by John Owen
PREACHED FEBRUARY 27, 1669.
"Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the LORD is his refuge."—Ps. 14:6.
THERE is a peculiar mark put upon this psalm, in that it is twice in the Book of Psalms. The 14th psalm and the 53d psalm are the same, with the alteration of one or two expressions at most. And there is another mark put upon it, in that the apostle transcribes a great part of it, Rom. 3:10–12.
It contains a description of a most deplorable state of things in the world,—ay, in Israel; a most deplorable state, by reason of the general corruption that was befallen all sorts of men, in their principles, and in their practices, and in their opinions.
First, It was a time when there was a mighty prevalent principle of atheism got into the world, got among the great men of the world. Saith he, 'That is their principle, they say in their hearts, "There is no God." ' It is true, they did not absolutely profess it; but it was the principle whereby all their actings were regulated, and which they were conformed unto. "The fool," saith he, "hath said in his heart, There is no God." Not this or that particular man, but the fool,—that is, those foolish men; for in the next words he tells you, "They are corrupt." Saith he, "The fool.… they are corrupt;" and verse 3, "They are all gone aside." "The fool" is taken indefinitely for the great company and society of foolish men, to intimate that whatsoever they were divided about else, they were all agreed in this. 'They are all a company of atheists,' saith he, 'practical atheists.' "The fool hath said in his heart;"—that was their principle.
Secondly, Their affections were suitable to this principle, as all men's affections and actions are suitable to their principles. What are you to expect from men whose principle is, that there is no God? Why, saith he, for their affections, "they are corrupt;" which he expresseth again verse 3, "They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy." "All gone aside." The word in the original is, "They are all grown sour;" as drink, that hath been formerly of some use, but when grown vapid,—lost all its spirits and life,—it is an insipid thing, good for nothing. And, saith he, "They are all together become filthy,"—"become stinking," as the margin hath it. They have corrupt affections, that have left them no life, no savour; but stinking, corrupt lusts prevail in them universally. They say "There is no God;" and they are filled with stinking, corrupt lusts.
Thirdly, If this be their principle and these their affections, let us look after their actions, in the third place, to see if they be any better there, if they are any better in their actions. But consider their actions. They be of two sorts,—1. How they act in the world; 2. How they act towards the people of God.
1. How do they act in the world? Why, consider that, as to their duties which they omit, and as to the wickednesses which they perform. What good do they do? Nay, saith he, "None of them doeth good." Yea, some of them. "No, not one." Saith he, verses 1, 3, "There is none that doeth good, no, not one." If there was any one among them that did attend to what was really good and useful in the world, there was some hope. 'No,' saith he; 'their principle is atheism, their affections are corrupt; and for good, there is not one of them doeth any good,—they omit all duties.'
What do they do for evil? Why, saith he, "They have done abominable works;"—'works,' saith he, 'not to be named, not to be spoken of,—works which God abhors, which all good men abhor.' "Abominable works," saith he, 'such as the very light of nature would abhor;' and give me leave to use the expression of the psalmist,—"Stinking, filthy works." So he doth describe the state and condition of things under the reign of Saul, when he wrote this psalm.
2. 'If thus it be with them, and if thus it be with their own ways, yet they let the people of God alone; they will not add that to the rest of their sins.' Nay, it is quite otherwise; saith he, "They eat up my people as they eat bread." "Those workers of iniquity have no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread, and call not upon the LORD." What is the reason why he brings it in in that manner? Why could he not say, 'They have no knowledge that do such abominable things;' but brings it in thus, "They have no knowledge, who eat up my people as they eat bread"?—'It is strange, that after all my dealings with them and declaration of my will, they should be so brutish as not to know this would be their ruin. Don't they know this will devour them, destroy them, and be called over again in a particular manner.' In the midst of all the sins, and greatest and highest provocations that are in the world, God lays a special weight upon the eating of his people. They may feed upon their own lusts what they will; but, 'Have they no knowledge, that they eat up my people as they eat bread?'
There are very many things that might be observed from all this; but I aim to give but a few hints from the psalm.
