The Divine Government the Joy of our World
Adapted from a Sermon by Samuel Davies
The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Psalm 97:1
Wise and good rulers are justly considered to be a great blessing to those over whom they rule. In a government where wisdom sits at the helm; and justice, guided with mercy, holds the balance of retribution, liberty and property are secured, encroaching ambition is checked, helpless innocence is protected, and universal order is established, and as a consequence peace and happiness diffuse their streams throughout the land. In such a situation every heart has cause to rejoice, everyone may have a cheerful disposition, and every person glow with gratitude to the happy instruments of such extended benevolence.
But, on the other hand, Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,(Eccles 10:16) weak, unwise, fickle, and spiteful. This is the denunciation of Solomon, a wise philosopher, and an wealthy king, whose station, capacity, and inclination, all came together to give him the deepest skill in politics: and this denunciation has been accomplished in every age. Empires have fallen, liberty has been restrained, property has been invaded, the lives of men have been arbitrarily taken away, and misery and desolation have broken in like a flood, when the government has been entrusted in the hands of tyranny, of luxury, or rashness; and the advantages of climate and soil, and all others which nature could bestow, have not been able to make the subjects happy under the malignant influence of such an administration.
It has frequently been the unhappy fate of nations to be enslaved to such rulers; but such is the unavoidable imperfection of all human governments, that when, like our own, they are, at times, managed even by the best hands, they can be overwhelmed by events, and cannot fulfill many valuable ends; and from both these considerations we may see the need of a divine government over the whole universe, and particularly over the earth, in which we are more especially concerned.
Without this supreme universal Monarch, the affairs of this world would certainly fall into confusion; and the concerns of the next world could not be managed at all. Even in the best of cases, the capacities of the wisest of men are very limited, and not equal to all the purposes of government; and therefore many important affairs will be unavoidably mismanaged; and dangerous plots and serious crimes may go undiscovered for lack of knowledge, or pass unpunished for lack of power.
A wise and good ruler may be diffusing among his subjects all that happiness which can result from the imperfect administration of mortals, but he may lose his position, and his government thrown into the greatest disorder by unforeseen opponents or events; so that the best ruler cannot make his subjects lastingly happy, unless he were universal ruler of the whole world and above the reach of the ambitious power of others.
In addition, human dominion cannot extend to the souls and consciences of men: civil rulers can neither know nor govern them; yet these must be governed and brought into subjection to the eternal laws of reason, otherwise peace cannot survive on earth; and especially the great purposes of religion, which have to do with a future state, cannot be fulfilled.
Men are placed here in this world for a time to be prepared by a proper education for another world, for another class, and other Employments; but civil rulers cannot form them for these important ends, and therefore they must be under the government of one who has access to their spirits, and can manage them as he pleases.
Deeply impressed with these things the Psalmist is transported into this reflection, The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad.
The Psalmist seems to have the glorious kingdom of God with Jesus Christ the King of kings as its head more immediately in view; and this indeed deserves our special notice but no doubt he included the divine government in general, which is a just ground of universal gladness and joy: and it is in this extent that we will consider the text.
Persons who are taken up with something are apt to speak abruptly, and omit the connecting parts of speech and inferences usual in calm reasoning. In this way the Psalmist cries out, The LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! but if we reduce the passage to a more formal expression, it will become, "The Lord reigns, therefore let the earth rejoice; and let the coastlands be glad on this account."
Here, the earth may stand for the rational inhabitants of the earth, who are especially concerned in the divine government; or, by a beautiful poetical device, it may refer to the inanimate globe of the earth; and then it hints at the divine government being so important a blessing, that even the inanimate and senseless creation would rejoice in it, were it capable of such passions. And the coastlands may likewise be taken figuratively for their inhabitants, particularly the Gentiles who resided in them; or literally for tracts of land surrounded with water.
The goal of this sermon is,
to illustrate this glorious truth, that God’s supreme government over all things is a just cause of universal joy. And in order to show that we will consider the divine government in the following four views as,
3. mediatorial, and
and show that in each of these views the divine government is a matter of universal joy.
