by Thomas Manton
Horror hath taken hold on me, because of the wicked which forsake thy law. Psalm 119:53
THE man of God in the former verse had showed what comfort he took in remembering God's judgments of old, meaning thereby his righteous dispensations in delivering the godly, and punishing the wicked. He now showeth that, seing God's horrible judgments on the wicked, he was seized and stricken with a very great fear.
In the words observe—
1. A great passion described.
2. The cause of it assigned.
1. A great passion described, horror hath taken hold on me. The word for horror signifieth also a tempest or storm. Translations vary; some read it, as Junius, a storm overtaking me; Ainsworth, a burning horror hath seized me, and expoundeth it a storm of terror and dismay; the Septuagint, ἀθυμία κατέσχε με, faintness and dejection of mind hath possessed me; our old translation, I am horribly afraid. All translations, as well as the original word, imply a great trouble of mind, and a vehement commotion like a storm. It was matter of disquiet and trembling to David.
2. What is the matter? The reason is given in the latter clause, because of the wicked which forsake thy law. Now this reason may be supposed to be—
[1.] Either because of the storm of trouble raised by them, or persecution from them; and so it would note the outrageousness of those who have cast off the yoke, all fear of God, and respect to his law; and so also the imbecility and weakness of the saints, who are not able to stand against violent evils and assaults of temptation. But this is not so consistent with David's constancy and comfort, asserted in the former verses.
[2.] Because of the detriment and loss which might accrue to the public; they bring on common judgments and calamities. It is a Jewish proverb that two dry sticks will set a green one afire: 'One sinner destroyeth much good,' Eccles. 9:18, much more mercy. Now the godly, which believe God's word, are troubled when they see wickedness increaseth; they know this will turn to loss and ruin in the issue; therefore it causeth a grievous horror and indignation to seize upon them, for they have a tender and public spirit.
[3.] Besides the common calamities which they might bring upon others, the sore punishment which they would bring upon themselves was a horror to him, which showeth a charitable affection to enemies. The punishment, which had not as yet seized upon them, nor did they think of it, yet being prepared for their wickedness by the justice of God, was a grief and trouble to David, as it is to all good men, to see the wicked run on to their own destruction and condemnation. These two last senses I prefer.
Doct. It argueth a good spirit to be grieved to see God's laws broken, and to be stricken with fear because of those judgments which come from God by reason of the wickedness of the wicked. The reasons are:—
First, Here is matter of great commotion of spirit to any attentive and serious beholder; for the cause assigned in the text is, 'because they forsake thy law.' There are two things in the law—the precept and the sanction, by penalties and rewards. Now, they that forsake the law violate the precept and slight the sanction; and so two things grieve the godly—their sin and their punishment, how grievously they sin, and what grievous punishments they may expect!
1. That the law is violated, that they should forsake God, and all thoughts of obedience to him, andso make light of his law. 'Sin is ἀνομία, 1 John 3:4, the trangression of the law;' a contempt of God's authority. If we consider the intrinsic evil of sin, we shall see that it is not a small thing, but a horrible evil in itself; a thing not to be laughed at, but feared, whether our own or others.
[1.] There is folly in it, as it is a deviation from the best rule which the divine wisdom hath set unto us. If we should look upon the law of God as a bare direction or counsel given us by one that is wiser than we, it is a contempt of the wisdom of God, as if he knew not how to govern the world, and what is good and meet for man, so much as he himself; and so a poor worm is exalted above God: Micah 6:8, 'He hath showed thee, O man, what is good.' Now shall we slight his direction, and in effect say our own way is better? Reason requireth that they who cannot choose for themselves should obey their guides, and since they are not wise for themselves, content themselves with the wisdom of others who see farther than they do, as Elymas the sorcerer, when he was struck blind, 'sought about for somebody to lead him by the hand,' Acts 13:11. Can a blind man feel out his way better than another who hath eyes to choose it for him? God is wiser than we, and all who would not contemn their creator should think so. He hath reduced the sum of our duty into a holy law; now for us after all this to run of our heads, and to consult with our foolish lusts and the suggestions of the devil, who is our worst enemy, is extreme folly and madness, and so doth every one who breaketh the laws of God.