Well, what is the state of things now? You see what it was with them. How was it with the providence of God in reference unto them? Which is strange, and a man would scarce believe it in such a course as this is, he tells you, verse 5, notwithstanding all this, they were in great fear. "There were they in great fear," saith he. May be so, for they saw some evil coming upon them. No, there was nothing but the hand of God in it; for in Ps. 53:5, where these words are repeated, it is, "There were they in great fear, where no fear was;"—no visible cause of fear; yet they were in great fear.
God by his providence seldom gives an absolute, universal security unto men in their height of sin, and oppression, and sensuality, and lusts; but he will secretly put them in fear where no fear is: and though there be nothing seen that should cause them to have any fear, they shall act like men at their wits' end with fear.
But whence should this fear arise? Saith he it ariseth from hence, "For God is in the generation of the righteous." Plainly they see their work doth not go on; their meat doth not digest with them; their bread doth not go well down. 'They were eating and devouring my people, and when they came to devour them, they found God was among them (they could not digest their bread); and this put them in fear, quite surprised them.' They came, and thought to have found them a sweet morsel: when engaged, God was there filling their mouth and teeth with gravel; and he began to break out the jaw-bone of the terrible ones when they came to feed upon them. Saith he, 'God was there,' verse 5.
The Holy Ghost gives an account of the state of things that was between those two sorts of people he had described,—between the fool and the people of God,—them that were devouring, and them that had been utterly devoured had not God been among them. Both were in fear,—they that were to be devoured, and those that did devour. And they took several ways for their relief; and he showeth what those ways were, and what judgment they made upon the ways of one another. Saith he, "Ye have shamed the counsel of the poor, because the LORD is his refuge."
There are the persons spoken of,—they are "the poor;" and that is those who are described in the verses foregoing, the people that were ready to be eaten up and devoured.
And there is the hope and refuge that these poor had in such a time as this, when all things were in fear; and that was "the LORD." The poor maketh the Lord his refuge.
And you may observe here, that as he did describe all the wicked as one man, "the fool," so he describes all his own people as one man, "the poor,"—that is, the poor man: "Because the LORD is his refuge." He keeps it in the singular number. Whatsoever the people of God may differ in, they are all as one man in this business.
And there is the way whereby these poor make God their refuge. They do it by "counsel," saith he. It is not a thing they do by chance, but they look upon it as their wisdom. They do it upon consideration, upon advice. It is a thing of great wisdom.
Well, what thoughts have the others concerning this acting of theirs? The poor, they make God their refuge; and they do it by counsel. What judgment, now, doth the world make of this counsel of theirs? Why, they "shame it;" that is, they cast shame upon it, contemn it as a very foolish thing, to make the Lord their refuge. 'Truly, if they could make this or that great man their refuge, it were something; but to make the Lord their refuge, this is the foolishest thing in the world,' say they. To shame men's counsel, to despise their counsel as foolish, is as great contempt as they can lay upon them.
Here you see the state of things as they are represented in this psalm, and spread before the Lord; which being laid down, the psalmist showeth what our duty is upon such a state of things,—what is the duty of the people of God, things being thus stated. Saith he, 'Their way is to go to prayer:' Verse 7, "Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion! when the LORD bringeth back the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice, and Israel shall be glad." If things are thus stated, then cry, then pray, "Oh that the salvation of Israel were come out of Zion," etc. There shall a revenue of praise come to God out of Zion, to the rejoicing of his people.
