Seth Payson (1758-1820) graduated from Harvard in 1777. He was the pastor of the Congregational church in Rindge, NH (1782-1820). This sermon was preached by Payson in New Hampshire on the state’s annual fast day of April 11, 1805.
PREACHED AT RINDGE,
APRIL 11TH, 1805.
BY SETH PAYSON, A. M.
PASTOR OF THE CHURCH IN RINDGE.
DANIEL IV. 17.
TO THE INTENT THAT THE LIVING MAY KNOW, THAT THE MOST HIGH RULETH IN THE KINGDOM OF MEN, AND GIVETH IT TO WHOMSOEVER HE WILL, AND SETTETH UP OVER IT THE BASEST OF MEN.
Right views of the Divine Government are strongly connected with practical religion. The various exercises of submission, gratitude, trust in God, and prayer to him, evidently much depend upon our ideas of a superintending providence. A large proportion, both of the doctrinal and historical parts of the sacred writings are, therefore, calculated to enforce right sentiments upon this subject; and especially to teach us that wicked men, and wicked spirits, are under the entire control of the Supreme Ruler. The Providence of God is no less to be acknowledged in the evils we suffer from wicked agents, than in natural and accidental calamities, although less regarded in the former case, than in the latter.
To teach us that wicked men are instruments in the hands of God, to execute his holy purposes, is declared in the test to be the design of the memorable event to which this passage relates. It was signified to the king of Babylon in a dream that, as a punishment of his crimes, he should be seized with such a peculiar delirium, as should not only deprive him of the understanding of a man, but reduce him to the feelings and the life of a brute; so that, quitting the society and food of men, he should for seven years, dwell with the beasts of the field, and eat grass as oxen. And that the design of this uncommon judgment was to teach him, and other vain mortals, that there is a righteous God who sees, and will punish their pride and wickedness.
In our meditations on this passage, our attention is particularly led to consider – the character here given of Jehovah as Most High – that the fate of kingdoms, and the rise and fall of empires are determined by his will – and the special act of his providence, in setting over the nations of the earth the basest of men.
First. The character here given of Jehovah, as the Most High, affords a subject for devotional meditations. It is a title expressive of the infinite and incomparable perfections of the divine nature. With what propriety is it given to him whose power is Almighty – who by one omnipotent word gave being to the universe, and in comparison with whom “all the nations of the earth are but as the drop of the bucket, and the small dust of the balance”? Because creatures acquire more force, with respect to their fellow-creatures, by uniting their strength and numbers; hence, judging of their Maker by themselves, sinners feel a security arising from the numbers combined with them in rebellion. But the atheism of the heart is the only foundation of this delusive hope. What did numbers avail the sinners of the old world – or what the multitude of Pharaoh’s host, when justice decreed their destruction? The joint force of men and angels forms no obstacle to the process of omnipotent wrath.
Nor is Jehovah less exalted above creatures in wisdom and understanding than in power. The enemies of God have much confidence in the subtlety of their machinations. They fancy themselves able at least to embarrass the measures of the divine administration. The partial success he is pleased at times to grant them encourages this vain confidence; but when almost at the pinnacle of their hopes, they are ready to shout that the victory is their own, how oft by a sudden turn of the wheels of his providence does he crush all their counsels, and plunge them into the pit which they have digged. The Wisdom of God is able not only to defeat the most subtle craft of his enemies, but to render their attempts subservient to that very purpose they were intended to defeat. The wrath of man, and the rage of devils shall promote his praise.
Secondly. The fate of kingdoms, and the rise and fall of empires are determined by his sovereign will. The events of human life impress the mind very differently, accordingly as they are viewed either by faith, or an eye of sense. The natural eye discovers nothing in the events of human life, but a series of causes and effects, in which the visible means only are regarded. But the believer sees all events subjected to the disposing mind of God, pursuing, by a steady and invariable progress, its own designs – overturning all opposition, and converting the efforts of its enemies into means of effecting its high and holy purposes.
Indeed, second causes have their place. God operates by means and instruments; but natural, no less than miraculous events, are minutely fulfilling the purposes of his will.
We have no grounds to suppose that any thing out of the ordinary course of providence appeared in the advancement of Pharaoh to the throne of Egypt, yet the hand of God in this event is expressly asserted. The rise and downfall of the four distinguished monarchies of Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome, were effected by natural causes, yet in those events we see the fulfillment of divine predictions. Before men were blessed with the instructions of a complete revelation, to make his hand more visible, God often miraculously interposed both in acts of mercy and judgment. There needs not the supernatural interposition of a divine power to overturn the walls of a devoted nation; nor that the “stars in their courses” should be armed, as against Sisera of old. Were other means wanting, the blindness of man’s minds, and the strong corruptions of their hearts, afford abundant means of inflicting the heaviest calamities upon a guilty nation.
