, 'Do not my words do good to him that walketh uprightly?' The word of God doth not only speak good, but do good. The word's saying of good, is indeed doing of good. The performance is so certain, that when it is said it may be accounted done. We are apt to despise the word of God as an empty sound. No; it produceth notable effects in the world. The sentences that are there, whether of mercy or judgment, are decrees given forth by the great judge of the world; whereupon execution is to follow, as is foretold. Now, when we see it done, and can compare the Lord's word and work together, it is a mighty support to our faith, whether it be in our or in former ages. For you see the word is not a vain scarecrow in its threatenings, nor do we build castles in the air, when we do depend upon its promises: the judgments of his mouth will be the judgments of his hand, and providence is a real comment upon and proof of the truth of his word.
4. God's judgments of old, or his wonderful works, were never intended only for the benefit of that age in which they were done, but the benefit of all those who should hear of them by any credible means whatsoever. Surely God never intended they should be buried in dark oblivion, but that after-ages may be the better for the remembrance of them. Witness these scriptures: Ps. 145:4, 'One generation shall praise thy works unto another, and remember thy mighty acts;' Joel 1:3, 'Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.' So Ps. 78:3–7, 'That which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us, we will not hide them from their children; showing the generations to come the praises of the Lord, and his wonderful works which he hath done: for he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children, that the generation to come might know them, even the children to come, which should be born; who should arise and declare to their children, that they may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of the Lord, but keep his commandments, and might not be as their fathers,' &c. From all which places and many more I observe—
[1.] That we should tell generations to come what we have found of God in our time, and that we should use all ways and means to transmit the knowledge of God's notable and wondrous providences for his people to posterity.
[2.] That this report of God's former works is a special means of edification, for therefore God would have them recorded and told for the special benefit of the ages following.
[3.] And more particularly that this is a great means and help of faith. For in one of the places it is said 'that they may set their faith and hope in God;' and from all we may conclude that, by remembering God's judgments of old, we may be much comforted; as in remembering God's works when the church was first reformed in Luther's time, the delivering of England from the Spanish invasion, gunpowder-treason, &c., for the confirming our faith and confidence in God. All God's judgments that were done in the days of our forefathers, and in all generations, if they come to our knowledge by a true report, or record, are of use to warn us and comfort us; yea, the bringing Israel out of Egypt and Babylon, or any notable work done since the beginning of the world till now.