And so in the first place,
I. The Lord reigns on a throne of legislation, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!
He is the one supreme Lawgiver (James 4:12) and is perfectly qualified for that important trust. Nothing tends more to the advantage of civil society than to have good laws established, according to which mankind are to conduct themselves, and according to which their rulers will deal with them. Now the supreme and universal King has erected and published the best laws for the government of the moral world, and of the human race in particular.
Let the earth then rejoice that God has clearly revealed his will to us, and has not left us in darkness about our duty to him and mankind. Human reason, or the light of nature, gives us some hints of our moral duties, even in our degenerate state, and for this information we should bless God; but sadly! these discoveries are very imperfect, and we need supernatural revelation to make known to us the way of life.
Accordingly, the Lord has blessed us with the sacred Scriptures as a supplement to the feeble light of nature; and in them we are fully taught what is good, and what the Lord requires of us. (Mic 6:8) And what a cause for joy is this! How painful it is to be anxious and uncertain in matters of duty! How distressing is a doubtful, fluctuating mind in something of such tremendous importance! Some of you, no doubt, have experienced this when, in some difficult case, you had trouble finding guidance and general direction in the Scriptures.
Again, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad that these laws are suitably enforced with proper penalties. The penalties are such as become a God of infinite wisdom, almighty power, unbending justice, untainted holiness, and unbounded goodness and grace, and such as are agreeable to the nature of reasonable creatures formed for an immortal existence.
The rewards of obedience in the divine laws are not such trinkets as posts of honour and profit, crowns and empires, which are the highest rewards that civil rulers can promise or bestow; but rational peace and serenity of mind, undaunted bravery under the weight of adversity, a cheerful confidence in the divine guardianship under all the calamities of life, and in the future world an entire exemption from all sorrow, and from sin; sin which is the source of all our diseases; in short, the fruition of a happiness above what we can even wish for, and equal to our then mature faculties, and all this forever: these are the rewards of evangelical obedience, not indeed for its own sake, but upon account of the righteousness of the blessed Jesus; and if these fail to allure men to obedience, what will succeed?
And how happy is it to live under a government, where virtue and religion, which in their own nature tend to our happiness, are enforced with such resistless arguments! On the other hand, the penalty attached by the divine Lawgiver to disobedience is proportionally dreadful. To ache and languish under the secret curse of an angry Heaven, which, like a potent poison, diffuses itself through all the enjoyments of the wicked, (Mal2:2) to sweat under the agonies of a guilty conscience in this world, and in the future world to be banished from the radiant presence of God and all the joys of heaven; to feel the anguish and remorse of guilty memories; to burn in unquenchable fire; to endure a miserable eternity in the horrid society of malignant spirits; and all this without the least rational expectation; without so much as a deluded hope of deliverance, or the lessening of torture, through the passing of endless ages, all this is only a very faint picture of the penalty attached to disobedience; and it is a penalty worthy a God to inflict, and equal to the infinite evilness of sin.
And let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad, on account not only of the threatened penalty of the law, but because it flows not only from justice but from goodness. The penalty is not attached to the law, nor will it be executed from an evil pleasure in the misery of the creature, but it is attached from a regard to the happiness of mankind, and will be carried out against individuals for the great good of the whole as well as for the honourable display of God’s purity and justice.
A penalty is primarily intended to deter men from disobedience. Now disobedience tends in its own nature to make us miserable; it makes it impossible, in the nature of things, that we should be happy in the enjoyment of God and the activities of heaven, which are eternally and unchangeably contrary to sinful depositions; and it fills us with those evil and unruly passions which cannot but make us anxious.
And so it follows, that, since the penalty tends to deter us from sin, and since sin naturally tends to make us miserable, therefore the penalty is a kind of gracious fence around the pit of misery, to keep us from falling into it: it is a friendly admonition not to drink poison; it is, in a word, a kind restraint upon us in our path to ruin; and indeed it is a blessing we could not spare for we find, that, notwithstanding the terror of the threatening, men will run on in sin; and with how much more horrid enthusiasm and infernal zeal would they continue their course if there were no divine threatening to check and withhold them?