The hand of God is asserted in the judgments which Abimelech, and the Sechemites inflicted on each other, as the punishment of their mutual crime, while their own wicked tempers, were the instruments of this punishment. And in the predicted destruction of Jerusalem, it was notorious, and acknowledged by Titus the Roman general, that a divine vengeance gave into his hand fortresses, impregnable to every human effort; yet the only visible mean by which this end was effected, was the madness of party rage.
“Heaven first infatuates whom it would destroy.”
Thirdly, – The subject offers to our consideration a particular act of his providence, viz. in raising to power and dominion the basest of men. Whether we consider this phrase, as descriptive of persons low in birth, and the rank they sustain in society, or of those, who are vile in a moral and religious view, facts are not wanting to confirm its truth.
He raises to rank and power those, whose former conditions gave no prospect of such advancement. “The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich; he bringeth low and lifteth up. He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory.” 1 Joseph who was raised from a prison, to be the Lord of Pharaoh’s house; and David, exalted from the sheepfold to the kingdom of Israel, are instances, which illustrate this explanation of the text.
But as a low rank in society, unless the result of wicked practices, does not render men really base, the term applies to such, merely in a figurative sense. In strict propriety it belongs only to those who are base in a religious view. All wicked men are base. They are strangers to those principles of action which adorn human nature, and which constitute the glory and dignity of rational beings. Wicked men have a conviction of their own vileness; and where their judgments are not under the influence of self love, they reprobate those very principles, by which, they themselves are actuated. Whenever they attempt to paint an excellent character, unless lost to all moral feelings, they never take the portrait from themselves. Instead of describing their hero as proud, selfish, ambitious of power, hypocritical in religion, or as pursuing his own private interest under a pretended concern for the public weal, they present us with the picture of a virtuous and good man – a friend of mankind – rising above selfish views, and possessing the soul of genuine benevolence. Conscious of their own baseness, wicked men carefully conceal their real characters, under the garb of virtue, fidelity, zeal for the public good, and the welfare of mankind.
The phraseology of the text likewise reminds us, that, among this base part of society, there are degrees of deformity. All who are destitute of fixed principles of goodness, have not arrived to that hardiness and impudence in sin – that unfeeling stupidity of conscience – that entire depravation of moral sense, which renders them deserving the infamous distinction, of the basest of men.
That persons to whom this epithet is applicable in its full extent, are raised to places of dignity and power — and that this takes place by the disposing, righteous providence of Jehovah, are two distinct branches of the general doctrine now under consideration.
1. That the basest of men in the sense above explained, have been raised to places of dignity and power — is a truth, however reproachful to those who have been instrumental in their exaltation, conspicuous in the history of every nation. Never was a term more properly applied, than this in our text, to many who have been invested with imperial crowns, and raised to stations of the highest responsibility.
They are fitly characterized, the basest of men, for hey have risen to power by the basest means. Some wading to empire through torrents of blood—the blood of innocents. Others have gained by bribery, by flattery, and the basest collusion, what they wanted the means of effecting by coercion. The garb of flaming patriotism has been assumed—the vices and follies of mankind have been addressed—the weak and uninformed, misled, and all the arts of popular deception put in practice, to gain an influence promotive of their aspiring views. The wise and good, in every society, form a barrier to the ambitious designs of these men. To crush his opposition, to destroy the confidence which their virtues have inspired, and to excite in the public mind, a jealousy which shall annihilate the influence of their counsels, their measures and their characters, the aid of slander and defamation has been invoked.
Power, thus basely acquired, has been no less basely used, for confirming this usurped dominion—for subjecting their fellow citizens more entirely to their will—for suppressing all who justly merit the public confidence, and for promoting those whose tempers and feelings are congenial with their own. Thus have the best interests of a nation been sacrificed, to the pride and ambition, or revenge of the basest of men.
Instances illustrative of these truths, both in sacred and profane history, are innumerable. In he sacred volume, the story of the vile Abimelech, is replete with pertinent instruction. By his soothing flatteries, and misrepresentations, he persuaded the Sechemites to forget Gideon, his father, and their deliverer from the apprehensions of Midian – to slay the seventy legal sons of their benefactor, and to chose this base wretch for their king.