That which I would principally think of use for myself and you in this psalm is this,—
That it is a wise thing, a thing of great counsel and advice, to make God our refuge in the time of greatest distress, terror, disorder, and wickedness, that can be in the world. This was the counsel of the poor of old in such a time as is here described (and there is not a sadder time in the whole book of God), that at such a time, and at all times, it is a wise thing, a thing of counsel and advice, to make God our refuge. I do remember, in Deut. 32:21, God reproaches his people that they provoked him with that which was not God; and in Gal. 4:8 it is a reproach unto them, "Ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods." The meaning of it is this, that it is the foolishest thing in the world to put our trust and confidence in any thing that hath not the nature of God. There is nothing but the immense nature of God that is able to yield a refuge unto a poor soul in all the distresses whereinto it may fall; and therefore it is certainly our wisdom to make him our refuge. It is true, men do not take their immediate refreshment out of the ocean; but it is from the ocean that all our streams are derived that give refreshment unto all creatures. We do not immediately take our spiritual relief in trouble from the immensity of God's nature, from his being God; but it is from thence that all our streams whereby we are relieved do proceed. And let us, any of us, set ourselves to the most glorious stream that appears for our refreshment, if we do not by faith trace it unto the immensity of God's nature, we shall deal with it as behemoth thinks to do with Jordan, drink all up, swallow up the glorious stream of refreshment that lies before it, if we do not see it by faith stream from the immensity of God's nature. "Trust in the LORD for ever," saith he, Isa. 26:4. Why? what is the reason? "For in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength." The eternity of God and the omnipotency of God, the everlasting strength and name of God, that he is Jehovah, are reasons for us to place our trust and confidence in him. "Trust in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength." Ye know that God doth often invite us to trust in his name; and they that know his name will put their trust in him: Ps. 9:9, 10, "The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble. And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee." "The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe," Prov. 18:10. Is there any one that "walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD," Isa. 50:10.
Ay, but you will say, 'Is it wisdom so to do? is it matter of counsel? the best course?' We have briefly seen it is great folly to trust in any thing that is not God by nature. Now we come to the positive part, that we are to make him our refuge. Is it good counsel so to do? Yea, 'Trust in my name,' saith God.
1. I would observe two things concerning this name of God, that he doth propose to us for the object of our trust, to make our refuge of:—
(1.) In general, what is there in this name of God? Why, the whole Scripture is but a declaration of the name of God. All the preaching of Jesus Christ is nothing but to declare the name of God. He saith so himself, John 17:6, where he gives an account of his ministry: "I have manifested thy name," saith he, "unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world." And ye have a summary description of it, Exod. 34:5–7, "I will proclaim my name." What name? Why, saith he, "The LORD, strong and mighty;" or, as we read it, "The LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." Certainly, if this be the name of God, it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes. It is wiser, it is better, of better counsel; for this is his name. The name of a prince may be Nabal; but God proposeth his name to us, so as to suit every state and condition we may possibly be in, under any distress: "The LORD God, merciful and gracious."
(2.) It is wisdom, because God hath, in the revelation of his name, from the foundation of the world, accommodated himself unto the state and condition of his people, that they might thereby be wrought upon to trust in him. When he revealed himself to Abraham, who was to wander up and down the earth in the midst of strange and wicked nations, without a dwelling-place, and was, I am persuaded, in that state oftentimes which he expresses once, "The fear of God is not in this place, and they will slay me" (he had occasion oftentimes to think thus, "They will slay me for my goods and possessions;" he was a very great eye-sore to all the wicked inhabitants of the land, as Isaac was afterwards, "Thou art much mightier than we"), why saith God, "Fear not, I am God Almighty." He accommodates his name to his condition. And you know when the children of Israel quite despaired, and thought they should die under their bondage, and be worn away, God comes to them, and reveals himself unto them by his name Jehovah;—'I will fulfil all my promises now.' When the children of Judah came out of captivity from Babylon, and the world was full of noise, confusion, and tumult, and armies were round about them, as you may see in the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah, what was the name God revealed himself by? "Thus saith the LORD of hosts." He revealed that he had the power of all the armies in the world. What name hath God revealed himself now by, that may be relief unto us, and make it advice and counsel now? Why, he is revealed now as "The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." That is his name, and that is his memorial throughout all generations, which takes in all our spiritual and temporal concerns,—one who is afflicted with us in all our afflictions, tempted in all our temptations, suffers with us under all our sufferings. He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the captain of our salvation, and able to save unto the uttermost. He hath called us to trust in this name, and hath given us this reason for it.
