Nearness To God The Felicity Of Creatures - Part I
Adapted from a Sermon By
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! Psalm 65:4
It was an elegant address that the Queen made to Solomon, when she had surveyed the magnificence of his court, and had heard his wisdom: "Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you!" 1 Kings 10. 8. And there was much truth and honour in her speech. But the David strikes a diviner note; Blessed is the one you choose and bring near, to dwell in your courts! Ps 65. 4, in the holy sanctuary near to you!
Whether, in these words, the Psalmist blesses those Levites and priests, whose duty it was to attend the ark, and to dwell near the tabernacle, or whether he pronounces blessedness on every man of Israel, whose dwelling close to the ark gave him frequent opportunities to attend at that solemn worship, is not very necessary to determine. Either of these may be called dwelling in the courts of God. But it is most probable, that the sacred writer designs the second sense of the word, and that he includes himself in the desire or possession of this blessedness, though he was neither a priest nor a Levite; for he uses the same phrase in several places, and applies it to himself; Ps. 27. 4. One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life; Ps. 23. 6. I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. By which he implies, that he would seek the most frequent opportunities of approaching God in public worship.
What is sufficient for the purpose of this present sermon is to note how the inspired Psalmist makes the blessedness of man to depend upon his near approaches to God.
Here we should remember, that God is necessarily near to all his creatures, by his infinite knowledge, by his preserving and governing power: he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; Acts 17. 27, 28. But the privilege which David speaks of in our text, is a peculiar approach of a creature to God, which is a fruit of divine choice and favour. The souls who enjoy this blessing are chosen to it, and by divine providence and mercy are caused to approach him. And what this last amazing phrase means will be unfolded in the following parts of the discourse.
Let this be the doctrine which we will attempt to confirm and build upon, that is to say
Doctrine: Nearness to God is the foundation of a creature’s happiness.
This may easily be proved, if we consider, what it is that makes an intelligent being happy; and how well such an approach to God furnishes us with all the means of attaining it. The ingredients of happiness are these three: 1. The contemplation of the most excellent object; 2. The love of the greatest good; and, 3. A delightful sense of being beloved by an all-sufficient power, or an almighty friend.
I. The contemplation of the most excellent object.
And he who is nearest to God, has the best view of it. The understanding is a noble faculty of our natures; truth is its proper food; and truth, in all the boundless varieties and beauties of it, is the object of its pursuit, when it is elevated above the realm of sensualities.
This is the delight of the true scientist, to search all the hidden wonders of nature, and pursue truth with a most pleasurable and restless determination: for this he climbs the heavens, traces the planetary and the starry worlds: for this he pries into the bowels of the earth, and sounds the depths of the ocean; and when, with immense effort of mind, he has found out some unknown natural truth, how are all the powers of his soul pleased within him, and he exults, as it were, in a little paradise!
But the souls, who are admitted to draw nearest to God, contemplate infinite truth in its original. They converse with that divine craftsman, who unfolded the heaven, who molded this globe of earth, and furnished the upper and the lower worlds with all their wonderful variety. He is a God of glory and beauty in himself, as well as the author of all the beauties of nature. All his perfections, as well as his works, provides heavenly matter for contemplation: he eminently contains in himself all the amazing scenes of nature, and the even more amazing wonders of the world of grace; those mysteries wherein he has abounded in all wisdom and prudence: how the ruined sons of Adam were rescued from death, by the Son of God dying in their place; how Satan was baffled in his most subtle plans, and the deepest policies of hell undermined, when the prince of darkness destroyed his own kingdom, by persuading men to put the Son of God to death.
What a divine pleasure is it to commune with that wisdom which laid the eternal scheme of all these wonders, and of ten thousand more unknown beauties in the transactions of providence and grace, with which the blessed minds above are feasted to satisfaction! And besides all these, God has reserved in himself a hidden world of new scenes to open in the future, and an everlasting profusion of new wonders to display before the eyes of his favorites. Heaven is described by seeing God, by beholding him face to face, and by knowing him in the way and manner in which we are known; 1 Cor. 13. 12. And he is pleased to indulge some taste of this joy to his children in this life, through veils and curtains, by types and figures, by his word and ordinances, under the enlightening beams of his Spirit. This is the beauty of the Lord, for the view of which David desired to dwell in the sanctuary; Psalm 27. 4. that he might see the power and glory of God continually, as he had sometimes seen it there: that he might behold his beauty, and talk of his glorious goodness in his holy temple. For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty! Zech. 9. 17.