Another vile character in sacred story, distinguished for its baseness, is that of Absalom. By pretending an uncommon regard to justice, and concern for the interests of the people, intermixed with such reflections on his father’s administration as he found the public mind would bear, he allured the fickle, changeable multitude of ancient Israel, to forget the many virtues, and military achievements of David, and the glory to which he had raised the nation; and to chose for their king a murderer, a vile parricide, who had proved himself the enemy of all goodness.
Among the many base men who gained the throne of ancient Israel, Jeroboam also stands distinguished as one of the basest. It was peculiar mark of infamy affixed to his name, by the sacred writers, that he was the man who made Israel to sin. In his subtle machinations to establish himself in the throne which he had acquired, his first effort was, to seduce the ten tribes from the religion of their fathers, and the worship of the true God, to that of the calves which he had set up in Dan and Bethel: The origin of this detestable policy was this. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin, together with the most pious men of the nation, still adhered to Rehoboam the son of Solomon, and the temple worship. Upon these circumstances, Jeroboam, like a genuine Machiavelian, reasoned thus: “If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their Lord, even unto Rehoboam King of Judah.” 2 Regardless of the glory of his Maker, and destitute of all concern for the spiritual interests of his people, whose eternal salvation he would have sacrificed to his own ambition, he set himself with design, and yet with a pretended regard to religion, to draw off their attention from the instituted worship of God at the temple. For this end we are told “the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them it is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem; behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought the up out of the land of Egypt.” 3 At the same time that he acknowledges the obligations of religion, we find him introducing two gods, instead of that one true God, who is the only rational object of worship; and thereby intimating that it was of no consequence who or what they worshipped. O how lost to all goodness must those be, who can thus trifle with the most awful concerns of religion and duty!
Nor less replete is profane, than sacred history, with glaring instances of the truth before us. Ambition’s object is still the same—the same, the pernicious, falsely soothing arts, by which she pursues her hateful designs. We can scarcely avoid recollecting in this connection the fate of a neighboring empire, which we have seen, within the period of a few years past, by the like insidious practices, reduced from the boasted privileges of a republic, to a state of the most absolute despotism.
But it is needless to multiply instances which occur in the history of every nation. The restless attempts of ambitious men grasping at power, are continually embroiling society, and prove a fruitful source of misery to mankind. But our text teaches us to raise our thoughts above these instruments of mischief, to him who rules above; and piously to acknowledge with the Poet,
“They are the sword, the hand is thine.”
We accordingly proceed to remark,
2dly. That it is by the disposing righteous providence of Jehovah, that such men acquire power and dominion. If further evidence, than has already been exhibited of this truth be necessary, we may find it in the history of those vile characters alluded to above. The prophet Nathan, years before the event, predicted the usurpation of the vile Absalom. In reference to Jeroboam’s gaining the ten tribes, it is said, “For the cause was from the Lord, that he might perform his word.” 4 Nebuchadnezzar’s advancement to the throne, is, in like manner attributed to the same governing providence. “For the God of heaven hath given thee a kingdom, power and strength, and glory.” 5 To all these pests of society, the divine declaration is as applicable as to Pilate, to whom it was primarily made, “Thou couldst have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above.” 6
Nor does this doctrine imply any impeachment of the wisdom, and holiness of providence.
1. In this way the just judgment of God is executed against those who are thus prospered in their wicked designs. As afflictions are not unusually the messengers of divine mercies; so, oft does God punish the wickedness of men, by permitting them to prosper in their proud ambitious designs. Prosperity in wickedness is the surest road to destruction. The respite given to Pharaoh was the evident means of completing his ruin!
2. The providence of God in raising wicked men to power, is to be considered as one of those heavy judgments by which he punishes the transgressions of an offending people; and it is worthy to be reckoned among the greatest calamities of human life.
When men regardless of duty and conscience, and who are pursuing their own aggrandizement, are invested with the supreme powers of a nation, consequences of the most pernicious nature, even to the temporal prosperity of such a society, cannot but ensue. These base men will either rule with the iron rod of despotic power; or aiming by secret craft to curtail the rights of the subject, and demolish one after another, those regulations which constitute the only security of privilege, and of property. Not to benefit mankind, but to extend, or establish their own authority, will be the governing objects of their policy. Could this evil be confined to an individual, although one raised to the highest national dignity, some check might be given to its pernicious operation; but continual experience verifies the observation of the Psalmist, “The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.” 7 Such men, while they fly from the virtuous and the good cordially unite with those whose feelings and designs harmonize with their own; and who, are ever ready to combine with them in undermining the firmest bulwarks of national glory.