The earth may also rejoice for the execution of the penalty of God’s law against sin; for the visible punishment of the disobedient may serve as a loud warning to all rational beings not to offend against God; and so it may be the means of preserving them in obedience, and so promote the general good.
Going further, Justice is an agreeable attribute in itself, and it appears so to all rational beings apart from criminals, whose interest it is that it should not be displayed; and therefore the infliction of just punishment should be a matter of general joy, since it is agreeable in itself. So it is that in human governments; while we are innocent, we approve of the conduct of our magistrates in inflicting full punishment against notorious wrongdoers, though the wrongdoers themselves take no pleasure in it. But to go on:
Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad, that the divine laws reach the inner man, and have power on the hearts and consciences of men. Human laws can only smooth our outward conduct at best, but the heart in the mean time may be disloyal and wicked. Now this is not the case with the laws of the King of Heaven, which are spiritual. They demand a complete uniformity and self-consistency in us, that heart and life may be in agreement; and therefore they are wisely formulated to make us entirely good. They also have an unparalleled power on the consciences of men. Even if all the world should acquit us, yet we cannot acquit ourselves when we break these laws. The consciousness of a crime has made many a hardened offender sweat and agonize with remorse, though no human eye could witness his offence. Now is it not a great cause for joy that these laws are quick and powerful, and that they are empowered with almighty energy, which in some measure intimidates and restrains the most audacious, and inspires the conscientious with a pious fear of offending!
In the second place,
II. the Lord reigns by his Providence, “let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad"
The Providence of God is well described in the Shorter Westminster Catechism: "It is his most holy, wise, and powerful preferring and governing all his creatures, and all their actions." To list all the instances of providential government which may be reason for joy on the earth would be endless, therefore only the following will be mentioned:
i) Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad, that the Lord reigns over the kingdoms of the earth, and manages all their affairs according to his sovereign and wise pleasure. We sometimes hear of wars and rumors of wars, of thrones tottering, and kingdoms falling, of the nations tumultuously raging and dashing in angry conflict, like the waves of the restless ocean.
At such times we may say, with the Psalmist, “the floods have lifted up, O LORD, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.” (Ps 93:3) But the Lord reigns, therefore the world will stand firm so that it cannot be moved. —The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters; stronger than the mighty waves of the sea.
Sometimes the ambition of a foreign power, or the abuses of our own governments , may threaten our liberties, and persecution may seem ready break out against the church of God. But the Lord reigns! let the earth, let the church rejoice; the eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut 33:27) He will overrule the various events of the world for her good; he will give kings for her ransom, Cush and Seba for her; (Is 43:3) and the united powers of earth and hell shall not prevail against her. Though the fabric of the natural world should be unhinged, we may find refuge in our God.
Yet it must be acknowledged that the Lord, for the chastisement of his people, may allow their enemies to fall upon them, and may cast them into the furnace of affliction. But let the earth rejoice, let the church, be glad that the Lord reigns over her most powerful enemies, and that they are only executing his will even when they think nothing of it, but are gratifying their own ambition. They are but a rod in the hand of a tender father, who corrects only to for good: and when he has used the rod for this gracious purpose, he will then put it aside.
This is how God speaks of the haughty Assyrias who had gone too far in their conquests. “Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger,” (Isa 10:5) They were sent against the Jews because they had become a godless nation. And when this instrument of the God’s vengeance takes for itself the honour of its own successes, with what just insult and disdain does the King of kings speak of them! “Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it” (Isa 10:15) The purpose of God in these chastisements is to purge away the iniquity of his people; they are meant to take away their sin; and when this gracious purpose is accomplished, they will be removed.