But contemplation alone cannot make a creature happy: this only entertains the understanding, which is but one faculty of our natures: the will and affections must have their proper entertainment too. Their happy activities may be represented by the word love, either in the outgoings or the returns of it: and this leads us to the following particulars:
II. The next ingredient of a creature's happiness, is, the love of the greatest good.
And those whom God chooses, and causes to approach himself, when they are under divine revelation, see so much beauty and excellency in his nature, his power and wisdom, and so many lovely glories in his overflowing grace, that they cannot but love him above all things ; and this love is a great part of their heaven. What sweeter pleasure is there in this lower world, than to let freely flow the affectionate powers of the soul, to converse with the most amiable and most desired object, to feed upon it without ceasing, and to dwell with it always?
But the best enjoyments of this kind that we can have in this world, in the pursuit or possession of created good, are but faint and feeble shadows of the blessedness of holy souls in the love of God, who is the most amiable, and the best of beings: therefore they love him with all their heart and soul, with all their mind and strength; and if they had more powers in nature that could be devoted in love, they should all be laid out in the search and expanding of this first and best beloved: for there are endless stores and treasures of unknown loveliness in the godhead, to excite and entertain forever the fresh efforts of the most exalted love. But for me to know, and to love the best of beings, cannot make me completely happy, unless I am beloved of him also, and unless I feel that he loves me. Happiness requires mutual love.
III. The third ingredient therefore of our felicity, and that which perfects the blessedness of a creature, is, the delightful sense of the love of an almighty friend.
To know, to love, and to be beloved by such a being, must complete our happiness; one who has all beauty, and all goodness in himself; one who can free us from every pain, secure us against every peril, and bestow upon us every pleasure. This is the perfection of our heaven, when all these are enjoyed in a perfect degree, without any mixture. Now such is the state of those who are chosen and caused to approach God, so as to know him, and love him; that they have the greatest advantages to obtain the assurance and taste of his love. The man whom the Psalmist pronounces blessed in our text, hopes for this pleasure in the house of God, that he shall be satisfied with the divine goodness there.
The steadfast love of God is life, or something better than life; Psalm 63. 3. and to have a sensation of this steadfast love, is to feel that I live. To think, to know, and to be assured that I am beloved, by an all-sufficient Power, who can do more for me than I can ask or think, in life, and death, and in eternity, and to have pleasing and spiritual sensations of this poured out in the heart; this raises the Christian near to the upper heaven, while he dwells on earth, and he rejoices with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.
Some may object here and say, Is it no part of our blessedness then to love the saints, to rejoice in their love, to contemplate the works of God, and his wonders in creation and providence? Answer, Yes, surely; as has already been implied: but when we take true satisfaction in any of these, it is as they proceed from God, as they relate to God, and lead our souls to centre in him; for God, who is the first cause, must be the last end of all, and no creatures, as divided from him, can make us either holy or happy.
We go on to some observations or reflections that flow from what we have seen so far on this subject.
I. The first reflection should be upon the scale of blessedness, or the several degrees of happiness that creatures enjoy, according to their advancing approaches toward God: but there is so much to say on this that we will reserve it for the next sermon. We go on therefore to the
II. Reflection. Consider what unknown evil is contained in the nature of every sin, since it divides the creature from God and from happiness! It may be said to every soul on earth, as it was once said to Israel; Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God; Isaiah 59. 2. What a world of endless misery was contained in the first sin of Adam, whereby this lower creation was, as it were, cut off from God at once!
Man was at first happy in the image and love of his Maker, related to him by nature and creation, as a son to a father: Adam was the son of God; Luke 3. 38. and he enjoyed the privilege and the pleasure of holy nearness to God, and humble conversation with him. He read the name of his Maker in all his works; he could contemplate divine wisdom, power, and goodness, there; he loved his Creator with all his soul, and was happy in his Creator's love. But when sin entered, Adam fled from his heavenly Father, and his friend; he hid himself among the trees in the garden, when the voice of the Lord called after him, Adam, where are you? And it has been the dismal description of sinners ever since, that they are afar off from God.
Who can put into words, or what heart can conceive, the immense load, and everlasting train of troubles and miseries, that lie heavily on poor mankind, and have pursued human nature, in all the infinite members and branches of it, through all ages and nations, for more than six thousand years! All these were introduced by man's first disobedience.