Represent to your own minds, my hearers, a nation, whose rulers are of this description—who are bandied together for crushing all, whose principles and practices are a reproach to their own—who support their influence by flattery, by falsehood, and a continued misrepresentation of facts, and proportionably endeavor to suppress all useful information, and whose exertions are systematically directed to enervate all patriotic sentiments and the energies of the constitution; thereby to extend their own influence, and perpetuate their authority. This will ever be the effect when such vile persons are invested with power; and what of strength, of soundness, or safety can remain in a nation subjected to such misrule—what can ensue but inevitable ruin.
But far more deplorable will this calamity appear, if we view its aspect on the moral and religious interests of society. How demoralizing must the examples of wicked rulers prove, when recommended by the pomp and glare of that power and wealth, which have such a fascinating influence on the minds of the thoughtless multitude?
But not from their examples alone is evil to be apprehended. All their feelings are at war with piety and goodness. These are “the rulers who take counsel together against the Lord, and against his anointed.” 8 If a regard to public opinion, should induce them to pay a pretended respect to religion, their religion, like the idolatrous practices of Jeroboam, will tend, by corrupting, to exterminate the true worship of God. Rulers of this description know, that good men must be in opposition to them, for the same reason that they are the friends of righteousness and truth; their feelings towards such men, will therefore be similar to those, which Ahab expressed towards the prophet of the Lord. “I hate him; for he doth not prophecy good concerning me, but evil.” 9
The pernicious tendency of such rulers, as it respects the interests of religion, is very visible in the history of God’s ancient people. There it appears, that the advancement of a wicked prince to the throne, was like opening the flood-gates of ungodliness. And had they not been blessed with some pious princes, who reclaimed the people from idolatry, and restored the temple worship, it appears, that the interests of true religion would have sunk, and the very form of it have been lost among them. What heavier judgment then, does the righteous Governor of the universe ordinarily, inflict upon a guilty nation, than by setting over them the basest of men?
Let us now apply these truths to their instructive, and practical uses: —
1. It appears, that the providence of God suffers no stain, in the use it makes of the unlawful practices of creatures, for promoting the holy objects of the divine government. The gratification of their own lust, covetousness, pride and ambition, is the sole consideration which puts men upon the commission of crimes. Neither, are they impelled by a divine decree, to act contrary to their own inclinations, nor, is it any part of their aim to fulfill the counsels of the Almighty. Is it a reflection on his providence to assert, that he renders subservient to the good of his universal empire, the wicked designs and practices of men? An instance, may perhaps exhibit this truth in a more convincing light, than any reasonings upon the subject.
The avarice of Judas, and the insatiable malice of the Pharisees against the Savior, had long prepared them for perpetrating the enormous crime they afterwards committed; but for a time, insuperable obstacles were thrown in the way of their designs; for “his hour was not yet come.” It would not have comported with the divine plan, to have permitted them, then, to execute, what they had long meditated. At length these preventing obstacles were removed, and an opportunity given for perpetrating the horrid deed; and it was done – not, you will observe, by the influence of a foreign power, but by the strong instigation of their own hearts. A bare statement of these facts, carries conviction to the mind, that neither the avarice of that vile traitor, nor the malice of the Jews, were, in any degree, imputable to that providence, which used them for promoting the most gracious designs.
2. If God makes use of the wickedness of creatures, to serve his purposes, and in particular to punish the guilty, we are hence taught the propriety of resignation under those evils which we suffer from the injustice of men. The Christian duty of submission, under the evils of life, has its foundation in the perfect rectitude of a governing providence. But no less is the providence of God concerned in the evils we suffer from the wicked dispositions of men, than in those, which we attribute to other causes. It may be doubted indeed, whether every evil we suffer is not effected by the instrumentality of creatures. This at least is plain, that right views of the divine government, will lead us to acknowledge God, in whatever we wrongfully suffer from men. Job, we find piously noticing the hand of God under the loss of those possessions, of which he was deprived by the Chaldean and Sabean banditti. 10 And with a like pious sense of divine providence, as extended over the wrath of man, David endured the curses of Shemei, sensible that however undeserving of such treatment from this madman, it was perfectly just, as inflicted by a righteous God, for his deeper humiliation. 11
3. The truth under consideration affords a pleasing view of the safety of those, who have fled to the Almighty for protection. As a needful chastisement, and as means of driving them nearer to God, his people may, for a time, be given up to the buffetings of Satan, and the persecutions of the ungodly; but not long “shall the rod of the wicked rest upon the lot of the righteous.” 12 Waves dashing and breaking upon the rocks of the shore, exhibit a just emblem of the vain designs of the enemies of God, and his people. Perfectly known to him who rules above, are all their mischievous counsels; nor further than he permits, can they afflict his saints. At his pleasure “He disappointeth the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot perform their enterprise.” While therefore, the friends of God humbly submit to the evils they suffer from the injustice of men, both the glory of God, and their own peace call them to “rejoice that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.