Now what a cause for universal joy is this, that One infinitely wise sits at the helm, and can steer his weak church through all the outrageous storms of this unfriendly climate and stormy ocean! He may seem at times to lie asleep, but in the midst of extreme danger he will awake and still the winds and the sea with his sovereign power with a “Peace, be still.”(Mk 4:39)
Men may form deep and political schemes, and plan their accomplishment in defiance of Heaven, but God “frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success. He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.”(Job 5:12)“The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov 21:1) (see also 16:1, 9 and 19:21) And how joyful a thought this is, that we are not at the arbitrary disposal of our fellow-mortals, and that affairs are not managed according to their capricious pleasure, but that “our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”(Psalm 115:3)
Again, the church may be endangered by internal division and transgressions. The professors of religion may stumble and fall, and so discourage the friends of Zion, and give matter of triumph and insult to its enemies. Some may apostatize, and return like the dog to his vomit. A general lukewarmness may diffuse itself through the church, and even those who hold on to their integrity on the whole may be affected by the disease.
Divisions and animosities may be inflamed, mutual love may be extinguished, and a spirit of discord succeed in its place. But the LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice. He can reduce this confusion into order, and make the wrath of man to praise him, and restrain the remainder of it. (Psalm 76:10) It is the peculiarity of divine wisdom to draw good out of evil, and let us rejoice in it. God is supreme, and therefore can control all the wicked passions of the mind. And so let us pray with great earnestness for so necessary a blessing!
Again, we are exposed to numberless accidental and unforeseen dangers, which we cannot prevent nor oppose. Sickness and death may come from a thousand unsuspected causes. Our friends, our estates, and, in short, all our earthly enjoyments, may be torn from us by any number of accidents. We walk, as it were, in darkness, and may be stepping into mortal dangers before we are even aware. But the LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice!
Possible events are at his disposal, and necessity at his control. The smallest things are not beneath the notice of his providence, and the greatest are not above it. Diseases and misfortunes that seem to happen by chance, are commissioned by the Lord of all; and those that result evidently from natural causes are sent by his almighty will. He says to one, go, and it goes and to another come, and it Comes: (Luke 7:8) he orders the devastations brought about by the fiercest elements.
If flames lay our houses in ashes, they are kindled by his breath. If hurricanes sweep through our land, and carry desolation along with them, they perform his will, and can do nothing beyond it: his hand hurls the lightning, and directs it where to strike. An arrow or a bullet shot at a random in the heat of battle, is carried to its mark by divine direction.
How wretched a world would this be were it not under the wise management of divine Providence! If chance or blind fate were its rulers, what desolations would crowd upon us every moment! we should soon be crushed in the ruins of a fallen world. Every wind that blows might blast us with death, and fire and water would mingle in a blended chaos, and bury us in their destruction. But so extensive is the care of Providence, that even the sparrows may find safety in it; and we cannot lose so much as one hair from our heads without its permission. (Matt 10:29, 30, 31) And how much more important then, are our persons and our affairs under its guardianship and direction!
Again, we are in perpetual danger from the malignant work of infernal spirits, who watch all opportunities to ruin the souls, bodies, and estates of men. These subtle spirits can inject ensnaring thoughts into our minds, and present such images to the imagination as may allure the soul to sin. This is often stated in Scripture, and attested by the disheartening experience of multitudes in all ages.
That they have power also in the material world to raise storms and tempests, and to ruin men's estates, and inflict diseases on their bodies, is plain from the case of Job, and many in our Saviour's time, and from Satan's being called “the prince of the power of the air;” (Eph 2:2) and his associates “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12) And what horrid devastations would these powerful and malicious beings spread through the world if they were not under the control of divine Providence!