We are a sinful race of creatures, born in the likeness of the original sinner: we come into the world estranged from God, and go astray from the womb; for we were brought forth in iniquity, and conceived in sin; Psalm 58. 3. and 51. 5. It is the character and spirit of mankind, by nature, to desire an absence from God, and to wish their own misery; Job 21. 14. What is the Almighty, that we should serve him?—Depart from us! We do not desire the knowledge of your ways. By nature we do not love him, nor do we seek after his love. This is your state, and it is mine by nature: these are our hateful and deplorable circumstances, and yet we go on to aggravate our own guilt, to run further from God hour by hour, and to hasten on to everlasting wretchedness, if God’s grace does not intervene to prevent it.
III. Reflection. Is nearness to God the foundation of the creature's happiness? then how vain are all pretences to happiness, while man is a stranger to God! Let him be surrounded with all imaginable sensual delights, or let him be furnished with all advantages of reason or natural knowledge, to entertain the mind; yet if he is afar off from God, he must be afar off from blessedness. Without God, and without hope, is the character of the sinful world. Do the profane and sensual boast of their pleasures, while God is not in all their thoughts? Empty shows of pleasure, and vain shadows! And even these shadows, these vain flatteries, are ever fleeing from them; they distract and delude them in their pursuit in this world, and will vanish all at once at the moment of death, and leave them in everlasting sorrow.
Let the one who delights in the senses (taste, sight, feeling) indulge himself in his own deception, and bless himself in the midst of his madness: let the rich worldling say, "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years." Luke 12. 19 Let the mere intellectual glory that he has discovered happiness. Let him busy himself in refined subtleties, and swell in the pride of his reason. Let all these pretenders to happiness compliment each other, if they please, or call themselves the only happy men; yet the meanest, and the weakest of all the saints, would never dream of changing places with them; because the saint is brought near to God: and though he be ever so poor, and his understanding ever so limited, yet he knows this great truth well, that to exchange God for the creature, would be infinite loss, and unspeakable misery. They who never drew near to God, who never saw God in his works or his word, so as to love him above all things, and partake of his love, are in reality miserable in spite of all their pretences: They who are far from God will perish ; Psalm 73. 27.
IV. Reflection. God has not utterly abandoned this world to sin and misery, while he keeps his word and his ordinances in it: for these are his appointed means of approaching to him, and steps whereby we may climb to the blessedness of saints and angels. God sent his word after Adam the sinner, when he fled from him in paradise, that he might recall man back to himself; and he has been ever since sending messages of peace, and invitations of love, to a ruined and rebellious world. Happy sinners, who hear the voice of an inviting God, who turn their back on the perishing vanities of life and time, who forsake the creatures, and return to their Creator again! Thousands of the descendents of Adam have accepted the messages of this grace, and have been by these methods trained up for glory: by conversing with God in his ordinances, and dwelling in his courts on earth, they have been happily prepared for an everlasting dwelling in his court of heaven. We this day are favoured with the same divine call in the gospel; let every soul of us rejoice and follow.
V. Reflection. The true value of things on earth may be judged of and determined by their tendency to bring us near to God and heaven. The common measure of our esteem of things, is the influence they have to promote what we think is our happiness. Now, if our judgment is made right in this point, and we are convinced that an approach to God is the way to be happy, then whatsoever leads us nearest to God, will rise in value in our esteem.
Then our hearts will set a high esteem on those friends or relatives who draw us to the knowledge and love of God: then we will prize the ministry of the gospel above all else: then we will not think the ministry of the word a mean and contemptible occupation, nor delight to hear scandals thrown on the persons or the characters of those who are engaged in it; for these are the servants of the living God, who show us the way to be happy. Then we will commend those sermons, and those writings most, not that have most eloquence and innovation in them, but those which we feel and find to draw our hearts farthest off from sin and the creature, and bring them nearest to God: and then, if there were but one Bible in the world, we should all agree to say, that there is not treasure enough in all the material creation to purchase it out of our hands.
VI. Reflection. All the means of separation from God should be numbered among the instruments of real misery.
Does Satan, the fallen angel, approach young people with his flatteries; that there is time enough ahead to pay real attention to religion; let us have a few more days to enjoy the world first? Does he frighten the aged sinner with terrible falsehoods, and tempt him to an utter despair of grace? Let his wicked suggestions be renounced with disdain, and let him never succeed in keeping one soul of us at a distance from God; for his first business was to divide us from God, and to ruin our happiness; and it is his daily occupation to hold us tight in the chains of iniquity and death, and so to prevent our return to God.