4. As the high providence of God, and the absolute dependence of nations, as well as individuals, on his sovereign will, is the leading sentiment of the test, so is it that which I wish, my hearers, to have strongly impressed upon your minds. One great cause of the prevailing security of mankind, is undoubtedly, a vain dependence on present circumstances of prosperity , and apparent safety. Is not this to be numbered among the causes of that impenitent hardness of heart, so unhappily prevalent among us? We please ourselves with the idea, that intervening oceans secure us from the convulsions of the European world—that our happy climate is a defense against the general spread of pestilential diseases, and that our fruitful land has never withheld a supply of the necessaries of life. Eminently favored indeed, of him who rules above is our lot; and to him be all the praise. But even were we secure from these calamities, has God no other arrows in his quiver? Are we, therefore, beyond the reach of omnipotence? However absurd the idea, it well accords with the atheistical feelings of the heart.
But let it be remembered, that he who rules in the kingdoms of men, extends his empire over our land, and that, when the measure of our iniquities calls for vengeance, it will be found, that the strongest asylum of our secure abode, affords no shelter from the arrows of his wrath.
Our free and popular government particularly exposes us to those base men, who, to gratify their own ambition, are prepared to put in practice every engine of mischief. Whose utmost efforts will be exerted by every flattering insidious art to draw us into anarchy and licentiousness—to render us dissatisfied with the restraints of duty—to undermine our national constitution, the palladium of our liberties, and to demolish those wise, and pious institutions, which form the glory and defense of our nation.
It may be thought, that by retaining the election of our own rulers, we are effectually secured against this evil; but he who has profitably attended to the history of man, has been taught the weakness of this defense. If the Sechemites could so soon forget the deliverer of their country, if the multitude of Israel could be led, by the insinuations of the deceitful Absalom, to overlook the virtues of David, and chuse this vile wretch for their king; if the ten tribes could be induced to give up their religion, and their temple, so lately their glory and their boast, what dependence can be made on the wavering multitude, who, without any reason for change of opinion, cry hosanna to-day, and to-morrow crucify, crucify him.
Greece once was free. Rome was free. Our ears have been filled with shouts from France, in favor of liberty and equality; but in all these nations, licentiousness came to be mistaken for temperate liberty—anarchy ensued, and vile ambitious men seized the fair occasion, and lulled the people with songs of freedom, until they had fast riveted upon their necks the yokes of despotism.
By the power of delusion, the mind may become as really enslaved, as a body loaded with chains and fetters. When a flatterer has stole the hearts of the multitude, he leads them at his pleasure. They see nothing in their idol but perfection. Their eyes are shut against every interesting truth; and their ears are open only to the glozing falsehoods of the demagogue, who has thus enslaved their minds.
Our government, as has been observed, does, from its nature, tend to this evil: and the danger will appear more threatening if we consider the many circumstances which are leading to such an issue; and in particular the prevailing current of party zeal, which often carries men who aim right, wide from their object; and also the large emigrations of foreigners to our country, many of whom, we cannot doubt, are destitute, not only of every virtuous principle, but of all the feelings of Americans—of that attachment to our interest, which strongly binds most men to the land of their nativity. But means of punishing sin, can never be wanting to him, who can convert our food into poison, and impregnate the vital air with pestilence and death—who can cause “the heavens to be as brass, the earth as iron, and the rain of our land as powder and dust.”
Abundant are the privileges, with which we are invested, by the great Author of good; but upon a right use of them depends their continuance. Genuine liberty will not long dwell where she is not protected by a firm, and equitable government; nor where religion and virtue are not her companions. Remember that liberty and licentiousness, are not only different, but opposite; they cannot exist together. Turn away from those who flatter, that they may rule you, and render you the dupes of their ambition. Listen to the voice of truth; and especially to the instructions of your Maker, and the warnings of his word. Forget not your entire constant dependence on him, and let no circumstances of prosperity delude you into the idea “that peace can be the portion of the wicked;” or, that safety can be found but in the favor and protection of the Most High. “Break off your sins then, by working righteousness.” Bow to the extended scepter of his mercy. By sincere humility and unfeigned penitence, may we be prepared to receive the abundant pardons of our offended God. AMEN.