They would perpetually haunt our minds with ensnaring or terrifying images, would meet us with temptations at every turn, and lead us willing captives to hell. They would also strip us entirely of all temporal enjoyments, torture our bodies with grievous pains, or reduce them to dust with consuming and loathsome diseases. But the LORD reigns, let the earth rejoice! He keeps the infernal lions in chains, and restrains their rage. He sees all their subtle plots and schemes against his feeble sheep, and baffles them all. "He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape.”(1Cor10:13) And when he allows them to be struck, his grace will be sufficient for them. (2 Cor 12:9)
He has also, as Satan himself confessed with regard to Job, put a hedge around us, around our houses, and around all that we have on every side, (Job 1:10) and therefore we live and enjoy the blessings of life. And what cause of grateful joy is this! Who would not rather die than live in a world ungoverned by divine Providence! This earth would certainly soon be turned into a hell, if the infernal armies were let loose upon it.
In the third place,
III. the Lord reigns upon a throne of grace! “let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad"
It is the administration of grace of the Messiah which the Psalmist had more immediately in view; and this is the principal cause of joy to the earth and its guilty inhabitants. This is a kind of government which only applies to the human race: the upright angels do not need it, and the fallen angels are not favoured with it. This is centered in the person of Immanuel, who is given “as head over all things to the church," (Eph 1:22) to whom “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given." (Matt 28:18, and 11:27)
This is the kingdom described in such august language in the second chapter of Daniel: “God ... will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed” (Dan 2:44 also 7:14, Luke 1:32,33) And so, that Jesus who was mocked with a crown of thorns, and condemned as a criminal at Pilate's bar, wears on his robe and on his thigh this majestic inscription. “King of kings, and Lord of lords.”(Rev 19:16)
And here is the good news; this kingdom of God is come to you, and you are called to become its subjects, and share in its blessings. Wherever the gospel is preached, there Jehovah deals with mankind in majesty tempered with condescending grace. From there he invites rebels that had rejected his government to return to him, and passes and act of grace on all that comply with the offer. He invites all to come to his throne of grace, and offers them the richest blessings. From there he publishes peace on earth, and good-will towards men. From there he offers pardon to all that will submit to his government, and abandon their sins, those weapons of rebellion. From there he distributes the influences of his Spirit to subdue obstinate hearts into cheerful submission, to support his subjects under every burden, and equip them with strength for the spiritual warfare. He subdues their rebellious corruptions, gives life to their languishing graces, and protects them from their spiritual enemies.
He enacts laws for the regulation of his church, appoints ordinances for her edification, and qualifies ministers to dispense them. “He ascended on high; he gave gifts to men;” and these he has distributed, “and he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph 4:8, 11, 12) And it is by virtue of authority derived from him that his ministers now oversee, and you receive his ordinances at their hands.
Now what a cause for joy, that we live under the administration of grace! under the empire of grace! “Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad” on this account. And let us pray that all nations may become the willing subjects of our gracious King. If this administration of grace had not been established, in what a miserable situation should we have been! guilty, miserable, and hopeless! Let us rejoice that the King of heaven, from whom we had revolted, has not allowed us to perish without hope in our wretched rebellion, but holds out the scepter of his grace to us, that we may touch it and live.
IV. And lastly, the Lord will reign before long upon a throne of universal judgment displayed to the assembled universe, “Let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad!”
In the wonderful words of the Psalmist “he will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness." (Ps 96:10-13) This will indeed be a day of unsupportable terror for his enemies. (Rev 6:15,16) But, in many cases, it will prove a day of joy and triumph.
This day will reveal many of the mysteries of divine Providence, which are now hidden to us. There are many things which we do not understand. Many blessings are given, many calamities fall, and many events happen, of which we cannot see the reason. Prosperity is the lot of some who seem ripe for God’s vengeance; and many groan under afflictions who seem more suited to be objects of God’s kindness.
We are often led into ways, the end of which we cannot see, and are often bewildered about the purposes of divine Providence towards us. And so also, by this, the arrogant are emboldened to reproach the ways of God as unjust, and to criticize his government as weakly administered.