[2.] Laws are not only to direct, but have a binding power and force from the authority of the lawgiver. God doth not only give us counsel as a friend, but commandeth us as a sovereign; and so the second notion whereby the evil of sin is set forth, is that of disobedience and rebellion; and so it is a great injury done to God, because it is a depreciation and contempt of his authority. As Pharaoh said, Exod. 5:2, 'Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?' or those rebels, Ps. 12:4, 'Our tongues are our own; who is Lord over us?' We will speak and think and do what we please, and own no law but our own lusts. Now, though sinners do not say so in so many direct and formal words, yet this is the interpretation of their sinful actions. Whenever they sin, they despise the law which forbiddeth that sin, and so by consequence the authority of him that made it: 2 Sam. 12:9, 10, 'Wherefore hast thou sinned in despising the commandment?' Tush! I will do it; it is no matter for the law of God that standeth in the way, is the language of the corrupt and obstinate heart. Now no man can endure to have his will crossed by an inferior, and will God take it at their hands? And therefore the children of God, who have a great reverence of God's authority, when they see it so openly violated and contemned, are filled with horror. Will not God be tender of his power and sovereignty? will he see his authority so lightly esteemed, and take no notice of it?
[3.] It is shameful ingratitude. Man is God's beneficiary, from whom he hath received life and being, and all things, and therefore is bound to love him and serve him according to his declared will. We continually depend upon him every moment: 'In him we live, and move, and have our being,' Acts 17:28; and surely dependence should beget observance, and therefore men should be loath to break with God, or careful to reconcile themselves to him on whom they depend every moment: Acts 12:20, 'Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon; but they came with one accord to him, and having made Blastus, the king's chamberlain, their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king's country.' Therefore it is extreme unthankfulness, stupidity, and brutishness for them to carry themselves so unthankfully towards God, who giveth them life and being, and all things. The brutes themselves, who have no capacity to know God as the first cause of all being, yet take notice of the next hand from whence they receive their supplies: Isa. 1:3, 'The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib;' and in their kind express their gratitude to such as feed them, and make much of them; but wicked men take no notice of the God who hath made them, and kept them at the expense and care of his providence, and hath been beneficial to them all their days; but as they slight their lawgiver, so they requite their great benefactor with unkinclness and provocation.
[4.] It is a disowning of his propriety in them, as if they were not his own, and God had not power to do with his own as he pleaseth. The creature is absolutely at God's dispose, not only as he hath a jurisdiction over us as our lawgiver and king over his subjects, but as a proprietary and owner over his goods. A prince hath a more absolute power over his lands and goods than over his subjects. God is not only a ruler but an owner, as he made us out of nothing, and bought us when worse than nothing, and still keepeth us from returning into our original nothing; and shall those who are absolutely his own withdraw themselves from him, and live according to their own will, and speak and do what they list? What is this but a plain denial of God's propriety and lordship over us? as those, Ps. 12:4, 'Who have said, With our tongues will we prevail, our lips are our own; who is Lord over us?' Surely it should strike us with horror to think that any creatures should thus take upon them. Sin robbeth God of his propriety in the creatures. If we consider his natural right, sin is such an injury and wrong to God as theft and robbery. If we consider our own covenant, as we voluntarily acknowledge God's propriety in us, so it is adultery, breach of marriage vow; and with respect to the devoting and consecrating ourselves to him, so it is sacrilege.
[5.] It is a contempt of God's glorious majesty. What else shall we make of a plain contest with him, or a flat contradiction of his holy will? For whilst we make our depraved will the rule and guide of our actions against his holy will, we plainly contend with him whose will shall stand, his or ours, and so jostle him out of the throne, and pluck the crown off his head and the sceptre out of his hands, and usurp his authority; and so slight the eternal power of this glorious king, as if he were not able to avenge the wrong done to his majesty, and we could make good our party against him: 1 Cor. 10:22, 'Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than he?' Isa. 45:9, 'Woe to him that striveth with his Maker; let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth.' Surely they that strive with their Maker will find God too hard for them. Now all these and many more considerations should make a serious Christian sensible, when he considereth how God is dishonoured in the world.
2. Their punishment. This relateth to the sanction by penalties and rewards. They that forsake the law have quite divested themselves of all hope, and cast off all dread of him. The law offereth death or life to the transgressors and observers of it: Deut. 30:15, 'Behold, I have set before you good and life, death and evil.' Now this is as little believed as the precept is obeyed; and thence cometh all their boldness in sinning and coldness in duty.