Does the flesh allure us to pursue sinful delights? Does it awaken and charm our imagination with the flowery and fatal scenes of luxury and amusement? Do the lusts of the flesh, or the lusts of the eye, persuade us to seek happiness among them; and tempt us, at least for the present, to lay aside the thoughts of God? Let us set a strict guard upon ourselves, and watch all the avenues of sense and appetite, lest we be drawn off from the practice of piety, and the service, and the love of God, where true happiness is only to be found.
Do you find, believer in Christ, that the world begins to creep into your hearts? Do you find any creature sitting too near to your souls, and taking up any of that time and room which God should have there? Awake, do not delay, and rouse yourselves up, for fear that it divide you from your happiness. When you feel your spirits at any time grow cold in religious worship, when you can pass a day with an indifference about secret communion with God, and be content to be long absent from him, search with diligence what enemy it is that has crept in secretly, and interposes between God and you: and when you have found it, never rest, till with the help of divine grace, you have removed the idol from your thoughts, and your soul is restored to its holy nearness to God again. As a general rule, concerning all this world, keep your hearts aloof from it, while your hands, and perhaps your heads too, are engaged in the necessary affairs of it. The nearer your souls are to the creatures, the farther they depart from God and blessedness. As a natural consequence from this thought, we may raise a
VII. Reflection. Wanderings, and vain thoughts in the time of religious worship, are, and will be, the great burdens of a child of God; for they clog him, and keep him down, when he would rise to his heavenly Father; they are bars in his way to blessedness, for they hinder his approach to God. But what wretched creatures are we, if we indulge vain thoughts, and worldly images and idols in the house of God, without complaint, and without mourning! What holy shame and repentance should it work in us, to think, that even in the place where the great and blessed God comes to show his face, we should be building up walls and partitions to hide his face from us! that we should turn away our faces from him in the hour when he comes on purpose to meet us!
It might be added, as a concluding reflection, that it is a tiresome bondage to a saint, in a devout frame of mind, to dwell so long in this body of flesh and blood. This mortal state prevents our complete happiness every hour that we remain in it. While we sojourn in this tent, our body, we are so much the farther from God; while we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord; 2 Cor. 5. 6. This mortal flesh is a painful veil to the lively Christian, for it divides him from the sight and full enjoyment of his chosen blessedness. At the best we see God but in a mirror dimly while we dwell here; the moment of death places us in the region of spirits, where we will see him face to face; 1 Cor. 13. 12. Though all these reflections may provide with many useful rules for our practice, yet, for our further help, here are a few inferences which are more expressly practical.
1. Give all glory to God forever, who brings himself so near to us: he puts us this far in the road to happiness, when he builds his houses amongst us, when he approaches to us in his holy ordinances, when he calls, and causes us to approach to him, and gives us kind and sure promises of eternal blessedness above in his immediate presence. Let each of us join with Solomon in that noble piece of worship; 1 Kings 8. 27. But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built? Yet the Lord is near to the churches of his saints, when they worship him: he is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth; Psalm 145. 18. And his word is near us, even in our hands, and on our lips; that word which teaches us the way to approach God, and ensures the blessedness.
Give glory to God, the great and holy God, that he should ever be willing to let sinners approach him; that the Majesty of heaven, and the supreme Lord of all, who had been highly provoked by his rebellious creatures, should ever come into terms of reconciliation; that he himself should provide a reconciling sacrifice; to satisfy his own governing justice, and a reconciling spirit to bring the rebel man to his obedience and love. This divine condescension truly demands the wonder and the worship of every believing soul.
2. Adore the mystery of the incarnation, and bless God incarnate; for this is the ground of all our nearness to God, and all our actual approaches to him and heaven. It was the Son of God, who is one with the Father, that stooped down, and took on our nature, and took a part of it into union with himself, that we might approach God: No one comes to the Father except the Son; John 14.6. We, the wretched offspring of Eve, would have forever been banished from the courts and the presence of God, had not this man Jesus, the son of Mary, been caused first to draw near, and to dwell near; and blessed be his name for ever.
We rejoice with all the powers of our souls, to think how near to God the man Jesus is, for since he approaches the throne, we will approach too; Rev. 3. 21. We will be blessed through his blessedness; Gal. 3. 8, 14. He was first chosen to draw near, and we are chosen in him ; Eph. 1. 4. Nearness to God is still a matter of divine choice and distinction; he approaches to God above, accepted in his own spotless righteousness, and we in him: he is in a more transcendent manner one with God, and we must be united to God by him, and so made somewhat like him; John 17. 24. When our Mediator approaches to the Father in worship, he, as our High-priest, bears the name of the whole church in heaven and earth, on his breast, and on his shoulders; Exod. 28. 12, 29. In his beauty of holiness, we unholy creatures are presented before God, and caused to approach with glorious acceptance.