2. God, to show it to be our duty and wisdom, doth immediately propose the very properties of his nature for our relief: Isa. 40:27, "Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the LORD, and my judgment is passed over from my God?"—words whose sense are often ready to possess our hearts: I am sure they often lie at the door of mine; I know not how it is with you. What doth God propose to relieve them in that condition? Why, he doth tell them, verse 28, "Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding." Why, he proposeth three or four of the essential properties of his nature to our consideration to make our refuge:—His eternity; he is "the everlasting God;"—his power; he is "the Creator of the ends of the earth;"—his unchangeableness; he "fainteth not, neither is weary;"—and his infinite wisdom; "there is no searching of his understanding." He proposeth immediately unto our consideration these glorious properties of his nature for our relief and refuge in such a time, when we are so far beyond all relief and all hope in the world. We are so quite sunk under the weight, so laid out of the way, so thrown away, that we are ready to think that we can see no relief from God himself. ' "My way is hid from the LORD;"—I have had my last trial and hearing; my judgment is cast out in the court of God, passed over; God will not determine in my cause.' It is the complaint of the church under the great oppression of the Babylonians, 'God hath passed it over, put off the day of hearing.' What doth God give in this great distress to their relief? Why, he minds them of his glorious properties, of his unchangeableness, eternity, infinite wisdom, and infinite power. God carries it on in that place, but I will go no farther, though in the next words God manifests that he will exert all these holy properties of his nature in a way of covenant mercy to those that believe in him and put their trust in him.
3. It is our wisdom; because no distress is unspeakably and uncontrollably great that is capable of any relief or appearance of relief from any thing but the infinite nature of God. We are exposed, or may be, unto such distresses as nothing can give us the least relief in but the consideration of God's nature. Suppose a man were by the hands of violence cast into prison or a dungeon, where none was able to relieve him. Ay, but he will say, 'I have relief here; many good people know I am in a dungeon, and they will pray for me, pity me, have compassion upon me.' But a man may be cast into that condition where no man sees him, no man knows of him, where there is none to pity him,—a storm at sea, a dungeon out of knowledge. What shall relieve this man but the sole consideration of his interest in the infinite properties of God? I have known many in distresses of conscience that have been able to blow off every thing, until God comes to swallow them up with the infiniteness of God. Doubts and fears of their hearts have despised every answer, every word of comfort, that could be given unto them; but if you could once come to swallow them up in the infiniteness of God, that hath given them some quiet. And the reason of all this is, because our fears are able to pursue our apprehensions [of relief]. Whatever you can apprehend, your fears will go as far as your apprehensions, and weaken it unto you. Swallow up your apprehensions in what is infinite, and fear is swallowed up thereby. Every particular that your apprehension or reason can go through, your fears will go through, and will imbitter it to you. But if you can swallow all up into infinite wisdom, unchangeableness, mercy, fears and every thing else are swallowed up; and then the soul is at rest. Bring it to a particular promise. While fear and unbelief are at work, they will go as far as you, and give trouble; but if you come to make the Lord himself, in his infinite nature, to be your refuge, there is rest and peace in the soul.
It is matter of counsel and wisdom to make God our refuge, because it is a foolish thing to trust in that which is not God; and because God hath so proposed his nature and properties to us, as is suited to give us relief in every strait and distress whatsoever that may befall us.
"Ye have shamed," saith he, "the counsel of the poor." There is nothing that wicked men do so despise as the making God a refuge,—nothing which they scorn in their hearts like it. "They shame it," saith he. 'It is a thing to be cast out of all consideration. The wise man trusts in his wisdom, the strong man in his strength, the rich man in his riches; but this trusting in God is the foolishest thing in the world.'
The reasons of it are,—
1. They know not God; and it is a foolish thing to trust one knows not whom.
2. They are enemies to God, and God is their enemy; and they account it a foolish thing to trust their enemy.
3. They know not the way of God's assistance and help. And,—
4. They seek for such help, such assistance, such supplies, as God will not give;—to be delivered, to serve their lusts; to be preserved, to execute their rage, filthiness, and folly. They have no other design or end of these things; and God will give none of them. And it is a foolish thing in any man to trust God to be preserved in sin. It is true, their folly is their wisdom, considering their state and condition. It is a folly to trust in God to live in sin, and despise the counsel of the poor.
Here we see what our duty is; and I thought I should have been able to have added a word or two of direction how to put this counsel into execution, to make the Lord our refuge, but my strength is gone.