[1.] God allureth us to obedience by promises of this world and the next, which, if they were believed, men would be more forward and ready to comply with his will. As to the promises of the next world, he hath told us of eternal life. Surely God meaneth as he speaketh in his word, he will make good his word to the obedient; but the sinner thinketh not so, and therefore is loath to undergo the difficulties of obedience, because he hath so little sense and certainty of fulfilling the promise. The apostle telleth us, Heb. 11:6, 'That without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of those that diligently serve him;' implying that if the fundamental truths of God's being and bounty were believed, we could not be so careless as we are, not so barren and unfruitful as we are; but unbelief lieth at the bottom of all our carelessness: 1 Cor. 15:58, 'Be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as you know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.' They that know what a reward is prepared for the righteous, cannot but be serious and diligent themselves, and pity others, and be troubled at their neglect. Oh! what a good God they deprive themselves of, and throw away their souls for a trifle! But because the Lord knoweth how apt we are to be led by things present to sense, that work strongly upon our apprehensions; and that things absent and future lie in another world, and wanting the help of sense to convey them to our minds, make little impression upon our hearts; therefore God draws us to our duty by present benefits. Even carnal nature is apt to be pleased with these kinds of mercies, protection, provision, and worldly comforts: Ps. 119:56, 'This I had, because I kept thy precepts:' Mat. 6:33, 'Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and the righteousness thereof, and all these thing shall be added to you;' 1 Tim. 4:8, 'Godliness is profitable to all things, having the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.' But alas! the naughty heart cannot depend on God for the effects of his common goodness. Men distrust providence, and therefore take their own course, which is a grief and trouble to a gracious heart, to see they cannot depend on God for things of a present accomplishment.
[2.] The other part of the sanction is his threatenings and punishments. Now in what a direful condition are all the deserters of God's law! Besides the loss of heaven, there is eternal fire, which is the portion of the wicked: Ps. 11:6, 'Upon the wicked he will rain snares, fire and brimstone, and a horrible tempest; this shall be the portion of their cup.' They may flourish for a time, yet at length sudden, terrible, and irremediable destruction shall be the portion of their cup. God's judgments are terrible and unavoidable, both here and hereafter: Eph. 5:6, 'For these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience;' Rom. 2:9, 'Tribulation, wrath, and anguish upon the soul of man that doth evil.' Alas! these things are slighted by wicked men, or else they would not venture as they do; you cannot drive a dull ass into the fire that is kindled before him: Prov. 1:17, 'In vain is the snare laid in the sight of any bird;' and would a reasonable creature wilfully run into such a danger if he were sensible of it, and venture upon so dreadful threatenings if he did believe them? No; they think it is but a vain scarecrow, a deceitful terror, or a false flash of fire, and therefore embolden themselves in their rebellion. But God's people, that know the certainty of these things, they cannot but conceive a great horror at it when they think of the end of these men, their judgments in this world, but especially their eternal condemnation in the world to come. Well, then, forsaking the law, despising the precept, and slighting the sanction, should be a matter of great horror to a tender and gracious spirit.
Secondly, It argueth that they have a due sense of things, though others have not.
1. They have a due sense of the evil of sin: Prov. 14:9, 'Fools make a mock of sin;' they sport at it, and jest at it, and count it nothing; but gracious and tender hearts have other apprehensions; they know that this is a violation of the holy and righteous and good law of God, and that it will be bitter in the issue, and that they which had pleasure in unrighteousness shall be damned. They look upon it with sad hearts, though it be committed by others, that the wicked go dancing to hell, and are angry with those who mourn for them, and dislike that vain course which they affect.
2. They have a due sense of the wrath of God. The prophet that threatened it saith, that 'rottenness entered into his bones, and his bowels quivered,' Hab. 3:16. A lion trembleth to see a dog beaten before him. It is a trouble to the godly to think of the horrible punishments of the wicked, which they dread not, nor dream of; but the saints have a reverence for their Father's anger. Search the scriptures, and you shall find that the godly are more troubled at God's judgments than the wicked themselves who are to feel them: Dan. 4:19, 'Daniel was astonished for an hour, and his thoughts troubled him,' when he was to reveal God's judgments against Nebuchadnezzar. So the prophet, Jer. 4:19, 'My bowels, my bowels; I am pained at the very heart;' ver. 22, 'But my people are foolish, they are sottish children;' they, that brought the evil upon themselves, are senseless and stupid: Ps. 90:11, 'Who knows the power of thine anger? according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.' Few lay to heart the terrible effects of God's heavy wrath; but the righteous do; they are truly affected with it, and with the cause of it, which is sin. God's wrath affects men according to the reverence and fear wherewith they entertain it, but to the wicked it is but a vain and empty terror.