Stand still here and contemplate, believer in Christ, and survey your privileges and your honours; and remember, that whenever you draw near to God in the courts of his house, it was Jesus who drew near first, it is Jesus who still dwells near to make you acceptable: it is he who maintains the nearness of your state, and your peace with God, by ever presenting your natures in his person: He appears in the presence of God on our behalf; Heb. 9. 24. It is Jesus, who, by his Spirit, lifts you up near to the Father; and it is by his best beloved and nearest Son, that God the Father draws near to all his children.
3. Do not be found among the mockers of approach to God, or among those who despise his ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and holy communion with him in worship. They despise happiness itself. Such there have been of old, and such there are in our days; and because they are afar off from God themselves, they deny that there can be any nearness to him, they ridicule our approaches to God, as the vain effects of a wild imagination, and the mere effects of overactive emotions.
But is it not a very rational and intelligible thing, for a soul in public worship, so to draw near to God, as to learn more of him, and to know more of his perfections and graces than he knew before? May not such a worshipper have his love to God raised and warmed by such increasing knowledge? And may he not arise, by holy inferences, to a livelier and a surer hope that he is beloved of God too, and comfort himself in this assurance? What is there in all this which is not perfectly reasonable, or that should provoke a sneering remark? But let such be careful, lest they blaspheme God and his Spirit; let them take care, lest they be thrown down into hell, and set at an awful distance from God, without hope, who deride the joy of heaven.
4. Be on your guard against those deceits of being above ordinances, lest you lose true happiness through pride and vain conceit. Abandon the vain idea of living nearer to God in the neglect of them. God is glorious in himself, but he has appointed ordinances, as means whereby we may approach and see him. Some stars, though large in themselves, yet are not visible without telescopes; and others that are barely visible to the naked eye, yet appear much clearer by this help. Even so those glories of God, which are unknown to reason, and to the light of nature, are discovered through the ministry of his word; such are his subsistence in three Persons, and his forgiving grace; and those glories of his nature, which are traced out by human reason, stand in a divine light, with all their splendors about them, in the gospel, and the church.
5. Never rest satisfied without approaching to God in spirit and in truth, when you observe his ordinances. This is the goodness of his house that must satisfy the holy soul of the Psalmist, as he expresses it in the following words in Psalm 65 verse 4: We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house.
What a folly it is to be pleased with empty ordinances without God! 1 Tim. 4. 8. Bodily discipline is only of little profit. To make a serious matter of mere external things, and to make nothing of spiritual ones! These formal and foolish people come to the palace of the king, and turn their backs on his person, to play with his shadow on the wall: which is ridiculous and childish folly! And yet how often is this the shallow practice of the men of wisdom! And sometimes persons of true piety are tempted to indulge it. Let me ask my conscience, "Did I never let my curiosity dwell upon the just reasoning, the correct style, the pretty similes, the flowing oratory, or flowery beauties of a sermon, while I neglected to seek my God there, and to raise my soul near him? Or perhaps I was charmed with the decency and voice of the preacher; or, it may be, was better entertained with some zealous religious arguments which flattered my own bitter zeal, and seemed to sanctify my uncharitable criticisms; and when I returned from the place of worship, I had a pleasant memory of all these things." But it had been better, if conscience had reproached my folly, and made me remember, that I had forgot my God there.
It is also a dreadful abuse of gospel-ordinances, and a awful mockery of God, to come to his courts, and not draw near him; Jer. 12. 2. When God is near to our lips, but far from our heart. Ordinances are an appointed means for man to come to God by them. If we use them not as such, we either make idols of them, by placing them in the place of God, or we make nothing of them, no means of communion with God; both ways we nullify them, for an idol is nothing, and mere vanity, as say the prophets and the apostles: So ordinances are vain and unprofitable, and utterly insufficient to make us happy without God. They are mere images, and shadows without the substance.
To seek after God, and endeavour to approach him in all his own institutions, is the way to be recovered from the miseries of the fall. To live in a holy nearness to God, is a restoration to the pleasures of innocency. It is the full happiness of reasonable natures to be always with God: it is our noblest honour, and our sweetest consolation, in this state of darkness and trial, to get as near him as earth and grace will allow; and it is also the best preparative for heaven and the state of glory, where we will dwell for ever near him, and be for ever blessed.