But in that day all his ways will appear to be just. The clouds and darkness that now surround them will vanish, and the beams of wisdom, goodness, and justice, will shine brightly before the whole universe, and every creature will agree and exclaim that, “He has done all things well!” (Mark 7:37)
Now we can at best but see a few links in the chain of providence, but then we will see it all entire and complete; then the whole system will be exposed in one view, which will expose the strange symmetry, connections, dependencies, and relationship of all the parts, without which we can no more judge of its excellency than an ant could make out the function of the several parts of a watch. Let the earth therefore rejoice in expectation of this glorious revelation.
Again, let the earth rejoice that in that day the present unequal distributions of Providence will be forever adjusted, and regulated according to the strictest justice. This world is not the place or season for retribution, and therefore we need not be surprised that the blessings and calamities of this life are not distributed according to men's real characters; but then every man will be dealt with according to his works.
Oppressed innocence will be righted, and insolence forever silenced: slander and lying will be refuted, and flattery exposed: Lazarus will be comforted, and the rich man tormented: impious kings will be driven into the depths of hell, while pious beggars will be brought to the heights of happiness. In short, all matters will then be set right, and therefore let the earth rejoice.
Again, let the earth rejoice that in that day the righteous will be completely delivered from all sin and sorrow, and brought to the perfection of heavenly happiness. Then they will enter into all the unfolding of that bliss, which is now the object of all their anxious hopes and earnest endeavors.
But we must change the scene to one of tragedy, and set our eyes on the trembling criminals hearing their dreadful doom, and sinking to hell with horrible anguish. And must the earth rejoice in this too? Yes, but with a solemn tremendous joy. Even the condemnation and everlasting misery of these is right and just, is agreeable and glorious; and God, angels, and saints, will at the great day rejoice in it.
The awful majesty of justice will be illustrated in it; and this is a matter of joy. These criminals will then be beyond repentance and reformation, and therefore it is impossible in the nature of things that they should be happy, and why then should Heaven be encumbered with them? Is it not cause for joy that they should be confined in prison who have made themselves unfit to live in free society? At the present time, sinners are objects of our compassion and sorrow, and the whole creation mourns for them. (Rom 8:22) But God will then rejoice in their ruin, and laugh at their calamity, (Prov 1:26) and all dutiful creatures will join in his joy.
Thus you see that the Lord reigns. And who, poor weak believers, who is this that sustains this universal government, and rules the whole creation according to his pleasure? It is your Father, your Saviour, your Friend! He is the one who has more tender affections for you than ever a mother had for her newborn child. And can you be so foolish as to pay attention to the arguments of unbelief? Can you force yourselves to fear that he will ever leave or forsake you? Can you suspect that he will allow you to fall a helpless prey to your enemies?
No, your Lord reigns, therefore rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Phil 4:4) While he keeps the throne of the universe, you will be safe and happy. Your Father is greater than all, and no one can pluck you out of his hands. Remember he sits on a throne of grace, therefore come to him with boldness. You may smile at calamity and confusion, and rejoice amid the ruins of the world. (Psalm 96, Hab 3:17,18) Remember also, that as he is a King he demands your cheerful obedience, and therefore make his service the business of your life.
And, unhappy sinners! let me Ask you. Who is this that reigns King of the universe? Why, it is the one you have rejected from being King over you; he is the one against whom you have rebelled, and who is therefore your just enemy. And are you able defend your cause against him who has all of nature at his command?
How dreadful is your situation! That which may make the earth rejoice, will make you fear and tremble. The Lord reigns, let sinners tremble. You must fall before him, if you will not cheerfully submit to his government. Let me therefore renew the usual neglected declaration, He sits upon a “throne of grace." (Heb 4:16) Let me once more in his name proclaim reconciliation! in your ears, and invite you to return to abandon your rebellion.
Lay down your arms, forsake your sins. Run to him. The sword of his justice hangs over your heads this very moment while I am managing the treaty with you; and therefore do not delay. Yield or die; surrender, or perish; for you really have no other alternative. Submit, and you may join the general joy of his government. You upon earth, and devils and damned spirits in hell, are the only beings who resist it; but upon your submission your sorrow will be turned into joy, and you will exult when the Lord of all comes to “judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.” (Ps 96:13)