3. The certainty of the threatenings. God's people see wrath and judgment in the face of sin, whereas those who are drowned in sensuality and carnal delights scoff at God's menaces and jest at his judgments, neither crediting the one nor expecting the other, as if it were but a mere mockery: Isa. 5:19, 'Come, say they, let him make speed, and hasten his work, that we may see it.' In their security they will believe nothing but what they feel.
4. The bane which cometh to communities and societies from the increase of the wicked, especially when their wickedness groweth to an height; that is, when it is committed with boldness: Isa. 3:9, 'They declare their sin as Sodom, they hide it not;' when men have lost all shame and modesty, and will not be restrained by any law. Surely if we know the evil of sin, the terribleness of God's wrath, believe the truth of his threatenings, and then consider the danger that will come to our dearest country, we cannot but be greatly moved. If a man were sailing in a bark, and see it guided so that it must necessarily run against a rock and suffer shipwreck, he would be sorry and deeply affected.
Thirdly, It cometh from a good cause.
1. In the general it argueth a good constitution of soul: 2 Peter 2:8, 'For that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds.' Passively he was vexed with the impurity of the Sodomites, and actively he vexed himself. So far as we are carnal we are pleased with sin, so far as we are spiritual we are vexed with it: Isa. 63:10, 'They rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit.' The better any are, the more affected with public sins and judgments. Christ weepeth over Jerusalem for their impenitency and approaching desolation: Luke 19:41, 42, 'As he came near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.' This was in the midst of the acclamations and hosannahs of the multitude, when he was welcomed with a triumph. Paul telleth the Corinthians, 2 Cor. 12:21, 'I am afraid, when I come among you, my God will humble me, and I shall bewail many which have not repented of the fornication, lasciviousness, and uncleanness which they have committed.' The more holy any one is, the more he is affected and struck at heart with the sins of others.
2. A deep resentment of God's dishonour. When his glory is obscured, it is a wound to the hearts of his children; as a child cannot endure to hear or see his father disgraced. Surely God's glory is dear to the saints: Ps. 69:9, 'The reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.' Injuries done to God and religion affect them no less nearly than personal injuries which are done to themselves. So affectionately zealous are they for God's honour, which is obscured by the wickedness of the wicked, who forsake the perfect righteous law of God, and, usurping God's authority, make a new law to themselves.
3. Compassion to men. Though they are wicked men, yet they are men, made after God's image, remotely capable to know and love God, and live with him for ever, whom they should otherwise embrace as brethren; to see them treasure up wrath against the day of wrath should be a grief and a trouble to us; to think of the everlasting destruction which they will bring upon themselves should afflict us. Thus the apostle: Phil. 3:18, 19, 'Of whom I have told you often, and now tell you weeping, that they are enemies to the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction.' To see men go by droves to hell, it should work on our bowels. If this brought Christ out of heaven to die for sinners, surely this should make us sadly resent their condition.
4. This produceth good effects; it is a disposition of great use and profit to us.
[1.] It deterreth us from sinning ourselves, and so we are kept from being tainted with the contagion of evil examples; for what we mourn for in others we will not commit ourselves. The heart is made more averse from sin every day by this practice, whereas those that take pleasure in the sins of others do the same things, Rom. 1:32, consent with them to dishonour God, and so howl among the wolves, as the Latin proverb is; but when this is a trouble to us, it maketh us avoid their example, notwithstanding terrors and allurements to the contrary; terrors from the angry world, who cannot endure that any should part company; and allurements from our commodious living among the offenders. Thus Lot escaped in Sodom, because 'his righteous soul was vexed;' and Noah 'was upright in his generation,' because he reproved the deeds of the wicked.
[2.] When we see their punishment in their sin, and fear a storm when the clouds are gathering, it puts us upon mourning and humiliation, which is a necessary duty in evil times: Jer. 13:17, 'If you will not hear, my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride.' None do so feelingly bewail the sins of the times as those who have a tender holy heart, affected with God's dishonour, and compassion over the souls of men. Others do personate a mourning, and act a part in a fast, as the mourning women among the Jews did at funerals, or as the boys in the streets would act their festivities and lamentations: Mat. 11:16, 17, 'Whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the market, and calling to their fellows, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.' Therefore it is of great use to us to get this frame of spirit.
[3.] It maketh us more careful to reform others, so far as it lieth within our power. Certainly without this disposition a man will never seek the conversion of souls for which Christ died; but have it once, and then you will take all occasions to do good to the souls of your children, and relations, and neighbours. When Paul was stirred in spirit, παρωξύνετο τὸ πνεῦμα, exasperated within himself, because he saw the whole city given to idolatry, 'He disputed with them daily in the market-place,' and took all occasions to reclaim them. So if you were affected with the evil of sin, horribleness of wrath, certainty of the word of God, and the bane that cometh to any society by having the wicked amongst them, would you let your children, and servants, or friends go on in a damning course? Would you not have compassion on them, and pluck them out of the fire? Surely this should be the temper of every minister when he hath to do with sinners, that his ministry may not be a sleepy ministry; of every parent and householder, that all under his roof may be found in the way of the Lord; of every Christian towards his friends.
[4.] It justifieth our zeal in reproving. Surely reproof had need to be managed with great tenderness and compassion, that it may not seem to flow from hatred and ill-will to the persons reproved, nor from petulancy of spirit, nor a desire of venting reproaches, but from pure zeal to the glory of God, grief to see him dishonoured, souls in danger to be lost, or hardened through the deceitfulness of sin; therefore holy men, in their sharpest invectives against sin, or oppositions of it, have always mingled compassion: Mark 3:5, 'Our Lord looked about with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts.' There was more of compassion than passion in our Lord Jesus Christ; he was angry, but grieved. So Paul, when he disputed earnestly against the Jews, yet telleth us, Rom. 9:2, 'I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart;' as much love to the persons of his countrymen as zeal against their errors. So flens dico, 'I tell you weeping, they are enemies to the cross of Christ,' Phil. 3:18. Though he discovereth them to be enemies to the cross of Christ, yet he wept for their sakes and the church's sake.
[5.] Those that are grieved and troubled even to some degree of horror and trembling of heart, for the prevailing of iniquity in those places and persons among whom they live, are delivered from the common judgment. So 2 Peter 2:7, 'He delivered just Lot, vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked;' and 'those that mourned and sighed for all the abominations which were committed in the midst of the land,' were marked out for preservation. The Lord hath a special care of them in times of public calamity.
Use 1. Of reproof; it condemneth—
1. Them that take pleasure in nothing so much as in the company of the ungodly, where they hear God dishonoured, his laws broken: if they were horribly afraid of the wicked which forsake God's law, how could this be? All conversation with the wicked is not forbidden, for then we must go out of the world; and to some we are bound by the law of necessity, or some civil and religious or natural bond; yet we are to eschew all unnecessary and voluntary fellowship and familiarity with them: Ps. 26:4, 'I have not sat with vain persons, nor gone in with dissemblers.' So Prov. 22:24, 25, 'Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a froward man thou shalt not go; lest thou learn his ways, and get a snare to thy soul.' Certainly we are not to delight in the openly wicked as the only company that is pleasant to us, for what can a tender Christian get among them but a wound to his soul?
2. Those that are not affected with their own sins, much less with the sins of others. It is but a deceit of heart to declaim against the sins of the times, and not to mourn bitterly for our own sins: this is to translate the scene of our humiliation, and to put it far off from ourselves. Surely that grief will be most pungent and afflicting which doth most concern ourselves, and we know more by ourselves than possibly we can by other men; therefore we should often think of the merit of our own sins, their heinous nature, their dreadful consequences, if God be not the more merciful to keep us humble and thankful.
Use 2. To persuade us to be of this temper, to be deeply affected when we see God's laws broken. It requireth—
1. The general grace of a soft heart, which must be asked of God: 2 Chron. 34:27, 'Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself, when thou heardest the words of the Lord against this place.' There was a high peace and calm at that time, but a tender heart relenteth at the threatenings. Beg of God to soften thy heart.
2. There needeth eminent holiness for such a frame, that we shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, Phil. 2:15. The mourners must not be infected and tainted themselves, but save themselves from an untoward generation, condemn the sins of the times by their conversation.
3. We must have a fear animated by faith: 'By faith Noah was moved by fear' concerning things unseen, Heb. 11:7. The danger of the flood was unseen as yet, and they married and gave in marriage. We must not judge of things by the present, or by carnal appearance: there is a righteous judge in heaven. Faith in his word will show us our danger, for God's threatenings are all fulfilled, and the more we seek to establish ourselves by carnal means, the more our ruin is hastened.
4. There must be a grief set awork by a love to God and the souls of men. In calamities the true temper for humiliation is a due sense of our Father's anger, and brethren's miseries: in sins our Father's dishonour, and man's destruction; those who are the same flesh with ourselves. Now it should trouble us to see them in the way to eternal ruin: 'Of some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted with the flesh,' Jude 22, 23.
From Commentary on Psalm 119 by Thomas Manton